Lilith with the Serpent and Owl
The illustration is of the Goddess Lilith, otherwise the Fata Morgana, Lady of the Wild Things, playing out a Tarot hand for the Spheres of Existence. Look funny? Hope so. There is nothing in any sacred writ I have come across suggesting divinity is bereft of a sense of humor. There’s nothing like a good chuckle to liven up Eternity:
“It is morning, man, the sun is coming up long First Avenue into the phone booth. I have done it, man. I have spent another entire night in a phone booth, making calls as numerous as the sands of the Ganges. I seem to remember setting up a perfect carrot deal, man, if only I can figure it out. And now, man, to get out of this phone booth into the Bardo of Rebirth, man. The door is stuck, man. I am trapped in my booth.”
— William Kotzwinkle, The Fan Man
“The divine person is a source of danger as well as of blessing; he must not only be guarded, he must also be guarded against... thus, the practice of putting kings to death either at the end of a fixed term or whenever their health or strength began to fail...”
— Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough
To a casual beholder the unwinding of William Kotzwinkle’s Fan Man’s (Horse Badorties’) karma is just deserts. His fault. He asked for it. Horse Badorties has been found wanting; he will spend his eternity in a phone booth. This is the Judgment Thingy — getting stuck and forgetting why. From the tone of the Poet’s voice in Robert Graves’ White Goddess, he knows what is coming. Ka-Boom! Heh-heh, gotcha! This is how it works, the Abrahamic tradition. God is pissed-off at us. Converted by divine wrath into wind-borne pollution, our ectoplasm can hang on to its Testamental roots and waft away, or go deeper. There is an older, Goddess-centered, explanation: Ms. Big is annoyed with everything, one of those days, dig? Never forgiving, she is ready to deal. We are exculpated by the Old-tyme Religion, something to think about as we dissipate in the breeze.
I decided the goddess should come back.
How she does it is beyond the scope of this posting. The mechanics are, uh... celestial. But like any prime mover out to orchestrate a second coming, she hires an ad agency. Glasgow/Finn and Westcott’s star copywriter Linda Winkelman becomes her high priestess:
The goddess got a far-away look in her eyes. “All events that will or would ever occur in each and every universe or imaginable universe from the innards of the dust mote to the googolplex of stars have already happened...” She searched the middle distance, a shepherdess seeking lost innocence, “...all and at once at the moment of creation.” Wrist to brow, she reached with the spare hand as if looking for a fainting couch. She leaned over backwards and the Le Corbusier ball-bearing swivel chair that had set Linda back two weeks’ pay took off out from under her. Morgana leFay was briefly airborne. “Oh bother! There should have been a velvet couch there.” She looked accusingly at Linda. “See to it next time.”
“Uhn, you are — were — a goddess. In another life?”
The goddess righted the chair and plopped herself in. Her feet went up on Linda’s desk, knocking over a pile of billboard proposals. “And what a life it was. Those camel jockeys couldn’t deal with a little competition. But don’t get me wrong, I’m still hot stuff.”
“You are a neglected goddess, then.” Linda reached for her phone. “Maybe some of the guys in Marketing, Creative, could get a handle on this for you.”
Christianity... is not a religion squarely based upon a single myth; it is a complex of juridical decisions made under political pressure in an ancient lawsuit about religious rights between adherents of the Mother-goddess who was once supreme in the West, and those of the usurping Father-god.
— Robert Graves, The White Goddess
I first experienced The White Goddess at the leading edge of what we now call The 60s Folk Scare. Remember? Willowy blonde women ironed their hair and wore straight dresses; they sat on high stools and sang songs of the underprivileged. We guys carried banjos and wore chinos. Ulysses and Henry Miller were the titles to be reading. My assay as a college freshman (Milwaukee State Teachers College) into the Vaults of the Forbidden was James Joyce: Ulysses, I had heard of the book even in Antigo, Wisconsin. Kenneth Rexroth, Allan Ginsburg, Alan Watts were coffee house obscurities to a kid from the boonies. The ears of of Bob and Claire’s (my parent’s) generation were still ringing with second-hand naughtiness from Tropics of Cancer, Capricorn, and Ulysses. The Supreme Court had struck down the postal regulations that made the books pornography. The libraries of the mid-west kept copies in the locked stacks, but one had to WALK RIGHT UP AND SIGN FOR THEM. It was easier buying Playboy at the downtown newsstands. I got Playboy. I wanted Ulysses. I got Ulysses’ plot but didn’t understand a word of the interlinear stuff — all those gods and goddesses allusions, the constituents of hellebore and valerian, the niece of Hercules, etc... An anthropology professor suggested I read the White Goddess, just out in paperback.
