Joseph Campbell, in his epic study The Masks of God places Wolfram’s Parzival squarely on the dividing line between ancient and modern. Emma Jung, whose psychological insights are invaluable, identifies the Grail cycle as the beginning of the immanent spirituality of Christianity, in opposition to the more ancient transcendent view. Adolf Hitler considered the Hallows of the Grail to be an important component of his plan for world conquest. Sort of a psychic equivalent to a Panzer battalion.
The Grail would seem to be the ultimate slippery idea. Even the word itself has a half-dozen different derivations: from gradual, gradulis in Latin, to a wide plate or dish, gradule in Old French, to the really strange meanings such as Sang Real or royal blood. A persistent whiff of Sufism lingers on, along with traces of other arcane undercurrents, such as Goddess worship, “witchcraft,” and contact with such megalithic concepts as landscape zodiacs.
To approach the Grail is to enter into Fairyland, the Magic Kingdom, but one such as Walt Disney could never have imagined. The Grail is, or becomes, all things to all seekers. Perhaps it is best seen as a state of mind, one in which the numinous exists in sharp and bright detail, while the mundane becomes charged with significance and meaning. If The Castle, or Temple of the Grail is the Garden, then the Angel of the Fiery Sword becomes a Grail Knight. And to enter one must simply ask: “Whom does the Grail Serve?” We are talking of nothing less than the redemption of the human condition, the true promise of Christianity, reneged on by the Church and forgotten by all but those who take up the Quest.
Like all great and essentially timeless ideas, the Grail is a product of a specific time and place, a specific and exact set of enabling conditions that allowed the emergence of this seminal myth. To understand the Grail, we must look first to history
Elenor of Aquitaine was in many ways the most remarkable woman of the middle ages. Indeed, she was perhaps one of the most amazing women of all time. Outright sovereign of Aquitaine, the richest and fairest province of France, she was married very young to the King of France. The saintly Louis seems never to have known quite what to do with this powerful, beautiful and headstrong woman. Elenor started the fashion of the Court of Love, which flourished throughout Europe and reached its peak at the turn of the thirteenth century. Elenor’s daughter, Marie de Champagne, inherited her mother’s love of Provencal troubadours and all the other trappings of the cult of courtly love.
Elenor and her court accompainied Louis the Young on his expedition to the Holy Land, known as the disasterous and ineffectual Second Crusade. Elenor returned from crusading and soon embarked on the great royal romance of the period. Henry Plantagenet, Henry II of England, swept her off her feet. He married her with the aid of large bribes and good friends in Rome. Their children included two of the most renowned and infamous characters in the long panorama of English history: Richard the Lion-Hearted and King John, the signer of the Magna Carta. With illustrious siblings as these, it is easy to lose track of a simple princess, no matter what her literary tastes.
Marie de Champagne deserves a better niche in history if only for her encouragement of poetry. She brought to her court the greatest storyteller of the age, Chretien de Troyes. Through Chretien the undercurrents of the Grail mythos surfaced into literature.
Not much is known about Chretien, his origins or his early works. He was born around 1130 and by 1170, he was famous as the author of a version of Ovid’s Book of Love, now lost, and a version of the Tristan story which has also disappeared. Erec is his first medieval bestseller. This poem introduces in a formal way the Matter of Britain to the cosmopolitan audience at the court of Marie de Champagne, and from there passed throughout the courts of Europe. Erec sets the basic pattern for all Arthurian Romances, but though the splendors of the Celtic world are here on display, the Grail is not yet in evidence.
Chretien followed up his success with three more Arthurian tales. Cliges is a Roman myth with an Arthurian background. It wasn’t all that popular. There are only two copies extant. But it did introduce certain key elements in the Matter of Britain. Cliges contains the first mention of the Round Table and the first specific mention of Camelot. Chretain may have picked up this name from Camulodunum, the Roman name for Colchester.
The Knight of the Cart and The Knight with the Lion are perhaps Chretien’s masterpieces. Certainly Ywain or the knight with the lion with its marvels, strange adventures and courtly love, its finely drawn characters and well wrought unity is a masterpiece. The Knight of the Cart , our introduction to Lancelot, fares less well. The action is unexplained and unmotivated, requiring a broader canvas in order to give the causes and consequences of the adventure. The overall feeling is that of a piece of a larger work rather than a completed work of art in itself.
