I first read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess in my early twenties, and it influenced one of the poems I wrote then, in conjunction with a couple of books by Margaret Murray (if I have the name right) who theorized that the witch cult of northern Europe (at least) was a survival of matriarchal religion: the religion which worships the Goddess rather than the God.
I didn’t understand everything about the book then, and I still don’t. It’s a puzzle, and one not easily understood. There are a lot of lists of mythological people and events, many of which I’m still not familiar with, and it’s hard to keep it all straight. But I think I can summarize some of the main points.
What we now call paganism was a vast religious system that took in Europe, the Mediterranean world, the near East and at least some of Africa. It probably extended at least as far east as India, and possibly further. According to Graves, its primeval form was the Sacred King marrying the Goddess, in the person of a priestess, and being sacrificed every half year to bring good to his tribe or kingdom. He would be succeeded halfway through the year by his Tanist, whom Graves defines as his other self, and there are many of these in mythology. Osiris and Set are one well-known instance. Graves also says that the frequency of twins in Greek and Roman mythology are also an expression of this: Castor and Pollux, Idas and Lynceus, Romulus and Remus. The dead King would be resurrected as an oracular hero, whose head would be kept on an island, usually in a river, sacred to that purpose.
The Poet, who once had a much more important role than now, came into this religious system as well, because he was inspired by love of the Goddess, and was given powers to inspire others, to evoke the power of the Goddess and tell the truths She wanted told. This situation gradually changed.
It changed with the invasion of the Greeks, and possibly others, who worshipped Father gods, into what are now Turkey, Greece and the Near East. One result of this was the subjugation, wholly or partly, of those who worshipped the Mother by those who worshipped the Father. When the various gods married the various goddesses, that probably means they took over their sanctuaries and oracles. They also seem to have provoked emigration. The Danaans, known as the Tuatha de Danaan in Ireland, are supposed to have been Pelasgians, the occupants of what is now Greece before the Greeks got there. They may have been related to the Cretans, or at least influenced by them. The Danaans may have brought their religious system to the rest of Europe, if it wasn’t there already.
Under pressure from the patriarchal invaders, the religious pattern changed somewhat. The Sacred King had lived a year or half a year before being sacrificed. Later his term of office was extended, and he was allowed to sacrifice substitutes, often children, rather than being sacrificed himself. This, says Graves, accounts for children being sacrificed to Moloch (or Melkarth) by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and for Hercules (in Greek, Heracles, glory of Hera–Hera being one of the many names of the goddess) having supposedly accidentally having killed some children. Actually, according to Graves, Hercules, like many other names, was a title rather than an individual. An ancient author said there had been at least 44 different individuals who had contributed to the Hercules legend.
Graves had been previously convinced of the ancient existence of matriarchal religion, but this book was stimulated by his reflection on a medieval or somewhat earlier poem about a war of trees. He found that the trees each symbolized a letter and that the poem was actually about a sacred alphabet that was used to spell the most secret name of God. The alphabet connected to the seasons and the ancient cosmology in general.
So the book looks at a poem written probably about the 12th or 13th century AD, when a poet challenges the poetic establishment in Wales with a riddling poem showing that he understands the ancient meanings of poetic symbolism better than they do. The poem has been “pied”, its lines mixed up, to keep ordinary people from understanding it, so besides working out the symbolism, Graves had to reconstruct the poem to its original form, as closely as possible. He says that this problem came to him while he was working on a novel, so he put the novel away for about six weeks to write this book, though he further elaborated it later.
Ancient religion has generally been poorly understood, probably in large part due to the early Christian attitude towards it, considering its gods to be demons. Actually, as Camille Paglia points out in Sexual Personae, it would be more proper to refer to pagan gods and other spirits as daimons. a more neutral word. Socrates claimed to have a daimon that guided him, which suggests that some daimons were good and some were not, which was paganism’s attitude all along. And even Christianity never suggested that God was the ONLY spirit. Or even that all other spirits were evil, as the word demon somewhat more than implies.
Some of the Sacred Kings were of virgin birth, which, Graves says, means that they were from the time before it was realized that men had anything to do with progeneration. Women produced children alone, which made them magical beings. Men have often felt inferior in relation to women, which probably accounts for much of rape and other forms of assault on women: men asserting their superiority in the only way they can. Through superior size and physical strength. In modern times it’s apparent that women are just as able as men in most things, which doesn’t reassure the masculine inferiority complex.
