The Quest for the Holy Grail
The 'Holy Grail' – the term is known to us from mythology, music, film and literature. The search for the Grail is just as relevant to archaeology as it is to religious/esoteric ideologies. But what really is the 'Holy Grail' itself?Does it really exist? If so, where is it to be found? What form does it take? Where does this fascination with the concept of the Grail, which has lasted for hundreds of years, really come from? A concept, which for many people epitomises something sublime, unapproachable, eternal and therefore sacred. It is not for nothing that it is also woven into the title of this magazine.
In the following article we will seek 'a path to the Grail', so to speak. We will dwell on many of the aspects of the 'Grail Story', i.e. the gist of those transmissions which over generations have inspired and fascinated countless people as well as given some of them the impetus to search for deeper truths. But we will not only dwell on the historical and artistic facets, but go beyond this and explore the unique perceptions which have always been associated with the concept of the 'Holy Grail'. Please accompany us on a journey into the past which will finally lead upwards into a timeless world, because the search for the 'Chalice of Eternal Life', as the Grail is often called, will ultimately lead us, once the jungle of erroneous views are left far behind, to the summit of Creation …
By Monika Schulze
In the past, the 'Holy Grail' has always been the inspiration for notable highlights in artistic achievement. In 1210 Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote his great Grail epic Parsifal. Some six centuries later, Richard Wagner became fascinated by the subject. Wolfram’s great novel inspired Wagner to compose the operas 'Lohengrin' and 'Parsifal', both to his own librettos. (The latter was designated by Wagner as a 'Stage Consecration Festival Play', which transcended opera.) Through Wagner’s work, the 'Grail' again became a topic of immense fascination in the years that followed. So much so that Hitler and the Nazis surreptitiously wove these concepts into their propaganda for the 'Third Reich'. Because of this association, many considered the light of the Grail to have been darkened forever.
This turned out to be a fallacy, however. The concept of the 'Grail' has long since freed itself from this dark connection and again exerts its fascination on very many people from all over the world. New Grail novels such as 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail' became worldwide bestsellers. The film industry followed with attention-grabbing titles such as 'Excalibur' (1981), 'The Da Vinci Code' (2003) or Steven Spielberg’s 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' (1989).
What are the reasons for this enduring enthusiasm? What does one expect from the “Holy Grail” and what is it really?
From 'Parzival' to the “Last Crusade”
All of the various Grail stories, be they esoteric, cinematic, literary or musical have one thing in common: The story they tell takes a long time to unfold. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem of Parsifal’s path to the Grail is spread over 16 volumes while it takes Richard Wagner more than four hours of powerful music to tell the story of “Parsifal’s” transformation from a naïve youth to “King of the Grail”. Even Steven Spielberg’s unusual film runs for 2-1/2 hours in which a merciless struggle for possession of the “Grail” is played out right across the globe. Here the Grail is portrayed as a chalice which bestows eternal life to the one who drinks from it. This leads to a sequence of struggles in which nobody can hold onto the Grail for very long. Finally, during the last climactic struggle, the Grail falls into a fiery chasm and thereby slips from man’s grasp forever. The only compensation for this momentous loss, at least in the context of the film, is the rapprochement between Indiana Jones and his father.
Obviously, 'eternal life' which the Grail is able to dispense, is not so easy to attain, least of all by force.
Although Steven Spielberg’s film places the Grail theme at the centre of the story, sketches out a long sequence of triumphs and setbacks during the search for it and ultimately endows it with 'miraculous powers', his version is nevertheless far removed from the ideals expressed by earlier interpretations including those by Wolfram von Eschenbach and Richard Wagner. What is almost totally missing here is that which was expressed in earlier works: a transcendence which links the earthly world to the heavenly worlds and points the way towards an eternal spiritual goal.
Spielberg’s 'Last Crusade', on the other hand, holds the viewer’s attention with its enormous array of spectacular action sequences and dramatic shifts in both time and venue. But this technique, nevertheless, has a certain affinity with the mediaeval Grail literature because these too were full of action and surprising twists-as the expression of an animated life striving for new experiences and impressions.
This is also the case with Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic work. The protagonist begins as a 'pure simpleton' and steadily grows in stature until he finally fulfils his destiny by becoming 'King of the Grail'. His path thereto is filled with bold deeds as well as with bitter experiences and inner struggles which nevertheless help him advance, because he himself has given the impetus for what happens to him. Maybe to rectify past failings, maybe to guide him onto a new path he is seeking…
But what actually is the Grail?
The works of literature, which surround the 'Holy Grail' are all pervaded by themes of inner and outer struggles, of great deeds, of desperate seeking, of inner and outer development and growth that are all driven by a destiny which is ultimately fulfilled by the discovery and application of a living power dispensed by a fount of unimaginably sublimity.
But what then is the Grail?
