Previous articles in this series
That the legendary Holy Grail of western esotericism has a cosmic dimension of meaning has been the theme of three articles published in the pages of The Oracle previous to this month’s contribution. The Holy Grail story has intrigued the minds and piqued the curiosity of seekers of knowledge for centuries, without, however, yielding up either its secrets or a consensus of interpretation. We ended last month’s article with a quote from a modern exploration of the Grail mythos, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a best seller in the mid 1980s that eventually served as the main source of inspiration for The DaVinci Code, a fictionalized popularization of certain aspects of Grail symbolism.
In last month’s article I wrote of the Language of the Birds, the secret language of Initiates, Alchemists and Adepts of the Mysteries. It could either be spoken or written. I described how it was based on the use of puns, homilies, synonyms, etymologies and plays-on- words that concealed secondary and even tertiary levels of meaning that only made sense to those with the keys to decipherment and the conceptual framework to make sense of the alternate meanings. Several examples of its use relevant to the question of the Grail were presented. Another example of the use of this method and one germane to this subject matter was provided by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail:
“…In many of the earlier manuscripts the Grail is called the Sangraal; and even in the later version by Malory it is called the Sangreal. It is likely that some such form―Sangraal or Sangreal―was in fact the original one. It is also likely that that one word was subsequently broken in the wrong place. In other words, “Sangraal” or “Sangreal” may not have been intended to divide into “San Graal” or “San Greal”―but into “Sang Raal” or “Sang Réal.” Or, to employ the modern spelling, Sang Royal. Royal blood.”
The dual meaning arises as a result of where one chooses to break the word. Split the term Sangreal between the letters n and g it becomes San Greal, ‘Holy Grail’. Split it between the g and the r and it becomes Sang Raal, or ‘Royal Blood.’ The point here has not to do with the question of which translation for Sangreal is correct, Holy Grail’ or ‘Royal Blood’, rather it is that the mystery of the Grail includes both meanings.
So we must consider the meaning of the Grail as chalice, or platter, as it is frequently described, in association with the idea of blood as a symbol. Let’s first address the role of blood, which plays a central role both in the Christian mystery tradition and in Christian orthodoxy.
In its most well known incarnation the Grail is the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, the Passover meal consumed on the eve of the crucifixion. Mark, chapter 14 describes the events at that sacred repast:
And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
So this cup, from which the twelve drank, was the Grail, and whatever substance the cup held, presumably wine, was identified with the blood of Christ himself. Through the sharing of the cup and the consumption of its contents Jesus was symbolically (we presume) passing to his disciples the quality of his blood. But we must remember that the identification of the Grail with the Eucharistic vessel was a later development. The early accounts, primarily that of Chretien de Troyes describes it in very different terms. We will come back to his work momentarily.
The anonymous early 13th century author of Perlesvaus wanted to make sure that the reader made the connection with blood at the very outset of the tale, so he declared by way of preamble: “Hear ye the history of the most holy vessel that is called the Grail, in which the precious blood of Jesus was received on the day that He was put on the Cross.”
The importance of the ‘precious’ blood of Jesus is implied in the very first verses of the New Testament. Matthew, chapter 1, verses 1 through 16 identifies the bloodline stretching from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through David and Solomon down to Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.” David and Solomon, both being kings must have borne the ‘royal blood’ as history has shown this to be the prerequisite for kingship throughout almost all ancient cultures. The preeminent position of this dynastic lineage in the New Testament narrative underscores the importance of tracing the royal succession to Jesus, to connect Jesus with the bloodline of the first divinely appointed kings of Israel, even if he was not fathered by Joseph.
“. . . a blood that was deemed to be sacred and invested with magical or miraculous properties”?
In search of insight into this question let us return to the Grail narrative Perceval, le Conte du Graal, (Percival, the story of the Grail) as first presented by Chretien. In his unfinished poem the pagan roots of the Mythos are less obscure than in later accounts. In fact, a Christian context for the Grail is barely discernable.
The poem commences with the story of young man living in the wild forests of Wales with his widowed mother. Initially in the story we do not know that this boys name, only later, as the story progresses do we learn that his name is Perceval. His father had been a great knight who was killed in battle, so his mother, not wanting him to follow in his father’s footsteps, raises him in the wilderness without knowledge of his heritage.
One day, while out hunting with his javelins, he encounters five knights and is so taken with them that he resolves, against his mothers wishes, to follow them to King Arthur’s court and there seek admission to train as a knight. This he does and eventually proves himself by defeating the Red Knight, who had stolen a chalice from King Arthur and shamed the Queen at the same time. After a period of training at Arthur’s court Perceval rides out in search of adventure. He apprentices under an elderly, skilled knight named Gonemans who admonishes him to be temperate in all things including in his speech and discourse. Upon leaving the old knight Perceval encounters two fishermen in a boat and is directed to a nearby castle where he may obtain succor and lodging. It is in this castle that the vision of the Grail unfolds before his awestruck eyes. When he first arrives he is led into a vast hall whereupon a squire presents him with a sword and he is told that it is given “to whom it was adjudged and destined.” Upon the sword it is written that it will never break except in “sore peril.” In the hall, seated upon a couch is an old man. As Perceval reclines another squire enters the hall bearing a white lance from which blood drips. Two more squires enter carrying two-branched candlesticks. They are followed by a beautiful damsel bearing the “graal” which shines with such a brilliant light it overwhelms the light of the candles “as the sun does that of the stars” and is so dazzling Perceval cannot even look directly at it. Finally follows another damsel bearing a beautiful, richly jeweled silver platter. During this “procession of the Grail” Perceval is wonderstruck and desirous of understanding what it all means but, remembering the admonition of Gonemans, he does not speak, nor ask any question regarding the resplendent vision.
In the morning Perceval awakens to find the castle utterly deserted. As he departs across the open drawbridge it suddenly closes almost crushing him and his horse. Once outside the castle he has an encounter with a mysterious damsel in the forest. She tells him that the old man on the couch, the host, was actually the fisherman who first directed him to the castle and that he was a king. (bearer of royal blood) She tells Percival that the king had been wounded through the thighs by the lance and the wounds had not healed. She asks him if he witnessed the procession— the sword, the bleeding lance, the ‘graal’, the silver platter—and if he asked concerning the meaning of what he saw. When she finds out the Perceval remained silent she drops a bombshell on him. She informs him that had he opened his mouth and asked after the meaning of the grail procession, that the fisherman who was a king, would have been healed of his injuries.
After further wanderings Percival encounters another damsel, only this time she is hideously repulsive. She curses him for not asking after the meaning of the lance and the grail and tells him that because of his silence the king still suffers, strife and conflict prevails and the very land itself is degenerating. Perceval vows to find the grail and redeem himself to which end he subsequently wanders for five years. As he does so the curse settles over the land, transforming it into a wasteland, and only if Perceval is successful in his quest to recover the lost Grail will the curse be lifted, the king healed, the land restored and peace and harmony prevail.
So unfolds one version of this complex and remarkable story. I have already exceeded my allotted space so allow me to interrupt the narrative until next month, when I shall continue unveiling the deep mysteries behind this extraordinary symbolism. Until then, for you serious students of Esoterica, note that the items of the Grail procession correspond to the 4 suits of the Tarot cards, the four instruments of the Magus and the four elements of Alchemy. Consider that in each case they carry parallel and complementary meanings. Contemplate on the connection of all this to the blood royal. And ponder deeply on the meaning of the white lance dripping blood, the jewel encrusted platter and a Holy Grail too brilliant to look at.