We can imagine Chretien working on just that problem of scope in the early 1180’s.While Chretien produced most of the Arthurian stage dressing that would define the very concept of Romance over the next three hundred years, the Grail has yet to appear.
Chretien’s last work, left unfinished at his death, was Perceval, or the History of the Grail. With this uneven masterpiece, Chretien plants the seed germ of the spiritual qualities that will, within only thiry years, become the driving force behind works as unique as Wolfram’s Parzival and Walter de Mapp’s Queste del Saint Graal.
While the scope of Perceval, or the History of the Grail is broad enough to encompass the entire medieval world view, it is riddled with difficulties and inconsistencies. Chretien himself claimed that he was merely reworking the material that he had found in an old manuscript. Perhaps the marvels and strange doings of his Celtic original simply proved too much for Chretien’s more down to earth approach. At any rate, his version ends after Gawain’s adventure of the Perilous Bed.
We can be sure that Chretien began his last work, commissioned by Phillip of Flanders, with great enthusiasm. Chretien refers to the story as the greatest ever told in any court. His opening scenes are full of color and verve. He tells of his hero’s blunders and gaucheries with a keen comic sensitivity of effect. He invests the encounter with the Fisher King with just the right amount of awe and reverence mixed in with the mystery and strangeness. And Chretien is equally successful with the startling appearance of the Loathly Damsel and her violent denunicaion of Perceval, whose growth from boyish boorishness to knightly grace has been well drawn and realized.
With the shift of narrative focus to Gawain, the tale begins to unravel. By the time the story returns to Perceval, it is obvious that Chretien is deeply confused and that some important concept concerning this “graal” has been lost or misunderstood.
But the clues are there, painted in broad strokes in the Grail procession scene. To understand the mystery of the Grail, it will be necessary to have the outline of Chretien’s scene in the Grail Castle firmly in mind. Our first glimpse of the Grail offers many guideposts in the tangled thickets of theological and eschatological speculations to follow. Chretien faithfully followed his original, even when he didn’t understand it.
Perceval’s early life echoes the boyhoods of the great Celtic Solar Heroes Culchuin and Finn. His entry to the great hall of Camelot is taken from the tale of Kulwich in the Welsh Mabinogion. After his knighting, Perceval sets out in search of further adventures and arrives at the castle of the Fisher King. The Fisher King presides over a vast, empty hall, large enough for four hundred men. An old man is seated on a couch pulled close to the central fire. The Fisher King presents Perceval with a Sword, a richly appointed weapon, a marvel that “could not break save only in one peril which no one knew save him who forged and tempered it.”
A procession passes through the hall. First, a squire carries a Spear dripping spackles of blood onto the floor. Two squires with ten-branched candlesticks follow. A beautiful maiden enters carrying a “Graal” which blazes so brightly that it puts out the light of the candles and the stars. Following her is another maiden carrying a talleors, a casket or tabernacle. Perceval watches all this but fails to ask its meaning.
In the morning, the castle is empty and disappears as soon as Perceval moves across the drawbridge. He comes upon a lady holding a headless body. She informs Perceval that all could have been healed if he had only asked of the grail. She also tells him that his sword will break in a careless moment, but that it can be renewed in the lake where the smith, Trebuchet, dwells.
On the surface, this is no stranger than any other marvelous encounter in any of a dozen Celtic adventure tales. It is only when the hermit, whom Perceval visits for confession after five years of godless adventure, begins to explain and chastise that we sense that something is missing or misunderstood.
Why does the hermit rebuke Perceval so severely for not asking of the Grail when he was merely following the teachings of his chivalrous mentor? And, in any case, Perceval did not know that he should ask, or that there was any penalty for not asking. It somehow doesn’t seem quite fair.
But even more disturbing is the hermit’s assertion that the “Graal” carried by the beautiful maiden did not contain a salmon or lamprey as Chretien implied it should, but simply a consecrated wafer intended for the King’s father. Church orthodoxy specifically excluded women from serving in such a priestly capacity. Yet the Grail Maiden passes unexplained. At any rate, a dish wide enough to hold a large fish seems a strange choice to hold a smallish wafer. And, if its purpose is simply sacramental, why does it accompany each course?
