Stalking the Goddess by Mark Carter was published by Moon Books in 2012 and is a critical examination of Robert Graves’ iconic The White Goddess. Carter has done a thorough job and I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject specifically, or in modern Druid and Pagan culture more widely. He painstakingly examines Graves’ sources of inspiration, sources of information, working methods and conclusions. He also looks at the extraordinary impact of The White Goddess over the period since its publication in 1948, especially on the growing neo-pagan community – much of it surprising to Graves himself. Stalking the Goddess (a title I have to say I don’t much care for) is of course dependent on The White Goddess for its interest and very existence, so I find I can’t talk about the one without the other.
What was Graves doing in The White Goddess that mattered so much?
Firstly, he took up suggestions from 19th and earlier 20th century literature (The Golden Bough being the single major source) about a primal religion based on sacrificial kingship. He linked it to ideas of an early political matriarchy that pre-dated human knowledge of paternity and began to weaken thereafter. In bronze and iron age times, Graves saw Europe from Bulgaria to Ireland subject to struggles and migrations in which increasingly patriarchal warrior peoples put a steadily intensifying pressure on opponents who, whilst themselves less and less likely to have matriarchal political systems, nonetheless preserved conservative features like strong Goddess traditions, matrilineal succession, and a view of the feminine as representing sovereignty over the land. He also followed writers like Charles Leland and Margaret Murray in understanding medieval witchcraft as an underground pagan tradition in conscious struggle with the fully Romanised Christian church as aggressively representative of a wholly comprehensive expression of patriarchy in both religion and politics.
Graves also suggested that, in Celtic lands, there was a second dissident group that survived well into the medieval period and indeed beyond. These were the Bards, descendants of the Pagan Druids, preserving their secrets within often obscure poetry based on a little known or understood set of mythic references, and a magical system of writing, the ogham (itself with early origins in South East Europe). The ogham was not just a script, it was also a hand signalling system – and had its own set of magical correspondences, of which those with a group of sacred trees were the most potent. The Bards as poets were in service to The White Goddess of the title. Graves believed that all true poets are in such service, whether they know it or not – citing more recent poets like Keats as an example. Graves placed himself in such a line, and used the inspired technique of ‘analeptic memory’ to extend his understanding when his sources didn’t give him all the answers he needed. He wanted to show that he was up with the relevant scholarship and that he could make a logical and evidence based case. But in the last analysis he wasn’t bound by these. He was (although he didn’t use this term) one of the awenydd, the inspired ones, not a philosopher or academic.
Carter’s contribution, in Stalking the Goddess, is the rigorous application to The White Goddess and some of Graves’ other work (for example The Greek Myths and King Jesus), of a critique which is itself now quite well known. Based on more recent (though not necessarily much more recent) scholarship than that available to Graves, it tells us that neither the approach of The Golden Bough, nor the view of matriarchy and its purported link to early Goddess worship, nor its overthrow, are supported by good evidence. Especially when dealing with pre-history (history before written records) modern scholars are tentative about what we can say that we know. There’s just not enough there for a powerful unifying story, partly at least because the evidence basis just isn’t suited to providing such a story, and partly perhaps because the actual stories may be much more diverse. In the case of medieval witchcraft, the available records concerning victims don’t fit the profile of Pagan Goddess devotees. In the case of Celtic Bards, the evidence shows ogham as an exclusively Irish writing system, created for the carving of simple messages, in use for a fairly short period in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. It may be that it was used, in a spirit of self-conscious antiquarianism, as a largely mnemonic device for the Bards of later centuries. In terms of Graves’ reading of key works in the Welsh tradition – the Hanes Taliesin and Cad Goddeu in particular – Carter suggests that Graves “bent them to support his views”.
I am sure that this critique is essentially correct, simply because it is based on better information than the alternatives and argued plainly. I can’t of course vouch for every detail because I haven’t done any individual work. But I do have to recognise that Graves’ own approach involves a considerable element of dogmatic intuitionism and interpretative high-handedness. For me, in a context of advocacy, the latter characteristics weaken a case rather than strengthening it.
And yet … true criticality like this, using effective and ethical working methods, is its own kind of homage. Stalking the Goddess will not, and should not, demolish The White Goddess. It will help to keep it alive and rightly so. When T.S. Eliot decided to accept The White Goddess for publication by Faber & Faber after several rejections from other publishers, he described it as “a prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book”. Yet he published it all the same. I for one am glad that he did. With that health warning from the original Faber catalogue, alerted to not taking The White Goddess entirely on its own terms, I am free to let it into my spiritual imagination. I can walk to my favourite spot at Woodchester (the old churchyard). I can stand in the avenue of yews, knowing that most of the ogham trees are in easy distance, and that Orpheus lies underground nearby, in the form of an early fourth century Romano-British mosaic. It was custom made for the villa on that site by a specialist mosaic workshop in Cirencester (Corinium) notable for its work on Orphic themes. Orpheus was from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace (once thought of as ‘Mount Haemus’). Graves thought that the ogham first came from Thrace, believing Orpheus’ dance of trees to be a “dance of letters”. So here, now and in Woodchester is the lyricist who could charm animals, cause trees to circle dance, animate a new ship for a deep sea voyage, descend to the underworld and return, be torn to pieces by maenads and continue on as a talking head, uttering prophecies for Apollo. Rich themes for Romano-British people, perhaps also seeing resonances with their own native stories. Inspired and inspiring myth can survive any attempt to explain it, explain it away, or package it in overdetermined forms.