Trinities: Historical Alternatives to “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”

| Past,Present

The concept of God as Father resonates well with many religious Jews and Christians. The all-male Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit – is so ingrained for Christians that our faith without it seems somehow heretical or false. In recent years, however, the idea of God as Father, for many people whose human fathers were absent, abusive or inadequate, makes praying to “him” difficult or even impossible. The composition of the trinity as all-male just rubs salt in the wound.

It may be helpful to know, then, that an all-male trinity is fairly unusual historically, and contemplating other options may be liberating to many moderns.

Prehistoric Trinities

As Barbara G. Walker points out in the Woman’s Dictionary, the prehistoric goddess, found in Old Europe and elsewhere, “was the original trinity, for most of her oldest manifestations had three aspects: the classical Virgin, Mother, and Crone. All three were the same individual. . .” This goddess was revered for upwards of 100,000 years (Gimbutas, Civilization, 222).

In fact, there is a long history (in prehistory!) of trinities related to women and the goddess. As the late anthropologist Marija Gimbutas points out, the number three not only appears in artifacts going back at least to the Upper Paleolithic era (ca. 30,000-8,000 BCE) but also well into antiquity as Judaism, Christianity and Islam developed. The “tri-line” symbol – three parallel lines – “appears concurrently with fish, net, zigzag, snake or serpentine line, bi-line, and parallel line symbolism and in association with the image of the Goddess” (Language, 89). Gimbutas has categorized figurines, pottery, and other finds with these tri-line symbols from places as far afield as Thessaly, Turkey, Crete, Macedonia, Ukraine, Transylvania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus; all are associated in some way or another with the goddess.

Gimbutas surmises that the tri-line symbol symbolizes “a triple (or multiple) life substance of dynamic quality which flows from the body of the Bird Goddess, the Giver and Sustainer of Life.” This symbol carries down to the Greek Moirai or Fates, the Irish triple Brigit, and other figures in Germanic, Baltic, Slavic and Roman cultures.

Another trinity, also associated with women and the goddess, was the moon: waxing, full and waning, or left crescent, full moon, right crescent. The lunar cycle of 28 days paralleled a woman’s menstrual cycle, which enabled ancient peoples to view the natural and human cycles of life as female and thus revere the deity in female form. This all-powerful goddess was viewed as responsible for the whole of human and natural life: birth, death and rebirth (Gimbutas, 285). Again, archaeological evidence for the association between women, the lunar cycle, regeneration, nature, and life can be found widely throughout Europe in excavations dating back thousands of years.

The Middle East and the Roman Empire

Several different combinations of the trinity were current in the Middle East and into the time of the Roman empire. Originally most trinities were all-female, such as the Virgin Hebe, the Mother Hera, and the Crone Hecate in Greek mythology. Other patterns included:

  • two females and one male, such as two goddesses and a young god;
  • two males and one female;
  • two queens and a lord; and
  • Father, Mother, Child. Examples include the Egyptian deities Osiris/Sarapis, Isis and their son Horus/Harpocrates; or the Babylonian trinity of Sun, Moon and Star, equivalent to the Greek Helios, Selene and Aphrodite.

Triple deities in these various combinations show up in many cultures around the world: India, the Vikings, pre-Columbian Mexico, Arthurian England, and Sicily (see Walker, Encyclopedia, especially pages 1018-19).

The trinity as the triangle symbol on artifacts is also associated with the goddess due to its resemblance to the woman’s vulva. The Greek letter Delta (D) is a triangle and known as the Holy Door (of birth). Delta was the first syllable of the goddess Demeter’s name, the remainder being meter, “Mother.” As Walker puts it, the triangle probably became a common symbol for woman “largely because it was originally a symbol for ‘Goddess’ and many of the objects associated with her” (Dictionary, 40).

Christianity

As we can see, only rarely throughout the ages was a trinity comprised of three males; even as Christianity developed, some groups, perhaps Gnostics, felt the need for a female element of the tripartite godhead and equated the Holy Spirit with the female figure of Sophia/Wisdom (Walker, Encyclopedia, 1019).

Further, there is evidence from Islam, which probably originated in the 7th century, that Muhammad believed that early Christians saw Mary as one-third of the Trinity (and rejected that belief in the Moslem assertion that Allah was One): “And behold! Allah will say: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, ‘Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah’?’ He will say: ‘Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say).’

Muhammad appears to have known of certain Christian groups that worshipped Mary, called her “Queen of Heaven,” attributed to her divine attributes, and thought of her as part of the Trinity – “Father, Mary, Jesus,” “Jesus, Mary, God,” or “Mary, Jesus, God.”  virgin-Mary[1]

In a late third-century document, the Gospel of Philip, three Marys are mentioned: “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary” (Robinson, 135-36, and Walker, Dictionary, 40). Walker believes that these three Marys were patterned after the three Moirai or Fates.

Medieval female mystics also had visions of the trinity that differed from the traditional all-male version (see Obbard).

  • Gertrude the Great from Saxony (1256-1302) had a vision of the Virgin Mary “of the ever adorable Trinity, which appeared in the form of a fleur-de-lys.” Gertrude came to understand that Mary “most resembled” the Holy Spirit, inasmuch as the erect petal of the fleur-de-lys denoted the omnipotence of God the Father and the two petals turning downward symbolized the wisdom and love of the Son, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
  • Julian of Norwich (1342-1420) envisioned the Holy Trinity as Father, Mother, Lord: “Our Father wills, our Mother works, our Lord the Holy Spirit confirms.” Julian equated Jesus with “our true mother,” who is all-loving, who feeds us, understands our needs, chastises us gently for our faults, allows her children to fall and be hurt for our own good but never allows us to die.

Liberating Visions for Today

The above examples show that there is a very long history behind the concept of the trinity. The concept was did not come to Christianity out of the blue: there were conscious, theologically-driven reasons to take a concept that almost always included at least one female member and redefine it as all-male. When we understand better this long history of symbols such as the trinity, we can expand our thinking about the Christian way of perceiving God and legitimately imagine God at least in part in female form.

Resources

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1976; first ed., Viking Press, 1964. See especially pages 47-49.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess, ed. Joan Marler. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1989. See especially pages 88-97.

Obbard, Elizabeth Ruth, ed. Medieval Women Mystics: Gertrude the Great, Angela of Foligno, Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2002.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988. See especially “Trinity,” pages 39-40.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.