God Grant Me the Serenity: The Old Woman and Her Pig

Our folk wisdom tells us we must learn what we can control in our lives, and what we can’t; this discernment can save our sanity.

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Old Woman and Her Pig

An English folktale, called “The Old Woman and Her Pig,” illustrates how we can remain stoical during the setbacks of life, but with continual faith and perseverance, we can still produce powerful change in our lives. The tale goes like this:

An old woman was sweeping her house, and she found a little crooked sixpence. ‘What,’ said she, ‘shall I do with this little sixpence? I will go to market, and buy a little pig.’

Now, the old woman is an archetype for deep wisdom, and the pig is a mythological symbol of the underworld, or the unconscious, which is also a part of inner wisdom. So at this point in the story, our deep and knowing mind has come across a valuable insight; we want to bring this insight to full consciousness to put it to good use. We need it, and it’s urgent.

As she was coming home, she came to a stile: but the piggy wouldn’t go over the stile.

Here’s our first hurdle. In the English countryside, fields were separated by hedgerows, which acted as fences. The only way to get across the country was through the stiles, the little passageways through these hedges. So here we need to bring this insight into consciousness, but we have all these “hedges,” all these lifelong hangups and problems that inhibit us – we need to get the “pig” through the “stile.” And the little pig isn’t cooperating. Time to look for some help.

She went a little further, and she met a dog. So she said to him: ‘Dog! dog! bite pig; piggy won’t go over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the dog wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a stick. So she said: ‘Stick! stick! beat dog! dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the stick wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a fire. So she said: ‘Fire! fire! burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the fire wouldn’t.

I don’t know about you, but when I have this much trouble making something happen in my life I just get frustrated and want to give up. Some people say “the system is against me” or “they won’t let me” or something like that. People allow themselves to languish in a job they hate, or remain in a marriage that doesn’t work, out of a sense of futility. But not the old woman! She’s our inner wisdom, remember, and she never gives up!

She went a little further, and she met some water. So she said: ‘Water! water! quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the water wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met an ox. So she said: ‘Ox! ox! drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the ox wouldn’t.

Seriously. At this point a lot of people think, screw it, I might as well just go sell drugs for a living. Everything I try to do right never works out. I’m always behind and in debt and the last in line. Screw it. Life is against me so why should I care? But not the old woman! She just keeps on truckin’!

She went a little further and she met a butcher. So she said: ‘Butcher! butcher! kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the butcher wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a rope. So she said: ‘Rope! rope! hang butcher; butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’ t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the rope wouldn’t.

She went a little further, and she met a rat. So she said: ‘Rat! rat! gnaw rope; rope won’t hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the rat wouldn’t.

You know, by now I’d be an alcoholic and divorced four times at least. I’d be wearing a tattered T-shirt that said “Born Loser” on it. But not the old woman! Nothing gets to her!

She went a little further, and she met a cat. So she said: ‘Cat! cat! kill rat; rat won’ t gnaw rope; rope won’t hang butcher; butcher won’t kill ox; ox won’t drink water; water won’t quench fire; fire won’t burn stick; stick won’t beat dog; dog won’t bite pig; piggy won’t get over the stile; and I shan’t get home tonight.’ But the cat said to her, ‘If you will go to yonder cow, and fetch me a saucer of milk, I will kill the rat.’ 

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What???!!! Finally! After a series of endless no’s, the old woman gets a maybe. This is an important turning point in the tale, because this is the ninth time she’s asked for help. Nine is a sacred number, because it marks the last number of a series before a new series begins. It’s the end of the line, the end of a particular path. Nine represents change. And so it is in the story. The ninth time she asks for help, she finally gets a crack in the wall of her misfortune. She finally gets a maybe instead of a no. It takes perseverance and faith to get that far. And the cat is a sacred animal, like the pig. The cat represents the moon goddess, the goddess of change.

So away went the old woman to the cow. But the the cow said to her: ‘If you will go to yonder haymakers, and fetch me a wisp of hay, I’ll give you some milk.” So away went the old woman to the haymakers, and said: “Haymakers, give me a wisp of hay; Cow won’t give milk; Cat won’t kill rat; Rat won’t gnaw rope; Rope won’t hang butcher; Butcher son’t kill ox; Ox won’t drink water; Water won’t quench fire; Fire won’t burn stick; Stick won’t beat dog; Dog won’t bite pig; Piggy won’t get over the stile, and I shan’t get home tonight!”

This is now her tenth request, and she gets another “maybe.” The cow, of course, along with the pig and the cat, is an ancient goddess symbol, and another symbol for the moon, the power of change. But even the moon needs three days to shift from one phase to the next. So we have to expect one more request, and one more “maybe.”

But the haymakers said to her, “If you will go to yonder stream, and fetch us a bucket of water, we’ll give you the hay.” So away the old woman went. But when she got to the stream, she found the bucket was full of holes.

haymakers

Here’s the next turning point in the story. Sure enough, she got another “maybe,” this time from the haymakers, who are solar symbols. The old woman has moved from the lunar (unconscious) to the solar (conscious), which is the goal of the story. This is now the twelfth step in the old woman’s journey, and twelve is another special number in folklore. Since the sun moves through twelve houses in the course of a solar year, twelve is an ancient number of the completed journey. (And there’s a good reason why the 12 Step Program for personal recovery has twelve steps!) Haymakers are reapers; they are cutting down plant life to store as animal fodder. So the change is complete; what was standing has now been cut down, and will be transformed into something of value for the next cycle of life. We can now expect real progress for the old woman. But, the bucket is full of holes!

The old woman doesn’t ask anything for help, now. She has attained consciousness and realizes that she can do something for herself, here. She knows she has her own ability in this situation.

So she covered the bottom with pebbles, and then filled the bucket with water, and she went back with it to the haymakers, and they gave here a wisp of hay.

When the old woman finally makes a small effort on her own, she gets a “yes.” Not that putting pebbles in a bucket is some enormous task, it’s really pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things, but that’s pretty much the point of the tale. We don’t have to be capable of great feats, we just have to know where and when we can make a small difference, a little change, here and there. Then we will be surprised to learn that our small contributions are actually connected to everything else in our universe, and change everything.

As soon as the cow had eaten the hay, she gave the old woman the milk; and away she went with it in a saucer to the cat. As soon as the cat had lapped up the milk. . . then, the cat began to kill the rat; the rat began to gnaw the rope; the rope began to hang the butcher; the butcher began to kill the ox; the ox began to drink the water; the water began to quench the fire; the fire began to burn the stick; the stick began to beat the dog; the dog began to bite the pig; the little pig in a fright jumped over the stile; and so the old woman got home that night.

And you always thought these stories were for small children, didn’t you?

Old Woman at the Stile

Old Woman at the Stile

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