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The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth
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The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth

4.03  ·  Rating Details ·  2,671 Ratings  ·  150 Reviews
The White Goddess is perhaps the finest of Robert Graves's works on the psychological and mythological sources of poetry. In this tapestry of poetic and religious scholarship, Graves explores the stories behind the earliest of European deities—the White Goddess of Birth, Love, and Death—who was worshipped under countless titles. He also uncovers the obscure and mysterious ...more
Paperback, 512 pages
Published January 1st 1966 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1948)
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Popular Answered Questions

Old-Barbarossa Don't take the book too seriously, it's not that scholarly.
The tree alphabet bit is made up.
As to "the goddess"...not sure what you're getting at.…more
Don't take the book too seriously, it's not that scholarly.
The tree alphabet bit is made up.
As to "the goddess"...not sure what you're getting at. Which one? Is Mary an avatar? Then she's still around.(less)

Community Reviews

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Dec 04, 2013 Rodney rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
O.K., so Graves was dead wrong about the Celts. Still, the "White Goddess" thesis--that patriarchal invaders suppressed the mother-goddess religions of the Aegean and Ancient Near East, traces of which managed to survive in Europe, especially in the minstrel lore of Ireland and Wales--is thanks to Graves now part and parcel of the modern. The real fun of the book isn't so much in its truth as the getting there: a waterslide ride of educated guessing, crossword logic, and speculative buccaneering ...more
May 30, 2013 Old-Barbarossa rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Rambling nonsense when he steps beyond what he knows.
Most of his ideas on the "tree alphabet" are his own and sourceless. Unfortunately a lot of the celtic magic industry owes too much to this as a gospel of sorts. Better and more scholarly book are out there if you can be bothered looking. But they are without the glamour of Graves which I suppose is part of the attraction to the sidhe huggers.


This is a dreadful book...yet I’ve read it twice, the 1st time in the early ‘80s and again in ’13
Sep 10, 2008 Josh rated it really liked it
Graves's phrase for what he does is "poetic scholarship," and I'm tempted to be generous and believe that what he means here really is thought that is associative and fleet, as opposed to simply lazy. The scholarship borders on parody: Graves's assertions are made on what is essentially zero evidence. But he follows his hind without faltering once, and by the time 500 pages is up, you do feel a sort of Palace of Wisdom effect has been achieved.

Where does that leave us? For me, reading this book
Jul 23, 2010 David rated it it was amazing
All right, let me honest and start by saying this was totally my favorite book in the entire universe when I was, like, 11. Hands down. It gave me my first sense of what scholarship might be - if it were actually fun.

Now I did end up becoming a professional scholar, and one who probably does have too much fun for his own good, so perhaps a word here is in order.

Those people who say the book provides zero evidence for its points - all I can say is, "yeah, that's right. It's kind of a joke. Or...
Nov 20, 2014 Erik rated it really liked it
I would call this Joe Campell's Power of Myth for grownups. I've been thinking about this book recently, but I have to admit I never got more than halfway with it. Nobody else I know has either, but what I did take from it was worth the struggle. Hopelessly inadequate summary: Graves belives that literature and poetry are magic, real magic. These arts objectively conjure effects the same way a ritual is supposed to work, to make a deity present in the mundane world through a charm, a rhythm, eve ...more
Jun 25, 2007 Jessica added it
Recommends it for: souls stuck in purgatory.
this is a massive endeavor and will take an eternity to read. while i love cross-referencing the divine feminine through the mystical traditions, i can only take this book in small doses. imagine the densest, darkest fudge. this is not for the faint of heart, but a great resource. i don't want to have to give it back to ira unread, so wish me luck!
Titus L
Dec 04, 2013 Titus L rated it it was amazing
Whilst some have disputed Graves historical inaccuracies, im not reading this for its historical account, but rather for its mytho-poetical inventiveness and inspiration, of which I would say that it delivers handsomely.

The attempt to reconcile the Ancient Hebrew, Greek and Celtic civilizations with an Aegean/Tuath De Danaan Diaspora is fascinating and demands that the reader have a fairly wide background in cultural and mythological studies.

Speculating on the Cad Goddeu, The Battle of the Tree
Aug 05, 2008 Ange rated it liked it
It's almost impossible to read the Plath study without this book; apparently, it was a huge influence on Plath while she was at Cambridge (in the flat where she died, there was a poster of the White Goddess tacked to the pantry door). The book is more interesting for the mythological and folkloric tidbits than the unifying thesis, at this point.

