Spiritual Warriors of the Grail
The Diaspora of the Survivors of the Mysteries
A mere 800 years ago, a scholastic philosopher living about fifty miles from where I write these words marveled at the fame of king Arthur, his company of knights, and the quest for the Grail:
What place is there within the bounds of the empire of Christendom to which the winged praise of Arthur the Briton has not extended? Who is there, I ask, who does not speak of Arthur the Briton, since he is but little less known to the peoples of Asia than to the Bretons as we are informed by our palmers who return from the countries to the East? The Eastern people speak of him as do the Western, though separated by the breadth of the whole earth. Egypt speaks of him and the Bosporus is not silent. Rome, the city of queens, sings his deeds, and his wars are not unknown to her former rival Carthage. Antioch, Armenia, and Palestine celebrate his feats.
Alanus ab Insulis, or Alain of Lille (1128? - 1202), hailed from the market city of Lille in northeastern France. He lived at the time Medieval literature in Europe peaked, at the dawn of what Joseph Campbell (Creative Mythology) called "a unique mythogenetic moment": the 13th Century. The above passage is from Alain's commentary on the Prophecies of Merlin written by Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1155), a Welsh historian who contributed enormously to the quasi-historical framework of the Arthurian matter.
How do we account for the enormous renown of King Arthur?
And what does all this hoary "Arthurian matter" have to say to
Let´s recall one of the key insights of the alternative history developed in these lessons: The Mysteries of Pagan antiquity survive in the Arthurian matter, especially in the Grail Quest. Jessie L. Weston (From Ritual to Romance) stated this view explicitly, and Loomis, Cavendish, and other venerated Arthurian scholars affirm it constantly. I am not inventing this connection. I am, however, proposing to modify and deepen it.
I propose that the much-sought-after Grail is not an object, a relic, but the direct experience of the supernatural Light seen by initiates in the Mysteries. Granted, the Grail may be many things to many people. All scholars from Joseph Campbell to John Matthews insist that there is not one Grail only. But consider also that the Grail is uniquely and supremely one thing: the Organic Light, the primary substance body of Sophia. It is both one unique thing and many things, as the alchemists never tired of saying.
Consider also the textually attested fact that initiates vowed never to disclose the paramount experience of the Mysteries: instruction by the Organic Light. Nevertheless, some of them did describe a light. There is scant but unambiguous firsthand testimony of a sublime luminosity. Still, no written record survives describing in explicit terms how the Light instructed those who witnessed it. The half-dozen instances where the vow appears to have been violated do not mention the mathesis, learning from the Wisdom Goddess. Rather, some foolishness regarding the external rites seems to have been spouted by the likes of Alcibiades, the reckless young friend of Socrates, and others (on which, see Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults).
The ancient mystics of the Mysteries had a dual mission: to maintain their visionary practice of gnosis, and transmit their method to future generations. Transmission depended on conferring the core experience, instruction by the Light, upon neophytes who would in turn become telestai, "those who are aimed," i.e., guided by the wisdom of the earth goddess, Sophia. The rite of instruction (mathesis, also called theoria, "beholding"), the most deeply guarded secret of Pagan initiation, was never openly declared—until now.
At a critical moment in the 5th century CE, the chain of telestic transmission was broken, and the millennial tradition of the Mysteries was interrupted. Some people in that time who knew about the method of transmission wanted to see it destroyed. The known facts of history in the early Christian era provide plenty of evidence of deliberate violence against the guardians of the Mysteries.
Barbara Walker (A Woman´s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets) flatly attributes the Dark Ages to Christian suppression of Pagan spiritual culture and intellectual life. (I would stress that the suppression was intentional, forced and enforced, and not merely due to the preference of one belief system over another.) The campi of the Mysteries preserved and transmitted knowledge in all fields of life, and supported the trades as well. Around the old megalithic sites temples were constructed, and around the temples grew the institutions of learning of the classical world. The institutions attached to the Mysteries were charged with vital, animating power. During the lifetime of Hypatia, the Roman orator Libanius wrote to the Emperor Theodosius:
In 386 CE Theodosius forbid the worship of the Pagan gods in local shrines, and sanctioned their pillage and occupation by Christian monks. Every temple and campus was under threat. First to go were the libraries. It took just a couple of centuries to ruin what had been built up over a millennium—the encyclopedic literary heritage of the Mysteries, developed largely in the Greek language from the 7th Century BCE onward. One way to destroy the chain of transmission was to take over the places of teaching and training, and eradicate the books, manuals, guides, etc. This was a feat of deliberate cultural and spiritual genocide on a massive scale.
