Saturday, November 10, 2012
Outside, in the local, secular, American world, Halloween is the time of the
Crone. Along with black cats, skeletons, ghosts, jack o' lanterns and brooms
cardboard old women with green and warty faces, joints connected by brass
pins, hang on doors and windows all around us. They're drawn in special
paint on grocery-store fronts. Caricatures of witches; crones.
Some witches militate against this version of crone as a negative stereotype
and I understand this fight. Neither do I want to be reduced to some
half-mad figure leering into the steam of a cauldron plotting evil, perhaps
worshipping Jehovah's dark twin. I have no interest in turning anyone into a
frog. I appreciate the efforts of those who've worked to de-demonize the
But for me this does not involve taking the crones off the grocery store
windows. Rather the opposite. Raise them high. Let the children draw them
with long chins and warty noses. Let them frighten us.
Kids like Halloween because it's got some juice. A frisson of fear. Ghosts
in the shadows, costumes in which for a moment you're not recognized. And of
course trick-or-treat candy, the sheer luxe pleasure of possessing that much
sugar in one bag. But also the darkness, mediated by light: stepping out a
little into fear, then quickly retreating. I salute that excitement. I too
loved the harvest moon, the pumpkin lantern, the mask and the idea of
witches. They helped make me a witch.
So let the cardboard Crone dangle, in her black Puritan hat, or better yet
draw Her as you like. But tell the kids why She's scary. If we have Santa
Claus, the beneficent Father, at the rebirth of the light, now in the season
of darkness it's appropriate to hail the Crone.
Fear is part of her insignia. She's the handmaiden of death. It is right
that as warm-blooded living creatures we fear death - along with feeling
curiosity and, possibly, acceptance. I think we must respect that black
pause waiting. None of us can be positive what will happen when we enter
that country, from which no one returns as before to report. We can learn
ways to approach death; we can learn ways to transcend our fear. But before
we transcend it, we must recognize and honor it.
In her webbed hands She holds death toward us, a cat's cradle of soft black
Three dark goddesses to consider are Ereshkigal of Sumer, Hecate of Greece
and Cerridwen of Wales. Three faces of the Crone, each different.
Ereshkigal and the Great Below
Ereshkigal's is a bleak view of the Crone. Her Hell is dry, dark and empty,
and she did not choose to rule it but was abducted there after heaven and
earth separated. In the underworld, she is naked; she eats clay and drinks
dirty water. She has lost her childhood - in one Sumerian verse, she
complains to the gods of heaven:
"Since I, thy daughter, was young,
I have not known the play of maidens,
I have not known the frolic of young girls."
(quoted by Diane Wolkstein in Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth) Furthermore
her husband, Gugulanna, the Bull of Heaven, dies and is lost to her. She is
jealous of the gods of the upper world; when her sister Inanna, Queen of
Heaven, comes to the Great Below for Gugulanna's funeral, Ereshkigal strikes
and kills her and hangs her from a hook on the wall. There Ereshkigal
intends her to stay.
Diane Wolkstein, a reteller of Sumerian myths, writes: "This underground
goddess, whose realm is dry and dark, whose husband Gugulanna is dead, who
has no protective or caring mother, father, or brother (that we know of),
who wears no clothes, and whose childhood is lost, can be considered the
prototype of a witch - unloving, unloved, abandoned, instinctual and full of
rage, greed and desperate loneliness." I would say, more specifically, that
Ereshkigal is one prototype of the Crone.
This prototype is fearful to contemplate. If, as Elspeth says in the
interview in this issue, She brings us the gifts we would rather not have,
Ereshkigal bring us not only death, but also despair and grey depression.
Ereshkigal's world is defined by lack - no lover, no relatives, no clothes,
no decent food, no sympathy. That is a place all of us go, sometimes. The
We would rather not be there. But do we get nothing from going there? I
think when we face nothingness we see in heightened relief what defines us.
For some, it is our love for our children. For some, it is the value of our
work. Against the grey, the colors of our lives stand sharp, and we learn
why to stay alive.
Or not. One thing is certain: The Crone's realm is nowhere to tell white
lies. Some people come to the edge and throw themselves off. We may not
think their reasons good, we may wish them back, but they are gone. That is
part of what is.
Ereshkigal's realm is a place not only to meet our fears, hail and pass them
but also to recognize what is real behind them. We like to write happy
endings for every story. In the Great Place Below, not every story ends
happily. Our stories have only one certain ending - death. If we start by
agreeing to that truth, harsh as it may be, we have a surer foundation to
Despair, depression and death can be honored as a gift, and not just in a
superficial chirpy way that assumes they can thus be placated and avoided.
