Tag Archives: modern paganism

Second hand Graves

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.


Making Time

We folks who live without television are forever being asked what we do with our time. And surprisingly, I find I also often get asked how on earth I get so much done. I have a suspicion there is a connection here. Many people feel rushed. It probably doesn’t help that the whole advertising industry spends a lot of time telling us how frantically busy we are, and therefore, how much we need their time saving thing. Being able to manage time, and more crucially, work out how we want to use it, is critical for any kind of happiness.

Television is a considerable eater of time, which I think gives very little in return. There are others. I think the car is a serious culprit too. People who balk at a ten minute walk will think little of a two hour drive, weirdly. I spent a while in an urban environment where I was able to race other mothers to playgroup and school. I could quite often beat them, by taking pedestrian-only short cuts, not being caught in traffic, not having to get children in and out of said car. Instead, I’d get a nice walk and a chat with my son, arriving at our destination invigorated, and also relaxed, while the time saving device that is the car would bring in stressed mums, and grumpy children, frequently somewhere behind us. Time saving? I don’t think so. And when you add in the environmental and health costs of the car, it’s insane. But so many of us believe that even over short distances, the car is faster, they never actually check.

The things that are supposed to be quicker all too often cost us in quality of life instead. They encourage us into the pre-packaged, one banal lifestyle fits all model. And they accumulate. Got to go to the supermarket because it’s cheaper, so got to have a car to go there, and got to have a big fridge and freezer to store it all in. How much time does it take to clean car, fridge, and freezer? How much work time goes into paying for them? We work longer hours to buy labour saving devices so that we can sit in front of the television. And this is supposed to be progress?

Being a druid means taking time for things many people do not ordinarily do. Going outside and spending time in nature being right at the top of the list. You can’t be a druid by spending all your spare time collapsed in front of the television, or playing on facebook. Many people who explore druidry find themselves on a path towards more real and immediate ways of living, replacing the empty, fake activities of modern life with things of intrinsic value. So many druid and pagan folk I know have taken up gardening, walking, brewing, baking, woodwork, needlecrafts, and so forth. We go in for storytelling, music and poetry, taking control of our entertainment as well. I don’t think it’s possible to get very far into modern paganism without rejecting many of the assumptions of modern life.

It doesn’t mean rejecting everything the twenty first century has to offer and heading off to live in a mud hut. It does mean learning to tell between what is adding to your life, and what is reducing you. Ten minutes of social networking to catch up with friends can be very productive. Three hours playing the pointless games on offer leaves you with very little. A whole evening vegged in front of the telly won’t give you much, because it all blurs into one squelchy mismatch of soon to be forgotten impressions. One thing watched thoughtfully can be remembered and savoured. In glutting ourselves, we become unable to properly experience. Slowing down, taking the time to relish, allowing ourselves to anticipate and appreciate rather than trying to have it all now, we gain far more. It’s not as though diving into all the available modern addictions brings any real joy or satisfaction. Just people who are rushing round consuming, whilst being told how busy they are and how much more stuff they need.

It is entirely possible we only get this one lifetime. None of us knows how long our life will be. Any of us could die tomorrow. If you aren’t using your time the way you want to, why are you squandering it? The tomorrow you are put things off until may never come. If you get to old age and get to look back, are you going to feel pleased with what you’ve done, reflecting on good memories of a life lived to the full, or are you going to regret too many hours thrown away for too little?

How do I spend my time without a television?

I have a life.