Ritual to Romance
THE SECRET OF THE GRAIL (2)
THE NAASSENE DOCUMENT
We have now seen that the Ritual which as we have postulated, lies, in a fragmentary
and distorted condition, at the root of our existing Grail romances, possessed elements
capable of assimilation with a religious system which the great bulk of its modern
adherents would unhesitatingly declare to be its very antithesis. That Christianity might
have borrowed from previously existing cults certain outward signs and symbols, might have
accomodated itself to already existing Fasts and Feasts, may be, perforce has had to be,
more , or less grudgingly admitted; that such a rapprochement should have gone
further, that it should even have been inherent in the very nature of the Faith, that, to
some of the deepest thinkers of old, Christianity should have been held for no new thing
but a fulfilment of the promise enshrined in the Mysteries from the beginning of the
world, will to many be a strange and startling thought. Yet so it was, and I firmly
believe that it is only in the recognition of this one-time claim of essential kinship
between Christianity and the Pagan Mysteries that we shall find the key to the Secret of
And here at the outset I would ask those readers who are inclined to turn with feelings
of contemptuous impatience from what they deem an unprofitable discussion of idle speculations
which have little or nothing to do with a problem they hold to be one of purely literary
interest, to be solved by literary comparison and criticism, and by no other method, to
withhold their verdict till they have carefully examined the evidence I am about to bring
forward, evidence which has never so far been examined in this connection, but which if I
am not greatly mistaken provides us with clear and unmistakable proof of the actual
existence of a ritual in all points analogous to that indicated by the Grail romances.
In the previous chapter we have seen that there is evidence, and
abundant evidence, not merely of the existence of Mysteries connected with the worship of
Adonis-Attis, but of the high importance assigned to such Mysteries; at the time of the
birth of Christianity they were undoubtedly the most popular and the most influential of
the foreign cults adopted by Imperial Rome. In support of this statement I quoted certain
passages from Cumont's Religions Orientales, in which he touches on the subject:
here are two other quotations which may well serve as introduction to the evidence we are
about to examine. "Researches on the doctrines and practices common to Christianity
and the Oriental Mysteries almost invariably go back, beyond the limits of the Roman
Empire, to the Hellenized East. It is there we must seek the key of enigmas still unsolved
-The essential fact to remember is that the Eastern religions had diffused, first anterior
to, then parallel with, Christianity, doctrines which acquired with this latter a universal authority
in the decline of the ancient world. The preaching of Asiatic priests prepared in their
own despite the triumph of the Church1."
But the triumph of
the new Faith once assured the organizing, dominating, influence of Imperial Rome speedily
came into play. Christianity, originally an Eastern, became a Western, religion, the
'Mystery' elements were frowned upon, kinship with pre-Christian faiths ignored, or
denied; where the resemblances between the cults proved too striking for either of these
methods such resemblances were boldly attributed to the invention of the Father of Lies
himself, a cunning snare whereby to deceive unwary souls. Christianity was carefully
trimmed, shaped, and forced into an Orthodox mould, and anything that refused to adapt
itself to this drastic process became by that very refusal anathema to the righteous.
Small wonder that, under such conditions, the early ages of the Church were marked by a
fruitful crop of Heresies, and heresy-hunting became an intellectual pastime in high
favour among the strictly orthodox. Among the writers of this period whose works have been
preserved Hippolytus, Bishop of Portus in the early years of the third century, was one of
the most industrious. He compiled a voluminous treatise, entitled Philosophumena,
or The Refutation of all Heresies, of which only one MS. and that of the
fourteenth century, has descended to us. The work was already partially known
by quotations, the first Book had been attributed to Origen, and published in the editio
princeps of his works. The text originally consisted of ten Books, but of these the
first three, and part of the fourth, are missing from the MS. The Origen text supplies
part of the lacuna, but two entire Books, and art of a third are missing.
Now these special Books, we learn from the Introduction, dealt with the doctrines and
Mysteries of the Egyptians and Chaldaeans, whose most sacred secrets Hippolytus boasts
that he has divulged. Curiously enough, not only are these Books lacking but in the
Epitome at the beginning of Book X. the summary of their contents is also missing, a
significant detail, which, as has been suggested by critics, looks like a deliberate
attempt on the part of some copyist to suppress the information contained in the Books in
question. Incidentally this would seem to suggest that the worthy bishop was not making an
empty boast when he claimed to be a revealer of secrets.
