Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

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In Which Our Intrepid Blogger Bites His Thumb at Robert Graves

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

You may recall the scene in Romeo and Juliet in which a servant of the Montagues publicly twits servants of the Capulets with a rude gesture.

SAMPSON [to Gregory]: ...I will bite my thumb at them, which is disgrace to them if they bear it. [Bites thumb.]

ABRAHAM: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON: I do bite my thumb, sir.

ABRAHAM: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON [aside to Gregory]: Is the law of [on] our side if I say 'Ay'?


SAMPSON: No sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir. (1.1.43-52)

Commentators generally assume that biting the thumb was a gesture of insult current in Elizabethan England. This remains to be proven; I can't think of even one other reference to it in the literature of the time. Possibly it may have been a one-off creation of Shakespeare's. Regardless, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he gives us sufficient information to interpret it: it's a gesture so rude that to leave it unanswered would be considered shaming.

But, connotation aside, what does it denote?

Critical literature is full of ad hoc etiological tales (I'll spare you the one about the fig in the donkey's anus), none of them quite convincing.

Who would guess that the same gesture—and a convincing explanation for its meaning—would turn up centuries later in Robert Graves' Goddess-worshiping utopia of the future?

In Graves' novel Seven Days in New Crete, after East and West destroy one another in mutual nuclear holocaust, the New Cretan civilization arises from the ashes based on principles of love, ecological sustainability, and the worship of the Goddess.

But there's a problem in paradise. Universal happiness and social stability have begun to erode humanity's humor, creativity, and initiative, all qualities that the Goddess values greatly in Her human children.

So She sends for an early 20th-century English poet, Edward Venn-Thomas—blatantly a stand-in for Graves himself—to sow the seeds of discord in a world become too perfect.

Published in 1949, Seven Days in New Crete (US title: Watch the North Wind Rise) would, several decades later, become immensely influential among Second Generation New Pagan utopian thinkers as they began to consider the possible parameters of a pagan future. One worm in this particular Apple of Life, however, was what one can only in retrospect call Graves' primitive understanding—and treatment—of “homosexuality” [sic].

Graves himself could well be called a “gynolator.” For him, the Goddess was literally embodied in his “Muse,” the woman with whom he at any given moment happened to have been in love. One wonders how the muses themselves felt about this.

In fact, Graves' gynolatry rather smacks of protesting too much. As he himself freely admits in his autobiography, the first love of his life was another boy at school, although he insists that their love was Platonicly chaste. His account, written many decades later, of their tearful break-up—how they lay together in bed for one last night, weeping in each others' arms—remains, despite his rather dismissive treatment of the episode, oddly moving.

Still, there's no room for same-sex love in New Crete. “Men who act like women”—those who “love the Goddess so much that they wish to be one with her”—die ritually and are reborn without benefit of estate as “Holy Perverts” (253). Living in a “convent” called the Moon House, they dress in women's clothing and worship the Goddess fanatically.

Finally we come to Shakespeare's thumb-biting. During his stay in New Crete, the poet Venn-Thomas (i.e. Graves) attends the Midsummer ritual-qua-ballet during which the six-month King is sacrificed, and his six-month successor enthroned.

As a sign of the Goddess' terrible power, the “Holy Perverts” have their role to play in this drama. Entering the Royal Playhouse, Venn-Thomas is warned by his native guide, “Bite your thumb when they appear, don't forget!” (254). And when the Perverts come onstage, “in a grotesque mixture of male and female dress...tumbling and prancing either pathetically alone or obscenely in pairs” (255), Venn-Thomas—along with every other [straight] man in the theater—automatically raises his right thumb to his mouth and bites it. The women in the audience, however, remain motionless.

His father having been a Shakespeare scholar, the fictional Venn-Thomas would have caught the allusion to literature's most famous thumb-biting scene; Graves expects the readers of his novel to make the connection as well. In fact, he is offering them an explanation.

The thumb, as Graves himself makes explicit in that vast compendium of lore called The White Goddess, is the most phallic of digits. The thumb entering the mouth thus becomes an image of male-male penetration. In Shakespeare's London, this would have been read as an imputation of “homosexuality”: hence, as an insult that cannot go unanswered. In Graves' New Crete, it clearly operates as an apotropaic, a gesture of aversion: like warding off like.

I need hardly add that these days Graves' gender-politics read as hopelessly—almost ludicrously—outmoded.

But I've long felt that his vision of a stable, ecologically sustainable, Goddess-worshiping future holds seeds of profound potential.

Well, not even a prophet can get everything right.

Still, fie on you, Robert Graves, for making your boyfriend cry.

I bite my thumb at you, sir.


Robert Graves, Seven Days in New Crete (1949). Cassell & Co. Ltd.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Tasha Halpert
    Tasha Halpert Wednesday, 27 September 2017

    Too funny and interesting too. Thanks! Tasha

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