I think the mythological connections are sound, but I have some trouble believing that each and every "true poet" since the advent of Christianity has b
Dec 27, 2012 Terence rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Poets, feminists, Greens, socialists & other anti-capitalists
I first read The White Goddess during a road trip with my ex at the turn of the century. I can remember several days when we were staying at a bed-and-breakfast in pre-Katrina New Orleans. It was neither overly warm nor overly humid, and my erstwhile spouse was recovering from serving as a mosquito smorgasbord, so I had some down time to sit out on the patio and read. I have to say that the first time through this book left me confused and lost; the second time through I’m on firmer ground in un ...more
Jan 27, 2008 Charles rated it it was amazing
This book is absolutely fascinating and an all-time favorite of mine. It ties together ancient history, poetry and myth, drawing from traditions around the world.

What this book isn't: traditional history or scholarship. As wikipedia puts it, "Graves openly considered poetic inspiration, or "Analepsis" as he termed it, a valid historical methodology." It is easy to see why New Age, Wikka and other modern syncretic traditions have seized on this book as a touchstone.

On the other hand, I think thi
Jan 19, 2008 Chris rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A controversial classic and certainly not for all tastes. Graves' erudition in ancient literature and mythopoetics is well known (e.g. his classic reference works on Greek mythology) but his thesis in this book has been contested in many quarters (and proved incorrect in some anthropological aspects) and struck me as largely speculative, although I really can't make a judgment since I'm not well read in this area. I can say that reading this book did spur me to read up on Irish and Welsh myth. I ...more
Feb 20, 2012 Michael rated it really liked it
If you drew a Venn diagram of unreadable books and unputdownable books, this would be in the small area of intersection. It reads like the death-evacuation of a brilliant and eccentric mind.
E Hamilton
Apr 24, 2011 E Hamilton rated it it was amazing
I reread this book perhaps every other year. Every year, being more widely read, I find more facts that are now outdated. But every year, the ideas, themes and conclusions I feel to be more true.
Welwyn Katz
This is a great book. Graves is best known for his novels I Claudius or his poetry (which was his favorite form of writing), but this work about the grammar and connectedness of myth is a scholarly epic, profoundly interesting and peppered with references to support his "alphabet of the trees" and their use as at least an Iron Age "code" which Druids and perhaps others used to teach and remember their oral knowledge from generation to generation. There has been debate regarding the accuracy of G ...more
Jason Hare
Dec 08, 2012 Jason Hare rated it it was amazing
Graves' essay on the downfall of a matriarchal, goddess worship, societal structure in stone age Europe is the premise of this book long essay. Several themes in this book have been written about by anthropologists and other writers before and since Graves but The White Goddess is certainly the best known.

Graves own words:

"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-godde
Aug 06, 2007 Michael rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Oh, so THAT'S what was up Frodo's butt
I got kicked in the face by this book. For real, it walked up to me, said "i will kick you in the face." I ignored it's warning, and woke up 2 months later with a shattered jaw and lots and lots of information about poetry and bards. Wonderful read if you've ever had a sneaking suspicion all of your favorite "myths" had a certain aura to them.
Jun 28, 2016 Beverly rated it really liked it
Francesca Lia Block made me read this. I have no idea if this man is insane or not but I was young enough when I read it that it blew my mind anyway.
Larry Chaves
Aug 10, 2011 Larry Chaves rated it it was amazing
This is a difficult read so if you're not a lover of mythology, it's not for you. However, if you want to take the next leap Graves is the man you're looking for. Brilliant!
Jun 22, 2013 Leo rated it it was ok
Illogical, unscientific, ahistorical, and weirdly entertaining.
Clay Kallam
May 13, 2010 Clay Kallam rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
This book was a revelation to me when I first read it, sometime back in the '70s -- but I wanted to try it again to see if I was merely hung over from the '60s, or there was something deeper going on.

After re-reading it, I have to say it is a powerful work, though it was made more powerful then by the fact that it preceded the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell, and thus had the advantage of the shock of the new.

"The White Goddess" is, however, several books in one, and isn't exactly an eas
Jon Corelis
Jan 25, 2013 Jon Corelis rated it it was amazing
"A prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book ..."

***** A Five Star Poetry Book: Recommended for All Readers

[Note: this book exists in numerous editions; this review is based on The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Amended and Enlarged Edition (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966 and later), which is the edition I'd recommend to interested readers.]

