What does it mean to be a crone?

From the ancient wisdom of the elder to the underestimated power of the ‘hag’, women are reframing what it means to be a crone – a woman in the final act of their lives, says Elsa Mills

In the pecking order of female archetypes, ‘the crone’ always seemed the least desirable final destination. Following the thrusting vibrancy of the blossoming and blooming ‘maiden’ stage, and the beautiful, divine creativity of the ‘mother’ phase, ‘the crone’ felt like a step down, a reduction. A celebration of knowledge perhaps, but mostly a stooped being, lacking the fire and beauty of her former iterations.

The three archetypes – maiden, mother, crone – have been a feature of writing and philosophical thought about women for centuries. They indicate not only our path through life, but elements of the female experience that are always within us, and on which we call when we need them.

Our maiden reminds us of eternal possibility and growth. She embodies independence and a passionate striving forward.

Mother evokes nurturing and creativity – epitomised by a deep connection to our womb space and ability to bring forth life. Even for women who don’t have children, the mother is a figure that comes to us in the middle of our years and brings both self-love and the nourishing of those around us.

But it is our crone that holds perhaps the most potential for the deep work of self-knowledge and discovery. The crone represents our trust in wisdom held within, gathered through our lives and experiences – and which, in the later stage of life, makes us most open and confident.

‘Crone comes to you with irrevocable authority, sanctioning you to trust the wisdom within,’ says Niki Dewart, coauthor of The Wild & Sacred Feminine Deck. ‘Crone cares little about what anyone else thinks… She delves deep inside herself, drawing from the wealth of wisdom pooling where her menstrual blood once flowed. She dwells within you, regardless of your age, calling you inward to the root of your sagacity.’

The crone is also known as a ‘hag’, from the Greek ‘hagia’, meaning ‘holy one’. The hag’s wisdom and innate power is being culturally reframed by influential thinkers and writers, offering a new perspective on how to think about our post-fifty years.

‘I have come to see menopause as an act of rebellion,’ says Arlene Bailey in /The Crone Initiation/. ‘It is a time in a woman’s life when she is finally and completely unto herself. A time when she is no longer something that men want to control, for she no longer bleeds nor bears children. To society, she is seen as useless and becomes invisible. And because society can no longer label her and put her in a box, she becomes an enigma. She also becomes free.’
In the blank space created by being neither maiden nor mother, the crone has infinite possibility. Dr Sharon Blackie’s book /Hagitude/ turned the ‘old lady’ legend on its head in a powerful call to action: ‘We have to say no to the cultural narrative which would render elder women invisible or write us off as irrelevant. But first we have to take responsibility for ourselves and find a narrative to offer in its place, to uncover our own unique inner hag and extend her fearlessly into the world.’

Blackie presents the hag, or crone, as a force for good: ‘The inner hag whose image we each carry within us reflects our own unique variety of wisdom, the gift that each of us has to offer this breaking and broken world, and our own particular brand of connection to the numinous.’

The crone figure brings to the forefront key aspects of human existence and asks us – both men and women – to face things from which we often turn away: death and rebirth, completion, endings, self-assurance, the unknown, darkness, letting go, surrender, change.

‘She accepts change, appreciates the good in her life, grieves what dies or loses vitality, and goes on,’ says Jean Shinoda Bolen in /Crones Don’t Whine/. ‘When it’s time to let go of one phase of her life, she can, which makes the next phase possible.’

This acceptance is the gift that enables us to embrace our hag status in its fullness, especially when you consider that our role is vital for those who come after us.

Writing about grief in /The Wild Edge of Sorrow/, Francis Weller argues that those who undertake the essential work of mourning and loss come back changed and deepened, and in turn become leaders in their own communities:

‘Any who undertake real mourning return with gravitas; wisdom gathered in the darkness. These women and men become our elders, the ones who can hold the village in times of great challenge.’

It is in the facing of these things that the crone or hag finds her biggest challenge. Because, to many, this phase of life represents failure and fear: a failure to stay young, a fear of getting older, a fear of irrelevance, a failure to represent those things that a modern, patriarchal society values. The crone or hag stands for divine feminine knowledge, deep and ancient wisdom, facing our pain, feeling the sharp edges of our lives, trials and tribulations, spirituality and faith.

‘We don’t much talk about spirituality in this post-Enlightenment culture, which respects and rewards only rationality,’ writes Blackie. ‘We live in a society whose power systems value only the material, and which dismiss, become vaguely embarrassed about, or actively ridicule the spiritual.’

And yet by facing these things with curiosity and without fear, the crone becomes a guide for herself and others, and becomes part of the vital village of women’s lives that has so nearly been lost. If we can bring this crone figure into our lives, we will create a space for elder women – ‘Strong and fierce guardians and protectors of the land,’ says Blackie – who will guide and protect us.

In a world where the crone or hag is normalised, getting older becomes a beautiful part of the passage of our lives. As we walk with courage through the most troubling and difficult parts of our life, even death, we gain – and take with us into our older years – wisdom that we pass on to others.

The crone, says Shinoda Bolen, ‘is improving, adapting to change, responding to what engages her energy. If the metaphor is music, her instrument is herself and the deep theme of her song follows the beat of her heart. Each phase is like a different movement and a major work with variations on her theme.’

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