Ritual to Romance
THE MEDICINE MAN
In previous chapters I have referred to the part played by the Doctor
in a large number of the surviving 'Fertility' ceremonies, and to the fact, noted by other
writers, that even where an active share is no longer assigned to the character, he still
appears among the dramatis personae of these Folk-plays and
processions1. We will now
examine more closely the role allotted to this mysterious personage; we shall find it to
be of extreme antiquity and remarkable significance.
It is perhaps not without significance that a mention of Peredur
(Perceval) in Welsh poetry may also possibly contain a reference to his healing office. I
refer to the well-known Song of the Graves in the Black Book of Carmarthen where
the grave of Mor, son of Peredur Penwetic, is referred to. According to Dr G. Evans the
word penwedic, or perfeddyg, as it may also be read, means chief
Healer. Peredur, it is needless to say, is the Welsh equivalent of
Perceval, Gawain's successor and supplanter in the role of Grail hero.
In the interesting and important work by Professor von Schroeder, to
which I have already often referred, we find the translation of a curious poem (Rig-Veda,
10. 97), a monologue placed in the mouth of a Doctor, or Medicine Man, who vaunts the
virtue of his herbs, and their power to cure human ills2. From the
references made to a special sick man von Schroeder infers that this poem, like others in
the collection, was intended to be acted, as well as recited, and that the personage to be
healed, evidently present on the scene, was probably represented by a dummy, as no
speeches are allotted to the character.
The entire poem consists of 23
verses of four lines each, and is divided by the translator into three distinct sections;
the first is devoted to the praise of herbs in general, their power to
cure the sick man before them, and at the same to bring riches to the Healer - the opening
"Die Kräuter alt, entsprossen einst
He then praises the power of all herbs:
Drei Alter vor den Göttern noch,
Die braunen will Ich preisen jetzt!
Hundert und sieben Arten sinds.
"Ja, hundert Arten, Mütterlein,
Und tausend Zweige habt ihr auch,
Ihr, die ihr hundert Kräfte habt,
Macht diesen Menschen mir gesund.
Ihr Kräuter hört ihr Mütterchen,
Ihr göttlichen, das sag ich euch:
Ross, Rind und Kleid gewänn' ich gern
Und auch dein Leben, lieber Mann!
Wenn ihr ihn rettet diesen Mann."
"Vom Himmel kam der Kräuter Schar
Finally the speaker singles out one herb as
superior to all others:
Geflogen, und da sprechen sie;
Wen wir noch lebend treffen an
Der Mann soll frei von Schaden sein."
"Die Kräuter viel in Soma's Reich
He conjures all other herbs to lend their virtue to this special remedy:
Die hundertfach verständigen,
Von denen bist das beste du
Erfüllst den Wunsch, und heilst das Herz."
"Ihr Krauter all' in Soma's Reich
And the herbs, taking counsel together with Soma their king, answer:
Verbreitet auf der Erde hin,
Ihr, von Brihaspati erzeugt,
Gebt diesem Kraute eure Kraft!
"Nicht nehme Schaden, der euch gräbt,
Noch der, für Welchen Ich euch grub!
Bei uns soll Alles, Mensch, und Vieh,
Gesund und ohne Schaden sein.
"lhr, die ihr höret dies mein Wort,
Ihr, die ihr in der Ferne seid,
Ihr Pflanzen all', vereignet euch,
Gebt diesem Kraute eure Kraft!"
Für Wen uns ein Brahmane braucht
a line which throws a light upon the personality of the speaker; he is
obviously a Brahmin, and the Medicine Man here, as elsewhere, unites the functions of
Priest and Healer.
Den, König, wollen retten wir,"
Professor von Schroeder suggests that this Dramatic Monologue formed
part of the ceremonies of a Soma feast, that it is the Soma plant from which the heavenly
drink is brewed which is to be understood as the first of all herbs and the curer of all
ills, and the reference to Soma as King of the herbs seems to bear out this suggestion.
