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Challenge or Inspiration? :
 The White Goddess in contemporary feminism and women's studies.

A rapidly growing movement in Britain and in the US, and elsewhere today, feminist spirituality has been called one of the most fascinating religious phenomena of the last twenty years. (Eller 1993:ix). For much of that time Graves' The White Goddess was possibly the most widely read and most influential book on the subject, inspiring a generation of women. However, it has also been subject of severe criticism for lack of academic stringency as well as for its emphasis on the "male gaze" in relation to the goddess, and its Eurocentric character. In addition, a wide swathe of the women's studies movement still disdains any discussion of spirituality, although it is in that area that most progress towards women's self-empowerment is taking place and Robert Graves is possibly an unlikely progenitor of the process.

Caitlin Matthews, a prolific writer on Celtic history and spirituality opened her book "Sophia Goddess of Wisdom", (1991:15) by stating: " We live in an age of rediscovery and remembrance, where the Divine Feminine as Goddess is being recalled to consciousness. One of her key visionaries has been the poet Robert Graves whose book "The White Goddess" has awakened a sleeping world." Exaggeration? Not really. In her study, Cynthia Eller (1995:15) quotes the answer of one of the respondents to her question: Who is the Goddess? "When I discovered the Graves' White Goddess it was the most exciting thing I had ever read in my life"; she added that "this wonderful lost tradition" made sense of her own previously not understood internal symbols and spirituality.

These comments give some idea of the feelings of women in the growing popular goddess movement. However they are balanced by academic criticism.

For example, folklorist Juliette Wood points out that many writers express disquiet at the claims to historicity of goddess studies and suggest alternatives. She writes (1996:9-12):"Many scholars distinguish clearly between a literal interpretation of the Goddess and metaphorical use of the goddess paradigm. The former accepts as historical fact that an ancient and unified system of belief and practice characterised by a matriarchal culture and centred on a powerful goddess figure existed at some identifiable historical period. The latter sees the Goddess as a non-historical archetype or a poetic metaphor... The former literal position is widely held..."

She then turns to Robert Graves and while offering severe criticism, cannot withhold a positive gloss. Describing The White Goddess as a "classic, an influential and oft-quoted work in modern studies", she asserts that its popularity stems not just from its subject matter but that "it shares in its orientation to the past, and in its attitude to myth many of the concepts and assumptions that underpin much neo-pagan Goddess study". Not mincing her critical attitude she writes: "Fascinating as Graves is, the combination of poor philology, inadequate texts and out-of-date archaeology needs to be pointed out". Nevertheless, with a generosity which is all the more potent coming after such criticism, she writes: "Graves articulates a continuity between past and present; a past where the Goddess is worshipped in a unified and harmonious society and which despite the restrictiveness of subsequent historical developments reaches out to inform the present". (1996:12)

Similarly, Hilda Ellis Davidson, a distinguished scholar of many years standing, writes (Davidson 1998:11): "If scholars have been somewhat reluctant to explore the symbol of the Goddess there has been plenty of enthusiasm at a more popular level. Robert Graves' book The White Goddess has misled many innocent readers with his eloquent but deceptive statements about a nebulous Celtic goddess in early Celtic literature on which he was no authority". Yet the concluding words of her book again express a positive outcome. Describing the mythical survival of Northern goddesses, she writes: "We can be confident that in this new age the goddesses will be there once more, protective and threatening, with their special gifts and powers. Life could not continue on earth without them". (190)

The modern goddess spirituality movement has been studied in depths by Cynthia Eller (1993) who asserts: "feminist spirituality has emerged as a sociological entity in its own right, too large and too distinct to be understood as a sub-phenomenon of any other religious and social is religiously its search for spiritual resources that will prove powerful and transforming for women". (ix)

