Part 2 out of 4
is regarded with extreme reverence, as being a re-incarnation of
Nyakang, the semi-divine hero who settled the tribe in their present
territory. Nyakang is the rain-giver, on whom their life
and prosperity depend; there are several shrines in which sacred
Spears, now kept for sacrificial purposes, are preserved, the
originals, which were the property of Nyakang, having disappeared.
The King, though regarded with reverence, must not be allowed to
become old or feeble, lest, with the diminishing vigour of the ruler,
the cattle should sicken, and fail to bear increase, the crops should
rot in the field and men die in ever growing numbers. One of the
signs of failing energy is the King's inability to fulfil the desires
of his wives, of whom he has a large number. When this occurs the
wives report the fact to the chiefs, who condemn the King to death
forthwith, communicating the sentence to him by spreading a white
cloth over his face and knees during his mid-day slumber. Formerly
the King was starved to death in a hut, in company with a young maiden
but (in consequence, it is said, of the great vitality and protracted
suffering of one King) this is no longer done; the precise manner of
death is difficult to ascertain; Dr Seligmann, who was Sir
J. G. Frazer's authority, thinks that he is now strangled in a hut,
especially erected for that purpose.
At one time he might be attacked and slain by a rival, either of his
own family, or of that of one of the previous Kings, of whom there are
many, but this has long been superseded by the ceremonial slaying of
the monarch who after his death is revered as Nyakang.
This survival is of extraordinary interest; it presents us with a
curiously close parallel to the situation which, on the evidence of the
texts, we have postulated as forming the basic idea of the Grail
tradition--the position of a people whose prosperity, and the
fertility of their land, are closely bound up with the life and
virility of their King, who is not a mere man, but a Divine
re-incarnation. If he 'falls into languishment,' as does the Fisher
King in Perlesvaus, the land and its inhabitants will suffer
correspondingly; not only will the country suffer from drought, "Nus
près n'i raverdia," but the men will die in numbers:
"Dames en perdront lor maris"
we may say; the cattle will cease to bear increase:
"Ne se n'i ot beste faon,"
and the people take drastic steps to bring about a rejuvenation; the
old King dies, to be replaced by a young and vigorous successor, even
as Brons was replaced by Perceval.
Let us now turn back to the preceding chapter, and compare the
position of the people of the Shilluk tribe, and the subjects of the
Grail King, with that of the ancient Babylonians, as set forth in
their Lamentations for Tammuz.
There we find that the absence of the Life-giving deity was followed
by precisely the same disastrous consequences;
"The wailing is for the plants; the first lament is they grow not.
The wailing is for the barley; the ears grow not."
The reproductive energies of the animal kingdom are suspended--
"For the habitation of flocks it is; they produce not.
For the perishing wedded ones, for perishing children it is; the
dark-headed people create not."
Nor can we evade the full force of the parallel by objecting that we
are here dealing with a god, not with a man; we possess the recorded
names of 'kings who played the rôle of Tammuz,' thus even for that
early period the commingling of the two conceptions, god and king, is
Now in face of this group of parallels, whose close
correspondence, if we consider their separation in point of time (3000
B.C.; 1200 A.D.; and the present day), is nothing short of
astonishing, is it not absolutely and utterly unreasonable to admit
(as scholars no longer hesitate to do) the relationship between the
first and last, and exclude, as a mere literary invention, the
The ground for such a denial may be mere prejudice, a reluctance to
renounce a long cherished critical prepossession, but in the face of
this new evidence does it not come perilously close to scientific
dishonesty, to a disregard for that respect for truth in research
the imperative duty of which has been so finely expressed by the late
M. Gaston Paris.--"Je professe absolument et sans réserve cette doctrine,
que la science n'a d'autre objet que la vérité, et la vérité pour
elle-même, sans aucun souci des conséquences, bonnes ou mauvaises,
regrettables ou heureuses, que cette vérité pourrait avoir dans
la pratique." When we further consider that behind these three
main parallels, linking them together, there lies a continuous chain of
evidence, expressed alike in classical literature, and surviving Folk
practice, I would submit that there is no longer any shadow of a doubt
that in the Grail King we have a romantic literary version of that
strange mysterious figure whose presence hovers in the shadowy
background of the history of our Aryan race; the figure of a divine
or semi-divine ruler, at once god and king, upon whose life, and
unimpaired vitality, the existence of his land and people directly
And if we once grant this initial fact, and resolve that we will no
longer, in the interests of an outworn critical tradition, deny the
weight of scientific evidence in determining the real significance of
the story, does it not inevitably follow, as a logical sequence, that
such versions as fail to connect the misfortunes of the land directly
with the disability of the king, but make them dependent upon the
failure of the Quester, are, by that very fact, stamped as secondary
versions. That by this one detail, of capital importance, they
approve themselves as literary treatments of a traditional theme,
the true meaning of which was unknown to the author?
Let us for a moment consider what the opposite view would entail;
that a story which was originally the outcome of pure literary invention
should in the course of re-modelling have been accidentally brought
into close and detailed correspondence with a deeply rooted sequence
of popular faith and practice is simply inconceivable, the
re-modelling, if re-modelling there were, must have been intentional,
the men whose handiwork it was were in possession of the requisite
But how did they possess that knowledge, and why should they undertake
such a task? Surely not from the point of view of antiquarian
interest, as might be done to-day; they were no twelfth century
Frazers and Mannhardts; the subject must have had for them a more
living, a more intimate, interest. And if, in face of the evidence we
now possess, we feel bound to admit the existence of such knowledge,
is it not more reasonable to suppose that the men who first told the
story were the men who knew, and that the confusion was due to those
who, with more literary skill, but less first-hand information,
re-modelled the original theme?
In view of the present facts I would submit that the problem posed in
our first chapter may be held to be solved; that we accept as a fait
acquis the conclusion that the woes of the land are directly dependent
upon the sickness, or maiming, of the King, and in no wise caused by
the failure of the Quester. The 'Wasting of the land' must be held to
have been antecedent to that failure, and the Gawain versions in which
we find this condition fulfilled are, therefore, prior in origin to
the Perceval, in which the 'Wasting' is brought about by the action of
the hero; in some versions, indeed, has altogether disappeared from
Thus the position assigned in the versions to this feature of the
Waste Land becomes one of capital importance as a critical factor.
This is a point which has hitherto escaped the attention of scholars;
the misfortunes of the land have been treated rather as an accident,
than as an essential, of the Grail story, entirely subordinate in
interest to the dramatis personae of the tale, or the objects, Lance
and Grail, round which the action revolves. As a matter of fact I
believe that the 'Waste Land' is really the very heart of our problem;
a rightful appreciation of its position and significance will place us
in possession of the clue which will lead us safely through the most
bewildering mazes of the fully developed tale.
Since the above pages were written Dr Frazer has notified the
discovery of a second African parallel, equally complete, and
striking. In Folk-Lore (Vol. XXVI.) he prints, under the title
A Priest-King in Nigeria, a communication received from Mr P. A. Talbot,
District Commissioner in S. Nigeria. The writer states that the
dominant Ju-Ju of Elele, a town in the N.W. of the Degema district,
is a Priest-King, elected for a term of seven years. "The whole
prosperity of the town, especially the fruitfulness of farm, byre,
and marriage-bed, was linked with his life. Should he fall sick it
entailed famine and grave disaster upon the inhabitants." So soon as
a successor is appointed the former holder of the dignity is reported
to 'die for himself.' Previous to the introduction of ordered
government it is admitted that at any time during his seven years'
term of office the Priest might be put to death by any man
sufficiently strong and resourceful, consequently it is only on the
rarest occasions (in fact only one such is recorded) that the Ju-Ju
ventures to leave his compound. At the same time the riches derived
from the offerings of the people are so considerable that there is
never a lack of candidates for the office.
From this and the evidence cited above it would appear that the
institution was widely spread in Africa, and at the same time it
affords a striking proof in support of the essential soundness of
Dr Frazer's interpretation of the Priest of Nemi, an interpretation
which has been violently attacked in certain quarters, very largely
on the ground that no one would be found willing to accept an office
involving such direct danger to life. The above evidence shows
clearly that not only does such an office exist, but that it is by no
means an unpopular post.
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
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 naïve cults
addressed by a primitive folk to the beneficent deities of field
and wood and river, or the shadowy populace of its own dreams."
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
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
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." 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. 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?"
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
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-scène 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,
On this point Professor Brown's attempt to find in Irish tradition the
origin of the Grail symbols is distinctly more satisfactory.
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-scène.
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').
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. 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
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. 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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-scène, 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.
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 tailléor, or carving platter of silver, carried in the same
procession as the Grail; or there may be two small tailléors; finally,
a Sword appears in varying rôles in the story.
I have already referred to the fact, first pointed out by the late Mr
Alfred Nutt, 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
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?
