The White Goddess

From Academic Kids

The author and poet Robert Graves' study of the nature of poetic myth-making, The White Goddess, first published in 1948, and revised, amended and enlarged in 1966, represents a tangential approach to the study of mythology from a decidedly idiosyncratic perspective. It proposed the existence of a European deity, the White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death, represented by the phases of the moon, who he argued lies behind the faces of the diverse goddesses of various European mythologies. In this work, Graves argued that "true poetry" or "pure poetry" has inextricable links with ancient cult-ritual of his proposed White Goddess and of her son. His conclusions were based upon his highly speculative conjectures about how religions formed, and there is no historical evidence that this White Goddess as he describes her was ever a feature of any actual belief system.

Graves described The White Goddess as "a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth." He was not joking. The book draws from mythology and poetry from Wales and Ireland through most of Western Europe and the ancient Middle East. Relying heavily on arguments from etymology, Graves argues not only for the worship of a single goddess under many names; but also that the names of the letters in the Ogham alphabet used in parts of Gaelic Britain contained a calendar that contained the key to an ancient liturgy involving the human sacrifice of a sacred king; and also that these letter names concealed some lines of ancient Greek hexameter describing the goddess.

The Golden Bough (1922) by Sir James George Frazer, is the starting point for much of Graves's argument, and Graves thought in part that his book made explicit what Frazer only touched upon. Graves wrote:

"Sir James Frazer was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death by carefully and methodically sailing all around his dangerous subject, as if charting the coastline of a forbidden island without actually committing himself to a declaration that it existed. What he was saying-not-saying was that Christian legend, dogma and ritual are the refinement of a great body of primitive and even barbarous beliefs, and that almost the only original element in Christianity is the personality of Jesus."
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Graves' The White Goddess deals with goddess worship as the prototypical religion, analyzing it largely from literary evidence, in myth and poetry. Instead of skirting the issue, as he accused Frazer of having done, Graves said what he meant, creating controversy that cost him some friends. The book was originally only read by scholars, but as interest in goddess-based religions increased since the 1960s, the public demand for books about the alleged roots of goddess worship has increased as well.

Joseph Campbell's books on mythology, and the ground-breaking television series he did with Bill Moyers, have created a whole new audience for books such as The White Goddess and When God Was a Woman (or, The Paradise Papers, 1976) by Merlin Stone, that explore the relationship between goddess-worship and Judaism and Christianity: how they began, what they have in common, and how they differ.

Graves openly considers poetic inspiration, or "analepsis" as he terms it, a valid historical methodology. This explains, at least, why Graves's goddess bears such a strong resemblance to his longtime lover and personal muse, Laura Riding. Anthropology and comparative religion had mostly discarded the turn-of-the-century mythmaking of The Golden Bough by the 1960s. The nineteenth century Aryan racial myth of how Indo-European speaking super-warriors, armed with horses, wheeled vehicles, and other superior military technologies, had conquered and displaced earlier people in prehistoric Europe, likewise fell into disrepute at this time. Without these underpinnings, Graves's argument becomes hard to sustain.

While Graves knew a great deal about Greek and Roman mythology and literature, his knowledge of Celtic languages remained rather superficial, and his analepsis guaranteed that he would find what he wanted to find in that literature. He readily states that he is not a medieval historian, but a poet, and thus based his work on the premise that "language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honor of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry..." Graves expresses anti-Semitism in his conclusion to the second and expanded edition, which blames the god of Judaism for much of the modern world's woes. Also, that women cannot function as poets and lack the capacity for true poetic creation, because woman's role in poetry remains exclusively to serve as a muse for a male poet who worships her as a goddess.

Still, Graves's vision appeals sufficiently to some, that it has kept its power to convince and to overwhelm. A simplified version of Graves's goddess religion has become the faith of dozens of fantasy novels, from the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mercedes Lackey to Graves's own Seven Days in New Crete. Whatever its flaws as a work of information about ancient mythologies and cultures, The White Goddess has now become the shared fantasy of hundreds of thousands of people; it may not reflect ancient mythologies accurately, but it remains a classic of contemporary myth-making.

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