Wolfram’s Parzival: The Esoteric Metaphysics of the Grail

Wolfram’s Parzival: The Esoteric Metaphysics of the Grail

In its later articulations, the legend of the holy grail is an essentially ecclesiastical myth. According to these iterations of the tale, the grail is identified with the chalice from which Christ drank at the last super and into which his blood spilled later as his side was pierced on the cross. Likewise, these versions of the story identify the knight destined for the grail with Galahad on account of his monkish purity. Yet, earlier versions of grail legend are far more nuanced. For example, in Chrétien de Troyes’ original version of the story, Perceval, 1 the grail is simply identified with a serving dish or bowl, not the cup used at the last supper. Indeed, the grail may even have had a more esoteric character for Chrétien, since the etymology of the French word graal can be derived from the Latin term gradale, which, in turn is derived from the Greek κρατήρ,2 a term of great significance in Hermetic and Pythagorean philosophy.3 Similarly, Perceval, the foolish knight appointed to the grail, is a substantially more complex character than that of Galahad. Again, even his name suggests a deeper metaphysical meaning to the story. For the name “Perceval” is likely derived from “per ce val” (through this valley) or “perce val” “to pierce the valley”, calling to mind “the valley of the shadow of death” of Psalm 23. Perceval, unlike Galahad, is no natural saint who triumphs easily in light of his otherworldly holiness, but one who lives in the valley with the rest of humanity, but who nonetheless learns to traverse it.

Of these earlier, more esoteric, accounts of the grail, Wolfram’s is by far the most sophisticated. Wolfram von Eschenbach was an early 13th century German poet who likely came from a knightly background, and his Parzival is the most intricate and intriguing of all grail legends. Wolfram makes clear, at the very outset of his poem, that his work must be understood esoterically. He begins his story as follows:

“If doubt (zwîvel) is near neighbor of the heart, that may turn sour on the soul. There is both scorning and adorning when man’s undaunted mind (unverzaget mannes muot) turns pied like the magpie’s hue. Yet he may still enjoy bliss (geil), for both have their share in him, Heaven and Hell. Inconstancy’s (unstaete) companion holds entirely to the black color and will, indeed, take on darkness’s hue, while he who is constant in his thoughts (staeten gedanken) will hold to the white.

This flying image (diz vliegende bîspel) is far too fleet for fools (tumben liuten). They can’t think it through (erdenken), for it knows how to dart (wenken) from side to side before them, just like a startled hare. Tin coated glass on the other side, and the blind man’s dream—these yield a countenance’s shimmer, but that dull light’s sheen (dirre trübe lîhte schîn) cannot keep company with constancy (staete). It makes for brief joy, in all truth (er machet kurze fröude alwâr).” (Parzival I.1 trans. Edwards).

Wolfram here declares that he writes for those whose minds are of a dappled hue, for those who dwell simultaneously within in the realms of Being and Becoming. As an empirical consciousness, the mind assumes a double character, partaking of both light and darkness, faith and doubt, adornment and scorn, and, ultimately, heaven and hell. Being of a dual nature, we are capable of steadying our thoughts and drawing them up to the eternal, but we are equally capable of letting them wander, abandoning ourselves to doubt and darkness. And Wolfram’s tale, he claims, is designed to lead our divided minds to bliss. To do this, he asserts that he must employ a flying image, one that darts about like a startled hare. In other words, Wolfram will use the very inconstancy of our minds to direct us heavenwards. But, he contends, that if his work is to have its intended effect, it must be approached rightly. His flying image is far too fleet for fools. This image, or bîspel (Beispiel), thus has something of a talismanic character. It is not only the story (spel), but also what plays by or through (bi) it, casting its spell from a position always already one step beyond us, that allows the work to have its intended effect. In short, Wolfram announces at the very outset of his poem that, if it is to be understood aright, it must be understood esoterically.

The Esoteric Background of Wolfram’s Parzival.

