The Holy Grail – Part 1

Even as a youngster I was fascinated by the stories about the Holy Grail, the Knights of the Round Table, the wizard Merlin, the beautiful maidens and the dark fairy Morgain. But what does the Grail have to do with all these adventurous mythical figures? Why does it appear in the colourful surroundings of fairies and Arthurian knights? Why does it only manifest itself in a game full of contrasts with a pagan-like magical world and not, for instance, in the enclosed spiritual precinct of a monastery?

The Holy Grail – Part 1

“Above all, that wildness be spared …”

(Friedrich Hölderlin, Hymn to the Madonna)

Until the middle of the 12th century, hardly anyone had heard of the Grail, but only a hundred years later everyone was talking about it all over Europe. As if out of nowhere, the Grail emerged in the consciousness of the time and moved people in their innermost being. Sometimes it was described as a chalice, sometimes as a flat, plate-like bowl, then again as a mysterious stone or a precious jewel. We first read of the Graal around the year 1190 in Chretien de Troyes’ Le Conte du Graal. Around the same time, Robert de Boron wrote his novel Estoire dou Graal. While in Chretien’s work a direct reference to the Christian Redeemer was still missing, Robert made an immediate connection from the Grail to the chalice of Christ, the legendary vessel of the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have collected the drops of blood of the dying Jesus in it during the crucifixion, before moving to Britain with the Grail and founding the first church in Glastonbury. Thus Christianity came into contact with the Celtic world and approached a more original source of the Grail.

In the oldest text about the Grail in all Arthurian literature, the Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwfn [1], King Arthur sets out with his companions on a perilous night sea voyage to steal a magical cauldron from the underworld. The bards’ poetic inspiration springs from this cauldron, which is said to be ignited by the breath of nine maidens. The ancient Irish god Dagda is also in possession of a magic cauldron, as is the Welsh giant Bran. They are wondrous vessels that can provide food and drink for all, like a never-ceasing cornucopia. In the cauldron, even the dead can be raised to new life. All these glorious attributes of nourishment and transformation were already attributed to the Celtic Cauldron long before the Grail was established as a Christianised symbol. But why did poets later on bridge the gap between the Celtic image of the soul and the Christian symbol of salvation? What is behind this attempt to weave together the pagan and the Christian?

In all stories that explicitly speak of the Grail, it always appears with a strange double face – like a Janus head with an official day face and an unofficial night face. This paradox is particularly striking in the prose Lancelot. Here, the idea of the Grail in its moral superiority is quite evidently influenced by Cistercian thought. Salvation through the Grail depends on the renunciation of sexual urges and is thus tied to sexual purity. Only through a chaste, sinless life can one eventually hope to be granted redemption and admission to the consecration circle. But the apparent purity of the Grail sterility remains deceptive, at the expense of the perishing Arthurian kingdom. Understood in this way, the power of the Grail cannot be effective within the earthly sphere. And so it is not the pure Grail knight Galahad who is at the centre of the narration, but his wandering father Lancelot, who, despite all his noble-mindedness, repeatedly falls prey to madness and frenzy. On top of this, Lancelot is exposed as an instigator of adultery, having engaged in a clandestine affair with Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. Lancelot struggles in vain for years to behold the Grail, but it is always painfully denied to him. Finally, he renounces the path of the Grail and wholeheartedly embraces the path of Minne (the idealized medieval courtly love). Guinevere is his guiding star and his goddess, who outshines even the Grail.

A similar conflict emerges in the figure of the old fisher king Anfortas, who on wild adventures had courted the love of a beautiful woman who was married to another man. As King of the Grail, he would have been obliged to keep to the vow of chastity, which forbade him all amorous escapades. But Anfortas, fully human, failed to comply with the strict Grail law. As a symbolic punishment, his testicle was pierced by a poisoned pagan spear in battle. From then on he was paralysed and suffered terrible pain until his successor would come and redeem him by asking “the question”. But Parzival kept him waiting, and so the old Grail King languished in agony. Every day Anfortas was allowed to look at the Grail, which prevented his death, though his wound was not healed. Thus he remained alive, but suffering and paralysed. The reader can’t help wondering what miracles the Grail is still working here. Is it only an empty sign without power? Or does the secret of the Grail lie precisely in the revelation of the wounded human being who has lost his wholeness and is desperately looking for what is lost?

