Tue
Oct 8 2013 2:30pm

Poetic Values of “Truth”: Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

The White Goddess Robert Graves Recently, I picked up a (terrible) book which referred to “the great classicist Robert Graves.” This is relevant, in its way, for while Graves is certainly a great poet and novelist, he is in no sense a scholar whose work can be trusted for its accuracy. (And therefore anyone calling him a “great classicist” is Officially On Crack.)

Rather, Graves approaches history and mythology as the Renaissance alchemist may have approached the work of creating the lapis philosophorum: convinced that the goal he has in mind is attainable from the material at hand, and disinclined to ever examine the goal in light of the evidence, he proceeds onwards with imperturbable conviction.

“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, and that this remains the language of true poetry.”

In The White Goddess, the imperturbable conviction is that before all the historically-attested religions of Europe there existed a matriarchal goddess-religion, involving a single great goddess and perhaps her lover/son; that this was a universal thing across all of Europe; that evidence for this was deliberately suppressed by “rationalists” beginning with the philosophers of Classical antiquity; that poets preserved elements of this religion -“ancient religious mysteries”—disguised in verse; and that these elements can be uncovered by any sufficiently determined learned “true poet,” viz., in this case, Robert Graves’ own self.

“I realized too,” says Graves in regard to the Hanes Taliesin, “that he [the poet] was hiding an ancient religious mystery—a blasphemous one from the Church’s point of view—under the cloak of buffoonery, but had not made this secret altogether impossible for a well-educated fellow-poet to guess.”

It is impossible not to admire the depth of Graves’ poetic self-regard. Akin to a conspiracy theorist of mythology, history, and language, he is convinced of his ability to see and to reveal hidden truths, prophet-like. Alas, to the person trained in historiography, when Graves uses words like “proof,” “reliable,” “evidence,” “must,” and “obvious,” the temptation to quote The Princess Bride is an overwhelming one.

Inigo Montoya

We can date the beginning of my desire to respond to Robert Graves’ magnum opus with gross and impolite mockery (I, clearly, in Mr. Graves’ schema, am no true poet) to the first page of the editor’s introduction, where Grevel Lindop, the said editor, makes this claim:

“It is tempting... to suggest that no one can fully understand the modern world who has not at least considered [The White Goddess]’s arguments.”

But my willingness to put up with Robert Graves’ poetic imagination of “How I Really Would Like History And Mythology And Poetry To Be” foundered entirely on page 125 and 126, when Graves connects the Irish Iron Age deity Crom or Cenn Crúaich with the Greek Herakles, and offers the following by way of explanation:

It is likely enough that this cult was introduced into Ireland in the reign of Heremon, the nineteenth King of All Ireland, the date of whose accession is traditionally given as 1267BC, though Dr. Joyce, a reliable modern authority, makes it 1015BC. Heremon, one of the invading Milesians from Spain, became sole monarch of Ireland by his victory over the armies of the North...

[There is a brief digression on the narrative of the Milesian invasion in legend here]

...If this account makes any sense it refers to a westward migration from the Aegean to Spain in the late thirteenth century BC when, as we have seen, a wave of Indo-Europeans from the north, among them the Dorian Greeks, was slowly displacing the Mycenaean ’Peoples of the Sea’ from Greece, the Aegean Islands, and Asia Minor.

At first glance, like so much of The White Goddess, this seems like a vaguely plausible statement. It has dates! It has reliable modern authorities! It has “as we have seen”! But my imagination is not nearly poetic enough—it is, perhaps, too “rigidly scientific”—to accept the nested sets of assumptions contained herein:

  1. Legendary myth-cycles or invasion accounts, like the Lebor Gabála Érenn, compiled in the middle ages, can be decoded and read as straight history of a Bronze Age past.
  2. That chronologies originally from oral traditions (such as chronologies of kings) can be used to produce absolute dates.
  3. (a) That large-scale movements of people from specific regions can be associated with the crisis at the end of the Bronze Age in the Aegean and Near East, and; (b) That Dorian Greeks were (i)both certainly a migrating thing and (ii)definitely part of this period
  4. That the eastern Mediterranean Milesian connection in the Lebor Gabála Érenn reflects something more than a medieval desire to connect Irish antiquity to the places known from the Bible and those Classical authors preserved under the umbrella of the Church’s learning.
  5. That deities at opposite ends of a continent with no direct connection (and indeed for one of whom, Crom Crúaich, very little is even known) are related and can be fitted into a universalising schema.

The White Goddess is full of such poetic logic, in which correlation may be taken to be causation; coincidence, connection; and assertion, evidence. Graves is well—one may say extensively—read in those areas which interest him, and presents for his reader a glittering array of anecdotes and allusions, quotations and passing references: but he has a poet’s disregard for analysis that takes place on any level other than that of metaphor and symbol, a fantasist’s egregious disregard for citing sources to support his conclusions, and a bad habit of cherry-picking examples and displaying them shorn of the context that might just problematise the uses to which he wishes to have them put.

As a work of poetic re-imagination of myth, it is a fascinating work. Largely unsupportable from our historic evidence, but fascinating. As a work of history, or linguistics, or mythography...

The White Goddess is not scholarship, being unconcerned with the doubt that lies at the heart of every good scholar’s work, the may and might and if-then which bridges the gaps between probabilities and data. (It is also on many counts just plain wrong.) It is, however, the very expression of the central thesis that lies at the heart of Graves’ poetry, his conviction of an enduring goddess, a Muse that speaks to him across history.

I cannot recommend The White Goddess as light entertainment. But if you’re fascinated by Robert Graves and/or interested to see where all those fantasies which posit (pre)historic matriarchies draw their inspiration, this is probably the book for you.

It is, at least, interestingly odd.

 

The White Goddess is available now from Farrar, Strauss, & Girroux.
Read an excerpt from the book here on Tor.com


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

15 comments
Mahesh Banavar
1. maheshkb
I have been reading Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. The book follows the structure of myth retelling, followed by interpretation and theories by Graves.

The retellings themselves are very well written. They are concise, easy to follow, and a pleasure to read. The interpretation and theory follow the same pattern you have mentioned in the article. There is also a heavy presence of the theory of how all cultures were initially matriarchies, and also on the migration of peoples.

I am not an expert enough in the area to comment on the accuracy of the theories, but to me it is a fun read.

This aproach to history and myths is one I have seen in the works of N. S. Rajaram as well. Rajaram is a mathemtician turned historian, who did some work on the Indus Valley Civilization. When I read his book,
Search for the Historical Krishna, the style was very similar to the style of Graves: not something I would like to see cited in journals, but a fun read for a non-expert like me.
mutantalbinocrocodile
2. mutantalbinocrocodile
Enjoyed this immensely, especially since, though I agree with you wholeheartedly about Mr. Graves, I unfortunately also agree wholeheartedly with the editor about the extreme extent to which The White Goddess has influenced contemporary culture (and a truly frightening number of common world history textbooks for grades 6-12), even though it is not meaningfully a work of scholarship.

Any chance you would be willing to name and shame the author of the "terrible book" who referred to Graves as a classicist? I really hope that at least it was fiction, but one can't be sure. I've seen Graves' "Pelasgian Creation Myth" cited as a source in a myth textbook published by a publishing house who really should have known better.
Liz Bourke
3. hawkwing-lb
Don't trust anything you read in The Greek Myths! Graves wrote from memory and his personal library while living in Majorca and didn't exactly check his work. Graves' Myths are deeply, deeply flawed and anyone looking for an introduction to Greek mythology is probably better off starting with the Oxford Classics edition of Apollodorus's Library of Greek Mythology and Jean-Pierre Vernant.

multantalbinocrocodile @2:

Gavin Menzies. Who has written a volume of immense crack and nonsense about Atlantis.
Clark Myers
4. ClarkEMyers
A book I found as enjoyable for the poetics and actually useful is
Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion now public domain.
Jenny Kristine
5. jennygadget
But if you’re fascinated by Robert Graves and/or interested to see where
all those fantasies which posit (pre)historic matriarchies draw their
inspiration, this is probably the book for you.

