Sacred Love, Sacred Light
How the Girl and the Grail Came Together
Both in its historical origins and its literary dimensions, Arthurian legend is a reflection of the survival of knowledge and practice from the Mysteries, though not of the Mysteries themselves. The Mysteries were institutions of initiation and education derived from a long tradition of shamanic practices in Europa and the Near East. In structure and function, they may be compared to a modern university system. Imagine that all the classrooms, libraries, educational and training facilities, laboratories, lecture halls, faculty offices, etc. of such a system were destroyed. The collegial network for higher education in the classical world was totally eradicated with the rise of Christianity. With it went the ancient network of Mystery cells, and the method of shamanic initiation practiced in those cells.
Some people who carried the sacred knowledge that informed and guided the Mysteries did survive, however. At the very moment when the Roman Empire was crumbling, a Druid in Wales advised a local chieftain to set up a militia to protect the diaspora of initiates from those ancient institutions. The refugees had been arriving for some time. They first fled the ruined sanctuaries in the 3rd century, and the diaspora continued for 200 years. With the murder of Hypatia in 415 AD, the plight of the refugees intensified. 415 is a threshold date, denoting a precise moment of abrupt and profound change, a momentous shift.
The nodal dates 281 and 453 are also important in the parallel history concerning the diaspora of the Mystery initiates. By contrast to a threshold date like 415 AD, which marks a vast and abrupt shift, a watershed, a nodal date is a vortex moment around which contrapuntal developments occur. In the tumultuous swirl of the nodal moment, certain events and conditions dissolve, sucked away into the depths of time, and other events and conditions unfold, forming new patterns of experience. We will occasionally apply the concept of nodal dates and nodal timing as these lessons proceed.
Chivalry illustrates in a vivid manner the dissolving and upbuilding currents of a nodal moment in history. Chivalry was the product of a new cultural order, feudalism, that emerged in Europe with the breakdown of the Roman Empire and the reversion of social organization to local levels. With the invasions of the 5th century, law and order could no longer be maintained by totalitarian measures proceeding from a central controlling authority. The defenses of the Empire were breaking down, Huns and Goths poured across Europe, and people in each region had to fend for themselves. Landholders took up arms or hired men to protect their property. Roman slavery broke down and underwent a conversion into serfdom. With the new military organization came the idea of fealty to a feudal lord. The knight who swore fealty vowed to protect the material and familial interests of his lord and master.
At the nodal moment of 453, the old imperial structures of command and control were dissolving, and a new social order taking shape—such is the contrapuntal dynamic of nodal timing. Simultaneous breakdown and build-up of social and cultural patterns was evident all across the former Empire. In this turbulent swirl of events the Dark Ages began.
Feudalism is not a particularly interesting subject, but it may soon become more relevant if certain parts of the "global community" plunge into chaos comparable to the last years of the Roman Empire. (It is fascinating to consider that the "New World Order" which seems intended to create a global totalitarian system is in fact driving the world more and more into feudal-like fragmentation. It shatters rather than unites the global community. But might that be precisely what it is intended to do?) The organization of patriot groups in the US is a feudalistic trend. Gangs in urban ghettos are feudalistic units. The tendency—indeed, the necessity—of the rich to confine themselves in walled compounds protected by surveillance cameras and battalions of security guards is feudalistic. So is the reduction of regional populations (in India, for instance) to serfdom in the IT industry. And, of course, the greater part of the Islamic world is still innately, rigidly feudal.
The aspect of feudalism that interests us most in parallel history is the sexual morality that arose within it. Because the Dark Ages in Europe were the dawn of Christian civilization in the West, feudal society was deeply molded by narratives of sin and guilt. A hateful and condemning view of sex and nature marks the Christian tradition in Europe. It is a truism that people in the Middle Ages were told to believe that woman, represented mythologically by Eve, was the instrument of the Devil, and that nature was evil. The proposition sounds so ridiculous that we tend to dismiss it, but to do so is a serious mistake. It would be no exaggeration to say that Christian mores poisoned human relations in the feudal age, and condemned every spontaneous instinct that connects humanity to the natural world.
