Much research exists on the "Oriental" influences in Grail literature. German scholars have long supported the idea that the Grail epic was modeled on one or more Persian tales. Most of the theories involved pre-Islamic influences. One of the champions of direct Islamic influence was P. Ponsoye in his book L'Islam et le Graal.
Various etymologies were suggested, all open to question, for the unusual names in the Grail legend. The 19th century German writer Josef von Gorres suggested that Parzival was derived from Arabic Parsi-fal meaning "Pure Fool," a suggestion later followed by the composer Richard Wagner. Fridrich von Suhtshek explained the true form of the name as Parsi-wal meaning "Persian flower" or "pure, chaste flower."
Suhtshek also offered Persian prototypes for just about every other character in the Grail epic. Max Unger and Theodore Baker suggested that word "grail" was derived from Persian gohar "pearl" compounded with al "coruscating color." The latter also identify the location of the Grail Castle with the Persian fortress of Kou-i Kouadja. Swedish scholar Lars Ivar Ringbom suggested the Takht-i-Suleyman "Throne of Solomon" in Azerbaijan, which closely matched the descriptions given by Albert von Scharfenburg in Jüngere Titurel written around 1270.
Henry Corbin and Pierre Gallais have done an enormous amount of work equating the Grail with the Iranian Xvarenah jewel, and seeking roots of Grail concepts in Persian dervish-inspired Islamic mysticism.
Other Near Eastern influences have been suggested, but possibilities from further East are treated only more rarely. Alfred Nutt in the 19th century explored the possibility that the Holy Grail originates from the Patra, the Buddha's alms dish. Scholars though have generally avoided comparisons of Grail mysticism with Tantric beliefs except to mention such possibilities. There is however a fair amount written on this subject in popular and "New Age" literature.
One though can piece together two different areas of research to construct a framework for such influence. The area of origins and exchange between Islamic mysticism and Tantra is dealt with fairly thoroughly. In the same sense, the links between Shi'ite, Sufi, Ismaili and similar Muslim groups with European culture at the advent of Grail literature and the direct impact on the latter is equally well-studied.
Indian Influence on Dervishes
Many a scholar has suggested that the Persian dervish, rather strange to ancient Iranian religion, originates from the begging ascetic of India.
W. Ivanow suggested that the group known in Islamic literature as Zutt, originally from the Sind in India, helped spread these practices throughout the Middle East. The Zutt are thought to be related to the present-day Jats and are almost always mentioned in the literature together with the Sayabiga, a group thought to have originated in Zabag but to have domiciled in the Sind and along the Persian Gulf.
The Zutt have been linked both with the Islamic underworld group of entertainers, artisans and con artists known as the Banu Sasan, and with the origin of the Dom Gypsies. Ivanow found an element of Dervish jargon words used both among the Banu Sasan and all Middle Eastern Gypsy groups. The Qasida Sasaniyya of Abu Dulaf mentions that the Zutt were members of the Banu Sasan and we see a number of Indian words mixed in with this jargon speech.
Groups of Zutt and Sayabiga were relocated to the region of Antioch by the Islamic Caliphate, just north of the area that would later become the stronghold of the Syrian Assassins. This fact will become important when we examine the time frame of the first Grail stories.
Previously in this blog, it was suggested that the people of Zabag, or Suvarnadvipa as it was known in India, were deeply involved with groups in Tibet and India in the development of the Kalacakra Tantric doctrine. Thus, the Sayabiga along with the Zutt would have played a role in diffusion of Tantric-like ideas in the Middle East.
In India, where the Sind region was the early major stronghold for Islamic mysticism in South Asia, the mingling of Tantrism with both Sufi and Ismaili sects is historical and beyond doubt, but the early story in the Middle East is more fuzzy.
We find that one of the most important elements in Tantric doctrine in India is the importance of the feminine principle as compared to the situation in the previous brahmin-dominated system. In the Mahacinatantra, it states:
According to the Brahmayamalatantra, after meditating for a thousand years on the shore of the ocean Vasistha was visited by Devi who told him "he had adopted an altoghter wrong path; her worship was unknown in the Vedas; it was known only in the country of Mahacina; and that Vasistha would gain his object if he received instruction from Vishnu now residing there as Buddha.
The word "Devi" above refers to the female divinity, which in the Tantric view was not sufficiently recognized in Vedic religion. In Tantrism we also find a more important place for women in ritual, and just an overall better treatment of women in general.
