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

Friday, July 31, 2020

"A Calabash of Poi"

This Hawaiian story blends mythology with folklore.  The goddess Pele discovers the true nature of human character when she disguises herself as the hag.
One of the disguises which Pele, the goddess of fire, was fond of assuming was that of an aged hag. In fact, it was hardly a disguise at all, for Pele was as old as the hills themselves; besides her quick temper and natural jealousy had furrowed her face with deep, hard lines, which a bitter disposition imprints upon a face, quite irrespective of its age. On this day Pele was intent upon a secret mission, and, taking a gnarled branch of the koa-tree for a cane, she trudged at a rather brisk pace down the mountainside. Only on approaching two Hawaiian houses of varying pretensions did she slacken her speed and finally pause at the outer palisade of the first.
It was a sizable house, or hale, as Hawaiian houses go, perhaps fifty feet long with its side thatched with ti-leaves—a sign of rank. Its only window, a small aperture about a foot square, looked out on a carefully planted taro patch, while rows of tasseled coconut palms and fruit-laden banana plants made a pretty background to the setting.
Pele paused for a moment to make a mental summary of the growing crop, and then grasping her cane, hobbled to the threshold.
"Aloha," she said to the small group of people sitting within the doorway.
"Aloha," was the reply in a not over-cordial tone of voice.
Pele waited—apparently there was to be no invitation to enter or to refresh herself.
"I have walked many miles," she said finally, assuming a small and feeble voice. "I am very hungry. Perhaps you have as much as a calabash of pots for me."
"We are very sorry, but we have no poi," said the Hawaiian chief, for such was the master of the house. "Besides our evening meal is pau."
"Then, perhaps, a small piece of salted fish?"
"No, nor fish," was the short rejoinder.
"Then, at least, some ripe ohelo berries for I am parched with thirst?'
"Our berries are all green, as you can see for yourself, providing your eyes are not too dimmed by age."
Pele's eyes were far from dim! She suppressed with an effort the flashes of fire that ordinarily blazed in their black depths at a moment's provocation and, bowing low, made her way in silence to the gate. Passing a few steps further down the hard road, she entered a smaller and less thrifty garden and paused on the threshold of a small hut. The work of the day as well as the evening meal was over, and the family of bronzed-skinned boys and girls played about the man and woman who sat watching in rapt attention the last golden rays of the sun sinking in a riot of color behind the gentle slopes of Mauna Loa.
"Ah, I see your evening meal is past;" sighed Pele. "I am sorry for I am both tired and hungry and had hoped for a little refreshment after a day's walk down the steep mountain."
"Neither fish nor awa have we," promptly said the poor fisherman, "but to such as we have you are most welcome."
Almost before he had concluded these few words, his wife had risen, motioned Pele to a place on the mat and set before her a large calabash of poi.
Pele did not wait for a further invitation but fell to eating with much relish. Dipping her fore finger in the calabash, she raised it dripping with poi, waved her finger dexterously in the air wrapping the mucilaginous poi about it, and placed it in her mouth. She seemed to finish the entire contents in no time and, looking up, remarked:  "I am still hungry. Would it be too much to ask for another calabash?"
Again, the woman arose and placed before her a second calabash of poi, not perhaps as large as the first but filled to the brim.  Again Pele emptied the calabash with great relish. Wishing to test the extent of their patience and generosity, she sighed as she finished the last mouthful, calling attention to the empty calabash in her lap.
This time a third calabash smaller than the second—but quite full, was placed before her. Pele finished half of the third calabash, arose heavily to her feet, and, pausing before the chief, she uttered these words:
"When your neighbor plants taro, it shall wither upon its stem. His bananas shall hang as green fingers upon the stalk, and the cocoanuts shall fall upon his favorite pig. When you plant taro at night, you may pull it in the morning. Your cane shall mature overnight, and your bananas ripen in one day's sunshine. You may have as many crops as there are days in the year!"
Saying these words, Pele trudged out of the gate and was seen to disappear toward Ha-le-mau-mau in a cloud of flame.
When the astonished fisherman passed beyond the threshold of his hut on the following morning, yellow bananas hung on the new plants, the full grown taro stood ready to be pulled, and the cane-cuttings reached to the eaves of his house. Looking across at his rich and powerful neighbor, he saw that, indeed, the curse of Pele had already descended upon him. In place of the rich man's prosperous acres stood the sun-parched remnants of but yesterday's proud crop.
