This month I'm sharing Michael Meade's "Living Myth" podcast entitled "Pulled by Fate." In this episode Meade shares the story of the old woman who weaves our fate from birth to death. She is the old woman of the world who waits at the threshold between this and the Otherworld. We see her at the end of life when we try to match our life path to the one that was destined for us. "Freedom," Meade says, "is consciously living out the hand that fate dealt us." The old woman makes no moral judgement of the path we have taken. For where there is no love, no morality will suffice. And where there is love no morality is needed.
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
Friday, May 31, 2019
Monday, April 22, 2019
In Japan, there are many folktales about the wise crone. In one story, an old woman is taken away by her son. He carries her on his back up into the mountains and leaves her there to die. This mythical practice was known as ubasute or “abandoning an old woman.” Ubasute is the theme of many stories.
In one version, the old woman was the caregiver of a young couple. The wife found the hag disgusting, with her crooked spine and wrinkled face. After considerable cajoling and whining, she convinced her husband to take the old woman far away and abandon her in the mountains. This he did, but his actions ravaged him with guilt. In his dreams, he remembered the old woman’s many kindnesses and finally decided he could not live with his action. So, the man went back to the mountain, found the old woman and brought her to his home. The mountain described in these stories is now known as Obasuteyama or “Mountain of the Deserted Crone.”
In another version, a son carries his mother to the mountain on his back. She willingly went with him. She reached out along the way, breaking twigs to mark the path. Her ungrateful son accused her of plotting her return. She lovingly told him that she broke the branches so he would not get lost as he made his way home.
The version I prefer is found in “The Wise Old Woman” as told by Yoshiko Uchida. In this derivation, the land was ruled by an evil lord. He proclaimed that anyone over 70 was worthless and a drain on resources. (Sound familiar?) Children must take their parents to the mountain top and leave them there to die. When one kind woman turned 70, she knew she must leave her family. Her son placed her on his back and began to climb the mountain but halfway up he returned. He just couldn’t do it, for he loved his mother too much. Instead, the son brought his mother home and hid her in an underground room. She lived there for several years.
One day a warring tribe came to the land and threatened to overtake it, if the kingdom could not answer three questions. Not surprisingly, the lord (who was not a very clever man) was unable to answer the questions himself. So, he asked everyone in the kingdom for their advice, starting with the most educated and finally turning to the common people. Sadly, no one knew the answer. In desperation, the dutiful son asked his mother to help. After some reflection, she puzzled out the solution. When the warring tribe heard the answers, they decided the village was worth saving and left them in peace. The lord wanted to thank the person who had saved the land. The son confessed that it was his aged mother. Eureka! The lord discovered the error of his thinking and rewarded both mother and son. From that day onwards, the elderly lived in peace and (hopefully) their wisdom acknowledged.
Many cultures today reward youth at the expense of aging. Western culture is no exception. Television and film depict elders as befuddled “old coots” unable to keep up with new technology or changes in the world. The archetype of the elder, sage or wise woman is ignored along with the wisdom and experience that aging can bring. From age discrimination in employment, to invisibility, many elders feel devalued. Some seek the fountain of youth through surgery and beauty aids. Few proudly share their age with others.
While taking mom to a mountain top today is out the picture, finding a “place for mom” continues to be big business. Children looking for housing in a retirement home or assisted living facility often do so without much parental input. While the West nostalgically desires to hold on to family values, it does this at the expense of living in an extended family setting. What do we lose in such an environment? We lose both life experience and a bit of living history. We forget what it is like to fight unjust wars, take land without adequate compensation, pollute the environment, enslave people and limit their rights. We forget about the dangers of totalitarian regimes, and the annihilation resulting from nuclear war. History when forgotten is doomed to be repeated. Without the participation of the elders in society, people are more likely to forget.
Fortunately, this is not true in all cultures. In India the roles are flipped with families of all generations living together and the elders giving advice and resolving family disputes. In Native American tribes, elders are revered and respected. “I know how my father saw the world, and his father before him. That’s how I see the world,” said N. Scott Momaday of the Kiowa/Cheroke tribe. Elders are the keepers of their traditions and the guardians of their history.
Remember the wise crone in this story? She accepted her fate with grace. She selflessly cared for her son at the expense of her own life and safety. She shares her wisdom and experience for the good for all, but only when she is given the opportunity. Perhaps before we hide mom away, we should all take a moment to reflect on what she has to say - even when it is uncomfortable (or inconvenient) to hear. As a living example, wise crone and Holocaust survivor, Sonia K. speaks out against hate in this YouTube video. “Silence is the first thing after hate that is dangerous,” she wisely says.
