I'm really excited about this class I created for SoulatPlay. It's about the Wise Old Woman archetype and conscious aging. It's filled with stories, psychological insights and tools for inner work. The class is online and you can go at your own pace. But there is also an opportunity to join in Zoom discussions. I hope some of you are able to join us.
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
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
As you might well imagine, the wise crone loves to exhume old stories and bring them back to life. She is against any censorship of ideas and especially book banning and book burning which to her is the tantamount sin and punishable by meeting Baba Yaga! Margaret Atwood (the most prophetic of wise crones) shows us that "powerful words can never be extinguished."
Monday, April 25, 2022
As dawn meets the new day, the chamber is finally still. For after a long and labored night, a child is born. Not just any child, of course. This one is a princess: all pink and chubby, soft, and cuddly, the perfect expression of baby-ness. There is much rejoicing throughout the kingdom. All her fairy tale life lies before her. Or so we might think, at least until the fairies arrive to give the child a blessing. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the baby receives both a blessing and a curse. A blessing of beauty, intelligence, and grace and a curse that prophecies an early death.
The word fairy comes from the Latin word for fate. These are creatures who meddle in the affairs of humans. But these fairies are a poor excuse for the Greek goddesses who determined the course of every life at birth. These are not fairies but Fates. They were called the Moirai: three powerful and independent sisters who plotted each person’s life course. They determined the fate of humanity by marking two points in time – birth and death. At birth what gifts are given to this child? What curses? How would the child be touched by good and evil? How long would this life be? The Moirai work in secret to answer these questions.
The character and nature of the Moirai is thought to be different depending upon the author. I’ll try to consolidate what is known. The word Moirai means “parts” or “shares.” Although some argue that these goddesses were ugly, deformed old women; others depict them as the maiden, mother, and crone. Either way, their duties were the same. Dressed in white vestments, each goddess was allotted a different task. Klotho was the youngest. She was “the spinner” who spun the thread of life. She is depicted with either a spindle or a roll representing the book of fate. She sings of the things that are.
Lakhesis was a woman and the “apportion-er of lots.” She was the one who measured the thread and sings of things that were. Lakhesis was represented as holding a staff pointing to the horoscope on a globe.
Atropos is the crone. Her name means “she who cannot be turned.” Atropos is the oldest, the smallest, and the most powerful of the three. She carries a pair of scales, a sundial, or a cutting tool. She is the one who breaks or cuts the thread when life is to come to an end. She sings of things that are to be.
Because these were goddesses of fate, they knew the course of the future. At times, they shared this prophecy. It wasn’t their primary function for they weren’t oracles. At times they were also seen in the company of death. They traversed the underworld traveling with Persephone back to the earth’s surface. But they weren’t the goddess of death even though they set the date.
At the birth of each child, the Moirai spun the thread of fate. Fate as we know it is fixed but destiny is within our control. When might fate be changed to destiny? Does free will exist in this system at all? These are questions for Greek philosophers but worthy of reflection, nonetheless. In some writings, the Moirai were independent of the gods, and nothing could challenge fate. Other writers say Zeus was able to challenge any decision. As time when by, the Moirai lost some power and their actions begin to be seen as more conditional.
Let’s go back to the story of “Sleeping Beauty.” Was her fate inevitable? The good old woman in the story said, “not knowing very well what to do in this affair, I cry out for help.” Which is all anyone can do in moments of inevitability. It’s true any time we feel our fate is sealed, whether it is through ancestry or genetics, or our cultural programming. We seem caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place – the free will to follow our destiny seems less and less likely. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the king challenged fate by hiding all the spinning wheels. But ultimately, she pricked her finger and succumbed to a 100-year sleep. It was fate after all and there was nothing a concerned parent could do.
Yet again the wise crone is in the midst of it. What does she know of fate and destiny? Atropos is the one who carries the sundial and knows when time is late. Atropos carries the scales, which are needed for balance. She knows what to release and let go of. The wise crone lives in a state of discernment. Who is worthy and when? She seeks a balance of integration. What was, was. What will be, will be. She sings of things that are to be. The wise crone surrenders to life’s ebbs and flows. Sometimes she accepts her fate – to be in a world filled with sorrow and chaos. Sometimes she moves towards her destiny to be in service to others.
Carl Jung claimed that what is held in our unconscious is fated. What become conscious is our destiny. The ancient Greeks knew about fate and chose Atropos as the elder. It takes experience and wisdom to know when to cut the thread, when to let go and when to give up. She is more than ready to release your fate if you are ready to take hold of your destiny.
Image from The three Moirai, relief, grave of Alexander von der Mark by Johann Gottfried Schadow (Old National Gallery, Berlin).
Friday, March 4, 2022
Once upon a time, there lived an Old Man and an Old Woman. The Old Man distilled tar, while the Old Woman sat at home and spun thread.
One day the Old Woman went after the Old Man: “Old Man make me a bull-calf of straw,” she nagged. “Make me a bull-calf of straw and smear it with tar!”
“What nonsense! What do you want with a calf of straw?”
“Just you make it. I know what I want it for.”
He couldn’t talk her out of it, so the Old Man went ahead and made a bull-calf of straw and smeared it with tar.
In the morning the Old Woman took along some hemp and the straw bull-calf to a pasture. She seated herself beside a mound and began to spin, repeating the while: “Graze on grass, my pretty calf, while I sit and spin some thread!” She kept spinning until she dozed off.
Meanwhile, a bear ran out of the dark forest, out of the dark woods, and ran into the bull-calf.
“Who are you?” he growled. “Tell me quick!”
“I’m a bull-calf, and I’m small, made of straw and smeared with tar.”
