— Aeschylus, Libation Bearers
The motif of Triple Goddess is near ubiquitous in Neo-Paganism. The Triple Goddess is three goddesses in one: Maiden, Mother, and Crone, represented by the waxing, full, and waning moons.
The Origins of the Triple Goddess
While there are many example of triplicities of goddesses in ancient pagan myth and art, there are far fewer examples of true Triple Goddess with a tri-une nature like the Neo-Pagan Goddess. One of the earliest examples comes from the 3rd century C.E. Neoplatonist, Porphyry. In his fragmentary text, On Images, Porphyry equates the goddess Hecate with the moon, referring to her three forms, but only identifying two: new and full. He associates the goddess with three other goddesses, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, who might be said to correspond to the three aspects of the Neo-Pagan goddess: virgin, mother, and queen of the dead. Porphyry also compares her to the three Fates, who are associated with birth, growth and death:
“But, again, the moon is Hecate, the symbol of her varying phases and of her power dependent on the phases. Wherefore her power appears in three forms, having as symbol of the new moon the figure in the white robe and golden sandals, and torches lighted: the basket, which she bears when she has mounted high, is the symbol of the cultivation of the crops, which she makes to grow up according to the increase of her light: and again the symbol of the full moon is the goddess of the brazen sandals.
“Or even from the branch of olive one might infer her fiery nature, and from the poppy her productiveness, and the multitude of the souls who find an abode in her as in a city, for the poppy is an emblem of a city. She bears a bow, like Artemis, because of the sharpness of the pangs of labour.
“And, again, the Fates are referred, to her powers, Clotho to the generative, and Lachesis to the nutritive, and Atropos to the inexorable will of the deity.
“Also, the power productive of corn-crops, which is Demeter, they associate with her, as producing power in her. The moon is also a supporter of Koré. They set Dionysus also beside her, both on account of their growth of horns, and because of the region of clouds lying beneath the lower world.”
Two centuries later, the late Roman commentator, Servius, in his commentary on the Aeneid, describes the goddess Hecate in this way: “When she is above the earth she is the Moon, on earth she is Diana and under the earth Proserpina.” Servius then goes on:
“Some call the same goddess Lucina, Diana and Hecate because they assign to one goddess the three powers of birth, growth and death. Some that say that Lucina is the goddess of birth, Diana of growth and Hecate of death. On account of this three-fold power they have imagined her as three-fold and three-form.”
Robert Graves’ Triple (or Quintuple) Goddess
While the Neo-Pagan Triple Goddess has some ancient precedents, she derives primarily from the writings of Robert Graves (who was influenced by Servius’ writings). Graves actually described different tri-unities for the Triple Goddess, including:
It was this last trinity — Maiden, Mother, and Crone — which became the most common in Neo-Paganism.
Graves’ most detailed description of the Triple Goddess is found in his book, The White Goddess (1948):
“As Goddess of the Underworld she was concerned with Birth, Procreation and Death. As Goddess of the Earth she was concerned with the three season of Spring, Summer and Winter: she animated trees and plants and ruled all living creatures. As Goddess of the Sky she was the Moon, in her three phases of New Moon, Full Moon, and Waning Moon. […] As the New Moon or Spring she was a girl; as the Full Moon or Summer she was woman; as the Old Moon or Winter she was hag.”
Interestingly, Graves goes on to combine the various aspects of these trinities into a “quintuple” Goddess, and describes “the five stations of her year: Birth, Initiation, Consummation, Repose and Death”.
Erich Neumann’s Quadruple Goddess
In his book, The Great Mother (1955), Erich Neumann incorporated Jung’s quartered-circle mandala — a symbol of wholeness, of God, and the Self — with goddess imagery from around the word to describe four aspects of the Goddess:
- Good Mother: vegetation, birth, ex. Demeter, Isis, Mary
- Virgin/Muse: inspiration, vision, ex. Mary, Sophia
- Terrible Mother/Old Witch: death, devouring, ex. Kali, Hecate
- Young Witch: drunkenness, madness, ex. Astarte, Lilith, Circe
The Meaning of the Triple Goddess
The image of the Triple Goddess was seized upon by feminist Neo-Pagans in the 1970’s to promote a revaluation of femininity. The Triple Goddess in her various forms valorizes aspects of femininity which have been denigrated historically, including menstruation (Maiden), childbirth (Mother), sexuality (Lover/Bride), and menopause (Crone). Most notable is the feminist reclaiming of the word “crone” to mean a wise woman.
The Triple Goddess image later came under attack by feminists who criticized the over-emphasis on women’s fertility and sexual desirability to men. They point out that not all women become mothers, for instance. But there is another meaning to the Triple Goddess, aside from the dignity it may or may not bestow on womanhood. The idea that Neo-pagan Goddess has a life cycle that mirrors that of all women highlights that change is at the very center of the Neo-Pagan concept of divinity. Likewise, the suggestion that the Neo-Pagan Goddess ages, but does not die, and is rather renewed, reveals that the Neo-Pagan concept of change is a cyclical one. It is possible to argue that this cyclical nature, and not the particular number or nature of her aspects, is what is the most important feature of the Triple Goddess. What is unique about the Neo-Pagan Triple Goddess is not the specific aspects of maiden/mother/crone, or even the number three, but the continuous cyclical movement among the aspects, whatever their number and however they are named.
The philosophical implications of this understanding of the Triple Goddess are explored in this excerpt from Paul Reid-Bowen’s book, Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Theaology:
“The model of the Triple Goddess is comprised of three idealized or normative stages of female development: the youthful and independent Maiden (or Virgin), the fecund and relational Mother, and the degenerative and wise Crone. …
“[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). …
“[T]he model of the Goddess as Triple introduces themes relating to transitional change (both in women and nature) and also cyclical recurrence within a unified whole (understood as the Goddess as nature). The Goddess, according to this model, may be viewed as always changing, while at the same time manifest within recurrent patterns. […]
“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.”