The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler

Embed Size (px)


“Perhaps the supreme religious symbol of the Middle Ages, the Holy Grail, still exerts a powerful fascination on the European imagination. Yet, while we in the twentieth century possess a stereotyped notion of the Grail as the chalice used during the Last Supper, the early literary accounts are not so unanimous in their portrayal of its nature…”

Citation preview

Page 1: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler
Page 2: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler

Text Source: ALEXANDRIA, The Journal of the Western Cosmological Traditions, Volume 1, pp. 187-227

COVER IMAGES: “Parsifal binds his horse to a tree in front Gurnemanz’s castle” [top] and “Parsifal enters the Grail temple” From a codex copy of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival at Universtaatbibliothek Heidelberg.

Parzival is entranced by the three drops of blood on the snow outside Arthur’s encampment. He falls into a love trance, for the rosy drops remind him of his beautiful wife Condwiramurs, and in this reverie he becomes totally oblivious to his surroundings.

Page 3: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler

ERHAPS THE SUPREME RELIGIOUS SYMBOL of the Middle Ages, the Holy Grail, still exerts a powerful fascination on the European imagination. Yet, while we in the twentieth century possess a stereotyped notion of the Grail as the chalice used during the Last Supper, the early literary accounts are not so unanimous in their portrayal of its nature. In

fact, most scholars believe the Grail to be ultimately of pre-Christian, Celtic origin.The earliest surviving literary account of the Grail quest is the well-known

Perceval, or Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien states that the story was given to him by his patron, Count Philip of Flanders, in the form of a book. While it is true that Count Philip participated in crusades in the Holy Land there is nothing to suggest any Middle Eastern influence in Chrétien’s tale, while, for example, there is a large amount of material indicating Arabic sources in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, composed some 45 years later.

It would be beyond the scope of this paper to recapitulate the entire plot of Chrétien’s Perceval, but, in brief, it concerns the story of a rustic Welsh simpleton who is protected from knowledge of the outside world by his mother. Much to his mother’s dismay, however, he encounters some knights, and decides that he would like to become a knight in Arthur’s court. He sets off, leaving his mother behind, who faints at his departure. Through various adventures Perceval develops as an individual and eventually, in a remarkable dream-like episode, gains entrance to the castle of the mysterious Fisher King where he witnesses a bizarre ceremony involving the Grail, [in the form of ] a large dish, and a mysterious bleeding lance. Perceval, alas, does not ask the question ‘Whom does the Grail serve?’ a question which would have healed the maimed Fisher King. As a result, he returns to the ordinary world the next day and eventually realises that he has erred and that he must now go in search of the Grail, both to heal the King and to right his wrongs.

Chrétien’s tale is remarkable for its extremely organic, numinous structure. It reads like a fairy tale, or as though someone was recounting a profound, symbolic dream. In the hands of Chrétien, the story of the Grail obviously remains quite close to its origins as an orally transmitted legend. There are, in fact, many links between his account and Celtic myth. In broad outline, the story seems connected to certain typical accounts of an individual’s journey to the Otherworld. The Grail, in turn, is related to the Celtic dish of plenty, a mysterious vessel, and obvious symbol of fertility, which miraculously provides an unlimited source of sustenance. This power is a main characteristic of the Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival. While in some French romances the Fisher King is named King Bron, the Welsh Mabinogion tells of the wealthy King Bran, known for his feasts and hospitality, who was wounded by a lance in the foot. In Chrétien, the Fisher King is wounded by a lance which passed through his thighs.


Hear now age-old tales as if they were new,that they may teach you to speak true.

-- Trevrizent in Wolfram’s Parzival

The Path Toward the Grail:The Hermetic Sources and Structure ofWolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival


The Path Toward the Grail:

Text Source: ALEXANDRIA, The Journal of the Western Cosmological Traditions, Volume 1, pp. 187-227

Page 4: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes Chrétien’s story gives the impression that it is only very superficially Christianised. At one point Perceval learns that the Grail contains an eucharistic wafer, destined for the father of the Fisher King. Yet R. S. Loomis, the great scholar and defender of the ‘Celtic hypothesis’ suggests that the Christianisation of the legend may have originated from an etymological misinterpretation by Chrétien. Discussing the legendary King Bran, Loomis notes that

He possessed a horn which produced whatever drink or food one desired, a counterpart to the dish of plenty. Translated into French, the word horn in the nominative case would be corz or cors, and since drinking horns were not common in France, it would suggest cors, ‘body’. The Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, was credited in Chretien’s time with miraculous nutritive powers. Once miraculous dish and miraculous wafer were associated, no wonder that one became a receptacle for the other, even in defiance of ecclesiastical ordinance and good sense. 1

On the other hand, there are certainly Christian elements in Chrétien’s story of the Grail, and it is quite possible that he was consciously striving for a dynamic synthesis of ’ ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ elements. By taking this approach, medieval Christianity was thereby vitalised and brought into harmony with the soul of Celtic culture; it also allowed the ancient myths to live on by adapting them to the necessities of the time. Unfortunately, however, Chrétien’s story was never completed due to his death. The explicit Christianisation of the Grail itself began with Robert de Boron in his Joseph d’Arimathie, perhaps written as early as 1190, where he states that the Grail was the chalice used at the Last Supper and that it was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea. The bleeding lance, in turn, was identified with the lance of Longinus which pierced the side of Christ.

Wolfram von Eschenbach in his great epic Parzival (c. 1207) consciously avoids the explicit Christianisation of the Grail by portraying it not as a dish or chalice, but as the Philosophers’ Stone. Wolfram and his sources will be discussed at some length in the following pages. After Wolfram, however, the Grail was entirely assimilated as a Christian symbol even though the writers continued to draw upon ancient Celtic lore and legend. The chart below provides a chronology of the most important Grail romances and the form which the Grail takes in the respective accounts:


c.1181CrétienConte del Graal

Large Dish

c.1190Robert de BoronJoseph d’Arimathie

Chalice of Last Supper

c.1207Wolfram von EschenbachParzival

Philosophers' Stone

c.1210 Vulgate Cycle Dish or Bowl

c.1225 PerlesvausPossesses five shapes, the fifth of which is a chalice

c.1270Albrecht von ScharffenbergDer Jünge Titurel


Naturally, it is possible to focus on the symbolism of the Grail itself, and its historical antecedents, as opposed to focusing on the various narrative accounts of the quest. However, a careful reading of Chrétien and Wolfram von Eschenbach convinces me that the real significance of the Parzival romances lays not so much in the nature of the Grail itself as in the transformations and personal development of Parzival. Therefore I felt that it would not be valid to focus on the symbolism

Page 5: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Notesof the Grail exclusively in a study of Wolfram’s Parzival, as that would remove the Grail from its legitimate, meaningful context; moreover, an excellent symbolic phenomenology of the Grail already exists in John Matthews’ book The Grail: Quest for the Eternal.2

I have decided, then, to concentrate here on some fascinating aspects of the Parzival story as presented by Chrétien and Wolfram while not limiting myself to the symbolism of the Grail itself: these aspects involve the Parzival story as a paradigm of psychological and spiritual development, the seemingly tripartite structure of Wolfram’s Parzival, and the Hermetic sources of Wolfram’s Parzival as set forth in a fascinating study by Henry and Renee Kahane.3 In conclusion, I will discuss some of the interesting, broader implications of the Grail romances in general.

Unavoidably, this essay presupposes some acquaintance with Wolfram’s Parzival, the most important literary work of the Middle Ages, second, perhaps, only to Dante’s Divine Comedy. But for those who have not personally experienced the depth and well-crafted intricacies of Wolfram’s tale, I hope that some of the points raised herein will provide ample inspiration to study this magnificent epic of the Grail quest first hand.

The Three Realms in Wolfram and the Ascent to the Grail

Parzival advances toward the spiritual treasure of the Grail by passing into and through three separate realms of being and experience. While never specifically alluded to by Wolfram in the course of his narrative, this threefold structure is so clearly implicit in the Parzival that it is difficult to imagine that the structure was not intended by the poet. Moreover, each realm is associated with a particular geographic locale, character and stage of Parzival’s personal and spiritual development.

As we shall see later, Parzival is initiated into the mysteries of the Grail by Trevrizent, whose name most likely means ‘triple wisdom’. It is my belief that Wolfram based his work itself upon a form of ‘three-fold wisdom’, a way of perceiving the ‘three worlds’ in both man and cosmos. In Wolfram’s Parzival these three realms of being and experience are represented by the realm of society, the realm of love, and the realm of the Grail.

I. The Realm of Society

The first realm is that of the Round Table, the Court of Arthur, symbolising the realm of polite society into which Parzival was initiated by his teacher Gurnemanz, who rescued him from his rustic attire and boorish ways. Gurnemanz bestowed upon Parzival a ‘code to live by’ which included the injunction to stop talking about his mother, at least ‘in his speech, but not in his heart, as is still a true man’s way’.4

Having been brought up by his mother, sequestered away in a forest and protected from essentially all knowledge of society, Parzival is aptly described by Wolfram as an ‘orphan of wisdom’.5 While Parzival’s mother had given him some advice to follow, her underlying motive was to sabotage the possibility of his entrance into courtly society; hence she dressed him up as a fool before his departure so that no one would take him seriously. Given the fate of her husband, who died as a knight, and her consequent grief, one cannot doubt the underlying purity of her intentions.

