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


Carol P. Christ by Michael Bakas high resoultionThe 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.

snake goddesses 3Still, 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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Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, God/des, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality

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34 replies

  1. Thank you for this, Carol. Your post gives me much to ponder during the coming week. Completely agree that we don’t need to be defined by gender roles, particularly those that relate to men. Which word would best describe the wonderful years when we come into our power, before we are old enough to be Crones? I was Croned at age 51, but one of my sister Crones described me as a “juicy Crone.” That was more than 20 years ago. Since that magical Croning ritual in 1995, I have come into my full creative powers, and am enjoying life as never before.

    Is there any chance that your latest book will appear in Kindle form?

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  2. Thanks, Carol, good article. I do love Donna Henes book, “The Queen of Myself, Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife” , although I too am uncomfortable with the title of Queen, wish she had found another word….But the concept of a 4th stage of women’s lives is very appealing, as I also had a hard time with the croning ceremony at age 50….way too soon for me…even now, 18’years later! Reminding us that the triple goddess is really a modern concept is helpful, we are not limited or locked into that paradigm. Hugs from Maggie Moon!

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    • Hi Maggie. Great to hear from you. I recently sent you a post card, but it came back. I guess you moved.

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      • Thanks Carol, Susan Foster me she got your card, and I figured you did not have my new address, we moved to NC in June, but we left a forwarding address, so sorry I didn’t get it! Always love reading your Monday musings, thanks for continuing the work! Maggie Moon

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  3. Hi Carol, when I read “croning ritual” my mind flipped it to crowning ritual, and while I reject hierarchical thinking and queen, as you do, there is something to be said for reaching ones 70s and wearing the crown of all ones work and creative endeavors…

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  4. On my shelves I have a book titled The Women’s Wheel of Life by Elizabeth Davis and Carol Leonard. This book was published way back in 1996 and sets forth thirteen stages of women’s lives–Daughter, Amazon, Maiden, Matriarch, Blood Sister, Priestess, Lover, Sorceress, Mother, Crone, Midwife, and Dark Mother. These twelve are arranged around the wheel in the four seasons: Spring = Independence, Summer = nurturing, Fall = Power, and Winter = Wisdom. The thirteenth is in the center: the Transformer, and she connects the stages across the middle. It’s not very tidy, but then life isn’t very tidy, either. I think it makes sense.

    When I first got interested in crones, I was in my 50s. I took a class in which there were two women in their 20s who said “crone is a state of mind.” The class ended with a croning ceremony; one of the women being croned was menstruating that night. Maybe it’s all a “state of mind”??

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  5. Reblogged this on Worlds Beyond.

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  6. I think it was for my 60th, or maybe 65th birthday that a friend gave me a little book of stories and rituals for celebrating becoming a crone. I just went looking for it and remembered that a friend has borrowed it. Maybe we’ll have a “croning celebration” one day.

    I find my late 70’s a most interesting time of life. It’s like most of the hang-ups of my younger years have fallen off and I’m more free. I’m more curious though I don’t have the energy to explore all I’m curious about…like “what’s the view like from the top of that hill?” I find myself more compassionate and forgiving, remembering all the things I wish I hadn’t done, but did, during a time of less compassion and understanding. The biggest tragedy for me now would be to age but lack wisdom and a sense of humour.

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  7. I was also going to mention “The Women’s Wheel of Life” by Davis and Leonard, which made a lot of sense to me when I read it and resonates with my experience. It is a dynamic model so it is complex but feels true, at least to women of my generation (I am in my 60’s).

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  8. Wisdom is not always wisdom. As a friend says: “Just get up each day and do the best you can — a very simple life centered in the unknowingness of it all. How perfect!”

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  9. I don’t think we need maidens or crones or crowns, it’s just one life, one journey.

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  10. Thanks for this Carol! As you say, it seems to me that the need to ground contemporary spiritual/religious practice in some ancient established tradition is rooted in patriarchal notions that validity requires authority. All religions evolve over time through multifaceted dialectical tensions relative to established convention and liberatory transformation.

