Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Three to Tango

The Triple Goddess, Briar Mythology
The Triple Goddess is one of those fantastic myths you only learn about in your teens, once you graduate from Myths 101 and move on to the more interesting courses. Between them, the Maiden, Mother and Crone offer a fascinating view of the divine female at any and all stages of life, not just the shrink-wrapped virginity so beloved of fairy tales. The idea that divinity doesn't hinge on youth and beauty was a fantastic paradigm shift for thirteen-year-old Liz, who began recognizing triple goddesses when she saw them, and even wondering if the Holy Trinity weren't another triple goddess, only male.

Of course, thirteen-year-old Liz also fell squarely into the trap that is the triple goddess. With three different roles needing to be cast, it's very easy to forget that the roles themselves are much less than the sum of their parts. Taken as a tripartite whole, the triple goddess presents an illuminating view of womanhood, seeing each phase as worthy of honor. Split the triple goddess into her components and you're right back where you started: with a set of simplistic, easily categorized female roles.

Take my favorite Greek triple goddess, best known as Persephone. "Persephone?" you say. "That's one goddess." Well, yes, as we know her today. But her story is a fertility myth, perfect for a triple goddess given that the story itself is about change. Her title as maiden abductee and goddess of spring is Kore, which translates quite literally to "the maiden"; as the heartless queen of the underworld, she is Persephone; as someone who has harnessed the power of life and of death, she is Hecate (herself often depicted as a triple goddess). And to complicate things even more, Robert Graves suggests that the name "Demeter" is the one given to all three aspects of the goddess when combined, which - admit it - explains Demeter's nurturing personality and purview as well as her obsessive pursuit and reluctance to share her adult daughter. (By the way, Tanith Lee's brilliant novel White as Snow gets a huge amount of its power from exploring the parallels between the Demeter-Persephone myth and the tale of Snow White. Check it out, it's phenomenal.)

On their own, each aspect of the goddess is fairly straightforward: Persephone is the abducted innocent, Demeter the vengeful mother, Hecate the mysterious witch, and poor Kore an insignificant minor deity. Put them all together and the implications are dizzying. Not only does one person pass through every state of being, there's also an aspect of her character that allows her to be all of them at once. In essence, the triple goddess represents character development, also known as having lived a life.

In contrast, the Morrigan, often cited as a classic triple goddess, is practically a handbook for how to get it wrong. For one thing, it's never been clear whether or not she is actually a triple goddess, or one member of a triad, or just a standalone war goddess doing her thing who gets saddled with a bunch of warlike girl sidekicks. For another, the three goddesses who make up the triple-goddess Morrigan - Macha, Badb, and Nemain - are all aggressive war goddesses. Not much room for character development if they all handle the same thing. The Morrigan also shares a close affinity with animals; Badb can take the shape of a raven, and Macha is deeply identified with horses. A triple goddess's very nature means that she already has other potential forms to shift into; Kore and Demeter don't have familiars as the Morrigan does, and while some forms of Hecate have three animal heads, she herself doesn't turn into an animal. The confusion and the lack of variation makes the Morrigan even more troubling as a triple goddess. Unlike the Demeter-goddess whose three faces reveal growth and change, the Morrigan presents the same image no matter where she turns.

The Death of King Arthur, Katharine Cameron
Even in a highly Christianized story, the triple goddess persists. It's impossible not to recognize her in the three queens whose barge takes Arthur to Avalon after the fatal battle of Camlann; it's fascinating that Morgan Le Fay is one of those queens (although it's never clear what aspect she represents, my money's on Crone). Heather Dale's song "Three Queens" changes the identity of the other two - traditionally the Queen of Northgalis and the Queen of the Waste Lands - to Igraine and Guinevere, presenting Arthur with the great female triad of his life at the moment of his death. That makes the designation of each aspect obvious: Guinevere as Maiden, Igraine as Mother, Morgan as Crone.

The Masque of the Four Seasons, Walter Crane
And it poignantly points up the ways in which these three women, each essential to the legend of Arthur, fall short of becoming "complete." Guinevere is the eternal Maiden, beautiful regardless of the passing years, constantly abducted and in need of rescue, until her whiplash-inducing change at the very end of the cycle, becoming a nun as an act of penance and transitioning straight into the Crone without having borne the son who would have spared Arthur the necessity of Mordred. Igraine's role as Mother defines her entire role in the cycle; her brief moment as Maiden is problematic, both because she's already married when Uther falls in lust with her, and because that leads directly to her husband's death and her own rape. Once she's given birth to Arthur, the story has no more need of her; she never gets to evolve into the Crone. And Morgan, identified with the Crone through her magic (like Hecate) and with the Mother through her murderous son, never gets a chance to play the Maiden. Her story-imposed role as villainess cannot allow her a time of beauty and growth. Seen in that light, these pivotal heroines are as tragic as Arthur, and more deeply flawed; the exploitation of those flaws is what both creates and brings down Camelot. Even an imperfect triple goddess is illuminating.

Triple Goddess, Susan Seddon Boulet
But the Arthurian women have an advantage that Persephone or Macha don't; they're highly individualized characters, quite outside their triad. For the others, their greatest moment of depth comes as a facet of the triple goddess; it grants them a development not given to them in their own stories.

Maybe that's why we have triple goddesses in the first place: to grow characters given short shrift on their own. And maybe that's why already-developed characters don't neatly fit the archetype. It's a very strange kind of growth that sets up barriers and prerequisites. But the presence of a triple goddess changes the way we look at the divine female. Problematic though she may be, ultimately the triple goddess does enhance our perspectives, both on the characters and on what it could mean to be female.


  1. Sort of weirdly, you didn't specifically talk about the Fates, who serve as probably our most well-known triple goddess, and perhaps the epitome of a triple goddess, in that they only ever exist together.

    I suspect we've used three women to represent the course of a human life because her changes through life are so biologically clear. There is a literal time before you can be a mother, and a literal time after. What's interesting about the goddesses is that this simple fact of a woman's life becomes a source of power over not only women, but also men.

    1. Holy mother of crumb cake, I did completely leave out the Fates. Oversight on my part. Although they, like the Morrigan, are a confusing triple goddess, in that they represent not different phases of a woman's life, but the course of every single life on earth. The Greek Fates spin, measure, and cut the threads of life; the Norns' names, I've read, translate to "that which was," "that which is," and "that which should be." My guess is that they're female less to invoke a triple goddess and more because the act of spinning is such a female occupation. Once the notion of a "thread of life" enters your mythology, it's got to be women in control of that thread, as mortal women control thread on earth. They're still a triple goddess, but not nearly as female-centric as some others; their purview is the entire span of human life, not just the potential course of womanhood.

      It is interesting that women simply don't have the level of coming-of-age baggage attached to them that men do. "Becoming a man" is such a big deal in practically every written language; for women, it's biologically obvious when womanhood hits. Which, you're right, does make it much easier to use them as representational of a life span. Especially with the Fates (which I continue to kick myself over not blogging about); a few humble spinners presiding over every mortal life is a pretty big deal. But I'd also argue that it leads to its own set of baggage, mostly cultural; men impose all sorts of barometers on their own (and others') manhood, while women have their coming-of-age dictated to them by biology rather than by proving themselves. It's a bit of a double-edged sword; which is superior, the people who just get handed a memo one day regardless of whether they're ready, or the people who work their butts off to prove their worth but are never quite certain if they've succeeded?