A triple deity (sometimes referred to as threefold, tripled, triplicate, tripartite, triune or triadic, or as a trinity) is a deity associated with the number three. Such deities are common throughout world mythology; the number three has a long history of mythical associations. Carl Jung considered the arrangement of deities into triplets an archetype in the history of religion.
The Matres or Matronae are usually represented as a group of three but sometimes with as many as 27 (3 × 3 × 3) inscriptions. They were associated with motherhood and fertility. Inscriptions to these deities have been found in Gaul, Spain, Italy, the Rhineland and Britain, as their worship was carried by Roman soldiery dating from the mid 1st century to the 3rd century AD.Miranda Green observes that “triplism” reflects a way of “expressing the divine rather than presentation of specific god-types. Triads or triple beings are ubiquitous in the Welsh and Irish mythic imagery” (she gives examples including the Irish battle-furies, Macha, and Brigit). “The religious iconographic repertoire of Gaul and Britain during the Roman period includes a wide range of triple forms: the most common triadic depiction is that of the triple mother goddess” (she lists numerous examples).
Georges Dumézil proposed that ancient Indo-European society followed a tripartite model involving three classes – Priest, Warrior and Peasant. Triadic forms are characteristic of Indo-European conceptual structures. The religious life of this society, according to Dumézil, included three main gods which represented each of these three classes. Dumézil understood this mythology as reflecting and validating social structures in its content: such a tripartite class system is found in ancient Indian, Iranian, Greek and Celtic texts. In 1970 Dumézil proposed that some goddesses represented these three qualities as different aspects or epithets and identified examples in his interpretation of various deities including the Iranian Anāhitā, the Vedic Sarasvatī and the Roman Juno.
Petreska Vesna posits that myths including trinities of female mythical beings from Central and Eastern European cultures may be evidence for an Indo-European belief in trimutive female “spinners” of destiny. But according to the linguist M. L. West, various female deities and mythological figures in Europe show the influence of pre-Indo-European goddess-worship, and triple female fate divinities, typically “spinners” of destiny, are attested all over Europe and in Bronze Age Anatolia.
At her sacred grove at Aricia, on the shores of Lake Nemi a triplefold Diana was venerated from the late sixth century BCE as Diana Nemorensis. Andreas Alföldi interpreted a late Republican numismatic image as the Latin Diana “conceived as a threefold unity of the divine huntress, the Moon goddess and the goddess of the nether world, Hekate“. This coin shows that the triple goddess cult image still stood in the lucus of Nemi in 43 BCE. The Lake of Nemi was Triviae lacus for Virgil (Aeneid 7.516), while Horace called Diana montium custos nemoremque virgo (“keeper of the mountains and virgin of Nemi”) and diva triformis (“three-form goddess”). Diana is commonly addressed as Trivia by Virgil and Catullus.
Greek magical papyri
Spells and hymns in Greek magical papyri refer to the goddess (called Hecate, Persephone, and Selene, among other names) as “triple-sounding, triple-headed, triple-voiced…, triple-pointed, triple-faced, triple-necked”. In one hymn, for instance, the “Three-faced Selene” is simultaneously identified as the three Charites, the three Moirai, and the three Erinyes; she is further addressed by the titles of several goddesses. Translation editor Hans Dieter Betz notes: “The goddess Hekate, identical with Persephone, Selene, Artemis, and the old Babylonian goddess Ereschigal, is one of the deities most often invoked in the papyri.”
19th century classical scholarship
E. Cobham Brewer‘s 1894 Dictionary of Phrase & Fable contained the entry, “Hecate: A triple deity, called Phoebe or the Moon in heaven, Diana on the earth, and Hecate or Proserpine in hell,” and noted that “Chinese have the triple goddess Pussa”. The Roman poet Ovid, through the character of the Greek woman Medea, refers to Hecate as “the triple Goddess”; the earlier Greek poet Hesiod represents her as a threefold goddess, with a share in earth, sea, and starry heavens. Hecate was depicted variously as a single womanly form; as three women back-to-back; as a three-headed woman, sometimes with the heads of animals; or as three upper bodies of women springing from a single lower body (“we see three heads and shoulders and six hands, but the lower part of her body is single, and closely resembles that of the Ephesian Artemis”).
Classical triple goddesses in literature
The trinity of Asia, Panthea (“All-Goddess”) and the Nereid Ione have been seen to be contrasted ironically with the triad of the Furies in Shelley’sPrometheus Unbound making a careful separation between the Jungian figures of the Terrible and Good Mother.
In the mythology of the Sámi, a triad of goddesses are responsible for childbirth and protecting children. Sáhráhkka, who lives in the fireplace, is responsible for pregnancy and the particular protector of girls. Juksáhkká, who lives in the area of the back doors, is responsible for turning some children into boys while they are in the womb (there was a belief that all children are female at the outset). Uksáhkká guards the main doors, and is responsible for protecting all young children.
A pagan god was worshipped in pre-Islamic Arabia and Nabataea with a family of deities around him among which was a triad of goddesses called “the three daughters of God”: al-Lat (“Mother Goddess of prosperity”) Al-Uzza (“Mighty one”) the youngest, and Manat (“Fate”) “the third, the other”. They were known collectively as the three cranes. The name al-Lat is known from the time of the histories of Herodotus in which she is named Alilat.
Qudshu-Astarte-Anat is a representation of a single goddess who is a combination of three goddesses: Qetesh (Athirat “Asherah”), Astarte, and Anat. It was a common practice for Canaanites and Egyptians to merge different deities through a process of syncretization, thereby, turning them into one single entity. This “Triple Goddess Stone”, once owned by Winchester College, shows the goddess Qetesh with the inscription “Qudshu-Astarte-Anat”, showing their association as being one goddess, and Qetesh (Qudshu) in place of Athirat.
Religious scholar Saul M. Olyan (author of Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel), calls the representation on the Qudshu-Astarte-Anat plaque “a triple-fusion hypostasis”, and considers Qudshu to be an epithet of Athirat by a process of elimination, for Astarte and Anat appear after Qudshu in the inscription.
The smaller Gallehus horn has a three-headed figure, holding an axe in its right hand and a rope tethered to the leg of a horned animal in the left.
In Slavic mythology, the god Triglav, (literally meaning “three-heads”) is a three-headed man, sometimes depicted with three goat heads. He is depicted as representation of three major Slavic gods that vary from one Slavic tribe to another that serve as the representatives of the Slavic realms. Triglav is usually described as a fusion of these gods.
The hound Cerberus in Greek mythology is often depicted with three heads.
The Fates, Moirai or Furies in Greek and Roman mythology: Clotho or Nona the Spinner, Lachesis or Decima the Weaver, and Atropos or Morta the Cutter of the Threads of Life. One’s Lifeline was Spun by Clotho, Woven into the tapestry of Life by Lachesis, and the thread Cut by Atropos.