From Ritual to Romance

From Ritual to Romance  (1921) 
by Jessie Laidlay Weston

In the introductory Chapter the reader will find the aim and object of these studies set forth at length. In view of the importance and complexity of the problems involved it seemed better to incorporate such a statement in the book itself, rather than relegate it to a Preface which all might not trouble to read. Yet I feel that such a general statement does not adequately express my full debt of obligation.

Among the many whose labour has been laid under contribution in the following pages there are certain scholars whose published work, or personal advice, has been specially illuminating, and to whom specific acknowledgment is therefore due. Like many others I owe to Sir J. G. Frazer the initial inspiration which set me, as I may truly say, on the road to the Grail Castle. Without the guidance of The Golden Bough I should probably, as the late M. Gaston Paris happily expressed it, still be wandering in the forest of Broceliande!

During the Bayreuth Festival of 1911 I had frequent opportunities of meeting, and discussion with, Professor von Schroeder. I owe to him not only the introduction to his own work, which I found most helpful, but references which have been of the greatest assistance; e.g. my knowledge of Cumont's Les Religions Orientales, and Scheftelowitz's valuable study on Fish Symbolism, both of which have furnished important links in the chain of evidence, is due to Professor von Schroeder.

The perusal of Miss J. E. Harrison's Themis opened my eyes to the extended importance of these Vegetation rites. In view of the evidence there adduced I asked myself whether beliefs which had found expression not only in social institution, and popular custom, but, as set forth in Sir G. Murray's study on Greek Dramatic Origins, attached to the work, also in Drama and Literature, might not reasonably—even inevitably—be expected to have left their mark on Romance? The one seemed to me a necessary corollary of the other, and I felt that I had gained, as the result of Miss Harrison's work, a wider, and more assured basis for my own researches. I was no longer engaged merely in enquiring into the sources of a fascinating legend, but on the identification of another field of activity for forces whose potency as agents of evolution we were only now beginning rightly to appreciate.

Finally, a casual reference, in Anrich's work on the Mysteries, to the Naassene Document, caused me to apply to Mr G. R. S. Mead, of whose knowledge of the mysterious border-land between Christianity and Paganism, and willingness to place that knowledge at the disposal of others, I had, for some years past, had pleasant experience. Mr Mead referred me to his own translation and analysis of the text in question, and there, to my satisfaction, I found, not only the final link that completed the chain of evolution from Pagan Mystery to Christian Ceremonial, but also proof of that wider significance I was beginning to apprehend. The problem involved was not one of Folk-lore, not even one of Literature, but of Comparative Religion in its widest sense.

Thus, while I trust that my co-workers in the field of Arthurian research will accept these studies as a permanent contribution to the elucidation of the Grail problem, I would fain hope that those scholars who labour in a wider field, and to whose works I owe so much, may find in the results here set forth elements that may prove of real value in the study of the evolution of religious belief.

J. L. W.

Paris, October, 1919.




Nature of the Grail problem. Unsatisfactory character of results achieved. Objections to Christian Legendary origin; to Folk-lore origin. Elements in both theories sound. Solution to be sought in a direction which will do justice to both. Sir J. G. Frazer's Golden Bough indicates possible line of research. Sir W. Ridgeway's criticism of Vegetation theory examined. Dramas and Dramatic Dances. The Living and not the Dead King the factor of importance. Impossibility of proving human origin for Vegetation Deities. Not Death but Resurrection the essential centre of Ritual. Muharram too late in date and lacks Resurrection feature. Relation between defunct heroes and special localities. Sanctity possibly antecedent to connection. Mana not necessarily a case of relics. Self-acting weapons frequent in Medieval Romance. Sir J. G. Frazer's theory holds good. Remarks on method and design of present Studies.

The Task of the Hero

Essential to determine the original nature of the task imposed upon the hero. Versions examined. The Gawain forms—Bleheris, Diu Crone. Perceval versions—Gerbert, prose Perceval, Chretien de Troyes, Perlesvaus, Manessier, Peredur, Parzival. Galahad—Queste. Result, primary task healing of Fisher King and removal of curse of Waste Land. The two inter-dependent. Illness of King entails misfortune on Land. Enquiry into nature of King's disability. Sone de Nansai. For elucidation of problem necessary to bear in mind close connection between Land and Ruler. Importance of Waste Land motif for criticism.

The Freeing of the Waters

Enquiry may commence with early Aryan tradition. The Rig-Veda. Extreme importance assigned to Indra's feat of "Freeing the Waters." This also specific achievement of Grail heroes. Extracts from Rig-Veda. Dramatic poems and monologues. Professor von Schroeder's theory. Mysterium und Mimus. Rishyacringa drama. Parallels with Perceval story. Result, the specific task of the Grail hero not a literary invention but an inheritance of Aryan tradition.

