Folk-Lore/Volume 18/The Grail and the Rites of Adonis
In offering these remarks on the subject of the Grail origins, I should wish to be understood as seeking, rather than tendering, information. The result of my researches into the Perceval legend has been to cause me to form certain opinions as to the sources of the Grail story, which the exigencies of space, and the character of the Studies as a whole, prevented me from setting forth fully in the published volume. At the same time these conclusions bore so directly on folklore researches that I was strongly impressed with the desirability of bringing them to the attention of trained folklorists, that I might have the advantage of their criticism and judgment in finally formulating my theory. Not that I can claim to be the first to give expression to such views. Long since Simrock, in his translation of the Parzival, and Professor Martin, in his Zur Gralsage Untersuchungen (1880), arrived at very similar conclusions, but at that time the critical material at their disposal was scanty. We lacked the illuminating labours of Mannhardt and his disciple, Dr. J. G. Frazer. We had but one Perceval text, and that an extremely bad one, at our disposal, and in consequence the results obtained, though interesting and stimulating, were hardly convincing.
Hitherto, in criticising the Grail legend, we have been under the grave disadvantage of uncertainty as to the relative position of the extant versions of the story; we were not sure which of the varying forms represented most faithfully the original données of the tale. It is obvious that this was a serious hindrance. You cannot safely theorize as to the original form of a story while you are still in doubt as to which of certain widely differing versions is the older. Inasmuch as, in point of MS. date, the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes is the oldest of our Grail romances, the tendency has been to regard the story as told by him as the most nearly approaching the original, and to argue from that; although the vague and unsatisfactory details there given left it open to conjecture whether the author were dealing with a tradition already formed, or with one in process of formation.
Now, owing to recent discoveries, the standpoint has been shifted back, and we know that the earliest attainable Grail story is that of which not Perceval but Gawain was the hero, and the authorship of which is ascribed not to Chrétien de Troyes, but to Bleheris the Welshman. The date at which Bleheris lived is uncertain, but his identity alike with the Bledhericus referred to by Giraldus Cambrensis, and the Bréri quoted as authority for the Tristan of Thomas, has been frankly accepted by the leading French and American scholars; so far the Germans have preserved silence on the subject.
The passage in Giraldus is unfortunately very vague; he simply refers to Bledhericus as 'famosus ille fabidator,' and says he lived ' a little before our time,' words which may mean anything. Giraldus may be using the editorial 'we,' and may mean 'a little before my time,' which, as he was writing in the latter half of the twelfth century, might imply that Bledhericus lived in the earlier half But he may also have used the pronoun quite indefinitely; as M. Ferdinand Lot, with whom I discussed the question, remarked, "it may mean anything from ten to a hundred years; we might say that Bonaparte lived 'a little before our time.' "When we take into consideration the fact that only three direct references to Bleheris, or Blihis, as a source, have been preserved, while the name is more frequently found in the duplicated form of Bleo-Bleheris, Blihos-Bliheris, or Bliobliheri, and generally attached to a knight of Arthur's court, it seems most probable that he lived at a period sufficiently remote to allow of the precise details concerning his life and work to become obscured, while the tradition of his close connection with Arthurian romance was retained. In any case this much is certain, and this is what principally concerns us, his version of the Grail story is older than that of Chrétien, and we are justified in seeking for indications of origin in the story as told by him rather than in the version of the younger poet.
This is the Bleheris Grail story, as given by Wauchier de Denain, in his continuation of the Perceval.
Arthur, at the conclusion of his successful expedition against Chastel Orguellous, has given the queen rendez-vous at certain cross roads, marked by four pine trees. Here the court awaits him. One evening the queen is playing chess at the entrance of her pavilion when a stranger knight rides past, and fails to offer any salutation. Indignant at the apparent discourtesy, the queen sends Kay after him to command his return. Kay, as is his wont, carries out his commission in so ungracious and insulting a manner that he is overthrown for his pains, and returns to court with an exaggerated account of the knight's bearing and language. Gawain is then dispatched on the same errand, and, overtaking the stranger, courteously invites his return, but is told that he rides on a quest that will brook no delay, and which none but he may achieve; nevertheless, he thinks it possible that Gawain, whose identity he has learned, might succeed. On his return he will gladly pay his respects to the queen.
