I first came across references to The White Goddess while doing some general research on Celtic mythology, specifically the Morrigan, or Morrigan, the famous Irish goddess of fate and death. Pagan myths and legends have always interested me, and so I was quite eager to check out this book, which is widely regarded as one of the most important to investigate the links between goddess-worship and matriarchal culture. The book is written by Robert Graves, someone I’ve admired ever since I watched the TV adaptation of his most famous work, I, Claudius.

Clocking in at over 500 pages, it took me several months to read The White Goddess, which is a very challenging book. Graves is not primarily a historian, but a poet, and he describes his book as a ‘Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth’, rather than an academic work of history, anthropology or even literary criticism. The book is suffused with classical, literary, historical and mythological allusions and references, and it is frankly impossible and pointless to try and pursue all of the twists and turns Graves makes as he pursues his argument. This is partly because the book is ludicrously dense, as Graves bombards the reader with endless obscure references from all over Europe and the Near East, dating from any time between about 2000 BC and 1500 AD.

Much of the book is devoted to some hopelessly convoluted analysis of a few little-known Welsh and Irish myths and legends. Whatever the inrinsic interest of these stories, their appeal or indeed significance is not well communicated by Graves, who gets hopelessly lost in the maze of his own investigations and speculations. However, the one good thing I got out of these sections was a love for trees. I’ve never been interested in trees or plants, but the prevailing importance of trees in Celtic myths and legends is something I now appreciate, and I’m grateful to the book for opening my eyes to this hugely important, and indeed beautiful subject.

Graves’s critical method is quite undisciplined, and the book would have benefited from proper editing; but then again, it probably would have been impossible to edit this book properly. Graves is obsessed with the idea that all ‘true’ poetry is inspired by a ‘single poetic theme’, Goddess-worshship, and his book essentially consists of an unending effort to find evidence for this argument. At times it’s akin to a form of monomania. Graves has an absurd method of presenting ‘evidence’: if something seems to flatly contradict his thesis on the face of it, he will simply assert that the ancients got it wrong, and that in fact the true allusion or story behind the myth is literally the opposite of what it has been taken to mean for thousands of years. At times he presents a credible reason for this, but time and again he simply asserts it without backing it up at all.

What’s worse, towards the end of the book Graves has two chapters in which major parts of his argument consist of pure fiction. The first is a novel interpretation of the meaning of 666, the ‘number of the beast’, where Graves converts the number into Roman numerals and then imagines a sequence of words starting with the appropriate letters, DCLXVI. The second is a cringeworthy section where he ‘imagines’ a conversation between some Romans discussing the subject matter of his book. It’s excruciating and embarrassing to read, and a massive disappointment considering that these sections come towards the end of the book, just when you’re expecting his argument to finally come together in a coherent way. Graves describes these chapters as the product of ‘analeptic thought’, referring to the idea that you can throw your mind back in time to get a new perspective on something that happened a long time ago. This has been suggested as a way of examining prehistoric art, by looking at its intrinsic visual patterns and moving away from the methods of art criticism that are a modern construct and arguably not valid for examining prehistoric creations. However, there’s a difference between that, and what Graves does here, which I would simply describe as ‘making things up’.

The sad thing is, that the book does actually contain nuggets of inspiration as well as some fascinating comments on comparative religion and the development of religious mythology and iconography. Graves takes his inspiration from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a pioneering book which analysed the material basis for myths and legends in ancient and prehistoric rituals. This book’s best sections are in that tradition, and Graves highlights familiar religious tropes which can be traced across not just Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, and Judaeo-Christian religion, but also between Norse, Germanic, Celtic, and Babylonian religious custom. Moreover, although Graves takes the subject in a personal and subjective direction, the core subject matter is something that has interested me since discovering the ‘materialist conception of history’ as a student and reading Friedrich Engels book, ‘The origins of the family, private property, and the state.’

The key theme here is the role of ‘The White Goddess’, also referred to as the Triple Goddess, who recurs in most religious pantheons as a mother/wife figure, often in a triple aspect as mother, daughter, and crone (or as maiden, seductress, and hag). The argument is that in matriarchal society, before the development of agriculture and before the Bronze Age, this goddess was a prevailing archetype across most of Europe and indeed the wider world, whose primary position was overthrown by male gods over a period of time due to the rise of patriarchal society and the concomitant development of patriarchal religion. This goddess figure was thenceforth subjugated in her commonly known forms such as Isis, Hera/Juno, Frigg/Freya, etc.

One thing that surprised me was that Graves doesn’t seem to examine the role of Gaia-type goddesses. In Greek mythology, for example, Gaia (‘Mother Earth’) is the original deity who gave birth to the fatherless Uranus, and then mated with him to produce offspring which included Cronus (the father of Zeus). The trope of a virgin birth, or the child without a father, is an obvious indicator of matriarchy or matrilinear descent, ie, a form of social organization where a child’s paternity is either unknown or unimportant. But Graves tends to shy away from this kind of social comment in favour of obtuse linguistic references. He also makes no comment on the well-known ‘fat lady’ iconography that existed across Europe in the neolithic period, and which is a clear sign of worship of fertility and the female form.

It’s a significant problem that Graves did not do a better job with this book. This is an important subject, and one can’t help think that he was onto something with his central argument. The problem is that his irresponsible and self-indulgent treatment of the subject matter tends to discredit the whole line of investigation. Sadly, if you do an internet search about matriarchal religions today you’ll find the subject is largely the preserve of mystics and cranks, which is a far cry from the late-nineteenth century when there was a great deal of serious study devoted to this important subject, by women and men alike. As Graves points out in connection to the replacement of matriarchy by patriarchy, the onward march of time brings regression as well as progression.