A Path of Heart: Europe 1210


Medieval Europe was a traditional agricultural society but something new and highly significant was developing in it, which found expression in a new myth. This myth set out the essential programme for a wave that would eventually become known as modernity. Its core is given in legends of the Holy Grail but vital background appears in a tradition of courtly love presented by the troubadors through the 12th century.

The troubadors aimed to clarify the nature of love and due forms for its expression. Standard medieval practice arranged marriages on economic over emotional grounds. One aspect of the troubadors’ message involved challenging this practice. Their ideal of ‘courtly love’ was effectively adulterous, since marriage then had little to do with a potential for authentic loving that was only beginning to be articulated at the time. Their valuing of authentic love over economic benefit signalled the first wave of a general movement towards individuation which was to become the hallmark of modernity. In this revaluing, human beings act from the impulses of their own hearts, instead of being motivated by custom or the lures of pragmatic reward.

The troubadors’ initiative didn’t just challenge the sanctity of marriage as a sacrament of the Church. It also threatened an established mode of regulating human political-sexual organisation. This attracted disapproval and eventually an Inquisition. Beyond conflict with established institutions, the tradition of courtly love also re-opened questions of appropriate relationship between women and men and, thus, of balancing masculine-feminine energies across genders. Women, for example, were ceded power in choosing which man or men they would accept as lovers. And in choosing their man, they weren’t just applying criteria of brawn and wealth. A man, to be chosen, had to display the characteristics of a noble heart. This begins to set a  practice of authentic loving above that of ‘sexual economy’.

Warrior energies had to be tempered by the finer energies of a lover. This is the origin of chivalry and, beyond that, of the idea of an authentic life unfolding in response to spontaneous Heart impulses rather than some code prescribed by a Church. Arthurian romance emerged out of this background. Its stories weren’t simply made up but were based on old Celtic tales as relayed by generations of bardic tellers.  Throughout the 12th century, mediated by a new tradition of courtly love, stories of old Celtic heroes were rewoven around a new focus on armoured knights and given inflections suited to the needs of a new time.

In one version of the Grail myth, for example, it is said that it would be a disgrace for the knights to set out on their quest in a group. Rather each must find his own way into the forest, at the point which is darkest and where there is no path. The forest, traditionally, is a place of initiation. Metaphorically, in the wake of depth psychology, darkness refers to that which we must each face in ourselves in order to forge a noble heart. There is no path laid out for me in advance because nobody has ever lived a life like mine before. A unique destiny presents itself, waiting to be fulfilled, and only I can find the way to its fulfilment.

This notion had radical implications for the rigid social formations of feudal Europe. It may seem to refer to an elite minority only but, more than this, it established a blueprint that was to unfold over centuries. In Jungian terms, it might be said that the Collective Unconscious was dreaming a new phase of human evolution into existence, and presenting this in terms of a new myth. The relevance of this myth today is enhanced by a depolarisation of gender roles which we are currently experiencing. As a result, our story is potentially as relevant for women as for men. We can each decide in what ways for ourselves.

There are several versions of the Grail story. The most celebrated is by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a 13th century Bavarian knight with real battle experience who provides a more ‘earthy’ slant than is typical of versions given by monastic scribes. In Christian tradition, the Grail is associated with the cup from the Last Supper and, also, the vessel in which the blood of Christ was collected following the Crucifixion. In Celtic lore, it is associated with the Horn of Plenty and the Cauldron of Rebirth. Wolfram also links it with the Islamic Kabba, a stone which neutral angels are said to have brought to Earth during the war in Heaven.

This war was brought about by Lucifer’s refusal to bow before man at God’s request. Our view of this accounts for it in terms of pride. Another (Islamic) understanding reckons it in terms of Lucifer’s fidelity to an earlier decree that he should bow to no one but God. In any case, some angels sided with Lucifer, others with God, and some took neither side. This last group brought the sacred stone to Earth, right down the middle, so to speak. They were not identified with either position, recognising that Truth cannot be confined to either pole in a pair of opposites but rather that it transcends opposition. The Kabba, or Grail, inspires awareness of this truth about Truth on Earth.

Joseph Campbell sees resonances of this message in the name of Wolfram’s hero, Perceval, which he takes to suggest ‘Pierce-the-vale’ – i.e., going down the middle of a valley, committed to neither side. Taking this a step further brings us to ‘Pierce-the-veil’ – the veil of illusion, or maya, which deceives us into thinking that the way we have been conditioned to perceive in terms of polar opposites is the way. Perceval as the Grail Knight comes to shatter this illusion. Attaining the Grail, he attains a level of awareness that elevates him above notions of Good and Evil as defined in the necessarily relative terms of any moral discourse. We are reminded that it is within the power of human beings to reach a level of awareness which is beyond discourse. But Perceval does not start out with this awareness.