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 façade 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
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
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, 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
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
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 Chrétien 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.
The Sword Dance
The subject we are now about to consider is one which of late years
has attracted considerable attention, and much acute criticism has
been expended on the question of its origin and significance.
Valuable material has been collected, but the studies, so far, have
been individual, and independent, the much needed travail d'ensemble
has not yet appeared.
One definite result has, however, been obtained; it is now generally
admitted that the so-called Sword Dances, with the closely related
Morris Dances, and Mumming Plays, are not mere survivals of martial
exercises, an inherited tradition from our warrior ancestors, but
were solemn, ceremonial (in some cases there is reason to believe,
Initiatory) dances, performed at stated seasons of the year, and
directly and intimately connected with the ritual of which we have
treated in previous chapters, a ritual designed to preserve and
promote the regular and ordered sequence of the processes of Nature.
And here, again, our enquiry must begin with the very earliest
records of our race, with the traditions of our Aryan forefathers.
The earliest recorded Sword Dancers are undoubtedly the Maruts, those
swift-footed youths in gleaming armour who are the faithful attendants
on the great god, Indra. Professor von Schroeder, in Mysterium und
Mimus, describes them thus: they are a group of youths of equal age
and identical parentage, they are always depicted as attired in the
same manner, "Sie sind reich und prächtig geschmückt, mit Goldschmuck
auf der Brust, mit Spangen an den Händen, Hirschfelle tragen sie auf
den Schultern. Vor allem aber sind sie kriegerisch gerüstet, funkelnde
Speere tragen sie in den Händen, oder auch goldene Äxte. Goldene
Harnische oder Mäntel umhüllen sie, goldene Helme schimmern auf ihren
Häuptern. Nie erscheinen sie ohne Wehr und Waffen. Es scheint dass
diese ganz und gar zu ihren Wesen gehören."
The writer goes on to remark that when such a band of armed youths,
all of the same age, always closely associated with each other, are
represented as Dancers, and always as Dancers--"dann haben wir
unabweislich das Bild eines Waffentanzes vor unseren Augen"--and
Professor von Schroeder is undoubtedly right.
Constantly throughout the Rig-Veda the Maruts are referred to as Dancers,
"gold-bedecked Dancers," "with songs of praise they danced round the
spring," "When ye Maruts spear-armed dance, they (i.e., the Heavens)
stream together like waves of water."
And a special moment for the dance of these glorious youths "ever
young brothers of whom none is elder, none younger" is that of the
ceremonial sacrifice, "sie tanzen auf ihren himmlischen Bahnen, sie
springen und tanzen auch bei den Opferfesten der Menschen."
The Maruts, as said above, were conceived of as the companions of
Indra, and helpers in his fight against his monstrous adversaries;
thus they were included in the sacrifices offered in honour of that
One of the most striking of the ritual Dramas reconstructed by
Professor von Schroeder is that which represents Indra as indignantly
rejecting the claim of the Maruts to share in such a sacrifice; they
had failed to support him in his conflict with the dragon, Vritra,
when by his might he loosed the waters, 'neither to-day, nor
to-morrow' will he accept a sacrifice of which they share the honour;
it requires all the tact of the Offerer, Agastya, and of the leader of
the Maruts to soothe the offended Deity.
Here I would draw attention to the significant fact that the feat
celebrated is that to which I have previously referred as the most
famous of all the deeds attributed to Indra, the 'Freeing of the
Waters,' and here the Maruts are associated with the god.
But they were also the objects of independent worship. They were
specially honoured at the Câturmâsya, the feasts which heralded the
commencement of the three seasons of four months each into which the
Indian year was divided, a division corresponding respectively to the
hot, the cool, and the wet, season. The advantages to be derived from
the worship of the Maruts may be deduced from the following extracts
from the Rig-Veda, which devotes more than thirty hymns to their
praise. "The adorable Maruts, armed with bright lances, and cuirassed
with golden breastplates, enjoy vigorous existence; may the cars of
the quick-moving Maruts arrive for our good." "Bringers of rain and
fertility, shedding water, augmenting food." "Givers of abundant
food." "Your milchkine are never dry." "We invoke the food-laden
chariots of the Maruts." Nothing can be clearer than this; the
Maruts are 'daimons' of fertility, the worship of whom will secure the
necessary supply of the fruits of the earth.
The close association of the Maruts with Indra, the great Nature god,
has led some scholars to regard them as personifications of a special
manifestation of Nature, as Wind-gods. Professor von Schroeder points
out that their father was the god Rudra, later known as Çiva, the god
of departed souls, and of fruitfulness, i.e., a Chthonian deity, and
suggests that the Maruts represent the "in Wind und Sturm dahinjagende
Seelenschar." He points out that the belief in a troop of departed
souls is an integral part of Aryan tradition, and classifies such
belief under four main headings.
1. Under the form of a spectral Hunt, the Wild Huntsman well known in
European Folk-lore. He equates this with Dionysus Zagreus, and the
Hunt of Artemis-Hekate.
2. That of a spectral Army, the souls of warriors slain in
fight. The Northern Einherier belong to this class, and the many
traditions of spectral combats, and ghostly battles, heard, but not
3. The conception of a host of women in a condition of ecstatic
exaltation bordering on madness, who appear girdled with snakes, or
hissing like snakes, tear living animals to pieces, and devour the
flesh. The classic examples here are the Greek Maenads, and the
Indian Senâs, who accompany Rudra.
4. The conception of a train of theriomorphic, phallic, demons of
fertility, with their companion group of fair women. Such are the
Satyrs and Nymphs of Greek, the Gandharvas and Apsaras of Indian,
To these four main groups may be added the belief among Germanic
peoples, also among the Letts, in a troop of Child Souls.
These four groups, in more or less modified forms, appear closely
connected with the dominant Spirit of Vegetation, by whatever name
that spirit may be known.
According to von Schroeder there was, among the Aryan peoples
generally, a tendency to regard the dead as assuming the character of
daimons of fertility. This view the learned Professor considers
to be at the root of the annual celebrations in honour of the
Departed, the 'Feast of Souls,' which characterized the commencement
of the winter season, and is retained in the Catholic conception of
November as the month of the Dead.
In any case we may safely conclude that the Maruts, represented as
armed youths, were worshipped as deities of fruitfulness; that their
dances were of a ceremonial character; and that they were, by nature
and origin, closely connected with spirits of fertility of a lower
order, such as the Gandharvas. It also appears probable that, if the
Dramas of which traces have been preserved in the Rig-Veda, were, as
scholars are now of opinion, once actually represented, the
mythological conception of the Maruts must have found its embodiment
in youths, most probably of the priestly caste, who played their rôle,
and actually danced the ceremonial Sword Dance. As von Schroeder says,
"Kein Zweifel dass sie dabei von menschlichen, resp. priesterlichen
Personen dargestellt wurden.
When we turn from the early Aryan to the classic Greek period we find
in the Kouretes, and in a minor degree in the Korybantes, a parallel
so extraordinarily complete, alike in action and significance, that an
essential identity of origin appears to be beyond doubt.
The Kouretes were, as their name indicates, a band of armed youths, of
semi-divine origin, "Kureten sind von Haus aus halb-göttlich
dämonische Wesen nicht nur menschliche Priester, oder deren mythische
Vertreter." Again, they are to be considered as "elementare
Urwesen," and as such of "Göttliche Abkunft." Preller regards
them as "Dämonen des Gebirgs," while a passage from Hesiod,
quoted by Strabo, equates them with nymphs and satyrs, i.e., fertility
When we remember that the Gandharvas are the Indian equivalent of the
Satyrs the close parallel between the Maruts and the Kouretes, both
alike bands of armed youths, of elementary origin, and connected with
beings of a lower grade, is striking.
The home of the Kouretes was in Crete, where they were closely
associated with the worship of the goddess Rhea. The traditional
story held that, in order to preserve the infant Zeus from destruction
by his father Kronos, they danced their famous Sword Dance round the
babe, overpowering his cries by the clash of their weapons.
Their dance was by some writers identified with the Pyrrhic dance,
first performed by Athene, in honour of her victory over the Giants,
and taught by her to the Kouretes. It had however, as we shall see, a
very distinct aim and purpose, and one in no way connected with
In Miss J. E. Harrison's deeply interesting volume, Themis, she
gives the translation of a fragmentary Hymn of the Kouretes, discovered
among the ruins of a temple in Crete, a text which places beyond all
doubt the fact that, however mythical in origin, the Kouretes,
certainly, had actual human representatives, and that while in the
case of the Maruts there may be a question as to whether their dance
actually took place, or not, so far as the Kouretes are concerned
there can be no such doubt.
The following is the text as preserved to us; the slabs on which it is
inscribed are broken, and there are consequent lacunae.
