This essay is the third part in a series of edited excerpts from the author’s book, PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion.
Author’s note: In this three part series of essays I continue to use the terms “Virgin, Mother, and Crone” as names for the qualities of the Triple Goddess, whom many have loved in Her different forms throughout the ages. In my opinion, the re-storying of these particular terms is still a useful exercise – to expand the reduced notions that have evolved over millennia of androcentric thinking and culture. In the last few decades, I sat with many women in circle and we told stories of our lives within the frame of “virgin/young one, mother/creator, crone/old one”; and found it to be a means of reconstituting a larger, deeper and freer sense of being, as we recognised ultimate and omnipresent Creative Cosmic qualities within us. I have also created new names for this Creative Cosmic Triplicity: “Urge to Be/She Who Will Be”, “Place of Being/She Who Is”, and “She Who Creates the Space to Be/She Who Returns All”. As qualities/themes of Cosmogenesis, She is multivalent.[i] She may be understood poetically.
The Old One/Crone Re-Storied
I have associated this aspect/quality with She Who Creates the Space to Be; as such She is concerned primarily with love of All-That-Is, dissolving the old in every moment, ever transforming, and essentially creatively fertile.
The Old One as a phase of Being is significant. The fact that life continues past reproductive fertility for the human woman indicates an evolutionary interest in the creativity of this phase; in humans as in all.
The celebration of the threefold cycle of Goddess is about the celebration of life; and it includes the waning of being, death and the darkness, in the full picture. “The color black, now commonly associated with death or evil in Christian iconography, was in Old Europe the color of fertility and the soil.”[ii] Over the centuries, the Christian mind has imagined the religion of the Female/Goddess to be sordidly preoccupied with death, whereas in fact the reverse is true: it is in the denial of decline and death that we become surrounded with it, because there is no place for new life to spring from. In a cultural context where people imagine or pretend that they are immortal, where death/darkness is seen as abnormal, it becomes a fascination; and creates a planet that is over-burdened with waste. When the end part of the cycle is given a place, its reality included, there is very little “garbage”. Such a mind comprehends that it is in the compost, the de-composition, in the darkness, that new life is nurtured, fertility is found. It is in the acceptance of death that wisdom is gained, and life is lived more fully. When the Female Metaphor was whole, death was not understood as separate: artist Patricia Reis points out that for 30,000 years (33,000 B.C.E. – 3,000 B.C.E.) there were no images of a horrific Goddess.[iii]
The Crone/Old One is primarily in relationship with All-That-Is (where Virgin/Young One is primarily with Self, and Mother/Creator is with Other). The Crone/Old One is that movement back into the Great Sentience out of which All arises, thus She sees into the elements behind form. She is often depicted with wide open eyes; often associated with the gaze of owl or snake – and knowledge of the Dark. In Her Egyptian form of Maat, She was known as the “All-Seeing Eye”[iv] and Maat’s plume/feather was the hieroglyph for “truth”.[v] This aspect of Goddess is the Wisdom of the Ages – and beyond all knowledge. The Crone aspect is the contraction that initiates destruction, when structure is no longer life-serving. Her contraction may also be understood as a systole, a contraction of the heart by which the blood is forced onward and the circulation enabled.[vi] She is the systole that carries all away – She is about loss, but the contraction of the heart is obviously a creative one, it is the pulse of life. Is it only our short-sightedness that keeps us from seeing the contraction that way? Is it because we insist on taking it all so personally, when it is not, in fact?
As the end of the cycle, She is known in the breakdown of the endometrium, the shedding of the old, the flow of menstrual blood. She may be represented holding a bowl of blood, as Kali is, which signifies womb potency. The blood of Goddess is “‘self-produced, primeval matter’ the ocean of uterine blood before creation, holding future forms in the condition of formlessness or Chaos”.[vii] It is not blood that is shed by the blade, it is blood that naturally flows in the cycle of life: it is regenerative. In the patriarchal narrative, menstruation has been a source of shame and pain for women,[viii] and blood shed by violence has been much preferred to that shed by the female. Violent blood shedding became a form of entertainment, as well as a grasp for power. Its mythic advent can be traced to the Epic of Gilgamesh in the second millennium B.C.E.:[ix] the hero grasps for a synthetic power – a substitute for the power to give life. The organic blood of the Female is indeed worthy of awe, indicating as it does, a dynamic of loss in the nature of things, but the larger arc of that dynamic is consistently creative. Flesh, like all matter, is in constant flux. “Creation postulates change and any change destroys what went before.”[x] The Crone is the one who “clears the decks”, without which the new is not possible. She and the Virgin/Young One are always linked, the end and the beginning; One cannot exist without the Other. The snake that sheds its old skin is Goddess’ symbol of constant decomposition, constant renewal. It is in the burning that the fire creates warmth and light. The lioness kills to feed her young. It is in the eating that teeth and bodies break down what is needed for sustenance – the Crone/Old One is our constant companion.
