The Holy Grail has fascinated the Western consciousness for a long time. It is a treasure that serves an important motif in Arthurian legend, which flourished from the 12th to the 16th century, and belongs to the so-called Matter of Britain, associated with Great Britain and the legendary King Arthur, who presided over the knights of the round table. Arthur had obtained the British throne when he removed the sword in the stone, an act that could not be performed except by “the true king.” This sword was later broken in battle, and was replaced by the magical sword Excalibur, which Arthur obtained from the mysterious Lady of the Lake.
This was one of the three great Western story cycles of medieval literature, together with the Matter of France, concerning legends of the emperor Charlemagne, and the Matter of Rome, inspired by classical mythology.
- Perceval and the Grail
- The Continuations of the Grail Legend
- The Grail and The Philosophers’ Stone
- From Grail to Holy Grail
- Holy Grail: The Spirit of Western Man
- The Treasure Hard to Attain
- The Eternally Alone
- The Holy Grail as the Self
- Balancing Light and Dark
- Merlin: The Wise Old Man Archetype
- Recommended Reading
The origins of the Grail legend are uncertain, but most scholars trace them to either Celtic and Welsh myths, Christian legend surrounding the Eucharist, from Oriental tradition, or a combination of these, and other sources. The symbolism of the Grail stories stem from the most divergent sources: religious redemption, fairy tales, dreams, alchemy, and ceremonies.
The Grail is a mysterious object guarded by a king in a hidden castle. It has described as a cup, dish, or a magical stone that can provide healing powers, immortality, eternal youth, and unlimited nourishment. The latter may have been inspired by one of the four treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the people of the godess Danu) in Celtic mythology. It is the cauldron of plenty owned by the Celtic druid-god Dagda. It could feed an entire army without becoming empty, and everyone of good character could eat their fill from this magical cauldron, which was said to be bottomless, and from which no one left unsatisfied.
The etymology of the word “grail” is uncertain. It is usually said to derive from the Old French graal. This, in turn, comes from the Latin gradalis, a cup or platter. The word gradale means “in stages” (hence the word gradual). Moreover, this is borrowed from the ancient Greek krater, a vessel used to mix wine with water. Over time the grail came to refer to a kind of broad platter in which good food was served on in feasts (typically fish), and which was brought to the table at various stages to serve the next course on the menu.
Perceval and the Grail
The idea of the Grail first appears in Perceval, or the Story of the Grail, written in the late 12th century by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes. He is the first to connect the grail to the Arthurian legend. The hero is called Perceval, Parzival or Parsifal, depending on the author. The name “Perceval” likely derives from either Old French per ce val (through this valley) or perce val (pierce the valley), bringing into mind the valley of the shadow of death mentioned in the Book of Psalms.
In the poem, Perceval of Wales has been raised by his mother in the woods alone, far away from the perils of the world. One day, Perceval encounters a group of knights, and he decides to become a knight, much to the dismay of his mother, who tried to guard him from learning about chivalry, for it had led to death of his father and brothers. Unable to prevent his destiny, his mother gives him some personal and spiritual advice. Perceval decides to venture into life and begin his search for knighthood. As he is looking for King Arthur’s court, he meets the Red Knight, who has been causing much trouble. Upon arriving to the King’s court, he is ridiculed, but when he slays the Red Knight, and takes his armour, he gains the approval of the knights, and is instructed in the ways of knighthood by his mentor, Gornemant.
Perceval meets the charming maiden Blanchefleur (white flower), and he is freed from the mother and initiated into the world of experience. He discovers his masculinity and at the same time acquires experience of a real woman. But his desire for adventure forces him to leave. He comes across a man fishing in a boat on a river, known as the Fisher King, who is tasked with guarding the Grail, but a wound on the thighs renders him lame and impotent, and his kingdom is barren. He can barely walk, so he spends his time fishing while he awaits a “chosen one” who can heal him. He invites Perceval to stay at his castle, which suddenly appears before his eyes.