What you did there, I see it. :)
David Levinson
6. DemetriosX
Graves uses a technique that is extremely common among fringe archaeology/history types. He very calmly and quietly starts off with a couple of "if-thens" that point toward his desired conclusion and by the end of Chapter 1, the suppositions are treated as hard fact. At least he does usually tell you when he's using an extremely rare interpretation of a word or something, so you can usually tell when he's going off the rails. And, yeah, his Greek Myths are all over the place. I'm always astonished when he trots out some 10th century Byzantine version of a myth that bears absolutely no relation to anything written by anybody in the previous 15 centuries and declares it to be the oldest form which had been suppressed until well into the Christian era, because it fits his interpretation the best.

That said, he's certainly not solely responsible for the whole Europe-wide matriarchal society thing. Marija Gimbutas gave the whole thing a tinge of scholarly legitimacy through the 60s and 70s and before her there was Margaret Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (often cited by Lovecraft, but it is a real book).
mutantalbinocrocodile
7. Jennifer M
I mentioned this in the contest thread, but I'm going to say it again: heavy metal band Atlantean Kodex just released an album based on this book, also entitled 'The White Goddess". Vocals are clean and the atmosphere is beautiful and absolutely epic. If you're into this book (or you like epic heavy metal) it might be worth checking out - quite frankly, I think it's a phenomenal album. You should be able to find tracks on youtube, in particular I recommend the song "Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown (An Anthem for Europa)".

These posts and that album (as well as a casual interest in mythology) have pretty much assured that I will be picking this book up.
Derek Broughton
8. auspex
"...while Graves is certainly a great poet and novelist, he is in no sense a scholar whose work can be trusted for its accuracy. (And therefore anyone calling him a “great classicist” is Officially On Crack.)"

Doesn't that practically define "classicist"? Wikipedia, at least as reliable as Graves, says classicism: "...refers generally to a high regard for a classical period...". Which doesn't mean you actually have to be an expert, and most of the people I've heard described as "classicists" really haven't been expert.

But surely, Graves' magnum opus is not The White Goddess, but I, Claudius
mutantalbinocrocodile
9. Nic_C
"That the eastern Mediterranean Milesian connection in the Lebor Gabála Érenn reflects something more than a medieval desire to connect Irish antiquity to the places known from the Bible and those Classical authors preserved under the umbrella of the Church’s learning"

Quite. Ditto all the medieval British narratives that imagine Britain was founded by Trojans fleeing the Greeks after that horse business, or Arabic narratives that claim the Berbers of North Africa were descended from Goliath, etc etc.
mutantalbinocrocodile
10. lisajulie
The White Goddess is indeed mythology on crack, but for pure WTF-ery, try Graves' King Jesus. As a bonus, if you read it in airports or other public places, people leave you alone.
Tucker McKinnon
11. jazzfish
The White Goddess is full of such poetic logic, in which correlation may be taken to be causation; coincidence, connection; and assertion, evidence.
YES. It's just plausible enough, if you've already bought into it, to be taken as solid scholarship. Awful.
Gavin Menzies. Who has written a volume of immense crack and nonsense about Atlantis.
I am somehow unsurprised to find that Gavin "the chinese discovered america and caused the renaissance!" Menzies finds Graves's ideas intriguing and subscribes to his newsletter.
Constance Sublette
12. Zorra
Which is worse -- to follow and endorse the theories of Graves or to follow and endorse the theories of Joseph Campbell?
mutantalbinocrocodile
13. Eugene R.
hawkwing-lb (@3) - Jean-Pierre Vernant, an excellent choice, along with his colleague Pierre Vidal-Naquet.

ClarkEMyers (@4) - Jane Harrison, another excellent choice. Toss in her Themis: a study of the social orgins of Greek Religion and you pretty much have a great beginning grad course.
mutantalbinocrocodile
14. Andrew West-Burnham
I am sure you can not have read the book and the history behind it.
Sadly I do not feel there is much point in pointing out the many mistakes in your review, but would urge you to read again.
mutantalbinocrocodile
16. elsie katz
I have yet to read The White Goddess. I am working my way bit by bit through Robert's Complete Poems. His Goddess was inspired by a statue in Majorca where he lived. Of course it was all subjective, what matters to me as a poet is my awareness that it worked for him as an enabling myth.
I believe in Matriarchal Goddess worship, it ties in with Mary Mother of God.

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