King Jesus (Robert Graves)

Robert Graves was a very learned man. Excessively so, perhaps. King Jesus is a strange mixture of the illuminating and the impenetrable – a cranky, often dull exercise in comparative mythology, a scholar’s ramble through Judaism and Mediterranean mystery-cults (those like the Greek and Syrian in which “the sacred body of Tammuz is sacramentally eaten and the sacred blood of Dionysus is sacramentally drunk”).

Graves’s thesis is that Jehovah [1] was once a son of the Great Goddess, married to Anatha of the Lions and Ashima of the Doves (“two of the Goddess’s three persons”), but Judaism became a patriarchal religion. Jesus – grandson of Herod, and hence King of the Jews – believes his mission is to destroy the works of the Female (i.e. the Triple Goddess). Spoiler: he fails. (Still, Graves’s interpretation of Jesus’s behaviour in his final days – an attempt to fulfil messianic prophecy – is ingenious and compelling; the final section moves blessedly swiftly.)

[1] Jehovah was formerly known as the Egyptian god Set or Sutekh – last seen ageing to death in a time-tunnel on Mars. So, yes, Doctor Who killed God. (See The Face of Evil.)

The book is full of tree-alphabets, sacred vowels, and mystical numbers. The key to Judaism (“a Semite religion grafted on a Celtic stock”) is the relationship between bardic letters and the months and seasons of the year. The mystical meanings of the Golden Calf and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom are deduced from Gnostic (Essene) secret lore preserved in the 13th-century Welsh Llyfr Coch o Hergest. “They yield their full sense only in the light of Babylonian astrology, Talmudic speculation, the liturgy of the Ethiopian Church, the homilies of Clement of Alexandria, the religious essays of Plutarch, and recent studies of Bronze Age archaeology,” Graves helpfully writes.

Here are some sample extracts:

“What tree of the seven is the best beloved of men?”

“The wild apple-tree of immortality.”

“In agreement with us. The letter of the apple-tree is doubled C – C is the nut-tree of wisdom – which the Latins write as Q and the Greeks as Koppa. And doubled S is Z: S is the pitiless willow and Z the cruel whitethorn – trees of ill-luck.”

“With us the nut is also the tree of wisdom. Our sacred Candlestick, symbol of Divine Wisdom, is made in the form of the High Priest Aaron’s almond-rod that put forth seven buds; each bud is a light and typifies one of the seven celestial powers. The shaft of the Candlestick is the rod itself.”

“The fourth and central light, then, typifies the Planet Nabu, the power of wisdom?”

“On the fourth day our God said: ‘Let there be Lights’, and created these celestial powers.”

“As in our tradition. Their seven letters in the tree-alphabet are B.S.T.C.D.CC.F.”

Chapter 16

Two chapters later:

“What the Jews call the Oaks of Mamre, we Petraeans call the Oaks of Miriam. According to our tradition, Miriam, sister of the demi-god Moses, was the goddess of those Calebites who came up from the south with the Jews and seized Hebron from the Anakim. The Jews, who have an aversion to all goddesses, conceal the truth by a transliteration and pretend that the place is named after a certain Mamre, an Amorite, brother to Eshcol. But you will see Miriam’s effigy displayed in the sacred grove; she is a Love-goddess with a fish-tail like the Aphrodite of Joppa. The people of Hebron pretend that the effigy represents Sarah, wife of Abraham.”

“Miriam is her name?” exclaims a Greek. “She must be the ancient Phrygian Sea-goddess Myrine, who gave her name to the chief city of Lemnos, and who according to Homer was the ancestress of the Dardanians of Troy. Scholiasts equate her with the Aegean Sea-goddess Thetis, or Tethys, whose name is linked by the mythographers with that of the hero Peleus. What if the Children of Heth were Aegeans, the Children of Thetis, and Machpelah was at one time an oracular shrine of magus Peleus, or Peleus the sooth-sayer?”

“You are suggesting, Father,” asked his son, “that the Jews and Calebites whose ancestor was Abraham expelled Thetis from the shrine in favour of their goddess Sarah?”

“No, but rather that the clan of Caleb supplanted the clan of Ephron in the favour of Thetis, whom they renamed Sarah.”

“Mind you,” continues the Greek, “the legends of Hebron are so confused that I cannot commit myself outright to the theory that Heth was Thetis; she may perhaps have been Hathor, the Lady of the Turquoise, whose name means ‘The abode of the Sun-god’, that is to say ‘The Sea’. So also Pelah may well have been the eponymous ancestor of the Pulesati, or Philistines.”

Then there is the theory that the Great Goddess is a dog. “She is a dog both because of her promiscuity in love and because she is an eater of corpses; in her honour as lovely Isis, or Astarte, her initiates wear dog-masks, and in her honour as deathly Hecate, or Brimo, dogs are sacrificed where three roads meet. The Dog-star shines in the most pestilent season of the year. And dogs have always guarded the land of the dead for the Great Goddess. Witness Cerberus, and Egyptian Anubis, guardian of the Western Paradise. And is there no connexion between Caleb and the Goddess Calypso, queen of the Paradisal Island of Ogygia, whom the poets describe as a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, or of Nereus, or of Atlas Telamon? And is not ‘The Power of the Dog’ a poetic synonym for Death in Hebrew poetry?