In the night, a strange procession takes place. Several magnificent objects are carried from one chamber to another. A white lance from whose tip dropped blood. Then came golden candelabra, and afterwards a golden grail set with precious stones, which emits such a brilliant light that the lustre of the candles is dimmed. Finally, a silver platter is shown. With each course of the meal, the grail passes before them. Chrétien calls it a grail, and not the grail, which is an important distinction. There was no conception of a singular grail, much less being identified as a holy object. It is also given the same importance as the lance. Through all of this, the Fisher King remains alone, suffering.
Perceval, who had been trained by his mentor not to ask too many questions, for it would be foolish and unknightly, remains silent through all of this. He relies on the chivalric code of knighthood, not knowing that they failed to apply in the loftier realm of the grail. He goes to sleep, and the next morning, he finds himself alone and decides to leave. As he does so, the drawbridge is raised behind him, so that he could not go back. Perceval rides away, and is never able to find the castle again.
He finds a weeping maiden who is holding a headless dead man in her lap. In a way, this is an aspect of Perceval himself, who observed a wonder without using his head or asking about it. The maiden reproaches him because he had not asked whom one served with the grail, which would have healed the king. The truly transformative questions are those we fear we should not ask. She also tells Perceval that his mother has died of grief, which disturbs him deeply.
Perceval returns to King Arthur’s court. He is greeted joyfully, and a feast takes place. On the third day, however, a loathsome damsel, hideous to behold, admonishes him for not asking about the Grail and the Lance. The story breaks off soon after, continuing with the heroic knight Gawain, King Arthur’s closest companion, who is the exemplar of the chivalric code.
In a later short passage, Perceval is shortly spoken of again, and we find him that he has become a lost and broken man. After setting on many adventures and defeating many knights, he is unable to find any meaning or value in knighthood. He finds a hermit in a holy place, and falls on his knees, weeping. He confesses that for five years he did not know what he was doing, and had not a single thought of God. So sorely tired was he, that he wished indeed that he had died. The hermit tells Perceval that his mother’s death had caused this injury, which plagues him unconsciously. The problem is not that he left his mother, but rather that he was unconcerned about her and did not follow her spiritual advice. As such, he was unable to ask about the Lance or the Grail. Therefore, her physical death results in his spiritual death. When the soul is dead, then God is dead too, since it is only in the vessel of the soul that God’s activity becomes perceptible to us.
The holy man catechises the naïve Perceval, who ultimately follows the spiritual path. By struggling with himself, he comes to an understanding of himself. Perceval learns that the hermit is his uncle, and the Fisher King is his cousin (in other versions, he is his uncle). He also learns that the grail did not contain fish, but rather a single communion wafer which miraculously sustains and warms the life of the Fisher King’s father, who is so spiritual that he requires nothing more than this host to live.
The hermit tells him to stay with him, offer penance, fast and pray, as it is Good Friday. Thus, Perceval came to know that God was crucified, and resurrected on the third day, on Easter Sunday. He received communion with a pure heart. And here the tale says no more of Perceval.
This may have been the Grail itself, which he found within himself, through catechesis, fasting, praying, and receiving communion. Thus, he attains theosis or union with God. It would be misleading, however, not to mention that Perceval went on many misguided adventures, made wrong turns in the woods, and didn’t ask the right questions. All of these adventures are explored and given their true place. As we all know, the journey is not a straight line.
The Continuations of the Grail Legend
Multiple different poets who considered the poem incomplete, created a series of continuations. After a long time of wandering, Perceval revisits the hidden Grail Castle and asks the Fisher King the ultimate question: “whom does one serve with the Grail?” Immediately, the king is healed from his sickness, and peace and happiness reigned over the land. With this, the Fisher King departs the world, and leaves Perceval behind as the keeper of the Grail. But before he leaves, he tells Perceval about Christ and imparts secret words to him, of which the author emphasises that he cannot and dare not speak.
The Welsh romance Peredur son of Efrawg, is similar to Chrétien’s version, though it contains many Celtic elements. Most strikingly, however, there is no grail, the hero is instead presented with a silver platter containing the severed head of his kinsman, who has to be avenged.
