Inspired by the Goddess

Carol P. Christ writes about the rebirth of the Goddess, feminism, ecofeminism, feminist theology, societies of peace, and the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.

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Maiden, Mother, Crone: Ancient Tradition or New Creative Synthesis? by Carol P. Christ


The image of the Goddess as Maiden, Mother, Crone is widespread in contemporary Goddess Spirituality. The Triple Goddess honors three ages of women, in contrast to the wider culture that: affirms young women as sex objects while shaming them as sluts; celebrates mothers on Mother’s Day, while providing few legal and economic protections for mothers; and ignores older women.

Though Goddess feminists have created rituals for menstruation and birth, I suspect that a greater number of rituals have celebrated “croning.” The reasons for this are twofold. One is that women have time and space to reflect on the meaning of life in middle age. The other is that aging women are not honored and respected in the wider culture–creating a need for rituals that do just that. Many women I know have spoken of the empowerment they felt in their croning rituals.

On the other hand, many women I know have not been particularly interested in a croning ritual. When I was in my early thirties, an older friend shocked me when she said that at fifty she did not feel  like a crone. “Oh give me a break,” I thought, “you are denying that you are getting old.” But when I turned fifty, I didn’t feel like a crone either. Some years later, I still don’t. It has been suggested that we need a fourth stage, Queen, to celebrate the years between menopause and old age. Since I reject hierarchy of every kind, I don’t want to be a Queen.

Others have criticized the Maiden, Mother, Crone on different grounds, arguing that this symbol defines women by their reproductive roles in an age when many women choose not to have children or find that they cannot have them. Defenders of the Goddess Trinity respond that there are many ways to care for others, or that the motherhood is not limited to physical birth or nurturing, but rather symbolizes creativity in a larger sense, including giving birth to ideas.

In “The Triple Goddess and the Queen” Judith Laura writes, “The concept of the Triple Goddess as 3 aspects that relate to moon phases is a 20th century idea, initially most fully developed by Robert Graves and a few decades later adopted by spiritual feminists developing contemporary Goddess religion(s).” Laura suggests that Graves may have been building on Freud’s speculation in his analysis of fairy tales that women and Goddesses play three roles in the male imagination: corresponding to birth, love, and death. As Laura notes, for Freud, all of these are “mother” roles: men are born of mothers; men choose lovers who remind them of their mothers; and mother earth in the end swallows them up. Graves spoke of the Triple Goddess using a variety of names including Maiden, Mother, Crone; he believed that the Goddess viciously kills her beloved son.

Z Budapest, who acknowledged her debt to Graves, spoke of the “Triple Goddess” and “Triple Goddess culture” in early versions of “Herstory” in The Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows. Though Budapest was influenced by Graves, in her imagination the Triple Goddess is transformed: what began as a symbol for men’s relationship to women becomes a symbol of woman’s relationship to herself. The death Goddess becomes the Wise Old Woman close to death. Death is not feared as the destruction of the male (or female) ego, but affirmed as the natural conclusion of life. The transformation of the meaning of symbols—whatever their source—is often overlooked both by those who criticize Goddess Spirituality and by those who practice it.

Still, we must ask: Is the Goddess Trinity or Triple Goddess an ancient pattern? And if so, is the Triple Goddess to be defined as Maiden, Mother, Crone? I agree with Judith Laura that the Triple Goddess is not an ancient symbol. In Crete, the earliest artifacts which can be identified as Goddesses are ageless and in many cases not exclusively human. They are single images—they do not come in threes. Later images, such as the famous Snake Goddesses, are not Trinities. Arthur Evan’s interpretation of one of them as a Mother and the other as a Daughter appears to be based upon pre-conceived ideas.

three gracesJane Ellen Harrison, in Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, wrote of double Goddesses, Mother and Daughter, as two aspects of the same person, symbolizing the transmission of life in matrilineal cultures. Harrison also spoke of Maiden Trinities, such as the Graces and the Hours. These were never Maiden, Mother, Crone, but rather triple Maidens. Similarly, the Fates are triple Crones.

Marija Gimbutas speaks of the Goddess as representing the powers of birth, death, and rebirth or regeneration. While an indolent mind might see in this power of “three” another repetition of the earlier ideas of Freud and Graves, that would be wrong! Gimbutas’s focus is not on the human individual, male or female, but rather on cosmic processes in which all life participates. Moreover, in her scheme, death is always followed by rebirth. The cosmic processes of birth, death, and rebirth are linked to to female power, but not in any literal way. Gimbutas finds that the Goddess is only rarely pictured pregnant, giving birth, or holding a child.

If the Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother, Crone is not an ancient symbol, why have Goddess feminists been so willing to assume that it is? I think there are two reasons. First, the symbols of Maiden, Mother, Crone speak to a deep need in (many) women to affirm the different stages of their lives, most especially, the croning or aging process.

Second, there seems to be a wish in the Neo-Pagan movement as a whole–and in Goddess Spirituality too– for certainties based in the authority of tradition. Thus for example, the ritual practices of Wiccan tradition, including the ritual knife, nudism, calling the directions, initiation, and so forth are claimed as ancient tradition handed down from the past—even though research has shown that Gerald Gardner cobbled together the “Wiccan tradition” from his wide reading in religion and folklore and his knowledge of Masonic and related rituals, with a good dose of his own idiosyncrasies.

What lesson should we take from this? My suggestion is that we give up the idea that the details of contemporary Goddess Spirituality are rooted in and authorized by tradition. We can instead acknowledge that though we are inspired by the past, we are the ones who are creating contemporary Goddess Spirituality. Ours is not a tradition handed down intact from the ancient past, rather it is a new creative synthesis of aspects of the past combined with contemporary insight and experience. Once we recognize that the Triple Goddess is a contemporary creation, we are free to affirm Maiden, Mother, Crone—or to use other symbols.

Goddess and God in the World final cover design

Carol’s new book Goddess and God in the World (written with Judith Plaskow) has just been released. Order now or add a review on Amazon. Ask for a review copy (for blog or print) or exam or desk copy from Fortress Press.

Carol and Judith are co-editors of Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Judith wrote the first Jewish feminist theology, Standing Again at Sinai, while Carol wrote the first Goddess feminist theology, Rebirth of the Goddess.

There are still spaces on the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete this fall.

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Carol P. Christ is a author of the much-loved books Rebirth of the Goddess, She Who Changes, Weaving the Visions, and Womanspirit Rising, and forthcoming in 2016. Goddess and God in the World and A Serpentine Path. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring and fall.


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