This question is as old as it is new. The German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing already asked this question 200 years ago. How he came to this will be revealed by the following little-known episode of literary history:
During Lessing’s time, the subject of the 'Grail' was far less familiar than it is today and the artistic and literary treasures of mediaeval times were hardly appreciated or studied. Nevertheless, around 1770, a manuscript of 'Parsifal' by Wolfram von Eschenbach written in antiquated German from the Middle Ages was discovered in the Zurich City Library. The curator of the library, the eminent Swiss scholar, Professor Johann Jakob Bodmer (1698-1783), who did not share his contemporary's disdain for all things mediaeval, made it his business to ensure that the old manuscript collections residing in the library were protected and kept in good order. As a part of this work, he translated Wolfram’s epic poem into contemporary German. Not content with this, he also notified as many literary luminaries as he could of his discoveries – and there were indeed a sizeable number of these because his endeavours had earned him the greatest respect in literary circles. Therefore among others, he also sent a copy of his 'Parsifal' translation to Lessing and Goethe. Lessing was immediately impressed by the work and after reading it through, sent it on his friend and publisher Johann Joachim Eschenburg for further evaluation. In an accompanying letter, he stated that his friend may have some difficulty in coming to grips with what the Grail actually is, that 'something' which the Grail knights of the old romances 'either try to seize or protect'.
This formulation by Lessing hits on a vital question: If the deeds of the Grail knights are invariably and unconditionally centred upon the 'seizure or protection' of the Grail, then what significance do these deeds then have in relation to the Christian concept of the 'Holy Trinity'? Is the 'Grail' compatible with a Christian concept of God at all? Or did the Grail knights perhaps even consider the Grail and God as a unity?
These questions are still relevant today. In spite of the concept of the 'Holy Grail' having strong religious connotations and attempts to link it with Christianity notwithstanding, (such as the interpretation that the Grail is the cup of the Last Supper in which the Saviour’s blood was later caught), the 'Grail' as such has no place in 'official' Christian doctrine.
And how did Goethe react to Wolfram’s 'Parsifal', to whom Bodmer also sent his translation?
During his visits to Switzerland in 1775 and 1779 he also visited the Zurich City Library to examine the 'old Swabian manuscripts' held there, which of course included the 'Parsifal' manuscript. However, we do not know what his reaction was. Moreover, the word 'Grail' does not appear in any of his published writings. In an article on mediaeval art treasures he did nevertheless briefly mention Wolfram as a notable art aficionado whose appreciation of the artworks of the Rhine and Main regions as expressed in 'Parsifal', matched his own.
This was a sparse recognition indeed, especially since Goethe undertook an intensive study of German mediaeval literature between 1805 and 1812 which, apart from 'Parsifal', also included the 'Nibelung' saga. (Incidentally, Wagner later used this material as the basis for his 'Ring Cycle' which contains some significant deviations from the original because it incorporates other material as well and it is this version and not the original, which is known worldwide). Could the reason for Goethe’s reluctance to speak about the 'Grail' or 'Parsifal' be his tendency not to make public statements on any subject until he was absolutely sure of his own position? Did this great poet and thinker, without articulating it, perchance face the same question as Lessing? Namely the relationship between God, the Grail and Christ’s message?
Where can we find the links between this richly embellished mythical saga on the one hand and the religious elements of the Christian faith on the other? Our search for a path to the Grail has landed us in a labyrinth of the most diverse opinions and interpretations. We must now search for a new path which will again lead us out of this maze.
Cauldron, chalice, pot or stone?
The Grail narratives which pre-date Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 'Parsifal' as well as those originating at the same time or later on often portray the Grail as having the shape of a chalice, which, in the Christian tradition, is linked to the chalice used by Christ during the Last Supper with His Disciples or associated with His suffering and death. (Joseph of Arimithea is believed to have caught the blood of the dying Christ in a Holy Chalice at the foot of the cross.) There are however other pre-Christian i.e. 'pagan' traditions which also speak of a chalice which serves as a receptacle for power transmitted from heaven. Celtic mythology speaks of a cauldron which unceasingly dispenses nourishment and vitality. If we go back even further to the Indo-Germanic mythology, we discover tidings of a legendary copper “cooking-pot” which the Sun God supposedly gave to a prince and which, upon petitioning the deity, miraculously fills up with food again after being emptied. The myths and legends which encompass the 'Holy Grail' are therefore in accord with old transmissions which describe a vessel which dispenses life-giving energy.
When, in Wolfram’s tale, Parzival first finds his way to Monsalvat, as the Grail Castle is called, he witnesses a profound festive ritual. In this ritual, the Grail is ceremoniously paraded around the hall for all to see. But the Grail as depicted here is neither a chalice nor a pot, but as a flat stone instead! According to legend, this stone fell down from heaven and in order to maintain the Grail’s connection with its origin and to renew its power source, a dove descends from heavenly heights from time to time to place a host onto the Grail.
