by Barbara G. Walker
October 31, 2012
In ancient paganism, the word Crone denoted an elder priestess or tribal matriarch; a cognate word is “crown,” the symbol of a leader. The word was made pejorative when the Christian Church redefined all elder priestesses of the old religion as malevolent witches.
Similarly, the word “hag” was once
derived from Greek hagia - a holy woman - and also became a
Christianized term for a witch.
The divine Crone was originally a part of the trinitarian Goddess, who appeared in Maiden, Mother and Crone forms, associated with the three phases of woman’s life, the three phases of the moon and the annual cycles of nature.
Viewed as an underworld deity who cared for the dead, the Goddess as Crone ruled autumnal harvest festivals, when the spirits of dead ancestors could visit their descendants and share in the harvest feast.
Among the Celts, the well-known “death’s head at the feast” used to be an actual skull of an ancestor, set at the table to receive offerings, often with a candle set within it, to simulate the warmth of life and the light of vision.
Such was the origin of the jack-o-lantern.
In southeast Asia, harvest customs still involve food offerings to ancestors at the holiday known as the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts.
In Mexico, it is called the Day of the Dead, characterized by honoring the ancestors and feeding the children little candy skulls as the memento mori.
Feeding children treats on holy days is a long-established human habit, originally designed not only to make such occasions memorable for the children, but also to show visiting tribal spirits that the next generation is here, needing their continued help in maintaining the food supply for the tribe.
We still give children candy at Halloween, but we have forgotten why.
Typically, she was also hidden behind a
black veil. Various traditions claimed that one might see her true
visage only in one’s final moments of life, not as in a glass
darkly, but then face to face…
from the Cosmographia of Sebastian Muenster, Basel 1555.
Masks, covering the face, were used in sacred drama and other ceremonies to represent the presence of deity. To put on the mask, in ancient times, was often interpreted as a literal assumption of the divine spirit that the mask embodied.
The animal-headed deities of ancient Egypt began as priests and priestesses wearing totemic animal masks. The wolf and bear clans of northern Europe wore masks of the appropriate animals for religious rites and considered themselves inwardly possessed by their sacred beasts.
Such traditions gave rise not only to common surnames like Wolf and Baer, but also to legends of werewolves (“man-wolves”) and berserkers (warriors who became possessed by battle-frenzy when wearing the “bear sark” or bearskin).
Mask wearing for religious purposes has been common throughout history…
When mask-wearing was associated with
pagan ancestor worship and religious rituals of the common people,
it is hardly surprising to find it still extant in the only pagan
religious holiday that the Church never managed to pre-empt and turn
to its own use: Halloween.
Up to the 19th century, it was an official Article of Faith of the Catholic Church to believe in the existence of an underground “Queen of Witches,” who usually had one of three possible names:
All three of these were formerly Crone figures of the original female Holy Trinity.
Hecate’s male consort was Hades (Roman Pluto).
Porphyry and other classical writers sometimes considered Hecate the whole trinity, appearing as,
She was worshipped at three-way crossroads as Hecate Trevia, “Hecate of the Three Ways.”
Her images stood at crossroads to
receive offerings from travelers and gifts of gratitude for safe
Though Hecate was popular in Greco-Roman culture, she actually originated in Egypt as the Crone Goddess Hekat, an amalgam of the seven obstetrical Hathors who daily delivered the newborn sun…
Another of the Church’s favorite witch-queens was Proserpina, the Latin form of Etruscan Persipnei and Greek Persephone.
Classical mythology confused her with Kore, the springtime Virgin, because the trinity of Kore-Demeter-Persephone was actually cyclic.
In the reworked myth, Persephone was the
maiden abducted by the underworld god (Hades or Pluto) and
unwillingly made Queen of the Underworld and forced to live
underground during each winter season, when her mother Demeter
grieved for her and refused to let the earth bear fruit or greenery
until her daughter’s return in spring…
She would teach them the “words of power” and magic rituals that they would need to insure a comfortable afterlife. Knowledge of these matters was a primary purpose of Gnostic initiation, even among Christian Gnostics, whose ideas were declared heretical during the fifth century.
Nevertheless, Gnostic traditions continued to influence ordinary folk in secret for at least a thousand years more.
It was said that she abandoned Adam because he was too bossy and too crude in his sexual techniques. She defied God and sneered at the angels that God sent to retrieve her. She went away to the Red Sea and found more compatible male consorts, by whom she conceived thousands of children.
This detail identifies her as one of the primary Earth Mother figures, who possessed the title of Mother of All Living, later transferred to Eve.
The Goddess Lilith/Lilitu
Old Babylonian period (British museum)
She was known in Sumeria and Babylon as
Belit-Ili, the Lily Goddess… Such she-demons were also called
Night-Hags or Night-Mares, recalling the black, mare-headed form of
Demeter/Persephone as Crone (Demeter Chthonia, “Underground
Lilith’s constellation of myths gave rise to Christianity’s crudest notions about witches, not only their shape-shifting abilities and their animal familiars but also their occult power over men’s genitals, their alleged sexual insatiability and their magical induction in humans of impotence or sexual enslavement.
Such fears lay at the root of the witch-hunting mania that took over Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, and still lurk behind many forms of male violence against women.
Lilith’s sacred totem was the owl, the Wise Bird of the Crone, which explains why owls still appear in Halloween symbolism…
The idea of the Crone Goddess underlies all such Halloween symbols as the wise owl, the black cat, the ancestral ghost, a glowing skull-lantern, the mask and costume, the gifts of food to children, the sacred fires and the harvest feast.
Perhaps the most important symbol was the cauldron: a divine vessel, forever churning forth temporary life forms and then reabsorbing them into its eternal stew…
They are none other than the old Saxon Triple-Goddess Wyrd, whose name means “Fate” and who took all creatures into her fatal cauldron to bring them forth again in new forms.
That she was the death-bringing and life-giving spirit of the earth is indisputable. Some form of the Cauldron seems to have accompanied most of mythology’s Crone figures.
It was quite a different concept from the Judeo-Christian one.
The cauldron symbolized the idea that just as thought is inseparable from brain, so spirit is inseparable from body; the one is a function of the other. Native American cultures, for example, viewed the whole environment of earth, air, waters, plants and animals as sacred, because it was all part of their totemic ancestor-worship.
The spirits of all clan members became part of the environment, just as the spirits of animals and plants that were eaten became part of the eater. So in a spiritual sense as much as in a material one, there was constant interchange between self and environment.
Gods, ancestors, saviors, animal spirits and living humans all were part of the same mix.
Hidden in this concept lie the familiar
superstitions that claim gods or devils can take human form and vice
versa, or that humans can be made into saints or demigods simply by
the use of human words and magical formulae…
In the Crone’s cauldron, “soul” becomes
synonymous with “life force,” characteristic of all organisms rather
than the exclusive property of humans. Matter was one with its
creatress and linguistic derivative, Mater, Mother, the material of
everything. Mother love, which the Hindus called karuna, was the
basis of all feeling and morality…
Perhaps the earlier views were more
sensible after all.
if they had not so profitably driven the public mule
with the carrot of heaven and the stick
The Crone reminds us that
religion-induced fear of death wastes our powers, while an honest
acknowledgement that life must end may be the best incentive to true
enjoyment of being alive.