Nonetheless, her intentions could not but help stand in the way of Parzival’s own personal development. Gurnemanz remedied this particular situation by giving the lad proper attire and by lending Parzival instruction in the chivalrous arts of knighthood for which he had a strong, natural aptitude. Since Parzival never knew his father, Gurnemanz represents Parzival’s first male ‘role model’. Gurnemanz hence stands as an important symbol in Parzival’s personal evolution from the matriarchal realm of the nursery into ‘the realm of the fathers’, the world of the court and male society.

Page 6: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes While Parzival took easily to the instruction and excelled at the tasks he had been given, eventually he would be forced to transcend the teachings of Gurnemanz in the same way that he necessarily had to leave his mother behind. After all, it is Gurnemanz’s injunction ‘Do not ask too many questions’6 which causes quite a bit of trouble down the line in the Grail castle, in the same way that his mother’s advice encouraged Parzival’s misfortune in his encounter with Jeschute of Karnant in her tent. While Gurnemanz’s instructions are sound at a certain level, and while they are certainly the most important thing Parzival could learn at the moment, they are ultimately a means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. While at this point in the story Parzival knows nothing of the Grail, he is nonetheless involved, perhaps not consciously, in what amounts to a quest for transcendence. This is not necessarily something that he has chosen; it has been essentially ordained by his own personal Fate, symbolised by his ancestry of which he is also unconscious. Gurnemanz took a liking to Parzival and offered him the hand of his beautiful daughter Liaze; yet Parzival realised that he must move on, for ‘He wanted to have fought better before enjoying the warmth of what they term “a lady’s arms”. He felt that noble striving was a lofty goal both in this life and yonder. And that is still no lie.’ 7

Even though Parzival is portrayed as an innocent fool, he is destined to experience success in spite of himself, due in large part to his innate nobility of character. Parzival has entered society, the realm of the Round Table, in a very roundabout way: having stormed in to see Arthur like a fool, he was nonetheless granted permission to win the armour of the Red Knight, which he achieved more through innate skill and cunning than through acquired technique. After Parzival had won the armour in the unusual encounter which cost the Red Knight his life, he received training in knightly combat and the like. The order of events, therefore, is exactly the reverse of what they should have been, for the proper sequence would have involved being initiated into the ways of the court before engaging in such serious combat, let alone approaching the King. While nonetheless a ‘fool’ in the sense of being socially awkward, Parzival unmistakably possesses a natural grace. His defeat of the Red Knight is an act of self-initiation into the realm of knighthood, even if accomplished in an unorthodox fashion. His subsequent encounter with Gramoflanz is also initiatory, in terms of learning the proper technique. Equipped with his natural grace, and now equipped with the proper knowledge of societal conduct, Parzival has properly won his place in the realm of the Round Table. Combining his newly acquired knowledge of effective technique with his by no means meagre inner resources, Parzival is destined to become nearly invincible. He will discover, however, as he already knows in some sense, that further initiations lie ahead.

II. The Realm of the Soul

Having achieved a place in Arthur’s court, Parzival set out lamenting the loss of the beautiful Liaze, only to be initiated into the mysteries of courtly love. He came upon a besieged castle where all of the inhabitants looked pale and sickly from lack of food, a place where misery hung in the air. He was there introduced to the fair Queen Condwiramurs, who made Liaze’s beauty look pale by comparison: ‘in her, God had not omitted any wish, she was the mistress of the land, and like the rose washed with the sweet dew that from its bud sends forth its new and noble glow, red and white together.’ 8

Following the advice of Gurnemanz not to speak too much, Parzival ludicrously sat with the Queen in silence, not saying a word. Condwiramurs finally broke the silence, however, and learned of Parzival’s travels. A special feast was planned, although Parzival suggested that they share their food with the starving citizenry.

Night fell and Parzival was shown to an exquisite chamber where he fell asleep after his long day’s journey. He was awakened by ‘the rain of heart’s tears from bright

Page 7: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Noteseyes’,9 the tears of Condwiramurs who had stolen into his room, wearing a nightgown of white silk. Assuring us that the proper limits of womanhood were not broken, the poet explains how she crawled into bed with Parzival and started to explain the devastation which had been inflicted on her people. Condwiramurs related that her castle had been under siege by King Clamidê and his accomplices, with the intention of making her his wife. She further explained that she had reached the point where she would rather kill herself before surrendering both body and soul to the would-be suitor.

Hearing of this Parzival vowed to protect fair Condwiramurs and the next day he defeated Kingrun, a seneschal of Clamidê who had killed many a knight, sending him as a prisoner to Arthur’s court. Learning of his victory, the citizens rejoiced and Condwiramurs exclaimed, referring to Parzival, ‘I shall never be the wife of any man on earth unless it be the one I have just embraced’.10 At this point, a ship laden with food arrived miraculously at the castle. The citizens feasted and Parzival once again shared a bed chastely with Condwiramurs. The two fell deeply in love and the Queen bestowed her castles and country upon Parzival, as well as her love, in the following days.

Clamidê, however, heard of his seneschal’s defeat and decided to attack the castle himself. A battle transpired between the opposing armies, and Clamidê suggested that the outcome be determined by one-on-one combat between himself and Parzival. Parzival emerged victorious and sent Clamidê as well to Arthur’s court as a prisoner.

‘Out where Parzival was wearing the crown,’ Wolfram tells us, ‘the country was being rebuilt and joy and jubilation were to be heard.’11 Parzival and his beautiful wife dwelt together a number of months, and ‘their love stood in such strength that no wavering could affect it’. Then one morning Parzival asked his dear wife for permission to leave her for a while to check on the condition of his mother. This she granted, and Parzival rode off on his mission.

***Under the guidance of Condwiramurs, Parzival’s soul has been touched by the power of love. This, in fact, is implied in the name of his wife, based as it is on the old French conduire-amours, ‘to guide love’.12 Having left behind the negative effects of his caring but ultimately destructive mother, Parzival was initiated into the realm of male society by Gurnemanz. But having been accepted into the masculine world, Parzival must next come to grips with the nature of the feminine.

Courtly love enters into Wolfram’s Parzival with its doctrine of performing knightly service for one’s lady. In the actual world of courtly love, however, the object of one’s attention was usually another man’s wife, and the love relationship was never physically consummated, at least in theory.13 This particular aspect of the courtly love relationship comes across quite clearly on those occasions when Parzival and Condwiramurs share a common bed without engaging in any physical intimacies. Wolfram is able to accept the courtly love doctrine of performing service under the inspiration of a noble lady, but he is not able to accept the convention of having another man’s wife as one’s beloved, for marital fidelity is one of the supreme virtues for Wolfram. In any event, Wolfram is not at all squeamish about sex, and happily allows the couple to physically consummate their profound, heartfelt love after exchanging their own personal vows.

The emergence of courtly love in medieval France is to be associated with a corresponding valorisation of the feminine principle. At this very time, when the myths of the Grail were circulating and being given literary expression by the likes of Chrétien and Wolfram, the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary was in its ascendency and the great French cathedrals were being erected, usually in her honour. The lyrics of the troubadours celebrated the service one might perform for an unobtainable love interest, and there is more than one occasion where troubadour lyrics blur the

Page 8: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes distinction between the beloved individual, an actual person, and the divine feminine principle of the Blessed Virgin.

There has been much talk of the Renaissance of the twelfth century, but while renaissance literally means ‘rebirth’, and refers in the case of the Italian Renaissance to the rediscovery of classical learning, I do not feel that the term can properly be applied to this movement of the twelfth century. That is because in the twelfth century we do not witness the rebirth of something which previously existed, but the emergence of a totally new phenomenon: not only do we see the emergence of romantic love, a concept which is unique to the West, but we also witness the emergence of what we now take for granted as the fundamental psychic and social dominants of European civilisation. With the development of romantic love we also encounter an increased emphasis on the role of the individual: the quest for the Grail is an individual quest, and the story of the quest, in Chrétien and Wolfram, is the story of one individual’s personal and spiritual development. Moreover, the Grail itself is a mysterious object, obviously sacred, yet it is in no way associated with traditional ecclesiastical authority. These are problems to which we will return later.

The great mystery of the birth of romantic love in the twelfth century, and the birth of what we realise to be the unique temperament of the European soul, lies in the fact that there is no specific factor which can account for it. The troubadours did not invent the Grail, nor did the devotees of the Blessed Virgin create the psychic dominants which stand behind the dynamic structure of the courtly love relationship. We can easily see that these various expressions are related to the emergence and increased valuation of the feminine principle, but the actual cause remains mysterious. That a profound transformation occurred is beyond question; a spontaneous flowering of tremendous energy which resulted in the revelation and emergence of what we now take for granted as the cultivated and cultured European soul.

