Demystifying the Wise-Woman/Crone: The Special Wisdom that Comes in the Second Half of Life with Jean Shinoda Bolen

Jean Shinoda-Bolen, Jungian analyst, physician, and author, talks about the female holocaust of the Dark Ages, when the Inquisition executed millions of middle-aged women simply for being themselves. Bolen encourages women to claim the wisdom that comes after menopause as a spiritual treasure.

Sounds True: In your view, what are the spiritual changes that occur in a woman's life at the time of menopause?

Jean Shinoda Bolen: At menopause, there are present both spiritual and psychological potentials. Historically, people have emphasized menopause's negative changes, so it is a very pleasant surprise to find that there are a number of positive spiritual and psychological possibilities as well.

On the spiritual side, the crossover into post-menopausal years marks the time when a woman becomes a “wise-woman” or “crone.” That is, she embodies the third aspect of the ancient triple goddess—which is the daughter or maiden, the mother or matron, and crone or wise-woman. And though all three aspects are archetypes within women at all times, when a woman goes into her post-menopausal years, in a sense, she officially “arrives.”

When she officially arrives, it's possible for her to claim her wisdom. That is to say, having lived long enough to hove experienced the significance of life, she has something to pass on or teach that comes out of this experience—out of the lessons of her own life.

Menopause has some of the characteristics of adolescence in that it's a transition from one phase to another. During these transition phases, there is a stirring up in the psyche about the possibilities to come, as well as a leaving behind of the one who has been. So, as a woman passes into the menopausal years, very often the poet or the creative aspect in her comes alive. In adolescence, she may heave experienced similar feelings of transition, uncertainty, and wonder at what is happening inside. This process leads women to muse, and become more interior.

Sounds True: Is it the physiological changes in a woman's body that evoke this experience of transition?

Jean Shinoda Bolen: It's both physiological and archetypal—physiological in that we are being acted upon by hormonal “tides” and a shift into a very interior sense of self. We are also moving from one archetypal phase to another—from the experience of matron and mother into the experience of the wise-woman/crone.

In a culture that does not value the wisdom of old age—and certainly doesn't place a value on old women—the potential for anxiety about aging emerges at this time. In addition to this anxiety about aging, there is also a deep anxiety about becoming wise—having knowledge that in earlier times led women to be burned at the stake. In Donna Reed's film, The Burning Times, she describes the Inquisition as a 300-year period in which as many as eight million women were burned at the stake for their knowledge, for their eccentricity, for their power, for anything that set a woman apart.

Consequently, when women start to get in touch with the wisdom of the crone, it coincides with a deeply felt anxiety about the fate that this once led to for women.

Sounds True:What are some of the other common experiences women share when they enter their post-menopausal years?

Jean Shinoda Bolen: Two stand out. First, that women learn with experience that “this too shall pass,” whether it's joy or suffering—these are all facets of life. The joy of the bloom of a flower is to be fully appreciated, knowing that it will pass, as will the dark periods of life. These, too, are phases which we all pass through. The other lesson that women learn from having lived long enough is that, in spite of everything that has happened, we are still here and can face the future with a sense of wonder about what will happen next.

Sounds True: You said that “menopause” is usually perceived as a negative term. Why do you think that is?

Jean Shinoda Bolen: These are parts of the wisdom and experience that belong to women, and everything that is “of woman” is denigrated in a patriarchal culture.

Specifically, the sacred dimensions of woman have been desacralized. Certainly the sacredness of “blood mysteries”—the ability to carry and give birth to new life, which is surely a miracle—has been reduced from that sense. Instead, women have been more often equated with lesser, more animal aspects of life.

Sounds True: What is your view of the “Women's Movement” today?

Jean Shinoda Bolen: I think that the most powerful dimension of the Women's Movement is beginning to make itself felt now. And that, I believe, will turn out to be a spiritual dimension.

All of the problems that women experience—the oppression, devaluation, and discounting—are ultimately related to a sky-god, patriarchal, hierarchical religious system that assumes that men are truly created in the image of god. And therefore, that men have the right to lord it over others, dominate women, children, animals, the planet, and everything.

