Stories of the Cailleach and mythic old women like her arise out of a time when the Earth was commonly represented as the body of a woman. Caves were thought of as wombs, rivers as veins or the flow of life-giving milk, and hills were seen as breasts … but then, with time, the Divine became disembodied, transcendent, and the physical became something to overcome or supersede […] In many parts of Europe, these powerful and life-giving elder women were transmogrified in the folklore into stereotypical witches. But what is interesting to me is that, although so many old gods vanished from memory after the adoption of Christianity, the Cailleach did not; her stories, and the stories of gigantic old women like her, are abundant in the landscape, and still very much alive. It’s the old women who remain here, then; it’s the grandmothers who endure. This gives me confidence that, once upon a time in these islands, elder women were revered – and sometimes feared. It’s more than time, I think, to make our voices heard again, and to stand up for the land that we too embody.
– Sharon Blackie, Hagitude
Hagitude: Reimagining the Second Half of Life, by Sharon Blackie (September Publishing, £16.99)
Blackie draws on archetypes of elder women from folklore and myth to explore how women in the second half of life can transcend the limited options (fade, behave, disappear) presented by contemporary culture. ‘Cosmologies in which old women mattered are not folk tales or primitive oddities but remnants of a belief system,’ she says. The old stories disclose a vision of women as elders who can support the culture, whether as creators, truth-tellers, holders of vision, guardians of the land or advisers of younger generations.
What I found most compelling about Patti Smith, with my mind full of Hagitude, was not so much her implicit fuck-you to whatever a misogynistic society says that women – and older women in particular – should be, though I will always love her for that. It’s not even her truth-telling and vision. It’s that she’s such a clear conduit for something bigger than herself, bigger than all of us. That’s why her gigs feel like a spiritual experience. And we feel it, whether or not we’d articulate it like that. We know in our bones when someone’s power is generated not by the striving of their ego’s needs, nor by their position in society’s hierarchies of dominance, but by combining their unique individual spirit and skills with a willingness to get out of the way and let flow what comes: truth, beauty, spirit, anima mundi – call it what you like but it belongs to none of us alone.
What I found most compelling about Patti Smith [is] that she’s such a clear conduit for something bigger than herself, bigger than all of us.
To my ear, this is what Blackie’s newly-minted term ‘hagitude’ is describing. (I’ll confess that I don’t yet love the word, but she woke from a dream with it, so here it is.) It’s a contraction of ‘hags with attitude’ and she sees it as a disposition that women – at least, perhaps, that majority of us who have not been fearless punk poets since our youth – can develop in the second half of life. Hagitude entails becoming comfortable with the unique power that we embody, knowing exactly who we are and what we offer in service, and believing in the necessity of our place in the web of life. It’s a view of elderhood grounded in the Jungian injunction that we treat the second half of life as a spiritual transition, together with a specifically eco-feminist sensibility.
Her 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted has travelled by word of mouth. She drew on the myths of her Celtic heritage to sketch out the stations of a ‘heroine’s journey’ that goes beyond the hero’s trajectory of severance-adventure-return. She told the story of her escape, as a younger woman, from the sterile ‘wasteland’ of modern corporate-and-consumption life to a more earthy existence in which her purpose was connected, via myth and story, to the land. Hagitude continues this story.
Blackie offers examples of each archetype in her House of Elders – creatrix, truth-teller, holder of vision, guardian of the land – from myth, folklore, literature and art. She ranges widely – and with varying depth – from the northern European creator-goddess Holle to Hildegard of Bingen; from the feminist artist Judy Chicago to the Grail story Parzival, told with attention to Cundrie, its truth-telling hag. In drawing on myth and folklore Blackie is following the path of other Jungian writers like Clarissa Pinkola Estés and Jean Shinoda Bolen who parse folk tales and myths, respectively, for underground guidance on locating and expressing women’s long-suppressed powers. In sharing what she has observed from contemporary culture, she’s building on political or literary studies of menopause like Germaine Greer’s The Change (1991) and, a generation later, Marina Benjamin’s The Middlepause (2016), both of whom find clarity in Colette and Doris Lessing. I was happy to see Lessing, that unsentimental wielder of the truth-teller’s scalpel, among Blackie’s inspirations, alongside the poet Salena Godden’s novel Mrs Death Misses Death.
