The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth

Robert Graves may have been a skilled author and poet, but when it came to understanding and explamining Celtic myth, he was hopeless. Most of this book is based on the fabrications of men like Edward Davies and Iolo Morgannwg, or upon a "fanciful" (read: completely wrongheaded) reading of the medieval Book of Taliesin, and not on authentic Irish or Welsh tradition. Better yet, when a tradition doesn't suit Graves, or he can't find one to fit the pattern he's building, he simple ignores it, or substitues it with his own ideas, or with foreign ideas. A few good examples, readily utilized by the neopagan community, are the "Celtic tree calendar", the Holly King and Oak King, Hu Gadarn, and the Triple Goddess. Some of these are authenticly Celtic, yet others are 18th century fabrications or the invention of Graves. As far as the fabrications of Iolo, we cannot blame Graves for this; many were duped by these forgeries, and to some extent, we are still working to untangle these threads. However, the problem with Graves is that people still read his book as though it were a textbook of Celtic and pagan beliefs; it is not.

Graves corresponded with true Celtic scholars; in fact, his grandfather was president of the Royal Irish Academy. And yet, he seemed to have learned nothing from these men who devoted their careers to translating and iterpreting these medieval texts; in fact, he was upset that they did not treat it as a real piece of scholarship. The reason for this was his disregard for the scholarship of people who were actually in the field of Celtic studies, in favor of his own interpretations, which were essentially an exercize in reductionism--that is, he has a habit of reducing the complexities of wildly divergent mythologies into a simplistic system of his own. Or, better yet, he fails to include even something as simple as a bibliography.

The worst thing about this book--aside from its nearly unreadable nature, as it jumps around from topic to topic with no indication of the relationship between any of the topics at hand--is its influence. Much of what passes as "Celtic" or "Wiccan" or "Druidic" can be found in this horribly muddled text, such as the idea of a Maiden-Mother-Crone goddess (non-existant in Celtic myth), or the goddess-worship. But what is worse is his idea of a "tree calendar" based on the ogham script. This calendar is almost entirely of his own design (with some help from the 18th and 19th century forgeries and fantasies of men like Davies and Morgannwg). Yet this "Celtic" calendar is touted as a "real" druidic concept. Do a little research on the Celts, and you will soon learn that this is a complete fabrication.

Better yet, he brings up that hoary chestnut (not of his own invention) about how the Tuatha Dé Danann are really Greeks and Hebrews and that ogham--the old, non-Latin alphabet of Ireland--is embedded with references to Hebrew and Greek myth. These clues would then add up to a poem about the White Goddess, who is the gnostic Sophia. Of course, this is nonsense, influenced by the Romantic notions of 18th and 19th century "antiquarians" who sought to tie the history of the British Isles with that of the classical and Biblical civilizations, so as to legitimize their status. While the germ for this idea is found in the medieval texts--for instance, the Milesians are supposedly descended of an Egyptian princess--there is no evidence that ogham is derived from any Eastern civilization, nor are the Celts actually descended of Greeks, Hebrews, Gnostics, or any other classical/Eastern society.

The book is also sexist. It essentially says that women cannot be poets, since poetry is entirely about the worship/love for the White Goddess (and, of course, Graves didn't consider lesbians). Instead, women are to be muses, inspiring male poets, while incapable of actual creation themselves. Well, except for creating children for these men. For all the "Goddess worship" and supposed female empowerment that is seen in this book, the readers are obviously missing what is Graves' core message--that poetry is really about man's desire for women. Reductive? Absolutely. But that's Graves' message. Better yet, the White Goddess is no loving figure, but a "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" who takes the lives of her poets. Women, as muses, are then also these destructive creatures.

This book is to be avoided as any type of source text except for those who wish to understand the origins of the neopagan movement. Otherwise, it's almost as worthless as that other piece of tripe, The 21 Lessons of Merlyn.

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Mary Jones © 2003