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The Grail and Joseph Campbell

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  • #72962
    Robert Juliano
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    One of my favorite things about Joseph Campbell was his passion for what he called the individual path. Campbell came to believe that the individual quest and the individual path embodied best the authentic spiritual path of the West. One of Campbell’s favorite passages in all of Grail literature which embodies this individual path comes from La Queste del Saint Graal, a 13th century text whose authorship is unknown:

    They [the knights of the Round Table] thought that it would be a disgrace to go forth [on the quest for the Grail unveiled] as a group. So, each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where there was no path and where it was darkest.

    He also felt very strongly that the West needed to find its own way forward, and this is compellingly expressed by Dr. Heinrich Zimmer in Philosophies of India, a book that Campbell edited (and completed when Dr. Zimmer passed):

    We of the Occident are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ. This is the real reason why we become both vexed and stimulated, uneasy yet interested, when confronted with the concepts and images of Oriental wisdom. This crossing is one to which the people of all civilizations come in the typical course of the development of their capacity and requirement for religious experience, and India’s teachings force us to realize what its problems are. But we cannot take over the Indian solutions. We must enter the new period our own way and solve its questions for ourselves, because though truth, the radiance of reality, is universally one and the same, it is mirrored variously according to the mediums in which it is reflected. Truth appears differently in different lands and ages according to the living materials out of which its symbols are hewn.

    The book I consider to be his magnum opus and his finest scholarly work, one which more fully explores this theme of the individual path as a spiritual path appropriate for the West, is entitled Creative Mythology, the fourth volume in this Masks of God tetrology. Part of Campbell’s exploration of the individual path in the book is through Arthurian literature. Now, Joseph Campbell had studied Grail literature during his academic studies and was a student of one of the foremost world authorities on Arthurian and Grail literature, Professor Roger Loomis of Columbia University.

    Campbell’s favorite rendering of the Grail quest was the 13th century poem Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach. There are many parts of that poem which critique the then prevalent dogma of Christianity. But, one of the things I love about von Eschenbach’s poem is the description of the Grail itself and of its qualities, the latter progressively revealed as the story unfolds. The Grail is not the cup of Christ here – it isn’t even a cup. It is a stone which, as I’ll mention later, is in many ways deeply similar to the lapis philosophorum (Philosophers Stone) of the alchemists. Note that this poem was written ~100 years after the first alchemical text in Arabic was translated to Latin in 1144 which constituted the beginning of medieval Latin alchemy.

    In this poem, the Grail is a precious stone endowed with magic powers and is described as follows:

    Upon a green achmardi she carried the perfection of Paradise, both root and branch; this was a thing called the Grail, earth’s perfection’s transcendence.

    An achmardi is a green and gold-brocaded silk. von Eschenbach continues describing the Grail. The Grail is the “perfection of Paradise” which was brought from heaven to Earth by the neutral angels who did not take part in the conflict between God and Lucifer. The name of the Grail is “lapis exilis” (Latin: “small stone”).

    The poem gradually reveals that the Grail offers all sorts of food and drink, has rejuvenating and life-saving powers which prevent human beings from dying during the week following their having seen it, and every Good Friday, the power of the Grail is renewed with a host brought by a dove from heaven. And, the Grail has appearing and vanishing inscriptions that indicate the names of boys and virgins destined for the service of the Grail. These are the guardians who served the Grail after the neutral angels had completed their task in bringing it to Earth. I am convinced that Wolfram was versed in Arab culture and its works, possibly (and especially) Arabic alchemy, partly because his description of the Grail reminds me so much of the lapis philosophorum.

    It is simply a wonderful poem to be read on its own or, if you like, along with Creative Mythology where Campbell provides a detailed commentary on the work.

    #72964

    We of the Occident are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ. This is the real reason why we become both vexed and stimulated, uneasy yet interested, when confronted with the concepts and images of Oriental wisdom. This crossing is one to which the people of all civilizations come in the typical course of the development of their capacity and requirement for religious experience, and India’s teachings force us to realize what its problems are. But we cannot take over the Indian solutions. We must enter the new period our own way and solve its questions for ourselves, because though truth, the radiance of reality, is universally one and the same, it is mirrored variously according to the mediums in which it is reflected. Truth appears differently in different lands and ages according to the living materials out of which its symbols are hewn.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    While  Western evangelist Krishna devotees,Vedic Scholars,Tantriks and Vedantists, abound today- I feel that the Western mind  deems it to be a prerequisite, to surrender the Constructive creativity that sets it apart from more static and  rigid  systems having deep seated  archetypal structures that still determine personal and transpersonal evolution of the psyche – to attain Eastern Spiritual Wisdom

    The dynamic analytical and assimiliative nature of the Western intellect is very essential to integrate all schools of thought and provide a wider and multihued psychic material  to explore  and evolve, for  future generations

    . But there are few examples like the exploration of the idea of Non Dualism, Ken Wilbers concept of evolution at a  personal  and civilisational  level in Integral theory, aas well as Eckhart Tolle.. They bring in refreshing new ideas.  And at the same time allow  space and horizons for the mind to extend  – and to finally surpass these ideas in one’s personal journey

    I also believe that Joseph Campbell was too obsessed with the Hero’s journey to give due diligence to the phase after the Return of Hero. In Indian mythology it is replete with sorrow and disaster. Whereas the Buddhists perceive the Boddhisatva who has attained Nirvana but returns to help humanity out of endless compassion. They more often than not – eventually became objects of deification. Christ is indeed a hero who returned to transform a civilisation and is often revered and worshipped for sacrificing his flesh  than than pursuing his  Dharma. Could anyone point me to any of  Joe’s books, touching on this subject?

    #72963

    Robert,

    Thank you for this post, which strikes such a chord. Despite the recent recognition in popular culture of the “collective hero”  (a fascinating, newly-emergent motif that John Bucher highlighted in a recent MythBlast essay), this nevertheless does not supplant the individual hero-quest.

    I don’t have much to add to your thoughts – you say it so well. I will note that, much as I appreciate The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I personally find Creative Mythology Campbell’s most compelling work.

    I am also in favor of drawing as much attention as possible to the four posthumous Zimmer volumes Joe compiled and edited; I think of these as proto-Campbell, with a very different tone and voice than that found in the English translation of Zimmer’s Kunstform und Yoga (English title: Artistic Form and Yoga in the Sacred Images of India).

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