The Bavarian Triple Goddess - A Study of the Cult of the Three Bethan
In the material provided for the OBOD Druid grade course, there was a picture of the Genii Cucullati, three hooded figures representing a triad of deities. This brought me to think about the Bavarian Bethen, a female triad of later Christian saints rooted in pre-Christian religion.
On the occasion of bringing the studies of the Druid grade to an end, I decided to mark this important point in my life through a regional study of the Bethen. I was especially interested in the question who the Bethen were, and how much of their original meaning they were able to retain after Christianization.
Since the topic is quite vast I had to limit my studies to the area where I live in, which is Southern Bavaria, but I will make cross-references to other regions as well.
An Unexpected Meeting
South of Munich, where the green foothills of the Bavarian Alps start to rise against the massive granite wall of the Alps, there is a little valley with a river running through it. It is called Mühltal (Mill Valley). The stream is lined with unusual steep hills covered with dense beech forest. The area is especially known for its Celtic remains, including a well preserved Viereckschanze and several hill grave cemeteries. It is remarkably rich with natural wells.
Branching off sideways from the valley, there is a small road leading to the tiny hamlet of Leutstetten. It has only a few houses, a horse breeding farm and a castle owned by Bavaria’s former royal family, the Wittelsbach dynasty. At the village entrance there is a chapel standing in the middle of a small cemetery.
After entering the chapel the visitor notices an image of three women on the right wall. The image is from 1620 CE. According to local lore, it depicts three noble virgins who never married and gave all their money to church as a donation in order to enable the building of the chapel. The chapel was built and the image of the three women, who are known today as 'the three sacred virgins', was put inside in rememberance of their noble deed. Their names are inscribed as 'AINPET, GBERPET, FIRPET'. Since there is a castle adjacent, one could think of three unmarried noblewomen devoting their lives to god and their money to the church, hoping for a good afterlife in paradise.
But there is something wrong with the chapel’s foundation legend. Local historians have checked it and found not a single piece of evidence confirming its truth. The three virgins were apparently neither born nor did they die. And in the church registers, which have survived into our times safe and sound, the donation at Leutstetten does not shine up.
And this makes very good sense! Because Ainpet, Gberpet and Firpet never lived as humans. Nor are they Christian saints. They are pagan goddesses, deeply rooted in the pre-Christian European past. Pagan goddesses in a Catholic church?
Well, this is a long story!
In Bavaria, the three women in the chapel are mostly known as Ainbeth, Borbeth and Wilbeth. Since their names all end with ‚ beth‘, they are usually called ‚die drei Bethen' (the three Bethen). They also appear as,
Aubet, Cubet and Quere
Ainbet, Gwerbet and Wilbet
Embede, Warbede and Wilbede
Ambede, Borbede and Wilbede
Ainpet, Gberpet and Firpet
'Beten' in modern German means 'to pray'. Probably the act of worshipping the Bethen was so important and widespread that their name left its mark on the word for praying to them. Firpet or Firbet, the name of the third woman on the Leutstetten image, in modern German sounds pretty much like 'Fürbitte' (intercession).
The Bethen were venerated especially in the presence of trees, wells and stones. This finds its expression in the terms 'Bethelbäume'(Bethen trees),'Bethenbrunnen' (Bethen wells) and 'Bethensteine' (Bethen stones). As we know, worship at wells, in forest groves and near unusual stones was a widespread feature in Celtic and Germanic religion, so we can safely assume that the Bethen cult has pre-Christian roots.
In some cases, 'Betenbrunnen' have been renamed to 'Petersbrunnen' (St. Peter’s well). This can have something to do with the linguistic likeness, with the changing popularity of different saints over the centuries, it could also have to do with the suppression of pagan cults through Catholicism and the replacement of 'dubious' saints through a more 'reliable' one .
Coincidentally there is a 'Petersbrunn' chapel in the Leutstetten area and it is erected right above a natural well. It is quite certain that this was a Celtic sacred place later overbuilt by a Christian chapel, an adaption of an old place to the new faith that we see so often.