Because of the snake’s association with power, wisdom, transformation and renewal it came to be associated particularly with the dark aspect of Goddess, but originally the snake/serpent was the Great Goddess herself: She was whole. In the Judeo-Christian West the snake came to symbolise evil. The Christian Goddess Mary, has been imaged as standing on the serpent, crushing it, in opposition to Her ancient heritage; yet it also presents a visual re-association.
Amongst names for the Crone quality are Hecate, Kali, Cailleach, Hel, Lillith, Medusa, Coatlique, Chamunda and Selket.These Goddesses are associated with death, devouring, seduction, rebellion, anger, darkness and awesome power – usually in a negative sense, though not always. Yet in the Christianised West She almost completely disappeared; Her remnant is the “wicked witch/hag” of children’s stories and cartoons, whose potency and intelligence is frequently belittled. “Old woman” became a term of derogation in the Western cultural context, meant to reflect uselessness. Miriam Robbins Dexter points out that although patriarchal cultures could find a place for the use of the virgin and mother energies, they could find no such use for the old woman.[xi] The young virgin could represent stored energy, and thus she maintained some numinosity; the mother transmitted energy, gave it to others. The old woman, however, only had knowledge; this could be threatening. Increasingly she was defamed, and her knowledge truncated by a discriminatory environment.[xii]
Eve could be seen as a remnant of the Crone, since from the Judeo-Christian perspective, she is the cause of all death. In the fifth century C.E., a church council announced that it was heresy to say that death was natural rather than the result of Eve’s disobedience.[xiii] As an Eve, every woman was “the devil’s gateway” as announced by Tertullian. But Eve is a very passive kind of Crone; she doesn’t do the destroying. Christian theologians presumed that the devil tempted Eve because she was “weaker willed” than Adam. Eve is a far cry from a Kali or a Lillith or a Medusa. Most of what she carries is guilt, not wrath. And many women have taken on Eve’s burden.
Medusa is a good example of how Goddess’ dark aspect became demonized in the patriarchal context. Marija Gimbutas points out that the earliest Greek gorgons were not terrifying symbols, but were portrayed with symbols of regeneration – bee wings and snakes as antennae.[xiv] Medusa with her serpent hair had been an ancient recognized image of the divine female, a “ruling one”.[xv] In later mythology Perseus is celebrated as hero for defeating her by cutting off her head with its fearsome and so called deadly gaze. There is no doubt that it is fearsome to look into the eye of the Divine; but patriarchal gods have carried the same characteristic, Yahweh, for example, without threat of the same retribution. In the patriarchal context, is it really the gaze of the Female that is deadly? It is women who are the chronically gazed upon, whether as sex object or on a pedestal; She has been “kept an eye on”. The beheading of Medusa, icon of Wisdom, may be understood as a story of dis-memberment of the Female Metaphor/Goddess.[xvi] The hera’s journey today is to go against the patriarchal injunction and look Medusa straight on, as philosopher Hélène Cixous suggests.[xvii] She is at first fearsome, but the Dark Goddess’ fierceness may nurture life-giving strength in a woman, as she recognizes the power within, and dares to take the journey into self-knowledge.
The Crone/Old One’s realm is the waxing dark: She leads into the Void, the Space beyond and within all. Hers is the Underworld, the Place at the foundations of life, where form is broken-down, de-composed, dis-solved; where old ways are gone and the new can only be listened and felt for. It is necessary to re-value the Dark to understand Her. In earlier times the night was perceived as part of the day – the day was ‘diurnal’, containing both light and dark aspects: and the night was alive. The day was reckoned from noon to noon, and midnight was centre position. What is called the “day” was understood to emerge out of the dark/night; as indeed all of manifestation does. For some religious traditions the day still begins at dusk. The darkness of Goddess is a rich fertile Place, seething with potency. Her Darkness is where the new and undreamed of may be conceived, the “quantum vacuum” that physicists speak of: modern science enables a reapprehension of the “superessential darkness” of the Divine “out of which elementary particles emerge”. Cosmologist Brian Swimme names this realm as “the all-nourishing abyss”.[xviii]
The Crone’s Dark Space is often symbolised in the Cauldron – a place of transformation, where the new is cooked up. She is the Organising Principle that knows the recipe; She can be trusted to deliver from deep within. Her cauldron is not for mixing poison as has been told; it is a Cauldron of Creativity, frequently found at the bottom of deep fears, volcanic emotion, deep sadness. Within Her dark Space is found the essence for re-membering. As Patricia Reis reflects:
Whenever I have felt the Dark Goddess’ consciousness filling me there is always an accompanying dread. I know my life will never be the same. I know that I am being initiated into a new aspect of myself, a new part of my journey… And yet there is also a sureness, a firmness, a resoluteness, as in a re-solution.[xix]
Often She is met through an accident, an illness, an emotional break – a tearing apart. Sometimes change may have been desired but the way unknown. Hers is an invitation to transformation. She can be felt in the need to exhale, to empty, in the release. She is felt in the ending of things, in the shed skins of old shapes and identities; as pain or joy or both. Her symbol is sometimes the sword; She cuts through illusion, and that vision is sometimes hard to bear. Hers is a fierce love, when there is love but something needs to change: She may be known in the “No more!”,[xx] in the chaos of dismantling. Her gift is in the seed pod, the peeling bark, the pruned branches, the scissors cutting the thread – expressed in the image of the waning crescent moon, and felt, as that growing dark enters the eyes, comforting the sentience within, allowing new constellations to gestate.