If the origins of this revelation remain inscrutable and perhaps ultimately acausal, the effects are much easier to gauge. The idea, so forcefully portrayed in Wolfram, that each knight should be in the service of a lady had a tremendous civilising influence which can scarcely be underestimated. This high ideal helped to transform the average knight, who more often than not was a loathsome character ready to kill, rape and pillage, into someone who might pass as a decent human being.14 The ultimate Arthurian symbol of this cultivated ideal is Sir Gawan (or Gawain). He is noted for his courtesy, a word derived from the French word ‘court’. He is ever polite, ever caring, absolutely trustworthy, the best friend one could ever wish to have, and also something of a lady’s man.

Gawan’s grace, in contrast with the average knight, is splendidly portrayed in the episode where Parzival is entranced by the three drops of blood on the snow outside Arthur’s encampment. Parzival falls into a love trance, for the rosy drops remind him of his beautiful wife Condwiramurs, and in this reverie he becomes totally oblivious to his surroundings. The first two knights who attempt to take Parzival to the encampment are portrayed as hostile brutes; they disturb Parzival’s contemplation, attempt to take him by force, and are ruthlessly defeated. After their failure, Sir Gawan, who ‘possessed all the virtues’ heads out to question Parzival in a gentlemanly fashion.

As he arrives, the snow is melting and Parzival is emerging from his trance. A polite conversation ensues between the two of them and Parzival heads back with Gawan to meet with Arthur. Gawan can of course sympathise with Parzival’s love trance; he himself is described by Wolfram as ‘a man quite helpless against love’15 and his well-developed traits of sympathy and courtesy may be seen as ‘feminine virtues’ that he has been able to successfully integrate into his masculine personality.

Gawan, in fact, is the symbol par excellence of the soul transfigured by courtly love, for the chivalrous quest of the soul’s transformation through amor necessarily leads toward the integration of feminine values into the male personality. The

Page 9: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Notesrealm of amor, and also the realm of the feminine, is symbolised by the Castle of Wonders, and it is quite amusing (and not coincidental) that Gawan nearly loses his life while battling on a magic bed. It is also highly significant that the four queens of the castle are related to Gawan: Arnive is his grandmother (and Arthur’s mother), Sangive is Gawan’s mother, and Cundrie and Itonje are his two sisters. The obvious message behind all of this is that for the questing knight to ascend to a higher level of being there is a necessity to be personally transformed through a relationship to the feminine, through a transforming love relationship. It is precisely Sir Gawan, moreover, who represents the highest achievement in this realm.

The feminine guide leads the masculine personality to the discovery of the inner world, to the discovery of the soul. This is an archetypal motif: the feminine guide leads one to the spiritual treasure, or even carries it, as Repanse de Schoye carries the Grail. According to the insights of Jungian psychology, the anima, the muse or source of inner inspiration, leads one to the treasure of the Self. But the anima is generally only encountered after one has encountered the personal shadow, that part of every individual’s personality which is self-centred, dark, essentially negative and ignorant. The Parzival legend very well substantiates Jung’s psychological insights, for Parzival starts out as a self-centred, social dimwit, naively molesting a woman in a tent.

After partially coming to terms with his personal ignorance through the assistance of Gurnemanz, Parzival then encounters Condwiramurs, the guide to love. In other words, he works with the shadow before coming in touch with the anima. After becoming happily married, Parzival decides to return home and check on the safety of his mother. This could be seen as a desire to return to the unconscious, but it is not a negative desire. The anima has a relation to the mother complex; it might be said that the maternal complex is the psychic foundation on which the higher spiritual manifestation of the anima is established.16 The negative side of the mother complex is associated with the personal shadow, but Parzival has already dealt with the negative aspects of his mother’s protective schemings through his encounter with Gurnemanz. Parzival’s desire to return to his mother is not so much based upon a personal desire to regress as it is on his compassion for his mother, a compassion which was noticeably absent when he left her behind, fallen in a swoon, and, unknown to Parzival, actually dead.

On leaving Condwiramurs to check on his mother, Parzival encounters the Fisher King and the Grail, in Wolfram, the Philosophers’ Stone, which is the supreme symbol of earthly perfection. As Jung has shown in his Psychology and Alchemy, the Philosophical Stone is the alchemical symbol par excellence of the inner Self, the foundation stone and quiet centre in the midst of the soul. As such it has many analogues, ranging from the diamond body of Buddhism to the Islamic ‘Ka’aba of the Heart’. Also related is the Oriental and Gnostic symbolism of the ‘pearl of great price’ surrounded by a dragon which refers to the same psychic structure, while metaphysically it refers to the timeless centre surrounded by the coils of time and manifestation.17

As is so often the case, Parzival’s glimpse of the Grail is just that, a glimpse. His approach to the Grail castle in Chrétien is incredibly dream-like, replete with unusual time distortions and a nearly palpable aura of surreality; the following day everyone has disappeared as if a phantasm had evaporated. In the vision of the Grail, Parzival had caught a glimpse of perfection, yet, due to his failure to ask the appropriate question (due to his lack of intuitive spontaneity) the treasure-hard-to-attain has escaped his grasp. Instead of relying upon his inner resources, Parzival is thwarted by following the conventional dictums of Gurnemanz. This is, of course, just as well for the development of the story, as well as for his personal development, for now he must search for the Grail. He has been touched by a higher vision. While Parzival’s father had lived to experience the honour accrued through love and war, Parzival must pursue the path of a spontaneously revealed spiritual chivalry; the quest for the

Page 10: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes Grail. To confirm this, on proceeding from the Castle of the Grail he encounters the maiden with the headless knight who informs him that his mother is dead and that he ‘must seek something else’. That something is, of course, the Grail. Significantly, in Chrétien’s version, it is only at this point that Parzival learns his own name. This signifies that through his previous adventures, and now having caught a glimpse of the Grail, Parzival is gaining a certain degree of self-knowledge.

Having stumbled almost by accident upon the Grail, Parzival is now firmly engaged on the inner quest. His next encounter is related to an episode from his past; it is a ‘karmic’ meeting with the woman he disturbed in the tent. She is now attired in scant rags and riding a nearly crippled horse because of her husband’s punishment, based upon his unfounded suspicions that she had sexually given herself over to Parzival in the tent. Parzival defeats the knight and drives home the fact that nothing happened between them, but the entire event emerges like a distant, yet significant, happening spewed forth from the unconscious in the course of psychoanalysis. Parzival still obviously needs to work with his shadow.

After that situation is resolved, Parzival encounters the three drops of blood and falls into the love trance. This is an important event, for Parzival at this point, perhaps for the very first time, discovers his soul; his own inferiority. This is naturally accompanied by recollections of his beautiful wife, Condwiramurs. On being taken to the encampment by Sir Gawan, Parzival is joyously welcomed by King Arthur and his court. It would seem that this is Parzival’s finest hour, but all is not well. The loathsome hag appears, uttering her oracular proclamations that, because Parzival failed to ask the proper question which might heal the Fisher King, lands will be laid to waste and much calamity will ensue. At this point, when Parzival has been truly accepted into the Arthurian circle, he realises that he must leave it behind and search for the Grail. Having become a part of the Round Table, a part of society, Parzival must strive beyond the conventions of society and pursue an individual, ‘metaphysical’ quest.

In summary, we can see how all of the preceding events have been linked together in terms of Parzival’s unfolding personal development. Gurnemanz helped Parzival overcome the negative influence of his mother, thus allowing him access to the world of society and the experience of courtly love, but his literalistic instruction led Parzival to rely too much on societal convention. Condwiramurs initiated Parzival into the mysteries of love, and, significantly, it was immediately after his encounter with this feminine guide that he was led to view the Holy Grail. The vision of the Grail evaporated due to Parzival’s shortcomings, but, because of the consequences resulting from his failure to ask the appropriate question, he at least became aware of them. As if to remind Parzival of his foolish past, he encounters the maiden he accosted in the tent, and he is fortunately able to bring the suffering he naively inflicted upon her to an end: this restores the balance of ‘karma’ and also reflects his increased maturity. The vision of the three drops of blood seems to signify a deepening of his character, a deepening which would not have been possible without the inspiration of Condwiramurs and his experience of the Grail. Now that Parzival is in a position to realise his personal shortcomings he is also in a position to set forth upon his metaphysical quest.

III. The Realm of the Grail

In each of the three realms there is a particular figure who acts as a psychopomp, guiding Parzival into that particular arena of human experience. Gurnemanz initiated Parzival into the realm of the Arthurian circle, the realm of society; Condwiramurs, the guide to love, initiated Parzival into the realm of the soul; it remains for Trevrizent, Parzival’s uncle, to initiate him into the society of the Grail.

