Folk-Lore/Volume 2/The Legend of the Grail, 2

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THERE is, further, that peculiar country Sarras, mentioned as the land whence the Saracens came. The nomenclature in these romances, both that of persons and that of places, is one which deserv^es a careful investigation. If we could succeed in fixing some of the most important localities, much will be won for the date, age, and probable origin of the sources. I cannot linger over that important question here, nor even touch it more than I have done. It opens a wide prospect where fancy would display itself in etymological plays, riddles and solutions. The country of Sarras is one of these. As far as I have been able to investigate there is no trace of a country bearing such a name in the East. Looking to the legend of Alexander, I think the mystery will be solved. After leaving the Temple of the Sun, Alexander went to the country of Xerxes and delivered decisive battles (so in Valerius). In the French version (v. G. Paris, i, p. 189-190) of Thomas of Kent, we have there (chap, ccxxx) substituted for Xerxes and his army: "de gens touz nuz sunt apellez serres, and in ch. ccxxxii, ccxxxiii, "del pople qu'est apellés Serres et de lur dreiture", "coment les Serres guierent Alix." The gymnosophists take the place of the Persians and are called the people of Xerxes. Out of this Serres-Xerxes grew the Sarras of the Grail cycle. These few examples suffice to establish a close connection also between minor details in the Alexandreid and in the Grail. The central portion has been taken over bodily and forms the central portion of the Grail, with all the peculiarities which tend to explain the further development this legend went through, until it reached that stage in which we find it.

By being connected with Alexander's journey to Paradise the legend of the Quest, which in its primitive form must also have been a search after it, is brought into close alliance with the numerous tales of saints journeying to Paradise: the legend of the three monks, that of St. Macarius in the desert[1] (in itself only a modification of Alexander's), and St. Brendan, not to mention ever so many more.

The description of the palace or castle is revived and amplified in the famous letter of Prester John, which became known at that time, and is directly quoted by Wolfram. Here the Christian element begins to creep in and leads the way to the other profound modifications which the legend underwent. We can see the transition from the heathen temple to a Christian palace (church) with a king (priest); coming thus nearer to certain forms of the Grail legend. In another place I intend studying the letter of Prester John, and of showing the sources whence it was derived. It will be shown there that it owes its origin, to some extent, to Jewish tales and Jewish descriptions of travels; and some light may be thrown on Flegetanis the Jew, to whom, according to Wolfram, Kyot owed the original of the Grail legend.

I must incidentally mention that a careful comparison of Chrestiens poem with the French "Chansons de Geste" will reveal the great dependence of the former upon the latter. Many an incident, many a description is undoubtedly tacen over. I limit myself here to one, because Mr. Nutt giv;s it such prominence; I mean the Stag hunt. Instead of having anything to do with the "lay of the fool", the connection with it being far from clear, or convincing, the true expanation is given in incident 70 of the Oueste (Nutt, p. 49), there we read: "On the morrow they meet a white stag led by four lions; these come to a hermitage, and hear mass, the stag becomes a man and sits on the altar; the lions become a man, an eagle, a lion, and an ox, all winged." There is not the slightest doubt as to who is represented here under the guise of a stag: it is Christ with the four Apostles, each in that form in which they have been represented by art.

This symbolism is not the author of the Queste's own invention. We meet it more than once in the "Chansons de Geste" (V. P. Rajna. Le origini dell' epopea francese, Florence, 1884, p. 252 and p. 706 ff). It can be traced even to a much older source, viz., the famous Life of St. Eustachius Placida, so closely resembling the frame work of a romance, that it has indeed become a popular tale, and it has been incorporated into the Gesta Romanorum, ed. Oesterley (ch. 110), and Legenda aurea of Jacobus à Voragine. This hero-saint is drawn away from his companions by the appearance of a stag, whom he pursues, and which turns out afterwards to be Christ himself. The stag has thus a symbolical meaning, and is of purely Christian origin.

The greatest modification in the tale, however, is that wrought in the character and attributes of the Holy Grail. I proceed, therefore, to investigate this second most important element of the legend.