Carol Christ, one of the movement's founding mothers, writes (Carol Christ 1997): "In America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand hundreds of thousands of women and increasing numbers of men....are rediscovering the language and rituals of the Goddess" (xiii). She declares that this means "rethinking many of the most deeply held and unrecognised assumptions of our culture" (xiv) and that "a new religion of the Goddess is being created". (xv) Christ is critical of The White Goddess; she sees the work as "deeply flawed" (86); Graves's vision of the Goddess as inspiration of poetry is distorted by his understanding of the poet as the "masculine ego fertilised by the mysterious feminine" and she questions his depiction of the Goddess religion "inevitably involving the sacrifice of the Son to the Mother." (87)

However, the development of this women's spirituality movement based on rediscovery of the Goddess flourished. It varied in the UK and in the US and was fed by a number of sources, but there is one overall perception that informed its progress, from the seventies onwards. This was that day to day gender oppression could not be overthrown without an understanding of the historical role that traditional religions have played in women's subordination.

This political/ spiritual movement of the mid and late 70s based much of its philosophy on The White Goddess; numerous papers, pamphlets and booklets-paid their tributes to it. Among them perhaps most notable in the UK were those emanating from the London Matriarchy Study Group - Goddess Shrew (1977), and Politics of Matriarchy (1978).

Today, over two decades later, a huge publishing industry serves the exponential demand for Goddess material. Eller's conclusions continue to hold good: ": Feminist spirituality has emerged as a sociological entity in its own right, too large and too distinct to be understood as a sub-phenomenon of any other religious and social is religiously innovative, always pushing beyond tradition and often leading it behind altogether in its search for spiritual resources that will prove powerful and transforming for women."(1993:x)

Now what indeed is this all about? What part can Robert Graves possibly have played in this upsurge of women's empowerment - a crucial part of today's feminism? If we try and make specific comparisons between the stated theme of The White Goddess and those of both the popular goddess movement and of the more academic feminist theology, it is clear that there are immediate difficulties.

Graves states his Theme (1997:20) as "the antique story ...of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year, his struggle with the God of the Waning Year for the love of the capricious and all powerful Threefold Goddess - mother, bride and layer out" (the last-named sometimes by Graves called the hag). The poet identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; his rival is his other self, his weird. Graves' Goddess is "a lovely slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, red lips, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair"(ibid). Now there appears to be very little here to inspire such adulation in women that we have already discussed. The hero is the poet, the Muse seems to be there to serve his interests. Her appearance - fair, blue-eyed and slender - is a stereotype of male fantasy that we see everyday in television and newspaper advertisements, though maybe her nose would have to be treated to some form of computer airbrush! A number of feminists have criticised Graves for these sexist assumptions.

The answer of course is that we are looking at religion. Religion is closer to us than most of us will admit; it affects us throughout our daily life, gender relationships especially being coloured by it. Even the possibility of turning from the concept of God to the concept of Goddess or Goddesses is a mind and heart shaking process for many women since it allows them to enter the area of the divine as normative beings, rather than as inferior or subordinate adjuncts to the male.

Until the middle of this century all Western religion was expressed in masculine language. It is often argued that that God is above gender. But as I suggested some years ago, (1992:5) "if we believe God is all encompassing and gender does not matter, why should we not address Her not as Lord, Father or King, but as Lady, Our Goddess, Queen. If however we do so, I have found that the situation becomes highly charged: often women weep and men become angry and hostile". Since this was written there has been more ability to use these terms, but they still provoke profound emotional response. Naming deity as goddess, whether singular or plural, reaches into the deepest emotions: it brings back to women their share of divinity from which they have been excluded by traditional religion. It helps overcome their imposed disabilities in spiritual and secular life: it rights ancient wrongs and heals age-old hurts. This is the most fundamental attraction of the Goddess movement to women, and while Graves was certainly not the first to write about the goddess or goddesses, his work hit the imagination of women in the sixties and seventies as the early movement as getting into its stride.

