The Triple Goddess of the Celts

There are a number of common neopagan misconceptions regarding the Celtic gods], and the most prominent one is that of the Triple Goddess. To be sure, there are triplets of goddesses in Celtic myth, particularly in Ireland; there are even triplets of gods, in fact. But the fallacy is that these triplets are in the form of "maiden, mother, crone", conceived by Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess and popularized with the neopagan movement. In fact, it is not only goddesses which come in triplet form, but gods also. This is not unusual--the Celts had an affinity for the number three, witnessed over and over again in their literature and their religion.

I do not have any quarrel with whether or not a "maiden-mother-crone" system is a valid theology; no, my argument is with the idea that it is authentically Celtic.

The earliest example of the Triple Goddess is in the figure of The Mothers--Matronae--found in inscriptions on the continent, dating from the first centuries of the Common Era. Usually, the reliefs depict three well-attired women, holding flowers, fruit, wheat, and so on. Sometimes they were depicted as married, otherwise as not (noted by a lack of bonnets, apparently). Often, secondary names--likely that of local land or river goddess--are given along with the title of "Matronae". It is important to note, however, that there is a lack of uniformity to this depiction--that is, the figures do not fit a "maiden-mother-crone" pattern. Sometimes there is a mix of married and unmarried figures, sometimes it is entirely married women, etc.

The most famous of the Triple Goddesses is Brigit, the daughter of the Dagda, often called "the poetess." Her worship was widespread, probably through the semi-dominance of the Brigantes tribe, who covered a wide area from Ireland into Gaul. According to Cormac's Glossary, there were three of Brigits, all sisters--Brigit the Poetess, Brigit the Smith and Brigit the Doctor--patrons of their respective skills. However, we are not told that they are a maiden-mother-crone; they are all the same age. Instead, her multiplicity implies that she is a master of many arts, and like the Matronae, was patron of the tribe.

Which brings us to our first masculine example: Lugh Lamhfhada, the Samildánach--master of all arts. Like Brigit, his worship was widespread, attested to by inscriptions and the belief that the numerous towns that bear the name Lugodunum (or some variation) refer to Lugos. Some of these inscriptions refer not to Lugh (or his Gallic form Lugos) but to a Lugoues--a multiplicity of Lugos. There are some referrences in Irish literature to the belief that Lugh was the lone survivor of triplets; we see a similar situation with the Welsh equivalent Lleu (though here he is the survivor of twins). Again, it is important to notice that Lugh appears in a triplet form, as a symbol of power and mastery of all arts. This triplicity also upsets another neopagan misconception of Celtic religion, the supposed duality of a Holly King-Oak King relationship.

The third triplet is, oddly enough, someone once thought historical: Queen Guenevere, wife of Arthur. According to the Welsh triads,

The Three Great Queens of Arthur:
Gwenhwyfar daughter of Cywryd Gwent, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran the Giant.

And so we have three sisters again. This is significant, for it leads us to the next version of triplets: the goddess of the land. The triplets in these cases do not have the same names but are three sisters, such as Eriu, Banba, and Fotla, the daughters of Ernmas--three names for Ireland, married to the three kings of Ireland, the brothers Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Grienne, all grandsons of the Dagda, and a male triplet. Then there are Eriu, Banba and Fotla's sisters, the war goddesses Morrigan (sometimes called Anand or Anu), Badb, and Macha, who again represent the sovreignty of Ireland (actually, their relationship is quite complex, needing a second write-up). They are not of three different ages or stages, but the same age; they are somewhat recalled in the three sisters of Arthur, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, and Elaine.

And there are other triplets:

All of which are male. And so, what is seen is that the reason so many gods and goddesses in the various Celtic pantheons exist as triplets is due to an affinity with the number three, as well as possibly the representation of a multi-faceted deity as being a master of all arts.

Personally, I have problems with the "maiden-mother-crone" schema. For one, it presumes that women must take on certain roles--that a woman must be a mother, for example. Even if one interprets the word as "mature" or "working", the word is still carries connotations and denotations--mother. Whether they realize it or not, the followers of this concept are simply regurgitating the same gender roles which we've been taught for thousands of years. And while yes, women usually do become mothers, there is a sense in this schema that one must become a mother, one must become a crone. Conscious or not, it doesn't leave much room for someone who refuses to have children.

Also, there are attributes ascribed to these roles which indicate that they--the attributes--are then lacking in the other figures: the Crone is Wise (but the Mother isn't?), the Maiden is a Muse (but no one else is?), the Mother is a creator (but no one else can create?). The reason for this, of course, goes back to the misogyny of Graves' The White Goddess, discussed elsewhere, as well as Gerald Gardner's own ideas. Again, what matters is not whether the follower consciously accepts these ideas; subconsciously, he or she often unconsciously begins to accept these ideas.

Finally, the idea of Trinity--Christian, Hindu or otherwise--is not derived from the Triple Goddess. As I and others have shown, the idea of triplet deities is not limited to one sex. It is simply the highest number grouping, the highest pattern, that the mind will accept before dividing objects into a new group. We don't usually see quadruple gods because our mind divides the number four into two groups of two. Five is divided into groups of three and two, six into three and three (or two, two, and two), etc. The preponderance of the number 3 is found not only in religion or literature, but is everywhere.

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Mary Jones © 2003