An Archaic Trinity of Goddesses? Not Necessarily. by Barbara Ardinger

Barbara ArdingerIn her comment following my last post which was about mythology, my friend, Carol Christ, expands on my paragraph about how the so-called “ancient triple goddess” was really invented in 1948 by Robert Graves in his book, The White Goddess. (Thanks, Carol.)

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Goddess movement was just getting up on its feet and our ovular books were being published, the idea arose that if “they” have a holy trinity, “we” have one, too. And ours is older and holier. We see it in the three phases of the moon, new (Virgin), full (Mother), and dark (Crone). Here’s a tiny sample of these books that changed the lives of so many women and men:

  • Woman’s Mysteries Ancient and Modern by M. Esther Harding (1971, but first published in 1933)
  • The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974) by Marija Gimbutas
  • When God Was a Woman (1976) by Merlin Stone
  • Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths (1978) by Charlene Spretnak
  • The first edition of The Spiral Dance (1979) by Starhawk
  • The Chalice and the Blade (1987) by Riane Eisler
  • Laughter of Aphrodite (1987) by Carol P. Christ
  • The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries (1989) by Z. Budapest
  • The Reflowering of the Goddess (1990) by Gloria Feman Orenstein
  • Whence the Goddesses: A Source Book (1990) by Miriam Robbins Dexter

Triple goddess? ’Tain’t so. Our beloved triple goddess is one of our foundational myths. It’s nice and it’s perhaps inspiring, but it’s only a myth. Anyone who looks at a calendar or almanac—or up into the sky every night for a month—can easily see that the moon doesn’t have three phases. It has four: waxing, full, waning, and dark. And since the late 20th century, women have lived long enough to go through more than three stages of life.

Let’s pause and look at the “traditional” three stages of Goddess and of women’s lives. The Maiden, or Virgin, is the prepubescent girl. Or maybe she’s the teenager before she gets married, though today she may or may not be a physical virgin. Or maybe she’s the grown woman who, devoted to her career, remains unmarried. And let’s remember that the Crone recycles as the Virgin, so maybe this phase also represents the older woman who is cycling into a new phase without the bother of boyfriend, husband, or family. In 1933, Jungian analyst, M. Esther Harding, discussed moon goddesses and the Greek word parthenos, which means “no more than unmarried woman.” (Thus the Parthenon was dedicated to the never-married Athena.) Harding goes on to say that being a virgin “involves the right to refuse intimacies as well as to accept them. A girl belongs to herself [Harding’s emphasis] … she is ‘one-in-herself’” (pp. 101-03).

The Mother is the grown woman who has given birth to at least one child. Or maybe it’s the woman who is a “mother of invention” or of her career or who mentors younger women. But what about the teenage mother—where does she fit? What about surrogate mothers? If a woman gives her baby away, is she still a mother? What about movie stars and other women who use surrogate mothers to have children for them after they’ve passed menopause?

The Crone is said to be the “woman of the fourteenth month,” that is, the post-menopausal woman who has not menstruated for a lunar year plus one month. Some people say that the crone also has to have passed her second Saturn return (approximately age fifty-six). But some women say that “Cronehood is a state of mind” and accept Cronehood in their twenties and thirties because they “feel like crones.” (I think this is nonsense.) What about young women who have had hysterectomies? Are they crones because they no longer menstruate? What about women who don’t feel old at sixty? After all, AARP Magazine proclaimed that “sixty is the new thirty.” Some people seem to believe that a ritual called a Croning has ancient roots. Again, ’tain’t so. The earliest Croning rituals I know of were performed in the 1980s by Prof. Carolyn Harrison of the Claremont Colleges in southern California.

But in the 21st century, our lives are too long for a mere three stages. We cannot look to the “ancient wisdom” for solutions to modern issues. Until the late 20th century, most women did not live past menopause. Historically, how many old women can we name? Hildegard of Bingen, Abbess (1098–1179). Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and France (1122–1204). Catherine de Medici, Queen of France (1519–89). Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1558–1603). Mbande Nzinga, Queen of Angola (1582–1663). Victoria, Empress of the British Empire (1819–1901). Tz’u Hsi, Empress of China (1835–1908).