The old hermit’s explanations are more tantalizing than satisfying, and suggests that Chretien found the need to alibi and cover over his religious tracks. The idea of a miraculous dish is an ancient Celtic motif. The later romances give the Fisher King the name of Bron, a close proximity to the ancient Welsh Bran, whose cauldron supplied the needs of any and everyone. Bran was wounded in the foot, echoing the Fisher King’s injury, a spear wound through the thigh.
It’s a mistake to assume, as does Professor Loomis and other authorities, that Chretien simply misinterpreted Bran’s horn, corz, which also had miraculous abilities, as cors, or body, thereby connecting the dish and the body of Christ which accidently created the spiritually potent image of the Holy Grail. This pun is definitely a clue to the real intention, but it is hardly an accident.
And there is still the matter of a woman celebrating a form of the Mass, something unheard of in orthodox tradition. Where could this have come from?
To simply say “from Celtic sources” is to beg the point. For all the pagan influences in the Grail story, it is still almost numinously Christian. But it is a Christianity far removed from the corruption and politics of Rome. This doesn’t explain the eruption of Grail literature in the thirty or so years between the major Romances. For that, a broader perspective is needed.
These thirty years, from roughly 1185 to 1215, marked, in many ways, the nadir of medieval Christianity. The papal squabbles of the mid-century, along with the general sense of discouragment after the failure of the Second Crusade, created a religious vacuum, into which more “heretical” forms of Christianity stepped. These heresies took root so quickly because of the contrast they presented with the church of Rome. These priests lived with and cared about their flock. It was common for prelates in Rome to spent their whole tenure in absentee, and the lower clergy was often as venal and corrupt as the local landowner.
The decline of the church was given an extra push in the 1160’s and 70’s by the wide circulation of Abelairdian rationalism. Abelaird, best remembered today for his romance with his pupil Heloise, discussed the superstitions of the church with such clear-headedness that many intellectuals agreed that change was necessary, even essential.
If the second crusade has been disaapointing, then the fall of Jerusalem in the autumn of 1187 was devastating. It was seen as a sign of God’s disfavor. A crusade was proclaimed, joined by such personages as the Kings of Germany, France and England. Frederick Barbarrossa died along the way and even though Elenor’s golden child, Richard I of England, pursued the crusade with all the force of his fiery personality, Jerusalem remained in the hands of the infidels.
Richard, Heart-of-the-Lion, was something of a troubadour himself and gave his own stamp of approval to the new mode of romance. He seemed to literally embody the Matter of Britain and its chivalric traditions. We can be sure that the new poetry of the grail accompanied the crusaders because Richard’s nephew, Marie’s son, Henry of Champagne was elected King of Jerusalem. It is tempting to envisage the poet Gautier de Danans chanting his continuation of Chretien’s masterwork in the great hall of Acre, with Richard and his Queens, his sister Johanna and his wife Berengaria, nodding their approval.
In 1191, the whole of the Arthurian tradition was verified by the monks of Glastonbury. Staking their claim as the “Vale of Avalon,” the good monks disinterred the body of a Bronze Age chieftain and his queen. The bodies were supposedly marked with a cross identifying them and King Arthur and Guinevere.
Naturally, this created an international sensation, and along with it, an appetite for stories about Arthur, his knights and their adventures in search of the Grail. There were several good reasons for this sudden discovery. First and foremost stands the political reason. The Plantagenet conquest of Wales was still quite recent and the nationalist guerrillas, to give them a modern appellation, believed that Arthur, rex quondum et futurum, the once and future king would rise from his rocky tomb in Gwenydd and ride to battle against the invaders. It was politically sound to produce Arthur’s body, safely buried on English soil.
But, looking closer, there is something very interesting about Glastonbury’s claims on Arthur and the Grail. Tradition has it that Joseph of Arimathea brought Christianity, and possibly the Virgin Mother herself, to Britain within a decade of Jesus’ death. The first Christian church in the world was then the small circular wattled structure at Glastonbury.
