Part 3 out of 4
declared, should be eaten on the Sabbath itself, not on the Eve."
This Jewish custom appears to have been adopted by the primitive
Church, and early Christians, on their side, celebrated a Sacramental
Fish-meal. The Catacombs supply us with numerous illustrations, fully
described by the two writers referred to. The elements of this mystic
meal were Fish, Bread, and Wine, the last being represented in the
Messianic tradition: "At the end of the meal God will give to the most
worthy, i.e., to King David, the Cup of Blessing--one of fabulous
Fish play an important part in Mystery Cults, as being the 'holy'
food. Upon a tablet dedicated to the Phrygian Mater Magna we find
Fish and Cup; and Dölger, speaking of a votive tablet discovered in
the Balkans, says, "Hier ist der Fisch immer und immer wieder allzu
deutlich als die heilige Speise eines Mysterien-Kultes hervorgehoben."
Now I would submit that here, and not in Celtic Folk-lore, is to be
found the source of Borron's Fish-meal. Let us consider the
circumstances. Joseph and his followers, in the course of their
wanderings, find themselves in danger of famine. The position is
somewhat curious, as apparently the leaders have no idea of the
condition of their followers till the latter appeal to Brons.
Brons informs Joseph, who prays for aid and counsel from the Grail.
A Voice from Heaven bids him send his brother-in-law, Brons, to catch
a fish. Meanwhile he, Joseph, is to prepare a table, set the Grail,
covered with a cloth, in the centre opposite his own seat, and the
fish which Brons shall catch, on the other side. He does this, and
the seats are filled--"Si s'i asieent une grant partie et plus i ot de
cels qui n'i sistrent mie, que de cels qui sistrent." Those who
are seated at the table are conscious of a great "douceur," and
"l'accomplissement de lor cuers," the rest feel nothing.
Now compare this with the Irish story of the Salmon of Wisdom.
Finn Mac Cumhail enters the service of his namesake, Finn Eger, who
for seven years had remained by the Boyne watching the Salmon of Lynn
Feic, which it had been foretold Finn should catch. The younger lad,
who conceals his name, catches the fish. He is set to watch it while
it roasts but is warned not to eat it. Touching it with his thumb he
is burned, and puts his thumb in his mouth to cool it. Immediately he
becomes possessed of all knowledge, and thereafter has only to chew
his thumb to obtain wisdom. Mr Nutt remarks: "The incident in
Borron's poem has been recast in the mould of mediaeval Christian
Symbolism, but I think the older myth can still be clearly discerned,
and is wholly responsible for the incident as found in the Conte du
But when these words were written we were in ignorance of the
Sacramental Fish-meal, common alike to Jewish, Christian, and Mystery
Cults, a meal which offers a far closer parallel to Borron's romance
than does the Finn story, in which, beyond the catching of a fish,
there is absolutely no point of contact with our romance, neither
Joseph nor Brons derives wisdom from the eating thereof; it is not
they who detect the sinners, the severance between the good and the
evil is brought about automatically. The Finn story has no common
meal, and no idea of spiritual blessings such as are connected
In the case of the Messianic Fish-meal, on the other hand, the
parallel is striking; in both cases it is a communal meal, in both
cases the privilege of sharing it is the reward of the faithful,
in both cases it is a foretaste of the bliss of Paradise.
Furthermore, as remarked above, the practice was at one time of very
Now whence did Borron derive his knowledge, from Jewish, Christian
or Mystery sources?
This is a question not very easy to decide. In view of the pronounced
Christian tone of Borron's romance I should feel inclined to exclude
the first, also the Jewish Fish-meal seems to have been of a more
open, general and less symbolic character than the Christian; it was
frankly an anticipation of a promised future bliss, obtainable by
Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, knows nothing of the Sacred
Fish-meal, so far as I am aware it forms no part of any Apocalyptic
expectation, and where this special symbolism does occur it is often
under conditions which place its interpretation outside the recognized
category of Christian belief.
A noted instance in point is the famous epitaph of Bishop Aberkios,
over the correct interpretation of which scholars have spent much time
and ingenuity. In this curious text Aberkios, after mentioning
his journeys, says:
"Paul I had as my guide,
Faith however always went ahead and set before me as food a Fish
from a Fountain, a huge one, a clean one,
Which a Holy Virgin has caught.
This she gave to the friends ever to eat as food,
Having good Wine, and offering it watered together with Bread.
Aberkios had this engraved when 72 years of age in truth.
Whoever can understand this let him pray for Aberkios."
Eisler (I am here quoting from the Quest article) remarks, "As the
last line of our quotation gives us quite plainly to understand, a
number of words which we have italicized are obviously used in an
unusual, metaphorical, sense, that is to say as terms of the Christian
Mystery language." While Harnack, admitting that the Christian
character of the text is indisputable, adds significantly: "aber das
Christentum der Grosskirche ist es nicht."
Thus it is possible that, to the various points of doubtful orthodoxy
which scholars have noted as characteristic of the Grail romances,
Borron's Fish-meal should also be added.
Should it be objected that the dependence of a medieval romance upon a
Jewish tradition of such antiquity is scarcely probable, I would draw
attention to the Voyage of Saint Brandan, where the monks, during
their prolonged wanderings, annually 'kept their Resurrection,' i.e.,
celebrate their Easter Mass, on the back of a great Fish. On
their first meeting with this monster Saint Brandan tells them it is
the greatest of all fishes, and is named Jastoni, a name which bears
a curious resemblance to the Jhasa of the Indian tradition cited
above. In this last instance the connection of the Fish with
life, renewed and sustained, is undeniable.
The original source of such a symbol is most probably to be found in
the belief, referred to in a previous chapter, that all life comes
from the water, but that a more sensual and less abstract idea was
also operative appears from the close connection of the Fish with the
goddess Astarte or Atargatis, a connection here shared by the Dove.
Cumont, in his Les Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain,
says: "Two animals were held in general reverence, namely, Dove and
Fish. Countless flocks of Doves greeted the traveller when he stepped
on shore at Askalon, and in the outer courts of all the temples of
Astarte one might see the flutter of their white wings. The Fish were
preserved in ponds near to the Temple, and superstitious dread forbade
their capture, for the goddess punished such sacrilege, smiting the
offender with ulcers and tumours."
But at certain mystic banquets priests and initiates partook of this
otherwise forbidden food, in the belief that they thus partook of the
flesh of the goddess. Eisler and other scholars are of the opinion
that it was the familiarity with this ritual gained by the Jews during
the Captivity that led to the adoption of the Friday Fish-meal,
already referred to, Friday being the day dedicated to the goddess
and, later, to her equivalent, Venus. From the Jews the custom spread
to the Christian Church, where it still flourishes, its true origin,
it is needless to say, being wholly unsuspected.
Dove and Fish also appear together in ancient iconography. In Comte
Goblet d'Alviella's work The Migration of Symbols there is an
illustration of a coin of Cyzicus, on which is represented an
Omphalus, flanked by two Doves, with a Fish beneath; and a whole
section is devoted to the discussion of the representations of two
Doves on either side of a Temple entrance, or of an Omphalus. In the
author's opinion the origin of the symbol may be found in the sacred
dove-cotes of Phoenicia, referred to by Cumont.
Scheftelowitz instances the combination of Fish-meal and Dove, found
on a Jewish tomb of the first century at Syracuse, and remarks that
the two are frequently found in combination on Christian
Students of the Grail romances will not need to be reminded that the
Dove makes its appearance in certain of our texts. In the Parzival it
plays a somewhat important rôle; every Good Friday a Dove brings from
Heaven a Host, which it lays upon the Grail; and the Dove is the
badge of the Grail Knights. In the prose Lancelot the coming of
the Grail procession is heralded by the entrance through the window of
a Dove, bearing a censer in its beak. Is it not possible that it
was the already existing connection in Nature ritual of these two,
Dove and Fish, which led to the introduction of the former into our
romances, where its rôle is never really adequately motivated? It is
further to be noted that besides Dove and Fish the Syrians
reverenced Stones, more especially meteoric Stones, which they
held to be endowed with life potency, another point of contact with
That the Fish was considered a potent factor in ensuring fruitfulness
is proved by certain prehistoric tablets described by Scheftelowitz,
where Fish, Horse, and Swastika, or in another instance Fish and
Reindeer, are found in a combination which unmistakeably denotes
that the object of the votive tablet was to ensure the fruitfulness
of flocks and herds.
With this intention its influence was also invoked in marriage
ceremonies. The same writer points out that the Jews in Poland
were accustomed to hold a Fish feast immediately on the conclusion
of the marriage ceremony and that a similar practice can be prove
for the ancient Greeks. At the present day the Jews of Tunis
exhibit a Fish's tail on a cushion at their weddings. In
some parts of India the newly-wedded pair waded knee-deep into the
water, and caught fish in a new garment. During the ceremony a
Brahmin student, from the shore, asked solemnly, "What seest thou?"
to which the answer was returned, "Sons and Cattle." In all
these cases there can be no doubt that it was the prolific nature
of the Fish, a feature which it shares in common with the Dove,
which inspired practice and intention.
Surely the effect of this cumulative body of evidence is to justify us
in the belief that Fish and Fisher, being, as they undoubtedly are,
Life symbols of immemorial antiquity, are, by virtue of their origin,
entirely in their place in a sequence of incidents which there is
solid ground for believing derive ultimately from a Cult of this
nature. That Borron's Fish-meal, that the title of Fisher King, are
not accidents of literary invention but genuine and integral parts of
the common body of tradition which has furnished the incidents and
mise-en-scène of the Grail drama. Can it be denied that, while from
the standpoint of a Christian interpretation the character of the
Fisher King is simply incomprehensible, from the standpoint of Folk-tale
inadequately explained, from that of a Ritual survival it assumes a
profound meaning and significance? He is not merely a deeply symbolic
figure, but the essential centre of the whole cult, a being
semi-divine, semi-human, standing between his people and land, and
the unseen forces which control their destiny. If the Grail story be
based upon a Life ritual the character of the Fisher King is of the
very essence of the tale, and his title, so far from being
meaningless, expresses, for those who are at pains to seek, the
intention and object of the perplexing whole. The Fisher King is,
as I suggested above, the very heart and centre of the whole mystery,
and I contend that with an adequate interpretation of this enigmatic
character the soundness of the theory providing such an interpretation
may be held to be definitely proved.
The Secret of the Grail (1)
Students of the Grail literature cannot fail to have been impressed by
a certain atmosphere of awe and mystery which surrounds that enigmatic
Vessel. There is a secret connected with it, the revelation of which
will entail dire misfortune on the betrayer. If spoken of at all it
must be with scrupulous accuracy. It is so secret a thing that no
woman, be she wife or maid, may venture to speak of it. A priest, or
a man of holy life might indeed tell the marvel of the Grail, but none
can hearken to the recital without shuddering, trembling, and changing
colour for very fear.
"C'est del Graal dont nus ne doit
Le secret dire ne conter;
Car tel chose poroit monter
Li contes ains qu'il fust tos dis
Que teus hom en seroit maris
Qui ne l'aroit mie fourfait.
Car, se Maistre Blihis ne ment
Nus ne doit dire le secré."
"Mais la mervelle qu'il trova
Dont maintes fois s'espoenta
Ne doit nus hom conter ne dire
Cil ki le dist en a grant ire
Car c'est li signes del Graal (other texts secrés)
S'en puet avoir et paine et mal (Li fet grant pechié et grant mal)
Cil qui s'entremet del conter
Fors ensi com it doit aler."
The above refers to Gawain's adventure at the Black Chapel, en route
for the Grail Castle.
