The Grail Legend Part 1: Seeking the True Grail
The Grail Legend Part 1: Seeking the True Grail
By Allan D. Vreeland, Ph.D.
Dedicated to Lucille Enix
Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part series. Read The Grail Legend Part 2: Finding the True Grail here.
The Grail Legend is wonderfully successful mythology. It was hugely popular when it first appeared in the 12th century, and 900 years later it is contemporary, important, and deeply resonant. The work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell was dedicated to understanding the power of mythology. They showed that the power of the Grail, like all great myth, comes from an archetypal structure that serves as a bridge from the depths of individual existential awareness to the shared collective culture.
Historically, the first fully formed version is attributed to Chretien de Troyes, a French poet who worked with Celtic folklore sources. The version preferred by Joseph Campbell for interpretive work was written by a German knight, Wolfram von Eschenbach, in the late 12th century. It is quite a long legend; the Chretien de Troyes version runs to 32,000 verses. The story tells about the childhood and early adulthood of Parsifal, who became a knight in the timeless mythological reign of King Arthur. Parsifal’s father was a famous knight of the Crusades, but he was killed in battle before Parsifal’s birth. His mother, in the style of classical mythology, gave up her lands and castle and humbly retreated to the forest. When her son was born, he was not told of his heritage. He was purposefully isolated and protected from the chaos and danger of Europe in the Dark Ages. But, inevitably, he encountered a couple of knights riding through the forest, and to his mother’s great dismay, he left home to find King Arthur and become a knight.
The essence of Parsifal’s quest was nothing less than the spiritual healing of Europe. The major contribution to that healing was an integration of wisdom from the East which was made possible by Parsifal’s father. The healing influence of the Grail Legend on western culture is incomplete today, so that the understanding and connection to authentic personal quest continues to hold great importance for all of us.
The present consideration of the Grail Legend has several goals:
First, we need undistracted focus on the central thread of Parsifal’s quest so that we arrive at “the true Grail.”
Second, we will take a tour through current versions of the legend so that we can understand how the Grail connects with our present day concerns.
Finally, this is an invitation to use the legend as a powerful tool of understanding in order to personally deepen your quest for “the true Grail.” I will argue that “the true Grail” is not vicarious entertainment about quaint folklore. It is a dish best served warm, and it is my goal to illustrate how to consume it for yourself.
Whether we consider the Axial Age 2000 years ago, or the Middle Ages 900 years ago, or today in our own empire, when a civilization fails, it is always a regressive disintegration. The Grail Legend is set in a context of cultural chaos and turmoil, during the time of the Crusades in 12th century Europe. By the 12th century, the Church was notoriously corrupt, and it was taking increasingly drastic measures to sustain itself. Joseph Campbell makes the point clearly that the early versions of the Grail Legend, the versions of Chretien and Wolfram, were secular legends which made conflicted reference to the Church. The Grail Legend virtually disappeared in the mid-13th century, when it was banned by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith is the same Vatican prefecture that convicted Galileo of heresy in the 17th century. It exists to this day. The most recent prefect was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. In the 12th century, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was known as the Inquisition. Today, the cultural impact of the Inquisition has taken a different form. Myth, legend, and truth itself are under attack in our postmodern deconstructionist atmosphere. In the face of widespread regression and a deteriorating global environment, we must be concerned with preserving the authentic lore of our ancestors. Precisely as in the Middle Ages, new civilization is able to spring back only when there are strongly developed individuals to lead the way. Now, as then, spiritual legends, traditions, ritual and practice are the precious recipes for individual development.
When valuable knowledge is preserved in an intellectual underground, we tag it as “secret.” The Grail was labeled “secret” when it was forced underground in the 13th century, and the idea of secret will serve as a focusing lens to view the permutations of the Grail Legend in our current culture.
The most obvious interpretation of secret is a physical secret. There are serious problems with the Grail being a physical object. For example, how are magical properties linked to possession? Must you personally hold it and control it? Do you need a virginal Grail maiden to carry it around?
Nevertheless, in popular entertainment, a physical object makes the story more accessible. The problem of magic is solved by casting the secret object as a McGuffin. A McGuffin (a term derived from a Hitchcock film) is never finally possessed, and it ultimately has no proven value. Instead, it serves as a symbol to assemble people interested in the quest, and its power derives from secrecy itself. In this approach, which is an annoying postmodern style, the Grail is an eternally unrealized goal of possession.
The next level of secret is the cultural secret. A currently popular example of the cultural secret is the royal, or sacred, bloodline. Michael Baigent is credited for the current resurgence of bloodline theories, after hundreds of years of political turmoil have been unable to quench our thirst for magical superiority. The secret of lineage is, in the end, an abstract McGuffin. Somebody else’s bloodline has no real relevance to your individuation. Baigent’s escalation of suppressed cultural secret is the revelation of “what really happened.” Whether the subject is Hitler or Jesus or Buddha, it is an impossible and ultimately irrelevant issue.
