icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

The Archetype of an Elder

(Savitri's article written for The Mountain Astrologer, August/​​September 2012 issue, examines critical stages in the life of an elder, according to the transits of Saturn and Jupiter. The development of the character of the Norse god Wotan serves as metaphor for Savitri's premise.)

I’ve been pondering the landscape of growing old for about twelve years, since around the end of my second Saturn return and my fifth Jupiter return. To love the archetype of elder requires an intention that goes against the sentiment of our times. Most people I encounter don’t seem to like the idea of growing old.

Our Western culture idealizes the young. I’m still not totally reconciled to my aging body, nor can I say with honesty that I enjoy the wrinkles, the slight wavering of the voice, the aches and pains. Fortunately, most of these symptoms arrived slowly, giving me a chance to get used to them. But mostly I tried to ignore them. Then, when my jowls began to sag, I figured I’d better get my mind around it all.

After all, growing old is inevitable. So, why not look at the benefits? Why not settle in with my assembled wisdom through experience, the Saturn teachings? A face-lift only serves to further deify youth. Why not agree that I am indeed an elder, someone perhaps to be respected and loved for the very fact of having lived for more than 70 years? But it doesn’t always work that way, though it could — if we would pursue the challenge of living into the archetype.

The old man/​​old woman archetype can be found cross-culturally in myths, legends, and stories all over the world, and is present in every person in what C. G. Jung refers to as the collective unconscious. [1] In many Native American societies and in many pockets of India and Asia, the people are well known for honoring their elders and for imbibing their wisdom. In ancient India (and, in many cases, even today), during the elder years, the husband and wife relocate to a forest hermitage or ashram to meditate, contemplate, study scripture, write, teach, and connect well with God before death arrives.

Consciousness in old age and the process of dying is part of the nature of the archetype of elder. In contrast, many of the elderly in the United States are trundled off to the wasteland of the well-meaning nursing home.

I am proposing a three-stage transition from middle age into older age that can be experienced as an initiation into the elder archetype. I’ve found that Jupiter and Saturn transits mark this pathway. The messages of these two slow-moving planets will be self-evident, along with other indicators in our natal charts. Many senior citizens these days do not end up living into the archetype of the wise and respected elder, but the astrological map is in place for that to happen. The choice is there.

In the first part of the cycle, in our late 50s, everyone has a second Saturn return, followed closely by a fifth Jupiter return. And we experience the second part of the cycle, the transiting Saturn square natal Saturn, at about age 64 or 65. Then, in the third stage, the sixth Jupiter return arrives around age 71–72, along with Saturn opposing natal Saturn, either at the same time or just after the Jupiter transit.

The effects of Saturn’s transits last for the full two and a half years it takes to pass through a sign, with perhaps more intensity when the aspects are exact. Jupiter’s transit through each sign takes one year. In my experience, most of us will feel the effects of the Saturn and Jupiter transits as they approach and after they leave. Understanding the nature of these planetary giants, as expressed by their natal placements and their transits, will help ;us to navigate these stages

Saturn, whose metal is iron (lead, in some systems) is probably best known for creating obstacles, often in the form of authority figures, seemingly invisible impediments to progress, or bouts of depression. In the face of Saturn obstructions, we ideally try to discover how to work with them, rather than against them. In this way, Saturn grants wisdom through experience. With Saturn, we learn self-discipline and how to get the job done using persistence, patience, and dedication. If we are successful in learning Saturn’s lessons, we might receive respect from others to the point of becoming venerable.

The downside of Saturn includes the potential for harshness, crookedness, back-room dealings, and dark alleyway scheming. Sometimes, people with strong natal Saturn have a physical deformity, from birth or from an injury. “[Saturn] is also known as the Slow, Son of Shadows, the Angular, the Black, the Endless, the End Causer, the All-Devouring, the Steady, the Controller, the Famished, and the Emaciated.” [2]

Saturn teaches us about time and the ever-present Grim Reaper, the Lord of Death who inevitably arrives at the end of our lifetime. However, a prominent Saturn does not usually or necessarily portend imminent death but is rather a map for growing old with dignity, and it serves as a constant reminder that time will run out.

If we choose to delve into the more esoteric side of Saturn, astrology’s alchemical significator, we find that he helps us to solve the riddle of the philosopher’s stone, how to turn iron or lead (Saturn) into gold (Jupiter). The sought-after gold in medieval alchemy was also known as the philosopher’s stone, the alchemical procedure of turning a common stone into gold, a well-kept secret.

