Cronnie Wisdom

Crone is "a phase in which you can be more authentic, more capable of making a difference in your family and in the greater world. Life gives you experience, and when you draw from it, that's true wisdom. By the time a woman is in her crone years, she is in an amazing position to be an influence. To change things for the better, to bring what she knows into a situation, to be able to say, 'Enough is enough.' You don't have to just go along with things, which is often a part of the middle years. You're often something of a loose cannon."
Jean Shinoda Bolen

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Baba Yaga is Needed Today!

In earlier blog posts we have explored the crone as the helper and as the judge, now it is time to address her shadow side – the unpredictable and dangerous witch.  Of all the crones found within folktales, perhaps Baba Yaga is the most frightening of all.  This is not a grandmother motif who will box your ears as a punishment; but a powerful, crafty woman who wishes to eat you bones and all!  While many older women feel invisible, Baba Yaga laughs in the face of those who believe her powerless.  Aligning with this archetype makes any woman a force to be reckoned with. 

This Slavic folktale begins with Vasilissa, the beautiful.  Vasilissa is a Cinderella-type character, and the first part of the story mirrors the ancient tale perfectly.  Vasilissa’s mother becomes ill, but before dying leaves her with a wooden doll that has magical properties.  Vasilissa was told that whenever she was in need, she was to take the doll from her pocket, feed it, and then tell the doll her plight.  She was then to follow the doll’s guidance.  Soon afterwards, her father marries a cold, heartless woman with two daughters.  He leaves home on a journey and the trouble begins in earnest. Vasilissa’s step-mother begins to send her into the forest on dangerous errands.  In truth, she hopes she will run into Baba Yaga (who lives there), but the magical doll protects Vasilissa. Finally, the step-mother and step-sisters concoct a plan in which Vasilissa is sent to the home of the witch, Baba Yaga, to borrow some fire. 

Baba Yaga, was a frightening figure to look at and her actions were no better.  She rode around in a mortar which she guided with her broom.  She lived in a house that walked around on chicken legs and was surrounded by the fiery skulls of humans she had most likely eaten. Vasilissa walks bravely to the house and tells Baba Yaga that she seeks fire for her step-mother.  Like Frau Holla of the German folktale, Baba Yaga agrees; but only if the girl will work for her.  She must successfully complete several impossible tasks or become Baba Yaga’s dinner.  We have seen this motif in many other folktales where the innocent girl is given tasks beyond her skill level and is only saved through magical means.  In this story there are two tasks.  The first was to pick all the black grains and wild peas from a measure of wheat.  The second, was to clean the dirt from a half measure of poppy seeds.  Baba Yaga knew these tasks were impossible to ordinary humans and after giving her instructions, she flies away.  It is only then when Vasilissa pulls out her doll, feeds it and tells her the story.  The dolls eyes glow, she tells her to say her prayers and go to sleep.  When Vasilissa awakes, the difficult tasks are completed.  The doll gives her the final instructions and then reverts to its wooden state. Each time, Baba Yaga returns hoping to find that the girl has failed.  But when she discovers she has performed the tasks perfectly, the witch pretends to be happy.  She engages in conversation with the girl and allows her to ask some questions (to trick her further). But this time, the girl (even without the help of the doll) is clever and thwarts the test.  While it was impossible for Vasilissa to complete the tasks alone, she is proven pure hearted and worthy.  Finally, Baba Yaga asks how she completed these tasks.  Vasilissa simply says she was blessed by her mother. Outraged, and perhaps even a bit fearful of being in the presence of someone blessed, Baba Yaga throws her out.  But before she leaves, Baba Yaga is true to her word.  She gives her one of the human skulls with fire burning from its eyes.  Vasilissa places it on a stick and makes her way home.  She soon discovers that the house is cold and dark.  For as soon as Vasilissa left, there was no way to make fire there. She took the spark of life with her.  The skull advises Vasilissa to bring it inside and so she set it on the table.  When it saw the step-mother and step-sisters, the skull engulfed them in fire and they burned before Vasilissa’s eyes. 

Now we return to the Cinderella tale, for the next day Vasilissa goes to live with a kind old woman to await her father’s return.  She becomes bored and asks if she can spin, so the old woman brings her what she needs.  Vasilissa spins the most beautiful fabric that she gives to the old woman for her kindness.  The old woman brought it to the Czar and through a series of traditional folktale events, the Czar ultimately falls in love with Vasilissa.  They all (including her father and the old woman) live happily ever after.