Further evidence for the esoteric character of Wolfram’s poem can be found in its sources and method. Wolfram claims that the story of the grail was originally discerned astrologically by the heathen sage Flagetanis. Wolfram declares:

“Flegetanis the heathen knew well how to impart to us each star’s departure and its arrival’s return—how long each revolves before it stands back at its station. By the stars’ circuit’s journey all human nature is determined. Flegetanis the heathen saw with his own eyes—modestly though he spoke of this—occult mysteries in the constellation. He said there was a thing called the Grail (ez hiez ein dinc der grâl), whose name he read immediately in the constellation—what it was called: ‘A host abandoned it upon the earth, flying up, high above the stars. Was it their innocence that drew them back? Ever since, baptized fruit has had to tend it with such chaste courtesy—those human beings are always worthy whose presence is requested by the grail” (IX.454).

The grail was thus said to be first discovered by Flegetanis in his astrological studies, when he came to see the occult meaning of a particular constellation. In this manner, Wolfram explicitly states that the subject matter of the grail legend is of an occult nature.4 Furthermore, as noted earlier, the subject matter of the grail concerns the relation between Being and Becoming. First, the appeal to astrology, which defines planetary distinctions in terms of light and darkness– Jupiter and Venus being considered benefics because they shine brightly and Mars and Saturn considered malefics because they do not—, echoes the themes of light and darkness at the beginning of Wolfram’s poem. Second, in claiming that the cosmos is governed by the revolutions of the stars, the astrological framework here invoked subsumes the seemingly chaotic happenings of the world of experience under a more fundamental order. “By the stars circuit’s journey all human nature is determined.” And, third, the grail is first announced as a thing, ein dinc, which ought to call to mind the archaic meaning of “thing” as a subject matter, a gathering of an assembly for a judgment which Heidegger later interpreted as a primoridal gathering of the earth, sky, mortals, and divinities.5 Fourth, Flagentius associates the grail with the connection between what is above and what is below. For, it is something that is left on earth by a host of celestial beings who ascend back to the heavens and is guarded by a select group of humans baptized into virtue (kiuschlîch/ wert). The story of the grail, then, has an ultimately metaphysical character for Wolfram.

Wolfram claims that Flagetanis’s account was found in Toledo by Kyot, a Christian scholar. “Kyot, the renowned scholar, found in Toledo, lying neglected, in heathen script, this adventure’s fundament. The a b c of those characters he must have learned beforehand, without the art of necromancy.” (IX.453). Kyot then went in search of more details concerning the grail in Latin works. “Kyot, that wise scholar, began to seek for those tidings in Latin books, of where there had been people (ein volc) fitting to tend (pflaege) the Grail and embrace such chastity (der kiusche sich bewaege).” (IX. 455). Kyot composed his summary of his findings in French, and Wolfram cites this account as the primary source for his story. For example, in Book XIII, Wolfram claims that:

“Kyot was called la schantiure—he whose art has not spared him from so singing and speaking that plenty still rejoice at it. Kyot is a Provençal, he who saw this adventure of Parzival written down in heathen tongue. What he told of it en franzoys, if I am not slow of wit, I shall pass on in German” (VIII.416).

And, given that Wolfram blames Kyot for his own narrative delay in elucidating the nature of the grail, we can infer that Kyot’s account of the grail was also esoteric. Wolfram claims:

“Parzival will now learn the hidden tidings concerning the grail (verholen maere umben grâl). Whoever asked me about this before and squabbled with me for not telling him about it has won infamy by it. It was Kyot who asked me to conceal it, for the adventure commanded him that no one should ever think of it until the adventure took it, through words, to meet the stories’ greeting—so that now it has, after all, to be spoken of” (IX.442-443).

Here Wolfram claims that the hidden matters concerning the grail should not be spoken till the adventure has worked an appropriate change upon its hearers. It should not be revealed until one can see through the words to meet “the stories’ greeting (an der maere gruoz)”.

