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The Secret of the Grail (1)

The Mysteries

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


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[paragraph continues] 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 any information.

"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 del 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

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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 Grail.

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 of Plenty.

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

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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 the Mysteries.

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 1.

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 l'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 2."

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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--ἓν ἀνδρῶν, ἓν θεῶν γένος." 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 1." In other words Greek religion lacks the Sacramental idea.

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.

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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 1." 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 2." 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 influential.

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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 sufficiently realized.

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

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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 15th-27th 1.

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 terrestre 2."

Certain of the Gnostic sects, both pre- and post-Christian, appear to have been enthusiastic participants in the Attis mysteries 3; 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 4."

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

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nous le trouvons étroitement uni à celui de la Grande Mére de Pessinonte 1." 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 2."

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 3.

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 

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in der Tat eine magische Speise des Lebens aus ihren Kult-Geräten zu essen meinten 1."

Dieterich in his interesting study entitled Eine Mithras-liturgie 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:

Θάρρετε μύϲται τοῦ θεοῦ ϲεϲωϲμένου·
Ἕϲται γα'ρ ἡμῖν ἐκ πόνων ϲωτηρία--

on which Dieterich remarks: "Das Heil der Mysten hängt an der Rettung des Gottes 2."

Hepding holds that in some cases there was an actual burial, and awakening with the god to a new life 3. 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

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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 1. 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 mystery.


130:1 Elucidation, ll. 4-9 and 12, 13.

130:2 Potvin, ll. 19933-40. I quote from Potvin's edition as more accessible than the MSS., but the version of Mons is, on the whole, an inferior one.

131:1 Potvin, ll. 28108-28.

133:1 This is to my mind the error vitiating much of Dr Nitze's later work, e.g., the studies entitled The Fisher-King in the Grail Romances and The Sister's Son, and the Conte del Graal.

133:2 Op. cit. Introduction, p. x.

134:1 Rohde, Psyche, p. 293, and Cumont, op. cit. p. 44.

135:1 Anrich, Das alte Mysterien-Wesen in seinem Verhältniss zum Christentum, p. 46.

135:2 Op. cit. p. 136.

137:1 Cumont, op. cit. p. 84.

137:2 Op. cit. pp. 104, 105.

137:3 Cf. Anrich, op. cit. p. 81.

137:4 Hepding, Attis, p. 189.

138:1 Cumont, Mystères de Mithra, pp. 19 and 78.

138:2 Ibid. p. 188.

138:3 Ibid. pp. 190 et seq.

139:1 Vide Hepding, Attis, Chap. 4, for details.

139:2 Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie, p. 174.

139:3 Hepding, op. cit. p. 196.

140:1 Cf. my Legend of Sir Perceval, Vol. II. p. 313. Hepding mentions (op. cit. p. 174) among the sacra of the goddess Phrygium ferrum, which he suggests was the knife from which the Archigallus wounded himself on the 'Blood' day. Thus it is possible that the primitive ritual may have contained a knife.

Next: Chapter XI. The Secret of the Grail (2): The Naassene Document