The triple goddess is not a new or unique concept. The grouping of three women, typically represented as the Maid, the Mother and the Crone appear to have independently sprung up in folklore any mythology all around the world. The idea that concepts like this emerge independently seems unlikely until you realise that its far less likely the ancient Greeks were in communication with the emerging native tribes in the Americas. The independent development of similar ideas is referred to as Convergent Evolution and it has a great many manifestations. Its an area of theology in particular I find fascinating. It indicates a shared human experience despite being worlds apart.
Side Note: Whilst not a new concept it has been hijacked by unwashed, vegan, hippy women and driven in a direction totally unrecognisable. In this post I am referring to the historical cultural concepts, not the unhealthy new-age tool for dealing with a break-up. This may seem a little unfair but in my entire life I have met hundreds of “neo-pagans”, but I can count on one hand people who were committed practitioners and not just in it for the arts and crafts. I have only ever met one legitimate male neo-pagan.
So what about the maid, the mother and the crone is a shared experience? thematically they can indicate the passing of time, the past, the present and the future. Its also worth remembering that despite being marginalised in most societies women embody a particular primal power. Whilst I wont comment on the validity of this sentiment, women have often been seen as the creators, as only a woman can give life. Whereas men are often seen as the destroyers, or the takers of life. So the triple goddess is a concept that may represent the cycle of life. We clearly think about women in modern, western society, a bit differently to our ancestors. A number of articles I read published by professors of anthropology indicate that a lot of Celtic and Gaelic tribes were matriarchal. Guy Halsall is a strong proponent of this theory but I cant seem to find its academic origins. The matriarch being an elderly woman or Crone embodied wisdom. Most of the men in the tribe died violently and young so if you are looking for accrued experience you should be looking to the women. The Boudican revolt is often cited as evidence of this theory. I am unconvinced but would love to see further research to look into this.
Side Note: I have written the term “Triple Goddess” too many times now and its starting to bother me. Whilst other phrases are likely far more offensive I am going to start switching up the terminology mainly before I become a vegan. Don’t worry I will stay clear of phrases like “the holy ovarian trinity”.
I have selected four of the best known representations of the X-chromosome triad for comparison. This is not anything close to being an exhaustive list. Unfortunately very little legitimate historical research has been done on this topic as most of the people who have a great deal of knowledge about it are too busy strapping themselves to trees and weaving clothes from hemp to write comparative academic papers. Whilst my descriptions of the examples are extensively researched, my conclusion is my opinion entirely with very little credible work by other people to back it up.
The Norn’s are described first in one of the earliest surviving written sources for Norse Mythology. The Voluspa, found in the Codex Regius is probably one of most studied works of literature offering insight into Norse myths. As such I have probably lost any pagan theology scholars who have been undoubtedly forced to read it ad nauseum. It relates largely to the creation of the universe. Whilst I could speak endlessly about stuff getting licked into creation by a magical cosmic cow the area of the Voluspa relevant to us right now relates to three sisters, The sit by Uroarbrunnr, the well of fate, found at the base of the great ash tree Yggdrassil. Every morning they tend to the great tree with water from the well and then set about their task of weaving the fate of all things into a tapestry. The sisters were Urdr, Veroandi and Skuld representing past, present and future. The implication particularly from stanza twenty of the Voluspa is that they can see the fates of men and what they weave is what will come to pass. They are much revered in Norse culture and are often mentioned in passages with Odin, Thor, Tyr and the Einherjar. To me at least this indicates their status and importance.
There are sources which describe the appearance of the Norn’s which are believed to be contemporary to the primary Eddas which should be read with significant scepticism as they were written by Christian observers. The Norn’s are described in the typical maiden, mother and crone format. Whilst less explicit, direct oral histories later written down heavily infer all three were elderly. In one story however a handsome prince was so captivated by Urdr’s beauty that he, distracted, fell to his death. This would be a very atypical story if Urdr appeared as an elderly lady however I am unwilling to presume anything at this point.
Side Note: I have found dozens of translations of the names of the Norn’s, the most popular appear to be Urdr (Fate), Veroandi (Happening) and Skuld (Debt). There is an amazing line in the movie Thirteenth Warrior “The All-Father wove the skein of your life a long time ago, run and hide in a hole if you wish, you wont live one instant longer”. Whilst there is no evidence in any of the surviving texts that Odin has ever woven anything, the quote does accurately represent the belief in pre-destiny that is rich in everything we know about the Norse.
Anglicised as The Fates, three sisters recorded in the earliest works of Hellenistic literature. Their names were Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Alotter) and Atropos (the unturnable). Again we have the association with weaving, they each hold the “prime thread of life” for every mortal, they work them together into a tapestry of fate. Even the Gods had to submit to the will and power of the Moirai. Fortunately these three sisters appeared to have no agenda but to ensure fate followed its allotted course.
