She's a woman of “a certain age.” Our culture thinks those words are better than saying “she’s old.” Well, I am a woman of a certain age. I am certain of who I am, certain of what I want, and certain of what I have to offer. I’m 72 and I’m a crone. I claimed that title in a ritual called croning.
Last month, I spoke to the Women’s Mystical Collective in Austin, Texas — via Zoom. One of the organizers, K, had found my website and podcast through an Internet search. She asked if I would speak to the group about rituals.
It wasn’t until the night of my presentation that I learned that K’s Internet search was born of personal frustration. She was looking for a ritual that honored one of the most dramatic changes in a woman’s life. Because of posts I had written about the triple Goddess known as Maiden, Mother, Crone, Google directed her to me.
In the course of a lifetime, humans undergo various rites of passage. Some are dictated by culture or religion. Among them, a bar or bat mitzvah, a quinceanera, a confirmation. Some rites of passage are universal, such as a wedding or the birth of a child. Each of those events involves at least one other person. In most cases, all of the events involve giving gifts. The giving of gifts is one of the ways society recognizes the significance of these events.
A croning ritual is different.
For one thing, a woman can perform her own croning ritual, all by herself. Still, as with any rite of passage, it’s good to have family and friends witness the transformation.
In his book, Deeply Into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage author Ronald L. Grimes talks about the three phases of a rite of passage: separation, transformation, incorporation. Put another way, a person undergoing a rite of passage leaves, changes, and returns. The process is more significant than we might realize. Because once the transformation has happened, the person is no longer who she was before. There is no going back.
In a wedding, the three phases of a rite of passage are easily identified. The bride walks down the aisle, usually with her father. Her actions symbolize that she is separating from her family of birth. The groom is waiting in the ceremony space, with his groomsmen. He, too, is separating from his family of birth. It doesn’t matter that this couple has been living together for any number of years. There’s a lot more at stake now. A wedding is legally binding.
The bride and groom exchange vows. The officiant pronounces them married. They become a legally recognized couple. When they leave the ceremony space, the applause and happy tears of the guests confirm the couple’s transformation and acknowledge their new standing in the community.
By contrast, a woman becomes a crone when she decides to claim the title. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? A woman might say, “I’ve never thought about it. Sure, I’m old. I’m a crone.” But, when becoming a crone is approached as a rite of passage, there’s a lot more to it. Let me tell you a story.
A Group Ceremony
Once upon a time, almost twenty years ago, I was one of several hundred women attending the week-long summer conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild. One of the attendees said she would perform a group ceremony, open to anyone who wanted to declare herself a crone. She asked me to assist.
On the designated afternoon, a handful of women came to a grassy area under the trees. Some walked barefoot and wore flowy caftans and flowers in their hair, even as they carried canes. Some came in shorts and sandals. Shawls were everywhere, as were necklaces of raw stones, leather knots, and Bohemian beads.
Dozens of other women, most of them younger, gathered around to witness the transformation. Like many of them, I wondered when I, too, would be ready. I was in my 50s back then. I thought of a crone as an old woman. And yet, surely, becoming a crone meant more than passing a milestone birthday — 60, 65, 70. What was the right number? Who would decide?
How would I know when I was a crone? Would I stop getting manicures? What would my hands look like with bare nails? Would I give up my high heels for Berkenstocks? What about my hair? What did it look like without my signature red-gold mane? Did I really want to know?
That croning ceremony that afternoon under the trees involved anointing the initiates with earth, air, fire and water, chanting a group prayer in the form of call-and-response, and welcoming each initiate’s “I am a crone” declaration. As a ceremony, it was lively. As a rite of passage, something was missing.
The first stage, separation, was missing. There was no acknowledgement of an identity being left behind, no equivalent of the bride walking down the aisle, leaving her family for an unknown future.
The second stage, transformation, was evident when each woman declared out loud, “I am a crone.” But the process of transformation was one-sided. Four of us anointed the crones with the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The woman who organized the ceremony read a poem and led a call-and-response chant. The crones themselves did not initiate anything. They responded. To me, croning celebrates independence.
The third stage, incorporation, was evident when, near the end of the ceremony, right after each woman claimed the title of crone, all the rest of us cheered and applauded. Our purpose was to witness and affirm. We accepted that these women were different now, each wiser in her own way, because they said they were.
