Fireless Altars and Crone Encounters By Barbara Ardinger

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. (, 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.

Categories: Divine Feminine, Embodiment, female friendship, Feminism

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

21 replies

  1. Barbara, reading this gave me so much pleasure that I have to share it with my friend, who is a seeker after wisdom. I have more than one reaction to your essay.

    First, it made me remember a desire I had long ago to meet at a house in Maine every August. This would be an all-woman gathering of philosophers, poets, writers, painters, musicians, and other artists. During the day we’d do our own thing, then we’d meet in the early evening for huge vegetarian feasts, storytelling, and ritual. That dream never came to fruition but I still like to imagine it. Your description of the Wheel of the Year comes closer to it than anything I’ve ever read.

    Second, you are very brave to invoke the Goddess whose name begins with an “H”! I fear Her so much I will not even utter Her name. She has so much power! Naturally I respect Her, but I think I’d rather invoke Persephone in Her role as Queen of Hades than “H.”

    Finally, I am Crone, have been for 26 years since I was Croned in a ritual at Witch Camp in 1995. I’ve relished this role. As for what I may become, well, I’m told there is a rather fierce Grandmother Wolf looking after me, so who knows?

    Thank you for starting my day in such an inspiring way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s wise to approach Hecate with deep respect and caution.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it is wise to be courteous and careful when invoking Hecate, but this is her season. And Persephone is a wise queen. There’s a pre-pandemic Broadway show called Hadestown that tells the story of Persephone. It’s an amazing show.

      Croning became extremely popular in the 1990s. A fad, even. I knew women in their 30s who got themselves croned and another woman who was still menstruating when she went through a croning ceremony. Some friends and I went to a croning workshop in Sedona, AZ. Women from all over the country were there. They offered a lot of classes, most of them on basic topics of witchcraft and magic. The day they offered Astrology 101, we Los Angeles crones went shopping and explored the vortexes. The workshop as a whole was splendid and we all went through a new croning ceremony.

      Blessings to us all–Maidens, Mothers, Queens, Crones, and even Sages!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I like this idea of a dark altar and using a mirror… although I can barely read my All Hallows Ritual I do light tea candles for intentions although the room is in darkness..same thing at winter solstice because winter is ahead.

    This mirror idea intrigues me because all summer and fall I have become obsessed with mirrors in nature – I have taken so many pictures of water reflecting trees and sky – written poems etc reflecting upon how nature reflects what is really there and not some kind of distortion – like the kind you experience with some people – I grew up with a distorted mirror as my mother’s dark shadow – and never saw it….

    So it seems to me that using mirrors should be in my future – I have learned to trust my obsessions.

    Even if we do these rituals alone it is important to do them… as a crone – I think I totally missed queen – I am even more deeply engaged in learning – especially learning to see in the dark.

    I love your posts!



    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yikes, i just realized something… usually I have a fire in my woodstove at All Hallows but this year it was too warm to do so – first time ever – so except for tea candles I too had a fireless altar this year and never realized it until this post – from now on at All Hallows – no fire for me!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Love your posts, Barbara! I go back to the grasshopper and the ant every year.
    I started fireless altars some years go, when I set up an ancestor altar at the AGM of an organization that saw a number of untimely deaths. It was indoors, and there was a no-fire policy for the building. So I bought little battery-operated tea lights. I still use them when there’s a smoke detector nearby (we had an unfortunate incident many years ago, probably at Samhain because it was cold and drizzly but not snowing, dancing in a community center with candles held high. Although clearly there was no fire, the protocol was to evacuate the building and listen to a lecture from the fire department.)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you Barbara for inspiring my poem using your most evocative line, “Regard the fair Crone” as a title.


  6. Another fabulous post. I love the idea of the dark, fireless altar – you are right that there is a special kind of seeing in the dark. Your ritual is a great to formalize a process of coming into our own cronehood that we all need to do at times, whatever our age. If we all did this more often, maybe there would be a lot less fear of getting older. Your ritual makes me think of this summer, when I was looking through old family papers and I came across a lot of photos of my grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmothers when they were elders and about my age, and, even though they came from different branches of my family, I saw my face in all of them. They all seemed to be deeply kind people in the face of adversity, and so they have inspired me to try to be the same now that I am a crone. Looking at their photos was very much like looking into a dark mirror, I think.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, we should not fear getting older, per se, but weakness, etc. can be scary. Losing your balance can also be alarming, and I don’t know any goddess who can help with that. Alas.

      I love the photos! Love your reaction to them. Gee, maybe photos of our foremothers are kinda like dark mirrors. I look a bit like my grandmother. Everyone else in the family has brown eyes, but I have her hazel eyes.

      Let’s all stay healthy at any age.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. A wise and wonderful post. Thank you!
    I, for one, treasure my “wisdom crown” and try very hard to well it well. It doesn’t seem fair at all that men are “sages” and women are wrinkled old witches.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Barbara, I follow you on FAR and very much appreciate your blogs, this one especially.
    Although a Daughter of Cerridwen, I was fully enjoying my Queen years and had no thought of being a crone yet, at 59 yo; yet Goddess often has other paths for us to follow, yes?
    During my first pilgrimmage to the Temple of the White Spring in Glastonbury, it suddenly became clear that She was directing my solitary croning ritual. It was very emotional, of course, not least because it was a surprise. Blessedly, at my last altar stop in the Temple that day, 3 friends were waiting, 2 I had just met and one was my long-time co-ritualist and travel companion. They immediately welcomed me to this new status, helped me leave a precious and unexpected gift at the altar, and gave me gifts of their own in song, dance, prose, and poetry.
    Since then, I have mostly reveled in my crone status, and am so thankful for your article giving me a different way to See the Dark Altar. Blessings to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. thanks for including us old boys….my faerie name is CRONEY cuz i run with the crones.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Just wanted to stop in and say how much I love this post. You not only laid out so many wonderful paradigms for we women but included the men as well – yeah to that.

    I love how you made such a powerful ritual celebration with the situation at hand. One of the tenets of Hawaiian spirituality is “there is another way to do something.” You embodied that.

    I also have a suggestion for requests to the dark side. I have been “playing” with the concept of seeds so I would ask the dark side to show me what seeds I am cultivating.

    Thanks for this post. I think I need to get one of your books!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is a wonderful post, however, I live in Costa Rica and while I am technically still in the northern hemisphere, we are coming out of our rainy “winter” and into the bright light of dry “summer”. Hmmm. How will I manifest Hecate in the bright light? Hecate, the Goddess of the crossroads perhaps….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, goddess of the crossroads. Brilliant idea! She can suggest or lead you in any useful direction, maybe even into the sacred darkness. Bright and dark blessings.


  12. Such a breadth and depth of knowledge! I think honoring the stages women go through is so important. It reminds us that despite how many women are treating in our society that we should take time to listen to our inner voices and trust ourselves. I love the dark of the year – it’s peaceful and reflective. It let’s us go within ourselves and thoughtfully consider the light of the year while at the same time gives us the opportunity to consider the options for next year.

    Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom!

    Liked by 1 person

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