The Grail is the heart, illumined and awakened so that it may serve as a receptacle for divine energies.
For most of us, the Grail is a mirage or a rainbow’s end. We may catch a glimpse of it, but if we allow ourselves to be led in its direction, we soon find that it recedes; if we steal a few steps closer, it disappears. And so the Grail has become the quintessential metaphor for all that is beautiful but unattainable.
The Grail is usually imagined as a cup or chalice, specifically the cup used by Jesus Christ during the Last Supper (or used to catch his blood as it flowed on the cross). Legend has it that after Christ’s death and resurrection, Joseph of Arimathea — who had lent him his tomb for something under three days — took this cup to Glastonbury in Somersetshire, England.
Glastonbury itself is the site of innumerable legends and fables connected not only with Joseph of Arimathea but with King Arthur and his knights; indeed it was said that the bones of Arthur and Guinevere were unearthed there in medieval times. While this may be mere fable, it’s unquestionably true that Glastonbury functioned as the site of an abbey from the seventh century till 1536, when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of all the monasteries in England. The Gothic ruins of Glastonbury Abbey can still be seen today, and the town remains a popular destination for New Age pilgrims.
The Grail too has become intertwined with the legends of Arthur and his knights; this motif first appears in courtly romances written in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The oldest is the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, a kind of Bildungsroman in which a young man proves himself as a knight. During his adventures, he comes to a castle where he witnesses a strange procession:
A squire entered from a chamber, grasping by the middle a white lance. . . . All present beheld the white lance and the white point, from which a drop of red blood ran down to the squire’s hand. . . .
Then two other squires came in, right handsome, bearing in their hands candelabra of fine gold and niello work, and in each candelabrum were at least ten candles. A damsel came in with these squires, holding between her two hands a grail. She was beautiful, gracious, splendidly garbed, and as she entered with the grail in her hands, there was such a brilliant light that the candles lost their brightness, just as the stars do when the moon or sun rises. After her came a damsel holding a carving platter of silver. The grail which preceded her was of refined gold; and it was set with precious stones of many kinds.1
The young man is curious about this strange procession, but, minding his manners, he does not say anything about it. The next morning he awakes to find the castle empty, and he rides off. Only later, when he describes the episode to a maiden he meets, does he discover that he has been the guest of “the rich Fisher King.”
“He is still in such pain that he cannot mount a horse,” the maiden says, “but when he wishes to divert himself, he has himself placed in a boat and goes fishing; therefore he is called the Fisher King.” The maiden also tells the young man that if he had asked the meaning of the Grail procession, he “would have cured the maimed King, so that he would have recovered the use of his limbs and would have ruled his lands and great good would have come of it!”
John Matthews, one of today’s best-known writers on Celtic and Arthurian subjects, ably dissects this strange tale in this issue, but one thing worth noting about it here is that the Grail itself seems to be a familiar object. In fact the word “grail” seems to come from the Old French gradale or graal, and often simply means a large serving-dish. Later on a hermit tells Perceval, “The rich Fisher is the son of the King who causes himself to be served with the Grail. But do not think that he takes from it a pike, a lamprey, or a salmon. The holy man sustains and refreshes his life with a single Mass wafer. So sacred a thing is the grail, and he himself is so spiritual, that he needs no more for his sustenance.”2
The most striking thing about this tale is its dreamlike nature. Like a dream, it seems to lead us toward a number of different meanings, none of which entirely exhausts its power. Some have seen in it echoes of pre-Christian Celtic paganism, and indeed another version of this story, the Peredur, found in the Welsh Mabinogion, is more explicitly pagan, even including the familiar Celtic theme of a severed head. Others stress the Greco-Roman origins of the myth: C.G. Jung’s wife Emma noted that some of its main elements can be traced to a novel about Alexander the Great attributed to one Callisthenes and dating to around 200 A.D.3
On the other hand, as Charles Coulombe’s article in this issue stresses, the Grail legends proper arose at the precise moment in history when the Catholic Church was formulating the doctrine of transubstantiation. The idea that the Grail contained the Real Presence of Christ must have been very much in the minds of Chrétien and the authors of other Grail romances. Indeed one way of interpreting the Perceval is that the lance and grail in the procession are images of the broken world of the Fall, which is to be redeemed in the Eucharist; and the Perceval ends with an explanation of the mystery of the Eucharist.
