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Chapter XI: The Secret of the Grail (2) - The Naassene DocumentEdit

We have now seen that the Ritual which, as we have postulated, lies, in a fragmentary and distorted condition, at the root of our existing Grail romances, possessed elements capable of assimilation with a religious system which the great bulk of its modern adherents would unhesitatingly declare to be its very antithesis. That Christianity might have borrowed from previously existing cults certain outward signs and symbols, might have accommodated itself to already existing Fasts and Feasts, may be, perforce has had to be, more or less grudgingly admitted; that such a rapprochement should have gone further, that it should even have been inherent in the very nature of the Faith, that, to some of the deepest thinkers of old, Christianity should have been held for no new thing but a fulfilment of the promise enshrined in the Mysteries from the beginning of the world, will to many be a strange and startling thought. Yet so it was, and I firmly believe that it is only in the recognition of this one-time claim of essential kinship between Christianity and the Pagan Mysteries that we shall find the key to the Secret of the Grail.

And here at the outset I would ask those readers who are inclined to turn with feelings of contemptuous impatience from what they deem an unprofitable discussion of idle speculations which have little or nothing to do with a problem they hold to be one of purely literary interest, to be solved by literary comparison and criticism, and by no other method, to withhold their verdict till they have carefully examined the evidence I am about to bring forward, evidence which has never so far been examined in this connection, but which if I am not greatly mistaken provides us with clear and unmistakable proof of the actual existence of a ritual in all points analogous to that indicated by the Grail romances.

In the previous chapter we have seen that there is evidence, and abundant evidence, not merely of the existence of Mysteries connected with the worship of Adonis-Attis, but of the high importance assigned to such Mysteries; at the time of the birth of Christianity they were undoubtedly the most popular and the most influential of the foreign cults adopted by Imperial Rome. In support of this statement I quoted certain passages from Cumont's Religions Orientales, in which he touches on the subject: here are two other quotations which may well serve as introduction to the evidence we are about to examine. "Researches on the doctrines and practices common to Christianity and the Oriental Mysteries almost invariably go back, beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, to the Hellenized East. It is there we must seek the key of enigmas still unsolved--The essential fact to remember is that the Eastern religions had diffused, first anterior to, then parallel with, Christianity, doctrines which acquired with this latter a universal authority in the decline of the ancient world. The preaching of Asiatic priests prepared in their own despite the triumph of the Church."[1]

But the triumph of the new Faith once assured the organizing, dominating, influence of Imperial Rome speedily came into play. Christianity, originally an Eastern, became a Western, religion, the 'Mystery' elements were frowned upon, kinship with pre-Christian faiths ignored, or denied; where the resemblances between the cults proved too striking for either of these methods such resemblances were boldly attributed to the invention of the Father of Lies himself, a cunning snare whereby to deceive unwary souls. Christianity was carefully trimmed, shaped, and forced into an Orthodox mould, and anything that refused to adapt itself to this drastic process became by that very refusal anathema to the righteous.

Small wonder that, under such conditions, the early ages of the Church were marked by a fruitful crop of Heresies, and heresy-hunting became an intellectual pastime in high favour among the strictly orthodox. Among the writers of this period whose works have been preserved Hippolytus, Bishop of Portus in the early years of the third century, was one of the most industrious. He compiled a voluminous treatise, entitled Philosophumena, or The Refutation of all Heresies, of which only one MS. and that of the fourteenth century, has descended to us. The work was already partially known by quotations, the first Book had been attributed to Origen, and published in the editio princeps of his works. The text originally consisted of ten Books, but of these the first three, and part of the fourth, are missing from the MS. The Origen text supplies part of the lacuna, but two entire Books, and part of a third are missing.

Now these special Books, we learn from the Introduction, dealt with the doctrines and Mysteries of the Egyptians and Chaldaeans, whose most sacred secrets Hippolytus boasts that he has divulged. Curiously enough, not only are these Books lacking but in the Epitome at the beginning of Book X. the summary of their contents is also missing, a significant detail, which, as has been suggested by critics, looks like a deliberate attempt on the part of some copyist to suppress the information contained in the Books in question. Incidentally this would seem to suggest that the worthy bishop was not making an empty boast when he claimed to be a revealer of secrets.