"Io, Kouros most great, I give thee hail, Kronian, lord of all that
is wet and gleaming, thou art come at the head of thy Daimones.
To Dikte for the year, Oh march, and rejoice in the dance and song,
"That we make to thee with harps and pipes mingled together, and sing
as we come to a stand at thy well-fenced altar.
"For here the shielded Nurturers took thee, a child immortal, from
Rhea, and with noise of beating feet hid thee away.
"And the Horai began to be fruitful year by year, and Dikè to possess
mankind and all wild living things were held about by wealth-loving
"And the Horai began to be fruitful year by year, and Dikè to possess
mankind and all wild living things were held about by wealth-loving
"To us also leap for full jars, and leap for fleecy flocks, and leap
for fields of fruit, and for hives to bring increase.
"Leap for our cities, and leap for our sea-borne ships, and leap for
our young citizens, and for goodly Themis."
This hymn is most extraordinarily interesting; it places beyond all doubt
what was the root intention of this ceremonial dance; it was designed
to stimulate the reproductive energies of Nature, to bring into being
fruitful fields, and vineyards, plenteous increase in the flocks and
herds, and to people the cities with youthful citizens; and the god is
entreated not merely to accept the worship offered, but himself to
join in the action which shall produce such fair results, to leap for
full jars, and fleecy flocks, and for youthful citizens.
The importance of movement, notably of what we may call group
movement, as a stimulant to natural energies, is thoroughly recognized
among primitive peoples; with them Dance holds a position equivalent
to that which, in more advanced communities, is assigned to Prayer.
Professor von Schroeder comments on this, "Es ist merkwürdig genug zu
sehen wie das Tanzen nach dem Glauben primitiver Völker eine ähnliche
Kraft und Bedeutung zu haben scheint wie man sie auf höheren
Kulturstufen dem inbrünstigen Gebete zuschreibt." He cites the case
of the Tarahumara Indians of Central America; while the family as a
whole are labouring in the fields it is the office of one man to dance
uninterruptedly on the dance place of the house; if he fails in his
office the labour of the others will be unsuccessful. The one sin of
which a Tarahumara Indian is conscious is that of not having danced
enough. Miss Harrison, in commenting on the dance of the Kouretes,
remarks that among certain savage tribes when a man is too old to
dance he hands on his dance to another. He then ceases to exist
socially; when he dies his funeral is celebrated with scanty rites;
having 'lost his dance' he has ceased to count as a social unit.
With regard to the connection of the Kouretes with the infant Zeus,
Miss Harrison makes the interesting suggestion that we have here a
trace of an Initiation Dance, analogous to those discussed by
M. Van Gennep in his Rites du Passage, that the original form was
Titan, 'White-clay men,' which later became Titan, 'Giants,' and she
draws attention to the fact that daubing the skin with white clay is
a frequent practice in these primitive rituals. To this I would add
that it is a noteworthy fact that in our modern survivals of these
dances the performers are, as a rule, dressed in white.
[*** Note: Weston's first "Titan" above had schwa accents over the vowels,
the second "Titan" had macron accents over the vowels. ***]
The above suggestion is of extreme significance, as it brings out the
possibility that these celebrations were not only concerned with the
prosperity of the community, as a whole, but may also have borne a
special, and individual, aspect, and that the idea of Initiation into
the group is closely connected with the ceremonial exercise of group
To sum up, there is direct proof that the classic Greeks, in common
with their Aryan forefathers, held the conception of a group of
Beings, of mythic origin, represented under the form of armed youths,
who were noted dancers, and whose activities were closely connected
with the processes of Nature. They recognized a relation between
these beings, and others of a less highly developed aspect, phallic
demons, often of theriomorphic form. Thus the dance of the Kouretes
should be considered as a ceremonial ritual action, rather than as a
warlike exercise; it was designed to promote the fruitfulness of the
earth, not to display the skill of the dancers in the handling of
weapons. When we turn to an analogous group, that of the Korybantes,
we find that, while presenting a general parallel to the Kouretes
(with whom they are often coupled in mythologies), they also possess
certain distinct characteristics, which form a connecting link with
other, and later, groups.
The Korybantes were of Phrygian origin, attached to the worship of
the goddess Kybele, and Attis, the well-known Phrygian counterpart to
the Phoenician Adonis, and originally the most important embodiment of
the Vegetation Spirit. Röscher considers them to be of identical
origin with the Kouretes, i.e., as elementary 'daimons,' but the
Korybantes of Classic art and tradition are undoubtedly human
beings. Priests of Kybele, they appear in surviving bas-reliefs in
company with that goddess, and with Attis.
The dance of the Korybantes is distinguished from that of the
Kouretes by its less restrained, and more orgiastic character; it was
a wild and whirling dance resembling that of the modern Dervishes,
accompanied by self-mutilation and an unrhythmic clashing of weapons,
designed, some writers think, to overpower the cries of the victims.
If this suggestion be correct it would seem to indicate that, if the
Dance of the Kouretes was originally an Initiation Dance, that of the
Korybantes was Sacrificial in character. We shall see later that
certain features in the surviving forms of the Sword Dance also point
in this direction.
The interest of the Korybantes for our investigation lies in the fact
that here again we have the Sword Dance in close and intimate
connection with the worship of the Vegetation Spirit, and there can be
no doubt that here, as elsewhere, it was held to possess a stimulating
A noticeable point in the modern survivals of these Dances is that the
Dance proper is combined with a more or less coherent dramatic action.
The Sword Dance originally did not stand alone, but formed part of a
Drama, to the action of which it may be held to have given a cumulative
On this point I would refer the reader to Professor von Schroeder's
book, where this aspect of the Dance is fully discussed.
We have already spoken of the Maruts, and their dramatic
connection with Indra; the Greek Dancers offer us no direct parallel,
though the connection of the Kouretes with the infant Zeus may quite
possibly indicate the existence in the original form of the Dance,
of a more distinctly dramatic element.
We have, however, in the Roman Salii a connecting link which proves
beyond all doubt that our modern dances, and analogous
representations, are in fact genuine survivals of primitive ceremonies,
and in no way a mere fortuitous combination of originally independent
The Salii formed a college of priests, twelve in number, dedicated to
the service of Mars, who, it is important to remember, was originally
a god of growth and vegetation, a Spring Deity, who bestowed his name
on the vernal month of March; only by degrees did the activities of
the god become specially connected with the domain of War.
There seem to have been two groups of Salii, one having their college
on the Palatine, the other on the Quirinal; the first were the more
important. The Quirinal group shared in the celebrations of the
latter part of the month only.
The first of March was the traditional birthday of Mars, and from that
date, during the whole of the month, the Salii offered sacrifices and
performed dances in his honour. They wore pointed caps, or helmets,
on their head, were girt with swords, and carried on the left arm
shields, copied from the 'ancilia' or traditional shield of Mars,
fabled to have fallen from heaven. In their right hand they bore a
Dionysus of Halicarnassus, in a passage describing the Salii, says,
"they carried in their right hand a spear, or staff, or something of
that sort." Miss Harrison, quoting this passage, gives a
reproduction of a bas-relief representing the Salii carrying what she
says "are clearly drumsticks." (As a matter of fact they very closely
resemble the 'Wands' which in the Tarot cards sometimes represent the
Miss Harrison suggests that the original shields were made of skins,
stretched upon a frame, and beaten by these 'drumsticks.' This may
quite well have been the case, and it would bear out my contention
that the original contact of weapon and shield was designed rather as
a rhythmic accompaniment to the Dance, than as a display of skill in
handling sword and lance, i.e., that these dances were not primarily
At the conclusion of their songs the Salii invoked Mamurius Veturius,
the smith who was fabled to have executed the copies of the original
shield, while on the 14th of March, a man, dressed in skins, and
supposed to represent the aforesaid smith, was led through the
streets, beaten by the Salii with rods, and thrust out of the city.
The following day, the 15th, was the feast of Anna Perenna, fabled
to be an old woman, to whom Mars had confided the tale of his love for
Nerio, and who, disguising herself as the maiden, had gone through the
ceremony of marriage with the god. This feast was held outside the
gates. On the 23rd the combined feast of Mars and Nerio was held with
great rejoicing throughout the city. Modern scholars have unanimously
recognized in Mamurius Veturius and Anna Perenna the representatives
of the Old Year, the Vegetation Spirit, and his female counterpart,
who, grown old, must yield place to the young god and his
correspondingly youthful bride. Reference to Chapter 5, where the
medieval and modern forms of this Nature ritual are discussed, and
instances of the carrying out of Winter, and ceremonial bringing in of
Spring, are given, will suffice to show how vital and enduring an
element in Folk-lore is this idea of driving out the Old Year, while
celebrating the birth of the New. Here then, again, we have a ritual
Sword Dance closely associated with the practice of a Nature cult;
there can, I think, be no doubt that ab initio the two were connected
with each other.
