Saturday 13 June 2020

Maidens, Mothers, Crones: Problematic Gender Roles

I’ve never been keen on the Maiden, Mother, Crone concept. It was considered to be an idea almost sacrosanct in pagan circles back in the 1980s and 90s, I recall. Somehow, all women had to be squashed and squished into one of those three archetypes, whether they liked it or not.

Ostensibly, it related to age, as well as to experience within the craft. People would try to pigeon-hole you into how knowledgeable you were about witchcraft and related esoterica. I remember in that era chatting to a stranger at a press launch for a tarot deck, who said I looked like a beautiful maiden, but had the knowledge of a mother. He meant it as flattery, but it made me feel uncomfortable. I dislike being so obviously assessed by strangers, and was never comfortable with the way those terms also relate to female fertility and fecundity, by their dictionary definitions.

Back in the 1980s and 90s, there was also this idea going that you really ought to achieve the sacred state of motherhood if you were female and wanted to be a proper pagan. That seemed even more true in Wicca, as I learnt when I was training in a Gardnerian coven back in those days. One of my sister witches informed me that I couldn’t hope to invoke the goddess fully unless I was a mother, because only then could I understand her inner mysteries. Obviously, I was doomed to failure, because I never wanted kids. I imagine those who were infertile, or trans, felt even more like they were on the pagan scrap heap.

Long ago I chose to be child-free for environmental reasons and because I never particularly felt any craving to produce babies. I was always more interesting in creating art and writing. Sometimes pagans would say that was OK, because creating art was another form of fecundity – a sort of substitute, second-best, form of motherhood. But, if so, I don’t feel it fits the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype very well. And you wouldn’t suggest that parallel to a male writer or artist, would you?

Another excuse I’ve heard for elevating the importance of the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype is that women are naturally carers and nurturers, and so even if they didn’t have offspring, they would probably do some caring type thing. Many women get forced into those roles due to family and peer pressure. I cared for my mother when she was old and unwell, but I wasn’t naturally suited to the duty and, I’ll be honest, don’t feel I did a particularly good job of it, despite trying to do my best. If I’d been male, people wouldn’t have assumed I’d do it.

People have tried to come up with male equivalents. Things like Youth, Warrior, and Sage. Well, women can be those things too. Why do we need any gendered descriptions to denote the stages of life we pass through? I don't mind words like youth, maturity and old age in general, as they don't impose roles or gender-related concepts. Life milestones are something to celebrate. Coming of age - become an adult - is recognised in pretty much all cultures. Legally, in most countries, there are things you can't do before a certain age - marry, buy booze, drive etc. In the UK, 18th birthday parties are an important celebration. In our society, the age at which we qualify for the State Pension is another important milestone. It allows elderly people to have some sort of steady income without being expected to do a paid job. None of these things are specifically gendered though.

The Maid, Mother, Crone concept isn’t ancient. It started with Robert Graves, who was extremely influential in the pagan revival. Sure, there are ancient threesomes of female mythological figures, including the three Norns of Norse mythology, who weave fate, Hecate who has three faces, and the Roman Three Mothers, but they aren’t quite the same.

Even if there is an ancient Goddess trio of Maid, Mother, Crone, it doesn’t mean that particular archetype should be more important than any other. Personally, I'd leave it in the last century, and stop the pressure to squash pagans into old-fashioned gender roles.

The picture at the top shows a reproduction of a plaque of three Celtic goddesses, found near Bath, and the lower picture shows the Roman Three Mothers, at the British Museum.


Sandra said...

Hear, hear. I think you've hit the nail on the head. Perhaps the male equivalent should be:
Kid. Kid. Kid.

Anonymous said...

I am probably about 10 years older than you and was married in 1979 and also chose childlessness.

My opinion is that this modern focussing on the 3 goddesses is a “backlash” from female emancipation. Despite education, The Pill and opportunities for women in careers, a lot of women prefer motherhood and housewifery and feel their choice is denigrated. Therefore they want some back-up for their chosen “career”. The 3 goddesses gave them just that. There used to be a lot of talk about being “selfish” if you were childless. As a girls’ grammar school student who was guided towards a career and university (not that I got there!) I was amazed at how many of my friends who’d had the same education opted to get married and breed. The same with my goddaughter who did go to university and then got a partner and children and has been a housewife ever since. It’s unfortunate that you were on your pathway at this time and got caught up in this “prejudice” which is just a way of justifying their waste of an education and opportunities which had been gained for them by the Women’s Movement. I don’t denigrate motherhood but it seems to be bloody hard work and hassle and boring and I do admire women who take it on and produce admirable citizens but do I envy them? NO! I once asked my Mother why she had married my Father (as opposed to anyone else) and she said “What else was there?”. Well there wasn’t in those days but a lot of women just don’t have the aptitude for the other opportunities in this day and age so “what else is there”? Actually my Mother did want children and I was her last chance – as was my Father and if it wasn’t for the War she could have done better.

I don’t recall any unpleasant comments but I wasn’t looking to be a pagan in those days. (Of course, it’s always touchy to ask a women why she doesn’t have children in case it’s a medical misfortune for them).

So for me the 3 Goddesses are just symbols of life – the seed, fruitfulness and death – and I don’t bother too much about them anyway (whether or not they actually existed historically or just in modern minds).

Hope you and yours are safe and well (as well as the cat who seems to be a tortoiseshell just like our Irma) and not flattened by Lockdown. It seems the doors are starting to open – as we await the 2nd Wave – so masks on and march on.

Kind Regards, Adele Butler

Anonymous said...

I am in my sixties, and I have two daughters (by choice) and two grandchildren. I have never understood the focus on maiden, mother & crone as literally young woman, mother, post-menopausal woman. It makes much more sense to see it as seasonal: spring, summer & autumn/winter or representing different energies: youthful enthusiasm, mature creativity, acquired wisdom & knowledge (hopefully), which we don't necessarily manifest in that order, or even just one at a time. I was a mature student, getting my degree and MA in my 50s alongside working, and I tell my offspring that there are opportunities all throughout life, they don't have to do things in the conventional order.
BB Jackie

Badwitch said...

Thanks so much for those comments. It is really good to hear other people's experiences!

Bridgeofsighs said...

Well said. Biology is not destiny