Some 'Betensteine' have been renamed into 'Muttergottessitze' (Our Lady’s seats). Much of the veneration of the earlier Bethen seems to have been absorbed by the cult of St.Mary in later centuries. It makes sense then, that the places of worship were also renamed.
There are also quite a few 'Hexensteine, -sitze, -bänke' (witches' stones, seats, benches) retained in Bavarian folk memory and folk lore, mostly referring to significant stones in the landscape. Obviously the Bethen cult was in some cases absorbed into the greater and later cult of Mary, the mother of Christ, in other cases it was downgraded into plain witchcraft. In one way or another, the Bethen were gradually replaced after the late Middle Ages.
In spite of this, the Bethen are still remembered in the names of important Christian pilgrimage sites like Betbrunn or Bethenbrunn (Bethen-well) or Maithenbeth (maiden?). There are numerous landmarks still bearing a name containing the syllable 'bet' this is also true for single Bethen, for example at 'Einbettl' (after Ainbeth), a settlement near Leutstetten. This also shows that the three Bethen were recognized as individual personalities, not just a group of three as the 'Matronae' who will be discussed later, or the Genii Cucullati.
A Mother Cult?
In Bavaria, there is the almost died-out custom of three disguised women known as 'Berchten' moving in procession through the village on January 6th (Epiphany) or the evening before. This is also the day when 'C+M+B+2004' (CMB with crosses between them and the date of the new calendaric year) is signed with white chalk above every door of the house. In general understanding this means 'Christus Mansionem Benedicat' (May Christ bless the house), some authors point out that CMB are also the first letters of Catherine, Margaret and Barbara, the later Christian names of the three Bethen. Be that as it may, it is at least interesting that three women appear on January 6th and that 'Berchten' is linguistically not very far from Bethen. Berchta is the Southern Germanic deity personificating the land and patroness of mothers. In Northern Germany she is called Hulda.
There seems to have been a connection between the Winter Solstice and the goddess of the land, because the Venerable Bede calls Christmas in his Historia Ecclesiastica 'Modranecht' (mother’s night). This and the appearance of the three 'Berchten' during the twelve holy nights hints at that our ancestors did not only worship the reborn Solstice Sun at the time of the Winter Solstice, but also his mother, the Earth Mother, and that she appeared in three aspects:
Some authors try to establish a link between the Bethen and the 'Saligen' or 'wild women'. The Saligen are nature spirits, living in the mountains of the Bavarian, Austrian and Swiss Alps. Sometimes they help humans with their work, but if one calls them by their names or offers them clothing, they disappear and never come back. In this, they behave very similar to the dwarves and house spirits of the Germanic tradition. The Saligen are clearly not deities and to my knowledge never appear in three. I don’t see a connection between them and the Bethen.
In the Rhine area of Germany, in the former Roman provinces of Germania Superior and Germania Inferior, there is a female triad rather similar to the Bavarian Bethen. They are called 'Matres' or 'Matronae' (mothers), in rarer cases even 'deae Matronae' (mother goddesses). They always appear in three and are usually depicted with chalices, stalks of grain, baskets of fruits and other agricultural products. There are also depictions showing sacrificial acts and trees, hinting at the fact that like the Southern German Bethen, the Matronae were especially venerated in locations with trees and/or wells. Votive stones to the Matronae have been found everywhere between the Alps and the North Sea, but the cult center was in the Rhine valley around the city of Bonn. Below the altar of the cathedral (Münster) of Bonn there have been found 36 votive stones dedicated to the Matronae. In the Rhine area 1,300 inscriptions referring to the Matronae have been catalogued until 1987.
From their attributes and the fact that votive stones to the Matronae were in most cases dedicated by women, historians say that the veneration of the Matronae shows features of a fertility cult. This corresponds fully to the folk customs of the Alpine regions where women whishing for a child visited a Bethen stone. In some locations this practice continues to the present day.
The Matronae are provincial Roman deities, consisting of local Celtic and Germanic roots and a Roman interpretation, an 'overcoat' so to speak. There unusual names like 'Matronae Vacallinehae', 'Matronae Alafherviae' or 'Matronae Fachinehae' show their native roots, referring to people or places in native languages.
