The deity with three faces, the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, entered my life at the National Women’s Music Festival in 1976. The women I met there revered this trinity, which made immediate sense to me. These divine aspects corresponded to the three main life stages I saw in a woman’s life: child, adult, and finally elder. But are these symbols still relevant for women today? I say, “Yes!”
Many newer pagans, witches, and New Age devotees have a strong connection to the lunar cycle. The tri-part Goddess has strong symbolic associations with the phases of the moon. Like the waxing crescent moon, the Maiden is linked with the untamed potential at the beginning of any adventure. Like the full moon, the Mother is associated with the creative abundance of life that needs to be sustained. And like the waning moon, the Crone is connected with the wisdom found at the end of any experience. Women who embrace this symbolism today and incorporate it into their lunar rituals will find their faith deepened and enhanced.
Like any story, these phases represent the beginning, the middle, and the end. And as I wrote these words, a great horned owl came to rest on a structure 20 feet from my window, underscoring what I was saying as it hunted for supper! A beginning for it, but the end for a different creature. Like an owl hunting, the Triple Goddess represents the round of birth, death, and regeneration as the cyclic structure of life. She affirms our power as women; the power to initiate, sustain, and finally to end. These are timeless phases that all women pass through in life, and are still relevant today.
Over the last few decades, pagans have added to these three archetypes. Barbara Ardinger and Donna Hennes expanded the Goddess symbols to four by adding the “Queen” as an image for the midlife woman who owns her own sovereignty. Other Wiccans (for instance, the Reformed Congregation of the Goddess – International and Kim Duckett) have increased the number to eight, corresponding to the eight stations on the solar wheel. But I haven’t felt the need to go beyond the first three symbols. They correspond to something deep in me.
Symbols aren’t purely intellectual images. Instead they resonate, because they link up the various layers of our lives. If we look at the symbol of the Mother, for instance, there’s the biological stratum: a mother is the female parent of a child. Intellectually, all our connotations with motherhood expand this biological definition so that we view mothers as nurturant, caring persons whether they are biological parents or not. Then there’s the emotional layer, how we feel about our mothers or other caregivers in our lives. If we’ve had good mothers, that involves love and respect. If not, maternal love can still be an ideal that’s longed for. In fact, I sometimes believe that I embraced the Mother Goddess so fervently, because my personal mother was cold and distant. And when you add the spiritual stratum, you find a very deep connection to Mother Earth or the Goddess as the Creatrix. She connects our personal lives to the cosmic rhythms of life, and as a result, to our deepest selves.
In the last twenty years, Pagans have argued about the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, some of them insisting that this Goddess form was created in the modern era, possibly by Jane Ellen Harrison or Robert Graves. This argument hasn’t deterred me from embracing these three Goddess figures. Whether ancient or modern, they resonate deeply in my life.
While I’ve seen younger women reacting negatively to what they perceive as the biologism of the “Mother” archetype, claiming that it’s exclusive and leaves out those women who don’t give birth, this is where they could learn from those of us in the crone stage of life. Feminists wrestled with these arguments in the mid-1970s, an argument that spiritual feminists dealt with by correcting the symbolism of the Mother. We expanded the concept of the Mother to include all forms of creativity, not just procreation. If we look at this question historically, our ancestors never viewed the Mother archetype in such a limited, physical way. The Mother Goddess was THE creatrix of the entire universe, and so Her creativity included all of it.
It’s a patriarchal attitude to view motherhood as solely tied to biology. In continuing to regard this archetype as limited to the physical, we reinforce the patriarchal understanding of this figure, diminishing not only mothers themselves but also mothers by choice, aunts, trans women, and female creators. Expanding the definition of mother addresses the negative reaction to a definition limited by biology.
Instead of disposing of the Mother archetype, I believe we should look to historical and contemporary matristic cultures for better understandings of it. Most of these cultures view the Earth as a Great Mother, who freely gives of Herself. As a result, the values associated with motherhood are those that are held in esteem: love, caring, nurturing, and generosity. All members of these societies – male as well as female – are raised to believe that these are their highest principles. As a result, matristic cultures cultures demonstrate attitudes of cooperation, flexibility, tolerance, and interdependence.
I believe we should embrace the Mother and Her values as seed crystals of new patterns in our culture. The Goddess images we live through will make these new patterns solid and concrete, building upon the past for today’s woman. And eventually, culture will reshape itself around them.