The Grail and The Philosophers’ Stone
The knight-poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, regarded as one of the greatest poets of medieval German literature, wrote the poem Parzival in the beginning of the 13th century, which continues the physical and spiritual search of the Grail. This version is the most esoteric and spiritual of all.
Wolfram declares that the Grail came into existence astrologically, by the heathen astronomer Flegetanis, who had discovered the hidden mystery in the constellations and then recorded it in writing. All human nature is determined by the journey of the stars. Interestingly, here the grail is described as a stone which fell from the skies, left behind on earth and guarded by the neutral angels who took neither the side of Satan nor God, during the War in Heaven. It is therefore those angels who were opposed to the rendering apart of the opposites of good and evil, and sought to maintain a state of balance, in order to keep the original unity of the God-image, who now watch over the Grail. The Grail receives its power by a wafer brought from heaven by a dove (the holy spirit), on every Good Friday.
It was around this time too, that the doctrine of transubstantiation became widespread, in which bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ during communion.
Wolfram’s Grail has strong links with the lapis philosophorum (the philosophers’ stone) in alchemy, which also contains a light-dark unity, identified with the Roman god Mercurius. This is the stone by whose power the phoenix rises in rebirth from its ashes. It contains the power to turn death into life. A well-known feature of the lapis is that it is worthless, usually thrown out on to the dunghill or trodden underfoot in the street. It is despised by fools, and cherished by the wise. In filth, it will be found.
One of the founders of alchemy, Maria Prophetissa, who lived around A.D. 200 or 300, stated that “the whole secret lies in knowing about the Hermetic vessel.” Thus, the idea of a vessel that contains the secret of all existence is a primal image, which goes back to the earliest of times and can therefore be called an archetypal conception.
In this version, Parzival wears the red knight’s armour and fights his black and white half-brother Feirefiz. Then Feirefiz realises:
“We were all one… You have fought here against yourself; against myself I rode into combat here and would gladly have killed my very self; you could not help but defend my own self in fighting me… Your strength helped us so that it prevented our deaths!”
Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival Book XV
The transformative struggle between the two, who are one, calls into mind the alchemical stages: the nigredo (blackness), the albedo (whiteness), and the rubedo (redness). The combination and unity of these stages concludes the Great Work, and the attainment of the philosophers’ stone.
From Grail to Holy Grail
The Grail became truly holy in the work of French author Robert de Boron, from which the secular world of knighthood was linked with the spiritual world of religion. Emphasis shifted from the characters and their adventures and moved to the object of the Grail itself. His most notable work is his trilogy: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, and Perceval.
In Joseph of Arimathea, composed in the late 12th century, de Boron tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who took the body of Christ down from the cross. The grail is described as a simple wooden cup or bowl that Jesus had used at the Last Supper with his disciples, to initiate the first ever communion. Jesus told his disciples to remember him by sharing bread and wine, his body and blood.
When Christ’s body hung from the cross, Joseph used the grail to collect Christ’s last drops of blood, after His side was pierced by a lance, known as the Holy Lance or Lance of Longinus.
Joseph takes Christ’s body, wraps it in a fine cloth, and lays it in a sarcophagus, which he then conceals, so that nobody would be able to steal the body. After people realise this, he is thrown into a dungeon. Here, he is visited by Christ himself who hands him the vessel containing his blood, which contains the Three Powers that are One (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). Christ teaches Joseph secret words that cannot be repeated, and the vessel maintains him in life during the forty-two years he still has to remain in captivity.
A later legend tells of Joseph travelling to the West, to Glastonbury, England, which is connected with the mystical island of Avalon in Arthurian legend, bringing with him the vessel containing the blood of Christ, which was supposedly hid at the bottom of the Chalice Well. The high iron content of the water makes it appear red, like blood. To the people in the Middle Ages, it wouldn’t have taken much of a stretch of the imagination to connect it with the blood of Christ.
This location is believed to be a mysterious and liminal place, where the spirit world meets the material world, and has become a hotspot for new age spiritual movements, whose followers believe that the Grail remains hidden there, yet to be found.
