From Ritual to Romance/Chapter III
Chapter III: The Freeing of the Waters
'To begin at the beginning,' was the old story-telling formula, and it was a very sound one, if 'the beginning' could only be definitely ascertained! As our nearest possible approach to it I would draw attention to certain curious parallels in the earliest literary monuments of our race. I would at the same time beg those scholars who may think it 'a far cry' from the romances of the twelfth century of our era to some 1000 years B.C. to suspend their judgment till they have fairly examined the evidence for a tradition common to the Aryan race in general, and persisting with extraordinary vitality, and a marked correspondence of characteristic detail, through all migrations and modifications of that race, down to the present day.
Turning back to the earliest existing literary evidence, the Rig-Veda, we become aware that, in this vast collection of over 1000 poems (it is commonly known as The Thousand and One Hymns but the poems contained in it are more than that in number) are certain parallels with our Grail stories which, if taken by themselves, are perhaps interesting and suggestive rather than in any way conclusive, yet which, when they are considered in relation to the entire body of evidence, assume a curious significance and importance. We must first note that a very considerable number of the Rig-Veda hymns depend for their initial inspiration on the actual bodily needs and requirements of a mainly agricultural population, i.e., of a people that depend upon the fruits of the earth for their subsistence, and to whom the regular and ordered sequence of the processes of Nature was a vital necessity.
Their hymns and prayers, and, as we have strong reason to suppose, their dramatic ritual, were devised for the main purpose of obtaining from the gods of their worship that which was essential to ensure their well-being and the fertility of their land--warmth, sunshine, above all, sufficient water. That this last should, in an Eastern land, under a tropical sun, become a point of supreme importance, is easily to be understood. There is consequently small cause for surprise when we find, throughout the collection, the god who bestows upon them this much desired boon to be the one to whom by far the greater proportion of the hymns are addressed. It is not necessary here to enter into a discussion as to the original conception of Indra, and the place occupied by him in the early Aryan Pantheon, whether he was originally regarded as a god of war, or a god of weather; what is important for our purpose is the fact that it is Indra to whom a disproportionate number of the hymns of the Rig-Veda are addressed, that it is from him the much desired boon of rain and abundant water is besought, and that the feat which above all others redounded to his praise, and is ceaselessly glorified both by the god himself, and his grateful worshippers, is precisely the feat by which the Grail heroes, Gawain and Perceval, rejoiced the hearts of a suffering folk, i.e., the restoration of the rivers to their channels, the 'Freeing of the Waters.' Tradition relates that the seven great rivers of India had been imprisoned by the evil giant, Vritra, or Ahi, whom Indra slew, thereby releasing the streams from their captivity.
The Rig-Veda hymns abound in references to this feat; it will only be necessary to cite a few from among the numerous passages I have noted.
'Thou hast set loose the seven rivers to flow.'
'Thou causest water to flow on every side.'
'Indra set free the waters.'
'Thou, Indra, hast slain Vritra by thy vigour, thou hast set free the rivers.'
'Thou hast slain the slumbering Ahi for the release of the waters, and hast marked out the channels of the all-delighting rivers.'
'Indra has filled the rivers, he has inundated the dry land.'
'Indra has released the imprisoned waters to flow upon the earth.'
It would be easy to fill pages with similar quotations, but these are sufficient for our purpose.
Among the Rig-Veda hymns are certain poems in Dialogue form, which from their curious and elliptic character have been the subject of much discussion among scholars. Professor Oldenberg, in drawing attention to their peculiarities, had expressed his opinion that these poems were the remains of a distinct type of early Indian literature, where verses forming the central, and illuminating, point of a formal ceremonial recital had been 'farced' with illustrative and explanatory prose passages; the form of the verses being fixed, that of the prose being varied at the will of the reciter.
This theory, which is technically known as the 'Akhyana' theory (as it derived its starting point from the discussion of the Suparnakhyana text), won considerable support, but was contested by M. Sylvain Levi, who asserted that, in these hymns, we had the remains of the earliest, and oldest, Indian dramatic creations, the beginning of the Indian Drama; and that the fragments could only be satisfactorily interpreted from the point of view that they were intended to be spoken, not by a solitary reciter, but by two or more dramatis personae.
