The Three Women: Maiden, Mother & Crone

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three womenPrimavera (The Three Graces), Sandro Botticelli (c. 1482) present location Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The Triple Goddess is the subject of much of the writing of Robert Graves, and has been adopted by many neo-pagans as one of their primary deities. The term triple goddess is infrequently used outside of Neo-paganism to instead refer to historical goddess triads and single goddesses of three forms or aspects. In common Neo-pagan usage the three female figures are frequently described as the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone, each of which symbolizes both a separate stage in the female life cycle and a phase of the moon, and often rules one of the realms of earth, underworld, and the heavens. These may or may not be perceived as aspects of a greater single divinity. The feminine part of Wicca’s duo-theistic theological system is sometimes portrayed as a Triple Goddess, her masculine counterpart being the Horned God.

‘In the first three numbers, all of the others are synthesized. From the union of oneness and duality (which is its reflection), that is, from triad, proceed all of the other numbers, and from this primordial triangle all figures derive.

There is also, for traditional civilizations, a direct relationship between numbers and letters of the alphabet, to the point where, with many alphabets, numbers were represented by letters, and had no special signs of their own. This is not the case with the early American cultures, which knew no alphabet, but we wish to call attention to this correspondence because not only the alphabetical code, but the numerical one, as well, describe all reality: that is, everything that is numerable or namable–in the sense of “ciphers,” harmonious measures, “proportions” – in sum, the totality of the cosmos, of the knowable.

This three-ness or triad, has always been considered ‘sacred–like oneness‘, duality, and all numbers–by virtue of its very properties and particular attributes. These properties and attributes are manifested in its threefold nature, which of itself is the inevitable expression of a principle, an archetypal fact, that solidifies in a series, as a representation of ideas and energies that materialize in magical, mysterious fashion while obeying precise, universal laws, which the numerical codes and their geometrical correspondences symbolize.’

Modern neo-pagan conceptions of the Triple Goddess have been heavily influenced by the prominent early and middle 20th-century poet, novelist and mythographer Robert Graves who regarded the Triple Goddess as the continuing muse of all true poetry and who speculatively reconstructed her ancient worship, drawing on the scholarship of his time, in particular the Cambridge Ritualist. More recently the prominent archaeologist Marija Gimbutas has argued for the ancient worship of a Triple Goddess in Europe, attracting much controversy, and her ideas also influence modern neo-paganism.

Many neo-pagan belief systems follow Graves in his use of the figure of the Triple Goddess, and it continues to be an influence on feminism, literature, Jungian psychology and literary criticism. The relationship between the neo-pagan Triple Goddess and ancient religion is disputed, although it is not disputed that triple goddesses were known to ancient religion.

Ronald Hutton, a scholar of neopaganism, argues that the concept of the triple moon goddess as Maiden, Mother, and Crone, each facet corresponding to a phase of the moon, is a modern creation of Robert Graves, drawing on the work of 19th and 20th century scholars such as especially Jane Harrison; and also Margaret Murray, James Frazer, the other members of the “myth and ritual” school or Cambridge Ritualists, and the occultist and writer Aleister Crowley. The Triple Goddess was here distinguished by Hutton from the prehistoric Great Mother Goddess, as described by Marija Gimbutas and others, whose worship in ancient times he regarded as neither proven nor disproven Nor did Hutton dispute that in ancient pagan worship “partnerships of three divine women” occurred; rather he proposes that Jane Harrison looked to such partnerships to help explain how ancient goddesses could be both virgin and mother (the third person of the triad being as yet unnamed). Here she was according to Hutton “extending” the ideas of the prominent archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who in excavating Knossos in Crete had come to the view that prehistoric Cretans had worshiped a single mighty goddess at once virgin and mother. In Hutton’s view Evans’ opinion owed an “unmistakable debt” to the Christian belief in the Virgin Mary.

A poet and mythographer, Graves claimed a historical basis for the triple-goddess, and an ongoing tradition of her worship among poets. Although Graves’s work is widely discounted by academics as pseudo-history (see The White Goddess #Criticism and The Greek Myths #Reception), it continues to have a lasting influence on many areas of Neopaganism.

Old_WorldAuthor and Pagan scholar Raven Grimassi, in his books Old World Witchcraft (Weiser, 2012), and The Witches’ Craft (Llewellyn 2002), points out that certain ancient writings are in sharp contrast against the views of scholars such as Ronald Hutton (who he specifically refers to).

