"Why do we find ourselves having to rediscover that women’s lives and bodies are important—even sacred—and can be experienced as important indicators of and clues to the grand scheme of the cosmos? How were such perceptions ever lost, when they are so all important, deeply satisfying, and nourishing to men as well as to women?” (Donna Wilshire, Virgin Mother Crone: Myths and Mysteries of the Triple Goddess 27)
We go on many heroes’ journeys in our individuation process, but the most important journey of my life has been the heroine’s journey of finding and restoring the various aspects of my feminine psyche. Amazingly, much of the journey for me has revolved around Greek mythology. While the Greek society may have been as patriarchal as any, they had not yet killed off their goddess awareness and the mythic connection to the feminine psyche.
Our reason-based, morality-based, wound-based society has made femaleness a vulval entrapment of man’s mind and power, denying the nurturing, fluid yet stabilizing, and creative elements of femininity. Certainly there is a reawakening of femininity in the world, in both male and female psyches, but the world in general still operates in feminine denial.
The three primary faces of feminine psychology are the Mother, Crone, and Maiden, each of which has been known in various aspects according to time and attitude: Mother as goddess, Madonna, and queen; Crone as sage and wild woman; and Maiden as virgin, purity, and innocence. Each archetype provide rich healing treasures to the psyche, both personal and collective. Each archetype has shadow features, as well. The Mother Goddess can become the Bitch Goddess, jealous or angry and abusive with her power. The Crone can become the Witch, spiteful and manipulative with her knowledge, or perhaps even mad with her wildness. Even the Maiden has shadow sides, as when her innocence becomes ignorance, or her purity an excuse to avoid engaging in the world, stepping into her goddess power. Sophocles’ Electra myth demonstrates some of the feminine shadows, as we see Clytemnestra as the manipulative murderess after her daughter was killed, spiteful Electra as the motivator of murderous revenge because her father and her significance were taken from her, and Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister who seems to be ignorant of and useless in the dynamics of their world. While Sophocles’ play is an exercise in extremes, modern psychology teaches us that severely suppressing key parts of our personalities can only lead to eruptions in the form of physical or mental “dis-ease.”
Women go through these archetype-based stages as they mature, and a common tendency is to cast off the trappings of the previous stage when we reach the next. Though the female psyche must grow into her various stages, once the psyche is ripe for a new stage of development, it is important for her to keep access to the previously experienced stages (or elements of them) in order to balance her psyche. However, if we deny ourselves any part of our psychological parts, we suffer and eventually can act out our suffering, like a grieving Demeter. Jung discusses the way in which, by allowing both the Demeter and [Persephone] archetypes room in the feminine psyche, we have “a more comprehensive personality which has a share in the eternal course of things” (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious 188). He goes on to say this gives our psyche a universal and timeless element of connection. An experience of this kind gives the individual a place and meaning in the life of the generations, so that all unnecessary obstacles are cleared out of the way of the life-stream that is to flow through her. At the same time the individual is rescued from her isolation and restored to wholeness. (188)
This, at least in part, answers the question of why Persephone must come back to her mother some of the time. The Goddess cannot permanently lose access to the maiden and maintain her balance as a goddess. Failure to balance the goddess unleashes Demeter’s shadow side, that must rage and tantrum like a storm until she gets the attention and appreciation she craves. So who are these archetypes that define the constructs of the feminine mind?
The Maiden is frequently referred to as Virgin, but not in the context we think in contemporary thought, as one who has never had sex. Instead, she is one who is moving between childhood and womanhood “beginning to explore and taste her grown-up Self. She is in bud—full of potential, unfinished, entering the unknown in a state of joyous uncertainty. Such a one is full of wonder and Becoming, curious about all the possibilities in herself and the world—open to the Mysteries and dangers that lie ahead” (Wilshire 49) She is associated with creativity and purity, and she is generally felt to be innocent of the difficulties that come with adulthood, not yet darkened or weighted by masculine energy, and not yet jaded by the responsibilities and challenges of marriage, even if she is pregnant or raising a child. Donna Wilshire captures the essence of the maiden in this segment of her story of Hebe, the virgin:
In the beginning
everything that is was mere Possibility,
everything that is was merely Becoming,
for everything was gestating
in the womb of the Great Goddess,
in the close-and-holy Darkness
of Her great womb.
For in the beginning SHE WAS!
In the very beginning SHE is ALL that was.
