The Three Holy Maidens Barbara, Margareta and Katharina are by no means the only triads of holy virgins or women who can be found in the popular Catholic belief.
We also know of three virgins who came in the train of Saint Ursula from Rome to Strasbourg and tended the dying Saint Aurelia. They are called Einbeth, Earbeth and Wilbeth, or sometimes Aubert, Cubert and Quere. They are believed to protect against the plague. They are known in Southern Germany, in Austria, in Southern Tirol. In some places like Schildthurn in Niederbayern pilgrimages are still held in their honor. Although the tradition locates the story in the early fourth century, the tradition of Einbeth flowered in the 12th century, and 13th century she has been associated with two other virgin saints like Wilbeth and Worbeth, or Wilbeth and Earbeth.
It is notable that the names of this triad grouped around Einbeth show a large variety. The cult of Einbeth and her accompanying virgins shows that the cult of Saint Ursula and the 11000 virgins which seems to have emerged from old traditions since the 10th century was in full bloom in the 12th century, so that it could attract the legends which belonged to other, presumably more local cults. The Virgines Coliniensis were known widely in Christian Europe, even in far-off Iceland. They strongly influenced the poetry of Hildegard of Bingen, and even Geoffrey of Monmouth has worked their story into his Historia Regum Britannie.
Another triad of virgins, Bertilai, Eutropia and Genovefa, was formed in the 17th century, but remained restricted to the area of Limburg and Brabant with Zeppern as the center of their cult, and a great part of the chapels was erected no sooner than the 19th century .
The triad of saints known as the Three Marys however is older and more widely spread. We know about the Three Marys whose relics were raised in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Provence and whose cult spread through the whole of France in the 15th century, and reached finally the Rhineland .
Another famous triadic grouping which is found often in art is that of Mary with infant Jesus and her mother Anna, “Anna Selbdritt” as this motif is called. Often this group of grandmother, mother and child was enlarged by St. Emerantia who is according to tradition the mother of Anna, and now we see the female triad completed again: grandmother, the great mother and the virgin daughter with the divine child .
Furthermore, a female triad comes into being if we enclose St. Catherine who is sometimes depicted as having a ring put onto her finger by infant Jesus who is sitting on Mary’s knees. Enlarged by Anna, we find again, grandmother, mother and bride of Jesus, as seen in the image of Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) showing the holy family .
Next to these triads of saints we have the folk tradition of the Three Virgins who have no name, but are in folklore often said to have been rescued in a miraculous way. Moreover, there are women who were called Heilrätinnen (advisors on healing) who appear in Bavarian folklore. Interestingly, Matthias Zender reports about a cult of Three Virgins that was located close to some burial mounds near Basel and which has been brought into connection with Ursula and the 11000 maidens.
We see in all these triads a never ceasing joy to form triads of holy or divine female characters which finds its parallels in the pagan past which also knew triads of divine characters. These triads however were not limited to female divine characters, and in the lands where the Celtic languages prevailed we find a real triad-mania grouping everything into triads.
Female triads abound in the culture of Europe (though they are not limited to Europe). We know the three Graces, the Muses (3×3), the three Eumenides from the Greek mythology. In northern Europe the best known in the countries of Germanic language are certainly the Norns, the swan maidens in the Völundar Saga, the nine daughters of Ran, and of course the three Wise Women of many a fairy tale. In the Celtic area we find in Ireland the three great Queens of Ireland, Badb, Macha, Morrigan, the 3 Brigids, the nine maidens guarding the cauldron of Annwn who appear in Welsh poetry. Last but not least I want to mention the Matronae or Matres whose cult was rooted in the Gallo-Roman area, and who are depicted as triads. It has been suggested that the triads of female saints have developed from those pagan triads of deities, based on analogy and the assumption of a tradition carried on into the Christian time. However, except for the evident analogy of the triadic motif a direct continuity of figures or names could not have been proven so far.
I do not want to go into this discussion of continuity. This is not my field of research, and I have to leave this field to others who may search for new unequivocal evidence.
When I was a girl, it was not of importance for me to know about continuity, and I think it was not the main issue of my grandmothers to think about how far the tradition reached back. Most important for me was the experience to find a female face for the divine, a virgin whose token were spring blossoms opening in the middle of winter. The cult of the virgins, of Mother Mary, the Holy Family manifests that there has been a strong desire, a need to give the divine a female face. This face or better these faces mirrored the main aspects in the life of a woman: the bride or virgin, the mother, and the old wise women who had experienced pain and become wise in the storms of life. They mirror the experiences of women in society, in life. I know when my grandmothers prayed the rosary, the joyful, the glorious and the one full of woe, they had just this in mind. The stages of the life of Mother Mary seemed to mirror the stages in their own life. We experience women in those roles which are central to our lives, for the mother gives life, the bride brings joy and the old one wisdom which often has sprung from suffering- and so we give those faces to divine feminine. We will find those faces always, for they are bound to our life-experience. It is one of the secrets of many faiths/religions that woman or man may experience the divine not (only) as something remote and separated from our human existence, but intimately linked to our own life, to our own experiences. So if the modern worshippers of the Goddess say they find the Goddess in themselves, it is true in this that if we give the divine a female face, it carries the face of all women and their experiences and it is rooted in our humanity – always.
I want to close with verses from Hildegard of Bingen’s antiphon for the Virgins:
O pulcre facies
Et in aurora edificantes,
O beate virgines,
Quam nobiles estis,
In quibus rex se consideravit
Cum in vobis
Omnia celestia ornamenta
Ubi etiam suavissimus hortus estis,
In omnibus ornamentis
Looking onto God
And building in the dawn,
O happy Maidens,
How noble are you,
In whom the king contemplates himself
When he elected in you all the heavenly adornments,
Where you are the sweetest garden, too,
Enjoying in all adornments.
Read part 1.
Diers, M. 1998. Hildegard von Bingen (Deutscher TaschenbuchVerlag, München).
Gorys, E.1997. Lexikon der Heiligen (Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, München).
Maier, B. 1994. Lexikon der keltischen Religion und Kultur. (Alfred Körner Verlag, Stuttgart).
Maier, B. 2003. Die Religion der Germanen (C.H.Beck, München).
Reeve, M. D. (ed.) Wright, N. (trans.) 2007. Geoffrey of Monmouth: the History of the Kings of Britain: An edition and translation of De gestis Britonum (Historia Regum Brittannie). Arthurian Studies. (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press).
Zender, M. 1959. Räume und Schichten Mittelalterlicher Heiligenverehrung in ihrer Bedeutung für die Volkskunde. Die Heiligen des Mittleren Maaslandes und derRheinlande in Kulturgeschichte und Kultverbreitung. (Rehinland-Verlag, Düsseldorf).
Weblinks to the images I mentioned in the essay: