To be called a crone isn’t a compliment. Etymologically, the word derives from one meaning insult, which, in turn, derives from another word implying annoying woman or, literally, carrion.
It shouldn’t be surprising, given the patriarchy and all, that old women in fairy tales and myths are lumped into one inglorious category: suspicious fringe dwellers (further sub-divided into widows and spinsters—either can be witches).
In a different world, crones would take their rightful place as leaders, spiritual guides, healers, teachers, comforters, judges, and punishers. Old men, too, can be these things, but women, including those who don’t bear children, have a deeper connection to the processes of life and a tendency to live far longer, accumulating wisdom and experience along the way. An old woman is a living cauldron of knowledge and notions; her words and deeds should be the nutrition we crave, the correction we respect.
Crones in fairy tales are not as common as one might think. I’m ruling out Cinderella’s fairy godmother as an example. In older variants of this tale, the spirit who comes to the girl’s aid is actually the ghost of her dead mother; in other cases it is a fish or a spirit animal. The wicked stepmothers in “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and others, are of child-bearing age, young enough to catch a widower’s eye.
The real crones are far more interesting:
Baba Yaga, that mysterious denizen of the east European woodlands, the powerful old woman capable of tender mercy one moment, absolute destruction the next.
Unlike other villains, who may be defeated once, never to be heard from again, Baba Yaga is not permanently conquerable, for Baba Yaga is far more than just another witch. In such stories, typically, the protagonists fall into Baba Yaga’s hands by breaking some rule of the forest, or abusing her hospitality, and are assisted or advised by woodland creatures whom they have met and befriended along the way. Vladimir Propp compared Baba Yaga’s role as mistress of the forest and its denizens to a parallel figure from the Indic Rig Veda: it is likely that Baba Yaga is a amalgam of numerous archetypes, incorporating elements of rulers of the forest and underworld mistresses in a single entity. Scholars of Slavic mythology have also linked her to the ancient Indo-European goddess of death.1
The witch in “Hansel and Gretel” who lures the children with the promise of fun food in order to consume their flesh.
“Now we’ll set to,” said Hansel, “and have a regular blow-out. I’ll eat a bit of the roof, and you, Gretel, can eat some of the window, which you’ll find a sweet morsel.” Hansel stretched up his hand and broke off a little bit of the roof to see what it was like, and Gretel went to the casement and began to nibble at it. Thereupon a shrill voice called out from the room.2
The sea witch in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
The witch’s house lay behind the swamp in the middle of a strange forest. All the trees and bushes were sea polyps, half animal and half plant. They looked like hundred-headed serpents growing out of the ground. Their branches looked like long slimy arms, with fingers like slithering worms. Joint by joint from the root up to the very tip, they were constantly on the move, and they wound themselves tight around anything they could grab hold of from the sea, and then they would not let go.3
Yama Uba, the mountain crone.
Literally, “yamauba” means an old woman who lives in the mountains, an appellation indicating a creature living on the periphery of society. Medieval Japanese literature equates the yamauba to a female oni (ogre/demon), sometimes devouring human beings who unwittingly cross her path. She is, however, not entirely negative or harmful. She is also credited with nurturing aspects, though these attributes are not always at the forefront of her character.4
The woman at the well in “Diamonds and Toads” who dispenses reward or punishment, as deserved.
“You are so very pretty, my dear, so good and so mannerly, that I cannot help giving you a gift.” For this was a fairy, who had taken the form of a poor country woman, to see how far the civility and good manners of this pretty girl would go. “I will give you for a gift,” continued the Fairy, “that, at every word you speak, there shall come out of your mouth either a flower or a jewel.”5
According to Marina Warner in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers,
The word ‘fairy’ in the Romance languages indicates a meaning of the wonder or fairy tale, for it goes back to a Latin feminine word, fata, a rare variant of fatum (fate) which refers to a goddess of destiny. The fairies resemble goddesses of this kind, for they too know the course of fate.6
First Nations of the southwest United States tell of Spider Grandmother, an Earth goddess who taught them spinning and weaving, and many other things.
Born in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, Grandmother Spider resides at Spider Rock, one of Earth’s holiest spots. . . As a model of duality the gracious teacher is both a gobbler of misbehaving children and the motherly provider of survival skills—fire making and pottery, weapons and hunting, herbalism and healing, raising of crops, reverencing of ancestors and Mother Earth, and etching of pictographs on stone walls.7
If maiden is waxing, and middle-aged woman is in the fullness of life, crone is the dark moon. Reviled, persecuted, ridiculed, she remains with us, at least in spirit, through fairy and folk tales. She is patient, if not always kind. Her time is not yet past, nor will it ever be, for she is the architect of civilizations, the creator of worlds.
First Image Credit: By Wikilmages at Pixabay.com
Second Image credit: By Pezibear at Pixabay.com
- Pilinovsky, Helen. “Russian Fairy Tales: Baba Yaga’s Domain,” accessed on November 18, 2018, https://endicottstudio.typepad.com/articleslist/baba-yagas-domain-by-helen-pilinovsky.html
- “Hansel and Gretel,” annotated by Heidi Anne Heiner, accessed on November 18, 2018, http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/hanselgretel/index.html
- Andersen, Hans Christian. Edited by Maria Tatar. The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc: New York, 2008), 141.
- Reider, Noriko T. “Yamauba: Representation of the Japanese Mountain Witch in the Muromachi and Edo Periods,” accessed on November 18, 2018, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-journal-of-asian-studies/article/yamauba-representation-of-the-japanese-mountain-witch-in-the-muromachi-and-edo-periods/168B8136161FC452F0AF0E79F2EB5BFC
- “Diamonds and Toads,” annotated by Heidi Anne Heiner, accessed on November 18, 2018, http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/diamondstoads/index.html
- Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (Random House: London, 1995), 14-15
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature, Second Edition (Infobase Learning, New York)