It painted a picture that has since become widely accepted. The triple goddess - maiden, mother, and crone or hag has been celebrated over the last two and half decades, with rituals, paintings and all types of creative work in Her honour. More recently another aspect has been added to the threefold Goddess. Where the maiden mother and crone, may be aligned with the rising, full and declining moon, as suggested by Graves, the fourth aspect is now being celebrated. This is the dark of the moon, sometimes called the Dark Goddess: here the anger, hurts, pain and conflicts can be recognised and acknowledged in the understanding that the new moon will eventually shine through. So many women in our society have been caught in the dark aspect, in depression, prescribed addictive drugs, with no hope of release. We can now look to the cycle of the moon to restore our strength. Through it we begin to understand the power of the Dark Mother, who is the source of rebirth. Anger and pain are transmuted to creation; it is in the dark that seeds germinate and life grows. The darkness is a time for regaining inspiration and feeding our strength.

Today a thealogy (a term invented in 1979 by Naomi Goldenburg) has come into being that links this moon goddess concept with the reclaiming of the sun as a goddess. Feminists have pointed out (Janet McCrickard, 1990; Patricia Monaghan 1994, among others) that identifying he Goddess solely with the moon, overlooking the fact that the sun was a goddess in many ancient societies, still places her as a lesser light compared with the higher male status the sun enjoys today. The thealogy also contains the concept, found in Graves' work, of an early harmonious women centred society, the conviction of the sacrality of nature, of women's bodies and of the creative power of the Goddess within all women.

Historian Ronald Hutton has surveyed ideas on the Goddess in Britain from neolithic times to those based on the classical pantheon through the Romantics to the modern era. (Hutton 1997). Paying tribute to the major turn of the century work of classicist Jane Harrison he notes that her work was developed later by Robert Graves among others. In the mid 1950s, he writes, giants of British archaeology - Gordon Childe, OGS Crawford and Glyn Daniel declared their belief in the veneration of a single female deity dating from neolithic cultures and reaching from the Atlantic littoral to the Far East" (1997: 96). But such ideas, he continues, go before a fall. "The work of Ucko and Fleming 1968-9, rocked the whole foundation of this theory and the effect on professional prehistorians has been to make most return careful agnosticism". Hutton offers fundamental challenges to the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to whom many spiritual feminists particularly in the US currently turn for their inspiration.

Gimbutas has towered to a position of eminence in the USA, but is also the subject of critical challenge. Her comprehensive picture of the Goddess, universal, with aspects of life-giving energy and of death and regeneration, unfolded alongside other idiosyncratic theories of prehistory and history. These were taken up by the popular movement, since they fitted well into the frame provided by Graves and his predecessors; but coming from an eminent archaeologist they gave rise to particular irritation by the archaeologists, historians and prehistorians at the use being made of their disciplines. No-one however fails to commend her marvellous repertoire of female illustrations from ancient central and eastern Europe, which stands as a major resource in both the popular and the academic domains.

Some kind of mediation between these two conflicting areas is setting in and bridges can be built. For example, feminist archaeologists Margaret Conkey and Ruth Tringham (1995:199-247) provide a perspective that I believe can equally apply to the work of Robert Graves. While offering a profound critique of Gimbutas' methods and conclusions, they observe that "just as an enquiry into the revival of goddess religions provides important new perspectives on some crucial feminist concerns, so (such enquiry) provides important new perspectives on archaeological concerns.... we have come to see our enquiry is about key issues in contemporary archaeological interpretation as seen through the topic of the Goddesses.. the discipline must be engaged with feminist thinking. They say, "what was once apparent now cries out for explanation". It appears to me that it is through just such a lens that the White Goddess must be viewed.

Most certainly it is very clear that the challenges regarding the existence of a single universal goddess both hit and do not hit the target. There are very few in the goddess movement who would stake their certainty on the one-ness of the goddess. Eller's questionnaire reported that she often received a version of the reply: "I believe in many goddesses" even though the speaker would use the term 'the Goddess'; one respondent made this clear: She said "I don't make those kind of distinctions you hear about, they don't make sense to me. You can say its is the Great Goddess and that she is one goddess, but she's also all of the many goddesses and that is as true. And she is everywhere... So I worship the great goddess and I'm polytheistic and pantheistic and monotheistic too." (Eller 1993: 132-133) I have quoted this statement a number of times in Goddess circles and almost always receive affirmation for it. Whether we are speaking of one or many just does not matter: she - or they - is called the Goddess.