    Just starting the new book and loving it!

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  11. Thanks, Carol, for reminding us that we are the creators of a new religion. For me that’s always a very exciting prospect! When I first read that Gerald Gardner created at least the Wiccan liturgy, I wasn’t really surprised. It had always struck me that it seemed like other “occult” practices. But for me this wasn’t a big deal. I’m a pragmatic witch. If a practice works for me, then I use it and build on it. I guess it helped that Starhawk introduced me to Wicca, and that her Reclaiming “tradition” has always been extremely fluid and spontaneous. Improvisation of ritual on the spot given the location, the people, the reason for the celebration works for me.

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    • When I wrote The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife, I chose to name the stage of life when we are no longer young, though not yet old the “Queen” to honor the Self Sovereignty that we can achieve with menopause. Sovereignty means: jurisdiction, rule, supremacy, dominion, power, ascendancy, autonomy, independence, self-government, self-rule, home rule, self-determination, freedom. Again, we become Queens of OUR SELVES and sit above no one else. It is a patriarchal concept that power means “power over,” rather the Self empowerment that rises from within each person. There are millions of thrones to be filled with wise and worthy Queens if we are willing to take on the response-ability to become activists, leaders, teachers, mentors, change makers. And the sheer enormity of our numbers means that we can actually achieve the critical mass necessary to make a real and lasting difference. If we, the mighty Queens, bring to bear the amazing experience, understanding, and acumen that we have to share, we can, together, restore balance and bring healing to a world that seems bent on destruction. We are just the women to do it. Are we not daughters of the Wisdom Goddess? Companions of the Goddess of Protection? Do we not speak for Her when we step forward in our crowning glory in defense of all life and living? Have we not mastered the art of transformation and positive change, leaving our roles as Maiden and Mothers and emerging as Queens, rulers by right?

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      • Thank you for your wonderful book! I give it as a gift to friends and they have found it very meaningful, as have I. Well done!!!

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  12. I do not take the notion of Queen so literally. For me it is more about honouring the Royal path of Female. It is about acknowledging and having a true understanding of the deeper mysteries of Female and the self. It is about respect and Love while being firmly founded and acting with humility and grace. The Queen self is is not hierarchy but in fact the opposite. It is a private movement within the self that benefits all humanity.

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  13. Thank you, Carol, for this thoughtful post that reminds us that we don’t need the authority of “tradition” to validate our practices and beliefs. Personally, I find maiden-mother-crone actually a useful way of thinking about the stages of women’s lives: though I’ve never been a mother and didn’t really get to enjoy being a maiden all that much, I’m absolutely happy to claim crone, or even better, Queen, as MamaDonna has it.

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  14. Good article! I agree with what you say about Maiden, Mother, Crone triplicity. I don’t see much along these lines historically, which as you say, does not invalidate new cultural formations if women find them personally meaningful. It’s important to correct perceptions of this as a widespread historical pattern. At the same time, we should not lose sight of other triune forms which are not marked by this age distinction.

    These are especially salient in Indo-European goddesses of fate: the Greek moirae, Roman parcae, Germanic matronae and Gaulish/ British matres, Czech sudenice, the British Three weird sisters or dry sustren or de dreie gezuster, in Old Dutch and Flemish. Many other examples exist, and are discussed in my book Witches and Pagans. These triads are also found in Greek/Anatolian Hekate, the Three Sisters (corn, squash and beans) in Iroquoia, the Zarya of Russia, the Indic Sarasvati / Lakshmi and Kali, and the Arabian linkage of Allat, al-Uzza, and Manat.

    Other numeric groupings exist too: the Seven Hathors (Egypt), the Seven Laimas (Lithuania), the Five Ladies of the Realm (Vietnam), the Nine Maidens (Wales, Norse, and other European forms); nine Jade Maidens (China); the Nine Sorceresses of Mande (Mali); and so on. The Two Ladies, whether those are Demeter and Persephone or the Khametic Vulture and Serpent.

