During New Stone Age (7000-3500 B.C.E.) and Early Bronze Age (3500-2000 B.C.E.), in all Europe dwelt a peaceful civilization which devoted itself to agriculture. Among them, female life was divided into three ages: maiden, mother, and crone*, according to the possibility of giving birth.
Such ages were assimilated to the three phases of the Moon —waxing, full, and waning—, due to the similar length of both lunar and female cycle, with the days of New Moon and of menstruation (the periodic discharge of blood) imagined as a dormant pause from regular activity before starting a new triple-phased cycle. Hence, the female cycle was thought to be regulated by the Moon’s phases. Furthermore, the whole vegetal and animal realms were thought to be composed by cycles of three phases —birth, full growth, and death—, always renewing themselves through a never ending cycle of birth, death and rebirth: the unploughed field was imagined as a maiden, the full harvest as a mother, while the harvested earth as a crone. Finally, the four seasons of the year were imagined as follows:
spring = maiden, Waxing Moon. Think to the sprouting leaves of the trees.
summer = mother, Full Moon. Think to the luxuriant foliage of the trees.
autumn = crone, Waning Moon. Think to the falling dry leaves.
winter (i.e. dormant and frost earth) = death, menstruation, New Moon; it was the dormant pause before starting a new triple-phased cycle. Think to the bare trees.
Thus, it was natural to believe that in head of the reproduction cycles and of the alternation of seasons lay a female deity, assimilated herself to the phases of the Moon. Of course, the Moon itself was thought to be an aspect of such divinity.
It’s important to keep in mind the strong, indissoluble link —epitomized by the Moon— between womanhood, nature’s cycles, and divinity. As the woman, the divinity too was worshipped under her three aspects of maiden, mother, and crone: Pausanias 8.22.2 witnesses that in Stymphalus (Arcadia) Hera was worshipped as País (“Girl”), Teleía (“Fulfilled”), and Khéra (“Widow”). Totally ignoring the relationship between female and agricultural cycles —i.e. unploughed field, full harvest, and harvested earth—, male religions cannot understand how can a Goddess be mother and maiden: Pausanias 2.38.2 claims that Hera was believed to restore every year her virginity taking a bath in the Kanathos spring, near Argos, being this ritual a symbol of the earth ready to be ploughed again.
In Bronze Age, the original monotheistic goddess began to be broken down into many somewhat overlapping goddesses of fertility, as the one of agriculture, the one of wild animals, the one of childbirth, etc. In Late Bronze Age (1500-1000 B.C.E.), beside these main goddesses, many minor deities flourished, as those of fate —the Moirai— or those of the seasons —the Horai—. Well, while main deities continued to be worshipped under the three aspects of maiden, mother, and crone, minor deities suffered a breaking up in triads: so, arose the three Moirai, the three Horai, the three Charites (= Graces), the three Gorgons, the three Graiai, the nine Muses etc.
An intermediate breaking up level was that of Hecate, whose triple nature was carved in her body itself.Because of the strong link between woman and divinity, Greek mythology knows the traditional motive of the three daughters. Heroic genealogies were often built following this pattern, as witnessed by these typical formulaic verses from the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (fr. 26.5-6 Merkelbach-West):
or those as the daughters born to Porthaon,
three, similar to goddesses, who knew magnificent works
Not knowing that the alternation of seasons was ruled by regular astronomic phenomena, the Ancients lived in the fear that spring might not come back.For this purpose they developed a magic sympathetic ritual imitating the natural cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth, in the hope it would help the spring to come back. The ritual consisted of circular dances, carried out by the maidens of the community, in strictly number of three —as the phases of the whole cycle—, or multiples of three.At the beginning, these dances took place during the nights of New Moon and Full Moon, easy to reckon even for primitive cultures; when the astronomic knowledge increased, they took place also during the solstices, easier to reckon than the equinoxes. The following step was the equinoxes, and, finally, the intermediate dates between solstices and equinoxes.
*I use the word crone, instead of aged woman, because of the English habit of naming the three female ages maiden, mother, and crone. However, the English word crone has a quite negative nuance in meaning, signifying something old, ugly, decomposing, and useless, deriving from the Old Northern French caroigne, “carrion”, “corpse”. Such negative attitude towards female third age, risen in latter patriarchal society, was totally unknown in the civilization we are dealing with: hence, in this site with the word crone is to be understood only “aged woman”.