Gawain, however, by soft words, persuades him to return, pledging his honour that he shall in no wise suffer by the delay. They turn back, but scarcely have they reached the tents when the knight, with a loud cry, falls forward, wounded to death by a javelin cast by an unseen hand. With his dying breath he bids Gawain don his armour, and mount his steed, which shall carry him to the destined goal. Gawain, furious at the slur cast on his honour by this breach of his safe-conduct, does as requested, and, leaving the dead body to the care of the queen, departs at once.
Through the night he rides, and all the next day, till he has passed the borders of Arthur's land, and at nightfall, wearied out, he finds himself in a waste land by the sea-shore. A causeway, bordered on either side by trees, their roots in the water, runs out from the land, and at the further end Gawain sees a light, as of a fire. The road is so dark, and the night so stormy, he would fain delay till morning, but the steed, taking the bit in its teeth, dashes down the pathway, and eventually he reaches the entrance to a lighted hall. Here he is at first received as one long-expected, but, having unhelmed, is seen to be a stranger, and left alone. In the centre of the hall stands a bier, on which lies a body, covered with a rich pall of crimson silk, a broken sword on the breast, and four censers at the four corners of the bier. A procession of clergy enters, headed by a silver cross, and followed by many folk. Vespers for the dead are sung amid general lamentation, and Gawain is again left alone. He now sees on the daïs a Lance, fixed in a silver socket, from which a stream of blood flows continuously into a golden cup, and thence, by a channel, is carried out of the hall. Servants prepare the tables for a meal, and the King of the castle, entering, greets Gawain kindly, and seats him beside him on the dai's. The butlers pour wine into the cups, and from a doorway there issues 'the rich Grail,' which serves them; otherwise there is 'nor serjant nor seneschal', and Gawain marvels much at the service of the Grail, for now 'tis here, and now there, and for fear and wonder he scarce dare eat. After supper the King leads Gawain to the bier, and, handing him the broken sword, bids him resolder it. This he fails to do, and the King, shaking his head, tells him he may not accomplish the quest on which he has come; nevertheless, he has shewn great valour in coming thither, and he may ask what he will; he shall be answered. Gawain asks of the Lance: 'tis the Lance of Longinus, with it the side of the Saviour was pierced, as he hung on the Cross, and it shall remain where it now is, and bleed, till the Day of Doom. The King will tell who it is who lies on the bier, of the stroke by which he met his death, and the destruction brought on the land thereby; but as he speaks, weeping the while, Gawain falls asleep, and wakes to find himself upon the seashore, his steed fastened to a rock beside him, and all trace of the castle vanished. Wondering much, he mounts his steed, and rides through a land no longer waste, while all the folk he meets bless and curse him; for, by asking concerning the Lance, he has brought about the partial restoration of fruitfulness. Had he also asked of the Grail, the curse would have been entirely removed.
Now, there are certain points in this story which cannot fail to strike those familiar with the Grail legend. Who are the two dead men of the tale, the knight so mysteriously slain and the Body on the bier? We never learn. Nor do we ever hear the nature of the quest—Was it to avenge the dead knight of the castle? Was it to break the spell upon the land? Manessier, who about fifty years later brought the Perceval compilation to a final conclusion, gives, indeed, what purports to be a continuation of the tale, Gawain is here besought by the sister of the knight slain in his company to come to her aid against a foe, but the story is banale to the last degree. There are points of contact with other versions: the maiden's name is 'la sore pucele,' the name Chrétien gives to the Grail King's niece; her foe is King Mangons, or Amangons, the name of the oppressor of the maidens in the Elucidation, to which we shall refer presently; but if there be any original connection with the Bleheris version, that connection has become completely obscured. Manessier, too, makes no attempt at solving the mystery of the Body upon the bier: certain scholars have indeed identified the slain man with Goon-Desert, or Gondefer, the brother of Manessier's Grail King, whose death by treachery Perceval avenges. But this identification is purely arbitrary; there is no bier in Manessier, it is, in fact, distinctively a feature of the Gawain version.