But what is of special interest to us is the treatment meted out to the Christian
Mystics, whom Hippolytus stigmatizes as heretics, and whose teaching he deliberately
asserts to be simply that of the Pagan Mysteries. He had come into possession of a secret
document belonging to one of these sects, whom he calls the Naassenes; this document he
gives in full, and it certainly throws a most extraordinary light upon the relation which
this early Christian sect held to exist between
the New, and the Old, Faith. Mr G. R. S. Mead, in his translation of the Hermetic writings
entitled Thrice-Greatest Hermes, has given a careful translation and detailed
analysis of this most important text, and it is from his work that I shall quote.
So far as the structure of the document is concerned, Mr Mead
distinguishes three stages.
(a) An original Pagan source, possibly dating from the last half of the first century
B.C., but containing material of earlier date.
In the translation given by Mr Mead these
successive layers are distinguished by initial letters and difference of type, but these
distinctions are not of importance for us; what we desire to know is what was really held
and taught by these mystics of the Early Church. Mr Mead, in his introductory remarks,
summarizes the evidence as, follows: "The claim of
these Gnostics was practically that Christianity or rather the Good News of The Christ,
was precisely the consummation of the inner doctrine of the Mystery- institutions of all
the nations: the end of them all was the revelation of the Mystery of Man3." In
other words the teaching of these Naassenes was practically a synthesis of all the
Mystery-religions, and although Hippolytus regards them as nothing more than devotees of
the cult of the Magna Mater, we shall see that, while their doctrine and teaching
were undoubtedly based mainly upon the doctrine and practices of the 'Phrygian Mysteries',
they practically identified the deity therein worshipped, i.e., Attis, with the presiding
deity of all the other Mysteries.
(b) The working over of this source by a Jewish Mystic whom the critic holds to have
been a contemporary of Philo.
(c) A subsequent working over, with additions, by a Christian Gnostic (Naassene), in
the middle of the second century A.D. Finally the text was edited by Hippolytus, in the Refutation,
about 222 A.D. Thus the ground covered is roughly from 50 B.C. to 220 A.D.2
Mr Mead draws attention to the fact that Hippolytus
places these Naassenes in the fore-front of his Refutation; they are the first
group of Heretics with whom he deals, and we may therefore conclude that he considered
them, if not the most important, at least the oldest, of such sectaries4.
With these prefatory remarks it will be well to let the document speak for itself. It
is of considerable length, and, as we have seen, of intricate construction. I shall
therefore quote only those sections which bear directly upon the subject of our
investigation; any reader desirous of fuller information can refer to Mr Mead's work, or
to the original text published by Reitzenstein5.
outset it will be well to understand that the central doctrine of all these Mysteries is
what Reitzenstein sums up as "the doctrine of the Man, the Heavenly Man, the Son of
God, who descends and becomes a slave of the Fate Sphere: the Man who, though originally
endowed with all power, descends into weakness and bondage, and has to win his own
freedom, and regain his original state. This doctrine is not Egyptian, but seems to have
been in its origin part and parcel of the Chaldean Mystery-tradition and was widely spread
in Hellenistic circles6."
Thus, in the introductory remarks prefixed by Hippolytus
to the document he is quoting he asserts that the Naassenes honour as the Logos of all
universals Man, and Son of Man - "and they divide him into three, for they say he has
a mental, psychic, and choïc aspect; and they think that the Gnosis of this Man is the
beginning of the possibility of knowing God, saying, 'The beginning of Perfection is the
Gnosis of Man, but the Gnosis of God is perfected Perfection.' All these, mental, psychic
and earthy, descended together into one Man, Jesus, the Son of Mary7."
Thus the Myth of Man, the Mystery of Generation, is the subject matter of the
document in question, and this myth is set forth with reference to all the Mysteries,
beginning with the Assyrian.
Paragraph 5 runs: "Now the Assyrians call this
Mvstery Adonis, and whenever it is called Adonis it is Aphrodite who is in
love with and desires Soul so-called, and Aphrodite is Genesis according to them8."
in the next section the writer jumps from the Assyrian to the Phrygian Mysteries, saying,
"But if the Mother of the Gods emasculates Attis, she too regarding him as the object
of her love, it is the Blessed Nature above of the super-Cosmic, and Aeonian spaces which
calls back the masculine power of Soul to herself9."
In a note to this Mr Mead quotes from The Life of Isidorus: "I fell
asleep and in a vision Attis seemed to appear to me, and on behalf of the Mother of gods
to initiate me into the feast called Hilario, a mystery which discloses the way of our
salvation from Hades." Throughout the document reference is continually made to the
Phrygians and their doctrine of Man. The Eleusinian Mysteries are then treated of as
subsequent to the Phrygian, "after the Phrygians, the Athenians," but the
teaching is represented as being essentially identical.
We have then a passage of great interest for our
investigation, in which the Mysteries are sharply divided into two classes, and their
separate content clearly defined. There are - "the little Mysteries, those of the
Fleshly Generation, and after men have been initiated into them they should cease for a
while and become initiated in the Great, Heavenly, Mysteries - for this is the Gate of
Heaven, and this is the House of God, where the Good God dwells alone, into which
House no impure man shall come10."
Hippolytus remarks that "these Naassenes say that the
performers in theatres, they too, neither say nor do anything without design - for
example, when the people assemble in the theatre, and a man comes on the stage clad in a
robe different from all others with lute in hand on which he plays, and thus chants the
Great Mysteries, not knowing what he says:
'Whether blest Child of Kronos, or of Zeus, or of Great Rhea,
This is the Attis of many forms, of whom they sing as follows:
Hail Attis, thou mournful song of Rhea!
Assyrians call thee thrice-longed-for Adonis;
All Egypt calls thee Osiris;
The Wisdom of Hellas names thee Men's Heavenly Horn;
The Samothracians call thee august Adama;
The Haemonians, Korybas;
The Phrygians name thee Papa sometimes;
At times again Dead, or God, or Unfruitful, or Aipolos
Or Green Reaped Wheat-ear;
Or the 'Fruitful, that Amygdalas brought forth,
'Of Attis will I sing, of Rhea's Beloved,
On this Hippolytus comments: "For these and such-like reasons these Naassenes frequent
what are called the Mysteries of the Great Mother, believing that they obtain the clearest
view of the universal Mystery from the things done in them."
Not with the booming of bells,:
Nor with the deep-toned pipe of Idaean Kuretes;
But I will blend my song with Phoebus' music of the lyre,
Evoi, Evan, -for thou art Pan, thou Bacchus art, and Shepherd of bright
And after all this evidence of elaborate syncretism, this practical identification of
all the Mystery-gods with the Vegetation deity Adonis-Attis, we are confronted in
the concluding paragraph, after stating that "the True Gate is Jesus the
Blessed," with this astonishing claim, from the pen of the latest redactor, "And
of all men we alone are Christians, accomplishing the Mystery at the Third Gate12."
Now what conclusions are to be drawn from this document which, in its entirety, Mr Mead
regards as "the most important source we have for the higher side (regeneration) of
the Hellenistic Mysteries"?
First of all, does it not provide a complete and overwhelming justification of those
scholars who have insisted upon the importance of these Vegetation cults - a justification of which,
from the very nature of their studies, they could not have been aware?
Sir James Frazer,
and those who followed him, have dealt with the public side of the, cult, with its
importance as a recognized vehicle for obtaining material advantages; it was the social,
rather than the individual, aspect which appealed to them. Now we find that in the
immediate pre- and post- Christian era these cults were considered not
only most potent factors for assuring the material prosperity of land and folk, but
were also held to be the most appropriate vehicle for imparting the highest religious
teaching. The Vegetation deities, Adonis-Attis, and more especially the Phrygian god, were
the chosen guides to the knowledge of, and union with, the supreme Spiritual Source of
Life, of which they were the communicating medium.
We must remember that though the document before us is, in its actual form, the
expression of faith of a discredited 'Christian-Gnostic' sect, the essential groundwork,
upon which it is elaborated belongs to a period anterior to Christianity, and that the Ode
in honour of Attis quoted above not only forms part of the original source, but is, in the
opinion of competent critics, earlier than the source itself.