Grimassi presents ancient literary writings that mention the basic concept of a Triformis goddess associated with Witchcraft. One of his source examples appears in Lucan’s ancient tale of a group of witches, written in the first century BCE. In Lucan’s work (LUC. B.C. 6:700-01) the witches make the following comment: “Persephone, who is the third and lowest aspect of our goddess Hecate…” ‘(Lucan: The Civil War, Harvard University Press, 2006). Grimassi concludes that this source strongly suggests the concept of Witches having a triformis or three-fold goddess (and the notion appears almost two thousand years prior to Gerald Gardner’s time). Another source example offered by Grimassi is found in Ovid’s tale (Met. 7:94-95) in which Jason swears an oath to the witch Medea, saying he would “be true by the sacred rites of the three-fold goddess” (Penguin Classics, Ovid Metamorphoses, 2004). Grimassi’s position is that these sources clearly demonstrate that, contrary to scholarly opinion, the basic concept of a triformis goddess venerated in Witchcraft is not a modern construction, and pre-exists the Romantic era and the work of Gerald Gardner and his cohorts. It is Grimassi’s contention that the “Triple Goddess” in Neo-paganism is rooted in ancient thought and literature, from which it is ultimately derived.

While many Neo-pagans are not Wiccan, and within Neo-paganism the practices and theology vary widely, many Wiccans and other neo-pagans worship the “Triple Goddess” of maiden, mother, and crone, a practice going back to mid-twentieth-century England. In their view, sexuality, pregnancy, breastfeeding — and other female reproductive processes — are ways that women may embody the Goddess, making the physical body sacred.

  • The Maiden represents enchantment, inception, expansion, the promise of new beginnings, birth, youth and youthful enthusiasm, represented by the waxing moon;
  • The Mother represents ripeness, fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, power and life represented by the full moon;
  • The Crone represents wisdom, repose, death, and endings represented by the waning moon.

The triple goddess sign is identified with Greek moon goddesses:

  • Artemis – the Maiden, because she was the virgin goddess of the hunt;
  • Selene – the Mother, for she was the mother of Endymion’s children and loved him;
  • Hecate – the Crone, as she was associated with the underworld and magic, and so considered to be “Queen of Witches”.

Helen Berger writes that “according to believers, this echoing of women’s life stages allowed women to identify with deity in a way that had not been possible since the advent of patriarchal religions.”

The Church of All Worlds is one example of a neo-pagan organization which identifies the Triple Goddess as symbolizing a “fertility cycle“. This model is also supposed to encompass a personification of all the characteristics and potential of every woman who has ever existed. Other beliefs held by worshipers, such as Wiccan author D. J. Conway, include that reconnect with the Great Goddess is vital to the health of humankind “on all levels“. Conway includes the Greek goddesses Demeter, Kore-Persephone, and Hecate, in her discussion of the Maiden-Mother-Crone archetype.

For Conway, the Triple Goddess stands for unity, cooperation, and participation with all creation, while in contrast male gods represent dissociation, separation and dominion of nature. These views have been criticized by members of both the neo-pagan and scholarly communities as re-affirming gender stereotypes and symbolically being unable to adequately face humanity’s current ethical and environmental situation.

Symbols of the Goddess – the Labrys

labrys1The Labyrs, Sagarus, Halbryce, and Labyris are all names for symmetrical double-headed axe that was known to the Classical Greeks as “pelekus”, and whilst a version is still used in woodcutting and forestry today, the symbolism of the labyrs axe dates back to the early Goddess civilizations found around the Mediterranean.

In ancient Minoan, Thracian and Greek religion, mythology, and art, dating from the Middle Bronze Age (3,000 to 600 BCE) onwards, and surviving in the Byzantine Empire, the labyrs can be found, as well as in specific African religions, such as Shango, where it also contains an element of religious symbolism.

The term, and the symbol, is most closely associated in historical records with the Minoan civilization, which reached its peak in the 2nd millennium BCE, and specifically with the worship of a Goddess. Some Minoan labrys have been found which are taller than a human, over six metres tall, and have been thought to may have been used during sacrifices, that of bulls which were also considered to be sacred the Goddess.

The labrys symbol has been found widely in the Bronze Age aarchaeological recovery at the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. According to archaeological finds oh the island, this double-axe was used specifically by Minoan priestesses for ceremonial uses. Of all the Minoan religious symbols, the axe was the holiest. To find such an axe in the hands of a Minoan woman would suggest strongly that she held a powerful position within the Minoan culture.

The labyrs was the sacred axe of the ancient Minoan Goddess, a symbol of authority, as well as that of sacred transformation with the double axe head being thought to represent a ‘butterfly’.

