From Ritual to Romance
by Jessie L. Weston
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I have no desire to press the point unduly, but it is certainly significant that, entirely apart from any such theory of the evolution of the Grail legend as that advanced in these pages, a Welsh scholar should have suggested a rendering of the title of the Grail hero which is in complete harmony with that theory; a rendering also which places him side by side with his compatriot Gwalchmai, even as the completely evolved Grail story connects him with Gawain. In any case there is food for reflection in the fact that the possibility of such an origin once admitted, the most apparently incongruous, and inharmonious, elements of the story show themselves capable of a natural and unforced explanation.

In face of the evidence above set forth it seems impossible to deny that the Doctor, or Medicine Man, did, from the very earliest ages, play an important part in Dramatic Fertility Ritual, that he still survives in the modern Folk-play, the rude representative of the early ritual form, and it is at least possible that the attribution of healing skill to so romantic and chivalrous a character as Sir Gawain may depend upon the fact that, at an early, and pre-literary stage of his story, he played the role traditionally assigned to the Doctor, that of restoring to life and health the dead, or wounded, representative of the Spirit of Vegetation.

If I am right in my reading of this complicated problem the mise-en-scene of the Grail story was originally a loan from a ritual actually performed, and familiar to those who first told the tale. This ritual, in its earlier stages comparatively simple and objective in form, under the process of an insistence upon the inner and spiritual significance, took upon itself a more complex and esoteric character, the rite became a Mystery, and with this change the role of the principal actors became of heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer; and his task involved more than the administration of the original Herbal remedy. In fact in the final development of the story the Pathos is shared alike by the representative of the Vegetation Spirit, and the Healer, whose task involves a period of stern testing and probation.

If we wish to understand clearly the evolution of the Grail story we must realize that the simple Fertility Drama from which it sprung has undergone a gradual and mysterious change, which has invested it with elements at once 'rich and strange,' and that though Folk-lore may be the key to unlock the outer portal of the Grail castle it will not suffice to give us the entrance to its deeper secrets.


While having no connection with the main subject of our study, the Grail legend, I should like to draw the attention of students of Medieval literature to the curious parallel between the Rig-Veda poem of the Medicine Man or Krauter-Lied as it is also called, and Rusteboeuf's Dist de l'Erberie. Both are monologues, both presuppose the presence of an audience, in each case the speaker is one who vaunts his skill in the use of herbs, in each case he has in view the ultimate gain to himself. Here are the opening lines of the Medieval poem:[1]

"Seignor qui ci estes venu Petit et grant, jone et chenu, Il vos est trop bien avenu Sachiez de voir; Je ne vos vueil pas decevoir Bien le porroz apercevoir Ainz que m'en voise. Asiez vos, ne fetes noise Si escotez s'il ne vos poise Je sui uns mires."

He has been long with the lord of Caire, where he won much gold; in Puille, Calabre, Luserne.

"Ai herbes prises Qui de granz vertuz sont enprises Sus quelque mal qu'el soient mises Le maus s'enfuit."

There is no reference in the poem to a cure about to be performed in the presence of the audience, which does not however exclude the possibility of such cure being effected.

It would be interesting to know under what circumstances such a poem was recited, whether it formed part of a popular representation. The audience in view is of a mixed character, young and old, great and small, and one has a vision of the Quack Doctor at some village fair, on the platform before his booth, declaiming the virtues of his nostrums before an audience representative of all ranks and ages. It is a far cry from such a Medieval scene to the prehistoric days of the Rig-Veda, but the mise-en-scene is the same; the popular 'seasonal' feast, the Doctor with his healing herbs, which he vaunts in skilful rhyme, the hearers, drawn from all ranks, some credulous, some amused. There seems very little doubt that both poems are specimens, and very good specimens, of a genre the popularity and vitality of which are commensurate with the antiquity of its origin.[2]


The Fisher King

The gradual process of our investigation has led us to the conclusion that the elements forming the existing Grail legend—the setting of the story, the nature of the task which awaits the hero, the symbols and their significance—one and all, while finding their counterpart in prehistoric record, present remarkable parallels to the extant practice and belief of countries so widely separate as the British Isles, Russia, and Central Africa.

