The Grail, Arthur and his Knights: A Symbolic Jungian Reading

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The image is of her standing before a rough-hewn doorway in a cliff wall, behind which can be seen the ocean. In her hands she holds a large dish, one form of the Grail, out of which five streams of red wine, the colour of blood, are flowing sacrificially. This painting and description of a self-sacrificing, yet strong and compassionate Queen who is linked to the ocean immediately called to mind the content and intuited significance of my Dream. It would seem, on reflection, that the old Arthurian myth of the Grail King, who is wounded because of the illness of the land, which has become the Wasteland, is being superseded by a Grail Queen myth, personified as Diana.


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For whereas the Grail King retreats to his Castle in his wounded state, the Grail Queen does not, but instead transforms her pain into the healing of others. This intuited inference of Diana as Grail Queen is not, of course, based not on her literal measuring up to the latter, although the genuinely compassionate qualities she possessed were a necessary magnet for the archetype she attracted.

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Reflecting several days later on the Dream, I was moved by two key images: the blood spiralling clockwise into the bath, and my own woundedness. The first image resonates with the symbolism of the alchemical bath in which takes place a cyclic transformation, an alternating descent and ascent through which the opposites, imaged as red male and white female are united 3.

The image also connects with a Medieval alchemy picture I have of Christ, a symbol of the wholeness and woundedness of the divine Self, sitting in the round bath of life, flanked on either side by the alchemical King and Queen, and the Sun and Moon, and pierced through the side with a spear. From the wound, blood pours into the bath, while from the upper right corner, from a wine press, wine flows into the bath.

The Grail, Arthur and his Knights: A Jungian Symbolic Reading

I am reminded here of Jung's comments late in life about death, when he suggested that it was a mysterium coniunctionis, a marriage, or union through which the soul finally regains its lost wholeness. The alchemical union of red and white King and Queen and the energy of the circulatio, or cyclic path of transformation, appear in my Dream in the guise of the spiralling blood in the white bath. Simultaneously, the bath is the alchemical vessel of transformation as another form of the Grail.

A closer look at the Grail's symbolism and significance, then, will add further insight into the significance of the Dream.

There is surely no more potent and enduring legend than that of the Holy Grail, for it embodies basic mythic principles that remain perpetually relevant, yet in order to do so must be reinterpreted anew in each age. Its elusiveness and mystery reflect the constant objective of the Grail quest: the attainment of a distant ideal representing inner wholeness and oneness with the divine. The link between Joseph of Arimathea, the Grail and an early Christian community at Glastonbury exists in a work written in about by Robert de Boron, A French knight.

Here the Grail as a dish or vessel from which Christ ate the Passover feast is connected with a bleeding lance, which several early writers identify as the lance which pierced Christ's side on the Cross. Several elements remain constant in the myth: the Wounded King, who has been stricken with his own sword or lance, his realm, the Waste Land, which has been rendered infertile through the wounding of the King; the Question which must be asked by the hero in order to heal the King and his realm, and the hardship and suffering which must be overcome in the search for the Grail.

An exploration of the Grail myth from the perspective of the alchemical archetype of the Wounded Healer, which involves the repeated association of the Grail with the shedding of blood, can aid in an appreciation of the significance of the Grail as a uniting and healing symbol.


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  5. The form of the Grail itself varies throughout different texts. It may be a dish, a cup, a stone or a jewel. In the strikingly alchemical Grail text, Wolfram's German Parzifal, written in , the Grail is not a vessel but rather a pure stone exiled from Paradise which is imaged as an emerald, one of the many symbols of the Philosophers' Stone, which Jung in his elaborate studies of alchemy equates symbolically with the divine centre of the psyche, the Self. In Parzifal the Grail stone imparts life to the Phoenix - another symbol of the Stone - 4 and its ability to cure sickness is the key to understanding the significance of the Grail's power to heal.

    Chretien de Troyes' 12th century French text, Perceval:The Story of the Grail, is the first Arthurian tale in which the Grail, the lance, the Wounded Healer and the Grail Castle appear, and initially they are devoid of specifically Christian reference. In the tale, the newly knighted 'Holy Fool' Perceval arrives at the castle of a wounded nobleman, the Fisher King, who gives him a golden sword, which symbolizes the innocence of an immature self as yet unfallen into inner division.