But what is of special interest to us is the treatment meted out to the Christian Mystics, whom Hippolytus stigmatizes as heretics, and whose teaching he deliberately asserts to be simply that of the Pagan Mysteries. He had come into possession of a secret document belonging to one of these sects, whom he calls the Naassenes; this document he gives in full, and it certainly throws a most extraordinary light upon the relation which this early Christian sect held to exist between the New, and the Old, Faith. Mr G. R. S. Mead, in his translation of the Hermetic writings entitled Thrice-Greatest Hermes, has given a careful translation and detailed analysis of this most important text, and it is from his work that I shall quote.

So far as the structure of the document is concerned Mr Mead distinguishes three stages.

(a) An original Pagan source, possibly dating from the last half of the first century B.C., but containing material of earlier date.

(b) The working over of this source by a Jewish Mystic whom the critic holds to have been a contemporary of Philo.

(c) A subsequent working over, with additions, by a Christian Gnostic (Naassene), in the middle of the second century A. D. Finally the text was edited by Hippolytus, in the Refutation, about 222 A. D. Thus the ground covered is roughly from 50 B. C. to 220 A. D.[2]

In the translation given by Mr Mead these successive layers are distinguished by initial letters and difference of type, but these distinctions are not of importance for us; what we desire to know is what was really held and taught by these mystics of the Early Church. Mr Mead, in his introductory remarks, summarizes the evidence as follows: "The claim of these Gnostics was practically that Christianity, or rather the Good News of The Christ, was precisely the consummation of the inner doctrine of the Mystery-institutions of all the nations: the end of them all was the revelation of the Mystery of Man."[3] In other words the teaching of these Naassenes was practically a synthesis of all the Mystery-religions, and although Hippolytus regards them as nothing more than devotees of the cult of the Magna Mater, we shall see that, while their doctrine and teaching were undoubtedly based mainly upon the doctrine and practices of the Phrygian Mysteries, they practically identified the deity therein worshipped, i.e., Attis, with the presiding deity of all the other Mysteries.

Mr Mead draws attention to the fact that Hippolytus places these Naassenes in the fore-front of his Refutation; they are the first group of Heretics with whom he deals, and we may therefore conclude that he considered them, if not the most important, at least the oldest, of such sectaries.[4]

With these prefatory remarks it will be well to let the document speak for itself. It is of considerable length, and, as we have seen, of intricate construction. I shall therefore quote only those sections which bear directly upon the subject of our investigation; any reader desirous of fuller information can refer to Mr Mead's work, or to the original text published by Reitzenstein.[5]

At the outset it will be well to understand that the central doctrine of all these Mysteries is what Reitzenstein sums up as "the doctrine of the Man, the Heavenly Man, the Son of God, who descends and becomes a slave of the Fate Sphere: the Man who, though originally endowed with all power, descends into weakness and bondage, and has to win his own freedom, and regain his original state. This doctrine is not Egyptian, but seems to have been in its origin part and parcel of the Chaldean Mystery-tradition and was widely spread in Hellenistic circles."[6]

Thus, in the introductory remarks prefixed by Hippolytus to the document he is quoting he asserts that the Naassenes honour as the Logos of all universals Man, and Son of Man--"and they divide him into three, for they say he has a mental, psychic, and choic aspect; and they think that the Gnosis of this Man is the beginning of the possibility of knowing God, saying, 'The beginning of Perfection is the Gnosis of Man, but the Gnosis of God is perfected Perfection.' All these, mental, psychic, and earthy, descended together into one Man, Jesus, the Son of Mary."[7]

Thus the Myth of Man, the Mystery of Generation, is the subject matter of the document in question, and this myth is set forth with reference to all the Mysteries, beginning with the Assyrian.

Paragraph 5 runs: "Now the Assyrians call this Mystery Adonis, and whenever it is called Adonis it is Aphrodite who is in love with and desires Soul so-called, and Aphrodite is Genesis according to them."[8]

But in the next section the writer jumps from the Assyrian to the Phrygian Mysteries, saying, "But if the Mother of the Gods emasculates Attis, she too regarding him as the object of her love, it is the Blessed Nature above of the super-Cosmic, and Aeonian spaces which calls back the masculine power of Soul to herself."[9]

In a note to this Mr Mead quotes from The Life of Isidorus: "I fell asleep and in a vision Attis seemed to appear to me, and on behalf of the Mother of gods to initiate me into the feast called Hilario, a mystery which discloses the way of our salvation from Hades." Throughout the document reference is continually made to the Phrygians and their doctrine of Man. The Eleusinian Mysteries are then treated of as subsequent to the Phrygian, "after the Phrygians, the Athenians," but the teaching is represented as being essentially identical.