In a previous chapter3 I have referred to a curious little poem, also found in the
Rig-Veda, and translated by von Schroeder under the title A Folk-Procession at a
Soma-Feast, the dramatis personae of the poem offering, as I pointed out, a
most striking and significant parallel to certain surviving Fertility processions, notably
that of Värdegötzen in Hanover. In this little song which von Schroeder places in the
mouth of the leader of the band of maskers, the Doctor is twice referred to; in the
opening lines we have the Brahmin, the Doctor, the Carpenter, the Smith, given as men
plying different trades, and each and all in search of gain; in the final verse the
speaker announces, "I am a Poet (or Singer), my father a Doctor." Thus of the
various trades and personages enumerated the Doctor alone appears twice over, an
indication of the importance attached to this character.
Unfortunately, in view of the fragmentary condition of the survivals of
early Aryan literature, and the lack of explanatory material at our disposal, it is
impossible to decide what was the precise rôle assigned to the 'Medicine Man';
judging from the general character of the surviving dramatic fragments and the close
parallel which exists between these fragments and the Medieval and Modern Fertility
ceremonies, it seems extremely probable that his original role was identical with that
assigned to his modern counterpart, i.e., that of restoring to life or health the slain,
or suffering, representative of the Vegetation Spirit.
This presumption gains additional support from the fact that it is in
this character that the Doctor appears in Greek Classical Drama. Von Schroeder refers to
the fact that the Doctor was a stock figure in the Greek 'Mimus4' and in Mr
Cornford's interesting volume entitled The Origin of Attic Comedy, the author
reckons the Doctor among the stock Masks of the early Greek Theatre, and assigns to this
character the precise rôle which later survivals have led us to attribute to
The significance of Mr Cornford's work lies in the fact that, while he
accepts Sir Gilbert Murray's deeply interesting and suggestive theory that the origins of
Greek Tragedy are to be sought in "the Agon of the Fertility Spirit, his Pathos, and
Theophany," he contends that a similar origin may be postulated for Attic Comedy -
that the stock Masks (characters) agree with a theory of derivation of such Comedy
from a ritual performance celebrating the renewal of the seasons5. "They
were at first serious, and even awful, figures in a Religious Mystery, the God who every
year is born, and dies, and rises again; his Mother and his Bride; the Antagonist who
kills him; the Medicine Man who restores him to life6."
I would submit that the presence of such a
character in the original ritual drama of Revival which, on my theory, underlies the
romantic form of the Grail legend, may, in view of the above evidence, and of that brought
forward in the previous chapters, be accepted as at least a probable hypothesis.
But, it may be objected, granting that the Doctor in these Fertility
processions and dramas represents a genuine survival of a feature of immemorial antiquity,
a survival to be traced alike in Aryan remains, in Greek literature, and in Medieval
ceremony, what is the precise bearing upon the special subject of our investigations?
There is no Doctor in the Grail legend, although there is certainly abundant scope for his
There may be no Doctor in the Grail legend today, but was there never such
a character? How if this be the key to explain the curious and persistent attribution of
healing skill to so apparently unsuitable a personage as Sir Gawain? I would draw the
attention of my readers to a passage in the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes,
where Gawain, finding a wounded knight by the roadside, proceeds to treat him:
"Et Mesire Gauvain savoit
Other MSS. are rather fuller:
Plus que nuls homs de garir plaie;
Une herbe voit en une haie
Trop bonne pour douleur tolir
De plaie, et il la va cueillir7."
"Et Messires Gauvain savoit
We find reference to Gawain's possession of medical knowledge
elsewhere. In the poem entitled Lancelot et le cerf au pied blanc, Gawain,
finding his friend desperately wounded,
carries him to a physician whom he instructs as to the proper treatment9.
Plus que nus hons vivant de plaies,
Unes herbe voit les une haies
Qu'il connoissoit lonc temps avoit
Que son mestre apris li avoit
Enseigniee et bien moustree,
Et il l'avoit bien esgardee
Si l'a molt bien reconneue8."
"Ende Walewein wiesde den Ersatere mere
In the parallel adventure related in Morien Gawain heals
Lancelot without the aid of any physician11:
Ene const, die daertoe halp wel sere10."
"Doe was Walewein harde blide
They ride to an anchorite's cell:
Ende bant hem sine wonden ten tide
Met selken crude die daer dochten
Dat si niet bloden mochten12."