"There, children," said Alec, the old half-breed guide, "Whether [you believe] in the ole lady Pele or not, don't you ever [forget] to be nice to the ole folks. It just might be Pele. [You] can't always [tell]."
“A Calabash of Poi.” Originally published in 1924 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Thorpe, Coral Wells. In the Path of the Trade Winds. New York/London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924. pp. 93-97.
In most of the stories examined thus far, we’ve focused on the old woman as a secondary figure.  We have seen her as a grandmother, as the crone or simply a wise old woman.  Usually she helps the protagonist achieve success in his or her journey.  Sometimes, in the case of “Frau Holle” or “Baba Yaga,” we see her serving as a judge to determine whether the heroes in the story are worthy of success.  If the answer is yes, she helps; if not, she thwarts or punishes their efforts. But in all these stories, the wise crone simply waits for the action to occur.  She doesn’t seek the heroes out; she waits until they arrive. We don’t quite know what she is doing in the meantime, for she doesn’t appear prior to the hero’s arrival.  But we can guess that she is living her life: cooking, gardening, waiting at the side of the road, or flying around the forest – whatever it is she likes to do best. When the protagonist arrives, however, she shifts quickly into action, providing what is needed, to aid, help or scare them into doing the “right” thing.
But in “A Calabash of Poi,” we appear to see an old woman, a hag, as a protagonist.  She becomes an “unlikely hero.”  Unlikely only because old folks aren’t supposed to take the center stage.  In most stories, they are only able to react, rather than to act. Pele is a different sort of character for she is both the protagonist and the one who metes out justice.  Who is Pele? Pele, otherwise known as Pelehonuamea (“she who shapes the sacred land”), is the goddess of fire and volcanoes. She has a quick and fiery temper.  She appears in folktales as either a beautiful young woman or as an old woman.  In this story, she transforms herself into a “hag.”  It’s a term often used in European folklore and is defined as an ugly and malicious old woman.  Sometimes the hag practices witchcraft.  Sometimes she has supernatural powers and may be aligned with the devil or the dead. The crone and hag have similar characteristics so in this story the terms might be used interchangeably.
Pele visits her people to determine their worth.  While they live on her island home, they have not sought her out. In in this story, it is she who comes to them. It’s a story in which she determines the worth of her people.  She discovers who is kind and generous and who is not.  She comes as the hag so she can ascertain their true nature.  The wealthy family is not concerned about appearing inhospitable, selfish or stingy.  Who cares about an old hag? No one sees her as a person.   Yet in the poorer household, she receives the respect she expects and deserves.  It is the respect that should be given to any human being in need whether hag or goddess.
Kathleen Ragan writes of this story in her book Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters. She compares “A Calabash of Poi” to similar European stories in which either Jesus or St. Peter disguises himself to test the rich and the poor and judge them on their merit. She contrasts these stories in this way, “Jesus and St. Peter are not the heroes; they are the hero-makers.  They set the standards for the hero’s test.  They are part of the structure of the tale, the background; it is simply assumed that they are powerful and just.  In this Hawaiian story, the judge-the goddess Pele- is female.  Because she is powerful and just, she sets the standards.  Yet it was so unusual to have a woman in the role of divine judge, I viewed Pele as the heroine.  To me she was not simply part of the structure, the background.  I felt relief and freedom when I identified with the person in control rather than the person having to measure up.  This gender reversal of the judge made me recognize how implicit the male’s power is and how much influence this assumption has had on my subconscious.”
Pele is both the hero and the judge.  She isn’t waiting in the volcano to take action.  She engages with two families, rewarding one for their hospitality and punishing the other for their greed and lack of compassion. The story ends with these words. "Whether [you believe] in the ole lady Pele or not, don't you ever [forget] to be nice to the ole folks. It just might be Pele. [You] can't always [tell]."
Perhaps Pele encourages all wise crones to leave their homes (at least occasionally). When people have lost their way, and some can no longer tell right from wrong, the wise crone makes the best judge of righteous action.  Is she invisible?  Should we count her out?  Pele’s fiery eyes, indicate a resounding “NO!”


