Previous articles in this series
This article is the third in a series explicitly addressing the meaning of one of the most potent of magical symbols, the Holy Grail. I hope you have read the previous two from the months of May and June in order to pick up the thread of the narrative. If you have not read them, or have gotten hazy about the details you can find them, along with several other articles written for The Oracle at Sacred Geometry International.com.
In part two last month I made this claim “The Grail is a symbol for a lost technology of individual, social and planetary regeneration.” This claim comes from a reading of the texts themselves. As mentioned the texts are extensive and initially quite confusing. Characters appear and disappear; they seem at times to morph into one another in almost dreamlike fashion. The Grail itself is protean in nature, assuming various forms throughout the different narratives. Of course the image most frequently associated with the Grail is that of a cup or chalice. I would suggest that the cup is but a symbol for a primary function of the Grail, which is that of a receptacle.
The image of Grail as chalice comes from the writings of Robert de Boron, a French poet who lived in the latter part of the 12th and early part of the 13th centuries. In his work Joseph d’Arimathe and Merlin de Boron is the first to present the Grail in a specifically Christian context, describing it as the vessel from which Jesus drank at the last supper and which Joseph used to catch the his blood and sweat as he hung upon the cross. This cup was later conveyed by Joseph to the valleys of Avalon, in England, where he established the first Christian church at the site of Glastonbury. Here Joseph and his twelve disciples founded a dynasty whose purpose was to guard the Grail until the rise of King Arthur over 4 centuries later.
In the Gospel of Nicodemus details of Joseph’s post-crucifixion exploits are described. In that account Joseph is imprisoned by Jewish elders, angry that he has retrieved and buried the body of Christ. A seal is set upon the door of his cell and a guard placed to insure that he remains incarcerated. However, with the aid of Jesus he affects a miraculous escape. Joseph later reconciles with the Jewish elders who apparently realize that his remarkable escape signifies the involvement of higher powers. In Joseph d’ Arimathe de Boron describes the Grail in terms echoing earlier Celtic traditions of a cauldron of plenty that provides nourishment and sustenance to the worthy, for during his captivity Joseph is miraculously sustained and nourished by the Grail.
Students of the Mysteries, occultists and Hermetic Philosophers understand that the archaic wisdom is preserved and transmitted in one form as a special language, an argot or slang which only Initiates can understand. This language has been called by many names: The Language of the Birds, the Language of Diplomats, the language of the Gods, or of the Angels, langue verte or green language, and the Adamic language. It is reputed to be the language spoken before the fall of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues. It was especially employed by Alchemists to conceal their mysteries, and according to tradition was used by Kabbalists, Renaissance magicians, and Sufis, among others and most likely traces its origins back to ancient Egypt, and perhaps beyond. It provided the principal means by which the Troubadours, those mystical purveyors of Sacred Knowledge, could communicate classified information without the awareness of the uninitiated. It could be either spoken or written. It was based upon the use of puns, homophones, etymological derivations, and the use of numbers and symbols to provide alternative meanings to words, phrases and names than the superficially apparent ones. These alternate meanings could then be substituted yielding hidden teachings. Elements of this mysterious language were definitely employed by the authors of the Grail Romances and it provides indispensable insight into the concealed meanings of the Grail symbolism.
An valuable example of its use was provided by French author Louis Charpentier in The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, (trans. from Fr. By Ronald Fraser, Avon Books, 1966) in describing the origins of the term Grail. He writes
“Its origin is not, for all that, certainly Celtic. It may well be very much earlier. I believe that this word derives from the root “Car,” or “Gar,” which has the meaning of “stone.” The Gar-al, or Gar-el, the urn that contains the stone or the stone urn (Gar-al), say, the Stone of God (Gar-el).
The two etymologies are in fact very close. In the first case, we should be concerned with a vessel in which the stone “becomes;” in the second, with the “Stone” itself. The symbol is unquestionably alchemical.”
Two things should be noted, in Biblical Hebrew and other ancient tongues the word al or el is a name for God, as in El-ohim, the creator gods of Genesis. The second thing is that the goal or summum bonum of the Alchemical quest is the Philosophers Stone, the means for concocting the Universal Medicine with which extraordinary restorative or regenerative effects are conferred upon the alchemist. Here we can begin to get the sense that the Grail mythos and the obscure symbolism of alchemy are inextricably intertwined.
Charpentier goes on to say:
“In practice we cannot separate the word “Grail” from the word “Cauldron.” In early Celtic times it was in the Cauldron (caldron) of Lug that “universal medicines” were cooked over a special fire . . . Grail is a Celtic word; but one comes across the legend of the sacred cup under other names in other places and times. Melchisedek is represented in the north door of Chartres, known as the door of the Initiates, holding a cup that he hands to Abraham and from which the Stone protrudes . . . Under whatever name, it invariably designates a vessel whose contents are taking their part of divinity; are penetrated with it; are in the process of transmutation.”
Transmutation, of course, is the fundamental process of Alchemy. In Parzival , a major Grail romance written in Middle High German by the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, the restorative powers of the Grail are described. Wolfram’s work came subsequent to and was heavily influenced by Chretien’s Perceval. This work centers on Percival (in English) and his laborious, protracted quest for the Holy Grail in his effort to restore the debilitated king and the wasteland. It must be borne in mind that this quest is both a physical and a spiritual quest. Wolfram writes about the guardians of the Grail and of its rejuvenating powers:
“It is well known to me that many brave knights dwell with the Grail at Munsalvaesche. Always, when they ride out, as they often do, it is to seek adventure. They do so for their sins, these Templars, whether their reward by defeat or victory. A valiant host lives there, and I will tell you how they are sustained, They live from a stone of the purest essence…It is called Lapis Exilis. By the power of this stone the Phoenix is burned to ashes, but from the ashes she is reborn. Thus does the Phoenix moult and change her plumage, which afterward is bright and shining and lovely as before. This stone confers such powers on mortal men, so that their flesh and bones are made young again. The stone is called the Grail, and it is unknown, save to those who are singled out by name to join the company of the Munsalvaesche…”
The linking of the Grail Knights and the Templars is highly significant. The use of the term Lapis Exilis as a name for the Grail provides another example of the use of the Language of the Birds and a profoundly important clue as to the hidden meanings within the Grail symbol. In their best selling 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Michael Baigent; Richard Henry Leigh and Henry Lincoln. Delacourt Press, p. 268) the authors elaborate upon the meaning of Lapis Exilis and further reinforce the association with Alchemy.
“According to Wolfram, then, the Grail is a stone of some kind. But such a definition of the Grail is far more provocative than satisfying. Scholars have suggested a number of interpretations of the phrase “lapsit exillis,” all of which are more or less plausible. “Lapsit exillis” might be a corruption of lapis ex caelis― “stone from the heavens”; or of lapis lapsus ex caelis― “a stone fallen from the heaven” or finally, of lapis elixir― the fabulous Philosophers Stone of alchemy…the whole of Wolfram’s poem…is laden with alchemical symbolism. The phoenix, for example, is established alchemical shorthand for resurrection or rebirth― and also, in medieval iconography, is an emblem of the dying and resurrected Jesus.”
In the context of the articles written over the last five issues the idea of a “stone fallen from heaven” should attract your attention. The various strands of symbolism — stones fallen from heaven, dragons, the phoenix, the universal medicine, the divine king, and holy blood, are hopefully beginning to suggestively intertwine, revealing a powerful and potent image of a lost art and a science forgotten, which, in the words of John Michell “must be found and invoked again for the redemption of life on earth.