Ultimate eradication would have required going after the custodians of the telestic method, those who knew how to access the Light and lead others to that same experience.
With both the institutions and the source of the Work destroyed, it would be possible to impose a totalitarian system of social-spiritual-cultural control based on the Paternal Lie. A cruel and insane venture that might be, but with the opposition silenced, root and branch, it would have more than a fifty-fifty chance of success. And without resistance or criticism, the dominators could write the story of their success, "the triumph over Paganism," even as they perpetrated the crimes required to achieve it.
Conventional history and the scripting of the Paternal Lie go together.
A Very Great Fact
The response to the attack on the Mysteries is not hard to imagine. The custodians fled. Within a century of the burial of the Nag Hammadi codices around 345 CE, the last surviving initiates went underground. They may rightfully be called the Grail custodians, for they preserved both the method of instruction by the Light and the knowledge so acquired. They preserved a certain body of Mystery knowledge, cosmology, parapsychology, canons of music and mathematics, shamanic skills, etc. By the very nature of the divine mathesis, such knowledge was always growing, permutating, branching off, being refined, so there was no terminus to sacred instruction.
How and where they fled, and what they did in the succeeding centuries, is an untold tale from the alternative history of the West.
There are few clues to the fate of the Grail custodians after the destruction of Eleusis and other sanctuaries. In 400 CE, when Hypatia assumed her duties in the Museum of Alexandria, the historian Eunapius of Sardis reported that Christian monks, “live like pigs in the holy places” (Lives of the Sophists, 472.). Numerous ancient testimony describes what happened to the holy sites, but not to those who maintained them. Unless they were murdered, as Hypatia was, we hear little or nothing about them. The 5th Century Church historian Socrates Scholasticus, who left an account of Hypatia´s murder, described Pagan devotees of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria fighting hand to hand to defend the site and murdering some Christians in self-defence. Apart from rare accounts such as this, there is no evidence of what happened to the Grail custodians, or how they coped with what was hitting them.
No historical evidence, that is. There is, however, enormous literary and legendary evidence. Commenting on the vast body of Arthurian matter, preeminent scholar Geoffrey Ashe said (I paraphrase), there is no proof that Arthur or any of these people existed in fact, but the existence of all this lore about them is a very great fact. In other words, the huge corpus of surviving Arthurian lore is a kind of factual evidence of something—I would say, of the Grail custodians, those who survived the eradication of the Mysteries.
The alternative history of the Grail assumes that the Arthurian matter, and the time and setting in which it appeared, indicates what happened to the surviving custodians of the Mysteries. Arthurian lore is encoded with the story of he Pagan diaspora, the Grail custodians who fled from the violent destruction of their tradition.
Now, it is worth noting, indeed, it is absolutely essential to note, that the seers who maintained the Mysteries in the classical world did not have a line of defense. The telestai taught many things, and gymnasia must have been included in the Mystery Schools, but the martial arts appear to have been missing from the curriculum. There were some recorded instances of spontaneous self-defense, as just noted, but on the whole, neither the guardians of the Mysteries, nor the neophytes in the cells, nor the students in the schools, nor the artisans in the workshops, were instructed in the arts of self-defense in a way comparable, say, to Shao Lin monks in China, or Zen monks in Japan. It appears that the European, Levantine, and Egyptian Mysteries did not incorporate the role and mission of the spiritual warrior.
