Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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A Savage Truth

 

 

 

 

 Thoughts on Some Names in Robert Graves' 'Seven Days in New Crete'

 

The Moon, the White Goddess herself, proclaims a savage truth:

The only permanence is impermanence.

This is the theme of British poet-novelist Robert Graves' 1949 utopian-dystopian novel of the Goddess-worshiping future, Seven Days in New Crete (published in the US as Watch the North Wind Rise). In it, he creates the ideal civilization of the eco-matriarchal future: Goddess-centered, socially stable, ecologically sustainable. Then he destroys it.

Impermanence is the only permanence.

The Goddess, you see—whose very nature is dynamism—has grown weary of the stagnation inherent in her perfect pagan society of the future. So she calls up a messy agent of instability from the messy past—Robert Graves himself—to plant a seed of life-giving chaos in a future that has become terminally tidy.

Robert Graves was something of an outlier in “20th” century English literature: deeply (if crankily) religious in an anti-religious age, anti-modernist in an age of modernity, a New Pagan voice before the rise of the New Paganisms.

In Seven Days in New Crete, as in Robert Graves' life as a whole, there are two important characters: Graves himself and the Goddess, whom he thought of as being temporarily incarnate in whichever woman he happened to be in love with at the time. (Just how psychologically healthy such a psycho-dynamic may or may not be, I leave to the reader to decide.) In the novel, the Robert Graves character appears as poet Edward Venn-Thomas, and the White Goddess as (among others) his former love-hate interest Erica Yvonne Turner. (“Only these days I don't use the 'Yvonne'” she says.)

Graves has chosen these names carefully. Though they look like regular names on the surface, they are anything but. As a poet, Graves always insists on verbal precision, even when, as here, it is cunningly cloaked in the ordinary.

(The novel is filled with little jokes of this sort for those who have the linguistic savvy to recognize them. The Israeli anthropologist who provides the initial impetus for what, in the end, becomes the New Cretan civilization—remember that the state of Israel was founded in 1947, only two years before the publication of 7D—is named ben Yeshu: “son of Jesus”!)

I always tell students that Seven Days in New Crete is The White Goddess in novel form, and much that reads mysteriously in the former is handily elucidated in the latter. As it happens, both Erica and Yvonne allude to the sacred Tree Calendar which lies at the very heart of TWG. Erica is Latin for “heather,” and Yvonne derives ultimately from the French word for “yew." These sacred trees represent, respectively, the Goddess in her orgiastic, erotic Springtime character and her death-dealing (though promising rebirth) Winter persona.

The only constant is constant change. This truth the Lady of the Moon, “that nightly changes in her circled orb,” embodies. She is, indeed, the epitome of the shape-shifter: the Turner. Hence Erica Yvonne Turner: she who changes form, alternately life-giving and deadly.

Likewise, in Old English, the male name Éadweard meant “guardian (weard) of prosperity (éad),” which is indeed Edward's role in New Crete: the Goddess has called him up to ensure the well-being of a society become stagnant. The English surname Venn derives ultimately from the same Proto-Indo-European root that also gave us Vanir and Venus: it means “beautiful, fair.” Pair this with the fact that Thomas originally meant “twin” in Aramaic. The name thus articulates Graves' belief that the Male is inherently twofold: each man embodies his own opposite. In both Seven Days and White Goddess, the masculine is characterized as the Dark Twin and the Light Twin together. (Witches will readily recognize this theme.) This is the “Fair Twin” for which Venn-Thomas is named. Indeed, the struggle between Dark Twin and Light emerges later in the novel's stunning (and unforgettable) Midsummer ritual-ballet.

The Dark Twin, the Bright Twin, the ever-changing Moon: for Graves, these are the Eternal Actors in the Love-Play of Existence.

Nothing stands still. Everything changes. These are the terrible truths of existence, but to Lovers of the Moon, they are a consolation.

The cycle is itself her permanence.

 

 

 

 

 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

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