Monday, October 29, 2012

#101. Emma Jung's "The Grail Legend"

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This post is being published on the day when the East Coast mega-storm, Hurricane Sandy, made landfall.

It marks the beginning of a new series of blog entries: a collection of notes and essays from my files all dealing in one way or another with the newly emerging religious consciousness. They are mostly things I've written over the last decade or so to clarify my own thoughts but which I now want to make available for anyone who might be interested.

If you have questions and think I might help, you're welcome to send me a note:


BOOK REVIEW: 20 Aug 99.
AUTHOR: Jung, Emma.
TITLE: The Grail legend / by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz ; EDITION: 2nd ed.
IMPRINT: Boston : Sigo Press ; London : Coventure, 1986, c1970.

I think for me this book may equal in significance Sir James Fraser’s The Golden Bough. I’ve seen it quoted repeatedly but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to look at it. It is a very impressive accomplishment. Emma worked on it for 30 years, but it was finished only after her death in 1955 by Marie-Louise von Franz, and published in 1960. Although it is already 40 years old, and the original work on it was begun three quarters of a century ago, many people today would still find the essence of its content shocking.

Basically, what Emma did was to survey all of the available versions of the Grail stories, along with parallels in other stories from whatever sources she could find. Her intent is to interpret the stories and their variations in the light of C. G. Jung’s psychology, especially his more mature works, particularly Aion: Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self (Volume 9 of the Collected Works), first published in 1951.

Her main point is that the emergence of the Grail stories in Europe during the 1100’s AD was a manifestation of a major problem then confronting the Christian tradition. While no new versions appeared after 1220 AD, and the stories faded during the Renaissance, they revived in the second half of the 1700’s and continue to retain their fascination for people today. They are living myths, says Emma, indicating that the thousand year old problem of Christianity has not yet been dealt with adequately. The problem which emerged in the Middle Ages is still with us, she says; indeed, she calls it “the religious problem of modern man.” In what follows, I try to use her language and style as much as possible, sometimes not very successfully.


The essence of the Grail story is that there exists a life-giving object, a dish or cup or stone, guarded by a sick king in a devastated country. To find and understand it brings salvation to king and country, self and all. “Grail” literally means something like “a serving dish containing all good things.” Finding it turns out to be a tremendously difficult task. The Grail Legend is critically important because, set as it is in the context of Judeo-Christian culture and western civilization, it is concerned with nothing less than how the Christian tradition understands the presence of God in the world.

The problem, which came to some degree of self-awareness during the Middle Ages, was how Christianity might hold on to the innumerable gains it had made in Western culture, while moving beyond its seemingly ingrained dualistic perspectives. (Dualism views matter, nature, body, feminine and unconscious as evils to be fled, and from which ultimately we need to be saved.)

The Grail stories contain bits and pieces from many sources: gospels, fairy tales, Celtic and Germanic myths, Oriental legends. The fact that pagan myths as well as early Christian apocryphal writings show up in the stories indicates that orthodox Christianity had not taken into account features that need to be included in its world view. Like Gnosticism before it, and Alchemy which comes later, the Grail legend represents an attempted reshaping and further development of the contents of Christianity.

While the attainments of Christian consciousness have been great, they have been made at the “expense of a deadening and violation of nature and a tremendous loss of soul” (Emma is quoting C. G. here). The neglected feminine, for example, needs to be attended and the imbalance rectified. Perhaps most disturbing to conventional orthodoxy is the implication that the doctrine of the incarnation has been inadequately understood. There is an aspect of the Self which is not activated by Christ’s incarnation, so that the incarnation of God has to be extended to every single human being.


Percy’s story is the familiar one of a simpleton, usually the youngest brother, who goes on to do great things. Percy is fatherless; he grows up in the forest, alone with his mother. A chance encounter with knights drives him to King Author’s court, where he becomes a knight and sets out on the quest for the Holy Grail. He eventually arrives at the Grail Castle, but in his encounter with the Grail he fails miserably.

While being trained as a knight, Percy had been tutored not to question anything. “Don’t rock the boat, don’t stir up things:” the usual counsels of conventional thought promoted by the rule of the fathers. “Stay in your place, don’t go beyond the boundaries.” In other words, “Remain unconscious!”

While Adam and Eve sinned by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, Percy sinned by not eating the apple. His tutor had instructed him to not ask questions, and it is precisely this conventional advice that needs to be overcome by expanding consciousness. Only then will Percy come into relationship with his ancestral roots and his inner anima whose receptivity allows a passive seeing of inner images. But in this first encounter with the Grail, Percy chooses to remain unconscious and thus loses his opportunity to save the sick king, re-enliven the wasted land, find his true Self, and bring all things into a unity.

He leaves the Grail Castle and wanders. He doesn’t enter a church for five years, symbolizing (says Emma) a loss of soul, loss of contact with the unconscious. When, after many years, he eventually finds the Grail again, this time he speaks up, asking the appropriate questions. “What is this all about? What’s the Grail for?”

Emma says that the Grail questions have only one known literary parallel: the youngest child’s questions at the Passover Seder. These questions are an initiation rite involving a “handing over” (by one generation) and a “taking over” (by another) of one’s ancestral heritage, and thus they constitute an incremental step in cultural evolution. Only when Percy asks the ritual questions does he come into relationship with his ancestral roots and acquire the treasures of his tribe. His “uncle,” for example, is Joseph of Arimathea, who was entrusted with the Holy Grail by Jesus himself.