Even greater misfortune befell Sigune, Parzival’s cousin, who mourned her deceased lover Schionatulander to the point of self-destruction. She, too, was regularly supplied with Grail nourishment by Cundrie, but the healing power of the Grail now seemed to be completely extinguished in the face of human suffering. Sigune found neither comfort, nor joy, nor inner strength through the Grail. Nothing could alleviate her grief, nothing could terminate her loyalty to the deceased. Completely out of her mind, she began to tear out her braids until there was no hair left on her head. Her body was completely emaciated from constant self-denial. Parzival hardly recognised his deathly pale cousin, so frightening was the decay already apparent. Finally Sigune had herself walled up in a narrow hermitage with only one small lookout. There she buried the body of her beloved friend and knelt daily in prayer over his grave until she herself died.

Although Parzival had finally succeeded in releasing the suffering Anfortas by asking the redeeming question, his Grail kingship had to live with the sting inflicted by Sigune. This futility comes to a dramatic head in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s late work. The story of Sigune and Schionatulander, the background to which was kept concealed in Parzival, is now partially narrated in the Titurel fragment (named after the progenitor of the Grail clan). Sigune and Schionatulander had retreated into the forest, where they were startled by the barking of a hunting dog. The dog was named Gardeviaz, which means “guard the trail” [2].  Schionatulander caught the hound and brought it to Sigune. As she tied the dog up, she became aware of the wondrous rope that he was dragging along. It consisted of precious silk ribbons to which precious stones were attached with golden nails. The precious stones formed letters which composed a text. The text told a love story that unfolded on the 20-metre-long dog leash as if on a scroll. Sigune immediately began to read with enthusiasm and felt as if under a magical spell. In the middle of the story, the dog tore itself away with a jerk and escaped into the thicket of the forest. Sigune, who had tried to hold on to the leash, was cut in the skin by the sharp edges of the gems. Schionatulander rushed off and followed the dog into the wilderness. After a while, however, he returned unsuccessfully, his whole body wounded by thorns. However, nothing was more important to Sigune than to finish reading the “aventiure” of the unknown lovers, and so she sent her lover off again. She begged him to fulfil her most ardent wish and reclaim the leash. If he sacrificed himself for the rope, she promised him her sincere love as a reward. And thus Schionatulander set off again into the wilderness to conquer Sigune’s heart. But he became inextricably entangled in the labyrinth of the forest and never found his way back to her alive.

Schionatulander had not succeeded in keeping track. He had estranged himself too far from his natural instincts. Consequently, Sigune could not read the love story any further. And Wolfram, the poet, could not continue writing it. His narrative breaks off as abruptly as the dog’s leash. But why did the poet suddenly fall silent? What premonition was so powerful that it left him speechless? And what was it about the rope that was so vital that Sigune acted completely irrationally and became oblivious of everything else? The dog leash was more precious to Sigune than the Grail, indeed, it was so dear to her as if it were the new Grail itself.

In all these briefly sketched images, the Christian-ecclesiastically stamped idea of the Grail becomes deeply cracked. The vessel of salvation threatens to burst and is radically questioned in the subtext. For many protagonists of the Arthurian circle, the Grail is no longer the highest goal. The heavenly sphere is no longer the only place of longing for them. And so the poets, hidden in the undercurrent of all the Grail adventures, ask: Why does the divine heart not embrace all creation? Why does it not see and love the earth? Why is the realm of the senses a pace excluded from Grail salvation? Why does the seeker of the Grail not turn to the wilderness of nature as devotedly as to heaven? Why is there not an equal Goddess alongside God? The poets of the Grail are deeply stirred by these existential questions, and so the painful Grail twilight becomes for them the quiet hope of a new dawn. They hope for a vessel of salvation which unites the opposites, from which nothing is excluded any more.

(to be continued in part 2)



[1] Caitlin & John Matthews, King Arthur’s raid on the underworld, The oldest Grail Quest, Gothic Image Publications, Glastonbury 2008

[2] Wolfram von Eschenbach, Titurel, Verse 148

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Date: August 1, 2021
Author: Martin Spura (Germany)
Photo: Free_Photos auf Pixabay CCO

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