[scroll down for response] Ian Firla wrote on the 18th of May:
In the last issue of Gravesiana (2.1), I published a two-part letter from
Harmut Buecher inquiring about the origins of the logo that is used for the
front cover of The White Goddess (it can also be found on the journal as
well as the web pages (http://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/graves/graves.html)).
I wonder if anyone can provide a response that I could include in the next
issue of the journal. What is the provenance of the Triple Goddess Sigil?
I should add, of course, that I am asking about the symbolic provenance of
the sigil being aware of the letter to T.S. Eliot in which Robert Graves
"I have asked Creative Age to send you the cover design of The White
Goddess, done by Kenneth Gay with me standing over him all the time. It
shows the Goddess Carmenta giving Palaimedes [sic] the eye which enables
him to understand the flight of the cranes which originated the alphabet."
In the Introduction to _The Greek Myths_ Graves outlines a basic procedure
for his interpretation of Greek myth: this procedure is critically
important for the understanding of the White Goddess sigil. He argues that:
"True myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of
ritual mime performed on public festivals, and in many cases recorded
pictorially on temple walls, vases, seals, bowls, mirrors, chests, shields,
tapestries, and the like".
He then lists the characteristics of myth which are to be disbarred from
serious consideration: I do not repeat the idiosyncratic list here - it is
however important to know that Graves had a very precise notion of what he
was doing, drawing inspiration and method from a school of anthropology
whose high tide coincided with his time at Oxford.
Graves most fully discusses the source material for the sigil in Ch. 13, of
_The White Goddess_, 'Palamedes and the Cranes'. Graves draws on Hyginus'
_Fables_, where (Fable 277) disparate information is given about the
'origin' of the alphabet. Graves tells us that the fable relates : "that
the Fates invented the seven letters: Alpha, [Omicron], Upsilon, Eta, Iota,
Beta, and Tau. Or alternatively, that Mercury [i.e., Hermes] invented them
after watching the flight of cranes 'which make letters as they fly'", and
also: "that Palamedes, son of Nauplius, invented eleven others".
Two other individuals are credited with the creation of further letters in
this fable, but they need not detain us here. Cadmus the Phoenician,
surprisingly, is not mentioned at all. As Graves points out, he is
"usually credited with the invention of the Greek alphabet," Wisely he
also adds his recognition that these characters "are indisputably borrowed
from the Phoenician alphabet', and thus makes it clear that his argument
does not per se fly in the face of the archaeological record.
Graves goes on to fill out the mythical details: "Palamedes, son of
Nauplius... is credited by Philostratus the Lemnian, and by the Scholiast
on Euripiedes's Orestes, with the invention not only of the alphabet, but
also of lighthouses, measures, scales, the disc, and the'art of posting
sentinels'. He took part in the Trojan War as an ally of the Greeks and at
his death was granted a hero-shrine on the Mysian Coast of Asia Minor
opposite Lesbos". [WG.p225]. The Fates he identifies as "a divided form
of the Triple Goddess, and in Greek Legend [they] appear also as the Three
Grey Ones and the Three Muses". [WG. p225].
Graves argues that Palamedes "ruled over the Mysians, who were of Cretan
stock..." His father was Greek, whose "name means perhaps 'Mindful of the
Ancient One', and he assisted the Three Fates (the Three Muses) in the
composition of the Greek alphabet." Also that "it was well known to the
ancients, as it is to us [referring here to the decipherment of Linear B by
Chadwick and Ventris in the 1950's], that all the inventions credited to
Palamedes originated in Crete." Hyginus tells that a version of the Greek
alphabet was taken by Mercury into Egypt, and then brought back to Greece
by Cadmus. After that the letters were taken by Evander the Arcadian into
Italy where, Graves writes, "his mother Carmenta (the muse) adapted them to
the Latin alphabet of fifteen letters." Graves mentions that Hyginus is
supported by Pliny who writes in his "Natural History" that "the first
Latin alphabet was a Pelasgian one". This is how Graves brings Palamedes
and Carmenta, mythical figures belonging to different cultures, together in
the same image.
Graves argues that the story of the invention of the pre-Cadmean alphabet
is concealed in the "confusingly iconotropic myth of Perseus and the Gorgon
Medusa" [p229]. He outlines the structure of the myth as follows:
"Perseus was sent to cut off the head of the snaky-locked Gorgon Medusa, a
rival of the Goddess Athene, whose baleful look turned men into stone; and
that he could not accomplish the task until he had gone to the three
Graeae, 'Grey Ones', the three old sisters of the Gorgons who had only one
eye and one tooth between them, and by stealing eye and tooth had
blackmailed them into telling him where the grove of the Three Nymphs was
to be found. From the three Nymphs he then obtained winged sandals like
those of Hermes, a bag to put the Gorgon's head into, and a helmet of
invisibility. Hermes also kindly gave him a sickle; and Athene gave him a
mirror and showed him a picture of Medusa so that he would recognise her.