On the other hand, many claim to already possess the original grail which Jesus used at the Last Supper. Most popularly, the agate cup known as Santo Cáliz or Holy Chalice from the 1st century AD, preserved in the Cathedral of Valencia, and the green glass dish called the Sacro Catino or Sacred Basin from the 9th or 10th century, kept in Genoa Cathedral.
The Grail holds blood, and so does our heart. It is the pure heart that is illumined by influences from above. And one’s heart becomes pure through piety. No one is perfect, nor should we strive to be, but the Grail distinguishes between good people and sinners, and its beneficial effects are bestowed upon the former. We must, then, do our best to move away from sin, from missing the mark. To sin is to walk on the way that is broad and leads to destruction, which many enter through. But the gateway to salvation is narrow, and few enter through it. The pure person is weightless like a feather, and can walk on the sacred and lightly built bridge. Those who cross the bridge, will experience the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Unless our hearts are pure and illumined, we are going to be crippled, just like the Fisher King, and live in a waste land, both within and without. The motif of the Waste Land is taken up by British poet T.S. Eliot, in his poem of the same name, widely considered as the greatest poem of the 20th century. Near the end of his poem, a mysterious Fisher King figure states:
“I sat upon the shore Fishing,
with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?”
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
We are never going to fix the desolation around us, if we don’t fix the desolation within us. We are always worried about the world, but haven’t even set our own lands in order.
In an Old Irish tale, the crystal vessel of Badurn had the peculiarity that when someone spoke three lying words it divided itself into three parts, and when anyone uttered three true words the pieces united again. Through disintegration the vessel indicated that a lie was being told, and through unification it bore witness to the truth, as a way to illustrate how our soul is similarly affected by our words. He who lies deceives himself and disintegrates in the process, whereas he who tells the truth heals his soul and makes it whole.
The soul which represents the life principle, is that wondrous vessel which is the goal of the quest, whose final secret can never be revealed, but must ever remain hidden because its essence is a mystery.
Subsequent authors used the Grail as a symbol of divine grace; and a new hero is introduced in what is known as the Vulgate Cycle or the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Galahad, son of Sir Lancelot, is the world’s greatest and holiest knight, destined to achieve the Holy Grail. Merlin, the magician, prophesised, before Galahad’s birth, that he would be successful in his search for the Holy Grail. Sir Galahad is associated with a white shield containing a vermilion cross, the same emblem given to the Knights Templar.
Thomas Malory’s The Death of Arthur was published in the 15th century and is perhaps the best-known work of Arthurian literature. All the greatest knights attempt to draw the sword in the stone, but only Galahad can draw it, so he becomes a knight of the round table. A woman then appears to tell King Arthur and the knights that the Holy Grail will appear to them that night. Indeed, that very night, it appears to the knights, and radiates a sweet fragrance. Although it is hidden by a cloth, its bright presence makes everyone look stronger and younger. Then, it vanishes.
The story follows the adventures of several knights in the quest for the holy grail, but most of them fail, because of their secular character, which binds them to worldly matters. Galahad is accompanied by two other knights, Perceval and Bors the Younger, who go onboard a mystical ship, which sets sail by itself to an island. It is Galahad, the main hero, who finally attains the Grail, because of his piety and purity, the two other knights also witness the Grail, but are blinded by the light surrounding it. They have not yet fulfilled their spiritual task, and there is no shortcut to enlightenment. One must beware of unearned wisdom. Galahad dies, ascends to heaven, and returns to God. Perceval gives up his knighthood and becomes a monk, while Bors alone returns to Camelot to tell his tale.
These three knights of the round table were seeking for something that we all hold in common, that which makes life most meaningful, and which they would dedicate the remainder of their lives to, in order to attain spiritual fulfilment. However, not everyone can handle witnessing this mystery, as its bright light is too pure for a person to witness. No one may see the face of God and live.
Ever since then, there has never been any knight capable of obtaining the Holy Grail. For the prophecy had been fulfilled, and the Holy Grail was carried off to heaven. A fundamental ontological change has occurred in human history, something that we used to have access to, no longer becomes accessible. We have lost touch with the mystery.