The explanation of so curious a fact, for it is a fact, and not a mere hypothesis, may, it was suggested, most probably be found in the theory that in this fascinating literature we have the, sometimes partially understood, sometimes wholly misinterpreted, record of a ritual, originally presumed to exercise a life-giving potency, which, at one time of universal observance, has, even in its decay, shown itself possessed of elements of the most persistent vitality.

That if the ritual, which according to our theory lies at the root of the Grail story, be indeed the ritual of a Life Cult, it should, in and per se, possess precisely these characteristics, will, I think, be admitted by any fair-minded critic; the point of course is, can we definitely prove our theory, i.e., not merely point to striking parallels, but select, from the figures and incidents composing our story, some one element, which, by showing itself capable of explanation on this theory, and on this theory alone, may be held to afford decisive proof of the soundness of our hypothesis?

It seems to me that there is one such element in the bewildering complex, by which the theory can be thus definitely tested, that is the personality of the central figure and the title by which he is known. If we can prove that the Fisher King, qua Fisher King, is an integral part of the ritual, and can be satisfactorily explained alike by its intention, and inherent symbolism, we shall, I think, have taken the final step which will establish our theory upon a sure basis. On the other hand, if the Fisher King, qua Fisher King, does not fit into our framework we shall be forced to conclude that, while the provenance of certain elements of the Grail literature is practically assured, the ensemble has been complicated by the introduction of a terminology, which, whether the outcome of serious intention, or of mere literary caprice, was foreign to the original source, and so far, defies explanation. In this latter case our theory would not necessarily be manque, but would certainly be seriously incomplete.

We have already seen that the personality of the King, the nature of the disability under which he is suffering, and the reflex effect exercised upon his folk and his land, correspond, in a most striking manner, to the intimate relation at one time held to exist between the ruler and his land; a relation mainly dependent upon the identification of the King with the Divine principle of Life and Fertility.

This relation, as we have seen above, exists to-day among certain African tribes.

If we examine more closely into the existing variants of our romances, we shall find that those very variants are not only thoroughly dans le cadre of our proposed solution, but also afford a valuable, and hitherto unsuspected, indication of the relative priority of the versions.

In Chapter I, I discussed the task of the hero in general, here I propose to focus attention upon his host, and while in a measure traversing the same ground, to do so with a view to determining the true character of this enigmatic personage.

In the Bleheris version,[1] the lord of the castle is suffering under no disability whatever; he is described as "tall, and strong of limb, of no great age, but somewhat bald." Besides the King there is a Dead Knight upon a bier, over whose body Vespers for the Dead are solemnly sung. The wasting of the land, partially restored by Gawain's question concerning the Lance, has been caused by the 'Dolorous Stroke,' i.e., the stroke which brought about the death of the Knight, whose identity is here never revealed. Certain versions which interpolate the account of Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail, allude to 'Le riche Pescheur' and his heirs as Joseph's descendants, and, presumably, for it is not directly stated, guardians of the Grail,[2] but the King himself is here never called by that title. From his connection with the Waste Land it seems more probable that it was the Dead Knight who filled that role.

In the second version of which Gawain is the hero, that of Diu Crone,[3] the Host is an old and infirm man. After Gawain has asked the question we learn that he is really dead, and only compelled to retain the semblance of life till the task of the Quester be achieved. Here, again, he is not called the Fisher King.