The connection of the wasting of the land with the death of the knight, if knight he were, is also uncertain; indeed this is a part of the story which appears to have been designedly left in obscurity—it is at this point that Gawain falls asleep. I am tempted to believe that those who told the tale were themselves at a loss here. Then the Grail is no Christian relic, it acts simply as a food-providing talisman, coming and going without visible agency. It is called the rich, not the holy, Grail. Nor does the explanation given of the Lance agree with the description; the stream of blood, which pours continuously from the weapon, and is carried out of the hall, whither, we are not told, can have no connection with the carefully-guarded relic of the Saint Sang. In truth, we may say without hesitation that the whole machinery of the story is definitely non-Christian, and that the explanation of its peculiarities must be sought outside the range of ecclesiastical tradition. At the same time certain of these features are repeated in a persistent fashion, even in the most definitely ecclesiasticised versions; a peculiarity which, I think, justifies the supposition that they form a part of the original Grail tradition.
Now it has seemed to me that an explanation of the most characteristic features of our story may be found in the suggestion that they are a survival, misunderstood and imperfectly remembered, of a form of Nature worship closely allied to, if not identical with, the Rites of Adonis so exhaustively studied by Dr. Frazer in The Golden Bough. It will be remembered that the essence of these rites was the symbolic representation of the annual processes of Nature, the sequence and transition of the seasons. The god, Adonis, or Tammuz, or whatever he was called in the land where the rites were celebrated, typified the vivifying principle of vegetation; his death was mourned as the death of vegetation in winter, his restoration to life was hailed as its restoration in spring. An effigy representing the dead god was honoured with all the rites of mourning, and subsequently committed to the waves. Women especially played so large a part in these rites that an Arabic writer of the tenth century refers to the festival as El-Bugât, 'the festival of the Weeping Women.'
The central motif of the Gawain Grail-story is, I submit, identical with the central idea of the Adonis rites—a death, and failure of vegetation caused by that death. Both here and in the version given by the curious German poem of Diû Crône, where Gawain is again the Grail hero, we are told that the wasting of the land was brought about by the Dolorous Stroke. Thus the central figure, the Body on the bier, whose identity is never made clear, would in this view represent the dead god; the bleeding Lance, the weapon with which he was done to death (I think it more probable that the Dolorous Stroke was dealt by a Lance or Spear, as in the Balin and Balan story, than by a sword).
If we accept this view we can, I think, explain the origin of that mysterious figure of the Grail legend, the Maimed King. The fact that this central figure was at the same time dead and alive must, when the real meaning of the incidents had become obscured, and the story, imperfectly remembered, was told simply as a story, have been a source of perplexity to the tellers. An easy way out of the difficulty—it was a very real difficulty—would be to represent the king, or god, as desperately wounded. That such an idea was in the minds of the romance writers appears, I think, from the peculiar version of Diû Crône, where, when Gawain has asked concerning the Grail, the Maimed King and his attendants vanish at daybreak; they were dead, but preserved a semblance of life till the question was put. If the Gawain versions really represent the older, and primary, group, it is possible that this particular rendering really preceded the Maimed King version, though in the form preserved it is combined with it.
Again, in the very curious and unique Merlin MS., No. 337 of the French MSS. of the Bibliothèque Nationale, we find that Perceval is called the son of the widow lady, while his father, the Maimed King, is yet alive, and it is explained that, being desperately wounded, and only to be healed when the quest is achieved, he is as good as dead, and his wife may be reckoned a widow. These two instances will suffice to shew that the transformation of the Body on the bier into the Maimed King on the litter, is neither impossible nor unnatural. The two are really one and the same.
Students of the Grail cycle will hardly need to be reminded that the identity of the Maimed King is a hopeless puzzle. He may be the Fisher King, or the Fisher King's father, or have no connection with either, as in the Evalach-Mordrains story. He may have been wounded in battle, or accidentally, or wilfully, or by supernatural means, as the punishment of too close an approach to spiritual mysteries. A proof of the confusion which ultimately resulted from these conflicting versions is to be found in the Merlin MS. above referred to, where not only Perceval's father but two others are Maimed Kings, and all three sit at the Table of the Grail. If such confusion existed in the mind of the writers, no wonder that we, the readers, find the path of Grail criticism a rough and intricate one! Probably the characters of the Maimed King and the Fisher King were originally distinct, the Maimed King representing, as we have suggested, the god, in whose honour the rites were performed; the Fisher King, who, whether maimed or not, invariably acts as host, representing the Priest. It would be his office to preside at the ritual feast, and at the initiation of the neophyte, offices which would well fit in with the character of Host. Here, the name of Fisher King is not given to him, but in certain texts which interpolate the history of Joseph of Arimathea he is identified with that Monarch. It will readily be understood that when the idea that the god was alive gained possession of the minds of those who told the story, there would be two lords of the castle, and they would find some difficulty in distinguishing the rdle of the one from that of the other. We may note that in this (i.e., the Bleheris) version, in that of Wauchier de Denain at the conclusion of his section of the Perceval, in the Prose Lancelot, and in the Quecste, the Host is not maimed.
