Once more we return, with the now-regular format of two monthly essays focusing on the most recent issue of The Wicked + The Divine. This time out, Alex hits the books for a deep dive into WicDiv’s ties to The White Goddess, and Tim examines the two big monologues which dominate the issue.
Spoilers all the way up to issue #38 after the cut.
The White and Black Goddesses
Alex: Since Ananke first mentioned it, way back in issue #9, I’ve spent three years resisting the urge to read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Since Gillen mentioned he’d made sure to hide the book from all his Instagram photos up until that point, I’ve always thought of it as a sort of WicDiv Rosetta Stone… but, for all the insight it might contain, nah, I’d really rather not.
With Graves making an extended cameo in issue #38, I finally caved.
(Well, sort of. More accurately, I read around it. A few passages from the book; commentary from Graves, critics and scholars; some Pagan websites; a fair bit of Wikipedia.)
Once I began to probe, I couldn’t stop noticing connections. Coincidences, maybe. Except, as the woman herself once said, they don’t feel like coincidences. They feel like magic.
Let’s start with the story of how The White Goddess originally came to be, and how that fits with what we see in #38. The majority of the book was written in a three-week sprint in 1944 – the same year ‘Anna White’ visits Devon – after Graves was struck by a sudden bolt of inspiration. His account in the real world involves drawing maps for a book about Jason and the Argonauts, but WicDiv switches this out for the much more interesting idea that he was visited by a drunk Ananke.
(And while we’re in real-world history mode, it’s worth noting that the 1957 lecture from this issue did really happen, at New York’s YMHA Centre. Everything he says in the comic appears to be a direct quote from that lecture.)
As for the actual content of that bolt of inspiration: well, it was something about trees and Celtic druids. Ananke throws this out fairly casually, half a bottle deep into her rant. For Graves, it was the key to unlocking a bigger idea.
First, the solution to a riddle in a medieval poem, The Song of Teliesin, using a Druidic alphabet that used as its letters the names of trees – the consonants of which, according to Graves, doubled as names of months. It was a lunar calendar, with thirteen months instead of twelve. Those numbers might sound familiar.
(This calendar leaves one spare day each year: 23 December, which is so close to the all-important WicDiv date of 21 December that it actually hurts.)
Graves used this idea as a jumping-off point. Understanding the trees as an alphabet, he reinterpreted The Battle of the Trees, a medieval Welsh poem, as a metaphor for two warring languages and knowledge systems – a new patriarchal system overwriting the old goddess-worshipping matriarchy.
This didn’t just happen in Wales, according to Graves – it happened across prehistoric Europe and the Middle East. “The language was tampered with in late Minoan times,” he wrote, “when invaders from Central Asia began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remodel or falsify the myths to fit their social changes.” Back to WicDiv: we’ve actually visited Minoa roughly around this time in the comic.
(Very roughly, it’s worth noting. Crete in 3026BC is actually, as far as I can tell, early rather than late Minoan. Tim’s the historian in this duo – you can see what he had to say on the matter here.)
We saw it first in #36, where it stuck out in a fifteen-page sequence of murder as one of the few examples where Ananke’s role was filled by the one we know as Minerva. Then #37 filled in the blanks a little – it was the first time Ananke fucked up the ritual and experienced 90 years of darkness. “Never again,” she said then, which might explain the changeover. Maybe she decided to go underground.
Because the big idea that was lost with this cultural overhaul was worship of a “a divine female power, manifest under many names and forms in the goddesses of the ancient world”. Does that sound like anyone we know? Someone roaming early civilisation setting up franchises like Michael Keaton in The Founder, perhaps?
The other idea in The White Goddess with obvious applications to WicDiv is the triple goddess. It’s not an idea that started with Graves – it was likely borrowed from Jane Ellen Harrison, writing half a century earlier – but he applied it to this idea of a lost prehistoric goddess. She was a single deity, but generally worshipped in three different aspects: Maiden, Mother and Crone. Or, less catchily, Mother, Bride and Layer-out. That version describes her relationship to a lesser god-king, the last bit referring to her killing him as a sacrifice.
(This triple goddess idea, if we’re melding together the real and WicDiv histories, was one Graves wrote about before 1944, suggesting it didn’t originate from Ananke’s whiskey-fuelled diatribe. Perhaps it was these earlier writings that attracted her to seek him out.)
