Open main menu

Chapter VI: The SymbolsEdit

In the previous chapters we have discussed the Grail Legend from a general, rather than a specific, point of view; i.e., we have endeavoured to ascertain what was the real character of the task imposed upon the hero, and what the nature and value of his achievement.

We have been led to the conclusion that that achievement was, in the first instance, of an altruistic character--it was no question of advantages, temporal or spiritual, which should accrue to the Quester himself, but rather of definite benefits to be won for others, the freeing of a ruler and his land from the dire results of a punishment which, falling upon the King, was fraught with the most disastrous consequences for his kingdom.

We have found, further, that this close relation between the ruler and his land, which resulted in the ill of one becoming the calamity of all, is no mere literary invention, proceeding from the fertile imagination of a twelfth century court poet, but a deeply rooted popular belief, of practically immemorial antiquity and inexhaustible vitality; we can trace it back thousands of years before the Christian era, we find it fraught with decisions of life and death to-day.

Further, we find in that belief a tendency to express itself in certain ceremonial practices, which retain in a greater or less degree the character of the ritual observances of which they are the survival. Mr E. K. Chambers, in The Mediaeval Stage, remarks: "If the comparative study of Religion proves anything it is, that the traditional beliefs and customs of the mediaeval or modern peasant are in nine cases out of ten but the detritus of heathen mythology and heathen worship, enduring with but little external change in the shadow of a hostile faith. This is notably true of the village festivals and their ludi. Their full significance only appears when they are regarded as fragments of forgotten cults, the naive cults addressed by a primitive folk to the beneficent deities of field and wood and river, or the shadowy populace of its own dreams."[1] We may, I think, take it that we have established at least the possibility that in the Grail romances we possess, in literary form, an example of the detritus above referred to, the fragmentary record of the secret ritual of a Fertility cult.

Having reached this hypothetical conclusion, our next step must be to examine the Symbols of this cult, the group of mysterious objects which forms the central point of the action, a true understanding of the nature of these objects being as essential for our success as interpreters of the story as it was for the success of the Quester in days of old. We must ask whether these objects, the Grail itself, whether Cup or Dish; the Lance; the Sword; the Stone--one and all invested with a certain atmosphere of awe, credited with strange virtues, with sanctity itself, will harmonize with the proposed solution, will range themselves fitly and fairly within the framework of this hypothetical ritual.

That they should do so is a matter of capital importance; were it otherwise the theory advanced might well, as some of my critics have maintained, 'never get beyond the region of ingenious speculation,' but it is precisely upon the fact that this theory of origin, and so far as criticism has gone, this theory alone, does permit of a natural and unforced interpretation of these related symbols that I rely as one of the most convincing proofs of the correctness of my hypothesis.

Before commencing the investigation there is one point which I would desire to emphasize, viz., the imperative necessity for treating the Symbols or Talismans, call them what we will, on the same principle as we have treated the incidents of the story, i.e., as a connected whole. That they be not separated the one from the other, and made the subject of independent treatment, but that they be regarded in their relation the one to the other, and that no theory of origin be held admissible which does not allow for that relation as a primitive and indispensable factor. It may be the modern tendency to specialize which is apt to blind scholars to the essential importance of regarding their object of study as a whole, that fosters in them a habit of focussing their attention upon that one point or incident of the story which lends itself to treatment in their special line of study, and which induces them to minimize, or ignore, those elements which lie outside their particular range. But, whatever the cause, it is indubitable that this method of 'criticism by isolation' has been, and is, one of the main factors which have operated in retarding the solution of the Grail problem.