Again, this proposed origin would explain the wasting of the land, the mysterious Curse of Logres, which is referred to alike in earlier and later versions, and of which no explanation is ever given. As we saw above, the essence of the Rites was the symbolic representation of the processes of Nature. The festival of the death and revival of the god took place at the Spring solstice; it was an objective parable, finding its interpretation in the awakening of Nature from her winter sleep. Here the wasting of the land is in some mysterious manner connected with the death or wounding of the central figure; the successful accomplishment of the Grail quest brings about either the restoration of the land to fruitfulness, or the healing of the King (Chrétien and Wolfram, for example, have no Wasted Land). Thus the object of the Quest would appear to be one with that of the Adonis-ritual.
This wasting of the land is found in three Gawain Grail-stories, that by Bleheris, the version of Chastel Merveilleus, and Diû Crône; it is found in one Perceval text, the Gerbert continuation. Thus, briefly, the object of the Rites is the restoration of Vegetation, connected with the revival of the god; the object of the Quest is the same, but connected with the restoration to health of the King.
I have before noted the fact that the role played by women in these rites was of such importance that eventually it gave a name to the Festival. In the Notes to my translation of three visits paid by Gawain to the Grail Castle, I remarked on the persistent recurrence in these stories of a weeping maiden or maidens, the cause of whose grief is never made clear. In Diû Crône, where, as we have seen, the Maimed King and his court have but the semblance of life and are in very truth dead, the Grail-bearer and her companions are the only living beings in the castle, and their grief is, in a measure, comprehensible; they desire the breaking of the spell which binds them to this uncanny company. In what, in the Perceval Studies, I have designated as the Chastel Merveilleus version, a version midway between that of Bleheris and of Chrétien, there is but one weeping maiden, the Grail-bearer. In the curious interpolation of the Heralds' College MS., when the broken sword is restored to the Fisher King, he mentions among the results of the successful achievement of the quest, that the hero shall know why the maiden weeps. I doubt very much whether the writer of the lines himself knew the reason! In the visit paid by Bohort to castle Corbenic, it is Elaine, daughter of King Pelles, who weeps, because, being no longer a maiden, she may no longer be Grail-bearer. As she is about to become the mother of the Grail winner, and knows to what honour her son is predestined, the explanation is not convincing; but there had to be a weeping maiden in the story. The most curious instance of the persistence of this part of the original tradition is to be found in Gawain's visit to Corbenic, in the prose Lancelot, where he sees not one, but twelve maidens kneeling at the closed door of the Grail chamber, weeping bitterly, and praying to be delivered from their torment. But the dwellers in Castle Corbenic, so far from being in torment, have all that heart can desire, and, moreover, the honour of being guardians of the (here) sacred and most Christian relic, the Holy Grail.
Now, in the light of the parallels already cited, is it not at least possible that these weeping maidens, who wail so mysteriously through the Grail story, are a survival of, and witness to, the original source of that story, that they are the mourning women of the Adonis ritual, the 'Women weeping for Tammuz'?
This interpretation would also explain the constant stress laid upon the general mourning, even when the reason for this mourning appears inadequate, as e.g. in the Parzival. Here we are told that the appearance of the bleeding Lance is the signal for such lamentation that "The folk of thirty kingdoms could scarce have bemoaned them more," Bk. v. 1. 130. Here certainly the Lance is that with which the king has been wounded, but the folk of the castle are in no way affected, there is no wasting of the land.
Again, in Peredur, at the appearance of the Lance all fell to wailing and lamentation, but here there seems to be no connection between the Lance and the wound of the king, which latter is the work of the sorceresses of Gloucester. If the original source of the story is to be found in the Adonis ritual, and if the mourning which is so marked a feature of that ritual be associated, as Drs. Robertson Smyth and Farnell have suggested, rather with the death of the god than with the consequent failure of vegetation, then we might expect to find the association of the mourning with the weapon which originally dealt the fatal blow to persist in versions which had dropped out the (originally) companion feature of the Wasted Land.