Interestingly the Greeks and most of the other Hellenic cultures had some pretty Nihilistic ideas about death. It was thought that immortality of body or soul was reserved for very special occasions and as a rule the only way to obtain any kind of immortality was through Immortal Memory. In the doing of great deeds you may remain in the minds of man long after your corporeal death. Thus the Moirai, as maintainers of the cosmic balance were in many ways more powerful than the Gods. However depending on whether you are reading the Odyssey by Homer or Hesiods Theogony this is more a spectrum than a fixed rule.
Side Note: “Unturnable” an awesome classical great euphemism for Death.
The Morrigu has many names, including my favourite the Morrigan which is used interchangeably between an individual Goddess and a Triple Goddess made up of Anu (The Maid), Badb (The Mother) and Macha (The Crone). They pop up a lot in Irish Gaelic mythology as symbols of life, death and rebirth. In particular the Morrigan is associated with death in battle, sometimes seen as a raven flying over the battlefield. The interchangeable singular or trio seems to depend entirely on where in Ireland you happen to be. This triple Goddess is particularly associated with foreshadowing death in battle. They consort to reveal the past, present and future of men who are lucky … or unlucky enough to pique their interest. Irish folklore is incredibly challenging to unpick at the best of times however in relation to this trio they have been the focus of an incredible amount of reflection and embellishment over the years and after several hours of reading I realised that most of the work I was looking at referenced a single source written in 1870.
Many of the stories involve sightings of the aspects of the Morrigan. If you saw Anu by a stream washing your armour, you were certain to die in battle that day. If Badb was seen the day you were born, your life is sure to become legend. Macha has a much broader divine portfolio however most stories see her as a psychopomp, she herds spirits into the next life. When Cu Cullain, the mightiest of men who had felled entire armies and Gods himself, Swiped left on The Morrigan (probably Anu). The Morrigan did not take this well and she fucked him up, a slow process of torture in which he saw his friend and then his horse die before he himself perished. He tied himself to a rock using his own entrails in order to die standing. Anu achieved this with relative ease, demonstrating her status and power amongst men and Gods.
Side Note: There are a couple of particularly shapely hills near Killarny in Ireland which are referred to as Anus breasts, The first record of this name comes from the eighth century. Its good to know men are consistent throughout time.
It may seen a bit odd to bring the bard into this however his works are rich with witchcraft and folklore. He also lived in a time when there was a massive resurgence in belief in the supernatural. I am going to focus on the obvious first scenes of Macbeth.
Side Note: I say he lived ina time of massive resurgence in belief in the supernatural. I am pretty confident Bill was driving that resurgence and capitalising heavily from it.
One of Shakespeare’s better known plays opens with lightning briefly illuminating a Scottish moor, Three old and haggered women suddenly appear with a shriek and cackle. They arrange their next meeting at a time and place where they will be found by Macbeth. From the first scene of the first act we get a sense of the prophetic powers of the three. With our previous examples each of the triumvirate appear as a separate aspect of the same concept. With Shakespeare’s three we don’t differentiate, they are all elderly, they are only seen in darkened moors or healthland with lightning punctuating their primal powers. Shakespeare’s three casually discuss the future with absolute certainty. So far they are sounding more and more like representations of the Norn’s. Shakespeare referenced Norse mythology quite heavily in A Midsummer Nights Dream so its not an area unfamiliar to him. For me the final evidence comes with his use of the term “Wyrd Sisters”, a pun, admittedly a bad one, indicating they are strange in their nature (wierd) but also a reference to the old norse word for fate, and a name used interchangeably with Urdr, the first of the Norn’s. Their age and form are the embodiment of some cosmic wisdom.
Whether by design or luck Macbeth is a fairly good exploration of fate and prophecy. The Wyrd sisters tell Macbeth his fate but appear to have no direct influence over it. Arguably with knowledge of human nature simply telling Macbeth a story which they could have fabricated entirely would have been sure to direct the events of the play. This is in no way supernatural and one would question their motives beyond mischief. I will leave you do decide if Macbeth truly had any power in his story.
Hopefully you will be able to draw more conclusions from this post. My thoughts are that our combined folklore indicates that women held a great deal of power and wisdom. A perspective that seems to have been erroded by the never ending march of Christianity. Misogyny thy name is papacy. Whether they were spirits or witches or deities, responsibility for the cosmic order has only ever been trusted to wise women rather than men or Gods. The fixation on the number three is considered to be a particularly Celtic thing however the Triple Goddess appears all over the world at different times.
In researching this I got a lot of remarks along the lines of “You cant write about this stuff, you’re a man!” all of this came from women. I am unsure why men are considered unable or not permitted to write about comparative mythology involving women.