The Quest: From Simple "Fool" to Grail Servant

By I. M. Oderberg

In olden times, initiation signified a stage of interior growth, when what had been hidden in the human heart emerged, the "beginning" of a new chapter in the book of life. We have inherited stories from many peoples symbolizing this kind of initiation or entrance into the inner significance of life's daily events. Whatever rituals or ceremonies accompanied such "beginnings," the prime feature was in effect a conscious sharing in the unfolding drama of the human soul. One such mythos was the story of Parzival -- Parsifal in the Persian form adopted by Richard Wagner, meaning the "Pure Simple" or, in the Gallic form of Perlesvaus -- Perceval or Peredur, "Companion of the Cup" or Vase.

There are various accounts of Parzival's quest for the Holy Grail. The present study is based mainly upon the version of Wolfram von Eschenbach. His poem was derived from an older, pre-Christian tradition with Oriental overtones, as indicated by his use of Eastern terms and concepts, as well as names such as Babylon, Alexandria, and other places in Asia Minor, and even India. Wolfram claimed the account from which he translated was that of Kiot or Kyot the Provencal, who had to learn Arabic to translate his own much older source, in its turn a restatement from a yet more ancient version. Emile Burnouf, the noted French Orientalist, stated:

The only true legend of the Sacred Vase [or Cup] is that which can be traced from the present day, back through the past, in the Christian, Grecian, Persian, and Buddhist Scriptures, as far as the Vedic Hymns, where its meaning is to be found. -- Le Vase Sacre et ce qu'il contient: dans l'lnde, la Perse, la Grece, et dans l'E'glise Chretienne; avec un appendice sur le Saint Graal. Paris, 1896.

This meaning is illumination of the soul by its essential divinity, the vessel being the means of the attainment of "atonement" of the "child" or human being with its "Father" or source of existence. The quest for the Grail is the search for, the striving to achieve, this purification and mergence with the fountain of one's life. That is, the original Parzival is a tale of initiation in the best sense of the word. Parzival, then, is a type-figure, standing for any one of us prepared to undergo the course of training his story of "adventures" represents.

The word "grail" itself has been derived from crater, the Greco-Latin term for a vessel. A more recent book (The Krater and the Grail: Hermetic Sources of the Parzival, by Henry and Renee Kahane, in collaboration with Angelina Pietrangeli, University of Illinois Press, 1965) provides convincing evidence that Wolfram's Parzival is almost a paraphrase of treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum -- a collection of ancient Egyptian concepts translated into the Neoplatonic Greek of Alexandria. Wolfram recast them into the European milieu of the thirteenth century. We may compare the Grail theme with the passages in the Hermetica dealing with the Krater; and the chapters concerning Parzival's spiritual rebirth with those referring to "coming again into being."

Years before Parzival was born, a unique talismanic stone called the Holy Grail had been brought from the East by Titurel who set up a brotherhood of knights to protect and serve it or, as in other versions, he merely purified and revitalized an already existing Grail order. Klingsor, a man who wanted to join the order and had already acquired considerable "psychic powers," was rejected because of his egoism and soaring ambitions, traits directly opposite to the selfless compassion required to serve the Grail. Klingsor's desire turned to hatred and he determined to undermine the order if he could not destroy it. He set up a rival domain and conspired against the Grail knights. His prowess in the occult arts conjured up attendants for his "Castle of Perdition" on the outskirts of the Grail site, and he also subjugated Kundry, symbol of nature. She was forced to help him overcome the knights, using such weapons as blandishments, temptation, and various other alluring appeals to the lower aspects of man's character.

As Titurel aged, he was succeeded by his son Frimurtel, who was slain early on, and the successor then was Anfortas, grandson and son in the direct line. In this context the terms "son" and "grandson" evidently have a figurative meaning, applying to disciples or their successors. Priest-king of the Grail, Anfortas was also known as the "Fisher-king" -- a name familiar in the Arthurian cycle, the Round Table being a "mirror" on earth of the zodiac, with its names linked to quests representing degrees of advancement on the scale of initiation.

Early in his administration, Anfortas entered into direct conflict with Klingsor. In one version, he succumbed to Kundry's seduction; in another, and more likely, in order to protect the knights of his order he unwisely attempted to fight Klingsor on the latter's home ground -- man's lower nature. In the fight, Klingsor captured from Anfortas the Holy Spear, a universal symbol of the spiritual will, and wielded it against him, touching him with it. The resulting wound could be healed only by application of the Spear when in the hands of the rightful holder. This part of the story seems to echo the release from material chains of Prometheus, the light-bringer to mankind, the "Titan pioneer of civilization," who could be rescued only by Herakles (Hercules), standing for the perfected human being.