The Celtic Church, which was responsible for bringing culture, indeed one might say even civilization, back to Europe after the fall of Rome, survived at least until the eighth century. It survived even longer in the wilds of Ireland and Scotland. We find Robert the Bruce being crowned by a Culdee bishop as late as the early fourteenth century.
Glastonbury functioned as if it were a school, or spiritual center of some sort. Its place was high on the list of Celtic Church pilgrimages and from the earliest times was associated with the Virgin Mother. Arthur was associated at an early era by his adoption of the image of the Virgin as a personal banner. (See Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth). If Arthur has an actual historical focus, it is the late 400’s, just after the last legions were recalled to Rome and before the overwhelming wave of Saxon invasions in the early 500’s. Arthur at this point is a “Restitutor” or rescuer of Roman civilization. His choice of the Virgin, rather than the crucifix of Rome, indicates that along with restoring the Empire, Arthur intended to change the focus away from apostolic Catholicism toward the more inspiration oriented Celtic Church. That he failed is perhaps the great tragedy of the Dark Ages.
At any rate, it is not hard to see the glimmers of this earlier and more spiritual form of Christianity as the undercurrent of ideas that emerged as Chretien’s “graal.” The connection is never made directly, accept in the later romances, but the Matter of Britain was basically a front for the Celtic Church. In this seemingly secular form, the spiritual motiffs of a truly gnostic Christianity emerged in the intellectual current of the age. The Roman Church neither encouraged nor discouraged the Grail Romances, even though it was obvious that an earlier and possibly heretical form of Christianity was being represented. As we shall see, the Church was not above persecuting heretics, but there was absolutely no attempt to discredit the Grail stories.
Perhaps the reason for this is that even the Roman Church found it hard not to believe that the origins of the Celtic Church went back to the very family of Christ. “Royal Blood,” indeed.
Around 1200, Robert de Borron, following the popularity of the continuations of Chretein, produced Joseph of Arimathea, the prequel to the series the ties it all very neatly into the Celtic Church. He reveals the themes of a hidden or inner teaching given to Joseph after Christ’s resurrection. These teachings appear to center around the Grail, here called a Chalice, and consitute the heart of the “mysteries.” Mention is also made of a journey westward, to the “Vale of Avaron (Avalon?)” and provision is made for the future hero, Percival, who will fulfill the Quest.
There is a certain murkiness to this story, perhaps as a result of trying to tell the important part (for those with ears to hear) and still stay within certain defined limits that would allow the Roman Church to ignore the tale. Things had changed by 1200. A powerful Pope, Innocent III, had regained the upper hand in his struggles with the Holy Roman Empire and began to turn his attention to unifying the whole world under his spiritual rule. By the grace of God, of course.
And this led directly to the most disgraceful incidents in the history of the Roman Church. The Fourth Crusade and the Crusade against the Cathars were waged against fellow Christians. The Fourth Crusade ended with the sack of Constantinople. The Crusaders, tricked by those crafty and godless Venetians, fell upon the first city of Christendom and plundered and sacked with a vengence. The Knights Templars found the shroud, whose adoration would produce charges of idol worship eventually resulting in their downfall. Innocent III rejoiced in the “unification of the Church.”
But not quite. A resurgence of a gnostic heresy in the south of France threatened to become the majority religion and Innocent responded in the manner he knew best: call out the troops. The extermination of heretics in the south of France would continue for half a century, long after Innocent III went to his just rewards in whatever afterlife he actually believed in.
Why exterminate the Cathars, or the Perfecti as they called themselves. Why not also attack the Celtic Church which was also active at the same time?
It boils down to a question of legitimacy. If Rome was afraid to open the question of the Celtic Church, it was because of the nagging suspicion that the Celtic Church had the greater claim to legitimacy and could just possibly prove it. There were connections between the Perfecti and the Celtic Church. By concentrating on the Perfecti, heresy could be severely rebuked as an object lesson that would force at least superficial adherence to Rome.
The Cathars became scapegoats for the whole underground current of Celtic/Grail/Gnostic Christian survivals. It seems to have worked. For by 1220, around the time the first wave of anti-cathar crusading was winding down, Grail Romances were falling out of favor. Other than Malory, whose rendition of Walter de Mapp’s 1220 Queste de Saint Greal has become our story book Grail, there is only the “Elucidation” of Chretien by an anonymous author. This is a half hearted attempt to give another explanation for all these mystical goings on. It is unsuccessful and is often not included in the Grail texts.