“If you’re made of straw and smeared with tar,” said the bear, “give me some tar to patch my torn side!”
The bull-calf was silent, so the bear sank his teeth into him to tear some tar away. He kept rearing and tearing at him until his teeth got quite stuck and he couldn’t get them free. He jerked this way and that, but nothing doing! So he dragged that bull-calf goodness knows how far away.
When the Old Woman awoke, she found the bull-calf gone. “Woe Is me!” she cried. “Where is my bull-calf? Perhaps he has gone home already.” She grabbed up her spinning and ran home. In the yard she looked – and there was a bear dragging her bull-calf around the place.
“Old Man come out!” she called. “Our bull-calf has brought home a bear!”
The Old Man ran out, tore the bear loose, and threw him into the cellar.
Long before dawn the next day the Old Woman again took her spinning and the bull-calf to the pasture. She seated herself beside a mound, spun thread, and kept intoning: “Graze on grass, my pretty calf, while I sit and spin some thread.” She kept spinning until she dozed off.
Meanwhile, a grey wolf ran out of the dark forest, out of the dark woods, and ran up to the bull-calf: “Who are you? Tell me quick!”
“I’m a bull-calf, and I’m small, made of straw and smeared with tar.”
“If you are smeared with tar,” said the wolf, “give me some to patch my side where the dogs have torn my hide.”
“Go ahead, take it!”
The wolf at once sank his teeth into the bull-calf side, intending to tear some tar off for himself. He sank his fangs in, but he couldn’t get them out. He kept backing off, dragging the bull-calf with him. Oh, he had a time with it!
When the Old Woman awoke, the bull-calf was nowhere to be seen. “He has probably gone home,” she thought and went to the house. There she saw the wolf dragging the bull-calf around. She ran and told the Old Man, who threw the wolf, too, into the cellar.
On the third day the Old Woman took the bull-calf to pasture again. She seated herself beside a mound and fell asleep. A fox ran up.
“Who are you?” asked the fox.
“I am a bull-calf, and I’m small, made of straw and smeared with tar.”
“Give me some tar to patch up my side, dear fellow. Cursed hounds almost tore the hide off me”
The fox too sank his teeth in and couldn’t get them out. The Old Woman told the Old Man, and he threw the fox into the cellar as well. After that, they also caught a fleet-footed hare.
When there was a whole collection of animals, the Old Man seated himself over the hatch in the cellar and began to whet his knife.
“Old Man, why are you sharpening your knife?” asked the bear.
“To skin you with, and make winter coats out of your hide for the Old Woman and me”
“Please don’t butcher me, dear Old man. Let me go and I’ll bring you loads of honey.”
“See that you do!”
And then he set the bear free. Then he sat over the hatch again and continued whetting his knife.
The wolf asked him: “Why are you sharpening the knife, Old Man?”
“To take off your hide and make me a warm cap for the winter.”
“Please don’t butcher me, dear Old Man, and I’ll drive a whole flock of sheep into your yard.”
“Don’t fail, now!” And he let the wolf go. He sat down and began to whet his knife again.
The fox stuck his sly muzzle out and asked: “Tell me, Old Man, if you please, why are you sharpening the knife?”
“Fox fur is fine for a fur collar and trimming,” he replied, “and I intend to take yours.”
“Dear Old Man, don’t take my hide off and I’ll bring you geese and hens galore.”
“See that you do!” And he turned the fox loose. Only the hare remained. The Old Man kept on whetting his knife. The hare asked him why, and he answered: “The fur of a hare is soft and warm. I’ll make myself a pair of mittens and a fur cap for winter.”
“Please don’t kill me, dear Old Man, and I’ll bring you ribbons and earrings and fine necklaces, only let me go free!” The Old Man release him as well.
They self the night through, and in the morning just before dawn, there was a rat-tat-tat at the door. The Old Woman woke up: “Old Man!” she cried. “Old Man, something’s knocking on our door, go and see what it is!”
The Old Man opened the door – and there was the bear with a whole hive of honey. The Old Man put the honey away and had just got into bed again when there was another rap! rap! At the door. He went out and found that the wolf had driven a whole flock of sheep into the yard. Soon after that, the fox brought geese and chickens and fowl of all sorts. And the hare fetched a pile of ribbons, earrings, and fine necklaces.
The story starts with the Old Man and the Old Woman. They seem to have no children and are both hard-working. One day the Old Woman asks the Old Man to make a bull-calf from straw and tar. The request seems a bit random. As the story progresses, we might guess that she is tired of working so hard. We have no evidence that she is a fool, so she must have a plan. When she asks the Old Man to make a bull-calf of straw, he argues with her. “Why do you want this?” he asks. “How silly!”
The Old Woman doesn’t explain, and she doesn’t justify or defend her request. Even so, she is insistent. It isn’t until the Old Woman takes the calf to the pasture that we see magic afoot. She chants, “Graze on grass, my pretty calf, while I sit and spin some thread!” That doesn’t seem to be much of an incantation, but as we soon see, it most certainly is. In fact, magical practice was widespread in both Russia and the Ukraine. Scholars can document the spells and rituals practitioners used in the past. In the Ukraine, women were most often the practitioner. (For more see, Witchcraft & Ukraine: 1000-1900, edited by Valerie A. Kirelson and Christine E. Worobec. Ithica, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2021). Worobec writes, “Living at the mercy of the environment, exploitative classes and the state, peasants in the preindustrial world had a wealth of beliefs and practices that explained their circumstances, provided them with safeguards against adversity, and enabled them to counteract the calamities that befell them…. [Further] it permitted weaker members of village communities to take advantage of the powers that their culture ascribed to witches and sorcerers.” But why was the object of her magic the bull? To the peasant, having a bull meant prosperity. When you had a bull, you had the potential for breeding. To make a straw bull-calf symbolized the prosperity that was to come.