But the dance of the Salii with its dramatic Folk-play features forms
an interesting link between the classic Dance of the Kouretes, and the
modern English survivals, in which the dramatic element is strongly
marked. These English forms may be divided into three related groups,
the Sword Dance, the Morris Dance, and the Mumming Play. Of these the
Morris Dance stands somewhat apart; of identical origin, it has
discarded the dramatic element, and now survives simply as a Dance,
whereas the Sword Dance is always dramatic in form, and the Mumming
Play, acted by characters appearing also in the Sword Dance,
invariably contains a more or less elaborate fight.
The Sword Dance proper appears to have been preserved mostly in the
North of England, and in Scotland. Mr Cecil Sharp has found four
distinct varieties in Yorkshire alone. At one time there existed a
special variant known as the Giants' Dance, in which the leading
characters were known by the names of Wotan, and Frau Frigg; one
figure of this dance consisted in making a ring of swords round the
neck of a lad, without wounding him.
Mr E. K. Chambers has commented on this as the survival of a sacrificial
origin. The remarks of this writer on the Sword Dance in its
dramatic aspect are so much to the point that I quote them here. "The
Sword Dance makes its appearance, not like heroic poetry in
general, as part of the minstrel repertory, but as a purely popular
thing at the agricultural festivals. To these festivals we may
therefore suppose it to have originally belonged." Mr Chambers goes
on to remark that the dance of the Salii discussed above, was clearly
agricultural, "and belongs to Mars not as War god, but in his more
primitive quality of a fertilization Spirit."
In an Appendix to his most valuable book the same writer gives a full
description, with text, of the most famous surviving form of the Sword
Dance, that of Papa Stour (old Norwegian Pâpey in Stôra), one of the
The dance was performed at Christmas (Yule-tide). The dancers, seven
in number, represented the seven champions of Christendom; the leader,
Saint George, after an introductory speech, performed a solo dance, to
the music of an accompanying minstrel. He then presented his
comrades, one by one, each in turn going through the same performance.
Finally the seven together performed an elaborate dance. The complete
text of the speeches is given in the Appendix referred to.
The close connection between the English Sword Dance, and the Mumming
Play, is indicated by the fact that the chief character in these plays
is, generally speaking, Saint George. (The title has in some cases
become corrupted into King George.) In Professor von Schroeder's
opinion this is due to Saint George's legendary rôle as Dragon slayer,
and he sees in the importance assigned to this hero an argument in
favour of his theory that the "Slaying of the Dragon" was the
earliest Aryan Folk-Drama.
In Folk-Lore, Vol. X., a fully illustrated description of the Mumming
Play, as performed at Newbold, a village near Rugby, is given.
Here the characters are Father Christmas, Saint George, a Turkish
Knight, Doctor, Moll Finney (mother of the Knight), Humpty Jack,
Beelzebub, and 'Big-Head-and-Little-Wit.' These last three have no
share in the action proper, but appear in a kind of Epilogue,
accompanying a collection made by Beelzebub.
The Play is always performed at Christmas time, consequently Father
Christmas appears as stage-manager, and introduces the characters.
The action consists in a general challenge issued by Saint George, and
accepted by the Turkish Knight. A combat follows, in which the Turk
is slain. His mother rushes in, weeps over the body, and demands the
services of a Doctor, who appears accordingly, vaunts his skill in
lines interspersed with unintelligible gibberish, and restores the
Turk to life. In the version which used to be played throughout
Scotland at Hogmanay (New-Year-tide), the characters are Bol Bendo,
the King of France, the King of Spain, Doctor Beelzebub, Golishan, and
Sir Alexander. The fight is between Bol Bendo (who represents the
Saint George of the English version), and Golishan. The latter is
killed, and, on the demand of Sir Alexander (who acts as
stage-manager), revived by the doctor, this character, as in the
English version, interlarding the recital of his feats of healing
skill with unintelligible phrases. There is a general consensus
of opinion among Folk-lore authorities that in this rough drama, which
we find played in slightly modified form all over Europe (in
Scandinavia it is the Julbock, a man dressed in skins, who, after a
dramatic dance, is killed and revived), we have a symbolic
representation of the death and re-birth of the year; a counterpart to
those ceremonies of driving out Winter, and bringing in Spring, which
we have already described.
This chapter had already been written when an important article, by Dr
Jevons, entitled Masks and the Origin of the Greek Drama appeared in
Folk-Lore (Vol. XXVII.) The author, having discussed the different
forms of Greek Drama, and the variety of masks employed, decides that
"Greek Comedy originated in Harvest Festivals, in some ceremony in
which the Harvesters went about in procession wearing masks." This
ceremony he connects directly with the English Mumming Plays,
suggesting that "the characters represented on this occasion were the
Vegetation Spirit, and those who were concerned in bringing about his
revivification--in fine, Greek Comedy and the Mumming Play both sprang
from the rite of revivification." At a later stage of our enquiry we
shall have occasion to return to this point, and realize its great
importance for our theory.
The Morris Dances differ somewhat from the Sword, and Mumming Dances.
The performances as a rule take place in the Spring, or early Summer,
chiefly May, and Whitsuntide. The dances retain little or no trace of
dramatic action but are dances pure and simple. The performers,
generally six in number, are attired in white elaborately-pleated
shirts, decked with ribbons, white mole-skin trousers, with bells at
the knee, and beaver hats adorned with ribbons and flowers. The
leader carries a sword, on the point of which is generally impaled a
cake; during the dancing slices of this cake are distributed to the
lookers on, who are supposed to make a contribution to the 'Treasury,'
a money-box carried by an individual called the Squire, or Clown,
dressed in motley, and bearing in the other hand a stick with a
bladder at one end, and a cow's tail at the other.
In some forms of the dance there is a 'Lord' and a 'Lady,' who carry
'Maces' of office; these maces are short staves, with a transverse
piece at the top, and a hoop over it. The whole is decorated with
ribbons and flowers, and bears a curious resemblance to the Crux
Ansata. In certain figures of the dance the performers carry
handkerchiefs, in others, wands, painted with the colours of the
village to which they belong; the dances are always more or less
elaborate in form.
The costume of the 'Clown' (an animal's skin, or cap of skin with tail
pendant) and the special character assumed by the Maytide celebrations
in certain parts of England, e.g., Cornwall and Staffordshire,
would seem to indicate that, while the English Morris Dance has
dropped the dramatic action, the dancers not being designated by name,
and playing no special rôle, it has, on the other hand, retained the
theriomorphic features so closely associated with Aryan ritual, which
the Sword Dance, and Mumming Play, on their side, have lost.
A special note of these English survivals, and one to which I would
now draw attention, is the very elaborate character of the figures,
and the existence of a distinct symbolic element. I am informed that
the Sword dancers of to-day always, at the conclusion of a series of
elaborate sword-lacing figures, form the Pentangle; as they hold up
the sign they cry, triumphantly, "A Nut! A Nut!" The word Nut==Knot
(as in the game of 'Nuts, i.e., breast-knots, nosegays, in May').
They do this often even when performing a later form of the Mumming
I have already drawn attention to the fact that in Gawain and the
Green Knight the hero's badge is the Pentangle (or Pentacle), there
explained as called by the English 'the Endless Knot.' In the
previous chapter I have noted that the Pentangle frequently in the
Tarot suits replaces the Dish; in Mr Yeats's remarks, cited above, the
two are held to be interchangeable, one or the other always forms one
of the group of symbols.
In one form of the Morris Dance, that performed in Berkshire, the
leader, or 'Squire' of the Morris carries a Chalice! At the same time
he bears a Sword, and a bull's head at the end of a long pole. This
figure is illustrated in Miss Mary Neal's Esperance Morris Book.
Thus our English survivals of these early Vegetation ceremonies
preserve, in a more or less detached form, the four symbols discussed
in the preceding chapter, Grail, Sword, Lance, and Pentangle, or
Dish. It seems to me that, in view of the evidence thus offered, it
is not a very hazardous, or far-fetched hypothesis to suggest that
these symbols, the exact value of which, as a group, we cannot clearly
determine, but of which we know the two most prominent, Cup and Lance,
to be sex symbols, were originally 'Fertility' emblems, and as such
employed in a ritual designed to promote, or restore, the activity of
the reproductive energies of Nature.
As I have pointed out above an obvious dislocation has taken place in
our English survivals. Sword Dance, Mumming Play, and Morris Dance,
no longer form part of one ceremony, but have become separated, and
connected, on the one hand with the Winter, on the other with the
early Summer, Nature celebrations; it is thus not surprising that the
symbols should also have become detached. The fact that the three
groups manifestly form part of an original whole is an argument in
favour of the view that at one moment all the symbols were used
together, and the Grail chalice carried in a ceremony in which Sword,
Lance, and Pentangle, were also displayed.