Risk and Danger
Risk and danger are part of a rite of passage. We see them in the acts of separating and of being transformed. When a girl gets her first bra, there’s an element of danger, of risk. Does she look weird? Will boys be able to tell she’s wearing “it”? When she experiences her first moon, does the flow of blood stain her clothes? Do the accompanying hormones stain her cheeks? Does she want to hide? Or do her thoughts turn to makeup and boys? In her home, does the arrival of her first moon bring celebration? Or shame?
Risk and danger are no stranger to the crone, either. For her, the danger of aging is to be devalued, marginalized, ignored. The assumption is that her voice will go silent and she will fade into the shadows.
What happens when she speaks up? Will anyone listen? Maybe, but there are no guarantees. She might be seen as a woman who’s bossy because she’s not afraid to take charge. She might be seen as a woman with a sharp tongue because she’s not afraid to speak up. She might be seen as selfish because she’s taking care of herself first.
When a woman accepts the name crone, she picks up a torch. The path she lights is her own. She’s ready to live the truth of who she is. Those who are uncomfortable around a powerful crone will leave. Their loss.
In Sickness and in Health
Since that croning ceremony under the trees, a lot of years have passed. I’m in my 70s now. My hair is white. I wear Berkenstocks, sometimes with socks.
Other things have changed, too. Somewhere along the line, I stopped focusing on the weight and the wrinkles. My perspective shifted to good health. The death of family and friends has a way of putting priorities in order.
I can’t point to an exact moment when it happened, but I can say that my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in May of 2016, the beginning of a very busy wedding season. Sometime over the next few months of guiding couples through a transformation that required vows of in sickness and health, in good times and bad, as long as you both shall live ... sometime during those months, I felt a deep need, an obsession, to know my authentic self.
Of course, all along I thought I did know myself. As it turned out, the self I knew was the one who planned to grow old with the man I love, the man who wrote contest jingles and love poems. We would continue our routine of going out for a casual lunch on Wednesdays and a nice dinner on Saturdays. We would explore hiking trails for him and bookstores for me. We would share all the household chores.
We would keep celebrating New Year’s Day the same way we always had. We’d go out to breakfast then come home and set financial goals for the coming year. It’s not that we had insurmountable debt or a fortune that needed oversight. He was always the main breadwinner, good at managing money, disciplined at saving money. I fell short on all counts. But we both liked to create goals for the year, make plans, and work together.
In a strong marriage, the joy of anticipating the future cannot be measured on a spreadsheet. The joy is born in a shared vision, grown with action, deepened with sacrifice. And when the goal is achieved, the joy is celebrated with pride in each other.
The Alzheimer’s diagnosis changed everything. Not right away, of course. But, over the next four years, we each separated from the script we had written about how we would live out our “golden years.” We entered a transformation phase. We’re still in the thick of it. And, as with all transformations that are part of a rite of passage, there’s no going back. He will never again be my healthy husband. I will never again be his dependent wife.
I make all the plans now, all the decisions, everything from what’s for dinner, to how to make our home accessible, to managing our finances. Yep. I’m figuring it out.
It’s only been in the last six months or so that I’ve accepted the reality of Alzheimer’s. Anticipation now brings no joy.
Recognizing the changes in him, in me, in our marriage, accepting the changes, and still moving forward — that’s part of what being a crone is about.
In her book, Crones Don’t Whine: Concentrated Wisdom for Juicy Women, author Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen talks about the crone years as a time when women “have more chances, experience shifts in roles, and develop talents and interests.” She writes that for some women, it’s a time to make a difference in the world.
Bolen identifies 13 crone qualities. The book’s title came from the first quality: Crones don’t whine. The catchy words aren’t just about foisting a list of aches and pains on whoever will listen. Saying “Crones don’t whine” belies the hard truth that at this time of life some dreams have to be abandoned. We need to accept the life we have, deal with it, and move on. Gratitude for what we do have helps a lot.
Bolen talks about being creative, about nurturing something. Other crone qualities are born from a sense of independence, such as trusting your own intuition, listening to your body, speaking the truth, about not groveling — spending energy in an effort to please someone else. I read her book like a daily meditation.
