Mystery Wisdom in the Grail Legend
Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung (1875 - 1961) was almost singlehandedly responsible for the modern revival of interest in alchemy. (Jung was initially "turned on" to alchemy by his patient, protege, and mistress, Sabina Spielrein, who—until recently—had been written out of the story.) Jung and all who followed him regarded Western alchemy as originating with the work of Zosimos, an Alexandrian mystic from Panopolis (a town on the Egyptian delta). Textual evidence of Zosimos dates from the 3rd Century CE, but scholars agree that the roots of the Art are far more ancient, going back to the secret schools of the Egyptian Mysteries.
Jung's work on alchemy was complemented by The Grail
Legend, written by his wife, Emma Jung, and his close colleague,
Marie-Louise von Franz. The authors argue
But such justification only makes sense within the tautological
system of Jungian theory "in which the unconscious explains
itself" (p. 142). To Wolfram von Eschenbach and those of
his time, the Grail was not a symbol of the Self or of anything
else. It was a magical and mysterious object of some kind, a
numen described in pre-Christian mythology of Celtic
and Irish origin. One French commentary on the Grail Legend,
the "Elucidation," says
C'est del Graal dont nus ne doit
This language calls to mind some lines from the Homeric hymn to Demeter, referring to the secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries:
And revealed to them her beautiful Mysteries,
Which are impossible to transgress, or pry into, or divulge,
For so great is one’s awe of the gods that it halts the tongue.
A Significant Near Miss
Anyone who delves into Grail studies will encounter a single, supremely influential book: From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston. As already noted, this book (published in 1920) figured in the writing of the famous Modernist poem, The Wasteland, by T. S. Eliot. Avidly discussed by Eliot and other literati of the time, and later featured among the reading material of the deranged Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, From Ritual to Romance asserts that the Grail Quest derived from ancient Pagan Mysteries. Weston was quite explicit with her central thesis. In the Introduction she wrote, "We can now prove by printed texts the parallels existing between each and every feature of the Grail story and the recorded symbolism of the Mystery cults."
That statement may be the greatest near miss of modern scholarship on the Mysteries. But a near miss is also a near hit. Weston was right in tracing the Grail Legend to "Mystery cults," but she was mistaken in her view of what transpired in those cults. Scholars note that there were two levels of the Mysteries, the popular and the elite. This is evident in the Eleusinian tradition of celebrating the Lesser Mysteries in the Spring, and the Greater Mysteries in the Fall. The former were popular, presenting rites of seasonal renewal and ecstatic immersion in nature for the general public. The latter involved elite practices with the kykeon, the entheogenic brew that induced perception of "a marvellous light." When the Mysteries fell into decline, the rites got confused (or subverted) and the kykeon came to be used as a recreational libation (as seen in the case of Socrates' charismatic young friend Alcibiades, one of the few people known to have been accused of desecrating the Mysteries.)
Elsewhere I have argued that no one who lacks first-hand mystical experience equivalent to that of initiation in the Mysteries is qualified to comment in a reliable way on such arcane matters. Apparently, Weston did not have such experience. In fact, like a good many other scholars, she failed to preserve a clear distinction between the popular and elite rites. She assumed that the Pagan Mysteries involved "fertility rites." True, but this is a near miss, because it does not take into account the elite rites that had nothing to do with fertility. This is such an important point that I would like to take a few minutes to clarify it in more detail.
These sacred conjugal rites conducted by the Goddess cults were of course enacted privately, but they were also reflected in public celebrations where the king was represented as mating with the earth to insure the fertility of the land. In popular imagination, the "fertility rites" of theocracy appeared to be a means of sympathetic magic to insure the cycles of nature, but they had nothing to do with human fertility. It was never the role of the anointed man to impregnate the anointed priestess—indeed, this would have been an abomination, a sacrilege against the Goddess. The anointing priestesses were always virgins, or viragos— words derived from the Indo-European root vir- ,"heroic force, strength," also the basis of the word virility. Originally, virgin (Greek parthenos) denoted, not the woman who never had sexual intercourse, but the woman who did not procreate. Her womb was virginal because she did not conceive, not because she did not copulate. (Concern with intactness of the hymen is symptomatic of patriarchal societies where women are viewed as property and/or breeding stock.)
