This article was published in First City Magazine, New Delhi, July 2005.
You cannot avoid commenting on Dan Brown’s book, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ which has taken the world by storm. Especially when you are a mythologist, and everybody asks you, “Is it true? Is Mary Magdalene really the ‘Holy Grail’? Was she really the wife of Jesus Christ and the mother of his children, a truth that has been violently suppressed for centuries by the Catholic Church?” In my opinion, if the ‘da Vinci decoding’ were really true and the conspiracy theory holds merit (nobody can ever prove or disprove it), then it is a terrible tragedy. For it would reduce the ‘Holy Grail’ to a mere historical riddle and take away from it the power to reveal the secrets of our soul. Tales of the Holy Grail or Sangreal, as it is known in French, originated in and around France around the 12th century AD. That was the age of the Crusades.
Responding the passionate plea of Church leaders, young men from Europe led by charismatic leaders from France and England made their way to Palestine to reclaim from the Muslims, whom they knew as Saracens, the holy city of Jerusalem. On their way they passed through the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium, quite different in character from the Western Roman Empire controlled by the Papacy in Rome. They also realized that contrary to propaganda, the Saracens were not barbarians but a cultured people well versed in art, science, poetry and philosophy.
When the young men returned home, they brought back with them not just the wealth of the East but also its wisdom including the idea of the Holy Grail. Intimately linked with the idea of the Holy Grail was the concept of ‘courtly’ love and the idea of the divine feminine. According to Eastern Orthodox traditions, the Holy Grail was the cup used by Jesus Christ during the last supper. According to another tradition, it was the cup that caught the blood of Jesus Christ that flowed out of his right side where the Roman soldier, Longinus, pierced him with a lance during the crucifixion. The cup was in the possession of a wealthy Jew called Joseph of Arimathea who provided the tomb where Jesus was buried.
When the body of Jesus Christ disappeared three days later following his resurrection, Romans accused Joseph of stealing the body. They threw him into prison and deprived him of food. There he languished for decades. When he was released, he had not aged a day! This was the miracle of the Holy Grail which Joseph had carried into the prison. It had transformed into a cornucopia and sustained Joseph’s body and soul. It is said that during his stay in prison, Jesus appeared to Joseph and revealed to him many secrets including that of the Holy Grail. Joseph and a small group of followers left Jerusalem for Europe. Some say France, some say Britain. He and his descendants became guardians of the Holy Grail. They were known as Fisher-kings, kings of all ‘fishermen’ — a term used for all those who brought the wisdom of Christ to the world and thus ‘fished’ the lost souls of men in the ‘net’ that was the church.
The Fisher-king lived in the Grail castle with the Holy Grail in the care of his daughter, the Grail Maiden. One day, one Fisher-king, named Pelles, lost his faith and committed a sin. Was it adultery? It is not clear. Whatever it was, the Fisher-king was injured on his thigh. Some say, he was castrated. Or was at least rendered impotent. With this loss of virility, the land around the Holy Castle, once a bountiful garden, became a wasteland.
The barren landscape and the impotent king — never allowed to die but simply suffer his festering wound for all eternity — became symbols of spiritual collapse. Together with the Holy Grail, they disappeared from history, awaiting discovery by those who could restore faith and harmony in the world. From then on, from time to time, kings and knights, received tantalizing visions of the Holy Grail held by a beautiful maiden, the Grail maiden, and her unfortunate broken father, the Fisher-king. The vision was an invitation to find the lost Grail. While kings could conquer lands and knights could rescue damsels in distress from the clutches of dragons, could they restore the spiritual incompleteness of their souls? That was the challenge. This was the Grail quest.
