The Grail Legend, a book written by Drs. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise Von Franz, is a study about the various versions of the Grail legend, making an interpretation of all those myth stories from a psychological point of view and basing its conclusions from a Jungian perspective. I have found this work most useful for the understanding of various Jungian ideas, concepts such as the anima, the shadow, the ego, the persona, the self or the four types. But above all, the Grail legend is a reflection of human thought, of behaviour, of religion, pagan and Christian and of the then emergent alchemical thought, which spread over Europe and Asia between the IX to XIII centuries. The amount of material studied on the book is extraordinary and the amount of examples, comparisons, angles and conclusions which Drs Jung and Von Franz came with, are well deserved to be considered from a psychological and mythological perspective, a whole cosmology of myth and the psyche.
The symbology of those legends are at times of a complexity that requires to have previous knowledge of Jungian school theories and it takes time to understand all the symbols described in the various chapters of the book. The writers describe the archetypes appearing in the stories, which the authors define as inborn possibilities of forms of behaviour and comprehension, connected to instincts, with which they have a reciprocal relation. They say that “archetypes are human nature in the universal sense, in that they lead to the production of similar and ever-recurring archetypal images”. They believe that in dreams, archetypes appear at really significant moments, such as important turning points or in critical situations which require a fresh orientation or adaptation and for which the present attitude which dominates consciousness does not suffice. Man is born into an unconscious irrational archetypal world and slowly accomplishes an introduction into a conscious world with its people and solid objects. The archetypal world is a world of wonder, fantasy, so there is resistance to abandon it. Once consciousness is achieved, we risk to detach ourselves from that world of the irrational, resulting in an imbalance on our minds, and it is therefore necessary to unite the conscious and the unconscious with the process of individuation, starting at a mature age.
Fairy tales and myths also represent archetypal imagery. Its fascination lies precisely in the fact that they depict forms of human experience. For this very reason, the same motifs are found the world over, not only as the result of migration but also because the human psyche which produces them is everywhere the same. That is why we can say that the Grail legend is archetypal. Knowing the background of its authors however, allow us to glimpse into the specific mentality of the middle ages and the touches upon problems of the Christian Aeon, which are moreover psychologically important for the present day.
In Perceval’s story, we find symbols such as the forest, representing a primitive state or his mother being in contact with nature, an all embracing quality of the mother nature, who also represents the archetypal image of the devouring mother, who wishes to keep her son in an unconscious state of mind. This is the protective instinct for nesting, a behaviour which is essential in early life, but becoming contra-productive if abused. This kind of character is the Indian Kali, Astarte and Cybele in Asia, or Ishtar in the Gilgamesh myth story. According to Drs Jung and Von Franz, this might lead to infantile neurotic-regressive craving and a concealed urge to rebirth and transformation of the personality. The overcoming of this protective mother is an allegory of achieving a conscious state, Perceval’s quest is another example of this.
The book discusses lots of concepts related to world mythology and to archetypal images found in myth and dream. The hero Perceval, who is to become the perfect hero, but not from a Christian perspective, which according to the authors is a religion lacking on important concepts such as the female, the material or evil, but from a more perfected alchemical thought which englobes not just the former, but also the primitive religion thought found in pagan societies such as the celts, and above the formers, englobing an understanding of the material and the spiritual, taking concepts such as the union of the opposites, brought about by Asian and Indian thought, or the union of genders within a whole.
An example of this wholeness is the character of Merlin, a magician who represents consciousness and unconsciousness, who is all opposites at the same time, a magician and a priest, a human and an animal, instinct, irrationality, ego, a darker father and a sweeter mother, the complete being who guides the hero into becoming the new guardian of the Grail castle. Merlin is a character that can foresee the future, a prophet, and also able to see back in the past. He covers all periods of time and therefore is unconsciousness, becoming consciousness. He is represented in the Grail legends in various forms, depending on whether the writers were real followers of Christianism, pagan sons, or contemporaries of Alchemical original thought. He is a being of extraordinary beauty and the darkest of the magicians, able to comfort evil to anyone who is not on the Grail side.
