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The Grail — Two Studies

TheGrail [1]2,669 words

Alexander Jacob and Leopold von Schroeder
The Grail — Two Studies [2]
Melbourne, Australia: Numen Books, 2014

Ah, 19th-century Central European scholarship — nothing like it. For myself, I can’t get enough of it, the whole dusty, black and white world of Academies and Zentralblätter, communications and proceedings, Bibliographic Supplements and RealencyclopediasAcademic gemütlichkeit,[1] the world where Spengler taught high school math and Prof. (Un)rath taught Hamlet to unruly schoolboys before discovering Lola Lola down at Der Blaue Engel.[2]

So you can imagine how stoked I was to get this volume, which reprints von Schroeder’s Die Wurzeln der Sage vom heiligen Gral, which we are informed was

First presented at a meeting of the Imperial Academy of Science in Vienna on 6 July, 1910. It was then published as a monograph (Sitzungsbericht) by Alfred Hoelder (Vienna, 1910), and a second edition was published in 1911.

Boy, can’t you just see him, waving his hundred page monograph at the skeptics, that day in July, precisely the 6th? And it must have won over the crowd of crabby old men, because it gets published the same year, and even goes into a second edition — this, a mere Siztungsbericht!

But, as the Judaic comedians say, I kid because I love.

Elmer O’Brien gets the right note when, in the Introduction to his anthology The Essential Plotinus,[3] he acknowledges his reliance on the “works that have fallen from the crowded desks of that small, wholly admirable, group of international Plotinus scholars.”[4] As O’Brien notes, the student and especially the translator of Plotinus is unusually dependent on an army of predecessors, since the Greek text is arguably the worst hurdle ever put before a Greek scholar; Plotinus, with his Socratic (and Traditionalist) contempt for the written word, only began to write when elderly and half-blind, refused to re-read or correct what he wrote, and seems to have regarded the language itself with a rather Bushian contempt.[5]

The problem with studying the Grail legend is the enormous variety of sources and tributaries that have contributed to it over several centuries. Grail studies took a big leap forward around the turn of the last century when the Estonian Indologist Leopold von Schroeder (1851–1920) brought his formidable Indo-Aryan learning to bear on it.

Schroder’s mission is to try to find some way to unify the extreme variety of Grail appearances — cup, plate, stone even — and wide array of powers. His method, and his insight, is to go all the way back to the beginnings of Aryan mythology and trace forward the various elements that eventually formed the Grail legend, identifying

[F]eatures which are completely suited to further support the assumption of a connection of [the medieval Grail poems] with that sphere of ancient Aryan sagas which, in the final analysis, goes back to the representation of the sun and moon as heavenly vessels.

In this way, many of the great mysteries of the Grail legends find solutions. For example, once we recognize the parallel between the Grail quest and the acquisition of soma by Indra, and note that the latter is at the same time the production of rain, we understand why the Grail hero is explicitly identified as a pure fool — for such is the exact nature required of the rain maker of the ancient Indian sagas.

Above all the clear image of these ideas in the Veda solves for us [another] great riddle of the Grail saga. We understand why the Grail castle is called an Eden, castle of joys, castle of souls; we understand the connection of the swan-knight with the Grail for the swan-knight is an unquestionably ancient swan-elf that undergoes the typical swan-elfin adventures, and he is at the same time the knightly protector of the Grail, he combines in his person in a certain way the nature of the Gandaharvas and Apsaras . . . or summarily translated into German, the nature of the Einhorjar and the swan-elfin Valkyries. We understand all this as soon as we assume the influence of an ancient Aryan saga world surviving silently in the people on the development of the Grail saga.

Thus, although I imagine most Counter-Currents readers would be sold already on a Grail book, even those with only a general interest in Aryan origins and culture will find much to feast on here. Perhaps these brief quotes will reassure the potential reader that Schroeder’s prose is eminently readable, at least in this (uncredited) translation. It’s even at times downright inventive; I won’t soon forget the idea that, the Church not having deigned to lend its hand to the legend, the result was that “every poet, big or small, had the fullest freedom to fabulate.” Let your freak flag fly freely!

Those with less interest in, or tolerance for, the dusty world of academic Gemütlichkeit may still wonder if this monograph, over a hundred years old, is perhaps a bit outdated. The answer is, not really. But more to the point, any concerns about the state of contemporary scholarship are answered by the second of these two Grail studies, The Indo-European Origins of the Grail by Alexander Jacob.