The following is the answer given to Perceval by the maiden of the
White Mule, after he has been overtaken by a storm in the forest.
She tells him the mysterious light he beheld proceeded from the Grail,
but on his enquiry as to what the Grail may be, refuses to give him
"Li dist 'Sire, ce ne puet estre
Que je plus vos en doie dire
Si vous .c. fois esties me sire
N'en oseroie plus conter,
Ne de mon labor plus parler (other texts, ma bouche)
Car ce est chose trop secrée
Si ne doit estre racontée
Par dame ne par damoisele,
Par mescine ne par puciele,
Ne par nul home qui soit nés
Si prouvoires n'est ordenés,
U home qui maine sainte vie,
Cil poroit deI Graal parler,
Et la mervelle raconter,
Que nus hom nel poroit oïr
Que il ne l'estuece fremir
Trambler et remuer color,
Et empalir de la paour.'"
From this evidence there is no doubt that to the romance writers the
Grail was something secret, mysterious and awful, the exact knowledge
of which was reserved to a select few, and which was only to be spoken
of with bated breath, and a careful regard to strict accuracy.
But how does this agree with the evidence set forth in our preceding
chapters? There we have been led rather to emphasize the close
parallels existing between the characters and incidents of the Grail
story, and a certain well-marked group of popular beliefs and
observances, now very generally recognized as fragments of a once
widespread Nature Cult. These beliefs and observances, while dating
from remotest antiquity, have, in their modern survivals, of
recent years, attracted the attention of scholars by their persistent
and pervasive character, and their enduring vitality.
Yet, so far as we have hitherto dealt with them, these practices were,
and are, popular in character, openly performed, and devoid of the
special element of mystery which is so characteristic a feature of the
Nor, in these public Folk-ceremonies, these Spring festivals, Dances,
and Plays, is there anything which, on the face of it, appears to
bring them into touch with the central mystery of the Christian
Faith. Yet the men who wrote these romances saw no incongruity in
identifying the mysterious Food-providing Vessel of the
Bleheris-Gawain version with the Chalice of the Eucharist, and in
ascribing the power of bestowing Spiritual Life to that which certain
modern scholars have identified as a Wunsch-Ding, a Folk-tale Vessel
If there be a mystery of the Grail surely the mystery lies here, in
the possibility of identifying two objects which, apparently, lie at
the very opposite poles of intellectual conception. What brought them
together? Where shall we seek a connecting link? By what road did
the romancers reach so strangely unexpected a goal?
It is, of course, very generally recognized that in the case of most
of the pre-Christian religions, upon the nature and character of whose
rites we possess reliable information, such rites possessed a two-fold
character--exoteric; in celebrations openly and publicly performed,
in which all adherents of that particular cult could join freely,
the object of such public rites being to obtain some external and
material benefit, whether for the individual worshipper, or for
the community as a whole--esoteric; rites open only to a favoured few,
the initiates, the object of which appears, as a rule, to have been
individual rather than social, and non-material. In some cases,
certainly, the object aimed at was the attainment of a conscious,
ecstatic, union with the god, and the definite assurance of a future
life. In other words there was the public worship, and there were
Of late years there has been a growing tendency among scholars to seek
in the Mysteries the clue which shall enable us to read aright the
baffling riddle of the Grail, and there can be little doubt that, in
so doing, we are on the right path. At the same time I am convinced
that to seek that clue in those Mysteries which are at once the most
famous, and the most familiar to the classical scholar, i.e., the
Eleusinian, is a fatal mistake. There are, as we shall see, certain
essential, and radical, differences between the Greek and the
Christian religious conceptions which, affecting as they do the root
conceptions of the two groups, render it quite impossible that any form
of the Eleusinian Mystery cult could have given such results as we
find in the Grail legend.
Cumont in his Les Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain,
speaking of the influence of the Mysteries upon Christianity, remarks
acutely, "Or, lorsqu'on parle de mystères on doit songer à I'Asie
hellénisée, bien plus qu'à la Grèce propre, malgré tout le prestige
qui entourait Eleusis, car d'abord les premières communautés
Chrétiennes se font fondées, formées, développées, au milieu de
populations Orientales, Sémites, Phrygiens, Egyptiens."
This is perfectly true, but it was not only the influence of milieu,
not only the fact that the 'hellenized' faiths were, as Cumont points
out, more advanced, richer in ideas and sentiments, more pregnant,
more poignant, than the more strictly 'classic' faiths, but they
possessed, in common with Christianity, certain distinctive features
lacking in these latter.
If we were asked to define the special characteristic of the central
Christian rite, should we not state it as being a Sacred meal of
Communion in which the worshipper, not merely symbolically, but
actually, partakes of, and becomes one with, his God, receiving
thereby the assurance of eternal life? (The Body of Our Lord Jesus
Christ preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.)
But it is precisely this conception which is lacking in the Greek
Mysteries, and that inevitably, as Rohde points out: "The Eleusinian
Mysteries in common with all Greek religion, differentiated clearly
between gods and men, eins ist der Menschen, ein andres der
Götter-Geschlecht--en andron, en theon genos." The attainment of
union with the god, by way of ecstasy, as in other Mystery cults, is
foreign to the Eleusinian idea. As Cumont puts it "The Greco-Roman
deities rejoice in the perpetual calm and youth of Olympus, the
Eastern deities die to live again." In other words Greek religion
lacks the Sacramental idea.
[*** Note: Weston used Greek alphabetic characters above ***]
Thus even if we set aside the absence of a parallel between the ritual
of the Greek Mysteries and the mise-en-scène of the Grail stories,
Eleusis would be unable to offer us those essential elements which
would have rendered possible a translation of the incidents of those
stories into terms of high Christian symbolism. Yet we cannot refrain
from the conclusion that there was something in the legend that not
merely rendered possible, but actually invited, such a translation.
If we thus dismiss, as fruitless for our investigation, the most
famous representative of the Hellenic Mysteries proper, how does the
question stand with regard to those faiths to which Cumont is referring,
the hellenized cults of Asia Minor?
Here the evidence, not merely of the existence of Mysteries, but
of their widespread popularity, and permeating influence, is
overwhelming; the difficulty is not so much to prove our case, as
to select and co-ordinate the evidence germane to our enquiry.
Regarding the question as a whole it is undoubtedly true that, as
Anrich remarks, "the extent of the literature devoted to the Mysteries
stands in no relation whatever (gar keinem Verhältniss) to the
importance in reality attached to them." Later in the same
connection, after quoting Clement of Alexandria's dictum "Geheime
Dinge wie die Gottheit, werden der Rede anvertraut, nicht der
Schrift," he adds, "Schriftliche Fixierung ist schon beinahe
Entweihung." A just remark which it would be well if certain
critics who make a virtue of refusing to accept as evidence anything
short of a direct and positive literary statement would bear in mind.
There are certain lines of research in which, as Bishop Butler
long since emphasized, probability must be our guide.
Fortunately, however, so far as our present research is concerned,
we have more than probability to rely upon; not only did these Nature
Cults with which we are dealing express themselves in Mystery terms,
but as regards these special Mysteries we possess clear and definite
information, and we know, moreover, that in the Western world they
were, of all the Mystery faiths, the most widely spread, and the most
As Sir J. G. Frazer has before now pointed out, there are parallel
and over-lapping forms of this cult, the name of the god, and certain
details of the ritual, may differ in different countries, but whether
he hails from Babylon, Phrygia, or Phoenicia, whether he be called
Tammuz, Attis, or Adonis, the main lines of the story are fixed, and
invariable. Always he is young and beautiful, always the beloved of a
great goddess; always he is the victim of a tragic and untimely death,
a death which entails bitter loss and misfortune upon a mourning
world, and which, for the salvation of that world, is followed by a
resurrection. Death and Resurrection, mourning and rejoicing, present
themselves in sharp antithesis in each and all of the forms.
We know the god best as Adonis, for it was under that name that,
though not originally Greek, he became known to the Greek world, was
adopted by them with ardour, carried by them to Alexandria, where his
feast assumed the character of a State solemnity; under that name his
story has been enshrined in Art, and as Adonis he is loved and
lamented to this day. The Adonis ritual may be held to be the classic
form of the cult.
But in Rome, the centre of Western civilization, it was otherwise:
there it was the Phrygian god who was in possession; the dominating
position held by the cult of Attis and the Magna Mater, and the
profound influence exercised by that cult over better known, but
subsequently introduced, forms of worship, have not, so far, been
The first of the Oriental cults to gain a footing in the Imperial
city, the worship of the Magna Mater of Pessinonte was, for a time,
rigidly confined within the limits of her sanctuary. The orgiastic
ritual of the priests of Kybele made at first little appeal to the more
disciplined temperament of the Roman population. By degrees, however,
it won its way, and by the reign of Claudius had become so popular
that the emperor instituted public feasts in honour of Kybele and
Attis, feasts which were celebrated at the Spring solstice, March
As the public feast increased in popularity, so did the Mystery feast,
of which the initiated alone were privileged to partake, acquire a
symbolic significance: the foods partaken of became "un aliment de
vie spirituelle, et doivent soutenir dans les épreuves de la vie
l'initié." Philosophers boldly utilized the framework of the Attis
cult as the vehicle for imparting their own doctrines, "Lorsque le
Nèoplatonisme triomphera la fable Phrygienne deviendra le moule
traditionnel dans lequel des exégètes subtils verseront hardiment
leurs spéculations philosophiques sur les forces créatrices
fécondantes, principes de toutes les formes matérielles, et sur la
délivrance de l'âme divine plongée dans la corruption de ce monde
Certain of the Gnostic sects, both pre- and post-Christian, appear
to have been enthusiastic participants in the Attis mysteries;
Hepding, in his Attis study, goes so far as to refer to Bishop
Aberkios, to whose enigmatic epitaph our attention was directed in
the last chapter, as "der Attis-Preister."
Another element aided in the diffusion of the ritual. Of all the
Oriental cults which journeyed Westward under the aegis of Rome none
was so deeply rooted or so widely spread as the originally Persian
cult of Mithra--the popular religion of the Roman legionary. But
between the cults of Mithra and of Attis there was a close and
intimate alliance. In parts of Asia Minor the Persian god had early
taken over features of the Phrygian deity. "Aussitôt que nous pouvons
constater la présence du culte Persique en Italie nous le trouvons
étroitement uni à celui de la Grande Mére de Pessinonte."
The union between Mithra and the goddess Anâhita was held to be the
equivalent of that subsisting between the two great Phrygian deities
Attis-Kybele. The most ancient Mithreum known, that at Ostia, was
attached to the Metroon, the temple of Kybele. At Saalburg the ruins
of the two temples are but a few steps apart. "L'on a tout lieu de
croire que le culte du dieu Iranien et celui de la déesse Phrygienne
vécurent en communion intime sur toute l'étendue de l'Empire."
A proof of the close union of the two cults is afforded by the mystic
rite of the Taurobolium, which was practised by both, and which, in
the West, at least, seems to have passed from the temples of the
Mithra to those of the Magna Mater. At the same time Cumont remarks
that the actual rite seems to have been practised in Asia from a great
antiquity, before Mithraism had attributed to it a spiritual
significance. It is thus possible that the rite had earlier formed a
part of the Attis initiation, and had been temporarily disused.
We shall see that the union of the Mithra-Attis cults becomes of
distinct importance when we examine, (a) the spiritual significance
of these rituals, and their elements of affinity with Christianity,
(b) their possible diffusion in the British Isles.
But now what do we know of the actual details of the Attis mysteries?