The obvious question becomes: which of the Pantheon does this apply to? WicDiv is weirdly full of triple goddesses. The obvious fit seems to be Minerva (Maiden), Persephone (Mother – soon to be literally) and Ananke (Crone, and Layer-out of a fair few gods along the way).
Persephone is a name that cropped up a lot in my reading, but an even more commonly cited example of the triple goddess is the Morai – the Greek Fates, known in the mythology of Northern Europe as Norns. Yup, our old pals Skuld, Verðandi, and Urðr.
The Maiden/Mother/Crone archetypes don’t map as neatly onto Cassandra and pals, although it’s generally accepted that each of the Norns represents past, present and future – which would, I guess, make Urðr our Crone. It’s also perhaps notable that the Norns manifested in issue #9, right after Ananke first mentioned The White Goddess.
And then there’s The Morrigan. Mythologically a shapeshifter with three (or more) forms, her WicDiv incarnation is probably closest to the original conception of the triple goddess – which is, after all, three aspects of a single person. The archetypes are a fairly neatly match, too, especially the less-common version. Annie is life-giving Mother. Macha, Bride to Baphomet. Badb, his Layer-out.
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point another of Graves’ major influences: The Golden Bough, written by James George Frazer in 1890. Frazer identified his own pattern in mythologies and religions that seemed to suggest a single common source – primitive fertility cults which worshipped a divine king for a year before sacrificing him.
This is basically the story that Morrigan overlays onto her relationship with Baphomet, “my king for a year, twice over”. #37 basically shows how Graves’ triple goddess archetypes fits into this cycle, and – for me – understanding that helped contextualise the way the abuse storyline was handled. A new king is always (re)born, so the cycle can start all over again.
One interesting thing about The Morrigan is that we’ve seen two earlier incarnations, both of them male, neither of whom showed any signs of a triplicate personality. But there always seems to be at least one triple deity in each Recurrence: the 455 Lucifer referenced a Morai, the 1830s had its Brontë-analogue Lonely Sisters and – the only male incarnation we’ve seen – the 1920s had its own trio of Norns.
But, as ‘Anna White’ reminds us, the Mother/Maiden/Crone construction is “an effective sleight of hand”. So I’d like to consider a couple of other options.
The first was suggested by Tim: maybe Laura/Persephone is the Triplicate Goddess in and of herself.
Jane Ellen Harrison wrote that “the matriarchal goddess may well have reflected the three stages of a woman’s life.” Laura begins the series – which opens at the start of the year, remember – as a relative innocent. (“Well, she was just 17/And you know what I mean.”)
As a mythological figure, Persephone is most commonly associated with the Maiden archetype, but recent developments slot her firmly in the Mother role – possibly the reason she seems to have abandoned the Persephone identity. If it works, maybe she’ll get her full allotment of years and a chance to explore that third stage of life. (“Laura, you’re more than a superstar/You’ll be famous for longer than them.”)
Or maybe we’re asking the wrong question altogether. Let’s finish by quoting Grevel Lindop, editor of a 1997 edition of the book: “By 1963 [Graves’] vision of the Goddess was changing again. In his Oxford lecture of that December – published as ‘Intimations of the Black Goddess’ – he began to speak of the White Goddess’s ‘mysterious sister, the Goddess of Wisdom’.”
Hmm. Does that sound like anyone we know?
Guided by Voices
Tim: When the first issue of this arc came out, my commentary noted the return of Persephone’s narration, and how its changing role in the series impacted the way we perceived her actions and motivations. Now, as we approach the end of this penultimate arc, her narration is one half of a pair of monologues that (almost) bookend issue #38. At the beginning, we have Ananke’s drunken ramblings to Robert Graves. At the close of the issue, we have Persephone’s cryptic remarks and her descent in darkness as she seemingly vanishes from existence.
These two speeches do more than frame the story in this issue though. The way the comic presents them, and the way we are encouraged to engage with them, speaks volumes about the two characters we’re dealing with. And, as we draw closer to the end of The Wicked + The Divine, I think they are not only guiding how we are supposed to interpret these characters, but the series as a whole.
Let’s start with Ananke and Graves. I won’t be diving so much into the content of her tipsy tirade or how it connects with Graves’ treatise on The White Goddess, but how the information is delivered. The page is a classic six-panel grid, and each panel replicates the same ‘shot’, with Ananke sat in Graves’ home in Devonshire. The lighting is soft, almost replicating Minerva’s candlelit shrine, and heavy shadows lurk just beyond our subject.