In the Perceval versions, on the contrary, we find the name invariably associated with him, but he is not always directly connected with the misfortunes which have fallen upon his land. Thus, while the Wauchier texts are incomplete, breaking off at the critical moment of asking the question, Manessier who continues, and ostensibly completes, Wauchier, introduces the Dead Knight, here Goondesert, or Gondefer (which I suspect is the more correct form), brother of the King, whose death by treachery has plunged the land in misery, and been the direct cause of the self-wounding of the King.[4] The healing of the King and the restoration of the land depend upon Perceval's slaying the murderer Partinal. These two versions show a combination of Perceval and Gawain themes, such as their respective dates might lead us to expect.

Robert de Borron is the only writer who gives a clear, and tolerably reasonable, account of why the guardian of the Grail bears the title of Fisher King; in other cases, such as the poems of Chretien and Wolfram, the name is connected with his partiality for fishing, an obviously post hoc addition.

The story in question is found in Borron's Joseph of Arimathea.[5] Here we are told how, during the wanderings of that holy man and his companions in the wilderness, certain of the company fell into sin. By the command of God, Brons, Joseph's brother-in-law, caught a Fish, which, with the Grail, provided a mystic meal of which the unworthy cannot partake; thus the sinners were separated from the righteous. Henceforward Brons was known as 'The Rich Fisher.' It is noteworthy, however, that in the Perceval romance, ascribed to Borron, the title is as a rule, Roi Pescheur, not Riche Pescheur.[6]

In this romance the King is not suffering from any special malady, but is the victim of extreme old age; not surprising, as he is Brons himself, who has survived from the dawn of Christianity to the days of King Arthur. We are told that the effect of asking the question will be to restore him to youth;[7] as a matter of fact it appears to bring about his death, as he only lives three days after his restoration.[8]

When we come to Chretien's poem we find ourselves confronted with a striking alteration in the presentment. There are, not one, but two, disabled kings; one suffering from the effects of a wound, the other in extreme old age. Chretien's poem being incomplete we do not know what he intended to be the result of the achieved Quest, but we may I think reasonably conclude that the wounded King at least was healed.[9]

The Parzival of von Eschenbach follows the same tradition, but is happily complete. Here we find the wounded King was healed, but what becomes of the aged man (here the grandfather, not as in Chretien the father, of the Fisher King) we are not told.[10]

The Perlesvaus is, as I have noted above,[13] very unsatisfactory. The illness of the King is badly motivated, and he dies before the achievement of the Quest. This romance, while retaining certain interesting, and undoubtedly primitive features, is, as a whole, too late, and remaniee a redaction to be of much use in determining the question of origins.

The same may be said of the Grand Saint Graal and Queste versions, both of which are too closely connected with the prose Lancelot, and too obviously intended to develope and complete the donnees of that romance to be relied upon as evidence for the original form of the Grail legend.[12] The version of the Queste is very confused: there are two kings at the Grail castle, Pelles, and his father; sometimes the one, sometimes the other, bears the title of Roi Pescheur.[13] There is besides, an extremely old, and desperately wounded, king, Mordrains, a contemporary of Joseph, who practically belongs, not to the Grail tradition, but to a Conversion legend embodied in the Grand Saint Graal.[14] Finally, in the latest cyclic texts, we have three Kings, all of whom are wounded.[15]

The above will show that the presentment of this central figure is much confused; generally termed Le Roi Pescheur, he is sometimes described as in middle life, and in full possession of his bodily powers. Sometimes while still comparatively young he is incapacitated by the effects of a wound, and is known also by the title of Roi Mehaigne, or Maimed King. Sometimes he is in extreme old age, and in certain closely connected versions the two ideas are combined, and we have a wounded Fisher King, and an aged father, or grandfather. But I would draw attention to the significant fact that in no case is the Fisher King a youthful character; that distinction is reserved for his Healer, and successor.

Now is it possible to arrive at any conclusion as to the relative value and probable order of these conflicting variants? I think that if we admit that they do, in all probability, represent a more or less coherent survival of the Nature ritual previously discussed, we may, by help of what we know as to the varying forms of that ritual, be enabled to bring some order out of this confusion.