The first and most important point was a Mystic Meal, at which the
food partaken of was served in the sacred vessels, the tympanum, and
the cymbals. The formula of an Attis initiate was "I have eaten from
the tympanum, I have drunk from the cymbals." As I have remarked
above, the food thus partaken of was a Food of Life--"Die
Attis-Diener in der Tat eine magische Speise des Lebens aus ihren
Kult-Geräten zu essen meinten."
Dieterich in his interesting study entitled Eine Mithrasliturgie
refers to this meal as the centre of the whole religious action.
Further, in some mysterious manner, the fate of the initiate was
connected with, and dependent upon, the death and resurrection of the
god. The Christian writer Firmicius Maternus, at one time himself an
initiate, has left an account of the ceremony, without, however,
specifying whether the deity in question was Attis or Adonis--as
Dieterich remarks "Was er erzählt kann sich auf Attis-gemeinden, und
auf Adonis-gemeinden beziehen."
This is what he says: "Nocte quadam simulacrum in lectica supinum
ponitur, et per numeros digestis fletibus plangitur: deinde cum se
ficta lamentatione satiaverint lumen infertur: tunc a sacerdote
omnium qui flebant fauces unguentur, quibus perunctis sacerdos hoc
lento murmure susurrit:
'Have courage, O initiates of the saviour-god,
For there will be salvation for us from our toils--'
on which Dieterich remarks: "Das Heil der Mysten hängt an der Rettung
[*** Note: The above has an English translation of Weston's Greek ***]
Hepding holds that in some cases there was an actual burial, and
awakening with the god to a new life. In any case it is clear
that the successful issue of the test of initiation was dependent
upon the resurrection and revival of the god.
Now is it not clear that we have here a close parallel with the
Grail romances? In each case we have a common, and mystic, meal,
in which the food partaken of stands in close connection with the holy
vessels. In the Attis feast the initiates actually ate and drank from
these vessels; in the romances the Grail community never actually eat
from the Grail itself, but the food is, in some mysterious and
unexplained manner, supplied by it. In both cases it is a
Lebens-Speise, a Food of Life. This point is especially insisted upon
in the Parzival, where the Grail community never become any older than
they were on the day they first beheld the Talisman. In the Attis
initiation the proof that the candidate has successfully passed the
test is afforded by the revival of the god--in the Grail romances the
proof lies in the healing of the Fisher King.
Thus, while deferring for a moment any insistence on the obvious
points of parallelism with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and the
possibilities of Spiritual teaching inherent in the ceremonies,
necessary links in our chain of argument, we are, I think, entitled to
hold that, even when we pass beyond the outward mise-en-scène of the
story--the march of incident, the character of the King, his title,
his disability, and relation to his land and folk--to the inner and
deeper significance of the tale, the Nature Cults still remain
reliable guides; it is their inner, their esoteric, ritual which
will enable us to bridge the gulf between what appears at first sight
the wholly irreconcilable elements of Folk-tale and high Spiritual
The Secret of the Grail (2)
The Naassene Document
We have now seen that the Ritual which, as we have postulated, lies,
in a fragmentary and distorted condition, at the root of our existing
Grail romances, possessed elements capable of assimilation with a
religious system which the great bulk of its modern adherents would
unhesitatingly declare to be its very antithesis. That Christianity
might have borrowed from previously existing cults certain outward
signs and symbols, might have accommodated itself to already existing
Fasts and Feasts, may be, perforce has had to be, more or less
grudgingly admitted; that such a rapprochement should have gone
further, that it should even have been inherent in the very nature of
the Faith, that, to some of the deepest thinkers of old, Christianity
should have been held for no new thing but a fulfilment of the
promise enshrined in the Mysteries from the beginning of the world,
will to many be a strange and startling thought. Yet so it was, and I
firmly believe that it is only in the recognition of this one-time
claim of essential kinship between Christianity and the Pagan
Mysteries that we shall find the key to the Secret of the Grail.
And here at the outset I would ask those readers who are inclined to
turn with feelings of contemptuous impatience from what they deem an
unprofitable discussion of idle speculations which have little or
nothing to do with a problem they hold to be one of purely literary
interest, to be solved by literary comparison and criticism, and by no
other method, to withhold their verdict till they have carefully
examined the evidence I am about to bring forward, evidence which has
never so far been examined in this connection, but which if I am not
greatly mistaken provides us with clear and unmistakable proof of the
actual existence of a ritual in all points analogous to that indicated
by the Grail romances.
In the previous chapter we have seen that there is evidence, and
abundant evidence, not merely of the existence of Mysteries connected
with the worship of Adonis-Attis, but of the high importance assigned
to such Mysteries; at the time of the birth of Christianity they were
undoubtedly the most popular and the most influential of the foreign
cults adopted by Imperial Rome. In support of this statement I quoted
certain passages from Cumont's Religions Orientales, in which he
touches on the subject: here are two other quotations which may well
serve as introduction to the evidence we are about to examine.
"Researches on the doctrines and practices common to Christianity and
the Oriental Mysteries almost invariably go back, beyond the limits of
the Roman Empire, to the Hellenized East. It is there we must seek
the key of enigmas still unsolved--The essential fact to remember is
that the Eastern religions had diffused, first anterior to, then
parallel with, Christianity, doctrines which acquired with this latter
a universal authority in the decline of the ancient world. The
preaching of Asiatic priests prepared in their own despite the triumph
of the Church."
But the triumph of the new Faith once assured the organizing,
dominating, influence of Imperial Rome speedily came into play.
Christianity, originally an Eastern, became a Western, religion,
the 'Mystery' elements were frowned upon, kinship with pre-Christian
faiths ignored, or denied; where the resemblances between the cults
proved too striking for either of these methods such resemblances were
boldly attributed to the invention of the Father of Lies himself, a
cunning snare whereby to deceive unwary souls. Christianity was
carefully trimmed, shaped, and forced into an Orthodox mould, and
anything that refused to adapt itself to this drastic process became
by that very refusal anathema to the righteous.
Small wonder that, under such conditions, the early ages of the Church
were marked by a fruitful crop of Heresies, and heresy-hunting became
an intellectual pastime in high favour among the strictly orthodox.
Among the writers of this period whose works have been preserved
Hippolytus, Bishop of Portus in the early years of the third century,
was one of the most industrious. He compiled a voluminous treatise,
entitled Philosophumena, or The Refutation of all Heresies, of which
only one MS. and that of the fourteenth century, has descended to us.
The work was already partially known by quotations, the first Book had
been attributed to Origen, and published in the editio princeps of his
works. The text originally consisted of ten Books, but of these the
first three, and part of the fourth, are missing from the MS. The
Origen text supplies part of the lacuna, but two entire Books, and
part of a third are missing.
Now these special Books, we learn from the Introduction, dealt with
the doctrines and Mysteries of the Egyptians and Chaldaeans, whose
most sacred secrets Hippolytus boasts that he has divulged.
Curiously enough, not only are these Books lacking but in the Epitome
at the beginning of Book X. the summary of their contents is also
missing, a significant detail, which, as has been suggested by
critics, looks like a deliberate attempt on the part of some copyist
to suppress the information contained in the Books in question.
Incidentally this would seem to suggest that the worthy bishop was not
making an empty boast when he claimed to be a revealer of secrets.
But what is of special interest to us is the treatment meted out to
the Christian Mystics, whom Hippolytus stigmatizes as heretics, and
whose teaching he deliberately asserts to be simply that of the Pagan
Mysteries. He had come into possession of a secret document belonging
to one of these sects, whom he calls the Naassenes; this document he
gives in full, and it certainly throws a most extraordinary light upon
the relation which this early Christian sect held to exist between the
New, and the Old, Faith. Mr G. R. S. Mead, in his translation of the
Hermetic writings entitled Thrice-Greatest Hermes, has given a careful
translation and detailed analysis of this most important text, and it
is from his work that I shall quote.
So far as the structure of the document is concerned Mr Mead
distinguishes three stages.
(a) An original Pagan source, possibly dating from the last half of
the first century B.C., but containing material of earlier date.
(b) The working over of this source by a Jewish Mystic whom the critic
holds to have been a contemporary of Philo.
(c) A subsequent working over, with additions, by a Christian Gnostic
(Naassene), in the middle of the second century A. D. Finally the text
was edited by Hippolytus, in the Refutation, about 222 A. D. Thus the
ground covered is roughly from 50 B. C. to 220 A. D.
In the translation given by Mr Mead these successive layers are
distinguished by initial letters and difference of type, but these
distinctions are not of importance for us; what we desire to know is
what was really held and taught by these mystics of the Early Church.
Mr Mead, in his introductory remarks, summarizes the evidence as
follows: "The claim of these Gnostics was practically that
Christianity, or rather the Good News of The Christ, was precisely
the consummation of the inner doctrine of the Mystery-institutions
of all the nations: the end of them all was the revelation of the
Mystery of Man." In other words the teaching of these Naassenes
was practically a synthesis of all the Mystery-religions, and although
Hippolytus regards them as nothing more than devotees of the cult of
the Magna Mater, we shall see that, while their doctrine and teaching
were undoubtedly based mainly upon the doctrine and practices of the
Phrygian Mysteries, they practically identified the deity therein
worshipped, i.e., Attis, with the presiding deity of all the other
Mr Mead draws attention to the fact that Hippolytus places these
Naassenes in the fore-front of his Refutation; they are the first
group of Heretics with whom he deals, and we may therefore conclude
that he considered them, if not the most important, at least the
oldest, of such sectaries.
With these prefatory remarks it will be well to let the document
speak for itself. It is of considerable length, and, as we have seen,
of intricate construction. I shall therefore quote only those
sections which bear directly upon the subject of our investigation;
any reader desirous of fuller information can refer to Mr Mead's work,
or to the original text published by Reitzenstein.
At the outset it will be well to understand that the central doctrine
of all these Mysteries is what Reitzenstein sums up as "the doctrine
of the Man, the Heavenly Man, the Son of God, who descends and becomes
a slave of the Fate Sphere: the Man who, though originally endowed
with all power, descends into weakness and bondage, and has to win his
own freedom, and regain his original state. This doctrine is not
Egyptian, but seems to have been in its origin part and parcel of
the Chaldean Mystery-tradition and was widely spread in Hellenistic
Thus, in the introductory remarks prefixed by Hippolytus to the
document he is quoting he asserts that the Naassenes honour as the
Logos of all universals Man, and Son of Man--"and they divide him
into three, for they say he has a mental, psychic, and choïc aspect;
and they think that the Gnosis of this Man is the beginning of the
possibility of knowing God, saying, 'The beginning of Perfection is
the Gnosis of Man, but the Gnosis of God is perfected Perfection.'
All these, mental, psychic, and earthy, descended together into one
Man, Jesus, the Son of Mary."
Thus the Myth of Man, the Mystery of Generation, is the subject matter
of the document in question, and this myth is set forth with reference
to all the Mysteries, beginning with the Assyrian.
Paragraph 5 runs: "Now the Assyrians call this Mystery Adonis, and
whenever it is called Adonis it is Aphrodite who is in love with and
desires Soul so-called, and Aphrodite is Genesis according to
But in the next section the writer jumps from the Assyrian to the
Phrygian Mysteries, saying, "But if the Mother of the Gods emasculates
Attis, she too regarding him as the object of her love, it is the
Blessed Nature above of the super-Cosmic, and Aeonian spaces which
calls back the masculine power of Soul to herself."
In a note to this Mr Mead quotes from The Life of Isidorus: "I fell
asleep and in a vision Attis seemed to appear to me, and on behalf
of the Mother of gods to initiate me into the feast called Hilario,
a mystery which discloses the way of our salvation from Hades."