At the deeper level understood in the inner sanctum
of the Mysteries, conjugal initiation was a tantric rite of empowerment
in which a female adept in Kundalini yoga initiated a man who
thereby gained paranormal faculties. (See She
Who Anoints.) The popular rite concealed another, deeper
meaning, and within that meaning, still another. Like most scholars,
Weston saw only the first level of meaning. She thought initiation
in the Mysteries was a ritualization of primitive fertility rites
which, in turn, came to be reflected in the two dominant mofits
of the Grail Legend: the bleeding Lance (phallic symbol) and
the Grail (vagina or womb symbol). As the leading Arthurian scholar
Loomis points out, "Miss Weston's fascinating theory of
a lost mystery cult, conveyed by Eastern merchants from the Mediterranean
to Britain, and of secret initiation rites enacted in remote
ages is discredited by the absence of such a cult in the mass
of medieval testimony on heresy" (The Grail -From Celtic
Myth to Christian Symbol, p. 49)—and, I would add,
by similar lack of evidence of any such spear-and-chalice mumbo-jumbo
in the ancient Near East or Egypt.
This inference is another half-miss, a shade closer to the bullseye than Weston got. In the first place, it recognizes the true nature of the secret entheogenic rites practiced at Eleusis and elsewhere. This recognition goes deeper than the widely accepted theory of ancient fertility ritual as related to sacred kingship, but it still does not go to the core of the Mystery experience. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries) claim that initiation provided the model for sacred kingship, without a word on the entheogenic practices. Carl Ruck (The Apples of Apollo) makes a similar claim, and does assert the entheogenic factor. In both cases, these learned scholars confound empowerment rites for sacred kingship with the mystical initiatory experience, or they construe those rites as an exoteric expression, and extension, of such experience. In his conflation of entheogenic lore with Judeo-Christian religion, Ruck writes:
In other words, sacred kingship "originally" involved entheogenic initiation of the royal candidate by shaman-priests who administered a psychoactive sacrament. There is no evidence that theocracy originated with such rites, and to infer that it did so is, I maintain, a serious error. Conflation of this sort is particularly devious because it gives the impression that there is, or originally was, some kind of valid shamanic entheogenic rite behind sacred kingship and even behind Jesus, the Christos. Likewise, Freke and Gandy argue for a type of Pagan apologism in which they confer value on Pagan Mysteries by regarding them as the "true basis" of Jesus' teachings and Christianity. In other words, the Mysteries were a means to an end. And because the end was good, we can assume that the means were also good. In this approach. Paganism (whatever that was) becomes acceptable because it provided the basis for Christianity.
Fine, but the problem here is, it didn't. Christianity stole some window dressing from Paganism—the babe in the manger, for instance, was an infant version of the Sumerian shepherd Tammuz—and it co-opted Mithraic rites to concoct the sacraments, but its ethics and ideology came from elsewhere. The historical basis of Christianity lies in the Zaddikim cult of the Dead Sea. From the time of the Patriarch Samuel, the entire Jewish community was pulled into theocratic politics by the machinations of the Zaddikim whose obsession with a messiah culminated in the Christ of Saint Paul. The messiah is the "anointed one," christos in Greek, formed from the verb echrisa, "to anoint." In both ancient Near Eastern theocracies and Judeo-Christian tradition alike, anointing was the key ritual of investiture, central to the entire ideological construct of divine power, but there is not a shred of evidence that Pagan religion in Europa, North Africa, and the Levant followed this custom.
Entheogenic shamanism in the Mysteries was never used to set up and legitimate either patriarchal rule or patriarchal religion. Telestic rites were not a means to a mundane political end. Initiation had nothing to do with empowerment, except empowerment through knowledge, if that be allowed. It had nothing to do with secular, political power games as exemplified in the public enthronement of theocrats in the ancient Near East and Palestine. No genuine, uncorrupted adept in the Mysteries would have consented to confer initiatory power on a politician or patriarchal authority figure. And no ceremony conferring such power could have reflected what happened at the third and deepest level of initiation.A Garbled Secret
To avoid further digression, I will let this subject drop for now, but we will return to the specious interpretations of theocratic empowerment later in Mythbusting 101. Clarity on this issue is essential in confronting and defeating the Paternal Lie and its current resurgence in terrorist-supported global theocracy. For now, let's return to the "three currents" from the Grail, and come around to the subject of this lesson, "the Stone of the Wise."