While Christianity has made great gains in its task of overcoming the more elementary forms of instinctuality of the pagan past, it is also in need of further development. By taking into himself what is proclaimed, Percy personally adds to the cultural development of the world. When he becomes the Grail king, he thereby activates the world’s evolution in the form of Christianity’s continual development beyond its present rejection of matter, nature, body, feminine and unconscious. The world still awaits the completion of the Christian task.

These are big ideas, and the Middle Ages couldn’t handle them. So the legend says that after Percy becomes the Grail King, he eventually retires to the wilderness as a hermit, taking the Grail with him. And when he dies, it vanishes, returning back into the unconscious. Emma says explicitly, “The Grail should not have been taken into the wilderness hermitage, it should have been brought to the Round Table.” The Round Table, she says, symbolizes totality and synthesis and the human effort towards it.

In one version of the story a further step is taken. In this version, Percy has a pagan half-brother whom he must acknowledge and be reconciled with, before he can become the Grail King. This version ends with the marriage of Percy to his beloved White Flower, and the marriage of his pagan-half brother to the Grail-Bearer; thus the story ends with an image of wholeness, the marriage quaternity.


Drawings in Gnostic and Alchemical texts show a baby at the top of the Tree of Knowledge. As with the image of the woman giving birth in the Book of Revelations, this is an intimation of the birth of new redeemer.

So the plan of salvation continues beyond Christ, and salvation as communal redemption from the world of evil is reevaluated. Originally, the attainment of consciousness was perceived as sin and guilt. Now it becomes no longer an offense but, in fact, the necessary task of humanity. Christ’s work of redemption continues in every single human individual.

In one version of the story, the Fisher King has a brother who is killed by an invisible figure (“the Christian shadow,” says Emma). The murder weapon breaks into fragments and a careless handling of the pieces result in the Grail King’s injury. While forcefully removing a fragment of the sword from his dead brother’s body, he gets “nicked in the nuts.” (Not Emma’s words).

The wounded Grail King, she says, symbolizes the individual suffering from the unresolved Christian conflict. A groin injury is a fitting symbol of the rejection of matter, nature, body, feminine and unconscious. And healing can only happen with an understanding of the divine reality of evil.

The basic Christian problem, which cannot be avoided, is that the Trinity lacks a “fourth.” And whether this trinitarian fourth is called evil or Satan or the Holy Grail or the Virgin Mary, it doesn't matter, says Emma. The problem remains, because the fourth is, in fact, the individual.

It is the baby at the top of the Tree of Knowledge who sends Percy to the Sorrowful Mountain, where he ties his horse to a pillar which has been set up by Merlin. It is the axis mundi. The mountain is called sorrowful because of the great effort required by the individuation process.

Christianity looks to the marriage of the Lamb, the wedding feast of Christ and his Church. Emma talks about members of the church almost in terms of participation mystique: In her mind there is little individuation evidenced on the part of church members. But in this new development, mirrored in Alchemy and the eremitical movement at this time, it is not Christ and the Church who get married but individuals. Salvation happens only via the unflinching efforts of individual human beings.

Again, the Middle Ages couldn’t handle much of this, and so they created a empty seat at the Round Table: the Perilous Seat, the legends call it, and claim it once to belong to Judas. I acknowledge that it came as a surprise to me that the Grail Legends’ solution to the unsolvable problem of the fourth turns out to be our old friend, Merlin the Magician!


Merlin is a druid, bard, see-more, shaman, trickster, unifier of opposites. Elias is a Jewish counterpart. The function of this kind of cosmic personality is to open up a direct and personal approach to the unconscious. The shaman/bard/trickster/prophet tries to live according to the spirits (the unconscious), and becomes thereby a source of spiritual life for his surroundings.

The decisive factor in Merlin’s life is his painstaking attentiveness to the divine reality of the unconscious, which was, thereby, enabled to manifest through him. He incarnates something of the Mystery in himself. It was Merlin who instigated Percy’s quest, and who leads Percy to the task of embodying the new totality.

In one version of the story, Merlin can’t stand the “continuous strife of men” and retires to the forest. But becoming a "hermit” won’t do. The third kingdom, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, can only come about with the union of opposites, and this cannot be realized by a renunciation of the world and life. It can only be realized by the world being impregnated by the Spirit.

Emma notes that those who are chosen to help serve the realization of the totality of God are also assaulted by God’s dark aspects. She lists Jacob, who had to wrestle with the angel; Job, who was subjected to inhuman treatment by God; Joseph of Arimathea, who spent forty years in prison in faithfulness to his task of guarding the Grail; and the Grail King himself.

We humans bring about the transfiguration of the world. Science, which evolved from Alchemy, is the greatest intervention ever in the cosmic order. It is dangerous because of human drives toward power and pleasure. Thus in some versions of the Grail story, Merlin surrenders to the opposing power, Eros, while in others he totally renounces even Eros.

Besides the marriage quaternity, two other significant images of totality are the stone from which Merlin continues to speak, and of course the Round Table itself. Thus, says Emma, the most remote of goals, the Self, is expressed by the very oldest and simplest of archetypal images, the circle. She ends with the comment that while the western world still today has only infantile and primitive understanding of the shadow and feminine and the psyche in general, her husband’s discoveries make it available to all.

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