Throughout the document reference is continually made to the Phrygians
and their doctrine of Man. The Eleusinian Mysteries are then treated
of as subsequent to the Phrygian, "after the Phrygians, the
Athenians," but the teaching is represented as being essentially
We have then a passage of great interest for our investigation, in
which the Mysteries are sharply divided into two classes, and their
separate content clearly defined. There are--"the little Mysteries,
those of the Fleshly Generation, and after men have been initiated
into them they should cease for a while and become initiated in the
Great, Heavenly, Mysteries--for this is the Gate of Heaven, and
this is the House of God, where the Good God dwells alone, into
which House no impure man shall come." Hippolytus remarks that
"these Naassenes say that the performers in theatres, they too,
neither say nor do anything without design--for example, when the
people assemble in the theatre, and a man comes on the stage clad
in a robe different from all others, with lute in hand on which he
plays, and thus chants the Great Mysteries, not knowing what he says:
'Whether blest Child of Kronos, or of Zeus, or of Great Rhea,
Hail Attis, thou mournful song of Rhea!
Assyrians call thee thrice-longed-for Adonis;
All Egypt calls thee Osiris;
The Wisdom of Hellas names thee Men's Heavenly Horn;
The Samothracians call thee august Adama;
The Haemonians, Korybas;
The Phrygians name thee Papa sometimes;
At times again Dead, or God, or Unfruitful, or Aipolos;
Or Green Reaped Wheat-ear;
Or the Fruitful that Amygdalas brought forth,
This is the Attis of many forms, of whom they sing as follows:
'Of Attis will I sing, of Rhea's Beloved,
Not with the booming of bells,
Nor with the deep-toned pipe of Idaean Kuretes;
But I will blend my song with Phoebus' music of the lyre;
Evoi, Evan,--for thou art Pan, thou Bacchus art, and Shepherd of
On this Hippolytus comments: "For these and suchlike reasons these
Naassenes frequent what are called the Mysteries of the Great Mother,
believing that they obtain the clearest view of the universal Mystery
from the things done in them."
And after all this evidence of elaborate syncretism, this practical
identification of all the Mystery-gods with the Vegetation deity
Adonis-Attis, we are confronted in the concluding paragraph, after
stating that "the True Gate is Jesus the Blessed," with this
astounding claim, from the pen of the latest redactor, "And of all
men we alone are Christians, accomplishing the Mystery at the Third
Now what conclusions are to be drawn from this document which, in
its entirety, Mr Mead regards as "the most important source we have
for the higher side (regeneration) of the Hellenistic Mysteries"?
First of all, does it not provide a complete and overwhelming
justification of those scholars who have insisted upon the importance
of these Vegetation cults--a justification of which, from the very
nature of their studies, they could not have been aware?
Sir James Frazer, and those who followed him, have dealt with the
public side of the cult, with its importance as a recognized vehicle
for obtaining material advantages; it was the social, rather than
the individual, aspect which appealed to them. Now we find that in
the immediate pre- and post-Christian era these cults were considered
not only most potent factors for assuring the material prosperity of
land and folk, but were also held to be the most appropriate vehicle
for imparting the highest religious teaching. The Vegetation deities,
Adonis-Attis, and more especially the Phrygian god, were the chosen
guides to the knowledge of, and union with, the supreme Spiritual
Source of Life, of which they were the communicating medium.
We must remember that though the document before us is, in its actual
form, the expression of faith of a discredited 'Christian-Gnostic'
sect, the essential groundwork upon which it is elaborated belongs
to a period anterior to Christianity, and that the Ode in honour of
Attis quoted above not only forms part of the original source, but is,
in the opinion of competent critics, earlier than the source itself.
I would also recall to the memory of the reader the passage previously
quoted from Cumont, in which he refers to the use made by the
Neo-Platonist philosophers of the Attis legend, as the mould into
which they poured their special theories of the universe, and of
generation. Can the importance of a cult capable of such
far-reaching developments be easily exaggerated? Secondly, and of
more immediate importance for our investigation, is it not evident
that we have here all the elements necessary for a mystical
development of the Grail tradition? The Exoteric side of the cult
gives us the Human, the Folk-lore, elements--the Suffering King; the
Waste Land; the effect upon the Folk; the task that lies before the
hero; the group of Grail symbols. The Esoteric side provides us with
the Mystic Meal, the Food of Life, connected in some mysterious way
with a Vessel which is the centre of the cult; the combination of that
vessel with a Weapon, a combination bearing a well-known 'generative'
significance; a double initiation into the source of the lower and
higher spheres of Life; the ultimate proof of the successful issue of
the final test in the restoration of the King. I would ask any
honest-minded critic whether any of the numerous theories previously
advanced has shown itself capable of furnishing so comprehensive a
solution of the ensemble problem?
At the same time it should be pointed out that the acceptance of this
theory of the origin of the story in no way excludes the possibility
of the introduction of other elements during the period of romantic
evolution. As I have previously insisted, not all of those who
handled the theme knew the real character of the material with which
they were dealing, while even among those who did know there were
some who allowed themselves considerable latitude in their methods of
composition; who did not scruple to introduce elements foreign to the
original Stoff, but which would make an appeal to the public of the
day. Thus while Bleheris who, I believe, really held a tradition of
the original cult, contented himself with a practically simple recital
of the initiations, later redactors, under the influence of the
Crusades, and the Longinus legend--possibly also actuated by a desire
to substitute a more edifying explanation than that originally
offered--added a directly Christian interpretation of the Lance. As
it is concerning the Lance alone that Gawain asks, the first
modification must have been at this point; the bringing into line of
the twin symbol, the Vase, would come later.
The fellowship, it may even be, the rivalry, between the two great
Benedictine houses of Fescamp and Glastonbury, led to the redaction,
in the interests of the latter, of a Saint-Sang legend, parallel to
that which was the genuine possession of the French house. For we
must emphasize the fact that the original Joseph-Glastonbury story is
a Saint-Sang, and not a Grail legend. A phial containing the Blood of
Our Lord was said to have been buried in the tomb of Joseph--surely a
curious fate for so precious a relic--and the Abbey never laid claim
to the possession of the Vessel of the Last Supper. Had it done
so it would certainly have become a noted centre of pilgrimage--as Dr
Brugger acutely remarks such relics are besucht, not gesucht.
But there is reason to believe that the kindred Abbey of Fescamp had
developed its genuine Saint-Sang legend into a Grail romance, and
there is critical evidence to lead us to suppose that the text we
know as Perlesvaus was, in its original form, now it is to be feared
practically impossible to reconstruct, connected with that Abbey.
As we have it, this alone, of all the Grail romances, connects the hero
alike with Nicodemus, and with Joseph of Arimathea, the respective
protagonists of the Saint-Sang legends; while its assertion that the
original Latin text was found in a holy house situated in marshes, the
burial place of Arthur and Guenevere, unmistakably points to
In any case, when Robert de Borron proposed to himself the task of
composing a trilogy on the subject the Joseph legend was already in
a developed form, and a fresh element, the combination of the Grail
legend with the story of a highly popular Folk-tale hero, known in
this connection as Perceval (though he has had many names), was
Borron was certainly aware of the real character of his material;
he knew the Grail cult as Christianized Mystery, and, while following
the romance development, handled the theme on distinctively religious
lines, preserving the Mystery element in its three-fold development,
and equating the Vessel of the Mystic Feast with the Christian
Eucharist. From what we now know of the material it seems certain
that the equation was already established, and that Borron was simply
stating in terms of romance what was already known to him in terms of
Mystery. In face of the evidence above set forth there can no longer
be any doubt that the Mystic Feast of the Nature cults really had, and
that at a very early date, been brought into touch with the Sacrament
of the Eucharist.
But to Chrétien de Troyes the story was romance, pure and simple.
There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and
Grail Feast, but of the real meaning and origin of the incidents he
had, I am convinced, no idea whatever. Probably many modifications
were already in his source, but the result so far as his poem is
concerned is that he duplicated the character of the Fisher King;
he separated both, Father and Son, from the Wasted Land, transferring
the responsibility for the woes of Land and Folk to the Quester,
who, although his failure might be responsible for their continuance,
never had anything to do with their origin. He bestowed the wound of
the Grail King, deeply significant in its original conception and
connection, upon Perceval's father, a shadowy character, entirely
apart from the Grail tradition. There is no trace of the Initiation
elements in his poem, no Perilous Chapel, no welding of the Sword.
We have here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance,
the doors of the Temple are closed behind us. It is the story of
Perceval li Gallois, not the Ritual of the Grail, which fills the
stage, and with the story of Perceval there comes upon the scene
a crowd of Folk-tale themes, absolutely foreign to the Grail itself.
Thus we have not only the central theme of the lad reared in
woodland solitude, making his entrance into a world of whose
ordinary relations he is absolutely and ludicrously ignorant,
and the traditional illustrations of the results of that ignorance,
such as the story of the Lady of the Tent and the stolen ring;
but we have also the sinister figure of the Red Knight with his
Witch Mother; the three drops of blood upon the snow, and the ensuing
love trance; pure Folk-tale themes, mingled with the more chivalric
elements of the rescue of a distressed maiden, and the vanquishing
in single combat of doughty antagonists, Giant, or Saracen. One and
all of them elements offering widespread popular parallels, and
inviting the unwary critic into paths which lead him far astray from
the goal of his quest, the Grail Castle. I dispute in no way the
possible presence of Celtic elements in this complex. The Lance may
well have borrowed at one time features from early Irish tradition,
at another details obviously closely related to the Longinus legend.
It is even possible that, as Burdach insists, features of the Byzantine
Liturgy may have coloured the representation of the Grail procession,
although, for my own part, I consider such a theory highly improbable
in view of the facts that (a) Chrétien's poem otherwise shows no traces
of Oriental influence; (b) the 'Spear' in the Eastern rite is simply
a small spear-shaped knife; (c) the presence of the lights is
accounted for by the author of Sone de Nansai on the ground of a
Nativity legend, the authenticity of which was pointed out by the
late M. Gaston Paris; (d) it is only in the later prose form that we
find any suggestion of a Grail Chapel, whereas were the source of the
story really to be found in the Mass, such a feature would certainly
have had its place in the earliest versions. But in each and all
these cases the solution proposed has no relation to other features
of the story; it is consequently of value in, and per se, only, and
cannot be regarded as valid evidence for the source of the legend as
a whole. In the process of transmutation from Ritual to Romance,
the kernel, the Grail legend proper, may be said to have formed for
itself a shell composed of accretions of widely differing provenance.
It is the legitimate task of criticism to analyse such accretions, and
to resolve them into their original elements, but they are accretions,
and should be treated as such, not confounded with the original and
essential material. After upwards of thirty years spent in careful
study of the Grail legend and romances I am firmly and entirely
convinced that the root origin of the whole bewildering complex is to
be found in the Vegetation Ritual, treated from the esoteric point of
view as a Life-Cult, and in that alone. Christian Legend, and
traditional Folk-tale, have undoubtedly contributed to the perfected
romantic corpus, but they are in truth subsidiary and secondary features;
a criticism that would treat them as original and primary can but defeat
its own object; magnified out of proportion they become
stumbling-blocks upon the path, instead of sign-posts towards the goal.
