The White Goddess by Robert Graves described his poetic vision of the relationship between the Muse and the true poet. Graves possessed an extraordinary knowledge of Classical and Celtic mythology and poetic literature. He was intrigued with ancients’ penchant for mysteries and the religious secrets they believed could confer temporal powers. Graves describes a poet as one able to use single words in multiple ways at the same time. He sees poets as possessing greater multi-dimensional capability in their powers of thought. The disappearance of bardic traditions around the world thus has deprived us of unique and powerful wisdom.
Graves begins by describing an itinerant 12th century Welsh bard (Gwion) who wrote some rather difficult mythic poetry that later Welsh scholars felt had hidden meaning. It is an interesting feature of Celtic Christianity that it appears to have been adopted not by command of the secular authorities as among the Anglo Saxons but by the druidic religious authorities themselves with the resultant extensive syncretism and preservation of the old ways even among the bardic orders. As the Normans installed orthodox churchmen in Welsh and Irish parishes, bards who followed the old ways became increasingly careful of their subject matter. Gwion, trained in Wales and Ireland, used the Dog, the Roebuck and the Lapwing, medieval encryption techniques, to hide in his poem (which concerned a superficially fanciful version of his childhoold and bondage to the witch (ie Goddess) Ceridwen) an ogham alphabet other than the standard druidic script, a description of a change in religious order in Britain (but not Ireland) about the time of the Brythonic invasions ca 300 BC, and the hidden significance of each secet alphabetic letter and its position to the calendar and allegorical references therein to worship of the Triple Goddess and the sacrificial sacred king crowned at midsummer and his son who fought, killed and replaced him at Yule (cf the legend of Pwyll who battled Havgan the white in Annwn).
Graves develops this theme in three directions. First he identifies the sacred symbols associated with each letter: trees, gems, beasts, birds, stars (planets), gods, numbers, human characteristics, and medicinal effects.
Secondly he demonstrates that essentially the same beliefs existed described by myths in the Pelasgian and neighboring societies around the Eastern Mediterranean. He shows how these beliefs spread, not always unidirectionally; classical societies were very religiously eclectic. The “migrations of peoples” he suggests seem unlikely; knowledge and belief spread by trade and cultural contact. The Celts apparently absorbed some of these beliefs early: the triple goddess was inherently IndoEuropean and others, eg sacred and profane alphabets, were learnt from Etruscans and Massilot Greeks.
Thirdly, Graves believes ancient Mideastern societies, including Canaan and Hyksos Egypt, traded symbols and theological beliefs between 1000 and 2000 BCE through Indo European contacts such as Aryans, Persians, or Hittites. Consequentially, Graves argues pre-exilic Judaic history and religion were far more complex than now commonly understood. Even the briefest foray into Biblical studies will indicate the truth of this though not always exonerating Graves’ conclusions. The exile profoundly altered and Monotheized Judaism. Graves’ description of the heavenly Chariot seen by Ezekiel, the bull calf god, or the visions of the Book of Enoch in his explicated symbolic terms are fascinating.
Graves synthesizes all this in the Welsh cycle of Llew Long hand. The three Goddesses incarnate were Arianrhod, Llew’s mother, Blodeuwedd, his lover, and the sow sacred to Ceridwen who ate his dead flesh. Gwydion (sorcerer and healer god Odin/Hermes) resurrected Llew. Llew and Gwydion returned to Celtic otherworld Annwn where the story began with king Arawn’s gift of sacred pigs to Demetian king Pryderi and engaged Arawn in the “Battle of the Trees” symbolizing the wresting control of the shrine at Stonehenge from devotees of Bendegeid Bran/Saturn (who thereafter decamped with his following to Angelsey and Ireland). If so, the traditional pedigree of the kings of Wessex pre-Cerdic takes on a profoundly different significance.
The Goddess ever watches, sometimes loving, sometimes fierce. She possesses more than three names but she manifests as three and her names when she manifests are indicative of her purpose. Graves argues that popular Medieval Goddess worship was sublimated into worship of Mary. Lest anyone think this oversimplification, one has but to count the Marys in the Gospels and consider their often sublimated roles.
Finally, Graves describes the desperate, doomed and ineffable relationship between the poet and the Muse. He laments we have lost our way since the Reformation deprived us of our transcendental understanding of the Virgin and he suggests that only by return to ancient wisdom may we truly regain psychic and poetic balance.
One final caveat: Given the characteristic non-linear prose style of his writing here and Graves’ clearly stated attitudes toward poets and “gleemen” it is very likely that Graves himself obscured additional themes in his text and these may be sought by the same method he used to deconstruct Gwion’s poem, and enterprise requiring very considerable effort, I do not doubt, given Graves erudition. One should not hope to find the location of lost treasure or the grave of the Magdalene but perhaps some deeply cherished belief concerning the nature of the Goddess herself (A hidden sacred secret name he derived perhaps). Graves’ many multilayered words about the Goddess in this book leave her as mysterious on the last page as She is on the first.