We have then a passage of great interest for our investigation, in which the Mysteries are sharply divided into two classes, and their separate content clearly defined. There are--"the little Mysteries, those of the Fleshly Generation, and after men have been initiated into them they should cease for a while and become initiated in the Great, Heavenly, Mysteries--for this is the Gate of Heaven, and this is the House of God, where the Good God dwells alone, into which House no impure man shall come."[10] Hippolytus remarks that "these Naassenes say that the performers in theatres, they too, neither say nor do anything without design--for example, when the people assemble in the theatre, and a man comes on the stage clad in a robe different from all others, with lute in hand on which he plays, and thus chants the Great Mysteries, not knowing what he says:

'Whether blest Child of Kronos, or of Zeus, or of Great Rhea,
Hail Attis, thou mournful song of Rhea!
Assyrians call thee thrice-longed-for Adonis;
All Egypt calls thee Osiris;
The Wisdom of Hellas names thee Men's Heavenly Horn;
The Samothracians call thee august Adama;
The Haemonians, Korybas;
The Phrygians name thee Papa sometimes;
At times again Dead, or God, or Unfruitful, or Aipolos;
Or Green Reaped Wheat-ear;
Or the Fruitful that Amygdalas brought forth,
Man, Piper--Attis!'

This is the Attis of many forms, of whom they sing as follows:

'Of Attis will I sing, of Rhea's Beloved,
Not with the booming of bells,
Nor with the deep-toned pipe of Idaean Kuretes;
But I will blend my song with Phoebus' music of the lyre;
Evoi, Evan,--for thou art Pan, thou Bacchus art, and Shepherd of bright stars!'"[11]

On this Hippolytus comments: "For these and suchlike reasons these Naassenes frequent what are called the Mysteries of the Great Mother, believing that they obtain the clearest view of the universal Mystery from the things done in them."

And after all this evidence of elaborate syncretism, this practical identification of all the Mystery-gods with the Vegetation deity Adonis-Attis, we are confronted in the concluding paragraph, after stating that "the True Gate is Jesus the Blessed," with this astounding claim, from the pen of the latest redactor, "And of all men we alone are Christians, accomplishing the Mystery at the Third Gate."[12]

Now what conclusions are to be drawn from this document which, in its entirety, Mr Mead regards as "the most important source we have for the higher side (regeneration) of the Hellenistic Mysteries"?

First of all, does it not provide a complete and overwhelming justification of those scholars who have insisted upon the importance of these Vegetation cults--a justification of which, from the very nature of their studies, they could not have been aware?

Sir James Frazer, and those who followed him, have dealt with the public side of the cult, with its importance as a recognized vehicle for obtaining material advantages; it was the social, rather than the individual, aspect which appealed to them. Now we find that in the immediate pre- and post-Christian era these cults were considered not only most potent factors for assuring the material prosperity of land and folk, but were also held to be the most appropriate vehicle for imparting the highest religious teaching. The Vegetation deities, Adonis-Attis, and more especially the Phrygian god, were the chosen guides to the knowledge of, and union with, the supreme Spiritual Source of Life, of which they were the communicating medium.

We must remember that though the document before us is, in its actual form, the expression of faith of a discredited 'Christian-Gnostic' sect, the essential groundwork upon which it is elaborated belongs to a period anterior to Christianity, and that the Ode in honour of Attis quoted above not only forms part of the original source, but is, in the opinion of competent critics, earlier than the source itself.

