The White Goddess: A Seminal Work in the Neo-Wiccan Movement.
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Posted: August 31st. 2017
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One of the most important works in the modern Wiccan movement is this complex book. It is the first book I bought on the path that led my spiritual curiosity to Wicca. I bought my now very tired copy at my college bookstore on a whim back in 1981 or 82. The title intrigued me. Who was this Goddess and what did she have to do with poetry? Some time later I put the book down with a half-baked notion of what the hell Graves was talking about. Much of what was between the pages went well beyond what my then 19-year-old self was able to understand.
‘A war of the trees?’ A universal Goddess of three aspects? Secret codes in poems?
Okay, I got the Goddess part. I wanted to write poems and had the usual romantic notions that guys with no clue about relationships have. Years later, a bit more mature and an initiate into a Wiccan circle, I read it again. I’d begun to understand a bit about the ideas of ritual magick, but still didn’t grasp so much of the work. Still, the book had an important place in my library of Wiccan reference.
It wasn’t until I read the Golden Bough by James Frazer that I knew I had enough of the tools to comprehend The White Goddess as a work. Keep in mind that Robert Graves never intended his work to be a cornerstone of so much of the beliefs of Wicca and Witchcraft. Graves was a classical scholar of the type that is very rarely encountered today. He was fluent in Latin, Greek, and a host of other languages and educated at a time when all serious academics were thoroughly grounded in Greco-Roman studies. His center and focus throughout much of his life were his writings about things classical and poetic.
Anyone reading the White Goddess needs to be aware of its purpose: to explain and expound on the language of poetry and poetic muse. To Graves, all muse is mythic praise of the three fold Goddess. Poetry is defined as writing that causes a deep reaction in the recipient. When you read his book you must start with the introduction. There Graves clearly explains what the book is about and it helps one from getting lost in the weeds as they read it. He challenges the reader to embrace poetic myth and a naturalistic lifestyle in harmony with the pulses of the seasons.
According to Graves, Poetry is magick. He feels that a poet shows his/her worship through the spinning of words in poetic form. As a lifelong passionate believer in the power of poetry driving his life, Graves presents a history of how past poets were preservers of myth and devotion and how history affected the role of the poet from the Pagan era through the 20th century. However the White Goddess goes far beyond merely explaining the mythic element in poetry. Graves sincerely believed that veneration and worship of the universal Goddess had existed in all cultures and She was worshiped under many names, including within Christianity in the form of the Virgin Mary and as a number of saints. He points out cases such as Irish Goddess Bridget where Pagan beliefs were incorporated directly into Christianity. Furthermore, Graves felt that a cult of Goddess worship existed hidden in plain sight amongst bards and hedge minstrels in the medieval era. He also clearly had read Dr. Margaret Murray’s, Witch-Cult in Western Europe and agreed with its central hypothesis of a Pagan anti-Christian sect existing from the end of the classical era into the 17th century CE.
Robert Graves' central thesis is that the Great Goddess was a singular figure, known under various names across the breath of Europe and classical reaches of the ancient world. All her worship is connected both in practice and often by name. One thing about reading Graves is that he certainly does a credible job of relating words and names across many archaic languages. The question is how often is he right or wrong about the linguistic connections he makes. In one particular chapter (Ch. 2 p. 58) , he is discussing the connections of the names Bran and Beli. In a single paragraph, Graves goes from Britain to Sumerian Goddess, to the Latin Bellus for “beautiful”. On face value the case he makes is impressive by connecting such a wide range and his knowledge of languages gave him tools that few could match to make his case.
My critique is that if one only reads sources rooted in European and classical sources of myths (Celtic, Greco-Roman, and near eastern Levant) his logic and word analysis sounds very convincing. It is well known that Roman civilization was fond of adopting Gods and Goddess from all over the empire and hybridizing worship under slightly Latinized versions. Being thoroughly immersed in this same world, it certainly follows why Graves so strongly felt that the Goddess was a universal one. However as soon as you move outside of these Eurocentric myths I don’t think his thesis valid. I spotted a number of things that seemed outright mistakes on his part. I won’t cherry pick my examples since that is an unfair way to treat such a monumental work and does not diminish the scope of its achievement. Just keep in mind that the White Goddess is imperfect and move from there. How one interprets Graves is more important than the errors a reader may find from time to time.
