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The Crane Bag

In response to:

The Crane Bag from the June 29, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

As a student who has devoted several years—and will devote many more—to acquiring the linguistic, literary, mythological, and archaeological knowledge required by a practicing Celticist (not “Celtologist”), I was appalled to find Anne Ross’s significant new book reviewed by a man as ignorant and prejudiced as Robert Graves. Had I the time, I would fault his review point by point, but I shall restrain myself and touch on only the most remarkable failings.

It is nice that Graves defines words as he wishes, with the armchair anti-quarian’s disregard for usage and general understanding. Many readers are aware that the Latin word from which “pagan” is derived means essentially “of the country” but few (perhaps only one) would criticize the use of the word to denote a situation of pre- or non-Christianity. Fewer readers fully appreciate the meaning of the term “Celtic,” basically a linguistic classification for a certain group of Indo-European (will the word “Aryan” never die?) languages, of which Irish and Scots Gaelic, Welsh and Breton are the only surviving members. When used as a cultural label “Celtic” is synonymous neither with “Galates” nor with “Galli”—both of these terms being subject to severe chronological and geographical limitations—and with “Celti” (properly “Keltoi”) only with major qualifications.

Graves’s archaeology is even worse than his linguistics and lexicography. The Celts certainly invaded Asia Minor, where small numbers of them settled and were known as Galates or Galatians, and where they served as St. Paul’s pen-pals. But to speak of a Celtic invasion of Europe is nonsense: the Celts were born in Europe, in the area where both the Rhine and Danube rise, and their powerful war-oriented society was known in virtually every corner of the continent by 200 B.C. And to assert unequivocally that two waves of Celts invaded Britain at specific dates, “over-throwing the even more gifted [!] non-Aryan Bronze Age agriculturalists,” is to dismiss all the archaeological studies of the last forty years with a wave of the hand, for those studies have yet to uncover sufficient evidence definitely to pinpoint the time and place of the Celtic invasion of Britain, or to establish just how many invasions there were.

Perhaps the most distressing thing about Graves’s article is his clear anti-academic, anti-intellectual bias. There is no reason at all for his condescending treatment of Professor Ross’s field work (sneer), education and research (chortle), except as an attempt to gull his readers into the outdated belief that myths and “magical materials” require visceral, rather than cerebral, understanding; his use of the ichthyologist analogy epitomizes both Graves’s bias and his ignorance.

A few brief points may illuminate this (further: within two paragraphs Graves on one hand dismisses as irrelevant the highly significant Gaulish carving of Taurotrigaranos, and on the other throws together, like the antiquarian vacuum cleaner he is, a reference to Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (a source to be read with several pounds of salt), the finding of collars of Irish gold in Greece (Irish gold was known in Europe long before there were Celtic Irishmen), a (possibly) Mycenaean dagger engraved at Stonehenge, a totally uncertain etymology of “druid” coupled with a subliminal shift to the oracular grove at Dordona, and “certain secret straw-wrapped gifts.”

Graves then carries on for two more paragraphs with wild connections between Greece and the Celtic world, but provides no evidence to support them; later he is “tempted” to identify Taurotrigaranos with Geryon, but cannot point to significant and exclusive correspondences which would prove their identity. And he romanticizes the Ogham writing system by making “speech ciphers” out of mostly dull epigraphs.

I would agree with him that his explanation of the Crane Bag is exceedingly complicated, to the point where the bag no longer holds water, let alone its other contents, the more so because of all the “supposes” and “seems” with which the argument is supported. The paragraph beginning, “But why, you may ask…” (p. 23) should be indelibly imprinted upon the memory of every would-be mythologist as an example ever to be avoided, and to it should be added Graves’s ridiculous explanation of Etruscan cult objects as loaves of chale.

Until relatively recently this was the stuff of which mythological studies were made. Unfortunately there are still those who feel they can apprehend the meaning of ancient myths through some sort of spiritual communion with long-dead ancestors; I have seen the same done in archaeology. And all too often these people have a fixation to which all myths must eventually revert: Graves’s bag is not the Crane, it is Greece. But despite his contempt for academic mythologists, and especially archaeologists, it is these professional students who for years have laid the foundations upon which hacks can build their castles in the air.

Alan Tucker

Topanga, California

Robert Graves replies:

My piece about the Irish God Manannan’s Crane Bag [NYR, June 29] annoyed scientific archaeologists because I suggested that their task was to dig, photograph, preserve, and date new finds rather than to pronounce on their religious character: a special field reserved for those few anthropologists who happen to be poets as well.

The same piece encouraged a leading Jungian to sermonize in rotund eighteenth-century style on the esoteric, as opposed to the exoteric, meaning of the Sea-God Manannan’s Crane Bag. Dr. Jung, however, was neither a trained anthropologist nor a poet, but a psychologist. What he called the unconscious—a term first coined by my German great-grandfather, the “Natur-philosoph” Gotthilf von Schubert—is what poets regard as the true conscious: a composite of those deeper levels of consciousness upon which they draw while in their active, waking, creative trance. Psychologists are content to speculate fancifully on its nature by compiling learned studies of their patients’ dream-fantasies, and misinterpreting the always practical language of mythology. An immediate, if modest, instance of deep-level consciousness was my casually reading the Crane Bag passage quoted in Dr. Anne Ross’s Pagan Celtic Britain and finding an immediate poetic answer to its complex system of kennings which nobody, so far as I know, had been able to decipher since medieval days.

Jungians are welcome to pursue their pseudo-religious fantasies about the Crane Bag as a “psychic womb in which the hero’s positive relation to the feminine being within his nature can grow and come to life.” Or even to invent a Jonah-like voyage for Manannan in the whale’s belly: which belongs to a different mythology altogether and is quite out of context in the whale’s-back kenning. But I could, if I had time, preach an even more fascinating and inventive bedtime sermon about Parson Weems’s George Washington, the Cherry Tree and the Hatchet, which would go on and on until you all fell asleep. Let us be practical. The Crane Bag was a metaphor, drawn from the ornate chess-bags of early Irish legend, or an alphabetical secret. The alphabet consisted of the original and additional signs belonging to a deaf-and-dumb means of communication, apparently Pelasgian in origin, used by Irish poets among themselves. Their early Milesian ancestors had borrowed it from the Goddess whom the Greeks credited with its inception; and the Crane was their totem bird, as it was for Greek poets. Surely this is enough, without any speculation on the “mother complex operating negatively within a man’s nature”?

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