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Robert Graves and the White Goddess.

The White Goddess by Robert Graves was first published in 1948. It has been in print ever since, and has recently appeared in a new edition, including many additions and corrections made by Graves but not included in earlier editions. This new edition is published by Carcanet as part of their Robert Graves program which will bring into print over the course of the next few years —several volumes are already published — the bulk of Graves’s writings (Carcanet suffered badly in last year's bombing in Manchester).

To celebrate this fiftieth anniversary, a conference on Robert Graves and the White Goddess was held in Manchester at the beginning of September 1998, which Asphodel and I attended. It was an academic conference, with some of the problems associated with such conferences; too many talks, so that we had to miss some talks (several of which looked interesting) to get some free time, and many speakers — fortunately not all — who simply read their papers without making any connection with the audience. As a former academic myself, I know that this is not necessary. But perhaps mathematicians are less likely to commit this behaviour, because our notes contain only salient points rather than a word‑by‑word account.

But it was also a Goddess conference, perhaps unexpectedly. Her presence was there. The participants, often without realising it, were Her devotees. Certainly nearly all the speakers mentioned their enthusiasm when they first read The White Goddess and their fascination with the hook ever since that first reading. And the printed programme began with Graves’s poem In Dedication:

All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo's golden mean
In scorn of which I sailed to find her
Whom I desired above all things to know

and ended with the poem Return of the Goddess

There were ten sessions, with three talks each (a very busy programme!) and a couple of special sessions. One of these was an excellent talk by Richard Perceval Graves, his nephew and biographer (his son, William Graves, chaired a session, but did not give a talk). He reminded us that the original text, a much shorter version known as The Roebuck in the Thicket, was written in a burst of inspiration during the writing of the novel The Golden Fleece. This novel already contained some of Graves’s ideas regarding the Goddess, but there are considerable differences between the way she was seen there and in The White Goddess. I have never been happy with the division into Maiden, Mother, Crone, as they do not (in their common interpretations) provide much space for the Goddess as sexually active — at least heterosexually. However, in The Golden Fleece the division is into Maiden, Nymph, Crone, which resolves this issue. There are some very funny passages in that book, when the priestess is unable to understand the new concepts of ‘marriage’ and ‘wife’. Richard Graves was asked about the criticisms of The White Goddess made by many people, including some pagans. He came up with the only possible answer, that the work stands on its own and will survive long after the criticisms are forgotten. I agree with this, but the hook is so exciting and important that many readers take it (despite Graves's own warnings) as entirely accurate factually, and people do have to be reminded that this is not so.

A talk on the different versions of The White Goddess, from initial idea to final version, was given by Robert Bertholf, of the State University of New York, Buffalo, which is one of the sponsors of the Robert Graves Society.

Grevel Lindop spoke on the sources of The White Goddess. There are five books that can be regarded as the main sources. Three are easily available — the Mabinogion (he used the translation by Lady Charlotte Guest, but there are several newer and better ones — the choice is a personal matter), Frazer’s The Golden Bough (a huge book, but there is an abbreviated one‑volume illustrated edition, which is convenient) with its theories about the dying and rising god, and Margaret Murray’s The Witch‑Cult in Western Europe. A fourth is the 1804 book, Celtic Researches by Edward Davies. The final one is R.A.S. Macalister’s The Secret Languages of Ireland. This sounds interesting; it was originally published in 1937, but there is a 1997 reprint, published in Northern Ireland, but (I gather) only available in the USA. One odd thing about this book is that its ancestry includes Charles Godfrey Leland, the author of Aradia, which is one of the classic texts of modern witchcraft.

Mary‑Ann Constantine, a Celtic scholar, spoke on his translation of The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu in Welsh). Many of us will know his version, but unless we have read The White Goddess we may not realise how much he altered it. Apart from questions of translation, he re‑organised the verses into a coherent form by creative inspiration, a method which is not recognised by the scholars. However, the text itself is difficult to translate, and obscure when translated. Anyone interested should look at two translations, one by Patrick Ford and one by Margaret Haydock, to see how much translations may differ. She also pointed out that the ogham alphabet originally only had five of its letters with tree names, and that the full tree alphabet used by Graves was a late development.

The talks about Majorca, where he lived for much of his life, were fascinating, both the descriptions of Majorca itself (a local tradition holds that near his home in Deya was the site of an ancient temple to the moon goddess), and the way the locals reacted to him. Until the television production of I, Claudius they saw him more as an eccentric Englishman than as an important writer.

Julia Simon, the last of his ‘Muses’ (when he was in his seventies and she was seventeen!) read the love poems he wrote to her. Her talk was called From White to Black, which refers to Graves' later emphasis on the Black Goddess rather than the White, a matter which was discussed by Bob Davis. It occurred to me that this contrast is well‑known to occultists. It is mentioned by Dion Fortune in several places; for instance, in chapter 5 of her novel Moon Magic, her hero, Vivian le Fay Morgan, says “Great Isis built up, the terrible Black Isis, the source of all power, … in a few seconds she would change into her beautiful aspect, which is so much more beautiful than anything which can he built under the symbolism of the White Isis.  Therefore we who have knowledge work with the Black Isis and transmute Her.”