This brings us to our second line of evidence for considering Wolfram’s Parzival to be an esoteric text. Wolfram elaborates the aforementioned concept of concealing to reveal at the proper time in his account of his own poetic method in his famous metaphor of the bow. After describing the grail procession observed by Parzival in his first visit to Monsælvasche, Wolfram breaks off his description, announcing he will explain the meaning of what has occurred later. He declares:

“Who that man [an old man seen in the grail castle] was—hear tidings of that later, and of the host, his castle, his land. These shall be named to you by me later, when the time comes, as is fitting, uncontentiously, and with no delay whatsoever. I tell the string without the bow. The string is an image (bîspel). Now, you think the bow is quick, but what the string dispatches is faster still, if I have told you true. The string is like straightforward tales, as indeed meet with people’s approval. Whoever tells you of crookedness desires to lead you astray. If anyone sees the bow strung, he concedes straightness to the string, unless someone wishes to stretch it to the curve, as when it must propel the shot. If someone, however, shoots his tale at a man who is perforce disgruntled by it—for it has no staying place there, and a very roomy path—in one ear, out the other—I’d be altogether wasting my toil, if my tale were to press itself upon him. Whatever I said or sang, it would be better received by a billy goat—or a rotting tree trunk” (V.241).

Wolfram here explains why he refrains from elucidating the nature of the grail and its kingdom at the present point in the story. Wolfram contends that his poetry must be understood as resembling a bow. The purpose of a bow to shoot an arrow at an intended target. Yet it can only do so through the dynamic tension created between the bow and its string, or, what Wolfram here identifies as the straight and the curved. Such imagery hearkens back to the poem’s prologue, where Wolfram declared the human heart to partake of both light and darkness and that his flying bîspel, the same word here translated as image, would be too fleet for fools. Whatever Wolfram’s true meaning might be, it is not to be captured in the surface meaning of the story.

Wolfram likely drew this metaphor of the bow from Christian hermeneutics.6 For, the church fathers often used a metaphor of a bow and its string to account for the relation between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, between literal and spiritual approaches to holy scripture. For instance, St. Gregory the Great articulates the transformative goal of preaching by likening it to medicine or to a bow that needs to be rightly aimed. One’s words will lose their efficacy, if “they are not suited to the hearer. For even medicines lose their efficacious properties when they are administered to sound limbs…. [Hence] it is necessary that the occasion, the time, and the individual, be taken into account, whether the truth of the sentiment confirms to the words delivered, whether the fitting time calls for it, whether the character of the person does not impugn both the truth of the sentiment, and the suitableness of the time. For he launches his darts in a manner to deserve praise, who first looks at the enemy that he is to strike. For he masters the horns of the strong bow amiss, who in sending the arrow with force, strikes a fellow countryman.” (Gregory the Great, Moralia on Job XXXIX.64). Gregory here notes that words must be suited to the character of its audience at a given time if they are to have their intended effect. Parsing the grammatical-historical meaning of the literal words of a text will be superfluous if they fail to reach the hearts of those who hear them. Such instruction would be like analyzing the chemical composition of a drug without stopping to see whether the compound would help or harm a particular patient at a given moment or calculating the velocity of an arrow without concern for what it is being aimed at. The bow metaphor, then, can be seen as an elaboration of St. Paul’s distinction between spirit and letter, when he claims that God “hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor. 3:6 KJV).

And the bow metaphor was used explicitly by St. Augustine to explain the relation between the Old and New Testaments. In his Exposition of the Psalms, he claims that the “bow… I would readily take to be the Holy Scripture, in which the strength of the New Testament, as by a sort of string, the hardness of the Old has been bent and subdued. From thence the Apostles are sent forth like arrows, or divine preachings are shot. Which arrows ‘He has wrought for the burning’, arrows, that is, whereby being stricken they might be inflamed with heavenly love.” (Augustine, Exposition of The Psalms, Ps.7). Again, the goal of preaching is not instruction regarding the literal words used in a text but inflaming a love for God in all who are capable of it. In other words, the true instruction is not exoteric, but esoteric. And St. Gregory goes on to elaborate the metaphor:

“What then in this place is to be understood by the name of the bow but sacred Revelation? For by the string the New Testament, while the bow the Old Testament, is understood. Now in a bow, when the string is drawn, the horn is bended: so in this same sacred Revelation, when the New Testament is read, the hardness of the Old is rendered pliant. For to the spiritual and mild precepts of this, the rigidness of the letter of the other bends itself; because whilst the New Testament as it were by a kind of arm of good practice is drawn, in the Old Testament the claims of severity are relaxed. Nor do we improperly say that the string accords with the New Testament, which it is certain came out by the Incarnation of the Lord. And so as it were the string is drawn and the horns bent; because when in the New Testament the of our Mediator is seen, the rigidness of the Old Testament is made to bend to a spiritual signification” (Gregory, Moralia on Job XIX.55).

Here the literal bends to the spiritual, and the spiritual is articulated in terms of incarnation, God’s seductive presence within the realm of becoming luring the finite back to the infinite.

That Wolfram has this Christian hermeneutical framework in mind when offering his bow metaphor can be seen in several ways. First, he shares the central definition of God as an incarnate God, one who has made himself kin to man. When the hermit Trevrizent (Parzvial’s uncle) finally catechizes Parzival to a clearer understanding of God in Book IX, he claims:

“From Adam’s kin arose both grief and delight. Since He who is seen as superior by every angel does not deny us kinship, and since kinship is sins’ cart, so that we must carry sin, may the might of Him with whom mercy keeps company have mercy, for His faithful humanity (getriuwiu mennischeit) has fought with faith (triwen) against unfaith (untriwe)” (IX.465).

Here again we see the duality of grief and delight set forth in the prologue, but now their union is said to be grounded in the fact that God has become kin with us.

Second, the fact that Wolfram sets his sights on spiritual transformation and piercing the heart with God’s love can be seen explicitly at the outset of Book IX, where the bow metaphor is brought to consummation, and he comes back to explain the nature of the grail. Book IX begins:

“Open up!

To whom? Who are you?

I want to go into your heart.

That’s a narrow space you want to enter!

What of it, even if I barely survive! You’ll seldom have cause to complain of my jostling! I want to tell you of wonders now!

Oh, it’s you, is it, Lady Adventure?” (IX.433).

Here Wolfram notes that the adventure he tells is intended to travel into his readers hearts to work wonders.

And finally, the Christian hermeneutical understanding of the bow metaphor also explains why Wolfram would describe himself as illiterate. In a puzzling passage in book II, Wolfram appears to claim that he doesn’t know how to read:

“If women didn’t think it flattery, I would advance further unfamiliar words to you by this tale—I would continue telling you this adventure. If anyone desires this of me, let him not attribute it to any book. I don’t know a single letter of the alphabet (buochstap). There are plenty who take such as a starting point—this adventure goes its way without books’ guidance. Rather than have people think it a book, I would be naked without a towel, as if sitting in the bath—provided I didn’t forget the bundle of twigs.” (II.115-116).

Given Wolfram’s familiarity with his sources, it would be strange it he literally didn’t know how to read. But his assertion begins to to make sense when we consider again St. Paul’s distinction between the letter and the spirit, the grammatical historical meaning of a text and its esoteric function. Indeed, the meaning of Wolfram’s denial that he knows a single buochstap becomes clear when we call to mind the German translation of the passage relevant passage from St. Paul. Luther, for example, famously translates the distinction between letter and spirit as one between Buchstabe and Geist. When Wolfram denies that he writes a book or can read a letter of the alphabet, he is asserting that he is telling a spiritual tale. To understand him rightly, we must read it at as an invitation from Geist. Thus, in light of his stated purpose in the prologue as well as the sources he cites and the method he employs, we should understand Wolfram’s Parzival as an essentially esoteric text. Let’s now turn to some of the key features of the story: it’s account of the grail and of Parzival’s theological education.