As Hugh Sacker points out, it is Parzival’s maternal lineage which compels him

Page 11: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Notesto seek the Grail since he is, unknown to himself, related to the line of the Grail Kings.18 In terms of his paternal lineage, like his father Parzival has achieved honour in both war and love. His second meeting with Arthur represents the culmination of what most of his peers could possibly hope to achieve in life; yet precisely at this moment of societal triumph is Parzival denounced by Cundrie. Parzival realises that he cannot merely rest content with his social achievement. While the others present at Arthur’s court cannot fathom Cundrie’s bitter denunciation of Parzival, he realises that he must correct the situation which has arisen. While he leaves the Arthurian circle with a sense of shame, Parzival nonetheless fails to honestly admit that he has deeply erred; in fact, Parzival becomes angry at God for allowing these things to happen to him.

Parzival wanders in search of the Grail for a number of years without success having, all that time, not once thought of God or attended a religious service. Running into a group of penitents on Good Friday, Parzival reflects on his hatefulness toward God for abandoning him. But his hatefulness gives way to repentance and he wonders

‘What if God will give help to overcome my sadness... If he ever wished a knight well and if ever a knight earned His reward, if He deems shield and sword and true manly combat to be worthy enough of His help that His help may heal my sorrow, if today is His day for helping, then let Him help, if help he can!’ 19

Parzival then releases the reins of his horse so that he may be led by the will of God or ‘intuition.’ As it turns out, the horse leads Parzival to the home of Trevrizent, an anchorite, who welcomes Parzival and grants him shelter.

Parzival’s conversations with Trevrizent constitute a turning point of Wolfram’s Parzival. Seeing that Trevrizent is a holy man, Parzival realises that he is being offered divine assistance; he immediately tells Trevrizent that he has sinned and asks for his counsel. Parzival confesses his sadness to Trevrizent, saying ‘only now do I perceive how long I have ridden unguided and bereft of joy... To me joy is a dream, and grief the heavy burden that I bear.’ 20

Trevrizent explains that God will help Parzival and then lapses into a rambling theological discourse about the nature of God. After explaining the nature of God, Trevrizent asks Parzival about the source of his sorrow, and Parzival replies that his greatest grief is for the Grail, and after that for his own wife. Trevrizent explains that he had been at Munsalvaesche and starts to initiate Parzival into the secret history of the Grail and its keepers:

‘...many brave knights dwell with the Grail at Munsalvaesche. Always when they ride out, as they often do, it is to seek adventure. They do so for their sins, these Templars, whether their reward be defeat or victory. A valiant host lives there, and I will tell you how they are sustained. They live from a stone of purest kind. If you do not know it, it shall here be named to you. It is called lapsit exillis. By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix moult and change its plumage, which afterward is bright and shining and as lovely as before. There never was a human so ill but that, if he one day sees that stone, he cannot die within the week that follows. And in looks he will not fade. His appearance will stay the same, be it maid or man, as on the day he saw the stone, the same as when the best years of his life began, and though he should see the stone for two hundred years, it will never change, save that his hair might perhaps turn grey. Such power does the stone give a man that flesh and bones are at once made young again. The stone is also called the Grail.

This very day there comes to it a message wherein lies its greatest power. Today is Good Friday, and they await there a dove, winging down from Heaven. It always brings a small white wafer, and leaves it on the stone. Then, shining white, the dove soars up to Heaven again. Always on Good

Page 12: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes Friday it brings to the stone what I have just told you, and from that the stone derives whatever good fragrances of drink and food there are on earth, like to the perfection of Paradise. I mean all things the earth may bear. And further the stone provides whatever game lives beneath the heavens, whether it flies or runs or swims. Thus, to the knightly brotherhood, does the power of the Grail give sustenance.

Hear now how those called to the Grail are made known. On the stone, around the edge, appear letters inscribed, giving the name and lineage of each one, maid or boy, who is to take this blessed journey. No one needs to rub out the inscription, for once he has read the name, it fades away before his eyes. All those now grown to maturity came there as children. Blessed is the mother who bore a child destined to do service there. Poor and rich alike rejoice if their child is summoned to join this company. They are brought there from many lands. From sinful shame they are more protected than others, and receive good reward in heaven. When life dies for them here, they are given perfection there.’ 21

Parzival interjects that if knighthood can win one renown in this life and Paradise in the next, and that if God is a good judge of fighting, ‘He should summon me by name to the Grail so that they may come to know me. My hand shall not fail me there in battle.’ 22

This statement of Parzival’s personal pride gives Trevrizent an opportunity to allude to the suffering and downfall of Anfortas, the wounded Grail King. Trevrizent exhorts Parzival to adopt the virtue of humility, for ‘your youth could all too easily tempt you to violate the virtue of moderation’.23 A similar pride resulted in the grievous suffering of Anfortas.

Parzival explains his lineage to Trevrizent, as well as the fact that he was responsible for the slaying of Ither of Kukumerlant, the Red Knight. As I pointed out, the slaying of the Red Knight was, at least in Chrétien’s version, an act of self-initiation. Parzival certainly acted like a fool and went about things in a backward manner, but he nonetheless triumphed in the ‘David and Goliath’ type of scenario, demonstrating that his innate ability was capable of bringing him success even against overwhelming odds. Wolfram, on the other hand, makes the slaying of the Red Knight into a major sin. Not only did Parzival show total disregard for human life, but he actually killed one of his own relatives!

Parzival’s first major sin (and his sin par excellence according to Chrétien) is that he was responsible for his mother’s death. As he rode off to quest for knighthood in Arthur’s court, Parzival’s mother fell in a swoon. In a self-centred fashion, demonstrating a rather insolent lack of compassion, Parzival paid no heed to her distress and continued on regardless.24 As noted, Parzival’s second sin, according to Wolfram, was his slaying of the Red Knight for the mere sake of his armour.

Parzival’s third major sin occurred at the Castle of the Grail. As Sacker points out, this sin was not so much a failure to ask a particular question as it was to show compassion for the suffering Grail King. As Sacker observes, Wolfram is ‘really criticising in Parzival the courtly obsession with outer form (zuhut, fuoge) at the expense of inner feeling’.25 He goes on to note that ‘conventional behaviour is a quality demanded equally in the Arthurian and Grail societies, but in both, as anywhere else, it is not always in place. Parzival’s mistake is to worry about the superficialities of convention when they are inappropriate.’ 26

In fact, all of Parzival’s sins as portrayed by Wolfram, ultimately spring from Parzival’s narcissistic self-centredness and lack of compassion. In the episode at the Grail castle Parzival wished to look good rather than to show some humane interest and compassion in his suffering host.27

Parzival has been allowed by God to sin and has been also allowed to suffer for his sins. Only through his interaction with Trevrizent, the mystagogue, does Parzival realise the full ramifications of his self-centred behaviour. Moreover, in his

Page 13: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Notesself-centred actions, Parzival has unconsciously sinned against himself. I believe that this sinning of Parzival against himself is symbolised by the fact that he has really sinned against his own family: his mother, the Red Knight (a distant relative), and Anfortas the Grail King, an uncle of Parzival on his maternal side.

In the same way that Parzival has been allowed to sin and allowed to suffer the consequences, so too has Anfortas, whose suffering was brought on by the sins of pride and incontinence. After the death of Frimutel, the preceding Grail King and father of both Anfortas and Trevrizent, Anfortas was elected to fill the position. But as Trevrizent explains to Parzival, ‘If any Lord of the Grail craves for a love other than the writing on the Grail allows him, he will suffer distress and grievous misery.’ 28

Anfortas, however, chose and fought for a love that had not been approved by the Grail. He was a valiant warrior and, as Trevrizent recalls, ‘Amor was his battle cry. But that cry is not quite appropriate for a spirit of humility’.29 Anfortas’ shortcoming, apparently, was that the fire of love led him to fight for his own glory, and the glory of his lady rather than for the glory of the Grail.

As divine punishment Anfortas was wounded in the testicles by a poisoned spear in a joust. He returned home with the iron spearhead still in his body. A physician removed the spearhead and part of the shaft. Trevrizent, then a member of the Grail Templars, prayed that God would heal his brother and renounced the things of the world at that time. Anfortas was carried to the presence of the Grail, but this only caused him grief owing to his pain, and the fact that he could not die because of the presence of the Grail.

Anfortas’ wound, explains Trevrizent, started to fester. All available books of medicine were studied and any number of remedies was attempted, all to no avail. The attempts continued. Trevrizent explains how the blood of a pelican was applied, due to the loyal love exhibited in the bird’s legendary self-sacrificing behaviour. Next, the magical stone of a unicorn, which grows beneath the unicorn’s horn, was applied to the wound, also without effect. Other remedies, including herbal remedies correlated with astrological transits, were similarly tried without success. Wolfram’s narrative turns truly arcane when he explains that the state of Anfortas’ wound is influenced by astrological factors. Referring to the time period that Parzival visited the Grail Castle, Trevrizent details how the position of Saturn was inferred from the condition of the King’s wound (!):

‘When the star Saturn had returned to the zenith, we knew it by the wound and by the summer snow. Never had the frost caused your sweet uncle such anguish. The spear had to be thrust into the wound; then one pain helped the other, and from this the spear became blood-red.

