A new edition of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth is available October 8th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux!
This labyrinthine and extraordinary book, first published more than sixty years ago, was the outcome of Robert Graves’ vast reading and curious research into strange territories of folklore, mythology, religion, and magic. Erudite and impassioned, it is a scholar-poet’s quest for the meaning of European myths, a polemic about the relations between man and woman, and also an intensely personal document in which Graves explored the sources of his own inspiration and, as he believed, all true poetry.
This new edition has been prepared by Grevel Lindop, who has written an illuminating introduction. The text of the book incorporates all of Graves’s final revisions, his replies to two of the original reviewers, and a long essay in which he describes the months of inspiration in whichThe White Goddesswas written.
Indian mystics hold that to think with perfect clarity in a religious sense one must first eliminate all physical desire, even the desire to continue living; but this is nor at all the case with poetic thinking, since poetry is rooted in love, and love in desire, and desire in hope of continued existence. However, to think with perfect clarity in a poetic sense one must first rid oneself of a great deal of intellectual encumbrance, including all dogmatic doctrinal prepossessions: membership of any political party or religious sect or literary school deforms the poetic sense-as it were, introduces something irrelevant and destructive into the magic circle, drawn with a rowan, hazel or willow rod, within which the poet insulates himself for the poetic act. He must achieve social and spiritual independence at whatever cost, learn to think mythically as well as rationally, and never be surprised at the weirdly azoological beasts which walk into the circle; they come to be questioned, not to alarm.
If the visitant is a Chimaera ( ‘She-goat’) for example, the poet will recognize her by the lion-head, goat-body and serpent-tail as a Carian Calendar-beast—another form of the winged goat, on which, according to Clement of Alexandria, Zeus flew up to Heaven. The Chimaera was a daughter of Typhon, the destructive storm god, and of Echidne, a winter Snake-goddess; the Hittites borrowed her from the Carians and carved her likeness on a temple at Carchemish on the Euphrates. Cerberus, a bitch miscalled a dog, is also likely to appear in the circle: a cognate beast, with the usual triad of heads—lioness, lynx and sow. The lynx is an autumn beast, apparently mentioned by Gwion in his Can Y Meirch, though he may be referring to the Palug Cat, the Anglesey Cat-Demeter: ‘I have been a spotted-headed cat on a forked tree.’
The unicorn may puzzle the poet. But the unicorn of Pliny’s description—which is embodied in the heraldic unicorn of the British Royal Arms, except that the horn is a straight white spiralmakes good calendar sense: it stands for the five-season solar year of the Boibel-Loth alphabet. The horn is centred in the Dog-days, and is the symbol of power: ‘I will exalt your horn.’ It stands for the E season, then beginning; as the head of the deer stands for the I season, in which deer were hunted; the body of the horse for the A season, at the beginning of which the October Horse was sacrificed at Rome; the feet of the elephant for the 0 season, in which the earth puts out her greatest strength; the tail (Ura) of the lion for the U season. The beast of the horn was originally, it seems, the rhinoceros, which is the most formidable beast in the world— ‘and who would cross Tom Rhinoceros does what the Panther dares not’—but owing to the difficulty of obtaining rhinoceros horn the long curved black horns of the oryx were in Pliny’s time fraudulently supplied by traders as ‘unicorn’s horn’. Pliny, who had the usual Roman dislike and mistrust of fabulous beasts and mentioned the unicorn as a genuine zoological specimen, must have seen such a horn. In Britain, however, the narwhal horn became the accepted type) because of its white colour and superior hardness and because it is curved in the spiral of immortality, and because the variously named God of the Year always came out of the sea—as Gwion puts it in his Angar Cyvyndawd: ‘From the Deep he came in the flesh.’ The narwhal is called the ‘sea-unicorn’ in consequence. However, a few British mythographers, such as the early seventeenth-century Thomas Boreman, accepted Pliny’s view, recording: ‘His horn is as hard as iron and as rough as any file, twisted and curled like a flaming sword; very straight, sharp and everywhere black, excepting the point.’ An interesting variety of the unicorn is the wild-ass unicorn, which Herodotus accepted as genuinely zoological; the wild ass is the beast of Set, whose fifth part of the year centres at midsummer and whose horn is thus exalted. But it must not be forgotten that the fifth-century BC historian, Ctesias, the first Greek to write about the unicorn, describes its horn, in his Indica, as being coloured white, red and black. These are the colours of the Triple Moon-goddess, as has been shown in the mulberry-and-calf riddle quoted from Suidas near the close of Chapter Four, to whom the God of the Year was subject.