"Si waren doe in dire gedochten
The Dutch Lancelot has numerous references to Gawain's skill
in healing. Of course the advocates of the originality of Chrétien de Troyes will object
that these references, though found in poems which have no connection with Chrétien, and
which are translations from lost French originals of an undetermined date, are one and all
loans from the more famous poem. This, however, can hardly be contended of the Welsh
Triads; there we find Gwalchmai, the Welsh Gawain, cited as one of the three men "To
whom the nature of every object was known14,"
an accomplishment exceedingly necessary for a 'Medicine
Man,' but not at first sight especially needful for the equipment of a knight15. This
persistent attribution of healing skill is not, so far as my acquaintance with medieval
Romance goes, paralleled in the case of any other knight; even Tristan, who is probably
the most accomplished of heroes of romance, the most thoroughly trained in all branches of
knightly education, is not credited with any such knowledge. No other knight, save Gawain,
has the reputation of a Healer, yet Gawain, the Maidens' Knight, the 'fair Father of
Nurture' is, at first sight, hardly the personage one might expect to possess such skill.
Why he should be so persistently connected with healing was for long a problem to me;
recently, however, I have begun to suspect that we have in this apparently motiveless
attribution the survival of an early stage of tradition in which not only did Gawain cure
the Grail King, but he did so, not by means of a question, or by the welding of a broken
sword, but by more obvious and natural means, the administration of a healing herb.
Gawain's character of Healer belongs to him in his role of Grail Winner.
Mochten sie daer comen tier stont
Datten Walewein soude maken gesont13."
Some years ago, in the course of my reading, I came across a passage in
which certain knights of Arthur's court, riding through a forest, come upon a herb 'which
belonged to the Grail.' Unfortunately the reference, at the time I met with it,
though it struck me as curious, did not possess any special
significance, and either I omitted to make a note of it, or entered it in a book which,
with sundry others, went mysteriously astray in the process of moving furniture. In any
case, though I have searched diligently I have failed to recover the passage, but I note
it here in the hope that one of my readers may be more fortunate.
I have no desire to press the point unduly, but it is certainly
significant that, entirely apart from any such theory of the evolution of the Grail legend
as that advanced in these pages, a Welsh scholar should have suggested a rendering of the
title of the Grail hero which is in complete harmony with that theory; a rendering also
which places him side by side with his compatriot Gwalchmai, even as the completely
evolved Grail story connects him with Gawain. In any case there is food for reflection in
the fact that, the possibility of such an origin once admitted, the most apparently incongruous,
and inharmonious, elements of the story show themselves capable of a natural and unforced
In face of the evidence above set forth
it seems impossible to deny that the Doctor, or Medicine Man, did, from the very earliest
ages, play an important part in Dramatic Fertility Ritual, that he still survives in the
modern Folk-play, the rude representative of the early ritual form, and it is at least
possible that the attribution of healing skill to so romantic and chivalrous a character
as Sir Gawain may depend upon the fact that, at an early, and pre-literary stage of his
story, he played the rôle traditionally assigned to the Doctor that of restoring
to life and health the dead, or wounded representative of the Spirit of Vegetation.
If I am right in my reading of this complicated problem the mise-en-scène of
the Grail story was originally a loan from a ritual actually performed, and familiar to
those who first told the tale. This ritual, in its earlier stages comparatively simple and
objective in form, under the process of an insistence upon the inner and spiritual
significance, took upon itself a more complex and esoteric character, the rite became a
Mystery, and with this change the rôle of the principal actors became of
heightened significance. That of the Healer could no longer be adequately fulfilled by the
administration of a medicinal remedy; the relation of Body and Soul became of cardinal
importance for the Drama, the Medicine Man gave place to the Redeemer; and his task
involved more than the administration of the original Herbal remedy. In fact in the final
development of the story the Pathos
is shared alike by the representative of the Vegetation Spirit, and the Healer, whose task
involves a period of stern testing and probation.
If we wish to
understand clearly the evolution of the Grail story we must realize that the simple
Fertility Drama from which it sprung has undergone a gradual and mysterious change, which
has invested it with elements at once 'rich and strange,' and that though Folk-lore may be
the key to unlock the outer portal of the Grail castle it will not suffice to give us the
entrance to its deeper secrets.