    In the house of the Wounded King, Perceval witnesses a strange procession consisting of a white lance that bleeds, a girl carrying a golden "grail", followed by a girl carrying a silver plate. That the Grail is always carried by a girl in the Arthurian tales implies the necessity of the feminine as the mediatrix of the Grail mystery. Perceval desires to understand these symbols and is determined to discover why the lance bleeds and where the Grail belongs.

    As indicative of his deep instinct for the uniting of the opposites, he repeatedly contemplates and encounters the union of red and white a theme of my Dream - alchemical symbols of Mercurius as the uniting of masculine and feminine, spirit and matter in the androgynous Self - and in one moving scene encounters a wounded bird and becomes lost in the vision of its blood on the snow. The King tells Gawain that he will only be told the secret meaning of the Grail and the lance if he is "worthy to know such things".

    He tells Gawain: "If you can mend this blade and make the pieces join together so that the sword is whole again, you'll be able to know the truth and significance of. His failure to achieve healing knowledge is evident in his lack of understanding of the strongly alchemical vision that comes to him. In this vision the lance bleeds into a silver vase which is called "the vessel" as synonymous with the alchemical bath of transformation.

    The Return of the King: Arthur and the Quest for True Manhood

    Chretien describes the vision as follows: "But no matter how much it bled, the vase would not be filled, for the blood passed through a large and splendid pipe of dazzling green emerald into a channel of gold, which. Again, there is a striking resonance with my own Dream, and perhaps an implied warning; in the Dream, the spiralling blood was escaping, flowing down the bath plug hole, perhaps symbolizing its return to the subterranean streams of the unconscious, hence the failure to integrate its significance consciously.

    Gawain's lack of understanding of this vision, evident in his blindness to the ultimate goal of the vase's contents , mirrors his failure to mend the sword, his failure, that is, to heal the division or 'dis-ease' within himself, hence to help heal the Wasteland. As for the similar theme and complex myth that is emerging from Diana's life and death - and it is one on which several other Arthurian and Greek goddess figures play key roles - it is perhaps too early to fully appreciate that yet, but this tragedy has touched many on the level which only an archetypal drama can, and a myth of simultaneous wounding and healing seems to be distilling.

    Part of our Celtic mythical heritage is the prophecy that King Arthur will return; this longing for a wise and compassionate ruler and redeemer of our wounded land is buried deep within our psyche, and resonates with the Christian hope for the return of Christ. But as Jung soberly foretold, the age of godlike redeemers has ended; the Aquarian archetype is the divine human who consciously wields and pours out onto the Earth the life-giving waters of the unconscious, just as the Grail Queen pours out the wine of knowledge from her Grail dish.

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    Perhaps, then, it is not King Arthur as Wounded and healed King who will return, but more that the Grail Queen as a newly activated dominant of consciousness will heal the wounded land. But for that to happen, we must still answer the question, "Whom does the Grail serve"? Perhaps both the mythic Diana and the Grail both serve the same - the wounded Wasteland - as did the Grail King as the wounded Fisher King.

    Perhaps the deceptively simple 'message' is that only the heart ruled by compassion can serve, hence 'under-stand', and drink from the Grail. As Yeats said, "No symbol tells all its meaning to any generation," hence the meaning - and content - of the Grail is inexhaustible. In the Grail myths we find a merging and overlapping of symbolism as the central archetype of the Self surfaces in its many forms. Their feminine counterpart is Perceval's sister, Blanchefleur, who accompanies the three knights, Bors, Galahad and Perceval on the only successful Grail quest.

    Blanchefleur, meaning "white flower", takes from a casket a belt woven of gold, silk and strands of her own hair, all natural and personal things which symbolise the feminine principle as the relatedness which binds together in harmony with Nature. It is she who makes a knight of Galahad, who, like Perceval and Christ is symbolised by the union of white and red as the lily and the rose. Again, one does not need to look too hard to see the mythic parallel with Diana.

    Charles, William, Harry and Diana form a quaternity whose feminine fourth has undoubtedly helped awaken the feminine principle along with its attunement to feeling in the three males.

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    It is surely significant, for instance, that among the Royals at Diana's funeral, these three were the only ones to openly cry. As we move to embrace the era of personal and social wholeness, the feminine is coming to be seen in various retellings of the Grail myth not just in terms of its supportive role in the masculine quest, but in a counterbalancing and complementary development the masculine is increasingly understood in its supportive role in the feminine quest for self-realisation.