Today, alchemy and the discovery of the symbolic philosopher’s stone refers to a process of spiritual and psychological transformation in which we make peace with opposites such as love–hate, male–female, right–wrong, fire–water, success–failure, conscious–unconscious. [3] Saturn can drive us to go deep within and to understand ourselves through self-inquiry. I say “drive” because most of us need a reason, such as pain or suffering, to dig into matters of life’s meaning — we would not necessarily care to delve into the mysterious if we were happy all the time.

Jupiter is known in Vedic astrology as Guru. The guru is the spiritual teacher who gives insight and guides us into transcendence. It is said that the guru gives us everything we want, until we want what the guru wants to give us, which is the final Liberation, Self-Realization, or union with the All that Is —another way to express the underlying meaning of the philosopher’s stone.

Under the influence of Jupiter, we receive good fortune, internally and externally; we go over the mountain and beyond. A person under a Jupiter transit might seem to radiate light as a candle lit from within, feeling like a god or goddess, on top of the world. Most of us look forward to a Jupiter transit because it might mean a raise, a better job, a move to a bigger house, success, even fame, the karmic benefits of) our accomplishments. Benevolence, generosity, and expansion are Jupiterian qualities.

Sometimes, under Jupiter’s influence, we expand too much and grow overweight, or drink too much and become alcoholic; sometimes, we receive too much and become careless with the bounty. In this way, Jupiter can be seen to have a downside: too much. Additionally, though I caution against drawing premature conclusions, I’ve noticed in quite a few cases that Jupiter can be prominent in a natal chart — by transit, progression, or firdaria (time period) — when death is near. Certainly, death is a major form of expansion. I’ve also noticed that those who are consciously dying will often have a glow about them. Death refers to transformation, too — dying to the present way of life, as a phoenix rising from the ashes. Metaphorically, Saturn is marking time, while Jupiter is standing by to open the door to freedom

As allegory of the aging process I will use the mythological story of Wotan, the reigning Norse god (similar to Zeus), as he is portrayed in the four operas of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.[4] Wotan is depicted as a very human-like god, as most of them are — he is even personable, with many admirable qualities and a couple of seriously tragic flaws. In the Ring, we also meet two classical female elder archetypes: the Norns, the seers, the three old sisters who spin the threads of life and read the future; and Erda, the wise Earth goddess.

In The Ring of the Nibelung, Wotan rules over the mortals and the immortals. In his more Jupiterian nature, Wotan bestows fame and fortune. In his Saturnian nature, he is the quintessential authoritarian and manipulator.

We learn from the Norns, the spinners of destiny, that in his earlier days Wotan had plucked out one of his eyes in exchange for more power, so that he could rule more effectively. At the same time, he cut a branch from the world ash tree, a tree of life, and carved runes into his new staff, old Germanic script that “set in stone” all his contracts and agreements with the mortals and the immortals. The staff and the black patch over the blind eye are symbols of his power.

The first opera of the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold, opens with the Rhinemaidens gaily swimming around, casually protecting the Rhinegold. Alberich, a Nibelung, a member of the race of dwarfs who live in the underworld, represents the deep and twisted shadow side of Saturn. He arrives on the scene at the bottom of the river where he seeks the Rhinemaidens’ love. They tease him mercilessly.

In revenge, Alberich steals the gold and tricks the maidens into telling him a secret — that he who wears a ring forged from the Rhinegold and forsakes the power of love forever will have uncontested supremacy over all the worlds. Alberich renounces and curses love, and then heads off to forge the ring. He represents the part of us that was wounded emotionally as a child, or later in a love relationship. We often cover up our hurt feelings by lashing out or attempting to control others. These shadow elements within us will need to come into the light as we mature into a wise elder.

In the second act of Das Rheingold, we are introduced to Wotan and begin to see how his life reveals many typical characteristics of Stage One the second Saturn return and the fifth Jupiter return. The giants Fasolt and Fafner, dark and plodding Saturnian types, have just finished building Valhalla, Wotan’s dream castle for the gods and fallen heroes, a home for Wotan and his wife Fricka.

In exchange for building Valhalla, Wotan had agreed to give the giants Freya, the goddess of love and beauty (similar to Venus), but Wotan didn’t plan on keeping his agreement. When the giants refuse to take anything less than Freya, Wotan calls upon the trickster Loge (similar to Mercury), to get him out of the mess.

