Every year around this time, I start seeing posts pop up exploring Brigid as a triple deity. Which is brilliant, except at least half the posts explore her under the Maiden/Mother/Crone construction – which is problematic as far as I’m concerned. And it’s for a few different reasons. Even worse, I then start seeing “Celtic maiden mother crone”, but I am less qualified to address than. I will try, but less qualified.
Maiden mother crone in Irish lore
First off, the “maiden mother crone” construction isn’t one we have in Irish deities. If you google “Irish triple goddesses” you get mentions of Brigid, the Morrigan, the three sovereignty goddesses: Éire, Banbha and Fódla. Mary Jones suggests that Lugh is the lone survivor of triplets and mentions the sons of Tuireann and the sons of Cainte as potential male triple deities. So the idea of triple deities isn’t out of the question in Irish lore. It’s just the construction of the triplets that doesn’t conform to the Roman notion of the “maiden mother crone” construct. (I’m using “construct” here because I can’t think of a better word. It’s not intended to indicate “made up” or otherwise “not authentic”).
We have powerful deities in Ireland, and Brigid is just one (or three) of them. Cormac’s Glossary outlines three sisters, a woman of healing, a woman of wisdom/ protector of poets and a smith. And this is fundamentally where we get the idea of the triple deity from in Ireland. It also leads me down roads of “why call three sisters by the same name”, but that’s for another time! There is no notion that any of the three (poet, healer or smith) conform to maiden, mother or crone.
If anything, Brigid is definitely a mother. She loses her son Ruadhán in Caith Maigh Tuireadh, which is one of our foundational snippets of lore about her. There is a hint that she might be the mother of the sons of Tuireann. (Although other possible mothers are Ana or Danu depending on the source you read.) And, spoiler alert, the sons of Tuireann all die in the end as well. As a mother, I sincerely hope she had daughters or less famous sons rather than losing all her children to heroic deeds. However misguided said heroic deeds might appear from a distance of a few millennia.
Do I think Brigid can appear as a maiden, mother or crone as she chooses? She’s a bloody deity, she can appear however she wishes. And yes, I have experienced her at most adult ages at this point. I’d suggest if you want to limit how a deity appears to you – well just warn me so I can get out of the way, alright? But trying to understand Brigid through the construct of “maiden mother crone” would be very difficult. The history, the folklore, the traditions just aren’t there to support it. For Brigid or any of the other Irish deities.
Maiden mother crone more generally
So there’s my issues with Brigid as maiden mother crone. But I also have some issues with the maiden mother crone concept itself. Now, if you use this construct and it works for you – that is brilliant. Good for you! I’m delighted. If that’s the case, you may wish to skip the rest of this post. So… fair warning.
Now, obviously, my own experience as a woman and with Brigid and other deities/ divine figures will influence the discussion that follows. I make no apologies for that. I am writing this post as a white, Irish, cisgendered, able bodied, reasonably healthy, fat woman. (Admittedly one who wears glasses and has ankle issues, but nothing that majorly impacts on my life choices.) I’m also writing as a woman who can’t have children, for no apparent medical reason. (I don’t want advice on that one by the way!)
And one who has done a lot of work on menstruation spirituality and getting in tune with my body. So while I might managed the maiden and crone bit, the mother bit will be a push. And yes, I know it’s not necessarily a “physical mother who has born children of her body”. I know it can be creative mother, spiritual mother, the energy of the mother. I still have problems with the whole construct.
Plus, it’s my blog, which gives me freedom to outline my thoughts here 😊
The first way this construct annoys me is this: it’s limiting women to their reproductive stages in ways we don’t really limit men at all. Maiden is traditionally innocent, virginal, awakening. New-start energy, enthusiasm, that sort of thing. Mother is fertility, fecundity, growth, caring, homemaking and other adjectives along those lines. The Crone is wise woman, the hag, the moving closer to death. Now, I understand that this can relate to creative pursuits, innovation and all sorts of other things. I get that part. But this still accounts for women by their reproductive season in life.
We don’t do this with men – who have similar stages in their reproductive cycles, it’s just not as pronounced. Or at least the end date isn’t as pronounced.