Monday, June 8, 2020

Wise Women Also Came by Jan L. Richardson

Wise women also came.
The fire burned
in their wombs
long before they saw
the flaming star
in the sky.
They walked in shadows,
trusting the path
would open
under the light of the moon.

Wise women also came,
seeking no directions,
no permission
from any king.
They came
by their own authority,
their own desire,
their own longing.
They came in quiet,
spreading no rumors,
sparking no fears
to lead
to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s
inconsolable lamentations.

Wise women also came,
and they brought
useful gifts:
water for labor’s washing,
fire for warm illumination,
a blanket for swaddling.

Wise women also came,
at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labor,
crying out with her
in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings
into her ear.

Wise women also came,
and they went,
as wise women always do,
home a different way.

From Jan L. Richardson's Sanctuary of Women

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Tulip Bed and the Old Woman

The “Tulip Bed” is an English folktale recorded by Mrs. Bray in The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Vol. 1, (1879).  This version comes from the Internet Sacred Text Website

NEAR a pixie field in this neighborhood there lived on a time an old woman who possessed a cottage and a very pretty garden, wherein she cultivated a most beautiful bed of tulips. The pixies, it is traditionally averred, so delighted in this spot, that they would carry their elfin babies thither, and sing them to rest. Often at the dead hour of the night a sweet lullaby was heard, and strains of the most melodious music would float in the air, that seemed to owe their origin to no other musicians than the beautiful tulips themselves; and whilst these delicate flowers waved their heads to the evening breeze, it sometimes seemed as if they were marking time to their own singing. As soon as the elfin babies were lulled asleep by such melodies, the pixies would return to the neighboring field, and there commence dancing, making those rings on the green which showed, even to mortal - eyes, what sort of gambols had occupied them during the night season.

At the first dawn of light the watchful pixies once more sought the tulips, and though still invisible could be heard kissing and caressing their babies. The tulips, thus favoured by a race of genii, retained their beauty much longer than any other flowers in the garden; whilst, though contrary to their nature, as the pixies breathed over them they became as fragrant as roses; and so delighted at all this was the old woman who possessed the garden, that she never suffered a single tulip to be plucked from its stem. At length, however, she died; and the heir who succeeded her destroyed the enchanted flowers, and converted the spot into a parsley bed, a circumstance which so disappointed and offended the pixies that they caused it to wither away; and indeed for many years nothing would grow in the beds of the whole garden. But these sprites, though eager in resenting an injury, were, like most warm spirits, equally capable of returning a benefit; and if they destroyed the product of the good old woman's garden, when it had fallen into unworthy hands, they tended the bed that wrapped her clay with affectionate solicitude. For they were heard lamenting and singing sweet dirges around her grave; nor did they neglect to pay this mournful tribute to her memory every night before the moon was at the full; for then their high solemnity of dancing, singing, and rejoicing took place, to hail the queen of the night on completing her silver circle in the skies. No human hand ever tended the grave of the poor old woman who had nurtured the tulip bed for the delight of these elfin creatures; but no rank weed was ever seen to grow upon it; the sod was ever green, and the prettiest flowers would spring up without sowing, or planting, and so they continued to do till it was supposed the mortal body was reduced to its original dust.


If we deconstruct this folktale a bit, the meaning in the story becomes clear.  Let's start with tulips. What does a tulip represent?  Are tulips different in any way than other flowers? When I began to research tulips, I found some interesting folklore. Tulips first came to Europe from the Middle East. There is a Persian Romeo and Juliet type tale of thwarted love. The tale ends with a Princess taking her own life and drops of her blood turning into a tulip.  In France, giving a woman a yellow tulip was one way to warn her of her husband’s infidelity.  I also read that at one time a single tulip bulb cost more than the average European earned in a year. These flowers were both prized and treasured. Historians once called this period “Tulipomania!”

The old woman in the story is a caretaker.  She worked in a garden growing, not vegetables to feed her family, but tulips for their beauty and her pleasure.  The pixies and elves agreed, enchanting the flowers with fragrance, song and beauty. In one version of this tale, the wise crone crept out at night to watch a fairy mother singing and rocking her baby to sleep in a tulip cup.  After that, she never allowed a single tulip to be picked.

We can see the difference for after her death, her heir pulled out the tulips to grow parsley instead.  (Parsley? Really?) Perhaps parsley was a more practical use of the land, but it was an herb also associated with death in England. In Surrey and in other southern English counties it was said, “Where parsley’s grown in the garden, there’ll be a death before the year’s out.” The pixies cursed the land so that nothing ever grew on the plot again.  The heir was lucky that the pixies didn’t curse him instead. Pixies and elves were notorious for causing mischief.  Their favorite pastimes were leading travelers astray and frightening young maidens.  Elves were thought to steal human children and substitute changelings.   This would have been a fitting punishment to the heir that destroyed the pixie nursery.