The unicorn probably had a spatial as well as a temporal meaning, though space has always been divided by four quarters of the horizon, not by five fifths. The square cross, whether plain or converted into a swastika or cross-crosslet, has from time immemorial represented the fullest extent of sovereignty; it was a prime symbol in Minoan Crete, either alone or enclosed in a circle, and was reserved for the Goddess and her royal son, the King. In parts of India where Kali is worshipped, with rites closely resembling those of the Cretan and Pelasgian Great Goddess, as the most potent of a Pentad of deities, namely Siva, Kali, Vishnu, Surya and the elephant-god Ganesa—roughly corresponding with the Egyptian pentad, namely Osiris, Horus, Isis, Set and Nephthys—five has a definite spatial sense. In the coronation ritual of an Indian king, the officiating priest as he invests the king with a sacred mantle called ‘the Womb’ in a ceremony of rebirth, gives him five dice and says: ‘Thou art the master; may these five regions of thine fall to thy lot.’ The five regions are the four quarters of the earth, and the zenith.
Thus the unicorn’s single exalted horn represents ‘the upper pole’ which reaches from the king directly up to the zenith, to the hottest point attained by the sun. The unicorn’s horn in Egyptian architecture is the obelisk; which has a square base tapering to a pyramidical point: it expresses dominion over the four quarters of the world and the zenith. In squatter form it is the pyramid, and the dominion originally expressed was not that of the Sun-god, who never shines from the north, bur that of the Triple Goddess whose white marble triangle encloses her royal son’s tomb from every side.
Kali, like her counterpart Minerva, has five as her sacred numeral. Thus her mystic, the poet Ram Prasad, addresses her as she dances madly on Siva’s prostrate body:
My heart is five lotuses. You building these five into one, dance and swell in my mind.
He is referring to the cults of the five deities, all of which are really cults of Kali. It will be recalled that both Dionysus and the sacred white cow, Io of Argos, who ultimately became the goddess Isis, are recorded to have paid visits to India.
In the Dionysian Mysteries the hirco-cervus, goat-stag, was the symbol of resurrection, of man’s hope of immortality, and it seems that when the Hyperborean Druids visited Thessaly they recognized the goat stag, associated with apples, as their own immortal white hart or hind, which also was associated with apples. For the apple tree, ut dicitur, is the shelter of the white hind. It is from the goat-stag that the unicorn of heraldry and of mediaeval art derives its occasional beard; but among Christian mystics the Greek goat-unicorn of Daniel’s vision has contributed be11icosity to this once pacific beast.
In Britain and France, the white hart or hind was not ousted by the unicorn; it persisted in popular tradition and figured in the mediaeval romances as an emblem of mystery. King Richard II adopted ‘a white hart lodged’ as his personal badge; which is how the beast found its way to the sign-boards of British inns. It sometimes wore a cross between its antlers as it had appeared to St. Hubert, patron of huntsmen, who had been chasing it through the dense forest for weeks without rest and to St.Julian the Hospitaler. Thus the Unicorn of the desert and the White Hart of the forest have the same mystical sense; but during the Hermetic vogue of the early seventeenth century were distinguished as meaning respectively the spirit and the soul. The Hermetics were neo-Platonists who patched their philosophic cloaks with shreds of half-forgotten bardic lore. In the Book of Lambspring, a rare Hermetic tract, an engraving shows a deer and a unicorn standing together in a forest. The text is:
The Sages say truly that two animals are in this forest: one glorious, beautiful and swift, a great and strong deer; the other an unicorn….lf we apply the parable of our art, we shall call the forest the body….The Unicorn will be the spirit at all times. The deer desires no other name but that of the soul….He that knows how to tame and master them by an, to couple them together, and to lead them in and out of the forest, may justly be called a Master.