This is a popular, influential, and controversial book. Let's put things in perspective by quoting the first and best revi
Sep 21, 2010 H added it
Shelves: theory-criticism
Astonishing. By Graves' claim, the measure of a poet is by his accuracy/faithfulness in depicting the (actual) White Goddess, thus proving the truth and source of his mystical inspiration. All the Welsh stuff goes far above my head but he cites some instances from pre-modern English poetry (pp. 426-36):
- Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and more seriously in the Tempest
- Donne's "A Fever"
- Keats' "Belle Dame Sans Merci"
- Nimory (enchantress of Merlin) in Malory's Mort
Czarny Pies
Jul 15, 2016 Czarny Pies rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: People who believe in UFOs
Recommended to Czarny by: ET and Mork from Ork
Shelves: criticism, mythology
Faute de pouvoir donner cinq etrons, je luie donne une etoile.

The White Goddess is a book that belongs on the same shelf as the Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods or Thor Heyerdahl's Voyage of the Kontiki. It simply does not deserve to be read.

Robert Graves was acknowledged in this lifetime to have been one the greatest Latin scholars of his generation. His brilliant translations (e.g. The Golden Ass) and wonderful historical novesl (e.g. I Claudius) did a great service to the reading publ
Eric Sipple
I'm not sure how to rate a book like this. On its own it is, as a friend said, historical/mythological fanfiction. The shoddy anthropology, etymology and linguistic study Graves marches out in support of the book's thesis - that All True Poetry praises The White Goddess and everything else, like things that aren't Scottish, are crap - is kind of awe inspiring. By the middle of the book, I couldn't take a damn thing he was saying seriously.

And yet, because I was reading it for research, and resea
Jun 05, 2008 Mary rated it really liked it
An overview of archaic Welsh bardic poetry. It is complex and a little hard to follow, but rewarding once you understand the long involved explanations, real poetry will never be the same and after re reading this book a few times you will know real poetry when you read it. I am re-reading this book for the seventh or eighth time and still learning things from it.
Feb 01, 2008 Nikki rated it it was ok
I find this book particularly overrated. It is used as a basis to establish a geneaology for modern paganism. However, it is one supposition based upon another. Very faulty logic.
Feb 06, 2014 SmokingMirror rated it liked it
I swayed back and forth in my approach to this book: reading one chapter, then skipping ahead to another, then dipping into an earlier chapter. I have found it impossible (for myself) to read the book from beginning to end. Graves' wrongheadedness and purblind interpretations made my eyes glaze over and the whole thing with the tree alphabet sent me to somnium--trees I am unfamiliar with and alphabets that jump from one side of the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast at the author's whim, and go ...more
May 27, 2010 Ben rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The White Goddess is the quintessential text on scholarly abduction (at least in the field of Old English prosody). I would not be surprised if the entire argument turned out to be fiction, but Graves manages to make his case for polyvalent symbols within poetic grammar so fascinating it hardly matters. Penultimately, the White Goddess tangentially raises many of the questions addressed more directly in the work of Michel Foucault (particularly notions of 'Truth Books,' 'Experience Books,' and ' ...more
Abner Rosenweig
Nov 02, 2014 Abner Rosenweig rated it did not like it
I may be out of my depth with this one. I'm fascinated with mythology and the promise of an ancient mystery that reveals the nature of true poetry and a grammar of poetric myth, but I was massively frustrated here. I wish Graves had spent more time explaining his theory and its significance rather than presenting evidence for it. Usually when I fault a book, I place the onus squarely on the author. In this case, my own ignorance may be mostly to blame. Maybe I'll read this again--after I get a P ...more
Tony duncan
May 03, 2008 Tony duncan rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: feminists humanists, poets
A brilliant epic work about the meaning of poetry and Myth. A beautiful historical cultural journey into a pre rational world view. A lot of the facts" have ben disputed and some shown to be false, but the richness of understanding in here is just amazing.

This book introduced me to the idea of magic as being a a essential quality of being human. Also the idea of poets as being the bearers of the spiritual; heart of society. There are long descriptions of how pre patriarchal goddess worship in Ce
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Heathens, Pagans ...: The White Goddess 111 208 Jul 30, 2014 12:06AM  
Am I missing something, or is this rambling nonsense? 46 113 Sep 22, 2013 09:46AM  
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Robert Ranke Graves, born in Wimbledon, received his early education at King's College School and Copthorne Prep School, Wimbledon & Charterhouse School and won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford. While at Charterhouse in 1912, he fell in love with G. H. Johnstone, a boy of fourteen ("Dick" in Goodbye to All That) When challenged by the headmaster he defended himself by citing Plato, G ...more
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“Poetry began in the matriarchal age, and derives its magic from the moon, not from the sun. No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red-eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, stamping out the measure of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward, with a monotonous chant of "Kill! kill! kill!" and "Blood! blood! blood!” 17 likes
“But we are gifted, even in November
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Careless of where the next bright bolt may fall.”
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