“Upon my word, I am slowly beginning to understand the complex mythology of Hebron. Here, perhaps, you have a clue to the origin of the Aeolian double kingdom, as at Sparta, Argos, and Corinth; and also an explanation of the myths of Hercules and his twin Iphiclus, of Romulus and his twin Remus, of Idas and Lynceus, of Calaïs and Zetes, Pelias and Neleus, Proteus and Acrisius who quarrelled for precedence within their mother’s womb, and the numerous other pairs of royal twins that stud Apollodorus’s mythological dictionary. But if Adam and Abraham and Abner are one, what of the dead heroes Isaac and Jacob who are also supposedly interred at Hebron?”

Chapter 18

Part III begins:

Religious mysteries are largely concerned with astronomical prediction. The Chrestian mysteries are no exception. Jesus had been born at the winter solstice, the birthday of the Sun when it attains the southernmost, or right-hand, point of its course; but his baptism and anointing were a ceremony of rebirth performed on the ninth day of the month Ab, the date of the heliacal rising of the Dog-star. According to Jewish apocalyptical writers, the ninth of Ab was also the destined birth-date of the Messiah, because the Messianic star of Isaiah’s prophecy was the Dog-star, the Calebite badge of the House of David; moreover, the rising of the Dog-star determined the true beginning and ending of the Phoenix (or Sothic) Year of 1460 ordinary years, and the Messiah Son of David had been mystically described as the new Phoenix. It is also noteworthy, by the by, that in having two birthdays Jesus resembled the god Dionysus, “the Child of the Double Door”, born first of his mother Semele and then of Father Zeus; and so initiates of the Alexandrian Church are taught by the mystagogues when they pass into the Third Degree of Recognition.

Graves wrote King Jesus while he worked on The White Goddess, in which he argues that the cult of the Triple Goddess inspires “true” poetry. His mistress Laura Riding later claimed Graves stole her ideas.

“As to the ‘White Goddess’ identity: the White Goddess theme was a spiritually, literarily and scholastically fraudulent improvisation by Robert Graves into the ornate pretentious framework of which he stuffed stolen substance of my writings, and my thought generally, on poetry, woman, cosmic actualities and the history of religious conceptions.”

“In my thinking, the categorically separated functions termed intellectual, moral, spiritual, emotional, were brought into union, into joint immediacy; other conceptions put the sun and moon in their right rational places as emblems of poetic emotionalism, and lengthened the perspective of Origin back from the skimpy historical heavens of masculine divinity through a spacious dominion of religious symbolism, pre-sided over, for the sake of poetic justice, by a thing I called mother-god.”

Now there’s a quote for Pseuds’ Corner! It takes some ego to say one’s concepts put the sun and moon in their right places!

Graves followed this with a 1,000-page revision of the Nazarene Gospel, which took him a decade or so. I don’t intend to read it.

5 thoughts on “King Jesus (Robert Graves)

  1. I have read some of Graves work. He is fascinating but I simply lack the background to do more than marvel at his erudition. I have no Latin, no Greek and no hope of mastering sufficient knowledge to even critique his efforts. I read The White Goddess but far prefer his more mundane works of historical fiction, of which he is a master. I, Claudius and Claudius The God are superb as is Count Belisarius.


    1. I’m a big fan of the hairy fifth; I’ve read the Clavdivs books three times each. (And can pretty much quote the BBC series – one of the things television is *for*.)

      Haven’t read Count Belisarius.

      Antigua, Penny, Puce (his ’30s novel about two siblings competing for a stamp) is delightful. Seven Days in New Crete is dreamlike, more successful than some of Aldous Huxley’s SF. I liked Homer’s Daughter, too – Nausicaa writes the Odyssey to drive out invaders. And I have a few of the short stories.

      I have The Isles of Unwisdom, too; unfortunately, the copy I bought is mouldy.

      Talking of historical fiction, have you read a Canadian writer called Guy Gavriel Kay? He sets them in a fantasy world so he can develop the characters as he pleases; rather beautifully written.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I would particularly like to read Antigua, Penny Puce as I was a philatelist at one time myself. I would also like to read the two books he wrote set during the American Revolution about Sergeant Lamb. I own, but have yet to read, They Hanged My Saintly Billy, Hercules, My Shipmate and Wife To Mr Milton. Too many books, too little time. I have seen G G Kay’s name in the library but have never read any. Are they fantasy or historical fiction? Your comment leaves it unclear but I’ll check him out. And I have an author to suggest to you, Alfred Duggan. He seems to have the ability to enter into the appropriate attitudes to life for earlier societies rather than anachronistic modern sensibilities. Plus he worked on archeological digs and visited virtually every place used in his stories and knew whereof he wrote. He also wrote some non-fiction that I enjoyed such as He Died Old, which is a biography of Rome’s old enemy Mithradates.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read a couple of Duggans, and really must read more! I enjoyed Family Favourites (his sympathetic account of Heliogabalus) and Conscience of the King.

      The two Kays I read were Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, based on Justinian and Theodora.


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