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Weblog From Nowhere-Land

The Face Behind The Veil

Thirty years after I first cracked it, I sat down again to read my yellowed copy of one of the most entrancingly strange books ever written, The White Goddess by the English poet, novelist and essayist, Robert Graves. When I say that I'd "cracked it," I don't mean in any sense that I'd "solved it." This is a deliberately recondite book, a riddle not meant to be answered by everyone. Yet in spite of its uncompromising obscurity, TWG is responsible, as much as any cultural artifact of the Twentieth Century, for 1) the neo-pagan revival that began in the 1960's; 2) Wicca; 3) the Celtic revival; 4) "Goddess culture" and 5) the now generally held feminist tenet that we live in a "patriarchal society," and that once upon a time, there existed a matriarchal culture that was, in many ways, preferable. I'd been its apostle for three decades, despite a less than complete understanding. Now seemed like a good time to see if it had held its grip on my imagination--and if my years had given me better tools with which to decipher it.

Robert Graves was at Oxford with T.E. Lawrence, where they were merry pranksters together. If I could throw myself into what Graves calls in TWG an "analeptic trance" (in brief, a poet's psychic means of recalling the very distant past), I have to imagine that--given the weight of their combined intellects--I'd witness them pulling pranks of a very high order. I also imagine that both of them, even as college boys, exhibited a peculiarly English impulse to religion, at once mystical and masochistic. In Lawrence's case, that impulse led him into war, though always as a poet. In Graves' case, it led him into the bardic service of the Goddess, though always as her warrior.

You can read the "Cliff's Notes" on The White Goddess here and download it as a .pdf here, but I'll give you my version of an elevator pitch. The White Goddess argues that the true calling of the poet is service to the Muse, and that if this service is true and unconditional, the result will be poetry that recounts the most ancient and sacred myth of the human community, and in the process, raises the hair on the back of your neck. But it isn't this esoteric thesis that made the book a game-changer: a sensational, notorious, highbrow Da Vinci Code for its time. It was the history lesson that Graves gave in order to make his point. This history, offered to the world from Graves' home in Majorca in 1948--eighteen years before the first hippie chick garlanded her hair--was of a tradition that spanned the Bronze Age and survived in vestigial form well into the early twentieth century in the remotest sections of Britain and Celtic Europe. It was the ritual tradition alluded to in Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, explicated by Joseph Campbell, and more recently, turned into H.P. Lovecraft-ish pulp in films like THE WICKER MAN. It was the myth of the death and resurrection of the sacred king

Here's the thesis in a nutshell: Once upon a faraway time, before the Aryan and Semitic tribes of the One God swept into what is now Israel, the Levant, and the Eastern Mediterranean, there was a Triple Goddess (3 in 1, just like the Trinity), who embodied the three principal events in a life: birth, consummation, death. She was worshipped under many names, but always the same identities: maiden (and often temptress), mother, and crone. She was Ishtar, Isis, Inanna, Cybele, and later, after her power had been broken and her identity fragmented, as the Greek and Roman goddesses we know so well from myth. While she reigned, she demanded only one thing more than adoration: twice a year, her king and consort, son and lover (Attis, Adonis, Dumuzi, Osiris, etc.) must die a particularly gruesome death as a sacrifice to Her. The king of the waxing year, from midwinter to midsummer when the world was coming into blossom, was a Hercules/Dionysus type. Think Jim Morrison in his prime, but with sinewy muscle in place of the baby fat. The Goddess loved him, but not enough to spare him being torn to pieces and eaten ("Take, eat, this is my body"). She was La Belle Dame Sans Merci. His place was taken by the god of the waning year, when the planet turns toward winter, and though the Goddess loved him, as well, it was love of a darker sort. He was the the Usurper, like Egyptian Set. After six moons, his time would come, and his death might come by fire. The implication is that although the sacred kings suffered in extremis, they nonetheless died willingly and even happily, having spent six months as consort to the most desirable woman in creation.

And so it went, season after season, year after year, epoch after epoch. And it was good. The planet was just two colors: the deep green of vegetation and the deep blue of the sea. There were no deserts. Men and women copulated as openly and unashamedly as rabbits, there was music in the air and dancing in the fields and streets, and the Peace of the Goddess lay over the land. But peace never comes without a threat. The Goddess could be capricious and cruel, every bit as vengeful as her successor Jehovah, whose name--JHWH--according to Graves, was hers, but with the vowels shifted cypher-style to consonants. And one day, to put a point on it, the guy pegged to be sacred sacrificial king of midsummer said, "No way, bitch, am I gonna die," and he had an army to back him up. The Goddess was driven from her temples, the fires raged, rape and pillage were the rule, and when it was all over but the ashes, there was a new boss. The Patriarchy ruled, and rules still.

Now, to be honest, even when I read TWG as an enthusiastic young man, eager to enlist On Her Majesty's Secret Service, I knew that the Patriarchy had brought some benefits along with its plagues of war and Inquisition. Nations and tribes were governed by laws, not by crop cycles and augurs. There had come, eventually, a decentralization of power that allowed for things like democracy. Human sacrifice was pretty much off the table. Life was generally less volatile. And it's of no small significance that many of the scientists and philosophers who gave the world this semblance of order were drawn from the pool of very wise Jews and Arabs. But at the time I first encountered the book, order was not what I hungered for. I wanted a more Dionysian existence, and if that meant I had to suffer, so be it. I was willing to suffer for a love that all-consuming. I wrote an entire cycle of songs for Her--dithyrambs, they used to call them--rock 'n' roll dithyrambs, among them a tune called "All My Life," (1992) which was my favorite. And in many ways, I'm still writing for Her.

Reading The White Goddess this time around, some of the flaws in writing that subsequent critics and scholars have pointed to are more evident. Graves doesn't always connect A to B before moving to C. Much of what is presented as history is marvelously speculative myth. I don't buy the charges of anti-Semitism sometimes made against Graves, any more than I do those aimed at Joseph Campbell. Having issues with Yahweh doesn't make you anti-Semitic. And it's tough to take on the "patriarchy" and leave out the original Patriarchs. But I do see now that Graves was in thrall when he wrote the book, quite possibly to the Jewish-American poetess, Laura Riding, whom he took to Majorca with him, and for whom he'd abandoned his wife after Riding jumped from a fourth floor window in a lovesick grandstand play. Riding was, by many accounts, his living Goddess. I don't think that matters. What truth do we have if not the truth of our own experience and our own relationships? Isn't that where it all comes from: philosophy, science, religion?

I still love the book, even aware of its blind spots and excesses. Although my own spiritual inclinations are more Brahmin and less Dionysian these days than they were, and I'll no longer issue a blanket condemnation of the "patriarchy," I still love the Goddess. Demanding bitch that she can be, she never abandons me, and that counts for something.
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