Five Goddess Prototypes in the Tarot

Patricia Monaghan, one of the most badass scholars of women’s spirituality in the modern age, had a really cool talk she used to deliver about taxonomizing goddesses. I never actually got to see this talk (for lo, I am but young), nor have I been able to find any published writings where she rehashes its content, but I’ve talked to people who attended her lectures, and I’m intrigued by my secondhand understanding of her argument.

The idea is to improve and expand upon Robert Graves’s idea of the Triple Goddess. Already, I know I’m going to alienate some readers with the mere mention of the Triple Goddess, but please, bear with me. Graves’s Maiden/Mother/Crone paradigm is deeply flawed, but the idea of trying to find common themes in world mythology is at bottom a good one. It can help us to compare myths and to understand their similarities and differences. Patricia Monaghan suggested that there are five fundamental Goddess prototypes that fit most of world mythology: Maiden, Mother, Crone, Lover, and Warrior. This fivefold model allows for a more complex understanding of goddesses, without trying to pigeonhole figures who really don’t fit the Graves paradigm.

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Before we go much further, there are two things I should clarify about the fivefold goddess model. First off, it’s not reductionist. Kali and Danu are both Mother goddesses, but they are wildly different from each other. No one in their right mind* would claim that they are essentially the same figure just because they’re both Mothers. Each goddess comes from a rich cultural background, with her own stories and her own worship, and I am not advocating for an erasure of these differences. Kali and Danu are both so much more than Mothers, but being Mothers is one thing that they share in common.

Secondly, a goddess can belong to more than just one of these five categories. Freya is both Lover and Warrior. Áine/the Cailleach is both Maiden and Crone. Athena is both Warrior and Maiden. Goddesses are complex individuals, and they can be more than one thing at a time. The fivefold goddess paradigm is not meant to restrict or pigeonhole them.

In a sense, I think of Monaghan’s five Goddess prototypes as analogous to the Olympic rings. For anyone who doesn’t already know this fun bit of trivia, the flag of every country in the world shares at least one color (including white) in common with the Olympic flag. That’s part of why the Olympic flag was designed the way it was—to be a symbol of international unity that represented all the countries of the world. However, some countries’ flags (such as India’s) include colors not found on the Olympic flag, and most countries share more than one of the six Olympic colors. Likewise for the fivefold goddess. Most goddesses will share at least one of these five fundamental features, but some goddesses will have more than one, and every goddess I can think of has traits other than these five.

So, with all that explaining and hand-waving out of the way, we have five prototypes of the divine feminine: Maiden, Mother, Crone, Lover, and Warrior. My project for today is to see if we can find them in the Tarot.

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The Maiden and the Lover are easy to identify, and in fact, I’ve written about them before on this blog. I see the Maiden in the Star card, and the Lover in Strength (which, in the Thoth deck, is renamed to Lust). The Star is innocence, healing, and renewal; Strength comes from embracing the animalistic side of oneself. I’ve written about the relationship between these two cards at much greater length, so if you’d like to, feel free to check out Part 1 of that years-old post.

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The Mother is also easy to identify in the Major Arcana. I see her in the Empress. Keywords that we learn for the Empress as novice Tarot readers are things like “abundance” and “nurturing”. She sits enthroned in a field of ripe grain, and her robe is decorated with the fruits of the Earth. She is a card of growth and fullness, both physical and spiritual. It really doesn’t get much more Motherly than that.

So we are left with two other faces of the Fivefold Goddess to identify: The Warrior and the Crone. These are a bit less apparent at first glance, but I do think they’re present in the Tarot deck. Personally, I see the Warrior in the Justice card. Not only because she’s holding a sword (although, you know, visual cues help), but because she represents the kind of code of honor to which warriors hold themselves. Justice is impartial, impersonal. It values a higher ideal over individual loyalties, and that can seem cruel at times, but it’s necessary. Justice is the standard by which warriors must live their lives; it’s not just the cool-headed strategy of Athena, but the recognition of valor offered by the Valkyries.

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And finally, we are left with the Crone. She is, in my opinion, the hardest of the five prototypical goddesses to find in the Major Arcana, and I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how she fits in here (if she fits at all). Personally, I see the High Priestess as filling this role. True, she’s not visibly aged, but then again almost no one in the Majors is;** however, the mysteries she guards are, I think, the same as the mysteries of the Crone. The High Priestess is an initiator into both the first mysteries and the final ones. She is, like the Crone, both midwife and hospice nurse. The pomegranate curtain behind her indicates that the threshold she guards is, among other things, the boundary between life and death.

The idea of the fivefold goddess is something you can take or leave as it suits you, but personally, I find it deeply appealing.*** Similarly, you may like the fivefold goddess but think it doesn’t map well to the Tarot, or you may prefer to draw different lines between the goddess and the Arcana. (I have a friend who suggested that a gender-swapped Hermit would make a better Crone than the High Priestess.) I’ve actually fallen into the habit of using these five Tarot cards as visual representations of the Wiccan Goddess in certain situations, depending on the nature of the work I’m doing with Her. Doing so has proved fruitful for me, but it may not be so for you.

What are your thoughts? Do you find Monaghan’s notion of the fivefold goddess appealing? Does the way I’ve incorporated into Tarot make sense to you, or no? This post is really just me hashing out a connection that makes sense to me personally, and I don’t know how much it will resonate with anyone else, so I’d be curious to hear what other people have to say about it.

I’m moving into my new place this weekend, so things are a bit hectic in my life, but I should be back next week with a deck review. Keep your eyes peeled!


*Except perhaps Dion Fortune, but she and I have a number of theological disagreements.

**One could easily argue that this means the fivefold goddess model doesn’t fit the Tarot. And sure, if you want to be a buzzkill, go ahead and argue that. This is why nobody likes you.

***I’ve never read Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess, but apparently she advocates a fivefold goddess in lieu of Graves’s Triple Goddess. I have no idea whether Allen’s model is similar to or influenced by Monaghan’s.

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