First published in 1948, The White Goddess explores the mythology of poetry, or as Robert Graves says,“how poets think.”
But what Graves intended it to be, I think, is a source of inspiration for poets, like himself, yearning for a mystical connection with the muse.
As such, the White Goddess figures prominently in my latest novel, To Sleep With Stones; wherein my hero uses this esoteric knowledge to invoke the Old Gods.
It is a lengthy and difficult text, peppered with obscure references, and has been widely criticized by the academic community. In a letter to a friend, Graves once wrote: “It’s a crazy book and I didn’t mean to write it” (xx). He was, he explains, overtaken by a “sudden overwhelming obsession … an unsolicited enlightenment” (489). We might say he channeled his longed for muse.
There is, says Grave, one single poetic theme that traverses time: The Theme.
The Theme speaks of love and rivalry, of birth, death, and resurrection. The characters in this story are archetypes: the hero king, the dark king (a twin shadow aspect of the hero king), and the white goddess, for whom they compete. When a poet is faithful to some aspect of The Theme, both the writer and the reader, experience a shiver of truth, and a “strange feeling, between delight and horror” (17).
I think it is this intrinsic desire to possess and merge with the beloved that compels men to slay their brothers, drives them through horrific landscapes and into bitter wars. It is the stuff of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Carl Jung’s psychology. Think of the White Goddess as woman, but also as land or territory, and suddenly this mythic story becomes familiar. Think of every story you’ve ever seen or read that gave you pause: Lord of the Rings, Avatar, King Arthur, Titanic, Dracula. And the poems and the songs that we call the classics.
Graves says: “The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the white Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright and lust – the female spider or the queen-bee whose embrace is death” (20).
The White Goddess is an account of Graves’ inspired journey into the realms of Druidic poetry by way of ancient Welsh minstrel poems. Câd Goddeu or the Battle of the Trees comes from the Romance of Taliesin, recorded in The Red Book of Hergest. Graves reconstructs the poem and explains it as a sort of encoded account of a British battle fought on Salisbury Plain between the Tuatha de Danaan (a tribe originally from the Mediterranean who later transformed into Irish Faeries) and an invading Brythonic tribe (51).
But why is an ancient poem about trees significant?
In the Celtic tradition, trees equal letters; in fact, the ancient Irish Beth-Luis-Nion alphabet translates as Birch-Rowan-Ash. And so, this battle, though seemingly fought by trees, is actually the story of a battle fought to retain possession of power, knowledge, and land–embedded in the poem is The Theme.
Graves cracks the code and offers a “calendar of seasonal tree-magic” (161), in which The Theme is enacted through a thirteen-month lunar cycle. The calendar corresponds in various ways to the Wiccan calendar, and so I offer it here, with Sabbats embedded along with Graves’ lore and tree symbolism, and my own added interpretations. Celtic Tree Calendar borrowed from Salems Moon.
1. Birch/Beth (December 24 – January 20) Birch is the tree of beginnings and is used to drive away evil spirits and the darkness of the old year. It was believed that if you beat something or someone with a birch rod you can scare off evil. The birch is silver or white, a light bright tree and first to leaf out in spring. In Christian mythology, December 25th was chosen as the birth date of Christ…the beginning of his life.
2. Rowan or Mountain Ash/Luis (January 21 – February 17) The rowan’s red berries symbolize rebirth, acceleration, and quickening. Red is the colour of birth (blood) and of death (ochre denoting blood), both sacred and magical moments. February 2 is the Celtic feast of Candlemas and dedicated to the Irish Goddess Brigit; herself, a manifestation of the White Goddess.
3. Ash/Nion (February 18 – March 17) The ash symbolizes the power of the sea and of water. It is the months of rains, of floods, of melting snow. It is also the time of Piscean dreamers, and my birthday.
4. Alder/Fearn (March 18 – April 14) The alder symbolizes fire and blood. When you cut the alder, its sap bleeds red. Spring Equinox or Oestara occurs March 21—it is the time of equal day and night, when the sun’s fire breaks the darkness of winter. The blood signifies spring births and the shoots that burst through the Earth’s crust to reach the bright heat of the sun. Later, in Christian mythology, the red blood spilled by Christ symbolized the promise of everlasting life.