So long as critics of the story will insist on pulling it into little pieces, selecting one detail here, another there, for study and elucidation, so long will the ensemble result be chaotic and unsatisfactory. We shall continue to have a number of monographs, more or less scholarly in treatment--one dealing with the Grail as a Food-providing talisman, and that alone; another with the Grail as a vehicle of spiritual sustenance. One that treats of the Lance as a Pagan weapon, and nothing more; another that regards it as a Christian relic, and nothing less. At one moment the object of the study will be the Fisher King, without any relation to the symbols he guards, or the land he rules; at the next it will be the relation of the Quester to the Fisher King, without any explanation of the tasks assigned to him by the story. The result obtained is always quite satisfactory to the writer, often plausible, sometimes in a measure sound, but it would defy the skill of the most synthetic genius to co-ordinate the results thus obtained, and combine them in one harmonious whole. They are like pieces of a puzzle, each of which has been symmetrically cut and trimmed, till they lie side by side, un-fitting, and un-related.

And we have been pursuing this method for over fifty years, and are still, apparently, content to go on, each devoting attention to the symmetrical perfection of his own little section of the puzzle, quite indifferent to the fact that our neighbour is in possession of an equally neatly trimmed fragment, which entirely refuses to fit in with our own!

Is it not time that we should frankly admit the unsatisfactory results of these years of labour, and honestly face the fact that while we now have at our disposal an immense mass of interesting and suggestive material often of high value, we have failed, so far, to formulate a conclusion which, by embracing and satisfying the manifold conditions of the problem, will command general acceptance? And if this failure be admitted, may not its cause be sought in the faulty method which has failed to recognize in the Grail story an original whole, in which the parts--the action, the actors, the Symbols, the result to be obtained, incident, and intention--stood from the very first in intimate relation the one to the other? That while in process of utilization as a literary theme these various parts have suffered modification and accretion from this, or that, side, the problem of the ultimate source remains thereby unaffected?

Such a reversal of method as I suggest will, I submit, not only provide us with a critical solution capable of general acceptance, but it will also enable us to utilize, and appreciate at their due value, the result of researches which at the present moment appear to be mutually destructive the one of the other. Thus, while the purely Folk-lore interpretation of the Grail and Lance excludes the Christian origin, and the theory of the exclusively Christian origin negatives the Folk-lore, the pre-existence of these symbols in a popular ritual setting would admit, indeed would invite, later accretion alike from folk belief and ecclesiastical legend.

We are the gainers by any light that can possibly be thrown upon the process of development of the story, but studies of the separate symbols while they may, and do, afford valuable data for determining the character and period of certain accretions, should not be regarded as supplying proof of the origin of the related group.

Reference to some recent studies in the Legend will make my meaning clear. A reviewer of my small Quest of the Holy Grail volume remarked that I appeared to be ignorant of Miss Peebles's study The Legend of Longinus "which materially strengthens the evidence for the Christian origin."[2] Now this is precisely what, in my view, the study in question, which I knew and possessed, does not do. As evidence for the fact that the Grail legend has taken over certain features derived from the popular 'Longinus' story (which, incidentally, no one disputed), the essay is, I hold, sound, and valuable; as affording material for determining the source of the Grail story, it is, on the other hand, entirely without value.

On the principle laid down above no theory which purports to be explanatory of the source of one symbol can be held satisfactory in a case where that symbol does not stand alone. We cannot accept for the Grail story a theory of origin which concerns itself with the Lance, as independent of the Grail. In the study referred to the author has been at immense pains to examine the different versions of the 'Longinus' legend, and to trace its development in literature; in no single instance do we find Longinus and his Lance associated with a Cup or Vase, receptacle of the Sacred Blood.

The plain fact is that in Christian art and tradition Lance and Cup are not associated symbols. The Lance or Spear, as an instrument of the Passion, is found in conjunction with the Cross, Nails, Sponge, and Crown of Thorns, (anyone familiar with the wayside Crosses of Catholic Europe will recognize this), not with the Chalice of the Mass.[3] This latter is associated with the Host, or Agnus Dei. Still less is the Spear to be found in connection with the Grail in its Food-providing form of a Dish.

