Tag Archives: Robert Graves

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.


Robert Graves – an anarchist’s perspective

a guest blog from Elen Sentier

As someone who is married to a scientist who used to work at the Rutherford-Appleton Lab in Oxfordshire, and is the daughter of an engineer I find the “arts-type” view of “facts” amusing and somewhat disquieting.

What is a fact?

How many real facts can you list – I’m not absolutely certain I can think of one!

Scientists work with hypotheses, that’s Greek for damn good guess that has been shown to fail yet. Well actually perhaps, that it only fails in certain cases which we know very little about yet such as relativity/quantum. And anyway, we have observed that light is both particles and waves – which seems to most ordinary mortals to be a pair of diametrically opposite things and therefore impossible. Yes … well … umm … growing up in a household where this kind of thing was normal breakfast conversation makes a difference to how you look at the academic Arts mind. And then marrying someone who was involved in experiments where the boss PhDs concluded that the only way to explain the experiment was a particle going backwards in time … I dare say you’re getting the idea *grin*.

Science and engineering work on the principles of observation – not on the priciples of footnotes and what people have said in the past.

I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Professor Eric Laithwaite (who invented the linear motor and explored the spin-energy of planets as an energy source we humans might use). He began one lecture at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London as follows …

‘I likes taking to school children. I don’t like the teachers, I like the children. Very often I begins by dropping me keys from one hand to another [he demonstrated]. Sooner or later some little tyke at the back says, “Hey, mister, what you’m droppin’ them keys for?” to which I reply, “I’m always hoping they’ll go ooop!”…’

And all this in his glorious Lancashire accent *smile*.

Laithwaite finished the lecture by putting up a cartoon; it showed a learner driver, a young woman, sat in a car beside a young man who was the instructor. It was a wee bit odd because the car was bowling along above the road at tree height! Laithwaite has the instructor saying to the young woman, “Now then Mrs Postlethwaite, don’t you worry none, but when we gets back to the ground just try and remember exactly what it was you did!”

It’s well worth looking here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Laithwaite – see more of what he did, he was a wizard, a real magic man … and he was a scientist.

What has all this to do with Robert Graves? For me, and for my dad who introduced me to Graves, and my husband who walks between the worlds of Boolean algebra and Graves as breakfast conversation, the point is about the tyranny of so-called “facts”. It is so, so easy to climb into the box of accepted wisdom and so many scholars do precisely that. Footnotes and end-notes and scholarly tomes were written by people, including Graves. People have their own axes to grind and their own additions, adaptations, and enhancements to make; many of them write from a political background – most of the Roman writers for instance. And, all history is written by the winners!

I used to be a senior project manager building computer systems for the MOD, back in the day some 25 years ago! It was fun, then, and we all had wonderfully cynical perspectives and sharp humour. We had a couple of perennial jokes that exactly illustrate my feelings for footnotes and tomes. The first is …

The battle commander needs to send a message. He tells his adjutant, ‘Send this message: send reinforcements, we’re going to advance.’ The adjutant passes it down to the lieutenant who passes it to the sergeant major, who passes it to the sergeant, who passes it to the corporal, who passes it to the squaddie who is the Sigs Op of the night. The Sigs Op sends the following message, ‘Send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance’ …

My point … things that have been written down ages ago and then translated many times from the original language can end up as Chinese whispers and very likely do. Add in that everyone has their own opinion of what the ancient writer means … As Clint Eastwood says in one of the Dirty Harry movies, ‘Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one!’

Our other perennial joke is …

Definition of an expert – an “ex” is a has-been, a “spurt” is a drip under pressure!

Yeah … well … LOL and who hasn’t felt that then? My point is that it is only to easy to feel oneself to be an expert, especially if you have alphabet soup after your name (and yes, I do too! I just never mention it!). And it is only to easy to act like a drip under pressure if you feel your academic standing is threatened!

Graves went round breaking rules and threatening everyone with his ideas and insights. That was right up my anarchical parents’ street and my hubby too and, of course, myself. I really learn things well when I observe, not when I try to learn from books. That always feels like learning someone else’s script to me and I’m really useless at living in someone else’s way … actually (with my psychotherapist hat on) so are most people. We do conform because if we don’t we find ourselves out of a job, with no money for rent or food or heating, and quite possibly out of friends too as we’re not doing what they think we should. Question … are such folk really friends?