Robert Graves makes constant reference to the Golden Bough as a source of information, but comes to some very different conclusions. Personally I tend to side with James Frazier on many points. Also to give the detractors their due, the academic community has criticized him on his conclusions as well as his use of linguistic connections to make his case for a single Goddess cult. Graves’ own answer to these criticisms during his lifetime was to say he made the logical connection, and used his poetic intuition to take him the rest of the way to seeing all the different Goddesses as representing a single universal Goddess figure.
Graves is deeply indebted to James Frazer’s pioneering work, no question about it. Indeed he directly quotes from the Golden Bough in many places. The problem is that Graves sees a universal Goddess in the myth cycles of all Pagan Europe while those reading the Golden Bough (myself included) see no such thing. The difference between the two is that to Graves the central myth cycle IS THE GODDESS. Contrasting this, James Frazer’s Golden Bough says it is about the myths celebrating the natural life cycle with many different divinities fulfilling the role depending on local cultural background. In short, The Golden Bough simply states that there are many distinct local and regional cultures, not all are related and the common thread are the roles they play to worship the life cycle.
So why should a neo-Pagan, Wiccan or Witch read the White Goddess? Well first and foremost because there is so much to be gotten from its pages. The primary purpose of the White Goddess is to explore how poets use their words to make magick. If a person gets only this thing from the book and uses this to add that power to their circle casting and ritual working then I would say that is enough. However there is so much gold to be mined from its pages. How to use the tree alphabet, and the magickal properties of different trees taken from as close to a source material is an esoteric knowledge that others would find invaluable. Then there is the deep understanding of the Gods/Goddesses. There are so many names and myths to know.
Different people will get different lore that matters to them from the pages of this book. With all to know that the White Goddess has within its pages, a reader has but to gain from time spent here. Yes, I am certain Graves makes some mistakes with his conclusions and connections. His work is based on faulty and obsolete scholarship in places. However mythic lore is not a court of law or subject to scientific exactness.
Where the book really shines to me is when Graves turns from solving complicated name riddles and decoding mysteriously cryptic poems to simply explaining the complex mythic world he was so well versed in. He gives metaphoric names to the quest: dog, roebuck and lapwing. His names are from the mythic cycles where dog guards the secrets, roebuck leads the pursuing hunter into the thicket, and lapwing (we’d call it killdeer) hides true intent. From his knowledge of medieval bards and the British Celtic myth cycles (his father was a noted Celtic scholar) to his knowledge of the breath and span of the classical world, the man’s knowledge was breathtaking. What I got most from reading him was just how rich the mythic ancient world was. As Graves himself says, unless you know the larger mythic connection of so many of the classical stories, all you get are nursery tales of childish nonsense.
As for his hypothesis, his burden of proof is lower than a court of law. He makes a good case, and whether or not a reader accepts all his ideas; his devotion to his muse was as sincere as knowledge was vast. I found that the latter chapters of my edition were where he most clearly spoke to the Neo-Pagan and Wiccan audience. Read Chapters 22 to the end “Return of the Goddess” for the clearest expression of ideas to relate to. The hardest part is to keep your focus when he is trying to solve complicated myth connections and if need be, skim over parts where you bog down in his pedantic lecturing style. The book is a gold mine of mythic information. In fact I saw where a number of other modern writers had clearly read the White Goddess for inspiration of their own works of literature.
