Thoughts on The Triple Goddess

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When I first discovered paganism and witchcraft, like many children in the ’90s, I first found Wicca. There, I learned of the divine feminine and the Triple Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, which represented the three phases of a woman’s life. Since then, I’ve experienced living as a woman, for nearly forty years, and I realize that this framework is needlessly reductive.

Wicca grew out of the neopagan revival of the 19th century, and with that, Victorian-era gender politics bled in. It was in the mid-19th century that “The Angel in the House” was published and popularized the ideal of the woman as ruler of the domestic sphere. The Triple Goddess, while created in an attempt to subvert patriarchal Christian Trinity, actually reinforces the idea that women are defined by their relationship to their reproductive system.

As I grew up and grew older, I realized there was more to it than that. It was many years before I decided I even wanted to have children, so I spent over a decade in a liminal space where I was neither Maiden, nor ever likely (in my mind) to become the Mother. What is a woman in between?

Since then, I’ve turned to more folkloric-driven paganism and witchcraft and have found that the neopagan idea of the Triple Goddess is new indeed. There are three-part or three-fold deities in folklore, but they rarely follow the archetypes of Maiden-Mother-Crone. One that comes to mind readily is Hekate, who is a goddess of liminal spaces and crossroads, symbolized by a three-faced form, with a face to watch each of the roads at a three-way crossroads.

In Celtic folklore, the Morrigan is often used as the example of a “triple goddess,” because she is often described as a composite goddess, made up of three sisters. But this might have less to do with an inherent three-fold nature and more to do with the fact that “Mor Rigan” is a title, not a name, and the various deities that are considered “part of the Morrigan” are simply those who have held this title, similarly to how the Cailleach is often considered a title that has been variously associated with different deities.

Brigid is another who has been considered to fit the mold of Triple Goddess, with various aspects of Brigid associated with various things that she is supposed to rule. But those aspects don’t follow the Maiden-Mother-Crone model of the neopagan Triple Goddess. Instead, they give a picture of Brigid as a well-rounded deity of many interests — poetry, smithing, midwifery — rather than reducing her to her biological functions.

And that is the trouble with the neopagan Triple Goddess: it is exclusionary and reductive. It not only reduces women to their biological functioning, but it excludes those women who don’t necessarily have those functions inherent in their bodies. Trans women, nonbinary people who wish to interact with their goddess nature, women who don’t have a reproductive system at all. And women who don’t find fulfillment in the Victorian ideal of womanhood.

But Trinity is something that exists cross-culturally. Not all trinity is the Holy Trinity of Son, Father, and Spirit (which the neopagan trinity mirrors). In many cultures, there is an idea of the trinity being male, female, and neutral. In many cultures, the first three colors named are black, white, and red, usually representing dark, light, and blood, or birth, death, and life.

So in that vein, I like to think of trinity as the necessary result of trying to define a binary. Two points define a line, but in between is the line. And so, rather than trying to explicitly define three points or three phases, that trinity becomes the two points and the infinite possibility in between.

In my own practice, this comes up primarily in my own form of candle magic. I generally use three colors of candles: white (or raw beeswax), black, and red. While there are rough correspondences to the three main deities I honor currently, these are also colors that, to me, can represent any goal I might have in my magic or prayer. White for healing and nurture, red for action, black for internal work. These do not have to correspond to any particular phase of my life. And they go beyond the Maiden-Mother-Crone framework.

If you identify with the neopagan Triple Goddess, that is wonderful. But if you’ve ever felt like there was some disconnect, I encourage you to explore the idea of trinity outside of the rigidly defined rules of neopaganism. Because, honestly, trinity is simply the recognition of a world outside the binary.

Meet the Cailleach

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It is that pre-dawn time and I lay in bed, half-waking, half-dreaming. In my half-dream, I am in a wide field. Around me stands a ring of stones and I stand in front of one, much larger, and polished like a dark mirror. Beside it is an old woman. Her silver-grey hair spreads out in wild waves, spilling over her plaid-covered shoulders, and the dim light of twilight gives her skin a bluish cast. She has a wolf by her side and a feral grin as she beckons me to her…

Perhaps this would have been a natural first post in this space, but the temptation of launching the blog on Samhain was just too great. And the whole of the dark half the year is the time of the Cailleach, while Samhain is just one day. But who is the Cailleach?

The Cailleach is an ancient deity of the British Isles. The word “cailleach” simply means “old woman” or “veiled woman,” and there are stories that refer to several specific figures as an cailleach in Celtic folklore. At her core, the Cailleach represents the crone phase of the triple goddess cycle, but is also associated with midwifery and birth. She is seen as frightening and fierce, but not necessarily an evil or bad figure. Similar to the Baba Yaga of Russian folklore, the Cailleach is a figure who appears both as a force of natural balance and as an antagonist.

In a similar story to the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, one story of the Cailleach says that she captured the young and beautiful goddess Brigid, and that Brigid must escape to bring the Spring. But in other tellings of that tale, Brigid and the Cailleach are two aspects of the same person, with the Cailleach either shedding her crone appearance to become the maiden of spring, or else turning into a stone for the summer while Brigid reigns during the light half of the year.

My personal connection to the Cailleach started years ago when I was learning about chthonic goddesses like Hecate of the Greek tradition. The Cailleach struck me as a peculiar blend of an earth goddess, as she was said to predate even the Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles, and a death goddess. She was not necessarily associated with war, like the Morrigan, or the earth itself, like Danu, but was instead the personification of the cycle of living and dying. I’ve written before about her association with predicting the coming of spring and modern traditions around Imbolc, but never really gone into what she means to me personally.

The Cailleach is a goddess who exists at liminal places in the world, like older women often find themselves. They are neither given importance or power, nor are they entirely ignored, and are often feared because of the unknown they represent. The Cailleach is both a goddess of birth, because of her associations with midwifery and Brigid, but also very much a goddess of death. As such, she has been a comfort to me during my own periods of grief in my life. I plan to write more about this in my upcoming book, The Grief Cleanse, in which I’ll chronicle my dealings with grief around a very specific period in my life, but suffice to say that the concept of a woman who is not defined either by youth or fertility intrigues me as a woman. Particularly a woman who is creeping closer and closer to cronehood myself.

The Cailleach is also a wise woman. She knows the cycle of the world. She is said to have control over the weather, or at least over the winter. In my piece on Groundhog Day, I wrote about the tradition of judging the length of the remaining winter by the weather on the day when the Cailleach is supposed to gather firewood for the rest of the winter. And another legend says that at the beginning of winter, she takes her plaid (or shawl) to the river to wash and when she is done, it stretches out pure white and covers the land in the first snowfall.

As the hag of winter, she is depicted with grey or white hair, blue skin, and hooded, often with only one eye. I find that intriguing, as she is almost a sort of Odinic character, with her associations with divination, magic, death, and hidden secrets. And Norse folklore tells of many of those deities not sticking strictly to one gender.

So I have chosen to depict the Cailleach in my own tribute as a woman with one eye veiled with a plaid that has not yet been washed clean. While I am not quite a crone yet, I feel the influence of the Cailleach in my life and heed her call as the wheel of the year turns to her time.