My formative years were spent in India, before my family and I immigrated to the UK, just as I reached double figures. One day, during my very early years in the city of Kolkata where I was born, I went on a visit with my mother to a relative’s house. It was a large old ancestral home, rising up two storeys around a central outdoor courtyard in the traditional style.
I was perhaps two or three. In this central courtyard, I found myself face to face with an old, dark, wizened woman. Her small frame was crowned with a sparse head of white hair, and a few yellow-brown teeth in her smiling mouth. I was frozen with fear as she brought her face uncomfortably close to mine, observing me intently and with affection, her plain white sari stark against the deep wrinkles of her brown, bony skin.
As is still the way in many Indian households, she had been the family’s aayah or housekeeper, tending to generation after generation of children from birth to adulthood. Now well into her crone years, she was free of her usual chores and duties, remaining in the family’s ancestral home a part of its lineage and as a matriarch in her own right.
I never saw her again, but this memory of her toothless, smiling old face, adorned with wrinkles has never faded. Even at that young age, my imagination had absorbed the belief that cackling old, toothless crones are to be feared. And until recently, I’ve remained quite afraid of this indelible image of her; afraid that she had bequeathed me a curse, when in fact she was bestowing a blessing.
I wonder at how, even at such a young age, I had internalised the notion that crones – which is to say old women – usually financially poor, widowed or unmarried, are malefic. Clearly, the misogyny of popular culture had had its way: I was absolutely and quite naturally terrified of the evil, toothless old witch in Disney’s Snow White, a film I had watched countless times before my meeting with this particular toothless old woman and her cackle-smile.
She passed long ago, I imagine. But this brief memory-dream of her migrated with me like a stubborn stowaway, and is more alive than ever now, halfway across the world in the southern Californian Mojave desert. And it is here in the desert that I began to sniff curiously around this strange, stubborn little memory.
What did it want?
Under a dark, starry desert sky, I imagine sitting with her, a fire crackling between us, her coyote cousins yipping in the distance
The word crone, and its accompanying image of an old woman well past childbearing age, has been colonised and cut off from its innate mythos of wisdom. It is now synonymous with barrenness, ugliness, devoid of purpose. Crone – along with hag – has become the ultimate pejorative with which to address old women, reflecting the way that culture and society – in the west at any rate – devalues, and demeans the feminine once time has had its way with her.
As I inquired into this early memory, it led me towards a mythology of power obtained through wisdom, slowly and deliberately, without any dominating and conquering, but through listening and relating. It was a whole new understanding of power – one that was cyclical, wild and regenerating, like healthy soil free from the violations of the monoculture of perfection and relentless productivity.
The northern Mexican story of old La Loba – the Wolf Woman – singing over the bones summoned me, and I answered the call.
Under a dark, starry desert sky, I imagine sitting with her, a fire crackling between us, her coyote cousins yipping in the distance. I listen to her tales of re-membering, tales which I have arrived at through my own curious remembering.
She sings to me that she is the keeper of bones, and that I must do this too. Bones of stories and memories dismembered and close to falling off the precipice of the world’s forgetfulness. These old bones, when gathered together, like dusty pieces of a puzzle, must be sung back into the flesh and blood and breath of themselves.
She sings to me that these bones are the dismembered parts of myself, of the wild and loamy nature of all women who have had to bury this essence of their power.
In the days before industrialisation’s relentless march of destruction and domination across so much of the planet’s wild spaces, before the tireless persecutions and burnings of the Christian crusades, before the colonisation and marginalisation of Indigenous wisdom throughout the world – including Europe – humans worshipped nature. The wilderness was revered as sacred – and the crone, the hag, the old witch were regarded as necessary embodiments of the Great Mother’s vital cycles.
They were valued as the community’s wise women, keepers of stories and conduits of knowing and seeing; their skills and powers of healing with plants were passed down from generation to generation in the oral tradition, often woven into the stories. In the Earth-centric pagan traditions of the British Isles, the word crone is used as a term of reverence and respect, associated among many other things, with the waning lunar phase.
In almost all pre-Christian mythologies across the world, the old, wild wise woman who often lived deep in the wilderness of forest or jungle or desert performed the function of psychopomp, guiding and counselling the protagonist from one stage of psycho-spiritual evolution to the next, from a dying to a rebirthing.
If colonisation is the cutting away of your own story, then we can see how the crone’s has been unceremoniously lopped off and manipulated into the malefic; and now in our modern culture tossed into just plain old useless.
