Guest Post: Stalking the Goddess

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 16, 2012 — 12 Comments

[The following is a guest post from Mark Carter. Mark Carter lives, works, and writes in his home town of Bloomington, IL. His works have appeared in The Druid Missal-Any, The Pagan Writer's Press Yule anthology, and Examiner.com. "Stalking The Goddess" is his first book.]

A few weeks ago I mailed Jason Pitzl-Waters a review copy of my newly released book, “Stalking The Goddess”. I wasn’t sure if it was the sort of thing he’d cover at The Wild Hunt. After all, my book is a study of Robert Graves’s “The White Goddess”, a book which is now 64 years old. This isn’t exactly the sort of current events TWH usually addresses, and I wondered if “Stalking The Goddess” would find an audience with tech-savy Pagans accustomed to gleaning their paganism online rather than from dusty books of their parents’ generation. Could the ghosts of Robert Graves, Gerald Gardner, Margaret Murray, and Sir James Frazer be summoned up one more time, and if they could, did they have anything left to say?

However, TWH was one of the few pagan blogs I visited regularly and, from his occasional references to Graves’s work, I suspected my book would interest him. Jason had once called The White Goddess “Robert Graves’ most controversial book”, reported on suspicions that Graves had stole the book’s thesis from his longtime lover and collaborator, Laura Riding, and even caught Tori Amos’s references to “The White Goddess” on her Night of the Hunters album. The White Goddess still appears in recommended reading lists on various Pagan websites (including Patheos columnist Carl McColman’s 2009 article) and its contributions to Paganism still inspire heated debate. The book has never gone out of print since its initial publication in 1948 and the newest edition, edited by poet and Times Literary Supplement critic Grevel Lindop, is highly recommended. I’ve subscribed to Google Alerts for the search terms “white goddess”, “Robert Graves poet”, and “ogham” and I receive notifications of newly posted material daily.

So, perhaps I had worried for nothing. Perhaps a study of The White Goddess from a pagan perspective isn’t just mildly interesting, but long overdue. As spiritual traditions go, modern paganism is a new phenomenon, but it’s already undergone several phases before developing a self-awareness of its history. The usual reductive formula is Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, and Gerald Gardner; followed by all of those who were directly or indirectly inspired by Gardner. (Doreen Valiente, Ray Buckland, and Alex Sanders are the big players here.) Up to this point, two assumptions were almost always taken for granted: that “paganism” means primarily witchcraft or Wicca, and that Wicca derives from Celtic sources. The 70s brought an explosion of both good and bad books which challenged the assumptions but also muddied the waters of history. It’s not until Adler’s “Drawing Down The Moon” that paganism asks “where did we come from” and “where are we going”? Over the last three decades the above assumptions have been refuted, disproved, and frequently ignored by the glut of Wicca 101 books of the 80s and 90s. The question of how this formula and its assumptions developed is seldom asked. The answers are often found in Graves’s works, and Stalking The Goddess is my attempt to uncover them.

Graves had two passions, literature and history, and he merged them in The White Goddess. The White Goddess speculates upon how druid beliefs might have survived long enough to influence literature and asked how we might recover them. Because of this, most of Graves’s contributions to paganism derive from literature rather than authentic folklore. By scouring old Celtic histories Graves revived a century old debate between Celtic mystics and mainstream historians over the possibility of Druidism’s survival. The White Goddess was the last of the “druidic revival” literature to flaunt conjectures without evidence.

Robert Graves was the inheritor of a long line of forgotten (and dubious) Celtic revivalists like Iolo Morganwg, Edward Davies, and Lewis Spence. He blew the dust off of obscure texts like the Four Ancient Books of Wales and the Myvyrian Archaiology. I suspect the transformation of Ogham from an obscure Irish alphabet to a full blown Celtic tree zodiac is entirely Graves’s doing. If any of these things sound familiar, it’s because Graves rescued them from obscurity and linked them to the coming Pagan movement. Like magic itself, The White Goddess transcends time. It allows readers to apply ancient pagan spirituality to their own future. By merging pagan poetry with pagan history Graves reveals the lost glamor of druidism and medieval mysticism and inspires others to reclaim them for the modern world.

The down side to all this is that paganism received these things almost exclusively through Graves’s personal interpretations rather than as objective history. The Pagan community has been reacting (often times unconsciously) to his claims ever since, and it seems the difference between modern Witches and Druids is whether or not they embrace or reject The White Goddess. “Stalking The Goddess” explores how Graves did all this, who inspired him, who he later inspired, and alternative interpretations of the sources he used. Rather than offering “Stalking The Goddess” as the last word on the subject, I hope it inspires a fresh debate.

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  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    If anyone really wants to discuss Graves’ “claims” in a constructive way, then those “claims” should be cited in a specifc way using Graves’ own words. Much of modern Pagan “scholarship” consists of straw man arguments debunkifying “claims” that were never actually made, or at best are presented completely out of context. There, hows that for a “claim”?

