Fascination with the Grail | Otto Rahn Memorial
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Fascination with the Grail

Werner Huemer

The reality behind the myth...

Sagas describe the Holy Grail as a chalice with fairy-tale powers; it’s been the inspiration for countless tales, legends and also works of art. And it is both a stranger to the Christian body of thought -- and yet somehow connected with Christianity in mysterious ways. What is it about the "Holy Grail"? Why is it still the subject for mainstream movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Fisher King? Is there something more substantial behind the Grail than simple legend? If we can delve deeper into the true meaning of the Grail, the core of many poems, legends, novels, and fairy tales may become apparent.

The more seriously someone undertakes to approach the subject "Grail" -- because he feels touched personally by it -- the more certainly will he come up against questions such as whether or not the knowledge about the Grail can be traced back to some revelation… A revelation handed down out of a mythical distant time, but weighed down, proliferated and falsified on its way through time, through the world and the life of countless generations. Let us begin at the beginning...

Seeking the roots...

Whoever starts out to search for the roots of the sagas and legends connected with the Grail treads on adventurous paths. They lead back to heathen customs and confront us with the God-distant darkness of the Middle Age crusades, but also point out ever again the direction to the true origins of the unusual inspiration of many great artists, which invariably transcended by far the purely intellectual grasp of the concept "Grail."

Our search for the trail may begin with a sober look into various reference books. Even here, though, there is a general uncertainty about the origin of the word "Grail." It is known that the word came to us from the old French language, where it was spelled "Graal." The root of the word is predominantly accepted as the Greek/Latin crater (mixing bowl), from which then developed the Latin gradalis (stepped chalice), and cratalis (flat, woven bowl). Its representation in poetic works was often as a "chalice" -- earlier also "kettle" -- a vessel with wondrous powers. One first encounters such writings in England.

There, from the 9th century A.D. onwards, ever increasing fantasy-filled details proliferated around the legendary figure of a "King Artus" (Arthur). Historically provable is the figure of an army-commander named Arturius, who had fought 300 years earlier in Northern Britain against the attacking Anglo-Saxons. In sagas and poetic works he progressively became "King Arthur." He transferred his court, considered the centre of heroic life and knighthood, ever further towards the South of England (Wales).

Celtic-Welsh story elements flowed into the stuff of legends, while Christian ideas also increasingly mixed themselves in. Finally, the adventurous reports from Arthur's Court fertilized and inspired the culture of the Continental courts and literature, which further developed the legends as "Matiere de Bretagne."

In the reports of adventures from earlier centuries, it is typical for the hero to go on a quest to find a vessel of magical powers, which is often protected by young maidens. This motive of early Britannic poetic works has as yet nothing to do with the Christian symbolism found in the Grail literature of later centuries. The Celts however believed in a "Kettle of Immortality" as an idol, and many poems express the search for it. Their content—this search for the magical kettle which exudes immortality—naturally mirrors the longing of mankind for eternal life, to be allowed an eternal life in this Creation, above everything transitory and earthly. That is why the saga also shows the picture of the vigilant maidens.

Why maidens? The female gender forms the unavoidable bridge into the realm of eternal life. It is the fine intuitive ability of the woman, the -- as Göthe put it -- "eternally female" quality, which "attracts" us. But the female intuition must be pure, so that it can fulfill its function as a bridging element, unburdened by vanity and egoism. The concept of "maidenhood" expresses spiritual purity. This shows that behind seemingly superficial adventure stories, there is often an inkling of greater, deeper connections. Let us from this viewpoint also look at the miraculous "kettle" itself, of which the old poetic works report.

"The Holy Grail" really exists as a life-giving source at the pinnacle of Creation, as the connecting point between the Creator and His work. And this eternal source, upon which everything depends and which pours out its blessing from step to step and plane to plane down into the whole of Creation, was symbolized in the Celtic magical kettle and likewise in the "Grail" of later poetic works.

Tales of the Grail and Aurthurian Legend...

The paths upon which the Grail-saga was transmitted from generation to generation intertwined, until in the Middle Ages it finally became a subject of occidental fantasy literature, and no longer comprehensible in detail.

We merely know that the legendary circle around King Arthur and his round table dominated the whole literature of the Middle Ages. He offered poets a wonderful framework to build story upon story. Practically all the Celtic fairy tales and fables found their way into the "Arthurian world."

Based on the tales in both prose and verse of the Celtic poets in Britain and the Bretagne, there arose in the 12th and 13th century the great verse-novels of the French poets, who modernized the adopted material, the "Matiere de Bretagne," in that they changed the Celtic magical world into one of courtly knights.

