Morgan P. Stevens
“… to know the Grail and yet not ask, ‘What is its use?’ is a proof of the hero’s insufficiency. This is a matter of a committed spirituality, the ideal of which is not transcendence separated from this world.”
Julius Evola, 1955.
Continuing to examine the fundamental characteristics of the tarot suits, we arrive at perhaps the most romanticized thereof: The cups. For the modern practitioner and occult aficionado, the cup is relatively straight forward; it hearkens to the innermost, emotive center in all men. The cups, according to most, bears an elemental association with water, and therefore directly corresponds to the feminine principle, and to the realm of emotion. While generally true, such an apprehension is completely insufficient. It is conspicuously the by-product of a modern perspective, so dependent upon the exegesis of Marian miracula and the medieval romance traditions; the grail-cycle specifically.
It is evident that those twelfth century authors who first developed the grail-mythology were doing so under the auspices of an older, greater tradition. The grail-mythology survives today precisely because it is the vessel for relaying a complete and composite tradition, hence René Guénon’s keen adduction that the old French for grail etymologically signaled both cup, and book, or table. In many ways the grail-cycle is likely the only surviving initiatory structure for the western occultist, but more in due course. Therefore, it is prudent to examine the foundational elements of the symbolic cup by anchoring ourselves to the Grail first, and from there, reacquainting ourselves with the anima needed to apprehend seemingly disparate, yet interrelated, traditions.
Form of the Grail
To the Christian, the holy vessel is indicative of the eucharistic cup, or, to the baptismal font. We will pause for a moment to recall that Christ accordingly, during his crucifixion, is said to have shed both water and blood. While the Christian scheme is pervasive in the grail-cycle as a whole, there exists a persistent variance owing to the myth’s subsumed pagan virtues. One might note three distinct forms of the Grail. The first is that of a mysterious ‘rich’ object wrought from precious materials ranging from emerald to gold. Secondly, the cup can also assume the form of the “Luciferian stone,” otherwise known as the ‘stone of kings.’ Thirdly, the Grail is presented in the form of a sacramental vessel presided over, or borne by a woman. In its mature form, the Grail embodies a composite of all three iterations simultaneously, as indicated by the appellative sangreal. Wolfram von Eschenbach credited his works to an enigmatic figure who, “allegedly found the legends of Percival and the Grail in pagan texts he decoded thanks to his knowledge of magical characters.” As noted elsewhere, the art of signatures and all the various ensuing “—mancies” were the product of a symbolically conditioned consciousness. The Grail’s mythology is informed through astrology, by viewing the clustered constellations of Crater, Corvus and Hydra.
The Grail, then, corresponds to succor and satiety. It is also representative of the dualism between life and death. The sacramental vessel is capable of bestowing both incredible vigor and terrible wounds.
Vigor, Satiety, Profundity
In one sense, the attainment of the grail is materially indicative of a kind of profundity. Among the earliest regal functions is protection—the ensurance of the health of the nation, and of the peoples’ well-being in the form of food. For the Anglo-Saxon, this function was ingrained into the very title of lord, hlæfweard, which translated literally to “loaf-ward,” while lady was similarly derived from a title meaning “loaf-kneader.” Freedom, at least in the historicized Anglo-Germanic sphere, was characterized by the ability to govern and feed one’s kith and kin. Hence the armed and independent status of farmers. Though illustrative, this concept is not limited solely to agricultural societies; antiquity was certainly marked by the domination of pastoral peoples. Foremost among these early monarchs were the Indo-Europeans who relied upon ready access to waterways, flood plains, and bountiful grazing lands to sustain their herds.
