Maiden, Mother, Who?! (A Discussion of the Triple Goddess)
Greek mythology is beloved the world over for its tales of heroism, literally creating an entirely new genre of literature known as the epic poem specifically to tell the tales of the gods. The residents of Mt. Olympus are unique in the classical world of deities in that they are perhaps the first major example of gods that resembled the people who worshipped them. And, there’s something quite nice about that. I mean, Anubis is swell and all, but I’m not sure I’d be comfortable inviting him over to my house for hot dogs and wine spritzers what with him sizing up my Pomeranian. Or would he? I suppose technically he’d have the stomach of a man, but the brain of a jackal.
Sorry. Not the point. I digress.
There’s a word for this kind of thing - dressing up gods in the skin of man, rather than, say, a jellyfish or a candy bar. Actually, there are a few words for this kind of thing. Let’s all learn them together, shall we?
Anthropomorphism is a term many of us have come to know and love over the years. It means to assign human form and characteristics to a non-human entity. Those old-timey maps where you see the west wind’s face all puffed up, blowing a ship across the Pacific Ocean? That’s anthropomorphism. But, there’s actually a more specific term when it comes to deity known as anthropotheism. Anthropotheism is the specific assigning of human form and attributes to gods, with scholars pointing to classical depictions of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses as examples-in-chief.
You’re thinking I know this already. I get it. What’s the point? The point, you impatient minx, is that we likes us some human - not merely humanoid - gods. Over our history we have related best to the divine when we believe they also have problems with fidelity or fraternizing with the wrong crowd or...frost giants. Ok, maybe not so much that last one.
It is the first way that we put god in a box, and it’s not just us Pagan folk who do it. Christians have the old bearded guy (who has the musculature of someone in his late 20s) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. From Kwan Yin in the East to Odin in the North to Buddha to Pele, the face of the divine around the world - more often and more so as time goes on - looks a whole lot like ours. All of this helps our teeny tiny brains cross over a threshold of belief and understanding when it comes to relating to and having a relationship with the divine.
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork and defined our terms, I’d like to specifically talk about the Goddess of Wicca and NeoPaganism. I get a lot of questions sent to me due to my blog and podcast, many times to be used as potential show ideas or to just be used in a question and answer format. One such question came up recently from a listener about how to relate to the Wiccan Goddess:
What if, as a female, you don't relate to the maiden/mother/crone archetype? Plenty of Pagans choose to remain happily childless and sometimes it feels like being in "nowhere land"; not a maiden, nor mother, yet to be a crone. I have my personal opinion on this archetype, but I would love to hear both your ideas about the triple goddess as far as factual research and history go and whether or not these archetypes really matter since many of us do not have children for a variety of reasons.
I wrote a well-received article back in January of 2010 titled ‘The Gays and Paganism’ in which I, as a gay Pagan man, attempted to answer the often asked question of whether or not gay and lesbian people can truly relate to the Wiccan/NeoPagan concepts of the divine. Now, many Pagans out there, myself included, say that they are not Wiccan. I tried it in college, but it wasn’t for me. However, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that for all of our collective “I’m not Wiccan” talk, much of what NeoPaganism has become, and much of what our individual practices are influenced by, is due to Wicca. The Wiccan concepts of Divine Mother and Father have quite a lot, as do many other religions and pantheons, to do with the concept of creation, and it was that concept that I spent so much time defending in that article in 2010:
I can paint and write and sculpt and create loving relationships and make fantastic meals and every spring I can plant seeds and every fall I can reap a harvest. Believe me, I can create just as well as any high school quarterback and head cheerleader in the back of a ’97 Ford. Creation of a human child is just one method of creation.
It would be easy for me to respond to the initial question by saying that just because one has no wish to be a mother, it doesn’t mean one is any less capable of “giving birth” to ideas, projects, personal interests, businesses, etc. It doesn’t mean one cannot be “motherly” to others, to nieces and nephews, to the elderly, to your pets. However, as with everything, I feel that this situation merits an updating of that concept of creation and how we relate to it.
But, first, I think there is one more term to define, the term of the Goddess of NeoPaganism. Who is she, and where did she come from?
In his book The Triumph of the Moon, author and historian Ronald Hutton makes the claim that the concept of the Triple Goddess is a modern creation by Robert Graves, an English poet and scholar who penned the book The White Goddess. Hutton further claims that Graves compiled work by authors who have been equally celebrated for their work and derided for it: Dr. Margaret Murray, most famous for her propagation and distortion of the Witch-cult hypothesis as well as almost single-handedly coming up with the false history of the Burning Times, Sir James Frazer, a social anthropologist whose iconic work, The Golden Bough, offered an in-depth look at mythology, attempting, some say, to find a universal rule for how humans perceive and worship the divine, and by Aleister Crowley, an influential occultist who developed the philosophy of Thelema.
That Triple Goddess, as defined by modern authors of Pagan works, was said to be a divine cycle of Maiden, Mother, Crone. These three monikers not only delineate differences in age, but in life perspective, position, wisdom, power, and phases of the moon. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychotherapist and darling of the modern Pagan community for his work on archetypes, put forth that the notion of a triple deity (or triad), generally speaking, was a pattern throughout myth arising from the most primitive level of human mental development and culture. Divine Triads exist in Hinduism - where the concept is known as the Tridevi and includes Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati as manifestations of Shakti, Norse mythology - the Norns which are cognate of the Greek Fates or Moirai, Irish myth - both Brighid and the sisters Ériu, Fotla, and Banba have been presented as possible triads. The Morrígan is a figure from Irish mythology said to have possibly been a triad, though which goddesses exactly were supposed to make up that triad varies between authors and historical accounts.