Mithra and Attis
The fact that there was, at a very early date, among a certain sect of
Christian Gnostics, a well-developed body of doctrine, based upon the
essential harmony existing between the Old Faith and the New, which
claimed by means of a two-fold Initiation to impact to the inner
circle of its adherents the secret of life, physical and spiritual,
being, in face of the evidence given in the previous chapter, placed
beyond any possible doubt, we must now ask, is there any evidence that
such teaching survived for any length of time, or could have
penetrated to the British Isles, where, in view of the priority of the
Bleheris-Gawain form, the Grail legend, as we know it, seems to have
originated? I think there is at least presumptive evidence of such
preservation, and transmission. I have already alluded to the close
connection existing between the Attis cult, and the worship of the
popular Persian deity, Mithra, and have given quotations from Cumont
illustrating this connection; it will be worth while to study the
question somewhat more closely, and discover, if possible, the reason
for this intimate alliance.
On the face of it there seems to be absolutely no reason for the
connection of these cults; the two deities in no way resemble each
other; the stories connected with them have no possible analogy;
the root conception is widely divergent.
With the character of the deity we know as Adonis, or Attis, we are
now thoroughly familiar. In the first instance it seems to be the
human element in the myth which is most insisted upon. He is a
mortal youth beloved by a great goddess; only after his tragic death
does he appear to assume divine attributes, and, alike in death and
resurrection, become the accepted personification of natural energies.
Baudissin, Adonis und Esmun, remarks that Adonis belongs to "einer
Klasse von Wesen sehr unbestimmter Art der wohl über den Menschen aber
unter den grossen Göttern stehen, und weniger Individualität besitzen
als diese." Such a criticism applies of course equally to Attis.
Mithra, on the other hand, occupies an entirely different position.
Cumont, in his Mystères de Mithra, thus describes him; he is
"le génie de la lumière céleste. Il n'est ni le soleil, ni la lune,
ni les étoiles, mais à l'aide de ces mille oreilles, et de ces deux
milles yeux, il surveille le monde."
His beneficent activities might seem to afford a meeting ground with
the Vegetation goods--"Il donne l'accroissement, il donne l'abondance,
il donne les troupeaux, il donne la progéniture et la vie."
This summary may aptly be compared with the lament for Tammuz,
quoted in Chapter 3.
But the worship of Mithra in the form in which it spread throughout
the Roman Empire, Mithra as the god of the Imperial armies, the deity
beloved of the Roman legionary, was in no sense of this concrete and
This is how Cumont sums up the main features. Mithra is the Mediator,
who stands between "le Dieu inaccessible, et inconnaissable, qui règne
dans les sphères éthérées, et le genre humain qui s'agite ici-bas."--"Il
est le Logos émané de Dieu, et participant à sa toute puissance, qui
après avoir formé le monde comme démiurge continue à veiller sur lui."
The initiates must practice a strict chastity--"La résistance à la
sensualité était un des aspects du combat contre le principe du mal--le
dualisme Mithraique servait de fondement à une morale très pure et
Finally, Mithraism taught the resurrection of the body--Mithra will
descend upon earth, and will revive all men. All will issue from
their graves, resume their former appearance and recognize each
other. All will be united in one great assembly, and the good will
be separated from the evil. Then in one supreme sacrifice Mithra
will immolate the divine bull, and mixing its fat with the consecrated
wine will offer to the righteous the cup of Eternal Life.
The final parallel with the Messianic Feast described in Chapter 9
is too striking to be overlooked.
The celestial nature of the deity is also well brought out in the
curious text edited by Dieterich from the great Magic Papyrus of
the Bibliothèque Nationale, and referred to in a previous chapter.
This text purports to be a formula of initiation, and we find the
aspirant ascending through the Seven Heavenly Spheres, to be finally
met by Mithra who brings him to the presence of God. So in the
Mithraic temples we find seven ladders, the ascent of which by the
Initiate typified his passage to the seventh and supreme Heaven.
Bousset points out that the original idea was that of three Heavens
above which was Paradise; the conception of Seven Heavens, ruled
by the seven Planets, which we find in Mithraism, is due to the
influence of Babylonian sidereal cults.
There is thus a marked difference between the two initiations;
the Attis initiate dies, is possibly buried, and revives with his god;
the Mithra initiate rises direct to the celestial sphere, where he is
met and welcomed by his god. There is here no evidence of the death
and resurrection of the deity.
What then is the point of contact between the cults that brought them
into such close and intimate relationship?
I think it must be sought in the higher teaching, which, under widely
differing external mediums, included elements common to both. In both
cults the final aim was the attainment of spiritual and eternal life.
Moreover, both possessed essential features which admitted, if they
did not encourage, an assimilation with Christianity. Both of them,
if forced to yield ground to their powerful rival, could, with a fair
show of reason, claim that they had been not vanquished, but
fulfilled, that their teaching had, in Christianity, attained its
The extracts given above will show the striking analogy between the
higher doctrine of Mithraism, and the fundamental teaching of its great
rival, a resemblance that was fully admitted, and which became the
subject of heated polemic. Greek philosophers did not hesitate to
establish a parallel entirely favourable to Mithraism, while Christian
apologists insisted that such resemblances were the work of the Devil,
a line of argument which, as we have seen above, they had already
adopted with regard to the older Mysteries. It is a matter of
historical fact that at one moment the religious fate of the West hung
in the balance, and it was an open question whether Mithraism or
Christianity would be the dominant Creed.
On the other hand we have also seen that certainly one early Christian
sect, the Naassenes, while equally regarding the Logos as the centre
of their belief, held the equivalent deity to be Attis, and frequented
the Phrygian Mysteries as the most direct source of spiritual
enlightenment, while the teaching as to the Death and Resurrection
of the god, and the celebration of a Mystic Feast, in which the
worshippers partook of the Food and Drink of Eternal Life, offered
parallels to Christian doctrine and practice to the full as striking
as any to be found in the Persian faith.
I would therefore submit that it was rather through the medium of
their inner, Esoteric, teaching, that the two faiths, so different in
their external practice, preserved so close and intimate a connection
and that, by the medium of that same Esoteric teaching, both alike
came into contact with Christianity, and, in the case of the Phrygian
cult, could, and actually did, claim identity with it.
Baudissin in his work above referred to suggests that the Adonis
cult owed its popularity to its higher, rather than to its lower,
elements, to its suggestion of ever-renewing life, rather than to the
satisfaction of physical desire to be found in it. Later evidence
seems to prove that he judged correctly.
We may also note that the Attis Mysteries were utilized by the priests
of Mithra for the initiation of women who were originally excluded
from the cult of the Persian god. Cumont remarks that this, an
absolute rule in the Western communities, seems to have had exceptions
in the Eastern. Is it possible that the passage quoted in the
previous chapter, in which Perceval is informed that no woman may
speak of the Grail, is due to contamination with the Mithra worship?
It does not appear to be in harmony with the prominent position assigned
to women in the Grail ritual, the introduction of a female Grail
messenger, or the fact that (with the exception of Merlin in the
Borron text) it is invariably a maiden who directs the hero on his
road to the Grail castle, or reproaches him for his failure there.
But there is little doubt that, separately, or in conjunction,
both cults travelled to the furthest borders of the Roman Empire.
The medium of transmission is very fully discussed by Cumont in both
of the works referred to. The channel appears to have been three-fold.
First, commercial, through the medium of Syrian merchants. As
ardently religious as practically business-like, the Syrians
introduced their native deities wherever they penetrated, "founding
their chapels at the same time as their counting-houses."
Secondly, there was social penetration--by means of the Asiatic
slaves, who formed a part of most Roman households, and the State
employés, such as officers of customs, army paymasters, etc., largely
recruited from Oriental sources.
Thirdly, and most important, were the soldiers, the foreign legions,
who, drawn mostly from the Eastern parts of the Empire, brought their
native deities with them. Cumont signalizes as the most active agents
of the dispersion of the cult of Mithra, Soldiers, Slaves, and
As far North as Hadrian's Dyke there has been found an inscription in
verse in honour of the goddess of Hierapolis, the author a prefect,
probably, Cumont remarks, the officer of a cohort of Hamii, stationed
in this distant spot. Dedications to Melkart and Astarte have been
found at Corbridge near Newcastle. The Mithraic remains are
practically confined to garrison centres, London, York, Chester,
Caerleon-on-Usk, and along Hadrian's Dyke. From the highly
interesting map attached to the Study, giving the sites of ascertained
Mithraic remains, there seems to have been such a centre in
Now in view of all this evidence is it not at least possible that
the higher form of the Attis cult, that in which it was known and
practised by early Gnostic Christians, may have been known in Great
Britain? Scholars have been struck by the curiously unorthodox tone
of the Grail romances, their apparent insistence on a succession
quite other than the accredited Apostolic tradition, and yet, according
to the writers, directly received from Christ Himself. The late
M. Paulin Paris believed that the source of this peculiar feature was
to be found in the struggle for independence of the early British
Church; but, after all, the differences of that Church with Rome
affected only minor points of discipline: the date of Easter, the
fashion of tonsure of the clergy, nothing which touched vital
doctrines of the Faith. Certainly the British Church never claimed
the possession of a revelation à part. But if the theory based upon
the evidence of the Naassene document be accepted such a presentation
can be well accounted for. According to Hippolytus the doctrines of
the sect were derived from James, the brother of Our Lord, and Clement
of Alexandria asserts that "The Lord imparted the Gnosis to James
the Just, to John and to Peter, after His Resurrection; these delivered
it to the rest of the Apostles, and they to the Seventy."
Thus the theory proposed in these pages will account not only for the
undeniable parallels existing between the Vegetation cults and the
Grail romances, but also for the Heterodox colouring of the latter,
two elements which at first sight would appear to be wholly
unconnected, and quite incapable of relation to a common source.
Nor in view of the persistent vitality and survival, even to our own
day, of the Exoteric practices can there be anything improbable in
the hypothesis of a late survival of the Esoteric side of the ritual.
Cumont points out that the worship of Mithra was practised in the
fifth century in certain remote cantons of the Alps and the
Vosges--i.e., at the date historically assigned to King Arthur.
Thus it would not be in any way surprising if a tradition of the
survival of these semi-Christian rites at this period also existed.
In my opinion it is the tradition of such a survival which lies at
the root, and explains the confused imagery, of the text we know as the
Elucidation. I have already, in my short study of the subject, set
forth my views; as I have since found further reasons for maintaining
the correctness of the solution proposed, I will repeat it here.
The text in question is found in three of our existing Grail versions:
in the MS. of Mons; in the printed edition of 1530; and in the German
translation of Wisse-Colin. It is now prefixed to the poem of
Chrétien de Troyes, but obviously, from the content, had originally
nothing to do with that version.
It opens with the passage quoted above (p. 130) in which Master Blihis
utters his solemn warning against revealing the secret of the Grail.
It goes on to tell how aforetime there were maidens dwelling in the
hills who brought forth to the passing traveller food and drink.
But King Amangons outraged one of these maidens, and took away from
her her golden Cup:
"Des puceles une esforcha
Et la coupe d'or li toli--."
His knights, when they saw their lord act thus, followed his evil
example, forced the fairest of the maidens, and robbed them of their
cups of gold. As a result the springs dried up, the land became
waste, and the court of the Rich Fisher, which had filled the land
with plenty, could no longer be found.
For 1000 years the land lies waste, till, in the days of King Arthur,
his knights find maidens wandering in the woods, each with her
attendant knight. They joust, and one, Blihos-Bliheris, vanquished by
Gawain, comes to court and tells how these maidens are the descendants
of those ravished by King Amangons and his men, and how, could the
court of the Fisher King, and the Grail, once more be found, the
land would again become fertile. Blihos-Bliheris is, we are told,
so entrancing a story-teller that none at court could ever weary of
listening to his words.