Wolfram’s Grail

Wolfram’s account of the grail is unique in that he identifies it with a miraculous stone. In Book IX, when Parzival asks for “knowledge about the nature of the Grail” (IX.468), his uncle, the hermit Trevrizent, informs him that knights of Munsalvæsche live “by a stone whose nature is most pure (von einem steine: des geslähte ist vil reine)” (IX.468). He claims that it is called lapsit exillis and identifies it with the power of the phoenix. “By that stone’s power the phoenix burns away, turning to ashes, yet those ashes bring it back to life. Thus the phoenix sheds its molting plumage and thereafter gives off so much bright radiance that it becomes as beautiful as before.” (IX.469). This stone, he maintains, is also called the Grail (“der stein is ouch genant der grâl” IX. 469). Its highest power (sîn hôhste kraft), is conveyed through a message (botschaft)– a wafer brought from heaven by a dove every Good Friday (IX.470). “By this the stone receives everything good that bears scent on this earth by way of drink and food, as if it were the perfection of Paradise (als den wunsch von pardîse)—I mean all that this earth is capable of bringing forth” (IX.470).

And he claims that the neutral angels, who failed to choose a side in the battle between God and the Lucifer, were sent to this stone.

“Those who stood on neither side when Lucifer and the Trinity began to contend, all such angels, noble (die edelen) and worthy (die werden), had to descend to the earth, to this same stone (zuo dem selben steine). The stone is forever pure (der stein ist immer reine). I do not know if God forgave them or whether he condemned them from that time forth. If he deemed it right, He took them back. The stone has been tended ever since by those appointed by God to the task, and to whom He sent His angel. Sir, this is the nature of the Grail (hêr, sus stêt ez umben grâl)” (IX.471).

Later in the poem, Trevrizent reveals that these neutral angels were not forgiven, but stand under God’s judgment.

“The tale I told you was that the expelled spirits, with God’s support, were present by the Grail, waiting there until they won favor. God is so constant in His ways that He contends forever against those I named to you as being in His favor. Whoever wishes for any reward from Him must renounce the same. For all eternity they are doomed. The doom they have chosen for themselves” (XVI.798).

So, it appears that the neutral angels were exiled to earth, and when they fell, they descended upon the grail. But they had to leave it there, since they were under God’s judgment. This would fit with Flagetanis’s account in which a host abandons the grail upon the earth. They were forced to leave it to face heaven’s punishment for their choice of indecision. The grail would have been a natural place for their descent to the earth, since it is described as “the perfection of paradise, both root and branch….earth’s perfection’s transcendence (den wunsch von paradîs, bêde wurzeln unde rîs….erden wunsches überwal)” (V.235). Indeed, it is root, branch, and fruit of paradise, since it is also “bliss’s fruit (der sælden fruht)” (V.238), conveying a worldly sweetness that resembles that of heaven (der werlde süeze ein sölh genuht, er wac vil nâch gelîche als man saget von himelrîche.” (V.238). Since the grail is the consummation of earth’s joys, uniting what is below with what is above, it makes sense that it would also be the place to which heavenly powers would descend.

In addition to being the power through which the phoenix dies and rises again, the grail is said to work several other kinds of wonders. When it is first introduced at the end of an elaborate procession in Book V, the grail nourishes the knights of Munsalvæsche with any food or drink they might desire. Indeed, this is the aspect of the grail which Wolfram seems most excited about when he first introduces it.

“They told me—and this I tell upon the oath of each and every one of you!–that before the Grail there was in good supply—if I am deceiving anyone in this, then you must be lying along with me!–whatever anyone stretched out his hand for, he found it all in readiness—hot food, cold food, new food and old too, tame and wild. ‘Never did anyone see the like!” (V.238).

And he goes on just as eagerly to describe the kinds of condiments and drinks that were served by its power: “sauce, pepper, verjuice….mulberry juice, wine, red sinople” (V.238-239).

Second, the grail is said to be able to relieve pain and heal the sick. “Moreover, never was a man in such pain but from that day he beholds the stone, he cannot die in the week that follows immediately after.” (IX.469). This, for example, is what keeps the old king Titurel from dying despite his disease and old age (IX.501).

Third, the grail conveys perpetual youth. “Nor will his complexion ever decline. He will be averred to have such color as he possessed when he saw the stone—whether it be maid or man—as when his best season commenced. If that person saw the stone for two hundred years, his hair would never turn gray. Such power does the stone bestow upon man that his flesh and bone immediately acquire youth.” (IX.469).

And, finally, the grail announces whom it will call to its service.

“As for those who are summoned to the Grail, hear how they are made known. At one end of the stone an epitaph of characters around it tells the name and lineage of whoever is to make the blissful journey to that place. Whether it relates to maidens or boys, no-one has any need to erase that script. As soon as they have read the name, it disappears before their eyes. As children they arrived in its presence, all those who are now full-grown there. Hail to the mother who bore the child that is destined to serve there! Poor and rich alike rejoice if their child is summoned there, if they are to send him to that host. They are fetched from many lands. Against sinful disgrace they are guarded forevermore, and their reward will be good in Heaven. When life perishes from them here, perfection will be granted them there” (IX.470-471).

These knights, whom Wolfram calls Templars, serve the grail and fight on its behalf, concealing it from the rest of the world (IX.473). Yet, ultimately, their most important role is to prevent earthly kingdoms from falling into chaos. Trevrizent explains, “if a land somewhere becomes lordless, if its people recognize God’s hand there, desiring a lord from the Grail’s company, they shall be granted one. In return they must treat him with courtesy, God’s blessing guard’s him there” (IX.494). If a people without a ruler recognize the order of providence and desire to be led, they will be granted a man or woman of the grail company to guide them. “God sends the men out secretly; maidens are presented openly” (IX.494).

What should we make of Wolfram’s puzzling claim that the grail is a wonder working stone? I believe that this question can most easily be answered by looking at two essential background sources from which Wolfram derived the concept: Alchemy and the Bible.


One most likely thinks of alchemy as some distant precursor to modern chemistry, in which scientists engaged in elaborate experiments to transform lead into gold. There is some truth to this idea, but it overlooks the fact that alchemy was essentially a spiritual art. It was animated by the idea that if one could perform the difficult work of transfiguring one’s consciousness, then the physical transformation of one substance into another would be an easy matter, both because mastering the mind is more challenging than altering matter, and because, as idealists, alchemists believed that physical transmutation could be achieved through the spiritual powers attained in the process of enlightenment. Now, the philosopher’s stone (lapis philosophorum) is of central significance in alchemy, since it is the product of the alchemical great work (magnum opus), and carries the power of transmuting base metals into precious ones. This is a likely background concept for Wolfram’s idea of the grail, since one of the Grail’s chief wonders lies in its ability to transform some elements into others, though Wolfram is more concerned with the transformation of empty air into food and drink than the transformation of lead into gold.

Other key features of the story evince the alchemical background of Wolfram’s grail. The alchemical process has three main phases: the black work (nigredo), the white work (albedo), and the red work (rubedo).7 In the black work, one detaches one’s mind from empirical consciousness and enters into a death like state. In the white work, one reappropriates the contents of consciousness, reintegrating one’s personality in an etheric body. And finally, in the red work, the intensity of the white work is magnified, and consciousness begins to relate to its contents as its own positings. Now, we have already noted that Wolfram begins his tale by saying that he speaks to those of us who dwell in the dappled world of human consciousness, partaking essentially of both black and white (I.1). Furthermore, as Parzival begins his knightly journey, he defeats Ither the Red Knight and dons his armor (III.145), taking on the identity of the Red Knight for the rest of the tale (III.170). Moreover, the decisive battle before Parzival becomes the Grail King occurs when he faces his brother Feirefiz. Feirefiz is said to be mottled black and white (XV.747-748), and Parzival, again, is described as the Red Knight. So, the crucial turning point of the tale, the transformative struggle is described as black, white, and red, calling to mind the black white and red works of alchemy. And the battle ends when Parzival’s sword, which he had taken from Ither, the Red Knight, breaks. At this point, Feirefiz calls for a truce and they learn each other’s identities, coming to see that they were, in fact, battling with their very selves the whole time. Feirefiz, for example, proclaims:

“We were all one entirely…. It is with your own self that you have fought here. It was to do battle against myself that I came riding here. My own self I would gladly have slain, but you were incapable then of being daunted and defended my own self against me” (XV.752).