Down in the underworld realm of the Nibelung dwarfs, Loge and Wotan use trickery to steal Alberich’s ring and the gold. They drag Alberich and the gold to the upper realms, and there the dwarf casts another curse: Until the ring is returned to Alberich, whoever wears the ring will be slave to its powers, and will meet only fear, misery, and death. Falling into the ring’s spell, Wotan refuses to part with it, but the giants want the ring.

When the assembled gods pressure Wotan to do as he promised, he flies into a rage and then broods in a corner. Here, Wotan represents the part of us that, when in the grip of Saturn’s shadow side, might throw a tantrum when we don’t get what we want.

While Wotan sulks, Erda the Earth goddess, the wise woman Jupiter influence, rises from a deep sleep. Often the essence of Jupiter arrives in the form of a goddess, representing feminine wisdom.

Now Erda warns Wotan of danger and counsels him to throw the ring back into the Rhine. But Wotan realizes that he must hand over the ring to the giants or else lose Freya. That done, Fafner kills his brother giant, Fasolt, turns himself into a dragon, and escapes to a cave where he protects his bounty — a vivid picture of the shadow side of Saturn. At the end of Das Rheingold, while Wotan leads the gods across an ephemeral rainbow bridge to glittering Valhalla, Loge predicts a dim future, and the Rhinemaidens call out for the return of their gold.

Wotan’s success from hard work, both noble and crooked, are characteristic of what can take place during the second Saturn return and the fifth Jupiter return. The building of Valhalla, his great vision, epitomizes the kind of life-dream achievement that can come about during these transits, especially for those of us who have been building a career, honestly or dishonestly (or a combination of both), for most of our adult life. Such later-life transits can lead to job promotions, artistic success, election as a government official, scientific discoveries, or flying in a hot air balloon around the world in 80 days.

Before and during my own second Saturn return, I was deep into writing a book, The Path of the Mother. I was obsessed. I could think of nothing else but publishing my manuscript. While I longed to end up with an inspiring book that would help others, I also wanted my name in lights, in spite of the fact that my monastic training had taught me to long for one thing only: enlightenment.

Luckily, there weren’t many ways to be tricky or devious to accomplish my desire; my goal could only be by hard work, along with inspiration and good fortune. My guru Ammachi advised me along the way and encouraged me to pursue my dream. Toward the end of the Saturn return, I received a contract from a New York publishing house. During my fifth Jupiter return, I self-published a novel, and shortly after that, The Path of the Mother rolled off the press.

With our main goal accomplished, we might find our success serving us for a number of years. Or the outward evidence of achievement might head downhill — all depending on the natal chart and our own personal choices. Whatever the external evidence, the road will lead inevitably to the next period in our life, Stage Two, Saturn square natal Saturn, at about age 64-65.

Many senior citizens retire at this age. And many do not, by choice or because they continue to feel vital and important (benefic Saturn) in the job place. Some don’t retire because of financial impossibility, on of the no-way out symptoms of Saturn’s more difficult influences. Out of financial necessity, many baby boomers are opting for community living settings, such as the “pocket neighborhood,” small home-sties on communal land, built close together and within walking distance to the centers of towns.

Even juxtaposed with a prosperous and healthy life, or viable housing solutions, certain doubts might arise, feelings of impermanence or frailty. Depression is not unusual. At this stage, we might feel regrets over past mistakes. Thoughts about death and dying are likely to come up.

We may or may not pay attention or understand what is going on. Sometimes, only serious or life-threatening illness, accident, or tragedy will cause us to wake up. If we are fortunate, our Saturn square Saturn time can mark the beginning of our search for the philosopher’s stone, potentially leading to an inner alchemical change, spiritually and psychologically, opening the way for the final stage of wise elder.

Some people (after retiring from their first career at around age 65) might continue pursuing their life-long tasks as C.G Jung and others did, or they might find a second career or compelling interest in a totally different field, either part-time or as a volunteer — something that feeds a different part of their chart from the part that led them to their first career.

Say, for example, an editor with a Virgo Sun and Gemini Ascendant decided to volunteer for hospice and the local battered women’s shelter, to feed her Pisces Moon that had been neglected during the major portion of her life, which was given over to a career in publishing. Or a person might choose to honor a neglected Sagittarian influence and spent their retirement years traveling around the world.