The calf comes to life and engages with the animals one by one. Each one wants some of his tar to patch their skin. But when they try to take it, they get stuck. This scene is reminiscent of the African-American tale of “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.” In that story, Br’er Fox makes a tar baby catch Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit strikes the tar baby because he won’t speak to him. The more he fights the tar baby the more he gets stuck. Such is the same for these animals. They get stuck and then flail around with the straw bull-calf as they try to get it off. The Old Woman alerts the Old Man telling him the "bull-calf has brought the animal home." He captures each animal and puts them in the cellar.
This happens four times: first to the bear, then to the wolf, fox, and hare. (“[T]he best-known wild animals in Ukraine are in fact the fox, the wolf, the bear and the hare.” Lintur, Petro, “A Survey of Ukrainian Folktales.” Occasional Research Repts. 56. Edmonton: Canadian Inst. Ukrainian Studies Press, 1994.) Each gets stuck to the straw bull-calf, then captured by the Old Man and thrown into the cellar. And that is where they stay until the Old Man is ready to kill them for their hides. In a surprising development, the animals promise to bring gifts to the couple in exchange for their lives. The Old Man kindly agrees, the animals are released, and true to their word. They bring honey, sheep, geese, chickens, and fowl to the couple. The Old Woman is also brought ribbons, earrings, and a fine necklace.
The Old Woman in this story can perform magic. Why she hasn’t done so before, we don’t know. Maybe she has. Maybe she didn’t have the skill until now. All we know for certain is that circumstances have now aligned so that her “magic” brings forth the desired result - that is, the desire for more prosperity. Lintur held, “that since wealth was a desired goal in animal tales and in tales of magic, these genres come from a time when there was still no private ownership, of the means of production and no class differentiation.” (Lintur, Petro, “A Survey of Ukrainian Folktales.”) As we see, these tales always contain the history and culture of the people.
This wise crone is patient. She is clever. She waits until the time is “right” before making her move. She is not influenced by the opinions of others. She won’t take her husband’s “no” for an answer. Neither is she cruel or mean to him. She is simply persistent and insistent. Her husband follows her lead (as he probably has for many a year). And with all the threats of skinning these animals, none die or are harmed. They are released. In exchange for this kindness, the Old Man and the Wise Old Woman receive all they need to live simply and happily for the rest of their days. The moral of the story is: Keep learning for you are never too old to learn a new skill! Especially if that skill is magic!”
The Straw Bull-Calf: Ukrainian Folk Tale, trans. by John Weir. Kiev : Veselka Publishers, 1976.
Illustrator (above), P. Repkin.
Thursday, March 3, 2022
This is for the women
Who have walked with hidden shame
Stirring like all is well
Though weighted down in pain.
This is for her Inner Child
Who longs to forget
Her innocence stolen
Body, soul and spirit rent
into pieces- fragments-broken-bent
This is for the Maiden
Longing to belong
-To another -
to make right the darkened wrongs
Not realizing-blinded by oozing wounds
Her own innate delicious power
Thick within her womb
This is for the Mother
Breaking eons of fettered chains
For the children she has birthed
Through blood and breaths of change
She calls them Redemption
Regardless of their names
This is for the Crone
Who called her shattered pieces Home
To all her luminous bodies
Where she never dared to feel
Making strong her bones
With the swaying of her hips
Her hands soaring like doves
Honey dripping from her lips
This is for the Wild Woman
Who traversed the Underground
Leaving her footprints
While taming the Hellhounds.
Like a seed breaking fallow ground
Emerging fruitful garden
No longer bound
By the nightmare of the past
Awakened from the Dream-
SHE. IS.- merging realms between.
This is for the woman, for the Goddess
Rising from our ashes
Making ALL things new~”
― Mishi McCoy
Sunday, January 30, 2022
One morning a little old woman got up and went to the field containing her five cows. She took from the earth a herb with five sprouts and, without breaking either root or branch, carried it home and wrapped it in a blanket and placed it on her pillow.
Then she went out again and sat down to milk her cows. Suddenly she heard tambourine bells jingle and scissors fall, on account of which noise she upset the milk. Having run home and looked, she found that the plant was uninjured. Again she issued forth to milk the cows, and again thought she heard the tambourine bells jingle and scissors fall, and once more she spilt her milk. Returning to the house, she looked into the bedchamber. There sat a maiden with eyes of chalcedony and lips of dark stone, with a face of light-coloured stone and with eyebrows like two dark sables stretching their forefeet towards each other; her body was visible through her dress; her bones were visible through her body; her nerves spreading this way and that, like mercury, were visible through her bones. The plant had become this maiden of indescribable beauty.
Soon afterwards Kharjit-Bergen, son of the meritorious Khan Kara, went into the dark forest. He saw a grey squirrel sitting on a curved twig, near the house of the little old woman with five cows, and he began to shoot, but as the light was bad, for the sun was already setting, he did not at once succeed in his purpose. At this time one of his arrows fell into the chimney.
‘Old woman!’ take the arrow and bring it to me!’ he cried, but received no answer. His cheeks and forehead grew flushed and he became angry; a wave of arrogance sprang from the back of his neck, and he rushed into the house.
When he entered and saw the maiden he lost consciousness. But he revived and fell in love. Then he went out and, jumping on his horse, raced home at full gallop. ‘Parents!’ said he, ‘there is such a beautiful maiden at the house of a little old woman with five cows! Get hold of this maiden and give her to me!’