The Germania provinces were home to both Celtic and Germanic tribes, in most cases the Romans couldn’t tell who was who. The Matronae worship can‘t be limited to Germanic peoples or Celts, but belonged to both.
Unlike the Bethen, the Matronae are never known individually by a personal name, only collectively as triad.
Why are the Bethen three?
There are several theories to that.
One theory says that the Bethen are personifications of Sun, Moon and Earth, expressing the triad of heaven, earth and underworld. This is difficult. The Celts certainly watched the Sun and the Moon, but it is not to expect that they interpreted the Earth as a planet, nor that they knew the exact planetary movements. Moreover, there are no direct links between single Bethen and one of the planets. The according symbolism is lacking.
Another theory says that the three Bethen represent the three stages in the fertility cycle of a woman. White is the state of the maiden, red (blood) is the state when a woman is able to have children, while black is the state of the old woman beyond her fertility. This would link the Bethen to the classical neopagan triad of 'maiden, mother and crone'. If we look at the imagery of the Bethen, we don’t notice a difference in age between them. But they are indeed very often depicted with clothing in white, red and black. In most cases they wear mantles in these colors, in other cases some kind of cloth or scarves.
The cycle maiden, mother and old woman would also correspond with the yearly agricultural cycle of growth, harvest and bare fields. We know that the Celtic fire festivals are agricultural in nature. The Celts had a thorough understanding of all aspects of the wheel of the year because their survival depended on the crops. This way, the Bethen could symbolize the eternal natural cycle of becoming, being and vanishing, the cycle of life.
The Austrian author Georg Rohrecker gives an interpretation of the colors as follows:
white – becoming, waxing – sunrise
red – fertility, being in full blood – midday
black – waning, going down, being at home - nightfall
Unfortunately the first depictions of the Bethen in these colors date from the high middle ages. There is no way of telling if the colors are an invention of medieval artists or if they are indeed rooted in the pre-Christian past.
The Coming of Christianity
Obviously, it took rather long to adapt and adopt the Bethen into Christianity. In the rules for a good Christian confession contained in the 'Decretum Collectarium' of bishop Burchard of Worms (d. 1025 CE) it is mentioned that 'certain women lay out a table with food and drink and three knifes for the three sisters'. The first depiction of the three Bethen as saints is dated from 1127. It is in the church of Wielenberg near Bruneck, Pustertal, Southern Tyrolia, Italy. From then, the Bethen seem to have become more and more popular saints until in the late middle ages popularity gradually shifted to Mary, under whose mantle many of the female aspects of Catholicism were (and are) gathered.
In their christianized version, the Bethen are St. Margaret, St. Barbara and St. Catherine. In Bavaria and parts of Austria they are known by the old folk rhyme
Margareta mit dem Wurm,
Barbara mit dem Turm,
Katharina mit dem Radl,
das sind die drei heiligen Madl.
(Margaret with the worm, Barbara with the tower, Catherine with the wheel, those are the holy three girls).
This refers to the attributes of the saints, which I will explain later. Dragons and snakes are often referred to as 'worm' in the languages of the Alpine countries.
They are also called the 'Holy Three Virgins' and as such Margaret of Antiochia, Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara were among the most popular Christian saints of the Middle Ages. All three saints are 'legendary' which means that they have never lived as human beings. The Catholic church has acknowledged this by taking Barbara and Catherine off the official list of saints (decanonizing) in 1969. I don’t know why Margaret remained on the list.
In the following there is a brief overview of the qualities of each of the three saints, complete with a very short summary of their legends.
St. Margaret of Antiochia
commemoration day: July 20
attribute: dragon, torch
patroness of farmers, virgins, for matters of childbirth and fertility
St. Margaret was the daughter of a pagan priest. She converted to the Christian faith and as her father noticed this, he brought her before court. The court ordered Margaret to be burned, but the fire didn’t harm her and so she was beheaded. Before that, the devil in appearance of a mighty dragon tried to lead her into temptation, but she did not give in.