By the time Indra was recorded to have unyoked the waters of the world, having gorged himself on the draught of immortality, soma, which enabled him to dominate the cosmogenic serpent withholding them—the Pontic-Caspian settles of northern India were still predominately pastoral. For similarly demonstrative reasons it follows that Babylonian kings, and those elsewhere, were necessarily privy to the omens revealed by court astrologers and the haruspex. The king, imbued with a celestial mandate, surely carried out the same typological imitation of his divine counterpart, as-did the warrior and the artisan. Whether it be through physical subjugation, or ritualistic obeisance and sacrifice, the king is ultimately charged with calling forth, and ensuring, the rights to water—rains—food, and health as a matter of prosperity and posterity. Indeed, this is the likely origin of the cornucopic properties encompassed by the Grail, or cup; the sort of which is overtly displayed in the Tuatha de Danaan as the bowl of Dagde that, “is able to magically satiate with its contents any number of warriors.”
This recognition is echoed timelessly by the “Dolorous Stroke” in the Grail-cycle. It follows that poor governance and foresight is necessarily resultant in ruin, whether at the localized household unit, or, at the level of the kingdom-nation-state. Plague and pestilence is followed by periods of superstition; of ritualized placation and agreement. In essence, a restoration is the only feasible solution as indicated by the sacrifices pertaining to the sky, or sea gods.
Pagan animism is unique in that it makes allowance for a bargaining—a brokering—between man and the powers-at-be in ways that most codified monotheistic devotions eschew. At the core of such interactions is a highly nuanced, and delicate interplay between determinism and destiny.
Ritual in a classical setting is misconstrued by moderns as the manifestation of antiquated anxiety that must have been felt by man toward an unknown, and uncaring deity or spirit. Accordingly, his lack of a fully scientific faculty permits curious, fetishistic antimonies. Such a misapprehension, however, is based on a poor understanding of ritual. Take for example, the simple act of sacrifice carried out through the libation. A rudimentary offering, or sharing, of a consecrated substance performs a similar function to the sort of quid pro quo found in any market, or forum; a logical following of this, for that. The libation can also be given freely, as a ready expression of mutuality or gratitude. Since it is imperative to understand the notion of the libation, we ought to take pains to carefully examine its form and function.
Those familiar with Latin, or Greek, poetic conventions will recognize the sponde as a foot which denotes two long, emphatic syllables. The sponde is given, typically, as a meter that originated because the ancients often paired a specific form of ritual chanting with libation ceremonies. Conventional explanations scarcely go further, seemingly satisfied. The search for the sponde’s purpose fades from concern, giving way into a continually inbred chain of etymological self-reference. The paean has suffered a similar fate. However, even as late as Homer we can see that the spondai (pl.) mutably referred to agreements, treaties and resolutions brokered between two, independent, and conflicting parties. Such an agreement was most often ratified through the exchange—or offering—of sacral fluids.
After this fashion did the libation symbolically and ritually edify what occurred not only between men, but also between men and the divine. The legalistic connotation of “treaty” can also be rightfully conceived of as a pact, or oath, given the magically binding capacity of language. The imperative then, is explained by the prevalence of sacrifice among ancient man who definitively concluded that life itself is predicated upon a series of karmic consequences, and that something is inevitably surrendered in exchange for anything. Unsurprisingly, the ancient divine-thief and Olympian hero mythemes bear a topical relation to that of the cup in lieu of these sentiments.
In order to address the libation vessel’s prospective contents more fully, we return to the astrological figuration of Crater, or krater. As previously remarked, the ritual vessel could have contained any array of contextually appropriate sacraments; in Greek, krater summarily refers to a “mixing-bowl,” meaning that the cup feasibly held any mixture of agreed-upon fluid or fluids—of which milk, water, wine, or blood were the most likely candidates. Hereafter, we enter the purview of the divine feminine.
Woman, Sacred Waters and the Grail
Wherever there is aqueous absence, there is desolation. The human body without its humoral component is devoid of life just the same as harvest is withered by drought. According to the antiquated symbolique, sacred elixirs fell into two distinct categories: Those which vivified and those which polluted, or mortified. This particular belief system was reflected, for example, in the reality of fresh water, and saltwater bodies. Curative waters were either warm waters—hot springs—or otherwise exceedingly remote bodies of water. Many of these bodies were consequently the honorific locales of prophetic or curative institutions, as is the case throughout the Mediterranean with regard to the cult of Apollo, and Asclepius. Likewise, to the man of antiquity, there was both an inner and outer blood as envisioned by thumos, ichor, and more specifically as cruor “gore,” in opposition to sanguis. Blood, therefore, is the most literal and evocative example.