Blackie’s important contribution to this feminist literature is to ground it in the ecology and geology of a specific place: the Celtic western edges of these islands, with their many stories and locales that remember the Cailleach: the giant granite-faced old woman, the winter aspect of the goddess. ‘Our old women are the dark heart of the forest, the stone womb of the mountain, immanent in the living land itself,’ she says.
She’s also offering a personal reflection on how, through dreams and careful attention to her surroundings and the myths embodied in them – she calls this a practice of mythic imagination – she deepened her understanding of the webs that link her to the land and its other creatures. We don’t need Celtic heritage to appreciate the wisdom in these stories, Blackie says, which is accessible to all women and those who identify as women who are now rooted in these lands, whatever their ancestry.
In the other direction, she’s making a necessary feminist contribution to the ‘eco-centric’ lifelong development model proposed by the American depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin. His otherwise powerful vision of the place-based initiation needed to move into adulthood and then generative eldership – rather than the egocentric ‘pasture and playtime’ of contemporary Western retirement – has lacked a focus on what makes aspects of the process so specific for women.
As If Women Rose Rooted made clear, finding our real purpose is not straightforward in a culture that values only the material, devalues women’s contributions and discourages explorations of purpose in case we realise how ridiculous it is to seek promotion in the capitalist machine at a time when it has nearly devoured the biosphere. But if we haven’t found our reason for being by our late forties, or if it has changed because the children we were caring for have grown, then the pressure builds and the temperature goes up, for the flaming gateway to female elderhood and its existential, spiritual questions of purpose is menopause.
There’s been a surge of menopause activism in the UK recently as a generation of high-profile women in the media reach the crossing point and use their platform to express their incredulity that not only have women been insufficiently taught about what happens to our bodies, but so have our doctors. There’s been less discussion of our souls. Like other feminist writers Blackie is critical of the medicalised ‘deficit’ view of menopause which describes a loss of fertility and firmness, fixable with hormone replacement therapy. Whether or not to take HRT is a political as well as medical decision, not least because of its grim 20th-century history of misogyny (in short, it was promoted by men in order to keep women looking pretty and interested in sexually serving their husbands). This was well-documented for the boomers by Greer and for the current Gen X menopausers by Benjamin.
For Blackie, the metaphorical fires of rage and the literal fires of sheer physical heat are an alchemical process. If we allow them, they may burn off the excesses of ego and the redundant ideas that we have internalised about who we need to be, or what we must do to fit in. They will shine a light on shadow aspects of our self that we must integrate, and cast into sharper relief our feelings about our deeper purpose. But we do have to do the work of individuating – Jung’s word for the process of becoming our most authentic self. This means disidentifying from the demands of an egocentric culture. Eldership, rather than merely becoming old, is earned.
This proposition held the seed of an answer to a question I have been carrying. On the fourth day after I’d begun taking HRT after months of insomnia and rage, I felt as if I was coming up on something really tremendous. When I confided in my doctor that its magnificent energy-bestowing effects made me feel as if I were cheating death, she shrugged and smiled; we both knew that psychospiritual questions are beyond the scope of a ten-minute general practitioner appointment.
Friends in their fifties and sixties who have travelled over the bump unmedicated either had no symptoms or aver that they wanted to ‘do it naturally’. I’m not so sure about ‘natural’. For most of human history it might have been natural for me to be dead by my late forties, most likely in childbirth. For now, with young children who arrived late, rising bills and a backlog of books I want to write, I am grateful for the temporary gift of energy, brainpower and emotional stability. It’s not an option to go and live in the woods for six years, as one of the women Blackie interviews does for the duration of her menopause. (Blackie has a point about society not making space for menopause. But I also realised after a few such examples – there’s also the woman who has a garden in which she can install a Romany caravan for retreat purposes – that as with the mythological figures she invokes, it may be best to take inspiration from their spirit rather than lean on them too literally.)
But my question had remained: what am I missing out on if I take the hormones? If Blackie is right, then the answer is that I might miss what a Californian friend calls a FOG: another fucking opportunity for growth. If we’re low on energy, running on a short fuse and, behind that, facing up to the reality that we will, actually, be dead in just a few more decades if not sooner, we have to sharpen up our discernment of what matters. Perhaps, as Marina Benjamin suggests, we can choose to view the oestrogen support not as lotus-eating avoidance, but as a temporary breathing space in which to face up to the implacable inevitability of grief and necessary psychic work.
Sharpening our discernment about what matters in the face of death is a task not only for women moving into the third stage of life in a patriarchal society but for that whole society in descent-times.