I would also recall to the memory of the reader the passage previously quoted from Cumont, in which he refers to the use made by the Neo-Platonist philosophers of the Attis legend, as the mould into which they poured their special theories of the universe, and of generation.[13] Can the importance of a cult capable of such far-reaching developments be easily exaggerated? Secondly, and of more immediate importance for our investigation, is it not evident that we have here all the elements necessary for a mystical development of the Grail tradition? The Exoteric side of the cult gives us the Human, the Folk-lore, elements--the Suffering King; the Waste Land; the effect upon the Folk; the task that lies before the hero; the group of Grail symbols. The Esoteric side provides us with the Mystic Meal, the Food of Life, connected in some mysterious way with a Vessel which is the centre of the cult; the combination of that vessel with a Weapon, a combination bearing a well-known 'generative' significance; a double initiation into the source of the lower and higher spheres of Life; the ultimate proof of the successful issue of the final test in the restoration of the King. I would ask any honest-minded critic whether any of the numerous theories previously advanced has shown itself capable of furnishing so comprehensive a solution of the ensemble problem?

At the same time it should be pointed out that the acceptance of this theory of the origin of the story in no way excludes the possibility of the introduction of other elements during the period of romantic evolution. As I have previously insisted,[14] not all of those who handled the theme knew the real character of the material with which they were dealing, while even among those who did know there were some who allowed themselves considerable latitude in their methods of composition; who did not scruple to introduce elements foreign to the original Stoff, but which would make an appeal to the public of the day. Thus while Bleheris who, I believe, really held a tradition of the original cult, contented himself with a practically simple recital of the initiations, later redactors, under the influence of the Crusades, and the Longinus legend--possibly also actuated by a desire to substitute a more edifying explanation than that originally offered--added a directly Christian interpretation of the Lance. As it is concerning the Lance alone that Gawain asks, the first modification must have been at this point; the bringing into line of the twin symbol, the Vase, would come later.

The fellowship, it may even be, the rivalry, between the two great Benedictine houses of Fescamp and Glastonbury, led to the redaction, in the interests of the latter, of a Saint-Sang legend, parallel to that which was the genuine possession of the French house.[15] For we must emphasize the fact that the original Joseph-Glastonbury story is a Saint-Sang, and not a Grail legend. A phial containing the Blood of Our Lord was said to have been buried in the tomb of Joseph--surely a curious fate for so precious a relic--and the Abbey never laid claim to the possession of the Vessel of the Last Supper.[16] Had it done so it would certainly have become a noted centre of pilgrimage--as Dr Brugger acutely remarks such relics are besucht, not gesucht.

But there is reason to believe that the kindred Abbey of Fescamp had developed its genuine Saint-Sang legend into a Grail romance, and there is critical evidence to lead us to suppose that the text we know as Perlesvaus was, in its original form, now it is to be feared practically impossible to reconstruct, connected with that Abbey. As we have it, this alone, of all the Grail romances, connects the hero alike with Nicodemus, and with Joseph of Arimathea, the respective protagonists of the Saint-Sang legends; while its assertion that the original Latin text was found in a holy house situated in marshes, the burial place of Arthur and Guenevere, unmistakably points to Glastonbury.

In any case, when Robert de Borron proposed to himself the task of composing a trilogy on the subject the Joseph legend was already in a developed form, and a fresh element, the combination of the Grail legend with the story of a highly popular Folk-tale hero, known in this connection as Perceval (though he has had many names), was established.

Borron was certainly aware of the real character of his material; he knew the Grail cult as Christianized Mystery, and, while following the romance development, handled the theme on distinctively religious lines, preserving the Mystery element in its three-fold development, and equating the Vessel of the Mystic Feast with the Christian Eucharist. From what we now know of the material it seems certain that the equation was already established, and that Borron was simply stating in terms of romance what was already known to him in terms of Mystery. In face of the evidence above set forth there can no longer be any doubt that the Mystic Feast of the Nature cults really had, and that at a very early date, been brought into touch with the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

But to Chretien de Troyes the story was romance, pure and simple. There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and Grail Feast, but of the real meaning and origin of the incidents he had, I am convinced, no idea whatever. Probably many modifications were already in his source, but the result so far as his poem is concerned is that he duplicated the character of the Fisher King; he separated both, Father and Son, from the Wasted Land, transferring the responsibility for the woes of Land and Folk to the Quester, who, although his failure might be responsible for their continuance, never had anything to do with their origin. He bestowed the wound of the Grail King, deeply significant in its original conception and connection, upon Perceval's father, a shadowy character, entirely apart from the Grail tradition. There is no trace of the Initiation elements in his poem, no Perilous Chapel, no welding of the Sword. We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are closed behind us. It is the story of Perceval li Gallois, not the Ritual of the Grail, which fills the stage, and with the story of Perceval there comes upon the scene a crowd of Folk-tale themes, absolutely foreign to the Grail itself.