If the Mysteries were not defended by physical means, it may well have been because those who maintained them had not been trained in the martial arts. For some reason, this was not part of the millennial tradition. The exception: the emperor Marcus Aurelius, known to have been an Eleusinian initiate, who wrote his splendid Meditations while fighting barbarian tribes along the Danube. Ironically, the one person to leave a record of Mystery-inspired ethics was a warrior. Due to a total lack of trained and organized defense, the Mysteries went down easily under the brutal aggression of Roman Christianity. In 410, five years before Hypatia´s murder, the Goths sacked Rome. By then all the principal temples and campi of the Mystery network had been destroyed and overrun.
453, the year Atilla died, was also the year that marked the end of the oracle of twelve vultures seen by Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. Roman historians gave a century to each vulture; hence, 1200 years for the duration of the empire. From the founding of Rome in 747 BCE (according to Varro and others), this comes to 453 CE. We will return to this date below.
Now to the core of our drama, the hidden heart of alternative history:
the diaspora of the Grail custodians, those who preserved the sacred
method of instruction by the Light. They fled. But to where? How? When?
Enter King Arthur
The Arthurian matter reveals traces of the survival of the Mysteries. The "matter" (literary material) is legendary fact, supported by massive textual evidence, but the fate of the Mysteries is a event in alternative history for which there is little or no historical evidence. We must rely on the "very great fact" of the literary lore to get to the unknown, unrecorded facts. In these lessons we have to split our vision, keeping one eye on the evidence of medieval legends and another on the unrecorded events reflected in those legends.
What is the first or earliest evidence of Arthur, whose renown was so great? In the fashioning of this character we will find the earliest trace of the telestai after the suppression of the Mysteries in Egypt, the Levant, Greece, Spain, and elsewhere in Europa. It is helpful to recall that Christianity spread from Palestine into Europa, and then from Rome throughout Europa, expanding like a vast stain northward and westward. The last regions to be reached by Christianity were the far western extremes of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland—the "Western Isles." This is precisely where the figure of Arthur emerged, and the Arthurian matter has its roots.
Obviously, the Mystery custodians fled in the direction that took them away from their persecutors. They sought refuge in those regions of Europa that were untouched by Christian influence, and difficult to access. How they would have done so is not hard to imagine. Readers may recall my argument (stated at some length in Not in His Image) that Celtic society was the "guardian culture" of pre-Christian Europe. It unified the indigenous people all the way from the far shores of Ireland and the Orkneys to Galacia in Anatolia (Turkey). Moreover, the Druids, the priest class of the Celts, were telestai in their own right, polymaths who spoke several languages and wrote in Greek. They were well known in Greece and Egypt. Alexandria in Hypatia's day hosted a "study group" dedicated to the preservation of Druidic lore. Priests of the Hybernian Mysteries celebrated at Stonehenge in Somerset and at Callanish on Lewis in the Hebrides were seasonally in contact with their counterparts at the Apollonian shrine at Delos in the Greek isles. (On Druidic links to Mediterranean Mystery cults, see Avalonian Quest by Geoffrey Ashe. The connections are impressive, and classical evidence is ample.)
It would have been a self-evident solution: Druidic links to the Hellenistic Mysteries provided a safe, well-traveled "underground passage" for the Grail custodians to flee the assault of Roman Christian authorities. It follows, then, that the first evidence of the activity of the custodians would show up in the Arthurian lore of the "Western isles," Brittany, Wales, Scotland. The sources of the lore are literary facts pointing toward unrecorded historical events, key developments in alternative history.
Anyone who reads into the Arthurian matter learns the same litany of sources: Gildas - Aneirin - Nennius - Geoffrey of Monmouth - Gerald of Wales - Wace - Layamon - Malory. These names that span centuries indicate the development of the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table. The first mention of the name of a local warrior chief called Arthur occurs in The Goddodin, a Welsh poem attributed to the bard Aneirin around 600 CE. Preceding him, the British monk Gildas writing around 540 described the resistance of the local peoples of England against the Saxons, but did not name Arthur specifically. At the end of the litany comes Sir Thomas Malory who wrote Le Mort d'Arthur around 1471. It was published in 1485 in English by William Caxton.
