View Full Version : Reinventing the Crone By Patricia Monaghan

Dria El
December 4th, 2001, 12:13 PM
Reinventing the Crone
By Patricia Monaghan

When we are children, we are told stories of ugly witches living in the woods whose sole purpose is to steal children like Hansel and Gretel - terrify women who should be avoided at all costs.

If fairy tales paint a scary image of older women, the electronic babysitter is worse. On television, we rarely see images of older women at all. When we do, they are helpless victims who fall and can't get up, psychopathic landladies, frightened victims, or (very occasionally) a queen or similarly distant figure.

It is any wonder that we grow up fearful of the Crone?

Deep in our minds, we may store memories of the warm lap of a loving grandmother, or of the wild enthusiastic power of an aunt. However, as our families live more geographically distant from elders, many children grow up without a memorable counter-image to the negative stereotyping of the Crone which children's tales and media provide.

Meanwhile, cosmetic surgery is a booming business with much tucking and nipping devoted to removing signs of age from women's faces. The emotional history written in laugh lines around a woman's eyes or worry lines between her eyebrows is erased, as though the alphabet of deep experience and deeper feelings is not worthy of being read.

Ironically, an antidote to the negative propaganda against aging women can be found in one of its sources: fairy tales wherein the wicked witch appears. In Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Snow White, and similar childhood stories, we encounter the power of a primal goddess whose people, forced to convert to another religion, nonetheless held on to her image as the world around them changed - the "witches" of fairy tales are the ancient Crone goddess of their people. They survived for countless generations by being declared "just a figure in a children's story". Hidden in plain sight, the Crones avoided coming under the thumb of a religion that had no place for the primal power of aged women.

This has happened over and over in human history. A people whose mythology included a Crone figure were invaded or otherwise forced to convert to a new religion--but mothers still told children the old tales on winter evenings as they gathered near the hearth. Such children's tales are a rich treasury of subjugated mythologies, sometimes including material that is thousands of years old, now told by people who have no clue about its original meaning.

Sometimes the Crone survived in an even stranger way--by becoming a figure of terror kept alive by the very culture that overthrew her. Such demonization was the fate of Lamia the Canannite (considered a bogey-woman by the Hebrews) and Medusa the Anatolian (given snakes for hair by the Greeks). Originally powerful and complex goddesses, they were diminished to simplistic monsters - but nonetheless survived.

In fairy tales, however, the Crone is not demonized; she is simply
caricatured -- her power made to seem silly, her needs petulant. Such is the case with Mother Gothel, the Crone who refuses to let Rapunzel's father steal rampion (a kind of onion) from her flourishing garden. Here we have a typical transformation of the Crone goddess. Her image remains: an older woman whose power of fertility has left the limitations of her physical being and diffused into the world around her. Witness her garde, a splendidly thriving place, which attracts the envy of Rapunzel's mother.

The story is usually told as though Dame Gothel envies the pregnant woman, yet the story starts when Rapunzel's mother becomes consumed with desire for what Dame Gothel has. The old woman's fertility is no longer confined to her womb. She is a vast power of fertility, surrounded by a garden of phenomenal proportions - a kind of fairy tale Findhorn.

Thus, it's not just rampion the pregnant woman desires, it's Dame Gothel's power. In mythology, gardens often represent feminine sexuality, so it's curious that the pregnant woman compulsively urges her husband to invade Dame Gothel's garden. The sexual power of the Crone draws all to her, even those who do not recognize what they are experiencing.

The woman is not, however, content with a taste of the rampion, and sends her husband back many times to steal the power of the Crone. Finally Dame Gothel captures him. She has enough to share, and may have done so had she been asked, but she was not. Dame Gothel is outraged by the theft. She demands payment in the form of the child the couple is expecting.

In fairy tales, we often find Crone figures linked with young women: BaBa Yago and Vasillisa the Fair, Gretel and the witch, Little Red Riding Hood and her granny. The nubile, prepubescent girl has much in common witht he post-menopausal witch, and not only because one is not yet physcially fertile while the other has passed beyond that stage. There is a wild freedom about the feminine force in a body that is not using aportion of its energy on the reproductive cycle. Thus, when Rapunzel comes to Dame Gothel, it is a joining of two similar forces.

