— Aeschylus, Libation Bearers
The motif of the Triple Goddess is near ubiquitous in Neo-Paganism. The Triple Goddess consists of 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 examples of triplicities of goddesses in ancient pagan myth and art, there are far fewer examples of a true Triple Goddess with a tri-une (3-in-1) 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, and 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 …
“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.”
Two centuries later, the late Roman writer, Servius, in his commentary on the Aeneid, described 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.”
“Some call the same goddess Lucina, Diana and Hecate because they assign to one goddess the three powers of birth, growth and death. Some 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 Goddess
While the Neo-Pagan Triple Goddess has some ancient precedents, she derived primarily from the writings of Robert Graves. Graves actually described several different tri-unities for the Triple Goddess, including:
It was this last trinity—Maiden, Mother, Crone—that became the most common in Neo-Paganism, but it was the second—Mother, Bride, Layer-Out—that interested Graves the most.
Graves’ most detailed description of the Triple Goddess is found in 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 seasons 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.”
Graves goes on to combine the various aspects of these trinities into a “quintuple” Goddess, and describes “the five stations of her year: Birth [Mother], Initiation [Maiden], Consummation [Lover], Repose [Crone] and Death [Layer-Out].”
The Meaning of the Triple Goddess
Graves’ image of the Triple Goddess was appropriated by feminists in the 1970s to promote a revaluation of femininity. The Triple Goddess in her various forms valorized aspects of femininity that had 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 other feminists who criticized the over-emphasis on women’s fertility and sexual desirability to men. They pointed 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 notion that the Goddess has a life cycle teaches us that change is central to the Neo-Pagan concept of divinity. Likewise, the notion that the Neo-Pagan Goddess ages, but does not die, and is instead renewed, teaches us about the cyclical nature of change. This cyclical nature, and not the particular number or nature of her aspects, is arguably 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 by Paul Reid-Bowen in Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy (2007):
“The three aspects of the Goddess, Maiden-Mother-Crone, are thealogically** 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-emergence, 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.”
* A “layer-out” is a person who prepares a body for burial.
** “Thealogy” refers to feminist theology.