No doubt to this, critics who share the views of Golther and Burdach will object, "but what of the Byzantine Mass? Do we not there find a Spear connected with the Chalice?"[4]

I very much doubt whether we do--the so-called 'Holy Spear' of the Byzantine, and present Greek, liturgy is simply a small silver spear-shaped knife, nor can I discover that it was ever anything else. I have made careful enquiries of liturgical scholars, and consulted editions of Oriental liturgies, but I can find no evidence that the knife (the use of which is to divide the Loaf which, in the Oriental rite, corresponds to the Wafer of the Occidental, in a manner symbolically corresponding to the Wounds actually inflicted on the Divine Victim) was ever other than what it is to-day. It seems obvious, from the method of employment, that an actual Spear could hardly have been used, it would have been an impossibly unwieldy instrument for the purpose.

Nor is the 'procession' in which the elements are carried from the Chapel of the Prothesis to the Sanctuary of a public character comparable with that of the Grail castle; the actual ceremony of the Greek Mass takes place, of course, behind a veil. A point of considerable interest, however, is, what caused this difference in the Byzantine liturgy? What were the influences which led to the introduction of a feature unknown to the Western rite? If, as the result of the evidence set forth in these pages, the ultimate origin of the Grail story be finally accepted as deriving from a prehistoric ritual possessing elements of extraordinary persistence and vitality, then the mise-en-scene of that story is older than the Byzantine ritual. Students of the subject are well aware that the tradition of ancient pre-Christian rites and ceremonies lingered on in the East long after they had been banished by the more practical genius of the West. It may well prove that so far from the Grail story being a reminiscence of the Byzantine rite, that rite itself has been affected by a ritual of which the Grail legend preserves a fragmentary record.

In my view a Christian origin for Lance and Cup, as associated symbols, has not been made out; still less can it be postulated for Lance and Cup as members of an extended group, including Dish, Sword, and Stone.

On this point Professor Brown's attempt to find in Irish tradition the origin of the Grail symbols is distinctly more satisfactory.[5]]

I cannot accept as decisive the solution proposed, which seems to me to be open to much the same criticism as that which would find in the Lance the Lance of Longinus--both are occupied with details, rather than with ensemble; both would find their justification as offering evidence of accretion, rather than of origin; neither can provide us with the required mise-en-scene.

But Professor Brown's theory is the more sound in that he is really dealing with a group of associated symbols; in his view Lance and Grail alike belong to the treasures of the Tuatha de Danann (that legendary race of Irish ancestors, who were at once gods and kings), and therefore ab initio belong together. But while I should, on the whole, accept the affiliation of the two groups, and believe that the treasures of the Tuatha de Danann really correspond to the symbols displayed in the hall of the Grail castle, I cannot consider that the one is the origin of the other. There is one very fundamental difference, the importance of which I cannot ignore, but which, I believe, has hitherto escaped Professor Brown's attention.

The object corresponding to the Grail itself is the cauldron of the Dagda, "No company ever went from it unthankful" (or 'unsatisfied').[6]

Now this can in no sense be considered as a Cup, or Vase, nor is it the true parallel to a Dish. The connection with the Grail is to be found solely and exclusively in the food-providing properties ascribed to both. But even here the position is radically different; the impression we derive from the Irish text and its analogous parallels is that of size (it is also called a 'tub'), and inexhaustible content, it is a cauldron of plenty.[7] Now, neither of these qualities can be postulated of the Grail; whatever its form, Cup or Dish, it can easily be borne (in uplifted hands, entre ses mains hautement porte) by a maiden, which certainly could not be postulated of a cauldron! Nor is there any proof that the Vessel itself contained the food with which the folk of the Grail castle were regaled; the texts rather point to the conclusion that the appearance of the Grail synchronized with a mysterious supply of food of a choice and varied character. There is never any hint that the folk feed from the Grail; the only suggestion of such feeding is in the 'Oiste,' by which the father of the Fisher King (or the King himself) is nourished.

In certain texts the separation of the two is clearly brought out; in Joseph of Arimathea, for instance, the Fish caught by Brons is to be placed at one end of the table, the Grail at the other. In Gawain's adventure at the Grail castle, in the prose Lancelot, as the Grail is carried through the hall "forthwith were the tables replenished with the choicest meats in the world," but the table before Gawain remains void and bare.[8] I submit that while the Grail is in certain phases a food-supplying talisman it is not one of the same character as the cauldrons of plenty; also while the food supply of these latter has the marked characteristic of quantity, that of the Grail is remarkable rather for quality, its choice character is always insisted upon.

