The White Goddess



"The White Goddess" by Robert Graves is an absolutely incredible book which I have been obsessed with for a while now. A large part of this page will make a lot more sense if you read the book first. I don't want to paraphrase Graves' ideas too much, because there are already far too many third hand accounts of what he wrote. "The White Goddess" has been hugely influential, but too few people have actually read it for themselves. This section of the page is devoted the ideas discussed in "The White Goddess" and also "The Golden Bough" by Sir James Frazer, (which is an even more gargantuan book, originally 12 volumes later edited down to a single volume, and recently brought out as an illustrated version. It is still probably better to dip into it, rather than read the whole thing in one go. I would also recommend "The Goddesses and gods of old Europe 6500-3500 B.C. Myths and cult images" and "The Civilisation of the Goddess" both by Marija Gimbutas, for an archaeologists view of Matriarchal society in Prehistoric Europe. Both are beautifully illustrated with prehistoric art, such as The Goddess and sorrowful God sculptures from Cernavoda, Romania . It also mentions a theory that the bulls head in prehistoric art represents a womb. This picture of the Egyptian cow goddess seems to support this.

Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote a novel called "Mark of the horse lord" which was set in Scotland in Roman times, and concerns the conflict between the Patriarchal Scots and the matriarchal Picts. The story is packed full of references to folklore and myth: there is even a stone age tribe living in the hills, who are rarely seen. The Scots believe them to have magic powers, and leave them offerings of barley and milk. Could this have been the origin of belief in fairies?

Another book which I read recently was "The feast of fools" by John David Morley. It is (among other things) the story of Persephone set in 20th century Munich. It is quite a heavy read and it's allegory and mythological references take a bit of deciphering, but don't let that put you off. The author has a great sense of humour.

Old editions of the journal Antiquity are packed full of interesting articles. Two recently caught my eye:

Antiquity Volume XIX number 76, pages 194-202. "Concerning unicorns" by W.H.Riddell (1943)
Antiquity Volume XVII number 66, pages 71-76. "The Crane Dance in East and West" by Edward A. Armstrong (1943)

Both concern topics featured in "The White Goddess", but draw different conclusions. Unfortunately, there isn't room to discuss them here, but they are definately worth the read if you can get hold of them.

Recently archaeologists found a number of 9000 year old flutes in China. They were not (as was widely reported) the earliest musical instruments, but one of them was the oldest instrument which could still be played. It was carved from a bone from a red crowned crane (Nature 401 p.366 read online here). According to the Henan museum, the flutes were buried in graves along with magical items, that suggest that the owners of the flutes were priests, chiefs or sorcerors. A picture is here

A while back, I stumbled across The Ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne , which seems to me to be directly relevant to all of this.

Here are some recent photos from the Edinburgh Beltane and Samhain fire festivals.

Here are some pictures of the Boddhisatva Guanyin, who has been confused on occasions with the Madonna. In this part of Hunan province, homes, shops and temples often have shrines to the male Boddhisatva Pusa (I think) who is often accompanied by the Guanyin. These images are far more common than images of the Buddha, which makes me think that for many people Buddhism is simply a veneer over something older. There is also the Chinese folk religion, often incorrectly confused with Taoism, which features a pantheon of deified warlords, emperors and philosophers. This pantheon includes a red haired, hammer wielding thunder god known as Lei Gong. There seems to be a connection to Hinduism and the Indo European pagan religions.

Tree calendar

The idea of a Europe wide tree calendar is central to The White Goddess, although I regard it as the weakest part of the book. Graves claims that the Beth Luis Nionn alphabet must have originated on the south black sea coast, as this is the only place where all the tree species that form the letters are found. Ireland has very few tree species, and most of them are included in the Beth Luis Nionn. Only one species in the Beth Luis Nionn, the vine, is not native to Ireland. Could wine have had some special significance in Irish culture in the past? Is the Pope Catholic? I feel Graves is underestimating the range of climates and variety of tree species in Europe. IMO the Beth Luis Nionn is part of a series of linked traditions of seasonal tree folklore found all over Europe, but the traditions would not simply substitute one native tree for a non-native species with a similar role, such as Pistachio for Hazel. In different parts of Europe the traditions would be entirely different. In Bulgaria children ritually beat their parents with twigs of the cornel cherry (known as survatki), in order to drive out evil spirits at New Year. I'm told the same tradition is found in Austria. Graves thought the cornel cherry was equivalent to the alder. It seems to me that it is equivalent to the birch, which was used to flog the evil spirits from lunatics at the new Year. Cornel is a great symbol for the new year, it makes sulphur yellow blossom, before anything else even has leaf. I suspect the boxwood tree which has special significance as a toxic graveyard evergreen may be equivalent to Yew. Bulgarian folklore has 12 "female" orchard trees and 12 "male" wild trees. It could be a calendar of some kind but quite different from the Beth Luis Nionn. The continental climate of the slavic lands is quite different from the Atlantic maritime climate of the Celts, the mediterranean climate of (most of) the Latin peoples etc.



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Links to other sites on the web

The Goddess Hekate
Gwydions Hollow Hills
Includes a critical look at the ideas in "The White Goddess"
Henan museum website
A discussionof the crane bone flutes

Celtic Ogham
Includes a discussion on the origin of Ogham based on the distribution of tree species. Also very comprehensive links

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