In the last Wise Crone Cottage Podcast (S2, #11), I discussed the stories of Greek goddesses who disguised themselves as old women. But Greece is not the only culture where this has occurred, Egypt has a similar myth. It’s part of a love story between two Egyptian gods: Isis and Osiris.
In Egyptian mythology, the goddess Isis was the child of Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, the goddess of the sky. Isis is usually depicted with huge sheltering wings. She is a healing and nurturing goddess, teaching women to grind corn, spin, and weave. She also shares her ability to cure illness. Isis married one of her brothers, the god Osiris, and the pair ruled the world. On a side note, incest was common in Greek and Egyptian mythology, and this story was no exception.
All goes well until, Osiris is murdered by his jealous, younger brother Set. He is placed in a chest and thrown into the Nile River. Isis searches desperately throughout the land. She finally finds the casket. It is now lodged in a tree in Byblos. The king and queen of the city saw the tree at the shoreline. Attracted by its beauty and the sweet scent of Osiris’ body, the queen asked that the tree be cut down and brought to the court . There it served as the central pillar.
Isis, now disguised as an old woman, befriends the queen’s handmaidens. They assist her in becoming the nursemaid to the young princes. Isis is especially fond of one boy and seeks to make him immortal. This entailed holding him nightly in a mystical fire to burn away his mortally. One night, the queen caught the old woman in the act. Horrified she cursed the crone and sought to remove her from the court. Isis then threw off her disguise, revealing herself as a goddess. The queen and the king begged for her mercy, offering her anything to spare them. Isis asked for the pillar in the courtyard which was then given to her.
Isis brings Osiris’s corpse back to Egypt and hides it in a swamp. Osiris is revived, but rather than being the “Lord of the Living,” he now becomes “Lord of the Dead.” Seth finds the body, cuts it into 14 pieces and scatters each around the country. The story continues with Isis gathering the pieces of Osiris’s body and later healing him.
Our focus, however, is not on the story of a distraught consort, it is instead the story of the wise crone. In fact, this story also became part of the Greek goddess, Demeter’s life. In each tale, the goddess disguises herself as an old woman who cares for a young prince. Each goddess attempts to give the infant immortality by placing him over a fire. Each are discovered before being able to complete the task.
The connection between these two goddesses (which some believed to be one and the same) was identified by the Classical Greek historian Herodotus. It is obvious that the myth of the goddess Isis impacted the storyline of the Greek goddess Demeter. For the character of Isis was well formed prior to the development of Greek mythology. Isis gained prominence during the pre-Greek, Mycenaean world. Obviously, these two groups of people connected at some time and these stories spread when that occurred.
Both Isis and Demeter are strong and powerful goddesses. Both are grieving for the loss of a loved one and are on a journey to find healing (for Isis it’s bringing Osiris back to life, and for Demeter it’s retrieving Persephone from the underworld). In each story, there is a connection with nature, the growing of crops, seasons of the year, rebirth and resurrection. The stories merge with the appearance of the old woman. Isis becomes an old woman in an effort to obtain the coffin of Osiris. Demeter has renounced her life in Olympus to live on the earth. She is seeking a new life and a distraction from her grief. Caring for the king’s son helps both goddesses to channel their need to nurture in a more productive way. Each developed loving feelings toward the infant and sought to give him the gift of immortality. It is the highest gift these goddesses can bestow on human child.
But why transform into an old woman at all? What does Isis gain in becoming one? Remember this part of the story was so important that it is found in two different cultures. For both Isis and Demeter, embodying the crone gave them the opportunity to care for a child. In doing so, they represent the Divine Mother – loving and caring the weakest and most vulnerable. When viewed as the crone, they are found to be wise, mature, and safe. But as soon as they are caught in their ritual, they become the goddess again, filled with mystery and frightening capriciousness.
In each of these myths, we discover our role model for the crone. The crone has the power of the elder. She may be the grandmother, the Divine Mother, Mother Earth, Kali, or Baba Yaga. She has the power of knowledge and experience. Hers is a power beneath the surface, running underground and waiting for an opportunity to be of service. But just like an Egyptian goddess, each of us is waiting for the great reveal. Surprise! The old woman you just dismissed, the old woman you just chastised and so rudely ignored, has power beyond measure. It’s the power of experience. It’s the power of wisdom. It’s the power of compassion and of history.
It’s long been time to awaken the archetype of the crone within each one of us!