This story contains two crones, one perhaps seen in shadow and the other in light.  Both were honorable in their own way and ultimately helpful to Vasilissa.  Both found her clever, pure of heart and worthy.  Each taught her the value of honesty and hard work.  One was evil and frightening, the other served as her “fairy godmother.” While the moral of the story is the same, in this folktale we see two sides to the crone.  Perhaps the kindly crone was actually Baba Yaga in disguise.  As older women living today, both sides of the crone are needed. We are only invisible if we believe we are. For in a world that has lost its moral core, a bit of Baba Yaga might come in handy to scare folks right back into the light. Use this gift wisely.

For more information on the Baba Yaga story check SurLaLune Illustration of Baba Yaga was depicted by Ivan  Bilibin (1899).

Monday, May 7, 2018

“The Devil and His Grandmother”: a Grimm Brothers’ Tale

It was a time of war and the King needed many soldiers.  However, those soldiers who came to fight were treated poorly - given only a small amount of pay for their sacrifice.  One day, three of the soldiers decided to desert. While the troops waited, they hid in a nearby corn field. They thought the other soldiers would simply rest and then move on.  But something detained them.  The three soldiers knew if they moved that they would be hung for desertion. And so, they continued to wait until they finally feared starvation. Suddenly a dragon appeared in their midst.  The dragon offered them a safe transport if they would only serve it for seven years.  In desperation they agreed, and the dragon transported them away from the battle. To their surprise, the dragon was none other than the devil.  The devil gave them a whip that created gold whenever it was struck.  He told them he would return in seven years with a riddle.  If they could answer the riddle, they were free; if not, they were his property.  For seven years, the three soldiers lived a charmed life and wanted for nothing.  Yet even with all their wealth, they did nothing wrong. 

When the seven years were almost over, the men began to worry and fret. One day in an open field, the soldiers were discussing their fate, when an old woman approached.  She asked them to share their troubles with her.  At first, they refused, believing she could be of no help.  But finally, they acquiesced and told her they were the devil’s servants, who could only be freed by answering a riddle.  She told them that if they wanted to be saved one would need to go into the woods and search for a rock house. “Enter it and you will find help,” she said. One soldier did as he was told.  He walked into the woods, found the rock house and entered it.  Inside the house he found the devil’s grandmother.  He told her his story and she had pity on him. “Hide yourself and listen,” she said, “when the devil comes home, I’ll uncover his secret.”

Before long, the devil dragon came home for dinner.  The two ate and drank and then began to talk.  The old woman asked which riddle the devil planned to use to ensnare the soldiers.  The Dragon gave her the answer.  The soldier escaped and ran back to the other soldiers with a key to their freedom.  Later when the dragon arrived, the soldiers were ready.  They outwitted the devil and were freed.  The whip was still theirs to keep and with it they were able to create all the gold they needed to live the happiest and wealthiest of lives.

In this story, we are surprised by an unlikely crone (or crones) helping a questionable crew. The crone in this story is not afraid or subservient to the devil.  She has the magical ability to know when people are in need and appears before them.  Like the crone in the tale “East of the Wind, West of the Moon” she offers her help. This is the first test, for if her help continues to be refused, their fate is sealed.  The second test is to discover if a single soldier is able to follow her instructions. Can he find the rock house?  Will he tell their story?  The crone must now determine his worth.  Today, desertion in battle would be considered a significant crime, but throughout history there have been situations of unjust conscription. Other men were paid to fight.  It was their only chance for a better life.  The history of these soldiers is unknown but does not appear to tip the moral balance. When the soldier tells his tale, he is found worthy.  The wise crone frees him going against her grandson’s plans for she knows that the soldiers “even with all their wealth, did nothing wrong.”

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Old Woman and Bucca Dhu

This folktale[1] comes from Cornwall where it was believed that two spirits resided.  Bucca Dhu was a spirit of darkness and Bucca  Gwidden, a spirit of the light.  The tale begins with the old woman living happily, but perhaps she was a bit too happy.  For in one version she was seen gambling, in one dancing, and in still another, she was acting “unseemly.”  Either way, her children were embarrassed by her behavior.  They decided to trick her into submission.  One night on the way home from one of her escapades, her son came upon her dressed as a Bucca.  The old woman naturally recognized him. She convinced her son that the Bucca Dhu was coming for him instead. From that day on, the children allowed the old woman to behave any way she wanted.  