An anonymous beast may appear to the poet with deer’s head crowned with gold, horse’s body and serpent’s tail. He will be out of a Gaelic poem published by Carmichael in Carmina Gade/ica, a dialogue between Bride and her unnamed son.
Black the town yonder,
Black those that are in it;
I am the White Swan,
Queen of them all.
I will voyage in God’s name
In likeness of deer,
In likeness of horse,
In likeness of serpent, in likeness of king.
More powerful will it be with me than with all others.
The son is evidently a god of the waning year, as the sequence of deer, horse and serpent shows.
Or a phoenix may fly into the circle. The phoenix, though literally believed in by the Romans—I suppose because its visits to On-Heliopolis were said to be so brief and far between that nobody could disprove its existence—was also a calendar beast. For the Egyptians had no leap-year: every year the fragment of a day which was left over at New Year was saved up, until finally after 1460 years, called a Sothic Year, the fragments amounted to a whole year; and the fixed festivals which had become more and more displaced as the centuries went by (with the same sort of attendant inconveniences as New Zealanders experience from their midsummer Christmas) fetched up again where they had originally stood; and a whole year could be intercalated in the annals. This was the occasion of much rejoicing, and at On-Heliopolis, the chief Sun Temple of Egypt, an eagle with painted wings was, it seems, burned alive with spices in a nest of palm branches to celebrate the event.
This eagle represented the Sun-god, and the palm was sacred to the Great Goddess his mother; the Sun had completed his great revolution and the old Sun-eagle was therefore returned to the nest for the inauguration of a new Phoenix Age. The legend was that from the ashes of the Phoenix a little worm was born which presently turned into a real Phoenix. This worm was the six hours and the few odd minutes which were left over at the end of the Phoenix Year: in four years they would add up to a whole day, a Phoenix chick. From Herodotus’s muddled account of the Phoenix it seems that there was always a sacred eagle kept at OnHeliopolis, and that when it died it was embalmed in a round egg of myrrh, which would preserve it indefinitely; then another eagle was consecrated. Presumably these eggs of myrrh were included in the final holocaust. That the Phoenix came flying from Arabia need mean no more than that, for the Egyptians, the sun rose from the Sinai desert. It is ironical that the early Christians continued to believe in a literal Phoenix, which they made a type of the resurrected Christ, long after the Phoenix had been killed. The Emperor Augustus unwittingly killed it in 30 BC when he stabilized the Egyptian calendar.*
*King Ptolemy Eucrgetes (‘the well-doer’) had sentenced the Phoenix to death in 264 BC; but the priests disregarded this order to reform the calendar, so Augustus has the notoriety of being its murderer.
Or a pack of tall, white Gabriel Hounds with red ears and pink noses may come streaming into view in pursuit of an unbaptised soul. Despite their spectral appearance and their sinister reputation in British myth, these animals are decently zoological. They are the ancient Egyptian hunting dogs, pictured in tomb paintings, which though extinct in Egypt are still bred in the Island of lbiza, where they were originally brought by Carthaginian colonists. The breed may also have been introduced into Britain towards the close of the second millennium BC along with the blue Egyptian beads found in Salisbury Plain burials. They are larger and faster than greyhounds and hunt by smell as well as by sight; when in view of game they make the same yelping noise that migrating wild geese—especially the barnacle-goosemake when they fly far overhead at night: a sound taken in the North and West of England as an omen of approaching death. Anubis, the embalmer-god who conveyed the soul of Osiris to the Underworld, was originally a prowling jackal but carne to be pictured as a noble-hearted hunting dog, only his bushy tail remaining as evidence of his jackal days.
