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Feminism, Poetic Myth, and Alternative Culture:

An Homage to The White Goddess

by Nowick Gray

After the seventies I perceived feminism as a necessary political medicine, to correct certain male predominances that were cultural and historical; administered by women justly frustrated by such oppression, and abetted by sympathetic if outnumbered males in the name of good democratic values like liberty, equality, and, um, fraternity. My understanding of the breadth of myth was once defined by Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces; my appreciation of poetry slowly gleaned over academic years and subsequent candlelit visions in the wilderness; my knowledge of history spottily gained through a patchwork of courses, random readings, and dimly-configured folk wisdom. Now, after fifty years in a "modern" age on a rapidly denatured planet, I have run across a once-famous and now probably neglected book that has completely rewritten my understanding of feminist values, history, mythology, poetics, religion, and human culture.

Robert Graves wrote The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth in 1948. In its Foreword he sums up its central thesis and offers a challenge to the anti-poetic society which was sure to offer it a less-than complete embrace. He warns readers

... that this remains a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired, or rigidly scientific mind....My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age [before 10,000 B.C], and that this remains the language of true poetry--"true" in the nostalgic modern sense of "the unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute." The language was tampered with in late Minoan times [1500-1000 B.C] when invaders from Central Asia began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remodel or falsify the myths to justify the social changes. Then came the early Greek philosophers who were strongly opposed to magical poetry as threatening their new religion of logic, and under their influence a rational poetic language (now called the Classical) was elaborated in honour of their patron Apollo and imposed on the world as the last word in spiritual illumination: a view that has prevailed practically ever since in European schools and universities, where myths are now studied only as quaint relics of the nursery age of mankind.

More on this later. Graves turns his attention to the area of this vast subject that is closest to his heart: the function of poetry.

The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites....This was once a warning to man [Might it be said that truly man and not woman has always been most in need of the warning? - NG] that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family. "Nowadays" is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as "auxiliary State personnel." In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.

Strong words, earned by incredibly rich research and personal mastery of and devotion to the craft. Is there any need to delineate the various strands Graves holds to view in the light of what we might today call "alternative culture"? To mention a few in passing: the ecological, environmental battles fought for the sacred beauty and power of the old growth forests; a continued redevelopment of natural economies such as organic farming and permaculture; a revival of natural healing methods that earned former practitioners death at the stake; a new respect for tribal and aboriginal peoples and cultures, languages and mythological traditions; an appreciation of a multiplicity of musical roots rich in resonance with timeless rhythms that are primal-cosmic in their universality; a new spiritual liberty that values the core principles of conventional religions above their superimposed trappings, and brings insights from ancient, mystical and oracular wisdom teachings into play in the fabric of our everyday lives.  To these must be added, as well, the reclaiming by women and living of their own rich lives.

Graves is by no means a conventional thinker in any of the fields he overturns: he reverts with unflagging persistence to the original wisdom humanity discovered in its birth from unconscious nature. This alternative world-view is not simply obsolete, archaic, primitive, or irrelevant. It has merely been buried, suppressed, burned, conquered, displaced, censored, transfigured, co-opted, and consigned to the depths where yet it refuses to die: in the unconscious images of dreams, in folk traditions the world over, in the sacred mythopoetic craft, in natural subsistence economies. And in our instinctive connection to the natural cycles, from which we cannot divorce ourselves - however much certain forces of civilization might like us to try, so that instead we should be forced to pay our homage and material bounty to them.

To elaborate on the story of how this current state of affairs came about, Graves (387 ff) traces the evolution of the central poetic myth:

In Europe there were at first no male gods contemporary with the Goddess to challenge her prestige or power, but she had a lover who was alternatively the beneficent Serpent of Wisdom, and the beneficent Star of Life, her son. The Son was incarnate in the male demons of the various totem societies ruled by her, who assisted in the erotic dances held in her honour. The Serpent, incarnate in the sacred serpents which were the ghosts of the dead, sent the winds. The Son, who was also called the Lucifer or Phosphorus ("bringer of light") because as evening-star he led in the light of the Moon, was reborn every year, grew up as the year advanced, destroyed the Serpent, and won the Goddess's love. Her love destroyed him, but from his ashes was born another Serpent which, at Easter, laid the glain or red egg which she ate; so that the Son was reborn to her as a child once more. Osiris was a Star-son, and though after his death he looped himself around the world like a serpent, yet when his fifty-yard long phallus was carried in procession it was topped with a golden star; this stood for himself renewed as the Child Horus, son of Isis, who had been both his bride and his layer-out and was now his mother once again. Her absolute power was proved by a yearly holocaust in her honour as "Lady of the Wild Things," in which the totem bird or beast of each society was burned alive.

The most familiar icon of Aegean religion is therefore a Moon-woman, a Star-son and a wise spotted Serpent grouped under a fruit-tree--Artemis, Hercules and Erechtheus. Star-son and Serpent are at war; one succeeds the other in the Moon-woman's favour, as summer succeeds winter, and winter succeeds summer; as death succeeds birth and birth succeeds death. The Sun grows weaker or stronger as the year takes its course, the branches of the tree are now loaded and now bare, but the light of the Moon is invariable. She is impartial: she destroys or creates with equal passion....

There are as yet no fathers, for the Serpent is no more the father of the Star-son than the Star-son is of the Serpent. They are twins, and here we are returned to the single poetic Theme. The poet identifies himself with the Star-son, his hated rival is the Serpent; only if he is writing as a satirist, does he play the Serpent. The Triple Muse is woman in her divine character: the poet's enchantress, the only theme of his songs. It must not be forgotten that Apollo himself was once a yearly victim of the Serpent: for Pythagoras carved an inscription on his tomb at Delphi, recording his death in a fight with the local python--the python which he was usually supposed to have killed outright. The Star-son and the Serpent are still mere demons, and in Crete the Goddess is not even pictured with a divine child in her arms. She is the mother of all things; her sons and lovers partake of the sacred essence only by her grace.

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. It was not enough to introduce the concept of fatherhood into the ordinary myth, as in the Orphic formula quoted by Clement of Alexandria, "The Bull that is the Serpent's father, the Serpent that is the Bull's." A new child was needed who should supersede both the Star-son and the Serpent. He was celebrated by poets as the Thunder-child, or the Axe-child, or the Hammer-child. There are different legends as to how he removed his enemies. Either he borrowed the golden sickle of the Moon-woman, his mother, and castrated the Star-son; or he flung him down from a mountain top; or he stunned him with his axe so that he fell into perpetual sleep. The Serpent he usually killed outright. Then he became the Father-god, or Thunder-god, married his mother and begot his divine sons and daughters on her. The daughters were really limited versions of herself--herself in various young-moon and full-moon aspects. In her old-moon aspect she became her own mother, or grandmother, or sister, and the sons were limited revivals of the destroyed Star-son and Serpent. Among these sons was a God of poetry, music, the arts and the sciences: he was eventually recognized as the Sun-god and acted in many countries as active regent for his senescent father, the Thunder-god. In some cases he even displaced him. The Greeks and the Romans had reached this religious stage by the time that Christianity began.

The third stage of cultural development--the purely patriarchal, in which there are no Goddesses at all--is that of later Judaism, Judaic Christianity, Mohammedanism and Protestant Christianity. This stage was not reached in England until the Commonwealth, since in medieval Catholicism the Virgin and Son--who took over the rites and honours of the Moon-woman and her Star-son--were of greater religious importance than God the Father. (The Serpent had become the Devil; which was appropriate because Jesus had opposed fish to serpent in Matthew, VII, 10, and was himself symbolized as a fish by his followers.) The Welsh worshipped virgin and Son for fifty years longer than the English; the Irish of Eire still do so. This [patriarchal] stage is unfavourable to poetry. Hymns addressed to the Thunder-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.

Graves's erudite analysis leaves until too late the pregnant question in this reader's mind--What is the role of the woman poet, if the man's is but to sing her praises?

Hazarding a guess somewhere around page 400, it seems to me likely that, like the Goddess Natura herself, a woman as "true poet" would dispense graces and favors, rich samplings and tastes from her bounteous sources and stores, laughing innocently and mockingly by turns like a brook now warmly lambent, now icy--singing to herself or her creation (which amount to the same) in her own inimitably beautiful and haunting voice.

Graves comes to the pithy point himself on page 446, pronouncing emphatically that "woman is not a poet: she is either a Muse or she is nothing." Leaving aside the fury that this categorical presumption is sure to invoke in women listeners, there is room for expansion on the point: "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 be the Muse in a complete sense: she should be in turn Arianrhod, Bodeuwedd and the Old Sow of Maenawr Penardd who eats her farrow, and should write in each of these capacities with antique authority. She should be the visible moon: impartial, loving, severe, wise." Graves can be forgiven these prescriptive "shoulds" in the light of his observation of poetry by the women of his day, that it had the false ring of imitation of male poets.

Graves bases his sense of poetic rightness and obligation not on personal or simply male authority, but on an impression of the weak and tawdry spirit of our civilization, of the loss of our connection with a sustaining Nature, and the knowledge of an earlier culture which honored the organic bonds between society, nature and spirit, and between man and woman. In such times, he writes,

The poet was originally the mystes, or ecstatic devotee of the Muse; the women who took part in her rites were her representatives, like the nine dancers in the Cogul cave-painting, or the nine women who warmed the cauldron of Cerridwen with their breaths in Gwion's Preiddeu Annwm. Poetry in its archaic setting, in fact, was either the moral and religious law laid down for man by the nine-fold Muse, or the ecstatic utterance of man in furtherance of this law and in glorification of the Muse.

