The White Goddess
The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth is a book-length essay on the nature of poetic myth-making by author and poet Robert Graves
Robert Graves
Robert von Ranke Graves 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985 was an English poet, translator and novelist. During his long life he produced more than 140 works...

. First published in 1948, based on earlier articles published in Wales
Wales (magazine)
Wales was an English-language literary journal, published from 1937 to 1960. The magazine contained fiction, poetry, reviews and articles pertaining to Wales....

 magazine, corrected, revised and enlarged editions appeared in 1948, 1952 and 1961. The White Goddess represents an approach to the study of mythology
The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece...

 from a decidedly creative and idiosyncratic perspective. Graves proposes the existence of a Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

an deity
A deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....

, the "White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death," much similar to the Mother Goddess
Mother goddess
Mother goddess is a term used to refer to a goddess who represents motherhood, fertility, creation or embodies the bounty of the Earth. When equated with the Earth or the natural world such goddesses are sometimes referred to as Mother Earth or as the Earth Mother.Many different goddesses have...

, inspired and represented by the phases of the moon
The Moon is Earth's only known natural satellite,There are a number of near-Earth asteroids including 3753 Cruithne that are co-orbital with Earth: their orbits bring them close to Earth for periods of time but then alter in the long term . These are quasi-satellites and not true moons. For more...

, who lies behind the faces of the diverse goddesses of various European and pagan mythologies.

Graves argues that "true" or "pure" poetry is inextricably linked with the ancient cult-ritual of his proposed White Goddess and of her son.


Graves first wrote the book under the title of The Roebuck in the Thicket in a three-week period during January 1944, only a month after finishing The Golden Fleece. He then left the book, to focus on King Jesus, a historical novel about the life of Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...

. Returning to The Roebuck in the Thicket, he renamed it The Three-Fold Muse, before finishing it and retitling it as The White Goddess. In January 1946 he sent it to the publishers, and in May 1948 it was published in the UK, and in June 1948 in the US, as The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth.

Poetry and myth

Graves described The White Goddess as "a historical grammar of the language of poetic
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece...

." The book draws from the mythology and poetry of Wales
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

 and Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 especially, as well as that of most of Western Europe
Western Europe
Western Europe is a loose term for the collection of countries in the western most region of the European continents, though this definition is context-dependent and carries cultural and political connotations. One definition describes Western Europe as a geographic entity—the region lying in the...

 and the ancient Middle East
Middle East
The Middle East is a region that encompasses Western Asia and Northern Africa. It is often used as a synonym for Near East, in opposition to Far East...

. Relying on arguments from etymology
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during...

 and the use of forensic techniques to uncover what he calls 'iconotropic' redaction of original myths, Graves, argues for the worship of a single goddess under many names, an idea that came to be known as "Matriarchal religion
Matriarchal religion
The concept of a Matriarchal religion is a concept forwarded in second-wave feminism since the 1970s, based on the notion of a historical matriarchy first developed in the 19th century by J. J...

" in feminist theology
Feminist theology
Feminist theology is a movement found in several religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and New Thought, to reconsider the traditions, practices, scriptures, and theologies of those religions from a feminist perspective...

 of the 1970s.

In response to critics, Graves has accused literary scholars of being psychologically incapable of interpreting myth or too concerned with maintaining their perquisites to go against the majority view. (See Frazer quote below.)

The Golden Bough
The Golden Bough
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion, written by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer . It first was published in two volumes in 1890; the third edition, published 1906–15, comprised twelve volumes...

 (1922, but begun in 1890), an early anthropological study by Sir James George Frazer, is the starting point for much of Graves's argument, and Graves thought in part that his book made explicit what Frazer only hinted at. Graves wrote:
Sir James Frazer was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College
Trinity College, Cambridge
Trinity College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. Trinity has more members than any other college in Cambridge or Oxford, with around 700 undergraduates, 430 graduates, and over 170 Fellows...