We have thus the following important points of contact between the Adonis ritual and the story of the Visit to the Grail Castle: the wasted land; the slain king (or knight); the mourning, with special insistence on the part played by women; and the restoration of fertility; while certain minor points, such as the crimson covering of the bier, the incense, and the presence, in certain versions, of doves as agents in the mysterious ceremonies also find their parallel in the same ritual.
To put the matter briefly, the scene enacted in the presence of the chance visitor to the Grail Castle involved the chief incidents of the Adonis rites. I would submit that whereas the presence of an isolated feature might be due to chance, that of a complete and harmonious group, embracing at once the ceremonies and the object of the cult, can scarcely be so explained.
To go a step further. Originally I entitled this paper 'The Grail and the Mysteries of Adonis.' For the word mysteries I have now substituted ritual, in view of the perfectly well-grounded objection that, in classical times,, the worship of Adonis was not carried on in secret. Nevertheless, I am disposed to believe that the word mysteries might, without impropriety, be used in connection with the celebration of these rites when in later ages Christianity had become the faith 'in possession,' and the votaries of an older cult performed their rites under the ban of ecclesiastical disapproval. Much, of course, depends upon the character of the cult; the Adonis worship was in its essence a 'Life' cult, the life of the god ensuring the life of vegetation, and that in its turn the life of man; it is obvious that such a cult might possess an esoteric as well as an exoteric significance. To the ordinary worshipper the ritual would be an object-lesson, setting forth the actual processes of Nature, to the initiate it would be the means of imparting other, and less innocent, teaching as to the sources of life.
This much is certain: the Grail is perpetually treated as something strange, mysterious, awe-inspiring; its secrets are on no account to be rashly approached or lightly spoken of; he runs great danger who does so. Such terms could hardly be applied to the Adonis rites under ordinary conditions, and yet, as we have seen, the Grail story presents such a striking identity of incident with these rites that a connection between the two seems practically certain. We have to seek for some explanation which will preserve this connection while at the same time accounting for the presence of certain 'occult' features in the tale.
The explanation surely lies in the fact suggested above, that the Adonis cult was essentially a Life cult, and, as such, susceptible of strange developments. Dr. Frazer has laid stress on the close connection which, in the minds of primitive worshippers, subsisted between the varying forms of life: "They commonly believed that the tie between the animal and vegetable world was even closer than it really is—to them the principle of life and fertility, whether animal or vegetable, was one and indivisible." Dulaure, while assigning the same origin as does Dr. Frazer to the ritual, definitely classes the worship of Adonis among those cults which "assumed in process of time a distinctly 'carnal' character."
The Lance and Cup which form the central features of the imagery of our story are also met with as 'Phallic' symbols, and I am strongly of opinion that many of the most perplexing features of the legend are capable of explanation on the theory that behind the ordinary simple 'Vegetation' symbolism there lay something which justified so learned and acute a scholar as the late Professor Heinzel, whose works are a veritable mine of learning and ingenuity, in regarding our records of the Visit to the Grail Castle as records of an initiation manquée. Long since, in his study on the Old French Grail romances (Die Alt-Französische Gral Romanen, 1891) he suggested that the failure to put the question was equivalent to a refusal on the part of the neophyte to submit to the ordeal, but, owing probably to the form in which he cast the results of his researches, much of their value has been obscured.
Let us note first, that whatever else changes in the story, the essential framework remains the same. Always the castle is found by chance; always the hero beholds marvels he does not comprehend; always he fails to fulfil the test which would have qualified him to receive the explanation of those marvels; always he recognises his fault too late, when the opportunity has passed beyond recall; and only after long trial is it again granted to him. Let us clear our minds once and for all from the delusion that the Grail story is primarily the story of a quest; it is that secondarily. In its primary form it is the romance of a lost opportunity; for always, and in every instance, the first visit connotes failure; it is to redress that failure that the quest is undertaken. So essentially is this a part of the story that it survives even in the Galahad version; that immaculate and uninteresting hero does not fail, of course; but neither does he come to the Grail castle for the first time when he presides at the solemn and symbolic feast; he was brought up there, but has left it before the Quest begins; like his predecessors, Gavvain and Perceval, he goes forth from the castle in order to return.
