‘Love in a Golden Bowl’: Mystical Dimensions of the Grail Myth

by Sam Buntz

“Does the Eagle know what is in the pit
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod
Or Love in a golden bowl?”
-William Blake, “The Book of Thel”

If people in modern day America are familiar with the Holy Grail, this is largely due its varied manifestations in popular culture.  The Grail legend plays a prominent role in movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Fisher King, and (of course) Monty Python and the Holy Grail—not to mention the strange but interesting interpretation offered up in The Da Vinci Code, borrowed from the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail.  One of my favorite writers, Nelson DeMille, is also about to publish a novel involving a Grail quest, so I figured now is as good a time as any other to discuss my own understanding of its symbolism.

To briefly cover the basics: the Grail is, first of all, the cup that caught Jesus’ blood during the Crucifixion, after a soldier stabbed Him in the side with a lance.  But it later came to be identified with the same cup that was used as the Holy Chalice, from which Jesus drank at the last supper, and with which he offered His blood, in the form of wine, to the gathered apostles.  In medieval legend, the Grail becomes an artifact of immense power, capable of granting eternal life and knowledge of the mysteries of the universe—if you can drink from it.  In the famous Arthurian legend of the Grail Quest, it is only Sir Galahad, the one knight who maintains perfect chastity throughout the course of his journey (and of his entire life, for that matter) who is able to drink from the Grail, and thereafter become the Bearer of the Cup himself.  Some scholars claim the Grail came to possess mystical powers partially under the influence of an ancient Celtic myth, which held that the king Bran the Blessed was restored by drinking from a magic cauldron.  These, in short are the crucial facts about the Grail—but, things are about to get weird, since I intend to offer up an interpretation of the Grail’s symbolism relating to its more mystical and imaginative dimensions of meaning, with an eye to similar stories told in other religions and mythologies.

In the vast body of Arthurian literature relating to the Grail—whether in French or in English—the Grail is often described as sitting on an altar, where the Holy Lance (the same used by the soldier to pierce Jesus) continually drips blood into it.  This image is absolutely central:  some psychoanalysts have suggested that the duo of Lance and Grail form a phallic and a vaginal symbol, respectively, but this perspective, while having a certain relevance, is not, in my view, quite accurate.  At least, from the perspective of someone who believes in archetypes, the phallus and vagina would themselves be symbols or lesser embodiments of what the Lance and the Grail manifest—which is what Hindus often say about the Linga and the Yoni, two images which are also usually defined as sexual icons by Western scholarship (again, phallic and vaginal, in that order).  The Linga and the Yoni are usually placed in the same position that the Lance and the Grail find themselves in, the one above the other—and Hindus even identify parts of the natural landscape with the Linga and Yoni, notably Mount Kailash, looming up over Lake Mansarovar in Tibet.  Naturally, these symbols, Eastern and Western, have provided a field day for the Freudian crowd—or, at least, for the small number who take an interest in comparative religion and mythology.  As with the Grail, a person who drinks from the waters of Lake Mansarovar is said to ascend to the highest heaven after death, attaining immortality.  Also, the Cup of Jamshid in Islamic myth serves a similar symbolic function—it supposedly reflects the entirety of the world and the seven heavens, and can grant supreme knowledge to whomever drinks from it, in addition to providing the usual boon of eternal life.

When I describe what I think the Lance and the Grail (and their correlates in other religions) represent, it may sound odd at first, but I think with some contemplation it will eventually seem coherent enough:  the Lance represents, in my understanding, the active function in the psyche, whereas the Grail represents the receptive function.  The active function generates energy and the receptive function contains it—this is what underlies Blake’s cryptic question about putting wisdom in an iron rod and love in a gold bowl.   At its best, the active function—the Lance (iron rod)—is what drives one to pursue wisdom and supreme knowledge, and, also at its best, the receptive function—the Grail (golden bowl)—is that which receives energy, retains the capacity to love and be loved.  But in a fallen state of nature, these functions get twisted towards contrary goals, where the active function becomes the source of selfishness and raw ambition, a drive not towards attaining the authority of real wisdom but towards that authority embodied by the iron rod—brute strength.  The Lance, in this condition, is Egotism—that which prods and drains blood and water from the soul, just as the soldier’s actual lance drained blood and water from the side of Jesus.  The Grail, in the same degraded state, represents the tendency to look for love and joy in the illusory pageant of the world—in golden bowls and Rolls Royce collections and massive closets filled with designer shoes (and so on and so forth.)  It is the parade of appearances hiding—but also reflecting—Reality.  In Tibetan Buddhist symbolism, these functions are represented by the Vajra—a sort of lightning-bolt-scepter, symbolizing the active function—and by the Padma—a lotus, symbolizing the receptive function.  The Tibetan mandalas and iconographic designs depicting these symbols highlight the fact that both functions can be used either in an enlightened fashion or in a crude and degraded way—the latter version being more common in our present, Iron Age.  Putting it another way, the Lance is the Selfhood (or Ego) and the Grail is (before you drink out of it, at least) Illusion, the Veil (the same which is torn in the temple when Christ dies), hiding the answers to the real mysteries of life from any weary seekers who might pass through.  Living in the wreckage of this world, these are the two fundamental forces, the duality, that constantly defeat us.