Women today, especially those who are not afraid of expressin their own opinion regardless of whether it coincides with the whims of others are often been referred to rudely, as “old battle-axes”. When the above information about the sacred labrys is taken in to consideration, this alleged “insult” actually could imply something completely different – an aspect of “cultural memory” as Abby Willowroot points out.

Monarch_butterfliesThe butterfly is one of the most emblematic totem animals symbolizing personal transformation.

If you see the butterfly as your totem or spirit animal, pay attention to the areas in your life or personality that are in need of profound change or transformation.

Perhaps, this animal totem guides you to be sensitive to your personal cycles of expansion and growth, as well as the beauty of life’s continuous unfolding.

An important message carried by the spirit of the butterfly is about the ability to go through important changes with grace and lightness.

 
What is the meaning of the butterfly?

This animal totem is primarily associated with symbolism of change and transformation.

  • Powerful transformation, metamorphosis in your life, personality
  • Moving through different life cycles
  • Renewal, rebirth
  • Lightness of being, playfulness
  • Elevation from earthly matters, tuning into emotional or spiritual
  • The world of the soul, the psyche

A secondary meaning of the butterfly is about finding joy in life and lightness of being.

The butterfly is a symbol of powerful transformations. By analogy to the development of this animal, the meaning associated with the butterfly emphasizes the ability to move from one state, perspective, lifestyle to another.

When the butterfly comes into your life as spirit guide, you may be going through or expect important changes in your life. More than changes in your environment, the transformation the butterfly totem points to are more internal: They could be related to your own perspective on a subject, aspects of your personality, or personal habits. Personal transformation is emblematic of the butterfly symbolism.

When the butterfly shows up in your life as a spirit animal or totem, it might indicate the need to look at a conflicting situation with more lightness and different perspective. This totem animal is symbolic of lightness of being and elevation from the heaviness of tensions.

This power animal invites those who have a connection with it to bring joy and bliss into their lives. Butterflies often have bright colors. By extension, they are associated with aliveness and brightness. The message of this totem animal is to lighten up and add more color to your life. Perhaps it’s time to express yourself more fully and show your colorful personality.

In many traditions around the world, the butterfly is a symbol of the soul or soul world. For example, in Chinese symbology, it can represent immortality. For the Japanese, a white butterfly symbolizes the soul the departed ones.

In Ancient Greece, butterflies represent the psyche or soul, and its attribute of immortality.

The butterfly is a powerful animal to call when you need support in times of transition, whether it’s at work, in a relationship, or when you’re doing inner work. Great ally during intense periods of personal transformation, it will add ease and lightness to the process.

This power animal is a good inspiration for adding more color into your life and self-expression. Those who have the butterfly as a totem animal may be naturally inclined to express themselves openly, to reflect their colors into their environment.
 
In cultures around the world the butterfly is associated as follows:

Christianity ~ the soul

Celtic ~ nature spirits

China ~ conjugal bliss and joy
 

Gateways to Changes in Consciousness

Advancements in health have extended the life span to twice what it was one hundred years ago. By the year 2008, postmenopausal women will comprise the largest demographic group in America. The ancient tripartite divisions of Maiden, Mother, and Crone can be even more be meaningful in women’s lives as the Crone stage becomes one third of our lifespan. Each stage of a woman’s life is organized around what Goddess Cultures called the blood mysteries : menarche, (the first monthly flow of blood); childbirth, which is accompanied by blood from birthing; and menopause, when a woman’s “wise blood” remained inside her to give her wisdom. These are still powerful landmarks, which profoundly influence women’s lives. They function as psychological gateways to the change in consciousness required by each new stage.

All women will experience the powerful changes caused by female hormonal shifts. The emotions women feel, the psychological meaning they attach to the events, and transformational experiences of each stage are outgrowths of the physical timing inherent in every woman’s body. Women’s psyches are also profoundly influenced by cultural conditioning

Forming Intuition

Menstruation, ovulation, pregnancy, childbirth, and perimenopause are such intense internal physical and psychological experiences that they compel women to focus on the internal awareness of the body. This direct experience with powerful internal states develops intuition that is grounded in body wisdom . The connection through the body to the rhythms of the cosmos is the foundation for powerful shifts in consciousness within women.

If these transformations are so natural however, why would I write about them. There are several reasons: Much has been left out in our education and there is sufficient mis-education that women focus on cultural expectations, rather than following their natural progression. The stresses of such expectations and the mixed messages in the media (to appear sexy but to abstain from sexual encounters) compound the negative spin on women’s sexuality that has gone on for over 5,000 years. On the other end of the spectrum, older woman have considerable pressure to maintain their youthful looks or to get out of the game.

