Defense of

By Erica Friedman (MDnuz 1993 Vol 3 no. 2 )

There has been a strong movement within the NeoPagan community towards establishing the legitimacy of our place within society. This need has required our foremost writers to develop a more scientific view of religion and society. It has also been accompanied by a certain snobbery on the part of these academic Pagans toward scholarship of the past. Philosophers, mythologists and poets have all fallen into disfavor, anthropological and archeological theories of the early 20th century are smirked at. Only the most up-to-date and politically correct theories are considered at all relevant. Those authors that are not approved are considered absurd or silly, or something I like co call ‘pyramidiots’. ‘Pyramidiots’ are the kind of people who believe in the unproven. R. S. Bianchi, who coined the term, defines pyramidiots as those who write that ‘the Great Pyramid at Giza was not a tomb, but a gigantic chronicle of history, mathematically encoded within the pyramid’s orientation and dimensions.’ I have expanded the term to include Atlantis and Mu, UFOs, and alien intelligences that built Stonehenge. In other words, pyramidiots write about subjects that scientists and academicians snicker at.

We all know people like that, often we ourselves qualify for that title. The Pagan community at large, however, claims to abhor it. To combat pyramidiocy, many Pagan organizations are developing reading lists and study programs. This has the unfortunate side effect of labeling some of the most popular, and I believe, insightful, writers as ‘pyramidiots.’ The purpose of this article is to reevaluate a few of these writers in a new light. Let us look at these classics through the eyes of the dilettante.

Heinrich Zimmer defines the dilettante as ‘one who takes delight in’. I am a dilettante when it comes to pyramidiocy. I have to admit, I came to Paganism through the writing of one of the 20th century’s great pyramidiots, Robert Graves. His book, The White Goddess is one of many ‘not suggested’ as legitimate reading for the new, academic Pagan. Much can be lost, however, if we treat as common or forgettable what these writers contributed to the understanding of their respective fields. Zimmer asks “Does not life itself, every morning stand before us in ordinary workaday garb like a beggar, unannounced and unexplained, unexacting and unostentatious, awaiting upon us with its gifts of the day, one upon another? And do we generally fail to open its common gifts, the common fruits from its common tree? We should certainly ask: ‘what does this hold?’ We should suspect some seed within, precious and essential; and we should break the fruit to discover it.”3 Let us break into the common fruits given to us by Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, Lewis Spence and Marija Gimbutas to find the precious seeds within.

Margaret Murray may be one of the most maligned anthropologists of the early part of this century. She is often discounted for her so-called myth of a western white witch cult, a phrase which does not do justice to her research. In order to properly understand Murray’s ideas, one must realize that little or no research had been done in the field of pre-Christian Europe. Though some of Murray’s conclusions may be erroneous, many became the basis for future, more ‘accurate’ research. Her elucidation of the types of integration of cultures laid a foundation for discussions by Dumezil and others of the spread of IndoEuropean ideology. Murray’s view of the underground Pagan movement may be romanticized, but it is not necessarily incorrect. It is commonly recognized that, though not organized in the fanciful manner of Murray’s witch cult, folk traditions long survived Christianization by various means. Murray remarks that the importance of these traditions to the people is made evident by the proliferation of laws against them.5 Working against Murray’s credibility is the style in which she writes, a product of her place in time. She seems to be both prudish and voyeuristic by turns, which often confuses and annoys the modern reader. I suggest reading Murray as one does Edgar Wallace- with great allowance for style.

When it comes to style in writing, no one can beat my favorite pyramidiot, Robert Graves. Graves, though beloved of many feminist witches, is often sneered at by the academic Pagan. Not for the style in which he writes, but for the content of his text, The White Goddess. In defense of this book, I’d like to use some of Graves own words from the book’s introduction. ‘The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exultation and horror that her presence excites.6 The White Goddess is unlike any other pyramidiot book in one major facet. It is not about aliens or esoteric knowledge handed down through the ages; it is about poetry. Consequently, Graves does not claim it to be historically accurate nor does he propose his work to be a scientific treatise. Unfortunately, our left-brain-oriented society has difficulty crediting the kind of intuitive cognitive process that gave birth to The White Goddess. Our new academic NeoPagan shuns all research that cannot be reproduced or does not footnote subject experts in every paragraph. A new kind of reading is needed to appreciate Graves’ book.

Graves called The White Goddess ‘a historical grammar of poetic myth’. I would like to suggest renaming it ‘a mythopoetical’ Qabalah.’ To read this book, one must look at myth as a metaphor.7 On the most simplistic level, the Qabalah is a translation of the words of the Bible into their pure mathematical form, and then a retranslation back to words, to discover their hidden meanings. Graves ‘translates’ myths into their pure poetic form and then back into their historical relevance. Very little can be verified by Qabalah, the science being an interpretive one. Like psychoanalysis, the true answer isn't always the right one, and vice-versa. It is in this way that Graves’ work can be approached; not as a text full of assumptions, errors and whopping great leaps of logic, but as an insightful and intuitive rendering of myth. The poet, as defined by Graves, was originally the leader of a dancing ritual.8 Graves leads us in that dance, back to the original shamanpoet-dancer-sacrifice9, helping us to interpret the one theme of myth: life, death and rebirth.10 As Nietszche states, we must ‘never trust a god who doesn’t dance.’11

