Through the lens of her fascination with the intersection of psychology, mythology and ecology, Sharon Blackie explores the ways in which women in their mid and later years can live their most authentic, fulfilling and dynamic life. And how and why we need to rail against the Western cultural expectation that elderhood is “supposed to mark the end of all meaningful stories, not the beginning of a new one”.
Extracted from Hagitude
“In the oldest known cosmology of my native lands, it wasn’t a sky bound old man with a beard who made this world. It was an old woman. A giant old woman who has been with us down all the long ages, since the beginning of times. Her name in the Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland is the Cailleach: literally the Old Woman.
But really, why should the Cailleach matter now? Why should the other fierce and shining old women of European myth and folk law who populate the pages of this book matter? Why should any of these old stories matter? Aren’t they just ancient history? Nice to know, but irrelevant to our infinitely more sophisticated lives today? Well, they matter because the ways in which we think about ageing depend on the stories we tell about it. How we think about ageing women depends on the images we hold of them. And the images we hold of ageing women today aren’t healthy. Truth is, there is no clear image of enviable female elderhood in the contemporary cultural mythology of the West; it’s not an archetype we recognise anymore. In our culture, old women are mostly ignored, encouraged to be inconspicuous or held up as objects of derision and satire.
But our old mythology and folklore tell us something very much more interesting: that it hasn’t always been so. In our more distant past, as of course in many indigenous cultures today, female elders were respected, and had important and meaningful roles to play. They are the ones who hold the myths and the wisdom stories; the ones who know where the medicine plants grow and what their uses are. They serve as guides for younger adults; they’re the caregivers and mentors for the community’s children. They know when the community is going to the dogs, and they’re not afraid to speak out and say so. When they do, they’re listened to. Their focus is on giving back, on bringing out, for the sake of Earth and community, the hard-earned wisdom which they’ve grown within themselves.
Since I was a small child, discovering fairy tales for the first time, my favourite characters have always been iterations of the dangerous, ambiguous, but infinitely wise old woman in the woods. The one who haunted the edge lands; the mysterious shadow in the heart of the dark wood. The exile, the rebel, the one who shrugged off the fetters of conventional society; the one who imagined and cultivated her own vision of how the world should be, thank you very much. At the earliest of ages, I already knew that was the old woman I wanted to grow into. The spirited, unpredictable, not-to-be-messed-with elder. An elder who’s always ready to tell you the often-unwelcome truths about the condition of your life – livened, of course, with compassion, and a glint of fierce humour in her eyes.
Here in the contemporary West, we don’t really do elders; instead, we have ‘the elderly’. The connotations are quite different. Older women, when they’re not rendered completely invisible, are still trivialised and marginalised and often actively ridiculed. ‘Little old ladies’, we call them here in Britain; ‘old bats (if they think we’re crazy), or ‘old bags’ and ‘old trouts’ (if they don’t live up to our expectations that old women should rarely be seen, and certainly should never be heard).
The 2019 ‘Ageist Britain’ report, which surveyed 4,000 UK adults and analysed thousands of tweets and blog posts in the UK, found that this kind of everyday ageism is increasingly of concern to mental health experts, as evidence grows which suggests that it can impact people’s physical performance, impair mental, health, hasten the onset of dementia and even shorten life expectancy.
There are a lot of ageing women out there. Between 1918 and 2018, average life expectancy increased by around twenty-five to thirty years in the United Kingdom, the United States and other developed countries of the world. In most of those countries, women also live on average four or five years longer than men. The elderly – by most societal definitions, adults aged sixty and over – are now the fastest-growing segment of most Western populations, and a majority of them are women.
What should we do with those extra years of life? How should we choose to spend them, in this culture which offers few inspiring role models, and no well-trodden paths for us to follow? Because in contemporary Western society, to be old is rarely to be thought of as gifted and wise.
This lack of cultural recognition and support for the process of becoming elder is why so few of us investigate the rich possibilities of growing older, or undertake the necessary inner work that prepares us for a passage into a more conscious and meaningful elderhood. And even if we can bring ourselves to talk about the biological and psychological dimensions of ageing, more often than not we back away from discussing the existential – or spiritual – dimensions. We avoid the only question that it makes sense for us to ask now: what is all of this life for? Why are we still here; what do we still have to offer?
Ever since the groundbreaking work of Carl Jung in the first half of the twentieth century, most depth psychologists have argued that the journey into elder hood is a spiritual passage above all, and that the purpose of the second half of our lives is to grow into the person that we were always meant to be.
I’m a psychologist with a profound affection for Jung and his successors….but as a folklorist and mythologist too, I firmly believe that story is our primary inspiration – an ancient, much-neglected tool which helps us conjure up sharply honed images of what exactly it is that we might want to become if we are lucky enough to grown old. Because stories are spells; they change things. When they hook us and reel us into their magic, they change us. It’s stories that will save us, in the end. Not just the stories we read or tell, or the stories we want to be in, but the ones that live inside us and the ones we live inside. The stories we invite in; those that we choose to inhabit.
What, then, is the nature of an elder woman’s wisdom, and how might myths and fairy tales offer us insight into the ways that each of us could uniquely embody it? That’s the key question at the heart of [my] book: how an exploration of [the] wonderfully vivid and diverse archetypal characters in our fairy tales and myths might help us to recreate a map of what it is to become a good elder. How do we make the most of the fertile decades which stretch out between the first tentative buddings of menopause and the final fruits of elder hood? How can we build on those old tales and combine them with the richness of our own experience to create new elder-woman stories, so inspiring the next generation?”
If you are interested in finding out more check out Sharon’s Hagitude website and read her earlier book, the word-of-mouth hit If Women Rose Rooted. [I loved it, Eleanor]
By Sharon Blackie
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