Tales of the Holy Grail cannot be separated from ideas such as knightly chivalry and courtly love. Knightly chivalry represented the highest ideals in a warrior: he fought not for personal fame or glory or earthly power, but in the service of a king, preferably a Christian king, to protect the weak and defend his righteous order. Courtly love was a subversive concept that crept into French literature around the 12th century AD, that challenged the unquestioning obedience of knights by proclaiming the glory of love. While obedience of the knights respected the rules of society, love challenged all rules and demanded satisfaction. Courtly love was at once adulterous and pure. Local bards known as troubadours, inspired by Arabic poetry, sang songs of this forbidden love between a knight and a lady of high rank, who invariably was married to someone else, often the king. The love consequently was either unrequited or could not be consummated. Yet the knight loved her. He fought for her. Even died for her. The suffering, the struggle against temptation, the heartache of sin, inspired soulful lyrics moving people greatly. This was the age when the concept of ‘Notre Dame’ or ‘Our Lady’ reached its zenith.
For some, at a spiritual plane, Our Lady was not the knight’s lady love. She was Mary, Mother of God. Or perhaps, more dangerously, she was Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus Christ’s early followers, a reformed prostitute, and according to some, wife of Jesus Christ. There were whispers across Europe. Was the Grail quest a search for a magical cup or the quest for spiritual fulfilment through Mary, mother of Jesus, or was it the search for his children born of Mary Magdalene, the ‘true’ church? The questions gripped the imagination of the people.
The most popular manifestation of this imagination was the story of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. The tale, based on Celtic legends, is rich in Christian symbols. The round table represents the round table around which Christ was supposed to have his last supper. Around it were 13 chairs, for the 12 apostles and Christ. The 13th chair, the unlucky chair, represented for some Jesus, and for others, the traitor, Judas. Around Arthur’s table, sat 11 knights and one seat was left empty, for the one who would discover the Grail. Anyone else who dared sit on this chair died instantly. That none of the Arthur’s knights could sit on that chair and hence were deemed unworthy of the Grail was a constant reminder to Arthur that despite the earthly glory achieved by Camelot it remained spiritually incomplete, a fractured soul, much like Adam after the Original Sin and the Fall from Eden. Only a true knight, not the bravest or the smartest, but the one who was spiritually pure, would find the Grail and make Camelot paradise on earth.
In effect, Arthur was the wounded Fisher-king, wounded because beneath the material prosperity of his land lurked dark secrets of spiritual failure. Arthur was a child of rape; his father, Uther, duped his mother, Igraine, by using magic to take the form of her husband, Duke of Cornwall, killed by Uther himself in battle. Arthur had a son following a brief incestuous affair with his half-sister, Morgan, Igraine’s daughter by the Duke. Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, was in love with his First Knight, Lancelot.
Everyone, except Arthur, knew of the affair. Lancelot, himself, had fathered a son called Galahad on a woman he did not know was the Grail Maiden, daughter of the Fisher-king. Thus, Arthur’s First Knight had come close to the spiritual prize and had misused the opportunity to satisfy his carnal frustrations. Then there is the story of Perceval. His mother, abandoned by her husband who favoured the knight’s life of quests to the ordinariness of family life, raised him in the forest without any contact with kings or knights. But as fate would have it, the boy came upon a knight one day and was so enamoured by their armour and manners that he ran away from home to become a knight, leaving a grieving mother to die of heartbreak.
He learnt from the knights of Camelot the rules of courtesy and politeness and follows them with such earnestness that he forgets basic human values of compassion and empathy. One night, he gains entry into the Grail castle. There he finds the suffering Fisher-king and has a vision of the Holy Grail and the Grail maiden. Bound by rules of courtesy and politeness, he does not ask the king the cause of his suffering or the purpose of the Grail. A golden opportunity is lost.
All that is required for the Grail quest to end is a simple question by one who finds the Grail: “Whom does the Grail serve?” The answer is two-fold. The Grail serves (helps) the Fisher-King, representation of spiritually fractured humanity. The Grail serves (contains) the blood of Christ, symbol of his sacrifice that offers completion and perfection to spiritually fractured humanity. The Holy Grail offers a deep insight into the Christian worldview. Of course, if one is content with the historical explanation: the Holy Grail is Jesus Christ’s wife and the blood within is the missing line of his children, then this insight is best overlooked. To me, the conspiracy theory helps in mocking the authority of the Catholic Church. But does such an endeavour help the soul in anyway? Does it take away the restlessness that gnaws the core of our being? For that one needs to relook at the mythical, not the historical, Sangreal.