St. Catherine of Alexandria
commemoration day: November 25
attribute: wheel, broken wheel
patroness of girls and women, scholars, craftsmen and all people who have to do with wheels
Catherine was the daughter of King Costus of Cyprus. Being of Christian faith, she was sentenced to death under the rule of Emperor Maxentius of Rome because she denied to do the customary sacrifice to the pagan gods. Her sentence was to be put to the wheel, but all wheels broke and Catherine was finally beheaded.
commemoration day: December 4
attribute: tower, torch
patroness of miners, the artillery, craftsmen, girls, prisoners and against lightning, fire and sudden death
Barbara was the daughter of a pagan father, Dioscuros of Nicomedia. He had her locked into a tower, where she was blessed by the Holy Spirit and converted to Christianity. As soon as her father found out, she was brought before the Roman prefect Marcianus who tried to force her to renounce Christian faith. As she refused, she was tortured and ordered to present herself naked on the marketplace. But clouds of fog covered her from the looks of the people. Her father then beheaded her, after which he was burnt to ashes by a lightning strike.
The legends are strikingly similar. Each of the three saints
• - lives in the zone of influence of Hellenistic culture
• - has a pagan father
• - converts to Christianity
• - is therefore brought before a worldly authority
• - declines to renounce the faith
• - is sentenced to death
• - the execution fails in the first instance
• - and is then completed through beheading.
Are the legends so similar because they have been purposefully constructed at the same time, in order to take the Bethen into the Christian boat? Does the father-daughter conflict has something to say? Do the beheadings hint at the Celtic head cult? Do the traditional connections between the continental Celts and the Hellenistic culture play a role? There are more questions than answers here.
The objects each of the saints is usually depicted with are symbols of their Christian legends. I doubt if these objects say something about the prior qualities of the Bethen as pagan goddesses. At the same time this cannot be ruled out with certainty. Dragon, wheel and tower were all known to the Celtic and Germanic peoples alike and it is not excluded that the Christian legends were constructed around the ancient attributes. Again, we don’t know. We have no depictions of the Bethen from Celtic times. In case of the Rhine area Matronae these attributes do not show up.
Each of the three saints has at least one connection to the female. Margaret is patroness for childbirth and fertility, Catherine of girls and women, Barbara of girls. Beyond that, there is no evident connection to female mysteries.
In Germany’s Rhine area where there is a stronger Roman heritage than in Bavaria, the holy three maidens are also referred to as 'fides, spes, caritas' (faith, hope and love). I think this was a simple renaming of the three Bethen/Matronae in order to be able to keep their veneration under the roof of the Christian church. An intended personification of abstract Christian virtues is unlikely. Instead, somebody well known to the people, the Bethen, were taken and 'christened' through the application of the names of three Christian core principles.
In this context it might be interesting to take a short look at other Christian triads:
mother of St. Mary
commemoration day: July 26
patroness of mothers and marriage, housewifes, widows, craftsmen, for a happy marriage and childbirth
St. Anne was the mother of St. Mary and thus the grandmother of Jesus. The cult of Anne reached its zenith in the late Middle Ages. In 1484 she was officially admitted into the Roman calendar.
As 'Anna Selbdritt' ('selbdritt' - Middle High German 'as three') St. Anne is depicted together with St. Mary and the child Jesus. Here, the classic child-mother-old woman triad exists! It is interesting that in Bavarian folk legends the child Jesus often gets mixed up with with a little angel, who is understood as girl with long blonde hair.
That St. Mary in these images is usually not depicted as mother herself, but with long and open hair (sign of a young unmarried maiden) can be attributed to the rules of medieval religious imagery. The role of St. Anne as a saint would not have allowed to depict her as old woman. So in order to make the triad 'work', Mary had to be 'reduced' in age instead.
St. Anne is the archetypical mother and therefore the patroness of mothers, marriage, childbirth and all related matters. Her motherhood is much more emphasized than in case of the three Bethen, who are never depicted with children and who were later understood as 'virgins'. Because of her archetypical motherhood, St. Anne is sometimes said to be the Christian saint corresponding to Isis.