, Cambridge
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

, until his death by carefully and methodically sailing all around his dangerous subject, as if charting the coastline of a forbidden island without actually committing himself to a declaration that it existed. What he was saying-not-saying was that Christian legend, dogma and ritual are the refinement of a great body of primitive and even barbarous
Barbarian and savage are terms used to refer to a person who is perceived to be uncivilized. The word is often used either in a general reference to a member of a nation or ethnos, typically a tribal society as seen by an urban civilization either viewed as inferior, or admired as a noble savage...

 beliefs, and that almost the only original element in Christianity is the personality of Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...


Graves' The White Goddess deals with goddess worship
A goddess is a female deity. In some cultures goddesses are associated with Earth, motherhood, love, and the household. In other cultures, goddesses also rule over war, death, and destruction as well as healing....

 as the prototypical religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

, analyzing it largely from literary evidence, in myth and poetry.

Graves admitted he was not a medieval historian, but a poet, and thus based his work on the premise that the
language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honor of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry...

Graves concluded, in the second and expanded edition, that the male-dominant monotheistic god of Judaism
Judaism ) is the "religion, philosophy, and way of life" of the Jewish people...

 and its successors were the cause of the White Goddess's downfall, and thus the source of much of the modern world's woe. He describes Woman as occupying a higher echelon than mere poet, that of the Muse Herself. He adds "This is not to say that a woman should refrain from writing poems; only, that she should write as a woman, not as an honorary man." He seems particularly bothered by the spectre of women's writing reflecting male-dominated poetic conventions.

Graves openly considered poetic inspiration, or "Analepsis" as he termed it, a valid historical methodology.

Visual iconography was also important to Graves's conception. Graves created a methodology for reading images he called "iconotropy". To practice this methodology one is required to reduce "speech into its original images and rhythms" and then to combine these "on several simultaneous levels of thought". By applying this methodology Graves decoded a woodcut of The Judgement of Paris
Judgement of Paris
thumb |right |460px |[[The Judgment of Paris |The Judgment of Paris]], [[Peter Paul Rubens]], ca 1636...

 as depicting a singular Triple Goddess rather than the traditional Hera
Hera was the wife and one of three sisters of Zeus in the Olympian pantheon of Greek mythology and religion. Her chief function was as the goddess of women and marriage. Her counterpart in the religion of ancient Rome was Juno. The cow and the peacock were sacred to her...

, Athena
In Greek mythology, Athena, Athenê, or Athene , also referred to as Pallas Athena/Athene , is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, warfare, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, justice, and skill. Minerva, Athena's Roman incarnation, embodies similar attributes. Athena is...

 and Aphrodite
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation.Her Roman equivalent is the goddess .Historically, her cult in Greece was imported from, or influenced by, the cult of Astarte in Phoenicia....

 of the narrative the image illustrates.

"Celtic Astrology"

Graves also argues that the names of the Ogham
Ogham is an Early Medieval alphabet used primarily to write the Old Irish language, and occasionally the Brythonic language. Ogham is sometimes called the "Celtic Tree Alphabet", based on a High Medieval Bríatharogam tradition ascribing names of trees to the individual letters.There are roughly...

 letters in the alphabet used in parts of Gaelic Ireland and Britain contained a calendar that contained the key to an ancient liturgy
Liturgy is either the customary public worship done by a specific religious group, according to its particular traditions or a more precise term that distinguishes between those religious groups who believe their ritual requires the "people" to do the "work" of responding to the priest, and those...

 involving the human sacrifice
Human sacrifice
Human sacrifice is the act of killing one or more human beings as part of a religious ritual . Its typology closely parallels the various practices of ritual slaughter of animals and of religious sacrifice in general. Human sacrifice has been practised in various cultures throughout history...

 of a sacred king
Sacred king
In many historical societies, the position of kingship carries a sacral meaning, that is, it is identical with that of a high priest and of judge. The concept of theocracy is related, although a sacred king need not necessarily rule through his religious authority; rather, the temporal position...

