Triple Goddesses

Most people, when “the Triple Goddess” is mentioned, probably think of the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype. However, this archetype can be very limiting, and there are many other triple goddesses who are worth exploring: goddesses of the land and sovereignty, goddesses with many skills and roles, goddesses who are women in their own right, not merely roles in relation to a man.

Why the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype is unhelpful

I find the archetype of the Maiden, Mother, Crone unhelpful for several reasons. One is that it is biologically essentialist. In its most basic sense, it refers to a virgin, a woman who has given birth, and a post-menopausal woman. Yes, biology is important, as it is how we are embodied; but culture and personality and creativity and spirit are also important.

This biologically essentialist model excludes trans women, women who have never given birth, and women who don’t identify as motherly types. It can be profoundly upsetting for women who cannot give birth, or who have had an abortion. I once attended an event where two fairly prominent Pagan women were going on about the (profoundly mistaken) notion that “you are not a real woman until you have given birth”, and this really upset two other women, and annoyed me. Yes, many women do become mothers, and that is a beautiful thing; but it is not the only archetype of an adult woman available.

People can often get confused by the archetype of the Maiden. According to some interpretations, a maiden or a virgin is actually a sexually independent woman (not a woman whose hymen remains intact). For feminists, the idea of a sexually independent woman is much more empowering than the idea of a woman whose hymen remains intact. The idea of a woman who “belongs to” her father and will be “given away” to her husband is utterly patriarchal and oppressive, and has no place in Paganism — sorry (not sorry) to be dogmatic there, but I really believe that. The notion that a virgin is a woman who has not been penetrated by a penis is hopelessly patriarchal and overly privileges penetrative sex.

The notion that a sexually active woman must also be a mother also seems patriarchal to me. It’s implying that the ultimate role of an adult woman is to be a mother, and that all sexual activity leads to motherhood. Some people have claimed that Maiden, Mother, Crone is matriarchal, but I don’t really want to live in a matriarchy any more than I want to live in a patriarchy. The idea of a matriarchy is gender essentialist, and potentially oppressive for those of us who do not fit in the gender binary model.

The Crone is perhaps a bit more empowering, as it involves facing up to death and embracing the wisdom of old age. But why does the dividing line between mother and crone have to be the menopause? This once again excludes trans women, genderqueer women, and so on, and is also biologically essentialist. To be sure, the menopause can be a profound and powerful experience for many women, and that’s awesome; but we are more than just our biology.

The idea of Maiden, Mother, Crone also leaves out lots of other archetypes, such as the priestess, the hag (Dark Moon), the warrior, the poet, the architect, the writer, and many more.

As Mary Jones points out, the attributes associated with the three aspects of the Maiden, Mother, Crone imagery are somewhat limiting too. Why is only the Crone seen as the embodiment of wisdom? Why is only the Maiden seen as the Muse? Why can’t she create poetry and art in her own right, rather than hanging about waiting for a man to be inspired by her beauty? Can’t a woman in her prime also be wise and inspirational and creative?

Even Robert Graves, who more or less invented the Maiden/Mother/Crone archetype, described the Triple Goddess in other ways, such as Mother/Bride/Layer-out and Maiden/Nymph/Hag. Graves seems to have still seen these as Her roles in relation to a man, but at least they are different archetypes.

John Halstead discovered that Sigmund Freud wrote about a Triple Goddess of birth, love, and death, and related her to the Fates, the Seasons, the threefold Artemis-Hecate, and Mother Earth who receives the dead.

Alternative triple goddesses

One very powerful triple goddess is Brighid, who has three roles: smith, healer, poet. At first glance these roles seem unrelated, but the smith reforges and transforms metal; the healer transforms flesh and spirit; and the poet transforms words. All three are aspects of the creative impulse.

Mary Jones writes:

The most famous of the Triple Goddesses is Brigit, the daughter of the Dagda, often called “the poetess.” Her worship was widespread, probably through the semi-dominance of the Brigantes tribe, who covered a wide area from Ireland into Gaul. According to Cormac’s Glossary, there were three of Brigits, all sisters–Brigit the Poetess, Brigit the Smith and Brigit the Doctor — patrons of their respective skills. However, we are not told that they are a maiden-mother-crone; they are all the same age. Instead, her multiplicity implies that she is a master of many arts, and like the Matronae, was patron of the tribe.