On days when certain stars appear, the people of Munsalvaesche have reason to lament their woe. These are the stars whose course run parallel, one high above the other, and which move irregularly, in contrast to the others. And the change of the moon also hurts the wound sorely. At the times I have named, the king can find no rest. A great chill torments him so that his flesh becomes colder than snow. At such times, since they know the poison on the iron spear point is hot, they lay it on the wound. That draws the frost out of the body, and it hardens to glass, like ice, around the spear. But no one was able in any way to break this ice off from the spear. Then Trebuchent, the wise man, forged of silver two knives which could cut through it. A charm engraved on the king’s sword had taught him this skill. There are many who claim that the wood aspindê [probably asbestos] will not burn, but if a bit of this glass fell upon it, a flame of fire shot up, and the aspindê burned. What wondrous things this poison can do!’ 30

Moreover, referring again to the time of Parzival’s visit...

‘...never before nor since has the king suffered such pain as then, when with a hard frost, the star Saturn heralded its coming. It did not help to lay the spear on the wound as had been done before;

Page 14: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes they had to thrust it right into the wound. Saturn climbs so high aloft that the wound knew of its coming before the other frost arrived [i.e., the frost outside]. The snow was in even less of a hurry. It did not fall till the following night, but still during summer’s reign. When in this way they warded off the king’s frost, the people were robbed of joy.’ 31

And the devout Trevrizent added ‘From sorrow they received their wages, for the spear which pierced their hearts to the core carried away their joy. Then in the constancy of their grief they were baptized anew.’32

***Parzival’s meeting with Trevrizent, and Trevrizent’s revelations to Parzival about the nature of the Grail and those who serve it, mark a decisive turning point in Wolfram’s epic. In fact, the action thereafter relating to Parzival’s quest for the Grail is anticlimactic, at least in a dramatic sense: Parzival fights with Gawan by mistake, then intentionally with Gramoflanz. He sets out again in search of the Grail. Then he fights with Feirefiz, not knowing that Feirefiz is really his own brother. Had Parzival killed Feirefiz, one presumes that his sin would have been much greater than his defeat of Ither the Red Knight. Fortunately, Parzival and Feirefiz discover each other’s identity and Parzival takes his brother to Arthur’s camp. At that point Cundrie appears and announces that Parzival has become the lord of the Grail. Parzival returns to the Grail Castle, heals Anfortas by asking ‘What troubles you?’, and assumes the status of the Grail King, with Condwiramurs his wife as Queen. Feirefiz becomes baptised and marries Repanse de Schoye; together they travel to India and spread the good news about the Christian life.

Parzival’s meeting with Trevrizent is crucial because it is only at this point that Parzival realises the true extent of his sinfulness. It is significant that Parzival’s sudden burst of self-knowledge, brought out by Trevrizent, is also related to a sudden increase in Parzival’s ‘spiritual knowledge’ about the Grail. Only by coming to grips with his own inadequacies and personal shadow does Parzival learn about the Grail. Trevrizent fulfils the purpose of ‘gnostic revealer’ by both initiating Parzival into the mysteries of his personal Fate (ancestry, actions, etc.) and into the cosmic mysteries of the Grail.

I believe that Wolfram’s Parzival is based upon a threefold structure which might be summarised as follows:

The Three Realms in Wolfram’s Parzival




















The three levels are, in a sense, symbolised by three separate locales: the Round Table, or Arthurian society; the Castle of Wonders; and the Castle of the Grail. These levels


















Page 15: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Notesin turn are typified by certain characters and levels of human experience. As I have pointed out in the preceding discussion, Parzival is initiated into each successively higher realm by a particular teacher: Gurnemanz initiates Parzival into the realm of Arthurian society; Condwiramurs, the ‘guide to love,’ initiates Parzival into the mysteries of love which abide in the realm of the soul; while Trevrizent initiates Parzival into the mysteries of the Grail, the realm of the spirit. I have not discussed the adventures of Sir Gawan in the Land of Wonders, but these adventures deal with the nature of love and courtly service. Wolfram places much emphasis on this particular level, for it is only possible to catch a glimpse of the Grail after moving through the realm of love. Finally, it should be noted that the three levels are linked together through the principle of continuity: there is an interpenetration of levels and characters. The Castle of the Grail may be hidden, but its messengers and envoys secretly ride forth into the realm of everyday affairs. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about Wolfram’s epic is its lack of dualism between the ‘worldly’ and the ‘spiritual’.

Hermetic Sources of the Parzival

Interestingly, the ‘cosmic mysteries of the Grail’ as presented by Wolfram are not without their historical and symbolic precedents. In a very important study, The Krater and The Grail: Hermetic Sources of the Parzival, Henry and Renée Kahane convincingly demonstrate that Wolfram based portions of his work on certain writings of the Corpus Hermeticum, in particular on the writing entitled ‘The Cup (Krater) or the Monad’. Because the Kahanes’ study is both fascinating and significant yet not very well known, I would like to summarise some of their findings. Before undertaking this, however, I’d like to make a few general observations on the relationship between Hellenistic Hermeticism and the Hermetic art of alchemy.

The Hermetic corpus, probably written during the first three centuries of this era, is a group of writings associated with, and sometimes attributed to, Hermes Trismegistus: ‘Thrice-Greatest Hermes’, a semi-divine, mythical, Egyptian sage. Through ‘his’ writings and discourse with his disciples, Hermes Trismegistus reveals teachings of a spiritual and cosmological nature, concerning the nature of God, the soul, the origin and structure of the cosmos and the path through which the soul may experience its divinizing re-generation in the divine principle of Mind or Nous, the principle from which the soul originates according to the teachings of Hellenistic cosmology

In addition to this form of ‘high Hermeticism’ portrayed in the Greek writings of the Hermetic corpus, there also existed another form of ‘technical Hermeticism’ centred around the ideas of popular magic. Hermes Trismegistus, as the inventor of all the arts and sciences, was also the ‘patron saint’ of alchemy, still known today as the Hermetic art.

Interestingly, Wolfram portrays the Grail in the form of the Philosophers’ Stone, the central symbol of alchemy. Likewise, the phoenix, the pelican, the unicorn and the wounded king are alchemical symbols associated with the lapis philosophorum. 33

The alchemy of the middle ages and the high Hermetic philosophy of antiquity differ insofar as practical alchemy is ‘existential’ and symbolic, related to the transformations of materia and soul in the incarnate realm; classical Hermeticism, on the other hand, is more theoretic and intellectual, dealing with celestial geography of the pneumatic cosmos and the ‘conversion’ of the soul back to first principles. While alchemy is incarnational, Hermeticism is transcendental in character. In other words, alchemy deals with the manifestation of universal principles in the world of becoming whereas Hermeticism deals with universal principles as principles-in-themselves.

Nonetheless, there is an overlap between Hermeticism and the royal art of alchemy. They both are part of the same Hellenistic tradition, and the practice of

Page 16: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes alchemy is based on the fundamentally gnostic idea that there is a divine principle of Spirit hidden or trapped in matter. It is the task of the alchemist to liberate this imprisoned spirit, the alchemical process mirroring the adept’s own inner transformation.

While there was little knowledge of the Greek Hermetica in the Latin-speaking world of the Christian West, the Hermetic writings became the veritable scriptures of the pagan Harranians or Sabians in northern Mesopotamia.34 The Sabian religion centred on the worship of the planetary gods, and the Greek Hermetica were translated into Syriac and Arabic by the Harranians. It is even probable that when the Greek Hermetica resurfaced in the Renaissance to be translated into Latin by Marsilio Ficino, that the manuscripts he used were based on those preserved by the Harranians.35

The most illustrious of the Harranians was Thabit ibn Qurra (835-901 C.E.) who became the leader of a group of Sabian intellectuals in Bagdad. Thabit was very learned and versed in Greek, Arabic and Syriac. He is said to have written 150 works in Arabic, 16 in Syriac, and is known to have made translations from the Greek. As Walter Scott points out, the school at Bagdad probably resembled the Neoplatonic School at Athens under Proclus. Scott also lists a number of tides of Thabit’s writings in Latin which includes Liber de legibus Hermetis, ‘On the Ceremonial Regulations of Hermes’.36

That Wolfram had some knowledge of Thabit is demonstrated by his reference in the Parzival where he numbers ‘Thebit’ amongst the ‘wise men and all who had ever sat and pondered the hard questions of knowledge’.37

Wolfram, of course, incorporates a vast amount of Arabic lore into the Parzival. At one point he even gives the names of the planets in that language. Many of the unusual names that he uses are also probably corruptions of Arabic words. This and other evidence suggests that we should accept Wolfram’s statements that he learned about the history of the Grail from Kyot of Dolet. Whereas most scholars interpret Dolet as meaning Toledo, the Kahanes argue that it refers to Tudela in Spain and they cite a number of linguistic arguments for this conclusion.38 Kyot is Wolfram’s form of ‘Guy’ (a diminutive form of Guillame, the French equivalent of ‘William’). Therefore the Kahanes identify Kyot of Dolet with William of Tudela.39

