The White Goddess

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The White Goddess
White goddess.JPG
First US edition
Author Robert Graves
CountryUnited Kingdom
Genre Mythology, Poetry
Publisher Faber & Faber (UK)
Creative Age Press (US)
Publication date

The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth is a book-length essay on the nature of poetic myth-making by author and poet Robert Graves. First published in 1948, the book is based on earlier articles published in Wales magazine, corrected, revised and enlarged editions appeared in 1948, 1952 and 1961. The White Goddess represents an approach to the study of mythology from a decidedly creative and idiosyncratic perspective. Graves proposes the existence of a European deity, the "White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death", much similar to the Mother Goddess , inspired and represented by the phases of the moon, who lies behind the faces of the diverse goddesses of various European and pagan mythologies. [1]


Graves argues that "true" or "pure" poetry is inextricably linked with the ancient cult-ritual of his proposed White Goddess and of her son.

Many of the book's themes are also explored in a fictional form, through his depiction of a future society dominated by Great Goddess religion in the 1949 novel Seven Days in New Crete .


Graves first wrote the book under the title of The Roebuck in the Thicket in a three-week period during January 1944, only a month after finishing The Golden Fleece. He then left the book to focus on King Jesus, a historical novel about the life of Jesus. Returning to The Roebuck in the Thicket, he renamed it The Three-Fold Muse, before finishing it and retitling it as The White Goddess. In January 1946 he sent it to the publishers, and in May 1948 it was published in the UK, and in June 1948 in the US, as The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. [2]

Graves believed that one could be in the true presence of the White Goddess when reading a poem, but in his view, this could only be achieved by a true poet of the wild, and not a classical poet, or even a Romantic poet, of whom he spoke critically: "The typical poet of the 19th-century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny". [3]

Poetry and myth

Graves described The White Goddess as "a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth". The book draws from the mythology and poetry of Wales and Ireland especially, as well as that of most of Western Europe and the ancient Middle East. Relying on arguments from etymology and the use of forensic techniques to uncover what he calls 'iconotropic' redaction of original myths, Graves argues for the worship of a single goddess under many names, an idea that came to be known as "Matriarchal religion" in feminist theology of the 1970s.

The Golden Bough (1922, but first edition published 1890), an early anthropological study by Sir James George Frazer, is the starting point for much of Graves's argument, and Graves thought in part that his book made explicit what Frazer only hinted at. Graves wrote:

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's The White Goddess deals with goddess worship as the prototypical religion, analysing it largely from literary evidence, in myth and poetry.

Graves admitted he was not a medieval historian, but a poet, and thus based his work on the premise 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...

Graves concluded, in the second and expanded edition, that the male-dominant monotheistic god of Judaism and its successors were the cause of the White Goddess's downfall, and thus the source of much of the modern world's woe. He describes Woman as occupying a higher echelon than mere poet, that of the Muse Herself. He adds "This is not to say that a woman should refrain from writing poems; only, that she should write as a woman, not as an honorary man." He seems particularly bothered by the spectre of women's writing reflecting male-dominated poetic conventions. [4]

Graves derived some of his ideas from poetic inspiration and a process of "analeptic thought", which is a term he used for throwing one's mind back in time and receiving impressions.

Visual iconography was also important to Graves's conception. Graves created a methodology for reading images he called "iconotropy". To practice this methodology one is required to reduce "speech into its original images and rhythms" and then to combine these "on several simultaneous levels of thought". By applying this methodology Graves decoded a woodcut of The Judgement of Paris as depicting a singular Triple Goddess [5] rather than the traditional Hera, Athena and Aphrodite of the narrative the image illustrates.

Celtic Tree Calendar

Graves also argues that the names of the Ogham letters in the alphabet used in parts of Gaelic Ireland and Britain contained a calendar that contained the key to an ancient liturgy involving the human sacrifice of a sacred king, and, further, that these letter names concealed lines of Ancient Greek hexameter describing the goddess.

Graves' "Tree Calendar" has no relation to any historical Celtic calendar. [6] His interpretations rather rely on the book Ogygia by the 17th-century bard Roderick O'Flaherty.


In The White Goddess, Graves proposed a hypothetical Gallic tree goddess, Druantia, who has become somewhat popular with contemporary Neopagans. Druantia is an archetype of the eternal mother as seen in the evergreen boughs. Her name is believed to be derived from the Celtic word for oak trees, *drus or *deru. [7] She is known as "Queen of the Druids". She is a goddess of fertility for both plants & humans, ruling over sexual activities & passion. She also rules protection of trees, knowledge, creativity. [8]


The White Goddess has been seen as a poetic work where Graves gives his notion of man's subjection to women in love an "anthropological grandeur" and further mythologises all women in general (and several of Graves's lovers in specific) into a three-faced moon goddess model. [9]

Graves's value as a poet aside, flaws in his scholarship such as poor philology, use of inadequate texts and outdated archaeology have been criticised. [10] [11] Some scholars, particularly archaeologists, historians and folklorists have rejected the work [12] – which T. S. Eliot called "A prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book" [13] – and Graves himself was disappointed that his work was "loudly ignored" by many Celtic scholars. [14]

However, The White Goddess was accepted as history by many non-scholarly readers. According to Ronald Hutton, the book "remains a major source of confusion about the ancient Celts and influences many un-scholarly views of Celtic paganism". [15] Hilda Ellis Davidson criticised Graves as having "misled many innocent readers with his eloquent but deceptive statements about a nebulous goddess in early Celtic literature", and stated that he was "no authority" on the subject matter he presented. [16] While Graves made the association between Goddesses and the moon appear "natural", it was not so to the Celts or some other ancient peoples. [15] In response to critics, Graves accused literary scholars of being psychologically incapable of interpreting myth [17] or too concerned with maintaining their perquisites to go against the majority view. (See Frazer quote.)

Some Neopagans have been bemused and upset by the scholarly criticism that The White Goddess has received in recent years, [18] while others have appreciated its poetic insight but never accepted it as a work of historical veracity. [19] Likewise, a few scholars find some value in Graves's ideas; Michael W. Pharand, though quoting earlier criticisms, rebutted, "Graves's theories and conclusions, outlandish as they seemed to his contemporaries (or may appear to us), were the result of careful observation." [20]

According to Graves's biographer Richard Perceval Graves, Laura Riding played a crucial role in the development of Graves's thoughts when writing The White Goddess, despite the fact the two were estranged at that point. On reviewing the book, Riding was furious, saying "Where once I reigned, now a whorish abomination has sprung to life, a Frankenstein pieced together from the shards of my life and thoughts." [21]

Literary influences

See also

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  1. "The White Goddess". OverDrive. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  2. Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft . Oxford University Press. pp.  188–189.
  3. de Lima, Marcel (2014). The Ethnopoetics of Shamanism. New york: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 83. ISBN   9781349684564.
  4. Graves, The White Goddess, p. 446-447
  5. Von Hendy, Andrew. The Modern Construction of Myth. p.196.
  6. Ellis, Peter Berresford (1997). "The Fabrication of 'Celtic' Astrology". The Astrological Journal. Vol. 39 no. 4 via Centre Universitaire de Recherche en Astrologie.
  7. Jane Gifford (2006). The Wisdom of Trees. Springer. p. 146. ISBN   1-397-81402-0.
  8. Deanna J. Conway (2006). Celtic Magic . Llewellyn Publications. p.  109. ISBN   0-87542-136-9.
  9. Hunter, Jefferson (1983). "The Servant of Three Mistresses" (review of: Seymour-Smith, Martin, Robert Graves: His Life and Work), in The Hudson Review, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Winter, 1983–1984), pp. 733–736.
  10. Wood, Juliette (1999). "Chapter 1, The Concept of the Goddess". In Sandra Billington, Miranda Green (ed.). The Concept of the Goddess. Routledge. p. 12. ISBN   9780415197892 . Retrieved 23 December 2008.
  11. Hutton, Ronald (1993). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. John Wiley & Sons. p. 320. ISBN   9780631189466.
  12. The Paganism Reader. p. 128.
  13. Quoted in J. Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology (2007) p. 52
  14. White, Donna R. A Century of Welsh Myth in Children's Literature. p. 75.
  15. 1 2 Hutton, Ronald (1993). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. John Wiley & Sons. p. 145. ISBN   9780631189466.
  16. Davidson, Hilda Ellis (1998). Roles of the Northern Goddess , page 11. Routledge. ISBN   0-415-13611-3
  17. Inter alia – The White Goddess, Farrar Straus Giroux, p. 224. ISBN   0-374-50493-8
  18. The Pomegranate 7.1, Equinox press, (Review of) "Jacob Rabinowitz, The Rotting Goddess: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity’s Demonization of Fertility Religion."
  19. Lewis, James R. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. p. 172.
  20. Pharand, Michael W. "Greek Myths, White Goddess: Robert Graves Cleans up a 'Dreadful Mess'", in Ian Ferla and Grevel Lindop (ed), Graves and the Goddess: Essays on Robert Graves's The White Goddess. Associated University Presses, 2003. p.188.
  21. Lindop, Grevel, editor (1997) Robert Graves: The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Carcanet Press
  22. J. Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991) p. 150
  23. J. Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology (2007) p. 42-6 and p. 81
  24. J. Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991) p. 153-4 and p. 163



Critical studies