Or the visitant may be a Cherub. The Cherub mentioned in the first chapter of Ezekiel is also clearly a beast of the calendar sort. It has four parts which represent the ‘four New Years’ of Jewish tradition: Lion for Spring; Eagle for Summer; Man for Autumn, the principal New Year; and Ox for Winter, the Judaean ploughing season. This Cherub is identified by Ezekiel with a fiery wheel, which is as plainly the wheel of the solar year as the God whom it serves is plainly the Sun of Righteousness, an emanation of the Ancient of Days. Moreover, each Cherubthere are four of them—is a wheel of this God’s chariot and rolls straight forward, without deflexion . Ezekiel’s summary: ‘And their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel’ has become proverbial for its unintelligibility. But it makes simple calendar sense. Each wheel of God’s chariot is the annual cycle, or wheel, of the four seasons; and the chariot’s arrival inaugurated a cycle, or wheel, of four years. Every year, in fact, wheels within a four-year wheel from the beginning to he end of time: and the Eternal Charioteer is the God of Israel. By making the Cherub-wheels themselves provide the motive power of the chariot, Ezekiel avoided having to put an angelic horse between the shafts: he remembered that horse-drawn votive chariots set up by King Manasseh in the Temple of Jerusalem had been removed as idolatrous by Good King Josiah. But Ezekiel’s Eagle should really be a Ram or a Goat, and his Man a man-faced fiery Serpent; with eagle’s wings for each of the four beasts. His reasons for this misrepresentation will appear in my last chapter.
The colour of these bright cloud-borne Cherubim was Apollonian amber, like that of the Man whom they served. They might well be ministers of Hyperborean Apollo the Sun-god, whose sacred jewel was amber. What is more, each golden spoke of the wheel ended in the leg of a calf; and the golden calf was the sacred beast of the god who, according to King Jeroboam, had brought Israel out of Egypt, as it also was of the God Dionysus, the changing part of the unchanging Apollo.
This apparent identification of Jehovah with Apollo seems to have alarmed the Pharisees, though they did not dare reject the vision. It is recorded that a student who recognized the meaning of hashmal (amber-hashmal is modern Hebrew for electricity; ‘electricity’ is derived from the Greek word for amber) and discussed it imprudently was blasted by lightning (Haggada, 13.s). For this reason, according to the Mishnah, the Ma’aseh Merkabah (‘Work of the Chariot’) might not be taught to anyone unless he were not only wise but able to deduce knowledge through wisdom (‘gnosis’) of his own, and no one else might be present during the teaching. And ‘he who speaks of the things which are before, behind, above and below, it were better that he had never been born’. On the whole it was considered safest to leave the Merkabah alone, especially as it was prophesied that ‘in the fullness of time Ezekiel will come again and unlock for Israel the chambers of the Merkabah.’ (Cant. Rabbah, I, 4.)
Thus only a few known Rabbis taught the mystery and only to the most select of their pupils; among them Rabbi Johanan ben Zadkai, Rabbi Joshua (Vice-President of the Sanhedrin under Gamaliel), Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Nehunia. Rabbi Zera said that even chapter headings of the Merkabah must not be communicated except to a person who was the head of an academy and was cautious in temperament. Rabbi Ammi said the doctrine might be entrusted only to one who possessed all the five qualities enumerated in Isaiah, II I, 3: the captain of fifty, the honourable man, the counsellor, the skilled craftsman, the eloquent orator. ‘The belief grew that expositions of the Merkabah mystery would cause Jehovah to appear. ‘Rabbi Johanan ben Zadkai was riding along the road upon his ass, while his pupil Eleazar ben Arak walked behind him. Said Rabbi Eleazar: “Master, teach me about the Work of the Chariot.” Rabbi Johanan declined. Rabbi Eleazar said again: “Am I permitted to repeat in your presence one thing which you have already taught me?” Rabbi Johanan assented, but dismounted from his ass, wrapped himself in his gown and seated himself upon a stone under an olive-tree. He declared that it was unseemly that he should be riding while his pupil was discoursing on so awful a mystery, and while the Shekinah (’the Brightness’) and the Malache ha-Shareth (’the Angels-in-Waiting’) were accompanying them. Immediately Rabbi Eleazar began his exposition, fire came down from Heaven and encircled them and the whole field. The angels assembled to listen, as the sons of man assemble to witness the festivities of a marriage; and there was a singing in the terebinth-trees: “Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all deeps, fruitful trees and all cedars, praise ye the Lord!” To which an angel answered from the fire, saying: “This is the Work of the Chariot!” When Eleazar had finished, Rabbi Johanan stood up and kissed him on the head. He said: “Praised be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for He has given our father Abraham a wise son who knows how to discourse on the glory of our Father in Heaven.”