5. Willow/Saille (April 15 – May 12) In the “Song of the Forest Trees” we are told: “Burn not the willow, a tree sacred to poets.” The willow is associated with the moon, with water, with the feminine powers of the goddess, with the ability to bend and shape and enchant. Envision the beautiful willow tree bending over the river, reaching its roots through the soil to reach the water. On the eve of Beltane, May 1, an ancient fertility festival, the god and goddess meet in a wild sexual encounter to ensure the continuance of life. The Oak King (the hero king), who came into his power at Winter Solstice, mates with the Goddess and in spreading his seed, and in some stories, his blood, over the land ensures its continued fertility.
6. Hawthorn/Uath (May 13 – June 9) This month was considered unlucky. It was a time of cleansing and purification in preparation for the summer festival. The hawthorn symbolizes chastity.
7. Oak/Duir (June 10 – July 7) The oak is the tree of midsummer festival and symbolizes protection, endurance, and triumph. Castle doors were built of oak, as it was the strongest and toughest wood, capable of deflecting intruders. Druid translates as “oak-seeker” and druids held their rituals in oak groves. At Summer Solstice, the power of the Oak King is waning, and so, his shadow twin, the Holly King slays him by burning him alive. A seven-day wake is held in honour of the Oak King. The Holly King then mates with the Goddess and rules until December 22, when his power wanes and he is slain by the Oak King. This cyclic story of birth, sex, and death signifies the Earth’s natural cycles.
8. Holly/Tinne (July 8 – August 4) The harvest festival of Lughnasadh, which honours the Irish hero-god, Lugh, falls on August 1. It makes sense to me that the deciduous oak tree, which loses its leaves in the fall, would be replaced by its evergreen twin.
9. Hazel/Coll (August 5 – September 1) “That’s it in a nutshell.” The hazel signifies wisdom. Hazelnuts, which ripen and are harvested at this time, provide nourishment for the long winter to come. In England, forked hazel rods were used to divine water and buried treasure, but were also arbiters who could distinguish thieves and murderers from innocent men. Hazel takes nine years to fruit and nine is a sacred number.
10. Vine/Muin (September 2 – September 29) Wine, wine, fruit of the vine. This is the month of fermented berries, grapes, and all things intoxicating. As such, the vine is symbolic of “joy, exhilaration, and wrath”. Mabon or Autumn Equinox occurs on September 21. A time of equal day and night, darkness and light, Mabon is a harvest festival and a time to remember the waxing darkness that is soon to come.
11. Ivy/Gort (September 30 – October 27) The spiralling ivy flowers were “sacred to Osiris as well as Dionysus” both wine gods. “In England the ivy-bush has always been the sign of the wine-tavern” and “ivy-ale, a highly intoxicating medieval drink” (178). Here on the West Coast, ivy is as invasive as revellers who imbibe too much fruit of the vine.
12. Reed/Ngetal (October 28 – November 24) Reeds were cut in November and used to thatch the cottage roof before the storms of winter, when our ancestors were forced to take refuge inside their homes. Samhain occurs the eve of October 31. This is the time for communion with the spirit world as the veils between the worlds are said to be the thinnest. Halloween really means sacred or holy eve–The Hallowed Eve. It is a time for introspection, meditation, divination, reflection on the ancestors, and those who have passed over through death, as well as, reverence for the dark time of the year that is upon us.
13. Elder/Ruis (November 25 – December 22) This is the time of Winter Solstice (December 21) the longest night of the year—the time of darkness. Elder is the “tree of doom” and is associated with witches who were said to ride elder sticks as “magic horses” in Ireland (180).
At this time, the resurrected Oak King slays the waning Holly King and rules in his stead. Five thousand years ago, our European ancestors celebrated the dawn at Winter Solstice by building megalithic passage tombs in which the morning sunlight would shine through a roof box and illuminate the passage. This golden light … this fire … promised the end to the dark cold days of winter and signified the turning of the wheel.
In a high tech world disconnected from the raw power of nature, it is important to remember where we began. In a time when we hack down our forests at a thoughtlessly alarming rate, it is important to remember our beautiful trees and what they stand for.
Have people changed in the last five thousand years? Does The Theme still touch us and send a shiver through our flesh? Love, sex, death, rebirth? What consumes us? If, one day, a rival force challenges us for control of our planet, how will our poets tell the story? If they threaten to silence our language and stories will we find a way to preserve them? Will our poets invoke The White Goddess?