SHE, The Source.
SHE, our VIRGIN MOTHER!
VIRGIN, our Mother,
For in the beginning
Conceived by Herself!
VIRGIN! not meaning celibate.
VIRGIN! meaning She who is sufficient-unto-Herself.
VIRGIN! not meaning celibate.
VIRGIN! Meaning belonging-to-Herself-alone.
The VIRGIN MOTHER!
Pregnant with Possibility!
Pregnant with untold POSSIBILITY!!
Ohhmmm! Ohhmmm! Ohhmmm! (66-7)
The Mother-Goddess encompasses motherhood also, but from the perspective of the maternal guidance and grounding of motherhood. She depicts the aspects of womanhood that include being a wife and mother, though it is not necessary that she actually be either of these in her physical life. She “symbolizes love and concern for Self-as-Other and Other-as-Self” (Wilshire 116). The Mother-Goddess role is based as much or more in the goddess aspect, nurturing and ruling her local universe, and carrying weight of responsibility and the power to move those in her orbit. This is the aspect of womanhood that animates a woman’s leadership capabilities, strengths, and talents, as well as the nurturing and supportive elements of our personality.
The third primary archetype of feminine psychology is the Crone, wise-woman, in general, past her child-bearing years, though as with all of these archetypes, they are more psychologically relevant than biologically dictated. Still, to activate one’s Crone nature, one must be relieved of the obsessive passions and distractions of the Virgin and Mother mind-sets. In mother-centered societies, the old women have been respected and looked to for their wisdom and timeless perspectives. “Crones were the ones most capable of offering guidance and direction to others, the most likely persons to have the wisdom, the time, and experience to heal the sick and minster to the dying…. It was their ability to respond to large cycles that kept all events in perspective” (Wilshire 211).
Over time, the old woman has frequently been seen as a witch, which has evolved from healer, hermit, and wise-one, to evil-doer, especially in fairy-tales and Christianity. Contemporary culture does not quite know what to do with our rambling, slow, tech-illiterate old people: the pace and isolation of our current lifestyle does not accommodate them. However, when we do take the opportunity to be with a Crone, we usually find two virtues in her age: the first is broader perspective that comes with experience, as discussed above, and the second is a disregard for the mores and pressures of convention. Older people tend not to care so much about the expectations of others. The archetypal vision of this is in the wild-woman characters of myth and literature. “Ever-changing crones—the in-between ones—are famous for their laughter, for knowing something others don’t know. Hags—experienced, confident, full of secret knowledge, with nothing to lose—get away with being raucous, brazen, bold” (Wilshire 213)
Beyond hag, we need to understand that this wild-woman is a woman of true liberation and joy of life. We see her animated in the Demeter myth as the laughing, dancing Baubo who exposes her genitals. Jean Shinoda Bolen says in her Goddesses in Older Women “This gesture and the laughter it provoked restored a mother goddess’s ability to nurture and brought sunlight back to the world; it could not have been the hostile laughter of ridicule nor the snickering laughter at an obscenity. Something deeper and more significant was revealed” (99).
Inexperienced or psychologically immature women may not have access to all of these archetypes, but as a woman experiences the limits of each archetypal element, she seeks and embraces the virtues of the next. While there is a certain progression to the maturity, none of these phases are dependent entirely on age or biological circumstances. A mature woman, a goddess in her fullness, will have access to her Maiden, Mother, and Crone natures, bringing a balanced and fluid essence to her relationship with the world. However, most of us have closed off aspects of our natures, subjugating one or even all of our feminine perspectives. Once we realize we are psychically deficient, we find ourselves on a healing journey to restore ourselves to a wholeness of spirit, but what does that whole woman look like?
We see many models of the three archetypes in mythology, especially Greek and Roman, yet it is not easy to find samples of a whole woman, an intact feminine psyche which embodies all of the feminine aspects. Patriarchal systems have parsed the feminine into serviceable categories, each of whose “purpose and reason for being was defined primarily by her relationship and service to a male—his wife, his mother, his daughter, his muse and inspiration, and so forth” (Wilshire 43) The most ancient goddesses were all-encompassing models of the feminine principle as it informs the world, with the powers of creativity, nurturing, and dissolution all part of their realm. However, with the development of systemized pantheons, came goddesses of narrower roles.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés dedicates her entire book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, to this concept of the whole woman and what that looks like in the mind and the world, past and present. She calls this whole woman, a “wild woman,” but meaning something quite different than our ecstatic crone above. She defines the whole woman as being in touch with her natural essence, her wildness as a part of nature, and equates her with a healthy she-wolf, at times referring to her as La Loba, the wolf woman. While she tracks a number of names and references for this dynamic, yet balanced creature, for our purposes we will utilize La Loba for this whole woman because, “by naming her we create for her a territory of thought and feeling within us” (8).