Another point very much a part of the narrative in the White Goddess is Graves’ belief that there was a battle of the God systems with the matriarchal Goddess worshipers being supplanted by the Patriarchal Gods over the course of the classical era. He constantly rallies against the distant dispassionate nature of the Patriarchal Gods (including the Jewish God figure) a great deal of this work is about ways that the two rival systems have clashed since classical times. This war of the genders comes across clearly in the pages of the work. It was (and still is) widely accepted within certain circles, even though the idea is not currently accepted within modern scholarship. Graves touches on a number of issues that are still hot button items in a number of topics. Indeed, in his view, the figure of Jesus is the only original thing about Christianity. He criticizes James Frazier for never having the courage to come out and say it. He points out that the Golden Bough clearly shows all of the religions myths of Christianity are based on what were well tried and true myths from other classical religions.
In reading his book, I studied the man a bit as well. I came to love the person of Robert Graves as I read his most cherished work. He was so taken with his devotion to his poetic Goddess muse. Outspoken is such a small word to describe him. Robert Graves was Iconoclastic, nonconformist, brilliant, and an utterly gifted writer and poet. He hated the rationalist, materialistic civilization of the 20th century he lived in. In a number of places he expounds on what is wrong with “modern” society. He lived life by his own rules and the rules of the natural cycles of life, being passionately involved with a series of romantic partners over the course of his life. Each inspired him in her own way. He didn’t appear to be what I’d call a feminist. Frankly he worshiped the feminine mystic, but not in a way that many modern woman would be comfortable with. In fact he says that, at points in their lives, all women are Goddess incarnate, passionate and a bit cruel.
The postscript of my eleventh edition was written in 1960 in which Graves adds a chapter in response to the legacy of his book. He makes it clear, he is not involved in any witch cults, nor secret societies, spiritualism or anything remotely related to these practices and has no interest in them. He then goes on to say what he does feel is wrong with society in his day. In his view (expressed metaphorically of course) , Zeus is absent from the throne and power shared by a troika of Apollo, Mercury and Pluto. The three powers: science wealth and theft rule the world of today. None trusts the other, but share rule of an increasingly autocratic world where nature is banished to distant quarters. He also goes on about the role of the established faith systems: Cynically he points out that the only reason why modern mainstream religions tend to adopt a “live and let live” attitude, is because the various strains of patriarchal faiths don’t have the power to inspire their followers to the same degree as they could in past times to impose their will on others forcefully. Truly he found modern society a Gordian knot, but was unwilling to commit to solving this dilemma of mainstream faith.
I wouldn’t call Graves a Christian, though he clearly admired Catholicism in how it venerated the Virgin Mary as a Goddess figure and was inclusive in incorporating many ancient practices venerating the Goddess. Also I found it odd that he makes no mention in his postscript chapter about the rise of modern Wicca. Clearly the traditional British Witches were out of the closet shortly after his book was first published in 1948 and he lived long enough to see the rise of Wicca into the 1960s and 70s while still in full possession of his physical and mental faculties. Nor did Graves realize that his muse was alive and well in another form. Realization of this came one day as I was pondering how to write this article and Al Stewart’s 1970s song “Year of the Cat” began playing on the radio. I realized he somehow missed turning on the radio to hear that the poetic magick was so much alive in his time. Nevertheless he did not feel a need to add to the White Goddess prior to his decline in late life. I wish he had.
His preferred home was Deia, on the island of Majorca Spain and when he died in 1985 was buried next to an ancient shrine to the Goddess he gave his life and fullest measure of passion to.
You chased me through your days,
I always a leap beyond,
My white horn your prize,
The hounds harried your heels,
Through bramble and thicket deep,
Eyes on the glimmer just out of reach, you never faltered
On false trails set before you
Back and forth like the fox pursued yourself by the hunt
Pressing at your heels.
At last I led you to my tree
Grasp the apple hanging low
Tired arms embrace my proud neck
Rest now at my feet,
And sojourn by my side.
Graves, Robert., The White Goddess: Historical grammar of poetic myth
Amended and enlarged edition.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
c. 1948, American Edition, amended and enlarged 1966, eleventh printing 1978.
According to Amazon’s listings, a more comprehensive posthumous edition is now available.
Copyright: c. 2016 A I Mychalus
Reproduction rights given for reprint in education, and nonprofitt purposes so long as author credit given.
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