The natural result, which here does not immediately concern us, was
that Arthur's knights undertook the quest, and Gawain achieved it.
Now at first sight this account appears to be nothing but a fantastic
fairy-tale (as such Professor Brown obviously regarded it), and
although the late Dr Sebastian Evans attempted in all seriousness to
find a historical basis for the story in the events which provoked the
pronouncement of the Papal Interdict upon the realm of King John, and
the consequent deprivation of the Sacraments, I am not aware that
anyone took the solution seriously. Yet, on the basis of the theory
now set forth, is it not possible that there may be a real foundation
of historical fact at the root of this wildly picturesque tale? May
it not be simply a poetical version of the disappearance from the land
of Britain of the open performance of an ancient Nature ritual?
A ritual that lingered on in the hills and mountains of Wales as the
Mithra worship did in the Alps and Vosges, celebrated as that cult
habitually was, in natural caverns, and mountain hollows? That it
records the outrage offered by some, probably local, chieftain to a
priestess of the cult, an evil example followed by his men, and the
subsequent cessation of the public celebration of the rites, a
cessation which in the folk-belief would certainly be held sufficient
to account for any subsequent drought that might affect the land?
But the ritual, in its higher, esoteric, form was still secretly
observed, and the tradition, alike of its disappearance as a public
cult, and of its persistence in some carefully hidden strong-hold,
was handed on in the families of those who had been, perhaps still were,
officiants of these rites.
That among the handers on of the torch would be the descendants of the
outraged maidens, is most probable.
The sense of mystery, of a real danger to be faced, of an overwhelming
Spiritual gain to be won, were of the essential nature of the tale.
It was the very mystery of Life which lay beneath the picturesque
wrappings; small wonder that the Quest of the Grail became the synonym
for the highest achievement that could be set before men, and that
when the romantic evolution of the Arthurian tradition reached its
term, this supreme adventure was swept within the magic circle. The
knowledge of the Grail was the utmost man could achieve, Arthur's
knights were the very flower of manhood, it was fitting that to them
the supreme test be offered. That the man who first told the story,
and boldly, as befitted a born teller of tales, wedded it the
Arthurian legend, was himself connected by descent with the ancient
Faith, himself actually held the Secret of the Grail, and told, in
purposely romantic form, that of which he knew, I am firmly convinced,
nor do I think that the time is far distant when the missing links
will be in our hand, and we shall be able to weld once more the golden
chain which connects Ancient Ritual with Medieval Romance.
The Perilous Chapel
Students of the Grail romances will remember that in many of the
versions the hero--sometimes it is a heroine--meets with a strange
and terrifying adventure in a mysterious Chapel, an adventure which,
we are given to understand, is fraught with extreme peril to life.
The details vary: sometimes there is a Dead Body laid on the altar;
sometimes a Black Hand extinguishes the tapers; there are strange
and threatening voices, and the general impression is that this is
an adventure in which supernatural, and evil, forces are engaged.
Such an adventure befalls Gawain on his way to the Grail Castle.
He is overtaken by a terrible storm, and coming to a Chapel, standing
at a crossways in the middle of a forest, enters for shelter. The
altar is bare, with no cloth, or covering, nothing is thereon but a
great golden candlestick with a tall taper burning within it. Behind
the altar is a window, and as Gawain looks a Hand, black and hideous,
comes through the window, and extinguishes the taper, while a voice
makes lamentation loud and dire, beneath which the very building
rocks. Gawain's horse shies for terror, and the knight, making the
sign of the Cross, rides out of the Chapel, to find the storm abated,
and the great wind fallen. Thereafter the night was calm and clear.
In the Perceval section of Wauchier and Manessier we find the same
adventure in a dislocated form.
Perceval, seeking the Grail Castle, rides all day through a heavy
storm, which passes off at night-fall, leaving the weather calm and
clear. He rides by moonlight through the forest, till he sees before
him a great oak, on the branches of which are lighted candles, ten,
fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five. The knight rides quickly towards it,
but as he comes near the lights vanish, and he only sees before him
a fair little Chapel, with a candle shining through the open door.
He enters, and finds on the altar the body of a dead knight, covered
with a rich samite, a candle burning at his feet.
Perceval remains some time, but nothing happens. At midnight he
departs; scarcely has he left the Chapel when, to his great surprise,
the light is extinguished.
The next day he reaches the castle of the Fisher King, who asks him
where he passed the preceding night. Perceval tells him of the
Chapel; the King sighs deeply, but makes no comment.
Wauchier's section breaks off abruptly in the middle of this episode;
when Manessier takes up the story he gives explanations of the Grail,
etc., at great length, explanations which do not at all agree with
the indications of his predecessor. When Perceval asks of the Chapel
he is told it was built by Queen Brangemore of Cornwall, who was
later murdered by her son Espinogres, and buried beneath the altar.
Many knights have since been slain there, none know by whom, save it
be by the Black Hand which appeared and put out the light. (As we saw
above it had not appeared.) The enchantment can only be put an end to
if a valiant knight will fight the Black Hand, and, taking a veil kept
in the Chapel, will dip it in holy water, and sprinkle the walls, after
which the enchantment will cease.
At a much later point Manessier tells how Perceval, riding through the
forest, is overtaken by a terrible storm. He takes refuge in a Chapel
which he recognizes as that of the Black Hand. The Hand appears,
Perceval fights against and wounds it; then appears a Head; finally
the Devil in full form who seizes Perceval as he is about to seek the
veil of which he has been told. Perceval makes the sign of the Cross,
on which the Devil vanishes, and the knight falls insensible before
the altar. On reviving he takes the veil, dips it in holy water, and
sprinkles the walls within and without. He sleeps there that night,
and the next morning, on waking, sees a belfry. He rings the bell,
upon which an old man, followed by two others, appears. He tells
Perceval he is a priest, and has buried 3000 knights slain by the
Black Hand; every day a knight has been slain, and every day a marble
tomb stands ready with the name of the victim upon it. Queen
Brangemore founded the cemetery, and was the first to be buried within
it. (But according to the version given earlier she was buried
beneath the altar.) We have here evidently a combination of two
themes, Perilous Chapel and Perilous Cemetery, originally independent
of each other. In other MSS. the Wauchier adventure agrees much more
closely with the Manessier sequel, the Hand appearing, and
extinguishing the light. Sometimes the Hand holds a bridle, a feature
probably due to contamination with a Celtic Folk-tale, in which a
mysterious Hand (here that of a giant) steals on their birth-night a
Child, and a foal. These Perceval versions are manifestly confused
and dislocated, and are probably drawn from more than one source.
In the Queste Gawain and Hector de Maris come to an old and ruined
Chapel where they pass the night. Each has a marvellous dream. The
next morning, as they are telling each other their respective visions,
they see, "a Hand, showing unto the elbow, and was covered with red
samite, and upon that hung a bridle, not rich, and held within the
fist a great candle that burnt right clear, and so passed afore them,
and entered into the Chapel, and then vanished away, and they wist not
where." This seems to be an unintelligent borrowing from the
We have, also, a group of visits to the Perilous Chapel, or Perilous
Cemetery, which appear to be closely connected with each other. In
each case the object of the visit is to obtain a portion of the cloth
which covers the altar, or a dead body lying upon the altar. The
romances in question are the Perlesvaus, the prose Lancelot, and the
Chevalier à deux Espées. The respective protagonists being Perceval's
sister, Sir Lancelot, and the young Queen of Garadigan, whose city has
been taken by King Ris and who dares the venture to win her freedom.
In the first case the peril appears to lie in the Cemetery, which is
surrounded by the ghosts of knights slain in the forest, and buried in
unconsecrated ground. The Lancelot version is similar, but here the
title is definitely Perilous Chapel. In the last version there is no
hint of a Cemetery.
In the Lancelot version there is a dead knight on the altar, whose
sword Lancelot takes in addition to the piece of cloth. In the poem
a knight is brought in, and buried before the altar; the young queen,
after cutting off a piece of the altar cloth, uncovers the body, and
buckles on the sword. There is no mention of a Hand in any of the
three versions, which appear to be late and emasculated forms of the
The earliest mention of a Perilous Cemetery, as distinct from a
Chapel, appears to be in the Chastel Orguellous section of the
Perceval, a section probably derived from a very early stratum of
Arthurian romantic tradition. Here Arthur and his knights, on their
way to the siege of Chastel Orguellous, come to the Vergier des
Sepoltures, where they eat with the Hermits, of whom there are a
hundred and more.
"ne me l'oïst or pas chi dire
Les merveilles del chimetire
car si sont diverses et grans
qu'il n'est hom terriens vivans
qui poist pas quidier ne croire
que ce fust onques chose voire."
But there is no hint of a Perilous Chapel here.
The adventures of Gawain in the Atre Perilleus, and of Gawain and
Hector in the Lancelot of the final cyclic prose version, are of the
most banal description; the theme, originally vivid and picturesque,
has become watered down into a meaningless adventure of the most
But originally a high importance seems to have been attached to it.
If we turn back to the first version given, that of which Gawain is the
hero, we shall find that special stress is laid on this adventure, as
being part of 'the Secret of the Grail,' of which no man may speak
without grave danger. We are told that, but for Gawain's loyalty and
courtesy, he would not have survived the perils of that night. In the
same way Perceval, before reaching the Fisher King's castle, meets a
maiden, of whom he asks the meaning of the lighted tree, Chapel, etc.
She tells him it is all part of the saint secret of the Grail. Now
what does this mean? Unless I am much mistaken the key is to be found
in a very curious story related in the Perlesvaus, which is twice
referred to in texts of a professedly historical character. The tale
runs thus. King Arthur has fallen into slothful and fainéant ways, much
to the grief of Guenevere, who sees her lord's fame and prestige waning
day by day. In this crisis she urges him to visit the Chapel of Saint
Austin, a perilous adventure, but one that may well restore his
reputation. Arthur agrees; he will take with him only one squire; the
place is too dangerous. He calls a youth named Chaus, the son of Yvain
the Bastard, and bids him be ready to ride with him at dawn. The lad,
fearful of over-sleeping, does not undress, but lies down as he is in
the hall. He falls asleep--and it seems to him that the King has
wakened and gone without him. He rises in haste, mounts and rides after
Arthur, following, as he thinks, the track of his steed. Thus he comes
to a forest glade, where he sees a Chapel, set in the midst of a
grave-yard. He enters, but the King is not there; there is no living
thing, only the body of a knight on a bier, with tapers burning in
golden candlesticks at head and foot. Chaus takes out one of the
tapers, and thrusting the golden candlestick betwixt hose and thigh,
remounts and rides back in search of the King. Before he has gone far
he meets a man, black, and foul-favoured, armed with a large two-edged
knife. He asks, has he met King Arthur? The man answers, No, but he
has met him, Chaus; he is a thief and a traitor; he has stolen the
golden candlestick; unless he gives it up he shall pay for it dearly.
Chaus refuses, and the man smites him in the side with the knife. With
a loud cry the lad awakes, he is lying in the hall at Cardoil, wounded
to death, the knife in his side and the golden candlestick still in his
He lives long enough to tell the story, confess, and be shriven, and
then dies. Arthur, with the consent of his father, gives the
candlestick to the church of Saint Paul, then newly founded, "for he
would that this marvellous adventure should everywhere be known, and
that prayer should be made for the soul of the squire."
