Perhaps one of the most fascinating of all crones is Cailleach Bheur, the “divine hag” and possibly an ancestral deity or deified ancestor. Throughout Scotland and Ireland she is considered the oldest of the old. Not much has ever been written about her. Folklore of Cailleach (kay-lick) is found through oral tradition and place names across the countryside. She is also known for playing tricks on the unsuspecting. Hiring young men to do work for her, hunched over and frail looking, she tells the workers she will only pay them if they can outlast her in moving rocks. It was rare indeed for Cailleach to ever have to pay her workers.
One way we can pay homage to Cailleach is to observe the changing landscape. While the trees become bare and the grass fades to straw during winter’s long stretch, take a moment to reflect on the spirit of rock, tree and hill. They all have a story and maybe long ago, had an old woman’s name.
The crone today is mostly pictured like Cailleach, an old woman with supernatural powers. Pop culture has maintained this character from folklore and fairy tales since historic times. The core aspect of the crone’s role in society and her power, however, can date back to the prehistoric.
The crone of ancient times was a revered figure. Excavated funereal sites in Eastern Europe (c 8,000 BCE) show many instances where the matriarch of the household was buried beneath the threshold of the front door. Scholars believe this would ensure the deceased’s continued protection of the home. (Gimbutas)
Mature women up through the Middle Ages had significant roles as caretakers of their entire community. Having survived childbirth themselves, they had the luxury of time and knowledge, of what plants worked best and the experience of watching patterns in nature. With the advent of the new church fathers in Europe who proclaimed that only through prayer and God’s grace could people be cured of their ailments, women’s contributions became increasingly marginalized, as was their involvement with helping women determine the number of children they would bear and raise. Limiting childbirth also conflicted with the teachings of the church in that families were encouraged to be as large as possible (Mor).
How did she get so frightening when her origins as caretaker, midwife, and healer of her community were intended to produce only healthy outcomes?
As societies grew in population, the role of the crone became more and more marginalized. Europe, for example, created a social stratum that included a legal and medical system and excluded the valuable contributions of the older women of the community. As this reassignment advanced, the truths behind the once-revered caretaker of the village began to fade into the realm of folklore and legend, and the fear of what the crone represented grew. As a result we now have a culture weighted by our obsession with youth and a debilitating fear of aging. (Daly)
In our culture there has been very little visual imagery demonstrating the power of the aging female, for she is no longer able to fulfill her role as baby-maker and she still retains a wisp of a threat from an older pagan religion which contrasts with the newer Christian religion’s objectives.
The Crones Counsel hosts conferences and other organized forums to help older women’s voices be heard, their stories be known. Such groups are intended to reclaim the crone archetype and “promote equality, encourage diversity, support personal empowerment, honor the value to society of older women’s wisdom and accomplishments.”
Likewise, an emerging movement world-wide called Crone Consciousness is helping women over the age of fifty reclaim the dignity, support, and reverence that the crone has earned in society. Crone Consciousness is shaping the beliefs about how women age, how beauty resonates in wrinkles, and how power is not limited to only a small sliver of the populace.
Here are some websites to jumpstart your crone journey: