The mythological story of the search for the Holy Grail, the cup said to be used by Christ in the Last Supper, emerged in the 12th century. Robert Johnson says that this is “…a time when many people feel that our modern age began.” I guess it depends what we mean by modern; we’re now in what’s called a post-modern age, looking back at earlier chapters in our human development.
There are various accounts of the grail myth, the earliest from the French and German, then later in the English story of King Arthur and the famous Knights of the Round Table.
In his book, “He: Understanding Masculine Psychology,” Johnson uses the French version of the story of the search for the Holy Grail, because, he says, “…it is simpler, more direct and nearer to the unconscious.” The last point is important: the story is about the unconscious mind and its inner work…the work of what we call ‘spirituality.’
A myth is such a story. Johnson reminds us that, “A myth is a living entity, (it’s a story that) exists within every person. You will get the true, living form of the myth if you can see it as it spins away inside yourself.”
This is important to keep in mind as we explore the story of Parsifal’s search for the Holy Grail – all of the characters and events in the story are meant to delve into the mind of the listener; they’re like a dream. As Joseph Campbell put it, “A myth is a public dream; a dream is a private myth.”
Johnson says, “Women, too, will be interested in the secrets of the Grail myth, for every woman has to cope with one of these exotic creatures, the male of the species, somehow, as father, or husband, or son. Also a woman partakes quite directly of the Grail myth as the story of her own interior masculinity.”
Johnson says, “A woman’s masculinity or a man’s femininity is closer than one realizes.”
The story begins with a depiction of the Grail castle, which is undergoing some serious problems. The Fisher King, who is the king of the castle, has been wounded. His wounds are so severe that he cannot live, yet he is incapable of dying. So he groans; he cries out and he suffers constantly.
The kingdom is in desolation – the land mirrors the condition of the king – the king is wounded, so the land is wounded. The cattle won’t reproduce, the crops won’t grow, the brave knights are being killed one by one, the children are orphaned and the fair maidens weep – everyone is in mourning and everyone suffers because the Fisher King is wounded.
Johnson points out that there are primitive societies that kill their leader, their king, when he can no longer produce offspring, or when he becomes weak or wounded…the kingdom cannot prosper if the king is wounded.
The story explains how the Fisher King got his name, and how he was wounded. It seems that when he was doing his knight errantry, saving fair maidens and overcoming all traces of evil, he was out in the forest and came to a camp, there were no people around, but there was a salmon on a spit, roasting over the fire. He was hungry, so he grabbed a piece of the fish and it was so hot that it burned his fingers. He dropped the salmon and put his fingers into his mouth to assuage the burn, and in doing so he got a bit of the salmon into his mouth – this is the Fisher King wound, and gives him his name.
Johnson says, “Modern suffering man is the heir to this psychological event which took place culturally some eight hundred years ago.”
The fish in the story is a symbol of Christ – the young knight got a taste of his Christ nature, and it was so hot it ‘wounded him.’ Later it will become his salvation — that which wounds us can also be the source of our healing.
(The first letters in the phrase Jesus Christ Son of God form the word fish in Greek, which is why you see the fish symbol on the back of cars.)
The wound came from the fish, symbol of Christ. Johnson says, “The first touch of consciousness in a youth appears as a wound or as suffering. Parsifal finds his Garden of Eden experience by way of the bit of salmon. That suffering stays with him until his redemption or enlightenment many years later.”
“The Fisher King wound may coincide with a special event, an injustice, such as being accused of something we didn’t do.”
In the Grail myth the Fisher King is carried around the castle on a litter, groaning and crying in his suffering, and there’s no respite for him—except when he goes fishing! “This is to say that the wound, which represents consciousness, is bearable only when the wounded is doing his inner work.” (In Treatment)
Healing will only happen when he’s able to change—to heal the wound.
The main character in the story is Parsifal, whose name means ‘innocent fool.’ It also has a deeper meaning: ‘one who draws opposite sides together,’ a reminder that the truth is somewhere between two opposing sides of the truth as told by different people.