The father sent nine servants on horseback, and they galloped at full speed to the house of the little old woman with five cows. All the servants became unconscious when they beheld the maiden’s beauty. However, they recovered, and all went away except the best one of them.
‘Little old woman!’ said he, ‘give this girl to the son of the meritorious Khan Khara!’
‘I will give her,’ was the answer.
They spoke to the maiden. ‘I will go,’ she announced.
‘Now, as the bridegroom’s wedding gift,’ said the old woman, ‘drive up cattle, and fill my open fields with horses and horned stock!’
Immediately the request was uttered and before the agreement was concluded the man gave an order to collect and drive up the animals as the bridegroom’s gift.
‘Take the maiden and depart!’ said the little old woman, when the stock of horses and cattle had been given as arranged,
The maiden was quickly adorned, and a finely speckled horse that spoke like a human being was led up to her skilfully. They put on it a silver halter, saddled it with a silver saddle, which was placed over an upper silver saddle-cloth and a lower silver saddle-cloth, and they attached a little silver whip. Then the son-in-law led the bride from the mother’s side by the whip, mounted his horse and took the bride home.
They went along the road, and the young man said, ‘In the depth of the forest there is a trap for foxes; I will go there. Proceed along this road! It divides into two paths. On the road leading to the east is hanging a sable skin. But on the road leading to the west there should be the skin of a male bear with the paws and head with white fur at the neck. Go on the path where the sable skin is hanging.’ He pointed out the road and went away.
The girl made her way to the fork in the road, but on coming to it forgot the directions. Going along the path where the bear skin was hanging, she reached a small iron hut. Suddenly out of the hut came a devil’s daughter, dressed in an iron garment above the knee. She had only one leg, and that was twisted; a single bent hand projected from below her breast, and her single furious eye was situated in the middle of her forehead. Having shot forth a fifty-foot tongue on to her breast, she pulled the girl from the horse, dropped her to the ground and tore all the skin from her face and threw it on her own face. She dragged off all the girl’s finery and put it on herself. Then mounting, the devil’s daughter rode away.
The husband met the devil’s daughter when she arrived at the house of the meritorious Khan Khara. Nine youths came to take her horse by the halter; eight maidens did likewise. It is said that the bride wrongly fastened her horse to the willow tree where the old widow from Semyaksin used to tether her spotted ox. The greater part of those who thus received the bride became sorely depressed and the remainder were disenchanted; sorrow fell on them.
All who met the bride abominated her. Even the red weasels ran away from her, thus showing she was repugnant to them. Grass had been strewn on the pathway up to her hut, and on this grass she was led by the hand. Having entered, she replenished the fire with the tops of three young larch trees. Then they concealed her behind a curtain, while they themselves also drank and played and laughed and made merry.
But the marriage feast came to an end, and there was a return to ordinary life. The little old woman with five cows, on going into open country to seek her cows, found that the plant with five sprouts was growing better than usual. She dug it up with its roots and, carrying it home, wrapped it up and placed it on her pillow. Then she went back and began to milk the cows, but the tambourine with the bells began to tinkle, and the scissors fell with a noise. Going back to the house, the old woman found the lovely maiden seated and looking more lovely than ever.
‘Mother,’ she said, ‘my husband took me away from here. My dear husband said, ‘I must go away on some business,’ but before he went he said, ‘Walk along the path where the sable’s skin is hanging, and do not go where the bear’s skin is hanging.’ I forgot and went along the second path to a little iron house. A devil’s daughter tore the skin from my face and put it on her own face; she dragged off all my fine things and put them on; and next this devil’s daughter mounted my horse and set out. She threw away skin and bones and a grey dog seized my lungs and heart with his teeth and carried them to open country. I grew here as a plant, for it was decreed that I should not die altogether. Perhaps it has been settled that later I shall bear children. The devil’s daughter has affected my fate, for she has married my husband and contaminated his flesh and blood; she has absorbed his flesh and blood. When shall I see him?’
The meritorious Khan Khara came the field belonging to the little old woman with five cows. The speckled white horse, who was endowed with human speech, knew that his mistress had revived, and he began to speak.
He complained to Khan Khara thus: ‘The devil’s daughter has killed my mistress, torn all the skin from her face and covered her own face with it; she has dragged away my mistress’s finery and clothed herself in it. The devil’s daughter has gone to live with Khan Khara’s son and become his bride. But my mistress has revived and now lives. If your son does not take this fair girl as his bride, then I will complain to the white Lord God on his seat of white stone, by the lake that has silver waves and golden floating ice, and blocks of silver and black ice; and I will shatter your house and your fire, and will leave you no means of living. A divine man must not take a devil’s daughter. Fasten this devil’s-daughter bride to the legs of a wild horse. Let a stream of rushing water fall on your son and cleanse him during thirty days; and let the worms and reptiles suck away his contaminated blood. Afterwards draw him from the water and expose him to the wind on the top of a tree for thirty nights, so that breezes from the north and from the south my penetrate his heart and liver, and purify his contaminated flesh and blood. When he is cleansed let him persuade and retake his wife!’
The khan heard and understood the horse’s words. It is said he threw aside tears from both eyes; then he galloped home. On seeing him the bride changed countenance.
‘Son!’ said Khan Khara, ‘whence and from whom did you take your wife?’
‘She is the daughter of the little old woman with five cows.’
‘What was the appearance of the horse on which you brought her? What kind of woman did you bring? Do you know her origin?’
