The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves purports that mythological and psychological underpinnings of poetry derive from a prototypical Goddess worshipping religion. Graves was heavily influenced by the book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer. Graves felt that Frazer hinted at a primordial religion yet didn’t connect the dots. The White Goddess aims to decode goddess symbolism from classical literature creating a lexicon of the mythopoeic.
Graves reveals in this scholarly treatise that the source of all creativity originates from the worship of a supreme deity, the White Goddess. The White Goddess is equivalent to the Great Goddess discussed by anthropologist Marija Gimbutas in her book Living Goddesses. Graves compares and contrasts Greek, British and Irish literary accounts of muse invocation, and suggests that they are all variants of a supreme creatrix. The White Goddess is a revolting yet beautiful muse who inspires terror and awe; a “Belle Dame Sans Merci” pervading every true poem since the days of Homer. She and she alone inspires the all pervasive possession of divinity inherent in every great work of art as it is witnessed. “True” poetry inspires such spine tingling awakening of the senses. Graves discusses The White Goddess’ tripartite, fluctuating incarnations:
“As Goddess of the Underworld she was concerned with Birth, Procreation and Death. As Goddess of the Earth she was concerned with the three seasons of Spring, Summer, and Winter: she animated the trees, and plants and ruled all living creatures. As Goddess of the Sky she was the Moon, in her three phases of New Moon, Full Moon, and Waning Moon. The Triple Goddess…was the creatress and destructress. As the New Moon in the spring she was girl; as the Full Moon in Summer she was woman; as the Old Moon or Winter she was hag.”
The White Goddess is an exposé on European pre-patriarchal religious origins. Graves’ impassioned writing style is idiosyncratic and confessional; prose poems are interspersed with mythological interpretation. Graves’ seems to have been fallen under the White Goddess’ intoxicating spell given the the tone of his reverential musings. The premise of the text is that the Tuatha Dé Danann (people of the Goddess Danu) in the British Isles are descendants of displaced Greeks who encrypted goddess morphemes from Greek and Hebrew into Ogham-a 4th and 7th C CE Celtic language. Graves fashions his own archeomythological interpretational framework blending historical, mythological, archeological and linguistic analysis though according to his peers, unsuccessfully. His grandfather Charles Graves was an Ogham scholar who disagreed with Robert Graves’ linguistic interpretations.
Essentially Graves believed that all poetry was written by human males to worship the White Goddess in all her fecundity. Therefore women are not inspired to be creative in the same way that men are, from a place of sexual attraction and fear. Graves argues that women are the muse since they create life hence they don’t need to wax poetic as men do. It is unclear as to whether Graves believes women can be true poets or not. He does suggest that women write as women and not imitating men in order to be a potent poet.
Graves calls his interpretive methodology ‘iconotropic’ redaction. Iconotrophy: “the accidental or deliberate misinterpretation by one culture of the icons or myths of an earlier one, especially so as to bring them into accord with those of the later one.” Redaction is the critical study of texts. Graves’ critics accuse him of falsifying interpolation of literary material in The White Goddess. But by Graves own admission he is a poet and novelist, not a historian, archeologist or linguist.
Graves’ believes that every poetic education should begin not with the Iliad or the Odyssesy, but with the Song of Amergin, ancient Celtic verse reminiscent of Nag Hammadi Thunder Perfect Mind. I love Graves’ translation because it evokes Potnia Theron, Britomartis, Dichtynna, Mistress of Animals, Tiamet, Isis, M’aat, Astarte, Ishtar, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, Diana, Hecate, to the hybridized Mary, and Guadalupe; the many incarnations of the Great Goddess.
I am a stag of seven tines,
I am a flood across a plain,
I am a wind on a deep lake
I am a tear: the Sun less fall,
I am a hawk above the cliff,
I am a thorn beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?
I am a spear that roars for blood,
I am a salmon in a pool,
I am a lure from paradise
I am a hill where poess walk
I am a boar ruthless: ruthless and red,
I am a breaker threatening doom,
I am a tide: that drags to death,
I am an infant: who but I
Peeps from the unhewn dolmen arch?
I am the womb: of every holt,
I am the blaze on every hill,
I am the queen of every hive,
I am the shield for every head,
I am the tomb: of every hope
Graves reveals that in the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete, the stag and ox were sacred animals to the moon goddess Britomartis tying the Celts to Mesopotamian history. Graves approaches interpretation of medieval lore like a marvelous riddle to be solved. Sorting through mythic relics he manages to intrigue, and leave the reader with a wide array of interesting questions rather than simplistic answers.
The White Goddess reads more like a sacramental hymn to Her than a didactic scholarly work and therein lies its power. Like many sacred works such as the Bible, the Torah etc, The White Goddess has a moral and poetic authenticity despite historical fallacies and that is why it is an important book. The White Goddess was originally published in 1948 has been germinal to the the Goddess, Wiccan, Neopagan, and matriarchal studies movements.
© Zinlavu 2011. All rights reserved.