The Alpha Mare


untitled (3)The archetypal Crone represents many valuable qualities. One of these, leadership, is aptly symbolized by the Alpha mare. In herds of horses, the leader is almost always a mature mare. While the stallion is the physically strongest and most aggressive male who mates with the females and protects himself, his herd, and his territory by keeping intruders away, he is not the wisest, most trusted horse in the herd nor is he the dominant leader who makes the others feel safe and secure.
The Alpha mare does not command respect because she is youngest, prettiest, most charming, physically strongest, or the stallion’s favorite, but because her age and vast experience have made her confident, mentally strong, and savvy in the ways of survival. The other horses follow her because she makes wise decisions. She socializes the younger horses and teaches them to be obedient, leads the herd to food and water, and guides it to safety when threatened by predators. Of all the horses in the herd, male and female, young and old, the Alpha mare is the one who knows best how to preserve the species.
There was once a time when groups of people sat at the feet of Crones, respectfully seeking their guidance and benefitting from their wisdom. The Cheyenne tell a story about “The Old Woman of the Spring” who gave them the buffalo and horse and taught them to plant corn.
In the tale “Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun,” Spider Woman brought the sun, fire, and art of pottery-making to the Cherokee. Old Salt Woman gave the Cochiti the magical blessing of salt, in the form of some of her own flesh, to make their food taste better.
The Brule Sioux say that when a grandmother prayed for a sacred herb to save the Comanche nation, a spirit told her where to find Grandfather Peyote and how to use it. She brought it back to her people and gave them the ceremony, and from that moment on, they learned to know themselves.
The Tiwa tell of Apache Chief to whom Spider Old Woman gave special medicine and Gopher Old Woman gave secret knowledge that helped him retrieve his lost wife. Such stories speak to the reverence native peoples had for the elder women whose lengthy life experience and intimate relationship with nature sacralized their lives and improved their chances for survival.
As the Sky God replaced the Earth Goddess as our primary source of spiritual guidance and meaning, our respect for Crone wisdom diminished in many parts of the world. At the individual level this is occasionally justified. Certainly, not every grandmother has feet at which one would necessarily want to sit! Generations of being separated from all that feels sacred to women has turned some of them into the very worst examples of feminine shadow. These are the wicked witches we hear about in fairy tales, and they should be avoided like poison lest they spread their toxicity to us.
But there are also some Alpha mares out there. We need to seek out these examples of the positive, empowered Crone, for they hold vital secrets that could help us maintain the delicate balance between societal preservation and annihilation.
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0 Responses

  1. jeanie,
    i’ve seen herds of horses act just as you describe.
    i’ve also seen strings of pack animals compete on the trail, with the big horses and mules vying to get closer to the front of the string—and forcing the smaller burros to the back.
    but when the string comes to a place where the trail is suddenly difficult to follow, the bigger animals step aside and let the more sure-footed burros find the best route…..
    and when the string comes to an unfamiliar source of water, the bigger animals step aside to see if the burros find it safe to drink…..
    also, deer herds exhibit much the same behavior you describe among horses—it is the oldest doe, often the great-great-great-grandmother of other members of the herd, who leads through familiarity with the seasons and the lay of the land….
    on the other hand, it is the strongest and fastest of the lemmings that leads the way over the cliff….
    the crone symbol has, it seems to me, long acted as a counter-weight to our collective tendency to direct attention outward at the expense of an inner view. men and women both ought to hold out this ideal of worldly-wisdom, steeped in long patient first-hand experience with the ancestral memory, and try to cultivate it within themselves.
    the herd ought, in other words, try to remember what holds it together—and what kind of leadership it truly longs to follow…..
    thanks for another wonderful article,

