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The White Goddess

The author and poet Robert Graves's study of the nature of poetic myth-making, The White Goddess, first published in 1948, represents a tangential approach to the study of mythology from a decidedly idiosyncratic perspective. The European deity in question, the White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death (represented by the phases of the Moon), received worship under many different titles. In this work, Graves explores and expounds upon a central theme: that "true poetry" or "pure poetry" has inextricable links with the ancient cult-ritual of the White Goddess and of her Son.

Graves described The White Goddess as "a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth." He was not joking.

Others have described the 500-page book as "unreadable" (or nearly so), but by comparison to The Golden Bough (1922) by Sir James George Frazer, which covers similar ground, The White Goddess perpetrates less obscurity. Indeed, Graves wrote in it:

"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."

Graves expressed similiar ideas in The White Goddess, which 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 -- that cost him some friends and earned the book the label "controversial." It had always been more popular with scholars than with the lay public, but as interest in goddess religions has increased since the 1960s, the demand for books about the roots of goddess worship has increased, too.

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 Judeo-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 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. Graves expresses more than a hint of 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. Finally, we learn the surprising notion here 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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