Rabbi Jose ha-Kohen and Rabbi Joshua had similar experiences. And once Rabbi Ben Azzai was sitting in meditation on the Scriptures when suddenly a flame encircled him. His pupils ran to Rabbi Akiba, who came up and said to Azzai: ‘Art thou studying the mysteries of the Merkabah?’ The mystery was not monopolized by the Jews. According to Macrobius, the oracle of Colophon, one of the twelve Ionian cities of Asia Minor, gave the nature of the transcendent God Iao as fourfold. In the Winter he was Hades, or Cronus; in the Spring, Zeus; in the Summer, Helios (the Sun); in the Autumn Iao, or Dionysus. This lore must have been part of the instruction, mentioned in Chapter Fifteen, that was given to Cyprian of Antioch on Mount Olympus by his seven mystagogues. Iao in the Orphic religion was also known as the four-eyed Phanes (from phaino, ‘I appear’) first-born of the Gods. In the Orphic fragment 63, he is described as having golden wings, and the heads of ram, bul1, snake and lion. Bull’s heads were fastened to his side to denote his principal nature and he wore a great snake as a head-dress, which ‘resembled every sort of wild beast’.
Here we can make a bold identification of the Cherub with the turning wheel that guards the Paradises of Celtic legend: for according to Genesis, III, 24, Cherubs were stationed at the East Gate of Eden. ‘They were armed with ‘the whirling sword of Jehovah’—the one with which (according to Isaiah, XXVII, 1) he ki11ed the Dragon, as Marduk had killed Tiamat—to prevent anyone from entering. The paradise of Ezekiel’s tradition (Chapter XXXVIII, 13-16) is a well-watered garden at the base of a hill which heroes, such as the King of Tyre, occasionally visit. It glitters with precious stones and is a place of drum and pipe. We have seen that Gwion placed it in the valley of Hebron. The Seraphs, or ‘fiery serpents’, associated with the Cherubs in their guardian duties, are evidently another way of expressing the sacred spirals carved as a warning on the gate of the sacred enclosure; the Cherubs, because distinguished from them, are likely to have been swastikas, or fire-wheels.
The King of Tyre in Ezekiel’s account is easily recognized as the Canopic Hercules, originally an Aegean sun-hero, who became Semitized as Melkarth the chief god of Tyre. The islet off Tyre is thought to have been the chief station used by the Peoples of the Sea during the second millennium BC in their trade with Syria; as Pharos was in their trade with Egypt. Ezekiel, cognisant of the original closeness of the cults of Jehovah and Melkarth, declares that no further religious understanding is possible between Jerusalem and Tyre, as in the time of Solomon and Hiram. King Hiram of Tyre, like Solomon whom he equalled and even surpassed in wisdom, was a priest of Melkarth, and Jehovah now admits through the mouth of Ezekiel: ‘Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.’ However, he charges the present King of Tyre with having committed the sin of claiming to be a god, Melkarth as an Immortal, and the punishment for his presumption is death. This is an indirect warning to Ezekiel’s own King, Zedekiah of Judah, a descendant of Solomon, not to be seduced by the Tyrian into similarly presuming to be Jehovah. (Zedekiah did not listen to the warning and ‘the profane, wicked Prince’ died blind and in chains at Riblah, the capital of his Cushite foes. He was the last King of Judah.) So Ezekiel utters a lament for Melkarth that, like Adam, he has been ousted from the Paradise by the Cherub, despite his original holiness and wisdom, and must now be burned to ashes. This was, of course, no more than Melkarth’s destiny: in the Greek account he went to the apple-grove of the West—the Garden of the Hesperides—but had to obey the herald Copreus and return from its delights; and ended in ashes on Mount Oeta.
The poetic connexion of the Cherub with the burning to death of Hercules-Melkarth is that the pyre was kindled by a Cherub, that is to say, by a whirling round of the swastika-shaped fire-wheel, attached to a drill. This method of making fire by the drilling of an oak-plank survived until the eighteenth century in the Scottish highlands, but only in the kindling of the Beltane need-fire, to which miraculous virtue was ascribed. Hawthorn, the wood of chastity, was often used for the drilling. Sir James Frazer describes the need-fire ceremony at length in The Golden Bough and shows that it originally culminated in the sacrifice of a man representing the Oak-god. In some Scottish parishes the victim was even called ‘Baal’, which was Melkarth’s usual title.
So we see that Ezekiel is a master of ambivalent statement. He has made the fate of Hercules a symbol of the approaching destruction of Tyre by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon; in punishment for the vice of pride which since the city rose to commercial prosperity (‘the multitude of thy merchandize, the iniquity of thy traffic’) has corrupted its rulers.
Not all composite beasts are calendar beasts. The Sphinx, for instance, with her woman’s face, lion’s bod y and eagle’s wings is Ura or Urania the goddess, with dominion over air and earth, who delegates sovereignty to her royal son, the King; and the Assyrian winged bull with his man’s face is the Sphinx’s patriarchal counterpart. It is likely that an iconotropic misinterpretation of the Assyrian winged bull accou nts for the curious details of King Nebuchadnezzar’s madness in the Book of Daniel:
‘Father, what is that?’
‘It is an old statue, my son, representing King Nebuchadnezzar who carried our ancestors away captive, more than three hundred years ago, because they had angered the Lord God. Afterwards, they say, he lost his reason for forty-nine months and wandered about like a brute beast in his beautiful palace gardens.’
‘Did he really look like that?’
‘No, my son. That is a symbolical statue, meaning that he partook of the nature of the creatures which compose its body and limbs.’
‘Then did he eat grass like a bull and flap his arms like wings, and dig things up with his nails, and stay out in t he rain all night and never have his hair cut?’
‘God has even stranger ways of showing his displeasure, my son.’
The Egyptian Sphinx became masculine like the Assyrian winged bull; the Pharaonic cult being patriarchal, though also matrilinear. But the Pelasgian Sphinx remained female. ‘Sphinx’ means ‘throttler’ and in Etruscan ceramic art she is usually portrayed as seizing men, or standing on their prostrate figures, because she was fully revealed only at the close of the king’s reign when she choked his breath. After her supersession as Ruler of the Year by Zeus or Apollo, this art-convention led to her being associated in Greece with disease and death and being described as a daughter of Typhon, whose breath was the unhealthy sirocco. Apollo’s claim to be ruler of the year was supported by the sphinxes on his throne at Amyclae, and so was Zeus’s by those on his throne at Olympia—read as a trophy of his conquest of Typhon. But Athene still wore them on her helmet, for she had once been the Sphinx herself.
A flock of bird-winged Sirens may alight in the circle. Having already ventured, in Chapter Twelve, to guess ‘what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among the women, though a puzzling question not beyond all conjecture’, I feel a poetic compulsion to answer the other question that Sir Thomas Browne linked with it: ‘What song the Sirens sang.’ The Sirens (’Entanglers’) were a Triad—perhaps originally an Ennead, since Pausanias records that they once unsuccessfully competed with the Nine Muses—living on an island in the Ionian Sea. According to Plato they were the daughters of Phorcus (i.e. Phorcis, the Sow-Demeter); according to others, of Calliope or some other of the Muses. Ovid and Hyginus connect them with the Sicilian myth of Demeter and Persephone. Their names are variously given as ‘Persuader’, ‘Bright-face’ and ‘Bewitcher’; or ‘Virgin-face’, ‘Shrill-voice’ and ‘The Whitened One’. Their wings were perhaps owl-wings, since Hesychius mentions a variety of owl called ‘the Siren’ and since owls, according to Homer, lived in Calypso’s alder-girt isle of Ogygia along with the oracular sea-crows. In classical times they still had a temple dedicated to them near Surrentum.