So, back to Graves … he not only climbed out of the box he largely ripped it to shreds and turned the remains on its head and then set fire to it. For some of us a phoenix rose out of those ashes. For others he is anathema. And some ditz between the two *smile*.The scientific perspective will be that nothing is proven, ever, everything is always changing and growing and evolving, there are no tomes, no stone tablets, that cannot be broken. That feels like life to me; life is always changing and growing and evolving, it’s never the same from one moment to another … and I don’t want it to be. I’m reminded now of the Incredible String Band and their song “This Moment” … “this moment is different from any before it, this moment is different, it is now”. I think many folks forget this, quite possibly find it very scary and unsettling, they want a “stable base” from which to be. But we live on the third rock from the sun that’s hurtling through space like a ball on the end of a string at some 67,000 mph! Yikes! The Earth herself is spinning on her axis at about 1000 mph – double yikes! And we think we’re staying still ??? Umm …

I’ve always found Graves to be like contemplating all that, all those impossible things that are utterly real, like light being particles and waves, like we’re spinning at 1000 mph and flying through space at 67,000 mph, like wouldn’t it be fun if when I drop my keys they go up and gravity works backwards? Yay, all scary stuff … but wow is it exciting *big grin*.


Interpreting the cranes

Poke about online and you’ll find a lot of references to the ancient Druids using ogham for divination, and as a consequence being described as having ‘Crane knowledge’. There is much to be cautious about here. Firstly the ogham itself, which might well not be ancient, and the relationship between Druids and cranes. The idea of the crane bag – a tiny bag of wisdom items carried by Druids, may be something derived wholly from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. The idea of ogham as ancient, sacred, mystical language of the Druids, and as method for divination, probably comes from there too.

I’ve read The White Goddess. I’ve also read a Peter Beresford Ellis essay on the subject of Graves’ ogham fabrications, and I’ve read Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess, which flags up many issues around Graves’ work, including the ancientness of ogham. The trouble with Graves is that his influence is widespread, and his ideas are touted around the Pagan community as ancient truth in ways that are bloody difficult to unpick.

It is therefore entirely possible that Druids did not spend any time at all reading mystical ogham messages in the flight of cranes.

However, of all the birds a person might look to for mystical signs in flight, cranes strike me as the most interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time sat in hides and windows watching birds. The thing about most birds, is that once you get to know them, there’s plenty of logic to what they do. They have methods for flying that suit their purposes. Little birds, vulnerable to predation, fall like leaves out of branches. Large winged buzzards soar on the thermals, because they can. Crows attack falcons, not to proclaim coming revolution, but to defend nests and territory. Fishing birds get active when the fish do. They have patterns that repeat over days, habits, preferences, tastes. Spend enough time watching, and the mysterious behaviour of birds resolves into something wholly intelligible.

Except for the flight of cranes, that is. I’ve seen cranes in flight a few times now. They have huge wingspans, long, delicate legs, long necks, and are capable of making a lot of shapes in the sky. Most birds tuck their feet in when in flight, but crane legs seem to get all over the place. The shapes they make are many. They also like posing when on the ground and court with a crane dance that offers all kinds of interesting moves. I would bet that what cranes do makes perfect sense to cranes, but for the observer it’s not too easy to match the shapes they make with obvious intentions. The bigger a flock of cranes, the more complex things they may seem to write across the sky. With their otherworldly calls, and their rather glamorous presence, they really do stand out as birds that might be embodying messages from the divine.

A scatter of wings and legs across a wintery sky. A flash and arc of cranes in flight as they move between feeding places. The human temptation to see a message, written in bird form. What did it say? What did it mean? To the cranes, it meant they were shifting field, for whatever reason. Did the universe pick the moment of their flight to have a little conversation with itself?

Then there were the great flocks of lapwings, weaving across the sky – an act of alarm at the possible presence of a predator, but those swirling bird forms paint the sky in ways that suggest meaning. Crows and lapwings flying across each other in the high wind, a tapestry of bird forms. Does it mean something?