There is, first, the question whence the name? What is the meaning of it? This question is the more necessary, as the oldest writers themselves do not know its exact meaning and have recourse to explanations which in the best case are mere plays upon the word. Paulin Paris, in his "Romans de la Table Ronde", suggests that the name Grail is nothing else but a modification of the Latin Graduale, the name of a book used in the liturgy of the church, wherein the tale was written down. The romances themselves afford examples enough to connect the tale with books preserved in the Church; the introduction to the Grand St. Graal lets the book come down directly from heaven.

I can adduce another positive proof, viz., that a book used in the Church did bear the name of Grael. Philipp of Thaün, one of the oldest Norman poets (1100–1135), who wrote his Computus undoubtedly before the first half of the 12th century, i.e., at least 50 years before Chrestien, gives a list of books which every good clergyman is expected to possess. He says: Iço fut

li saltiers
E li antefiniers
Baptisteries, Graels
Hymniers e li messels
Tropiers e leçunier, etc.

(M. F. Mann, Physiologus, I, Halle, 1884, p. 6-7.)

This being the case, the Grail must have been either a book containing psalms chanted during the liturgy, or a description of some sort of theological legend or tale connected with the liturgy.

If the book was called Sanct Grael, and by popular etymology connected with sang (blood), we can easily understand one of the main developments of the legend, for nothing would be simpler than to explain it first as the blood of Christ, and then as the vessel destined to receive it. But this is undoubtedly the youngest of all the variations, and must be studied together with the sources and origin of the early history.

Chrestien and Gautier knew nothing of its previous history, and in the few passages in which the Grail occurs it is vaguely indicated as having food-giving properties without any other spiritual or theological gifts. Again, in Wolfram's version it has quite a different character altogether: it is a stone which yields all manner of food and drink, the power of which is sustained by a dove which every week lays a wafer upon it, is given, after the fall of the rebel angels, in charge to Titurel and his dynasty, is by them preserved in the Grail castle, Mont Salvatsch, and is guarded by a sacred order of knighthood whom it chooses itself (Nutt, p. 25).

If we follow up closely the difterent versions, we can easily observe the increase of the properties assigned to the Grail, and through the Grail to the Grail-keeper and Grail-seeker. We can see how the author of each new version tried to outdo his predecessor, and thus in time a complete history of the Grail appears, of which nothing was known before.

The connection, further, with Britain is one of the latest developments, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the primitive history of the Grail, with which it became later connected. I must leave that point untouched, as I wish to go straight to the question of the Grail itself. I have already stated, at the beginning, that the temple of the Grail in the poem is the temple of Jerusalem, and the Grail in its double character a certain sacred stone in the Holy place.

The change from the temple of the sun to a Christian church is only natural and quite in accordance with the spirit of the time. Besides, the legend of Prester John with his palace-church paved the way for the transition, and certainly none was better known or more renowned than that of Jerusalem, of which numerous legends were circulated by pilgrims from the Holy Land swarming through Europe, not to speak of the crusades and the numerous expeditions to Palestine. We can trace those legends, which I shall mention later on more fully, through a great number of Christian writers, ranging from the twelfth century back to the third. From such legends is derived also the double character assigned to the Grail, that of a holy cup or vessel, with an eucharistical symbolism, and that of a sacred stone existing from the creation of the world, and carried about by the angels of heaven. Both are derived from a more primitive notion, viz., from the legfends connected with a sacred stone which served as an altar in that very church. In this peculiar character we can trace it back to the first century, and, perhaps, to an earlier tradition preserved by Jewish writers.

It is well known that many ancient legends connected with the temple of Solomon have been adapted in later times to serve Christian notions. I mention, for instance, the legend of Golgotha and the head of Adam, the legend of the beam in the temple which became afterwards the cross, that of the queen of Sheba, and the Sybilla, and so very many other legends and apocryphal tales, some of which are also to be found in the Grand St. Graal, nay, form the greater part of its contents.

Now there was current at the time a peculiar legend connected with a certain stone that is still in existence; it is that stone which stands under a baldachin in the Haram, more precisely, in the Kubbet-es-Sachra, the Temple of the Rock. It is that famous building erected by sultan El-Melik towards the end of the seventh century, which so deeply impressed the Crusaders and the Templars, that they thought it was the real temple of Solomon. In order to watch this temple and keep it against the infidels, the knighthood of the Templars arose at the beginning of the eleventh century. They took the image of that dome as a crest. Many a church in Europe was built after this model; if I am not mistaken, the Temple Church in London, where the quarters of the Knights Templar were, as well as similar buildings in Laon, Metz, etc.