This may seem almost willfully obscure, at first, but I think it’s correct.   However, there remains the matter of analyzing the Quest itself, particularly the crucial problem of Galahad’s chastity, something that seems quite quaint in the present day and age.  But Galahad’s chastity has its allegorical as well as its literal significance.  The other knights, who don’t preserve their chastity and don’t attain the Grail, all fall in that they succumb to various illusions, diverse goals that distract them from the ultimate end of drinking out of the Grail.  Galahad’s chastity symbolizes his whole-hearted attention, his utter determination not to become self-deceived, trapped in Illusion’s spell.  Thus, since the Grail itself represents the illusory barriers but up by Nature, it is only Galahad who is allowed to peer inside the Grail, thus seeing the Reality it has been retaining—both hiding and preserving—for so long.  Finally, he is able to drink from that Reality, partake of it directly—which is what I believe Holy Communion symbolizes, in a higher sense that has now been forgotten.  When Christ offers the Apostles (and everyone else) His blood, he is allowing the whole of humanity to become part of His “mystical body”—people can now attain a wholeness of being, a resurrected spiritual body in which one finds the same illumination and gnosis as the victorious Galahad.  But in order to attain this resurrected body, one needs to participate in the Crucifixion, during which one endures the pains of being tormented by the Lance and drained away by the Grail.  The Grail catches Christ’s blood, in the same way that Illusion or Nature (in the Gnostic and Blakean cosmos) drains away the Spirit’s life energy, convincing souls that they exist in a state of perpetually infantile dependence on its nurturing powers, when in reality, those powers are latent in the soul itself, and are only leached out of it by egotism (the assaulting Lance).  Christ endures these pains to provide an example of the complete pattern of human suffering—and to demonstrate the way to get out of it.   The Grail symbolism tallies with this quite easily.

At the risk of getting more far-out than I already have, one can easily see the four points of the cross as symbolizing the same four qualities depicted in the quadrangular Tibetan mandalas, which can be taken as representing the four powers that govern our nature, and which can exist in both fallen (confused) or risen (enlightened) states of being—two of these are the active and receptive functions discussed above (Vajra and Padma), and Blake’s account of the fall of the four “Zoas” (primordial powers of life) represents the same mystical psychology from a Protestant Dissenter’s standpoint.  Yet when Christ’s death on the cross tears the temple’s veil aside, revealing the Holy of Holies, it shows that Christ has attained the same triumph that Galahad would later attain—He transcended the plane of the relative and illusory, attaining the Absolute, and raising the four fallen powers of the soul back to their original, un-fallen condition.   Wisdom gets taken out of the iron rod and Love gets removed from the golden bowl—they become, instead, forces that render compassion towards humanity.

I don’t deny that this may seem like a weird jumble of symbolism, but I am convinced that it is, in fact, consistent with the best elements of the mystical traditions of the East and the West.  I can only urge the reader to seek out more information, looking into Joseph Campbell’s works on comparative mythology and religion, and into those of writers like Jung and Aldous Huxley—but also into Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, Theosophical and Anthroposophical texts, and great works of scholarship, like Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization.  The attentive reader will certainly find further dimensions of the symbolism I’ve just outlined—in different versions and with different images, I’m sure.  I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that one particular esoteric school conspired to somehow align the symbolic content of the Grail Quest and the Crucifixion of Jesus with Hindu and Buddhist psychology.  But I do mean to suggest that such similarities reveal that the imagination works in its own forms, and if it works on those forms for long enough and puts enough together, it will arrive at a mythology with universal resonance (if not a theology with universal resonance, given the assorted creedal differences of the world’s faiths.)  The only good and true interpretations spring from the deep self—from the heart that vibrates to the iron string—and not from pedantry and the technical obsessions that so frequently dog scholarship.  The real Story—the Big One—doesn’t have a historical origin, as most academicians would prefer, though it can be discerned throughout various time periods and in various disguises, proving to be illuminating just as much for its multiplicity as for its sublime unity.

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