Among the rituals at the Grail castle was a "showing" of the holy stone on Good Friday, perhaps an allusion to the spring equinox, an occasion of a special initiation of a candidate on the spiritual path. The function of the Grail or "Cup" in such events was to symbolize the immersion of the soul in an experience bringing about union with the higher self. (In the Hermetica, the Crater is a constellation between Cancer and Leo, and its "reflection" on earth was the baptismal font. Plato writes of the Crater in the Timaeus: it is one and in it mingle all souls.)

The Priest-king was the chief servant of the Grail and as such he exercised several functions or duties, most important of which was enabling the vessel to be unveiled that it might pour forth its beneficent light of wisdom. Light is one of the most revealing symbols of transcendence, and out of it the Grail provided "music," "fruits," and various other "foods" -- all representing qualities of the soul -- which were administered by the servitors who not only shared the bounty in common but also channeled it to mankind.

After he received his never-healing wound, Anfortas's agony increased at such ceremonies, his impurity due to the suppuration of poison contrasting with the Grail's purity. So he grew more reluctant to officiate at the unveiling. Titurel was still living, frail and ethereally beautiful, the Grail providing all his sustenance, although he had not sought it. Anfortas's hesitation to officiate not only caused his grandfather's decline, but also despondency among the knights and an air of depression in the castle. But there had also been a hope, born of a prophecy. After the return of the wounded Anfortas, the Grail knights had cried out: "Who shall guard our mysteries?" They were told a "redeemer" would come, restore the Spear and relieve Anfortas, then succeed him in office. But the knights must not tell beforehand what the sight in the hall signified, or prompt the newcomer to ask the vital question. This suggests that book- or imparted knowledge of itself is not enough to change a candidate into an initiate. We must become that stage into which we have the opportunity to enter.

We turn now to the story of Parzival and his lineage, for our focus here will not be on the Grail, but upon Parzival's struggle to find it and redeem his want of sympathy when he first sees it. Gamuret, Prince of Anjou, a symbol of the desire of the Divine Mind for manifestation on our plane of life, sought knightly adventures and left home. He reached the country of the Moorish queen Belkane and took part in her defense, marrying her after his victory. They had a son Feirifis, whose notable feature was his skin, mottled black and white, standing for the dual quality of the human mind, one pole of which is attracted to matter, the other to spirit. Gamuret soon tired of the quiet life at court and sought further experiences. He came to the realm of Herzeleide, widow of an emperor, who must marry the victor of a tourney. Gamuret defeated the other contestants and married her. Their son Parzival, the human soul, was born after Gamuret was killed while taking part in a deed of mercy, or of rescue; or, as another account has it, during a battle while helping a friend who had asked for his aid. ("Killed" in the sense of absorption in material life. In the somewhat similar but more deeply-ranging Egyptian myth of the "murder" of Osiris, the dismembered deity is dispersed far and wide, the "parts" brought together and transmuted into a higher form at the end of one cycle of time and the beginning of a new one.)

Parzival's mother was called "queen of two kingdoms," supposedly North and South Wales, but which may have meant of spiritual and material life. (We see such a thought exemplified by the custom in ancient Egypt, where the outer mergence of Upper and Lower Egypt to form one realm also signified mystically the inner balance of the subjective and objective aspects of the world as of the human being.) Widowed again, and with an infant son, Herzeleide ("bitter grief," "distress," or "heart's sorrow") left her home to live in a forester's cottage far away. She feared that a fate like Gamuret's would overtake her son, so she raised him to know nothing of knighthood or its code of chivalry, and to be ignorant of his name and family heritage. In previous ages, every individual was said to have a "secret name" known only to his highest self. The outer person learned what this was only during an advanced initiation, we are told, when the candidate met his diviner self face to face, during a tremendous experience requiring great purity of character and motive, as well as strength of will, and wisdom.

During Parzival's youthful years in the forest, he grew up handsome, strong, athletic, but with his intelligence undeveloped. He was later called "simple" or "fool" -- not because he was indeed unintelligent, but because of his guileless innocence, his simple perceptions and faith. At that time, he was content to outrun the swift animals and to hunt with such primitive weapons as he had made. One day, he brought home some birds he had shot down with his bow, and then he suddenly realized they were dead, and he wept for them. In Wagner's opera Parsifal, the composer's version of this episode has the hero at a later stage wound a swan, this experience starting alight within him compassion for suffering animals. Wagner superimposed upon the narrative his Buddhist reading, there being an episode in the Buddha Gautama's life when he succored a swan shot down by his cousin Devadatta. Wagner used the swan to symbolize the Grail knights, as for instance in the story of Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, this narrative also being taken from Wolfram -- the last book of the poem.