When the Grail saga now was told, the poets transferred the hero of the saga, Perceval (Celtic: Peredur) to the court of King Arthur, where so many brilliant knights already lived, and made him a member of the famous Round Table. According to today’s research, Chretien de Troyes, whose name dominated French literature of the 12th century, was the first in the history of the occident to treat the Grail story within the framework of the Arthurian legend. Chretien de Troyes (ca. 1150 to 1190) lived at the courts of Champagne and Flanders. In approximately 1185, he wrote his Perceval li Galois ou les Contes del Graal. Due to the poet's untimely death, however, the work remained unfinished.

Chretien de Troyes seems to have taken the material for his Grail literature from a book loaned to him by his then-patron Philippe d'Alsace, Count of Flanders. This poetry has the form of an educational romance, a morality lesson as it were, and shows through the example of Perceval the development of a knight; it teaches which virtues he ought to acquire and which manners he has to make his own, in order to appear at the cultivated courts of his time.

Around the year 1200 at the court of the Count Gautier de Montbeliard, Robert de Boron drew up his Grand estoire dou Graal, a short narrative of 3,514 verses. This is regarded as the most important old-French manuscript of the Grail saga. For Robert de Boron, the Grail is now the original bowl of the Last Supper, in which Joseph of Aramathia is supposed to have caught the blood of Christ.

The sources for Boron’s poetry are probably a pseudo-gospel from Nikodemus, the so-called Pilate-files (an apocryphal report about the sentence and the death of Christ, which the Roman governor Pilate is supposed to have sent to Caesar Tiberius in Rome, which however was probably only written towards the end of the 2nd century), as well as, above all, the Grail poetry of Chretien de Troyes.

Meanwhile between 1197 and 1210, Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. 1170 to 1220) created his "Parzival" which is considered the greatest epic poem of the German Middle Ages. It is the only completed epic of Wolfram. He used the poetry of Chretien de Troyes as his model and, like him, blended the legend of King Arthur and his Round Table with the saga of Parzival and the Grail. In the idealised figure of Parzival, Wolfram shows how his hero grows beyond worldly knighthood, how in spite of all doubts, suffering and trials he attains spiritual knighthood and finally, as the crowning of his pure, honourable striving, is called to become King of the Grail. Wolfram von Eschenbach describes the Grail as a miracle-working, radiant stone, which is lying on a cushion of green silk. Parzival sees:

Fulfillment of wishes and Paradise: That was the Grail (before which earthly radiance was as nothing), the Stone of Light.

With Wolfram too, a pure maiden stands in connection with the Grail: Repanse de Schoye carries it as its servant. Because this was the way of the Grail: Only she who had fully retained her chastity and knew herself to be free from falsehood, was permitted to be its servant.

The knights lived from the power of the Grail, a stone, "fallen from the heavens." Everyone who looks at the stone cannot die for one week. Once a year, on Good Friday, a Dove comes from heaven and lays a host upon the stone, whereby its power is renewed.

Crusade Against the Cathars...

Wolfram von Eschenbach gave as sources for his poetry Chretien de Troyes and also the works of a Provencale, whom he called "Kyot the singer." Wolfram tells in Book IX, how Kyot discovered the material of the Grail saga -- and at the same time suggests a heavenly Revelation as the actual source of the Grail saga:

In the dust of Toledo found
Kyot, the well-known master,
the saga in crinkly heathen writing
which here meets the origins of the tale.
A heathen (name of Flegetanis),
whose rich knowledge one praised
selected from the family of Solomon
born of the people of Israel,
a wise expert on nature
he brought the first trace of the Grail.
Flegetanis, the heathen, saw
what he only shyly passed on,
from the light and progress of the stars,
a deep secret, and uncovered it:
There existed a thing, called the Grail:
so said he, since he found the name
clearly written in the stars.
It was left on earth by a host
which again flew to the stars,
because their purity drew them homeward.
The stone must now by Christendom
be attended with modesty and purest virtue:
To those human beings belongs the blessing of honour
who are ordained for service of the Grail!

According to this, the saga would have come from Palestine via Egypt and Spain to France and finally also to Germany. In spite of all the investigations to date however, neither a Provencale poet by the name of Kyot, nor any trace of his supposed work could be found. There consequently has been heated argument about the existence or non-existence of a man of this name.