It’s true that age brings its own brand of aches and pains. Bolen, a medical doctor herself, prescribes laughter, especially with friends. As a woman ages, and especially when she becomes a crone, her girlfriends are key. Whether these women have biological children and grandchildren or not, they may well have the wisdom found in a Council of Grandmothers.
I have a growing collection of tarot and oracle cards. Among them is an oracle deck called “Grandmothers” by Megan Garcia. There are 52 cards. On the front of each one is a photo of a spirit doll, a grandmother, that Garcia made. Some are fashioned with clay, fur, feathers, leather, bark, shells, twigs, horn, bone. There’s Coyote Woman, White Wolf Woman, Comforting Woman, Bear Mother, and many more.
On the back of each card is a message from that particular Grandmother. According to Megan Garcia, the messages are based on ancient wisdom.
This article has been challenging to write. Halfway through organizing my thoughts, I stopped and looked at my notes. I was writing about things that are deeply personal. Were they too personal? I asked the Grandmothers for guidance and drew three cards.
- The first one: Autumn. She’s the South-West Grandmother from the Lodge of Directions. She was born at the Autumnal Equinox, a time I’ve always associated with the need to tell stories of courage in order to face the hungry Wolf Moon that comes in Winter. As an oracle card, the Grandmother Autumn’s message is one of love and understanding when making difficult choices about what to keep, what to let go.
- The second card: The Artisan. She’s the Grandmother from the Clan Elders. She’s about the need to create when our hearts are full. Her message is that the act of creating teaches us what we need to know. She wears a necklace of bones. When I first noticed the necklace, I realized she had made something beautiful from something that had died.
- The final card: Dancing Fire. She is the Grandmother from the Woman’s Lodge. She is surprised to have been invited to join the lodge. Compared to other Grandmothers in the Woman’s Lodge, she is younger, more spontaneous, has more energy, more ideas. Her message is about how important it is to enjoy the surprise and creativity offered in the journey, wherever that journey takes you.
For six years, I drove three hours from Connecticut to the woods of New Hampshire at least once, often twice, a month to study astrology, Goddess spirituality, and rituals based on the seasons and phases of the moon.
One of the themes we often explored was that of the triple goddess, the divine feminine in her roles as maiden, mother, and crone. The maiden’s role is to attract. Her color is white. The mother’s role is to nurture. Her color is red. The crone’s role is to share her wisdom and set things free. Her color is black.
One of the women I met in New Hampshire was a potter. She made two identical jars for me. Each is about three inches high, black, with red and white glaze spilling from the top. The opening of the jar is wide, fitted with a cork. I have a picture of it on my website, MoonRiverRituals.com
I tell you about Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book, Megan Garcia’s grandmother cards, and my friend’s pottery jars because they inspired the croning ritual I created.
An Overview of the Croning Ritual
A croning ritual can never be like a surprise birthday party or a married-at-first-sight reality tv show. When a woman decides to claim the title of crone, she needs to prepare herself. Doing so could take a few days. It could take a full year, or longer.
If you’re in the preparation stage, your decision might have come from your age, or from the image you see in the mirror, or from the aches and pains you carry in your body.
You might be motivated by the sorrows that scarred your heart, the wisdom you've gained over decades, or the undeniable urge for authenticity.
You have big questions to answer:
- As a Crone, what do I want to do with my resources of time, money, energy, creativity?
- What do I still want to learn?
- How, and with whom, do I want to live whatever time I have left on this Earth?
- What truth still ties my tongue?
You may not be ready for a croning ritual but you might have a friend or family member who is — or so you think. Set your good intentions aside. You cannot determine when another woman is ready any more than you can eat for her or sleep for her.
The croning ritual I created requires a container that can be closed. Look for a container that has a round feeling. It symbolizes the womb, empty of menstrual blood, ready to be filled with wisdom. The pottery jar I mentioned earlier works well for a woman who wants to do the ritual by herself. For a croning witnessed by a group of family and friends, you can paint a Mason jar. Or use a drawstring bag. I’m working on Croning ritual bags right now. Next week, you can see them on my Etsy shop (MoonRiverRituals). You can always make your own bag. Add an image of an animal associated with wisdom: an owl, a snake, a spider.
