The Cup of Life, the symbol of the Grail, as a container of the feminine/maternal energies has great power. The search for the Grail was taking place during the troubadour songs and stories following the Crusades in Europe and the Middle East. It was a time of polarization and awareness of differences, especially the Christian and Islamic worlds. The feminine was emerging as the teacher of the stories of life, teaching warriors how to love and become gentle men. An era of courtly love was changing the consciousness of the nobility throughout Europe.
Several years ago my family watched a PBS special where Joseph Campbell retold and discussed the Parzival legend as recorded in the twelfth century during the troubadour period following the Crusades. The story is an heroic quest set in the period of King Arthur’s Round Table. Parzival, the innocent, adolescent wild child of the forest, kills the Red Knight, learns not to ask questions during his training to become a Knight, and meets the Fisher King. The fisherman is the Grail King, who injured himself when he confused lust with love, and was wounded in the groin by a rival Knight. Because he can no longer walk, the Grail King spends his time fishing and that is what he is doing when Parzival rides up. When the young Knight asks if there is a place to cross the water, he is told that there is a castle up the road where he could get food and a bath. When Parzival arrives at the castle and joins the knights and ladies in the Great Hall, he discovers his host, the Lord of the Castle, is none other than the fisherman. Because of his training the young Knight doesn’t ask the question which would break the enchantment. In the morning everyone has vanished and Parzival barely escapes before the Castle itself disappears. The Castle is none other than the Grail Castle and the Fisher King is the guardian of the Grail. When Parzival’s sword breaks later in the adventure, he discovers his opponent, a Moslem knight has compassion. He refuses to kill an unarmed man, thus sparing Parzival’s [Christian] life. When they talk, they discover they have the same father and together are given an opportunity to enter the mysterious Grail Castle.
This story of treating women (and men) with respect and consideration has been retold in several forms. Athena Bizakis Melville, wrote a script for young actors and directed several performances of her version of the story based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s tale. This tale has been an important foreshadowing of our family’s journey. Like Parzival, I left my wife and family, symbolically searching for my mother, who unbeknownst to the hero, died when the hero followed the knights to Arthur’s Court at the beginning of the story.
My psychotherapist Carol Kohli helped me remember things which were too painful to remember during childhood, things I stored “off line” out of the way, so that they need not be felt consciously. She introduced me to many hidden parts of my psyche as they emerged over the six years we spent in relationship. She was the “good enough” mother who helped me continue the quest for the Grail.
Over the past ten years I have discovered the multi-dimensioned symbol of the Grail. It is associated with good food and friends. French origins suggest a large platter in which delicious food was served. German writer von Eschenbach described a stone, the philosopher’s stone of ancient alchemists, being carried. Others describe it as a basin, or a chalice bearing the blood of Christ, and hence a symbol of death, rebirth and transformation. It is in any case a profound symbol of the Middle Ages. In The Grail Legend (1986 2nd ed.) by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, the Grail is a feminine container which suggests a hidden treasure of psychic importance. The authors discuss the feminine and the Self as follows:
“Incestuous images or situations, which appear to confirm Freud’s view, do in fact sometimes appear in dreams. But Jung has explained in Symbols of Transformation that the “longing for the mother” can also be understood in another way. He sees it not only as an infantile neurotic-regressive craving but points to the abundance of symbolic material which indicates a concealed urge to rebirth and transformation of the personality.
This leads us to a consideration of the transpersonal significance of the mother. From this angle she is not so much a particular person as she is the absolutely universal giver and preserver of life, and as such she may be compared to the unconscious which is the source and origin of all psychic life.
Like the personal, the transpersonal mother-image also has a negative aspect which expresses a desire to hold the child back. In myths and fairy-tales this is often depicted as the killing or devouring of the child. Jung therefore speaks of the “terrible or devouring mother”. In mythology this figure is portrayed as a gruesome and destructive goddess, the Indian Kali for instance, and in fairy-tales as the cruel stepmother or the witch, expressing the death-aspect of mother nature who kills her offspring from time to time and takes them back into herself. The unconscious exerts a corresponding influence in that it sets up a definite opposition to the development of consciousness or else it threatens to dim or even to extinguish the painfully achieved consciousness.
Actually, the archetypal images are already present in the psyche as structural forms of the instinct before any individual consciousness arises. For this reason the child’s world consists more of archetypal forms and images than of ordinary people and objects. The child lives in a fairy-tale world. This is understandable when one reflects that the archetype is defined as an inborn pattern or form of perception and behaviour. It may therefore be assumed that there are entelechies existent in the psyche which serve as models for the correct understanding of, and behaviour in, the outer world. Any kind of situation can animate such a typos, that is to say, it will be immediately and automatically understood or related to accordingly. It associates and assimilates the a priori pattern with a present situation, whereby the innate inner image appears outside in the given object. The next step in the process of becoming conscious consists in learning to differentiate between the outer, so-called “real” world, with its real people and solid objects, and the primordial world of the archetypes into which man is born, so to speak. The archetypal world exercises an uncanny fascination, indeed it has a numinous effect. It is a world full of wonders; it not only shelters terrible mothers and other monstrosities but is also, like the Celtic “Land of the Living” or Paradise, an abode of bliss. The necessity for giving up this world of wonder often excites the most violent resistance, for that which will be received in exchange is mostly far less attractive. The magic of this world is one of the reasons why the state of childhood is greatly loved and worth striving for and why the step into “life” and reality is so difficult. For the same reason so many myths tell of the origin of human existence in Paradise, or of a golden age that was lost and replaced by a far less perfect world.
The yearning for the mother can therefore also be understood, in non-mythological language, as the attraction exerted by the unconscious, a constant occurrence that is comparable to the effect of the law of gravity. The development and preservation of ego consciousness is, for that very reason, often represented by the hero myth, for it is an achievement that can be compared to a fight with an overwhelming monster and which calls for almost superhuman strength.
Consciousness is an accomplishment which requires energy. It can only maintain itself for limited periods, after which a state of unconsciousness—sleep—is again necessary in order to renew the used-up energy.” (The Grail Legend, pp. 41-43)