At a dramatic moment in Chapter Nineteen, “The Number of the Beast,” in his book The White Goddess, Robert Graves quotes this poem, written by himself:
If strange things happen where she is,
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,
Such portents are not to be wondered at,
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.
He identifies the subject of these lines as “the Muse,” and from the context, the natural presumption is that the Goddess Herself is meant. In fact, the poem was originally written about Graves’ mistress–his personal muse, Laura Riding. The imagery of portents, of omens, as “tourbillons in Time made by the strong pulling of her bladed mind” nevertheless struck me as a significant casting-off point for thoughts about this difficult book and its persistent influence in the Craft of the present age.
In 1957, Robert Graves informed a New York audience:
My task in writing The White Goddess was to provide a grammar of poetic myth for poets, not to plan witches’ Sabbaths, compose litanies and design vestments for a new orgiastic sect, nor yet to preach matriarchy over a radio network…
One of the ironies in attempting to make sense of Graves’ position in the history of modern Pagan Witchcraft is that even in the space of this single talk, despite his disclaimer with regard to Witch sabbats and litanies for the old Gods, we find him just a few pages later hymning the Goddess with these words:
Though loving and just, she is ruthless. Her symbol is the double-axe–consisting of two moon-like blades, one crescent, one decrescent, set back to back and fitted with a haft. The crescent blade represents blessing, increase, joy; the decrescent blade represents cursing, plague and sorrow that punish human folly and disorder. The Muse-poets have always recognized these two blades: poetry proper is the constructive side of their profession, satire the destructive side. (Robert Graves, “The White Goddess: a talk, New York, 1957” presented as Appendix B in The White Goddess, edited by Grevel Lindop).
The description of the sacred Labrys he provides is surprisingly evocative of the old Craft precept: “Who cannot blast, cannot bless.” In fact, I wrote an essay on this subject in an earlier entry here. No wonder that when The White Goddess was published and began to circulate, Witches who read the book began to wonder if the author was not merely a poet, but also an Initiate. (Graves specifically denied in the 1957 lecture, and on several other occasions, that he was a member of any occult order, and categorically stated that he was not a practitioner of Witchcraft.)
Last September, thanks to the prompting of a close friend, I finally began the task of reading The White Goddess. It’s something I’ve put off for years. My own Teacher, Gabriel Carrillo, detested the book. But my Oathmother, Eldri Littlewolf, told me some things about her own experience of it, and how rich and significant she had found some of what Graves had written. What she shared made me realize that it was a text I had to study for myself. Some five months out from the start, I’m still wading through the book, alternately baffled, puzzled, and inspired by various things I have found in these rambling, arcane pages . I’m reading the 1997 edition produced under the editorial aegis of Grevel Lindop. This is the edition I always advise people to get hold of whenever they express an interest in this text. In a 2011 memoir, Lindop brilliantly summed up the book thus:
Nine chapters of history, nine chapters of magical lore, nine chapters on poetry. Again, a number of the Goddess. And by switching to and fro between them [rather like the spotted Serpent slithering up through the Well, or the Tree], Graves, like a juggler, was able to keep all three topics alive and in motion in the reader’s head without ever letting the logical intellect take control and reduce the book to a linear argument. I came to see that by constantly stimulating the intellect, yet constantly frustrating it–and balancing it–by leading the reader into speculations about the Number of the Beast, the ritual laming of sacred kings, or the reason why ‘so remarkably few young poets continue nowadays to publish poetry after their early twenties,’ Graves was drawing the reader into a kind of poetic trance, where fact, mystery and time-transcending clairvoyance all began to operate. The White Goddess, then, was designed as a book which would induce the poetic faculty in its readers. It was a book that could make poets.–Grevel Lindop, “The White Goddess: A Personal Account,” Abraxas no. II, Summer Solstice 2011.
(Painting of the Cretan Snake Mother, John Duncan, 1917)
In his poem “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” Graves himself restated the themes and purport of The White Goddess in an ingeniously compressed, rebus-like sequence of imagery. One of the more coherent stanzas runs:
Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.
A strange, harrowing and ineffable image, “each new victim” treading “unfalteringly the never altered circuit of his fate”–these words recall Abelard’s mystic exclamation: Solus ad victimam procedis, Domine! (“As the lone victim Thou proceedest, Lord, offering Thyself to Death, whom Thou comest to destroy…”) As the poem’s beginning pronounces, “there is one story, and one story only.” A thoughtful friend of mine commented that what he really meant by that was that there was “only one story worth telling.” It was a story that obsessed Robert Graves for the rest of his own life, re-worked and re-told in many different forms and manifestations. The twelve witnesses and the new year-victim make thirteen–the number of Jesus and his twelve disciples; the number of the classic Witches’ coven. Consider that, and you have the groove that keeps the whole book moving in its strangely stately, ineffable rhythm. That is the insistently throbbing beat that makes The White Goddess dance.
After publishing the book in 1948, Graves wrote a novel, Watch the North Wind Rise (also published under the title Seven Days in New Crete). It was published in 1949. In this book, he used an ingenious device to depict a world in which the religion of the White Goddess had been swept back into power, as presided over by an elite Priest/esshood of Witches. As the novel progresses, this seeming utopia takes on an increasingly dystopian slant, as the protagonist explores and learns more about the social order mandated and enforced by the Witches, supported by various customs and folk observances. After a sacred drama that ends with human sacrifice, the poet-protagonist endures a shattering encounter with the Maiden Goddess Nimue, who reveals to him a few simple truths of life on Earth in this distant time. The narrative concludes with a sudden exodus, leaving the violent imperatives of this uncanny vision unresolved.
Graves himself placed The White Goddess upon a singular pedestal, viewing it as a unique work engendered by his own extraordinary (and to himself inexplicable) gnosis and insight. Historically, however, the book fits into a pattern established by three significant earlier works. Graves intuitively synthesizes themes mooted and elaborated in the works of Charles Leland, James Frazer, and Margaret Murray. But his work adds a deeper rhetorical force and a more acutely thrusting aesthetic weight through the poetic, emotional, and sexual fervor with which Graves works through his threefold argument. “Her bladed mind” and “Her Triple Will” are accomplished and reiterated through a surprising sequence of images, choral suites, and dramatic flourishes as the reader moves through the book. At the same time, there’s an element of deconstruction in how Graves re-configures the pivotal themes of those earlier books. The White Goddess begins with elaborate statement of the poet’s personal belief in the magical power of language. Not only is the incantatory potency of poetry itself exalted in his philosophy; even the letters of the alphabet trace a mystic, riddling arabesque, ultimately concealing the Holy Unspeakable Name of God (as one of the chapter titles signals).
Robert Graves was given a tacit salute by Victor Anderson in his poem “Thorns of the blood rose,” which he placed at the front of his own first book of poems. And this became the title of Victor’s book, as well. The “appointed tree” could be read as the book itself, a reading favored by arguments strongly laid down by Robert Graves in several chapters of The White Goddess. Even as we wonder what portents may be soon to manifest through the tourbillons of Her bladed mind, we may find in the promise of the infant year rising to claim His crown a spark of hope in these dark nights of January.
On this appointed tree, most gracious Queen,
Your spotted Serpent sheds His gleaming sheath
And bows His head until the Star of life is seen.
From Earth, Your fertile body far beneath,
Pregnant through winter nights and warm spring days,
The infant year shall rise to wear His kingly wreath.
Victor Anderson, “Thorns of the blood rose”