Now, let us accept for the nonce Professor Heinzel's suggestion, but for the word refusal substitute failure, and recognising that the incidents related rest upon real objective facts, we may, perhaps, hazard a guess at the cause of this failure. In the Bleheris story we have seen that the hero was overcome by slumber at the critical moment of the King's recital, and only awoke to find himself alone upon the seashore, all trace of the castle having disappeared. This is again the cause of failure in the Chastel Merveilleus version. In the Perlesvaus three drops of blood fall from the lance on to the table, and Gawain, gazing upon them, falls into a trance, and can neither speak nor stir. In Diû Crône we have again the mysterious slumber, though here associated with the drinking of wine, the effect of which is to plunge Gawain's comrades, Lancelot and Calogreant, into a sleep which lasts till the question has been put, and the marvels explained. In this version also, we have the blood drops; but here, though they fall from the Lance, they are swallowed by the King, thus having no connection with the trance.
In the Perceval version, on the contrary, the blood drops are connected with a trance, but not with the Grail; and the hero's failure is accounted for on purely rational grounds, his too rigid adherence to the counsels of Gurnemanz.
As we have seen, the Gawain versions certainly represent the older stage of tradition, and we may, therefore, fairly assume that, in the original form of the story, the failure to ask the necessary question was due to a mysterious slumber which overtook the hero at the crucial point of his test. But what caused this slumber? Is it too bold a suggestion that the blood drops, which are often so closely associated with the Grail, and are always found in connection with a trance, were the operating cause? that, in fact, they were employed to induce an hypnotic slumber on the part of the aspirant? We know that in Mesmerism and kindred practices, the first step is to seize and fix the attention of the subject—I believe a glittering disc, or some such object, is often employed—in any case it is through the eye that the desired effect is produced upon the brain. In the case of Gawain, and of Perceval alike, we are told that it is the startling contrast of colour—the crimson blood on the white cloth, or snow—that fetters their attention. It is of course possible that the slumber was merely a literary device for winding up the story, but the introduction of the feature of restored vegetation shows that the tale was moulded by some one who understood its real significance; and slumber hypnotically induced would be a very natural method of getting rid of an intruder who had stumbled upon rites not intended for general knowledge, and had failed to qualify for admission to their secrets. This much is certain, if the Grail stories have their root in the ritual of Adonis, we are dealing with a set of concrete facts, which must originally have admitted of a rational explanation. I would submit that if the slumber be really a part of the original tale, and there is every reason to believe that it is, then it must be capable of a rational explanation, and I can, in no other way, account for its constant recurrence, or for its connection with the blood drops, save on the hypothesis that one of the trials to which the neophyte was exposed, and to which apparently he frequently succumbed, was the test of hypnotic suggestion.
But how shall we explain the Grail itself? Would it not be the vessel of the common quasi-sacramental feast always connected with these rites? It is interesting that the MS. which gives us the best Bleheris text also, in the same section of the work, offers us the only other instance I know of the use of the word Grail. When Gawain enters the castle of Brandelis, he finds a feast prepared, and boars' heads upon Grails of silver. The other MSS. have here substituted for Grail the word Tailléor. It is thus practically certain that the writer of these tales, when he used the word Grail, meant a Dish, and not a Cup. The magical features, the automatic service, the feeding of the guests with all kinds of meat, were probably later additions, borrowed by the story-tellers from the numerous food-providing talismans of folk lore. For we must ask ourselves how was the story told, from the inside or from the outside? That is, was it intended to be a method of preserving, and handing on, the tradition of these rites; or was it simply a story composed round this ritual as a centre? The first hypothesis would appear to involve the admission that the minstrels were the conscious guardians and transmitters of an occult tradition; a view which, in face of the close connection now proved to exist between the minstrel guilds and the monasteries, I do not feel able to accept. Also, we should then expect to find one clear and consistent version; and I suspect that that version would have been less susceptible of Christianisation. But if the tale were told from the outside, if it were a story based upon, quite possibly, the genuine experience of one who assisted by chance at the celebration of these rites, ignorant of their nature and meaning, we can understand how it would take and keep this particular form. One admitted to the full participation in this ritual might not talk about it, where one possessed of but a partial and outside knowledge would be free to speak. And as the story passed from one to the other, is it not probable that while the initiated might venture to add or correct a feature, the uninitiated would introduce details which appeared to him suitable, but which were really foreign to the original trend of the tale? How, except on the hypothesis of some such origin, explain the persistent adherence to the framework of the story, or the hints as to the mysterious nature of the talisman, and the penalties to be incurred if its secrets are revealed? Do not let us forget that it is precisely in this, the earliest form of the tale, and in the confused version of the same offered by the Elucidation, that the secret character of the Grail is insisted upon. On any other hypothesis, what is this secret?