There was a session on Feminism, Women Writers and The White Goddess. Rita Rippetoe gave examples of modern Goddess poetry — largely, but not entirely, that used in neo‑pagan rituals, and Alison Goeller spoke on the poems of H.D. (a fascinating but difficult poet — the talk was largely about her Helen in Egypt).

Asphodel gave a talk in this session entitled Challenge or Inspiration; The White Goddess in contemporary feminism and women’s studies. Much of her talk was about Goddess spirituality in theory and practice. This material will he mostly well‑known to our readers (the One and the Many, the Goddess as Sun and not just Moon), but some of the early history of the Goddess movement in the UK, and the work of the Matriarchy Study Group and its publications Goddess Shrew and Politics of Matriarchy, may not be so familiar. This was new to most of the conference participants, and was very well received.

She gave a number of quotations to indicate Graves’s importance to the Goddess movement. For Instance, Caitlin Matthews opened her book Sophia in 1991 (p. 15) by stating: “We live in an age of rediscovery and remembrance, where the Divine Feminine as Goddess is being recalled to consciousness. One of her key visionaries has been the poet Robert Graves whose book The White Goddess has awakened a sleeping world.” Exaggeration? Not really. In her 1995 book Living in the Lap of the Goddess, Cynthia Eller (p. 15) describes a reader saying that when she discovered The White Goddess it was the most exciting thing she had ever read in her life; and that “this wonderful lost tradition” made sense of her own previously not understood internal symbols and spirituality. She also gave quotations, mostly from academic writers, showing how The White Goddess is both praised and criticised, including one from Philip Shallcrass, druid and self styled priest of the Goddess, who speaks for many on both sides of the challenge. He writes: “My first step towards reverence for the goddess came in 1974 when I read The White Goddess. Graves is a fine poet, an unreliable historian and an idiosyncratic mythographer … despite its errors of fact and interpretation, The White Goddess remains an extraordinary work …”

She pointed out that Graves sees the Goddess as Muse, as being there for him, whereas women in the Goddess movement are reclaiming the Goddess for themselves and not for any man. She concluded with a poem that she wrote on hearing of the death of Robert Graves. This first appeared in Wood and Water (issue 17, Spring 1986) and is also on her Web site.

The last session contained two talks. The first was by Geoffrey Alvarez, composer and conductor, who has worked on a Goddess opera with text by the poet Ruth Fainlight. He discussed how the notion of the White Goddess could illuminate various works of music, including that of Mahler. This was too technical for most of us to follow, but was nonetheless inspirational. The final talk was by Thorn Moore, a musician and song‑writer from Ireland (he has his own CD, and has written songs recorded by Mary Black). He had intended to give a rather technical talk, very Gravesian in analysis, but decided to talk about some personal experiences instead. He finished by singing one of his latest songs (not recorded yet) about the Goddess, with the repeated lines “The Bright One says, the Bright One sings” — a fitting end to the conference.

I was left with both increased admiration for Graves and increased questioning of his vision. Graves states his Theme (p. 24) as “the antique story … of the birth, life death and resurrection of the God of the waxing year, his struggle with the god of the waning year for the love of the capricious and all powerful threefold Goddess — mother, bride and layer‑out” (the last‑named sometimes by Graves called the hag). The poet identifies himself with the God of the waxing year and his Muse with the Goddess; his rival, is his other self his weird. Graves’s Goddess is “a lovely slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face red lips startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair.”

In his novel Seven Days in New Crete (also known as Watch the North Wind Rise), he quotes from an old Scottish text about the Queen of Elfhame: “She will be auld or young whenas she pleases.” All this should imply that he would recognise the Goddess in the form of the Hag. Gawain did so (in the story of The Marriage of Sir Gawain, as Ben Wright pointed out in his talk The Goddess’s Instructions on Courtly Behaviour), and She appears in that form as the ‘sovereignty of the land’ in many stories, such as the Irish tale of Niall of the Nine Hostages or the ballad of King Henry (32 in the classic ballad collection, Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads — Gawain is number 31) or the Scandinavian Hrolf Kraki's Saga. But would Graves have responded to Her in that form as positively as the heroes of these stories did? I doubt it.

Also, Graves speaks of the contest between the God of the waxing year and the God of the waning year. But he identifies entirely with the former, and speaks very negatively of the latter in connection with himself and his muse. To me, a full connection with the Goddess for a man requires identification with both of the Gods at different times. (Added 2005 — I had intended to write more about this at a later time, when I had gathered together more of my thoughts and feelings. However, as is common with me, this turned into one of my stories, Johnny Faa’s Indictment, rather than an article.)

Wood and Water 64, Autumn 1998
© Daniel Cohen


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