As explained in Lesson Three, one of the currents defines the direction of social enlightenment, after the model of Lohengrin. This current can be traced ahead from the 10th Century to Renaissance humanism in the 15th. Humanism was the mundane, socially oriented expression of the generosity of the medieval Nobility who served the Grail.
Two other currents proceed from Parzival's attainment of the
Grail in 968 CE. The direct encounter with the supreme numen of
indigenous magic is deeply mystical and does not find expression
in social life, but in hidden, anti-social trends, in esotericism,
counterculture, and underground movements of a cryptic and cultic
character. As noted, both of these hidden currents deeply inform
the plot of alternative history. They operate behind the scenes
throughout the Middle Ages, but they arose in far earlier times.
Unlike the Western initiative of social altruism and philanthropy
represented by Lohengrin, these other two currents have an ancient
provenance in the pre-Christian Mysteries.
The problem with alchemy, which all those who explore it know
well, much to their exasperation, is its daunting and often impenetrable
obscurity. Again and again, the alchemists allude to something
they have the privilege of knowing about, without saying exactly
what it is. They do this because they don't know what it is.
This was certainly the case in those instances—and that
would be almost all instances attested by surviving
material—where alchemists appear to be covering up what
they know, when in fact they don't essentially understand what
they are attempting to conceal.
Wolfram calls the Gral a stone, and alchemists universally used this term for the ultimate secret of "the Art." The alchemical dictionary of Dom Pernety (18th C., France) gives over 600 definitions for the Stone. Well, there you go. The amazing thing is, all of them are in some sense correct. But not one of them is valid for unmediated access to the experience of the Stone.
Thus Chretien de Troies, Perceval, 3224-5, in Medieval French octosyllabic rhyming couplets. In plain English, "As she walked into the hall, the graal she held gave forth a radiance so great and clear...." This is written from unmediated access to the experience of the Stone. In King Arthur and the Grail (the best single introduction), Richard Cavendish writes:
Like the Grail hero, the alchemist trod his own path to salvation, independently of the Church, and consequently suspect. Alchemy first attracted attention in Western Europe in the twelfth century and Parzival was written early in the thirteenth. (p. 161)
The Wisdom Light
The Pagan telestai did not seek to become God, although initiation made them in some measure God-like because they came to know the world as God knows it. Or more presicely, as the Goddess knows it. As explained in A Sheaf of Cut Wheat, they attained Her Mind.
Cavendish comes very close to an intuition of the Gral as the corporeal revelation of the Goddess: "whether the light shines from the Grail itself or from the maiden who carries it, is not absolutely clear" (p. 137). But neither he nor any other author writing on the Grail makes the direct identification of its luminosity with a divine feminine presence. When the Grail is associated with a "Divine Presence," it is assumed to be God, or Christ, due to the thick filter of Christianization laid on the legend. Nevertheless, all the archaic and folk-loric material that supports the Grail Legend points to the Great Goddess, not to the Father God or his only-begotten Son. In the Irish and Welsh sources of the Legend, the Grail was the magical cauldron of the underworld goddess, Keridwen, or Erui-Erin, identified bioregionally with Ireland (source of the arcahic levels of Grail material). For the archaic, participatory imagination, the jump from the goddess who guards the cauldron to goddess as cauldron would have been natural and effortless.
In her essay, "Sophia, Companion to the Quest," Grail scholar and Mystery revivalist Caitlin Matthews makes the important observation that the Quest for the Grail is "more concerned with the land than the glories of kingship," (At the Table of the Grail, p. 116. This remark is consistent with the above digression.) To put all this in Gaian terms, the Quest is concerned with the Earth and the powers of the living planet, rather than paternal rites of empowerment. Matthews makes pretty work of sorting out the garbled secret. Commenting on the dove emblem worn by the members of the Grail Family, she says:
In other words, the attributes of Sophia. To the adepts of the Pagan Mysteries, the source of "radiance so great and clear" was neither the male God nor his offspring, Christ, but the Divine Sophia. Instead of divinity manifest in the flesh in Jesus Christ—a theological dogma rejected by Sethian Gnostics as deviant —they experienced "Divine Presence" in the presence of the Earth itself, in the Goddess revealed as a humble planet. In Parzival and other Arthurian legends related to the Grail, the hideous hag Cundrie (the Loathly Damsel) announces the hero's mission, and is enigmatically identified with the Grail Maiden. In earlier Irish lore, a Cundrie-like faery is the first to offer the Grail and pose the test question, as explained in Gaia and Gnosis, One where we considered the Irish tale called The Prophetic Ecstasy of the Phantom. The "hag" represents nature, or the natural form of the Goddess, Her planetary body.