So, 540 to 1485, just under a thousand years of Arthurian lore from the first faint clue to the full-blown literary epic in Renaissance (i.e. Hollywood) style. Arthurian literature is always post-dated to the events described. According to Geoffrey Ashe, the most reliable, well-founded date for the historical person of King Arthur is the late 5th century, i.e., after 450 CE. Recall the above date of 453 CE, the last year of the oracle of the twelve vultures. With the end of the Roman Empire, the fate of the Mysteries was sealed, but in the same moment that the Empire expired, the Mysteries were transplanted.
For centuries, the entire classical world, including the Mysteries, had been protected by the stability of the Empire. Following the campaigns of Julius Caesar around 55 BC, the Romans governed and defended Britain for five centuries. With the fall of the Empire, the indigenous Brythonic peoples (including the Welsh) had to defend themselves. The Welsh Annals of Gerald of Wales (compiled around 950) put the decisive battle of Badon Hill, Welsh versus Saxon invaders, at 516 CE, but it was probably earlier (Cavendish, King Arthur and the Grail, p. 7). Arthur figured as the chief warrior who defended Wales in this battle. He emerges into history at the very moment when survivors of the Mysteries would have been seeking safe refuge in the British Isles.
In Wolfram and others, we learn that Parzival was from Wales. In Old French, he was called Perceval le Gallois—meaning not "the Gaul," but "the Welshman." In modern French, Wales is called le pays de Galles. Of course, the French word Galles is related to Gaul, Gallish, etc., an ancient tag for Celts living in what is now France. The implication is that something essential to the Celtic guardianship of the Grail was located in the hinterland of Wales, rather than in Gallish France, on the continent. In other words, the decisive connection between the fleeing custodians and the indigenous culture that received them happened in Wales. In alternative history, Arthur was the indigenous hero who took on the mission of protecting the Grail custodians because it fitted with his pre--determined role of defender of his native land, Wales.
Now we begin to see the deeper weave of these legendary names and archaic regional allusions....
What happened in Wales, and when? According to Ashe and others, a Welsh Druid named Myrdhin advised a local chieftain named Arthur to organize his ragged band of warriors into a group that came to be known as the Round Table. The regional warriors had their own ideas of about organization, of course. They fought in bands united by personal loyalties and family ties. They identified passionately with the local regions they defended. The word "Welsh" is actually an insult applied to the local people by the invading Angles and Saxons. It meant "foreigner, stranger, someone we don´t know." The Anglo-Saxon invaders who saw Britain as theirs to take viewed indigenous peoples as strangers who needed to be displaced. The native people of Wales called themselves then as they do today: the Cymri (pronounced KUM-ree).
The warrior clans of the Cymri were organized along defensive
lines, but apparnetly the Druid Myrdhin, aka Merlin, had something else in mind. As
a telestes and custodian of the Mysteries, he had a specific intention
in mind for an organized circle of tribal warriors. To protect the arrivals of the Pagan diaspora would require something
had to be
defensive unit that could be constantly in the service of the custodians
wherever they might have relocated in the Western Isles. From the outset
the "Round Table" had a pan-regional meaning, referring
to groups of warriors who ranged freely around the Isles. Anyone
the Arthurian lore is immediately struck by the mobility of the Arthurian court. Arthur maintained castles in different locales: Cornwall (Tintagel), Wales, Logres (Brythonic term
for mainland Britain), Camelot (in Somerset), Carlisle in Scotland, Nantes
in France. The far-flung origins of the Arthurian
knights reflect the wide dispersion of the Grail refugees. Gawain, the nephew of Arthur, was the son of the King of Norway,
which included the Orkney islands north of Britain. Many other examples
could be given. Wolfram's Parzival contains over 150 place-names
associated with various knights and ladies in the adventure.
The organization of the "Table" was twelvefold in imitation
of a long-standing tradition of the Mysteries. In other words,
the symbolic structure of the chivalric order was taken from
the very tradition the
Arthurian warriors were vowed to protect. The claim that the
Table was modeled after the communion table of the Last
Jesus sat with twelve disciples needs to be re-examined, for that scene was itself modeled
on a Mystery rite.