The Grail quest is an idea of such an archetypal, and consequently, universally human nature, that it is interesting to see precisely how the fantasy of the different authors reacted to the same material. Thanks to this “united effort”, different aspects of the material are illuminated and a more profound and comprehensive understanding is made possible than if the poem had remained the work of a single author.
This search has fascinated the Western psyche for such a long time, that fact has almost become indistinguishable from fiction. Though the story is likely nonhistorical, it expresses such a fundamental human truth that it keeps reappearing.
The Grail legend contains many features found in myths and fairy-tales, which are perennial and timeless patterns that express fundamental concerns of the human condition. The story of young Perceval belongs to the world-wide fairy tale theme of the simpleton, in which the youngest or most foolish brother gains the “treasure hard to attain”. The man who has nothing receives everything, which is usually the result of his continuous purity, humility, and piety. Perceval is the young fool whose task of attaining the holy grail transforms into a mystical religious quest, that inevitably address the existential, psychological and religious problem of modern man.
Holy Grail: The Spirit of Western Man
In his book Thou Art That, American author Joseph Campbell states that the Holy Grail epitomises the true spirit of Western man. It is the myth of Western civilisation. When the Grail appeared to the knights. Everyone was exalted, Gawain, rose and suggested a vow. “I propose,” he said, “that we all now set forth in quest to behold that Grail unveiled.” And so it was that they agreed. However, they thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the forest at the point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest, and there was no way or path. Because where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. In other words, if we do not find our own individual path, we cannot become self-realised. For Campbell, this is what marks the Western spirit distinctly from the Eastern Oriental gurus accept responsibility for their disciples’ lives, and tell you where you are on the path, who you are, and what to do. The romantic quality of the West, on the other hand, derives from an unprecedented yearning, a yearning for something that has never yet been seen in this world. And that is your own unprecedented life fulfilled. Your life is what has yet to be brought into being. Awe is what moves us forward.
The Treasure Hard to Attain
The quest for the Holy Grail is always more or less the same, it is the hero’s journey, at the end of which one obtains the “treasure hard to attain.” The hero figure is one of those eternal, archetypal images which slumber in the depths of every soul and which determine human life and destiny in unsuspected measure.
Spiritual movements such as secret orders, anthroposophy and other esoteric circles, felt that the Christian mystery was unsatisfactory and searched for another mystery. The Grail quest became the subject of meditation or of initiation into the mystery teachings of all ages. From its place of concealment, the Grail still calls seekers to the quest and knights still set out upon the way to the hidden castle, where the treasure is preserved.
Naturally the Grail Castle cannot be localised in reality, and this is certainly in accord with its essential nature and therefore in no way remarkable. Many who search for the Holy Grail have come to the conclusion that the search is fruitless. That they would never be able to find an object in this world that would fulfill the requirements of this mystery. It is not of the material world, yet it exists. It is a quest that requires an individual effort. It is the soul of man searching for the eternal soul in life. Those who have attained this are part of an internal illumination, and not an organisation.
The Eternally Alone
The way to truth is a journey of a lonely person to that which is eternally alone. It is in this state that one is forced upon oneself, bound to become aware of one’s background. It is this aloneness that is the power of the Grail. Each individual has to call entirely upon his own internal resources. One must dedicate oneself to a sacred purpose, and purify one’s own nature by a vow taken to the highest part of oneself, moving from the struggle of one’s sinful nature, to the enlightenment of one’s inner soul. This leads to tranquility, peace with reality. An acceptance of oneself and one’s flaws, of one’s place in the world, and of one’s spiritual duty.
Contemplation and quietude enable the individual to allow the best of his or her own inner life to come through. For the undisciplined person, however, relaxation ends in disorientation and misery, as he is assaulted by his own defects and negative thoughts. One has not yet conquered these hidden shadowy parts of oneself, and no rest is given until one does. The disciplined person relaxes and is quiet. He is in peace with life and himself, for he knows the inevitable problems that we all have to face in life, and which we must learn from. He understands that his greatest enemy has always been himself, and until he conquers that he can go no further. Until he does so, he will see himself as a victim of the trials and tribulations of life, which adds to the burden of his own unconscious.