All this amounts to their having been a college of nine orgiastic moonpriestesses, attendants of an oracular island shrine. Their song, of nine stanzas, may he reconstructed without recourse to Samuel Daniel’s vigorous Ulysses and the Siren, on the model of similar songs in ancient Irish literature: for instance ‘The Sea God’s Address to Bran’ in The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal, and ‘Mider’s Call to Befind’ in The Wooing of Etain. Both poems are slightly Christianized versions of an ancient theme, the voyage of the alder-and-crow hero Bran (Cronos) to his island Elysium. In the first poem the speaker must originally have been the Island Queen, not the Sea God; in the second Befind and Mider have clearly changed parts, the original invitation being from princess to hero, not contrariwise. The Homeric story of the Danaan Odysseus and the Sirens suggests that Odysseus (’angry’ according to Homer) was a title of Cronos and referred to his face artificially coloured crimson with the dye of the sacred alder. The origin of the story that Odysseus stopped his ears with wax and refused the Sirens’ summons is probably that in the late thirteenth century BC a sacred king of Ithaca, Cronos’s representative, refused to die at the end of his term of office. This would explain why he killed all the suitors for his wife Penelope’s hand, after disguising himself in dirt and rags during the usual temporary abdication.
‘THE SIRENS’ WELCOME TO CRONOS
Cronos Odysseus, steer your boat
Toward Silver Island whence we sing:
Here you shall pass your days.
Through a thick-growing alder-wood
We clearly see, but are not seen,
Hid in a golden haze.
Our hair the hue of barley sheaf,
Our eyes the hue of blackbird’s egg,
Our cheeks like asphodel.
Here the wild apple blossoms yet,
Wrens in the silver branches play
And prophesy you well.
Here nothing ill or harsh is found.
Cronos Odysseus, steer your boat
Across these placid straits.
With each of us in turn to lie
Taking your pleasure on young grass
That for your coming waits.
No grief nor gloom, sickness nor death,
Disturbs our long tranquillity;
No treachery, no greed.
Compared with this, what are the plains
Of Elis, where you ruled as king?
A wilderness indeed.
A starry crown awaits your head,
A hero feast is spread for you:
Swineflesh, milk and mead.
The Sirens are the Birds of Rhiannon who sang at Harlech in the myth of Bran.
But if the visitant to the magic circle is the old Nightmare…What follows is a poem, of which I will give the prose rendering:
If the visitant is the Nightmare, the poet will recognize her by the following signs. She will appear as a small mettlesome mare, not more than thirteen hands high, of the breed familiar from the Elgin marbles: cream-coloured, clean-limbed, with a long head, bluish eye, flowing mane and tail. Her nine-fold will be nine fillies closely resembling her, except that their hooves are of ordinary shape, whereas hers are divided into five toes like those of Julius Caesar’s charger. Around her neck hangs a shining poitrel of the sort known to archaeologists as lunula, or little moon: a thin disc of Wicklow gold cut in crescent shape with the horns expanded and turned on edge, fastened together behind her arching neck with a braid of scarlet and white linen. As Gwion says of her in a passage from his Song of the Horses*, which had been included by mistake in the Cad Goddeu (lines 206-209), and which is intended for the mouth of the White Goddess herself:
Handsome is the yellow horse,
But a hundred times better
Is my cream-coloured one
Swift as a sea-mew…
*This song belongs to the account of the horse-race at the close of the Story of Taliesin when Taliesin helps Elphin’s jockey to beat the twenty-four race horses of King Maelgwn on the plain of Rhiannon, by charring twenty-four holly-twigs with which to strike the haunch of each horse as he overtook it, until he had passed them all. The horses represent the last twenty-four hours of the Old Year, ruled over by the HoUy King, which (with the help of destructive magic) the Divine Child puts behind him one by one. It will be recalled that the main action of the Story of Ta/itsin takes place at the winter solstice.
Her speed when she sets her ears back is indeed wonderful; no tall thoroughbred on earth can long keep her pace—proof of which is the pitiable condition in which hag-ridden horses used to be found at cockcrow in the stables from which they had been stolen for a midnight frolic—in a muck-sweat, panting like bellows, with bleeding sides and foam on their lips, nearly foundered.
Let the poet address her as Rhiannon, ‘Great Queen’, and avoid the discourtesy of Odin and St. Swithold, greeting her with as much affectionate respect as, say, Kemp Owyne showed the Laidley ·worm in the ballad. She will respond with a sweet complaisance and take him the round of her nests.