The perusal of Professor Brown's subsequent study, Notes on Celtic Cauldrons of Plenty and The Land-Beneath-the-Waves, has confirmed me in my view that these special objects belong to another line of tradition altogether; that which deals with an inexhaustible submarine source of life, examples of which will be found in the 'Sampo' of the Finnish Kalewala, and the ever-grinding mills of popular folk-tale.[9] The fundamental idea here seems to be that of the origin of all Life from Water, a very ancient idea, but one which, though akin to the Grail tradition, is yet quite distinct therefrom. The study of this special theme would, I believe, produce valuable results.[10]

On the whole, I am of the opinion that the treasures of the Tuatha de Danann and the symbols of the Grail castle go back to a common original, but that they have developed on different lines; in the process of this development one 'Life' symbol has been exchanged for another.

But Lance and Cup (or Vase) were in truth connected together in a symbolic relation long ages before the institution of Christianity, or the birth of Celtic tradition. They are sex symbols of immemorial antiquity and world-wide diffusion, the Lance, or Spear, representing the Male, the Cup, or Vase, the Female, reproductive energy.[12]

Found in juxtaposition, the Spear upright in the Vase, as in the Bleheris and Balin (both, be it noted, Gawain) forms, their signification is admitted by all familiar with 'Life' symbolism, and they are absolutely in place as forming part of a ritual dealing with the processes of life and reproductive vitality.[13]

A most remarkable and significant use of these symbols is found in the ceremonies of the Samurai, the noble warrior caste of Japan. The aspirant was (I am told still is) admitted into the caste at the age of fourteen, when he was given over to the care of a guardian at least fifteen years his senior, to whom he took an oath of obedience, which was sworn upon the Spear. He remained celibate during the period covered by the oath. When the Samurai was held to have attained the degree of responsibility which would fit him for the full duties of a citizen, a second solemn ceremony was held, at which he was released from his previous vows, and presented with the Cup; he was henceforth free to marry, but intercourse with women previous to this ceremony was at one time punishable with death.[14]

That Lance and Cup are, outside the Grail story, 'Life' symbols, and have been such from time immemorial, is a fact; why, then should they not retain that character inside the framework of that story? An acceptance of this interpretation will not only be in harmony with the general mise-en-scene, but it will also explain finally and satisfactorily, (a) the dominant position frequently assigned to the Lance; (b) the fact that, while the Lance is borne in procession by a youth, the Grail is carried by a maiden--the sex of the bearer corresponds with the symbol borne.[15]

But Lance and Cup, though the most prominent of the Symbols, do not always appear alone, but are associated with other objects, the significance of which is not always apparent. Thus the Dish, which is sometimes the form assumed by the Grail itself, at other times appears as a tailleor, or carving platter of silver, carried in the same procession as the Grail; or there may be two small tailleors; finally, a Sword appears in varying roles in the story.

I have already referred to the fact, first pointed out by the late Mr Alfred Nutt,[16] that the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann correspond generally with the group of symbols found in the Grail romances; this correspondence becomes the more interesting in view of the fact that these mysterious Beings are now recognized as alike Demons of Fertility and Lords of Life. As Mr Nutt subsequently pointed out, the 'Treasures' may well be, Sword and Cauldron certainly are, 'Life' symbols.

Of direct connection between these Celtic objects and the Grail story there is no trace; as remarked above, we have no Irish Folk or Hero tale at all corresponding to the Legend; the relation must, therefore, go back beyond the date of formation of these tales, i.e., it must be considered as one of origin rather than of dependence.

But we have further evidence that these four objects do, in fact, form a special group entirely independent of any appearance in Folk-lore or Romance. They exist to-day as the four suits of the Tarot.