Isidore of Seville relays that sanctum is ultimately derived from the same root as blood, referencing the widely held pagan belief that nothing was sacred unless it had been consecrated with blood. Likewise, he remarks that among Romans, blood, sanguis, also had the connotation of being suaviter, sweet, probably as a poetic function to convey the healthful constituents of blood. We also learn from him that blood was the primary signifier of having a soul. That Caesar, Ammianus, Livy, and Pliny all harrowingly recall the pan Germano-Celtic propensity for bloody ritual is demonstrative. The Celtic, Irish and even Nordic mores, wherever possible, stress the importance of blood as a facet of remembrance, of lineage, and sustenance. Frazer’s work concerning the corn-spirit attest to the latter in an academic fashion, while the cultural practices of head-taking, and the consumption of, or bathing in, blood vindicate the former. These elements manifest outside of the grail-cycle as well, having been maintained in much of the European heroic traditions, as it is with the case of the Nibelungenlied. Consider that Sigurd-Siegfried bathes in the blood of Fafnir which grants him near total immortality, and that the Burgundians survive a catastrophic fire, and are granted supra-human strength, through slaking themselves on the blood of their fallen comrades. We are also reminded of the legendary near-immortality and prowess of Achilles, who was bathed almost completely in the Styx by his mother. These mythologies represent the conveyance of agnatic kinship and the nuances of womanly cunning which were immortalized throughout the Indo-European tradition through the bardic arts.
Without dwelling overlong on the extensive catalog of pairings, we are presented with a concise picture of fluids which encourage growth and power, or otherwise belong to taboo. Both are commensurately embodied by the divine feminine.
Generally, woman is associated with the watery principle by virtue of her inborn capacity for nourishment. If man is the eponymous first mark on the tabula rasa, then it follows that woman is that very slate. So did femininity come to personify night, the cosmic ocean, and the chaotic, chthonic planes upon which life plays out. The virginal nature of woman corresponds expressly to water, and of earth, through consequence of the birthing cycle. The occulted, paradisiacal nature of woman naturally figures to the process of pregnancy as it does toward metallurgic symbolism. On the one hand, woman’s menses represent the cyclical shedding and “gore” of what was once life but now “dead.” On the other, she is also capable of producing nourishing fluids through lactation, and provides the newborn soul its earthly, mortal coil. These occurrences typically coincided with the lunar cycle. And so, it stands to reason that luni-solar calendars are found among the most sophisticated early civilizations.
At this point it perhaps becomes clear as to why, according to so many mythological canona, women inhabit sacred waters—girded as they are by the telluric serpent. Likewise, the draught of immortality is also partially clarified—the Vedic soma, ambrosia, Indo-Aryan hoama—and colloquial “mother’s milk” constitute qualitative nourishment. These latter items also bear culturally reflexive analogs and substitutes. The Hermetic philosophers report that the ‘beingness’ of man is twofold insofar as each man has a soul first engendered through the ‘fiery,’ masculine component, and that they are also in possession of a Mercurial or lunar fluid which simultaneously grants life, or destroys it. The philosophical serpent’s slough—poison—and the blood of Prometheus follow this same structure. We can, again, consult the grail-cycle and various cosmogonies to recognize that the following system is quite common; That of a tower, castle or inaccessible mountain encircled by the sea, or washed under the waves to be forgotten once more.
The idealized grail-woman naturally signifies an idiomatic rebirth, a vita nuova, the sort of which is encapsulated by so many figures; Dante’s Beatrice for example. Whereas the sexual symbolism is used as a form of pedagogy—a tool with which to orient oneself through the clever use of analogy.
The cup represents the preconditions of life: Satiety and sacrifice. Through sacrifice, ritual, and religion is humanity able to orient themselves. All else is the product of the consensual union between the soul, and it’s environ. This much has been painfully preserved by the ancients as a matter of cosmogony, and heroic mythology.