The impact of this experience of death could be called Parzival's first awakener. The second came when he met some knights in full armor. Deeply impressed by them, he singled out the leader of the troop to honor him, and he asked childlike questions about the armor and equipment. When they told him they were knights, he resolved to become one too. He told his mother about them and of his intention to leave her in order to seek knighthood. Fearful for his safety, she gave him peasant's clothes, thinking the consequent ridicule would cause him to give up his quest and return to her.

Dressed in this fashion, he arrived at the court of the king where he was found to be attractive but unrefined, and singularly uninformed. One of the knights mocked him and, though there was a strange prophecy of his future eminent role, Parzival left. Soon afterward, he ran into a duel with the Red Knight. This individual is a mysterious figure in all the versions we have. In one account, Parzival desired the red armor as soon as he saw it because he liked the color, and he fought the knight to capture it for his own. Wolfram identifies the Red Knight with Parzival's cousin Ither, who had a grievance against the king. But later in the narrative, Wolfram states that Parzival had confused Ither in his red armor with another Red Knight, the king's bitter enemy.

In the duel, Parzival was victorious and stripped the body of its armor -- a difficult task for him because of his technical ignorance -- and put it on over his peasant clothes. As appears much further on, Parzival had to suffer the consequences of his rashness and the slaying of Ither. But if we keep in mind that the story has a symbolic side, then the "Red Knight" may denote what one commentator suggests: the red armor stands for a high spiritual truth, "the knowledge of eternal life." But possibly it also has links with the ancient Egyptian association of red with the sands of the desert regarded as Set which is the matter side of life: crude, unawakened and therefore infertile.

After the duel, Parzival began his wanderings, and he found a lady, Kondwiramur, in trouble, rescued, then married her. Wolfram's poem takes on an added depth of meaning if we assume that all his characters are not only glyphs in initiatory events, but also represent the elements composing a typical human being seeking enlightenment, for then they are becoming active out of a quiescent, latent state. Kondwiramur stands for compassion, and she accompanied Parzival at the last, enabling his final achievement. Wolfram's version of the mythos is the only one I know of that is based firmly upon this quality.

Drawn by his quest, Parzival left Kondwiramur and after varied adventures reached the neighborhood of the Grail castle on Montsalvatsch. There he met the suffering Fisher-king -- Anfortas -- who directed him onward, and also the chief knight-attendant, Gurnemanz, signifying the rationalizing part of the mind. Feeling that Parzival might be the "savior" whom the Grail order awaited, Gurnemanz gave him knightly instruction including advice to exercise restraint in questioning. He admitted Parzival into the hall where the Grail, borne aloft by its attendant Repanse de Schoie -- "Joy of Life" and sister of Anfortas -- was unveiled, and shed its radiance upon all. Parzival had a glimpse of a beautiful old man -- Titurel -- wispy grey in outline, and noticed the suffering of Anfortas as he lay upon his couch; but remembering the advice of Gurnemanz, he misapplied it and refrained from asking the vital question: What has brought about this agony? Gurnemanz then led him away. In another account, Parzival awakened the next morning to find himself in unkempt grounds outside the castle.

He embarked upon numerous experiences in the wide world, which brought into activity all the potential qualities locked up within him. He acquired many skills and became a knight distinguished for his courage, but above all for his sympathy for others. He won battles within himself against many of his lower traits, all of his aspects personalized as opponents he had met and overcome, or friends and helpers who had assisted him. The famous knight Gawain, for instance, in Wolfram's context, appears to stand for conscience.

One day he reached a refuge where the hermit Trivrezent or Trevrezent lived. He was welcomed, cleansed and anointed in the ritual fashion, and refreshed with "herbs" -- a procedure common to all initiation myths. The hermit then escorted him into a cavern, and we may observe here that in antiquity, caves and underground man-made substitutes such as crypts were often the sites of initiations into grades of spiritual understanding. They represented the return of the candidate into the womb of nature to be reborn of soul-fire.

There, Parzival was instructed about the descent of Lucifer and his companion angels, accompanied by "neutral" spiritual beings, and about Adam and Eve replacing them. This reminds us of the ancient version of the "fall": unself-conscious god-sparks "fall" into matter so that inner qualities may be brought out and unevolved substance be refined. Trevrezent also told Parzival of the Holy Grail, and that only those who serve it may know it, forming a brotherhood of dedicated knights. The hermit revealed that he himself was a brother of both Anfortas and Herzeleide, and that the Grail was a stone "pure and precious called Lapis Exilis" (Stone of Exile), with sacred, catalytic power to illumine the human being. It had descended from heaven to earth to tend the "fallen" and "neutral" angels and remind them of their source and their inner essence.