The Maiden

The developmental task of the Maiden Stage is discovering individual creative potential. In spiritual terms it can be likened to the Novice preparing to become the Initiate. This can be a wonderful time to learn at all levels: building career skills, experiencing the complexities of relationships of all kinds, preparing for adult responsibilities, and developing a conscious relationship with intuitive body wisdom, that will continue for the remainder of life.

The Maiden Stage today carries the implication of innocence to the term that has been distorted out of proportion. It now implies an untouched sexuality: literally unknowing and unschooled in any way. This evaluation of Maiden innocence is insulting to the many strong, competent, vastly underestimated Maidens in their twenties. These young women are perhaps the first generation, since the Goddess Cultures were eliminated, to explore their potential including their sexuality, and to enjoy the freedom to learn and gain knowledge in a relatively unrestrained atmosphere.

Sexually, this should be a period of exploring pleasure, without the burden of motherhood. This does not mean that the Maiden period should be a time of unlimited sexual activity. There are many lessons to be learned about readiness, self-respect, and appropriate conditions for sexual encounters. However, without the patriarchal concept of the Maiden as personal property, she is free to discover for herself, with wise guidance, her path to sexual pleasure and her unique appropriate limits.

Today, although there is no formal celebration, there is a transformation of awareness for any Maiden, at the time of her first blood. Most women still report feeling some aspect of shame and embarrassment, even if only at the level of having to cover up the fact that they are bleeding from a very private part of their bodies. Ultimately there is the shadow of the feared and awesome power of conception.

The Maiden Stage does not end with first intercourse, but with pregnancy and the birth of the first child.

The Mother

The developmental task of the Mother Stage is accepting responsibility . The immense psychological change that accompanies the Mother transition are driven by hormones not available to the biological father. The fierce emotions the Mother feels about ensuring the well being of her baby are intensely personal, as no one else is as important to the baby’s survival. Among the powerful hormones released into the body with birth is prolactin, the nursing hormone, which has impressive properties for fostering the patience and nurturing abilities needed with constant mothering. The shift in consciousness that takes place with first motherhood is the most sudden and powerful of all in life, save the experience of death.

Spiritually, the Mother Stage is a time of the Journey Woman. Giving birth teaches the deeper meaning of surrender, through the experience of overpowering body processes. The responsibility of motherhood is constantly being put to the test, as the Mother learns the lessons of compassion. Whether the consciousness of the Mother dawns suddenly or slowly, it is a most profound shift in consciousness from self, to selfless compassion for another human being. Women in the Goddess Cultures were honored in the Maiden transition and well prepared for this transformation into the Mother Stage. It is my profound hope that we can reclaim these rites of passage as they were meant to be and teach their inherent wisdom to women everywhere.

Mother Stage sexuality accesses new strengths, learned from the experience of childbirth and child nurturing. Surrender (to her body sensations) and compassion are deep spiritual lessons which carry over to her sexuality. The hormones accompanying gestation and lactation strongly influence her sexual self. Her sexuality continues to develop, but with radical changes engendered by the responsibilities of nurturing children. For women who do not give birth, there are many ways to learn and express the lessons of this stage: nurturing others, taking responsibility for those in need, and mothering stepchildren, relatives’ children and animals.

Loss of sexual desire can occur in any stage. In my book, Reclaiming Goddess Sexuality, I address the issues and challenges of the Maiden and Mother stages. However, I would like to pay special attention to the most sexually powerful stage of all, the Crone.

The Crone

The developmental task of the Crone Stage is sharing wisdom. In Neolithic times, Crone women were the tribal matriarchs. Their heightened awareness of human nature yielded great insight and they were the source of wise counsel for important decisions. Spiritually, this is the Mastery phase. The Wise Woman teaches knowledge gained from her skills and life experience. It is a time of reaching into her spiritual depths, utilizing her powers of intuition, and finding meaning in her visions from the dream world. Some Crone women are masters of healing at the highest level.

The Crone Stage of life, more than any other, is a time of giving back to society the cumulative wisdom of the years. Many women have an urge to speak out, to organize others, to take action. They seem to have the energy to get more involved in the world-at-large. It is often Crone energy that leads to changes being made in society. As the Crone woman moves further into her life path she feels the urge to teach others and to cultivate her passions. It can be the most productive time in women’s lives.

