I have always said that I practice my religion exactly the way my ancestors did 50,000 years ago. I make it up as I go along. If our spiritual beliefs no longer speak to us, clearly we must change them. —Barbara Henes
What do we call this age we’ve reached through blood and toil, laughter and loving? We no longer identify as Maidens. We may still be Mothers in a different fashion. But we’re certainly not Crones!
“I’m no Crone yet, far from it,” declares Cedar Barstow, founder of the Right Use of Power Institute. “I’m out there in the world earning my living and I have much to give…My life experience and the wisdom it has brought me provide a stable and rich foundation.” Many of us emphatically relate.
Until the late 20th century, women barely made it past menopause. The Triple Goddess archetype closely reflected the stages of women’s lives. But today, at least in developed countries, women commonly live into their 80s. As author and ritual expert Donna Henes observes:
We occupy a truly unique position, poised on the brink of uncharted waters. This extended and vigorous midlife period which we are now beginning to experience is largely unaccounted for in myth and archetype for the simple reason that such longevity has never before occurred for the great masses of women as a whole.
In her book, The Queen of My Self: Stepping Into Sovereignty in Midlife, Donna suggests a four-fold archetype: Maiden-Mother-Queen-Crone. Pagan scholar Barbara Ardinger also advocates this new reading. The Four-Fold Goddess brings the archetype of women’s aging into alignment with the seasons, the cardinal directions, and the phases of the moon.
But before we go there, let’s examine the Triple Goddess, why we love her, why she worked for so long—and why it may be time for a new mythology.
Triple Goddesses Old and New
People have worshiped some form of Triple Goddess since antiquity. The best-known triad comes from the Greeks—Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate. Persephone personifies the maiden whom Hades, god of the underworld, abducted as she picked flowers in the eternal Greek summer.
Her mother Demeter, goddess of growing things, mourned and despaired. And in her despair, she neglected her duties. Winter, drought, and famine engulfed the world for the first time.
At first, Demeter didn’t know her daughter’s fate. But Hecate, goddess of the moon, heard the maiden’s scream. Hecate searched for Persephone and discovered her in the underworld, starving herself from grief and fear. With Hades’ permission, Hecate became Persephone’s attendant and go-between.
As the dark winter wore on, the people of earth began to die. They begged Zeus to intercede. Faced with the annihilation of his subjects, Zeus finally commanded Hades to release Persephone.
Hades agreed, but before departing, Persephone ate three pomegranate seeds, binding herself to the Underworld. Some say Hades tricked her, others say she acted out of compassion.
Rhea, mother of the gods (including Zeus, Hades, and Demeter) negotiated the compromise—Persephone spent half the year with Hades and the other half with Demeter.
The Greek explanation for the seasons results in a complicated triad. We have Persephone,
The myth never alludes to Hecate’s age. In most traditions, she remains a virgin, making her a fitting attendant for Persephone. And we have Rhea, the forgotten one. The wise grandmother and crone who solves the problem.
This myth, so often cited as a foundation for the maiden-mother-crone continuum, neatly unravels it. It shows women who simultaneously possess innocence and wisdom, fecundity and desolation, darkness and light.
In fact, most Goddess triads embody qualities or characteristics, not ages.
- In India: Kali (purification), Lakshmi (abundance), and Saraswati (wisdom).
Scandanavia: Urd (fate), Verdandi (necessity), and Skuld (being).
- In Ireland: Morrígan (sovereignty), Macha (fertility), and Badb (battle).
Later, the Romans equated their Triple Goddess with the moon. Servius writes:
Some argue that she is three-fold because the Moon has three forms…Some that say that Lucina is the goddess of birth, Diana of growth and Hecate of death.
We can thank Robert Graves of I, Claudius fame for interpreting the lunar triple goddess as Maiden-Mother-Crone. He fused his ideas into The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948). He saw the triple goddess as a muse to 20th-century poet struggling with brutality and war (Graves suffered from PTSD). His version:
As Goddess of the Sky she was the Moon, in her three phases of New Moon, Full Moon, and Waning Moon. …As the New Moon or Spring she was a girl; as the Full Moon or Summer she was woman; as the Old Moon or Winter she was hag.