The Holy Grail as the Self
The Holy Grail is a symbol of the Self, the psychic totality and ultimate wholeness of the human being. It is the vital force that drives us towards individuation, the process of bringing one’s unconscious contents into consciousness. If we are not trying to become whole, we are cut off from the true source of our being, and we feel empty. Encountering the Grail does not impart direct knowledge, but rather gives us an emotional readiness to receive a numinous experience of our inner centre. The Grail story is itself a projection of the Self as an inner centre, unrealised and inaccessible to most. It is the inner guide that is God’s voice, the hidden disposition to wholeness which slumbers in the depths of the unconscious of each person.
The connections between the Grail legend and alchemy are so abundant and profound that it may well be asked why Carl Jung did not include them in his researches into the psychology of alchemy. The reason was that he promised never to talk or write about the Grail, as his wife, Emma Jung, spent thirty years of her life researching the topic. However, she died before she could finish and publish her work, and Jung asked Marie-Louise von Franz, one of his greatest students, to complete his wife’s lifelong endeavour, finally published as The Grail Legend.
Balancing Light and Dark
Psychologically, the Grail story is of great interest, as it is both a fairy tale (the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes), interwoven with a Christian legend. This remarkable blend gives the Grail stories their peculiar character, for through these stories the “eternal” fairy tale enters, as it were, the realm of the Christian aeon, and thus reflects not only fundamental human problems but also the dramatic psychic events which form the background of Christian culture.
The problem of Christianity resides in the one-sided masculine and light side of God embodied in Christ, which created a drifting apart of the opposites of spiritual matters and worldly matters, choosing holiness instead of humanity. This had to be complemented by a feminine and dark side to represent the paradoxical wholeness of the Self. The sacred must be complemented with daily life, the spiritual with the material.
The problem of opposites and the failure to recognise and integrate the shadow (all that is within us that we do not know about) were responsible for the Fisher King’s sickness (who represented the dominant attitude or collective unconscious). Thus, he had to die or be restored and redeemed before the land could again turn fertile.
It is as if the dark aspect of divinity had attacked the king in order to awaken him to a more conscious religious attitude. If there is any one-sidedness to a pair, a conversion, or shift over to the other is likely. This is the fundamental psychological law of enantiodromia. Until we grapple with the dark divinity – like Jacob and Job who wrestled with God – the collective unconscious of mankind cannot come to a realisation of the totality of the God-image.
Emma Jung and von Franz write:
“The natural symbols of psychic wholeness, or the Self, do not fully coincide empirically with the traditional figure of Christ, since the shadow is missing in the latter or else appears split off into the contrasting figure of the Antichrist. In alchemy, on the other hand, the image of Anthropos (or of the Son of Man) was continually amplified since its earliest appearances and in the image of the lapis and of Mercurius was expanded into a paradoxical symbol of the Self in which the opposites were reconciled.”
Emma Jung and M.L. von Franz, The Grail Legend
Medieval alchemy represented an undercurrent that compensated and supplemented the deficiencies and the conflicts in Christianity. For this reason, many alchemists themselves compared the lapis to Christ, setting them up as parallels to him, and in so doing felt unconsciously that their work was a continuation of Christ’s work of redemption.
The return to Celtic myth and other ancient symbolism, as well as the apocryphal traditions of early Christianity present in the Grail legend, seek to complete the Christ-image by the addition of features which had not been taken sufficiently into account by ecclesiastical tradition. Perceval is thus not only a symbolic representation of the foolish hero, but also represents the problem of the psychological development of the Christian age, in which he appears as the archetype of the saviour. Perceval, like the alchemists, is also called to a specific work of redemption, in order to compensate the Christ-image then dominating the collective unconscious. Thus, Perceval appears as a projection of the true and total man or the divine component in man (the Self), which gradually emerges from the depth of the unconscious and releases areas of the psyche previously cut off from life.