To these questions the son answered, ‘Beyond the third heaven, in the upper region which has the white stone seat is the white God; his younger brother collected migratory birds and united them into one society. Seven maidens, his daughters in the form of seven cranes, came to earth and feasted and entered a round field and danced; and an instructress descended to them. She took the best of the seven cranes and said, ‘Your mission is to go out to people; to be a Yakut on this middle land; you must not dislike this impure middle land! You are appointed worthy of the son of the meritorious Khan Khara and are to wear a skin made of eight sables. On account of him you will become human and bear children and bring them up.’ After speaking she cut off the end of the crane’s wings. THe maiden wept. ‘Turn into a mare’s tail-grass, and grow!’ said the instructress; ‘A little old woman with five cows will find the herb and turn it into a maiden and give her in marriage to Khan Khara’s son.’ I took her accounting to this direction and as she was described to me; but I accepted a strange being; in reality, as appears to me, I took nothing!’
After his son’s reply the khan said, ‘Having seen and heard, I have come. The speckled horse with the human voice has complained to me. When you bore away your wife you spoke to her of a forked road. You said, ‘On the eastern path there is hanging a sable’s skin and on the western path a bear’s skin.’ You said, ‘Do not go on the path with the bear’s skin, but go along the path showing a sable skin!’ But she forgot, and passed along the path which had the bear’s skin. She reached the iron house and then a devil’s daughter jumped out to meet her, dragged her from her horse and threw her down, tore the whole of the skin from her face and placed it on her own face. The devil’s daughter dressed herself in the girl’s finery and silver ornaments and rode hither as a bride. She fastened the horse to the old willow; it is already a mark. ‘Attach the devil’s daughter to the feet of the wild stallion!’ said the horse to me, ‘and wash your son in a swift stream for a whole month of thirty nights; let worms and reptiles suck away his contaminated body and blood. Carry him away and expose him to the breeze at the top of a tree during a month of thirty nights. Let the breezes search him from the north and from the south; let it blow through his heart and liver!’ said the horse to me. ‘Let him go and persuade his wife and take her! But away with this woman! Do not show her! She will devour people and cattle. If you do not get rid of her,’ said the horse, ‘I will complain to the white God.’
On hearing this the son became much ashamed, and a workman called Boloruk seized the bride, who was sitting behind a curtain, and dragged her by the foot, fastened her on the legs of a while horse. The horse kicked the devil’s daughter to pieces and to death. Her body and blood were attacked on the ground by worms and reptiles, and became worms and reptiles moving about till the present time. After being placed in a stream of rushing water the khan’s son was placed on a tree, so that the spring breezes coming from the north and from the south blew through him. Thus his contaminated body and blood were purified and, when he was brought home, dried up and scarcely breathing, only his skin and bones remained.
He rode to the region of the wedding gift as before and, having picketed his horse, dismounted at his mother-in-law’s house. The little old woman who owned five cows fluttered out joyfully; she rejoiced as if the dead had come to life and the lost had been found. From the picketing spot to the tent she strewed green grass and spread on the front bed a white horse-skin with hoofs. She killed a milch cow and a large-breasted mare and made a wedding feast,
The girl approached her husband with tears. ‘Why have you come to me?’ she asked. ‘You spilt my dark blood, you cut my skin deeply. YOu gave me up as food for dogs and ducks. You gave me to the daughter of an eight-legged devil. After that, how can you seek a wife here? Girls are more numerous than perch, and women than grayling; my heart is wounded and my mind is agitated! I will not come!’
‘I did not send you to the daughter of the eight-legged devil and when I went away on an important matter I pointed out your path. I did not knowingly direct you to a perilous place and I did not know what would happen when I said to you ‘Go and meet your fate!’ The lady-instructress and protectress, the creatress, chose you and appointed you for me; therefore you revived and are alive,’ he said, ‘and whatever may happen, good or ill, I shall unfailingly take you!’
The little old woman with five cows wiped away tears from both eyes and sat down between these two children. ‘How is it that, having me, you do not rejoice when you have returned to life after death, and been found after having been lost? Neither of you must oppose my will!’
The maiden gave her word, but said ‘Agreed!’ unwillingly. Then the young man sprang up and danced and jumped and embraced and kissed and drew in his breath. The couple played the best games and burst into loud laughter and talked unceasingly. Outside they fastened the speckled horse that spoke like a human being, laid on him the silver saddle-cloth, saddled him withh the silver saddle, bridled him with the silver bridle, hung on him the silver saddle-bags and attached to him the little silver whip.
When the maiden had been dressed and was all complete on her she was sent off. She and her husband knew as they went along that it was winter by the fine snow that was falling; they knew it was summer by the rain; they knew it was autumn by the fog.
The servants from the nine houses of Khan Khara, the house servants from eight houses and the room attendants from seven houses, and nine lords’ sons who came out like nine cranes thought, ‘How will the bride arrive? Will she march out or will she saunter? And will sables arise from her footsteps?’
Thinking thus, they prepared arrows so vigorously that the skin came off their fingers; they attended so closely to their work that their sight became dull. Seven grown-up daughters like seven cranes, born at one time, twisted threads so that the skin came from their knees, and said, ‘If, when the bride comes, she blows her nose loudly, dear little kings will be plentiful.’
The son arrived with his bride, and two maidens took their horses by the bridle at the picket rope. The son and his bride dismounted and she blew her nose; therefore dear little kings would come! Instantly the women began to weave garments. Sables ran along the place from which the bride stepped forward, and some of the young men hastened into the dark forest to shoot them.
From the foot of the picketing post to the tent the way had been spread with green grass. On arriving, the bride kindled the fire with three branches of larch. Then they hid her behind a curtain. They stretched a strap in nine portions and tied to it ninety white speckled foals. On the right side of the house they thrust into the ground nine posts and fastened to them nine white foals and put on the foals nine friendly sorcerers who drank kumyss. On the left side of the house they set up eight posts.
