This book, first published more than sixty years ago, was the outcome of Robert Graves's vast reading and research into strange territories of folklore, mythology, religion, and magic. Erudite and impassioned, it is a scholar-poet's quest for the meaning of European myths, a polemic about the relations between man and woman, and also an intensely personal document in which Graves explores the sources of his own inspiration and, as he believed, all true poetry. Incorporating all of Graves's final revisions, his replies to two of the original reviewers, and an essay describing the months of illumination in which The White Goddess was written, this is the definitive edition of one of the most influential books of our time.
I had thought for some while that Graves was pretty much responsible for the maiden, mother, crone idea but I now gather it goes back one generation further.
By teasing out the meanings of these works, Graves links in the themes to the wider European body of mythology. He posits an explanation for the riddle in the Battle of Trees, in that it relates to a calendar system with each tree representing a month. He explains why each tree relates to a specific month, linking in the related mythology associated with each tree and its cultural significance. This is then tied in with some non-arboreal riddle like poems that he believes also relate to a calendar system, which he links in to his notion of the White Goddess who is represented by the calendar.
Graves presents at length his evidence for an older common religious substratum, based on the White Goddess, present across Europe and the near East before historical times. He shows us examples taken from Welsh literature, Greek, other European and near Eastern mythology, which support his theory. He believes this female-deity led religious system predates the male deity-led systems which superseded them, and finds traces of this origin preserved in mythology and names.
He goes on to suggest that the White Goddess, the ancient prehistorical source of inspiration, life, and death, is the basis of all true poetry, acting much like an archetype of the unconscious as Jung would have it (though in a rare oversight in what is a well-researched book, he does not seem to have connected his idea specifically with Jung here).
In places this book is quite hard-going, with a lot of densely presented information, many names, aliases, myths, and parallels to keep hold of in the mind simultaneously, in order to follow Graves arguments fully. In this sense it has much in common with Frazer’s Golden Bough, which Graves notes was an important source of inspiration and reference in his writing of this work.
Whether or not the arguments presented here are convincing or not will perhaps depend to a large extent on how patient the reader is in following protracted arguments, or alternatively how much we are willing to accept at face value from the author. This is a complicated, dense, and lengthy work to read, but it does at least bring to light hidden themes present in European mythology, whether or not we accept them as meaning exactly what Graves says that they do. It also presents a style of thinking, poetic thinking as the author calls it (as opposed to scientific thinking), which he believes was a route to a different type of truth (at least so in historic times before it was largely lost), peculiar to the creators and keepers of bardic lore, mythology, and religious secrets in pagan times, who he discusses throughout this work.
In all this contains much of interest in terms of poetry, literature in general, mythology, anthropology, and history, whether or not we accept Graves’ argument in its details. Many readers however will find the content tenuous and overly complex, and if we do not take the author’s word for things, the arguments are often too tangled to easily follow. This is probably not for the casual reader, but if you have an interest in the themes and plenty of time to wade through it and read it patiently, it might be rewarding.