By its magic the wondrous bird,
The Phoenix, becometh ashes, and yet doth such virtue flow
From the stone, that afresh it riseth renewed from the ashes glow,
And the plumes that erewhile it moulted spring forth yet more fair and bright. -- Parzival, Wolfram, II, 628-30 (Weston)

Trevrezent recounted how the magic stone had been brought to the mountain Montsalvatsch, and of the order instituted by Titurel, father of Frimurtel, and grandfather of Anfortas, of Parzival's mother Herzeleide, and himself. On Good Fridays, a dove descended and took part in the unveiling of the Grail, resulting in blessings for all. The sacred bird left a feather of itself, then returned. The dove is a symbol of the cosmic entity that in rare instances projects a portion of itself to enlighten the candidate.

Parzival then boasted of all he had done and of his desire to serve the Grail. But the hermit warned him against pride, upholding instead the virtue of humility. He told Parzival of Anfortas's fate, and that no one could know where the Grail was to be found unless it summoned him. But there had been one, years before, a "witless fool," who had left the castle sin-laden because he had failed to ask his host the reason for his suffering. Parzival realized now that he had been wanting in sympathy, and his misapplication of Gurnemanz's advice had been due to his failure to recognize the oneness of all life. If he had been aware of it, he would surely have asked what ailed his brother. He admitted to the hermit that he had been that "fool," and Trevrezent, the prototype of the Initiator, revealed Parzival's opportunities and misdemeanors of the past, including the price to be paid for his duel with Ither. (Trevrezent is a transliterated version of "Trismegistus," "Thrice-Great," the title given Thoth-Hermes, the supreme Initiator in the Hermetica, after whom that collection of writings is named. For detailed study of this point, see Kahane and Kahane, op. cit.)

The visit with the hermit lasted fourteen days, and when he was composed within himself he left, with the blessing of Trevrezent: "Be steadfast and brave of heart!" During his next journey, he fought a duel with a knight that proved inconclusive. With visors raised, Parzival found he had been fighting Feirifis, and each discovered a half-brother. Later, Parzival was once more in the vicinity of the Grail castle. He saw it, but now surrounded with the phantasms produced by Klingsor with the enforced help of Kundry. Temptations beset him, and the trials became more and more subtle. He was shown in a vision that because of his thoughtless, unfeeling departure from his mother, Herzeleide had died of grief. Kundry offered herself as a substitute. This was another of Parzival's awakening moments, because the rush of compassion for his mother immediately reminded him also of the suffering Anfortas he had seen on the couch four years before. Kundry's attempts to control him failed.

With his rejection of Kundry, he learned that all nature is dual, for Klingsor had assumed mastery only over the lower, material aspects. The higher, divine and spiritual ranges of life were beyond the powers of the magician. Kundry's "soul" emerged purified from the chrysalis of her dead, lower self, redeemed by Parzival's inner strength. But at last, he had to confront Klingsor himself, and in the long duel that ensued, the sacred Spear was thrown at him and he caught it. It left the unclean hands and was received by the purified ones. With that, Klingsor's magic creations vanished like smoke in thin air.

Parzival was reborn, his second birth a spiritual one. But before he could enter the Grail castle, he had to have a knight to support him, and he chose Feirifis. Kondwiramur appeared by his side and, bearing the Spear, Parzival and his two attendants were admitted. His first act was to touch and heal the wound of Anfortas who thereupon invested him with the responsibilities of the Priest-king of the Grail, its chief servitor. From simple innocence Parzival had matured to profound wisdom.

A procession comprising the knights and the twenty-four maidens attending the Grail entered the hall, only Repanse de Schoie being permitted by the sacred object to be its bearer. These attendants were grouped in numbers, first four, then eight, then twelve divided into two sixes. Each group carried corresponding numbers of lights. Last came the "princess" of the Grail carrying one. This sequence has baffled many commentators, but Kahane and Kahane point out the marked similarity with the Hermetica, where the groups in the same order "represent the twenty-four stations of the journey of the soul: 4 elements + 8 spheres + 12 signs of the zodiac + 1, the Monad. . . . The Grail procession, in other words, is a representation of the mystic journey of the soul towards the Monad, itself symbolized by the Grail" (op. cit., pp. 105-6).

The end of the Grail quest is the return to the source of life and rebirth into it as divinely self-conscious entities purified by involvement in earthly experiences and having also contributed to the ongoing process of cosmic evolution by refining the substance they have used. The great lesson for Parzival -- for all of us because he is our prototype -- was the interconnected relationship of all earth entities. The bonds of a universal brotherhood make us all kin. The suffering of one hurts all, and compassion in our heart obliges us to ask forever: What ails our brother?

(From Sunrise magazine, November 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Theosophical University Press.)