The Three Marys
In medieval paintings, there are sometimes depictions of three women standing together in a group who are known as 'the three Marys'. They are known from the New Testament (Matthew 27, 56 Mark 15, 40 John 19, 25) as Mary Magdalene, sister of Lazarus and Martha, Mary, the wife of Kleophas and Mary, the wife of Salomas.
While Mary Magdalene is known from the gospels as redeemed sinner, the other two Marys are legendary, i.e. only known from non-biblical legends, where they are said to be half-sisters of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The three Marys are widely unknown, even to practising Catholics, and if they ever had a cult of their own, its meaning has been lost. There is no visible connection to the Bethen.
The Bethen Today
The Bethen are forgotten in most places today. The only exception are some remote Alpine villages, where an image of the Bethen is still carried in procession over the fields and where women wanting a child still visit a Bethen stone.
There are efforts especially by feminist groups to revive the cult of the Bethen. Representative for those groups is the author Erni Kutter (see bibliography). These groups claim that the Bethen carry features of the Great Mother goddess who was venerated in the originally matriarchal societies across Europe. The female mysteries were then suppressed with the upcoming of male dominated societies and totally eradicated with the arrival of Christianity. Thus, these groups say, the Bethen represent the suppressed original matriarchy and their worship would be an act of female liberation.
I acknowledge the existence of gender mysteries, but doubt that the Bethen cult was originally reserved to women. If the Bethen incorporated aspects of the goddess of the land, they did so for everybody.
First Summary: Are the Bethen Aspects of the Earth Mother?
It depends on how you look at the evidence. There are similarities between the Bethen, the Germanic 'Berchten' and the Roman-Celtic-Germanic Matronae speaking in favor of this theory.
On the other hand, Christian saints modelled to replace pagan deities usually carry on some of the aspects of the deity. The mother role in medieval Christian imagery and symbolism is already given to St. Anne. And none of the medieval depictions of the Bethen include attributes that are usually given to mothers in the widest sense. Any reference to Earth (fruits, harvest etc.) is missing as well.
On the picture of the Bethen in the Leutstetten chapel they carry two books (wisdom, the word of god), two palm branches (martyrdom) and two arrows (?). An arrow is not a symbol of motherhood and the Bethen have no obvious connection to the hunt or to war. What are those arrows standing for? Arrows struck people suddenly and unforseeable. Could they be a symbol of fate?
Sisters of Fate
Another context where three women repeatedly appear as a group in different mythologies is 'fate'. In many cultures and spiritual traditions we find that the matter of 'human fate' in the sense of destiny, of past, present and future, or more precise of birth, life and death, is ruled by three female deities.
- The Hethites have the Gul-shesh or Gul-ashshesh, goddesses of fate, manifesting mostly as more than one person and deciding over life and death, sending good and bad things. They have power even over other deities.
- The Greek have the Moírai (Gr. moíra - fate), a group of three fate deities who deal out to humans their fate. They are daughters of Zeus and Themis. They are Klothó, who spins the thread of life, Láchesis who measures it and Átropos who cuts it, meaning death. The Moírai are controlled by Zeus.
- The Romans have the Parcae (Lat. parere - to give birth). In earlier times Parca (singular) was the goddess of birth, later she developed into three goddesses of birth and fate, dealing out to every mortal his or her fate, luck, bad luck, death.
- In the Germanic tradition we have the three Norns (Nord. norn - the whispering one). They are goddesses of fate and midwifes. They spin the thread of fate (life) for humans and gods. They are Urd (past), Verdandi (present) and Skuld (future). They live next to the Well of Urd (the well of fate) beneath the world tree Yggdrasil, watering its roots. To their well ride the Aesir to hold court, for even they are subject to the goddesses of fate and time.
In Southern Germany they are called 'Heilrätinnen' (advisers of hail, welfare), in Northern Germany 'Metten' (from 'messen' - to measure out), in Tyrolia they are the 'Gachschepfen' (Tyrolian 'gach' - suddenly, quickly) those who bucket (from the well) suddenly. This name would connect them to the wells at which they were worshipped, including Leutstetten. 'Advisers of hail' shows that the Norns were not only feared and appeased, but also asked for advice.
