We’ve just entered November, the beginning of winter, the season of darkness. Twenty-odd years ago, I led a group of students through the Wheel of the Year in a class I called Practicing the Presence of the Goddess. (I also wrote a book with the same title.
At Imbolc (February 1), we held a divination party at Louise’s house. At Beltane (May 1), we met at Rose’s house, painted our faces, created wreaths of fresh flowers to embody our summer wishes, and then carried our wreaths of flowers through the streets of Huntington Beach to the ocean, where we cast them into the tide. At Lammas (August 1), we harvested our gardens and cooked a feast in my kitchen.
At Samhain (October 31), we met at Alice’s house in a canyon in the wild part of eastern Orange County, California. Her back yard was a miniature jungle of oaks and olive trees with a clearing and a picnic table near the center. Now I’m not an outdoors person and have never been comfortable in what I see as the wilderness, even if it’s been tamed. Especially on a windy night. As we were laying herbs and flowers, sugar skulls and bones, and a cauldron for scrying on the altar, the wind came up again. Because the fire season that year was ferocious, I decided it would be both prudent and meaningful to have a fireless altar. No candles. No incense. (We weren’t stumbling around in the dark, though; Alice left the porch lights on.) We cast our circle under the trees and invoked the dark winter goddesses, Hecate, the Black Madonna, the Eumenides, Black Annis, and Frau Holle. We asked them what was coming to us in the dark half of the year and to give us a peaceful winter season. An owl hooted and a dog howled nearby. It was a most satisfactory ritual.
The idea of that dark altar has stuck with me all these years. Today I’m thinking we can see the dark altar as a dark mirror that can show us things we don’t see in the light. We can sit quietly in the darkness and look with the eyes of our imagination and see what may be coming to us. We can use the night vision of our soul and look for the crone we’re growing up to be. Who is the crone? She’s the elderly woman. The idea of three stages in a woman’s life was more or less invented by Robert Graves in his 1948 book The White Goddess: maiden, mother, crone. When the idea of “croning,” or being declared a wise elder in a special ritual, became a fad in the 1990s, practically everyone I knew got herself croned, even young women in their thirties. Around the turn of the century, however, my friend Donna Henes a ritualist and urban shaman who lives in Brooklyn, New York) and I both realized that a significant phase of woman’s life was missing from that old setup. Donna and I both called that important fourth phase the queen, and she wrote a book (Queen of My Self, ) about it.
While the women in the FAR community fall into all four stages of the feminine life, many of us are in fact old getting enough to be queens and crones. As winter begins, therefore, it seems to me that this is a good time to look at ourselves more closely. To see what our personal “winter” might be. To see our crone selves.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” Regard the fair crone. Not fair as in “pretty,” although you may see the fairness of a face lined with the lessons of a lifetime. Fair as in “without bias, distinct, pleasant and courteous in speech.”
Here’s how to use the dark mirror. First, as in any ritual, large or small, set your intention. It might be a question. “What will this winter season bring to me?” You might also say, “Show me my dark side and teach me how to lighten up.” Or, “How can I become more enlightened during this winter season?” More important: “Let me see and speak with the crone I will be. What will she tell me?”
Next, create your own fireless altar. It doesn’t have to be pagan or Wiccan, but can be just a table with a few things you love on it to help keep you grounded. Do this outdoors in the dark or inside with the lights turned off so there are no distractions.
Now invoke, say, Hecate or the Eumenides and sit in the darkness and ponder the crone you may become. Request a crone encounter. Ask her to be present at your dark altar. Look carefully at this crone who appears with the goddess in the dark mirror. Can she bring light to it? To you? What can she tell you about your life in the coming season? In years to come? Ask her more questions. What’s coming into your life before spring? Is there any wilderness ahead? How can you prepare for it? What should you plan ahead for? Another topic: What parts of your life so far do you want to remember? What do you want to leave behind and forget? And of course: What kind of queen or crone will you be? When the persona in that dark mirror speaks, listen to her answers. Prepare for the coming winter. And stay warm during the cold season.
Note: HEY, GUYS—NO NEED TO FEEL LEFT OUT. Goddesses speak to men, too. (Read the myths.) Just as girls grow up to be crones, boys grow up to be sages, or wise elderly men. You can become a sage. Create a dark altar and ask the same kinds of questions of your future self.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (barbaraardinger.com), is the author of Secret Lives, a novel about crones and other magical folks, Pagan Every Day, a unique daybook of daily meditations, and other books. She really enjoys writing her monthly blogs for FAR. Her work has also been published in devotionals to Isis, Athena, and Brigid. Barbara’s day job is freelance editing for people who have good ideas but don’t want to embarrass themselves in print. To date, she has edited more than 300 books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a wide range of topics. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her rescued calico cat, Schroedinger.