Around the turn of the millennium, Mama Donna Henes, an urban shaman, and I conceived (or received) the idea of a fourfold goddess because there are really four stages in the lives of the Goddess and women: Maiden, Mother, Queen, and Crone. My friend, Donna, wrote the best book on the topic, The Queen of My Self.  I wrote articles in magazines. (Notice that Donna and I live on opposite edges of the continent. She lives in Brooklyn, NY; I’m in Long Beach, CA. Is “universal” too strong a word here?)

In the 21st century, at least in developed countries, women commonly live twenty or thirty years past natural menopause. What this means is that we need to acknowledge and name the fourth phase of life—the phase between motherhood and cronehood. Donna and I proposed that before getting to Crone, women spend a couple decades as Queens. When we finally get the kids out of the house, we find ourselves at the top of our game. We are energetic and creative. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, both allopathic and holistic, we’re healthier. If we’re working in the corporate world, we reach upper management. Many women leap off the corporate ladder, however, and successfully open their own businesses. (That’s what I did.) Because we’ve already lived fifty years, we have experience, knowledge, and wisdom. As the saying goes, we’re been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt. We’re not still making the old mistakes,though we may be inventing new ones. We no longer hesitate to be as smart as we are and we seldom hesitate to speak our minds. Whether our realm is a house well organized and smoothly run or a corporation or an entrepreneurial endeavor, we’re at the top of our form. We’re Queens, and we deserve to be proud of it.

Let us claim the power of the fourfold goddess. Numerologically, 4 is the number of work and discipline. In the Tarot, it’s Card IV, the Emperor, whose quality is intellect, and the fours in the Minor Arcana represent the foundation and structure needed for things to manifest. It’s being “four-square” and perhaps “forthright.” Four is the number of the earth, says J.E. Cirlot in A Dictionary of Symbols; it is symbolic of “the human situation, of the external, natural limits of the ‘minimum’ awareness of totality, and … of rational organization” (p. 222). There are four seasons, four cardinal directions, four elements, four Guardians of the Watchtowers, four solar festivals in the wheel of the year, four humours, four kinds of people in Jungian psychology, groups of four animals or divine creatures in many mythologies. Four is a good, solid number. It’s got corners in which we can stack our books and our tools, and there’s enough room in four to spread our work out and really get something done.

So let’s say, “Pax, Robert Graves. You invented a swell model. But it’s not real. We’re real. Some of us are Queens.”


Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (, is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Author: Barbara Ardinger

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (, is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

24 thoughts on “An Archaic Trinity of Goddesses? Not Necessarily. by Barbara Ardinger”

  1. Good for you!

    I remember leading a workshop with Chris Downing when she was about to turn 50. When she protested that she did not feel like a Crone yet, I thought she was denying her years. But as the years have passed, I have found that I still do not feel like a Crone. I am not so sure about Queen even as in Queen of myself, as I probably would have been one of the peasants. Have you thought of other terms?

    Part of the point of my comment about your comment on Graves was to suggest that we don’t need to see the Goddess primarily in terms of the stages of our lives. We are “in the image of Goddess” but so is everything else in the world.

    On the other hand, it is important to honor female power at every age, and not just in terms of standardized images of youthful beauty, which is probably why Croning rituals have become so important. Hmm…what would “Mother” rituals look like for all women, if the Mother stage was not tied to physical motherhood. And are there Queen rituals?

    If we are talking about life stage rituals for women, it seems that there are more than 4 stages. What about rituals every 13 years? 13, 26, 39, 52, 65, 78, 91? Now those do seem to define stages of life, beginning to become a woman, becoming a woman, becoming a mature woman, becoming a more mature woman, becoming an older woman, become an even older woman, and 91 probably would be an old woman, and so on…words fail, but the times do seem more or less to mark stages of life.


    1. Another good book is The Women’s Wheel of Life (1996) by Elizabeth Davis and Carol Leonard. They posit thirteen stages: Daughter, Maiden, Blood Sister, Lover, Mother, Midwife, Amazon, Matriarch, Priestess, Sorceress, Crone, Dark Mother, Transformer. Don’t let some of these names scare you. I suspect we can all identify ourselves as having moved through these stages, from childhood to whatever our present age is.

      And I also know people who identify stages of life by solar returns (birthdays) plus significant returns.

      We can invent any kind of system we want!