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  15. Before I lose my thought. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit as I have never related to the Triple Goddess. This has morphed over the years in subtle ways. These are not age or biology dependent and can blend into one another. I use the following:
    **Crescita (means growth in Italian) – child. Begins at conception and reaffirmed at birth
    **Mistress – (as opposed to Master) as in mastering your craft, life etc. It officially begins when you leave the home of your youth and move into the world. Someone could become a Mistress at a young age if they run away or kicked out of their home. Someone could also be Crescita and a Mistress if she is honing a skill or craft while still at home like an athlete or artist.
    **Matron – Not defined by menopause, but by career or occupation or craft. When you feel like you’ve mastered your craft enough to teach it to others. It follows you into retirement. you can be Mistress and Matron at the same time in different aspects of your life.
    **Kore’ – This aspect is born at the moment of death. It marks who you are between lives or after death. Eternal youth in mind and spirit.

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    • In my reply to the essay, I suggested replacing the word ‘Crone’ with ‘matron’. When I think of matron, I think of a wise authoritative figure who dedicates herself to help others. I believe that is the true meaning crone is intended to reflect.

      I’m not keen on mistress. In contemporary English it tends to have a slightly negative meaning.

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  16. I’ve always seen a fourth as the Protector.

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  17. This essay really made me think about the “ancient” roots of goddess spirituality through new lenses. I have not read Jane Harrison’s work and apparently need to… and yet I am not convinced that the threefold goddess is a contemporary creation because I have experienced Her pull in some unusual ways even as a child. Most importantly as an aging woman/crone – I like the latter term – I feel fated to follow Her path which has presently resulted in a (temporary) move to the desert…and hopefully in a year or so will lead me to Crete.

    I also like the idea that an ancient tradition that does not separate human from animals may be a root of a “creative synthesis” between past and present…

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  18. I forgot to mention that I think the answer to your question about the origin of maiden, mother crone is that it is a both and situation – multifaceted – roots, stems and flowers.

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  19. Refreshing perspective, Carol! I love your unflinching honesty. My memoir, “Sacred Groves,” is finished at last, and I’m looking for an agent/indie press to give her a home. Hope you are well. Kathleen

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  20. I am male, but am greatly influenced in my spiritual views by the idea of the triple Goddess. In fact, I tend to see the concept of ‘God’ as female and bound to Nature, rather a male God bound to scripture.

    I like the idea of the triple Goddess. The problem with the third aspect (crone) is not the concept in itself, but the imagery caused by the word itself.

    Unlike maiden and mother, the word crone conjures up a very ugly and decrepit image of a nasty old woman. When I see the word maiden, I think of an attractive greasy and joyful girl or young woman. When I see the word mother, I think of a strong and caring mature woman. But when I see the word crones, I think of an ugly and bitter old hag.

    However, I do not believe the crone concept is meant to reflect this. In actual fact, it should reflect wisdom, authority and compassion of age. The crone can no longer give children, but she can provide wisdom and assistance to aid others.

    It is not the concept of the crone that is the problem. It is the imagery conjured by the word. Thus the solution would be to find an alternative word. For example, matron could be a good word as it reflects the positive characteristics that the crone is supposed to represent. From an aesthetic point of view, it works well in English as all three terms relating to the triple Goddess would start with the same letter.

    If should be noted that the characteristics of the triple Goddess should not be related on,y to time. It us feasible for a woman to be a maiden, mother and crone (or matron) all at the same time. And in this case, she is truly blessed by the great mother Goddess.

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  21. In my previous post, the word ‘greasy’ should say ‘fresh’.

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  22. I’ve just been writing – reflecting on my disconnection from my culture of origin, and wondering whose myths can I lay claim to – my ancestors or those of the land I was born in – and right at the end I found I was describing my changing self using the triple goddess framework – it is so pervasive.
    Like many, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with crone and started searching for other terms – hence I arrived here, reading your post.
    What moves me most, is your suggestion that we create our own spirituality and symbolism “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.”
    It feels like the power of synchronicity was at work. I had just written “I have no myths but the ones I tell myself”.
    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

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