At the beginning of Wolfram’s tale, Perceval’s father-to-be, Gahrumet, is in service to the Caliph of Baghdad, a detail which immediately jars with our notions of Islam as Other. Why is a Christian knight serving a Caliph? (Wolfram was writing around 1210, in the middle of the Crusades.) In the course of his service, Gahrumet lifts a siege against the Black Queen of Zazimanc, whom he later marries. Protective of her new husband, the Queen won’t let him fight. Since Gahmuret lives to fight, he quickly tires of this arrangement and returns to Britain, not knowing he has sired a child. The boy Feirefiz is born in due course with a black and white complexion.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Gahmuret enters a tournament organised by Herzeloyde, a Lady who declares that its victor will win her hand in marriage. She chooses thus in a frame not of her choosing. Gahmuret wins and marries Herzeloyde. Again a son is conceived and again Gahmuret tires of peace. He returns East, where he is killed in battle. His second son, Perceval, is born soon after. Herzeloyde, sick of knights and bloodshed, takes him to a remote forest where he is reared in isolation, ignorant of his father’s ways.

When he’s fifteen, however, he sees a group of knights riding by. Knowing nothing of knighthood, he mistakes these marvellous beings for angels and bows down to them. They tell him to get up and bow only before God. He asks them who they are and they explain. How does one get to be a knight? Just go down the road to Camelot and Arthur will arrange it. Enraptured, Perceval returns home and tells his mother that he’s going to be a knight. She faints, recovers and, realising that she can’t stop him, makes him a Fool’s tunic. She also sets him up with an ungainly farm horse, hoping that the ridicule he’s likely to attract will drive him home again. Despite this, as he turns the first bend, Herzeloyde falls dead with grief. Depth psychology would later amplify the proposition that, in order to find his way in the world, a boy-man must first ‘kill’ the influence of mother. Then, perhaps, he can find Her again.

As Perceval rides into Camelot, a drama is under way. The Red Knight, a fearful warrior, is in dispute with Arthur over land. He has ridden right up to the Round Table and, taking Guinevere’s cup, dashed its contents into her face. Turning his horse, he says he’ll wait outside for whoever wants to claim vengeance. Perceval, witnessing the outrage, challenges him. The Red Knight is contemptuous of this Fool. Reversing his lance, he strikes Perceval with the handle and sends him sprawling. Angrily, Perceval rises and throws a javelin through the visor of the Red Knight’s helmet, killing him instantly. A page helps him put on the Red Knight’s armour and mount his horse. Perceval knows how to start the horse but not how to stop, so it runs unchecked for a whole day. He has accessed new power but doesn’t yet know how to control it.

Eventually the horse stops at a remote castle where, as is customary, the visiting knight is offered hospitality. Despite the anomaly of his Fool’s tunic, the Lord of the castle, Gurnemans – who prepares young men for knighthood – sees great potential. He trains Perceval and in due course offers him his daughter’s hand. Perceval reflects that a man must earn his wife, despite advantages that the arrangement would bring. He declines Gurnemans’ offer and rides off, again leaving his horse’s reins slack. This suggests an attitude of trust in the wisdom of Nature, represented by a horse which somehow knows where to go. It is very different from the usual Christian sense of nature as fallen and suspect. Perceval has learned to trust the power of inspired instinct, the power of Spirit working through Nature inside him.

The horse leads him to the castle of a young queen, Condwiramurs (conduire amours: guide of love). She is orphaned like Perceval and exactly his age, suggesting affinity and potential for equality. Hero/ines in myth are frequently orphaned. This pre-disposes them to the adventure of searching out a true identity and role in the world. Between Perceval and Condwiramurs, we suspect a motion of destiny. That night, she approaches his bed, dressed only in a transparent gown. ‘What’s wrong?’ he says. ‘If you like I can sleep over there.’ ‘If you promise not to wrestle with me,’ she replies, ‘I’ll just lie in beside you.’ He promises and she gets in. She tells him how unhappy she is because a powerful knight is forcing her to marry him by laying siege. Perceval agrees to kill this upstart the next day. He defeats his opponent as promised and is about to behead him when the knight yields.