    2. oh I do love this article .. i have never ever felt that there were 3 stages for the Moon … and 3 stages of womanhood .. as a ‘solitary’ pagan/mystic shawoman i have spent many years of learning and working with the Wheel of Life .. the steps, rites of passage, and stages of womanhood that we wylde women move through.

      the term ‘crone’ doesn’t resonate with me … neither does ‘queen’ .. i ‘sat’ with these stages for about 20 years feeling into them … researching them … doing inner shamanic journey work with them [i’m now 60 by the way] and i asked the Goddess for ‘words/terms’ which best suited me and my path of spiritual practice .. and what came through very clearly for me, is for the stage between ‘mother’ and ‘crone’ .. is mystic shawoman ~ the wyse one in her middle / Autumnal years who is now free of the responsibilities of children and is able to more actively and inwardly pursue her own path .. who is willing to delve deep into herself and discover HER wisdom … not that of others, but what is relevant to me/her uniquely … mystic shawoman i am …. and it is a path that is ever unfolding, expanding and taking me to spaces beyond the everyday … and i am doing this in very grounded ways

      as to the term ‘crone’ .. again i spent much time with this … it has never resonated with me … i turned inward to see why i was triggered by this word .. and it simply comes down to its not mine .. it doesn’t describe/fit my inner and outer self .. the term for the Winter years for me is ‘Elder Grandmother’ .. again i didn’t look at books etc .. i journeyed with this to meet with my inner guides or wyse ones … and i feel at peace with the gift that they gave me

      yes i have read many of the wonderful books mentioned here by you fabulous wyse women of the Goddess pathways .. and whilst i cherish them, and indeed still own many of them as i treasure their wisdom, .. for myself .. what is true and relevant now is for each of us to learn how to contact and work with our inner Goddess and to work with the 4 phases of the Moon as pathway guides to our outer everyday world and journey

      blessings and thanks again for your inspirational posts here Lynn Solang Smith


      1. You don’t need to use that awful neologism “shawoman..” I don’t have the books handy right now, but there are several that tell us that the first shamans were Asian women.

        Yes, it’s useful to invent new terms like “herstory,” which apparently means “her story” and is based on “history” as “his story.” But that’s a false etymology. And in “thealogy” (which i like a lot and use) the “thea-” part means “goddess,” except the “-ology” syllable of “theology” is the same “-ology” in, say, “psychology” and all the other “-ology” words and means “word.” It’s the Greek Logos in the first verse of John. “In the beginning was the Word….”

        Sorry to seem pedantic, but we need to use language–our mother tongue–correctly and clearly. Cheers!


      2. Barbara .. with all due respect .. and perhaps you have misunderstood my message above … when i use the word ‘shawoman’ i use it because i did an experiential journey using drumming to ‘meet/connect’ with the Goddess in a visceral way.

        i specifically asked Her for a ‘word’ or term that i could use in the work that i do, that would ‘describe’ this 3rd stage of the feminine . and She ‘spoke’ loudly and clearly to me in this journey .. She said ‘mystic shawoman’

        .. until that time i had NOT ever heard or read th term ‘shawoman’ anywhere.

        in the ways that i work, i rely more on ‘direct experience’ with the presence of the energy of the divine feminine & not on the theories of others .. why .. because too often, as we can see here, words and ‘directions/guidance’ can be misinterpreted, become dogma and rote practice .. this is not the way that i chose to learn grow and expand my practice.

        i am NOT talking about any fluffy duck, airy fairy stuff here .. i am talking shamanic pathway work as practiced by many cultures worldwide for millennia ..

        nor am i talking about the purely theoretical .. for me, in my pathway with the Goddess, it is essential to develop a personal experiential understanding, one that is not caught up in the theories of others, not locked into a rigid ‘my way or no way’ approach.

        true shamanic work is supervised and taught ethically, it is based on one’s own experiences whilst encouraging and supporting those who work with you to develop, explore and expand their own tools and techniques and connections with BEings of the other realms.

        i stand by the term mystic shawoman as it was ‘taught’ to me.

        thanks Lynn


  2. Interesting insights. I don’t know that the Maiden-Mother-Crone is mirrored in world mythology, but there are plenty of examples, worldwide, of triple or triune Goddesses, such as Brighid or Hecate.

    From my understanding, the Hindu Navaratri, the Nine Nights of Durga, celebrates, in addiition to Durga, a triad of Goddesses–Kali (divine purification), Lakshmi (sweetness and abundance), and Saraswati (wisdom and inspiration.)

    So Triple and Triune Goddesses, yes. But Maiden, Mother, Crone is modern Western mythos and it still might be inspiring for many women. But I think what both models reflect is an all embracing/nondualistic vision of the Goddess not just in her light and mild aspect but also the “darker,” fiercer, powerful aspects, as mirrored in Kali.