The description of the exact origin of the Grail saga by Wolfram von Eschenbach in making mention of "Master Kyot," who in Toledo, therefore in Spain, comes across "the origins of the tale" and thereby the heathen Flegetanis, who "was selected from the family of Solomon, brought the knowledge from the Orient as "a wise expert on nature," well versed with the secrets "of the light and progress of the stars" -- this description has also led to the assumption that Wolfram's "Master Kyot" had been a Cathar. The strongly ascetic religious denomination of the Cathars had spread out in southern and western Europe since the end of the 10th century, and around 1200 belonged to those sects which were bitterly persecuted by the Papal Church of Rome. Although the Cathars, who called themselves the "pure," accepted as their highest commandment the leading of an exemplary life according to the Word of Jesus, they rejected Papacy, the Church of Rome and its dogmas. So they thought little of the veneration of Saints and Relics, questioned the sacraments of the Church, confessed to the teaching of reincarnation and had chosen as the symbol of their belief not the cross of suffering of the Roman Catholic Church, but the equal-armed cross, that age-old, already pre-Christian symbol of Truth, of harmony between the active and passive, male and female, positive and negative. The most important symbol of the southern French Cathars, who guarded their own knowledge in Montsegur, was, however, the Grail! It represented to these believers -- who saw themselves equally as noble knights, priests, poets and singers -- the highest symbol of purity.

The Cathars, to whom the people flocked in ever larger numbers, cultivated the religion of "Manichaism," the origin of which goes back to the 3rd century A.D., and combined it with knowledge from the Far East. The founder of Manichaism, Mani (216 to 277 A.D.), successfully endeavoured in Persia and India to bring the Christian religion into harmony with the teachings of Buddha and Zarathustra. At the core of their teachings, they were concerned to guide man out of the darkness towards the Light.

For the Church of Rome however, the Cathars were seen as a sect dangerous to the "true belief," which had to be destroyed. In the year 1208, Pope Innocent III ordered the Inquisition and the crusade against the Cathars, and so they were murdered in their thousands during the years up to 1229. They fell in battle or ended up being burned at the stake. Montsegur too, was put to the torch. Only a very few Cathars must have been able to flee into nearby caves in the Pyrenaes where one found later, in the form of paintings, witness to a spiritual knowledge that produced a meaningful connection between the Christian teachings and the legendary world of the Grail.

Obliterate All Trace...

Against the background of the tragic events of the Inquisition, it is easy to understand why the poets of the Middle Ages were only too eager to obliterate all traces which might point to the Cathars and their knowledge. They chose to free the legendary material from the "stench of the pagan" -- to "catholicize" it in a way -- through the emphasis of Christian elements, making it more attractive to the Church of Rome.

If Wolfram von Eschenbach had really received the secret wisdom of the Orient that he wove into his "Parzival" legend from a master of the Cathars, he would have been forced to conceal every trace that would link his informant to the Cathars, in order to protect him from prosecution and the judgment of the Roman Inquisition. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Kyot may be a pseudonym for a Cathar who preserved the age-old wisdoms of the Oriental tradition.

According to another opinion, Wolfram von Eschenbach is supposed to have belonged to the Order of Templars. The primary aim of the Templars, a spiritual order of knights founded in 1119 and subject only to the Pope (1139), was to protect the Holy Grave in Jerusalem by fighting against the nonbelievers. They named themselves after the residence of their current Grand-master in the place in Jerusalem where Solomon's Temple once had stood. The Templars had the best imaginable relations with the Orient; many of their Grand-masters counted Arabian nobility among their friends. Thus, the two cultural circles, Christian and Islamic, fertilized each other, and a spiritual exchange took place-an exchange for which the Templars were later reproached.

Back to Wolfram von Eschenbach...

Whether von Eschenbach himself belonged to the Templars, or whether his "Master Kyot" was merely a pseudonym for a Cathar, all researchers agree with each other on one main point: the Orient mediated the knowledge of the Grail to the Occident.

But how were the tidings made known to the Arabs? Wolfgang von Eschenbach wrote that Flegetanis was "selected from the family of Solomon, born of the people of Israel." Otto Rahn considers in his work, Crusade Against the Grail, the question of whether the saga might originate from the famous Solomon treasure, which had fallen into Arab hands in Toledo, in the year 711, after they had decisively conquered the West-Goths and begun to take over Spain. Had Solomon known about the Grail at that time, or himself received the revelation? Or does this secret knowledge go even further back, perhaps as far as Moses?