I would also recall to the memory of the reader the
passage previously quoted from Culmont, in which he refers to the use made by the
Neo-Platonist philosophers of the Attis legend, as the mould into which they poured their special theories
of the universe, and of generation13. Can
the importance of a cult capable of such far-reaching
developments be easily exaggerated? Secondly, and of more immediate importance for our
investigation, is it not evident that we have here all the elements necessary for a
mystical development of the Grail tradition? The Exoteric side of the cult gives us the
Human the Folk-lore elements - the Suffering King; the Waste Land; the effect upon the
Folk; the task that lies before the hero; the group of Grail symbols. The Esoteric side
provides us with the Mystic Meal, the Food of Life connected in some mysterious way with a
Vessel which is the centre of the cult; the combination of that vessel with a Weapon, a
combination bearing a well-known 'generative' significance; a double initiation into the
source of the lower and higher spheres of Life; the ultimate proof of the successful issue
of the final test in the restoration of the King. I would ask any honest-minded critic
whether any of the numerous theories previously advanced has shown, itself capable of
furnishing so comprehensive a solution of the ensemble problem?
At the same
time it should be pointed out that the acceptance of this theory of the origin story in no
way excludes the possibility of the introduction of other elements during the period of
romantic evolution. As I have previously insisted14, not all of those who handled the
theme knew the real character of the material with which they were dealing, while even
among those who did know there were some who allowed themselves considerable latitude in their methods
of composition; who did not scruple to introduce elements foreign to the original Stoff,
but which would make an appeal to the public of the day. Thus while Bleheris who, I
believe, really held a tradition of the original cult, contented himself with a
practically simple recital of the initiations, later redactors, under the influence of the
Crusades, and the Longinus legend - possibly also actuated by a desire to substitute a
more edifying explanation than that originally offered - added a directly Christian
interpretation of the Lance. As it is concerning the Lance alone that Gawain asks, the
first modification must have been at this point; the bringing into line of the twin
symbol, the Vase, would come later.
it may even be, the rivalry, between the two great Benedictine houses of Fescamp and
Glastonbury, led to the redaction, in the interests of the latter, of a Saint-Sang
legend, parallel to that which was the genuine possession of the French
house15. For we must
emphasize the fact that the original Joseph-Glastonbury story is a Saint-Sang,
and not a Grail legend. A phial containing the Blood of Our Lord was said to have been
buried in the tomb of Joseph - surely a curious fate for so precious a relic - and the
Abbey never laid claim to the possession of the Vessel of the Last Supper16. Had it done
so it would certainly have become a noted centre of pilgrimage - as Dr Brugger acutely
remarks such relics are besucht, not gesucht.
there is reason to believe that the kindred Abbey of Fescamp had developed its genuine Saint-Sang
legend into a Grail romance, and there is critical evidence to lead us to suppose that the
text we know as Perlesvaus was, in its original form, now it is to be feared practically
impossible to reconstruct, connected with that Abbey. As we have it, this alone, of all
the Grail romances, connects the hero alike with Nicodemus, and with Joseph of Arimathea
the respective protagonists of the Saint-Sang legends, while its assertion that
the original Latin text was found in a holy house situate in marshes, the burial place of
Arthur and Guenevere unmistakably points to Glastonbury.
In any case, when Robert de
Borron proposed to himself the task of composing a trilogy on the subject the Joseph
legend was already in a developed form, and a fresh element, the combination of the Grail
legend with the story of a highly popular Folk-tale hero, known in this connection as
Perceval (though he has had many names) was established.
Borron was certainly aware of the real character of his material; he knew the Grail
cult as Christianized Mystery, and, while following the romance development, handled the
theme on distinctively religious lines, preserving the Mystery element in its three-fold
development, and equating the Vessel of the Mystic Feast with the Christian Eucharist.
From what we now know of the material it seems certain that the equation was already
established, and that Borron was simply stating in terms of romance what was already known
to him in terms of Mystery. In face of the evidence above set forth there
can no longer be any doubt that the Mystic Feast of the Nature cults really had, and that
at a very early date, been brought into touch with the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
But to Chrétien de Troyes the story was romance, pure and simple.
There was still a certain element of awe connected with Grail, and Grail Feast, but of the
real meaning and origin of the incidents he had, I am convinced, no idea whatever.
Probably many modifications were already in his source but the result so far as his poem
is concerned is that he duplicated the character of the Fisher King; he separated both,
Father and Son, from the Wasted Land, transferring the responsibility for the woes of Land
and Folk to the Quester, who, although his failure might be responsible for their
continuance, never had anvthing to do with their origin. He bestowed the wound of the
Grail King, deeply significant in its original conception and connection, upon Perceval's
father, a shadowy character, entirely apart from the Grail tradition. There is no trace of
the Initiation elements in his poem, no Perilous Chapel, no welding of the Sword. We have
here passed completely and entirely into the land of romance, the doors of the Temple are
closed behind us. It is the story of Perceval li Gallois, not the Ritual of the Grail,
which fills the stage, and with the story of Perceval there comes upon the scene a crowd
of Folk-tale themes, absolutely foreign to the Grail itself.