You need a container because this Croning ritual includes gifts, though not the usual kind. These gifts are qualities that friends see in the new crone. Qualities include generosity, passion, loyalty, courage, creativity, wisdom, and many more The gifts–the qualities–can be written on small stones or pieces of paper. They can be embroidered on pieces of cloth. Whatever form, they will be placed inside the container. So if a lot of people plan to attend the ceremony, the crone will need a sizable container.
Unlike other gift-giving celebrations (birthdays, weddings, holidays), the gifts in this ritual are not given. They are presented. It is up to the new crone to decide if the quality is one she accepts for herself. No one knows better than she does if the quality of generosity, passion, loyalty, etc., lives in her heart.
If you are attending a croning, the quality you offer may not be one the new crone accepts. A crone doesn’t flatter herself. She knows who she is and that she is enough.
The new crone may recognize a quality in herself that has not been presented by anyone else in attendance. No problem. She will write the quality on a stone or paper and place it in her container. A crone doesn’t deny the qualities she possesses. She claims them.
When a woman becomes a crone, she is acknowledging that one day, in the however-distant future, she will be known as an ancestor. Generations from now, her descendants might tell stories about how she ran marathons, volunteered in a soup kitchen, wrote music, illustrated children’s books, took in foster children, worked on the team that sent astronauts to Jupiter, was elected president, loved animals, had a podcast. The qualities a crone possesses create her legacy. Acknowledging them in a ritual is powerful.
The Ritual: Separation
Before coming to the ritual, the soon-to-be-crone needs to prepare herself. If that’s you, the week before the ritual, take several walks. Go by yourself. Turn off your cell phone or anything else electronic. Spend at least thirty minutes each time, longer if you can.
As you walk, think about your life in decades. Just at the broad, brushstrokes of your life. Look for risks and adventures; promises made, kept, and broken; loyalty and betrayal; things learned and taught; relationships that filled your heart, relationships that broke it; friends who came and went; friends who are still there.
The purpose of this step is for you to see how you’ve grown wiser over the years. Write about it in your journal. Don’t keep a journal? Start now if only for the duration of your croning experience. Never underestimate the power of self-discovery!
Make a sacrifice. Donate to charity something that symbolizes who you are. For me, that would be books. The purpose of this step is to realize we don’t need as much as we think we do, that our true identity isn’t defined by our things. Take a picture of your sacrifice. Write about it.
Two days before the ritual, eat something white: vanilla ice cream, yogurt covered raisins, rice, coconut, potatoes, parsnips. Wear white. Remind yourself that you were once, and in some sense still are, the Maiden. Take a picture. Write.
The day before the ritual, eat something red: salmon, beets, cherries, apples, peppers, strawberries. Wear red. Remind yourself that you were once, and in some sense still are the Mother. Again, take a picture. Write.
The day of the ritual, eat something that improves with age: cheeses like cheddar and gouda, whiskey and brandy. Wear black and a little something red, and a little something white. Think earrings, a bracelet, a scarf, socks. Take a ritual bath.
Buy yourself some flowers. Place them where you’ll see them as soon as you come home from the ritual. Take a picture.
Be mindful of your preparation. Take the photos. Write in your journal. A year from now, five years from now, you’ll want to remember all the details and they will have faded. When the day comes that you aren’t here, some young woman in your family may treasure those details as she explores what it means to be the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.
The Ritual: Transformation
At the site of the ritual, the guests sit in a circle. Begin the ritual by having three predetermined girls or women represent the Maiden. Using brooms tied with white ribbons, they walk clockwise, silently sweeping the air of negativity.
Three predetermined women represent the Mother. Using brooms tied with red ribbons, they walk clockwise, silently sweeping the air of negativity.
Three predetermined women represent the Crone. These women should be family or close friends of the new Crone. Using brooms tied with black ribbons, they walk clockwise, silently sweeping the air of negativity.
Four other predetermined women stand outside the circle of chairs, marking four corners of the room. Use a compass to determine north, south, east, and west Each woman holds a pillar candle. For safety’s sake, battery operated candles are fine.
Beginning with the woman in the east, invite the energy of the associated direction and element. With each invitation, light the candle.