In the Middle Ages, due, in large part, to von Eschenbach's work "Parzival," the concept of the Grail became public property, at just the time when the Church was making every effort to leave no trace of the Cathars and their cultural shrine, to finally stamp out everything that stood against the dogma of Rome.

Interpretations of the Post-Middle Ages...

Von Eschenbach's "Parzival," the great epic poem of the Middle Ages, triggered a flood of free renderings. The Grail motif became familiar and inflamed the fantasy of many Western poets. Everyone who treated the material added something of himself and his culture, thus further confusing the legend and watering down, even distorting, the Truth as it was handed down through the generations.

Reworkings of the story went so far as to claim that Adam received the Grail in Paradise. Chased out of the Garden of Eden, though, he was forced to leave it behind. According to legend, Adam's son Seth supposedly received permission to fetch the wondrous goblet and look after it until the Grail could finally be placed into the hands of the Son of God.

But the fascination with the Grail went even beyond poetic fantasy. People everywhere were determined to locate the Grail, which most thought was a bowl or vessel of green coloring. For instance, some believed that a precious bowl from the St. Laurence Church in Genoa, Italy was the Grail. In the year 1247, the Patriarch of Jerusalem presented King Henry III with a bowl decorated with emeralds, which was meant to have come from Nikodemus and Joseph of Arimathia.

For many years, the story of the Grail was a celebrated and popular subject for writers, until the end of the 15th century, when the tradition faded into nothing more than an ancient legend. Still, in the following era, a few free renderings surfaced, such as 18th century Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Bodmer's "Parvical," written in the year 1753.

The most thrilling rearrangement of the Grail material, however, occurred in the 19th century, when Richard Wagner, the poet-composer, created "Lohengrin" in the years 1845 to 1848. Wolfram von Eschenbach had previously related the story of Lohengrin and Elsa von Brabant at the end of his epic poem "Parzival." This narrative served as Wagner's model for his own "Lohengrin." Especially noticeable in this work is the Grail story. In it, much of the old tidings of the Grail receive new life. Wagner writes about the Grail Castle, the home of Lohengrin,

In distant land unreachable by your steps
lies a castle, called Monsalvat;
A luminous temple stands in the middle there
so costly, as nothing known on earth:
In it a vessel of miracle-working blessing
is guarded there as highest holiness,
is tended by the purest human beings,
Each year a dove from heaven draws near
to newly strengthen its magical power:
It is called the Grail and purest blessed faith
is imparted through it to its knighthood.
Whoever has been chosen to serve the Grail
him it will arm with super-earhtly power
on him is every evil person's deception lost
when he sees it, the night of death gives way…

Richard Wagner, one of the leading artistic personalities of the 19th century, was fascinated by the poetry of the Middle Ages and especially the legend of the Grail. Already in one of his first great works, the first performance of Tannhäuser in 1845, he let Wolfgang von Eschenbach appear. Five years later, "Lohengrin" premiered, telling the story of a Grail knight who comes from the Grail Castle to help the Truth to fight for a victory.

The Grail legend was now in a dramatic new form: it was the story of Parsifal, King of the Grail, who gains knowledge and "becomes knowing" through compassion, finally bringing redemption. And yet, Richard Wagner still could not forget the legend of the Grail, even after the completion of his "Lohengrin." And so, through him, came the most important new interpretation of the Grail legend. As Wagner himself portrays it, he had a decisive encounter with the Parsifal material on the morning of Good Friday in 1857. While under a strong influence, there immediately arose in Wagner's mind a solemn melody, which later became "Good Friday Magin" in his "Parsifal." But the outline for his own "Parsifal-drama" did not ripen until the year 1865. Twelve years later, on January 25 1877, Richard Wagner created the stage inauguration festival piece which was to form the final work of his creative prowess. On that day he wrote, "I am beginning 'Parsifal' and I am not letting up until it is ready." In the first act, Wagner wrote about the Grail, which he connected with the bowl of the Lord's Supper,

…You know, that it is granted only to the pure to join up with those brothers, who for the highest works of salvation strengthen the holy magical powers of the Grail…