With the return to a goddess spirituality, the divinity takes on both a feminine and a masculine aspect. Until both are present in the spiritual dimension, I don't believe that equality can happen. With the return of information about goddess spirituality, and reconnection with the feminine face of god, there comes a possibility for a balance in all elements of society. And with it also comes a different relationship with the planet.

Sounds True: Do you think that women in vastly different world cultures live a common experience? When anthropologists and psychologists draw cross-cultural comparisons about women around the world, are these comparisons valid?

Jean Shinoda Bolen: I think that the experience of being in a woman's body is certainly something we share cross-culturally. And that experience is powerful in many different ways. One, it gives us the profound experience of childbirth, and with it a connection to all women who are mothers and to children. It gives women a sense of great physical vulnerability, which affects us psychologically.

If we are physically vulnerable, and since children are physically vulnerable, then we can be intimidated by power on a physical level. I think that all women experience this intimidation. We do not live in a world where women are free to travel in certain places. There is a considerable vulnerability that all women share cross-culturally.

I think there are some other things we share too. With few exceptions, the world culture is patriarchal—this is the other central shared experience. An example could be an Indian woman living in fear of retribution for not coming up with a large enough dowry. Or a Chinese woman knowing that the law limits her to one child, and that child must be a boy, and so the mother secretly arranges to end the pregnancies in which a girl child is born. This patriarchal context is global, and that affects us. It affects self-esteem, it affects potential for actualization—that sort of thing.

I would also like to say that there is a lot of diversity within the genders as well, and that our culture doesn't allow for a full expression of that diversity. All women, for example, are not most fulfilled by having children, even though that is our biological potential. Women also have an intellectual potential, a creative potential, an athletic potential. Men and women have all kinds of human potential, but only women are born with the potential of bearing children. Whether or not the culture allows a woman to live out the full range of her potentials is really the question.

Sounds True: Your comments about goddess spirituality—the awareness we need to develop in order to create true equality—do you see any real progress in this area? That people are growing in their spiritual awareness of the “feminine face of God?”

Jean Shinoda Bolen: I think that an enormous jump has occurred over a relatively short period of time. I know that I'm on the growing edge of a lot of feminist consciousness, based on the emergence into my own psyche of a reverence for the earth and the sacredness that can exist in matter. This spirituality in my own life is just a decade old. And most of the books on the subject—those by Marija Gimbutas, Merlin Stone and others—have come into the culture at about this some time. Elaine Pagel's book The Gnostic Gospels was published in this decade as well. So, the movement is new, and yet people are receptive to it—as the book The Mists of Avalon demonstrated. That women who have had no idea about goddess spirituality might read a novel and get a sense that, “Yes, it feels true,” is amazing.

At the archetypal level, it's as if new information or new consciousness touches places in the collective psyche that recognize it as repressed information.

So even though the information is only a decade old, it stirs a remembering of what is deep in our psyches: that there is god the mother, as well as god the father.

It has amazing power as an idea, and that when people—especially women—get exposed to it, they feel it to be true. I think of that saying, “There's nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Women's spirituality is getting close to that place where there is a general receptivity to the idea.

Sounds True: You mentioned the eight million women who were burned as witches and that this is a strong memory in our collective psyche. How do we clear the fear from that memory so women can be confident in expressing their power?

Jean Shinoda Bolen:It's like all irrational fears: one step at a time. You take your courage in hand and you speak up. And as more and more individual women do it, an authentic voice begins to be heard in the culture.

I think this takes courage. Giving voice to the reasons for our fears helps the situation. It's like a background anxiety you're not fully aware of, until it's described to you. Then there's on “Aha! That's it. No wonder I'm afraid.”

To become a wise-woman, a post-menopausal woman has to overcome her fears of aging and her fears of speaking with authority. Only then can she claim the archetypal power of the crone.
She need not look like one, however.

Jean Shinoda Bolen

Jean Shinoda Bolen Return to top of page

Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD, is a Jungian analyst and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. An internationally renowned lecturer and workshop leader, she is autho...


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