The condemnation of nature as demonic was especially nefarious.(Read the entry on the Dark Ages in The Woman´s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara Walker to get some idea of this mindset.) In the Pagan sense of life, nature was sacred and animated. In Chapter 3 of Not in His Image, I wrote:
In its reverence for nature the Pagan religious outlook honored and encouraged empathic bonding of person to place, not divinely ordained possession of the land. Mountains, hills, grottos, wells, rivers, all were sacred, not because any doctrine declared them to be, but because the experience of the peoples native to a particular locale was grounded in a direct and sensuous revelation of divinity. Theirs was a mystical participation in the Other, free of intellectual or doctrinal filters. Ancient bioregionalism, in Europa as well as in the Americas, was not superstitious folly, but a genuine, lived animism. Theirs was a world in which, as the initiate Plutarch wrote in his essay, The Sign of Socrates, “every life has its share of mind and there is none that is wholly irrational or mindless.”
Pagans participated in the "complementarity of mind and nature," and the "pattern that connects," to borrow a couple of terms from Gregory Bateson. Empathic connections between the indigenous Europans and their environment were not instantly shattered by the imposition of Christian values, of course. In fact, there was enormous resistance among Pagans to the imposition of a nature-hating mindset. Policies of repression introduced in Hypatia´s time (375 - 415) led to the Inquisition and the Witch Hunts a thousand years later. Christian values ran so violently against human inclinations that they had to be continually and brutally reinforced. The ages-long Christian war against nature finally triumphed in the Enlightenment when science totally desacralized the natural world. Roszak has pointed out that the scientism of the 17th Century is totally consistent with the religious dogmas that preceded it. All the pioneering men of the Enlightenment, such as Descartes and Newton, were devout Christians.
Ecofeminism asserts that the view of nature and the social treatment of women are always intertwined. In the Middle Ages, women were regarded on the one hand as property, and on the other as dangerous animals to be feared, confined, and controlled. The image of women in feudal times is a cliche, but not an entirely inaccurate one. Chastity-belts were more than symbolic icons of the day. We are told that women were locked into these devices when their husbands went off to the Crusades. This happened of course rather late in the Middle Ages. The Crusades were mounted around a nodal moment, 1202. In preceding centuries, the confinement of women had not been so extreme, but it became more and more brutal and rigorous as the power of Christianity advanced.
The opposition of sexuality to spirituality is an anomaly
In fact, the Dark Ages were all about shutting down. Feudal shutdown was evident in all aspects of the life of those times, but especially in sexual mores. The amorous, hedonistic lifestyle of Pagan Europa was literally "foreclosed," as happens when property is reclaimed. Christianity seized upon womanhood as material property, but made women the least valued property of the mundane order ruled by the Church. This takeover of the feminine followed from the repression of the Sophianic vision of the Mysteries, and the wholesale destruction of Pagan civilization.
Feminine sexuality was the primary target of feudal shutdown. But it was also the issue on which the Pagan spirit rallied valiantly and tapped deep inner resources to resist the repression of salvationist religion.
Chivalry arose during the breakdown of the command and control systems of the Roman Empire, as noted. The inceptive nodal moment was 453 AD (second half of the 5th Century, Arthur the warrior chieftain, formation of the "Round Table"), and the concluding nodal moment was 1456 (Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur)—almost exactly a full millennium. During these ten centuries Europe saw the development of the code of knighthood, and in the later centuries, the technology of warfare emerged. With the invention of firearms in the 15th century, the reign of chivalry ended. The first cast-iron gun was introduced in 1430, and Malory wrote his classic around 1470. (The key developments associated with a nodal moment may occur precisely at that moment, but more often they arise around it, the way ripples spread around a stone thrown in a pool.)