While the ‘shot’ may be static from panel to panel, the subject certainly isn’t. Ananke leans back and forward as she lectures Graves, aided by a rapidly-draining bottle of whiskey. The poses are immaculately chosen to remind us of a certain kind of drunken rant – the airy gesticulation in panel two, the circling glass in panel four, the accusatory point in panel five. We can almost hear the slurring slip into Ananke’s normally clipped tones, even though the text and lettering do nothing so brazen as to indicate that. Even when she’s three sheets to the wind, Ananke is still Ananke.
Most importantly, while there is continuity between the panels in terms of composition and colouring, the speech is broken up. We are dipping in and out of the conversation, catching snatches rather than the full thing. This is crucial.
Firstly, this is as close as we may get to Ananke performing a classic villainous monologue, and having a couple of pages where she simply explains who she is and what she’s doing would feel like an anti-climax after such an elegantly constructed mystery. This gives us a glimpse of an important moment in her long life without acting as a ‘spoiler’.
Secondly, we are placed in the same boat as Graves. While we are approaching the information from a very different perspective, both he and (currently) we don’t have the full story. Graves may be wilfully misinterpreting aspects or simply not have fully understood everything Ananke said, but we know that The White Goddess only makes up part of how she operates. Similarly, for all the glimpses we have been given, we don’t have the complete picture yet (though that doesn’t stop many of us putting together our own theories).
That fractured approach steers how we approach these pages. We know we’re being given important snippets of information, and so we start to pick them apart and look for clues. We piece together what we’re given with what we know, and what we intuit. The page is an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one. At least, not until that final panel, when Ananke asks Graves to leave a light on, reminding us that Ananke’s fear of oblivion has not gone away. It’s a humanising moment at the end of a speech that encourages analysis.
Let’s compare this approach with Laura’s narration at the end. As soon as we join her this issue, her narration is present, and in the first sentence, we’re quickly but subtly reminded that her commentary isn’t simply her internal monologue, but being given to an audience: “He’s weeping, as you’d expect.” More reminders slip in as the issue goes on, telling us that we’re listening to Laura describe all these events after the fact: “I couldn’t say it aloud yet, but I knew.” “I’m not sure I can explain. But I’ll try.” Like Ananke, Laura is talking to someone, but unlike Ananke, we don’t know who, and we don’t know why.
While the narration begins as soon as Laura shows up, it’s on page 19 that it becomes the focus, far more so than anything that’s happening on-panel. Laura is by herself, removing any distracting dialogue to complicate the flow of the text. More notably, the narration is separated out into its own panels, with Team WicDiv doing its standard trick of using black panels to eke out some bonus real estate within the comic. That extra space tells us to sit up and pay attention. This is clearly important.
Like Ananke’s monologue, there’s a wealth of ambiguous language here, wrapped up in metaphor and symbolism. Godhood is a “liferaft of bodies” on a river that carries you forward. Laura talks about giving up, the prize they are working towards, and that she knows what she is not – but these terms are never clarified, and there’s multiple interpretations we could apply.
Unlike Ananke’s speech, though, we get the complete thing. This isn’t a puzzle that’s meant to be put together, and the way that it’s presented, spread out over four pages, is the opposite of Graves’ information overload. The comic returns to a standard six-panel grid for this sequence, mirroring Ananke’s earlier pages, but the layout is used very differently.
The way the narration is distributed over the pages, even the different font of Laura’s internal monologue – all of it is designed to slow us down, to make us consider each moment. While the imagery that Laura’s words conjure is open to interpretation, it is all relatively straightforward, compared to Ananke’s secret language of trees and divine poetry. It’s a view into someone’s head, not a discussion between two academics.
That, ultimately, is the difference between Ananke and Laura – the key distinction in how they approach the world, how we should approach them, and how we should engage with the series.
Ananke is a schemer, seeing the world as a set of pieces to be shuffled around in the service of her aims. Emotions are weaknesses that she can prey on and exploit in others, and she does not allow herself the luxury of having them if she can help it.
Laura engages with the world through her emotions – the joy of music, the rage of revenge, the hollow despair of grief. In the end, this is Laura’s story, and as tempting as it might be to try to solve the puzzle that the plot presents us with, it is the emotional journey that matters, and that will ultimately hold the key to understanding everything.
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