The White Goddess

My 14yo asked me to hide the cover
The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, by Robert Graves

Oh, wow.  I could talk about this fabulously nutty book all day!  I had no idea when I picked it up what I was getting into.

The short version: Graves was looking for evidence of a European-wide goddess-worshiping  Ur-religion that he believed existed before all that male god patriarchy stuff came along.  He found his material in myth and poetry, and claimed that bards and poets disguised their lore by deliberately mixing it up.  All true poetry is based on the Triple White Goddess as Muse, and no monotheist can be a true poet.  Graves, being a true poet, realized all this through poetic intuition.

Now the long version: This is 500 extremely dense pages of speculation about myth, poetry, and ancient tribal movements, presented as plain fact deduced by intuition and research.  It's from the same school The Golden Bough, but Graves felt that Frazer hadn't gone nearly far enough.  And he goes very far indeed.  I'm not learned enough to be able to poke holes in the gigantic concoction of myth and cuckoo theory that Graves pours down on the reader's head, but from what I can find out, he was making most of it up.

The basis for much of this book is Graves' reading of early medieval Welsh poetry by Gwion/Taliesin in the Red Book of Hergest. Mind you, Graves cannot read Welsh; he is depending on a mid-Victorian translation that is admittedly a bit fuzzy. He then assumes that the poem is encoded to hide sacred mysteries, rearranges it, and finds what he wants to find. His authority to do this is that he is also a poet.  Out of this poem he digs a tree-alphabet and calendar, coordinated so that each month has a sacred tree, color, animal, letter, and number which can be arranged in a diagram around the entrance of a dolmen.  He does the same for the Middle East, sort of, switching trees to suit the climate.

One version of the diagram
As he does all this, he merges all the goddesses you've ever heard of into innumerable aspects of the Triple Goddess, who is the moon.  She is also five-fold and nine-fold--in fact there are few numbers and fewer animals that are not sacred to her and symbolic of some aspect of her.  Gods get the same treatment: Bran is Saturn (but not Cronos!), Arawn is Mercury, and so on, but eventually they are all condensed down into a twin-god that is the Goddess' lover and child.

Graves came right out and said that all his insight, the whole book, came from...poetic inspiration and intuition. He knows he's right about all of it because it all fits together, and also he set himself a riddle (the 666 one from Revelation) and solved it in a whole new way. Then he narrated a dream-vision he had in which two ancient Greco-Romans conversed about the meaning of the Pelops myth, Pallas Athena, and the Christian fish symbol.

That's the thesis, pretty much, of the book.  Graves wanders all over the place for his material, so it's a very diffuse book and I found it difficult to pick a clear argument out of all the stuff.   And just about everyone* read this book--a lot of them thought it was fabulous.  There are clear echoes of Graves'  White Goddess theories in a lot of 20th-century fantasy, and he was hugely influential in the whole area of Celtic lore.  Susan Cooper outright lifted some of the poetry for her Dark is Rising sequence.

Now, do not think that Graves thinks that the days of Goddess-worship were all peaceful and lovely.  No.  There was a lot of blood and killing.   But Goddess-worship is way better anyway, and Europeans, having some sort of genetic or cultural memory that has lasted millennia, will never be happy or satisfied until they go back to it.

Oh, and he's very irritating about quotations and attributions.  He tosses off all these statements but gives no proper attributions, so you can't  track them down.  Somewhere near the beginning, he quoted Giraldus Cambrensis' book on Wales--the one I just read--and the passage was familiar to me, but I couldn't find it without practically re-reading the whole book--and I knew which book it was!  Graves certainly didn't tell.  There are no footnotes whatsoever (a point of pride for Graves) and you're on your own if you want to find anything.

There are so many quotations that are just gold (often comedy gold), I can't put them all in.  You should see all the little sticky marks sticking out of my copy.  Here are a few:

It will be objected that man has as valid a claim to divinity as woman. That is true only in a sense; he is divine not in his singular person, but only in his twinhood. As Osiris, the Spirit of the Waxing Year he is always jealous of his weird, Set, the Spirit of the Waning Year, and vice-versa; he cannot be both of them at once except by an intellectual effort that destroys his humanity...and this is the fundamental defect of the Apollonian or Jehovistic cult. Man is a demi-god: he always has either one foot or the other in the grave; woman is divine because she can keep both her feet always in the same place, whether in the sky, in the underworld, or on this earth. Man envies her and tells himself lies about his own completeness, and thereby makes himself miserable; because if he is divine she is not even a demi-goddess -- she is a mere nymph and his love for her turns to scorn and hate.
Woman worships the male infant, not the grown man: it is evidence of her deity, of man's dependence on her for life. She is passionately interested in grown men, however, because the love-hate that Osiris and Set feel for each other on her account is a tribute to her divinity. She tries to satisfy both, but can only do so by alternate murder, and man tries to regard this as evidence of her fundamental falsity, not of his own irreconcilable demands on her.

 The result of the test [666 riddle] satisfied me, and I hope will satisfy others, that I had not slid into certifiable paranoia.
The revolutionary institution of fatherhood, imported into Europe from the East, brought with it the institution of individual marriage. Hitherto there had been only group marriages of all female members of a particular totem society with all members of another; every child's maternity was certain, but its paternity debatable and irrelevant. Once this revolution had occurred, the social status of woman altered: man took over many of the sacred practices from which his sex had debarred him, and finally declared himself head of the household, though much property still passed from mother to daughter. This second stage, the Olympian stage, necessitated a change in mythology.

 Hymns addressed to the Thunder-God [any male god], however lavishly they may gild him in Sun-god style--even Skelton's magnificent Hymn to God the Father--fail as poems, because to credit him with illimitable and unrestrained power denies the poet's inalienable allegiance to the Muse; and because though the Thunder-god has been a jurist, logician, declamator and prose-stylist, he has never been a poet or had the least understanding of true poems since he escaped from his Mother's tutelage.
...true poets do not find it consistent with their integrity to follow Virgil's example.

..woman is not a poet; she is either a Muse or she is nothing. This is not to say that a woman should refrain from writing poems; only, that she should write as a woman, not as if she were an honorary man...[she] should, I believe, either be a silent Muse and inspire the poets by her womanly presence...or she should be in turn Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd, and the Old Sow who eats her farrow...
The religious concept of free choice between good and evil, which is common to Pythagorean philosophy and prophetic Judaism, developed from a manipulation of the tree-alphabet. In the primitive cult of the Universal Goddess, to which the tree-alphabet is the guide, there was no room for choice...

*I do mean everyone, including the Doctor, since Graves calls time "an unaccountable wibble-wobble" !


  1. I have never read this, but much of my reading has been influenced by it. It would be interesting to go to the source, but I'll make do with your very entertaining summary and quotes for now!

  2. This books sounds very confusing. However it also sounds somewhat interesting, nevertheless I'm astounded that you were able to get through 500 pages of it. Like you, it does bother me when authors just expect us to believe them without any back-up or proof. It makes it harder to take the book seriously.

    Well, you have at least made me interested in reading this book. I have his bio Goodbye to All That, which I'd like to read first. It probably would help me appreciate him more.


Post a Comment

I'd love to know what you think, so please comment!

Popular posts from this blog

The Four Ages of Poetry

Ozathon #1: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz