The ritual landscape, the faery realm, and the Grail

The Mists of Avalon
Glastonbury Tor, Saint Michael’s Tower.  Author’s own photograph ©

The mystic and theosophist, Rudolf Steiner says, “We can see the Grail as the knowledge awaiting us if we can raise ourselves to it by working upon ourselves”. This is no light feat; the journey itself reflects the pleasures and the pain of the soul coming home to itself. The Grail in this context is not a material object, neither is it the same objective experience for everybody, it is the gift we receive when we walk our own unique soul path facing all the inherent dangers and perils along the way.  As Jung states, “Individuation comes one person at a time, not to the collective, for only in the individual are opposites reconciled and united.”

What is this journey to Self becoming and who or what are our allies along the way? Well, I may as well be up front here… I don’t think many answers are to be found within traditional psychotherapeutic models, or in psychopharmacology, as neither acknowledge the inherent spiritual possibilities contained within psychic disruption. Exceptions to this are Stanislav Groff, the Czech psychiatrist whose pioneering work in transpersonal psychology re-framed psychological disturbance as spiritual emergence. An alternative and far more holistic view can also be seen in the work of R.D. Laing, and the anti-psychiatry movement.

When it comes to questing for one’s personal Grail, what is required is a deep spiritual therapy, or even a radical spiritual therapy to mend our damaged bodies and souls. Inner journeys of this kind do not follow a rational linear structure, they spiral on a loop, sometimes the same experience is revisited many times in different ways, and sometimes the gap between the insights are wide and lonely. It is like joining dots in some great stellar configuration, time and space collapse blurring the boundary between past and present, inner and outer.

The Grail as a symbol of individuation is a subject that is explored in Steiner’s The Mysteries of the Holy Grail. It is also to be found in Marie Louise von Franz and Emma Jung’s, The Grail Legend (yes, Jung had a very wise wife!)

The Damsel of the Holy Grai bly Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
“The Damsel of the Holy Grail” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti,

In this blog I want to talk about how the land itself has a pivotal role in our journey to wholeness. Part of the reason why traditional psychotherapy is not entirely effective is precisely down to its lack of contact with the physical world and even, in may cases the physical body- although the lineage of body psychotherapy from Wilhelm Reich through to Alexander Lowen, and Gerda Boyesen seeks to address this imbalance. In the absence of initiatic knowledge, mystery schools, and proper use of ritual so valued and respected in the ancient world, the modern world is painfully bereft of suitable containers for the processes of inner alchemy. Journeying to the inner planes through the head alone is likely to lead to splits and possible psychosis if we are not rooted in the body, the base chakra and present to the material world. Disembodied, we also deny ourselves the possibility of receiving guidance from the genuis loci, or spirit of the land.

Genius of Place (genius loci) and Lares. Fresco in the lararium of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. 60—79 CE. Pompeii, House of the Vettii.
Genius of Place (genius loci) and Lares. Fresco in the lararium of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. 60—79 CE. Pompeii, House of the Vettii.

In psychological terms, it is often the case that people become over identified with the archetypal realms, fixating their identity around a particular story, symbol or archetype. In Shamanic speak this may be described as soul loss.

Changeling by Arthur Rackham
Changeling by Arthur Rackham

There is a chance of being drawn into the Other World and getting stuck there. For the Celts, such a state may be understood as having being taken by the faery queen into her magical Queendom where one is held captive for a period of time- usually 7 years. In his poem, The Lost Child, W.B. Yeats illustrates this journey and alludes to the reasons why a person may become vulnerable to such a capturing-

Come away, O human child!To the waters and the wildWith a faery, hand in hand.For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B. Yeats

A danger is to become susceptible to soul-loss, or being held captive by ego-structures or complexes created by suffering or trauma. An inability to deal with over-whelming eruptions from the psyche often perpetuated by the demands and pain of the world, or else experiences perceived to be caused by external phenomenon, can cause a ‘checking-out’ into the labyrinths of the mind. Going into hiding, taking refuge in the hidden caverns of the unconscious may provide some escapism from the ‘real world’ but there is a price to pay. If presence and consciousness are absent, the person can become a vacuum in which archetypal and daimonic forces use for purposes that care little for the small individual trapped within a mire of chaotic forces. See my blog on ‘the daimon’-