Wedding festivities were begun in honor of the bride’s entry into the home. Warriors collected and experts came together. It is said that nine ancestral spirits came from a higher place and twelve ancestral spirits rose from the ground. It is said that nine tribes came from under the ground and, using whips of dry wood, trotted badly. Those having iron stirrups crowded together and those having copper stirrups wen unsteadily.
All had collected from the foreign tribes and from the tents of the nomad villages; there were singers, there were dancers, there were storytellers; there were those who jumped on one foot and there were leapers; there were crowds possessing five-kopeck pieces, there were saunterers. Then the dwellers-on-high flew upwards; those dwelling in the lower regions sank into the earth; and the inhabitants of the middle region, the earth, separated and walked away. The litter remained till the third day; but before the morrow most of the fragments had been collected, all animals had been enclosed and children were sporting in the place. Their descendants are said to be alive today.
Coxwell, C. Fillingham, Siberian and Other Folktales. London: The C.W. Daniel Co., 1925. (Available online on Hathitrust).
The story of “The Little Old Woman with Five Cows” is a complex tale. It’s part folktale, part myth, with lots of shamanic elements too. If we wanted, we could follow the narrative from the perspective of three characters – the arrogant tribal prince, the herb-maiden, and the old woman. But because the story is entitled “The Little Old Woman with Five Cows,” it seems clear that the old woman has an important part to play.
The story begins with the little old woman in the field with her five cows. Having five cows represents a woman of wealth. She doesn’t have just one cow; she has a handful, after all. The old woman removes from the earth a special herb and places it, roots and all, on her pillow. It is wrapped in a blanket. She treats it tenderly, just as one would an infant.
The old woman goes back to milk the cows and hears a tambourine and scissors falling. Concerned for the safety of the plant, she runs back to check, spilling the milk as she goes. All is well, so the old woman returns to milking the cow. But again, she hears the tambourine and the scissors, spills the milk and returns to the house.
This time she discovers a maiden resting on the bed. The plant had become a beautiful young woman. Outside a “prince” is hunting. His errant arrow falls into the chimney. He yells for the old woman to take it out, but she is busy with the herb-maiden. Angry, he rushes in to discover a beautiful woman. Beyond "smitten," he demands his parents to “give her to me!”
Servants come to the old woman’s house to acquire the maiden. The old woman agrees, but only if his family will give her the bridegroom’s wedding gift – enough horses and horned stock to fill her open fields. She is, after all, a skilled negotiator. Once completed, she said, “Take the maiden and depart.”
For the old woman, life returned to normal. But all manner of trouble comes to the herb-maiden and the tribal prince. One day while checking on her cows, she found again the plant with five sprouts. It was growing better than ever before. She carefully took the plant from the ground, wrapped it in a blanket and placed it on the pillow of her bed. From here, everything continued as before – tambourine shaking and scissors falling. The old woman ran back to the house twice, while she was milking the cow. Finally, she saw the beautiful maiden sitting once again on the bed. The maiden tells the old woman how she had gotten lost and was murdered by the devil child who took her place. “I grew here as a plant,” she said, “for it was decreed that I should not die altogether. Perhaps it has been settled that later I shall bear children.”
Outside of the old woman’s house, the father speaks to the speckled white horse endowed with human speech. The horse explains what has happened and why it is important for his son to marry this “holy girl.” In quizzing his son on where he found the girl, the mythology of the Yukat people is explained. The tribal prince states that during the creation of the middle land, an “instructress cut off the crane’s wings. She then states, “Turn into a mare’s tail grass, and grow! A little old woman with five cows will find the herb and turn it into a maiden and give her in marriage to Khan Khara’s son.” It seems that the creation of this maiden through the actions of the old woman was destined and I’m guessing she knew this all along.
After a purification ritual of the tribal prince, he returns to the old woman’s house. She is described as fluttering out joyfully. “She rejoiced as if the dead had come to life and the lost had been found.” She began to prepare the area for a wedding feast. But her actions may be premature for the couple’s reunion is not a happy one. They began to quarrel about what happened. For the first time, the herb-maiden speaks her mind and tells her husband “No!” She will not return with him. It seems that this incarnation embodied a more autonomous and strong-willed being. Perhaps even a more authentic one. But the tribal prince does not give up. Again, he shares what was destined to be. “The lady instructress and protectress, the creatress, chose you and appointed you for me.”
The old woman watches this exchange in tears. She sits down between them and seeks to heal the relationship. “How is it that, having met, you do not rejoice when you have returned to life after death, and been found after having been lost? Neither of you must oppose my will!” Her tone mimics that of the instructress who told the seven cranes not to “dislike this impure middle land!”
The herb-maiden agrees, and the couple laughs and plays. What was destined occurs as the couple make their way back to their tribal home. The cosmos is realigned and all was right in the world. Nothing else is said of the little old woman but she certainly lived wisely and most prosperously for the rest of her days.
Who is this little old woman? Does she represent the mythic, fertile, mother-earth spirit of the Siberian tribes? Or is she a shaman? It’s a question that can’t truly be answered without being of the times and peoples the story derived from.
In the practice of Tengrism (an ancient Turkie or Mongolian tradition), there is an earth-mother goddess/spirit of fertility and virginity. This goddess is part of a trilogy with a sky god and holy chosen ruler. All these elements can be found in this story. It is believed that by living an upright, respectful life, a human will keep the world in balance and perfect his personal Wind Horse or Spirit. Perhaps this is the quest of the tribal son – to keep the world in balance by becoming a worthy husband. Turkic folk religion was based on Animism and is like various other religious traditions of Siberia, Central Asia and Northeast Asia. Yakut shamanism itself is a Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic blend of belief in the supernatural. It has an emphasis on the ability of "white," or benign, shamans to intercede, through prayers and séances, with eastern spirits for the sake of humans.