In fact, William of Tudela was a scholar and cleric contemporary with Wolfram, and living in northern Spain. According to Wolfram, William knew Arabic (heidensch), as well as Latin and French. Moreover, William explains in his own writings that he was a student of geomancy, a form of divination practiced by the Sabians which incorporated a wide range of astrological symbolism. In other words, William was a practitioner of at least one of the ‘Hermetic sciences’. Finally, it is interesting to note that ‘Kyot’s Tudela, which lies close to Saragossa, belonged to the bishopric of Tarazona… one of the great centres of the transmission of Arabic culture of the West’.40

According to the fourth Hermetic treatise, The Cup (Krater) or the Monad, the world creator (demiurge) while giving each person a share of reason, did not bestow on every soul an equal portion of divine Mind. The Hermetic writings are set up as initiatory dialogues between Hermes, the mystagogue, and his spiritual son Tat, the myst [sic] seeking initiation. Tat asks ‘Why then did God, O father, not on all bestow a share of Mind?’ The dialogue continues:

Hermes: He willed, my son, to have it set up in the midst for souls, just as it were a prize. Tat: And where did He have it set up?Hermes: He filled a mighty Cup with it, and sent it down, joining a Herald to it, to whom He gave command to make this proclamation to the hearts of men: Baptise thyself with this Cup’s baptism, what heart can do so; you who have faith can ascend to Him who sent down the cup, you who know why you have come into being!

Page 17: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Notes As many then as understood the Herald’s tiding and doused themselves in Mind, became partakers in the Gnosis; and when they had ‘received the Mind’ they were made ‘perfect men’. But they who do not understand the tidings, these, since they possess the aid of Reason [Logos] only and not Mind [Nous], are ignorant of why and how they have come into being.41

The discussion continues and Tat expresses his desire to be immersed in the Cup of Mind. Finally the dialogue ends with what I feel to be one of the most remarkable passages of the entire Hermetic corpus. Describing the divine source of the cosmos, Hermes explains:

The Oneness [monad] being Source [arche] and Root of all, is in all things as Root and Source. Without this Source exists nothing; whereas the Source itself is from nothing but itself, since it is Source of all the rest. It is itself its Source, since it may have no other Source. The Oneness then being Source, contains every number, but is contained by none; it engenders every number, but is engendered by no other one. Now all that is engendered is imperfect, for it is divisible, and subject to both increase and to decrease; but with the Perfect One none of these things do hold. Now that which is increasable increases from the Oneness, but succumbs through its own feebleness when it no longer can contain the One. And now, O Tat, God’s Image has been sketched for you, insofar as it can be; and if you will attentively dwell on it and observe it with your heart’s eyes, believe me, son, you’ll find the Path which leads above; nay, that Image shall become your Guide itself, because the Sight Divine has this peculiar charm, it holds fast and draws unto it those who succeed in opening their eyes, just as, they say, the magnetic stone draws iron.42

The Kahanes have convincingly shown that the word ‘grail’ is derived from the Latin crater, itself a transliteration of the Greek krater.43 What is especially fascinating is that in the Hermetic passage just quoted, God’s image is symbolically related to the power of the magnetic stone, the Philosophers’ Stone being Wolfram’s representation of the Grail. Moreover, while the Hermetic tractate identifies the Monad (= Krater/Grail) as the Source and Root of all, Wolfram describes the Grail as ‘the perfection of Paradise, both root and branch’.44 Another strong parallel is that the Grail, like the Hermetic Krater, has an astral or heavenly origin: in the Hermetic account, it is sent to earth by the Creator; in Wolfram, ‘a host left it on the earth and then flew up over the stars’.45 Moreover, in the same way that a Herald was associated with the Hermetic Krater, Wolfram reports that ‘Since then the stone has always been in the care of those God called to this task and to whom He sent His angel’.46

According to Wolfram, Kyot learned of the Grail from a mysterious personage named Flegetanis:

A heathen, Flegetanis, had achieved high renown from his learning... He wrote the story of the Grail... The heathen Flegetanis could tell us how all the stars set and rise again and how long each one revolves before it reaches its starting point once more. To the circling course of the stars man’s affairs and destiny are linked. Flegetanis the heathen saw with his own eyes in the constellations things he was shy to talk about, hidden mysteries. He said there was a thing called the Grail whose name he had read clearly in the constellations. [My emphasis.]47

As the Kahanes point out, the last line can only refer to the constellation of the Crater. If this is indeed the case, Wolfram is implying that the Grail is both a Cup or similar vessel (as it is usually portrayed) and the Philosophers’ Stone. And it is precisely in the fourth Hermetic treatise that both krater and lithos symbolism appear together as well. It is also of interest that the name of Flegetanis, who divined the history of the Grail in the stars, is based on the Arabic word falakiyatu, ‘astronomy’, or falakiyatun, ‘astronomer’.

Page 18: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes While there are no known existing Arabic translations of the Corpus Hermeticum, it is virtually certain that such translations did exist according to the opinion of Walter Scott.48 Moreover, there do exist Spanish translations of Arabic Hermetic writings made around the time of Wolfram’s Parzival.49 Wolfram, through the intermediary of Kyot, obviously had access to Arabic sources, and the Kahanes reasonably suggest that one of these sources was an Arabic writing related to Corpus Hermeticum IV, The Krater or Monad. The Kahanes, moreover, present a large amount of further evidence for Hermetic influence in addition to that cited above. A few more points of interest include the following:

Trevrizent: The Kahanes suggest that this name is based upon the French Treble Escient, ‘Threefold Wisdom’.50 In other words, Trevrizent, who imparts the knowledge of the Grail to Parzival, is the personification of Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Hermes Trismegistus, the gnostic revealer. Parzival, the aspiring myst, thereby corresponds to Tat. The Kahanes suggest that the atmosphere of the exchange between Trevrizent and Parzival is highly reminiscent of the dramatic atmosphere of the Hermetic dialogues, an opinion with which it is difficult not to concur. Thrice-Greatest Hermes was known in Arabic as the Thrice-Wise, and the famous alchemical document known as the Emerald Tablet, the Tabula Smaragdina, contains the line: ‘For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistos, for I possess the three parts of wisdom of the whole world.’51

The Kahanes also believe that Hermes makes another appearance in Wolfram’s Parzival. They argue that while Trevrizent the mystagogue corresponds to the Hermes Trismegistus of Corpus Hermeticum, that the character Flegetanis is based upon the Arabic (and Greco-Egyptian) view of Hermes as culture hero, revealer of all the arts and sciences, especially those involving celestial secrets and arcane knowledge.52

The Grail Procession: The Kahanes relate the Grail procession to the geocentric cosmology of the Hermetic tradition.53 Before the appearance of the Grail a series of maidens appear: first a group of four maidens, then a group of eight maidens, then a group of twelve maidens, and finally Repanse de Schoye appears alone bearing the Grail. In Wolfram’s account, each successive group of maidens is more beautiful than the preceding and is dressed in increasingly beautiful finery until the final appearance of Repanse de Schoye:

After them came the queen. So radiant was her countenance that everyone thought the dawn was breaking. She was clothed in a dress of Arabian silk. Upon a deep green achmardi she bore the perfection of Paradise, both root and branch. That was a thing called the Grail, which surpasses all earthly perfection. Repanse de Schoye was the name of her whom the Grail permitted to be its bearer. Such was the nature of the Grail that she who watched over it had to preserve her purity and renounce all falsity.54

The first four maidens, dressed in brown wool, represent the four elements of earth, water, air and fire. The eight maidens, dressed in green samite, represent the seven planetary spheres and the sphere of fixed stars. The twelve maidens dressed in silk interwoven with gold and pfellel-silk from Nineveh, represent the twelve zodiacal signs, while Repanse de Schoye, glowing like the sun in Arabian silk, represents and bears the Grail, the divine Monad.

The procession, therefore, relates to the soul’s ascent through the cosmic spheres, the soul’s movement up the celestial hierarchy towards the One, its divine source and goal; a central doctrine of the Hermetic writings. Moreover, the old French repense means ‘knowledge’ and the Kahanes suggest that Repanse de Schoye means ‘knowledge of joy’, the knowledge of the Monad.55 Both ‘the geography of the celestial ascent’ and the name of the Grail bearer are in fall accord with the Hermetic tradition.