Sharpening our discernment about what matters in the face of death is a task not only for women moving into the third stage of life in a patriarchal society – and Blackie grapples with this head-on in her closing chapters – but for that whole society in descent-times. Do we work to mitigate and avert worst-case outcomes? Do we build arks of healthy relational culture that we hope will carry down generations, and commit to nurturing seeds whose fruit we cannot know? Do we continue to make art and music and love because their mattering is not contingent on the outcomes of our other efforts?
It is hard, however, to think clearly about our own development, and how we can bring our deepest calling to serve a burning world, when we are still in denial about death. Our denial is inevitably human, an aspect of our singular consciousness and of being the only creature with the knowledge that we are mortal. But it is also deep in the foundations of a culture that, by turning away from the feminine in all of us, turned us away from the cycles of life, death and compost.
It’s true that there is a lot of death and violence in popular culture. But (so long as we are not in a war zone) it can be easier to get excited about ultraviolence, battle and apocalypse stories, which we assume we can avoid, than face up to ordinary decay and degeneration. Cut off from the reality of death by our linear conception of life, actual death repeatedly takes each of us by surprise because we are too scared to spend a lifetime preparing for it by making truly conscious decisions about how we live. These extraction-fuelled linear lifeways have pushed the biosphere and the civilisations that depend on it into fragility. By failing to be honest about each individual death, we are creating the conditions for mass death.
The Crone, reclaimed by late 20th-century feminist spirituality movements from the list of epithets naming society’s disgust at older women, was the death-dealing aspect of the old Triple Goddess. Christianity appropriated and absorbed the Maiden and the Mother and turned them to patriarchal purposes. The Crone, with her connection to the unavoidable cycles of death-as-part-of-life, was more of a challenge, particularly to the Father’s authority over the realm of the dead. She was stripped of her power and diabolised, with consequences for older women’s authority ever since and, during the witch persecution era, with consequences for their safety. (Blackie sensibly draws on recent scholarship in writing about the 40-60,000 people who were executed, three quarters of them women, rather than repeating the ‘millions’ asserted by the previous generation of writers on this topic).
Men’s fear of and disgust at older women – a fear and disgust also internalised by many women – is not just mother-stuff, then, that old buried resentment of personal female authority. It’s Mother-stuff, an inherited, subterranean and barely articulable fear of the compost-bound destiny inherent in the divine feminine. This civilisation’s preference for keeping older women out of sight is inextricable from its quest to keep the reality of death at bay. Endeavours like Blackie’s to bring them both into view are valuable and necessary.
Hagitude: Reimagining the Second Half of Life, by Sharon Blackie (September Publishing, £16.99) with eleven illustrations by Natalie Eslick: natalieeslick.com
Dark Mountain: Issue 21
Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence
Thanks for your fine review, Anthea.
The energy of hagitude makes me think of Jenny Joseph’s “Warning”, one of the twentieth century’s most popular poems, among men as well as women: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple…” Apparently quite a lot of people secretly aspire to grow old mischievously. (Interestingly Jenny Joseph has written that she can’t stand purple, and that’s why she put it in the poem. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(99)90272-6/fulltext)
As a man happily surrounded by strong women, at all stages of their lives, I am greatly inspired by the wild, mythical, feminine wisdom (including that of the Cailleach) of which Sharon Blackie writes so powerfully—despite not myself being a woman nor even “identifying” as one.
I’ve read that the name of the Cailleach, the creatrix in British Celtic mythology, is also that of the Kalliakoi, the tribes of present-day Galicia in north-west Spain; she came over with them when the Celts settled Britain.
However, in Galician mythology, it’s Brigid, the maiden goddess, patron of fertility, poetry and smithing, spring to Cailleach’s winter, who is the creatrix: her hand is said to have dug out the five main rivers of Galicia.
Of course, Brigid herself gave her name, via the Brigantines, to Britain (and Britannia, who is praised in song at the Last Night of the Proms!) so we have a bit of a mirror-image situation where each land is named after the creatrix of the other. They really are two sides of the same coin…
The myth of Brigid/Bride and the Cailleach is also the source for Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” in which Aengus (god of summer and dreams) wanders endlessly, and tragically, in search of his once-glimpsed lover.
It wasn’t until I came to live in Scotland that I learned that, in the Scottish version of the tale, he doesn’t wander endlessly but actually meets Bride (on Imbolc, 1st February), they marry and defeat the forces of winter… until next autumn.