  3. Thanks for reminding us of M. Esther Harding’s definition of a virgin as “one in herself.” How liberating that idea was and is. Unmarried or without a husband in a society where marriage was considered the norm may have been the primary meaning in ancient Greece. Apparently, however, the root meaning of parthenos is actually not known as the word is not Indo-European. If the root is not IE, then the word could come from a society where marriage was not practiced as a form of control over female sexuality.


  4. To me the feminine divine is Nature, all encompassing. I have no sense of going through phases, or passages at all. There is a spirit of my being, always present, which delights in existence, but doesn’t evolve in that manner. I think we need to look deeper in our understanding of the true self.


  5. I agree with the idea that as we live longer we need that fourth category. I like queen for the 3rd quarter, as in queen of my domain, or one who fully owns my power after raising children (or whatever else one might have nurtured up through menopausal years). I tried on crone during my 50s, but it didn’t fit. Even as I approach the age of 60, I don’t feel ready for that mantle, even though I don’t view it as derogatory. It implies a slowing down, resting, and even bending that I feel moving in me but don’t feel I can embody yet–still more to do, to accomplish. Of course, as a state of mind, feeling, or being, I can fully embrace the crone and all of the other aspects on an almost daily if not hourly basis. When I dance, I feel the maiden moving through me. When I take care of anyone or anything, I feel the mother, when I am empowered, taking it up to the next level, and suffering no fools or foolishness, I am the queen, and when I access my wisdom and long perspective and am happy to just be, I embrace my crone.

    The idea of non-dualistic aspects of being and the circular movement through them and around again, like the changeable moon, is decidedly feminine and one I am only too happy to embrace.


  6. Thanks as always, Barbara, for smiles and inspiration. I like the idea of 13 year cycles, Carol. Sometimes I think of our lives in terms of months of the year (the root of month being moon). That often works metaphorically for me. I will ponder what might be an alternative word for queen.

    A sort of PS: when I look closely on a walk, I sometimes see all the seasons present, even in winter.

    Another PS: My mother-in-law died on last Thursday at age 101 and ten some months. There will be a post about her.


  7. I want to also highly recommend “The Women’s Wheel of Life” by Davis and Leonard. It has always seemed to me to have the most complete and dynamic understanding of the phases and powers in a woman’s life and how they work together at different times.


  8. And the reason we only have a handful of well aged women to report on “historically” is because no one ever wrote about the countless women throughout time who survived into their hundreds…because they were, as we say these days, POOR. And whoever wrote about the poor, except Dickens. My paternal great-grandmother lived to 103, in her own home and cared for it herself until then. She lived during serfdom times of the Ukraine. I do not think of four in the terms of new stage-ages of women but think in terms on our FORE-MOTHERS who survived thousands of years, and migrated LIVING during the ice age and brought forth we who sit in comfort pondering what stage we are at. I am so grateful this day, to celebrate ALL THE WOMEN who dug for roots, chewed skins, burned fat for heat and bled monthly throughout our existence on earth We must surely give thanks as WE CHEW THE FAT these days as to what cycle we might be in.

    As for me, well, the moon and I have been close friends for 72 years! And through my ancestors thousands of years and more!


  9. Most of the Gaelic goddesses that are triple goddesses are three function not three ages. Such Brighid is Smith, Bard and healer and all adult of undetermined age.


  10. Astrology offers eight lunar phases : new moon-waxing crescent-first quarter-waxing gibbous-
    FULL MOON-waning gibbous-last quarter-waning crescent.

    I wonder as to the parallels between the Triple Goddess model and the evolution of
    medical sciences. The maiden-mother-crone cycle often feels like a demographic
    for ancient medical research or, perhaps, a clever way for females to avoid
    revealing their age.

    Oscar Wilde — ‘One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A
    woman who would tell one that would tell one anything.’

    I am in the southern hemisphere – this is a haiku (I think) I wrote years ago

    jacaranda tree
    purple flowers drifting down;
    Christmas day draws near


  11. Barbara, I always enjoy your articles but I have a few thoughts about the discussion: Marija Gimbutas first explains the meaning of many neolithic symbols/alphabet (including the yoni triangle) in “Civilization of the Goddess”; information which Robert Graves claims as his own ideas. And, both you and Carol are refering to the triangle in terms of European AD or CE History. The triangle is claimed on many continents as female representing the phases of life long before these periods of time. As for longevity, again you are referring to certain periods of time in the human condition. Warmest regards & blessed Holy Days. Jayne, MA WSE, FOI Priestess.


