Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess is a companion book for Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. It makes sense of this often challenging, sometime impenetrable text. Here’s an excerpt from early in the book…
Graves’s ancient matriarchy, which worshiped a mother goddess, the associations of the moon to women, the seasons and reincarnation, the twin gods who alternately died in service to the goddess, the sacred king who imitated the gods, the rise of warrior tribes, the eventual downfall of the goddess religion and its secret survival, are all interrelated factors within The White Goddess.
To understand the book we must remember all this simultaneously with whatever else Graves chooses to throw at us in our long hunt through his tangled woods. Forgetting any of these factors, results in getting lost while hunting. Nor is Graves a reader-friendly author in his chase. He manipulates his arguments with total disregard to the reader’s ability to follow until we suspect that this is intentional. He is struggling to reveal his ideas to poets while simultaneously complicating the issue enough that critics eventually lose the trail. Put simply, Graves believes he is revealing the true nature of poetry and it will only be revealed to poets who can survive the chase. Anyone else reading for any other reason, especially critics, are meant to get lost in the woods. As one critic said, “Graves does not feel the casual reader is worth stopping for and can be purposely difficult when he chooses to be so” (Mehoke 78).
Once we understand Graves’s theory of ancient goddess worship and its downfall we can examine just how he believes portions of this pagan tradition have survived into our own times. His main
argument is that much of pre-Christian paganism has passed directly into European literature to become preserved in poetry and fiction. Pre-Christian literature in Greece and Rome was profuse.
Similar pagan texts also came out of the Middle East. Celtic Europe produced no true examples of pre-Christian texts; however, medieval manuscripts prove the existence of a long-standing oral pagan poetic system and often placed poets and fiction authors at odds with the church. It’s in this literary form that Graves believes the goddess religion is best preserved.
Graves claims individuals and small groups who remained loyal to the goddess intentionally cultivated this survival of pagan ideas. These groups, sects, or cults became pockets of resistance against a more patriarchal system of paganism and eventually against the arrival of Christianity. The two most significant of these groups were the witches of the Middle Ages and the poetic schools of Wales and Ireland. Graves argues that both groups followed a surviving form of goddess worship and used ogham to secretly transmit their
To support his theory that Celtic poets retained this goddess worship Graves examines the works of several Celtic authors. He particularly examines two thirteenth century bardic poems in which
he claims pagan religious ideas are secretly encoded. These poems are Cad Goddeu and Hanes Taliesin, both of which can be found in their original Welsh form in the collection of early Welsh poetry Myvyrian Archaiology.
These combined sources laid the foundation for Graves’s Armed with these poems, and with a rough idea of Graves’s theories, we can enter his forest of research. We have the foundation on which his arguments are based and we have the poems he cites. We already know many of the points he supports and conclusions he attempts to reach. This is more than what most readers are given.
With this brief outline serving as a map, we may attempt to hunt the roebuck Graves conceals in his thicket of scholarship.