To me, the old woman is a shaman. She clearly knows the prophecy. She identifies the herb and understands its important. She is aware of the ritual to bring life from the herb. When she hears the tambourine and scissors falling, she rushes to see the soul of the herb-maiden enter from another world. Little she may be, but only in size. The old woman is a shrewd negotiator and makes sure to get the bridegroom’s share of horses and cattle for the bride. She seemingly remains unaware of the fate of her child. Yet when the herb mysteriously appears again, she knows exactly what to do. The old woman “births” her daughter, just as before.
In this story, the little old woman appears as shaman, healer, midwife, and creator. When the couple bickers, she weeps and then sits between them, telling them in essence “life is short, don’t miss the opportunity before you.” She is an instructress. Her words are spoken as much to the us as to the couple. “How is it that, having met, you do not rejoice when you have returned to life after death, and been found after having been lost?” She is able to traverse the worlds of the holy herb-maiden and the tribal prince to weave together destiny. Because of her wisdom the cosmos realigned, for these people, their descendants, and all of us.
“The dwellers-on-high flew upwards; those dwelling in the lower regions sank into the earth; and the inhabitants of the middle region, the earth, separated and walked away. The litter remained till the third day; but before the morrow most of the fragments had been collected, all animals had been enclosed and children were sporting in the place. Their descendants are said to be alive today.” And such is true for the little old woman with her five cows.
Saturday, January 1, 2022
This blog post takes a new direction – the crone as a media character. We’ll see how the media borrows from traditional folklore and how the archetype of the crone is expressed in popular culture. This time we’ll explore a character from “Doctor Who.”
I must admit I come a bit late to the world of “Doctor Who.” This long running, British fantasy concerns the travels of an alien (Doctor Who) and his companion(s). Doctor Who is a “Time Lord,” a species that can travel through time and space, in an old Police box called a TARDIS. Doctor Who is practically immortal – for instead of dying, the Doctor regenerates into a new body and personality – and sometimes gender. There are thirteen doctors (twelves male and one female) who move throughout the universe, saving species from catastrophic events and villains. Mostly the Doctor protects planet earth. He is an eccentric, wise, tortured, and quirky figure. And most importantly, the Doctor loves humans and is the protector of planet earth. He embodies the archetypes of the Sage, Seeker and Fool.
Even though I now consider myself a Whovian (or is it Whoie, Whoer, or Whoite?), I still haven’t seen many of the early episodes found in the “Classic Doctor Who” series (1963-1989). Like many fantasy programs, Doctor Who is filled with fan fiction. This fiction sometimes enters the world of the film character. Imagine the most complex soap opera with characters leaving and returning, and a back story that can haunt the audience for decades. That is actually part of the fun.
Hopefully I haven’t lost any readers here. Describing Doctor Who’s story in a paragraph is like telling the story of “Star Wars” in a few sentences. Nevertheless, while watching a recent episode, I was reminded of a reoccurring crone figure found in the series. I thought it might be fun to explore the storyline of this character as she appears in different episodes and meets up with three different Doctor Whos. In doing so, we’ll be exploring these questions. How do these episodes portray the crone? What can we learn about her in this “who-niverse”? Does this character derive from the archetypal crone found in folklore? I’ll try to make it as simple as I can although the twists, turns and interconnections make these stories a bit difficult to share simply. Nevertheless, here we go!
It all begins with the “Sisterhood of Karn,” an all-female society or religious cult residing on the planet Karn. The women are thought to be from the planet Gallifrey (the home of all the Time Lords). The purpose of this group is to protect the “Sacred Flame,” but the flame is dying. With the flame, they are able to create the “Elixir of Life,” a potion that makes them immortal. It is also shared with the Time Lords. The Sisterhood first appears in the episode, “The Brain of Morbius” (1976). The leader of the cult (I’ll call her a “priestess”) is the crone, Maren. She seems to have prophetic powers. Her cult can crash any aircraft in their vicinity with their minds. The Fourth Doctor makes an unexpected and unplanned visit to the planet. As the story begins, Maren mistakenly believes that he has come to the planet to steal the elixir. But, in reality, he is focused on solving the problem of the “Brain of Morbius” (an evil Time Lord thought to be vanquished). The Sisters plan to capture and kill the Doctor by burning him at the stake. They dress in flowing red garments with high headdresses. Their ceremonies entail a great deal of dancing and waving of red scarfs as they chant. But before they can harm him, he determines that the flame’s underground fissure feeding the Sacred Flame is filled with soot and ash. When he opens the fissure, the flow starts again, saving the flame. This act reconciles the Doctor with the Sisterhood. The Doctor then confronts Morbius to save the planet. When he collapses, Maren gives the last of the elixir to the Doctor. With the elixir gone (at least for another 100 years), Maren will no longer be immortal. She finally accepts that the Doctor was right. There should be an end to her life for there is no growth with immortality. She steps into the flame and disappears.
Her next appearance is in “The Night of the Doctor” (2013). This mini episode is with the Eighth Doctor. It seems that the Sisters have continued to work on the formula for their elixir. We discover the elixir can now be used to initiate a regeneration for a Time Lord or to modify his or her newly regenerated body. Here the Doctor meets with Ohila (another priestess of the Sisterhood). After crash landing on Karn, the Sisters keep him alive with their elixir. The Doctor has been avoiding the “Last Great Time War,” a conflict between the Time Lords and another warrior race, the Darleks. The Sisters convince the Doctor to regenerate this time into a warrior. In doing so, he becomes the “Warrior Doctor” who fights in a brutal and unwinnable war. Ultimately, the Warrior Doctor is able to protect Gallifrey by hiding the planet in a particular moment in time. Becoming the War Doctor, both lost and saved his world.