The human mind is predisposed to look for patterns and meanings. That’s one of the features that has turned us into what we now are. We see meaning in randomness – as the Rorschach ink blots have taught us. We find it reassuring to have meanings, and we have a collective obsession with the idea that patterns can be interpreted to give us some control over the future. Be that patterns in currency markets, education outcomes, political policies or the flight of cranes. We really don’t want to believe that the world is a random place that has nothing to say to us. However, in our desire to impose a meaning, I wonder if we miss the subtle things that might be actually there. A lack of meaning would sometimes do a lot more to comfortably explain life, and even more critically, death, than this desire to interpret.


The White Goddess

My Father read The White Goddess when I was a child, and bits of it entered my awareness early on. Especially the idea of the Maid-Mother-Crone triple goddess. I attempted to read the book myself in my twenties. By that time I’d read a fair bit of Robert Graves poetry, and I, Claudius. I’d also picked up a degree in English Literature, and I was expecting to be able to handle it.

I was so wrong.

What happened instead was a slow, maddening trudge through page after page of mystery. I didn’t have a classical education, nor did I know my mediaeval texts well enough to get the references that sometimes came thick and fast. I found I didn’t have the history, or the anthropology or etymological skills to really grasp it either. I had at least tried to read Frazer (and, I confess, given up) I knew the gist and could at least see that bit of the puzzle, and I knew about Margaret Murray, and that helped. Mostly, The White Goddess confused the hell out of me.

There were times when I had a keen sense of this enormous, powerful mystery just beyond my grasp. A feeling that words themselves could be acts of magic, and that the entirety of reality could be reshaped if only you knew the right language. A sense of something important that was quite determined to stay hidden in its thicket and well out of my reach.

And then, there was this sneaking suspicion that some of the arguments were a bit circular and didn’t add up right, and that many of the learned references were effectively confusing me and not helping me and that this made it harder to follow the argument and that perhaps that wasn’t an accident. The book had been written to exclude those not elite and poetical enough to keep up with it. In the end I had no choice but to acknowledge that I was never going to be elite and poetical and well read enough to understand Graves.

The things I had understood weren’t terribly cheering, either. Graves writes a lot about true poetry, and what it means to be A Real Poet. Having a willy turns out to be an essential qualifier, for him. Women exist to be muses, beautiful, alluring, demanding, inspiring… but not poets. Only Sappho is apparently allowed to be a Real Poet and that’s mostly to do with being a lesbian, and her permission was grudgingly granted. So, not only am I not clever enough, I’m also not male enough. Thank you Robert Graves. Thank you very much. I never saw myself as potential muse material either. I’m never going to be ethereal enough for what Graves had in mind. I could get side-tracked on a rant about women as artists and historical attitudes, and contemporary ones for that matter… perhaps another day.

In the last week, I’ve slogged my way through Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess. It’s a big, difficult book, (akin to Ronald Hutton on that score) in which ideas and information come thick and fast. Not being an academic, and not automatically knowing all the references, I found it hard going. Interestingly, I did find it readable, in stark contrast to Graves. What Mark Carter does is takes the reader through the tangled maze of Grave’s influences, sources, and possible thinking. I learned a lot about Graves as a consequence, and the book I had struggled with, and came to understand more about how all that fits into modern

Paganism. The effort made in reading Mark’s work more than paid off. I came out feeling like I’d learned a lot, and not like I was stupid. I never once felt myself feeling inadequate over the whole not-having-a-willy thing either.

Mark has done the thing I couldn’t hope to do. He’s picked through The White Goddess, found the sources, cross referenced against possibly relevant things, and picked out the threads until you can see them and possibly make sense of them. I hate to think how long it took, but, as I’m going to be interviewing him for the Moon Book blog, I shall be asking.

And there are no spoilers in saying that yes, Grave’s arguments are actually quite wonky, his evidence wobbles a lot, and those things that looked like distraction tactics, probably were. It comes as a relief to me to think that there is no failing in my not having got to grips with Graves, and that the sense of inadequacy he gave me is not something I need to keep buying into. Good scholarship doesn’t set out to make you feel like an idiot. It gives you a fighting chance of broadening your mind. Mark Carter certainly did that for me, for which he has my profound thanks.

If you were in any way affected by the issues in this blog post, you can get Stalking the Goddess from all the usual places. Here’s one such… http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stalking-Goddess-Mark-Carter/dp/1780991738/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367316849&sr=8-1&keywords=Stalking+the+goddess