Page 19: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

NotesAnfortas: Anfortas, the wounded king, personifies the Hermetic sin of akrasia or moral incontinence. The Kahanes link his name to the old French enfertes, related to the Latin infirmitas.56

Wolfram’s astrology: Wolfram is familiar with the Arabic names of the planets; the lunar nodes; the doctrine of the microcosm; the idea that the stars exert an influence on terrestrial life; and the planetary houses. This is the type of knowledge that one might not typically expect of a Medieval German poet, yet Wolfram repeatedly emphasises astrological symbolism in his work, particularly in connection with the relationship between astrological phenomena and the condition of Amfortas’ wound.57

Feirefiz and Geomantic Symbolism: Geomancy was a divinatory science cultivated by the Sabians and practiced by Wolfram’s source, William of Tudela. Basically, the technique of geomancy involves making a series of marks in the earth or on sand. These are then reduced to form a figure consisting of one or two points on four levels as depicted opposite.

Each one of the 16 geomantic figures is associated with particular astrological phenomena, terrestrial correspondences, a physiological type, and so on. The Kahanes believe that the character of Feirefiz is associated with the geomantic figure of Acquisitio, shown above.58 Astrologically this relates to the Sun in Aries. This makes sense in terms of Feirefiz’s character, because Aries, the vernal sign, is associated with valour, love and war; characteristics also of his father. In a book on geomancy written about the time of Wolfram’s Parzival, this geomantic sign is also associated with Kings, the East, Wealth, and Precious Stones. Physiologically, it is related to people with speckled faces. Clearly all of these attributes apply to Feirefiz. The Kahanes also suggest that Feirefiz is associated with King Hammon in the Hermetic writings.59

In some of the Hermetica, notably the Latin Asclepius, Hammon appears as one of the individuals receiving instruction from Thrice-Greatest Hermes. Hammon is a thinly disguised version of the Egyptian divinity Ammon in the same way that Tat is a thinly disguised version of the Egyptian divinity Thoth (= Hermes). Ammon had a famous oracle in Libya known throughout the ancient world. It was visited by Alexander the Great who conceived of himself as being the child of Zeus-Ammon. Ammon was amalgamated with the Egyptian sun god Ra, and was usually depicted in Egyptian and Greek art with the horns of a ram. That is why Alexander the Great is frequently represented in the same manner on Greek coins.

The Kahanes present evidence that Feirefiz’s land Zazamanc may be identified with Libya, the land of Ammon. This would fit well with the idea that Feirefiz represents the sun in Aries, for Ammon-Ra links together both Aries (the ram) with the Sun (Ra). This may seem like a truly arcane connection, yet Wolfram’s interest in the relationship between the Fisher King’s wound and the position of the planets, along with some of the other topics we have discussed, seems to indicate that he had a fairly well-developed taste for such things. Finally, the Kahanes suggest that the name ‘Feirefiz’ is based upon the Old French vair vis, meaning ‘speckled face’.60

***The Kahanes conclude that Wolfram’s Parzival, while generally based on Chretien’s story of the Grail, also incorporates another source, based upon Arabic versions of the Hermetica, transmitted via Kyot. To one who has studied the Hermetica in some depth, as well as the history of esoteric traditions in the West, their case is quite convincing. I believe that their work has not received the recognition which it deserves simply because of academic specialisation: most students of medieval literature have no knowledge of the Hermetica, and most students of Hellenistic religions and philosophies are not well-versed in the intricacies of the Grail romances. I believe, however, that anyone who is acquainted with both Wolfram’s Parzival and

Page 20: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes the Hermetica will find the Kahanes’ meticulously documented case for a Hermetic Urparzival difficult to ignore. As the Kahanes conclude:

Two principal implications of our Hermetic hypothesis for Western literary and intellectual history may perhaps be stressed.

The first concerns Wolfram’s literary art. He has poured into Chretien’s mould much of the Hermetica and numerous elements of humanistic learning, of philosophy, religion, and science, drawn from the Hermetic tradition. The ancient and poetic doctrine remains doctrine at times; at other times, it is quickened into life as person, act, pageant, drama. Brief details in the source material are expanded into lengthy episodes, as when the topos of the ascension of the soul is transformed into the procession of the Grail. Elaborate expositions are contracted into succinct topoi, as with the distillation of the doctrine of the Monad into the phrase ‘root and branch’. Throughout, the Hermetic atmosphere of the mystery and the revelation is preserved. What a study of Wolfram’s adaptations reveals is a formidable interplay of learning, organisation, and poetic skill that is reminiscent of Dante a whole century later.

The second implication concerns the significance of the Parzival in Western intellectual history. The work, in its religious-philosophical action, belongs to the Renaissance of the twelfth century. Its distinctive quality within this movement stems from the particular background of its mediator, Kyot, who lived at the intersection point of the two strains of the twelfth-century Renaissance: the Greco-Latin and the Greco-Arabic. He belonged to an area which, on the one hand, was one of the centres of northern Spain within the orbit of French humanism and, on the other, lay within the sphere of influence of the highly developed Islamic civilisation of Spain. To the impact of the latter, the Parzival owes its unique position: within a culture steeped in medieval Latinity, it represents the poetic culmination of Greco-Arabic humanism.61

It would be around 300 years before some of the Hermetic writings would become available to the Latin speaking West through Marsilio Ficino’s translations. However, it is interesting to note, while the Kahanes do not comment upon the alchemical implications of the Grail as the Philosophers’ Stone, which we have in Wolfram a mixture of both the high, classical Hermeticism and the medieval alchemical streams. This is fascinating because an interest in both the ‘theoretic’ nature of ancient Hermeticism and the ‘practical’ nature of alchemia is usually only manifested in exceptional cases such as Zosimus of Panopolis, the fourth-century Gnostic-Christian alchemist and Hermeticist.62

The Grail and the Spirit of the Age

The Grail romances arose during a crucial moment in Western civilisation when much of the modern European temperament was being shaped. Interestingly, Wolfram’s Parzival transcends the realm of merely European geography, in fact, it encompasses the entire known world. But in so doing, Wolfram accurately reflects the spirit of the age.

As Joseph Campbell points out in his study of the making of modern culture, Creative Mythology, perhaps the most significant thing about Wolfram’s Parzival is that it represents ‘the first example in the history of world literature of a consciously developed secular Christian myth’.63 Parzival’s quest is one of individual accomplishment. Parzival advances toward the Grail without the assistance of tradition, sacrament or ecclesiastical authority, only through relying upon his innate, natural grace. Wolfram’s work is curiously lacking in ecclesiastical ceremonies. The closest thing to one is the baptism of Feirefiz, but his immersion in water mystically emanated from the Philosophers’ Stone is hardly something that would have been approved of by orthodox authorities. In fact, it is likely that Wolfram described

Page 21: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Notesthe Grail in terms of the Philosophers’ Stone, as opposed to the chalice of the Last Supper, in order not to emphasise an ecclesiastical connection. Even in Chrétien’s version there are details which cannot be reconciled with the organised religion of the day: the Grail, for example, is said to carry the host, but there is no one present who has consecrated the host. Moreover, the Grail is carried by a maiden to the chamber of the Fisher King’s father, but, as R. S. Loomis points out, women were expressly forbidden to administer the sacrament.64

In Wolfram’s secular mythology, the path leading toward the Grail is one of increasing individuality. Not only did Parzival discover it necessary to transcend the conventional dictums that he learned from Gurnemanz in order to become an authentic individual, but he even transcended the rules of the Grail itself, for as he learned from Trevrizent: 1) No one was given a second chance in the Grail Castle and 2) No one could ever achieve the Grail who consciously sought it.

Wolfram’s Parzival, then, concerns itself with both the metaphysical dimension of individual value and with spiritual achievement in the phenomenal world of manifestation, as opposed to spiritual achievement through either asceticism or contemplation. Wolfram’s Parzival may contain a ‘gnostic’ element, but if so, then it is a soul-gnosis of lived experience as opposed to an intellectual gnosis of transcendental principles. Wolfram is concerned with the path of spiritual individuation as the path between the opposites which comprise the world of phenomenal existence. Thus he states at the very beginning of the epic,

If inconstancy is the heart’s neighbour, the soul will not fail to find it bitter. Blame and praise alike befall when a dauntless man’s spirit is black-and-white-mixed like the magpie’s plumage. Yet he may see blessedness after all, for both colours have a share in him, the colour of heaven and the colour of hell. Inconstancy’s companion is all black and takes on the hue of darkness, while he of steadfast thoughts clings to white.65

Yet he warns, ‘This flying metaphor will be much too swift for dullards.’66

Nietzsche once observed that ‘The aim of institutions, whether scientific, artistic, political or religious, never is to produce and foster exceptional examples; institutions are concerned, rather, with the usual, the normal, the mediocre.’67 The emphasis in Wolfram’s creative mythology is placed upon the achievement of the individual, as exemplified by Parzival, and his own intrinsic worth. The major revelation of creative mythology in the West is that individuality (in contradiction of certain Oriental perspectives) is not ‘a mere figment of illusion, to be analysed away and dissolved at last, but a substantial entity in itself, to be realised, brought to flower’.68

The value of an organised religious tradition lies in the fact that the tradition provides a transmission of important, life-giving symbols from one generation to the next. But, ironically, by taking once-living experience and symbols, and transforming them into religious doctrine, organised religions can literally kill or obscure the spirit which they seek to preserve.

