‘You say you yearn for the Holy Grail. You foolish man, I am grieved to hear that. For no man can ever win the Grail unless he is known in heaven.’
Wolfram von Eschenbach,Parzival
The broad outline of the noble Quest for the Holy Grail can be described thus: a young, untutored knight must undertake a perilous quest. He finds himself in an enchanted castle where an old, wounded fisherman lives, and where various mysteries are shown to him. When he enters the castle the hero sees two youths carrying a mighty lance that is dripping with blood; later he sees two maidens carrying a large salver that bears a man’s severed head (in Celtic legend these, together with the Sword and the Grail, are known as the Four Grail Hallows). Only by asking the question ‘What does all this mean?’ can these things, which bear the odour of injury and death, be avenged.
These are the bare bones of the narrative found in the ancient Welsh romance Peredur, whose eponymous knight comes from Arthur’s court. In a later account, Chretien de Troyes’ Conte del Graal (c. 1180), Peredur has become Perceval, and the salver or platter is now a ‘graal’ that emits a bright, wondrous light. The day after he sees the mysterious vision of the salver he is chided by a maiden who tells him that, had he asked the meaning of what he had seen, the lame man (the fisherman) would have been restored to life. He was, in fact, the king. Perceval is also upbraided by a hideous-looking woman, who also curses him for not asking the question that would have restored the kingdom, for now maidens will be shamed and knights will die in battle, resulting in even more widows and orphans. That Chretien died before completing his work (before Perceval could return to the castle of the Fisher King) itself bears the hallmark of myth; one must engage with the mystery and divine its meaning oneself!
Parzival and the Holy Grail
However, a later version of the Grail-king story, the medieval poem Parzival, written in 1200 by the German Minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach, has even richer symbolic layers. Possibly the most ‘enlightened’ version, it tantalises the reader with hints of mystical codes to be deciphered, that there is more than meets the eye:
‘He who seeks to gain instruction from this tale must not wonder at the contrary elements brought to light therein … If he sits not overlong, neither errs in his steps, but understands, then only will he reach his goal.’
I shall return to this mystery element later. In Wolfram’s story, Parzival is brought up in the forest by his widowed mother (again the theme of the hero’s ambiguous conception). He leaves her in order to fulfil his male destiny, after seeing five knights ride by in gleaming armour; she dies full of mortal grief. In one of his first adventures, though untutored in warfare, he kills the Red Knight and puts on his armour. Parzival then helps a young woman in distress: he makes love to her, but abandons her to continue his journey. He later sees a raven lying dead on the snow, which is stained with its blood; it reminds him of his lover’s black hair, white skin and red lips. These symbols are the three spiritual stages in the process of alchemy: the black nigredo of the undifferentiated pysche in its base condition; the purifying ‘whiteness’ of approaching illumination as the dross is removed; and the redness of the sun, the goal, the enlightenment of wisdom. In other words, Parzival, though he does not know it, is undertaking a spiritual journey.
Then he meets a fisherman who tells him the way to the Grail castle. The castle magically appears before his eyes; there the sick Fisher King waits for him. Inside the castle a squire presents him with a sword that cannot be broken except in one perilous situation. Parzival sees figures bearing a white lance dripping with blood, two burning candelabras, the silver platter and the radiant Holy Grail. He also sees an injured old man. All this means nothing to him, however, so he goes to bed. The next morning he wakes to discover the Grail castle is deserted and sets off to find his host, but as soon as he crosses the drawbridge the castle vanishes from sight.
The old man in a black cap, reclining on a couch the previous night, was, of course, the Wounded King, whose injury (depending upon which version you read) was in the groin or thigh. Whether or not this is an allusion to castration and the removal of procreative power, the wound itself is significant: it is both a sickness of the spirit and what makes the ‘world’ wither and die. This is portrayed in Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland, as it asks ‘what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?’; it contains images of ‘lilacs out of the dead land’ and ‘that corpse you planted last year in your garden’. In this desolate state, nothing can grow, because the king’s wound is reflected in the land. As Jean Houston says:
‘…an abundance of sacred wounding marks the core of all great Western myths …all of these myths of wounding carry with them the uncanny, the mysterious, the announcement that the sacred is entering into time.’
It is this sense of the ‘sacred’, of something ‘other’, some sublime experience that turns around our lives, that is both a blessing and a curse, for often it cannot happen without the ‘wounding’. Like the painful experiences of restriction symbolised by Merlin as the Dweller on the Threshold, Houston comments that:
‘…as seed-making begins with the wounding of the ovum by sperm, so does soulmaking begin with the wounding of the psyche by the Larger Story.’