The experience shared in this story is a universal one, for parents often embarrass their teenage children. In their youthful arrogance, the children attempt to stifle the creative expression of the crone. They wish her to follow the established social norms. But this she does not do, although it would be easy enough to appease them.  Instead, she frightens them away by turning their trick against them. Now she is free (as her children are not) to live authentically without fearing the opinions of others.

[1] From Ruth Manning Sanders book Peter and the Piskies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958).

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Devil and Kitta Gray (Swedish Folktale)

Kitta Grau (Kitta Gray) is a character from Swedish folktales.  As an old woman, she becomes the “unlikely hero” of these stories.  Most often she is pitted against the Devil and wins each skirmish through her own cleverness. In one story she makes a bet with the Devil, telling him she could beat him in a race. And sure, enough she wins because her twin sister is standing at the finish line, just as the Devil crosses it. 

In another story, the Devil wants to bring dissention to a newly married couple. Kitta Grau tells him she will do so for a pair of shoes. By simply talking to each spouse separately, she is able to breed distrust in the relationship. She wins her shoes. 

In the final story, it was a merchant who made the pact with the Devil.  The Devil agreed that anything that came into his shop would be sold within three weeks at a profit.  He promised that if he became prosperous, the Devil could take him after seven years.  The Devil was true to his word, but the merchant wanted out of the deal.  Kitta Grau agreed to help.  She rolled herself in tar and feathers and laid in a cage as if she was a bird. When the Devil came for the man’s soul, he told the Devil that he had one item that didn’t sell in three weeks and so the deal was broken.  The Devil saw Kitta Grau in the cage and cried out, “No one would buy you, Kitta Grau!”   

This old woman, like all tricksters, is both good and evil, hero and villain. Trickster are clever and disruptive.  They tend to behave outside of the norms of social behavior.  All of these are qualities of the Wise Woman archetype, fearless in her independence, bravely willing to face evil, and confident in her ability to control the situation.

This story is found in The Swedish Fairy Book, Clara Stroebe, editor (2011) and in Jane Yolen's, Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World (1999).

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Old Woman Weaves the World

There are several Native American tales that refer to the old woman as the Creator.  She weaves the world into creation and then ... something happens.  The Sioux say her dog comes and tears out all that was woven.  As Michael Meade tells the tale a single pulled thread starts the unraveling.  Either way she is at some cross-roads.  Do nothing and the world ends.  Do something and it begins again. But what to do?  It is only through the continual rebirth of creativity that she has a vision of what to bring forth.  This is the Creator archetype that embodies all women from birth until death.  It is not limited to her childbearing years but goes with her always.  She keeps that spark safe within and ignites it to bring forth a new vision, reweaving the world and protecting the future for all generations. 

This is the generative task of all women.  The task is to care and protect seven generations forward and honor seven generations back (as the Iroquois say).  It is a wise teaching and one forgotten in the Western world today that honors only the good of the individual and the present moment.  Women have been enculturated to believe they can no longer make a difference, but the wise crone knows better.  She calls to all of her children to bring forth a brighter future even if it can't be envisioned today.  All we need to do is to pick up that single thread to begin.

For more information on this lovely story read:

Friday, January 5, 2018

Just A Snippet of the Wise Crone

I recently found this lovely snippet of text in Martin Shaw's book Scatterlings - a reminder of the wise crone as the keeper of the old stories.

The Old Peasant Woman by Giacomo Ceruti

" And one day, just a moment ago, an old woman came from her place at the edge of the village, her ears replete with listening, a mouth of fresh-cut meadow flowers, and told us to light the kindling.

Once it was dark and the little ones were drifting under the antelope robes, the strange one loped forward into the light of the flames and stood in front of the village.

She said:

Once upon a time.
Once upon a time.
Once upon a time.
So she said.
and she told us the story of ourselves back to ourselves."

Monday, December 11, 2017

Old Woman Nature

Old Woman Nature
naturally has a bag of bones
                tucked away somewhere.
                a whole room full of bones!

A scattering of hair and cartilage
               bits in the woods.

A fox scat with hair and a tooth in it.
               a shellmound
                      a bone flake in a streambank.

A purring cat, crunching
               the mouse head first,
                       eating on down toward the tail--
The sweet old woman
               calmly gathering firewood in the
               moon . . .

Don't be shocked,
She's heating you some soup.

Zen poet and environmentalist, Gary Snyder, is the author of the poem "Old Woman Nature."