The centre of that building is the rock, famous alike in Jewish, Mohamedan, and Christian legends; it is surrounded by a trellis of iron, with four lattice doors wrought by French artizans of the twelfth century, and is covered with red samite and gold fringes.

It would be almost impossible to give here all the legends that are told of this rock. I select only a few bearing on our subject. I begin with the oldest, that taken from the Jewish literature.

The first impulse to legendary development is the passage of the Bible: (Isaiah, xxviii, 16) "Therefore, thus sdith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a precious corner stone of sure foundation." (Cf. I Pet. ii, Vm 6.) Later fancy saw in that rock the stone of foundation, endowed it with supernatural origin and power, and gave it the name of "Eben shatya", "the stone of foundation. This stone is the centre of the world, upon it stands the Temple, and that is the stone upon which Jacob slept and saw the wonderful ladder with God standing on top of it." So runs one legend.

Another, more elaborate one, says: "When God created the world he took a stone (undoubtedly a precious one), engraved His holy and mysterious Name upon it, and sank it in the abyss to stem the underground waters; for when they behold the Holy Name they get overawed, and shrink back into their natural boundaries. Whenever a man utters an oath that stone comes up and receives that oath, and returns to its former place. If the oath is a true one, then the letters of the Holy Name get more deeply engraved, but if it is a false oath the letters are washed away by the waves, which surge and rise, and would overflow the world, if God did not send an angel, Jaazriel, who possesses the seventy keys to the mysterious name of God, to engrave them anew, and thus to drive the flood back, for otherwise the world would be flooded."

As a continuation of this legend there exists another, according to which David, when he intended to lay the foundation of the Temple, brought that stone up from the depth, and if not for Divine intervention, would have brought about a second flood.

More ancient is the belief that upon that rock the holy ark, with the stone tables of the ten commandments, used to rest, and that they were hidden inside the rock at the moment of the destruction of the first temple.[2]

In the second book of the Maccabees the concealing of the holy vessels in a rock sealed with the ineffable name of God, is attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah—as is also the case in a certain apocryphal legend of Jeremiah, wherein also an incident occurs, which is absolutely identical with the legend of the Holy Grail. Both the keys of the temple and the Holy Grail are taken up to heaven by a mysterious hand reaching down from on high. But this I mention only incidentally. Let us proceed further with the Eben Shatya.

As the oldest tradition will have it, it was in the temple from the time of the first prophets, that is, it is recorded as having been from that time. It was therefore placed in the portion where the ark used to be before, in the Holy of Holies of the Temple; the High-priest entered there once a year to burn "sweet incense". This act was considered to be of symbolic importance, and the popular belief endows the rock with food-giving properties. "It is thence that Israel got abundance of food"; so runs the passage in the original. To complete the characteristics of this stone I have only to add another legend, which brings us directly in connection with Christianity. An old anti-Christian writing—perhaps that mentioned in the seventh century, but modified in later times[3]— has a peculiar tale about this stone.

It runs as follows: —

"Now, at this time (i.e., in the time of Jesus) the unutterable name of God was engraved in the temple on the Eben Shatya. For when King David laid the foundations, he found there a stone in the ground on which the name of God was engraved, and he took it and placed it in the Holy of Holies. But as the wise men feared lest some inquisitive youth should learn this Name, and be able thereby to destroy the world, they made by magic two brazen lions, which they sat before the entrance of the Holy of Holies, one on the right, the other on the left.

"Now if anyone were to go within and learn the Holy Name, then the lions would begin to roar as he came out, so that out of alarm and bewilderment he would lose his presence of mind, and forget the Name.

"And Jesus left upper Galilee and came secretly to Jerusalem, and went into the temple, and learned there the holy writing, and after he had written the ineffable Name on parchment, he uttered it, with intent that he might feel no pain, and then he cut into his flesh, and hid the parchment with the inscription therein. Then he uttered the Name once more, and made so that his flesh healed up again.

"And when he went out of the door the lions roared, and he forgot the Nam.e. Therefore he hastened outside the town, cut into his flesh, took the writing out, and when he had sufficiently studied the signs he retained the Name in memory, 'and thus he wrought all the miracles through the agency of the ineffable name of God.'"[4]

Taking all these elements together we have here clearly all the properties assigned to the Grail: the precious stone, the centre of the temple, and further, the Keeper of the great secret, the mysterious words given to Joseph, and handed down by him to his descendants, the lions at the entrance against which Lancelot fought.

