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Excerpt In our culture, old women are mostly ignored - but it hasn't always been that way

Author and psychologist Sharon Blackie writes about what we can learn from the ‘Cailleach’ about our views on aging, and how we can challenge them.

IN THE OLDEST known cosmology of my native lands, it wasn’t a skybound old man with a beard who made and shaped 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 time.

“When I was a young lass, the ocean was a forest, full of trees,” she says, in some of the stories about her – stories that are still told today, firmly embedded in the oral tradition.

This mythology is from right here. From the islands of Britain and Ireland, strung out along the farthest western reaches of Europe where I was born, and where I live still today. Although a lot of attention has been paid to the question of whether ancient European cultures honoured a ‘Great Mother’ goddess, in these islands we were actually honouring a Great Grandmother.

Her name in the Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland is the Cailleach: literally, the Old Woman. There are traces of other divine old women scattered throughout the rest of the British Isles and Europe; they’re probably the oldest deities of all.

How thoroughly we’ve been taught to forget. Today, we don’t see these narratives as remnants of ancient belief systems – rather, they’re presented to us as folk tales intended merely to entertain, as oddities of primitive history, the vaguely amusing relics of more superstitious times or bedtime stories for children.

Whatever we’ve been taught they are – they’re not. They are remnants of pre-Christian cosmologies – cosmologies that are firmly embedded in the land, the sea, the sky, and the human, animal and plant-populated cultures to which we belong. Cosmologies in which old women mattered.

Why the Cailleach matters

But really, why should the Cailleach matter now? Why should the other fierce and shining old women of European myth and folklore 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 any more. 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.

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.

There are a lot of ageing women out there. Between 1918 and 2018, average life expectancy increased by around 25 to 30 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 older – are now the fastest-growing segment of most Western populations, and a majority of them are women.

How to live your life

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. We see old age as a time of loss, of decay; we focus on holding ageing and death at bay. We find the process embarrassing, verging on distasteful. It’s not something we really want to hear about, and yet the media is full of it, and all of it negative.

We’re constantly flooded with stories about the ‘burden’ that old people place on health services, and with news about Alzheimer’s disease, designed to strike horror into all ageing hearts.

There are endless exposés of appalling conditions in care homes; stories about older women being preyed upon, scammed and even raped; stories about the impossibility of finding or even holding down a job once you’re over fifty and are effectively written off by a culture which prides itself on productivity rather than quality.

Where are the stories of empowered and fulfilled elders? Where are the stories of the ways in which they can bring meaning and hope into the lives of the young? Where are the still-thriving lives?

This lack of cultural recognition and support for the process of becoming elder is why so many people with ageing bodies insist on trying to live as though they were still approaching midlife.

The richness of aging

It’s 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?

As a culture, our failure to understand or embrace ageing is also related to the fact that we are increasingly and profoundly cut off from nature, and so from the natural cycles and rhythms of our human life.

And yet the old women in our old stories, without exception, are forces of nature, and of the ancestral Otherworld which is so beautifully entangled with this world. There are no twice removed, transcendental star-goddesses here; no twinkly fairy queens, reluctant to sully themselves with the dirt and mess of physical incarnation.

Our old women are the dark heart of the forest, the stone womb of the mountain, immanent in the living land itself. They’re elemental beings: storm-hags, fire-keepers, grandmothers of the sea.

They show us how to live when everything we thought mattered to us has been stripped away; they teach us how to stay rooted in the face of inevitable death. They teach us how to stand firm in the face of all the culture’s bullshit, and laugh.

Adapted from the introduction of Hagitude: Reimagining the Second Half of Life by Sharon Blackie.

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