Therefore Wolfram von Eschenbach too, depicts the Grail as a collection and transmission point of heavenly power currents. To depict a special stone as doing this is not so unusua – one only has to think of the 'Kaaba' in Mecca, the most sacred site in Islam, which has the shape of a cube. Furthermore, when more recent interpretations depict the Grail as a bowl similar to the ones used to serve exquisite delicacies to esteemed guests during Wolfram’s time, when chivalry and the ideals of knighthood were in full flower, then this too makes sense. After all is there anything more delectable than “manna from heaven?”
The contents of the Grail stories as well as the manner in which they unfold undoubtedly display strong religious elements. The 'Holy Grail' transmits heavenly power, dispenses (eternal) life and is an essential link between the Creator and His Creation. This reminds us of “the fountain of the water of life” as depicted in Revelation 21, 6. But, at the same time there is also a strong affiliation of the Grail legend with the Pentecostal event of the descent of the 'Holy Spirit' in the form of the Dove as described in Acts 2, 1-4.
Loyalty, honour, exemplary courage: The Grail and Christian values
In the same way that the Book of Revelation on the Bible states that only those who 'thirst' will be permitted to drink from 'the fountain of the water of life', thus only those who 'overcome' their weaknesses, the Grail legends too, speak of the necessity of leading a virtuous and 'untarnished' life.
In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s tale, the Grail knights are duty-bound to observe an 'Honour Code' which, among other things, includes 'loyalty', 'honour' and 'exemplary courage'. This code of conduct is very much in line with Christian ideals. And just as in the Christian tradition, Heaven only helps those who are worthy of this help, the Grail too, only bestows its power only upon those who can live up to the highest standards. And furthermore, he must be baptised in the belief 'in the One highest God'.
Feirefiz, for example, Parzival’s mixed-blood half-brother-(the son of the black Queen Belacane) – cannot see the Grail until he renounces all of his 'gods' and consents to be baptised. The solemn ritual of baptism which is performed by a venerable old priest is then followed by an extraordinary lavish meal – just like the one Parsifal experienced during his first visit to the Grail Castle. Did Wolfram intend this to be understood merely as a lavish banquet of earthly delicacies or does this lend itself to a more far-reaching universal interpretation which transcends the earthly? In any case, it becomes quite clear that in Wolfram’s epic tale, the meal is an essential component of the festive ritual by which the knights receive the blessings from out of the Grail. If the Grail, through the host laid upon it by the heavenly dove, imbues the assembled knights with renewed heavenly power, then the lavish meal which follows can be interpreted symbolically – as a reflection of a heavenly happening; therefore far above any earthly considerations and interpretations.
Wolfram’s poetic vision of the Grail ceremony does not only include the serving of food and drink in rich abundance but the whole sequence of events during the ritual is mapped out by a detailed choreography – in the manner the meal is served and in the way in which the ceremonial procession of the female bearer of the Grail and her retinue of female attendants unfolds. Everything is imbued with a solemn elation whereby the outward enjoyment is only of secondary importance.
Six centuries later, Richard Wagner’s genius transcribed Wolfram’s poetic vision of a solemn, sacred meal with the Grail as its focal point into a musical tour-de-force, which he then incorporated into his 'sacred festival play', 'Parsifal'. Already in his earlier opera 'Lohengrin', Wagner’s music underscores the sublime reality of the Grail and the libretto confirms this by stating that the power of the Grail is renewed each year by the descent of the Holy Dove from heavenly heights.
The search for the Grail in the 21st Century
The search for the Grail is not so much a matter of trying to determine the whereabouts of a physical object but rather, it is a matter of an inner search, of a powerful impetus towards spiritual development. Therefore the search for the Truth and not perchance the archaeological search for a receptacle of some kind is what really matters here. This is just as true today as it was in past eras. The concept of the 'Holy Grail' awakens the longing for light and higher recognition in us and has inspired many artists to produce magnificent works in its praise. There has to be a reason for this which must be sought beyond the earthly.
Abd-ru-shin (Oskar Ernst Bernhardt, 1875-1941) explained in his work In the Light of Truth: The Grail Message, that the 'Holy Grail' actually exists but it is not to be found on earth. It is to be found at the summit of Creation as the 'transmission point' of Divine Power which is essential for the maintenance and continued development of all the worlds lying below, including ours. Abd-ru-shin’s lectures, which build one upon the other, fully explain what the Grail actually is and also clarify why the subject of the 'Grail' has been the source of so much enthusiasm and inspiration for mankind over so many generations. From the high vantage point of the Grail, these lectures give a complete and comprehensive overview of all life and activity in Creation, enabling those who genuinely seek for the Truth to joyfully find.
Excerpts from the lecture