But there have been many other interpretations and many other images for the Grail. In the thirteenth-century Parsifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Grail is not a cup but a stone fallen from heaven — the lapsit exillis. This obscure Latin phrase has called forth many explanations. Lapsit is a garbled word, meaningless in Latin, but evoking associations of lapis, “stone,” and lapsus, “fallen.” Exillis resembles exilis, “meager” or “poor,” also exsilium, “exile,” elixir, and even ex illis, “from those.” Most likely it is either a mistake — another instance of the barbarous Latin common in the Middle Ages — or a kind of Joycean portmanteau word, deliberately cryptic and meant to evoke a rich nexus of meanings. The image of the stone is itself ancient; in describing his version of a Grail Castle, Pseudo-Callisthenes says, “A precious stone, which took the place of a fire, lit the whole temple.”
A popular recent interpretation holds that the Grail — sometimes called the Sangreal or “Holy Grail” — isn’t an object as such. Instead it refers to the sang real or “royal blood.” This view, popularized by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, holds that the true Sangreal is the lineage of Jesus Christ himself. His children, borne through Mary Magdalene, eventually came to constitute the Merovingian dynasty of the Frankish kingdom. The perpetuation of this bloodline — and its restoration to the throne of France — has supposedly been the preoccupation of a mysterious secret society called the Prieuré de Sion or Priory of Sion, which has enlisted the help of various other secret societies throughout the centuries, including the Templars and the Rosicrucians.
Though there is something engaging about this idea, in the end it has always seemed to me more like a rejected Indiana Jones script or the fantasy of obsessive French monarchists than a plausible take on history. Robert Richardson’s article in this issue suggests that a monarchist fantasy is indeed what it is; he contends that, by means of planting documents in French libraries, various intriguers have made it seem as if the extinct Merovingian line not only survived to this day but has a real connection to the lineage of Jesus Christ.
All of which leaves us asking, what is the Grail? Though, as Charles Coulombe points out, there are to this day a number of candidates propounded as the true Grail, it seems likely that the Grail is not just a mere object, however sacred. Ean Begg’s article in this issue suggests that for C.G. Jung, the Grail was no less than the principium individuationis, that in us which strives to realize itself and become conscious. For R.J. Stewart, another well-known writer on Celtic themes, the Grail is preeminently “the mystery of regeneration.”
For others, the Grail is a nonphysical structure within the human organism. Several months ago I asked Frances Fox, an intuitive consultant based in Coral Gables, Florida, what enabled her to receive psychic information, She replied, “We have within us an intuitive sense, an apparatus that brings in totally clean information” from the psychic airwaves. This nonphysical apparatus, which overlays the central nervous system, is what she calls the Grail. “Grail is the French word, a platter from which you can take anything you want,” she explains. “You can take anything you want off of your consciousness structure.” Fox claims that this structure is in some ways similar to the meridians known to Chinese medicine, but unlike them, its structure can be altered. “When your consciousness structure is working right,” she adds, “it is in the shape of a grail.”
A similar perspective comes from a Russian Orthodox mystic named Alexander Mumrikov. Discussing the Prayer of the Heart in a 1993 interview with author Dennis Lewis, Mumrikov observed that if one carries out this prayer properly, “one senses a kind of chalice opening upward. . . . The chalice represents the spiritual development of man. The first sphere is formed at the level of the chest. . . . The second sphere is compressed at the level of the throat. And the third sphere opens in the head.”
The chalices depicted in the icons of the Orthodox Church, Mumrikov goes on to say, “represent the science of those people who have learned how to direct their energy. They are able to feel the chalice in themselves and to watch the transformation of the energy as it takes place.”4
For me, these two slightly varying pictures given by Fox and Mumrikov point to what is most important in the Grail. It is certainly not a matter of a physical artifact. Though most GNOSIS readers would probably acknowledge that certain objects can serve as repositories of spiritual power, this only leads to the question of what is to be done with that power. Nor can the Grail mystery ultimately lie in the Eucharist; if it were, why would it have so often seemed dangerous and heterodox to ecclesiastical opinion?