    Marion Zimmer Bradley presents an instance of this in the development of Arthur's half sister, Morgaine, the central character of her magnificent Arthurian novel, The Mists of Avalon Although in many Arthurian sources Avalon is identified with the Christian island of Glastonbury, Bradley with considerable insight maintains a distinction between the two as a reflection of the distinction between the Grail as a Christian relic and its broader significance as a symbol of the divine union of masculine and feminine.

    The Grail rightly returns at the end of the tale to its true origin, Avalon. Glastonbury, on the other hand, represents the superficial narrowness of what William Blake would derogatively call the "Negation" of reasoned belief, whose exclusive masculinity, embodied in the authority of the priesthood and later in the Protestant Church, suppresses its feminine unconscious, the Goddess who is not approachable through detached dogma but can only be intuitively known as the archetype of a deep inner wisdom, a lunar consciousness attuned to Nature and soul.

    The latter is personified in the Grail mythology by the Lady of the Lake, who in Celtic myth is an Otherworldly guide and teacher of Arthur and his court. It is this particular facet of the Goddess which is evoked in the last of a series of four Dreams three, including the one recounted above, spent with Diana and a fourth with one of her sons. In this fourth Dream, I was taking care of Prince Harry, who was still feeling very fragile, emotionally vulnerable and distraught after the loss of his mother, to whom, as I could feel in the Dream, he had been extremely close.

    In the Dream, I had been 'given' the task of guiding him protectively on the way to school, and as we walked down a long, winding roadway, we were watched from the roadside by a large crowd of folk, as if we were acting out a kind of ritual procession. In my hand I carried what I knew to be Princess Diana's silver tiara, which was partially broken, and was shaped like a crescent Moon.

    In the Dream I was wondering what to do with the tiara - who to give it to or where to take it - since I knew it was not for me to wear or own.

    The Legend of King Arthur and His Knights

    But I could find no-one to hand it over to and the more I mused over it, the more it seemed 'right' that it belonged to no-one in particular; furthermore, it was obviously no longer something to be worn, but rather had taken on another significance. In the Dream I paused along the way and examined the tiara more closely.

    It was made entirely of tiny diamonds all intricately woven together. Reflecting on this later, I saw in a trance vision of this diamond Moon-web the tiny seed-souls, or divine sparks of the countless folk of Earth, all of whom were contributing to the tiara, just as in the Hindu Net of Indra each gem reflects and is connected to all the others.

    It seemed in the vision that the seed-souls were embryonic forms of an emerging lunar consciousness, organic and holistic, symbolized by the Moon-crescent shape of the tiara, and I was again reminded of Diana as the Greek Artemis, twin sister of the solar Logos of Apollo and Goddess of lunar light, which symbolizes in the Dream the emerging dominance of Eros as the feminine principle of interwoven relatedness, respect for life and harmony with Nature. In this beautiful painting are depicted two dark cylindrical towers, facing each other across a stream.

    Rising over the hills beyond, a full Moon encloses the embryo of a child, curled, like the Child at the end of A Space Odyssey, as though asleep in a Cosmic womb. In the foreground, a solitary Salmon, symbol of the most ancient Druidic wisdom, strives to leap the weir in the foreground. This card symbolizes the creative passivity of waiting, the kairos time of gestation before the Grail winners, Perceval and Galahad, reveal themselves to the World. Perceval, somewhat like Prince Harry, was raised by his mother, sheltered from the knowledge of aggressive, traditionally masculine skills, hence he has a strong and sensitive feminine side.

    Galahad, a parallel perhaps to Prince William, was raised in seclusion from the courtly realm of Camelot and was similarly a gentle, introspective and reverent soul. Launcelot, caught as was Prince Charles between the love of two women, Elaine, the suffering and devoted mother of his child, and Guinevere, another man's wife for whose adulterous love he forsook Elaine, just as Charles abandoned Diana, is raised by the Lady of the Lake, and as a flawed and fallen hero, is worldly wise in the ways of war and courtly traditions.

    Wonder again at how our Celtic myths resonate and abound in this great contemporary archetypal drama! Ironically, it is Diana who, after being buried on an isle in a lake - hence having symbolically passed over through death to Avalon, the Otherworldly isle of Druidic myth - has taken on the role of the Lady of the Lake. Avalon, where she resides, as the timeless, mist-shrouded realm of mystery, represents the deeper Druidic wisdom in which all gods are one god, and all goddesses one goddess; in which the masculine and feminine and all such opposites coexist as positive archetypal polarities.