Written by Sorita d’Este for Adamantine Muse, on Pagan Patheos, 2016.
“I come, a virgin of varied forms, wandering through the heavens, bull-faced, three-headed, ruthless, with golden arrows; chaste Phoebe bringing light to mortals, Eileithyia; bearing the three synthemata [sacred signs] of a triple nature. In the Aether I appear in fiery forms and in the air I sit in a silver chariot” [Chaldean Oracles]
In this article, I draw on articles and books I have written in the past, as well as lecture notes – in an attempt to clarify some of the key issues with the attribution of the title “Crone” to the triple-formed goddess Hekate. Profanation might be a strong word – but having witnessed the shock and reactions of devotees who have dedicated many years of their lives to the study and work of her Mysteries when they encounter the concept of Hekate being depicted as anything less than perfect, I thought it apt. Not only considering Hekate as a Crone, but a Crone as part of the Maiden Mother and Crone construct, with other goddesses in the role of Maiden and Mother. It is also worth considering, that defacing or describing gods as being less than perfect was often a technique employed by conquering religions in order to belittle and defame the older and more established religions in order to gain control over them.
What is the Maiden, Mother & Crone?
In this the feminine divine is considered to be singular, with many different forms – i.e. ‘all Goddesses are one Goddess’. It then proposes that this Goddess has three faces, or phases of life – being those of the Maiden, Mother and Crone (MMC). These phases are then each given attributes and used to not only refer to the phases of the Goddess but also that of the life of all women. It can be a powerful archetype to explore in ritual, especially when performing rites of passage for women, especially those linked to menarche, marriage, birthing and menopause. But can be restrictive for women who, for one reason or another do not have a choice in experiencing these phases of life in a neat and predictable manner. For example, women who are infertile and are not able to fulfil their desire to have a child; girls who have their maidenhood taken away from them by force; etc.
Jane Ellen Harrison – The Maiden & The Mother
One of the suggested originators of the idea of the MMC is the Cambridge classicist Jane Ellen Harrison. Her work Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) is often cited as the first example of Maiden, Mother and Other (unnamed) Goddess. However, studying that book makes it clear that her work has not always been read in the right context, as she makes a very clear distinction between the Maiden and Mother on the one hand, and the triple Maiden on the other. This is specifically stated by Harrison when she observes that:
“Once the triple form established, it is noticeable that in Greek mythology the three figures are always regarded as maiden Goddesses, not as mothers. They may have taken their rise in the Mother and the Maid, but the Mother falls utterly away.”
Harrison goes on to give some examples of the triple Maiden, not mentioning Hekate, but emphasising the occurrence of the phenomenon, commenting that, “The Charities, the Moirae [Fates], the Horae, are all essentially maidens.”
Robert Graves – The Fine Line between Mythology & Fiction
Whoever originated the idea of the MMC in the early 20th century, it cannot be disputed that the idea was popularised by Robert Graves through his writings, especially The White Goddess (1948). Graves perpetuated this theme in his subsequent writings, interchanging mother and nymph, so e.g. in The Greek Myths (1957.1:12), he observed:
“The moon’s three phases of new, full, and old recalled the matriarch’s three phases of maiden, nymph (nubile woman), and crone.”
Hekate is today most often equated to the crone aspect of this archetypal triplicate image, but this idea of Hekate as a crone goddess is one which would have been completely alien to the people of ancient Greece and others who honoured here before the 20th century. The only possible explanation for the continued association today is that somehow the darker, scarier aspects of Hekate have been equated to wisdom in old age, which is when you think about it quite ludicrous. Wisdom and knowledge do most certainly come with old age, but wisdom does not make you dark or scary – it should, in theory, make you more illuminating, interesting and exactly what it says, wise.
Aleister Crowley – A Man’s Fantasies in Feminism?
Hekate “the crone” continues to be a popular idea amongst some traditions of contemporary Paganism, especially in feminist Goddess Spirituality – even though it is contradicted by many hundreds of years of contrary evidence. The first mention I have found to Hekate being described specifically in a way that fits the archetype of Crone is in the works of the controversial magician and occult writer, Aleister Crowley.