One day Parsifal is out playing when five knights in shining armor come riding by with colors flying – scarlet and gold, with shields and lances and all the things knights need. Poor Parsifal was dazzled – he dashed home and told his mother he had seen five gods and he decided then and there that he would join them.
His mother burst into tears because she had always feared that her son would follow his father’s footsteps – his father and two older brothers had been knights and all were killed in battle, so his mother never told Parsifal about his father’s knighthood, hoping to shield him.
His mother’s name is Heart’s Sorrow, and she reluctantly gives Parsifal her blessing; and she gives him two pieces of advice: first, respect all fair damsels, and second do not ask too many questions. She also gives him a single homespun garment that she has woven for him, which makes its appearance later in the story.
Parsifal goes off with great excitement in search of the five knights; the number five ‘implies the completeness or fullness of life and is the root from which we get our word quintessence.
Parsifal meets a beautiful maiden who gives him a ring which will be his talisman and inspiration for the rest of his life; she implores him to leave before her knight comes home and finds Parsifal in her tent and Parsifal will be killed by a jealous husband.
He asks everyone about the five knights and someone tells him to go to King Arthur’s court where he can be knighted by the king if he is strong and brave enough.
He finds Arthur’s court and is laughed out of the great hall for asking to be knighted. Finally he speaks with King Arthur himself who explains the arduous process of becoming a knight.
Now it happens that there is a fair damsel in distress at Arthur’s court—she has not laughed or even smiled in six years; there’s a legend surrounding her: when the best knight in the world appears in the court, the story says, she will burst into laughter.
Lo and behold: the moment she sees Parsifal she bursts into laughter and is filled with joy. Wow! The entire court is mightily impressed.
Johnson explains: “Until the Parsifal part of a man’s nature appears, there is a feminine part of him that has never smiled, that is incapable of happiness. If one can awaken the Parsifal in a man, another quality in him immediately becomes happy.”
Meanwhile, back in the court, Parsifal is being taken more seriously and King Arthur knights him on the spot!
In his youthful innocence Parsifal asks King Arthur for the horse and armor of the Red Knight. Again, everyone laughs at him – it seems that for many years no knight has been strong enough to stand up to the Red Knight, so even Arthur laughs and says, “You can have it if you can get it!”
He is greeted by the Red Knight who has been wreaking havoc in the court – he has taken the Chalice and no one was strong enough to stop him, and he even threw a glass of wine in Queen Guenevere’s face.
Parsifal asks the Red Knight for his horse and armor and the Red Knight taunts him and says, “You can have it if you can get it!”
The two square off, as knights do, Parsifal is knocked to the ground and from that ignominious position he throws his dagger at the Red Knight and hits him in the eye, killing him.
Johnson says this part of the myth represents Parsifal’s coming of age or bridging moment, when he moves from adolescent to manhood. He never kills again, but subdues many a knight in battle, making each promise to go to Arthur’s court to put himself into service to the noble King.
All these knights he has conquered represent his overcoming aspects of himself that might otherwise prevent him from obtaining true inner freedom; he conquers these inner aspects of himself, one by one and puts them in service to the Noble King, or to nobility itself.
This is the task of a man in mid-life.
The Red Knight represents the out-of-control, often self-destructive energy of youth and adolescence; it’s a powerful inner force that has to be channeled.
In the fall of 1971, beginning my final year of seminary, I went before the Fellowship Committee, as required for the credentials for Unitarian Universalist ministry, and in retrospect I realize that I was wearing my Red Knight armor. One of the members of the committee taunted me and I came out swinging – and the committee’s response was to require me to do some specific work and return in six months.
I did as instructed and presented myself to the committee shortly before I was to graduate and shortly after I was invited to be the minister at our church in Attleboro, contingent on my acceptance by the Fellowship Committee.
The chairman of the committee opened our session by asking, and I quote: “Frank, how are you feeling about this committee, now?”
I answered honestly: “Paul, you and I know that I can’t afford to feel anything about the committee.” After a pause I said, “How about the second question.”
I was approved, and when I left the room the committee’s psychologist walked out with me, put his arm over my shoulder and said, “Frank, you have a powerful energy, but you need to learn how to channel it…”
I thanked him and thought about his fatherly advice for years; in fact I still think about it!
Parsifal’s Red Knighting experience touches a place deep within me: the Red Knight in a man must be subdued and brought into the humble service of the Noble King.
As a footnote, the man on the committee who taunted me at our first meeting later told me that he did it on purpose so as to cause the committee to dig deeper and grapple with the underlying questions about their work in deciding on ministerial candidates’ fitness for our ministry. His tone was apologetic as well as confessional. He said, “I knew you could handle it!”
Johnson says, “The Red Knight is the shadow side of masculinity, the negative, potentially destructive power. To truly become a man the shadow personality must be struggled with, but it cannot be repressed.”
There’s an importance difference between subduing or killing that energy, and channeling it into creativity.
Back to the story: Parsifal now owns the Red Knight’s armor and horse, but he knows nothing about it, never having worn armor or having a horse of his own. A page helps him and notices the homespun undergarment that Parsifal’s mother had woven and given to him and he advises Parsifal to take it off, but Parsifal insists on wearing it under his armor.
He mounts his new horse wearing his new armor with his mother’s homespun garment and rides off – but there’s a problem: he doesn’t know how to stop the horse, so they just keep galloping away, all day and into the night when both horse and rider stop out of sheer exhaustion.
The next day Parsifal discovers Gournamon, who is to be his godfather – his guide and mentor. Gournamon spends the next year teaching Parsifal all the ways of a worthy knight. He gives him some pieces of advice: first, he must never seduce or be seduced by a fair maiden, and second, he must search for the Grail castle with all his might, and more specifically, when and if he does find the Grail castle he must ask the question: “Whom does the Grail serve?”
Now he is ready to begin his knighthood, but first he wants to find his mother. To his dismay he learns that his mother died of a broken heart the day he left her. Remember, her name was Heart’s Sorrow, a fitting name for one aspect of motherhood.
Parsifal feels dreadfully guilty about his mother’s death, but he also knows that his leaving was a necessary part of his masculine development. If he gave in to his mother’s attempt to keep him home, his masculinity would be injured.
Again, a brief comment from my own experience: in my early-twenties I had the one and only knock-down, drag out battle with my mother, dumping the stored-up baggage I had accumulated in 24 years; it felt like a cruel thing for me to be doing. It was as though there was another person in me who was doing all that ranting and raving.
My mother and I never spoke of it again, but there was an important shift in our relationship, a positive and helpful change, and I was forever thankful that no lasting harm was done. On the contrary, it ushered in a new, deeper bond between us that is there to this day, though she’s been gone for nine years.
In the myth about Parsifal, his mother died as soon as he left, and Johnson says, “Perhaps she represents the kind of woman who can only exist as mother, who dies when this role is taken from her because she does not understand how to be an individual woman, but only a ‘mother.’”
When Parsifal was searching for his mother he found, instead, Blanch Fleur, White Flower. Blanch Fleur is a damsel in distress and she implores Parsifal to rescue her kingdom. He obeys a profound law: “A man knows not his strength until it is needed.”
Parsifal frees Blanch Fleur from intruders, doing battle with the second in command, defeating him, sparing his life and sending him off to serve in King Arthur’s court. Then he repeats it with the first in command. All these knights will eventually become the Knights of the Round Table, and each represents aspects of Parsifal’s inner life and the process of his moving toward a balanced self-hood and wisdom.
“You do not know what wars are going on, down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”
Carl Jung called it the process of ‘relocating the center of gravity of the personality,’ which he described as a ‘careful and highly conscious process of drawing from the untamed pool of masculine energy and adding to the conscious center of the personality,’ which in the story is represented by King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
It is in the service of Blanche Fleur that Parsifal performs his noble masculine deeds of heroism. It was no accident that in his search for his mother he discovered Blanche Fleur. She, of course, is not a flesh-and-blood person — she represents an essential ingredient within Parsifal himself, within every man—Jung’s idea of the Anima: ‘she who animates and is the fountain of life in the heart of a man.’ She is the interior feminine aspect of a well-developed, mature masculinity, the core of inspiration…inner spirit or soul.
There’s a detailed description of the one night they spent together – a description of their very intimate embrace: ‘head to head, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, knee to knee, toe to toe.’ But Parsifal remained chaste.
In other words, Parsifal embraced his anima, his unconscious feminine side; the female’s unconscious male aspect is called the animus; the anima and animus describe the inner workings as opposed to one’s persona, or personality – the things seen on the outside.
Like the Taoist symbol of yin and yang, the black and white blending halves of a circle, there’s a little white in the black and a little black in the white.
Carl Jung said that confronting one’s shadow self is an “apprentice-piece”, while confronting one’s anima is the “masterpiece.”
The shadow self is about things we keep hidden from others and to some extent from ourselves – they’re not necessarily negative things, they simply live in the shadows as opposed to those things the world can see about us.
This is our mythological story’s way of depicting the Virgin Birth – it’s about what Robert Johnson explains as ‘the interior mating of the human soul with the Divine Spirit which is the true genesis of one’s individuality.’
The story of Parsifal and his search for the Holy Grail, or his search for the holy, is more than a way for us to understand masculine psychology – the process of moving through this life as a male person.
The story of Parsifal reminds us that the mythological stories in the major religions give us a kind of interior GPS – global positioning system – that allows us to locate a spiritual home; and I’m not talking about the Unitarian Church in Westport – I’m talking about the interior life, the process of locating a spiritual home, inside.
One of the great paradoxes is that the religions of the world may be the biggest enemy of the spiritual life, the interior life.
But don’t blame the religions, any more than you blame the car for the crash; a religion at its best is the vehicle we can use to make the inward journey. When used appropriately, the religious stories lead us inward and speak to the unconscious and bring us to a place of peace with ourselves, with one another, and with the world.
One of the great tragedies of our time is that we confuse the mythological stories in the great religions with literal, historical truth, thus not only failing to take the benefits of those great myths, but using them to turn persons in one religion against persons in another religion.
Religion is not about the material world, it’s about another aspect of our lives, an aspect that is not material, but is as essential to life as thinking and feeling are essential aspects of the human mind, the human experience.
Parsifal was instructed not to ‘seduce or be seduced by a woman.’ This is not about sexual seduction – that’s the literal meaning of the advice he was given. It’s about the interior life, it’s about his relation to his inner self, or soul, if you will.
One must not be seduced by the exterior life, being led down the proverbial garden path into the destructive, soul-destroying idea that God chooses favorites, that God condones killing in the name of religion, or in his name.
Much, if not most of the worst crimes against humanity have been committed in the name of religion, but don’t blame the religions for that, blame those who have misused the religions for power over others rather than using the religions as instruments of personal empowerment and as instruments of social justice.
Social justice work is a natural extension of successful inner work. Spiritual work, which is inner work, gives birth to a spirit of generosity, wanting to give something back, to engage in some kind of social justice work, which feeds the spirit. Generosity is generative—it nourishes the spirit.
It’s possible for the inner work of spirituality to become narcissistic – ‘a man all wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.’ Narcissus, you’ll recall, fell in love with his own reflection in the water and drowned in it.
Inner work is more than navel gazing. The spiritual realm has a very practical side – it has to do with the way a person feels about him/herself; it has to do with this elusive thing we call happiness or contentment or inner peace…all of which are impossible to describe in words, to define.