Perceval tells him to report to Arthur’s court and say who sent him. When he returns to the castle, Condwiramurs’ hair is restyled in the manner of a married woman. That night they lie together. Nothing happens. Perceval knows little of such matters; and again a second night. On the third night they start working things out. Sex arises as the consummation of a marriage that is already in place, based on a love that involves no clerics or third party negotiations. They have one son and another is conceived. Perceval then seeks his Queen’s permission to see how his mother is doing, still unaware of her death. Note the transformed relationship here between masculine and feminine elements, compared to his father’s example. Permission is granted and he sets out, again leaving the horse’s reins slack.

Eventually he arrives at a lake where two men are fishing in a boat. One wears a fancy hat with a peacock’s feather. This is the Grail King, known also as the Fisher King because he spends his time fishing in the waters of the lake or, as depth psychology would have it, the subconscious. He fishes there because he is gravely wounded. This wound was sustained in his youth, when as an inexperienced knight he set out with the war cry ‘amor’ on his lips. Reality obliged and, as he was crossing a meadow, a pagan knight – an ‘infidel’ from the Holy Land – somehow emerges from an English forest to confront him. Faced by an enemy he would destroy in the name of love, the young Christian knight lowers his spear and charges. The pagan knight does likewise. They clash. The pagan knight is killed. The Christian knight receives a wound which leaves him impotent. The head of the pagan’s lance lodges in his groin. Thereafter he exists in agony, unable either to live or die. The only relief he can get comes from fishing, which – in modern parlance – is a way of worrying over issues without being able to resolve them.

When the tip of the lance is removed the word ‘Grail’ is found inscribed on it. This suggests that Nature, represented by the pagan knight, tends of itself towards Spirit, as represented by the young Grail King. But the attitude of medieval Christian Europe is to mistrust nature and seek to override it. This has an effect of castrating our spiritual as well as our natural lives. The wounded king presides over a Wasteland in which nothing flourishes. The power of Nature through which Spirit moves has been denied. There is no growth. The Kingdom is deprived of the Water of Life. Spirit doesn’t flow through the person of the King into the land, which is rendered barren as a result. Ultimately, the reason is that the Grail King didn’t ‘earn’ his position as Perceval ‘earned’ his wife. He simply inherited it. This is a reflection of institutional stasis in feudal Europe, where people live inauthentic lives by sticking to externally prescribed rules rather than listening to the promptings of their hearts, a revolutionary initiative first proposed by the troubadors.

Unprepared, the young King can neither comprehend nor carry the power of the Grail with which he is entrusted. No one with sufficient awareness was available to guide him in such matters. The whole culture suffers as a result. This is the problem. Myths, like dreams, typically suggest solutions for problems they identify. Perceval, unknown to himself, holds the key to a solution. This is why the undirected horse has brought him here. There is a Destiny involved. The curse on the Wasteland can be lifted by the spontaneous action of a noble Heart, motivated by loving compassion rather than any codified sense of honour. Perceval has been expected so, when he asks if there is anywhere nearby to spend the night, the Fisher King directs him to a castle down the road a little to the left – i.e., into the Feminine. Perceval finds his way and reaches the Grail Castle without knowing it.

Later he is invited to a feast at which the Holy Grail appears, borne by a beautiful maiden. Then the Fisher King is carried in on a litter, writhing in agony. Perceval is moved to ask ‘What ails thee Uncle?’ – the very words of compassionate enquiry that will break the enchantment. But he remembers learning that a knight does not ask unnecessary questions and says nothing. Old rules stifle the spontaneous impulse of his heart. Everyone is bitterly disappointed but no-one comments. The feast continues. Perceval is given the gift of a sword which, it is said, will break at a crucial moment. Next morning when he wakes up the castle is deserted. He has to saddle his own horse and make haste to exit before the rising drawbridge shuts him in. Moving away, he feels bereft, as if he has missed the purpose of his life. He spends years thereafter trying to find the Grail Castle again but never succeeds, although it is still in the same location. Particular Grace is required, it seems, to pierce this veil.

In his wanderings, Perceval performs many knightly services but always feels reviled for his failure. The enemies he vanquishes he bids return and surrender to Arthur in his name. By this means his reputation grows and Arthur eventually organises a group to track down this exemplary knight whom he once allowed to slip away. It’s winter when the entourage draws near. A falcon has killed a crow, whose black body and red blood form an enchanting pattern in the snow. Reminded of Conduiramours’ dark hair and ruddy complexion, Perceval is entranced. He is sighted in this condition by scouts from Arthur’s camp. A knight is dispatched to summon him. When he fails to respond, the knight charges. Swaying while still in trance, Perceval easily unseats him. Others follow to similar effect.

