Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Robert Graves and the White Goddess

Robert Graves is remembered for his poetry, his autobiography “Goodbye To All That” with its harrowing descriptions of life in the trenches in the First World War, and for his historical novels, particularly “I, Claudius”, which was made into a notable TV series. He also translated Suetonius’s “The Twelve Caesars” for Penguin Classics.
    One of his particular interests was mythology; particularly searching for common themes underlying different myths. In 1948 he published the strangest of his books: “The White Goddess”, which he described as a “historical grammar of poetic myth”. The book is actually a series of essays on a variety of topics, such as ancient Welsh poetry, the secret name of the Jewish God, known only to the High Priest, and the meaning of the mysterious number 666, the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation. But his main interest is in the notion of the great Triple Goddess, in her three forms of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. Graves believes traces of her can be found in mythology all over Europe.  He also sees the Goddess as being the true Muse for a poet.

In the 19th century, scholars realised that almost all the languages of Europe were similar in structure and basic vocabulary, and that they seemed to be linked to Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language. The explanation postulated was this:-
    In the middle Bronze Age, around 2,000 B.C., Europe was invaded by a new people: the Aryans. They originated north of the Caucasus mountains, which are today the frontier between Russia and Georgia. (This is why, in American crime movies, the corpse of a white man is described as “Caucasian”. In the Second World War, Himmler sent an SS mountaineering team to plant a sacred banner on Mount Elburz in the Caucasus, to show that the Aryan race had returned to its homeland. Because of the unfortunate association with the Nazis, scholars nowadays prefer to use the term “Indo-European” rather than Aryan). Another branch of the Aryans moved through Persia (Aryan and Iran being essentially the same word) and into northern India.
    The Aryans, it was thought, were a male-dominated warrior society who worshipped the Skyfather, who was called something like “Di” or “Deiwus” (from which we derive the names Zeus, Deus, Jupiter and the Germanic wargod Tiw; and which, as J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out, survives in English only in the word Tuesday!). The earlier inhabitants of Europe, by contrast, were female-led and worshipped the mother-goddess, who was identified with the earth and with fecundity.

In 1955 Robert Graves’s two-volume edition of the Greek myths was published by Penguin Books. This massive compilation summarized over 170 myths, from stories of the creation to the travels of Odysseus, and Graves added his own interpretation to each of them. In this he was strongly influenced by Sir James Frazer’s famous survey of myths of the world, “The Golden Bough”, published in 1922, and perhaps also by Sigmund Freud’s venture into the world of ethnology and myths in “Totem and Taboo”. Amongst Frazer’s most famous ideas are that of the King, waiting for the man destined to kill him and take his place as consort of the Queen: the sacred King who is ritually killed every year to ensure the fertility of the crops. Graves thus saw the Greek myths as reflecting in legendary form the long contest between the indigenous matriarchal inhabitants of Europe and the incoming patriarchal Aryans; how Kings eventually ceased to be powerless consorts to be sacrificed and replaced every year, though ritualistic traces of this continued for many centuries, long after the original meaning had been forgotten. This theory, Graves believes, explains such strange and mysterious stories as, for instance, the murder of King Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra on his return from Troy; or Oedipus and his wife/mother Jocasta. Graves also thinks that the famous story of Paris, the young Trojan, meeting Hera, Athene and Aphrodite on Mount Gargarus, with a golden apple which he must give to the most beautiful of them, is a misunderstanding of an ancient icon showing the Sacred King before the Triple Goddess. In another of his books, “Hebrew Myths, the Book of Genesis”, Graves links all this with the Jewish mythological figure of Lilith, Adam’s other wife, who was an immortal witch-queen. 
   It should be pointed out that most scholars do not accept Graves’s theories at all. But he has had enormous influence on writers of fiction; seen most notably in Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die”, which retells the story of Theseus and the Minotaur on Gravesian lines. A comparison would be with Margaret Murray’s famous book, “The God of the Witches”, where, although the ideas behind it are rejected by modern scholars, the influence on the writers of fantasy and horror fiction has been huge.   

Footnotes:
Even the notion of the all-conquering Aryan invaders in their horse-drawn chariots has been challenged. The domination of a new language does not necessarily imply a massive population replacement. Modern genetic evidence often suggests only fairly low levels of immigration. However, the idea of the ancient mother-goddess has been revived by Marija Gimbutas.  You can hear her theories in a lecture on youtube, and they are discussed in Richard Rudgley's book, "Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age".


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