Margaret Morganroth Gullette
Waltham, MA, USA
|The Libyan Sibyl, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sistine Chapel
Age needs a tutelary deity, a woke goddess for the Age of Alzheimer’s and the Age of Longevity. We all deserve a powerful, honored, and glorious crone, representing our values and our value.
Here, transparently, before your open eyes, I venture to create a symbol. The Goddess of Age looks much like Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl—she has the same strong shoulders and muscular arms, holding an open book. But a contemporary artist’s technological skill has endowed her with the silver-gray coif that comes by rights from her antique origin as the oldest of the prophetesses. Another artist has restored her skin tone—as the oracle from the Libyan oasis—to that of one of our universal African ancestors. As is her wont as eldest, she is portrayed while reading from the broad Book of Age. She interrupts her instruction of children, seated in the niche, to cast a deprecating glance at the mob of perpetrators of ageism, invisible to us, beneath her feet.
Call the crone-goddess Senexa. The gender of her name is all important. By the addition of a vowel, Senexa is not a “Senex” nor liable to be mistaken for one. The Senex, a figure of ridicule in Roman theater who survived into Elizabethan and later comedy, was a grudging skinflint of an older man, the type of angry “geezer” who withholds a young man’s allowance, refuses to let him marry the object of his desire, or threatens to disinherit him if he disobeys. Comic writers pictured old men from the point of view of their thwarted sons, so charming and deserving. They trained their youthful age gaze on nothing but his withered shanks, his stooped back, his dirty-old-man amours, and his tempting financial hoard. He was the type of Geront who leads-—eventually, around 1900—to the crisis of gerontocracy, when the sons strove to overthrow the patriarchal power and Freud helpfully invented a psychic cause—“The Oedipus complex”—for the boys’ revolt against the dads.
Senexa, by contrast, suffers from no traditional male baggage. As the Libyan Sybil, born of god and mortal, she was “the first woman to chant oracles” according to the Roman writer Pausanius, and thus lays claim to be the eldest of the five whom Michelangelo pictured in the Sistine Chapel. As the oldest sibyl and as the Reader of the largest Book, Senexa graciously lends her figure and her great voice to the missions undertaken in the name of Age.
Age Studies claims her. This new field speaks about, and from, those who have been wronged merely because they are innocently aging-past-youth or aging-past-midlife. Age, a condition that all humans share without exception, embraces all others. And thus Age Studies intersects with the other body-based fields—fields tied to those humans who are wronged because of their marks: of gender, race, ethnicity, disability. Like those fields, Age Studies explains, expands, justifies, and challenges its concepts. As in those fields too, its scholars, writers, and artists may advocate for the members of society injured by the mixed and compounded social constructions that define and delimit and disparage them.
The other critical body-based fields arose in the twentieth century alongside spontaneous popular movements of civil society, a tremendous historical thrust of agitation and righteousness. But unlike those other worlds of thought, despite the clear and present dangers of ageism, age has no movement agitating for its convictions.
Opportunely, Senexa appears in this moment of crisis, crowned in gray, a global prophet of Age for our ageist age—a teacher, a voice, an authority, an ancient of days. Who better to help disseminate anti-ageism and a vast new multidisciplinary field of study, than this Figure, robed in glowing orange and in fresh poetic myth-making?
Already of great age myself, proud to be the eldest of the oracles, I will live as long as humankind. To look at, what am I but a strong old woman of color? Some have called me “hag.” I revere the hag, who has survived and resisted machismo all her life long. And humans who look like me—bearing the halo of white hair, whether male or female—are often overlooked, neglected, scorned, abused, avoided, cast aside. The mere appearance of agedness may harm people in domain after domain. Even in art: Michelangelo, although cognizant of my great age, denied me the distinguishing facial lines of age, unfairly assigning them only to my sister, the Cumaean Sibyl. But he conferred on me the grandest book, the Book of Age.