If we turn back to Chapters 4, 5, and 7, and consult the evidence there given as to the Adonis cults, the Spring Festivals of European Folk, the Mumming Plays of the British Isles, the main fact that emerges is that in the great majority of these cases the representative of the Spirit of Vegetation is considered as dead, and the object of these ceremonies is to restore him to life. This I hold to be the primary form.

This section had already been written when I came across the important article by Dr Jevons, referred to in a previous chapter.[16] Certain of his remarks are here so much to the point that I cannot refrain from quoting them. Speaking of the Mumming Plays, the writer says: "The one point in which there is no variation is that—the character is killed and brought to life again. The play is a ceremonial performance, or rather it is the development in dramatic form of what was originally a religious or magical rite, representing or realizing the revivification of the character slain. This revivification is the one essential and invariable feature of all the Mummer's plays in England."[17]

In certain cases, e.g., the famous Roman Spring festival of Mamurius Veturius and the Swabian ceremony referred to above,[18] the central figure is an old man. In no case do I find that the representative of Vegetation is merely wounded, although the nature of the ritual would obviously admit of such a variant.

Thus, taking the extant and recognized forms of the ritual into consideration, we might expect to find that in the earliest, and least contaminated, version of the Grail story the central figure would be dead, and the task of the Quester that of restoring him to life. Viewed from this standpoint the Gawain versions (the priority of which is maintainable upon strictly literary grounds, Gawain being the original Arthurian romantic hero) are of extraordinary interest. In the one form we find a Dead Knight, whose fate is distinctly stated to have involved his land in desolation, in the other, an aged man who, while preserving the semblance of life, is in reality dead.

This last version appears to me, in view of our present knowledge, to be of extreme critical value. There can, I think, be little doubt that in the primary form underlying our extant versions the King was dead, and restored to life; at first, I strongly suspect, by the agency of some mysterious herb, or herbs, a feature retained in certain forms of the Mumming play.

In the next stage, that represented by Borron, he is suffering from extreme old age, and the task of the Quester is to restore him to youth. This version is again supported by extant parallels. In each of these cases it seems most probable that the original ritual (I should wish it to be clearly understood that I hold the Grail story to have been primarily dramatic, and actually performed) involved an act of substitution. The Dead King in the first case being probably represented by a mere effigy, in the second being an old man, his place was, at a given moment of the ritual, taken by the youth who played the role of the Quester. It is noteworthy that, while both Perceval and Galahad are represented as mere lads, Gawain, whatever his age at the moment of the Grail quest, was, as we learn from Diu Crone, dowered by his fairy Mistress with the gift of eternal youth.[19]

The versions of Chretien and Wolfram, which present us with a wounded Fisher King, and a father, or grandfather,[20] in extreme old age, are due in my opinion to a literary device, intended to combine two existing variants. That the subject matter was well understood by the original redactor of the common source is proved by the nature of the injury,[21] but I hold that in these versions we have passed from the domain of ritual to that of literature. Still, we have a curious indication that the Wounding variant may have had its place in the former. The suggestion made above as to the probable existence in the primitive ritual of a substitution ceremony, seems to me to provide a possible explanation of the feature found alike in Wolfram, and in the closely allied Grail section of Sone de Nansai; i.e., that the wound of the King was a punishment for sin, he had conceived a passion for a Pagan princess.[22] Now there would be no incongruity in representing the Dead King as reborn in youthful form, the aged King as revenu dans sa juvence, but when the central figure was a man in the prime of life some reason had to be found, his strength and vitality being restored, for his supersession by the appointed Healer. This supersession was adequately motivated by the supposed transgression of a fundamental Christian law, entailing as consequence the forfeiture of his crown.