Where does this leave us in our ever-contemporary search for harmonious relationship between the sexes? Again, the mythic dimensions of archaic poetry remind us of the age-old organic bonds, rooted in natural forces and cycles. Graves puts it succinctly: "The main theme of poetry, is, properly, the relations of man and woman." The poet, the emblematic man, is blessed and afflicted with one certain destiny in service to the Muse. "For him there is no other woman but Cerridwen and he desires one thing above all else in the world: her love. As Blodeuwedd, she will gladly give him her love, but at only one price: his life."

In a modern relationship we can supply our own symbolism in the fleshing out of this truth; in primitive times the rite is most extreme, as is Graves's uncompromising edict (448): "No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red-eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, stamping out the measure of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward, with a monotonous chant of: 'Kill! kill! kill!' and 'Blood! blood! blood!"

To avoid such a fate the man today will denounce or turn away from poetry (as from the Nature that demands, in one way or another, such annual sacrifice) and settle for a mutually compromising domestic truce. Similarly, "the woman whom he took to be a Muse, or who was a Muse, turns into a domestic woman"--and like her agreeable mate, succumbs to the urbanizing temptation "to commit suicide in simple domesticity" instead of in orgiastic frenzy. This bleak judgment, however, is only the shadow side of a sensible and forgivable human fate: "If she makes him a good wife, why should he cherish the poetic obsession to his own ruin? Again, if a woman-poet can get a healthy child in exchange for the gift of poetry, why not?" A sense of humor, adds Graves, may yet save the day and put us in harmony with Truth and with each other.

But a grimmer fate remains for an entire civilization bent on a one-way divorce from the Goddess and her ravaged Creation. A radical religious change is necessary to restore the balance, but is ever more unlikely as it bucks the trend of public preference (481-82):

The Mother-and-Son myth is so closely linked with the natural year and its cycle of ever-recurring observed events in the vegetable and animal queendoms that it makes little emotional appeal to the confirmed townsman, who is informed of the passage of the seasons only by the fluctuations of his gas and electricity bills or by the weight of his underclothes. He is chivalrous to women but thinks only in prose; the one variety of religion acceptable to him is a logical, ethical, highly abstract sort which appeals to his intellectual pride and sense of detachment from wild nature. The Goddess is no townswoman: she is the Lady of the Wild Things, haunting the wooded hill-tops--Venus Cluacina, "she who purifies with myrtle," not Venus Cloacina, "Patroness of the Sewage System," as she first became at Rome; and though the townsman has now begun to insist that built-up areas should have a limit, and to discuss decentralization (the decanting of the big towns into small, independent communities, well spaced out), his intention is only to urbanize the country, not to ruralize the town....No: there seems no escape from our difficulties until the industrial system breaks down for some reason or other [Y3K, anyone?], as it nearly did in Europe during the Second World War, and nature reasserts herself with grass and trees among the ruins.

Neither Jehovah nor samadhi will save us, Graves asserts, in the forced absence of the Goddess. The ascetic and intellectual religious philosophies deny us the Goddess's blessings but not her ultimate vengeance at being scorned and forgotten too long. "The longer her hour is postponed, and therefore the more exhausted by man's irreligious improvidence the natural resources of the soil and sea become, the less merciful will her five-fold mask be, and the narrower the scope of action that she grants to whichever demi-god she chooses to take as her temporary consort in godhead. Let us placate her in advance by assuming the cannibalistic worst" (486).

Thus the poet, of the fate of men like wayward frogs, sings:

At dawn you shall appear,
        A gaunt, red-wattled crane,
She whom they know too well for fear,
Lunging your beak down like a spear
        To fetch them home again.


© 2000 Nowick Gray

Order The White Goddess from

mayan calendarFurther Reading...

Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 is in many ways a New World companion to The White Goddess. This is another impressive scholarly feat of research that makes sense of a wealth of archeological, linguistic, historical, astronomical, linguistic and mythological evidence. Its central theory concerns the Mayan calendar, explaining its prophetic power in the light of the whole history of peoples in the Americas, against the cosmic backdrop of the precession of the equinoxes.

The History of the World - an exploratory essay examining the current of history with an outlook to the future, in the light of the trend toward liberal democracy as shown in Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man.

Ishmael - the best selling novel by Daniel Quinn which contrasts the world view of the Old Stone Age (the "Leavers") with the destructive changes instituted by the "Takers" who have taken over the planet.

Untold Genesis - poetry by Paul Gagnon -

"the girl picks up a stone the size of her
fist and hurls it at the sky where it
splits the horizon in half.
the girl decides to name herself god.

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