So as a model for the stages of a woman’s life, maiden-mother-crone is a recent archetype—and it’s a powerful one. But does it work for women today?
The Queen of Me
Donna Henes and Barbara Ardinger don’t think so. Both write about a fourth stage, commencing around menopause and lasting until we declare ourselves Crones. They call it the Queen. According to Donna,
The mythic model I came to envision is recognizably like me, like us. Not yet old, but no longer young. She is a regal Queen standing in her proper place—after the Mother but before the Crone in No Woman’s Land. She plants Her flag and claims Her space in this previously uncharted midlife territory.
For women who relate to nature and the seasons, this especially offers a numinous archetype for moving through life. As Barbara Ardinger points out, the moon actually has four phases: Waxing, Full, Waning, and Dark.
Keeping our thinking symmetrical, if we see only three lunar phases, we also like to allot only three phases to a woman’s life. But these days life is a lot more complicated than that.
Their paradigm looks like this:
“When all four aspects are joined,” Donna observes, “the Goddess is complete, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And so are we.”
Another reason to embrace the Queen archetype—not one ancient fairy tale features a good queen. We need to change this for ourselves and every young girl in the world.
Ava Park, founder of the only modern-day goddess temple of its kind in the world, reminds us: “When women once again lead the world as Good Queens, life will be as it was always meant to be.”
The Multiplicity of Our Ages
Many women resonate with a life-stage between mother and crone, one that sets the stage for the life we desire in our 40s, 50s, and beyond. But some don’t like the term “Queen” and its hierarchical connotations.
Donna Henes makes it clear that The Queen as a life stage has nothing to do with dominating others. It’s about embracing our own sovereignty. And that includes calling it anything we want!
Perimenopausal women can be likened to the full-blown rose of late summer and fall, as it begins to transform itself into a bright, juicy rose hip-the part of the rose that contains the seeds from which hundreds of other potential roses can grow.
“I felt a quiet joy rising as I read this years ago…” Lesley writes, “finally a name for the time of life I was entering into and am now deeply involved with at 56-years-of. No crones or cougars for me.”
Some archetypal alternatives to Queen include:
- Medicine Woman
- All of the above
My favorite comes from Clarissa Pinkola Estés Women Who Run with the Wolves. Dr. Estés calls her the ageless “Wild Woman.” She spirals into existence when a woman casts off the status quo. For many of us, this happens in that liminal phase that starts with perimenopause.
When women hear those words, an old, old memory is stirred and brought back to life. The memory is of our absolute, undeniable, and irrevocable kinship with the wild feminine, a relationship which may have become ghosty from neglect, buried by over-domestication, outlawed by the surrounding culture, or no longer understood anymore. We may have forgotten her names, we may not answer when she calls ours, but in our bones we know her, we yearn toward her; we know she belongs to us and we to her.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Another reason to fully embrace this stage of our life, whatever we choose to call it—our numbers will increase as we age. According to U.S. census figures, for every 100 women aged 65-74, we find only 86 men. That number drops to 72 men ten years later.
If we’re fortunate to reach 85 and older, we’ll outnumber men 2 to 1. We find similar statistics in most developing countries. As one demographic study puts it, “Designing for an aging population means designing for a gender imbalance of older females.” It’s an astonishing realization.
Now is the time to choose our own adventure and fully embrace our sovereignty, to claim it and name it. And use that mythic, mystic, archetypal energy to bring about the change we want to be—and see—in the world.
* * *
To illustrate the multiplicity of our ages, I’ve featured the beautiful images from Joanna Powell Colbert’s Gaian Tarot, which we’ll explore in depth at February’s New Moon.
Celebrate your gypsy soul and be the first to know when new stories appear.
In This IssueWinter 2017
* Embracing Our Sovereignty (Now!)
Exploring the Gaian Tarot (Coming Soon)
Frida Kahlo: Fashion as the Art of Being (Coming Soon)
Oscar Wilde vs. the Corset (Coming Soon)
Reclaiming the Sanctity of Money (Coming Soon)
The Goddess Behind Santa's Reindeer (Coming Soon)
The Road to Brigid's Forge (Coming Soon)
Myth & Fairy Tale
Honoring the 25th Anniversary of Women Who Run with the Wolves (Coming Soon)