Tammuz and Adonis

General objects to be attained by these Nature Cults. Stimulation of Fertility, Animal and Vegetable. Principle of Life ultimately conceived of in anthropomorphic form. This process already advanced in Rig-Veda. Greek Mythology preserves intermediate stage. The Eniautos Daimon. Tammuz—earliest known representative of Dying God. Character of the worship. Origin of the name. Lament for Tammuz. His death affects not only Vegetable but Animal life. Lack of artistic representation of Mysteries. Mr Langdon's suggestion. Ritual possibly dramatic. Summary of evidence. Adonis—Phoenician-Greek equivalent of Tammuz. Probably most popular and best known form of Nature Cult. Mythological tale of Adonis. Enquiry into nature of injury. Importance of recognizing true nature of these cults and of the ritual observed. Varying dates of celebration. Adonis probably originally Eniautos Daimon. Principle of Life in general, hence lack of fixity in date. Details of the ritual. Parallels with the Grail legend examined. Dead Knight or Disabled King. Consequent misfortunes of Land. The Weeping Women. The Hairless Maiden. Position of Castle. Summing up. Can incidents of such remote antiquity be used as criticism for a Medieval text?

Medieval and Modern Forms of Nature Ritual

Is it possible to establish chain of descent connecting early Aryan and Babylonian Ritual with Classic, Medieval and Modern forms of Nature worship? Survival of Adonis cult established. Evidence of Mannhardt and Frazer. Existing Continental customs recognized as survivals of ancient beliefs. Instances. 'Directly related' to Attis-Adonis cult. Von Schroeder establishes parallel between existing Fertility procession and Rig-Veda poem. Identification of Life Principle with King. Prosperity of land dependent on king as representative of god. Celts. Greeks. Modern instances, the Shilluk Kings. Parallel between Shilluk King, Grail King and Vegetation Deity. Sone de Nansai and the Lament for Tammuz. Identity of situation. Plea for unprejudiced criticism. Impossibility of such parallels being fortuitous; the result of deliberate intention, not an accident of literary invention. If identity of central character be admitted his relation to Waste Land becomes fundamental factor in criticizing versions. Another African survival.

The Symbols

Summary of results of previous enquiry. The Medieval Stage. Grail romances probably contain record of secret ritual of a Fertility cult. The Symbols of the cult—Cup, Lance, Sword, Stone, or Dish. Plea for treating Symbols as a related group not as isolated units. Failure to do so probably cause of unsatisfactory result of long research. Essential to recognize Grail story as an original whole and to treat it in its ensemble aspect. We must differentiate between origin and accretion. Instances. The Legend of Longinus. Lance and Cup not associated in Christian Art. Evidence. The Spear of Eastern Liturgies only a Knife. The Bleeding Lance. Treasures of the Tuatha de Danann. Correspond as a group with Grail Symbols. Difficulty of equating Cauldron-Grail. Probably belong to a different line of tradition. Instances given. Real significance of Lance and Cup. Well known as Life Symbols. The Samurai. Four Symbols also preserved as Suits of the Tarot. Origin of Tarot discussed. Probably reached Europe from the East. Use of the Symbols in Magic. Probable explanation of these various appearances to be found in fact that associated group were at one time symbols of a Fertility cult. Further evidence to be examined.

The Sword Dance

Relation of Sword Dance, Morris Dance, and Mumming Play. Their Ceremonial origin now admitted by scholars. Connected with seasonal Festivals and Fertility Ritual. Earliest Sword Dancers, the Maruts. Von Schroeder, Mysterium und Mimus. Discussion of their nature and functions. The Kouretes. Character of their dance. Miss J. E. Harrison, Themis. The Korybantes. Dance probably sacrificial in origin. The Salii. Dramatic element in their dance. Mars, as Fertility god. Mamurius Veturius. Anna Perenna. Character of dance seasonal. Modern British survivals. The Sword Dance. Mostly preserved in North. Variants. Mr E. K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage. The Mumming Plays. Description. Characters. Recognized as representing Death and Revival of Vegetation Deity. Dr Jevons, Masks and the Origin of the Greek Drama. Morris Dances. No dramatic element. Costume of character significant. Possible survival of theriomorphic origin. Elaborate character of figures in each group. Symbols employed. The Pentangle. The Chalice. Present form shows dislocation. Probability that three groups were once a combined whole and Symbols united. Evidence strengthens view advanced in last Chapter. Symbols originally a group connected with lost form of Fertility Ritual. Possible origin of Grail Knights to be found in Sword Dancers.

The Medicine Man

The role of the Medicine Man, or Doctor in Fertility Ritual. Its importance and antiquity. The Rig-Veda poem. Classical evidence, Mr F. Cornford. Traces of Medicine Man in the Grail romances. Gawain as Healer. Persistent tradition. Possible survival from pre-literary form. Evidence of the Triads. Peredur as Healer. Evolution of theme. Le Dist de l'Erberie.