I would thus separate the doubling theme, as found in Chretien and Wolfram, from the wounded theme, equally common to these poets. This latter might possibly be accounted for on the ground of a ritual variant; the first is purely literary, explicable neither on the exoteric, nor the esoteric, aspect of the ceremony. From the exoteric point of view there are not, and there cannot be, two Kings suffering from parallel disability; the ritual knows one Principle of Life, and one alone. Equally from the esoteric standpoint Fisher King, and Maimed King, representing two different aspects of the same personality, may, and probably were, represented as two individuals, but one alone is disabled. Further, as the two are, in very truth, one, they should be equals in age, not of different generations. Thus the Bleheris version which gives us a Dead Knight, presumably, from his having been slain in battle, still in vigorous manhood, and a hale King is, ritually, the more correct. The original of Manessier's version must have been similar, but the fact that by the time it was compiled the Fisher King was generally accepted as being also the Maimed King led to the introduction of the very awkward, and poorly motivated, self-wounding incident. It will be noted that in this case the King is not healed either at the moment of the slaying of his brother's murderer (which would be the logical result of the donnees of the tale), nor at the moment of contact with the successful Quester, but at the mere announcement of his approach.[23]

Thus, if we consider the King, apart from his title, we find that alike from his position in the story, his close connection with the fortunes of his land and people, and the varying forms of the disability of which he is the victim, he corresponds with remarkable exactitude to the central figure of a well-recognized Nature ritual, and may therefore justly be claimed to belong ab origine to such a hypothetical source.

But what about his title, why should he be called the Fisher King?

Here we strike what I hold to be the main crux of the problem, a feature upon which scholars have expended much thought and ingenuity, a feature which the authors of the romances themselves either did not always understand, or were at pains to obscure by the introduction of the obviously post hoc "motif" above referred to, i.e., that he was called the Fisher King because of his devotion to the pastime of fishing: a-propos of which Heinzel sensibly remarks, that the story of the Fisher King "presupposes a legend of this personage only vaguely known and remembered by Chretien."[24]

Practically the interpretations already attempted fall into two main groups, which we may designate as the Christian-Legendary, and the Celtic-Folk-lore interpretations. For those who hold that the Grail story is essentially, and fundamentally, Christian, finding its root in Eucharistic symbolism, the title is naturally connected with the use of the Fish symbol in early Christianity: the Icthys anagram, as applied to Christ, the title 'Fishers of Men,' bestowed upon the Apostles, the Papal ring of the Fisherman—though it must be noted that no manipulation of the Christian symbolism avails satisfactorily to account for the lamentable condition into which the bearer of the title has fallen.[25]

The advocates of the Folk-lore theory, on the other hand, practically evade this main difficulty, by basing their interpretation upon Borron's story of the catching of the Fish by Brons, equating this character with the Bran of Welsh tradition, and pointing to the existence, in Irish and Welsh legend, of a Salmon of Wisdom, the tasting of whose flesh confers all knowledge. Hertz acutely remarks that the incident, as related by Borron, is not of such importance as to justify the stress laid upon the name, Rich Fisher, by later writers.[26] We may also note in this connection that the Grail romances never employ the form 'Wise Fisher,' which, if the origin of the name were that proposed above, we might reasonably expect to find. It is obvious that a satisfactory solution of the problem must be sought elsewhere.

In my opinion the key to the puzzle is to be found in the rightful understanding of the Fish-Fisher symbolism. Students of the Grail literature have been too prone to treat the question on the Christian basis alone, oblivious of the fact that Christianity did no more than take over, and adapt to its own use, a symbolism already endowed with a deeply rooted prestige and importance.

So far the subject cannot be said to have received adequate treatment; certain of its aspects have been more or less fully discussed in monographs and isolated articles, but we still await a comprehensive study on this most important question.[27]

So far as the present state of our knowledge goes we can affirm with certainty that the Fish is a Life symbol of immemorial antiquity, and that the title of Fisher has, from the earliest ages, been associated with Deities who were held to be specially connected with the origin and preservation of Life.