Thus we have not only the central theme of the lad reared
in woodland solitude, making his entrance into a world of whose
ordinary relations he is absolutely and ludicrously ignorant, and the traditional
illustrations of the results of that ignorance, such as the story of the Lady of the Tent
and the stolen ring; but, we have also the sinister figure of the Red Knight with his
Witch Mother, the three drops of blood upon the snow, and the ensuing love trance; pure
Folk-tale themes, mingled with the more chivalric elements of the rescue of a distressed
maiden and the vanquishing in single combat of doughty antagonists, Giant, or Saracen. One
and all of them elements offering widespread popular Parallels and inviting the unwary
critic into paths which lead him far astray from the goal of his quest, the Grail Castle.
I dispute in no way the possible presence of Celtic elements in this complex. The Lance
may well have borrowed at one time features from early Irish tradition, at another details
obviously closely related to the Longinus legend. It is even possible that, as Burdach
insists, features of the Byzantine Liturgy may have Coloured the representation of the
Grail procession, although, for my own part, I consider such a theory highly improbable in
view of the facts that (a) Chrétien's poem otherwise shows no traces of Oriental
influence; (b) the 'Spear' in the Eastern rite is simply a small spear-shaped knife; (c)
the presence of the lights is accounted for by the author of Sone de Nansai on
the ground of a Nativity legend, the authenticity of which was pointed out by the late M.
Gaston Paris; (d) it is only in the later prose form that we find any suggestion of a
Grail Chapel, whereas were the source of the story really to be found in the Mass, such a
feature would certainly have had its
place in the earliest versions. But in each and all these cases the solution proposed has
no relation to other features of the story; it is consequently of value in, and per
se, only, and cannot be regarded as valid evidence for the source of the legend as a
whole. In the process of transmutation from Ritual to Romance, the kernel, the Grail
legend proper, may be said to have formed for itself a shell composed of accretions of
widely differing provenance. It is the legitimate task of criticism to analyse
such accretions, and to resolve them into their original elements, but they are
accretions, and should be treated as such, not confounded with the original and essential
material. After upwards of thirty years spent in careful study of the Grail legend and
romances I am firmly and entirely convinced that the root origin of the whole bewildering
complex is to be found in the Vegetation Ritual, treated from the esoteric point of view
as a Life-Cult, and in that alone. Christian Legend, and traditional Folk-tale,
have undoubtedly contributed to the perfected romantic corpus, but they are in
truth subsidiary and secondary features; a criticism that would treat them as original and
primary can but defeat its own object; magnified out of proportion they become
stumbling-blocks upon the path, instead of sign-posts towards the goal.
1. Cumont, op.
cit. Introd. pp. xx and xxi.
Hermes, Vol. 1. p. 195.
3. 0p. cit. p. 141
4. Op. cit. p. 142.
5. 0p. cit. pp. 146 et seq. Reitzenstein, Die Hellenistischen
Mysterien Religionen, Leipzig, 1910 gives the document in the original. There
is also a translation of Hippolytus in the Ante-Nicene Library.
6. Quoted by Mead, op. cit. p. 138.
7. 0p. cit. pp. 146, 147.
8. 0p. cit. p. 151.
9. 0p. cit. p. 152. Mr Mead concludes that there is here a lacuna in the original.
10. 0p. cit. p. 181. In a note Mr Mead says
of the Greater Mysteries, "presumably the candidate went through some symbolic rite
of death and resurrection."
11. 0p. cit. pp. 185, 186. I would draw
especial attention to this passage in view of the present controversy as to the Origin of
Drama. It looks as if the original writer of the document (and this section is in the
Pagan Source) would have inclined to the views of Sir Gilbert Murray, Miss Harrison and Mr
Cornford rather than to those championed by their sarcastic critic, Sir W. Ridgeway.
12. Op. cit. p. 190.
13. Vide supra, p. 137.
14. Cf. Legend of Sir Perceval, Vol. II. Chapters 10 and 11.
15. Cf. my Quest
of the Holy Grail, Bell, 1913, Chap. 4, for summary of evidence on this point.
16. Cf. Heinzel, A1t-Franz. Gral-Romanen, p. 72.