Dame Gothel puts Rapunzel in a tower, a building whose phallic imagery is continually remarked upon by commentators of the tale. the implication of such armchair Freudians is that the Crone, being without the ability to physically reproduce, has thus become somehow masculated (this word does not exist as an opposite to emasculate, though it should). Dame Gothel, by this reasoning, has become somehow the opposite of feminine simply because she no longer bears children. The Crone is no longer a woman, because woman is defined by her fertility.

Yet these commentators are far from consistent in their imagery, for maidens are not usually confined in the tip of phalluses. And what could Rapunzel's hair, streaming out of the tower, conceivably represent in this framework? As for the prince climbing the tower - well, as girls today like to say, don't go there.

Freud himself pointed out that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. Finding phallic imagery in every erect object may lead us to wrong assumptions about meaning. It is instructive that the tale of Rapunzel is so often interpreted in this fashion, however - it reveals some of the biases against Crones as they appear in fairy tales.

Assume, by contrast, that the Crone is not the evil figure in this story, but is instead a figure of transformation, Rapunzel's mother intuits this, which is why she so craves the power of the Crone's garden. When Dame Gothel is given the girl, she elevates her. If one looks at the tower as a representive of the human body-- the buildings in dreams are often female bodies--then Dame Gothel puts Rapunzel in touch with her mind, placing her as she does at the top of the building.

Hair in dreams and myths often represents thought. Thus, under the Crone's guidance, Rapunzel's thoughts grow strong and long enough to form a ladder for Dame Gothel. Working together, the girl and the Crone have built an imaginative space for themselves. This, in fact, happens frequently when young girls and Crones spend time together---a marvelous, playful, creative space is made in this world.

Eventually the prince must come. When the girl reaches her reproductive years, she and the Crone must bid farewell. Another girl will doubtless come to learn with Dame Gothel, but for Rapunzel there will be many years ahead before she encounters the Crone again---this time in herself.

This is a very different reading of the fairy tale that is usually offered--one which begins with the presumption that Dame Gothel is a positive rather than negative force in the story. Looking at the Crones of myth and fairy tale in this way, we can find many treasures yet to be unearthed, much human wisdom encoded and waiting to be revealed. As women in their Croning years reevaluate these images in light of the power and energy they feel within themselves, we are likely to see many new and exciting visions of the Crone revealed.

December 4th, 2001, 01:23 PM
Id just like to thank you for writing such an amazing piece, and sharing it with us. I have never really given fairy tales much thought, except to say that the "bad guys" always seem to be...well...bad girls. It always annoyed me how the antagonist was almost always female, and that femal protagonists always needed "saving". Your deciphering of "Rapunzel" opened my eyes to the possibility of other stories having hidden meanings. The crone doesnt seem all that scary anymore, as I was always
*scared* (as naive as that sounds) because of her sometimes dark nature. I thank you once again, and keep up the excellent work!

December 5th, 2001, 08:54 AM

Excellent work! As one moving into cronehood myself, I really enjoyed it. I myself have been lucky in having the example of several vital, powerful older women in my family to show me that the crone years can be some of the most independent, worthwhile years in our lives; and that as we age, we can become wiser, more in tune with our world, and more in touch with ourselves. All too often, as you said, people have nothing to offset the bad press given to the older woman. I myself look forward to the coming years, in hopes that I will continue to grow and learn, to share my knowledge and my love of the earth and her children with those around me. Thank you so much for sharing this piece with us.

Dria El
December 6th, 2001, 10:55 PM
I'm so glad you enjoyed it!


December 8th, 2001, 07:45 PM
Great piece! I bought a book by Patricia Monaghan about the Crone last Christmas/Yule for my mom! :)

I hope you posted this piece in Tintagel! ;)


Dria El
December 9th, 2001, 07:10 AM
hehe You know... I don't remember if I did or not. Maybe I'll have to check on that.


December 11th, 2001, 05:01 PM
Also in Rapunzel, did anyone ever think the mother was portrayed as bad? You know, putting her daughter and her husband in danger because she wanted this special herb.