In Indian cosmogony Manu finds a little fish in the water in which he would wash his hands; it asks, and receives, his protection, asserting that when grown to full size it will save Manu from the universal deluge. This is Jhasa, the greatest of all fish.[28]

The first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator is a Fish. At the great feast in honour of this god, held on the twelfth day of the first month of the Indian year, Vishnu is represented under the form of a golden Fish, and addressed in the following terms: "Wie Du, O Gott, in Gestalt eines Fisches die in der Unterwelt befindlichen Veden gerettet hast, so rette auch mich."[29] The Fish Avatar was afterwards transferred to Buddha.

In Buddhist religion the symbols of the Fish and Fisher are freely employed. Thus in Buddhist monasteries we find drums and gongs in the shape of a fish, but the true meaning of the symbol, while still regarded as sacred, has been lost, and the explanations, like the explanations of the Grail romances, are often fantastic afterthoughts.

In the Mahayana scriptures Buddha is referred to as the Fisherman who draws fish from the ocean of Samsara to the light of Salvation. There are figures and pictures which represent Buddha in the act of fishing, an attitude which, unless interpreted in a symbolic sense, would be utterly at variance with the tenets of the Buddhist religion.[30]

This also holds good for Chinese Buddhism. The goddess Kwanyin (==Avalokitesvara), the female Deity of Mercy and Salvation, is depicted either on, or holding, a Fish. In the Han palace of Kun-Ming-Ch'ih there was a Fish carved in jade to which in time of drought sacrifices were offered, the prayers being always answered.

Both in India and China the Fish is employed in funeral rites. In India a crystal bowl with Fish handles was found in a reputed tomb of Buddha. In China the symbol is found on stone slabs enclosing the coffin, on bronze urns, vases, etc. Even as the Babylonians had the Fish, or Fisher, god, Oannes who revealed to them the arts of Writing, Agriculture, etc., and was, as Eisler puts it, 'teacher and lord of all wisdom,' so the Chinese Fu-Hi, who is pictured with the mystic tablets containing the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, is, with his consort and retinue, represented as having a fish's tail.[31]

The writer of the article in The Open Court asserts that "the Fish was sacred to those deities who were supposed to lead men back from the shadows of death to life."[32] If this be really the case we can understand the connection of the symbol first with Orpheus, later with Christ, as Eisler remarks: "Orpheus is connected with nearly all the mystery, and a great many of the ordinary chthonic, cults in Greece and Italy. Christianity took its first tentative steps into the reluctant world of Graeco-Roman Paganism under the benevolent patronage of Orpheus."[33]

There is thus little reason to doubt that, if we regard the Fish as a Divine Life symbol, of immemorial antiquity, we shall not go very far astray.

We may note here that there was a fish known to the Semites by the name of Adonis, although as the title signifies 'Lord,' and is generic rather than specific, too much stress cannot be laid upon it. It is more interesting to know that in Babylonian cosmology Adapa the Wise, the son of Ea, is represented as a Fisher.[34] In the ancient Sumerian laments for Tammuz, previously referred to, that god is frequently addressed as Divine Lamgar, Lord of the Net, the nearest equivalent I have so far found to our 'Fisher King.'[35] Whether the phrase is here used in an actual or a symbolic sense the connection of idea is sufficiently striking.

In the opinion of the most recent writers on the subject the Christian Fish symbolism derives directly from the Jewish, the Jews, on their side having borrowed freely from Syrian belief and practice.[36]

What may be regarded as the central point of Jewish Fish symbolism is the tradition that, at the end of the world, Messias will catch the great Fish Leviathan, and divide its flesh as food among the faithful. As a foreshadowing of this Messianic Feast the Jews were in the habit of eating fish upon the Sabbath. During the Captivity, under the influence of the worship of the goddess Atargatis, they transferred the ceremony to the Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, a position which it has retained to the present day. Eisler remarks that "in Galicia one can see Israelite families in spite of their being reduced to the extremest misery, procuring on Fridays a single gudgeon, to eat, divided into fragments, at night-fall. In the 16th century Rabbi Solomon Luria protested strongly against this practice. Fish, he declared, should be eaten on the Sabbath itself, not on the Eve."[37]

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 dimensions."[38]

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 Dolger, 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."[39]

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.[40]

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.[41]

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 Graal."

