The White Goddess

In his book The White Goddess, poet and dilettante historian Robert Graves demonstrates, mostly by means of imagination, that the earliest religions on earth were goddess cults dedicated to rites of birth and fecundity. In Europe especially a healthy worship of the Great Goddess prevailed until the incursion of classical culture into the continent’s interior during Greco-Roman times. He observes that the Greek and Roman pantheon was Asiatic in origin and decidedly patriarchal. It elevated violent force and destructive energy above fertility and generation. When the Achaeans first entered Greece in 1900 BC, Graves says they subdued the Goddess worshipping Bronze Age culture they found there and assimilated their customs and religions into their own. The goddesses Demeter, Aphrodite and Diana are supposed to compose a trinity derived from the one White Goddess.

The Latins apparently worshipped their own version of the Great Goddess whom they called Cardea. The Romans retained knowledge of some of the rites of this cult after the Latin tribes were assimilated into the Republic. In Apuleius’s Golden Ass, she appears to the character Lucius as an answer to his pleas and reveals her identity with the following:

“Behold, Lucius, I am come; thy weeping and prayer hath moved me to succour thee. I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of the powers divine, queen of all that are in Hell, the principal of them that dwell in Heaven, manifested alone and under one form of all the gods and goddesses.” (The White Goddess, 72)

Ovid discusses her in his Fasti. Graves relates the following on his anecdote: “He says that she was the mistress of Janus, the two-headed god of doors and of the first month of the year, and had charge over door-hinges. She also protected infants against witches disguised as formidable night-birds who snatched children from their cradles and sucked their blood.”

Many Romans associated the White Goddess with witchcraft and magic. The ancients believed beans could be used to ward off witches and ghosts. One carried a bean in his mouth and spat it at the spectre should it reveal itself. The Pythagorean mystics avoided beans and refrained from eating them because they believed the bean could contain within it the spirit of one’s ancestors. Ghosts entered the bean, they believed, and awaited consumption, hopefully by a woman. By these means, the ghost enters the body of the woman and thus binds itself to her womb, awaiting to be reborn as a human child. For men to eat beans was considered an impious imposition upon the ghosts aims and was tantamount to “eating one’s parents’ heads.”

Worship of the White Goddess endured in remote pockets of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. In Wales, it remaind the religion of the court well into the middle ages when the Welsh kings were vanquished by the English and forced to bow to the King of England and the Catholic church. Goddess worship during the early modern period would be maligned as witchcraft and vigorously persecuted. It has experienced a slight though not altogether serious resurgence during the industrial era thanks to renewed interest in the occult. Given modern life’s complete divorce from nature and cultivation, the gifts of the White Goddess are probably somewhat alien to us today. Perhaps this is something to be distressed about.

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