The language of the invitation should be short and simple. For example:
- Spirits of the East, Powers of Air, join us. Clear our thoughts. A Crone is born tonight.
- Spirits of the South, Powers of Fire, join us. Light our path. A Crone is born tonight.
- Spirits of the West, Powers of Water, join us. Wash away our pain. A Crone is born tonight.
- Spirits of the North, Powers of Earth, join us. Assemble the Ancestors! A Crone is born tonight.
Place the candles on nearby tables.
Each guest holds in front of herself the stone or piece of paper that shows the quality she sees in the new crone.
The crone walks around the room, in whatever order she wishes. A girl or young woman who personifies the energy of the Maiden walks with the crone and holds a large basket.
The crone looks at each quality being offered and decides whether or not she possesses that quality. This is no time for false humility. If the crone accepts the gift, she places it in the basket the maiden is holding.
When the crone has claimed the qualities that feel authentic to her, she sits in a prominently placed chair that has been decorated for her. The maiden stays with her. In addition to the large basket with the qualities the crone has accepted, the maiden has a smaller basket nearby.
Depending on how many guests are present, the crone might not claim all the qualities presented to her. Each person holding an unclaimed quality approaches the crone and explains why she thinks that particular quality is reflected in the crone. Imagine listening as a guest tells you why she thinks you are patient, or artistic, or fierce. This part of the ritual can be surprising and deeply gratifying.
If the crone can see herself through the eyes of the guest, the crone accepts the gift and places it in the basket.
If the crone cannot see herself possessing the quality offered, the guest places the gift in the small basket.
The Ritual: Incorporation
At this point, the crone has made a decision about each of the qualities offered to her. She begins the incorporation phase by thanking her mentors. They may be living or dead. They may be historical figures. The purpose here is for the crone to acknowledge that she did not get to this point in her life alone.
Now the crone takes each quality, one at a time, from the large basket. Before placing the quality in her own container, she says aloud, “I claim [insert the quality]. I am a crone.”
When the crone is finished, the guests all raise a glass of wine, or other beverage, and toast the new crone.
It’s always a good idea to have food available to ground the energy after such a ritual.
About those unclaimed qualities… Before the night is over, the crone might change her mind and claim them. That’s her right. If she does not, the maiden is to keep the gifts for inspiration.
As I mentioned earlier, a croning ritual is something a woman can do on her own. If that’s your choice, the preparation steps of separation are the same.
In the transformation stage, you write the qualities you claim on paper or stone and you put them in your container. Don’t rush this step! Who you will be as an ancestor will depend on how you see yourself now.
For the incorporation stage, you need your change to be witnessed. In a wedding, this is the end of the ceremony when the guests applaud the couple as they leave the ceremony space. One of the key themes of any croning ceremony is independence. So, when you’ve claimed the qualities you possess, go to a mirror. A bathroom mirror is ideal since there’s usually a vanity on which you can place three candles. Light them. Turn off the electric lights. For safety’s sake, you may want to keep a night light on nearby.
Look into the shadows on the mirror. Envision a vibrant, healthy future. Take a deep breath and say three times: “I am a crone.” With each declaration, snuff one of the candles. When all three candles are out, flip the switch and turn on the light. Look in the mirror. See yourself anew.
I did the solitary ritual. For a container, I used a large cowrie shell with a strip of leather filling the opening. My daughter gave me the shell several years ago at the Winter Solstice. As soon as I saw it, I knew how I would use it. Every now and then, I loosen the leather and add another quality to what I see as a womb for my development.
As a Life-Cycle Celebrant, I create rituals for weddings, baby blessings, vow renewals, traditional funerals, home funerals, memorials … and much more, including croning.
So far, the public croning ritual I’ve described exists only on paper. One of these days, I hope to officiate the ritual for a new crone. The challenge is that, as a society, we don’t celebrate aging. We barely acknowledge it. We make jokes about it. Some of us ignore it, deny it, lie about it. All because we fear it.
Let’s change that. Whatever your age, what qualities, what gifts do you claim? This is no time for false humility. The world needs more wise women.
If you want to let other women know about croning, please let them know about my podcast, Ritual Recipes. I talk about croning on episode 37.
In the meantime, I am creative. What about you?
Email firstname.lastname@example.org #iamcrone