It's taken some time but I've finally got round to writing about the Grail.
Recently, an article appeared in the press about how British Police raided a pub in search of the Holy Grail:
While the article is slightly weird, it proves the on-going fascination with the topic of the Grail. Obviously I share this fascination as the Quest for the Grail was the engine that drove my first novel, Lions of the Grail and, as the titles suggest, it was a theme that continued through the recently released sequel, The Waste Land and will persist through the third book in the series, tentatively titled “The Fisher King”.
The mystery of what the nature of the Grail actually is, issomething that fuels people’s fascination. It is generally described as a cup - the cup that was used at the Last Supper and also sometimes the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Christ as it flowed down from the cross. However over the centuries it has also been described as a cauldron, a plate with a severed head on it and, perhaps most odd, a stone that fell from the sky. Its the gloriously vague nature of the tales of the Grail combined with their multiple authours and the several strands of tradition -both Christian and Pagan- that have been entwined in their creation that have allowed all these interpretations to not just be created, but actually be plausible.
I returned to this topic recently while I was re-reading Parzifal, the medieval German romance written by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the 13th century. While going through it I began to think that there may be more to the “Stone from the sky” interpretation than meets the eye, and in fact it may even be an echo of an actual, catastrophic event that happened in the 5th Century.
We are familiar, if a little uncomfortable, with the concept that every so often something hurtles out of deep space and smashes into the earth, wiping out large quantities of life causing massive devastation. It is the current popular theory, for example, of what killed off the dinosaurs.
A few years ago Professor Mike Baillie of Queens University of Belfast appeared on a Channel 4 TV series which detailed the effects of a cosmic impact in the mid 6th century AD. The basic theory was that a large object, probably a comet or a asteroid had struck the earth in the Northern hemisphere sometime around 536 AD, throwing so much dust and debris into the air that it caused what we would refer to as a "nuclear winter".
His theory is outlined in this article
Through tree ring dating and historical references he showed how over a period of several years vegetation had grown at a stunted rate leading to famine and disease throughout Northern Europe.
This reminded me of the tales of King Arthur, particularly those surrounding the Quest for the Holy Grail. As most of those familiar with the tale will know, one of the roots of the Quest is the striking (unwittingly by Sir Balin) of the "Dolorous Blow", a fateful stroke that maims the Fisher King through the thighs, making him infertile and therefore destroying the fertility of the land, thus turning the kingdom into the "Waste Land".
As Thomas Malory put it in his Le Morte d'Arthur: "and through that stroke three kingdoms shall be in great poverty, misery and wretchedness twelve years".
|Medieval peasants struggling in mud|
It is only the finding of the Grail that can heal the Waste Land. What if the folk memory of the cosmic impact had become mythologised into the legend of the Waste Land and the Grail?
I've always been curious about the fact that while most of the stories of King Arthur take place in a vague far away and long ago" realm, the story of the Grail is specifically dated. Almost all versions of the tale concur that it began when Galahad arrived at King Arthur's court at Pentecost, 454 years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Given conventional wisdom, that would mean that the quest for the Holy Grail began in 487 AD (Jesus being 33 years old when he was crucified). Given that Galahad was 18 years old on when he arrived at court and that he was conceived at the same time Balin struck the dolorous strike that would date the origin of the Waste Land to 469 AD.
So could the Waste Land have been an actual event, a decimation of Northern Europe due to climate change invoked by an impact from an asteroid or meteorite throwing massive amounts of dust and smoke into the atmosphere? Prof. Baillie's cosmic impact theory, backed by dendrochronology , places the event around 536 AD, which is 67 years after 469 AD, however given the vagaries of medieval time measuring, calendar changes and the fact that authours like Mallory were writing nearly as far distant from the 6th century as we are from them, its close enough to give pause for thought.
Another curious link between the story of the Holy Grail and the idea of an object from space hitting the earth exist, mainly in the version of the legend mentioned above, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal. The work is one of the earliest to deal with the Holy Grail (written circa 1220 AD) and unlike in other versions of the tale, Wolfram's grail is a stone, not a cup. Specifically, it is called the `Lapsit exillis'. This name is a piece of pseudo-latin that does not satisfactorily translate to any meaningful phrase, but two suggestions are "stone from exile" or "Stone from Heaven/the sky".
Wolfram specifically says the stone/Grail is kept by the Knights Templar, and that he learnt about the tale from a man called "Kyot", who in turn got it from a Jewish source in Moorish Spain. The Templar and Moorish link points to the The Fifth Pillar of Islam, the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. One of the main rituals of the Hajj include walking seven times around the Kaaba and touching a Black Stone, an ancient cornerstone of the central structure within the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The most prevalent theory of the nature of The Black Stone is that it is a meteorite.
So all sorts of intriguing possibilities exist.
I've written before about how Norse mythology may contain a folk memory of a similar event. Perhaps someday I'll perhaps to pull the two together. It might make a good book.