But La Loba, archivist of bones, reminds me of this forgotten wild place in my own psyche where she lives. My fear of her – a part of me that had been colonised into forgetting – dissolves as I sit with her by the fire. I look at the bones of remembering scattered about her, symbols of the soul’s indestructible essence, which one might also call stories, myths – the old ones back from when our animistic forebears vividly experienced the world in reciprocity and communication. The gatekeepers of civilisation may call this primitive, irrational. And I would agree, applying these same descriptors to the wilderness – within us and without; those primitive, irrational places where the bones of our vivifying old stories can still be found, if only we weren’t so afraid to venture out and reverently seek the crone.
I listen to her song, low and sometimes jarringly shrill. My bones tingle at the rhythm, as if rising from a long slumber. I stretch and move slowly, sinuously, shamelessly – feeling the warmth of the fire enliven my awakening. Remembering washes over me as I recognise this singing crone, La Loba, as the archetypal Wise Woman – La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows – I allow recognition of the blessing bestowed on me by that dark, wizened and toothless face – my memory of her keeping its wisdom within me over time and ocean.
Many years after my childhood memory – and many years ago – I was a twentysomething hurrying off to some important social this or that in London. In the busy, jostling crowd of the Tube station platform, deep underneath the city, was a woman sitting by herself on a bench. I was a staunch Londoner, and rushing with the crowds was second nature to me. But something about this lonely figure made me slow down as the human traffic irritably skirted past me.
She was a homeless woman, dark and slightly plump, old but with a youthful face, framed with short black and grey curly hair. Into the distance she looked, into something beyond, not noticing the swirling crowds around her, or me slowing down a short distance away. Her expression was rich with sadness, of one abandoned and forgotten.
Homeless people in the subterranean wilderness of the London Underground are not rare sightings but something about her tugged at a knowing deep within, a recognition of a timeless part of myself. This too is a memory that hasn’t faded and has migrated with me without my consent; this too has continued to incite fear and aversion in me until recently.
As I allow the bone songs of La Loba to open me up to the archetypal wild and wise crone within, I come to understand the expression on the face of that old Underground woman as the world whirled and swirled about her, uncaring, contemptuous and afraid.
Waking up at dawn is one of my very favourite things – especially here in the desert. In the silence, made all the more vivid by the chorus of birdsong, the innocence of the day belies its timeless wisdom. The imminent sun and its unready rays emit echoes of light into the sky, shifting the contours of the mountains over which it will ascend: a transmission of something secret to the few awake at this liminal hour. It is during these dawn risings that the memories of crones I’ve long kept at arm’s length revisit me unbidden, and which I have, with the guidance of the big, old palo verde outside our house, learned to turn towards and offer my attention to.
This tree is an elder too, and native to this region. Her gnarly trunk twists around itself like a many-armed goddess, and her roots go deep, deep below our 1950s cabin-house. Her canopy spreads up wide, accommodating hummingbirds, doves, and our resident great horned owl. Big, fat desert spiny lizards scurry up and down her trunk, and snakes too occasionally seek her shelter.
This crone tree has been my psychopomp, reminding me always of the nourishment I need to offer my often frightening subterranean realms
As I sit with her at dawn, she clarifies my fears. I left England and a life that had become devoid of meaning for me. Ignoring the imperatives of rationality, my husband and I set ourselves up in the desert wilds, which had called us in – and it is here that unravelling began, an unravelling that had to happen before I was able to sniff out the bones. This crone tree has been my psychopomp, reminding me always of the nourishment I need to offer my often frightening subterranean realms, in order that my canopy can stretch up and wide towards the sun. At her base, I bury blood and bone.
The more I stand with bare feet on this dusty, ancient, crystalline desert with its hidden, native knowing, the clearer my own becomes. This land belongs to La Que Sabe – and it is to her I make my offerings at the base of the palo verde. She brought me here to remember, to re-know my innate meanings – their deep roots and their high canopies – before they were colonised and cut off from my essence, my bones.
Certain small memories, seemingly disconnected and accidental, with no one else to corroborate them, live on with a strange force. We think we imagined them, or dreamed them. And actually we did, but not in the common sense. They took place, out there, in the world that appears to be separate from us. Their dreamlike quality is a clue to their point of origin, the place underground, from where our night-time dreams emerge; from the place where the bones are buried and the soul has her deepest roots.
The migration of these curious memories of dark old women, surviving tenacious odysseys across land and sea, and the tremulous narratives of culture, race, identity and home, speak of a re-membering of the soul’s Indigenous wisdom, a slow unpicking and unravelling of the colonised parts of our rich, innate wilderness.
For further information on Rohini’s online group teaching Root+Rise see here
Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen
The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling
Impressive journey through old age, its imaginaries and its representations, perfectly weaving together the encounters that occur with old age throughout life in very different circumstances.