In "Parsifal," Richard Wagner placed the suffering of the ailing King of the Grail, Amfortas, in the centre of the action. Ever since a sinful transgression, which connected him with the darkness, Amfortas suffered from an open wound that would not heal. Every new unveiling of the Grail, and every outpouring of power in connection with it, brings a renewal of his suffering. Under great inner turmoil, Amfortas decides that he can no longer fulfill his duty as King of the Grial due to the unbearable agony associated with the unveiling of the Grail. Eventually, he is rescued from his painful prison by the heroic knight Parsifal. At first, Parsifal is ignorant of his task to save Amfortas and spends his time roaming around the world, finally arriving in the magical kingdom of Klingsor. Here, he is beguiled by alluring flower maidens and is captivated by the siren-like Kundry. When she seductively kisses him, Parsifal awakens from his ignorant stupor. He recognizes the cause of Amfortas's illness, feels the latter's wound now burning in himself, and pushes Kundry away from him. When the temptress calls her master, Klingsor, for help, Parsifal steps up to duel him in personal combat. In the midst of intense fighting, Parsifal acquires possession of Klingsor's spear, which originally belonged to the knighthood. With the sign of the cross, Parsifal depletes Klingsor of his magical powers, and immediately his magical kingdom disintegrates. Finally, Parsifal heals Amfortas's wound and as a result becomes the new King of the Grail.

Through Richard Wagner's musical masterpiece, the Parsifal saga experienced its most lively rebirth since the time of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wagner's musical skill fully portrays the internal and external progress of the action, profiles the characters, and illuminates the situations with incredible clarity. The premiere of "Parsifal," Wagner's last work, took place on July 26, 1882 in the Festival House in Bayreuth. The public at the premiere must have been unusually deeply moved. After the conclusion of the performance, the theatre-director August Forster from Leipzig, proclaimed to some of his acquaintances, with tears in his eyes, "You will see, Wagner is going to die!" He believed that with the achievement of "Parsifal," Wagner's life works were completed.

Indeed, Richard Wagner's health soon began to decline rapidly. The poet-composer died on February 13, 1883 in Venice. His "departing-this-life-work," as "Parsifal" was later called, completely reformed the legendary material from the Middle Ages. Wagner concentrated the fullness of the legend that had been handed down over the centuries into a plot of three acts. Like a skilled surgeon, Wagner surveyed an enormous multitude of details and recounted events, divested them from an excess of fantasy-filled, ornate, and periodic accessories, and dynamically displayed the remaining core narrative.

Also worthy of note is the time period in which Wagner's "Parsifal" took shape: On April 18, 1875, Abd-ru-shin was born; he would later write In the Light of Truth: The Grail Message. This work published in the 1920s, was the first to truly elucidate the high Truth that actually forms the basis of the legend of the Holy Grail.

The 'Search for the Grail' Misused...

The search for the Grail, the leading motif of poetry from the Middle Ages and of Wagner's later operatic work, symbolizes a human longing; it is as far from esoteric as it is romantic, as little Middle Ages as it is mystic, religious, or modern. Rather, it is timeless and unconditional, and has something to do with that which is eternal and what differentiates the human being from his fellow creatures on Earth.

However, this spiritual longing can be misdirected, often with disastrous results, as demonstrated by many spiritual and worldly examples that range from harmless fantasies to, in the recent past, terrifying extremes of gross and grave consequences.

The most horrifying example involves a demagogue and power-mad despot who harnessed the longing in the hearts of men and manipulated them to accept his aims: Adolf Hitler. His use of the profusion of Grail material, which through the tradition of the "Artus romantic" -- including Richard Wagner's Grail operas -- occupied a high rank in the spiritual life and consciousness of Germany, was, in more than one sense, Luciferian. With conscious aim, he effectively interwove his own propaganda and ideology with the Grail myth, transforming it into a vastly different myth of diabolical themes.

Richard Wagner's operatic works, too, were engulfed in Hitler's clutches. With skewed interpretations, he formed the "Parsifal" plot, including the Grail, into the service of his own vision of "pure blood" and "spoiled civilization."

Suffering Under the Regime...

It was during this conflicted time that Abd-ru-shin (Oskar Ernst Bernhardt, 1875-1941) published the lectures of his Grail Message, In the Light of Truth, between 1923-1937.

In March of 1938, immediately after the annexation of Austria, the centre of Abd-ru-shin's activity, he was arrested by the Gestapo. His property was confiscated and he himself, after suffering months of imprisonment in Innsbruck, was deported, along with his family. The stock of published works of Abd-ru-shin was confiscated and the sale of his books was prohibited. Furthermore, Abd-ru-shin was forbidden to continue writing his Grail Message. In the distant Kipsdorf (Erzgebireg), Abd-ru-shin found a place of refuge, but he remained subject to close observation by the Gestapo. He, who had wanted to help in the face of mankind's need, suffered unspeakably under these measures. He died on December 6, 1941, during the fateful days of the turning point of the war.

And thus ended the last and greatest tidings of the Grail.

by Werner Huemer