It is interesting that a number of academic books also fall into the same pattern. Billington and Green's collection "Concept of the Goddess" (1996) provides research from a number of scholars on different goddesses, as does Olsen's standard work of reference "The Book of the Goddess Past and Present" (1995). I have spent a long time trying to puzzle out this paradox; we may mean goddesses, but we say "the Goddess". Daniel Cohen has suggested an answer. Today's scholars, he suggests, may have transferred the notion of the single universal goddess of earlier historical tradition, discarded by academe about thirty years ago, to their understanding of the Goddess in the popular goddess movement. They then feel it necessary to show how inaccurate such an idea is. I feel this is a useful and helpful observation that could lead to some kind of a synthesis. (Cohen 1998:10-11) For me, the She of the women's movement, the Goddess understood from Robert Graves work can be fractured into millions of fractions of light - or darkness - each separate, each part of a whole. The She is both one and many. It is just easier to call her or them the Goddess.

Outside the formal discipline of women's studies where religion is firmly posited as a reflection - or indeed a cause - of traditional patriarchy, there is an outpouring of work on what has been called the female face of religion. Termed feminist theology, and located on a major scale in university theology departments, it seeks a cross-disciplinary approach to neighbouring disciplines such as archaeology, ancient history and art history among others

Feminist theologians do not pay homage to Graves and The White Goddess, yet their strong echoes reverberate. The major topics of the discipline are researches into the female nature and aspects of the divine, often located in the earth and nature whose sacrality must be re-established; the overturning of conventional negative attitudes to women and to the body; and the authenticity of women's experience. Women are to be accepted as normative members of the human race - not secondary, not inferior, not the other, but in imago dei, the image of God. An important aspect of the discipline is the reconstruction and revision of biblical texts in a search for the forgotten and obscured female. In this connection the work of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is extremely influential. She names her methodology the hermeneutics of suspicion and celebration. (Schussler Fiorenza 1983,1992). Traditional texts, she declares, are androcentric, thus we must search for the female (whether divine or human), who has been overlooked, and celebrate her emergence. Her methodology has been most influential not only in terms of revision of biblical texts but indeed of most of our Western literature.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, like Schussler Fiorenza, is a Roman Catholic theologian whose studies in feminist theology work over more than two decades have been of immense importance in the USA and in Europe. She identifies feminist theology as a call for not only a social and historical change but for transformation of all our values, so that the spiritual and the earthly meet together, and the material is no longer inferior to the spiritual. (Ruether 1983) Earth is as sacred as heaven, the body is as good as the soul. This latter concept now named body theology is gaining widespread interest among younger feminist theologians.

While many feminist theologians, including Rosemary Ruether view actual Goddess talk with suspicion and certainly deny Golden Age matriarchal visions, the Goddess in feminist theology will not "go away". Dawne McCance, a professor of religion in Manitoba, Canada, has provided (1990:165-175) a survey of understandings of the goddess in contemporary feminist scholarship. Remarking that feminism often involves a search for "lost women, lost stories and rituals, different conceptual and cultural spaces"(165) and that religious feminist criticism has taken on this search, she declares that "this quest manifests itself as a quest for the goddess". It is of interest to me in this connection that one such lost goddess, Asherah, abomination of the biblical prophets comes forward from the obscurity of time to take her place as the consort of Jahweh and the possible goddess of creation. Graves with Patai (1983) note that the Hebrews of biblical times worshipped her in groves and bowed down to her images. Today we go further: we see she may represent the Tree of Life itself and quite possibly she is the Goddess in the Garden of Eden. (Long 1998).

I have pointed to only a few resources on the goddess in a feminist studies context. It is my opinion that despite all the scholarly criticism of Graves' The White Goddess, the book has within it the seed of the creation and re-creation of feminist spirituality which women scholars and celebrants are now tending and harvesting. Graves' book, as Ian Firla declares in his introduction to our conference " has transcended its creator and its stated intentions". (Firla 1998).