Estés goes on to advise us that we need to understand and embrace this wildish nature that is essential to the feminine psyche. This wild woman, La Loba, “is the health of all women. Without her, women’s psychology makes no sense. This wilderwoman is the prototypical woman . . . no matter what culture, no matter what era, no matter what politic, she does not change. Her cycles change, her symbolic representations change, but in essence, she does not change. She is what she is and she is whole” (8-9).
To have a healthy female psyche, to be a whole goddess of femininity within, we need to embrace all of our phases and talents, the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, and be able to draw from these any time as ever-present resources. Yet this requires more than just acknowledging our various roles and attitudes. Whether we call her Aphrodite, goddess of love, sexuality, creativity, beauty and femininity, or whether we call her La Loba, the wolf woman who knows her deepest self and connects to the free and natural rhythms of her nature, as a part of all nature, to be a healthy and balanced female, she must embrace her deepest and varied nature as a woman.
We, too can benefit from letting go of the restrictions and confines in which we have stuffed bits and pieces of our soul in order to accommodate the demands of our world and our roles, and restore Aphrodite to her throne at the heart of our psyche. “There is an aliveness that Aphrodite brings to the psyche, that imbues life with love and beauty and is enhanced by her ability to be in the present moment” (Bolen 174). Aphrodite’s fun-loving nature cannot rule every aspect of our lives, but we need to make room for the flow of her influence through us, bringing us the ability to appreciate each moment and bringing creativity into all of our roles. “An Aphrodite who ages very well does so because she has developed wisdom—as personified by Hecate, Metis, Sophia, or Hestia. She is not driven by the Aphrodite archetype nor has been deserted by it. She retains an ability to be fascinated by the beauty she sees in the world and in people. She savors experience and, hence, enjoys life” (Bolen 174). Estés says that to comprehend this wild woman is “a psychology in the truest since . . . a knowing of the soul. Without her, women are without ears to hear her soultalk or to register the chiming of their own inner rhythms” (8)
As part of my own journey, I wrote the following poem to help me value my own natural assets and embody La Loba. Though it lacks Sappho’s genius, this is my own personification of the feminine aspects portrayed as blossoming life on a mountainside.
When the Mountain Sings
La Loba tracks up the side of the mountain
Stopping at the crest to sniff the timeless air.
Her eternal gaze pan’s the wild terrain, painted in
Dusty greens and browns and specks of brighter color.
On one sunny glade bright faces reach boldly
up for the light—blooming with a bursting “See me!”
Their white petals signal a purity so bright,
They draw perfect attention to their
hopeful golden wombs
Each daisy swaying and praying
to be plucked in the name of love.
A bit farther uphill, in the crags of brush and stone,
An occasional thistle also reaches high for the sun.
She’s grown a firm stalk that has pushed its way up
Through the rugged landscape,
And wears the mantel of prick and sting to protect her precious treasure.
After the dainty white petals below have faded, her coarse bud opens
Into a brilliant purple blossom,
Which none may pluck without consequence.
Finally, her fertile womb opens, yielding a nest of offspring
In a sensational display of white splendor.
Magnificent - - Inspiring - - Magical
And gone with the first strong puff of summer breeze.
The hardy bush that blankets this side of the mountain,
Watches the seasonal cycles with her Sage eye.
Her sturdy arms protect and comfort any who seek her help—
Be it those who slither, walk, or fly into her shade.
Patiently, she endures the summer drought and heat,
Yet still sweetens the mountain with her constant perfume,
And gives the land its last burst of color before Winter claims the Sun.
La Loba sniffs the air again, aware of the countless seasons
Of blooms past and the endless seasons to come.
She feels the bounty swell in her chest
Until she throws back her head
And howls her heartsong of joy to all creation.
She begins to move—running faster and faster—
Across time and space—paws becoming feet,
Fur becoming hair, and
Howl becoming a woman’s laughter so free and so full
That the mountain hums along.
By Gay Wolff
Go to Full Academic Article (12/2008)