  2. William,
    I had a hearty laugh at your mention of the ill-fated lemmings! What a perfect image of a truly tragic reality in the human species as well.
    Yes, I see the Crone as a positive (in this case) symbol for men and women alike in the same way the Warrior is. Although at first glance they seem gender-specific, both actually reference archetypal qualities inherent in every psyche. A primary motivation of my writing is to raise awareness of psychological potential that is often overlooked or dismissed because of harmful gender stereotypes that make so many of us afraid to honor our true selves. As James Q mentioned in a recent comment, each of us has a contra-sexual opposite that needs equal attention from our ego if we wish to become more individuated and whole. Yes, indeed, “the herd ought …to remember… what kind of leadership it truly longs to follow,” regardless of gender, race, or any other observable factor. Thanks for noticing and calling attention to this important thread running through most of my work.
    Thank you also for your always apt and interesting comments. I enjoy them very much.

  3. It is great to see a discussion that starts with the Alpha mare. I find the horse herd model to be one of the most conspicuous matriarchal systems in nature. One aspect of the Alpha mare role, at least for horses, is the importance of producing a female heir. Those mares who do not tend to be pushed back down the ladder when they reach very old age. Yet an Alpha mare with a daughter (if the daughter is not a complete dunce) will stay on top even as she becomes very old and physically infirm, because her daughter supports her, practicing to take her place. Even a mare with very low rank in the herd will get a little boost of respect if she raises a daughter. I find this to be a touching counter-view to the predominant view among people.
    I have seen similar interactions in groups of male horses, where the “Beta” horse will defend the standing of an aging Alpha horse against upstart youngsters. I’m not sure if he senses that his future promotion is at stake or if that’s just his “job” in the herd. But the male groups are less consistent than the females, and as often as not, #2 is just waiting to knock #1 off of his throne.
    Thank you for a thought-provoking article.

    1. I love it! I never knew that about the Alpha mare’s value having to do with her ability to produce a female heir. But it makes sense, really. Think of Judaism, for example, where traditionally you weren’t considered Jewish if your mother wasn’t Jewish. (I’m not sure if that’s still true. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.) It’s my understanding this has to do with the fact that it’s the female who transfers the culture. So if a mother doesn’t have a daughter, who’s going to fix the Sabbath dinner and pass on all the traditions of food and family and proper social behavior to the next generation? This, of course, is not in any way to denigrate the male’s contributions to the family and tribe, but simply to raise our awareness about the equal value of the female’s contributions. Ultimately I see this as a metaphor for the necessity for creating partnerships between all pairs of opposites. It’s only when the masculine and feminine principles work together that we have balance and wholeness, not only in the physical world, but in every relationship, society, and religion.
      Thank you for your delightful contributions to this discussion.

  4. Hi Jeanie,
    This article struck a deep cord with me as I had never heard of Alpha Mares. The animal kingdom (governed by the right
    brain?) demonstrate such wisdom.
    I retired from full time employment in 1995 and was struck with the way older men and women were shuttled out to pasture on retirement. So, at the age of 67 decided to go for a doctorate in an interdisciplinary study of human aging. Having dabbled in Jungian studies through the years, I wanted to try to understand why our culture was so anti-aging and viewed aging, for the most part, as a disease to be feared and conquered. My primary research question, was “does the perception of one’s body affect the quality of one’s aging.”
    I did qualitative in depth interviews with women over 70 and found, contrary to my expectations, that most of these women had a much more holistic view of aging than the medical profession and popular culture would lead us to believe. In most cases the women’s sense of self was not determined by their aging body.
    Most of the women talked about a quickening relationship with their soul in this time of life. They seemed to demonstrate what the horses know– wisdom does comes with age, that is if one refuses to listen to the messages from our prevailing culture.

  5. Sally,
    How fascinating! What a great research question. I would have answered with the majority of your subjects. I find this time of life (I’m in my 60’s) to be deeply rich and far more enjoyable and rewarding than ever before. In many ways I feel younger than I did at mid-life. This feeling speaks far louder than cultural messages

  6. P.S. I unintentionally published the above before completing it. Such are the hazards of writing via a tiny iPhone!
    Thanks so much for your wonderful input.

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