- The only Celtic deity immediately linked to fate is the Morrigan. She is either one of a triad of sisters, or is the name of the triad as a collective group. In the earliest copies of the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the three sisters identified with the Morrigan are Badb, Macha, and Anann.
The first is usually identified with the raven and battle, a goddess of war and of fate, deciding who lives and who dies on the battlefield. Macha is the archetypical Celtic horse goddess (standing for sovereignity). Anann (Anu, Danu) is the mother of the land, but also the mother of gods and goddesses. Thus, the Morrigan triad is standing for central aspects of Celtic life: battle, sovereignity and the land.
The Badb aspect later changed into Medb, the Washer at the Ford.
In a nutshell, one of the three aspects of the Morrigan is a fate aspect, but reserved for warriors.
There are other Celtic deities incorporating aspects of fate like Taranis, the turner of the wheel and Brighid, the midwife and healer. But we are looking for triads here and to my knowledge Celtic religion did not have a triad of female deities ruling exclusively over fate (similar to the Germanic Norns). Moreover, it is unlikely that the Celts had an abstract concept of fate (in the sense of destiny) at all.
Second Summary: Who are the Bethen?
It is impossible to give proof if the Bethen are of Celtic or Germanic origin, if they are aspects of the Earth Mother or sisters of fate. All theories have some evidence speaking in favor of them. But that doesn’t matter as much as it looks in the first place.
The Earth Mother rules over the land. The land nourishes the people, the more so in an agricultural society as that of the Celts, whose survival depended on the harvest, the breeding of livestock and the hunt. If the land yielded not enough provisions, the people hungered and sometimes even starved. There is a direct causal link between the land and fate.
The concept of fate is expressed more immediately in the fate deity triads mentioned above. Here, fate is handed down directly by deities to humans. In the end, the topic of fate and survival is inherent to both the Earth Mother and the fate deity triads.
A History Without Breaks
The Celts settled in Bavaria for about 800 years. Then came the Romans. The breakdown of the Roman Empire enabled Germanic tribes to move into lands that were without military protection, but not without people. The previous Romano-Celtic population was integrated, not extinguished. This eclectic mixture of Romano-Celtic, Roman and Germanic inhabitants was then shaped into the Bavarian nation through the erection of a common political and military rule by the first Bavarian dukes of the Agilolfinger family around 550 CE. The ruling family converted to the Christian faith rather soon, but as we can see from the mentioning of the 'three sisters' by bishop Burchard of Worms at the end of the first milennium, certain beliefs rooted in paganism remained and were practised in the population for many centuries to come.
The history of the Bethen is a history without major breaks. Looking at the Matronae, we can safely assume that a triad of goddesses ruling over the land (and over fate, subsequently) was known to Celtic and Germanic tribes alike. Then came the Romans, who normally left local religions more or less intact. I would expect that the Bavarian tribespeople following after the Romans took over some of the sacred places and maybe some of the locally venerated deities as well. During the Christianization of Bavaria, the Bethen survived again and made another transition to Christian saints. This shows some of their importance, since the Christian church took great efforts to integrate the Bethen into the ranks of the saints, even together with some of their sacred places.
This way, the Bethen survived thousands of years. From the late middle ages on, their cult gradually declined, but as we have seen there are still villages in the Alps caring for their special relationship to the ancient goddesses of the land. Moreover, the Bethen are being rediscovered by a growing number of pagans in their quest to reclaim the spiritual heritage of their countries.
It is certainly possible to draw different conclusions from the material presented, but one thing is sure: The Bethen are a regional form of our common European pre-Christian heritage.
Martin Bernstein, Kultstätten, Römerlager und Urwege, 2000
Hans Haid, Mythos und Kult in den Alpen, 2002
Erni Kutter, Der Kult der drei Jungfrauen, 1997
Römer zwischen Alpen und Nordmeer, Katalog zur Landesausstellung des Freistaates Bayern, 2000
Georg Rohrecker, Die Kelten Österreichs, 2003