In another story, the Doctor must face his arch enemy, Davros, a Darlek. To postpone the inevitable, Ohila and the Sisterhood kept the Doctor hidden for a while – safe from the meeting. They also gave the Doctor’s last will and testament (a “Time Lord Confession Dial”) to his childhood friend (and later foe) Missy.
Finally, in “Hell Bent” (2015), the Twelfth Doctor seeks to rescue his deceased companion by extracting her from her timeline only moments before her death. The Doctor blames the Time Lords for this and also for his torture and imprisonment for over four billion years! In anger and desperation, he steps away from the mantle of “Doctor” and back into the warrior role. In doing so he broke many of his own moral codes. When he arrives back at Gallifrey seeking vengeance, Ohlia and the Sisterhood appears unannounced at a High Council meeting. She states that at the end of time, one should expect the presence of “immortals.” This statement proves to be prophetic once again. It seems they have continued to make and use the elixir. She appears to have a long relationship with the Doctor, calling him “Boy!” at one point. An odd comment considering the Doctor is thought to be over 900 years old. As the Doctor’s behavior becomes more dangerous and erratic, Ohila confronts him. She calls to the Doctor, telling him to leave the TARDIS and face her. He steps out and Ohlia accuses him of breaking every moral code that he ever held. The Doctor insists that the universe owes him, but Ohlia asks instead if he is becoming “cruel or cowardly.” She uses the words of his own code against him. Her warnings are well taken for his actions may unlease one of the worst of Time Lord prophecies and fracture time itself. One wonders if one of those prophecies was given by the Sisters in an earlier time. The Doctor goes back inside, and the TARDIS departs. A General who stood by, wonders where the Doctor is running to. Ohlia tells her that he’s just running away (something he did at his journey’s start).
So, what does all that mean for the character of the crone? Certainly, in the Sisterhood we see mythic implications. There are remnants of the Greek Fates and perhaps the Oracles of Delphi. But does the priestess align to the crone archetype as found in folklore? As we have seen in the folktales discussed in this blog, the old woman character tends to be depicted traditionally as either a witch, a grandmother, or the crone. Throughout each of these stories, the “leader” of the Sisterhood of Karn is an old woman. It’s a matriarchal society after all. There is little that is warm and comforting about this character, so the grandmother role does not apply.
First, we see Maren and then some time after her death, Ohlia, become the priestess. Three things remain true to the archetype of the crone. First, she has the gift of prophecy. In each episode we see a focus on the priestess’ ability to prophesize. Although Maren’s predictions are incorrect in “The Brain of Morbius,” Ohlia’s are “spot-on” in later episodes. She saves the Doctor, so he can become the warrior hero of his people. Much later when he is struggling with the anger of injustice, she magically appears just in time to give him a tongue lashing. Some might argue that the Sisterhoods’ gift of divination is a sign of witchcraft. The fact their ceremonies invoke the mental ability to manipulate matter, is an additional sign. But the Grimm Brothers saw it a bit differently. In “The Goose Girl at the Well,” the old woman orchestrated the events in the story. Things unfolded in a way that appeared magical or foretold. At the end of the story, the narrator proclaimed that the old woman was not a witch as thought but merely a wise old woman. Such could be said of Ohlia.
The second element is determining the worth of the one in need. This is the key motif in all the wise crone folktales. We see it in the story of “The Three Spinning Women,” “Frau Holle,” and “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” The same is true in each of these episodes. The Doctor’s worth is initially found wanting for in the first episode Maren is convinced that the Doctor plans thievery. When she discovers her error, she saves his life rather than her own. In “The Night of the Doctor,” Ohlia finds the Doctor worthy of his heroic future. Again, she saves his life for what is destined to come. In “Hellbent,” the Doctor is at his worst. He ignores the entries of the officials but meets with her when she chastises him. At first it appears he is ignoring her, but later in the episode we see him attempt to rectify his reckless behavior and save time and the universe!
The third motif is that of the “unlikely hero.” In each of these episodes the priestess acts. She isn’t waiting for things to resolve. She sets things in motion; she appears at just the right time. She saves the day again and again. In folktales, the crone rarely is the hero. Instead, we see her waiting at the side of the road to give advice to the hero in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Or perhaps she is tending the fire in “Frau Holle,” before the young girl arrives at her cottage in the woods. We don’t see her standing outside a TARDIS yelling to a 900-year-old Time Lord, “Come out here and talk to me, boy!” The audience doesn’t particularly like Ohlia. She’s stern, critical, and disappointed in her friend. She’s outspoken and not afraid to tell the Doctor that his actions are wrong. When he turns to leave, the General asks where the Doctor is going. She practically spits out her reply, “He’s running away again.”
Clearly, she is more crone than witch in the series’ portrayal. What does she have to tell us wannabe crones in waiting? Use your inner knowing. Embrace your intuition but be wise enough to understand that sometimes you’re going to be wrong. Give help to those who are worthy. Be selfless and self-sacrificing when it’s required. Be fearless in living out your destiny. Stand tall in moments of danger. Grow, learn, and experiment! Speak out to those who act rashly. Hold others accountable to their own credo. Especially if it’s the Doctor’s credo. Always, always hold the Doctor accountable!
And just in case you don’t know the Doctor’s credo, it goes a bit like this, “Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise. Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind. …Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”