The Daimon

In her adaptation of The Stolen Child, Joan Stockford, shows a way to rescue ‘the stolen child from the realms of faery, it is a journey of reclamation, a brave and courageous feat that involves descending into the dark realms (the unconscious) with presence (consciousness) and determination to take back what was has been lost. It is in a sense a return to innocence as the soul essence is restored and the person is able to receive divine or spiritual intervention.

Adaptation of ‘The Stolen Child’

Glastonbury is considered a place of spiritual pilgrimage where many seekers on the path to healing and wholeness find themselves. Theories abound as to why this little market town in the West country should possess the power to draw and transform people. It is said that Glastonbury, or Avalon is the gateway to the underworld, where Gwyn ap Nudd rules over his dark kingdom. Many writers including R.J. Stewart have written about the initiatic potential of such encounters. This understanding of initiation through the Western Mystery Tradition finds it parallels with Greek and Egyptian knowledge of the conditions necessary for the transforming soul.

Geomancer and local Glastonbury Writer, Nicholas Mann, says,

“Research into the Celtic tradition allowed me to understand the full significance of Avalon as the location in time and space of the portal for soul journeying between the worlds. I understood how this significance accounted for the myths and qualities attributed to the Glastonbury Avalon, and how the awareness of the portal for the soul on its journey between the worlds resonated on long after the Celtic period.”

In Glastonbury as in other ‘vortex’ places, there is a presence, a spiritual quality, or sentience within the land which can be interacted with forming a resonance – a kind of ‘mutual reception’ or ‘participation mystique‘. It can affect healing both for the land and for the participating individual, and for the ancestors.  It is not rational, it is a purely right brain and intuitive experience, or as Steiner describes it-

“The human spirit elevates itself to the tremendous impressions of its outer world and first divines and afterwards recognizes spiritual beings behind these impressions; the human heart develops a sense of the boundless sublimity of the spiritual realm.”

In the Celtic tradition Sovereignty is the archetypal Goddess of the land, she is “not simply the right to rule over a clan or country; sovereignty is a divine power that was granted by the goddess of the land.”  In a hieros gamos between the king and the land, sovereignty ensures that only an eligible king can come to rule.  The scholar R.S. Loomis says the Grail legend has its origins in Celtic mythology where the Goddess of the land, Sovereignty, asks the question, “To whom shall this cup be given?”  This question is the all-important question of the Grail, it alludes to the fact that to be wedded to the land in a sacred marriage, we must know ourselves- our essence. To know ourselves is to have fully accepted and received ourselves. To have made our bodies a suitable home for our spirit facilitated by our unique soul journey.

If as Steiner says, “We can see the Grail as the knowledge awaiting us if we can raise ourselves to it by working on ourselves”, it is not too much of a leap to suggest that the Grail as a quest for individuation is to finally ‘know thyself’. Furthermore, the possibility of fully knowing oneself as a realized individual is a process that not only takes place within the individual psyche but includes the living earth… it is a synthesis that harmonizes the three powers of thinking, feeling and will- closely which are connected with the trinity of spirit, soul, body. For Steiner it is the holy spirit, Sophia, who may guide us on this journey.

Only an eligible king, one who knows the answer to the question, “To whom shall this cup be given?” is worthy of the title of King.  Here, ‘King’ may be read as the individuated, sovereign human who reigns over his or her kingdom (mind), established through a sacred union with the land, the physical body and the world of matter.  It is the seal of a person who has opened an energetic flow between the three realms – body, soul, and spirit.

William Blake The Reunion of the Soul and the Body at the resurrection (1808)
William Blake, “The Reunion of the Soul and the Body at the resurrection” (1808)

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