A derivative chord of cultural secret has been struck by the DaVinci Code. It is a version of the Grail Legend in which what really happened was the bloodline of Mary Magdalene. But in Wolfram’s Grail Legend, the feminine is more vibrant and immediately relevant. Joseph Campbell pointed out that one of the most important contributions of the Grail Legend was the clear presentation, for the first time, of the western ideal of romantic marriage. Parsifal marries a true partner, who is both attractive and competent, because they fall in love. They remain faithful while he is off on his 5-year solitary quest. Their fidelity remains a desirable but elusive ideal for intimate relationship today.
Yet more tantalizing is the obscure secret, in which we have ready access to the object, but we do not understand it. An example of obscure secret is an ancient Tibetan mandala. Unless you know every detail of the iconography of Tibetan oral tradition, you will not appreciate that a mandala can contain the entire instructional path for transforming yourself into a perfected Buddha. More recent examples, like the texts of Dogen, require precise understanding and cultural translation. The best teachers are translation experts.
What if you already have the secret in your possession? When the images and symbols exist in your unconscious, the quest can be frustrating. In the Monty Python version of the Grail, the silly mistake is to look outside for the secret that you already possess inside. What happens here is that you project your unconscious intuition onto an external McGuffin and make the quest your full-time occupation. Actually finding anything defeats the purpose of your life, and the external search insures perpetual ignorance.
We all know people like that. Other people. . .
It is time to pick up the Grail Legend and the individuation of Parsifal. His mother is resentful of the knights, but she realizes the inevitable, and she sends him off with advice to be polite. As he makes his way to Arthur’s court, he is recognized by a cousin who tells him his name, Parsifal. It means pierce to the middle, as in the middle of the opposites. He will gradually learn more about his heritage from cousins, aunts and uncles. The beginning foundation of identity is connection to family.
Education, in the time of the Crusades, was in chivalry and knighthood. Parsifal finds a teacher, who educates him to be a polished knight. He then encounters a widowed queen who is about to lose her castle to an unwanted suitor. Parsifal challenges the bad king to a joust and settles the issue quickly. He is victorious, the queen is grateful, and they fall in love and are married. But after his honeymoon, Parsifal must go. Why??
He finds it imperative to check on his mother.
But Parsifal gets lost, and as he wanders he encounters a man fishing. The man is obviously ill, but he invites Parsifal to spend the night at his nearby castle. The man’s name is Anfortas, who happens to be his uncle, and who happens to be the Grail King. You can now see the archetypal structure. Arthur is the worldly kingship archetype. He represents chivalrous leadership. Anfortas, the Grail King, the Fisher King, is spiritual kingship, and spirituality is very sick in the mid-12th century. Spirituality is even more sick today.
Parsifal is invited to a Grail feast, where he is allowed to see the Grail itself brought in by the Grail Maiden, who is also his aunt. The feast is followed by a very curious ritual involving Anfortas. But the next morning, the castle is completely deserted, without a clue as to what went wrong. Parsifal must put on his armor and ride away alone, with the Grail Castle disappearing behind him. When he asks about the Castle as he rides, no one has ever seen it.
He gradually learns that his polite behavior at the Grail feast was in fact a miserable failure. Parsifal was the Chosen One, but he failed because he did not ask The Question. At issue is the nature of integrated compassion. Parsifal has developed well along the path of individuation: he has a name, an education in knighthood, and has married well. He has attained individual definition. But to reach the next level of authentic spiritual leadership requires more. The politeness of his boyhood and the polished skills of knighthood are not sufficient. He must have spontaneous compassion. The unasked Question was simply: “Dear uncle, what has happened to you?”
And so we come to the essential “true Grail.” David Loy, our greatest living philosopher on east/west integration, puts it simply: “It’s all about identity.” As a persistent hangover from the Middle Ages, it is embedded deeply in western culture that we do not have permission to take charge of ourselves. Development is presented as something that is granted to us, as a secret that we must possess to the exclusion of others.
After the debacle at the Grail Castle, Parsifal enters into a Dark Night of the Soul that will last 5 years. He is deeply depressed, but he is also determined to return to the Grail and to redeem himself. The “true Grail” is the lore required to work with your identity directly, in spite of cultural and personal obstacles. It is not information about yourself. It is not self-management. The point is not to have a customer-driven identity. The true Grail is a free identity, an independent identity. To accomplish that, you must take direct charge of yourself.
The recursive lore of self-definition is injunction. For the human mind, the injunctive secret is the ultimate secret of how to understand and develop the very subject who is asking the question. In contemporary language, it is the secret of genuine happiness, traditionally called bliss. The story of how Parsifal emerges from his confusion and alienation to return to the Grail Castle in triumph will be the topic of The Grail Legend Part 2: Finding the True Grail.