Wotan pays close attention to this next period in his life, a time fraught with Saturn-square-Saturn obstacles. In the second act of Die Walküre, the second opera of Wagner’s Ring cycle, we find a despairing Wotan confiding in his eldest daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, his child by Erda, the Earth goddess. Wotan mourns over his errors and his life blunders.

To remedy his mistakes, he longs for one of his offspring to make free choices, outside the will of the gods. Likewise, during this period, we might try to find a remedy for our past mistakes; perhaps we yearn for someone else to fix them, or for some magical solution outside us, rather than undergoing the pain of looking within, which is what the higher nature of Saturn requires.

Wotan pegs his son Siegmund, a son by a mortal woman, as the one who will save the day. The trouble is that Siegmund has just run off with Sieglinde, another man’s wife — not an acceptable choice according to the contracts carved into Wotan’s staff. Heedless, Wotan directs Brünnhilde to favor Siegmund in his duel with Sieglinde’s evil husband. But an imperious Fricka objects, leaving Wotan no alternative but to command Brünnhilde to oversee Siegmund’s demise.

However, when Brünnhilde witnesses her half-brother choosing love over eternal fame in Valhalla, she is overcome with compassion and decides to go against her father’s authority. But Wotan storms in and smashes Siegmund’s sword, and then, blinded by arrogance, he punishes Brünnhilde.

During a sorrowful scene between father and beloved daughter, Wotan forever bans Brünnhilde from Valhalla, removes her immortality, and then puts her to sleep on a mountaintop, surrounded by fire. Only a great hero will be able to pass through the fire, awaken the virgin warrior with a kiss, and marry her.

Next, the slow and burning alchemical process of Saturn square Saturn influences Wotan in a more quiet and perhaps more disturbing way. The traumatic events detailed above have driven Wotan to leave Valhalla, to go on a search for meaning, to understand how he went wrong, and to gain the knowledge to right his wrongs.

Sometimes illness or tragedy can cause any of us to go on an inner quest for understanding and truth. Wotan also represents that part of us that has difficulty releasing authority and pride. In Wotan’s case, a complete metamorphosis will have to take place, but for most of us, the inner changes will arrive gradually. Meanwhile, Wotan disguises himself in a wide-brimmed black hat and a black cape (black is the color of Saturn) and becomes known as the Wanderer.

Although most people’s lives are not usually as dramatic as Wotan’s, the general themes of this story will ring true for many of us. As far as my life is concerned, at age 64 I left the ashram where I had been living in New Mexico to take up a new life in Maine, an area I’d never seen before except on the Web — a town in the heart of Acadia National Park. You could say that I became a wanderer, and no one knew who I was when I arrived at my destination. I took this journey because, like Wotan, I felt I needed time and space for inner reflection.

The ashrams where I’d lived in the U.S. and India for most of my adult life were busy places, occasionally fraught with “ashram family” power struggles, reminiscent of Wotan’s dramas. At the same time, ashram living had taught me how to go deep within, how to reflect, how to find inner peace. In Maine, I thought about my accomplishments and my mistakes. I thought about forgiveness and reconciliation. I thought about death — certain I was going to die, though I was not ill.

To further my inner search, I sought inspiration and solace in nature; I wrote a novel about a woman my age; I meditated several hours a day; I became a hospice volunteer. In order to review my life errors more effectively, I entered counseling with a Jungian psychologist. I needed to see clearly into my shadow, to know my inner Alberich and Fafner once and for all. Reflections of myself, as seen in Wotan and Brünnhilde, were also important aspects of my inner journey.

The third phase of the elder cycle begins at about age 71 or 72, with the sixth Jupiter return and Saturn opposing natal Saturn at the same time or shortly thereafter — a major turning point where we have the potential to either flower into elder wisdom or succumb to feelings of worthlessness.

This turn with illuminating Jupiter, which lasts for a year while it transits through its natal sign, can raise the level of good fortune for inner breakthroughs. It is also a time for receiving accolades. Presumably, we have tended to our shadow demons during the Saturn square to natal Saturn and perhaps find that love and surrender are the only ways to melt the obstacles to inner peace, thereby reaching the final steps of initiation into elder.

At the end of Siegfried, Wagner’s third opera in the Ring cycle, Wotan is nearing the end of his wandering. At his wit’s end, still suffering from uncontrolled pride but longing to right his wrongs, he demands that Erda rise up from her sleep. Erda symbolizes our own wisdom asleep inside of us, waiting for us to wake her up and then listen to her.