In a recent poem I asked why we start our year in winter, when it ought to start in spring, with the return of life. A number of ancient cultures did start the year then, but quite a few started it around the Winter Solstice, because that’s when the Divine Child, who will be Sacred King is born. Christianity took this from paganism (disregarding that Jesus was probably born at a different time of year), along with Easter eggs and many pagan sacred places. Christmas has become the most important Christian holiday, even more than Easter, which, considering Christian pretensions, seems a little odd. Graves, though, remarks that the greatest gift of paganism to Christianity was the example of how to revise mythology to make it seem that the new order had always been ordained by God or the gods.
Examples include the Adam and Eve story. Eve’s name means “Mother of All Living” (and interestingly enough, a DNA study traces all known human DNA back to a woman living 200,000-300,000 years ago), so it’s nonsensical that Eve should have been made from Adam’s rib. Adam was her Sacred King, and the serpent became his Tanist. He would bruise the serpent’s head, and the serpent would bite his sacred heel in turn, year after year, in cyclical ritual.
The other major example is the Catholic cult of the Virgin Mary, which Protestants objected to. But what did Protestantism have to offer people mythologically? Once Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church, they continued to splinter into hundreds if not thousands of sects. Sponsorship of the Virgin Mary may be the main thing that has kept Catholicism going in the face of its frequent corruption and its distaste for the modern world.
For religion seems to have gone wrong in the modern world. Certainly the perspective is much different from paganism, which lived in the natural world, while modern man (especially urban man) successfully escapes it most of the time. Graves notes (as did more recently Harold Bloom, if I remember correctly) that God the Father, so differently characterized in the New Testament than the Old, is hardly even mentioned by modern Christians. Jesus is almost exclusively the subject when talking about God.
The root of this situation, according to Graves, is the Prophet Ezekial’s vision of the Chariot, which makes God altogether transcendent, as well as completely good and loving.
It’s now widely recognized that the Hebrew people pretty much practiced religion in the same way as their neighbors until after the conquest of Judah, and the Babylonian Captivity. They worshipped goddesses and took part in fertility rites. It wasn’t until they returned from Babylon that they went to the other extreme of monotheism and a Father God, though the Old Testament tries to make it seem much earlier.
The contrast with the Mother Goddess was stark: she was both kind and cruel, giving life, but also suffering and death. Nature was her home, not cities, though some cities might claim her as patron. Camille Paglia says that society is the human way of protecting ourselves against the cruelty of nature, which is always characterized as a Mother, not a Father.
So in a religion centered on a transcendent Father, it becomes theologically necessary to attribute evil, which makes the Devil more important. He becomes the Tanist of Jesus, and instigates much fear and cruelty, and not in any obvious way for the good of humanity through inspiration, but in order to degrade.
According to Graves, this unsatisfactory state of affairs has caused religion to decline for the last few centuries, and for a new trinity to assume power of human affairs. The Holy Trinity promulgated in the 4th century AD was only new in the persons comprising it. There had been many trinities before: the Goddess formed many of them under various names, but always the same roles: maiden, nymph (or wife), and hag. Man was brought into life by her, initiated into manhood, then laid out in death, or betrayed into it.
Graves defines the trinity now dominating religion (that is, what we actually worship) as Pluto (wealth), Mercury (theft), and Apollo (science). There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with science, but the other two members of the trinity determine how scientific knowledge will be used. Usually this is to use nature’s resources for our own benefit, without considering our responsitibility to nature, without which we could not live. The Bible doesn’t approve of this lifestyle, though it’s not too explicit about it, but the Goddess didn’t consider humans more important than any other part of Her kingdom.
As Graves says, though, women will be willing to accept the Western civilization for now, since it gives them more freedom than they’ve had since ancient times, though they also may not approve of it. Things, he says, will probably have to get worse before they can get better, and that seems pretty clear. Some would be willing to find a more natural way to live, but so far they’re a minority.
Ultimately, anyone advanced very far in any sort of religious life probably realizes the imbalance of how we currently live. Worship of the Goddess instead of the God is probably just one of many ways to reach for something better.