The pious wish of the King seems to have been fulfilled, as the story
was certainly well known, and appears to have been accepted as a
genuine tradition. Thus the author of the Histoire de Fulk Fitz-Warin
gives a résumé of the adventure, and asserts that the Chapel of Saint
Austin referred to was situated in Fulk's patrimony, i.e., in the
tract known as the Blaunche Launde, situated in Shropshire, on the
border of North Wales. As source for the tale he refers to Le Graal,
le lyvre de le Seint Vassal, and goes on to state that here King
Arthur recovered sa bounté et sa valur when he had lost his knighthood
and fame. This obviously refers to the Perlesvaus romance, though
whether in its present, or in an earlier form, it is impossible to
say. In any case the author of the Histoire evidently thought that
the Chapel in question really existed, and was to be located in
Shropshire. But John of Glastonbury also refers to the story,
and he connects it with Glastonbury.
Now how can we account for so wild, and at first sight so improbable,
a tale assuming what we may term a semi-historical character, and
becoming connected with a definite and precise locality?--a feature
which is, as a rule, absent from the Grail stories.
At the risk of startling my readers I must express my opinion that it
was because the incidents recorded were a reminiscence of something
which had actually happened, and which, owing to the youth, and
possible social position, of the victim, had made a profound
impression upon the popular imagination.
For this is the story of an initiation (or perhaps it would be more
correct to say the test of fitness for an initiation) carried out on
the astral plane, and reacting with fatal results upon the physical.
We have already seen in the Naassene document that the Mystery ritual
comprised a double initiation, the Lower, into the mysteries of
generation, i.e., of physical Life; the higher, into the Spiritual
Divine Life, where man is made one with God.
Some years ago I offered the suggestion that the test for the primary
initiation, that into the sources of physical life, would probably
consist in a contact with the horrors of physical death, and that the
tradition of the Perilous Chapel, which survives in the Grail romances
in confused and contaminated form, was a reminiscence of the test for
this lower initiation. This would fully account for the
importance ascribed to it in the Bleheris-Gawain form, and for the
asserted connection with the Grail. It was not till I came to study
the version of the Perlesvaus, with a view to determining its original
provenance, that I recognized its extreme importance for critical
purposes. The more one studies this wonderful legend the more one
discovers significance in what seem at first to be entirely
independent and unrelated details. If the reader will refer to my
Notes on the Perlesvaus, above referred to, he will find that the
result of an investigation into the evidence for locale pointed to the
conclusion that the author of the Histoire de Fulk Fitz-Warin and most
probably also the author of the Perlesvaus before him, were mistaken
in their identification, that there was no tradition of any such
Chapel in Shropshire, and consequently no tale of its foundation, such
as the author of the Histoire relates. But I was also able to show
that further north, in Northumberland, there was also a Blanchland,
connected with the memory of King Arthur, numerous dedications to
Saint Austin, and a tradition of that Saint driving out the local
demons closely analogous to the tale told of the presumed Shropshire
site. I therefore suggested that inasmuch as the Perlesvaus
represented Arthur as holding his court at Cardoil (Carlisle), the
Northern Blanchland, which possessed a Chapel of Saint Austin, and lay
within easy reach, was probably the original site rather than the
Shropshire Blaunche Launde, which had no Chapel, and was much further
Now in view of the evidence set forth in the last chapter, is
it not clear that this was a locality in which these semi-Pagan,
semi-Christian, rites, might, prima facie, be expected to linger on?
It is up here, along the Northern border, that the Roman legionaries
were stationed; it is here that we find monuments and memorials of
their heathen cults; obviously this was a locality where the
demon-hunting activities of the Saint might find full scope for
action. I would submit that there is at least presumptive evidence
that we may here be dealing with the survival of a genuine tradition.
And should any of my readers find it difficult to believe that, even
did initiations take place, and even were they of a character that
involved a stern test of mental and physical endurance--and I imagine
most scholars would admit that there was, possibly, more in the
original institutions, than, let us say, in a modern admission to
Free-Masonry--yet it is 'a far cry' from pre-Christian initiations
to Medieval Romance, and a connection between the two is a rash
postulate, I would draw their attention to the fact that, quite apart
from our Grail texts, we possess a romance which is, plainly, and
blatantly, nothing more or less than such a record. I refer, of
course, to Owain Miles, or The Purgatory of Saint Patrick, where we
have an account of the hero, after purification by fasting and prayer,
descending into the Nether World, passing through the abodes of the
Lost, finally reaching Paradise, and returning to earth after Three
Days, a reformed and regenerated character.
"Then with his monks the Prior anon,
With Crosses and with Gonfanon
Went to that hole forthright,
Thro' which Knight Owain went below,
There, as of burning fire the glow,
They saw a gleam of light;
And right amidst that beam of light
He came up, Owain, God's own knight,
By this knew every man
That he in Paradise had been,
And Purgatory's pains had seen,
And was a holy man."
Now if we turn to Bousset's article Himmelfahrt der Seele, to which I
have previously referred (p. ---), we shall find abundant evidence
that such a journey to the Worlds beyond was held to be a high
spiritual adventure of actual possibility--a venture to be undertaken
by those who, greatly daring, felt that the attainment of actual
knowledge of the Future Life was worth all the risks, and they were
great and terrible, which such an enterprise involved.
Bousset comments fully on Saint Paul's claim to have been 'caught
up into the Third Heaven' and points out that such an experience
was the property of the Rabbinical school to which Saul of Tarsus
had belonged, and was brought over by him from his Jewish past; such
experiences were rare in Orthodox Christianity. According to
Jewish classical tradition but one Rabbi had successfully passed the
test, other aspirants either failing at a preliminary stage, or, if
they persevered, losing their senses permanently. The practice of
this ecstatic ascent ceased among Jews in the second century A.D.
Bousset also gives instances of the soul leaving the body for three
days, and wandering through other worlds, both good and evil, and also
discusses the origin of the bridge which must be crossed to reach
Paradise, both features characteristic of the Owain poem. In fact
the whole study is of immense importance for a critical analysis of
the sources of the romance in question.
And here I would venture to beg the adherents of the 'Celtic' school
to use a little more judgment in their attribution of sources. Visits
to the Otherworld are not always derivations from Celtic Fairy-lore.
Unless I am mistaken the root of this theme is far more deeply
imbedded than in the shifting sands of Folk and Fairy tale. I believe
it to be essentially a Mystery tradition; the Otherworld is not a
myth, but a reality, and in all ages there have been souls who have
been willing to brave the great adventure, and to risk all for the
chance of bringing back with them some assurance of the future life.
Naturally these ventures passed into tradition with the men who risked
them. The early races of men became semi-mythic, their beliefs, their
experiences, receded into a land of mist, where their figures assumed
fantastic outlines, and the record of their deeds departed more and
more widely from historic accuracy.
The poets and dreamers wove their magic webs, and a world apart from
the world of actual experience came to life. But it was not all myth,
nor all fantasy; there was a basis of truth and reality at the
foundation of the mystic growth, and a true criticism will not rest
content with wandering in these enchanted lands, and holding all it
meets with for the outcome of human imagination.
The truth may lie very deep down, but it is there, and it is worth
seeking, and Celtic fairy-tales, charming as they are, can never
afford a satisfactory, or abiding, resting place. I, for one, utterly
refuse to accept such as an adequate goal for a life's research.
A path that leads but into a Celtic Twilight can only be a by-path,
and not the King's Highway!
The Grail romances repose eventually, not upon a poet's imagination,
but upon the ruins of an august and ancient ritual, a ritual which
once claimed to be the accredited guardian of the deepest secrets of
Life. Driven from its high estate by the relentless force of
religious evolution--for after all Adonis, Attis, and their congeners,
were but the 'half-gods' who must needs yield place when 'the Gods'
themselves arrive--it yet lingered on; openly, in Folk practice, in
Fast and Feast, whereby the well-being of the land might be assured;
secretly, in cave or mountain-fastness, or island isolation, where
those who craved for a more sensible (not necessarily sensuous)
contact with the unseen Spiritual forces of Life than the orthodox
development of Christianity afforded, might, and did, find
Were the Templars such? Had they, when in the East, come into touch
with a survival of the Naassene, or some kindred sect? It seems
exceedingly probable. If it were so we could understand at once the
puzzling connection of the Order with the Knights of the Grail, and
the doom which fell upon them. That they were held to be Heretics is
very generally admitted, but in what their Heresy consisted no one
really knows; little credence can be attached to the stories of idol
worship often repeated. If their Heresy, however, were such as
indicated above, a Creed which struck at the very root and vitals of
Christianity, we can understand at once the reason for punishment, and
the necessity for secrecy. In the same way we can now understand why
the Church knows nothing of the Grail; why that Vessel, surrounded
as it is with an atmosphere of reverence and awe, equated with the
central Sacrament of the Christian Faith, yet appears in no Legendary,
is figured in no picture, comes on the scene in no Passion Play.
The Church of the eleventh and twelfth centuries knew well what the
Grail was, and we, when we realize its genesis and true lineage, need
no longer wonder why a theme, for some short space so famous and so
fruitful a source of literary inspiration, vanished utterly and
completely from the world of literature.
Were Grail romances forbidden? Or were they merely discouraged?
Probably we shall never know, but of this one thing we may be sure,
the Grail is a living force, it will never die; it may indeed sink out
of sight, and, for centuries even, disappear from the field of
literature, but it will rise to the surface again, and become once
more a theme of vital inspiration even as, after slumbering from the
days of Malory, it woke to new life in the nineteenth century, making
its fresh appeal through the genius of Tennyson and Wagner.
Having now completed our survey of the various elements which have
entered into the composite fabric of the Grail Legend, the question
naturally arises where, and when, did that legend assume romantic
form, and to whom should we ascribe its literary origin?
On these crucial points the evidence at our disposal is far from
complete, and we can do little more than offer suggestions towards
the solution of the problem.
With regard to the first point, that of locality, the evidence is
unmistakably in favour of a Celtic, specifically a Welsh, source.
As a literary theme the Grail is closely connected with the Arthurian
tradition. The protagonist is one of Arthur's knights, and the hero
of the earlier version, Gawain, is more closely connected with Arthur
than are his successors, Perceval and Galahad. The Celtic origin of
both Gawain and Perceval is beyond doubt; and the latter is not merely
a Celt, but is definitely Welsh; he is always 'li Gallois.' Galahad
I hold to be a literary, and not a traditional, hero; he is the product
of deliberate literary invention, and has no existence outside the
frame of the later cyclic redactions. It is not possible at the
present moment to say whether the Queste was composed in the British
Isles, or on the continent, but we may safely lay it down as a basic
principle that the original Grail heroes are of insular origin, and
that the Grail legend, in its romantic, and literary, form is closely
connected with British pseudo-historical tradition.
The beliefs and practices of which, if the theory maintained in these
pages be correct, the Grail stories offer a more or less coherent
survival can be shown, on the evidence of historic monuments, and
surviving Folk-customs, to have been popular throughout the area of
the British Isles; while, with regard to the higher teaching of which
I hold these practices to have been the vehicle, Pliny comments upon
the similarity existing between the ancient Magian Gnosis and the
Druidical Gnosis of Gaul and Britain, an indication which, in the
dearth of accurate information concerning the teaching of the Druids,
is of considerable value.
As we noted in the previous chapter, an interesting parallel exists
between Wales, and localities, such as the Alps, and the Vosges,
where we have definite proof that these Mystery cults lingered on
after they had disappeared from public celebration. The Chart
appended to Cumont's Monuments de Mithra shows Mithraic remains in
precisely the locality where we have reason to believe certain of the
Gawain and Perceval stories to have originated.
As to the date of origin, that, of course, is closely connected with
the problem of authorship; if we can, with any possibility, identify
the author we can approximately fix the date. So far as the literary
evidence is concerned, we have no trace of the story before the
twelfth century, but when we do meet with it, it is already in
complete, and crystallized, form. More, there is already evidence of
competing versions; we have no existing Grail romance which we can
claim to be free from contamination, and representing in all respects
the original form.