Students of the Grail texts, whose attention is mainly occupied with Medieval Literature, may not be familiar with the word Tarot, or aware of its meaning. It is the name given to a pack of cards, seventy-eight in number, of which twenty-two are designated as the 'Keys.'

These cards are divided into four suits, which correspond with those of the ordinary cards; they are:

Cup (Chalice, or Goblet)--Hearts.
Lance (Wand, or Sceptre)--Diamonds.
Dish (Circles, or Pentangles, the form varies)--Clubs.

To-day the Tarot has fallen somewhat into disrepute, being principally used for purposes of divination, but its origin, and precise relation to our present playing-cards, are questions of considerable antiquarian interest. Were these cards the direct parents of our modern pack, or are they entirely distinct therefrom?[17]

Some writers are disposed to assign a very high antiquity to the Tarot. Traditionally, it is said to have been brought from Egypt; there is no doubt that parallel designs and combinations are to be found in the surviving decorations of Egyptian temples, notably in the astronomic designs on the ceiling of one of the halls of the palace of Medinet Abou, which is supported on twenty-two columns (a number corresponding to the 'keys' of the Tarot), and also repeated in a calendar sculptured on the southern facade of the same building, under a sovereign of the XXIII dynasty. This calendar is supposed to have been connected with the periodic rise and fall of the waters of the Nile.[18]

The Tarot has also been connected with an ancient Chinese monument, traditionally erected in commemoration of the drying up of the waters of the Deluge by Yao. The face of this monument is divided up into small sections corresponding in size and number with the cards of the Tarot, and bearing characters which have, so far, not been deciphered.

What is certain is that these cards are used to-day by the Gipsies for purposes of divination, and the opinion of those who have studied the subject is that there is some real ground for the popular tradition that they were introduced into Europe by this mysterious people.

In a very interesting article on the subject in The Journal of the Gipsy-Lore Society,[19] Mr De la Hoste Ranking examines closely into the figures depicted on the various cards, and the names attached to the suits by the Gipsies. He comes to the conclusion that many of the words are of Sanskrit, or Hindustani, origin, and sums up the result of the internal evidence as follows: "The Tarot was introduced by a race speaking an Indian dialect. The figure known as 'The Pope' shows the influence of the Orthodox Eastern Faith; he is bearded, and carries the Triple Cross. The card called 'The King' represents a figure with the head-dress of a Russian Grand-Duke, and a shield bearing the Polish eagle. Thus the people who used the Tarot must have been familiar with a country where the Orthodox Faith prevailed, and which was ruled by princes of the status of Grand-Dukes. The general result seems to point to a genuine basis for the belief that the Tarot was introduced into Europe from the East."

As regards the group of symbols in general, Mr W. B. Yeats, whose practical acquaintance with Medieval and Modern Magic is well known, writes: "(1) Cup, Lance, Dish, Sword, in slightly varying forms, have never lost their mystic significance, and are to-day a part of magical operations. (2) The memory kept by the four suits of the Tarot, Cup, Lance, Sword, Pentangle (Dish), is an esoterical notation for fortune-telling purposes."[20] But if the connection with the Egyptian and Chinese monuments, referred to above, is genuine, the original use of the 'Tarot' would seem to have been, not to foretell the Future in general, but to predict the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land.

Such use would bring the 'Suits' into line with the analogous symbols of the Grail castle and the treasures of the Tuatha de Danann, both of which we have seen to be connected with the embodiment of the reproductive forces of Nature.

If it is difficult to establish a direct connection between these two latter, it is practically impossible to argue any connection between either group and the 'Tarot'; no one has as yet ventured to suggest the popularity of the works of Chretien de Troyes among the Gipsies! Yet the correspondence can hardly be fortuitous. I would suggest that, while Lance and Cup, in their associated form, are primarily symbols of Human Life energy, in conjunction with others they formed a group of 'Fertility' symbols, connected with a very ancient ritual, of which fragmentary survivals alone have been preserved to us.