It was so terribly cool to read a piece of genuine arcana and actually understand most of it. (I was to find out 10 years later that Graves had written a how-to manual on clear communication, The Reader Over Your Shoulder, as a guide for British procurement agencies during WWII.) Not that the Claudius novels, Count Belisarius, the Islands of Unwisdom and Seven Days in New Crete were easy reads for a refugee from the public school system. But I understood most of them at the first pass. Well, Graves’ King Jesus was a Readers Digest Press publication. Heady stuff.
Researching for the Return of the Orange Virgin I sent away for a Rider-Waite Tarot deck and an Operator’s Manual. Catalogs started arriving.
This was thirty-two years ago and my name still survives on those mailing lists. Oh, these days the catalogs are fewer, the printing fuzzier, the insides no longer on glossy paper. They go directly from the mail box to the wood stove. My impulse to buy has weakened with the years, as have the catalog companies lust to foot the bills for the splashy four-color catalogs that have ruptured the tires of a succession of rural mail carriers. The cost of mailings must have loosened the purveyor’s grip on reason, as their costs outstripped any piddling profits. I think that I owe them for postage and printing alone, beggar the office overhead, about one thousand, two-hundred dollars thereabouts. I had spent $40.00 US in 1993.
The catalog sang of crystals, creams, poultices and New Age music, gowns and robes and all sorts of Renaissance silliness — High, Low, Camp, and Anachronistic. There is a local company of Civil War (United States) reenactors in the State of Maine. I even attended an encampment for a few days. I was covering the event for the local news media, but... anyway, I stayed. It was good, clean fun. I was happy; they were happy. What is this impulse — generated perhaps by the Fata Morgana herself — that drives mail order merchants to throw themselves into bankruptcy by not knowing when to stop? The bundles of catalogs have thinned while the Civil War reenactors have wiped out yellow fever along the Canadian border.
For a college kid raised on Anglican niceness in the American Midwest the Goddess came as a cosmic 180° reversal of our pale, shallow Christianity. We all wanted to believe — something or other. Belief is good for you, like flossing after meals and protected sex. But a cosmic full about-face? Graves’ White Goddess brought a welcome lethality into our snug split-level Eisenhower suburbias.
The Fata Morgana did not have to kill her lover. Still, the idea was not unattractive. It was just one of those ideas that came to one. Like checking under the bed to see if life had coalesced from the dust balls. “In days past and forever lost, my frenzied women would have lapped up the blood and torn pieces of the bridegroom, tidying. Consummation, then the meal — the wedding feast.”
For those of us who have learned to address Her with a proper respect, the Goddess comes in three basic flavors (or aspects): Mother, Lover, and Destroyer. About that last one — the Destroyer — not too user-friendly, eh? Linda’s ad agency will have to ponder that. Robert Graves tempered the Destroyer into Layer-out. Poetic, Young Robert, but she’s gone getcha in the end, the Queen Annihilatrix, whatall your perfumed phrases:
All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean -
In scorn of which we sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom we desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.
It was a virtue not to stay,
To go our headstrong and heroic way
Seeking her out at the volcano’s head,
Among pack ice, or where the track had faded
Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers:
Whose broad high brow was white as any leper’s,
Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,
With hair curled honey-coloured to white hips.
Green sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir
Will celebrate the Mountain Mother,
And every song-bird shout awhile for her;
But we are gifted, even in November
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall.
— Robert Graves, In Dedication from The White Goddess 1948
For a more masculine trinitarianism, check out your Bible, Quran, even Elaine Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels. Note: this is dangerous stuff, like Playboy, like Ulysses — the librarian may want you to sign for them.