This process can even be witnessed in the later development of the Grail romances, particularly in The Quest for the Holy Grail, part of the vulgate cycle, written by a cloistered monk. While it starts off on the promising note of having each knight striking off, individually, into the darkest part of the forest, it quickly degenerates into a pageant of supernatural signs and wonders where the only path to the Grail lies in strict conformity to Cistercian theology. The entire message of self- transformation is abandoned, for the hero of this tale is not Parzival but Galahad, an already perfect being, symbolic of Christ, an ‘entirely monkish innovation’ as Campbell so aptly puts it.69 While the power of human love and natural grace provides the backdrop of Wolfram’s Parzival, Campbell laments that

‘The main purpose of the monk’s Queste del Saint Graal was to check the trend of this reawakening to nature, reverse its current, and translate the Grail, the

Page 22: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes cornucopia of the lord of life, into a symbol no longer of nature’s earthly grace, but of the supernatural, leaving nature, man, history, and all of womankind except baptised nuns, to the Devil.’70

I have dwelt at some length upon Campbell’s analysis because, in addition to being well-argued, it represents an eminently sensible view. Amusingly, the late Victorian scholar Arthur Edward Waite, well-known for the uncontrolled verbiage of his expository style, in his massive study The Holy Grail, places the figure of Galahad upon a pedestal and in essence dismisses the ‘inferior’ accounts of Chretien and Wolfram. Waite’s unbounded praise for the ‘beautiful and sublime mysticism’ of the late Cistercian version makes it obvious why Wolfram’s tale of existential transformation through action and personal yearning could not find favour with Waite’s own cloistered sensibilities. Yet, in so doing, it seems that he missed the primary significance of the Grail mythos.

It becomes comprehensible from Campbell’s perspective why, in this day and age, there is a reawakening interest in the symbol of the Grail, for it might be argued that our time is, in many respects, analogous to Wolfram’s. While Wolfram was personally touched by the influx of ancient wisdom and Middle Eastern culture, we today have access to nearly every spiritual teaching that the world has ever produced. And as we have seen, the quest for the Grail is both an inner and outer search, while the symbolism of the Grail encompasses both the wisdom of the ancient past and the social milieu of contemporary culture. If anything, situated as we are at the crossroads between past and future, East and West, and captivated as we are by the debatable relationship between the doctrines of tradition and the realities of lived experience, the imperative of the individual quest is now more certain than ever.


1. R. S. and L. H. Loomis, Medieval Romances (New York: Modern Library, 1957), 7. This work contains Chrétien’s Perceval, or the Story of the Grail, and all references here to Chrétien’s work follow this translation and its pagination.

2. John Matthews, The Grail: Quest for the Eternal (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981).3. Henry and Renee Kahane, The Krater and the Grail: Hermetic Sources of the Parzival

(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965).4. W olfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans . Helen E. Mustard and Charles E. Passage (New York:

Vintage Books, 1961), §173. All following citationsare to thistranslation. Thisedition contains an introduction,notes, andothersupplementalmaterial,whichmakesitmoreusefulthan theversion published by Penguin books.

5. Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, §167.6. Ibid., §171.7. Ibid., §177.8. Ibid., §188.9. Ibid., §191.10. Ibid., §199.11. Ibid., §224.12. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York: Viking, 1968), 459.13. In courtly love, one’s Lady was for the most part another man’s wife, as marriage was

mainly a relationship based on political duty and social necessity, while true love must be freely given. As Irving Singer notes, ‘In general, courtly love came into being as a response to the institution of marriage in the Middle Ages, as an attempt to recommend the value of sexual courtesy and individual choice in an area of life that had been controlled by economic, political, and largely impersonal considerations. Courtly love contributed to a way of thinking we easily accept in the modern world: namely, the belief that marriage

Page 23: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Hermetic Sources and Structure of Parzival

Notescannot succeed unless husband and wife have freely chosen one another on the basis of their reciprocal attractiveness and mutual adaptability.’ (Irving, The Nature of Love, 2: Courtly and Romantic, 3 vols. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 29.) One of Wolfram’s achievements was to propose that true love could exist within the formal, political relationship of marriage, as in the case of Parzival and Condwiramurs. As for the spiritual value of courtly love in general, Mircea Eliade observes that ‘This long stage of amorous initiation is at once an ascesis, a pedagogy, and an ensemble of spiritual experiences. The discovery of the Lady as model and the exaltation of her physical beauty and spiritual virtues, threw the lover into a parallel world of images and metaphors in which the profane condition was progressively transformed. Such a transformation occured even if, in certain cases, the poet received the total gift from his Lady. For this possession was the crowning event of an elaborate ceremonial, ruled jointly by ascesis, moral elevation, and passion.’ (Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, 3 vols. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985], iii, 100-1.)

14. AsMircea Eliade observes, ‘the mythology of knighthood had a cultural influence that is more important than its history, properly speaking.’ History of Religious Ideas, iii, 104.

15. Parzival, §593.16. ‘The ‘mother,’ as the first incarnation of the anima archetype, personifies in fact the whole

unconscious... regression, if left undisturbed does not stop short at the ‘mother’ but goes back beyond her to the prenatal realm of the ‘Eternal Feminine,’ to the immemorial world of archetypal possibilities where, ‘thronged round with images of all creation,’ slumbers the ‘divine child’ patiently awaiting his conscious realization. This son is the germ of wholeness, and he is characterized as such by his specific symbols.’ (C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956], 3 3 0.) In terms of developmental psychology, only after the heroic ego slays the dragon, or differentiates itself from the unconscious sea from which it emerges, can it encounter the manifestation of the unconscious in its higher aspect as the anima.

17. On the symbolism of the centre, surrounded by the coils of manifestation, see J. Puree, The Mystic Spiral (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 16.

18. H. Sacker, An Introduction to Wolfram’s ‘Parzival’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 46ff.

19. Parzival, §451.20. Ibid., §460.21. Ibid., §468-71.22. Ibid., §472.23. Ibid., §472.24. In Chrétien’s version, Perceval intends to check on the safety of his mother after his

apprenticeship with Gurnemanz. Emma Jung notes that ‘this is a subtle psychological point’ which is absent in Wolfram. See Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend (Boston: Sigo Press, 1986), 63.

25. Sacker, An Introduction to Wolfram’s ‘Parzival’, 56.26. Ibid., 57.27. In this regard, Parzival’s story relates to the mythologem of the ‘redeemed redeemer,’ which

also appears in some Gnostic myths. Before Parzival can realize his true role as a redeemer of the wounded king, he must, himself, first be redeemed.

28. Parzival, §478.29. Ibid., §479.30. Ibid., §489-90.31. Ibid., §492-93.32. Ibid., §493.33. They were also standard medieval symbols of Christ. For a treatment of all of these symbols

see C. G.Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).34. Harran is located in present-day Iraq. For a discussion of the Harranians and their relation

to the writings of Corpus Hermeticum, see Walter Scott, Hermetica: The Ancient Greek

Page 24: The Path Toward the Grail by David Fideler


The Path Toward the Grail

Notes and Latin Writings which Contain Religious or Philosophic Teachings Ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, 4 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924—36; reprint, Boston: Shambhala, 1985), i, 97ff.

35. Walter Scott’s not unfounded conjecture, Hermetica, i, 108.36. Hermetica, i, 97-111.37. Parzival, §643.38. The Krater and Grail, 125.39. Ibid., 122-127.40. Ibid, 128.41. G. R. S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes: Studies in Hellenistic Theosophy and Gnosis: Being

a Translation of the Extant Sermons and Fragments of the Trismegistic Literature, with Prolegomena, Commentaries, and Notes (London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1906), ii, 86-87. I have modernised the translation for clarity.

42. Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, ii, 90-1; translation modernised.43. The Krater and the Grail, 14-15.44. Parzival, §235.45. Ibid., §454.46. Ibid., §471.47. Ibid., §453-54.48. Hermetica, i, 110.49. See Henry and Renee Kahane, ‘Hermetism in the Alfonsine Tradition,’ in Melanges offerts

a Rita Lejeune, (Gembloux: Editions J. Duculot, 1969), i, 443-57.50. The Krater and the Grail, 59-63.51. For the text of the Emerald Tablet see Titus Burkhardt, Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos,

Science of the Soul, trans. William Stoddart (Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1986), 196-97.52. The Krater and the Grail, 118-22.53. Ibid., 101-5.54. Parzival, §235.55. The Krater and the Grail, 84-8.56. Ibid., 93-5.57. Ibid., 134-40.58. Ibid., 143-45.59. Ibid., 88-98, 145.60. Ibid., 145.61. Ibid., 174.62. See the remarkable work Zosimos ofPanopolis on the Letter Omega, trans. Howard M.Jackson

(Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978).63. Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, 476.64. Loomis and Loornis, Medieval Romances, 6.65. Parzival, §1.66. Ibid., §1.67. Quoted by Campbell, op cit., 41.68. Creative Mythology, 482.69. Ibid., 551.70. Ibid., 566.