Jacob has already put students of the Western Tradition in his debt for monographs such as Nobilitas: A Study of European Aristocratic Philosophy from Ancient Greece to the Early Twentieth Century [3] (Lanham, Md.: The University Press of American, 2000) as well as annotated editions of such classics as Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Political Ideals [4] (Lanham, Md.: The University Press of America, 2005) and Alfred Rosenberg’s The Track of the Jew through the Ages [5] (Uckfield, Sussex: Historical Review Press, 2012).[6]

Not so much a mere update or appendix but a substantial study in itself, it provides a wider, or deeper, context in which Schroder’s study can be seen against the broad background of Indo-Aryan cosmology.

Without attempting any games of scholarly one-upmanship, Jacobs makes several important clarifications to Schroeder’s study, such as correcting the idea of the Grail symbolizing the sun and moon as gift bearing vessels, towards being a symbol of the solar power itself, and thus, ultimately, our old friend the Phallus, whose erect state combines the meanings of the Grail as life-giving or resurrecting, and the Grail as sun, host, and stone.

We see therefore that the representation of the grail in Wolfram’s Parzival retains the original phallic significance of the solar mystery of the resurrection since the resurrected body of Christ that the host represents is indeed one that rises through the soma-filled Tree of Life as the sun.

One place where Jacobs and Schroeder are in complete agreement is in seeing Richard Wagner as not only a legitimate part of the Grail tradition but even as its apotheosis — and even, thereby, Christianity itself as the fulfillment of Aryan mythology. One shouldn’t think, from those remarks above about the Grail poets “freely fabulating” on the basis of an “ancient Aryan saga world surviving silently in the people” as indicating that our authors long for any sort of restoration of paganism. Though a century apart, they come together not only as Indologists but, along with Chamberlain, as devotees of the Wagner Cult, at least in its Christianizing version.[7]

The physical suffering that Amfortas experiences can only be removed through an infusion of divine life into his wound with the lance and Parsifal’s spiritual suffering can likewise be removed only through an understanding of the cause of the original revolt of Lucifer against God that caused the “stone” to fall from heaven.

The link is through “this motif of compassionate understanding of the pain of human desire”:

What Wagner brought to the Indo-European conception of the life-giving Grail (or Divine Phallus) is thus a Schopenhauerian emphasis on the essentially painful nature of all desire, which has to be dompted[8] just as it was in the divine Passion of Osiris/Varuna/Aegir in the Ocean and the underworld and that of Wotan/Christ on Yggdrasil and the cross respectively.

As usual in these cases, the author isn’t satisfied with mere parallels and at the last minute slips in the true Christian note of usurpation:

We see therefore that the most ancient Indo-European myths concerning the creation of the cosmos are continued and even deepened within a human context in the Christian Grail stories of the Celts, French and Germans from Chretien to Wagner. As Schroeder remarked of Wagner’s Parsifal in his next work, Die Vollendung des arischen Mysteriums in Bayreuth: . . . “The roots are Aryan, but the crown of this mighty tree is Christian.” (Emphases mine).[9]

Christ beats Krishna, OK! Okay, all right, you win, you win the world, your monster is the best, kills everything, and you’re happy and you’re standing there all in your shame. Are you happy now?[10]

Seriously, though, this whole idea of “deepening” and vollendung-ing is very slippery, and takes us out of the comfy world of scholarship altogether. Speaking now as a partisan, it’s hard to imagine that we had to wait thousands of years for some Semitic cult to come along and “perfect” our Aryan traditions. Moreover, opera is probably the last place I’d look for such spiritual perfection-ing. [11]

What would Evola say? Although Jacobs rightly acknowledges Evola as “perhaps . . . the only other scholar who developed a comprehensive comparative and mythological study of the Grail”[12] and even devotes a short chapter to a critical appreciation of Evola’s research,[13] I think that Evola’s response can be found in another of his books, The Doctrine of Awakening.[14]

There, Evola disputes the idea that the Buddhist notion of dukkha is equivalent or reducible to pain or suffering as superficial and popularized.

The deeper, doctrinal, and nonpopular significance of the term dukkha is a state of agitation, of restlessness, or of “commotion” rather than “suffering.” . . . In order really to understand the implications of dukkha, the first truth of the Arya, and therefore to grasp the deepest significance of samsaric existence, we must associate the notion of “anguish” with that of “commotion and “agitation.”[15]

See, two can play this “deepening” game! Evola would suggest that, rather than looking for some kind of “fulfillment” or “overcoming” of Tradition through a sort of long steeping or stewing through the modern age[16] (and on an opera stage, of all places), that we instead look back to the deepest roots of our Tradition. The “deepest” understanding in this case, is found in “Primitive” (i.e., Original) or Pali Buddhism, before the later “developments” of the Mahayana schools, to say nothing of the any post-colonial Aufhebung into some “higher” synthesis.

As I said, all this takes us away from the purely scholarly realm, and perhaps amounts to nothing more than what Evola would call ones “personal equation.”