What is truly remarkable about chivalry is how it provided a vehicle for a revolution of sexual mores at the same time that it served militaristic ends. But not exclusively militaristic ends, of course. We know from Lesson 6 that the Round Table had in addition to its military function a spiritual mission: to protect the survivors of the Mysteries, the guardians of the Sacred Light. The Arthurian matter reveals the continuation of the Mysteries, and, at the same time, it reflects the culture of amour courtois, courtly love.
So, in Lesson 7 of this course we come to a great and compelling triangulation: Grail - Warrior - Woman. This correlation implies the mystical identification of the Grail and the Girl. In the cult of amor, the warrior-lover moved between the lure of the Wisdom light emanating from the Grail and the alluring radiance of Woman. In parallel history, the preservation of the Sacred Light was intimately linked to the experience of Sacred Love, consecrated passion that unites man and woman in a death-transcending bond.
Amour courtois has been praised as a revolutionary
and revelatory shift in social mores unparalleled in history,
but such praise
is usually tinged with damnation. The single most comprehensive
book on the subject, Love in the Western World by Denis
de Rougemont, constantly emphasizes the negative character of "unrequited
Rougemont goes all out to prove that the devotion of the knight
to his lady, or
of troubadour (wandering minstrel) to chatelaine (the
lady of the castle), was unconsummated, and could not be consummated
in this world, because it represented a transcendent relation
only to be achieved in death, i.e., in disembodiment.
But de Rougemont got it badly wrong, as I now wish to
In parallel history it is this transformative force, Sacred Love, that humanized the European world in the Middle Ages, not the repressive salvationist morality that Christianity forced on that world. Repression cannot elevate; it perverts what it would improve. Sublimation cannot transform; it merely substitutes a less genuine experience for a more genuine one. From the time of Saint Paul, Christian religion demanded the separation of sexuality and spirituality for the salvation of the soul, but amour courtois defied and reversed this taboo. In unrequited love—not excluding the face-to-face sexual embrace, as we shall see—humanity in the West acquired soul. amour courtois was the alchemy of soul-making. Both the passionate gaze (or even the glance) and the carnal embrace fostered intimacy and nurtured the authentic sources of humanitas. I maintain that almost everything that has been attributed to Christian religious tradition by way of elevating and refining the human spirit was actually achieved by the experiment of Sacred Love in the Middle Ages. The cult of amor was the hidden tap root of Renaissance humanism. The inspirational model for Sacred Love developed in the same social genre as the Grail Legend: the Arthurian world of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, and the closely associated world of troubadours, jongleurs, and conteurs.
Sacred Love eventually produced the humanist spirit in Europe, but the phenomenon itself did not originate in the medieval European setting. The cult of amor that flowered in the world of the troubadours and the Round Table originated in far-distant Asia. Its roots were Oriental, and ultimately Tantric. The immense and subtle cultural-spiritual transmigration required for the Asian love sacrament to pass from East to West is one of the most exciting chapters in parallel history.
The Sufi Connection
No scholar so far has traced this far-reaching feat of transmigration. Despite its frustrating negative tone, De Rougemont's book did present some tentative clues. He suggested that the cult of amor in Europe was inspired or inseminated by "Arabian mysticism." This is a puzzling notion, however. The gist of it seems to be that early in the Middle Ages Moorish culture in Spain produced the first troubadours as a secular offshoot of contemplative mysticism centered on "the Beloved," i.e., the Divine Feminine. This obscure development stems in some manner from the Sufi movement, a heretical or underground aspect of Islam. It is more than likely that Sufi is an Arabic version of the Greek Sophia. Sufism, then, would be (or would have been, originally) a devotional or bhakti path centered on the figure of the Divine Sophia.
This is intriguing, of course, because the goddess Sophia is the central figure in the Western Mysteries. Was there then, in some manner, a fortuitous collision of Eastern-Arabian devotionalism centered on Sophia with the telestic tradition of Sophianic Mysteries that had taken refuge in the Western Isles? Whatever the case, the setting for this linkage was Moorish Spain, particularly Andalucia. The time was the 7th Century. This much is known, but it remains to be seen how this wonderful convergence took shape.