This view will, I believe, receive support from the evidence of the ceremonial Dances which formed so important a part of 'Fertility' ritual, and which survive in so many places to this day. If we find these symbols reappearing as a part of these dances, their real significance can hardly be disputed.

  1. ^  Op. cit. Vol. I. p. 94.
  2. ^  The Legend of Longinus, R. J. Peebles (Bryn Mawr College monographs, Vol. IX.).
  3. ^  I discussed this point with Miss Lucy Broadwood, Secretary of the Folk-Song Society, who has made sketches of these Crosses, and she entirely agrees with me. In my Quest of the Holy Grail, pp. 54 et seq., I have pointed out the absolute dearth of ecclesiastical tradition with regard to the story of Joseph and the Grail.
  4. ^  Cf. Littaturzeitung, XXIV. (1903), p. 2821.
  5. ^  Cf. The Bleeding Lance, A. C. L. Brown.
  6. ^  Cf. Brown, op. cit. p. 35; also A. Nutt, Studies in the Legend of the Holy Grail, p. 184.
  7. ^  Cf. Brown, Notes on Celtic Cauldrons of Plenty, p. 237.
  8. ^  Cf. Queste, Malory, Book XIII. Chap. 7, where the effect is the same.
  9. ^  Cf. Germanische Elben und Gotter beim Estenvolker, L. von Schroeder (Wien, 1906).
  10. ^  I suggested this point in corrspondence with Dr Brugger, who agreed with me that it was worth working out.
  11. ^  Before leaving the discussion of Professor Brown's theory, I would draw attention to a serious error made by the author of The Legend of Longinus. On p. 191, she blames Professor Brown for postulating the destructive qualities of the Lance, on the strength of 'an unsupported passage' in the 'Mons' MS., whereas the Montpellier text says that the Lance shall bring peace. Unfortunately, it is this latter version which is unsupported, all the MSS., without even excepting B.N. 1429, which as a rule agrees with Montpellier, give the 'destructive' version.
  12. ^  Cf. Dulaure, Des Divinites Generatrices, p. 77. Also additional chapter to last edition by Van Gennep, p. 333; L. von Schroeder, Mysterium und Mimus, pp. 279-80, for symbolic use of the Spear. McCulloch, Religion of the Celts, p. 302, suggests that it is not impossible that the cauldron==Hindu yoni, which of course would bring it into line with the above suggested meaning of the Grail. I think however that the real significance of the cauldron is that previously indicated.
  13. ^  It is interesting to note that this relative position of Lance and Grail lingers on in late and fully Christianized versions; cf. Sommer, The Quest of the Holy Grail, Romainia, XXXVI. p. 575.
  14. ^  My informant on this point was a scholar, resident in Japan, who gave me the facts within his personal knowledge. I referred the question to Prof. Basil Hall Chamberlain, who wrote in answer that he had not himself met with the practice but that the Samurai ceremonies differed in different provinces, and my informant might well be correct.
  15. ^  This explanation has at least the merit of simplicity as compared with that proposed by the author of The Legend of Longinus, pp. 209 et seq., which would connect the feature with an obscure heretical practice of the early Irish church. It would also meet Professor Brown's very reasonable objections, The Bleeding Lance, p. 8; cf. also remarks by Baist quoted in the foot-note above.
  16. ^  Cf. my Legend of Sir Perceval, Vol. II. pp. 314-315, note.
  17. ^  Mr A. E. Waite, who has published a book on the subject, informs me that the 17 cards preserved in the Bibliotheque du Roi (Bibl. Nationale?) as specimens of the work of the painter Charles Gringonneur, are really Tarots.
  18. ^  Falconnier, in a brochure on Les XXII Lames Hermetiques du Tarot, gives reproductions of these Egyptian paintings.
  19. ^  Journal of the Gipsy-Lore Society, Vol. II. New Series, pp. 14-37.
  20. ^  From a private letter. The ultimate object of Magic in all ages was, and is, to obtain control of the sources of Life. Hence, whatever was the use of these objects (of which I know nothing), their appearance in this connection is significant.