The Radiant Wisdom Stone is Sophia's supernatural body.
late alchemical and Rosicrucian engravings depict Sophia as Lady
Alkimia, Lady Nature, or simply the Virgin, who is graphically
identified with the Earth. She nourishes infant humanity on Lac
Virginis, Milk of the Virgin—a metaphor for the Organic
Light. (Emblem II in Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier,
1618. Nutrix ejus terra est: "The Earth is its
Grail literature drew on archaic Irish mythology (as R. S. Loomis
has shown, extensively) which in many respects reflects shamanic
experience of the Organic Light among the bards and seers of
the Emerald Isle. Alchemical literature reflects the ambivalent
mindset of those who had neither the Mysteries to guide them,
nor ancient shamanic tradition with psychoactive plants to direct
them to the presence of the Light, but were nevertheless erratically
inspired and deeply mystified by a vague intuition that the mysterious
Light existed, and could be accessed directly, given the right
Organic Light, Divine Light, Mystery Light, Supernal Light—such
are some of the terms for the Stone of the Wise, the luminous
substance that confers intimate knowledge of the Goddess. To
this list we can add Wisdom Light, the epiplany of Sophia. Access
to this Light was the secret the alchemists protected, without
knowing clearly and explicitly how to attain and maintain that
access. But some alchemists did know. In Parzival there
is evidence of surviving knowledge of first-hand experience of
Sophianic illumination. Wolfram even offers a garbled version
of the origin of the Gral-Stone: it is the lapsit exillis that
fell from the crown of Lucifer when he plunged from Heaven. This
motif recalls the plunge of the Goddess Sophia from the Pleroma.
She is the supreme Luciferic figure, the divine Light-giver.
In their voluminous writings, alchemists often give the impression of looking for something that is right in front of their noses, yet they cannot set eyes on it. The Mystery Light was, you could say, as clear as the gnosis on their faces, but still it eluded them. Wilhelm Reich was fond of citing some lines of Goethe:
Without benefit of being guided to the Organic Light, Alchemists scrutinized the natural light for signs of supernatural activity. Their scrutiny must have been extraordinary, because it allowed them to perceive the intimate operations of nature. They detected both oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere before these elements were observed with the aid of instruments and quantified in chemical language. Oxygen they called Prima Materia, the First Matter, because all that lives materially, even minerals, reacts to it before anything else. Today we know that oxygen is a highly reactive, unstable gas. The constant level of atmospheric oxygen at 20 percent is an anomaly of the Earth, making life possible. This observation is essential to the understanding of terrestrial homeostasis in Gaia theory, and, in fact, led to the formation of the theory.
"The Stone is projected upon the Earth, and exalted upon
the mountains, and dwells in the air, and feeds in the river..." Thus
runs the commentary for Emblem XXXVI (pictured above) in Michael
Maier's Atalanta Fugiens, one of the most influential
of 17th Century alchemical tests. The cubes on the road, in the
water, and in the air, suggest how the mysterious Stone, though
it is present everywhere, conceals itself in the natural elements:
earth, water, air. (Its relation to fire is more complex and
obscure.) Evidence of knowledge of atmospheric physics in not
predominant in alchemical writings, but it is there nonetheless.
Nitrogen, which is preponderant in the atmosphere at close to 80 percent, was also discovered by alchemists. They called it Azoth. Along with oxygen, we breathe nitrogen with every breath, but as it is an "inert gas," we do not normally sense anything from it. It is possible, however, to be somatically conscious of breathing atmospheric nitrogen. The effect is a kind of light delirium, comparable to the effect of nitrous oxide, "laughing gas." Psychoactive mushrooms can cause people who ingest them to become giddy and laugh hilariously. It is now known that the properties of such plants derive from their rare nitrogenous chemistry, making them exceptional among the millions of plant species on the Earth.