Needless to say, it is rather difficult to imagine a resurgence of the Divine Feminine coming out of Islam. If this is actually what happened, no scholar can say exactly how it happened. It seems that an Arabian practice of blissful contemplation of "the Beloved" (read: Divine Feminine, Divine Wisdom, Sophia) morphed into a cult of woman-worship in Southern France. De Rougemont established the notion that Sufi theophany stands behind the cult of amor in which troubadours lavished extravagant praise upon a woman they could not touch, and many have followed his lead.
But there are several kinks in this theory.
If we rely on the Sufi connection, it would appear that the troubadour gaze derives from the Witness Game. But Wilson pointedly notes that "the 'Feminist Principle' is notoriously hard to locate in Islam" (p. 71)—I would add, even in the esoteric or underground Islam of Sufism. "From the essentially masculinist view that permeates the Koran...women are seen as themselves with individual souls, but as virtual property in relation to men." Moreover, "although all sorts of hints and echoes of the Anima are found," for example, in "the cult of Buraq, the cult of the Beloved in Persian poetry," Wilson concludes that "women are simply repressed" in Islam, now as then (p. 71).
In amour courtois, women were not only not repressed, they were the inspiration for the spiritual liberation of the "armored" men who adored them. Nothing comparable exists in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, except perhaps the Song of Solomon. This is a psalm of sacred love perhaps inspired by the Queen of Sheba, who figures as a representation of the Divine Feminine in Arabian mysticism. (The Queen of Sheba from Bellifortis, by Conrad Meyer, Bohemia, c. 1405.) There may be some great love stories in Arabian folk lore, but, on the whole, Islam does not permit the concept of romantic love with a religious dimension, such that it could become a religion in its own right.
Evidently, there is something murky in the Sufi connection that makes it deeply incompatible with the model of heterosexual chivalric love.
Homosexuality is a capital crime in Islam, but this fact only adds to its heretical appeal, Wilson observes. How to account for the homoerotic element in Arabian mystical tradition? It is well known that the Arabs preserved Greek science during the Dark Ages. It may well be that they also inherited the Greek tradition of pedagogical homosexuality, the cult of beautiful, smart young boys. To my knowledge, no scholar has so far proposed this connection, but R. K. Dover´s incomparable study, Greek Homosexuality, supports it. Dover showed that the erastes, the beautiful boy beloved of the older man, represented not only a lure of sexual purity but a pristine intellectual ideal. (The lure was attainable, but not always claimed, Dover explained. Even when it was claimed, custom required that intercourse was "intercrural," between the thighs.) The atmosphere, esthetics, and ethics of classical Greek homosexuality fit the Witness Game rather neatly, I would say.
Moreover, let´s bear in mind the lesson more recently illustrated by the life of T. E. Lawrence, namely, that Islam is a male warrior feudal society. And always has been. The date of the Hejira, the founding moment of Islam, is 622 AD. This is a nodal moment, but not merely for the rise of militant religion. It is also the time of the first chivalric romance, Antar, written in Andalucia in the first half of the 7th century, according to Reni Nelli, the leading scholar of Occitanian literature. The feminist idealism of chivalry arose simultaneously with Islam, but I do not advise that we regard these phenomena in any sense as twins.
Wilson says that the Witness Game "was perfected in the centuries after Ibn 'Arabi´s death" (p. 61), which puts it into the 13th century. The nodal date of 1136 AD, cited by de Rougemont and others, marks the initial flowering of troubadour poetry with Guillaume IX of Poitiers, grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Ibn 'Arabi was born a generation later and thrived at the time Wolfram von Eschenbach was writing Parzival, and Gottfried of Strasbourg was writing Tristan. Of all the Iranian, Arabian, Persian and Sufi mystics, Ibn 'Arabi came closest to the theology of romantic love celebrated in the West. His mystical devotion to woman began at the Kaaba in Mecca where patriarchal and masculine values dominated, needless to say. But for the love-hungry Persian all that mattered was the glance he got of a young girl who was circumambulating the shrine. When he published The Interpreter of Desires, a book of poems celebrating his unrequited love for this unknown damsel, the mullahs cried blasphemy. The poet immediately fled to Syria (ever a stronghold of Gnostic and Sophianic diehards, by the way), where he "defended his mystical-erotic ambiguities with dazzling scholasticism" (Wilson). All this happened in the near East while chivalric literature was blossoming in France. The heretical cult of amor was peaking.