He threw the tooth of the three Grey Ones, and some say the eye also, into
Lake Triton, to break their power, and flew on to Tartessus where the
Gorgons lived in a grove on the borders of the ocean; there he cut off the
sleeping Medusa's head with the sickle, first looking into the mirror so
that the petrifying charm should be broken, thrust the head into his bag,
and flew home pursued by other Gorgons."
Graves then explains that, for his purposes,
"The Three Nymphs must be understood as the Three Graces, that is to say,
the Triple Love-goddess. The Graeae were also known as the Phorcides, which
means the daughters of Phorcus, or Orcus [the Medusa is also described as a
daughter of Phorcus by Pausanias, a detail of which Graves was aware - GM
73.t.], and according to the Scholiast on Aeschylus had the form of swans -
which is probably an error for cranes, due to a misreading of a sacred
picture, since cranes and swans, equally sacred birds, are alike in flying
in V-formation. They were in fact the Three Fates."
Graves then breaks up the myth into a sequence of images, in the manner he
suggests in his introduction to _The Greek Myths_. The first of these
images is the basis for the White Goddess sigil: "...a naked young man
cautiously approaching three shrouded women of whom the central one
presents him with an eye and a tooth; the other two point upwards to three
cranes flying in a V-formation from right to left." [WG p230]
In his analysis of the myth of the Lamia [GM 61.1], Graves suggests that
her removable eyes "are perhaps deduced from a picture of the goddess about
to bestow mystic sight on a hero by proffering him an eye." It is likely
that the presence of the pentagram in the picture signifies the special
kind of insight granted to the hero Palamedes.
There are however some details left over: the three spirals, and the
serpent, for which we should try to account.
The coils of thread on which Palamedes stands can be easily guessed by
those familiar with Greek mythology: they represent the threads governed by
the Moerae, or the Three Fates: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. The Fates
are identified by Graves as the three aspects of the Goddess:: in GM 10 he
writes: "Moerae means 'a share' or 'a phase', and the moon has three phases
and three persons: the new, the Maiden-goddess of the spring, the first
period of the year; the full moon, the Nymph-goddess of the summer, the
second period; and the old moon, the Crone-goddess of autumn, the last
period". [GM 10.1]
Which leaves the serpent unaccounted. Given the nature of the subject we
should not expect there to be a single viable explanation. In _The Greek
Myths_ , in the section on Perseus [GM 73], Graves writes:
"At sunset, Perseus alighted near the palace of the Titan Atlas to whom, as
a punishment for his inhospitality, he showed the Gorgon's head and thus
transformed him into a mountain; and on the following day turned eastward
and flew across the Libyan desert, Hermes helping him to carry the weighty
head. By the way he dropped the Graeae's eye and tooth into Lake Triton;
and some drops of Gorgon blood fell on the desert sand, where they bred a
swarm of venomous serpents, one of which later killed Mopsus the Argonaut".
Hermes of course is credited elsewhere (and later) with many of the
inventions of Palamedes [GM 17]. He is also the bearer of the 'kerykeion',
or 'caduceus': the staff surmounted by opposed, interweaving snakes. But
Graves, in line for once with the academy of the time, writes that "the
heraldic white ribbons on Hermes's staff were later mistaken for serpents,
because he was herald to Hades" [GM 17]. Cranes were sacred to Hermes also.
However, there is another and more plausible source for the appearance of a
serpent in the sigil. Graves summarises the theme of _The White Goddess_ in
the first Chapter (Poets and Gleemen) as the story of the birth, life,
death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year and of the God's
"losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious
and all powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride, and layer-out."
The poet relates to this story by identifying himself "with the God of the
Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is his blood-brother,
his other self, his wierd... The wierd, or rival.... takes countless
malevolent or diabolic or serpent-like forms." The serpent can therefore be
understood as Palamedes wierd: especially since Palamedes is clearly the
focus of its attention.
The provenance of the sigil is entirely a product of Graves method: as far
as I am aware there is no antique exemplar of this image. Nor would I
expect one to turn up. Graves has reconstructed a ritual image on the
basis of an interesting, but highly idiosyncratic interpretative method and
analysis. But, it should be remembered, _The White Goddess_ is about the
grammar of poetry and myth, not ancient history. Graves is exploring a
pattern of thought, not describing 'how it was'.
On the Letter to T.S Eliot:
Graves translated Apuleius' _Golden Ass_ in 1947, and that work features a
number of visitations of the Goddess to Lucius, the focus of the story.
These occur often through the form of an intermediary, male or female,
rather than the Goddess herself. It may not be fanciful to imagine that,
when Graves wrote that Karl Gay produced the sigil while he stood over him,
he saw himself as such an intermediary, as an ambassador of the Goddess.
Finally, the mispelling of 'Palamedes' in the letter to T.S. Eliot gives an
additional insight into Graves' creative process. The reading of the name
given earlier, 'Mindful of the Ancient One,' is not likely to be correct.
However the mispelling tells us how Graves read it: 'palai' means 'long
ago,' and Graves has chosen to see its contraction as a component in the
name of Palamedes.
University of Bath