There is no need here to go over old, and well-trodden, ground; in
my studies of the Perceval Legend, and in the later popular résumé
of the evidence, The Quest of the Holy Grail, I have analysed the
texts, and shown that, while the poem of Chrétien de Troyes is our
earliest surviving literary version, there is the strongest possible
evidence that Chrétien, as he himself admits, was not inventing, but
re-telling, an already popular tale. The Grail Quest was a theme
which had been treated not once nor twice, but of which numerous,
and conflicting, versions were already current, and, when Wauchier
de Denain undertook to complete Chrétien's unfinished work, he drew
largely upon these already existing forms, regardless of the fact
that they not only contradicted the version they were ostensibly
completing, but were impossible to harmonize with each other.
It is of importance for our investigation, however, to note that
where Wauchier does refer to a definite source, it is to an evidently
important and already famous collection of tales, Le Grant Conte,
comprising several 'Branches,' the hero of the collection being not
Chrétien's hero, Perceval, but Gawain, who, both in pseudo-historic
and romantic tradition, is far more closely connected with the
Arthurian legend, occupying, as he does, the traditional position of
nephew, Sister's Son, to the monarch who is the centre of the cycle;
even as Cuchullinn is sister's son to Conchobar, Diarmid to Finn,
Tristan to Mark, and Roland to Charlemagne. In fact this relationship
was so obviously required by tradition that we find Perceval figuring
now as sister's son to Arthur, now to the Grail King, according as the
Arthurian, or the Grail, tradition dominates the story.
The actual existence of such a group of tales as those referred to by
Wauchier derives confirmation from our surviving Gawain poems, as well
as from the references in the Elucidation, and on the evidence at our
disposal I have ventured to suggest the hypothesis of a group of
poems, dealing with the adventures of Gawain, his son, and brother,
the ensemble being originally known as The Geste of Syr Gawayne, a
title which, in the inappropriate form The Jest of Sir Gawain, is
preserved in the English version of that hero's adventure with the
sister of Brandelis. So keen a critic as Dr Brugger has not
hesitated to accept the theory of the existence of this Geste, and is
of opinion that the German poem Diû Crône may, in part at least, be
derived from this source.
The central adventure ascribed to Gawain in this group of tales is
precisely the visit to the Grail Castle to which we have already
referred, and we have pointed out that the manner in which it is
related, its directness, simplicity, and conformity with what we know
of the Mystery teaching presumably involved, taken in connection with
the personality of the hero, and his position in Arthurian romantic
tradition, appear to warrant us in assigning to it the position of
priority among the conflicting versions we possess.
At two points in the re-telling of these Gawain tales Wauchier
definitely refers to the author by name, Bleheris. On the second
occasion he states categorically that this Bleheris was of Welsh birth
and origin, né et engenuïs en Galles, and that he told the tale in
connection with which the statement is made to a certain Comte de
Poitiers, whose favourite story it was, he loved it above all others,
which would imply that it was not the only tale Bleheris had told
As we have seen in a previous chapter, the Elucidation prefaces its
account of the Grail Quest by a solemn statement of the gravity of the
subject to be treated, and a warning of the penalties which would
follow on a careless revelation of the secret. These warnings are put
into the mouth of a certain Master Blihis, concerning whom we hear no
more. A little further on in the poem we meet with a knight,
Blihos-Bliheris, who, made prisoner by Gawain, reveals to Arthur and
his court the identity of the maidens wandering in the woods, of the
Fisher King, and the Grail, and is so good a story-teller that none
can weary of listening to his tales.
Again, in the fragmentary remains of Thomas's Tristan we have a
passage in which the poet refers, as source, to a certain Bréri, who
knew "all the feats, and all the tales, of all the kings, and all the
counts who had lived in Britain."
Finally, Giraldus Cambrensis refers to famosus ille fabulator,
Bledhericus, who had lived "shortly before our time" and whose renown
he evidently takes for granted was familiar to his readers.
Now are we to hold that the Bleheris who, according to Wauchier,
had told tales concerning Gawain, and Arthur's court, one of whic
tales was certainly the Grail adventure; the Master Blihis, who knew
the Grail mystery, and gave solemn warning against its revelation;
the Blihos-Bliheris, who knew the Grail, and many other tales;
the Bréri, who knew all the legendary tales concerning the princes
of Britain; and the famous story-teller Bledhericus, of whom Giraldus
speaks, are distinct and separate personages, or mere inventions of
the separate writers, or do all these passages refer to one and the
same individual, who, in that case, may well have deserved the title
famosus ille fabulator?
With regard to the attitude taken up by certain critics, that no
evidential value can be attached to these references, I would point
out that when Medieval writers quote an authority for their statements
they, as a rule, refer to a writer whose name carries weight, and
will impress their readers; they are offering a guarantee for the
authenticity of their statements. The special attribution may be
purely fictitious but the individual referred to enjoys an established
reputation. Thus, the later cyclic redactions of the Arthurian romances
are largely attributed to Walter Map, who, in view of his public
position, and political activities, could certainly never have had
the leisure to compose one half of the literature with which he is
credited! In the same way Robert de Borron, Chrétien de Troyes,
Wolfram von Eschenbach, are all referred to as sources without
any justification in fact. Nor is it probable that Wauchier, who
wrote on the continent, and who, if he be really Wauchier de Denain,
was under the patronage of the Count of Flanders, would have gone out
of his way to invent a Welsh source.
Judging from analogy, the actual existence of a personage named
Bleheris, who enjoyed a remarkable reputation as a story-teller, is,
prima facie, extremely probable.
But are these references independent, was there more than one
Bleheris? I think not. The name is a proper, and not a family,
name. In the latter case it might be possible to argue that we were
dealing with separate members of a family, or group, of bardic poets,
whose office it was to preserve, and relate, the national legends.
But we are dealing with variants of a proper name, and that of
distinctly insular, and Welsh origin.
The original form, Bledri, was by no means uncommon in Wales: from
that point of view there might well have been four or five, or even
more, of that name, but that each and all of these should have
possessed the same qualifications, should have been equally well
versed in popular traditions, equally dowered with the gift of
story-telling, on equally friendly terms with the Norman invaders,
and equally possessed of such a knowledge of the French language
as should permit them to tell their stories in that tongue, is,
I submit, highly improbable. This latter point, i.e., the knowledge
of French, seems to me to be of crucial importance. Given the
relations between conqueror and conquered, and the intransigeant
character of Welsh patriotism, the men who were on sufficiently
friendly terms with the invaders to be willing to relate the national
legends, with an assurance of finding a sympathetic hearing, must
have been few and far between. I do not think the importance of
this point has been sufficiently grasped by critics.
The problem then is to find a Welshman who, living at the end of
the eleventh and commencement of the twelfth centuries, was well
versed in the legendary lore of Britain; was of sufficiently good
social status to be well received at court; possessed a good knowledge
of the French tongue; and can be shown to have been on friendly
terms with the Norman nobles.
Mr Edward Owen, of the Cymmrodorion Society, has suggested that a
certain Welsh noble, Bledri ap Cadivor, fulfils, in a large measure,
the conditions required. Some years ago I published in the Revue
Celtique a letter in which Mr Owen summarized the evidence at his
disposal. As the review in question may not be easily accessible to
some of my readers I will recapitulate the principal points.
The father of Bledri, Cadivor, was a great personage in West Wales,
and is looked upon as the ancestor of the most important families in
the ancient Dyfed, a division now represented by Pembrokeshire, and
the Western portion of Carmarthen. (We may note here that the
traditional tomb of Gawain is at Ross in Pembrokeshire, and that there
is reason to believe that the Perceval story, in its earliest form,
was connected with that locality.)
Cadivor had three sons, of whom Bledri was the eldest; thus, at his
father's death, he would be head of this ancient and distinguished
family. At the division of the paternal estates Bledri inherited,
as his share, lands ranging along the right bank of the lower Towey,
and the coast of South Pembrokeshire, extending as far as Manorbeer,
the birthplace of Giraldus Cambrensis. (This is again a geographical
indication which should be borne in mind.) Cadivor himself appears
to have been on friendly terms with the Normans; he is said to have
entertained William the Conqueror on his visit to St David's in 1080,
while every reference we have to Bledri shows him in close connection
with the invaders.
Thus, in 1113 the Brut-y-Tywysogion mentions his name as ally of the
Norman knights in their struggle to maintain their ground in, and
around, Carmarthen. In 1125 we find his name as donor of lands to
the Augustinian Church of St John the Evangelist, and St Theuloc of
Carmarthen, newly founded by Henry I. Here his name appears with
the significant title Latinarius (The Interpreter), a qualification
repeated in subsequent charters of the same collection. In one of
these we find Griffith, the son of Bledri, confirming his father's
gift. Professor Lloyd, in an article in Archaeologia Cambrensis,
July 1907, has examined these charters, and considers the grant to
have been made between 1129 and 1134, the charter itself being of
the reign of Henry I, 1101-1135.
In the Pipe Roll of Henry I, 1131, Bledri's name is entered as debtor
for a fine incurred by the killing of a Fleming by his men; while a
highly significant entry records the fine of 7 marks imposed upon a
certain Bleddyn of Mabedrud and his brothers for outraging Bledri's
daughter. When we take into consideration the rank of Bledri, this
insult to his family by a fellow Welshman would seem to indicate that
his relations with his compatriots were not of a specially friendly
Mr Owen also points out that portion of the Brut-y-Tywysogion which
covers the years 1101-20 (especially the events of the year 1113,
where we find Bledri, and other friendly Welsh nobles, holding the
castle of Carmarthen for the Normans against the Welsh), is related
at an altogether disproportionate length, and displays a strong bias
in favour of the invaders. The year just referred to, for instance,
occupies more than twice the space assigned to any other year.
Mr Owen suggests that here Bledri himself may well have been the
chronicler; a hypothesis which, if he really be the author we are
seeking, is quite admissible.
So far as indications of date are concerned, Bledri probably lived
between the years 1070-1150. His father Cadivor died in 1089, and his
lands were divided between his sons of whom Bledri, as we have seen,
was the eldest. Thus they cannot have been children at that date;
Bledri, at least, would have been born before 1080. From the evidence
of the Pipe Roll we know that he was living in 1131. The charter
signed by his son, confirmatory of his grant, must have been
subsequent to 1148, as it was executed during the Episcopate of David,
Bishop of St David's 1148-1176. Thus the period of 80 years suggested
above (1070-1150) may be taken as covering the extreme limit to be
assigned to his life, and activity.
The passage in which Giraldus Cambrensis refers to Bledhericus,
famosus ille fabulator who tempora nostra paulo praevenit, was written
about 1194; thus it might well refer to a man who had died some 40 or
50 years previously. As we have noted above, Giraldus was born upon
ground forming a part of Bledri's ancestral heritage, and thus might
well be familiar with his fame.
The evidence is of course incomplete, but it does provide us with
a personality fulfilling the main conditions of a complex problem.
Thus, we have a man of the required name, and nationality; living at
an appropriate date; of the requisite social position; on excellent
terms with the French nobles, and so well acquainted with their
language as to sign himself officially 'The Interpreter.' We have no
direct evidence of his literary skill, or knowledge of the traditional
history of his country, but a man of his birth could scarcely have
failed to possess the latter, while certain peculiarities in that
section of the national Chronicle which deals with the aid given by
him to the Norman invaders would seem to indicate that Bledri himself