But there is another point I would suggest. Is it not possible that,
in these armed youths, who were in some cases, notably in that of the
Salii, at once warriors and priests, we have the real origin of the
Grail Knights? We know now, absolutely, and indubitably, that these
Sword Dances formed an important part of the Vegetation ritual; is it
not easily within the bounds of possibility that, as the general
ceremonial became elevated, first to the rank of a Mystery Cult, and
then used as a vehicle for symbolic Christian teaching, the figures of
the attendant warrior-priests underwent a corresponding change? From
Salii to Templars is not after all so 'far a cry' as from the
glittering golden-armed Maruts, and the youthful leaping Kouretes, to
the grotesque tatterdemalion personages of the Christmas Mumming
Play. We have learnt to acknowledge the common origin of these two
latter groups; may we not reasonably contemplate a possible relation
existing between the two first named?
The Medicine Man
In previous chapters I have referred to the part played by the Doctor
in a large number of the surviving 'Fertility' ceremonies, and to the
fact, noted by other writers, that even where an active share is no
longer assigned to the character, he still appears among the dramatis
personae of these Folk-plays and processions. We will now examine
more closely the rôle allotted to this mysterious personage; we shall
find it to be of extreme antiquity and remarkable significance.
In the interesting and important work by Professor von Schroeder, to
which I have already often referred, we find the translation of a
curious poem (Rig-Veda, 10. 97), a monologue placed in the mouth of a
Doctor, or Medicine Man, who vaunts the virtue of his herbs, and their
power to cure human ills. From the references made to a special
sick man von Schroeder infers that this poem, like others in the
collection, was intended to be acted, as well as recited, and that the
personage to be healed, evidently present on the scene, was probably
represented by a dummy, as no speeches are allotted to the character.
The entire poem consists of 23 verses of four lines each, and is
divided by the translator into three distinct sections; the first is
devoted to the praise of herbs in general, their power to cure the
sick man before them, and at the same time to bring riches to the
Healer--the opening verses run:
"Die Kräuter alt, entsprossen einst
Drei Alter vor den Göttern noch,
Die braunen will Ich preisen jetzt!
Hundert und sieben Arten sinds.
"Ja, hundert Arten, Mütterlein,
Und tausend Zweige habt ihr auch,
Ihr, die ihr hundert Kräfte habt,
Macht diesen Menschen mir gesund.
"Ihr Kräuter hört, ihr Mütterchen,
Ihr göttlichen, das sag ich euch:
Ross, Rind und Kleid gewänn' ich gern
Und auch dein Leben, lieber Mann!
Fürwahr ihr bringt mir Rinder ein,
Wenn ihr ihn rettet diesen Mann."
He then praises the power of all herbs:
"Vom Himmel kam der Kräuter Schar
Geflogen, und da sprechen sie;
Wen wir noch lebend treffen an
Der Mann soll frei von Schaden sein."
Finally the speaker singles out one herb as superior to all others:
"Die Kräuter viel in Soma's Reich
Die hundertfach verständigen,
Von denen bist das beste du
Erfüllst den Wunsch, und heilst das Herz."
He conjures all other herbs to lend their virtue to this special
"Ihr Kräuter all' in Soma's Reich
Verbreitet auf der Erde hin,
Ihr, von Brihaspati erzeugt,
Gebt diesem Kraute eure Kraft!
"Nicht nehme Schaden, der euch gräbt,
Noch der, für Welchen Ich euch grub!
Bei uns soll Alles, Mensch, und Vieh,
Gesund und ohne Schaden sein.
"Ihr, die ihr höret dies mein Wort,
Ihr, die ihr in der Ferne seid,
Ihr Pflanzen all', vereignet euch,
Gebt diesem Kraute eure Kraft!"
And the herbs, taking counsel together with Soma their king, answer:
"Für Wen uns ein Brahmane braucht
Den, König, wollen retten wir,"
a line which throws a light upon the personality of the speaker; he is
obviously a Brahmin, and the Medicine Man here, as elsewhere, unites
the functions of Priest and Healer.
Professor von Schroeder suggests that this Dramatic Monologue formed
part of the ceremonies of a Soma feast, that it is the Soma plant from
which the heavenly drink is brewed which is to be understood as the
first of all herbs and the curer of all ills, and the reference to
Soma as King of the herbs seems to bear out this suggestion.
In a previous chapter I have referred to a curious little poem,
also found in the Rig-Veda, and translated by von Schroeder under the
title A Folk-Procession at a Soma-Feast, the dramatis personae of the
poem offering, as I pointed out, a most striking and significant
parallel to certain surviving Fertility processions, notably that of
Värdegötzen in Hanover. In this little song which von Schroeder places
in the mouth of the leader of the band of maskers, the Doctor is twice
referred to; in the opening lines we have the Brahmin, the Doctor, the
Carpenter, the Smith, given as men plying different trades, and each
and all in search of gain; in the final verse the speaker announces,
"I am a Poet (or Singer), my father a Doctor." Thus of the various
trades and personages enumerated the Doctor alone appears twice over,
an indication of the importance attached to this character.
Unfortunately, in view of the fragmentary condition of the survivals
of early Aryan literature, and the lack of explanatory material at our
disposal, it is impossible to decide what was the precise rôle
assigned to the 'Medicine Man'; judging from the general character of
the surviving dramatic fragments and the close parallel which exists
between these fragments and the Medieval and Modern Fertility
ceremonies, it seems extremely probable that his original rôle was
identical with that assigned to his modern counterpart, i.e., that of
restoring to life or health the slain, or suffering, representative of
the Vegetation Spirit.
This presumption gains additional support from the fact that it is in
this character that the Doctor appears in Greek Classical Drama. Von
Schroeder refers to the fact that the Doctor was a stock figure in the
Greek 'Mimus' and in Mr Cornford's interesting volume entitled The
Origin of Attic Comedy, the author reckons the Doctor among the stock
Masks of the early Greek Theatre, and assigns to this character the
precise rôle which later survivals have led us to attribute to him.
The significance of Mr Cornford's work lies in the fact that, while he
accepts Sir Gilbert Murray's deeply interesting and suggestive theory
that the origins of Greek Tragedy are to be sought in "the Agon of the
Fertility Spirit, his Pathos, and Theophany," he contends that a
similar origin may be postulated for Attic Comedy--that the stock
Masks (characters) agree with a theory of derivation of such Comedy
from a ritual performance celebrating the renewal of the seasons.
"They were at first serious, and even awful, figures in a Religious
Mystery, the God who every year is born, and dies, and rises again;
his Mother and his Bride; the Antagonist who kills him; the Medicine
Man who restores him to life."
I would submit that the presence of such a character in the original
ritual drama of Revival which, on my theory, underlies the romantic
form of the Grail legend, may, in view of the above evidence, and of
that brought forward in the previous chapters, be accepted as at least
a probable hypothesis.
But, it may be objected, granting that the Doctor in these Fertility
processions and dramas represents a genuine survival of a feature of
immemorial antiquity, a survival to be traced alike in Aryan remains,
in Greek literature, and in Medieval ceremony, what is the precise
bearing upon the special subject of our investigations? There is no
Doctor in the Grail legend, although there is certainly abundant scope
for his activities!
There may be no Doctor in the Grail legend to-day, but was there never
such a character? How if this be the key to explain the curious and
persistent attribution of healing skill to so apparently unsuitable a
personage as Sir Gawain? I would draw the attention of my readers to a
passage in the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, where Gawain, finding a
wounded knight by the roadside, proceeds to treat him:
"Et Mesire Gauvain savoit
Plus que nuls homs de garir plaie;
Une herbe voit en une haie
Trop bonne pour douleur tolir
De plaie, et il la va cueillir."
Other MSS. are rather fuller:
"Et Messires Gauvain savoit
Plus que nus hons vivant de plaies,
Unes herbe voit les une haies
Qu'il connoissoit lonc temps avoit
Que son mestre apris li avoit
Enseigniee et bien moustree,
Et il l'avoit bien esgardee
Si l'a molt bien reconneue."
We find reference to Gawain's possession of medical knowledge
elsewhere. In the poem entitled Lancelot et le cerf au pied blanc,
Gawain, finding his friend desperately wounded, carries him to a
physician whom he instructs as to the proper treatment.
"Ende Walewein wiesde den Ersatere mere
Ene const, die daertoe halp wel sere."
In the parallel adventure related in Morien Gawain heals Lancelot
without the aid of any physician:
"Doe was Walewein harde blide
Ende bant hem sine wonden ten tide
Met selken crude die daer dochten
Dat si niet bloden mochten."