If we enter their realm with open eyes, look about us and honor the goddess
of that place, the Crone Ereshkigal, we have honored a part of the universe.
No life exists without death. No light exists without darkness. No colors
play without the abyss to show them up.
It's also true that only once we truly honor Ereshkigal can we, like Inanna,
get off the hook and return to the upper world. In the myth of Inanna's
journey, the water-god Enki, Inanna's ally, sends to Ereshkigal two small
creatures he's made from the dirt under his fingernails. They honor
Ereshkigal, mourning with her in her pain. Ereshkigal, touched, gives them a
gift in return - Inanna's corpse, which they return to life, as Enki has
instructed them. In facing the Crone, we face death, despair and destruction
and honor them, because they are part of all that is. In honoring Ereshkigal
we respect the depths of the abyss and earn our right, we hope, to return.
Hecate and the Dark Moon
Hecate is another face of the Crone, the Lady of the Crossroads and of the
In A.E. Waite's Tarot, the Moon on her card looks down, shedding tears of
light, on a landscape with two towers. Between the towers, a road winds over
hills to the foreground, where a dog and a wolf stand to the road's either
side. The road ends in water, from which a crab climbs. Waite notes in The
Pictorial Key to the Tarot that on this trump the moon traditionally is
waning - Hecate's moon.
This is Hecate's territory - the wild night, the crossroads, with her black
cloak whipping about her and her black dogs beside. She rules dogs, who howl
to greet her, and like Hell's dog-guardian Cerberus she can manifest with
three heads - lioness and mare, in her case, as well as dog. Anne Baring and
Jules Cashford note in The Myth of the Goddess that the link between dog,
dark moon, night and goddess is as old as the fourth millennium B.C. "Queen
of Night," as the poet Sappho calls her, Hecate carries two torches to light
the dark. With the traveling god Hermes, she is guardian of the crossroads,
particularly the crossroads where three roads meet.
Hecate is the Crone of a Triple Goddess. She connects with two triplicates,
both with Artemis, the huntress of the waxing crescent, and the full-moon
goddess Selene, and with the barley-mother Demeter and the maiden Kore, who
becomes Persephone. Baring and Cashford point out "The myth of loss,
searching and finding is a lunar myth, and Demeter's quest for the lost part
of herself follows the course of the moon after the full, when it wanders
across the heavens in search of its vanishing light until the darkness
seizes it completely and it is gone. The new moon that returns after three
days is then the light that the old moon has found, so the moon has been
restored to itself."
The three days of the dark moon was the time of the Thesmophoria, the
ancient autumn pig-sacrifice to Demeter from which, Baring and Cashford
assert, the Eleusinian Mysteries grew. So too, they write, did moon-timing
rule the Eleusinian Mysteries, held in the last third of the month by lunar
The Eleusinian Mysteries centered around the Demeter-Persephone myth;
Demeter was said to remeet Persephone at Eleusis. In this myth, Hecate
participates as watcher. As Robert Graves notes in The Greek Myths, she sees
Hades' rape of the Kore, and after Kore becomes Persephone Hecate watches to
make sure she stays three months yearly in Hell. In Hell, Hecate is
Persephone's favored companion.
Hecate watches and wanders. As the Moon She travels everywhere; her powers
extend to all regions. Seeing all, she knows all. She can grant wishes, can
bestow wealth and wisdom.
She is the old sly one, the witch. In her cloak she might hide riches, or at
the crossroads she might set on you her daughters the Empusae, ass-haunched
girls who wear bronze slippers, who like to frighten travelers and who in
the guise of beautiful women sleep with men to drain their vital forces.
Scylla too is Hecate's daughter, the dog-headed monster who threatened
Odysseus's ships. The Crone's smile is dark and riddling. Cry to her, and
she will protect you - unless she's made up her mind otherwise.
The skitter of leaves on pavement; the howl of dogs at the moon. Hecate is
the wildness of the night, which you cannot predict. Like Dionysos, she is
said to come from Thrace. As Artemis, she took the bloodiest sacrifices the
Greeks offered, besides those to Dionysos, up to and including human blood.
When we stand under the waning moon, we feel again the fear of being prey.
The dark eyes of our predator watch from the shadows. You can placate Her;
you can put up three-headed statues at the crossroads. Perhaps, like Hades
who is also Pluto, Riches, once she tests you she will give you wealth.
In the Crone, we must face not only the fact of death but also the fear of
night, the fear of being hunted, and the fear of magick worked against us.
