An Ecopsychological Alternative to “Maiden, Mother and Crone”

I’ve always had issues with the “Maiden, Mother and Crone” triad (which shall be referred to as MMC from here on out) in neopaganism. It stems from Robert Graves filtered through Wicca, but seems to have bled over into generic neopagan lore. While originally it was intended to describe certain supposed trinities of goddesses, it has since been applied erroneously to human women as well. Neither deities nor humans seem to do so well when shoved into archetypal pigeonholes–while I may see totems as archetypal in nature, it’s as representations of all qualities and associations of their given species, not as “Brown Bear is the healer, Grey Wolf is the Teacher”, etc.

It’s the humans in specific I’d like to talk about here. As someone who is deliberately childfree, I already have reason to dislike the MMC’s focus on the uterus and its functions as defining characteristics of what it means to be female. I used to subscribe to that whole concept that “fertility” could be symbolic as well, dealing in creative endeavors like artwork as one’s “children”. But that still limits women to “creative”, “fertile” and “nurturing” roles–as I mentioned to someone on my Twitter account, what about “Little Hellion”, “Hostile Corporate Takeover Organizer” and “Crazy Cat Lady With Attack Bengals” as archetypes? These are pretty limiting, too.

And then there are the awkward attempts to shoehorn men into similar categorizations, like “Youth, Warrior, Sage”, which at least have a little less dependence on the functionality of one’s reproductive organs, but are still unnecessarily limiting.

And this led me into irritation and annoyance with the whole gender binary thing and the Western adherence to strict dualities which seems to be especially pronounced in the States.

And then I got pissy about people mistaking the map for the territory.

And then I decided to finally write this damned essay, which has been bouncing around in my head half-formed for gods know how long.

See, I was changed a few years ago when I read Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul. It’s not as well-known or appreciated as its predecessor Soulcraft, but it was a really formative book for me. That’s where I first learned about the concept of ecopsychology, which isn’t so much a specific school of psychological thought as it is an approach to both theroetical and applied psychology that automatically factors in the human relationship to nature along with relationships to the self, other humans, etc. It ties in beautifully with animistic beliefs and practices and gives additional structure to these concepts. In fact, a number of ecopsychologists employ core shamanic techniques in their clinical practices. And this was the book that led me to research local graduate school programs to find whoever had ecopsych classes available, which in turn completely changed my life on a lot of levels.

Anyway, what makes this book pertinent here is that Plotkin has designed what’s essentially an ecopsychological developmental theory. The book focuses on what he has labeled “The Wheel of Life”. It’s modeled on Erikson’s eight stages of human development. However, where Erikson’s stages are largely tied to one’s neurological development and, to a lesser degree, chronological age, and also are weighted more heavily toward children and adolescents as developing human beings, Plotkin’s eight stages are not so strictly scheduled, and in fact a person may not necessarily go through all eight even in a natural lifespan. While the stages do correspond to Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Elderhood (as Plotkin terms them), these are more based on psychological maturity than physical age. A person may be well into physical adulthood, but still be somewhere in one of the two Adolescent stages in Plotkin’s model.

Additionally, the tasks that Plotkin proposes for each of the eight stages are much different from the tasks Erikson described in his model. Where the latter is based primarily in self-development focusing on life as part of human society, Plotkin creates a connection between the internal and external environments, as well as the human and nonhuman components thereof. There’s also a strong element of the Hero’s Journey, albeit without Campbell’s gendered interpretation thereof, in the development of the human being in the Wheel of Life. In fact, it’s entirely gender-neutral, which I thoroughly appreciate.

It’s a wonderfully pagan developmental model, though it’s not at all religious. I tend to recommend ecopsychology as a resource for nature-based pagans because it synthesizes psychology with mythology, spirituality (without specific religious trappings) and, of course, ecology. Again, it doesn’t espouse a specific school of thought; one culture’s mythology is not seen as superior to another’s. Rather, the function of mythology (and the other elements of ecopsychology) is what is explored and applied–similar to how I work with the function of shamanism in my culture rather than any prescribed, specific type of shamanism.

I would like to propose the Wheel of Life as an alternative human developmental model in neopaganism, replacing the constricted, outdated, and ultimately historically inaccurate MMC triad. This goes for any and all derivatives, which are necessarily based on a flawed system. I haven’t used it nearly as much as I would like, but it’s something that I have integrated into my personal, private view of myself for a while now. Nature and the Human Soul is still in print, and I can’t recommend it enough, whether as an alternative to the MMC, or simply as an effective structure for greater understanding of the self.


10 thoughts on “An Ecopsychological Alternative to “Maiden, Mother and Crone”

  1. According to Hutton, a certain Mary Green was the source of the whole MMC thing that Graves and others glommed onto. 1932 was when she wrote about them, if memory serves. Just an FYI.

    Everything in here was awesome – I heartily agree, and am going to go order Nature and the Human Soul now…

    • It’s hard to summarize them; even the basic tasks and other key words are really insufficient. It’s such a comprehensive system that you pretty much have to read the entire book to get the full effect.

  2. Have you written anything about the entire concept of men’s & women’s mysteries yet? I’d love to read you on that, too.

    I’ve done the breeding thing, and didn’t feel anything ‘newly spiritual’ or a special connection to “The Mother” during pregnancy or parenting. I later had a hysterectomy without a twinge of feeling it diminished me ‘as a woman’. I’m not saying that some women might not get something wonderous from all things uterine … but, to quote Sojourner Truth, ain’t I a woman? Yup, I’m just one that finds social roles different than archetypes and spiritual roles, and that I’m not defined by my uterus.

    Besides – am I the only person who sees MMC and thinks Mickey Mouse Club?

    Frondly, Fern

    • I haven’t really delved into gender-based mysteries too much, mainly because I keep getting diverted into being pissy about the gender binary.

      Part of the problem is that aforementioned obsession with gender duality. While pagans tend to be somewhat more friendly to a gender continuum, there are still plenty who are freaked out by any deviation outside of masculine men and feminine women. That and people also like nice, neat categories to put themselves in because it’s a lot easier than introspection.

      Heh–now that’s all I’m ever going to think of with that acronym!

  3. As we approached Imbolc this year, I read an excellent piece on how the MMC thing is a fairly new construct, that there really was no correlation between them, as a unit. Did you post it? Ah well, I will dig it up if you want to read it.


  4. So glad to hear someone else get pissy about gender duality! That’s one reason I’m attracted to shamanism as a gay man, because of the gender freedom it allows. But gender duality is everywhere in the pagan world: “male” energy vs. “female” energy, masculine “direction” vs. feminine “direction,” and on and on. Seriously, the more I learn, the more I am leaning to making up my own stuff–and daring anyone to question me!

    When I first heard of MMC, I thought it provided a way for women to embrace better the crone aspect of their lives, especially since our culture rejects that entirely. But that’s just my own limited perspective. It always did seemed tied to much to the uterus. This reminds me of reading “Fire in the Belly” years ago, a book closely tied to the emerging men’s spirituality movement in the early 90s. At the end of all the lovely writing and thinking, the author basically concludes that we men are here to have children and to pass on our wisdom, and that makes it all worthwhile and will fill any voids in our lives. Ok, gee, thanks for leaving out MILLIONS of people, dude, not just GLBT community but also anyone who for whatever reason can’t have kids or simply chooses not to. A good book in many ways but ultimately disappointing.

    Ok, enough of me being pissy. Thanks for posting this!

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