No, what Fox and Mumrikov seem to be pointing toward is what I believe to be the true mystery inherent in this myth: that the Grail is the heart, illumined and awakened so that it may serve as a receptacle for divine energies. To this inner transformation, even the Eucharist is only a preliminary; hence the discomfort churchmen have always felt around the concept.
Moreover, as Mumrikov stresses, “there are not many such people” who have awakened their inner centers in this way, and “in general the process is a very difficult one.” If this is the case, it would explain one of the central themes in the Grail mythos: that many are called but few are chosen. It would also explain why the few successful candidates are those who are pure of heart, for the heart must be pure before it can be illumined.
Mumrikov’s discussion, enlightening as it is, does not explain one curious fact about the Grail tradition, which is connected with a knightly quest — the way of the warrior. The legends arose in this chivalric setting and faded as the knightly world gave way to modernity. I think it is no accident that the legend of the Grail crystallized in this context.
There is an ancient tradition that relates the specialized functions of human society to parts of the individual psyche; society is literally seen as the individual writ large. The most famous exposition of this view appears in Plato’s Republic. In his ideal state, Plato equates the warrior class with the emotional part of the human character; he equates the instinctual, “appetitive” part of the mind with laborers and merchants, while the philosophers, those who are awake on the intellectual level, are the rulers or “guardians.”5
Today such a picture seems odd, particularly in relating warriors to the emotions, which are generally portrayed as soft and “feminine.” But the emotions in all of us have their dark and violent sides, and society has always had to face the problem of how to deal with these aspects. Chivalry, which attempts to elevate the heart of the warrior, to dedicate it to high ideals, and to blunt the edges of violence, was the solution reached by medieval society.
Today it is common to click one’s tongue at the ceaseless and internecine warfare and brutalities of that era. No one can deny that these took place. But we must also acknowledge the context. The people at whom this ethos was directed were not sensitive modern-day Californians who do T’ai Chi regularly and take their holidays at Esalen; they were only a few generations removed from the barbarians who sacked the Roman Empire. The myth of the Grail and the chivalric ideal were probably the best means of introducing some moderation into the violent culture of the era. Possibly those who formulated the Grail ethos realized that their solution was imperfect; most realistic solutions are.
All of which leads to the question of the value of the Grail for us now. Although, as the plethora of books on these themes attest, there is unquestionably a resurgence of interest in this idea, today it is not primarily an ethos for warriors. The modern soldier still has dangers to face and enemies to confront; at the same time it is true that, for better or for worse, technology has taken to doing more of the work of warfare. And in any case the military elite, despite its unquestioned power, does not rule society to the extent that it did in the Middle Ages; in business-minded America, the famous “military-industrial complex” is far more dominated by commercial than by military interests.
As a result, the Grail mythos is bound to seem quaint to modern readers, and this is one source of its appeal. When confronted with the noise and speed of modern society, one often wants to step into a Burne-Jones tapestry, with its silent chapels and abundantly tressed maidens. Indeed most intelligent and sensitive people feel a strong pull to other places and times, whether dictated by personal inclinations, the books one has read, or, as some claim, by past-life experiences. As long as it doesn’t blind one to the realities of daily life, there is nothing wrong with this; it may even add a certain texture and richness to one’s character.
Yet I think there is a deeper lesson to be derived from the Grail legends, which harks back to the essence of the mythos: that the Grail is the illumined heart. Few of us are going to be knights or warriors in any but the most attenuated and metaphorical sense of these terms, but we do retain the possibility that our emotions, refined and purified by insight and integrity of purpose, can form a chalice into which divine energies can flow. Like the Grail itself, this ideal may seem remote, elusive, and unattainable. Yet, as the old legends suggest, there is something in the very quest for it that may serve as its own justification and reward.