Another really important Celtic triplicity was the Matronae, who are frequently depicted in Romano-British statuary. I recently saw an example of these in the Corinium Museum at Cirencester (UK). They are three women, sometimes depicted as married, sometimes as unmarried, with bouquets of flowers, fruit, or wheat. They are the same age. They are sometimes given the name of local goddesses; the depiction at Cirencester was dedicated to the Suleviae, which was probably their local name.

Three goddesses, small Roman relief, Corinium Museum. Photo by Tony Grist (Public domain)

Three goddesses, small Roman relief, Corinium Museum. Photo by Tony Grist (Public domain)

Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) wife of King Arthur, may have originally been a triple goddess, as she is described as three queens in the Welsh Triads: “Gwenhwyfar daughter of Cywryd Gwent, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran the Giant.”

Another form of triple goddess is found in goddesses of the land. Here’s Mary Jones again:

The triplets in these cases do not have the same names but are three sisters, such as Eriu, Banba, and Fotla, the daughters of Ernmas–three names for Ireland, married to the three kings of Ireland, the brothers Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Grienne, all grandsons of the Dagda, and a male triplet. Then there are Eriu, Banba and Fotla’s sisters, the war goddesses Morrigan(sometimes called Anand or Anu), Badb, and Macha, who again represent the sovreignty of Ireland (actually, their relationship is quite complex, needing a second write-up). They are not of three different ages or stages, but the same age; they are somewhat recalled in the three sisters of Arthur, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, and Elaine.

So most examples of triple goddesses from actual mythology are either sisters or a single woman with three different roles. As Mary Jones points out, there were also male triplicities (Lugh Lamhfhada, the Samildánach; Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba, the sons of Turenn; Cian, Cu, and Cethe, the sons of Cainte; and Bleiddwn, Hydwn, and Hychdwn the Tall, the sons of Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, in The Mabinogion).

Other mythologies also had triple goddesses who were not Maiden, Mother, Crone archetypes. Hecate, a very complex ancient Greek goddess, was sometimes depicted as threefold, but she had several epithets and roles. The earliest depictions of her were not three-formed. The threefold imagery (Trimorphe, three-formedTriodia/Trioditis, the one who frequents crossroads; and Trivia, a Roman form) came later.  Pausanias wrote that Hecate was first depicted as threefold by the sculptor Alkamenes in the Greek Classical period of the late 5th century BCE.

More triplicities are found in the figures of the Three Fates and the Three Graces, who appear in Greek, Roman, and Slavic mythology; and the Three Norns, from Norse mythology. None of these are Maiden, Mother, Crone, either.

In Greek mythology, the Three Fates are called the Moirai (the appointers). They are similar to the Sudice from Slavic mythology. The Moirai are called Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (unturnable). Even the gods could not change what had been ordained by the Fates.

In Roman mythology, the Three Fates are called the Parcae. They spun the thread of life, allotted destiny to humans and gods, and cut the thread at the end of life. Their names were Nona, who spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle; Decima, who measured the thread of life with her rod;  and Morta, who cut the thread of life and chose the manner of a person’s death.

The Norns of Norse mythology were not a direct equivalent to the Fates, but they performed a similar role, controlling the destiny of humans.

The origins of their names are interesting. According to Wikipedia:

The origin of the name norn is uncertain, it may derive from a word meaning “to twine” and which would refer to their twining the thread of fate. Bek-Pedersen suggests that the word norn has relation to the Swedish dialect word norna (nyrna), a verb that means “secretly communicate”. This relates to the perception of norns as shadowy, background figures who only really ever reveal their fateful secrets to men as their fates come to pass.