We can see then that the most powerful male Tantric deities, including the supreme Kalacakra Deity, appear in icons embraced together with their female consorts. In addition, there are important independent female deities like Tara and Prajnaparamita, and a host of lesser goddesses like the Dakinis that are considered important for spiritual development. In many places in India associated with Tantrism, the worship of the goddess Sakti prevails especially among the royal families and in the villages.
While the place of women in Tantric religious ritual has declined, due probably to the "shocking" nature of some rites, a few more politically-correct remnants survive. For example, among the Newars of Kathmandu we find the ritual marriage of the specially-chosen goddess-child known as Kumari to the King of Nepal was practiced until very recently. Also found among the Newars is the symbolic marriage of young virgin girls known as Gauris to Suvarna-kumara of Suvarnabhumi (Golden Land), the latter represented by a bel tree fruit or a golden coin.
While there was no universal dictate against the disabilities that existed for women at the time, in many areas women achieved rights nearly equal to men in areas where Tantrism dominated. However, in some other areas, only marginal changes were made despite the increased stature of women in religious life in which all areas of initiation and worship were open to them.
Further to the West, we find that the Sufi mystics focused much more attention on the feminine principle in theology than was previously the case. Sufism produced great women saints like Rabia, a tradition that continued for centuries. The importance of marriage for both men and women was stressed less than in orthodox Islam. However, it was among the Ismaili sects that we witness some of the most marked developments in divine feminine thinking. Here we see the recognition of the dual principles -- the Kuni as the female and the Qadar as the male principle. Kuni was predominant and she is said to actually create Qadar from her own light. Ismaili women in many areas can lead prayers and religious ceremonies, and they pray and worship alongside their men.
Now even farther to the West, with the advent of the romance cycles we find that the Holy Grail, that was seen by some as a relic of Christ or as a manifestation of Divine Grace, was tended by Grail Maidens and borne in procession by a female Grail Bearer. Even the Grail itself as a cup, chalice, bowl, platter or stone had a decided female imagery. Even more important may be the identity of Cundrie, the woman from the East Indian kingdom of Tribalibot, as the Grail Messenger. Cundrie teaches, chastises, guides and even at times sustains not only the quester Parzival but also the entire Grail company.
Although this outlook as found in Grail literature had little impact on the role of women in the Catholic Church, the rise of "courtly love" and chivalry as present in medieval epics did signal a generally more favorable position and better treatment at least for women of the noble classes.
Human Body as Microcosm of Cosmos
Earlier in this blog, the Kalacakra belief that cosmic time cycles were mirrored in the human body was discussed. This is part of a strong Tantric belief that the human body represents the universe in microcosm.
We find the same sentiments in Islamic mystic tradition. Corbin discusses various beliefs that can be categorized as pantheistic, panentheistic, monist, etc. among the Dervish-inspired sects. Self-realization can be described as discovering one's own Oneness with the Cosmos and even with the Deity.
Among the Ismaili we find a belief in a pattern of history that is both cyclic and linear. There are seven Ismaili eras, each inaugurated by a prophet known as Natiq. Each era was further subdivided into periods related to a Samit "Silent One" and seven Imams, the last of which becomes the Natiq of the new Era. The seventh Imam of the seventh Era is the Mahdi or Qa'im who ushers in the Resurrection. The six previous Natiqs are Adam, Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, 'Isa, and Muhammad.
In Kalacakra Tantrism, although there is an underlying belief in infinitely repeating time cycles as found in classic Buddhism and Hinduism, the predominant focus is in the progression of Kulika Kings each connected with a century long period. The final Kulika King or "Rigden" conquers the evil forces of the world bringing in a new Golden Age.
Both the Kalacakra and Ismaili cycles are rife with astrological linkages. In Kalacakra thinking, the planetary cycles are further mirrored within the human body. The Muslim astrologer Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi, known in Europe as Albumasar, developed a concept of world ages based on conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter. These ideas were translated into European languages from Muslim Spain beginning in the mid-12th century with the works of John of Seville, not long before the first Grail stories appeared.
In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, one of the most highly-lauded scenes occurs when Cundrie relates Parzival's destiny through the seven planets using Latino-Arabic nomenclature.
"Mark now, Parzival:
The highest of the planets, Zval,
And the swiftly moving Almustri,
Almaret, and the bright Samsi,
All show good fortune for you here.
The fifth is named Alligafir.
Under there the sixth is Alkiter,
And nearest us is Alkamer.
