The Evolution of the Androcentric Triple Goddess
Probably no motif is more ubiquitous in the Neo-Pagan culture than that of the Triple Goddess in her threefold aspects: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. While there are some historical antecedents for the Neo-Pagan Triple Goddess, she is really a 20th century creation of the author and poet, Robert Graves. Graves’ conception of the Triple Goddess evolved over several years. One of the earlier incarnations, in his book The Golden Fleece, took the form of “Maiden, Nymph, and Mother” which corresponded to the “New Moon, Full Moon, and Old Moon”. (“Nymph” is the Greek word for bride.) Absent from this description of the Triple Goddess was the dark “phase” of the Goddess, the “Crone”. In his next book, King Jesus Graves described her as the triform goddess of birth, love, and death, and associated her with the figures of mother, consort, and witch.
Many Neo-Pagans will be familiar with Graves’ next book, The White Goddess, as the origin of the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity. But those who have not actually read the book may not know that Goddess actually describes the Triple Goddess in three different ways in the book:
And Graves did not even limit himself to the three aspects, but described a Quintuple Goddess, whose stations were: “Birth, Initiation, Consummation, Repose and Death”.
While the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity ultimately became the most popular form of the Triple Goddess among Neo-Pagans, it was actually the Mother-Bride-Layer-out which primarily concerned Graves in The White Goddess. This is the version of the Triple Goddess as seen from the perspective of her male counterpart. The trinity begins with the Mother, because that is how men first encounter women. More than the Triple Goddess herself, Graves was concerned with the interaction of the Triple Goddess with her male counterpart. For each of the aspects of the Triple Goddess, there is a corresponding aspect of the man or the god who is her son (corresponding to Mother), lover/consort (corresponding to Nymph/Bride), and victim/sacrifice (corresponding to Crone/Layer-out). As Mother, the Goddess gives birth to the god of the year. As Bride, the Goddess takes the god as her lover, and in her womb he sows the seeds of his own rebirth. As “Layer-out” or Slayer, the Goddess inspires the god’s twin-rival to slay him, his death becoming a sacrifice to the goddess, a sacrifice which fertilizes the earth and makes possible his subsequent rebirth.
The Limitations of the Feminist Triple Goddess
The image of the Triple Goddess was seized upon by feminist Neo-Pagans and Witches in the 1970’s as a new vision of femininity. The Goddess in her multiple forms was seen as a revaluation of aspects of femininity which have been denigrated historically, including menstruation (Maiden), childbirth (Mother), sexuality (Lover/Bride), and menopause (Crone). Most significant was the feminist reclamation of the word “Crone” to mean a wise woman. There is a certain irony in this, since Graves’ vision of the Triple Goddess was at all not feminist, but androcentric and even somewhat misogynistic.
The Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity later came under attack by feminists who criticized its over-emphasis on women’s fertility and sexual desirability to men. They pointed out that not all women become (or even want to become) mothers. In addition, there are feminine archetypes which are not encompassed in the Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity, like the Amazon or the Priestess. And women may manifest different “aspects” of the Goddess at any point in lives, and that aspect may or may not correspond to their chronological age or the state of their wombs.
The Triple Goddess of Nature
Rather than seeing the Triple Goddess primarily a role model for women, we might rather understand her as a form of the Great Goddess (sometimes just called “Goddess”) who many Neo-Pagans identify with Nature or the Universe. If the Goddess is Nature, then the idea that the Goddess has a life cycle reminds us that change is a fundamental quality of Nature. We see this in the both phase of the moon and the seasons, which Robert Graves associated with the stages of the female life cycle. Likewise, the suggestion that the Triple Goddess ages, but does not die, and that she is perpetually renewed, reminds us that change in Nature is often cyclical, rather than linear. As Paul Reid-Bowen explains in Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Theaology: “Thus, the triplicity of the Triple Goddess evokes a notion of diversity and difference within nature, while the unity of the Triple Goddess symbolizes the Sacred Whole, the unity of nature, expressed in the cycle of birth-growth-decay-regeneration.”
Many Neo-Pagans have a tendency to focus on the triplicate nature of the Triple Goddess. But, if the Goddess is Nature, then it is not the number of her aspects that is most significant. She may have four or five aspects, as Robert Graves suggested, or even more. What is unique about the Triple Goddess then is the relationship among her aspects. That relationship suggests movement among the different aspects, specifically, a cycle that returns upon itself. The significance of the Triple Goddess then is to be found, not the specific aspects of Maiden-Mother-Crone, or even the number three, but in the perpetual cyclical movement among the aspects, whatever their number and however they are named.