And now that I have had occasion to mention the Elucidation, I would ask, does not this theory of the Grail origins provide us, at last, with a possible solution of that most perplexing text? As is known to students of the subject, the Elucidation purports to be an introduction to the Grail story, and is found in three texts, the Mons MS. of the Perceval, the Middle German translation of the continuation to that poem, and the (1530) printed edition of the work. It is extremely confused, and its connection with the other Grail texts has till recently been a complete puzzle. It starts with a warning from Master Blihis against revealing the secrets of the Grail. It then relates how at one time there were maidens dwelling in the hills, or wells, (the original word, puys, might be translated either way; I prefer the rendering of the German text, hills), who would offer food and drink to the passer by; but when King Amangons offered force to one, and took away her golden cup, they left the country; and, the writer goes on, "the court of the Fisher King could no longer be found." Nevertheless, Gawain found it; and we then have a summary of the Bleheris visit, given in terms often verbally identical with the text of Wauchier de Denain.
Some time ago, in the course of my Perceval studies, I came to the conclusion that the text at the root of the Elucidation was another, and apparently later, form of that used by Wauchier, and that in our English Gawain poems we had fragments of the same collection. Now, it appears to me, that we can suggest even a closer link. What if this text be really what it purports to be, the introduction to all the Grail stories? If it be the record of an insult offered by a local chieftain to a priestess of these rites, in consequence of which they were no longer openly celebrated in that land, and, as the writer puts it, "the court of the Fisher King (the Priest of this ritual) could no longer be found?" Would not that be the logical introduction to the tale of one who found, and knew not what he found? It may be that after all the Elucidation is not so badly named!
So far as the Christian aspect of the story is concerned, it is now beyond doubt that a legend, similar in all respects to that of the Grail, was widely current at a date long anterior to any of our extant Grail texts. The story, with Nicodemus instead of Joseph as protagonist, is told of two of the most famous of Continental relics, the Saint Sang of Fescamp and the Volto Santo of Lucca. The most complete MSS. of the Perceval refer, as authority, to a book written at Fescamp. Who was the first to utilise the pseudo-Gospels as material for the history of mediaeval relics we cannot say, but, given the trend of popular thought, it was practically inevitable that if the Grail were to receive the Christian pedigree which in the natural process of development in a mediaeval atmosphere, given to edification, it was bound to receive, it was almost inevitable that it should be fathered upon either Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus; as a matter of fact both are called into the service of the romancers.
Given these facts, on the one hand an exceedingly popular story, having for its central point of interest a vessel round which there hovered an atmosphere of mystery and dread—none dare speak of the secrets of the Grail,—and connected in some unexplained manner with drops of blood and a bleeding lance: on the other hand, an equally popular legend connected with the Passion of Christ, and relics of that Passion; and does it not become easy to understand how on the common ground of the vessel of the ritual feast the two might meet, and eventually coalesce; the vessel of the Nature-worship being first connected with the Passion and finally identified with the chalice of the Eucharist. If I be correct in my suggestion as to the hidden meaning of this ritual, and that it was in truth a Life-cult, the Grail quest would be the quest for life; the Grail itself, under all its varying forms, the vessel in which the food necessary for life was presented to the worshippers.