For me – this construct of the maiden, the mother and the crone is putting me in boxes I never agreed to. Or want to agree to. My chosen career possibly influences this – I’m an engineer and spend a lot of my time with men. I can be in touch with my female power and still not think about my reproductive stages. In fact, it’s preferably in many cases. It’s another way to limit my career if I draw too much attention to my reproductive cycle. In fact, very often in work, I need to forget about my reproductive cycle and work with it outside of work, to support myself in work.
I’m never going to be a mother, unless the Divine presents a miracle. It’s a kick in the teeth to tell me I’m in my fertile phase of life. I think as well, this minimises the effect that older women, post menopause, who contribute so much to life, society, families, work, etc. It minimises women in the “maiden” stage as well, limiting their impact as youthful enthusiasm, when much of the time, our young women are the ones with energy to do things. And yes, I know – I can already hear the proponents of maiden mother crone yelling at the screens. I know it’s not intended to limit people. I know technically we can all feel the “energies” of the different stages at any time. Hell, it’s used in menstruation spirituality to describe the phases of the menstruation cycle. I get it.
It’s still limiting women though. It’s still putting us in boxes. We’re more than all of this. And we deserve to be more than our reproductive stages. The construct appears to have it’s roots in Robert Graves’ work, rather than anything more ancient – which is not necessarily a bad thing. New doesn’t always equal bad. Old doesn’t always equal good. (Just go look at some of the Brehon laws dealing with rank!)
Finally, I’ll come on to the issues with the “celtic maiden mother crone” thing. Basically, no more than it appears in Irish lore, the construct doesn’t appear in other “Celtic” lore as well. First off, “Celtic” as a word usually is best reserved for languages, i.e. Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton and Cornish. There are many arguments about why Celtic should or shouldn’t be used in terms of anything other than language. For myself – describing something as “Celtic” is similar to describing something as “European” or “African”. It’s squishing an entire continent into one culture. Frankly, all you have to do is taste food from Ireland and compare it to the tastes in France (one of our nearest European neighbours) to see how different things can be.
And the word “Celtic” has sometimes been used with racist undertones (or with outright racism in mind) in recent history as well. I’m not going to link to site that use the word in that way, for, I hope, obvious reasons. The Celtic cross has managed to become a racist symbol of hate. I don’t think every depiction of the Celtic cross is a racist symbol (see picture below). Various hate groups have co-opted the cross as a symbol. That doesn’t mean using the word Celtic as a word is racist, but it’s just something to be aware of.
And when it comes to “maiden mother crone” there’s nothing specifically Celtic about it. Sure, if you wanted, you could pick Irish deities to fit in the maiden category, the mother category and the crone category. Although I would warn you, Irish deities like being put in boxes just as much as I do! For me, it would be more important to reach out and learn out lore about these deities.
So, if you’re interested in Brigid – look at the lore of the region you’re in first of all. I know there are Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Manx legends anyway about Brigid. People all over the world honour the saint. If you’re interested in the maiden mother crone construct – use it. Just don’t try and squish every goddess you meet into that framework cos, let me tell you, some of them will react strongly to that. And don’t assume all goddesses fit the mould you’re most comfortable with. Spirituality, faith – they’re not meant to be comfortable all the time. If you are feeling so comfortable all the time – are you really working at things?
While any deity is more than a construct we humans put about them, Brigid in particular is more than these three phases suggest. I have a basic introduction to Brigid class over at the Irish Pagan School, as well as some more at the Brigid’s Forge School. And the lore is free online as well – check out UCC Celt for any Brigid lore translated into English. There’s only 4 bits in the Irish pre-Christian stories. While the written copies we have today were recorded post Christianity’s arrival in Ireland, it’s obvious from the context of the stories that they happened pre-Christianity.
It’s always important to question our beliefs and work through our thoughts on particular issues. And you may read this and think I make perfect sense, but still find the maiden mother crone construct useful, whether in a Celtic context or not. That’s all fine. But don’t try to push Brigid into that structure – she won’t fit easily and she will let you know!