Finally, I want to end this account of the impact on feminism and women's studies of the White Goddess by reading you a poem I wrote when I heard of the death of Robert Graves. Perhaps - in the way of poems - it encapsulates in a few words all I have been trying to say.

    For Robert Graves, died 7th December 1985

If our women's prayers
Can help him cross that difficult threshold
Let us give him our prayers
If our women's strength
Will support him, stumbling, down the dark corridors
Let us give him our strength
If he has forgotten the music
Or can hear only a faint echo coming from no place he can find
Let us sing him the music
Who opened doors for us, cleared the threshold,
Lit the corridors, sounded Her music,
Swept the strings of Her lyre for us,
Who cleared shit and bramble for Her,
Who shouted for Her in the darkness,
Who swam in the reeds and currents and found lost pearls and gave them to us.
May he carry our voices as offerings
And may She, may She, smiling,
Ponder, and hearing, turn;
And, light as a feather,
Flick open the gate.

Conference 3-5.9.1998.  Impact of White Goddess on Feminism and Womens Studies.
(poem first published in Wood and Water 17, Spring 1986)

Selected Reading

Billington, Sandra & Green, Miranda The Concept of the Goddess Routledge 1996

Christ, Carol P. The Rebirth of the Goddess Harper Collins San Francisco 1997

Conkey, Margaret & Tringham, Ruth Archaeology & the Goddess : in Feminisms in the Academy. Stanton D.C. & Stewart A.J. (eds) Univ of Michigan 1995:199-247

Davidson, Hilda E. The Role of the Northern Goddess. Routledge 1998

Davis, Elizabeth G. The First Sex. Penguin . London 1975

Eller, Cynthia Living in the Lap of the Goddess. Beacon Press, Boston, 1993/1995

Firla, Ian Foreword to White Goddess Conference Programme, Sept. 1998.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva In the Wake of the Goddesses. Free Press NY 1992

Gimbutas, Marija The Language of the Goddess Harper & Row San Francisco 1989

____ The Civilisation of the Goddess Harper & Row SF 1991

Goldenburg, Naomi Changing of the Gods. Beacon Press Boston. 1979

Graves, Robert & Patai, Raphael Hebrew Myths: the Book of Genesis. Doubleday NY 1963

Hurtado, Larry (ed) Goddesses in Religions and Modern Debate. Scholars Press Atlanta 1990

Hutton, Ronald The Neolithic great goddess: a study in modern tradition. in Antiquity 1997 :91-99

LaMonte, Willow (ed) Goddessing Regenerated, Malta. Spring 1998

Long, Asphodel P. In a Chariot Drawn by Lions:the search for the female in deity The Womens Press 1992

Long, Asphodel P. The One and The Many: the Great Goddess Revisited:Feminist Theology :May 1997:13-29

____ The Goddess Movement in Britain TodayFeminist Theology .Jan 1994:11-39

_____ Asherah, The Tree of Life and the Menorah BISFT Sophia Paper no. 1 Neath 1998

Matthews, Caitlin Sophia Goddess of Wisdom: the divine feminine from black goddess to world soul. Mandala London 1991

McCance, Dawne Understandings of "The Goddess" in contemporary feminist scholarship . in: Hurtado , L. (ed) 1990

McCrickard, Janet Eclipse of the Sun: an investigation into sun and moon myths. Gothic Image Publications. Glastonbury 1990

Monaghan ,Patricia O Mother Sun! a new view of the Feminine. Crossing Press Freedom CA 1994

Matriarchy Study Group Goddess Shrew. London 1977

---- The Politics of Matriarchy London 1978

Olson, Carl The Book of the Goddess Past and Present Crossroad NY 1995

Pearson, J., Roberts, R. & Samuels, G.(eds) Nature Religion Today Edinburgh Univ. Press 1998

Raphael, Melissa Thealogy & Embodiment Sheffield Academic Press 1997

Ruether, Rosemary R. Sexism and God Talk SCM Press 1983

Schussler Fiorenza, E. In Memory of Her Crossroad NY 1983

---- But She Said Beacon Boston 1992

Wood, Juliette The Concept of the Goddess in Billington & Green, London 1996:8-25


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