This essay explores the elder woman archetype, often called the crone, in the context of depth psychotherapy.
It was submitted in December 2020 as a final reflection paper in a course toward my masters degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy, professional clinical counseling, and depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Acceptance, Connection, and Deeper Meaning:
Working with the Elder Woman Archetype
December 9, 2020
Engaging with universal symbols as they emerge in the process of psychotherapy will be a valuable tool in my future practice as a psychotherapist. Professor of Literature, Delmar Kehl (1988), explained that universal symbols, also known as archetypes, are more than simply symbols or stereotypes of behavior: “Unlike stereotypes, archetypes are deep, primordial images, universal symbols of the collective . . . unconscious.” (p. 1). She implied that archetypes provide a meaningful connection to something greater than oneself. From this view, working with archetypes in psychotherapy is a natural asset because it facilitates a space for the client to access a deeper state of self-awareness and meaning in their life. This is especially valuable for my future work as a psychotherapist with elder people who identify as women. In contemporary Western culture, elder women are highly stigmatized, stereotyped, and misunderstood because of the high value placed on a youthful appearance. As psychologist James Hillman (1999) said, “Aging has become the major fear of a generation.” (p. xx). Exploring symbols of the ‘elder woman archetype’ with my future psychotherapy clients will facilitate opportunities for exploration of what it means to be an older woman, cultivate deeper meaning, and reveal unconscious material that may be emerging in the woman’s life.
Psychology professor William Crain (2010) said in Theories of Development that in Erik Erikson’s theory of human development, the last phase of life presents a conflict between ego integrity and despair that hopefully leads to wisdom (p. 286). He said old age is generally marked by “a series of physical and social losses . . . facing death . . . life review . . . integrity . . . that also extends beyond the self and even transcends national and ideological boundaries” (p. 295). Through grappling with these issues, the elder hopefully finds wisdom. One way to meet this internal conflict is to work with universal symbols, also known as archetypes. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1954/1969) said that, “archetypes are . . . responsible for the organization of unconscious psychic processes: they are ‘patterns of behavior’. At the same time they have a ‘specific charge’ and develop numinous effects which express themselves as affects.” (p. 20). In this way, archetypes can serve as a guiding principle in psychotherapy from which to understand a client’s most intense, unexplainable, and irrational behavior and feelings.
Psychologist Richard Sharf (2016) said in Theories of Psychology and Counseling that archetypes are not directly experienced but can be perceived through “dreams, fantasies, visions, myths, fairy tales, [and] art” (p. 92). He explained that Jung’s process of psychotherapy was informed by his vast knowledge of culture, religion, literature, and mythology because it “provided him with more material for understanding symbols” and archetypes (p. 92). To bring this concept to my future practice as a psychotherapist to elder women, I contemplated several female deities associated with old age from European cultures within my ancestral lineage: Baba Yaga: a Russian figure in Slavic mythology portrayed as a wild old woman, a witch and guardian of the fountain of life (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021); Cailleach: an Irish goddess seen as a hag or crone, a wise woman who was an oracle and a mediator between the human world and spirit world (O’Crualaoich, 2006); Hecate: a Greek goddess of “life, death, and regeneration” she holds a torch at crossroads and “had enormous magic power” (Gimbutas, 1999, p. 155); Hel (sometimes called Holla or Frau Holla) the German goddess who “escorts the dead to the otherworld in the inner depths”, portrayed as “an ugly old hag with long, powerful hair . . . life giver, death wielder, and regeneratrix . . . the most influential magician goddess” (Gimbutas, 1999, p. 195); Nicnevein: a Celtic goddess and fairy queen portrayed as a hag and a leader of witches, fairies, sorceresses, and elves (Scott, 1884, p. 25); and Vølva: a German goddess who is a “wise woman, seeress, and authority in rites of divination” (Gimbutas, 1999, p. 194). In reviewing these deities, I noticed three repeating symbols: (1) wisdom, (2) being a protector, keeper, or mediator of the wise ways or the unseen world, and (3) psychic or magic abilities. These three symbolic themes naturally align with Erikson’s idea of old age being associated with wisdom, integrity, and transcendence (Crain, 2010). Further, Jung’s (1961) model of old age also emphasizes wisdom and connection to the unseen inner world, “with increasing age, contemplation, and reflection, the inner images naturally play an ever greater part in . . . life” (p. 320). From this preliminary review of a selection of European goddesses associated with old age, the elder female archetype has the core universal symbols of wisdom, being a protector, and having psychic abilities.
A specific myth or deity may resonate with an individual in psychotherapy depending on their current situation, experiences, and upbringing. Sheenagh Burns (2008) discussed in Geropsychology Practice that the therapist should always consider “characteristics of the resident, such as physical and mental condition, life experiences including background and ethnicity, personal characteristics and preferences, and personality.” (p. 78). Some of these characteristics may present immediately but many are revealed in layers over the course of therapy. As a result, introducing a specific myth to the client could be limiting or even harmful if there is a lack of cultural awareness. Therefore, symbols of the elder woman archetype that transcend cultural context allow for a better understanding of the archetype and foster consideration for the diversity of human life. These influences are comprehensively described by Psychologist Pamela Hays (2016) in Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice as the “ADDRESSING framework: Age, Developmental or other Disability, Religion, Ethnicity, Socioeconomic status, Sexual orientation, Indigenous heritage, National origin, and Gender” (p. 8). From these considerations, my work with the elder woman archetype will focus primarily on the universal symbols of (1) wisdom, (2) being a protector, and (3) psychic abilities. Instead of imposing a myth, I would allow these symbols to emerge in the therapy room, to create space for the client to relate to these universal symbols, and then introduce a specific myth if appropriate or if requested.