So the oldest humans living today claim, as they always have, my special protection. If great age is not served, who among us is served? Beware of giving offense to an old goddess. The caduceus is my stout staff.
Any endeavor to study the category of age, to help old age become more comfortable and dignified, and to elevate the social conditions which the people endure from birth to death, merits my highest regard.
Ages studies’ scholars in old disciplines and new interdisciplines, and writers and artists, have been filling the latest pages in the great book that Michelangelo placed in my willing arms. As Michelangelo painted me, so I act. I scan the Book of Age that contains all wisdom and all folly about the ages of life from across the ages of history. I discard the folly, I choose the wisdom, I explain the difference.
Being of perpetual loving spirit and of changeable external forms (at the whim of art and story), my kinship with the mortal human body is detached, empathetic, and devoted.
As I am shown, so I act. I speak to the children, left ignorant of the enemies of the life course and of the deep truths of later life. I correct the early misperceptions of youth, so they may have less fear of what lies ahead.
I am the voice of all who suffer because their aging unfairly triggers ageism. I speak to those growing beyond youth and beyond midlife, who fear the chill touch of ageism at work, in the public square, in human relations, in government policies, in law. I speak to the elders, like me in form, but not always seen or heard or highly regarded by others or by the state.
Among many domains under my protection, I take health and illness. They abide outside of exclusively medical confines. The humanities, bioethics, and the sciences of the body, I therefore prophesy, will draw closer together. No more will future Galens disregard the selfhood that inhabits this mortal coil. Aging deep into the life course, a sacred process, will no longer be miscalled by research as one of accumulating diseases, as if the events of the body did not occur to sentient beings.
I am she who inspires. The nations of the world will train care-givers who respect Senexa in all her avatars, from newborns to those high up on the ladder of years. The nations will train geriatricians and geriatric nurses in the numbers that are needed. They will support the discoverers of cures and the hospice workers alike. If they do not, I foresee gnashing of teeth and such uprisings that the plagues sent on Pharaoh will seem slight.
I am she who rewards, with special fondness for those who fight ageism wherever you see it. Anti-ageists all—you who study, help, respect, and elevate in the ways I honor—it is you who have custody of the contexts of the life course.
You will uncover how ageism worked its will in the pasts. In our time, your collective shall destroy age-shaming of those in later life, through exposure. Venerate me by bringing to my altars, without shame, stories of your disabilities, ailments, and frailty, and your heavy-hearted grievances against those who think you less human because of them. I prophesy that you will find courage to declare fully how risk and violence surge against you. As you name the perpetrators, I will indite them on the Wall of Shame.
Celebrants, I will inscribe too your stories of living long while resisting the ageisms. Informed by your stories, teachers and parents shall become agewise, to better prepare the young for the life ahead.
To lack a movement is, if only in the short term, to need a goddess. I, Senexa, must be a crone, in honor of my comprehensiveness and the plausible wisdoms of age. Thus I signal my alliance with a great new congeries of feeling and thought, working its way out into art, literature, behavior, law, medicine, and human rights.
I address those who share this mission: Carry my heraldic cockade in the crusading movement to unite the masses around the globe against the biased enemies of your well-being. Convert them to kindness and justice.
Here prophetic sight falters, alas, blurred by world-historic waves of clashing interests. But under my aegis, and with the help of the unending Book of Age, better written than in times past, to be better written yet in future times, may the humane vision of the life course overcome.
And let our banner read “Smite ageism.”
Ipso dixit Senexa, oldest of prophets, guardian of the life force.
The Libyan Sibyl, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sistine Chapel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Represented as gray-haired, by Lora Brody. Represented as Libyan, by Fran Forman.
MARGARET MORGANROTH GULLETTE, PhD, is a resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis. Her latest book is Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Old People. Michaelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl graces the frontispiece. Her other books include the prize-winning Declining to Decline and Agewise. Her essays are often cited as notable in Best American Essays. Gullette named the field of “age studies” in 1993. The field now has scholars and writers on six continents and two international networks. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Bunting Institute.