A crone's progress
When Allegra Taylor became a grandmother she packed her bags
and set off on a journey round the world in search of wisdom.
Hidden from view in an overgrown field on the edge of the magically-named little town of Stepaside in Wales was the Mother Nature camp – a collection of tepees and straw-roofed huts dotted about in the long grass – where I had come to learn about ‘magic in the European tradition’ from Anna, a gentle English witch. I knew practically nothing about magic and had no idea what to expect. But if there were a continuing tradition of European magic, a search for wisdom should surely include an acquaintance with it.
By one of those remarkable synchronisms that seem no accident I first became a grandmother on 31 October, All Hallow’s Eve, the holy day of Hecate, the Goddess of the Underworld, the Mother of Witches, the Crone. Hecate is the archetype of the wise old woman, the Hag who knows how to work magic and commune with spirits. She symbolizes the courageous one who journeys in the darker realms of the psyche. She is the traveller seeking transformation. She stands at a crossroads symbolizing a time of decision and renewal.
I too was on a quest. I had decided to go on a journey to search for the wise, courageous old woman I want to become. It would be a quest in many parts of the world for the crone in her many guises. I wanted to discover her, reclaim her, invent her, celebrate her.
Both my grandmothers died before I was born. Now I was a grandmother myself. Who would be my role models in our youth-worshipping culture? Joan Collins? Barbara Cartland? I was on a quest for an alternative.
So here I was with three other apprentice witches sitting round the fire eating a vegetarian stew. We droned some tuneless chants and banged on some drums. It was cold and damp and the smoke from the fire got in everyone’s eyes. I smelt like a kipper. It rained heavily all that first night and water splashed through the open smoke flaps of my tepee onto the stone hearth. The ground was hard and I was cold. I felt middle-aged and cranky and irritable. Is this what I really wanted to be doing?
In the morning we were meant to split our kindling with an axe, light it with newspaper and blow on the embers. I was totally useless and knew the primal feeling of despair and panic that comes from fearing you will never be warm and dry again. I was nearly in tears.
Then what triumph! What pride and smugness when eventually a little plume of smoke arose from my tepee and the big iron kettle was steaming on the grate. I made myself a bowl of exquisite porridge and a pot of tea. It was the first lesson in focusing on the here and now.
I felt decidedly unenthusiastic, however, about going out in the rain on a ‘pathwalking meditation’ to illustrate the theory that there is an analogy to be made between the pathways we walk in the world and the pathways in our nervous systems. But once I’d put on my boots and started wandering about in the wild wet Welsh countryside it suddenly began to seem more profound and symbolic.
I became aware how much I depend on the pathways other people have already made, of how hard it is for me to go into dense woods when I’m not sure of the way through, of how frightened I am of becoming lost. But then I thought about how important ancient paths are for knowledge, communication, survival. How exciting to cut a brand new trail of my own where perhaps no one had ever been before. Danger may lurk off the beaten track but also adventure and discovery.
The metaphors came thick and fast. After hacking through some impenetrable boggy area, what a relief to come upon a recognizable path. How easy to blast your way insensitively rather than to go gently with care and consideration. The paths we create in our minds, ways of thinking, are indeed like the external pathways of the world. Circuitous routes are often better than straight ones, especially uphill. Different perspectives are visible from different paths...
Anna, the witch, had made her point: that metaphors and personal experience have always been the most effective means of teaching the pathways of knowledge and that apprenticeship to the mysteries of ancient wisdom begins with putting your feet on the path. Some of the places you go will be very old tracks laid down since the ‘dreamtime’, others will be your own. All are valid. At the end of the day I felt my senses were sharper and my awareness keener than before. I also felt humbler and more receptive.
There’s something about modern life that makes you think you can learn everything quickly, greedily – get a video, have a briefing, hire an expert – but taking time to do things slowly alters your perceptions and creates the possibility for the unexpected to slip in between your heartbeats.
Magic is not about power over other people, it is about calling forth your own power from within. It is about being an instrument in the divine orchestra. The reason old people are good at it is that it takes a long time to learn – many seasons of observation, many life experiences to make the connections. We cannot cause change without changing ourselves. We become the power that we call forth.
All of us have this ability and demons are nothing but our fears. They can be conquered by naming them.
Thus began my adventure. It was a good place to start. Anna had reminded me of the value of patience, receptivity, trust and surrender. I blew all my publisher’s advance on a round-the-world ticket and waved goodbye to my family.
