The White Goddess
| I'd rather be a|
|Suckled in a creed outworn|
The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth is a book by Robert Graves, published in 1948, on the subject of poetic myth making. Built largely upon the works of James Frazer's seminal mythic-study work, The Golden Bough, The White Goddess attempts to demonstrate the power of myth within and upon society, by describing (or better, inventing) a "Myth of the Goddess," an image/myth which Graves suggests permeates all religions. This deity is "The White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death"[note 1]. He further claims that the worship of the "Goddess" in any general form, is the purest form of religion and interestingly, the source of all good poetry.
The "uncovered"[note 2] and rewritten myth itself is a reworking of predominately Irish and Welsh ("Celtic") myths, with some other western European and Middle Eastern mythic ideas and images tossed in here and there.
Laura Riding, the original White Goddess
In fact, the concept of the White Goddess likely was originated by Graves's mistress at the time, Laura Riding. Graves's description of the personality and mythos of the White Goddess was apparently also strongly influenced by Graves's complicated relationship with Riding, which included.... strong elements of the psychology of dominance and submission. Riding has claimed that Graves stole key ideas from her work, including an essay on The Idea of God and an unpublished manuscript The Word `Woman'.
Graves's depiction of the myth and ritual of the White Goddess also relates to his relationship with Riding, and his fantasies of submission to her imperious domination. The White Goddess posits an annual ritual year in which two suitors, given the Egyptian names of Osiris and Set, compete for her affections, with Osiris dying an annual death which guarantees fertility of the crops, a Golden Bough style dying-and-reviving god. While Riding was Graves's longstanding mistress -- she won him from his wife by leaping from a fourth story window, which doesn't strike one as a promising start for a healthy and stable relationship -- towards the end her eye wandered. "Graves at once became subject to a new set of intensely emotional pressures, and began to depict himself in an unnaturally humble manner, condemning (for example) what he saw as his 'greed and credulity'; and imagining himself, when retelling the legend of Isis, not as Set, her new young lover, but as 'Osiris yearly drowned....' Graves was the supplicant, Laura Riding the embodiment of the goddess and dispenser of favors."
Riding eventually left Graves, embittered by his manipulations and his expropriations of her ideas, and married a poetry critic. Riding's assessment of the book was not kind: "Where once I reigned, now a whorish abomination has sprung to life, a Frankenstein pieced together from the shards of my life and thoughts." But like William Moulton Marston, Graves spun his sex life and sex fantasies into cultural gold.
Graves and the Goddess Movement
Ultimately, the book suggests that there is one single Goddess and her son, and that every religion in the world that has any form of goddess, is a form of The Goddess. In making this claim, Graves sets the ground work for what is called the "matriarchal religion", an off-shoot of feminist theology.
In the 1970s, Graves's work found an enthusiastic following in the Goddess movement, those who were promoters of the theory then in fashion in feminist circles. The Goddess Movement folks were very taken with his intrinsic linking of all of history, poetry, and life itself to this made-up "One Goddess", which dovetailed very nicely with their ideology as it posited an ancient Golden Age when times were simpler, there was no war, there was no violence, and women ruled the world
and held men as slaves or rather made men equals just ignored men altogether.
The idea of the White Goddess and female creative principle relates to the older idea of a muse, originally a goddess of poetic inspiration and later a secular figure who was believed to inspire an artist, such as Dante's Beatrice. Hence, the White Goddess connects with general ideas of poetic inspiration or creativity as being essentially female, which despite its mythic origin has remained popular with male writers through the 20th century. The British 1960s avant-garde novelist B S Johnson was obsessed with the idea of the White Goddess, which biographer Jonathan Coe suggests may have been related to his mental health problems. Ted Hughes, the poet involved in a destructive relationship with American poet Sylvia Plath, was also greatly influenced by Graves' ideas.
- Venerated in Neopagan/Wicca circles as a triple goddess, each one of her aspects ("Maiden, Mother, and Crone") encarnating those things
- Graves argues in his work that he is not creating this myth, but simply uncovering all her layers and setting them out as a single, unified myth. There is little debate in the modern Religious Studies community that invention is a far better way to understand what he does
- Helen Vendler, "The White Goddess!", New York Review of Books (Nov. 18, 1993)
- Jason Pitzl-Waters, Did Robert Graves Steal the White Goddess?, The Wild Hunt (2008)
- Louis Simpson, "Life with the Real White Goddess", The New York Times, November 11, 1990.
- Grevel Lindop, ed. Robert Graves: The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. Carcanet Press, 1997.
- Fat man on a Welsh beach, Jim Morphy, Wales Art Review, May 2013
- Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe, 2004
- Ted Hughes and mythology, Andy Armitage, Discovering Literature: 20th Century, British Library