These are the primary elements for the lator developments by Christians and Mohamedans; as that stone was equally holy to both, and the primitive legends were adapted to the altered circumstances, so, as we shall see, it became the altar upon which mass was celebrated, and the table of the Last Supper, the primitive form from which the later spiritual one was derived.

Well known is the interpretation of the text of Isaiah from which I started. In the first Epistle of Peter, c, ii, v. 6, these very words are quoted, together with those from Psalm cxviii, 22, and Jesus is identified with the corner-stone, which in its turn was identified with the Eden Shatya, the stone of the world's foundation: He the stone, the altar, the sacrifice, thus the Eucharist.

At the place where the Temple stood a church was erected, or the Temple transformed into a church, called the Church of Mount Zion, first the abode of the Virgin Mary, then the Church of St. James, One of the first pilgrims whose record is in existence, one from Bordeaux, ca. 333, shows the first phase of this transformation; he saw already there the "big corner-stone of which the Psalmist speaks."[5]

Antoninus, another, of the year 570, knows already more about it, for he says: "When you put your ear to it, you can hear the voices of many men." According to the Mohamedan legend one hears the noise of water. Both tales derived from the old legend mentioned above, that the stone shuts up the waters of the depth.

This church founded there is the mother church founded by the Apostles; and with this agrees the whole Christian antiquity. In the same manner Evodius, Epiphanius, Hieronymus, and many other ecclesiastical historians, unanimously assert that the scene of the Last Supper took place on Mount Zion. John of Wurzburg (1160-70; an older contemporary of Chriestien) says: "The Coenaculum" is on Mount Sion, in the very spot where Solomon reared his splendid building, of which he speaks in his 'Song of Songs'." The table of the Last Supper was also shown there as late as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and this table was identified with the altar upon which the Apostle John celebrated mass, which altar stands for that corner-stone.

There is a very interesting passage in Mandeville's description, a synchretistic account of what he saw on Mount Sion: "And 120 paces from that church (St. James) is Mount Sion, where there is a fair church of Our Lady, where she dwelt and died, and there is the stone which the angel brought to Our Lady from Mount Sinai, which is of the same colour as that of St. Catharine." And further on: "There is a part of the table on which Our Lord made His Supper, when he made his Maundy with his disciples and gave them his flesh and blood in form of bread and wine. And under that chapel, by a descent of thirty-two steps, is the place where Our Lord washed his disciples' feet, and the vessel which contained the water is still preserved. . . . And there is the altar where Our Lord heard the angels sing mass."

Almost identical with this description is that of Philip, of the twelfth or thirteenth century. The identification of stone and altar, and further altar and mass, is to be met with also elsewhere. It is in fact no more than a simple adaptation of the old notion, that the ark stood upon that stone and that the stone took the place of the altar. To identify the altar in the church and the sacrament with the fundamental events in the life and the teachings of Jesus is in perfect accord with the allegorical and mystical interpretations indulged in since ancient times. The mass in the oriental church has throughout only a symbolical meaning, and the Grail partakes thus of a double interpretation. To one it is merely a vessel or a cup, a portion for the whole, the natural change from the altar and mass to the most prominent portion of it; to another it is still a primitive rock made by hands of angels, and the foodgiving wafer is brought by the dove which represents the Holy Spirit.

In one the change is more radical, and with the time becomes more mystical and symbolical; in the other the original form is better retained, and offers thus more elements for the reconstruction of the oldest form of the legend. The Munsalvasche, where the castle stands, is nothing else than the "Mount of Salvation"—the Armenian church on Mount Sion is dedicated to the "Holy Saviour" the Salvator; and Wolfram was not altogether wrong when he accused Chrestien of having departed too much from the original conception.

In connection with the preceding, I will add now the interpretation of another name, Corbenic, not infrequent in the Grail romances, a name of some importance. According to Queste, Incident 13 (Nutt, p. 73), Castle Corbenic is the place wherein the maimed king dwells; further, Incident 76 (p. 50) the same is again mentioned as the Castle of Peleur, or the Maimed King, i.e., the resting-place of the Grail. In the Grand St. Graal, Incident 51 (p. 63) we read: "Here is the resting-place of the Holy Grail, a lordly castle is built for it hight Corbenic, which is Chaldee, and signifies 'holy vessel'."

