We are the crones, the old and wrinkled, wise ones. We have many names— Hecate, Spider Grandmother, Demeter; Siren, Gaea, and Oracle. We wait at the crossroads. We praise and encourage the living, we honor and care for the dying. In times of darkness, we know spring will return.
At the time of the winter solstice ancient people believed that we must help the Light to be reborn. In many cultures, the crones facilitated this return. Women carried the mystery of life and death; women labored to guide back the sun.
Then things changed and men took control of women, especially in matters of religion.
Buddhism has traditionally followed the established social norms of the patriarchy into which the Buddha was born. When the Buddha established the rules for his followers, he differentiated between nuns and monks. Any nun, no matter how old or enlightened, had to bow down to a monk, even a novice. In Zen monasteries, the lineage of the transmission from one male teacher to the next has always been chanted as part of the service. Recently, things are changing. At Zen Mountain Monastery we now chant the names of the enlightened women of the way in addition to the male lineage. There were many great and compassionate teachers who taught students both male and female. Today, we have an altar in the front of the meditation hall for Mahapajapati, the first Buddhist nun and teacher.
I began to think about other groups of women left unsung. In the American frontier world, Johnny Appleseed is a celebrated hero. He stands out as a bold revolutionary, spreading seeds and saplings, helping the settlers establish ownership to land by planting an orchard, and sharing his beliefs based on the Swedenborg religion. But who are the frontier women who helped create this country? I found a few famous names—Belle Star, Poker Alice, Pearl deVere, Annie Oakley, Etta Place, and Calamity Jane. Belle was known for riding in a black velvet dress, six guns on her hips, and holding up stagecoaches. Poker Alice—you guessed it—was a devilishly good poker player, and bordello owner. Pearl deVere operated The Old Homestead, a lavishly upscale brothel in Cripple Creek, Colorado. You get the picture. Nice women don’t make history, but the names we choose to remember determine the history we remember.
The myths of ancient people are filled with stories of goddesses whose powers equaled that of their male counterparts. The history of women in the West is much more than brothels, bars, and Wild West shows. It is the story of hardworking American women, Native American women, Spanish-Mexican women, and the Chinese immigrant women who were sold and shipped to California by their impoverished families to work in laundries, bars, and mining camps. We need to remember all of these women and what a dark place the world has been for so many of them.
December 21st is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. At the farm we have a solstice fire where we reenact the return of the sun. In our ritual, it is the crones who go on a journey to find the sun and rebirth the Light. The crones remind us that there are many kinds of darkness. The darkness of racism and sexism, of hatred and war, of injustice, of sorrow and loss. The crones also remind us that there is darkness inside each of us, as well as a light. It is from this light, this often forgotten or darkened light, that the Goddesses labor, and birth the sun. Like Demeter knowing that she will be rejoined with her daughter, Persephone, we need to trust that the light will return, grief will be healed, and plants will bear fruit again.
Carl Jung said, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." In remembering the names of those women who are forgotten, we shine light into the darkness of their cultural obscurity. As we light the solstice fire, we bring light to this world stamped with anger, aggression, and force. In gathering and opening our hearts to one another we grow the light. Happy Solstice!