The message of the story is clear.  The wise crone does the unexpected.  Her priority is beauty over practicality.  She knows who the elves and pixies are and is not frightened by their difference.  As a mother herself, she respects the pixie mothers by protecting their homes. In her death, she is honored by them when her own heir destroys her legacy. The pixies maintain her grave site with green sod and beautiful flowers.  They dance and sing on her grave. No more lovely tribute could be given.

Both the crone and the pixies are characters outside the norm.  In many ways they are the “other” in society, but even so, they are shown to be far more honorable than the crone’s heir.  The crone doesn't worry about what other people think.  She cultivates beauty and lives in harmony with others. In doing so, she is honored with the "queen of the night."

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Old Woman Weaves the World

There is an indigenous story, some tell, of an old woman who weaves the earth into existence.  I have shared it here before. She sits on a rug, loom before her, and weaves the pattern of life as we know it.   Day and night, she works until her task is finally finished.  Her creation is more beautiful than anyone could imagine.  The old woman looks at her work and smiles.  She rises to leave, but before she can do so, her faithful dog catches his paw on a loose thread.  He struggles to free himself, pulling at the thread and unraveling her work. The creation of the world remains unfinished. In one version, the old woman patiently returns to the loom, picks up the thread and begins her weaving again.

If I could, I would change the ending of the story to this: “The old woman looks at her creation and smiles. She walks out of the cave she’s been working in for so long and disappears.”  Now, when the thread is pulled, there is no one assigned to make repairs. The Creator is gone, and chaos ensues. It is up to the elders (and the crones) to make things right.  The oldest woman in the tribe comes forth and resumes the weaving.  She has been studying the webs of spiders and knows exactly what to do.  Her weaving is not as good as the Creator’s, but it will do. That is the version I’d tell if I could.

There are many stories of old women weaving the world together.  Women historically are the weavers, the sewers, the keepers of handicrafts and the builders of homes and families. It is an historical duty (not an evolutionary one assigned to our gender).  It’s a skill set passed down from one generation to another by the patriarchy, that likes to keep women’s hands and feet busier than their mouths and minds.  And even today, when many of the handicrafts like embroidery and quilt making are being forgotten, women still weave together the lives of those in their families.

Stories of weaving and spinning fill mythology and folklore.  These are the life skills of poor women.  Many make a living for their lazy stepmothers and stepsisters, the forgotten aristocracy waiting for an invite to the ball. Many of these stories share teachings of humility. Athena turns the prideful young Arachne into a spider after she boasts that she can weave better than the goddess.  In another tale, the silly boasting of a mother leads to a young woman’s capture and punishment.  She is asked to spin more than is humanly possible.   Sadly, she does not know what to do and is rescued by either three deformed old women or, more commonly, Rumpelstiltskin.  The young woman cannot spin or weave, even though it’s an essential skill to have. In her youth, she lacks more than experience.  What must she give up for this knowledge? In one story, she agrees to invite three weird old women to her wedding, while Rumpelstiltskin asks for her first-born son. Without this skill she is a child.  With it, she can marry a prince.

Native American stories speak of Grandmother Spider.   The spider spins and weaves the web of existence.  She is one of the earth’s creators.  In many of these stories, she guides and advises those who face trials and challenges.  She would be the first to help the silly girl trapped in a room and needing to spin straw into gold. The Navajos see her as a helper and protector of humans.  In fact, traditional Navajo weavers rub their hands in spider webs to absorb her wisdom and skill.
Spiders and women use the threads of creation to bring forth life and beauty.  Spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting, embroidery, darning, quilting, were all women’s work (or so they said).  Not the great artistic achievements of painting or sculpture which were the purviews of men, but practical and beautiful, nonetheless.

The world comes undone, unraveled to its core.  An old woman sits down and starts over. The shuttle moves in and out.  She skillfully works, long and hard to keep the traditions of the past alive. When the thread is pulled, she starts over again.  Sometimes she drops a stich and a hole forms in the weaving. She’s not Grandmother Spider after all.  This crone is fallible to error. Sometimes she untangles a knot with a pat on the hand.   Sometimes she tries to help or give advice.  She misspeaks or missteps and the wrong color is used.  The pattern is skewed when she does too much, if only a hug or a kind word was needed. The old woman reweaves the world continuously: in war and peace, in times of health and pandemics.  If you listen, you can hear her singing.  She is telling the stories as she weaves. She will share her skill with you if only you ask.  There is much to learn and little time to do so before her dog is at it again.