The Fisher King

Summary of evidence presented. Need of a 'test' element. To be found in central figure. Mystery of his title. Analysis of variants. Gawain version. Perceval version. Borron alone attempts explanation of title. Parzival. Perlesvaus. Queste. Grand Saint Graal. Comparison with surviving ritual variants. Original form King dead, and restored to life. Old Age and Wounding themes. Legitimate variants. Doubling of character a literary device. Title. Why Fisher King? Examination of Fish Symbolism. Fish a Life symbol. Examples. Indian—Manu, Vishnu, Buddha. Fish in Buddhism. Evidence from China. Orpheus. Babylonian evidence. Tammuz Lord of the Net. Jewish Symbolism. The Messianic Fish-meal. Adopted by Christianity. Evidence of the catacombs. Source of Borron's Fish-meals. Mystery tradition not Celtic Folk-tale. Comparison of version with Finn story. With Messianic tradition. Epitaph of Bishop Aberkios. Voyage of Saint Brandan. Connection of Fish with goddess Astarte. Cumont. Connection of Fish and Dove. Fish as Fertility Symbol. Its use in Marriage ceremonies. Summing up of evidence. Fisher King inexplicable from Christian point of view. Folk-lore solution unsatisfactory. As a Ritual survival completely in place. Centre of action, and proof of soundness of theory.


The Secret of the Grail (1)

The Mysteries

The Grail regarded as an object of awe. Danger of speaking of Grail or revealing Its secrets. Passages in illustration. Why, if survival of Nature cults, popular, and openly performed? A two-fold element in these cults, Exoteric, Esoteric. The Mysteries. Their influence on Christianity to be sought in the Hellenized rather than the Hellenic cults. Cumont. Rohde. Radical difference between Greek and Oriental conceptions. Lack of evidence as regards Mysteries on the whole. Best attested form that connected with Nature cults. Attis-Adonis. Popularity of the Phrygian cult in Rome. Evidence as to Attis Mysteries. Utilized by Neo-Platonists as vehicle for teaching. Close connection with Mithraism. The Taurobolium. Details of Attis Mysteries. Parallels with the Grail romances.


The Secret of the Grail (2)

The Naassene Document

Relations between early Christianity, and pre-Christian cults. Early Heresies. Hippolytus, and The Refutation of all Heresies. Character of the work. The Naassene Document. Mr Mead's analysis of text. A synthesis of Mysteries. Identification of Life Principle with the Logos. Connection between Drama and Mysteries of Attis. Importance of the Phrygian Mysteries. Naassene claim to be sole Christians. Significance of evidence. Vegetation cults as vehicle of high spiritual teaching. Exoteric and Esoteric parallels with the Grail tradition. Process of evolution sketched. Bleheris. Perlesvaus. Borron and the Mystery tradition. Christian Legendary, and Folk-tale, secondary, not primary, features.

Mithra and Attis

Problem of close connection of cults. Their apparent divergence. Nature of deities examined. Attis. Mithra. The Messianic Feast. Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie. Difference between the two initiations. Link between Phrygian, Mithraic, and Christian, Mysteries to be found in their higher, esoteric, teaching. Women not admitted to Mithraic initiation. Possible survival in Grail text. Joint diffusion through the Roman Empire. Cumont's evidence. Traces of cult in British Isles. Possible explanation of unorthodox character of Grail legend. Evidence of survival of cult in fifth century. The Elucidation a possible record of historic facts. Reason for connecting Grail with Arthurian tradition.

The Perilous Chapel

The adventure of the Perilous Chapel in Grail romances. Gawain form. Perceval versions. Queste. Perlesvaus. Lancelot. Chevalier a Deux Espees. Perilous Cemetery. Earliest reference in Chattel Orguellous. Atre Perilleus. Prose Lancelot. Adventure part of 'Secret of the Grail.' The Chapel of Saint Austin. Histoire de Fulk Fitz-Warin. Genuine record of an initiation. Probable locality North Britain. Site of remains of Mithra-Attis cults. Traces of Mystery tradition in Medieval romance. Owain Miles. Bousset, Himmelfahrt der Seele. Parallels with romance. Appeal to Celtic scholars. Otherworld journeys a possible survival of Mystery tradition. The Templars, were they Naassenes?

The Author

Provenance and authorship of Grail romantic tradition. Evidence points to Wales, probably Pembrokeshire. Earliest form contained in group of Gawain poems assigned to Bleheris. Of Welsh origin. Master Blihis, Blihos, Bliheris, Breri, Bledhericus. Probably all references to same person. Conditions of identity. Mr E. Owen, and Bledri ap Cadivor. Evidence not complete but fulfils conditions of problem Professor Singer and possible character of Bleheris' text. Mr Alfred Nutt. Irish and Welsh parallels. Recapitulation of evolutionary process. Summary and conclusion.

"Animus ad amplitudinem Mysteriorum pro modulo suo dilatetur, non Mysteria ad angustias animi constringantur." (Bacon.)

"Many literary critics seem to think that an hypothesis about obscure and remote questions of history can be refuted by a simple demand for the production of more evidence than in fact exists.—But the true test of an hypothesis, if it cannot be shewn to conflict with known truths, is the number of facts that it correlaates, and explains." (Cornford, Origins of Attic Comedy.)