I associate the Crone with the Dharma, the Truth-As-It-Is.[xxi] She sees all truth and can bear it, and Her compassion is without end. She allows the letting go of small self limitations,[xxii] and is She Who Returns Us to All.
© Glenys Livingstone 2016
Read Part 1 and Part 2.
[i] I acknowledge the work of Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in The Universe Story for my understanding of the three qualities of Cosmogenesis, which I have synthesised with the three aspects of the Triple Goddess in my work of PaGaian Cosmology.
[ii] Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, p.144.
[iii] Patricia Reis, “The Dark Goddess”. Woman of Power p.24.
[iv] Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets, p.294.
[v] Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets, p.561.
[vi] I owe the “systole” metaphor to Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey, p.20. He uses it to speak of an eternal pulse that lifts Himalayas, and then carries them away.
[vii] Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets, p.723.
[viii] See Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman for a re-storying of menstruation. Also Taylor, Red Flower: Rethinking Menstruation.
[ix] Starhawk, Truth or Dare, pp.47-60.
[x] Starhawk , The Spiral Dance, p.106.
[xi] Miriam Robbins Dexter, Whence the Goddesses: A Source Book, p.177.
[xii] Women were barred from education, yet at the same time denigrated as ignorant/foolish.
[xiii] Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets, p.290.
[xiv] Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, p.xxiii.
[xv] Miriam Robbins Dexter, “The Ferocious and the Erotic”, p.2.
[xvi] Just as the rape of Persephone – one who is Seed of Life/Redeemer/Eternal Thread – may be understood as a story of the dis-integration of the Female Metaphor/Goddess, these stories may be understood as records of the loss of an integrity that went before, just as Campbell notes was true of the story of the dismembering of Tiamat by Marduk, The Power of Myth, p.170.
[xvii] Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Signs 1 no. 22, p.885.
[xviii] Brian Swimme, in Dominic Flamiano, “A Conversation with Brian Swimme”. Original Blessing Nov/Dec 1997, p.10.
[xix] Patricia Reis, “The Dark Goddess”, p.82.
[xx] Quoting Bridget McKern , Song of Hecate; see Glenys Livingstone, PaGaian Cosmology, p.267.
[xxi] I acknowledge Joan Halifax, Being With Dying, for a broadened understanding of the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma – which I now associate with the three faces of the Female Metaphor.
[xxii] Similar to the capacities of self-transcendence and self-dissolution of holons, Willis Harman & Elisabet Sahtouris, Biology Revisioned, p.18.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. NY: Doubleday, 1988.
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa” (trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen). Signs 1 no. 22, Summer 1976, pp.875-893.
Dexter, Miriam Robbins. “The Ferocious and the Erotic: ‘Beautiful’ Medusa and the Neolithic Bird and Snake”, in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Issue 26.1 (2010), pp.25-41.
Flamiano, Dominic. “A Conversation with Brian Swimme”. Original Blessing, Nov/Dec 1997, pp.8-11.
Getty, Adele. Goddess: Mother of Living Nature. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.
Halifax, Joan. Being With Dying. (CD series) Colorado: Sounds True, 1997.
Harman, W. & Sahtouris, E. Biology Revisioned. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1998.
Iglehart Austen, Hallie. The Heart of the Goddess. Berkeley: Wingbow Press, 1990.
Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, London: Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., 1968.
Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. NE: iUniverse, 2005.
Reis, Patricia. “The Dark Goddess”. Woman of Power Issue 8, Winter 1988, pp. 24 –27, 82.
Robbins Dexter, Miriam. Whence the Goddesses: A Source Book. NY: Teacher’s College Press, 1990.
Shuttle, Penelope and Redgrove, Peter. The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman. London: Paladin Books, 1986.
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. NY: Harper and Row, 1989.
________ Truth or Dare. SF: Harper and Row, 1990.
Swimme, Brian & Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story. Harper Collins,1992.
Taylor, Dena. Red Flower: Rethinking Menstruation. Freedom CA: Crossing Press, 1988.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.
Glenys Livingstone Ph.D. is the author of PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion, which fuses indigenous tradition of Old Europe with science, feminism and a poetic relationship with place. Glenys has been on a Goddess path since 1979. Glenys contributed to Goddesses in World Culture (ed. Patricia Monaghan), and Foremothers of the Women’s Sprituality Movement (edited by Miriam Robbins Dexter and Vicki Noble). Glenys lives in Australia, where she has facilitated Seasonal ceremony for over two decades, taught classes and mentored apprentices. She teaches a year-long on-line course, and recently produced PaGaian Cosmology Meditations CDs. Glenys’s website is http://pagaian.org