Challenging The Crone

The other day, I got an email inviting me to participate in an event known as the Crone Council. I deleted it as soon as I read the first line. Not only because I don’t do events (for various reasons including being an extreme introvert and not having the disposable income for travel), but because I have a violent visceral reaction to the word “crone” when used in relation to myself.

For the non-Pagans and others in the audience who may not be familiar with this archetype, many forms of modern Paganism–and perhaps ancient Paganism, though it’s hard to be certain–view the female principle as a triple entity, each part of which reflect a stage of a woman’s life: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Operating under an old-world view, the Maiden is a girl who has not yet begun menstruating; the Mother rules the years of fertility, from menarche to menopause; and the Crone represents womanhood after the cessation of monthly bleeding. There’s some flexibility to the first two stages. Maidenhood might last several years after a woman’s periods begin and cover sexual awakening and exploration, while identification with the Mother archetype might not begin until a woman has borne her first child, or settled down to her adult role in life. The Crone, on the other hand, has no such leeway. Once a woman stops bleeding, she becomes as the waning moon, a mysterious figure on her way into the dark.

Lots of world mythologies include trios of goddesses conforming to this archetype, which is why it’s easy to think that the pagans of ancient history also subscribed to the Maiden-Mother-Crone idea. There are the fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. There are the three Norns who guard the Well of Urd in Northern European cosmology: Urd (Fate), Skuld (Being), and Verdandi (Necessity). The Irish battle goddess, the Morrigan, often appears as a triple goddess, embodied most frequently as Badb, Macha, and Nemain. Even the weird sisters of Shakespeare’s MacBeth partake of the power of the triple goddess archetype.

The Triple Goddess archetype, as depicted by archseer.
The Triple Goddess archetype, as depicted by archseer.

Most women I’ve known of a Pagan, or feminist, or vaguely alternative mind as regards religion and spirituality have been excited to enter the sisterhood of the Crone. As a keeper of hidden magic, who’s privy to the mysteries of life and death and answers to no one for her decisions, she’s a powerful figure and role model for older women, who are all too often dismissed as irrelevant in the modern world. For women in a patriarchal society (which, like it or not, modern society is), who have probably spent the first fifty years of their lives conforming in one way or another to male expectations of what a woman should be, it can be liberating to throw it all away and answer to no one but themselves. As a Crone, you’re no longer an object of desire, no longer required to cater to fashion trends or make choices with the welfare of your family in mind. You’re free from the moon’s tidal pull and from the demands of young children. For women who love babies, there are always grandchildren, whom you can enjoy and cosset, and return to their mothers when you’re through. Or so runs the party line.

So what’s my problem? I’m what is still known in some circles as “a woman of a certain age,” prime Crone material. Why does the idea of claiming this archetype turn my stomach?

The Crone from the Well-Worn Path Tarot.
The Crone from the Well-Worn Path Tarot.

Part of it is personal. Looking to the triple goddess as a guide through the stages of a woman’s life and the changes a woman’s body goes through from birth to death can be a powerful tool. But I, for reasons of upbringing, and culture, and perhaps simple Fate, missed out on those life stages. In all the ways that matter to me, I have always been a Crone.

It’s a fact that even in the worst society, a person is rewarded for conforming to social norms. This is something I have never been good at. My family, my parents in particular, had a severe impediment when it came to discussing the realities of young womanhood. And being a bookish kid growing up in virtual social isolation, I didn’t absorb the lessons of popular culture–not many of them, anyway. Consequently, I never learned how to be a girl. And though in some respects this has been an advantage, I didn’t get the rewards contingent on “girling” well. I never had a boyfriend until I was well into my twenties. No one looked at me with desire. To this day, I’ve never been asked on a date. My husband and I sometimes go on what we call “dates,” but it’s something mutually agreed upon rather than an event geared towards wooing, where one party, in the mating display peculiar to humanity, invites the other to participate, arranges the details, and picks up the tab. I didn’t get a marriage proposal. When we decided to formalize our relationship, my husband and I were sharing a burger at a bar in Silverton. One of us–I think it was me–said, “So, you think we should get married?” and the other said, “Sure, okay.”

As a feminist, I feel deep down I shouldn’t regret the lack of these things. After all, I managed in large part to escape ever being treated as an object, as prey, as lesser. As something to be pursued and won. However, by nature or nurture, I’m an incurable romantic at my core. I DO feel the lack of those things. And although much psychology and New Age philosophy holds that we need to find our own inherent value, desirability, worth, et al, it’s a truth that we learn to see ourselves, in great part, through the eyes of others. Having our inner selves seen and acknowledged by the people around us teaches us to see an acknowledge ourselves. It’s incredibly difficult to stand up and say “I AM DESIRABLE AND SEXY!” (or intelligent, or graceful, or capable of success) if no one has said it to you first.

I never got the quintessential “Maiden” experience, and I’m angry about it.

