Saturday, 13 June 2020
Maidens, Mothers, Crones: Problematic Gender Roles
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.