The change from Mother Stage to Crone Stage is a more gradual psychological shift than the one from Maiden to Mother, so dramatically marked by the birth of the first child. The transition begins when a woman notes changes in her cycle. The duration of the perimenopausal period is as much as ten years. The symptoms vary so drastically from one woman to the next that no one, including doctors, can predict the last blood flow. Women cannot wait for total cessation of the menses to begin the shift into Crone consciousness. Women are coming to the end of intensive caretaking duties and the physical symptoms are a message that they must consider their own needs above those of others The symptoms of what is now called perimenopause are the initiation into Cronehood.

The narrow medical interpretation of menopause as an ovarian failure often leads to narrow assumptions about women’s sexuality beyond midlife. So far, women have heard mostly bad news; that their vaginas will become less elastic and dry, their energy will wane and their libidos will disappear. However, the medical paradigm both reflects and perpetuates misunderstanding about post-menopausal sexuality. The assumption is that sexual desire and pleasure inevitably decline as a result of a hormone deficiency. However, according to Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of The Wisdom of Menopause , approximately 70 to 80 percent of older women do not experience menopause as a problem. She states that the medical profession has never studied a group of women who didn’t get all the diseases of menopause that are supposedly secondary to hormone deficiency. And so the depressing statistics about sexual loss at midlife are negatively skewed.

Sexual Mastery

Sexually, the Crone Stage is potentially powerful one. It is the stage of sexual mastery. The Goddess cultures knew it well. The ancient Tantric tradition was actually founded by female masters who understood the sacred power of sexuality and its relationship to the Divine. Crone women’s continued sexuality in ancient times is one of the mysteries now coming to light. These older women chose to stay sexually active with their aging mates or, if widowed or unattached, they were known to take younger male lovers for pleasure because no one assumed that their sexuality was over.

Menopause is not a disease, but our collective culture has a problem with aging women. Susan Hodgkiss, a sexy woman in her seventies, stages a monologue drama, called “Elements of the Flesh,” relating stories about her and her friends’ sexual experiences. Many who go to listen to her are shocked. “But she’s too old,” they say. Such is the dilemma of older women. They are taught to believe that they have much to lose at menopause because Crone women have less value to men and to the culture. Today, post-menopausal women are rewriting the cultural view of what it means to age. Such women no longer fit the standard view as dried up, but the party line about aging women has not kept up with the reality of the lives of the bulk of women now reaching 50 and beyond.

The good news is that it is possible to find new strengths from the transformation experience of menopause. For many women a free and fiercely assertive sexuality can emerge from the confrontation with their health issues. Today, many Crone women are seeking sexual pleasure more assertively than ever before. Far from eschewing sexuality, vital Crone women embrace it for the first time in their lives as purely for themselves. Crone sexual response is no longer estrogen-dependent as in the Maiden and Mother Stages, nor limited by the cycles of progesterone as with Mother pregnancy and birth. It has all the potential power that comes from the will of the fully conscious, self-reliant, experienced, sexual self-knowing, wise woman. If she chooses, she can use her sexuality to serve a higher purpose by receiving Divine inspiration and connecting to the Source.

Psychological Domains of the Maiden, Mother and Crone

Contemporary women can reconnect with sexual desire by acknowledging themselves as an expression of the Goddess. Part of this re-imaging is internalizing the three aspects of feminine nature. Becoming fully conscious of the three sexual expressions of the Goddess within allows us to choose to express any one or all three simultaneously.

The Maiden within us is the playful child, delighting in the wonder of pleasure and sexual exploration. She is longing to be loved. She is the source of our natural curiosity and sensuality. The psychological readiness to awaken sexual energy and feeling permission “to do what feels good for me” in a safe setting are necessary for the Maiden to come out to play.

The Mother is the loving nurturer, bestowing unconditional acceptance on the beloved, and generating compassionate loving beyond self-gratification. She is the source within us of our capacity to build communion with another in the act of giving and receiving sexual pleasure. The Mother in us takes responsibility for seductive conditions and knows how to surrender to sexual desire.

The Crone is the wise woman within, who can consciously generate healing power. She is the part of us that feels empowered to act on intentional desire, in an honoring setting. She is the wise one who intuitively connects with the spiritual nature of sexual energy. The Crone is the teacher, encouraging us to listen to intuition and recognize divine guidance.

The I AM GODDESS self-awareness integrates the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The value of integrating the three expressions of the Goddess within is to create the ability and the wisdom to express your sexuality most fully.

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Linda E. Savage, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and sex therapist who has been exploring the mysteries of sexual healing for over 25 years. Dr. Savage is the author of Reclaiming Goddess Sexuality: The Power of the Feminine Way (Hay House) which presents a view of women’s sexuality that blends the ancient wisdom of the Goddess cultures with current clinical knowledge.

 

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