The name Urðr (Old English Wyrd, Weird) means “fate”. It should be noted that wyrd and urðr are etymological cognates, which does not guarantee that wyrd andurðr share the same semantic quality of “fate” over time. Both Urðr and Verðandi are derived from the Old Norse verb verða, “to be”. While Urðr derives from the past tense (“that which became or happened”), Verðandi derives from the present tense of verða (“that which is happening”). Skuld is derived from the Old Norse verb skulla, “need/ought to be/shall be”; its meaning is “that which should become, or that needs to occur”.

Another triplicity from Greek and Roman mythology is that of the Three Graces, or Charites:

In Greek mythology, a Charis (/ˈkrɪs/; Greek: Χάρις, pronounced [kʰáris]) or Grace is one of three or more minor goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility, together known as the Charites /ˈkærtz/ (Χάριτες [kʰáritɛːs]) or Graces. The usual list, from youngest to oldest is Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the “Graces”. In some variants, Charis was one of the Graces and was not the singular form of their name.

These are deities who create happiness, beauty, and harmony, and as such, definitely worth celebrating.

Fourfold and fivefold goddess imagery

The Triple Goddess imagery of Maiden, Mother, Crone is often related to three of the phases of the Moon (New, Waxing, and Waning). This misses out the goddess of the Dark Moon, sometimes called the Hag, who is associated with menstruation, wild sexuality, resistance to patriarchy, Lilith, witchcraft, and childlessness. This archetype  is very important for liberating women from the restrictions imposed by patriarchal imagery. Erich Neumann identified a fourfold goddess figure; John Halstead writes:

The aspects of Neumann’s Goddess were: the Good Mother (concerned with vegetation and birth, and represented by Demeter, Isis, and Mary), the Virgin-Muse (concerned with inspiration and vision, and represented by Mary and Sophia), the Terrible Mother-Old Witch (concerned with death and devouring, and represented by Kali and Hecate), and the Young Witch (concerned with drunkenness and madness, and represented by Astarte, Lilith, and Circe).

It’s also worth mentioning the Fivefold Goddess image; her five aspects are Birth, Initiation, Consummation, Repose, and Death. These are also mentioned in Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess.

Many goddesses

There are many different goddesses. Most are singular in form, and some are triple. The threefold goddesses of antiquity were generally three sisters, three mothers, three queens, and were goddesses of the land, associated with grain, flowers, and fruits. Some were a single goddess with three different roles, like Hecate and Brighid. Some were responsible for weaving fate, like the Norns, the Sulevice, the Parcae, and the Moirai; others were responsible for creating joy, like the Three Graces.

Further reading

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2 thoughts on “Triple Goddesses

  1. The Welsh legend of Math ap Mathonwy (described in the Mabinogi) might shed some interesting light on how Maiden used to be defined. Math was a king in northern Wales who, when not at war, had to lie with his feet in a maiden’s lap (some texts say virgin, but mine says maiden) (Goewin) or he would die. He had two nephews, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, one of whom lusted for Goewin, so the nephews started a war with another Welch kingdom to the South. King Math left for war, and the nephews had their way with Goewin.

    When Math returned, Goewin confessed that she could no longer serve in that role. Math punished the nephews in a way that I have seen two covens (including one in Wales!) misinterpret as disapproving of homosexuality, and then his niece Arianrhud (Goddess of the Silver Disk – i.e. Moon) became his maiden – at least in some versions of the tale.

    To test Arianrhud’s virginity, Math tells her to step over his magician’s rod. On doing this, however, she immediately gives birth to a young boy, Dylan ail Don, and a blob-like entity which later becomes Lleu Llaw Gyffes. In some versions, Arianrhud,, now a mother, becomes Math’s foot maiden anyway!

    Apparently motherhood is no barrier to still being a maiden, at least if your maidenhead is lost to a magicians rod. At least in Wales. Of course, the story had been modified slightly when the Christian monks wrote it down, because it included Dylan being baptised, but as the Mabinogi stories took place roughly the same time as the early part of the Irish Book of Invasions, that would not have happened.

    Anyway, the story seems to indicate that the roles of maiden, mother and crone might not have been as set in stone back at the beginning of the Iron Age as they are in modern practice. What do you think?

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