They ride to an anchorite's cell:
"Si waren doe in dire gedochten
Mochten sie daer comen tier stont
Datten Walewein soude maken gesont."
The Dutch Lancelot has numerous references to Gawain's skill in
healing. Of course the advocates of the originality of Chrétien
de Troyes will object that these references, though found in poems
which have no connection with Chrétien, and which are translations
from lost French originals of an undetermined date, are one and all
loans from the more famous poem. This, however, can hardly be
contended of the Welsh Triads; there we find Gwalchmai, the Welsh
Gawain, cited as one of the three men "To whom the nature of every
object was known," an accomplishment exceedingly necessary for
a 'Medicine Man,' but not at first sight especially needful for the
equipment of a knight. This persistent attribution of healing
skill is not, so far as my acquaintance with medieval Romance goes,
paralleled in the case of any other knight; even Tristan, who is
probably the most accomplished of heroes of romance, the most
thoroughly trained in all branches of knightly education, is not
credited with any such knowledge. No other knight, save Gawain,
has the reputation of a Healer, yet Gawain, the Maidens' Knight,
the 'fair Father of Nurture' is, at first sight, hardly the personage
one might expect to possess such skill. Why he should be so
persistently connected with healing was for long a problem to me;
recently, however, I have begun to suspect that we have in this
apparently motiveless attribution the survival of an early stage
of tradition in which not only did Gawain cure the Grail King,
but he did so, not by means of a question, or by the welding of
a broken sword, but by more obvious and natural means, the
administration of a healing herb. Gawain's character of Healer
belongs to him in his rôle of Grail Winner.
Some years ago, in the course of my reading, I came across a passage
in which certain knights of Arthur's court, riding through a forest,
come upon a herb 'which belonged to the Grail.' Unfortunately the
reference, at the time I met with it, though it struck me as curious,
did not possess any special significance, and either I omitted to
make a note of it, or entered it in a book which, with sundry others,
went mysteriously astray in the process of moving furniture. In
any case, though I have searched diligently I have failed to recover
the passage, but I note it here in the hope that one of my reader
may be more fortunate.
It is perhaps not without significance that a mention of Peredur
(Perceval) in Welsh poetry may also possibly contain a reference to
his healing office. I refer to the well-known Song of the Graves in
the Black Book of Carmarthen where the grave of Mor, son of Peredur
Penwetic, is referred to. According to Dr G. Evans the word penwedic,
or perfeddyg, as it may also be read, means chief Healer. Peredur,
it is needless to say, is the Welsh equivalent of Perceval, Gawain's
successor and supplanter in the rôle of Grail hero.
I have no desire to press the point unduly, but it is certainly
significant that, entirely apart from any such theory of the evolution
of the Grail legend as that advanced in these pages, a Welsh scholar
should have suggested a rendering of the title of the Grail hero which
is in complete harmony with that theory; a rendering also which places
him side by side with his compatriot Gwalchmai, even as the completely
evolved Grail story connects him with Gawain. In any case there is
food for reflection in the fact that the possibility of such an
origin once admitted, the most apparently incongruous, and
inharmonious, elements of the story show themselves capable of a
natural and unforced explanation.
In face of the evidence above set forth it seems impossible to deny
that the Doctor, or Medicine Man, did, from the very earliest ages,
play an important part in Dramatic Fertility Ritual, that he still
survives in the modern Folk-play, the rude representative of the early
ritual form, and it is at least possible that the attribution of
healing skill to so romantic and chivalrous a character as Sir Gawain
may depend upon the fact that, at an early, and pre-literary stage of
his story, he played the rôle traditionally assigned to the Doctor,
that of restoring to life and health the dead, or wounded,
representative of the Spirit of Vegetation.
If I am right in my reading of this complicated problem the
mise-en-scène of the Grail story was originally a loan from a ritual
actually performed, and familiar to those who first told the tale.
This ritual, in its earlier stages comparatively simple and
objective in form, under the process of an insistence upon the inner
and spiritual significance, took upon itself a more complex and
esoteric character, the rite became a Mystery, and with this change
the rôle of the principal actors became of heightened
significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately
fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation
of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the
Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer; and his task involved more
than the administration of the original Herbal remedy. In fact in
the final development of the story the Pathos is shared alike by the
representative of the Vegetation Spirit, and the Healer, whose task
involves a period of stern testing and probation.
If we wish to understand clearly the evolution of the Grail story
we must realize that the simple Fertility Drama from which it sprung
has undergone a gradual and mysterious change, which has invested it
with elements at once 'rich and strange,' and that though Folk-lore
may be the key to unlock the outer portal of the Grail castle it will
not suffice to give us the entrance to its deeper secrets.
APPENDIX TO CHAPTER VIII
While having no connection with the main subject of our study, the
Grail legend, I should like to draw the attention of students of
Medieval literature to the curious parallel between the Rig-Veda poem
of the Medicine Man or Kräuter-Lied as it is also called, and
Rusteboeuf's Dist de l'Erberie. Both are monologues, both presuppose
the presence of an audience, in each case the speaker is one who
vaunts his skill in the use of herbs, in each case he has in view the
ultimate gain to himself. Here are the opening lines of the Medieval
"Seignor qui ci estes venu
Petit et grant, jone et chenu,
Il vos est trop bien avenu
Sachiez de voir;
Je ne vos vueil pas deçevoir
Bien le porroz aperçevoir
Ainz que m'en voise.
Asiez vos, ne fetes noise
Si escotez s'il ne vos poise
Je sui uns mires."
He has been long with the lord of Caire, where he won much gold;
in Puille, Calabre, Luserne.
"Ai herbes prises
Qui de granz vertuz sont enprises
Sus quelque mal qu'el soient mises
Le maus s'enfuit."
There is no reference in the poem to a cure about to be performed in
the presence of the audience, which does not however exclude the
possibility of such cure being effected.
It would be interesting to know under what circumstances such a poem
was recited, whether it formed part of a popular representation. The
audience in view is of a mixed character, young and old, great and
small, and one has a vision of the Quack Doctor at some village fair,
on the platform before his booth, declaiming the virtues of his
nostrums before an audience representative of all ranks and ages. It
is a far cry from such a Medieval scene to the prehistoric days of the
Rig-Veda, but the mise-en-scène is the same; the popular 'seasonal'
feast, the Doctor with his healing herbs, which he vaunts in skilful
rhyme, the hearers, drawn from all ranks, some credulous, some amused.
There seems very little doubt that both poems are specimens, and very
good specimens, of a genre the popularity and vitality of which are
commensurate with the antiquity of its origin.
The Fisher King
The gradual process of our investigation has led us to the conclusion
that the elements forming the existing Grail legend--the setting of
the story, the nature of the task which awaits the hero, the symbols
and their significance--one and all, while finding their counterpart
in prehistoric record, present remarkable parallels to the extant
practice and belief of countries so widely separate as the British
Isles, Russia, and Central Africa.
The explanation of so curious a fact, for it is a fact, and not
a mere hypothesis, may, it was suggested, most probably be found
in the theory that in this fascinating literature we have the,
sometimes partially understood, sometimes wholly misinterpreted,
record of a ritual, originally presumed to exercise a
life-giving potency, which, at one time of universal observance,
has, even in its decay, shown itself possessed of elements of the
most persistent vitality.
That if the ritual, which according to our theory lies at the root
of the Grail story, be indeed the ritual of a Life Cult, it should,
in and per se, possess precisely these characteristics, will, I think,
be admitted by any fair-minded critic; the point of course is, can
we definitely prove our theory, i.e., not merely point to striking
parallels, but select, from the figures and incidents composing our
story, some one element, which, by showing itself capable of
explanation on this theory, and on this theory alone, may be held to
afford decisive proof of the soundness of our hypothesis?
It seems to me that there is one such element in the bewildering
complex, by which the theory can be thus definitely tested, that is
the personality of the central figure and the title by which he is
known. If we can prove that the Fisher King, qua Fisher King, is an
integral part of the ritual, and can be satisfactorily explained alike
by its intention, and inherent symbolism, we shall, I think, have
taken the final step which will establish our theory upon a sure
basis. On the other hand, if the Fisher King, qua Fisher King, does
not fit into our framework we shall be forced to conclude that, while
the provenance of certain elements of the Grail literature is
practically assured, the ensemble has been complicated by the
introduction of a terminology, which, whether the outcome of serious
intention, or of mere literary caprice, was foreign to the original
source, and so far, defies explanation. In this latter case our theory
would not necessarily be manqué, but would certainly be seriously
We have already seen that the personality of the King, the nature of
the disability under which he is suffering, and the reflex effect exercised
upon his folk and his land, correspond, in a most striking manner, to
the intimate relation at one time held to exist between the ruler and
his land; a relation mainly dependent upon the identification of the
King with the Divine principle of Life and Fertility.