Numen Books has brought its usual high standards of book production to this title, and the results — illustrations, typography, proofreading, binding — make for a book that is a pleasure to hold and read. Above all, the wealth of scholarship here makes this a required purchase for anyone with more than a passing interest in the Western Tradition.


1. For a discussion of the whole “ka-ka” world of kaiserlich-königlich versus kaiserlich und königlich institutions, see the opening pages of Frederic Morton‘s otherwise judaically predictable A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888–1889 ( New York: Penguin, 1980).

2. In The Blue Angel, von Sternberg, 1930, of course.

3. New York: Signet, 1964; Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1979. Oddly, O’Brien seems to have published nothing before or since, other than an accompanying Essential Augustine.

4. So does Melville, in the “Etymology (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)” that precedes Moby Dick (“He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief. . . . He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow reminded him of his mortality.”) and even more so in the following “Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian” (“So fare thee well, poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am. Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy-strong; but with whom one sometimes loves to sit, and feel poor-devilish, too; and grow convivial upon tears; and say to them bluntly, with full eyes and empty glasses, and in not altogether unpleasant sadness — Give it up, Sub-Subs! For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless!”). Speaking of “queer handkerchiefs” and commentators, I should at this point again remark that my go to text is the 1972 Penguin, whose 300 page commentary by one Harold Beaver, on a 600 page text, was an early specimen of the “paranoiac-critical” method I have frequently employed — most recently in my End of an Era: Mad Men and the Ordeal of Civility (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015) — and whose fate — shamefully replaced by an “up to date” but conventionally academic edition — seems rather sub-sub itself.

5. Monolingual readers, ironically, may not notice this, as Plotinus has been remarkably well-served by his translators, starting with no less than Marsilio Ficino, who was ordered — by Lorenzo de Medici himself — to put aside his work on starting up the Renaissance and instead start translating the recently discovered works of Plotinus. English readers have Stephen MacKenna’s work, which O’Brien describes as “an Irish rhapsody” where each sentence is authentically Plotinus, “though few of the actual words are.”

6. For more by and about Jacob, see various reviews, essays and interviews here on Counter-Currents, such as these [6].

7. As opposed to the British, “decadent” Wagner, a “pathological Wagnerism” that involves “the fusion of Wagnerism with androgynous and homoerotic subjects. . . . The direct association of Wagnerism with the Decadents came via the most famous broadside against the movement, Max Nordau’s 1892 book Degeneration. He lays at the feet of Wagner the rise of the movement, and considers him the über-decadent: “Richard Wagner is in himself alone charged with a greater abundance of degeneration than all of the degenerates put together.” See “Wagner’s Influence on Sexual Mores and Gay Culture” at Wagner Tripping: In search of ecstasy, perspective and dissonance resolution in the composer’s bi-centennial year, here [7].

8. Yes, a real word, no matter what Microsoft says. I never heard of it either, but Jacob uses it twice, and I add it to “freely fabulating” as another example of the sheer fun of reading this book.

9. One wonders what would have happened to von Schroeder’s thesis if Wagner had live to write his Buddhist opera, Die Sieger? Should we let our religious opinions be determined by what’s on at the Met? Karma is a bitch.

10. A frequently used meme on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but I have never found the source.

11. William Morris, who knew a thing or two about the Grail, and Siegfried — or Sigurd, as he preferred to call him — had no interest in opera, and especially Wagner. Offered a copy of the English translation of Die Walküre, his disdained to receive it: “I look upon it as nothing short of desecration to bring such a tremendous and world-wide subject under the gas-lights of an opera; the most degraded and rococo of all forms of art — the idea of a sandy-haired German tenor tweedledeeing over the unspeakable woes of Sigurd, which even the simplest words are not typical enough to express!” (William Morris: Collected Letters, ed. Norman Kelvin; Letter 216, p. 205). See “A comparison of Wagner’s RING and William Morris’s SIGURD THE VOLSUNG, Chapter 1” by Jane Suzanna Ennis, online here [8], which suggests that in his Sigurd “he may have intended it to be read as a response to the Ring, perhaps as an anti-Ring,” which recalls Thomas Mann’s demonic composer, Leverkuhn, who in Dr. Faustus plans a choral Apocalypsisthat will “take back the Ninth.”

12. The Mystery of the Grail: Initiation and Magic in the Quest for the Spirit (1937; Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1996).

13. Evola does not return the favor; I don’t see any reference to von Schroeder in his Grail book.

14. The Doctrine of Awakening: The Attainment of Self-Mastery According to the Earliest Buddhist Texts (1943; Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1996).

15. Op. cit., p48.

16. As Jacob notes, Evola’s Grail book was an expansion of what had been originally planned as an appendix to his Revolt Against the Modern World.