I do not speak this out of any dream. These are the bridle of the firmament and they check its speed; their opposition has ever contended against its sweep.
"For you, Care now is an orphan. Whatever the planets' orbits bound, upon whatever their light is shed, that is destined as your goal to reach and to achieve. Your sorrow must now perish. Insatiety alone will exclude you from that community, for the Grail and the Grail's power forbid false friendship. When young, you fostered Sorrow; but Joy, approaching, has robbed her of you. You have achieved the soul's peace and waited amid sorrow for the joys of the flesh.
These verses have been interpreted widely as applying to everything from the announcement of a new age marked by the World Year to the declaration of world dominion for the new Grail King. More to the point for this work, Cundrie's words are thought by some to imply that Parzival's destiny represents a microcosm of events in the greater cosmos. Whatever the case, given that Wolfram admits his use of an Oriental source from Toledo, it seems likely that at least there are some connections with the ideas of Albumasar if not with those of the Ismailis.
Now is a good time to return to the theory offered here for the transmission of the Grail legend, or at least the related source materials, from East to West.
Sources for the Grail Epics
Three authors are connected with the beginning of the Grail literature -- Chretien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and Wolfram von Eschenbach.
All three appear to have been contemporaries to some extent as they all wrote their works around the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century. Chretien's work is generally thought to be the oldest, and Wolfram mentions it in his own book. However, some scholars have suggested that Boron had no knowledge of Chretien and he does not mention either of the other two authors.
All three attribute their works to external sources. Chretien states that he based his version on a book given to him by Philip, Count of Flanders. Boron states that he received a "great book" from "great clerics." Wolfram mentions the bard Kyot who obtained the story from Flegatanis, a "heathen" from Toledo. He also claims to have researched the archives of the House of Anjou.
There is some linkage between Chretien's source and Wolfram's research in Anjou. Earlier it was already suggested that von Eschenbach's tale contained veiled references to the House of Anjou with Gahmuret representing Geoffrey Plantagenet with Parzival as his son Henry II. Gahmuret was an Angevin not in the line of succession who becomes a king through his marriage to the emperor's widow.
There was of course one historical Angevin who fits this description -- Geoffrey Plantagenet.
As it turns out, Philip the Count of Flanders was the son of Sibylla de Anjou, Geoffrey's sister. Philip ventured to Jerusalem to visit his first cousin, Baldwin IV, the last King of Jerusalem from the House of Anjou, a leper with no male heir. He came with the express purpose of marrying his vassals to Baldwin IV's daughter but was rejected and insulted by competitors among the nobility of Jerusalem. He left the city to fight the Muslim enemy in the principality of Antioch instead.
When Philip returned to Europe, he employed Chretien to render his mysterious source book into verse. Using the hypothesis offered here, Wolfram's Anfortas, the Grail King of Montsalvat (Jerusalem) would be Baldwin IV's father, Amalric I of Jerusalem. Baldwin IV, the heir-less king and last Angevin to rule the city would then be represented symbolically by the wounded leg of Anfortas. Wolfram probably threw in some inconsistencies as to maintain a degree of deniability that his story applied to real people. Thus, it is Gahmuret rather than his wife who is a sibling of Anfortas.
Parzival states that the celibate knights who guarded the Grail are Templars and that the first Grail King Titurel established the order. Thus it would have been Baldwin II of Jerusalem, who first accepted the Knights Templar, who answers to Titurel. The latter's son Frimutel is Fulk V, who in reality was the son-in-law of Baldwin II becoming the Angevin King of Jerusalem through his marriage to Melisende.
When Chretien wrote his Grail work between 1180 and 1191, Baldwin IV may have already died and Jerusalem may have fallen to Saladin (1187), although the fall of the city is never hinted at in any of the three early Grail books. Instead we find the development of a cycle of literature that introduces a new concept -- that of the Holy Grail.
Grail kingship is linked originally with the title of King of Montsalvat-Jerusalem, and King of the Grail Temple/Palace in the same location. The Grail was guarded by Templars and previously in this blog it was noted that the object had some of the same characteristics of the pusaka or sacred heirlooms of Southeast Asia tied to the succession of royalty, chiefs and clan leaders. The Grail kingship had hereditary components but was not entirely linked to male primogeniture. One fascinating similarity is the animistic character of both the Grail and the pusaka heirlooms.