When Erda appears, Wotan praises her, telling her there is no being wiser than she. She asks why he comes to her for enlightenment and not to their daughter Brünnhilde. Wotan scoffs and tells Erda what happened to Brünnhilde. Erda wonders why he who teaches defiance has punished defiance. In his pride, had he not urged Brünnhilde along? Does he who defends the right and preserves vows now dare to banish right and rule by falsehood?

Wotan, unable to hear the truth, flies into a rage, declaring Erda unwise. However, in a moment of clarity, Wotan foresees his future and tells Erda that his grown grandson Siegfried (the boy born of Siegmund and Sieglinde) will awaken Brünnhilde and she will perform a deed to redeem the world.

In the next scene, Wotan meets Siegfried, who has been raised alone in a forest and does not know who Wotan is, but sees him only as a stupid old man who blocks his way up the mountain where Brünnhilde sleeps. Fearless, Siegfried has just killed the dragon Fafner and now wears the ring. Wotan threatens Siegfried’s free passage.

Here, Wotan is still holding on to his pride, unable to give in and simply offer love to his grandson. In the same way, many of us might see clearly all that holds us back from wisdom, but like Wotan we cannot accept the truth easily. In reaction to Wotan’s threat, Siegfried breaks Wotan’s staff. In that decisive moment, Wotan surrenders to his fate and that of Valhalla.

After a series of tragic events over a short period of time, during the final opera, Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”), one of Alberich’s accomplices stabs Siegfried in the back. By some magic, the ring remains on Siegfried’s finger. Meanwhile, we hear from one of the Valkyries that Wotan has cut down the world ash tree, chopped it up, and piled its branches around Valhalla, in preparation for the fire that will also bring about his own death — a complete transfiguration.

Brünnhilde, declaring love victorious over power, rides her steed onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre to be with her husband for all eternity. She sets the pyre on fire and calls on the fire god to do the same to Valhalla. The Rhinemaidens retrieve the ring during the flood that follows. Through love, Alberich’s curses are released. A new era is about to unfold.

As with the symbolical fire at the end of Twilight of the Gods, the inner burning and steaming during Saturn square Saturn culminates with the sixth Jupiter return and Saturn opposing Saturn, around age 71–72; this results in a quiet (or dramatic) transformational change, spiritually and psychologically. Marie-Louise von Franz, friend and colleague of C. G. Jung, explains the alchemical process:

If through fighting and meeting the unconscious one has suffered long enough, a kind of objective personality is established; a nucleus forms in the person which is at peace, quiet even in the midst of the greatest life storms, intensely alive but without action and without participation in the conflict. That peace of mind often comes to people when they have suffered enough: one day something breaks and the face acquires a quiet expression, for something has been born which remains in the centre, outside or beyond the conflict, which does not go on any more as it did. [5]

According to von Franz, this state of inner quiet is the essential meaning of the philosopher’s stone. While this serene state of consciousness might not remain with us, we know it is possible because we’ve experienced it, and we know it can happen again and again, until it remains forever with us.

During the remainder of the esoteric Saturn opposing Saturn period, after the Phoenix has risen from the ashes, we can settle into the old man or old woman archetype, polish off the rough edges, and carry on according to our individual nature and our destiny. Any accomplishments after this point are usually generated from deep within, from the core of our being. Perhaps we continue in our life work, completing lifelong endeavors from a new perspective. Perhaps we delve into something we’ve always wanted to do and have never done before. However this time period unfolds, as an elder we can now offer wisdom to others, enjoy a peaceful life, living on with a sense of purpose.

References and Notes
1. Jean Shinoda Bolen, The Tao of Psychology: Synchronicity and the Self, HarperCollins, 1979.

2. Dr. Robert E. Svoboda, The Greatness of Saturn: A Therapeutic Myth, Lotus Press, 1997, p. 88.

3. C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R.F.C. Hull, Princeton University Press, 1980.

4. Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, performed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Deutsche Grammophon, 1990. 7-DVD set, 941 minutes.

5. Marie-Louise von Franz, Alchemy: An Introduction of the Symbolism and the Psychology, Inner City Books, 1980, p.169.

© 2012 Savitri L. Bess – all rights reserved

Reprinted from The Mountain Astrologer