Thus we have not only the central theme of the lad reared in woodland solitude, making his entrance into a world of whose ordinary relations he is absolutely and ludicrously ignorant, and the traditional illustrations of the results of that ignorance, such as the story of the Lady of the Tent and the stolen ring; but we have also the sinister figure of the Red Knight with his Witch Mother; the three drops of blood upon the snow, and the ensuing love trance; pure Folk-tale themes, mingled with the more chivalric elements of the rescue of a distressed maiden, and the vanquishing in single combat of doughty antagonists, Giant, or Saracen. One and all of them elements offering widespread popular parallels, and inviting the unwary critic into paths which lead him far astray from the goal of his quest, the Grail Castle. I dispute in no way the possible presence of Celtic elements in this complex. The Lance may well have borrowed at one time features from early Irish tradition, at another details obviously closely related to the Longinus legend. It is even possible that, as Burdach insists, features of the Byzantine Liturgy may have coloured the representation of the Grail procession, although, for my own part, I consider such a theory highly improbable in view of the facts that (a) Chretien's poem otherwise shows no traces of Oriental influence; (b) the 'Spear' in the Eastern rite is simply a small spear-shaped knife; (c) the presence of the lights is accounted for by the author of Sone de Nansai on the ground of a Nativity legend, the authenticity of which was pointed out by the late M. Gaston Paris; (d) it is only in the later prose form that we find any suggestion of a Grail Chapel, whereas were the source of the story really to be found in the Mass, such a feature would certainly have had its place in the earliest versions. But in each and all these cases the solution proposed has no relation to other features of the story; it is consequently of value in, and per se, only, and cannot be regarded as valid evidence for the source of the legend as a whole. In the process of transmutation from Ritual to Romance, the kernel, the Grail legend proper, may be said to have formed for itself a shell composed of accretions of widely differing provenance. It is the legitimate task of criticism to analyse such accretions, and to resolve them into their original elements, but they are accretions, and should be treated as such, not confounded with the original and essential material. After upwards of thirty years spent in careful study of the Grail legend and romances I am firmly and entirely convinced that the root origin of the whole bewildering complex is to be found in the Vegetation Ritual, treated from the esoteric point of view as a Life-Cult, and in that alone. Christian Legend, and traditional Folk-tale, have undoubtedly contributed to the perfected romantic corpus, but they are in truth subsidiary and secondary features; a criticism that would treat them as original and primary can but defeat its own object; magnified out of proportion they become stumbling-blocks upon the path, instead of sign-posts towards the goal.

  1. ^  Cumont, op. cit. Introd. pp. XX and XXI.
  2. ^  Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. I, p. 195.
  3. ^  Op. cit. p. 141.
  4. ^  Op. cit. p. 142.
  5. ^  Op. cit. pp. 146 et seq. Reitzenstein, Die Hellenistischen Mysterien Religionen, Leipzig, 1910, gives the document in the original. There is also a translation of Hippolytus in the Ante-Nicene Library.
  6. ^  Quoted by Mead, op. cit. p. 138.
  7. ^  Op. cit. pp. 146, 147.
  8. ^  Op. cit. p. 151.
  9. ^  Op. cit. p. 152. Mr Mead concludes that there is here a lacuna of the original.
  10. ^  Op. cit. p. 181. In a note Mr Mead says of the Greater Mysteries, "presumaby the candidate went through some symbolic rite of death and resurrection."
  11. ^  Op. cit. pp. 185, 186. I would draw especial attention to this passage in view of the present controversey as to the Origin of Drama. It looks as if the original writer of the document (and this section is in the Pagan Source) would have inclined to the views of Sir Gilbert Murray, Miss Harrison, and Mr Cornford rather than to those championed by their sarcastic critic, Sir W. Ridgeway.
  12. ^  Op. cit. p. 190.
  13. ^  Vide supra, p. ---.
  14. ^  Cf. Legend of Sir Perceval, Vol. II. Chapters 10 and 11.
  15. ^  Cf. my Quest of the Holy Grail, Bell, 1913, Chap. 4, for summary of evidence on this point.
  16. ^  Cf. Heinzel, Alt-Franz. Gral-Romanen, p. 72.