Did you ever see the magnificent film Rivers and Tides, about the work of Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy? I’m smitten by it, and by Goldsworthy’s work, in which he uses whatever natural materials come to hand (sticks, leaves, rocks, icicles, dandelions) to improvise sculptures that erode sooner or later–and sometimes very soon, in the case of, say, floating leaf-snake shapes that uncoil and flow downstream, or icicle sculptures that collapse when the winter sun reaches them. As you can imagine, I dig the frequency of leaves in his work. Goldsworthy curls them, tears them, layers them, stacks them, weaves them, fastens them, arranges optical illusions with them. Leaves are one of his primary materials for creating.
Now, picture me falling deeper into smittenness with this film when Goldsworthy mentions offhand the existence of a “tree alphabet”–yes, an alphabet based on the names of trees–in ancient Britain. Google offered me no leads; this was 2004. But earlier this year, while browsing in a used bookstore, I found a copy of English poet Robert Graves’s 1948 doorstop The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, which is all about trees, ancient alphabets associated with them, and their symbolic and mythological significances. Dear Readers, I swooned.
It took me over three months to meander all the way down Graves’s many-branched trail through the mythological and linguistic thickets of Western Europe and the Middle East. His examples span the Paleolithic period to English Romanticism, with extended, interwoven analyses of ancient Egyptian, Classical Greek, Old Gaelic, and Medieval troubadour texts, songs, and artifacts. Graves’s deft movement from culture to culture and period to period makes his pace feel dizzying, in spite of the book’s length at 500-odd pages. And though I frequently sensed that his rapid jumps elided possible problems with logic or evidence, his comparative approach kept me fascinated. Never before had I guessed that Isis was worshiped in France, or that the Welsh god Bran was Saturn transplanted. Or that Jesus was the most recent specimen in a vast forest of ancient kings whose bodies were sacrificed and eaten, then resurrected and transmuted to a divine status. Or that the primal figure of the White Goddess of the Sea lurks just behind every patriarchal deity worshiped in the West for the past three and a half millenia. OR that the role of the Irish ollave and Welsh bard was originally not just to entertain royalty with their poems, but to preserve–and conceal–the sacred alphabet of the trees, protecting it from invading cultures whose own magic alphabets and powerful deities threatened to obliterate local peoples’ languages, histories, and beliefs.
The White Goddess has been through many editions and reprints since its original publication in 1948 (my own copy is from 1997), and though it is difficult going and frequently flawed, I can see why its appeal persists. As I understand it, this book helped launch the idea current in theology, cultural anthropology, and popular feminism that prior to the ascendancy of patriarchal religions in the Middle East and Europe, the Goddess was worshiped for her power over birth, maturation, and death; growth, fruition, and harvest; dawn, day, and dark. These motifs saturate myth and literature, of course, even to the point of being cliches. But it’s fascinating to read that before they were symbols, they were attributes and manifestations of a triadic Goddess whose own linguistic code was embedded in trees.