Eventually Gawain, an older knight experienced in the ways of love, approaches. Recognising Perceval’s condition, he breaks the trance by waving his kerchief over the dead crow. Perceval returns with him to Arthur’s camp, where he is greeted with acclaim. Just at this moment of triumph, a foul-smelling, hideously ugly Hag appears, wearing a fancy hat and riding on a donkey. She turns out to be the Grail Messenger and berates Perceval publicly for his failure to deliver the Fisher King, and thus the whole country, from enchantment. It is due to his shortcomings that the Wasteland has persisted for so long. Humiliated, Perceval leaves in disgrace.

After further wanderings in solitude, he arrives at a hermit’s shelter. It’s Good Friday and the hermit invites him to eat. Perceval accepts but balks when asked to recite the Grace before meals. He doesn’t love God, he says, he hates Him! The hermit observes that such an attitude is ill-advised since God returns everything we offer many-fold. That is to say, in modern terms, we ‘co-create’ our reality. Perceval relents and talks of his quest to enter the Grail Castle again. The hermit regards him pityingly ‘I’m afraid that’s not possible.’ ‘I will do it,’ is Perceval’s response. Hearing that Gawain is due to marry, he returns to Arthur’s camp. All is ready for a wonderful celebration. Perceval is welcomed. Wine flows.  Knights and ladies mingle but Perceval is lonely for Condwiramurs and turns away from temptations of the camp.

Riding alone through a meadow, he is confronted by a pagan knight who appears suddenly from a forest on the opposite side. Both lower their spears and charge. The spears shatter at the moment of collision. They draw their swords and continue fighting, matching each other heroically blow for blow. Then, at a crucial moment, Perceval’s sword breaks. Unexpectedly, the pagan casts his sword aside and says ‘I don’t fight unarmed men. Let’s talk.’ They sit together and remove their helmets. The pagan knight’s complexion is black and white. A strange affinity rises between them, as if they were related in some way. Perceval says that there’s a party happening down the road. Would his companion like to go? He would. They arrive at the party where Feirefiz proves very attractive with the ladies on account of his mysterious complexion. Perceval is beginning to relax when the Hag appears again. He recoils in horror but this time she declares that through his persistence he has earned the right to return to the Grail Castle. Would his brother in arms like to follow?

This invitation produces gasps among the onlookers. Few Christians ever get to visit the Grail Castle; that a pagan should be admitted seems unthinkable. Nevertheless, Feirefiz accompanies his brother. His inherent spiritual merit has been acknowledged, and valued over conventional in-group patterning of Good and Evil. At the Castle, a procession is under way. The Grail is borne as ever by a beautiful maiden. Feirefiz is so smitten that he doesn’t see the Grail, only the woman who carries it. Woman is the Grail for one who hasn’t been spiritually castrated. Alarmed, an old priest rushes for the baptismal font. He drags it in. It inclines magically towards the Grail. Water from the Grail streams magically towards the font. This pagan is about to be baptised by the Water of Life!

Feirefiz stays focused on the maiden as the priest goes on about Christianity and God. He asks ‘Is she a Christian?’ ‘Of course she’s a Christian!’ ‘Me too!’ Baptism follows painlessly, Feirefiz having acknowledged without contending the relativity of human ways of naming the Divine. The Fisher King is brought in on a stretcher, in agony still. Perceval puts his question. The curse is lifted. The King is made well but dies three days later, at Easter. Perceval becomes Grail King in his place. Because he has earned this position, Spirit is restored in the land. The hermit says ‘By your tenacity you have changed the laws of God.’ Condwiramurs and the children arrive. Feirefiz and his pagan virtues are integrated. Old wounds are healed and an authentic, individuated mode of living is modelled in European mythos for the first time.                                      

The Grail procession happens every night in Castles of the fortified Self, manifesting as dreams that point forward to integrity. Merlin teaches Arthur in the Crystal Cave, a vanishing point that opens to infinity. With a ‘fall’ of consciousness Arthur becomes a Sleeping King, a dormant part in each of us that waits to be called back into life. Our story teaches that the schedule for modernity entails more than aggressive self-assertion. Its call is not to ego-resolution but rather to pass beyond ego into ever-opening, ever-deepening Heart. It involves surrendering, not fixating, personal will.  Our genie escapes its bottle by rising into the spaciousness of Heart. Upper chakra openings unfold as a result of this progression. Heart-centred living is beyond Good and Evil in the manner of the neutral angels. It is motivated by universal compassion, attached neither to this side nor that. Resolution of Shadow issues comes not with intellectual breakthrough but rather a deeply felt awareness that there is no Other except that which I project as a reflection of my own dividedness. Healing this division within eliminates impressions of duality without. We see then that there is no ‘without’, only One Self – always and everywhere – at play through even our most stunning enactments of diversity.

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