APPENDIX TO CHAPTER VIII
While having no connection with the main subject of our study, the
Grail legend, I should like to draw the attention of students of Medieval literature to
the curious parallel between the Rig-Veda poem of the Medicine Man or Kräuter-Lied
as it is also called, and Rusteboeuf's Dist de I'Erberie. Both are monologues,
both, presuppose the presence of an audience, in each case the speaker is one who vaunts
his skill in the use of herbs, in each case he has in view the ultimate gain to himself.
Here are the opening lines of the Medieval poem16:
"Seignor qui ci estes venu
He has been
long with the lord of Caire, where he won much gold; in Puille, Calabre,
Petit et grant, jone et chenu,
Il vos est trop bien avenu
Sachiez de voir;
Je ne vos vueil pas deçevoir
Bien le porroz aperçevoir
Ainz que m'en voise.
Asiez vos, ne fetes noise
Si escotez s'il ne vos poise
Je sui uns mires."
"Ai herbes prises
There is no reference in the poem to a cure about to be performed in
the presence of the audience, which does not however exclude the possibility of such cure
Qui de granz vertuz sont enprises
Stis quelque Mal qu'el soient mises
Le maus s'enfuit."
It would be interesting to know under what circumstances such a poem
was recited, whether it formed part of a popular representation. The audience in view is
of a mixed character, young and old, great and small, and one has a vision of the Quack
Doctor at some village fair, on the platform before his booth, declaiming the virtues of
his nostrums before an audience representative of all ranks and ages. It is a far cry from
such a Medieval scene to the prehistoric days of the Rig-Veda, but the mise-en-scène
is the same; the popular 'seasonal' feast, the Doctor with his healing herbs, which he
in skilful rhyme, the hearers, drawn from all ranks, some credulous, some amused, There
seems very little doubt that both poems are specimens, and very good specimens, of a genre
the popularity and vitality of which are commensurate with the antiquity of its
I Cf. supra
Chap. 5, pp. 52, 54; Chap. 7, pp. 90, 91.
2 Mysterium und Mimus, p. 369, Der Mimus des Medizinmannes.
3 Cf. Chap. 5, pp. 53, 54.
4 Op. cit. p. 371
5 Op. cit. pp. 78 et seq.
6 I would draw attention to the fact that while scholars are now coming to the conclusion
that Classic Drama, whether Tragedy or Comedy, reposes for its origin upon this ancient
ritual, others have pointed out that Modern Drama derives from the ritual Play of the
Church, the first recorded medieval drama being the Easter Quem Quaeritis? the
dramatic celebration of Our Lord's Resurrection. Cf. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage,
where this thesis is elaborately developed and illustrated. It is a curious fact that
certain texts of this, the 'Classical' Passion Play, contain a scene between the Maries
and the 'Unguentarius' from whom they purchase spices for the embalmment of Our Lord. Can
this be a survival of the Medicine Man? (Cf. op. cit. Vol. ii. p. 33.)
7 Bibl. Nat., fonds Français, 12577, fo. 40
8 Bibl. Nat., f. F. 1453, fo. 49. Parzival, Bk. x. Il, 413-22.
Jonckbloet, Vol.II. Il. 22271-23126.
10 Op. cit. Il. 22825-26.
11 Op. cit. Vol. 1. Il. 42540-47262.
12 Op. cit. Il. 46671-74.
13 Op. cit. Il. 46678-80.
14 Cf. Loth, Les Mabinogion, Vol. ii. p. 230, and note. The other two are Riwallawn Walth
Banhadlen, and Llacheu son of Arthur.
15 The only instance in which I have found medicine directly connected with the knightly
order is in the case of the warrior clan of the Samurai, in Japan, where members,
physically unfitted for the task of a warrior, were trained as Royal Doctors, the Folk
Doctors being recruited from a class below the Samurai. Cf. Medizin der Natur-Völker,
Bartels, p. 65.
16 Cf. OEuvres de
Rutebauf, Kressner, p. 115
17 My attention was drawn to the poem by
references to it in The Mediaeval Stage, Chambers.