Like the talking jars of the sultans and datus of Insular Southeast Asia, the Grail communicated with and guided those in the Grail company. This is one facet that did take hold as much in South Asia or the Middle East. However, it may be that such ideas were retained by the Sayabiga who along with the Zutt were relocated to Antioch. These Sayabiga may have maintained some contact through the trade routes with their former home of Zabag. The Templars appear to have borrowed much in terms of their own organization and structure from the Ismaili Assassins of Syria located directly to the south of Antioch principality. They also maintained unusually close political relations with the Assassins. In 1165, emissaries from Prester John, who is linked here with the King of Zabag, delivered a letter from the latter king to the Pope and Christian emperors. Parzival and other Grail legend authors closely connect Prester John with the Holy Grail, albeit anachronistically.
Even Chretien seems to have borrowed from Prester John's letter, which mentions a table in the king's palace with legs of ivory. Parzival and Jüngere Titurel describe the table bearing the Holy Grail in the Grail Castle as having ivory legs. Chretien says the same table has ebony legs and an ivory top. The palace of Prester John, like that of the King of Shambhala and the Grail Castle, have strong mystical links.
The round churches of the Templars were said to have been modeled on the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, sometimes referred to as the 'Temple of Solomon.' The Templar headquarters was originally located in or next to this mosque in Jerusalem. Ringbom has shown, quite conclusively I think, that the Grail Temple as described in Titurel was inspired by the Takht-i-Suleyman, the "Throne of Solomon" in Azerbaijan. In both cases, we find round, domed and lavish buildings with the stars, marked by rubies in the Takht and red jewels in Titurel, and heavens displayed on the domed ceiling. In both cases, the buildings have only three entrances, and the outer circle of the building is divided into 22 parts each marked by an ornamental tree. The temple described in Titurel was probably inspired by the Takht as partially rebuilt by the Shi'ite and heavily Sufi-influenced Ilkhanate dynasty in the 13th century.
Ringbom has also shown that both the Grail Temple and the Takht are types of mandalas. A mandala is a representation of the universe used in Tantric ritual. It usually consists of a circular design on the outside with usually a square design within, but also at times another circle. There usually is at least one instance in a mandala where an outer design is replicated in smaller form within the mandala, an example of the macrocosm-microcosm principle.
Grail Temple plan after Ringbom (A. A. Barb, 1956: 34) following descriptions in Titurel. Note mandala-like replica of building structure at central sanctum where Holy Grail was kept. The domed ceiling was said to display the celestial vault further giving the idea of a cosmic representation. Ringbom also found mandala-like features in the sanctuary of the Ismaili "Old Man of the Mountain," the leader of the Assassins at Alamut.
Now with the Grail acting as the token of the holy kingship, even the looming loss of Jerusalem would allow a 'sacred lineage' to prevail at least in the eyes of those closely connected with the House of Anjou. Thus, it may not be entirely by coincidence that Henry II's son and heir (by force) Richard I would lead the efforts of the Third Crusade to retake Jerusalem, although he was forced by election to accept Conrad of Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. When the latter was killed by Assassins before his coronation, Richard was widely suspected in the plot. He married his nephew Henry II of Champagne to the widow Isabella eight days after the death making Henry II the pretender King of Jerusalem. Angevin hopes for the Holy City though ended as they could not persevere against Saladin's forces.
Quite likely some type of Holy Grail really existed, maybe first among the Templars who had shown they were quite amenable toward Eastern mysticism. However, such ideas may not have been strange either to the House of Anjou.
Robert de Boron's "great clerics" who authored the source of his Grail book may very well have been Templar clerics. The Templar bond with the House of Anjou in Jerusalem was natural. The sources found by Wolfram at the county seat in Anjou may have consisted of the same or similar works as found with Boron. Philip, Count of Flanders, who gave Chretien his source book had obvious enough ties with Anjou through his mother Sibylla. He also helped mediate disputes between Henry II, on the one hand, and Louis VII of France and Thomas Beckett on the other. Henry II of course in addition to being the English king was also the Count of Anjou at the time.
Philip had shown keen interest in establishing marital ties with the Angevins in Jerusalem, at which time he could have easily come across the same source materials as Boron and Wolfram. It might be worth noting also that Henry II had close relations with the Templars and was the first to grant them land in England, and that Guy de Lusignan, the king who succeeded Baldwin IV in Jerusalem was Henry II's vassal.
From the Angevin and Templar connections, we can suggest that the eastern links of the Grail literature are quite likely. The Tantric influences would have come from the same sources that influenced Ismaili and other Islamic mystic traditions.
Paul Kekai Manansala
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