The White Goddess
is a book-length essay upon the nature of poetic myth-making by author and poet Robert Graves
. First published in 1948
, and revised, amended and enlarged in 1966
, it represents an approach to the study of mythology
from a decidedly creative yet idiosyncratic perspective. It proposes the existence of a European deity
, the "White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death," inspired and represented by the phases of the moon, and who, Graves argues, lies behind the faces of the diverse goddesses of various European mythologies.
Graves argues that "true" or "pure" poetry is inextricably linked with the ancient cult-ritual of his proposed White Goddess and of her son. His conclusions come from his own conjectures about how early religions developed, as there is no historical evidence that the "White Goddess" as he describes her ever figured in any actual belief system.
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
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 not only for the worship of a single goddess under many names, but also 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
(see "Celtic Astrology
"); and, further, that these letter names concealed lines of Ancient Greek hexameter
describing the goddess. In response to critics, Graves has accused literary scholars of being psychologically incapable of interpreting myth or too concerned with maintaining their perquisites to go against the majority view. (See Frazer quote below.)
The Golden Bough (1922, but begun in 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, analyzing 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 honor 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 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 also suggested 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. He did, however, acknowledge Sappho
as a possible exception.
Graves openly considered poetic inspiration, or "Analepsis" as he termed it, a valid historical methodology.
In the introduction to her 1998 work Roles of the Northern Goddess
, Hilda Ellis Davidson
criticizes Graves' work The White Goddess
as having "misled many innocent readers with his eloquent but deceptive statements about a nebulous goddess in early Celtic literature" and states that he was "no authority" on the subject matter he presented.
- 1948 - The White Goddess : a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (London: Faber & Faber) [Corr. 2nd ed. also issued by Faber in 1948] [US ed.= New York, Creative Age Press, 1948]
- 1952 - The White Goddess : a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Amended & enl. ed.[ie 3rd ed.] (London: Faber & Faber) [US ed.= New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1958]
- 1961 - The White Goddess : a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Amended & enl. ed.[ie 4th ed.] (London: Faber & Faber) [US ed.= New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966]
- 1997 - The White Goddess : a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth; edited by Grevel Lindop (Manchester: Carcanet) ISBN 1857542487
- Bennett, Joseph, [review of Robert Graves' The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth], Hudson Review, vol.2 (1949), 133-138
- Davis, Robert A., 'The Origin, Evolution, and Function of the Myth of the White Goddess in the Writings of Robert Graves' (unpublished PhD, University of Stirling, 1987) [British Library copy: BLDSC DX212513]
- Donoghue, Denis, 'The Myths of Robert Graves', New York Review of Books, 43, no.6 (4 April 1996), 27-31
- Graves and the Goddess : Essays on Robert Graves's The White Goddess, ed. by Ian Firla and Grevel Lindop (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003) ISBN 1575910551
- Graves, Richard Perceval, Robert Graves and The White Goddess, 1940-85 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995) ISBN 0297815342
- Kirkham, M.C., 'Incertitude and The White Goddess', Essays in Criticism, 16 (1966), 57-72
- Lindop, Grevel, 'A Crazy Book: Robert Graves and The White Goddess', PN Review, 24, no. 1  (1997 Sept-Oct), 27-29
- Musgrove, Sydney, The Ancestry of 'The White Goddess, (Bulletin No. 62, English Series, no. 11) (Auckland: Univ. of Auckland Press, 1962)
- Smeds, John. Statement and story : Robert Graves's myth-making (Åbo : Åbo Akademis Förlag, 1997)
- Vickery, John B., Robert Graves and The White Goddess (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1972)
- Vogel, Amber, 'Not Elizabeth to his Raleigh: Laura Riding, Robert Graves, and origins of The White Goddess', in Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship, ed. by Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson (Madison: Wisconsin UP, 2006), pp.229-239, ISBN 9780299217600