In 1988, writing in the Anthroposophical Journal The Golden Blade, I proposed that some European alchemists were "atmospheric mystics" who had "a rare infrasensory clairvoyance of the natural elements." By infrasensory I meant they were able to perceive what happened within their own senses, and, via that enhancement of sensory awareness, they achieved genuine objective knowledge of natural processes. Goethe, who drew deeply from the alchemical tradition, called the infrasensory faculty auschauende Urteilskraft, "the perceptual power of thinking." He undoubtedly experienced what he was talking about, for he was able to make verifiable discoveries in plant and animal morphology, and optics. Goethe ascertained that in the enhanced state thinking about what one observes merges with the processes operating in what is observed. When thought and perception co-operate in this manner, there is no need to mind-model or think abstractly about the phenomenon. In Goethe the Scientist, Rudolf Steiner aptly defined this method: "It does not summarize what is observed; it produces what is to be observed." In his lucid study of Goethe's method, The Wholeness of Nature, Henri Bortoft calls this method intensive perception.
The reference to photosynthesis is striking. In the received
literature of alchemy we find the image of the Green Lion eating
the sun. The Green Lion is a naive symbol indicating how sunlight
converts to chlorophyll and thus provides vital energy in the
form of edible plants. This bizarre image represents both the
power and product of photosynthetic conversion. It is possible
that alchemists who created this image fed osmotically off the
atmosphere, like Milarapa was known to do. (Those who do so today,
and live without either animal or vegetable food, are called
breatharians.) It is entirely conceivable that adepts who had
intensive perception of nature also applied that faculty to their
own mental, physiological, and metabolic processes. Many legends
attached to the alchemists suggest that they arrived at a condition
similar to that of Milarepa and other Asian adepts, seers of
nature who command their own vital forces. European folk-lore
reports that some alchemists lived with the most modest of means,
and fed themselves minimally, rather like the ailing Grail Kings
who were fed by a single thin white wafer served in the Grail.
Lux Naturae, Lumen Naturae
The record of Western alchemy contains a lot of dross and precious little gold. Yet where it does prove genuine, the Art reflects the experience of atmospheric mystics who used intensive perception to search the natural world for the supernatural presence of the Grail, the Wisdom Stone. In some few cases, alchemists did work from direct experience of the Organic Light. In most cases, however, they were not illumined adepts but devotees of nature who obscurely sensed the living wisdom of the Earth and sought to learn about it, if not from it. With the destruction of the millennial network of Mysteries, the time-tried method of instruction by the Light was not lost, but the continuity of the method was broken. Alchemists who pursued the Great Work had to rely on a hit-or-miss process of self-initiation.
Paracelsus distinguished two kinds of light: lux naturae, and lumen naturae. The first is natural atmospheric light. In an observation that scientists ignore at their peril, Wilhelm Reich noted that natural light does not come from the sun but is a local effect in the atmosphere. One could even say that the light that floods the livable part of the terrestrial atmosphere is a photochemical effect in the open air. That atmospheric light operates biochemically is, of course, a given in modern science, but the ability to participate consciously in photobiochemical processes is denied by science. The lux naturae was the primary medium of atmospheric mysticism. The Great Work was performed in the vas hermeticum, the planetary envelope.
The lumen naturae was the Grail Stone, the Elixir. Not atmospheric light, but the soft white luminosity of the primary substance body of the Goddess. The object of the Grail Quest was to access the Organic Light as generations of initiates had done in the Mysteries, but because many who undertook the Quest did not know what they were looking for, and had no one to guide them, the element of fantasy played into the Quest. Alchemists embraced the same goal as questers for the Holy Grail, but they did so in an entirely different environment: not in the wilderness or at the tournament ground or the king's table, but in their laboratories and cellars. Seeking to delve into the secrets of nature, they were regarded by the Church as heretics who colluded with the evil spirits believed to animate the natural world. They only half knew what they were doing, and most of that they had to conceal to avoid being persecuted for heresy.
European alchemy was to a large extent a chaotic exercise in fantasy, chimerical experiments, and wacky metaphysical speculation. Due to the close link between the Grail Quest and the Great Work, many motifs and symbols from one genre show up in the other. The cauda pavonis or peacock's tail represents the "psychedelic illumination" achieved at the end of the Work. With the epiphany of the Organic Light, all the colors of nature are seen differently. Objects appear to be nothing more than palpable stains in the White Stone, like water colors on plaster or soft chunks of colored glass embedded in alabaster. The cauda pavonis vision recalls Shelley's line from Adonais, "Life, like a dome of many-colored glass / Stains the white radiance of Eternity."
The ruffled felt hat of the Fisher King displayed the ornate plume of a peacock.
jll April 22, 2006 Flanders
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.