One question I should myself like to ask her is a personal one: whether she ever offered herself as a human sacrifice to herself. I think her only answer would be a smiling shake of her head, meaning ‘not really’, for instances of the ritual murder of women are rare in European myth and most of them apparently refer to the desecration of the Goddess’s shrines by the Achaean invaders. That there were bloody massacres and rapes of priestesses is shown in the Tirynthian Hercules’s battles with the Amazons, with Hera herself (he wounded her in the breast), and with the nine-headed Hydra, a beast portrayed on Greek vases as a giant squid with heads at the end of each tentacle. As often as he cut off the Hydra’s heads they grew again, until he used fire to sear the stumps: in other words, Achaean attacks on the shrines, each of nine armed orgiastic priestesses, were ineffective until the sacred groves were burned down. Hydrias means a water-priestess with a hydria, or ritual water-pot; and the squid was a fish which appears in works of art dedicated to the Goddess not only in Minoan Crete but in Breton sculptures of the Bronze Age.
Tales of princesses sacrificed for religious reasons, like Iphigeneia or Jephthah’s daughter, refer to the subsequent patriarchal era; and the fare supposedly intended for Andromeda, Hesione, and all other princesses rescued by heroes in the nick of time, is probably due to iconotropic error. The princess is not the intended victim of the sea-serpent or wild beast; she is chained naked to the sea-cliff by Bel, Marduk, Perseus or Hercules after he has overcome the monster which is her emanation. Yet the taboo on the death of a priestess may have been lifted, in theory, on certain rare occasions; for example, at the close of every saeculum, of 100 or 110 years, which was when the Carmenta priestess ended her life, according to Dionysius Periergetes, and the calendar was revised.
The German folk-stories of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White seem to refer to this type of death. In the first story twelve wise women are invited to the princess’s birthday; eleven shower her with blessings, a thirteenth, called Held, who had not been invited because there were only twelve gold plates at the palace, curses her with death from a spindle-prick in her fifteenth year. The twelfth, however, converts this death into a century-long trance; from which the hero rescues her with a kiss after bursting through a terrible hedge of thorn, in which others have perished, the thorns turning into roses as he goes. Held is the Nordic counterpart of Hera; from whose name the word hero is derived, just as held means ‘hero’ in German. The thirteenth month is the death-month, ruled over by the Three Fates, or Spinners, so it must have been a yew spindle. Fifteen, as has been shown, is a number of completeness: three times five.
In the Snow White story a jealous stepmother, the Goddess’s elder aspect, tries to murder a young princess. First she is taken off into the woods to be killed, but the huntsman brings back the lung and liver of a young wild boar instead; and so, according to one account, a doe was substituted for Iphigeneia at Aulis. Then the stepmother, who darkens her face to show that she is the Death-goddess, uses a constrictive girdle, a poisoned comb and, finally, a poisoned apple; and Snow White is laid as if dead in a glass coffin on top of a wooded hill; but presently is rescued by the prince. The seven dwarfs, her attendants, workers in precious metals who save her from the first attempts on her life and recall the Telchins, stand perhaps for the seven sacred trees of the grove, or the seven heavenly bodies. The glass coffin is the familiar glass-castle where heroes go to be entertained by the Goddess of Life-in-Death, and the comb, glass, girdle and apple which figure in the story are her well-known properties; the owl, raven and dove, who mourn for her, are her sacred birds. These deaths are therefore mock-deaths only—for the Goddess is plainly immortal—and are staged, perhaps during the period of intercalated days or hours at the end of the sacred saeculum, with the sacrifice of a young pig or doe; but then the annual drama is resumed, with the amorous prince chafing, as usual, at the ascetic restrictions of the Hawthorn, but free to do as he pleases in the Oak-month, the month of the hedge-rose, when his bride consents to open her half-closed eyes and smile.
Excerpted from THE WHITE GODDESS by Robert Graves, to be published October 8th by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 1948, 1952 by Robert Graves. Copyright © 1997 by The Trustees of the Robert Graves Trust. Introduction and editorial material copyright © 1997 by Grevel Lindop. All rights reserved.