If an elder person identifying as a woman came to therapy with challenges regarding the transition into retirement, we may want to explore the elder woman archetype through symbols of wisdom. This process may initially involve exploring the client’s relationship to elder females in her own life, her expectations, associations with age, and concerns about being in this elder role herself. I may ask her what it means to her to be wise, where does wisdom come from, and who in her life is wise? As we discuss her associations, I would be watching for the unconscious “patterns of behavior” and strong affect characteristic of archetypes as described by Jung (1954/1969, p. 20). Primarily, we would explore what it means to her to be an elder and a wise woman – and her relationship (or lack of it) to this role. Psychologist Rochelle Suri (2009) described in Working With the Elderly this process as presence: “presence means to be completely immersed in the client’s phenomenal world, giving undivided attention to the client’s inner process.” (p. 176). She considered presence a key component of the existential-humanistic approach best suited for elders in psychotherapy. For a woman transitioning into retirement, this topic of connecting to a deeper part of herself may be a radical departure from a life dominated by externally focused work. As a retiree, she has the space to re-dedicate to herself in the spirit of the wise elder woman.
In another scenario, an elder woman may enter therapy because of stress and exhaustion from suddenly becoming a primary caretaker for her parent. In this case, we would initially explore the client’s practical needs such as: family or friend support systems, self-care routines, and financial security to care for her parent. The archetypal compliment to her basic needs would involve deepening into questions about the client’s relationship to the symbols of being a protector and a keeper of someone or something beyond herself. I may ask what (if any) familial memories come up as she becomes increasingly involved with the care of her parent. This reflection on the past is a natural and therapeutic phenomenon later in life and can be intensified when caring for a parent. As Jungian psychoanalyst Erel Shalit (2011) said in The Cycle of Life, “We return to our ancestors in order to heal our neurosis” (p. 174). This process of returning to herself through confrontation of changing family dynamic would allow an elder woman to discern the legacy she will protect going forward. Psychotherapy would involve exploring what feelings and patterns come up as well as fostering support for her decisions.
Perhaps the most unexpected symbol of the elder woman is psychic/magic abilities. Contemporary culture associates old age with dullness, delusion, and a weakening of the senses. The symbol of psychic and magical connection to the unseen world emerges when an elder woman redirects her primary focus from the physical world to the inner psychic world as her physical aptitude declines. Jungian analyst Marion Woodman (2005) spoke about coping with losing physical strength in old age in The Crown of Age when she said, “your strength now is your spiritual strength.” (p. 7). She emphasized that an elder woman must simplify her material world to focus her strengths on the inner world, the psychic senses. If a client entered therapy for treatment of depression and suicidal ideation following a decline in her ability to care for herself, we may find the symbol of psychic connection most useful. In this situation, there would likely be a grieving process over the loss of independence. In time, I may ask about her relationship to her inner world, psychic senses, the unseen, and even her views on religion or spirituality. I would be curious about her gut feelings, dreams she is having, and where her mind goes when she is alone. Depending on the receptivity of the client, we may experiment with simple exercises that facilitate intuition and psychic connection such as mindful breathing, guided imagery, or seated Qi Gong (Siegel, 2010, p. 29). Psychic connection may be the most subtle yet valuable of the three symbols of the elder woman archetype because it can go incredibly deep and will be highly personal based on the client’s temperament, cultural background, and religious or spiritual beliefs.
As illustrated by Suri (2009), because people in the last phase of life face challenging issues of death, physical loss, and psychological deterioration, they benefit greatly from a humanistic approach to psychotherapy involving presence, spirituality, and finding meaning. She said this method has “infinite potential and can be applied in deep and meaningful ways with the elderly population.” (p. 184). Working with the archetype of the elder woman and her symbols of wisdom, protector, and psychic abilities is a natural tool in service of this humanistic approach. These symbols align with the developmental stages of Erikson and Jung and provide a depth perspective in psychotherapy that is culturally sensitive. This archetype may arise naturally in the therapy room or be uncovered through active listening and exploration with my elder women clients. Psychotherapy approached in this way allows for unconscious content and collective themes to be revealed with greater meaning, present centered awareness, and acceptance of oneself. The concepts in this paper could be further improved through deeper analysis of the deities mentioned, by exploring myths outside of Europe (especially cultures underrepresented in the Jungian community), and by exploring male deities in mythology for awareness of gender diversity. I hope to further my understanding of the elder woman archetype with additional study of folklore around the world and in my local community. Working with these archetypal symbols of the elder woman will enable a therapeutic space that emphasizes the client’s current practical life circumstances as an elder woman with acceptance, connection, and deeper meaning.
Crain, W. (2010). Theories of development: Concepts and applications (6th ed.) Pearson: Prentice Hall
Burns, S.U. (2008). Geropsychology practice: One psychologist’s experience in long-term care. Psychological Services, 5(1), 73-84. https://dio.org/10.1037/1541-1518.104.22.168
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