I would earnestly ask all students of this fascinating subject to consider seriously whether the theory here sketched may not be found capable of providing that link between the conflicting versions which all previous hypotheses have failed to supply? On the theory of a purely Christian origin, how can we account for the obviously folk lore features of our tale } How could the vessel of the Christian Eucharist have become the self-acting, food-providing talisman, known not only to Bleheris, but also to the author of the Queste? How could Kiot, (the author of the lost French poem adapted by Wolfram von Eschenbach), have dared to turn it into a mere magical stone, a Baetylus? For if there be one thing certain, it is that the Grail had been Christianised before the day of Chrétien and Kiot. If, on the other hand, the vessel were a mere food-providing Pagan talisman, how, and why, did it become so suddenly Christianised? what was there about it, more than about the countless similar talismans, that would suggest such a development? But if the Grail were from the first connected with a form of religious worship, from the first surrounded with a halo of awe and reverence, we can understand that it would lend itself with admirable readiness to the process of Christianisation. Even as we can understand how Kiot, who was certainly a man of unusual learning, while he might shrink from Paganising a fundamentally Christian relic, would have no scruple in substituting the object of one mysterious Pagan cult for that of another, and in replacing the vessel of the Adonis Rites by a Baetylus. One who knew so much may well have known what was the real character of the Grail. It seems to me that on this theory, and on this theory alone, can we account logically and harmoniously, alike for the development and the diversities of the Grail romances.
It is scarcely necessary to remind members of this Society that, in the interesting series of papers on the European Sky-God, contributed by Mr. Cook to the pages of Folk-Lore, certain stories connected alike with Cuchullin and Gawain, are claimed as dependent on, and to be explained by, precisely the set of customs and beliefs with which I am here dealing. If the Green Knight be a survival of the Vegetation god, why not the Maimed King? I do not know how far Mr. Cook's theories have met with the approval of folk-lore experts, but it does seem to me that when two enquirers, starting from different points, and travelling by different roads, reach precisely the same goal, there is at least an initial probability that that goal was once, very long ago, no doubt, the starting point of those diverging roads.
Postscript.—I would here make certain suggestions which may meet objections raised in the discussion which followed the reading of this paper. A point advanced alike by Mr. Nutt and Mr. Cook was that if the hypothesis of such an origin be granted, the connection of Gawain with this particular group of beliefs and practices can hardly be accidental. My own view is that the tale, based on actual and imperfectly-understood experiences, was cast into story-form by a bard who knew what the incidents connoted, and that the connection of Gawain with the tale is due to one who knew the real character of the material with which he was dealing.
- See ante, p. 4.
- Cf. also Zeitschrift für D. Alterthumskunde, 1878; p. 84 sqq.
- Cf. M. J. Bédier's edition of the Tristan, and Dr. Schofield's English Literature. For my notes on Bleheris, cf. Romania, xxxiii. p. 333, xxxiv. p. 100).
- B.N. 1453, fo. 113; 'Elucidation'; B.N. Add. Ib. 614, fo. 138, etc.
- A translation of this, the Diu Crône, and Prose Lancelot versions will be found in No. vi. of Arthurian Romances, Nutt.
- Cf. Legend of Sir Perceval, pp. 330-36; The Golden Bough—under heading 'Adonis.' Adonis, Allis, Osiris, chap. viii.
- Legend of Sir Perceval, p. 141. In the Didot MS. of the prose Perceval we are told that as the result of the question the 'Roi Pesheor' will not only be healed but restored to youth, 'revenus en sa iuvence.' This is also the result of the question in Parzival. According to Dr. Frazer, it was an essential part of this Nature-cult that the god should be not merely living, but young.
- Cf. Notes to vol. vi. of Arthurian Romances.
- Cf. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol. ii., 'Aphrodite.'
- Cf. Frazer, Adonis., Attis, Osiris, p. 7. The image of Tammuz was clothed in red, and incense was burnt before it. Doves were sacrificed to Adonis; ib., p. 64. Doves appear both in the prose Lancelot Grail Visit and in Parzival.
- Cf. Adonis, Attis, Osiris, p. 5.
- Cf. Dulaure, Divinités Génératrices, pp. 69-70.
- E.g., the wounding of the Grail king. Cf. Dulaure, pp. 78, 81. The Parzival alone attributes the wound to his indulgence in unlawful love, but the injury is always the same.
- Prof. Heinzel's method was very confused, and references to the question are scattered throughout the long study.
- In the prose Perceval, however, there is a hint of the earher form, as fatigue also plays a part in the hero's failure to ask the necessary question;—'e li sire le metoit en mainltes manieres de paroles por çou qu'il l'en demandast, mais il n'en fist riens, car il estoit anoies des II nuis devant qu'il avoit vellie, que por un poi qu'il ne chaoit sor la table.' Modena MS., fol. 59.
- If there be really Phallic symbolism in the tale, the wording of the affront is suggestive.
- For summaries of these legends, cf. Legend of Sir Perceval, chap. v. appendix.