This interpretation is only half true, in so far as the word Corbenic can be traced to a Hebrew or Chaldee word Corbana, the meaning of which is, offering, sacrifice, and not that which is assigned to it by the author of the Grand St. Graal, that of holy vessel.

This explanation agrees perfectly with the identification of the Grail with the Altar-stone, the place of sacrifices, mystical, symbolical or material.

Starting from the Slavonic, especially Russian legends, about the mysterious Altar-stone, which he brought in connection with the Grail, Prof Wesselofsky has tried to prove its identity with that stone of the Christian Church of Zion mentioned by the pilgrims quoted above. The Jewish legends, however, which I have been able to add, have enabled me to trace that identity further, and to furnish those links which were missing, and to show the last sources to whom those Christian legends owed their origin. The name "Alatyr", which remained unexplained, is nothing else but the Altar-stone, as I have proved it to be.

The same causes, i.e., the same Palestinian legends, had the same result, viz., to produce an ideal stone both for the East and the West of Europe, but it remained to the genius of the different trouveurs, or Kaleki perehojie, to develop that idea according to the skill and perfection possible in those two regions. The one introduced it into the famous legend of Alexander, in order to substitute it for the meaningless stone mentioned there; the other connected it with other apocryphal tales and legends, and formed the famous Golubinaya Kniga of the Russian epos.

The legend of the Holy Grail had still to pass another stage of development, before it became what it is in some at least of the romances. It had to be entirely spiritualised. The Christian element so prominent in the Crusades pervaded the poem so thoroughly that to some it was nothing but the outcome of purely Christian canonical and non-canonical writings. By leaving the classical and local elements out of account, the Grail had still remained a puzzle to be solved.

I do not even attempt now to show all the parallels to the Christian apocryphal literature which we meet with in the different versions of the romance. The whole early history gives itself as such a tale; later on I may be permitted to show how inextricably interwoven with it are the apocryphal legends of Adam and Seth, the history of the Cross, a peculiar legend of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the legend of Sunday, and ever so many more allusions to such and similar apocryphal tales.

But there still remains the liturgical character which is given to the Grail in some of the versions of the romance. It serves to bring home to the reader or hearer a certain dogmatic teaching about the mystery of the Eucharist. The mystical procession, with the description of everything that occurred, points clearly to the fact of the transubstantiation of the sacrament, as a thing that did occur in the sight of the bystanders, as if it were a proof more to the truth and accuracy of this dogmatic teaching.

Has the author of the romance evolved it out of his own fancy, or does he follow here also some legend, which he adapts to his purposes?

There is no doubt that the question of the reality or non-reality of transubstantiation was at the time a burning one. The author or authors have shown themselves well versed in Christian and heathen lore, and on the other hand not much given to invent out of their own brains.

I do not know whether anybody has already pointed this out, or has brought in connection with it the legend, which occurs to me as an almost direct source for that portion of the romances of the Grail.

It is besides localised in Jerusalem, and is directly connected with that very same church on Mount Sion of which the other stone legends speak. I will deal now with this legend before concluding this, necessarily short, attempt to solve the question of the origin of the Grail. I have had to confine myself in many cases merely to indicating in a few words what required a special monograph, and I may return at another time to the study of those details at greater length.

{To be concluded.)

  1. Z. Graf, Paradiso terrestro., Torino, 1875.
  2. Joma, f. 53b, f. 546; Tanhuma, ed. Buber, ii, p. 59, No. 59, 60, 61; Levit. rab., sect. 20; Numb. rab., sect. 12; Cant. rab., ad. ch. iii, v. 18; Pesikta rab., sect. 47; Midrash Psalm, Ps. 91, v. 12; Yalkut Sim., i, f. 35, § 120, f. 44d, § 145, etc.
  3. Lipsius, Pilatus Aden, p. 29.
  4. Baring-Gould, Lost Gospels, p. 77-78.
  5. A. N. Wesselofsky, Razyskaniya vŭ oblasti russkago duhovnago stiha, iii, St. Petersburg, 1881, p. 4, ff.