Ibn 'Arabi´s troubles with heresy went on for decades. Authorities in Egypt banned his writings. Scholars and mystics of orthodox Sufism blamed him for ruining their tradition. He was a heretic even to the heretics! Wilson summarizes Ibn 'Arabi´s blasphemous message:
For human love to assume a religious dimension, the transactions of power between the sexes had to be totally renegotiated. In the code of the Arthurian knights, the warrior went to tournament or to battle after requesting that his beloved witness his act, and by doing so, legitimate, and even consecrate, his use of violent force to demonstrate his moral worth. His actions were only real if seen by the Witness. This is why the knight often looked toward the spectator gallery to be assured of the gaze of his lady when he went into the joust. (Lady handing a lance to a knight. Manasseh Codex, colored illustration on parchment, Zurich, c.1310. University Library, Heidelberg.)
At the same time that woman acted as the empowering agency for the warrior—this motif first occurs in Antar, according to Reni Nelli in L´Erotique des Troubadours—she was also the object of his mystical-erotic longing, and, on some occasions, the source of its carnal satisfaction. Arthurian knights such as Gawain traditionally went into contest with some article of clothing of the Lady attached to his armor. A scarf or her "shift," the medieval text usually informs us. I reckon it was more likely to have been a rather more intimate accessory of the Lady´s wardrobe.
Sexual morality in the Middle Ages played out in the battle-ridden zone between the wasteland of the chastity belt and the wonderland of wet panties.
- Peter Lamborn Wilson, Sacred Drift
Love that seeks no return fulfills itself. It transforms the one who loves, no matter what it does for the Beloved. Such is the power of the Beloved, who is both the recipient and the reflecting lens of love´s own transformative power. This transaction has to be deeply personal so that it can take its participants beyond personality. It has been argued that in the Sufi theophany of the Beloved the individual woman was merely a lens for Divinity. But this was certainly not the case in amour courtois. In his lecture of 1967, "The Mythology of Love," Joseph Campbell indicated the difference:
If, in any instance, devotion to that particular woman was unconsummated sexually, the transformative dynamic of unrequited love still applied. The lover did not ask his love to be returned by intimate favors. But when the lover´s passion was consummated, the dynamic applied in yet another way. Unrequited love did not demand carnal intercourse, but it did not deny and exclude it, either. This is what "sexual freedom" meant to some people in the Middle Ages.
Now it might be protested that I am making amour courtois
out to be what I want it to be, regardless of the evidence. The fact
is, many troubadour poems insist that the poet does not have the intimate
favor of his lady. She belongs to another. He can't even touch her
with a ten-foot pole. The troubadours both lament and celebrate the
unattainability of their supreme object of desire, it seems. Time and
time again, the poets tells us that the Lady they celebrate and adore
is unattainable. L'amour de loitain, love at a distance, is
the recognized mark of troubadour poetry.
In some moments, in some moods, the Girl and the Grail were one.
For troubadours and Arthurian knights alike, a
particular woman was
always the catalyst to the experience of the Divine Feminine,
but in being so, that woman was not merely the lens for a theophany.
She was not merely a means to an end. Love for her was an end in
itself. It was, if not the equivalent, then surely the perfect
complement to spiritual love for Sophia, whose name is Wisdom, whose
body is the Earth.
In Sacred Love, Sacred Light found its reflecting ground. In some manner, the Organic Light of the Mysteries played around the figure of the Lady, and rayed out from her physical aura. This aura of carnal luminosity is truly mysterious, and may not be fully explained in written form because it belongs to an unspeakable and inviolable dimension of the Sophianic revelation.
jll: May-June 2006, Flanders-Andalucia
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.