This relation, as we have seen above, exists to-day among certain
If we examine more closely into the existing variants of our romances,
we shall find that those very variants are not only thoroughly dans le
cadre of our proposed solution, but also afford a valuable, and
hitherto unsuspected, indication of the relative priority of the
In Chapter I, I discussed the task of the hero in general, here I
propose to focus attention upon his host, and while in a measure
traversing the same ground, to do so with a view to determining
the true character of this enigmatic personage.
In the Bleheris version, the lord of the castle is suffering
under no disability whatever; he is described as "tall, and strong
of limb, of no great age, but somewhat bald." Besides the King there
is a Dead Knight upon a bier, over whose body Vespers for the Dead
are solemnly sung. The wasting of the land, partially restored by
Gawain's question concerning the Lance, has been caused by the
'Dolorous Stroke,' i.e., the stroke which brought about the death
of the Knight, whose identity is here never revealed. Certain
versions which interpolate the account of Joseph of Arimathea and
the Grail, allude to 'Le riche Pescheur' and his heirs as Joseph's
descendants, and, presumably, for it is not directly stated,
guardians of the Grail, but the King himself is here never
called by that title. From his connection with the Waste Land it
seems more probable that it was the Dead Knight who filled that rôle.
In the second version of which Gawain is the hero, that of Diû
Crône, the Host is an old and infirm man. After Gawain has asked
the question we learn that he is really dead, and only compelled to
retain the semblance of life till the task of the Quester be achieved.
Here, again, he is not called the Fisher King.
In the Perceval versions, on the contrary, we find the name invariably
associated with him, but he is not always directly connected with the
misfortunes which have fallen upon his land. Thus, while the Wauchier
texts are incomplete, breaking off at the critical moment of asking
the question, Manessier who continues, and ostensibly completes,
Wauchier, introduces the Dead Knight, here Goondesert, or Gondefer
(which I suspect is the more correct form), brother of the King, whose
death by treachery has plunged the land in misery, and been the direct
cause of the self-wounding of the King. The healing of the King
and the restoration of the land depend upon Perceval's slaying the
murderer Partinal. These two versions show a combination of Perceval
and Gawain themes, such as their respective dates might lead us to
Robert de Borron is the only writer who gives a clear, and tolerably
reasonable, account of why the guardian of the Grail bears the title
of Fisher King; in other cases, such as the poems of Chrétien and
Wolfram, the name is connected with his partiality for fishing, an
obviously post hoc addition.
The story in question is found in Borron's Joseph of Arimathea.
Here we are told how, during the wanderings of that holy man and his
companions in the wilderness, certain of the company fell into sin.
By the command of God, Brons, Joseph's brother-in-law, caught a Fish,
which, with the Grail, provided a mystic meal of which the unworthy
cannot partake; thus the sinners were separated from the righteous.
Henceforward Brons was known as 'The Rich Fisher.' It is noteworthy,
however, that in the Perceval romance, ascribed to Borron, the title
is as a rule, Roi Pescheur, not Riche Pescheur.
In this romance the King is not suffering from any special malady, but
is the victim of extreme old age; not surprising, as he is Brons
himself, who has survived from the dawn of Christianity to the days of
King Arthur. We are told that the effect of asking the question will
be to restore him to youth; as a matter of fact it appears to bring
about his death, as he only lives three days after his restoration.
When we come to Chrétien's poem we find ourselves confronted with a
striking alteration in the presentment. There are, not one, but two,
disabled kings; one suffering from the effects of a wound, the other
in extreme old age. Chrétien's poem being incomplete we do not know
what he intended to be the result of the achieved Quest, but we may I
think reasonably conclude that the wounded King at least was
The Parzival of von Eschenbach follows the same tradition, but is
happily complete. Here we find the wounded King was healed, but what
becomes of the aged man (here the grandfather, not as in Chrétien the
father, of the Fisher King) we are not told.
The Perlesvaus is, as I have noted above, very unsatisfactory.
The illness of the King is badly motivated, and he dies before the
achievement of the Quest. This romance, while retaining certain
interesting, and undoubtedly primitive features, is, as a whole, too
late, and remaniée a redaction to be of much use in determining the
question of origins.
The same may be said of the Grand Saint Graal and Queste versions,
both of which are too closely connected with the prose Lancelot, and
too obviously intended to develope and complete the données of that
romance to be relied upon as evidence for the original form of the
Grail legend. The version of the Queste is very confused: there
are two kings at the Grail castle, Pelles, and his father; sometimes
the one, sometimes the other, bears the title of Roi Pescheur.
There is besides, an extremely old, and desperately wounded, king,
Mordrains, a contemporary of Joseph, who practically belongs, not to
the Grail tradition, but to a Conversion legend embodied in the Grand
Saint Graal. Finally, in the latest cyclic texts, we have three
Kings, all of whom are wounded.
The above will show that the presentment of this central figure is much
confused; generally termed Le Roi Pescheur, he is sometimes described
as in middle life, and in full possession of his bodily powers.
Sometimes while still comparatively young he is incapacitated by the
effects of a wound, and is known also by the title of Roi Mehaigné, or
Maimed King. Sometimes he is in extreme old age, and in certain
closely connected versions the two ideas are combined, and we have a
wounded Fisher King, and an aged father, or grandfather. But I would
draw attention to the significant fact that in no case is the Fisher
King a youthful character; that distinction is reserved for his
Healer, and successor.
Now is it possible to arrive at any conclusion as to the relative
value and probable order of these conflicting variants? I think that
if we admit that they do, in all probability, represent a more or less
coherent survival of the Nature ritual previously discussed, we may,
by help of what we know as to the varying forms of that ritual, be
enabled to bring some order out of this confusion.
If we turn back to Chapters 4, 5, and 7, and consult the evidence
there given as to the Adonis cults, the Spring Festivals of European
Folk, the Mumming Plays of the British Isles, the main fact that
emerges is that in the great majority of these cases the
representative of the Spirit of Vegetation is considered as dead, and
the object of these ceremonies is to restore him to life. This I hold
to be the primary form.
This section had already been written when I came across the important
article by Dr Jevons, referred to in a previous chapter. Certain
of his remarks are here so much to the point that I cannot refrain
from quoting them. Speaking of the Mumming Plays, the writer says:
"The one point in which there is no variation is that--the character
is killed and brought to life again. The play is a ceremonial
performance, or rather it is the development in dramatic form of what
was originally a religious or magical rite, representing or realizing
the revivification of the character slain. This revivification is the
one essential and invariable feature of all the Mummer's plays in
In certain cases, e.g., the famous Roman Spring festival of Mamurius
Veturius and the Swabian ceremony referred to above, the central
figure is an old man. In no case do I find that the representative of
Vegetation is merely wounded, although the nature of the ritual would
obviously admit of such a variant.
Thus, taking the extant and recognized forms of the ritual into
consideration, we might expect to find that in the earliest, and least
contaminated, version of the Grail story the central figure would be
dead, and the task of the Quester that of restoring him to life.
Viewed from this standpoint the Gawain versions (the priority of which
is maintainable upon strictly literary grounds, Gawain being the
original Arthurian romantic hero) are of extraordinary interest.
In the one form we find a Dead Knight, whose fate is distinctly stated
to have involved his land in desolation, in the other, an aged man who,
while preserving the semblance of life, is in reality dead.
This last version appears to me, in view of our present knowledge,
to be of extreme critical value. There can, I think, be little doubt
that in the primary form underlying our extant versions the King was
dead, and restored to life; at first, I strongly suspect, by the
agency of some mysterious herb, or herbs, a feature retained in
certain forms of the Mumming play.
In the next stage, that represented by Borron, he is suffering from
extreme old age, and the task of the Quester is to restore him to
youth. This version is again supported by extant parallels. In each
of these cases it seems most probable that the original ritual
(I should wish it to be clearly understood that I hold the Grail
story to have been primarily dramatic, and actually performed)
involved an act of substitution. The Dead King in the first case
being probably represented by a mere effigy, in the second being
an old man, his place was, at a given moment of the ritual, taken by
the youth who played the rôle of the Quester. It is noteworthy that,
while both Perceval and Galahad are represented as mere lads, Gawain,
whatever his age at the moment of the Grail quest, was, as we learn
from Diû Crône, dowered by his fairy Mistress with the gift of eternal
The versions of Chrétien and Wolfram, which present us with a wounded
Fisher King, and a father, or grandfather, in extreme old age,
are due in my opinion to a literary device, intended to combine two
existing variants. That the subject matter was well understood by the
original redactor of the common source is proved by the nature of the
injury, but I hold that in these versions we have passed from the
domain of ritual to that of literature. Still, we have a curious
indication that the Wounding variant may have had its place in the
former. The suggestion made above as to the probable existence in the
primitive ritual of a substitution ceremony, seems to me to provide a
possible explanation of the feature found alike in Wolfram, and in the
closely allied Grail section of Sone de Nansai; i.e., that the wound
of the King was a punishment for sin, he had conceived a passion for a
Pagan princess. Now there would be no incongruity in representing
the Dead King as reborn in youthful form, the aged King as revenu dans
sa juvence, but when the central figure was a man in the prime of life
some reason had to be found, his strength and vitality being restored,
for his supersession by the appointed Healer. This supersession was
adequately motivated by the supposed transgression of a fundamental
Christian law, entailing as consequence the forfeiture of his crown.