, and, further, that these letter names concealed lines of Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

Hexameter is a metrical line of verse consisting of six feet. It was the standard epic metre in classical Greek and Latin literature, such as in the Iliad and Aeneid. Its use in other genres of composition include Horace's satires, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. According to Greek mythology, hexameter...

 describing the goddess.

While Graves' "Celtic Astrology" has been popularized by some New Age
New Age
The New Age movement is a Western spiritual movement that developed in the second half of the 20th century. Its central precepts have been described as "drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and then infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational...

 authors, his "Tree Calendar" has no relation to any historical Celtic calendar
Celtic calendar
The Celtic calendar is a compilation of pre-Christian Celtic systems of timekeeping, including the Gaulish Coligny calendar, used by Celtic countries to define the beginning and length of the day, the week, the month, the seasons, quarter days, and festivals....

His interpretations rather rely on the book Ogygia by the 17th-century bard Roderick O'Flaherty
Roderick O'Flaherty
Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh , Irish historian.-Biography:He was born in Co Galway and inherited Maigh Cuilinn Castle and estate....

Graves' "Tree Zodiac" includes the four cardinal point besides the twelve signs of the zodiac, resulting in a list of 16, matched to the 20 Ogham letters by attributing two letters each to winter solstice (A/I), Sagittarius (B/R), spring equinox (O/E) and Gemini (D/T):
  1. Winter Solstice: A/I: Spruce/Yew
  2. Sagittarius: B/R: Birch/Elder
  3. Capricorn: L: Service tree
  4. Aquarius: N: Ash
  5. Spring Equinox: O/E: Furze/Poplar
  6. Pisces: F: Alder
  7. Aries: S: Willow
  8. Taurus: H: Whitethorn
  9. Summer Solstice U: Heather
  10. Gemini: D/T: Oak/Holly
  11. Cancer: C: Hazel
  12. Leo: Q: Apple
  13. Autumnal Equinox: E/O : Poplar/Furze
  14. Virgo: M: Vine
  15. Libra: G: Ivy
  16. Scorpio: NG: Reed


The White Goddess has been seen as a poetic work where Graves gives his notion of man's subjection to women in love an "anthropological grandeur" and further mythologises all women in general (and several of Graves's lovers in specific) into a three-faced moon goddess model.
Graves's value as a poet aside, flaws in his scholarship such as poor philology
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

, misdating texts (for example, the Hanes Taliesin a 16th-18th century text which Graves believed originated centuries earlier), and use of out-dated archeology have been criticised. Some scholars, particularly archeologists, historians and folklorists have not received the work favourably. Graves was disappointed that his work was "loudly ignored" by many Celtic scholars; however, it was accepted as history by many non-scholarly readers and, according to Ronald Hutton
Ronald Hutton
Ronald Hutton is an English historian who specializes in the study of Early Modern Britain, British folklore, pre-Christian religion and contemporary Paganism. A reader in the subject at the University of Bristol, Hutton has published fourteen books and has appeared on British television and radio...

, The White Goddess remains a major source of confusion about the ancient Celts and influences many un-scholarly views of Celtic paganism. Hilda Ellis Davidson criticized Graves as having "misled many innocent readers with his eloquent but deceptive statements about a nebulous goddess in early Celtic literature", and stated that he was "no authority" on the subject matter he presented. While Graves made the association between Goddesses and the moon appear "natural," it was not so to the Celts or some other ancient peoples. Some Neopagans have been bemused and upset by the scholarly criticism that The White Goddess has received in recent years, while others have appreciated its poetic insight but never accepted it as a work of historical veracity.

Michael W. Pharand, though quoting earlier criticisms, rebutted, "Graves's theories and conclusions, outlandish as they seemed to his contemporaries (or may appear to us), were the result of careful observation."