But, let’s take a moment to pause and note that the concept of the Divine Triad has rarely, if ever, been depicted in myth as being a young, virginal girl, a woman in the prime of her life, and an old crone who is past the age of child-bearing. Indeed, the Greek Fates were depicted, both in art and story, as old and ugly. Likewise, the Norse Norns are both the same age and rulers of destiny, not of specific times in a person’s life. Indeed, throughout myth and culture, the notion of the young maiden, the fertile mother, and the ancient crone seems to exist mostly in the modern day, supporting the proposition by Hutton that this concept came about at the turn of the 20th century. While it is an interesting influence of art and entertainment - this theme has run rampant in modern fantasy literature, television, and film - it does not have as much historical veracity as other parts of modern Paganism.
In fact, triple deities have not just existed as one gender. The Greeks would worship Zeus, Athena, and Apollo together. Egypt had the family triad of Osiris as husband, Isis as wife, and Horus as son. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades are a triad that rules of the sky, sea, and underworld respectively. Jung is possibly most correct in that we tend to group deities together out of instinct rather than a reality based on myth and how people truly related to those deities in their respective cultures.
This all leads me nicely back to the question of how one can relate to the Wiccan/NeoPagan concepts of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. But, it leads me to one final question: What about the Wiccan God? Is he also suffering from a case of split personality, or does he get to be nice and content and wholly unto himself?
Here’s where research begins to fall apart. Wicca and NeoPaganism are new, and the beliefs and practices that shape up its core are still being defined and redefined by those who practice. In books on the subject written by Wiccans and Pagans, you will find one of two responses: 1) There is a triple Goddess and a singular Horned God, modeled after the Greek God Pan. 2) There is a triple Goddess, depicted as Maiden, Mother, and Crone, and a triple God, depicted as Youth, Warrior, and Sage. Alternatively, there is sometimes a triple God defined as Youth, Father, and Sage.
You might immediately see something that’s a bit disconcerting for a religion whose deities are supposed to represent balance and shared authority. While the Goddess must be the Mother in any incarnation of her triad, the God gets to skip out on the title of Father in favor of the much more masculine and testosterone-filled moniker Warrior. These ideas, granted, are argued ad nauseam online in message boards, chat rooms, blogs, podcasts, and any other form of new social media you can use.
I find this absolutely fascinating and inspiring and the source of my answer to the problem of identifying with only one of three potential archetypes at a time.
Let’s assume that the reason many permutations of the God triad exist is because it is generally accepted that men can be, and are, more than just fathers and more than just warriors. What if we stuck all of them together? A sort of Choose Your Own Adventure style of deified life phases? What if we said the God could be Youth, Warrior, Father, and Sage? Is that less neat and tidy because it gives us four options rather than the classical three? But, what if you choose the path of the academic or poet or scientist rather than the path of the warrior? Could the God then be Youth, Warrior, Academic, Father, and Sage?
I realize that the argument can quickly be made that the word “warrior” is a stand-in for an idea, and it is not to be taken literally, but that is false. Words mean things. They have definitions. While we can say that a Warrior can also mean a fertile adult male in the prime of his life, that isn’t what the word means, and, thusly, can be hard to relate to should a man not think of his prime as Warrior-hood.
The same is true for the Wiccan triad of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Mother can mean a woman in the prime of her life, but that isn’t what the word means. The word is specifically defined in relation to the children she either has given birth to or otherwise cares for. But if you choose to be childless, how can you relate to a word that is foreign to you? What if you’d rather be a Maiden, Warrior, Crone yourself?
I believe modern Pagan thinking, Wiccan-influenced Paganism especially, could take a tip from the evolution of the Muses in Classical Greek mythology. There are nine classical muses that represent all sorts of areas of interest, ranging from science to literature to music and theatre. We could, and should, recognize that people walk all sorts of different paths, and that our instinct is to relate to gods that resemble those paths. As was said before, we like gods that look like us, but the flip-side is that we find it hard to relate to - at least when it comes to worship and having a personal relationship with - gods and goddesses that look nothing like us, whose domain of influence is alien to our personal worldview.
Anthropotheism says that we made the gods look and act like us, but the confusion here is that we think that’s where it stopped. That we created archetypes and deities and gave them names and faces and associations and carved it in stone somewhere and said THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE AND HAVE TO BE. Good news! You can continue to evolve your concept of the divine just as much as the divine continues to help you grow and change. We work together, us and the divine, because we are part of it, of them. As above, so below, right? If you need the Goddess to wear different mantels, then so be it.
Perhaps this is an area where we get to personalize the triad. For polytheists, this is fairly easy, because you can pick and choose which deities best fit who you are and where you want to go in life. For folks in the softer realms of pantheism or that worship deified archetypes - such as Wicca - this can be more difficult. I think the answer can be to say that the archetype should be Maiden, Woman, Crone and leave the job title out of it. Or, perhaps, (if job titles are your thing) add as many monikers as you want. Who’s to say that the Goddess isn’t Maiden, Businesswoman, Scholar, Warrior, Poet, Artist, Traveler, Mother, Gardener, Animal Lover, and Crone?
Love and Lyte,