Merlin: The Wise Old Man Archetype
The figure of Merlin, the archetype of the Wise Old Man, plays an important role in the union of opposites as well, and has inspired a vast amount of literature. It is a case of the breakthrough of an archetypal image which represents and intensely constellated psychic content.
In Robert de Boron’s work Merlin, Christ descends into Hell and releases Adam and Eve, the devils become wrathful and try to entice men back to hell, so they send a prophet up from hell, Merlin, the child of a devil or incubus that impregnates a pure young girl. He is to be the counterpart of the Son of God, the Antichrist. However, the light side which comes from his mother ultimately makes him pledge himself to Christ. Thus, Merlin has both knowledge of the past because of his demonic nature, but also knowledge of the future, which Christ endowed him with.
Like the alchemical Mercurius, he is an embodiment of the whole man, a figure that unites Christ, the light half of the Self, with its dark half, the Antichrist, in one being.
Though Merlin’s role is crucial in the Grail legend, acting as the counsellor to King Arthur, he remains for the most part hidden in the background, giving him a mysterious quality like the Holy Grail. As the Antichrist, Merlin symbolises the Deus absconditus (the hidden God), and as such, the dark element that would complete the Trinity by expanding it into a Quaternity, thus fulfilling the saying of Maria Prophetissa, “out of the third comes the one as the fourth.”
In the story, there is a red dragon and a white dragon who fight underneath the kingdom, relating to the problem of the opposites, which is unconscious, a problem of which the people of the time were unaware of, but which they felt nonetheless. In alchemy, however, these opposites should be united, since red and white are the colours of King and Queen, Sun and Moon, who come together in the “chymical wedding”. Something is therefore separated which in nature should be united; and it is Merlin who points this out.
However, as is potrayed in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin), the wizard withdraws into the forest, away from society, because he has gone mad. He lives like a wild animal, and when he is brought back to the world of men, his madness breaks out anew, despairing of the stupidity of men who are unable to see their unconsciousness and inner conflict. So, he remains in the forest. His sister builds him a house with seventy windows in the forest, where he can devote himself to his astronomical observations in the cold winters, exploring the stars and singing about future happenings.
In Perceval, the final part of de Boron’s trilogy, it is Merlin who tries to lead Perceval towards a new totality, and asserts that it is he who is the mysterious instigator of Perceval’s quest. Merlin is the mystery of the Grail. Eventually, he bids Perceval farewell, because it is God’s will that henceforth, he shall appear no more before men. Merlin’s seclusion portrays a mystery of the individual which cannot be realised collectively but which, pointing the way and bringing illumination, comes from time to time to the assistance of other solitary individuals. With the final disappearance of Merlin, the Grail legend comes to an end.
The Grail represents the fulfilment of the highest spiritual potentialities in human consciousness, which endows the world with a symbolic and spiritual meaning. This comes from nature itself. Spiritual life comes from living a natural life, the impulses of nature are what give authenticity to life, rather than a supernatural thing imposed upon us. We must, then, not only strive upwards, to the eternal, and remain there, but bring back the divine into this temporal world. As above, so below. The kingdom of heaven is within. Sometimes, the simplest things in life are the most spiritual in nature. The loftiest ideas should not distract us from our daily concerns in life, but help us to enrich our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with the world.
The Holy Grail, Merlin, the philosopher’s stone, and Christ, are all different expressions of the principle of individuation available within each person, which naturally strives towards the wholeness of the Self, whereby the opposites are reconciled and united. It is good to win; it is also good to lose. It is good to be happy; it is also good to be unhappy. It is good to have; it is also good not to have. The inner war of opposites converts into the miracle of the paradox that sustains human life.
It is the quest rather than the Holy Grail which brings the gift of ultimate enlightenment. In the end, what matters is the journey not the end. Wherever we travel, whatever we do, and whichever age we live in, this is a journey open to us all: to quest for meaning in our lives.
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The Quest for the Holy Grail (The Self)
The Quest for the Holy Grail has fascinated the Western consciousness for a long time. It epitomises the true spirit of Western man and is, in many ways, the myth of Western civilisation. It is a perennial and timeless pattern that expresses fundamental concerns of the human condition.