See also

  • Matriarchal religion
    Matriarchal religion
    The concept of a Matriarchal religion is a concept forwarded in second-wave feminism since the 1970s, based on the notion of a historical matriarchy first developed in the 19th century by J. J...

  • The Hebrew Goddess
    The Hebrew Goddess
    The Hebrew Goddess is a 1967 book by Jewish historian and anthropologist Raphael Patai. In this book, Patai argues that the Jewish religion historically had elements of polytheism, especially the worship of goddesses and a cult of the mother goddess...

  • Triple Goddess (Neopaganism)
  • Triple goddesses
    Triple deity
    A triple deity is a deity associated with the number three. Such deities are common throughout world mythology; the number three has a long history of mythical associations. C. G...

  • When God Was a Woman
    When God Was a Woman
    When God Was a Woman is the U.S. title of a 1976 book by sculptor and art historian Merlin Stone. It was published earlier in the UK as The Paradise Papers: The Suppression of Women's Rites...


  • 1948 - The White Goddess : a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (London: Faber & Faber) [Corr. 2nd ed. also issued by Faber in 1948] [US ed.= New York, Creative Age Press, 1948]
  • 1952 - The White Goddess : a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Amended & enl. ed.[i.e. 3rd ed.] (London: Faber & Faber) [US ed.= New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1958]
  • 1961 - The White Goddess : a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Amended & enl. ed.[i.e. 4th ed.] (London: Faber & Faber) [US ed.= New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966]
  • 1997 - The White Goddess : a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth; edited by Grevel Lindop
    Grevel Lindop
    Grevel Lindop is an English poet, academic and literary critic.-Life:Lindop was born in Liverpool and studied at Wadham College, Oxford, where he read English. After two years of postgraduate research at Wadham and Wolfson Colleges, Oxford, he moved to Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, where he...

     (Manchester: Carcanet) ISBN 1-85754-248-7

Critical studies

  • Bennett, Joseph, [review of Robert Graves' The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth], Hudson Review, vol.2 (1949), 133-138
  • Davis, Robert A., 'The Origin, Evolution, and Function of the Myth of the White Goddess in the Writings of Robert Graves' (unpublished PhD, University of Stirling, 1987) [ British Library copy: BLDSC DX212513]
  • Donoghue, Denis, 'The Myths of Robert Graves', New York Review of Books, 43, no.6 (4 April 1996), 27-31
  • Graves and the Goddess : Essays on Robert Graves's The White Goddess, ed. by Ian Firla and Grevel Lindop (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003) ISBN 1-57591-055-1
  • Graves, Richard Perceval, Robert Graves and The White Goddess, 1940-85 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995) ISBN 0-297-81534-2
  • Kirkham, M.C., 'Incertitude and The White Goddess, Essays in Criticism, 16 (1966), 57-72
  • Lindop, Grevel, 'A Crazy Book: Robert Graves and The White Goddess, PN Review, 24, no. 1 [117] (1997 Sept-Oct), 27-29
  • Musgrove, Sydney, The Ancestry of 'The White Goddess, (Bulletin No. 62, English Series, no. 11) (Auckland: Univ. of Auckland Press, 1962)
  • Smeds, John. Statement and story : Robert Graves's myth-making (Åbo : Åbo Akademis Förlag, 1997)
  • Vickery, John B., Robert Graves and The White Goddess (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1972)
  • Vogel, Amber, 'Not Elizabeth to his Raleigh: Laura Riding, Robert Graves, and origins of The White Goddess, in Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship, ed. by Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson (University of Wisconsin Press
    University of Wisconsin Press
    The University of Wisconsin Press is a non-profit university press publishing peer-reviewed books and journals. It primarily publishes work by scholars from the global academic community but also serves the citizens of Wisconsin by publishing important books about Wisconsin, the Upper Midwest, and...

    , 2006), pp. 229–239, ISBN 978-0-299-21760-0

External links

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