Hecate, the old wise woman with white hair, sits by the fire and answers our
questions, sometimes only with silence. When the dogs howl, she smiles.
Cerridwen and the Cauldron
Cerridwen is the Welsh crone, "the bent white one." Her name shows she's a
moon-goddess. This Crone keeps the cauldron of inspiration and
transformation. What exactly is this cauldron? In Celtic myths, several
cauldrons appear, as John and Caitlin Matthews note in Encyclopaedia of
Celtic Wisdom. These include the Dagda's food-cauldron that leaves no one
unsatisfied, Diwrnach's cauldron that will not serve cowards, Cerridwen's
cauldron of knowledge and inspiration and Bran's cauldron from which
warriors are reborn - a cauldron that in Greek myth belongs to Medea, a
priestess of Hecate.
The cauldron thus combines many levels: physical sustenance, an emotional
test, intellectual knowledge and spiritual rebirth. Into the cauldron the
Crone throws many things, to mix and stew and come out changed. As the
Matthews note, the Celts, from a land of bogs, their houses built in some
places on stilts, might well have had a creation myth in which they sprang
from a cauldron.
This cauldron is a traditional accouterment of crones, and in it brews
knowledge and rebirth. Meditation on rebirth is appropriate at the last
harvest, the beginning of winter. At the time of death we most fervently
hope to be reborn.
Cerridwen, the Great Sow, is also the White Lady, ruling death as well as
inspiration. It makes sense too that she is a mistress of rebirth; through
her, Gwion Bach becomes Taliesen.
Cerridwen has three children, including the dark and ugly boy Afagddu.
Worried Afagddu can't make his way on looks, she sets a cauldron of
knowledge to brew for him for a year and a day and gets young Gwion Bach to
But toward the end of the year, three drops spurt out and fall on Gwion's
finger, burning him, and he sticks it in his mouth. Those three drops hold
all the brew's potency; the rest is poison. As soon as he sucks his finger,
Gwion foresees all and runs away.
Cerridwen sees what's happened and gives chase. Gwion changes to a hare,
Cerridwen to a greyhound; he to a fish in the river, she to an otter-bitch.
He turns to a bird, and she to a hawk stooping above him. Seeing a pile of
winnowed wheat, he transforms to a grain in the heap, but she becomes a
black hen and swallows him. Each change to a pair of totem animals in this
cycle represents a season. Nine months after Cerridwen swallows Gwion, she
bears him as a child.
He's so beautiful she can't kill him, so she sends him in a leather bag out
to sea. The heretofore luckless Elphin catches the bag in a weir while
seeking salmon. Disappointed, he takes the child home with him, naming the
boy Taliesen (radiant brow). On the ride, Taliesen consoles him with verse,
describing his provenance and Cerridwen, "a smiling black old hag, when
irritated/Dreadful her claim when pursued," as R.J. Stewart quotes in Celtic
Gods, Celtic Goddesses.
This smiling hag is the Mistress of Awen, the flowing energy of the Druids,
and Taliesen's later poems sing of her lyrically. But to receive divine
inspiration, Taliesen has to endure death and rebirth, lying nine months in
the belly of the Goddess. By her cauldron and womb he is transformed. If
Hecate is a traveler, connected with the wild night, Cerridwen for all her
moon-face is a hearth-goddess, stirring a heady brew. It's easy in the
Taliesen myth to see her as villainess, but Taliesen himself sang her
praises. As goddess of the hearth, she is both the wise grandmother stoking
the brands and the fire itself. For wisdom, for rebirth, you must feel this
fire, stew in her cauldron a while. Cerridwen beckons you through the smoke.
The Crone and Samhain
The Crone most closely connected with Samhain is the Scottish Carline wife,
the "Old Woman." On Samhain eve, Scots farmers made a Carline wife from the
last stalk of harvested wheat and displayed Her at each household in the
neighborhood to protect from evil spirits. She is the ruler of winter and
its storms, the keeper of the fires at home and in the smithy, the
protectress of the forest and its animals.
Not just the Carline but also all Crones, ruling the winter of life and
death's harbingers, are present at Samhain.
Now is the time of last harvest, when winter settles in. The vegetable life
around us dies, and we must hunker down to survive the cold. The death
around us recalls our own future deaths, and all the smaller deaths we die
beforehand - the deaths brought by depression and fear, the deaths required
for wisdom. To understand, to have compassion, we must suffer, at least in
The cardboard Crone rattles on the lintel, and in her I hail the dark goddesses. In their hands lies death, but only from death comes rebirth.