J. Hertel (Der Ursprung des Indischen Dramas und Epos) went still further, and while accepting, and demonstrating, the justice of this interpretation of the 'Dialogue' poems, suggested a similar origin for certain 'Monologues' found in the same collection.
Professor Leopold von Schroeder, in his extremely interesting volume, Mysterium und Mimus im Rig-Veda, has given a popular and practical form to the results of these researches, by translating and publishing, with an explanatory study, a selection of these early 'Culture' Dramas, explaining the speeches, and placing them in the mouth of the respective actors to whom they were, presumably, assigned. Professor von Schroeder holds the entire group to be linked together by one common intention, viz., the purpose of stimulating the processes of Nature, and of obtaining, as a result of what may be called a Ritual Culture Drama, an abundant return of the fruits of the earth. The whole book is rich in parallels drawn from ancient and modern sources, and is of extraordinary interest to the Folk-lore student.
In the light thrown by Professor von Schroeder's researches, following as they do upon the illuminating studies of Mannhardt, and Frazer, we become strikingly aware of the curious vitality and persistence of certain popular customs and beliefs; and while the two last-named writers have rendered inestimable service to the study of Comparative Religion by linking the practices of Classical and Medieval times with the Folk-customs of to-day, we recognize, through von Schroeder's work, that the root of such belief and custom is imbedded in a deeper stratum of Folk-tradition than we had hitherto realized, that it is, in fact, a heritage from the far-off past of the Aryan peoples.
For the purposes of our especial line of research Mysterium und Mimus offers much of value and interest. As noted above, the main object of these primitive Dramas was that of encouraging, we may say, ensuring, the fertility of the Earth; thus it is not surprising that more than one deals with the theme of which we are treating, the Freeing of the Waters, only that whereas, in the quotations given above, the worshippers praise Indra for his beneficent action, here Indra himself, in propria persona appears, and vaunts his feat.
"Ich schlug den Vritra mit der Kraft des Indra!
Durch eignen Grimm war ich so stark geworden!Ich machte fur die Menschen frei die Wasser"
And the impersonated rivers speak for themselves.
"Indra, den Blitz im Arm, brach uns die Bahnen,
Er schlug den Vritra, die Strome einschloss."
There is no need to insist further on the point that the task of the Grail hero is in this special respect no mere literary invention, but a heritage from the achievements of the prehistoric heroes of the Aryan race.
But the poems selected by Professor von Schroeder for discussion offer us a further, and more curious, parallel with the Grail romances.
In Section VIII. of the work referred to the author discusses the story of Rishyacringa, as the Mahabharata names the hero; here we find a young Brahmin brought up by his father, Vibhandaka, in a lonely forest hermitage absolutely ignorant of the outside world, and even of the very existence of beings other than his father and himself. He has never seen a woman, and does not know that such a creature exists.
A drought falls upon a neighbouring kingdom, and the inhabitants are reduced to great straits for lack of food. The King, seeking to know by what means the sufferings of his people may be relieved, learns that so long as Rishyacringa continues chaste so long will the drought endure. An old woman, who has a fair daughter of irregular life, undertakes the seduction of the hero. The King has a ship, or raft (both versions are given), fitted out with all possible luxury, and an apparent Hermit's cell erected upon it. The old woman, her daughter and companions, embark; and the river carries them to a point not far from the young Brahmin's hermitage.
Taking advantage of the absence of his father, the girl visits Rishyacringa in his forest cell, giving him to understand that she is a Hermit, like himself, which the boy, in his innocence, believes. He is so fascinated by her appearance and caresses that, on her leaving him, he, deep in thought of the lovely visitor, forgets, for the first time, his religious duties.
On his father's return he innocently relates what has happened, and the father warns him that fiends in this fair disguise strive to tempt hermits to their undoing. The next time the father is absent the temptress, watching her opportunity, returns, and persuades the boy to accompany her to her 'Hermitage' which she assures him, is far more beautiful than his own. So soon as Rishyacringa is safely on board the ship sails, the lad is carried to the capital of the rainless land, the King gives him his daughter as wife, and so soon as the marriage is consummated the spell is broken, and rain falls in abundance.
