ROBERT GRAVES AND HIS GNOSIS
By Yuri Kuchinsky
[The first of 2 parts]
The name Robert Graves evokes many different emotions in those
people who are familiar with his work. He was a well-known
poet and a writer of historical novels. But also he was an
accomplished scholar of myth and religion, and a social
visionary. Also, he was a great English Gnostic.
I first read his WHITE GODDESS about 15 years ago, and I must
say, it completely blew me away. I had to reread it 3 times to
figure it out. It is a book of incredible complexity, a book
that many people have heard about, very few have read, and of
those, fewer still managed to get to the bottom of it. The
Gnosis of Graves is expressed very well in this book. If
anything about the extremely varied Gnostic movement could be
found to bind all these free-thinkers together, it is perhaps
the respect for Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom. I really think
that the White Goddess of Graves is really Sophia.
Let us look, first, at the _visionary_ aspects of Graves. It
is useful to remember that THE WHITE GODDESS was published in
1948. Anybody who would walk into an average big North
American book store nowadays will find a hundred books dealing
with goddesses, female spirituality and such. Well, Graves was
a great pioneer in all that. It is easy to forget this now.
Theology departments of our universities are full of
intelligent and articulate women studying the feminine aspects
of religion, Sophiology, the Gnostics and all that. Don't they
have Graves to thank for preparing the ground? How was it 50
Robert Graves as a scholar. I don't know anybody else in our
time who has read as much classical literature as he has. He
ranged far and wide in his research. He was a great
populariser of ancient history.
I have often had discussions with academics who are critical
of Graves. I had one such discussion with an acquaintance
recently. I am well aware of the kind of attitude most
conventional scholars have towards Graves. He has many
detractors in the academic world. It is useful to ask why so
many university people are inimical to him? My guess is that
this is a fate that awaits almost any generalist. Joseph
Campbell often elicits very similar reactions. Nietzsche is
good on this. His sarcasm about the academics - the "little
corner watchers", he called them - is superb. "This is my
little niche!" "Don't anybody dare to step into my little
corner of expertise!"
But of course there's more to this. Graves is a quixotic
scholar. He has been challenged on a number of points in his
writings. In particular I would be the first to qualify his
research in one area: the New Testament. His KING JESUS and
THE NAZARENE GOSPELS RESTORED went off track to some extent.
The first is a fine work of fiction that is built around the
complex and controversial theory RG has about the institution
of "sacred kingship". It is a very interesting theory, but he
may have carried it too far by trying to apply it to Jesus.
The second, THE NAZARENE GOSPELS RESTORED, is an uneasy cross
between a work of fiction and "scholarly" research. This book
received uniformly bad reviews when it was published in the
early 50s and, I believe, it significantly damaged his
As far as his THE GREEK MYTHS is concerned (two volumes
published by Penguins and mass editions printed): in
considering this work, the question comes up of Graves' very
special anthropology. Again, this is something he has been
often challenged upon.
THE GREEK MYTHS has a very special design. Each chapter
consists of two parts. The first part is simply a restatement
of the myth in question that amalgamates clearly referenced
ancient historical/literary sources. He adds nothing to the
myth here. This first part is usually impeccable. The second
part of each chapter is _his interpretation of the myth_.
About these interpretations and glosses, questions have often
been raised. One of my professors, I remember, told me: "Use
the first part of each chapter and disregard the second part".
And yet, I think his anthropological ideas (in the second
parts of chapters) are extremely valuable. I think he is
correct there for the most part. But he is known to pretend to
know the unknowable, and to be very arrogant with his
conclusions. He figured out etymologies of all (!) names in
Greek mythology? Why even bother... This is precisely what
gets him into trouble.
[a second part of this file to follow later]