Mystery cells comprised sixteen people, eight men and eight
women, those who were initiated by the cell members were managed
of twelve. The evidence of this practice can be seen in the
Hellenistic Grail maiden from Eleusis who bears the kiste or
sacred basket on her head (above). A detail (on left) shows the
twelve-petalled rosette of the neophytes, distinct from
the eight- and sixteen-petalled rosette, emblem of the initiatory
cell formed of veteran mystics. Newcomers were initiated twelve
at a time, with the initiator making the thirteenth of the
group. Merlin advised Arthur that the structure of the Round
Table should reflect
the initiatory tradition, and would itself involve a kind of
In the Mysteries, the thirteenth seat was occupied by the initiate charged with inducting the twelve neophytes. At the Round Table, this seat was always left vacant to remind the knights that someone might come and betray their mission by revealing the identity and location of the Grail custodians. The knights of the Round Table protected the Grail, rather than sought to possess it for their own personal benefit, or even their spiritual betterment.
The Arthurian Code
It was as if the Grail, the Organic Light, emitted an aura of supernatural magic in which the Arthurian warriors underwent many fantastic adventures.
Modern Arthurian revivalist Gareth Knight has compared the ordeals and contests of the Arthurian heroes with the magical trials of Asian tantrikas, especially the adepts of kundalini yoga. I find a lot of veracity in this parallel. Whether or not an Arthurian knight attained the Grail, or even understood what it was, he was deeply affected by its magical power. As we shall see ahead, the adventures of Gawain that occupy half of Wolfram's Parzival are essential to the Quest, even though Gawain himself neither sought nor attained the Grail.
Joseph Campbell specified four functions to "creative mythology"—by which he meant the mythology that lives and develops in our lives through imaginative power, passion, and empathy, contrasted to received myth, which is dead and over. These functions are: 1 to reconcile waking consciousness to the mystery of the cosmos, 2 to render an "interpretative total image" of that mystery, 3 to inspire a sense of moral order, and 4, "the fourth and most vital, the most critical function of a mythology," to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity with self, culture, the universe, and the ultimate mystery of it all being there in the first place" (Creative Mythology, p. 4-6).
What, finally, can be said of the code of the spiritual warriors who protected the custodians of the Grail? Well, in the first place, it was a Pagan code of honor and generosity, not a morality of guilt and obligation. The Grail knights were dedicated to protect a sacred treasure they themselves had never seen and, in most cases, would never see. At the very least, they understood the Grail to be something fantastic that imbued their lives with magical power. Inspired by a sublime reality that lay beyond their reach, they turned the arts of violence into a noble calling. They were affected by the Grail in a way that recalls the words of mythophrenic genius Antonin Artaud (in "The Peyote Rite Among the Tarahumara Indians"):
The Fantastic is of a noble quality. No Arthurian knight could have said it better. The spiritual warriors of the Round Table were ennobled by the Mysteries they vowed to protect. In no case was their use of violent force reckless or abusive. Make no mistake, almost all of them were learned and sensitive men.In The Hero - Manhood and Power, I explain the Spanish code of chivalry in which armas and lettras, martial skill and learning, went together. (There is much in that book that relates to the code of the spiritual warrior, including a whole section on chivalry and the cult of Amor.) It would be foolish to assume that the code of the Arthurian warriors can be stated in formulas, rules A, B, and C; although chivalry was encrusted with many such rules. Nevertheless, I would suggest three words for the essence of the warrior ethic of the Round Table: adventure, devotion, and compassion.
Numerous Arthurian tales, such as Persevlaus, a late romance in French prose, describe how the knights of Arthur´s court pined away for lack of "adventures." Loomis shows that this motif derives from Welsh-Irish lore that emphasized the echtra, a supernatural exploit such as the storming of a faery fortress (caer sidhi). Mounds, hills, fortresses or towers of glass, etc., were places where the magical powers of the earth were concentrated. Knightly combat was of two kinds: between knights of comparable skill, and against supernatural forces. The latter, exemplified in the echtra, represents a late, medieval, pan-European development of indigenous shamanism. The standard model of shamanism emphasizes the shaman´s journey to the Otherworld to retrieve a lost soul or acquire healing powers and secret knowledge, but Arthurian lore demonstrates a modification of this model: it shows the knight undertaking one Otherworld quest after another, just for the thrill of it.