“Existence is beyond the power of words to define,” says Lao Tse. “Terms may be used but none of them is absolute…and whether we dispassionately see to the core of life or passionately see the surface, the core and the surface are essentially the same.”
The story of Parsifal and his search for the Holy Grail is a way to dig into the core of life, but it’s also a way of taking closer notice of the surface…the way things are in the day-to-day world.
Parsifal discovers the Grail Castle but he is so dazzled by it that he forgets to ask the question: ‘Whom does the grail serve?’
His mother advised him against asking questions; his mentor told him that he must ask this particular question: to question is the answer!
Parsifal’s journey is symbolic of the human journey, as told in the story of the Buddha, and his journey, or told in the story of the Christ, and his journey.
When Parsifal was being honored for his brave deeds of knighthood, he is visited by nagging self-doubt in the form of what the story calls ‘a hideous damsel,’ who accuses him of being the reason for the Fisher King’s wound, and for all the ills of the kingdom…he’s the reason the children are hungry and orphaned, he’s the reason the crops won’t grow, etc.
Johnson says, “Her mission is to present the other side of the coin at the festival, a task she accomplishes with genius. She recites all Parsifal’s sins and stupidities, the worst being his failure to ask the healing question in the Grail castle. Parsifal is humbled and left silent before the court that only a moment before had been praising him to the sky.”
He says, “With the certainty of sunset the Hideous Damsel will walk into a man’s life just when he has reached the apex of his accomplishment.”
Remember: this is not about a real-life woman, it’s about his inner life, expressed in the myth as an inner woman; this inner voice that calls him into question is often referred to as ‘the dark night of the soul,’ when he feels that his life is meaningless or empty or a fraud.
The Hideous Damsel delivers doubt and despair, destroying a man’s sense of dignity, robbing him of his essential core value.
It’s important for the real women in his life, or family and friends, to simply ‘be there’ for him without trying to deny his despair.
The story says that the good knight Parsifal spends twenty years on his knightly adventures and eventually forgets Blanche Fleur and he forgets why he wields his sword and he forgets about King Arthur and the round table…his sense of purpose is gone and he wanders without direction.
At his low point he comes upon a band of ragged pilgrims who ask why he’s out wondering the roads on Good Friday, ‘the day of the death of our Lord.’
Parsifal agrees to go with the pilgrims to visit the hermit, and when he meets the hermit, before he says a word, the hermit berates him, making a long list of his faults and failures, the worst of which was his failure to ask the healing question when he was in the Grail castle.
But very quickly the hermit becomes gently supportive of Parsifal and gives him directions to the Grail castle, where he goes for his second and this time he remembers to ask the question: ‘Whom does the Grail serve?’
This is, of course, a very strange question, but it may be the most important question we ask: what does my life ‘serve?’
What’s the point of living if it isn’t service of some kind; the life-long process of making promises, having goals and dreams, keeping hope alive.
What do you serve? What’s at the center or core of your life? Is there something – some value – that is greater than the small-s self?
In the story, when Parsifal asks whom the Grail serves, the resounding answer heard throughout the castle is, “The Grail serves the Grail King,” which Christians may call God, and the psychologist Carl Jung called the capital-S Self; the Hindu says, “There is a Self within the heart of every mortal creature.” The Hindu term Atman is like our word ‘soul,’ or one’s true self.
Each of us is Parsifal, on our journey. Parsifal needed only to ask the question – he didn’t have to answer it.
Robert Johnson points out that ‘Alexis de Tocqueville came to America and made some astute observations about the new country’s American way. He said that we have a misleading idea at the very head of our Constitution: the pursuit of happiness. One can not pursue happiness…but happiness is built in to the inner search, as represented by Parsifal’s search for the Holy Grail.
May we find ways to enhance the inner journey while weaving our lives in community, keeping a balance between the two – the outer sharing in authentic relationship, and the inner search for the deeper, spiritual meanings that enhance our lives.