    1. HI Jayne, I think you misunderstand what Barbara is saying. The female sacred triangle (pubic triangle) is very ancient and goes back to the Paleolithic. The idea of a Trinity of Goddesses is another thing. What Barbara is saying is that Graves invented the idea of the triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother, Crone which many now think of as one of the central ideas of feminist Goddess religion. Jane Harrison said that the Mother-Daughter pair was early, while the “Maiden Trinities” was a later development. The Maiden Trinities, for example, the three Graces, were not maiden, mother, crone, but were three maidens. The three fates were three old women.

      Graves did not take any of his ideas from Gimbutas. He was suffering from dementia by the time Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe was published in 1974. Graves published The White Goddess in 1948. Gimbutas was not dependent on Graves for her ideas either, as she differed from him in not basing her understanding of the Goddess on Graves’s dictum “the king must die.” Gimbutas did not believe early Goddess religions were based on kingship or the sacrifice of the male principle.


    2. Hey, Jayne! I missed you at the Long Beach WomanSpirit fair last Saturday. As always, it was a lot of fun.

      I’m trying to understand what you mean by triangles. As you surely know, Carol and I are both fully aware that the Goddess civilization of Old Europe that Gimbutas described in her works was invaded and crushed many centuries before the calendar was switched to Anno Domini. I’m not aware of any work that equates the sides or angles of a triangle with the stages of human or divine life.

      Come back and comment some more to other blogs. It’s good to “hear” (i.e., read) from you and other people who come to this site.


  12. Thanks, Barbara, for this interesting post plus the giggles. And thanks everyone for the Interesting discussion. What gets confused and confusing in this conversation and others about this topic is a) the aspects of the Goddess and b) the phases of women’s lives. They’re interconnected, but not the same. I don’t see the Goddess in the stages of my life, but instead I see my life as connected to and a reflection of the cycles of the Goddess. I guess for me, although it may have been created out of whole cloth by Robert Graves, the triple goddess works as an image of the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth, i.e. as an image of the Goddess in her cyclical nature as seen in the seasons (there are 4 some places in the U.S., but not others), the phases of the moon, the times of a day, etc. It’s arbitrary how we cut up these circles of life, and three works for me (probably because I’m a Westerner and for us in the West, 3 is a magic number): Maiden, the beginning of life; Mother, the sustaining power of life; and Crone, the death-dealer. This being said, the triune goddess image is no longer as significant as it once was for me, because I have delved into the mythology of many different goddesses, most of whom aren’t triple.

    One thing surprised me in your post, Barbara, namely to hear you talk about “our triple goddess? ‘Taint so… it’s only a myth,” disparaging mythology as if it were less important than “reality.” You of all people (English Ph.D., storyteller, jokester) know how mythology, ideology, and culture in general create our reality as much as empirical facts. Maybe you’re like me and get seduced sometimes by a good figure of speech. I have to admit that I think the real/myth trope structured your post quite nicely.

    Also, I just wanted to add that Z’s book that you cite was originally published in 1976 at the latest. My copy is a second edition published in that year as _The Feminist Book of Light and Shadows_. It was then reissued as _The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, Part I_ in 1979 and Part 2 in 1980.


    1. Z’s Holy Book says her Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows was originally published in 1975. The Manifesto of the Susan B. Anthony Coven # 1 must have been written and published in mimeographed form earlier than that. Z now has a revised version of it on her website. My earliest versions is in my copy of FBLS with a yellow cover, I think there was an earlier version with an orange cover. Mine has no date.


    2. Nancy, I”m interested in this idea in your comment above: “disparaging mythology as if it were less important than “reality.”

      Mythology is what our dreams are all about, and where the psyche works out all sorts of mythological symbols in order to process psychological healing. Patrick Conty says (2002): “The truth of myth lies in its path, a path describing a transformation, but this path is hidden and veiled. The study of myth therefore reveals itself as the search for what appears as a vacancy or a rupture, a black space, an emptiness that can resemble the eye of a needle or of a shuttle with which the myth is woven.” That’s a good description also maybe of Persephone’s abyss, so that the Demeter myth itself is all about entering into a myth and learning and healing from it.


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