Elen Sentier’s guest blog got me thinking about my own relationship with Robert Graves, and the wider implications for Pagans. Like Elen, I first came to Graves through my family. I recall my father reading The White Goddess when I was a child. Ideas of maid, mother and crone entered my mind, uncritically. The sacrifice king, the oak and holly kings, all got into my mind. Only later did I find out where I’d picked all of that up. I didn’t acquire the Celtic Tree calendar or the issues of Ogham as a sacred, ancient and Druidic language as a child, but for second and third generation modern Pagans, that’s easily done.
When I finally read The White Goddess, and enough of the Golden Bough to develop an impression (I hated it, was mostly my impression…) it struck me that Graves was writing poetic truth. Taken on those terms, his work is amazing, awen-laden stuff and well worth your time. It suggests incredible magic just beyond your reach, and the desire to grasp that may keep you fruitfully questing for the rest of your life.
However, the trouble with Graves, is that a lot of people seem to have taken it as history. Ideas from The White Goddess have leached into Pagan writing to a remarkable degree. I’ve seen dashes of Graves all over the place. His interpretations of Ogham shape the consensus understanding now dominating modern Paganism. His tree calendar has gone distinctly feral while the sacrificial kings he acquired from Frazer are now so well established that we’ve all accepted the folk song ‘John Barleycorn’ as a religious expression. Having grown up with folk as well, Mr Barleycorn always struck me as being a personification and celebration of the beer – not ancient Paganism, but part of that innate human inclination to celebrate.
Most of us will first encounter the ideas of Robert Graves second hand and out of context. The odds are it will be the tree calendar. If you’re a Druid, you might get crane bags, the battle of the trees or the ogham interpretations. Drip fed the ideas of Graves, they become part of your world view, and if you get round to The White Goddess having internalised a few of these, it’s all too easy to read uncritically, miss the poetic, and invest in the idea of Graves as History.
We have made modern myths. Myths are in essence stuff people came up with, and the measure of a myth is not its age, but what it gives to us. In that regard, a modern myth can be just as helpful as an old one. How helpful is Graves? The idea of working closely with trees, and the possible pattern is definitely useful, but the dogmatic approach that ties trees to months regardless of what grows where you live, seems counterproductive to me. I have great personal dislike for his triple goddess archetype – maid mother and crone divides femininity into pre-kids, breeding and no longer breeding, trapping women into a restrictive identity story. I do not like his attitude to women, muses or goddesses. Woman as passive, inspiration giving muse/goddess, man as inspired creator and poet underpins his thinking. Stuff that! And then there’s the sacrifice kings, another narrative of heterosexual power exchange, male sovereignty, passive goddess overseeing… it does not speak to me. I do not want a role in this story.
If you find Graves inspiring, as myth or as poetry then go for it, enjoy. My concern is that we’ve used his work to restrict ideas of goddess, femininity, gender roles and ideas about what it means to live this life as a Pagan.