It’s a Crazy Book and I Didn’t Mean to Write It…

Glynn Marshes writes:

I did not know this.

Another major, and separate contribution to the confusion surrounding the Celts was begun in 1944 by one of the greatest modern English poets and historical novelists, Robert Graves. In three weeks during that year he completed the first draft of a book which was to become The White Goddess, drawing upon images culled from Celtic and Graeco-Roman literatures and fusing them within his own tremendous creative inspiration to provide a personal religion to accompany his poetry. The result is a sustained metaphor, a vision of the sort of past that the writer thought ought to have existed. His friends have maintained that in private he himself did not believe that his vision had existed in reality: he was expressing a state of creative longing which made what he wrote poetically, not literally, true. But nowhere in the book itself did he warn his readers that they were to take it as metaphor or myth. As a result, it was taken as history by a large number of unscholarly readers. His confident statements that ancient societies were ruled by women has made him a hero of many modern feminists. He presented those who wanted a matriarchal religion with a Celtic Great Goddess, appearing in the three aspects of maiden, mother, and crone, who is still believed to be historical by many who do not worship her themselves. He devised what has become known as the ‘Celtic Tree Calendar’ to people who do not realize that it was an invention of Graves, which would have amazed the Iron Age Celts even more than the Triple Mother Goddess. And he firmly associated goddesses with the moon in a way which he made to seem natural but was not so to many ancient peoples, including the Celts. His bluntest retrospective comment on the work, written to a stranger, was: ‘It’s a crazy book and I didn’t mean to write it.’ But it still has great influence in shaping the view of Celtic paganism by unscholarly readers.

— Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy

Hutton’s book, originally published in 1991, apparently upset quite a few people, among them pagans who were dismayed that after examining the archeological record, associated scholarship, and historical-era literature, Hutton concludes over and over that we know next to nothing about prehistoric paganism; that much of what contemporary pagans accept as “authentic” is of recent vintage (18th-20th Century); and that much of that was invented by romantics or worse. (Of Edward Williams, 18th Century founder of the Order of Bards, a Druidic “prehistoric system of mystical belief,” Hutton quips, “by the time of his death, he had achieved the romantic’s highest goal, of having his dream taken as reality by others.”)

Others are even more upset because Hutton questions the validity of the Earth Mother/Great Goddess/Mother Goddess theory of Neolithic paganism. Hutton writes, for example, that much of the archeological analysis that postulated a widespread Neolithic Goddess cult dates from the first half of the 20th century. In the 1960s and 70s, further analyses eroded most of the earlier conclusions beyond repair (e.g. some figurines formerly believed to be Goddesses might actually be … dolls)  however, “At the very moment that the concept of the Neolithic Great Mother crumbled inside academe, it found more enthusiastic adherents among the general public than ever before.” The popular enthusiasm for the notion of an ancient, suppressed Great Goddess cult took on a life of its own … and as a result, people who aren’t familiar with the scholarly debate have no idea how tenuous is the foundation of the entire concept.

Another criticism along the same vein: that he low-balls the number of witches killed in Medieval Europe.

Being in no position myself to know which side is right, I’m left simply annoyed: it’s the 21st Century, shouldn’t we have Time Machines by now?

This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Philosophy and Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It’s a Crazy Book and I Didn’t Mean to Write It…

  1. agnostic says:

    We’ve known a good deal about Neolithic paganism for awhile now. Like all good Indo-Europeans, the Celts idolized a cattle rustler, not some chick.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: American Thanksgiving Day Mini-Linkfest | Patriactionary

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