Paul Reid-Bowen explores this understanding of the Triple Goddess:
“[T]he three aspects of the Goddess, Maiden-Mother-Crone, are theaologically understood not only to be pre- and post-patriarchal models of female identity, but also a dynamic whole: three aspects of a unity. And, while extensive thealogical energy has been invested into charting the character and meaning of each of these different aspects of the Triple Goddess, I am concerned with how the model functions as a dynamic whole. Notably, the model of the Triple Goddess is understood to have metaphysical significance because it is thealogically understood to illuminate broader patterns occurring within the whole construed as nature. The Triple Goddess emphasizes not only changes, cycles and transitions in terms of a female life-pattern, but also with respect to cosmology and ecology (lunar and seasonal cycles) and existential and metaphysical processes and states (birth/emergency, growth/generation, decay/degeneration and rebirth/regeneration).”
In this view, the Triple Goddess is not a role model for women. Rather, she represents Nature. And the relationship between the Triple Goddess and us reflects our relationship with Nature. To us, she is Mother, Lover, and ultimately, Slayer. We are her children, all of us, male and female. And we are, all of us, also her lovers and victims.
The image of the Goddess as Mother reminds us that we were not created by Nature, in the sense of an artifice fashioned by the Abrahamic creator. Rather we grew up as part of Nature, organically. The Greek historian Plutarch recognized this truth (although he used masculine language instead of feminine language, which has been changed below):
“The work of a maker — as of a builder, a weaver, a musical-instrument maker, or a statuary — is altogether distinct and separate from its author; but the principle and power of the procreator is implanted in the progeny, and contains his nature, the progeny being a piece pulled off the procreator. Since therefore the world is neither like a piece of potter’s work nor joiner’s work, but there is a great share of life and divinity in it, which God from [her]self communicated to and mixed with matter, God may properly be called [Mother] of the world — since it has life in it.”
Nor are we separate from Nature even now. In that sense, we are still in the womb of the Goddess.
The image of the Goddess as Lover reminds us that we can find a degree of (re-)union with the Nature while yet living. We experience this as we remember our essential oneness with Nature, something which we humans have a unique ability to become alienated from. This reconnection is, I think, one of the functions of Neo-Pagan ritual. But even something as simple as taking a walk in the woods has the potential to dissolve the existential boundary between our sense of self and the world. As fellow Patheos blogger, Karen Clark, explains:
“While our collective humanity has lost sight of the ways of the green world, pagans hunger to touch and be touched by the powers and splendor of nature. And in this sensual, embodied exchange, we awaken to the living world.
“Hang out in your favorite green space with your senses on high. Attune to your exchange of breath with the trees: their green breath of oxygen with your red breath of carbon dioxide. Open your flat palms toward whatever wild thing catches your fancy and sense the tingling meeting of your energies. Peer into the microcosm of a rotting log, with its teeming collective of interdependent inhabitants.
“The Earth is alive. One web of life connects us all, breath to breath, and essence to essence. What your mind has forgotten, your body remembers.”
Reading this makes me think of reconnection with nature as a kind of lovemaking. (See Trebbe Johnson’s The World is a Waiting Lover.) Harry “Dion” Byngham (of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry fame) expresses this idea poetically:
“life springs out of the star-tissued womb of Nature as the virile son of the All-Mother. Life seeks reunion or religion with Nature, his mother, not however, by falling back into her arms and surrendering once more to some primordial slumber and dream, but by striving away from and with her, searching her, playing with her, dancing before her, wooing her, overcoming her, until she, who is eternally young as well as eternally old, responds like a maiden to his life and will and power, and, in the transfiguring ecstasy of union a new cosmic consciousness is conceived.”
In spite of the patriarchal and dominating language in this quote, I still like the imagery of striving, searching, playing, dancing, and wooing to express our relationship with Nature.
Finally, the Goddess as Slayer reminds us that every experience has an end and no joy lasts forever. But also that every sacrifice promises new life, and nothing dies in vain. There is no true end, only transformation. The Triple Goddess reminds us that, throughout all of these successive births and death, there is something which transcends it all, the eternal cycle itself. As Jules Cashford and Anne Baring explain in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image:
“The great myth of the Bronze Age is structured upon the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and ‘the part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. […] the Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle of the whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life […] is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.”
“[…] the son-lover [or daughter] must accept death – as the image of incarnate being that falls back, like the seed, into the source – while the goddess, here the continuous principle of life, endures to bring forth new forms from the inexhaustible store.”
Knowing this allows us to accept the fact of our annihilation, knowing that there is something greater which transcends our individual selves. And in so doing, we become free to truly live. As Joseph Campbell explains, this is the function of certain religious rituals:
“When the will of the individual to his own immortality has been extinguished—as it is in rites such as these—through an effective realization of the immortality of being itself and of its play through all things, he is united with that being, in experience, in a stunning crisis of release from the psychology of guilt and mortality.”
This cosmic vision of the Triple Goddess avoids the sexism that results from treating the aspects of the Goddess as role models for women, at the same time it offers insight into the mystery of the relationship between ourselves — whatever our gender — and Nature.