In a similar way, I never got the “Mother” experience. I have no children of my own. I’ve never had a child quicken inside me, never felt it move and grow, never experienced my power as a giver of life. I have been a caretaker, looking after the needs of those around me, sometimes at the expense of my own. I still do this. It doesn’t fill the hole. It’s not the same–or what I imagine it would be like, if I’d had children. I’ve heard that though having kids is difficult and frustrating, it’s also rewarding. My efforts at mothering garner me little reward.

crone 1

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if I didn’t want those typical Maiden and Mother things–and of course, I believe that to be a good feminist, I really shouldn’t want them, because I shouldn’t crave the societal perks of subscribing to stereotypical gender roles, blah, blah, blah. But I DID want them, and I DO want them. I long to be romanced and desired. I long for a man (because I’m heterosexual) to put on his vibrant plumage and strut around in an attempt to gain my favor. My last normal menstrual cycle was some years ago, but I still dream of pregnancy, of birthing and raising a child of my body.

But I have always been the Crone. I have been the One Who doesn’t conform to the images we hold of Maidens and Mothers. The One Who speaks uncomfortable truths. The One Who Doesn’t Put Up With Nonsense. The One Who wears what She pleases and goes where She likes, and walks in the dark, and gathers grubs from beneath rocks. Some of this identity came from not understanding how human society worked, and some came from not really caring, even though the not caring often brought me pain. Most came from not knowing any other way to be. But now that I am physiologically a Crone, more and more I feel the lack of passing through those other stages. I feel incomplete, and this puts a serious damper on my enthusiasm for embracing the freedom that comes to others from making it to this stage of life.

Those are my personal reasons. The societal are perhaps more complex. I don’t feel the Crone archetype as we understand it, as it is associated with a woman’s reproductive life, makes sense in this day and age. We live too long for it to make sense. When we had shorter lifespans, when a woman’s reality was inextricably linked to her fertility, one might say “Twenty years a Maiden, twenty a Mother, twenty a Crone,” and encompass a life. It doesn’t apply to the world today, not in the same way. With the advent of reliable birth control, women–first world women, at least, and increasing numbers in less developed nations–are no longer slaves to their menstrual cycles or to the inevitability of devoting large portions of their lives to the bearing and rearing of children. Getting free of that is less of a transitional marker than it once was. You can choose not to experience it at all and still have an active sex life. Women have more educational opportunities, as well. So the archetype of the Wise Woman as an elder who has outlived her fertility and thus has time to devote to arcane knowledge has less validity. Of course, there is always something to be said for the wisdom gained through perspective and years of experience. All the same, it seems to me that the power of the Crone has been diminished in this realm.

At the same time, we “women of a certain age” aren’t really free of the expectation society puts on Maidens and Mothers any more. For years, magazines have shown us how to remain desirable and active, how to cater to the male gaze, at higher and higher ages. At fifty, at sixty, we’re still not allowed to “let ourselves go.” Women are also choosing to delay childbearing later and later. With the help of science, some become mothers well into what once would have been considered the Crone years. And more power to them. But all this makes me wonder what kind of relevance the traditional interpretation of Crone-hood has today. There are other factors at play, too. The emphasis on two genders–a goddess and a god, or goddesses and gods–in much of modern Paganism, as well as the prominence accorded at-birth biology and the biological events associated with particular body parts (e.g., the uterus), is unwelcoming to trans*, intersex, queer, and gender fluid individuals. How can a woman who has never possessed a uterus relate to an entity whose entire identity hinges on menstruation or lack thereof? How can a man who goes through pregnancy and bears children relate to a god who has never done either? Is the Maiden sufficient to her, or the Mother to him? Is the Crone relevant to either?
There’s no doubt that the Crone as an archetype gave power (of a kind) to a set of women who were often set aside or scorned as lacking value once their fertile years had ended. It’s easy to imagine how a society with less knowledge of modern science would imbue these women with magic simply for the fact that they survived multiple pregnancies and births and reached an age where their wombs “dried up.” And it’s equally easy to imagine this same kind of society believing that a woman’s menstrual blood was a key element in the creation of life (which is kind of is), and that a woman who now kept that element to herself instead of expressing it on a monthly basis also retained its creative force. But what does the Crone do for us now?

I come from a long-lived family. Barring serious illness or accident, I can expect to have as many years ahead of me as I have behind me. Another half a century of prospective Crone-hood holds no appeal at all, especially if it entails all the burdens of both Maiden and Mother and few of the blessings. Older women are not much respected, these days, simply for the fact that they’re old.

No myth, philosophy, archetype, or thought-form is all-encompassing. Part of the appeal of modern Paganism comes from its willingness to incorporate this truth and adjust when necessary. Yet all too often, instead of using archetypes as guides along a personal journey, people try to fit every experience into the shape of their chosen archetype, shoving things in where they don’t go and cutting off the awkward bits that stick out. It’s not my intention to dismiss the Crone’s value to those who honour Her. However, if Paganism wants to remain a relevant and living religion, we need to expand our paradigms to incorporate the lived experience of all women, not just that of those who fall neatly into the patterns we have adopted from years past. And in this sense, perhaps the time of the Crone has passed.