“It would not be enough to say of The White Goddess that it is a spectacular show of poet-piety, earnest in its hypocrisy, a profession of poetic faith enacted with pseudonaive mind-immersing in glittering expanses of shallow poetic theorizing, into which is poured a foamy grandiose effusion of nothingish spiritualistics affecting learnedness… The White Goddess is worse than this. It is a personal infliction, an act of revenge committed with the kind of gruesome emission of sounds of triumph that large hawks, scouting over an area, loose on high, even before they have made their kill.”
— The Word ‘Woman’ and Other Related Writings by Laura (Riding) Jackson Persea Books 1993
Okay, belief trumps knowledge every time. So the Goddess-worship of The Return of the Orange Virgin is a pop religion, an imagined religion in the ‘Dawn of History’ sense, the meat and drink of those speculative fantasies where the pine forests shiver to the cry of the great red wolf and the moon hangs closer to the Earth. Those were the days. And if they weren’t, I’d rather not be bothered right now. Prayer and fasting, drink or drugs, a magic mushroom religious experience or one cobbled together out of blogs and Wikipedia entries. These are all equally valid as any revealed religion.
“Get outa here!” you say.
“So, I missed something?” I reply. Click and it shall be known.
The Fata Morgana — a lily, an optical illusion, a configuration of destiny in certain Tarot layouts — the Queen of Swords — and a book by Wm. Kotzwinkle. The Horse Badorties effect again. We have come full circle. Morgana, Queen of the Fay, is in the pre-Christian Jesus myths of King Arthur seemingly invented by Thomas Mallory in the 15th Century. “One can only say that to each of us [the] Fata Morgana reveals a different part of its restless, shimmering nature.” (from the narrator’s preface to Kotzwinkle’s Fata Morgana)
If you have no experience reading occult literature of this period, you may find yourself profoundly lost after the first couple of pages, staring at the abundant and profoundly esoteric tables, charts and diagrams, trying to get a clue as to what Papus is talking about. Papus is after a ‘Theory of Everything’, and finds evidence for it in the Tarot and a set of correspondences with everything from the tetragrammaton to numerology and astrology. His claim that the Tarot preserves ancient, profound knowledge by way of the Romany/Gypsies (i.e. ‘Bohemians’) all the way back to Egypt, India and Atlantis is unsubstantiated. There is no evidence of any kind of playing or fortune-telling cards prior to the thirteenth century, either in literature or folklore. Note that playing cards could not have become popular until the introduction of printing in Europe.
— J. B. Hare, prefacing The Tarot of the Bohemians
“They took such delight in the killing and forgot me at the end. I would really rather have my very own snowplow or a little red truck.”
— The Fata Morgana in Return of the Orange Virgin
There you go, jolly readers of Frazer’s Golden Bough, Robert Graves’ White Goddess, William Kotzwinkle’s Fata Morgana, things Wiccan, Flickin’ and Nod, you’ve allowed another well-intentioned essay to darken the penumbra of those writers’ collective glory. I was nowhere near the scene and will let another Robbie, Robbie Graves, take the fall.
“‘Robert Graves is slipping, I fear,’ remarks the bookseller to the traveler. ‘He’s reaching the Collected Essays stage at last. Pity why he couldn’t have given us another I Claudius instead — I wonder why he never touched on the Emperor Nero?’ ‘A good novel waiting for someone there,’ the traveler muses, sucking his teeth. ‘Mind you, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he’s written out. But it stands to reason that he can’t keep it up indefinitely. Even H.G. Wells, you know...’”
— Robert Graves Occupation Writer, 1949
The illustration is from the Moon Oracle Tarot by Caroline Smith and John Astrop. It is based on the Burney Relief (also known as the Queen of the Night relief) from ancient Mesopotamia. Whether the goddess is Inanna/Ishtar or Ereshkigal is in question. The artist has called her Lilith, so Lilith let her be. The British Museum dates her between 1800 and 1750 BCE.
Robert Graves, The White Goddess —
A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth
(see Chapter II for The Battle of the Trees) Publisher: Vintage Books 1958
Robert Graves, Occupation: Writer — A collection of short stories and theatrical pieces. Publisher: Universal Library / Grosset & Dunlap. 1950
William Kotzwinkle, The Fata Morgana — a novel. Publisher: Hutchinson & Co Ltd. 1977
William Kotzwinkle, The Fan Man. Publisher: E.P. Dutton / Obelisk New York 1987
copyright 2020 Rob Hunter