In his novel Moonchild, which he wrote in 1917 and was published in 1929, Crowley declared of the triple lunar Goddess that, “and thirdly, she is Hekate, a thing altogether of Hell, barren, hideous and malicious, the queen of death and evil witchcraft … Hekate is the crone, the woman past all hope of motherhood, her soul black with envy and hatred of happier mortals.”
Hekate featured in other works by Crowley too. Ten years earlier Crowley had hinted at this perception of Hekate in his poem Orpheus, published in volume 3 of his Collected Works (1907). He described an invocation of Hekate beginning:
“O triple form of darkness! Sombre splendour!
Thou moon unseen of men! Thou huntress dread!
Thou crowned demon of the crownless dead!”
A later remark in the same piece suggests he was viewing her as a crone-like figure, where he commented, “Hecate, veiled with a shining veil, Utterly frail”; as frailty is commonly associated with physical age. [For an introduction to Crowley see: National Trust or The Guardian or Cambridge Press]
By complete contrast, in the ancient world Hekate is described as being a maiden Goddess, a young and beautiful female figure, sometimes depicted in a single form and sometimes in her later triple form. Where depictions survive of the triple form, it depicts the Goddess as three identical women of the same age, standing back to back and holding different tools which are symbolic of the mysteries associated with Hekate, and usually includes her torches, but also daggers, keys, cords and other items.
Hekate is a Goddess who has for thousands of years been associated with magic, as such she is capable of manifesting in many forms. Historically she is shown as single bodied, or with two, three or four bodies or heads, human and sometimes that of animals. In theory, the ancient Gods are all old – they are ancient, but since they are immortal, age is not relevant in the same way as it is for humans. Whilst it may be nice to think that deities will fit into our neat human models, in reality, that simply does not work when you start digging even just slightly beneath the surface. Forcing a restrictive construct, on an ancient and multifaceted Goddess such as Hekate, is not helpful in my opinion. It leads to confusion as to the way in which this Goddess was viewed historically, and the roles she held in the various mystery cults, are not compatible with the attributes given to a Crone in the MMC construct.
Hekate is the Maiden, maybe the Mother – not the Crone
If however, one insists on forcing Hekate into this construct, she would more aptly be assigned to the role of the maiden, and possible that of mother – rather than crone. I realise that this idea would be very foreign to her priesthood and devotees before the 20th century, but if Hekate is considered within the triad of Goddesses celebrated in the Eleusinian Mysteries these attributions become clear – Hekate as the maiden, Persephone as the bride/mother, and Demeter as the crone. Modern writers more often equate Persephone to the role of the maiden, Demeter to the role of Mother and Hekate to crone, and in the case of Demeter and Persephone for good and obvious reasons. Persephone starts out being a maiden, the Kore; and Demeter’s name literally translates as Holy Mother. But there is no obvious reason for Hekate’s fitting onto the Crone – she is the companion to Persephone on her yearly journey, she aids Demeter with knowledge and she is depicted and described as a young woman bearing torches. But, the MMC model is also restrictive for Persephone and Demeter. Persephone is the wife of Hades and the goddess who effectively brings fertility to the land when she returns to her mother – these are mother qualities. Demeter, the grain Goddess, whose yearly mourning for the loss of her daughter brings winter and with it barrenness to the Earth, a crone quality.
Whilst it might work as a way of looking at the life of a woman, the MMC construct clearly presents issues when trying to match it up with historical Goddesses, especially when including Hekate within the triad. However, conversely, with a goddess as multifaceted as Hekate, it is also perfectly obvious that she would be capable of sending spirits to those calling on her today in forms they are able to recognise and connect with – and maybe for some people, this might take the form of a Crone.
For me, Hekate transcends form and shape, and as a goddess, I personally fail to understand why age should be important. If we want to be literal, she is very old. In fact, she is ancient! We know that she was around for people at least 2800 years ago, and probably long before that. What would a human woman look like at that age? The bodies and bones of her ancient devotees are nothing more than dust now, and in turn, we will be the same – absorbed back into the body of Nature. With this thought, I leave you with a quote from the Chaldean Oracles –
Look not upon Nature, for her name is fatal.
– Proc. in P1at. Th., 143. Z.
Hekate Liminal Rites (2009), d’Este & Rankine
Circle for Hekate (2017), d’Este