Clearly, the Grail had a specific significance for those who listened so avidly to these stories of wonder and marvel. The grail’s significance is simply its connection with the Holy Family. The Grail suggests in the strongest possible terms that another route to salvation — one that had nothing to do with the Church of Rome — was available around the turn of the thirteenth century.
This is most clearly seen in the two most unique of all Grail legends, that of the “Perlesvaus” and Wolfram’s Parzival. Wolfram’s tale is almost devoid of any mention of the clergy. His Parzival finds grace through knightly prowess in pursuit of a gnostic, or experiential faith. His Grail is the stone that fell from heaven. This “stone” would eventually become, over the centuries, the philosopher’s stone of the alchemist.
The “Perlesvaus” ties the matter to Glastonbury and may even have been written there shortly after the discovery of Arthur’s Tomb. This story differs somewhat from other Grail legends, but its connection with the megalithic zodiac around Glasonbury, which Katherine Maltwood identified in the 1930’s from a close reading of the “Perlesvaus,” suggests the area’s older connection with the gateway to Anwen, the Celtic underworld where the original cauldron of Bran was hidden. There is even an ancient Welsh poem about Arthur’s trip to Anwen to capture the cauldron.
The pattern is clear. Around the turn of the thirteenth century, the Grail Romances offered a direct challenge to the authority of Rome, one that Rome could not answer for fear of exposing her own shaky position. Innocent III felt strong enough, after the fall of Constantinople, to turn the iron grip of Christian chivalry on the most exposed and concentrated group of heretics hoping to quiet the lot of them. Indeed, the fear and horror of the Cathar Crusade did put the fear of the Pope back into the hearts of Christians everywhere.
And if the Celtic heresy could not be brought to the sword directly, then the land of England could be put under interdiction, a terrible form of religious coercion in which the church effectively goes on strike. It will not marry or bury or hold services while under interdiction. Innocent III, for good measure, also excommunicated King John. All of this was resolved by England becoming a Papal Fief for a few years. The Celtic Church gradually faded away over the next century.
The image of the Grail, though, did not fade away. The Matter of Britain still retained its popularity, though without the spiritual overtones. The spiritual current went underground, surfacing in the Renaissance, and then again in the Rosecrucians, and again in the nineteenth century.
Wolfram says that to know the Grail you must “learn your ABC’s without the aid of black magic.” Robert de Borron’s Joseph is quite explicit. The mystery of the Grail is the inner teaching. Jesus taught Joseph strange words to vibrate over the cup that held the holy blood. This attempt to clear away the underbrush of the Grail texts has shown that the source of the Grail is that strange mixture of Celtic and Christian beliefs that developed in the west of England and Ireland before the Empire crumbled. It was defended by Arthur, and almost brought by him on to the stage of European history at just that juncture when the politics of the Empire would have allowed a completely new direction, a completely new version based on the inner teaching of the Christian mysteries.
By the eighth century, the time of Charles the Great, Rome had established her death grip on the religious community, and Charles, out of guilt, or through the trickery of the Pope, allowed himself to accept the Imperial Throne from the hands of the Patriarch of Rome. The fraudulent Donation of Constantine, which supported the temporal power of the Church, clinched the situation. From that point on, Rome was locked in a desperate struggle against the various gnostic survivals, some of whose claim to be the real “Church” was considerably better than Rome’s. To admit any other claim was to lose the position of defender of orthodoxy; for if there were many churches, than Rome was not THE church, catholic and universal.
This power struggle would color the next seven hundred years, ending finally with Luthor’s thesis nailed to the door of the seminary. That rupture could not be healed, even by the sword.
In the Grail, we see, even at this late date, the radiant quality of that early church. The importance of the Grail, for us now, as we plunge into the next cycle of spiritual evolution, lies in its symbolic nature. Within the Grail can be found a synthesis of all western mystical and magical traditions. It is the source of that underground stream of meaning that flows through the occult and esoteric teachings of the last two thousand years.
The Grail is all things to all people, and to all it is The Mystery. Omnia quia sunt, lumina sunt.
by Daniel Roads