Just remember, when our elders become expendable, we miss out on their teachings. When our parents are too much of a hassle to remain in our lives, we lose our ability to love and give compassion to others. Further, we are modeling behavior that may be reflected back on us by our own children. Fortunately, the wise crone continues to break branches to show us the right way home.
The poet writes:
In the depths of the mountains,
Who was it for the aged mother snapped
One twig after another?
Heedless of herself
She did so
For the sake of her son.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Michael Meade's podcast "Wise Woman at the Cross Roads" (Living Myth Podcast #112) discusses the role of the wise old woman in story and her archetypal wisdom in life.
"In what turns out to be a treatise on the Wise Old Woman of the World and the importance of the feminine mysteries of life, Michael Meade tells an old wisdom tale from Africa. The story offers a pertinent reminder that we all wander on the road of life and death, and that each crossroad in life is an opportunity to awaken further to the deep gifts and precise mission of our souls.
The old story reveals that the Holy Spirit was once considered the bird of Sophia, the feminine source of wisdom. The Wise Old Woman turns out to be the sage in the heart, the immediate spirit of awakening and an instinctive connection to the enduring song of life."
Monday, January 14, 2019
I recently came upon a podcast in which mythologist, Marina Warner, speaks of the "enchanted forest." Warner describes the enchanted forest as a place for the hero to face both trials and self-discovery, and in doing so, experience an initiation. Living in the center of this forest is the wise old woman. But who is this old woman who can live in such an environment? Warner gives the example of Baba Yaga as the dual sided figure, both frightening and kind.
Old women (whether hags or crones) were often the tellers of folktales, for they held the wisdom of both folklore and life. They were healers with "medicines" of stories, words and ancient practices. Over time, their knowledge of herbs became marginalized and condemned as the advancement of science and medicine took hold. Healing moved from the purview of women, into a study soley for men.
As the old woman's power disappeared in the world, she was transformed from the wise crone into the figure of the witch. Ultimately, the witch was persecuted, and many accused of being such were burned at the stake. The power of the living crone appeared to go "up in flames" while in reality she simply returned to the enchanted forest, awaiting the right time to return. That time is now. (To listen to the podcast, click here.)
Saturday, December 1, 2018
“The Father of Eighteen Elves” is a Scandinavian, “changeling” folktale from Iceland. The story began on a farm. Everyone in the household was outside working except for the farmer’s wife and her young son. The boy was very precocious and they were quite proud of all his accomplishments. The mother had household chores to do, so she left the boy in the doorway and went to the brook. When she returned, the boy would no longer speak to her, but instead began to cry hysterically. Even his mother was unable to soothe him. Because she didn’t know what to do, she went to see the wise old woman and ask for her advice.
The wise woman asked her many questions until finally she queried. “Do you think this child might now be a changeling? It seems to have been left on your doorway and your own son taken away.” Sadly, the mother didn’t know. But because she wanted an answer, the wise old woman told her just what to do. “Place before the child something he has never seen and then hide away so he thinks he is alone. If he then begins to speak you will know for certain that he is a changeling. Now, beat him without mercy.”
And that is exactly what the mother did. She fashioned a new porridge spoon out of some reeds that reached up the chimney. She then placed the spoon in the cauldron with the fire burning. Once everything was ready, she left the room but continued to peak through the doorway. The boy began to pace throughout the room and finally said, “I may be old enough to father 18 elves, but I’ve never seen such a long spoon in such a small pot.” Quickly the mother came into the room and began flogging the child.
Suddenly a strange woman came through the front door carrying the missing boy. “Do you see how different we are?” she said. “I treated your son with love and you beat and abuse my husband.” She returned the boy to his true mother and took the changeling by the hand. Together they disappeared through the front door.
In this story, the old woman shares her experience and wisdom with the young mother. It is an expected role, embracing the archetype of the elder or sage. An interesting element to this story is the “changeling”- a being that can change shapes and moves from a child to an old elf and back again. Most often it was thought that fairies and elves exchanged their children for human ones. In rare cases, the very elderly of the fairy people would be exchanged in the place of a human baby, so that the old fairy could live in comfort, being coddled by human parents.
The old woman is the only one who can identify the changeling as a being that is both duplicitous and troublesome. Posing to be a child, makes it one of the most dangerous of beings, for people are least guarded around children. Although the young mother thinks something is wrong, she is unable to identify the cause. That is an ability requiring both education and experience. These are qualities that the wise old woman has in spades.
Finally, the old woman doesn’t seek the young mother out, but simply waits and lives her life until she is needed. Forcing wisdom on youth reminds one of the Biblical admonitions not to “throw pearls before swine.” The young mother proved worthy for she followed the advice without question.
D.L. Ashliman, Folktexts: a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.
Jón Arnason, Icelandic Legends, translated by George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon (London: R. Bentley, 1864). "Head of Old Woman" by Joseph Highmore.