Professor von Schroeder points out that there is little doubt that, in certain earlier versions of the tale, the King's daughter herself played the role of temptress.
There is no doubt that a ceremonial 'marriage' very frequently formed a part of the 'Fertility' ritual, and was supposed to be specially efficacious in bringing about the effect desired. The practice subsists in Indian ritual to this hour, and the surviving traces in European Folk-custom have been noted in full by Mannhardt in his exhaustive work on Wald und Feld-Kulte; its existence in Classic times is well known, and it is certainly one of the living Folk-customs for which a well-attested chain of descent can be cited. Professor von Schroeder remarks that the efficacy of the rite appears to be enhanced by the previous strict observance of the rule of chastity by the officiant.
What, however, is of more immediate interest for our purpose is the fact that the Rishyacringa story does, in effect, possess certain curious points of contact with the Grail tradition.
Thus, the lonely upbringing of the youth in a forest, far from the haunts of men, his absolute ignorance of the existence of human beings other than his parent and himself, present a close parallel to the accounts of Perceval's youth and woodland life, as related in the Grail romances.
In Gerbert's continuation we are told that the marriage of the hero is an indispensable condition of achieving the Quest, a detail which must have been taken over from an earlier version, as Gerbert proceeds to stultify himself by describing the solemnities of the marriage, and the ceremonial blessing of the nuptial couch, after which hero and heroine simultaneously agree to live a life of strict chastity, and are rewarded by the promise that the Swan Knight shall be their descendant--a tissue of contradictions which can only be explained by the mal-a-droit blending of two versions, one of which knew the hero as wedded, the other, as celibate. There can be no doubt that the original Perceval story included the marriage of the hero.
The circumstances under which Rishyacringa is lured from his Hermitage are curiously paralleled by the account, found in the Queste and Manessier, of Perceval's temptation by a fiend, in the form of a fair maiden, who comes to him by water in a vessel hung with black silk, and with great riches on board.
In pointing out these parallels I wish to make my position perfectly clear; I do not claim that either in the Rig-Veda, or in any other early Aryan literary monument, we can hope to discover the direct sources of the Grail legend, but what I would urge upon scholars is the fact that, in adopting the hypothesis of a Nature Cult as a possible origin, and examining the history of these Cults, their evolution, and their variant forms, we do, in effect, find at every period and stage of development undoubted points of contact, which, though taken separately, might be regarded as accidental, in their ensemble can hardly be thus considered. When every parallel to our Grail story is found within the circle of a well-defined, and carefully studied, sequence of belief and practice, when each and all form part of a well-recognized body of tradition the descent of which has been abundantly demonstrated, then I submit such parallels stand on a sound basis, and it is not unreasonable to conclude that the body of tradition containing them belongs to the same family and is to be interpreted on the same principles as the closely analogous rites and ceremonies.
I suspend the notice and discussion of other poems contained in Prof. von Schroeder's collection till we have reached a later stage of the tradition, when their correspondence will be recognized as even more striking and suggestive.
- ^ Cf. Rig-Veda Sanhita, trans. H. H. Wilson, 6 vols. 1854-1888. Vol. I. p. 88, v. 12. 172, v. 8 206, v. 10 Vol. III. p. 157, vv. 2, 5, 7, 8.
- ^ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlandischen Geschichte, Vols. XXXVII. and XXXIX.
- ^ Cf. Le Theatre Indien, Paris, 1890.
- ^ Cf. Wiener Zeitsch, fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes, Vol. XVIII. 1904.
- ^ Leipzig, 1908.
- ^ Op. cit. p. 105.
- ^ Ib. p. 230.
- ^ Ib. p. 292, for sources, and variants of tale.
- ^ On this point cf. Cornford, Origin of Attic Comedy, pp. 8, 78, for importance of this feature.
- ^ Op. cit. pp. 161-170, for general discussion of question, and summary of authorities. Also pp. 297 et seq.
- ^ Cf. Legend of Sir Peceval, Vol. I. Chapter 3.
- ^ MS. Bibl. Nat., f. Fr. 12576, fo. 173. Cf. also Legend of Sir Perceval, I. Chap. 4.
- ^ Malory, Le Morte Arthure, Book XIV. Chaps. 8 and 9. Potvin, ll. 40420 et seq.