Also concerned with this single theme is the much disparaged and often lampooned Lewis Spence. I will not attempt to defend Spence’s conclusion nor his theories, singular as they are. I would like to point out the most valuable of his contributions- the data he collected. In Myth and Ritual in Dance, Game and Rhyme Spence catalogs many folk customs of the early part of this century. Some of these are collected from insular portions of the Scottish highlands by a native of the area, Spence himself.12 As a local Spence was a constant participant-observer in the anthropological study of his own culture. In the aforementioned book, Spence catalogs tens of games, songs, dances and ‘old wives’ tales’. Whether or not one agrees with his conclusions of their origins, this catalog alone is a precious resource. With the onset of modem technology, many of these traditions have been lost. The recitation of what was practiced gives us a link to the ritual and folk myth of the Celts of Scotland. Furthermore, though Spence’s conclusion, that all these rituals lead back to human sacrifice, may be spurious, by no means has it been disproven. I truly believe that, as a folklorist, Spence has been passed over as a useful source of information.

The misinterpretation of scanty information is one of the easiest charges to be levelled against any scientist. All of the above authors have been accused of this particular crime. Since none of them remain admired in their fields after their deaths, with the exception of Graves, the poet, all have had their work undermined. Not without some justification, I might add. However, my last defense is in support of an archeologist, greatly admired in her field until recently. She has proposed a theory which runs counter to the established wisdom and is now fighting for her right to remain in the foreground of archeological research. A decade ago Marija Gimbutas was considered a brilliant, up-and-coming, young archeologist. Now she is surrounded by controversy and charges that her theories are unfounded and absurd. As absurd, in fact, as the idea of a Goddess cult in prehistoric Europe. With the advent of feminist spirituality, this idea is not a new one. But until Gimbutas, not one archeologist had found any real evidence to support the theory. Unlike most feminist theories, Gimbutas’ does not imply the existence of a matrilinear, matriarchal or egalitarian society. She has simply proposed the existence of a contiguous belief system in what we now call eastern Europe.13 When she hypothesized that the female figurines found in this area all had markings that encoded religious meaning, her ideas were accepted, with reticence, by the archeological community. When she expanded her theory to include a Goddess cult, that same community attacked her with the crime of unfounded, misinterpretive and even sexist thought.14 Yet, if we go back to 1956, we find 0. G. S. Crawford proposing something remarkably similar.

Crawford, a Fellow of the British Academy, was founder and Editor-in-chief of Antiquity magazine for several decades. In his book, The Eye Goddess, he states, ‘the spread of an oriental fertility cult associated with a Face Goddess, starting in the Fertile Crescent... was carried across... Anatolia to Troy and Thessaly.’15 is No charges of misinterpretation were ever launched against Crawford. I think it's time for the established archeological community to reevaluate the prevailing attitude towards prehistoric Europe.

In conclusion, I’d like to return to Heinrich Zimmer’s words on learning as a dilettante. ‘The moment we abandon this dilettante attitude toward the images of folklore and myth and begin to feel certain about their proper interpretation... we deprive ourselves of the quickening contact, the demonic and inspiring assault that is the effect of their intrinsic virtue. We forfeit our proper humility and open-mindedness before the unknown, and refuse to be instructed- refuse to be shown what has never yet quite been told either to us or to anybody else. And we attempt, instead, to classify the contents of the dark message under heads and categories already known.”16
Certainly we should not ignore the guidance of those who have gone before us. But even more certainly, we should endeavor to make our own way and e.xtract our own meanings from the wisdom of the past. Only in this way will we discover our own abilities and place in this world. As the anarchists say, we should question everything. Otherwise, entropy wins.

+ A phrase that, though coined by Graves, was only recently brought into common usage with the popularity of Robert Bly's Iron John.

1 Bianchi, R.S., ‘Pyramidiots’ Archeology, November/December 1991, p. 84
2 Zimmer, Heinrich, The King and The Corpse. Pantheon Books, 1948, pl.
3 Ibid.
4 Murray, Margaret, The God of the Witches. Galaxy Books, 1971, p. 15.
5 Ibid, pp. 17~18.
6 1bid, p. 115.
7 Graves, Robert, The White Goddess. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1948, p. 14.
8 Young, Dudley, Origin of Sacred St. Martin’s Press, 1991, p. xxvi.
9 1bid, pp.98-99, 102.
10 Graves, p. 422.
11 Young, p. xxxi.
12 Spence, Lewis, Myth and Ritual in Dance, Game and Rhyme.
Grand River Books, 1971, pp. 68, 72.
13 Gimbutas, Marija, Civilisation of the Goddess.
Harper San Francisco, 1991, p. 222.
14 Fagan, Brian, A Sexist View of Prehistory.
Archeology. March/April 1991, pp. 14-15.
15 Crawford. 0. G. S., The Eye Goddess. Macmillan & Co., 1956. p. 51.
16 Zimmer. p.2.