He might have been a literary creation. The fact that he achieved a tremendous fame, psychologically hints at being an archetypal image representing an intensively constellated psychic content. He stands in the background of king Arthur’s round table as a mysterious spiritual power. His knowledge of the past and of the future betoken a greater degree of consciousness than is possessed by Arthur and his knights, who are remarkably unconscious and unthinking. This greater consciousness functions as a form of projected conscience, it exposes the mistakes and crimes of the people. As the prophet of hell, he is clearly distinguishable as the Antichist, but the power of good is shown to be stronger than evil. As the Antichrist, Merlin would expand the trinity, as a psychic symbol, from which the one comes. From the union of those four elements, a new dimension is introduced, in which the totality manifests itself afresh while comprising the three in unity. But he is not just the Antichrist, he is an incarnation of the primal father god in whom the father, the son and holy spirit are embodied. Merlin is the guide and counsellor of those who in solitude prepare themselves to seek the immediate experience of the divine.
The concept of the anima is another concept discussed in depth and in its various forms, from the mother-type to the lover-type, from the inner to the outer part of experience, also guiding our hero in his process of individuation so to become the new self and guardian of the Grail vessel. At times the anima figure appears as Perceval’s matrilineal kin, illustrating an aspect of the anima that touches on the problem of incest. This is to hold the family together and protecting it from the disruptive influences of the outer world. This is a kind of endogamous aspect of the anima. The capacity for interpretation and understanding of the wondrous amount of symbols and most importantly, the capacity for analysis of those contemporary periods when those legends were written, are breath taking. The comprehension of Christian thought and its application to the Grail legends is excellent, but the ability to dig out pagan thought hidden in those stories and of a more contemporary emergent alchemical thought, is so interesting to catch. The parallels between the Grail vessel with the Christ’s blood vessel, and a more material-spiritual comparison with the lapis lazuli, the philosopher stone, the elixir of life and many other concepts originated during alchemical thought, allow the reader to decipher alchemy and its various fundamental ideas, such as the concept of the self or of the opposites and its material-spiritual union.
Characters such as Blancheflor, who is a concept of anima derailing our Perceval hero from the protection and unconscious will of his protective mother, and positioning him into this process of individuation, into this search for self-realisation, is well explained in the book. This is an anima figure focussing on the exogamous aspect of it. Many other anima figures such as the Grail vessel bearer or others who Perceval finds on his search for the hidden Grail castle guide also our hero in one way or another one, towards this self-realisation or through this process of maturation and of self-awareness. It is most helpful for the understanding of the anima’s concept this book’s reflection in characters from these legends, analysing their behaviour, characteristics and actions, and reflecting on the sharpening of our hero and into his inner and outer self. The analysis of those anima figures and their symbology, being not just real females, but part of the hero’s psyche, support the idea of this anima concept as an intermediate guide, necessary in this individuation process, for anyone willing to reach the unconscious.
Many other symbols such as the Grail vessel, the round table or any other mandala-like symbols appearing in the legends, point out at a representation of wholeness, of the self. Their perfection comes from a circular, quaternary form, which at the time was considered to be of a perfection never seen before and therefore symbolising this Jungian concept that can be assimilated to the concept of the dull or the Tao, of god, being a union of all opposites in the one. The authors research on this concept in the Grail story by describing the symbol of the trinity, with its father, son and holy spirit, and describes alchemical thought which, according to the authors, perfected this three-form, by adding a missing element, at times being evil, the antichrist, signifying the shadow of god in all its sinister reality. This quaternary symbol is accomplished with the Grail vessel, which includes the trinity within the blood contained on it, and being the vessel the mother of all three. At some point the writers state that Perceval has been chosen to reunite the too widely sundered opposites of good and evil, with the help of the holy spirit and the grail. Perceval contains all opposites, he is the redeemer, therefore a new son of god, or another Christ, who represents an incarnation of the holy spirit and also occupies Judah’s seat.
