Parsifal and the Myth of the Holy Grail

The medieval legend of King Arthur and the Quest for the Holy Grail contains the story of Parsifal.[1] In folklore, the Holy Grail is the cup from which Jesus drank at the last supper. In mythology, it represents connection to Jesus, God in human flesh. 

THE MYTH

Parsifal literally means “pure fool.” Parsifal[2] was the uneducated, naïve, simple son of a widow. He’s a momma’s boy. He knew nothing of his deceased father, who, it turns out, had been a knight. He knew nothing of the world or what lay beyond his hovel. One day Parsifal sees some knights ride by and is so impressed, he naïvely decides to go off an be a knight, having no idea what he’s getting into. His mother is aghast, at first forbids it, then relents, but insists he always wear a simple undergarment she made. Her advice to him before he sets out is not to ask too many questions.[3]

Parsifal arrives at Camelot and is ridiculed until a maiden who hasn’t smiled in many years bursts out laughing. The others knew of a prophecy that said that she would not laugh until she saw the greatest knight of all. With that, King Arthur’s court welcomes, accepts and knights Parsifal. He is instructed by a mentor named Gournamond who tells him to ask, “Whom does the grail serve?” when he comes in contact with it.

Off he goes on knight quests slaying dragons, rescuing maidens, and, significantly, killing the evil Red Knight by throwing his knife into his eye. In all other triumphs, he doesn’t kill anyone, but instead instructs the knights he bests to go to Camelot and swear allegiance to King Arthur. His quests continue until he comes across a man fishing. 

The angler is Amfortas[4], the king of Grail Castle. He’s been wounded, is in great chronic pain, and cannot swallow.[5] Because of his ailment, the entire kingdom is depressed, in turmoil, and chaotic. Amfortas tells Parsifal he can go around the bend, turn left and he’ll find food and shelter. When he does, he discovers Grail Castle, where he is warmly welcomed to great beauty and banquet. Every evening, maidens bring out the Holy Grail and invite everyone to drink from it. When they do, whatever the guests are praying for comes true, with the exception of healing King Amfortas. Parsifal remembers Gournamond’s instructions, but chooses not to ask the question because his mother told him not to. As he leaves, the castle disappears.

He leaves, goes through 20 years of struggle with many defeats, and finally realizes he needs to get rid of his mother’s garment. In the process, he learns humility and brokenness. Eventually, he comes across a forest hermit who scolds him for not asking the important question, then directs him to go down the lane and turn left. The Castle of the Holy Grail lies in front of him; again, there’s a banquet; again, the maidens bring out the Grail, but this time, Parsifal asks, “Whom does the grail serve?”

Immediately, Amfortas the Grail King is healed and the castle erupts in celebration. Redemption comes to the land.

AN INTERPRETATION

There are many interpretations of the myth. Here’s one that is based on Carl Jung’s work.

All of us, regardless of whether we are male, female, nonbinary, or trans, have what psychologists call a Mother Complex. Our earliest encounters are normally with a mother figure, and, therefore, our earliest wounds come from that person. It’s not mom’s fault. No judgment. No condemnation. An infant cannot differentiate her/his/their self from mom, so when mom is not in direct contact with the infant, the baby feels disconnected. A piece of self is missing. A wound occurs. 

Depending on how healthy or unhealthy our home life was, we grow up searching for a lost connection. In an extreme form, a man will marry someone who unconsciously reminds him of his mother. One way or another, we all wear the undergarment mom made.

Typically in middle age, we go through a time of confusion and loss during which, if we’re navigating it successfully, we gain wisdom, humility, and an openness to being taught. We realize how little we know. We learn to face the red knights of our shadow selves. We allow the Spirit to redeem the shadowy sides of our beings. They don’t need to die. They can pledge allegiance to King Arthur. We search. Wise mentors point us toward truth.

Truth is God. God is truth. We come to God through Christ and ask, “Whom does the grail serve?” It serves all who partake of it. The Grail serves us by pointing us to God. Eucharist points us to Christ. “This do in remembrance of me.”

Everyone who comes to God through Christ, which we embody in the Eucharist, Holy Communion, symbolized by the Grail, learns to serve something higher and more noble than self. We no longer seek fame, legacy, success, recognition, riches, or status. We no longer care what other’s opinions of us may be. We are free from the idols. We serve the God who is Love. Healing, wholeness, joy, celebration, wellbeing, redemption, and shalom break forth. 

The ego-centered person pursues their own happiness. The authentic person is centered around Something, Someone, higher than self.

Others remain wounded until someone brings them the wisdom of true compassion.

Spiritual directors help us move from egocentric to theocentric by offering us the wisdom of genuine compassion.


[1] The Grail myth dates back to at least the twelfth century in Europe, and was transmitted in various versions, including French (from the poet Chretien de Troyes), English (Le Morte Darther, by Thomas Malory), German (Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version, which became the basis for Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” opera) and others.

[2]Parsifal is called Perceval, Percival, Gawain, or Galahad in various versions

[3] Bad advice. Ask as many questions as you can think of.

[4] Amfortas is sometimes equated with Joseph of Arimathea, who buried the body of Jesus.

[5] Amfortas, the priest-king of the Grail Kingdom, is wounded while doing battle with Klingsor and the forces of evil. He allows his erotic interest in the pagan wild-woman, Kundry, to distract him long enough for Klingsor to steal the Holy Spear and stab him in the thigh. Amfortas languishes and bleeds for centuries until a “pure fool,” the young Parsifal, brings the wisdom of genuine compassion.

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist Jesus Freak Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, husband, father, grandfather

Posted on September 4, 2022, in Christianity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: