A brand new book about Arthur, The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion, written by Simon Andrew Stirling and brought to you by the good folks at John Hunt Publishing, is reviewed here:
Who exactly was King Arthur? And the grail – that magical, perpetually sought-after phenomenon that graces stories about the legendary King – what exactly was it? An actual object? Or only a symbol? A cup or chalice as the Christians maintained?
Or, could it have been something altogether different?
I need to begin this review by saying that the author of The Grail possesses an incredible amount of detailed information about the legends and history of ancient Britain, all of which comes from original Medieval sources like Perceval le Conte du Graal, Lugh Long-Hand, Aneirin’s poem Y Goddoddin, the legend of Culhwch and Olwen, Preiddeu Annwn, the romance of Peredur fab Efrog and countless other ancient sources that Stirling seems totally and comfortably familiar with. Many of the names of people, places, and written works are presented in the original Gaelic, and then translated into modern English for the Gaelic-impaired among us.
One of the things I found fascinating about the book was the way the author draws connections between the Arthurian legends, shamanism, and modern science (brain functioning, the anthropology of child rearing, the physics of matter and energy, etc.). For example, at one point in the book he talks about magic -- one major and pervasive aspect of the Arthurian legends -- in connection with shamanism and the latest scientific information about the brain. One important aim of magic is the union of opposites, says Stirling, which “is often represented as a ‘sacred marriage’ (hieros gamos) in which the male/female elements combine to form a new wholeness. In such a state there is no inner and outer, no subject and object, no self or other. All things become one."
Likewise, a union of the opposite sides of our brains, a harmonious fusion of the left, or Logos side, with the right, or Eros side, is an ideal psychological state. And to enter into the shamanic trance, shamans too depend on a harmonious union of the two hemispheres of the brain, relying on drugs, repetitive drumming, or some other repetitive stimulus to lull the left side of the brain into a relaxed state, which allows Logos to combine with Eros, and which in turn allows the shaman to enter an altered state of consciousness.
Unfortunately, when Christianity takes over (as it did after the death of Arthur), it damns the Eros/feminine, and allows only the Logos/masculine to enjoy the light of day. This suppression of the feminine has wreaked havoc in Christian-occupied territories. With properly balanced brains we see time and nature in healthy ways, but, says Stirling, when the Logos/left brain hemisphere began to dominate, time became our enemy. Instead of involving a cyclical interplay of past and present, time morphs into a straight line, “the arrow of ‘now’ moving ever further away from ‘then’.” This makes us focus too heavily on ageing and death and lose sight of our place in the natural world, since the Logos-dominated brain tells us that nature is only something to be conquered and controlled.
Contrary to current thinking Stirling maintains that the historical Arthur lived not in the south of England at the beginning of the 6th century -- a notion popularized by Geoffrey of Monmouth -- but in Scotland, and at the end of the 6th century. He provides a plethora of evidence to back up his claim, not only from original Medieval literary sources but also from linguistic and place-name analysis as well. Nevertheless, this was a bit of a disappointment for me, since many years ago I spent an entire happy day tramping over Cornwall and climbing the 200 or so steps rising up to the ruins of Tintagel Castle, which I was assured was the place King Arthur was born.
Stirling connects Arthur and his knights to Mithraism, suggesting that they might have belonged to a cult similar to the ancient Roman pagan one, sharing similar initiation rituals and totemic animals. He provides his own unique interpretations for all the various aspects of the Arthurian legends: for Guinevere, Mordred, Merlin, Kay, the 24 knights of the round table, Camelot – all of which he places in Scotland.
Although the grail is assumed by most to be an object – typically a chalice, cauldron or cup – Stirling says it was not an object or even a symbol, but an “ordeal.” The grail ordeal was used to initiate poets and warriors. Poets gained inspiration from it, and warriors were reborn from it. This ritual involved drinking from a poisonous brew concocted in a “wisdomgranting” cauldron. Only the very brave possessed enough courage to drink this concoction, which bestowed magic powers on imbibers, yes, but could also kill you, and which had to be drained from the body through puncture wounds produced by jabbing a spear into the initiate’s knee or thigh.
“What we think of as an object, the Saint Graal or ‘Holy Grail’, was in fact an ordeal which was both appealing and appalling. It was a ‘dreadful longing’ – sant grathail: the ‘terrible desire’ to drink the mead” served in a cauldron and made of hemlock and other substances, possibly from the hallucinogenic bog myrtle. Drinking it was dangerous, but if you came away from it alive you gained second sight and an end to your fear of death.
The grail involved four elements: the cauldron, the spear, and a sword and a stone. I found it fascinating that these remain with us even today -- in our Tarot and playing cards (Grail: Sword Spear Cauldron Stone. Tarot: Swords Wands Cups Coins. Cards: Spades Clubs Hearts Diamonds).
When Arthur died, says Stirling, both the grail and the old, healthy British way of life died with him. Arthur’s death and the rise of Christianity brought on “the Waste Land.” Stirling makes sense of history and society by dividing them into three stages, or types of sociocultural systems: the Divine Age, the Heroic Age, and the Human Age. Arthur’s death plunged Britain into the barbaric Heroic Age, and although we finally climbed out of the Heroic Age centuries ago, we are now re-entering it, with its hierarchical power systems damaging us all.
Reading this book was a grand adventure. I felt as if I’d traveled back into the wild and mysterious days of the late 500s AD, after the “civilized” Romans had left Britain and the Picts, Scots, Angles, Saxons, Pagans and Christians were all wrangling amongst themselves to see who would take charge of the land. These were intoxicating times full of great magic, and Stirling makes them come alive.
Stirling ends on a positive note: “It may be that we cannot halt the slide into chaos as the new Heroic age undermines science and overthrows democracy. Perhaps we are not meant to.... [O]ut of the wreckage, a new Divine age will dawn. We will rediscover how to raise our children without hatred and greet death as a beginning....”