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, January 6, 2016

Wise Old Woman as "Helper" or "Unlikely Hero"

"Old Woman Dwells" by Arthur Rackham in The Ingoldsby Legends


Let’s continue our discussion of how the wise old woman or crone character appears in folktales and mythology.  Academics who study these tales often look at the story structure (which was discussed in the last blog), tale types (categories of stories based on themes) and motifs. Motifs are unique and repeating elements found within folktales. 

In reviewing Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, we discover varying motifs associated with the “Wise Old Woman” archetype stories.  These categories may be used to find similar stories that have the same elements. Categories include the following: D1700 Magic Powers, D800 Magical Objects, F81 Descent to Lower World, F700 Extraordinary Places, H1400-H1599 Other Tests (N825.3.1 Help from Old Beggar Woman, H971.1 Task Performed with Help of Old Woman, and H1233.1.1 Old Woman Helps on Quest), J1100-J1699 Cleverness, L50 Victorious Youngest Daughter, and N825.3 Old Woman Helper.  Of these, the “Old Woman Helper” (and its subsets), “Task Performed with Help of Old Woman,” and “Old Woman Helps on Quest” are perhaps the most common.  Although each folktale reviewed contained multiple motifs, for the purpose of this blog we will focus solely on two motifs: the “unlikely hero” and the “helper.”

Stith Thompson categorized the hero within motifs Z200-Z299,  however, all of these entries are of male heroes fitting the traditional model.  He identifies no females at all within his classification.  Females, no matter how old or young, would be considered an “unlikely hero”; for they are not normally seen as the hero in traditional tales.  Of course, today we know that not to be true.  Anyone has the potential to be the hero, for this too is an archetype. Yet, we are dealing with the culture at the time these stories were told.  Still it is important to remember that young girls need stories filled with female heroic characters not just those of the helpless damsel in distress.  Thompson states that motifs must be unusual or striking.  Since the “unlikely hero” is a recurring and unique element found within the folktales of the wise old woman archetype, we will explore it as a motif.

Lucia Huang in “The Helper Motif” describes five types of helpers as portrayed in folktales: 1) stories with three trials and a helper, 2) helpers with prophetic ability and magical gifts, 3) friend or companion helpers, 4) helpers who give tasks, and 5) helpers who are unconventional or otherworldly.  The “helper” character appears at just the right moment (often mysteriously) in a story to provide the advice and assistance needed.  She is able to solve all the puzzles, answer all the riddles and strategize to overcome any adversary.  Helpers can predict the future and are the ones who test the hero to determine his or her worthiness for the quest.  Helpers usually appear as old, ugly or disfigured women or men.  

Finally, W.H. Auden identified the helper as providing critical knowledge or magical powers without which the hero would be unable to succeed.  This is a pivotal role for the ‘Wise Old Woman” whether within a folktale or within “real life.”  The “Wise Old Woman” motif, therefore, is the one with either magical powers (or magical objects) or the one (who has been or) is the unlikely hero.  She is the one who has returned from the hero’s journey and is ready and willing to share her experience in service to others. Carol Pearson describes this journey further as an expression of the “Sage” archetype in Awakening the Heroes Within.

In future blogs we will explore how these motifs are found within specific folktales and mythology. The goal (in case anyone has forgotten) will be to see if these stories lead to a new understanding of the powers and gifts of all the wise old women walking among us today.

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