The concept of the shadow, which appears in various symbols, is another concept discussed and reflected on this work. A Red knight for example, a character who is a sum of emotion and barbaric thoughtlessness, which Perceval must overcome before he can become a Christian knight, as a kind of challenge to be passed. Within that character everything has a double meaning. The red colour symbolises blood, fire, love, war, destructive but able to work in the interest of life, when integrated in consciousness. In a way this character, as Perceval shadow, is a future inner needed value to reach wholeness. The Red knight pays lots of attention to the armour, a symbol representing another Jungian concept, the persona, the appearance, and not to the important object of the cup. The Red Knight is more interested in becoming part of a collective, than to have his own unique characteristics. Perceval though wants to reach wholeness, so he needs to conquer his shadow to move on in his process of individuation, and to forget about appearance, which according to Hindu thought is just illusion.
The concept of the unconscious is discussed with its relation to burials, to graves, and to the flourishing out of the corpses, from which their soul await to be guided into the outer world of consciousness, so the union of those conscious-unconscious state is accomplished. The Grail vessel is also representing that spirit kept in blood, as the soul of any human, awaiting its union with consciousness. It is also conditioned on a two-fold manner, as on the one hand it has a maternal significance and on the other it contains the sacrificial blood for resurrection. The work of redemption brought by the vessel consists in releasing this light element from the darkness of matter and its reunion with the realm of light. This is the alchemical thought and belief that in matter is concealed a soul and its union is most essential.
Another example of the symbology of the legends is found in the chapter in which it is described the hero’s first visit to the Grail castle, which ends up being a failure. Why is Perceval not successful at it? He experiences in the castle the procession of the broken sword, symbol of the thinking type, a part of that quaternary psychic whole which knights needed to become part of the round table. But he also is presented with the spear, a symbol representing the perception of a goal, awareness of one’s intention, the intuition type. He then is presented with the Grail, which symbolises the opposite material-spiritual, feeling and sensation types. It also symbolises the female symbol missing in Christianity. All four types are united at the quaternary symbol of the self, which Perceval aims to reach. He is not prepared in his first visit, hence why he fails to ask the question when the Grail bearer presents the Grail to him.
The authors compare our hero to Parsifal, a more Christian hero model, who will not achieve wholeness because of the imperfection of Christian thought, and also because its reflection was made on a time when new ideas and thoughts coming from the East influenced folklore. At the end, it is all about this process of individuation which our Perceval hero is going through. In the grail legends we find the propensity for the irrational, the prominence of the feminine element, the assimilation of the oriental fantasy material and magical beyond and land of the dead. There is in fact a psychological expression of an extraordinary stirring of the unconscious, such as does happen from time to time, especially in periods when the religious values of a culture were beginning to change. From pagan, naturalistic, mother earth celtic values, we moved into a Christian, patriarchal religion where goodness were the only accepted state of mind, and a crisis of these values turned into a new alchemistic thought with great influence from hindu-Chinese philosophy, with the union of the opposites, integrating the material and the feminine, into a more holistic and inclusive of the irrational-unconscious. The Perceval hero in fact is a symbol of the Anthropos figure which should compensate and amplify the Christ-image then dominating the collective consciousness. He forms a parallel image of the Alchemical concept lapis lazuli, the total man of the divine component in man of alchemy, which gradually emerges from the depths of the maternal womb of the unconscious and releases specific areas pf the psyche previously cut off from life.
The amount of symbols, comparisons and analysis into those symbols is remarkable and this article does not intend to mention, even less to describe, all of them, but to note on the importance of this book in the understanding of Jungian psychology and its concepts. Moreover, this book helps in the understanding of human thought and behaviour from a primitive period to a more alchemistic trend, leading into modern society.
Based on the book “The Grail Legend” By Dr Emma Jung and Dr. Marie-Louise Von Franz.
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