In other words, this is a sense of personal myth, the ‘numinous’, the sense that such occurrences are pregnant with meaning. Human wisdom is not to be gained without a ‘wounding’ of some kind, as Jung put it, ‘by the unflinching exertions of a human being’. To understand this process, this Pattern, is also to understand our Path, our Destiny, whose seeds we carry deep within us. In the end, Parzival is able to heal the kingdom by asking the right question: ‘Whom does the Grail serve?’ His quest to ‘find himself’ thus begins by his asking ‘What does all this mean?’
King Arthur and the Holy Grail
The majority of the medieval Grail romances are not explicit about the powers of the Grail (with one notable exception, as we shall see). The Perlesvaus, from around 1191, does at least contain some teasing hints about the Grail’s significance, and is so richly symbolic that the story is worth telling more or less in full. One of Arthur’s squires, Chaus, has a potent dream the day before the king is due to enter the forest and pray. Chaus dreams of a chapel in the forest where the body of a knight lies, dressed in fine clothes and surrounded by flaming candles. The squire decides to steal one of the candles, but a huge black ogre demands that he return it, violently striking him. At that point Chaus wakes up to find that he has, in fact, been stabbed. Nevertheless, he is able to warn the king before he dies. With this knowledge, Arthur sets out on his journey.
The king arrives at the chapel of St Austin, where he sees three people performing Mass: a priest, a virgin, and her son. Here he also learns, from a local hermit, of the calamity brought upon the land by the question the young Parzival failed to ask: ‘Whom does the Grail serve?’ Before his return home, Arthur hears a voice announce that the land will soon be redeemed and that he should gather his knights together to search for the Grail. During this court assembly, however, three mysterious women enter. The first is bald and appears riding on a white mule. The second also rides and carries a dog and a jewelled shield emblazoned with a red cross that had belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. The third is on foot, carries a whip and is driving white mules; with her other hand she fondles the star hanging round her neck.
Here the anonymous author has combined elements of Celtic myth, Christian tradition and the Greek theme of the threefold goddess. The bald woman symbolises innocence, purity, even virginity; the woman carrying the dog brings to mind the three-headed Greek Hecate with her hounds of Hades; the woman driving the mules is reminiscent of the Tarot card The Charioteer (though we are accustomed to a male figure here, at least one early deck – the Bembo – depicts a regal woman holding an orb being pulled by two white horses). The first woman tells Arthur about some of the evils that have occurred in his kingdom, mentioning a mysterious cart, drawn by three white harts, standing outside the castle. Inside the cart lie 150 heads, sealed in gold, silver and lead. These metals represent the three stages of transformation in alchemy (covered in the next chapter). Their inclusion indicates that we are being presented with a coded mystery: for what might a Celto-Christian legend recounting the exploits of chivalrous knights have to do with a pseudo-science like alchemy?
The Perlesvaus continues with the failed attempts of Gawain and Lancelot to win the Grail. Gawain, though accompanied by the talismanic sword that had beheaded John the Baptist, forgets to ask the necessary question. Lancelot, because of his fatal love for Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, is condemned from the outset to fail. All hopes are then invested in Parzival (here called Perceval) to recover the Grail. He discovers that the king of Castle Mortal has murdered his uncle, the Fisher King, and now lives in the Grail castle. Here Perceval is the ‘good knight’, attempting to avenge the death of his uncle, though in a later anonymous version, La Folie Perceval, the knight is the eponymous fool: young, naive and still to be initiated into the mysteries of life.
During his adventures Perceval meets a mysterious wise woman and, later, two lovers sitting beneath a tree who ask him to retrieve a golden apple possessed by a giant. We also meet the Four Grail Hallows again; the procession inside the castle consists of the chalice-bearing maiden, a page with the lance that pierced the side of Jesus; and four servants carrying a box and bearing a sword. Inside the box, however, is the ‘book of the holy vessel’ lying on a sacred platter, which Perceval cannot bear to look at because it ‘shone with so great a light’. Here then, uniquely, the Grail is synonymous with a holy ‘book’ of wisdom, and Perceval is the fool who has yet to uncover the meaning of his own destiny.
Returning to the Perlesvaus, Perceval finally succeeds in becoming the new Grail king. For a time he lives in the forest, waiting for the ship that will take him towards the Blessed Isles. From this time onwards, it is said, no one else has seen the Holy Grail.
This is an edited excerpt from Celtic Magic, by James Lynn Page (published by Foulsham 2003).
Read about other historical and esoteric mysteries on this site, like the Rosicrucians and the Priory of Sion, the Philosopher’s Stone, The Druids and the Knights Templar
Very well expressed and explained.
Thanks very much!