I would thus separate the doubling theme, as found in Chrétien and
Wolfram, from the wounded theme, equally common to these poets. This
latter might possibly be accounted for on the ground of a ritual
variant; the first is purely literary, explicable neither on the
exoteric, nor the esoteric, aspect of the ceremony. From the exoteric
point of view there are not, and there cannot be, two Kings suffering
from parallel disability; the ritual knows one Principle of Life, and
one alone. Equally from the esoteric standpoint Fisher King, and
Maimed King, representing two different aspects of the same
personality, may, and probably were, represented as two individuals,
but one alone is disabled. Further, as the two are, in very truth,
one, they should be equals in age, not of different generations.
Thus the Bleheris version which gives us a Dead Knight, presumably,
from his having been slain in battle, still in vigorous manhood, and
a hale King is, ritually, the more correct. The original of
Manessier's version must have been similar, but the fact that by the
time it was compiled the Fisher King was generally accepted as being
also the Maimed King led to the introduction of the very awkward, and
poorly motivated, self-wounding incident. It will be noted that in
this case the King is not healed either at the moment of the slaying
of his brother's murderer (which would be the logical result of the
données of the tale), nor at the moment of contact with the successful
Quester, but at the mere announcement of his approach.
Thus, if we consider the King, apart from his title, we find that
alike from his position in the story, his close connection with the
fortunes of his land and people, and the varying forms of the
disability of which he is the victim, he corresponds with remarkable
exactitude to the central figure of a well-recognized Nature ritual,
and may therefore justly be claimed to belong ab origine to such a
But what about his title, why should he be called the Fisher King?
Here we strike what I hold to be the main crux of the problem, a
feature upon which scholars have expended much thought and ingenuity,
a feature which the authors of the romances themselves either did not
always understand, or were at pains to obscure by the introduction of
the obviously post hoc "motif" above referred to, i.e., that he was
called the Fisher King because of his devotion to the pastime of
fishing: à-propos of which Heinzel sensibly remarks, that the story of
the Fisher King "presupposes a legend of this personage only vaguely
known and remembered by Chrétien."
Practically the interpretations already attempted fall into two main
groups, which we may designate as the Christian-Legendary, and the
Celtic-Folk-lore interpretations. For those who hold that the Grail
story is essentially, and fundamentally, Christian, finding its root
in Eucharistic symbolism, the title is naturally connected with the
use of the Fish symbol in early Christianity: the Icthys anagram, as
applied to Christ, the title 'Fishers of Men,' bestowed upon the
Apostles, the Papal ring of the Fisherman--though it must be noted
that no manipulation of the Christian symbolism avails satisfactorily
to account for the lamentable condition into which the bearer of the
title has fallen.
The advocates of the Folk-lore theory, on the other hand, practically
evade this main difficulty, by basing their interpretation upon
Borron's story of the catching of the Fish by Brons, equating this
character with the Bran of Welsh tradition, and pointing to the
existence, in Irish and Welsh legend, of a Salmon of Wisdom, the
tasting of whose flesh confers all knowledge. Hertz acutely remarks
that the incident, as related by Borron, is not of such importance as
to justify the stress laid upon the name, Rich Fisher, by later
writers. We may also note in this connection that the Grail
romances never employ the form 'Wise Fisher,' which, if the origin of
the name were that proposed above, we might reasonably expect to find.
It is obvious that a satisfactory solution of the problem must be
In my opinion the key to the puzzle is to be found in the rightful
understanding of the Fish-Fisher symbolism. Students of the Grail
literature have been too prone to treat the question on the Christian
basis alone, oblivious of the fact that Christianity did no more than
take over, and adapt to its own use, a symbolism already endowed with
a deeply rooted prestige and importance.
So far the subject cannot be said to have received adequate treatment;
certain of its aspects have been more or less fully discussed in
monographs and isolated articles, but we still await a comprehensive
study on this most important question.
So far as the present state of our knowledge goes we can affirm with
certainty that the Fish is a Life symbol of immemorial antiquity, and
that the title of Fisher has, from the earliest ages, been associated
with Deities who were held to be specially connected with the origin
and preservation of Life.
In Indian cosmogony Manu finds a little fish in the water in which
he would wash his hands; it asks, and receives, his protection,
asserting that when grown to full size it will save Manu from the
universal deluge. This is Jhasa, the greatest of all fish.
The first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator is a Fish. At the great feast
in honour of this god, held on the twelfth day of the first month of
the Indian year, Vishnu is represented under the form of a golden
Fish, and addressed in the following terms: "Wie Du, O Gott, in
Gestalt eines Fisches die in der Unterwelt befindlichen Veden gerettet
hast, so rette auch mich." The Fish Avatar was afterwards
transferred to Buddha.
In Buddhist religion the symbols of the Fish and Fisher are freely
employed. Thus in Buddhist monasteries we find drums and gongs in the
shape of a fish, but the true meaning of the symbol, while still
regarded as sacred, has been lost, and the explanations, like the
explanations of the Grail romances, are often fantastic afterthoughts.
In the Mahayana scriptures Buddha is referred to as the Fisherman who
draws fish from the ocean of Samsara to the light of Salvation. There
are figures and pictures which represent Buddha in the act of fishing,
an attitude which, unless interpreted in a symbolic sense, would be
utterly at variance with the tenets of the Buddhist religion.
This also holds good for Chinese Buddhism. The goddess Kwanyin
(==Avalokitesvara), the female Deity of Mercy and Salvation, is
depicted either on, or holding, a Fish. In the Han palace of
Kun-Ming-Ch'ih there was a Fish carved in jade to which in time of
drought sacrifices were offered, the prayers being always answered.
Both in India and China the Fish is employed in funeral rites. In
India a crystal bowl with Fish handles was found in a reputed tomb of
Buddha. In China the symbol is found on stone slabs enclosing the
coffin, on bronze urns, vases, etc. Even as the Babylonians had the
Fish, or Fisher, god, Oannes who revealed to them the arts of Writing,
Agriculture, etc., and was, as Eisler puts it, 'teacher and lord of
all wisdom,' so the Chinese Fu-Hi, who is pictured with the mystic
tablets containing the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, is, with his
consort and retinue, represented as having a fish's tail.
The writer of the article in The Open Court asserts that "the Fish was
sacred to those deities who were supposed to lead men back from the
shadows of death to life." If this be really the case we can
understand the connection of the symbol first with Orpheus, later with
Christ, as Eisler remarks: "Orpheus is connected with nearly all the
mystery, and a great many of the ordinary chthonic, cults in Greece
and Italy. Christianity took its first tentative steps into the
reluctant world of Graeco-Roman Paganism under the benevolent
patronage of Orpheus."
There is thus little reason to doubt that, if we regard the Fish as a
Divine Life symbol, of immemorial antiquity, we shall not go very far
We may note here that there was a fish known to the Semites by the
name of Adonis, although as the title signifies 'Lord,' and is
generic rather than specific, too much stress cannot be laid upon it.
It is more interesting to know that in Babylonian cosmology Adapa the
Wise, the son of Ea, is represented as a Fisher. In the ancient
Sumerian laments for Tammuz, previously referred to, that god is
frequently addressed as Divine Lamgar, Lord of the Net, the nearest
equivalent I have so far found to our 'Fisher King.' Whether the
phrase is here used in an actual or a symbolic sense the connection of
idea is sufficiently striking.
In the opinion of the most recent writers on the subject the Christian
Fish symbolism derives directly from the Jewish, the Jews, on their
side having borrowed freely from Syrian belief and practice.
What may be regarded as the central point of Jewish Fish symbolism is
the tradition that, at the end of the world, Messias will catch the
great Fish Leviathan, and divide its flesh as food among the faithful.
As a foreshadowing of this Messianic Feast the Jews were in the habit
of eating fish upon the Sabbath. During the Captivity, under the
influence of the worship of the goddess Atargatis, they transferred
the ceremony to the Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, a position which it
has retained to the present day. Eisler remarks that "in Galicia one
can see Israelite families in spite of their being reduced to the
extremest misery, procuring on Fridays a single gudgeon, to eat,
divided into fragments, at night-fall. In the 16th century Rabbi
Solomon Luria protested strongly against this practice. Fish, he