    • Jo

      I don’t think Graves really “claimed” anything despite using definitive language that would suggest he was proclaiming truth from on high. I think he was wandering around his own spiritual mind like a kid in a toy shop, shaking everything to see what would fall out. We are just lucky enough he was a bit of a genius with words and could articulate what was going on in his head. It used to annoy me but once I accepted that “the White Goddess” was a totally subjective affair It became a truly inspiring read.

      Not to say that people who read it, assume it to be a historic authority and then spout nonsense based on it don’t still annoy me :).

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        Right. Poets don’t “claim”. They declaim, proclaim, inveigh, perorate, and even hold forth. But “claim”, as in putting forward a testable hypothesis? Only true, dyed-in-the-wool philistines read the works of a poet and think in terms of “claims”.

  • Obsidia

    My copy of “The White Goddess” is now old and tattered, with many dog-eared pages and a broken back because I referred to it so much. It was given to me by one of my Teachers in the Craft, a dark son of a Welshwoman, strong in his love of mythology and poetry and the “ley” of the land.

    In his book, Graves outlined his search for the Goddess through poetry and history and the kinds of coincidences that give one mystical goosebumps. (BTW, I still refer to his assertion that goosebumps are a sign that the Goddess is nigh.)

    My teacher believed only certain women channeled the Goddess. My own belief is that we ALL channel the Goddess in our own way, whether female or male, at our best. Of course, I grew my Goddess-consciousness from within, with many others, through the feminist explorations of spirituality in the 1970s and 80s. For that, I recommend back issues of “Womanspirit “magazine, which was written by MANY of us.

    Now, as I re-consider “The White Goddess,” I realize that it is part of me. I absorbed its power in the way I now chase through mythology and poeticize my own spiritual myths. What I learned from Graves was to live my own myths with gusto and fierce love, unashamed and free. I will always be grateful for that teaching. (And I found Graves’ later essay “The Black Goddess” to be a vocation that I recognized and took up, as a challenge and a call to deepness.”)

    “…out of the whole symbol-building achievement of the past, what survives today (hardly altered in efficiency or in function) is the tale of wonder. The tale survives, furthermore, not simply as a quaint relic of days childlike in belief. Its world of magic is symptomatic of fevers deeply burning in the psyche: permanent presences, desires, fears, ideals, potentialities that have glowed in the nerves, hummed in the blood, baffled the senses since the beginning.” (Joseph Campbell)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Sharratt/695382792 Mary Sharratt

      Beautiful post!

  • DaBroad

    I have always been a seeker, a studier. I like to know the “why” before I can accept the “what”. that’s why Catholicism and I never got along well – when I asked why, I never got a real answer. I realize there are many for whom the “what” is more important, and the questioning of history can cause distress. In this way ive found that many pagan sects are not much different than Abrahamaic sects. For me, i welcome any chance to research the histories and often shared roots of human belief systems.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven

    Mark, please send me a copy of your book for review in Witches&Pagans magazine.
    P O Box 687, Forest Grove, OR 97116. I’m also interested in discussing writing opportunities with you; if you’d like to email me I’m at editor2@bbimedia.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-H-Halstead/1170545330 John H Halstead

    Mark: Can you share with us the table of contents?

    • http://www.facebook.com/MarkCarterInIL Mark Carter

      I posted a big reply to this with links to more info, but now I don’t see it. :( So, I will just say, Stalking The Goddess has a facebook page and you can find the links there if you like. There’s a sample chapter, bibliography, and expanded table of contents. I’ll repost it all there so the links are on top.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Sharratt/695382792 Mary Sharratt

    As stated elsewhere in this thread, THE WHITE GODDESS is one poet’s ecstatic hymn of praise to his Goddess and muse. What is there to deconstruct and debunk? I wonder if any of the writings of our generation will have the same kind of long lasting impact and longevity that Graves’s work has.

  • Ellen Evert Hopman

    The White Goddess is a fine book if read as poetry. Unfortunately many Pagans read it as history, which it is not. I have been reading Graves’ Claudius the God this summer, just to see what he had to say about Druids. I found many historical errors in the text. Graves was a wonderful poet but his scholarship is a bit fanciful. I would suggest that Druids and Celtic Pagans first get a solid grounding in the historical texts (see a good basic reading list at http://www.whiteoakdruids.org ) before reading anything by or about Graves.

    • Isabel

      Speaking as a huge Graves admirer: If you have read Graves’ Greek Myths, you know that he is an amazing scholar of the old school. But you’re right, Claudius is not accurate history on many points, because it’s a work of fiction. The Claudius books are written from Claudius’ perspective, with
      all his Roman prejudices, inaccuracies and lack of information. Just as The White Goddess isn’t an academic work either. But they’re both wonderful.