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 therewith.

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 widespread prevalence.

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 all.

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.[42] 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.[43] 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.[44] 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,[45] 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."[46]

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.[47]

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;[48] 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 tombstones.[49]

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 role; 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.[50] 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.[51] 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 role 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 our romances.[52]

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.[53]

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.[54] At the present day the Jews of Tunis exhibit a Fish's tail on a cushion at their weddings.[55] 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."[56] 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-scene 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)

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 secre."[1]

"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 secres) S'en puet avoir et paine et mal (Li fet grant pechie et grant mal) Cil qui s'entremet del conter Fors ensi com it doit aler."[2]

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 secree Si ne doit estre racontee Par dame ne par damoisele, Par mescine ne par puciele, Ne par nul home qui soit nes Si prouvoires n'est ordenes, U home qui maine sainte vie, ............................ Cil poroit deI Graal parler, Et la mervelle raconter, Que nus hom nel poroit oir Que il ne l'estuece fremir Trambler et remuer color, Et empalir de la paour.'"[3]

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 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 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.[4]

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 mysteres on doit songer a I'Asie hellenisee, bien plus qu'a la Grece propre, malgre tout le prestige qui entourait Eleusis, car d'abord les premieres communautes Chretiennes se font fondees, formees, developpees, au milieu de populations Orientales, Semites, Phrygiens, Egyptiens."[5]

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 Gotter-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."[6] 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-scene 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 Verhaltniss) to the importance in reality attached to them."[7] 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."[8] 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.

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 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.[9]

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 epreuves de la vie l'initie." Philosophers boldly utilized the framework of the Attis cult as the vehicle for imparting their own doctrines, "Lorsque le Neoplatonisme triomphera la fable Phrygienne deviendra le moule traditionnel dans lequel des exegetes subtils verseront hardiment leurs speculations philosophiques sur les forces creatrices fecondantes, principes de toutes les formes materielles, et sur la delivrance de l'ame divine plongee dans la corruption de ce monde terrestre."[10]

Certain of the Gnostic sects, both pre- and post-Christian, appear to have been enthusiastic participants in the Attis mysteries;[11] 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."[12]

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. "Aussitot que nous pouvons constater la presence du culte Persique en Italie nous le trouvons etroitement uni a celui de la Grande Mere de Pessinonte."[13] The union between Mithra and the goddess Anahita 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 deesse Phrygienne vecurent en communion intime sur toute l'etendue de l'Empire."[14]

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.[15]

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-Geraten zu essen meinten."[16]

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 erzahlt 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 hangt an der Rettung des Gottes."[17] [*** 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.[18] 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.[19] 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-scene 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.


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."[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 uber den Menschen aber unter den grossen Gottern stehen, und weniger Individualitat besitzen als diese."[1] Such a criticism applies of course equally to Attis.

Mithra, on the other hand, occupies an entirely different position. Cumont, in his Mysteres de Mithra, thus describes him; he is "le genie de la lumiere celeste. Il n'est ni le soleil, ni la lune, ni les etoiles, mais a l'aide de ces mille oreilles, et de ces deux milles yeux, il surveille le monde."[2]

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 progeniture et la vie."[3]

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 material type.

This is how Cumont sums up the main features. Mithra is the Mediator, who stands between "le Dieu inaccessible, et inconnaissable, qui regne dans les spheres etherees, et le genre humain qui s'agite ici-bas."—"Il est le Logos emane de Dieu, et participant a sa toute puissance, qui apres avoir forme le monde comme demiurge continue a veiller sur lui." The initiates must practice a strict chastity—"La resistance a la sensualite etait un des aspects du combat contre le principe du mal—le dualisme Mithraique servait de fondement a une morale tres pure et tres efficace."[4]

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