In an early Welsh poem attributed to Taliesin, The Spoils of Annwm (Ah-NOON), the hero faces supernatural trials which, as Loomis shows, are repeated by Parzival and other Grail heroes. Often the warrior-hero must face and defeat a draconic monster such as Avallach, i.e., the serpent power, Kundalini, in its telluric aspect. Such battles took place in the Otherworld, but in Welsh and Irish lore the boundary between the known world and the other, unknown world that coexists with it is fluid and pervious. Annwn, the Underworld, is the nagual of Castaneda and MesoAmerican shamanism. Such passages from known to unknown occur in specific places, identified by features of the land.
In Northern Wales, in the province called Gwnedd in Welsh, Lake Bala was said to be the lair of Avallach—meaning that in ancient times shamanic encounters with the dragon powers of the earth happened there, frequently. Gwnedd (pronounced GOO-en-eth, like the woman´s name, Gwyneth) derives from gwynedd, "knowledge," equivalent to gnosis. Hence northern Wales was a place where special shamanic savvy was tested and acquired. Merlin, who possessed gwynedd, was "one who knows all things," hence a gnostic seer and shaman of high attainment. (See Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, p. 239 ff.)
The Arthurian knights who lived in the Middle Ages were attracted by the lure of supernatural adventures that had been required tasks for shamans in pre--Christian Europa. But what had been a vocational obligation to ancient shamans became a pastime for the medieval warriors—crudely equivalent to "extreme sports" today. The element of adventure, echtra, was crucial to the Arthurian code, because by testing their psychic powers the knights intensified their vitality to superhuman levels. Equally crucial was the sense of devotion they felt to the Fantastic, the magical world, in which the Grail was the central and supreme source of magic. They fought supernatural battles to increase their inner vision and strength, and they fought against other knights for similar reasons—rather than to conquer or dominate. It could be fairly said, I think, that they were devoted to power for its own sake, rather than as a means to any end.
They rarely killed the adversary when the adversary was chosen for a test of power, but blood vengeance was also a theme in many Arthurian legends. They killed honorably, and for honor´s sake, not in the name of a higher cause or spiritual, off-planet ideal. And they fought to protect the Mystery of the Grail.
Additional to adventure and devotion, the Arthurian code involved compassion for those who were wronged or overwhelmed by superior human force. As I explained in The Hero, true manhood carries the obligation to use violence defensively and preventively against those who use it to control, abuse, and dominate others. There is such a thing as humane and compassionate use of violent force. The dismissive notion that violence simply breeds violence is a dangerous quarter-truth. Mindless violence breeds violence, for sure. But violence, by which I mean the application of brute force, has in and of itself no intrinsic moral value. To categorically condemn violence is an empty posture, beside the point. Violent force can be used with compassion, in self-defense, or to rescue and assist those who are unable to defend themselves—children held hostage in a schoolyard, for instance, or a woman being raped.
I must add, however, that using violence in the cause of compassion has nothing to do with being kind to perpetrators, or forgiving those who abuse others and do harm to defenseless people. There is no Christian forgiveness in the Arthurian ethic.
Adventure, devotion, compassion. Such are the three motifs in the code of the spiritual warriors in Arthurian legend. The vast extent of Arthur´s fame never had anything to do with the accomplishments of a single man, or even a band of men. It derived, then as now, from the ethic of compassionate violence associated with the mystique of the Grail, the secret of the Mysteries. When the Mysteries were destroyed, they did not perish from the imagination of the people in Europa and elsewhere. To the indigenous mind, the Arthurian knights were intimately associated with the survival of the Mysteries, and so Arthur took on a universal importance far exceeding his role as a Welsh tribal chieftain.
The stories of the Arthurian knights were perfused with the ambiance of the Grail, the mysterious glamor of the Sophianic Light. More than anything, that radiance, or the mere suggestion of it, restores to human existence the quality of adventure, unending wonderment.
jll May 2006 Andalucia
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.