Leaving home turned out to be so much harder than I thought it would be. My whole centre of gravity was altered. Everything was turned inside out. I was consciously trying to let go of what felt safe, comfortable and sure in order to allow new possibilities to unfold.
I was away for five months, travelling on a shoestring, and many times felt homesick and scared but as time went by and I named my demons I became less lonely and more at ease with my own company.
Everywhere I went I talked to older women in different cultural contexts asking what was good and what was bad about growing old. I met women of the ‘Third World’, women of the ‘New Age’. I met ordinary women and rare ones, artists and prophets, housewives and mystics, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. I listened to their stories and told mine, sharing the pains and the pleasures of ageing, exchanging views and life experiences. I stayed with an Apache cattle rancher in Arizona, a Kumina priestess in Jamaica, a village midwife in India and an Aboriginal great-grandmother in the Western Desert of Australia. I tracked down an elderly cousin of my father’s – a holocaust survivor – in Israel. I met an inspiring Tibetan holy woman. And towards the end of my odyssey, I found myself in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific...
Rarotonga is the archetypal fantasy island. The stuff of dreams. In the centre, the razorback emerald mountains covered in dense jungle, all around the edge the washing-powder white surf breaking on the coral reef. I believe that somewhere in the collective unconscious, the illusion of an oceanic Eden, an island paradise, a garden of abundance and innocence shimmers like something once known and still remembered. As I looked out toward the horizon, the sensation of recognition was very haunting. It flickered like a fish beneath the surface of my mind and felt like this once was home. Maybe the ancient Homeric legends of heroes and goddesses and ocean voyages are common to all of us.
I stayed with Dorice, an hereditary chief of the Cook Islands. Polynesian society is matrilineal and famous for its strong women. Of all the places I went to on my travels this was the one I least wanted to leave and the person I came closest to was Dorice’s adopted mother, Paddy. We swam together most days and some of our loveliest conversations took place floating on our backs side-by-side in the lagoon where it seemed easier, somehow, to exchange the confidences and intimacies of two grandmothers trying to come to terms with ageing.
Paddy is a beautiful woman with golden skin and hair the colour of moonlight. It is hard to believe she has a son in his fifties.
Paddy is the epitome of a Pacific woman. Born and raised in Samoa of a Samoan mother and a New Zealand father, she is the product of the coming-together of two cultures. She brought up her family in New Zealand and came to Rarotonga to live after her husband died six years ago. We wrestled with the questions: How can older women best find a role for themselves? How can they give expression to the power, the knowledge and the wisdom of a lifetime?
Older Polynesian women, said Paddy, have always been treated with a great deal of respect so this is as good a place as you could find to grow old in. ‘The pluses of ageing are the increased courage to be yourself. You don’t have to be what other people want you to be. You don’t have to conform. You can develop the courage to stand alone. What do you have to lose? Also, being here, close to nature, my relationship with “the mystery”, with “the creator”, has become more profound. I’ve learned to be still, to be meditative. I have an increasingly strong sense of the power of the universe and that we are conduits for that power when we open ourselves.’
But it is also a time of life not without pain. ‘I am still frightened at night. I feel very vulnerable, particularly when we have storms and the wind howls and the sea comes surging up. I am far from my children. I miss my grandchildren and I don’t have a man in my life. The truth is that the loss of sex, of touch, of tenderness is a great sadness and, yes, I miss it, although Pacific island people hug and kiss each other quite naturally so perhaps it is less acute here than in some other parts of the world.’
In my own quest on this journey I constantly asked myself: ‘What sort of old woman do I want to be?’ I asked Paddy the same question. ‘I value the sense my mother gave me of my Samoan-ness’, she said. ‘I have a concept of “bigness” that I would like to achieve; big as opposed to petty; generous of heart. You have to be very careful when you are older not to be judgemental. The simplicity and tranquillity of my life here gives me a sense of harmony and connectedness. Being connected both forwards and backwards in time, both up and down to heaven and earth, and heart-to-heart to all other beings. As I see it, this is the only way to avoid the fear of ageing. If you’re growing outwards there’s no room for fear because you’re expanding into whatever comes next, you’re welcoming the change rather than trying to hang onto the past.’
On my last morning in Rarotonga I did my t’ai-chi as usual at the edge of the lagoon and a heron came to keep me company. He stood in the surf a few feet away and watched until the very end; then he lifted off on his huge wings and flapped away into the rising sun.
Allegra Taylor is the author of many books, including Older than Time (Aquarian Press 1993), about the journey described in this piece.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995