If two's company, then three's a charm, at least when it comes to mythic female characters. Whenever three magical madams appear in stories, you can bet some large, profound change is about to take place. They show up in tales regularly, most recently in the latest trailer for the new season of American Horror Story. In it, we see a troop of leggy ladies in dark heels and Hedi Slimane hats descend upon an Antebellum mansion, stepping under levitating bodies, and over an albino minotaur lying prone on the wraparound porch. As they enter the house, they are greeted by three towering figures whose heads nearly touch the pentacled ceiling and are swathed from head to toe in gauzy black.
The camera cuts closer, and the three remove their masks (a voodoo doll, a Mardi Gras queen, and a sacred bull, respectively), to reveal, presumably, the lead witches of this season, being played by cinematic powerhouses Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates. Then BANG! No sooner have we registered their faces than the words "American Horror Story: COVEN" flash on the screen.
It's an artful, innovative vignette to be sure, and worthy of the buzz it's been getting (nearly half a million views on YouTube alone). But the imagery it draws from is not new. In fact, the archetype of three magical females has been time-tested and audience approved for thousands of years. Triple goddesses and witchy trios have been with us at since the days of ancient mythology, and have risen to the top of the archetypal pot many times over throughout history.
The Three Fates occur in several traditions: the Greek Moirai and Nordic Norn were different names for a similar group of three female deities who would determine one's life and time of death. In this triad, there's the lady who spins the thread of life, the lady who measures its' length, and the lady who snips it finished with her terrifically terminal shears. These women are the overseers of destiny, highly respected and hugely formidable.
Hecate, the Greek queen of the witches, became conflated with the Roman Trivia, whose name translates to "the three ways." Depicted often with three faces, she is a goddess of the crossroads who oversees the realm of magic and liminal space, and is associated with the moon, hounds, and herbalism. She famously helped Demeter search for her abducted daughter in the underworld, and later would act as Persephone's guide into and out of Hades every six months. She is often shown holding torches, and sometimes referred to as Hecate Phosphoros, or "she who shines light in the darkness."
Perhaps most famously, Shakespeare's three "Weird Sisters" kick off the Scottish play with their notorious incantation, "Double, double, toil and trouble." Their prophecies that Macbeth will be king act as a catalyst for the power-drunk tragedies that later ensue. These triple witches are generally played as old hags, and are largely responsible for the popularized version of ugly old witches that followed suit, and are still prevalent today. Shows like Charmed and films like The Witches of Eastwick or even Robert Altman's uncanny masterpiece, 3 Women, turn the trope on its ear, representing these trios as beautiful and alluring, if also deliciously dangerous or altogether unsettling.
It's debatable whether the triple lunar goddess that represents the Maiden, Mother, and Crone is an ancient one, or a modern interpretation by mythographers like Robert Graves and later adopted by Neopagans, but the point is moot. The archetype is so prevalent in literature and spiritual writing today that it feels timeless. Neil Gaiman has been playing with this ménage à la lune for years, starting with various iterations in his masterful comics series, Sandman, up to his most recent best-selling novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
In the latter, the protagonist, a proxy for a childhood version of the author, is assisted by the Hempstock women -- a girl, her mother, and her grandmother -- who possess powers that are equal parts fearsome and protective. They can fight monsters, transform the moon, cut and sew the very fabric of the world -- and make a damn fine English breakfast.
Three magical women are captivating, because they transcend the simple positive/negative dichotomy. They aren't enemies in a "good witch" v. "bad witch" scenario, but are a force to be reckoned with as a collective. Two's a polarity. Three's a posse. Together, three females represent the full spectrum of existence: creation, preservation, destruction. Life, death, resurrection. An infinite cycle, and, perhaps, the greatest mystery there is. Fate-keepers, gate-keepers, these infinite female forces are ones we sense we must appeal to. They are the matrices upon which we project our deepest anxieties and loftiest hopes. These bewitching women represent the ultimate system of checks and balances, and as such are units of an awesome whole.
A holy trinity indeed.