The breaking of the Red Knight’s sword, which brings about the moment of recognition, allows Parzival and his brother to see that they are “all one entirely”. From the alchemical perspective, this would call to mind the completion and unity of the three works, and, ultimately, the attainment of “the one thing” spoken of in the Emerald Tablet.8

The Biblical Stone

In addition to alchemy, Wolfram’s identification of the grail with a stone is informed by imagery drawn from the Bible. The most obvious background is a passage from St. Paul, where he, using the spiritual method of interpretation adopted by Wolfram in his bow metaphor, identifies Christ with the rock from which water flowed in the wilderness for the people of Israel.

“Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were our examples (tupoi), to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (1 Cor 10:1-6).

Here Paul claims that from a spiritual point of view the stories of the Old Testament were stories of Christ. Specifically, he invokes a story in which the people of Israel complain that they have no water and God instructs Moses to strike a rock, from which water then miraculously flows (Exodus 17:1-7). Though physically they drank from a rock to quench their thirst, spiritually they drank from the living waters of Christ. Like Wolfram, Paul uses his story as an example, a Beispiel, with the intent of transforming his readers so that they will not fall away as the people of Israel did. “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:11-12).

By identifying the grail with a stone, Wolfram thus bestows a Christological significance upon it. The grail is the point of contact wherein the celestial and the terrestrial meet, the mysterious point in which God becomes man and man becomes God. This association with Christ’s incarnation is bolstered by Wolfram’s claim the grail receives its power by a wafer brought from heaven by a dove. A medieval reader would have identified this wafer with the eucharist, in which bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ.9 Furthermore, the descending dove would have called to mind the Holy Spirit coming upon Christ like a dove at his baptism (Matt 3:16-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22). Once the Spirit enters him, it leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. And the first temptation faced by Christ is the challenge to transform stones into bread to sate his hunger. The Gospel of Mathew, for example, recounts:

“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Mat 4:3-4).

This passage makes clear that Christ had the power of transmutation, but was tempted to use it at the wrong time. The fact that this happens on a regular basis in the grail kingdom can be taken to signify unconstrained spiritual and temporal authority conferred by Christ after the harrowing of Hell.10

A second, more subtle, but structurally more important biblical source for Wolfram’s account of the grail is the story of Jacob. The Book of Genesis presents Jacob as a trickster figure. He comes out of the womb grasping the heal of his brother Esau as if to trip him (25:26). While Esau is red, hairy (25:25) and a hunter (25:27), Jacob is said to dwell in tents (Gen 25:2).

As the second born son, Jacob does not stand to inherit either a birthright or the blessing of his father, since these are customarily given to the first born. Yet, Jacob gains both by his cunning. He convinces his brother to sell him his birthright for some porridge (25:29-34) and dupes his blind father into giving him his brother’s blessing by claiming to be Esau and strapping goat hair to his arms so that he feels hairy (Gen 27:1-38). Enraged, Esau plans to murder his brother, so Jacob flees to live with his uncle Laban. On his journey there, he takes a rock for a pillow and falls asleep in the wilderness. There he sees a vision of heaven and earth connected by a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend.

“And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father…. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee” (Gen 28:10-22).

Here, then, we have the idea of a stone which, like the castle of Munsalvaesche served as a hidden house of God, a mediating ladder between heaven and earth. And, like the grail, this stone was a place to and from which angels descend and ascend.

Wolfram also likely has in mind the latter part of Jacob’s story where he wrestles with God and is given a new name as a result. This scene occurs after Jacob leaves Laban, having also swindled him of his goods, and returns home to meet his brother. He once more sees the angels of God and calls the place God’s camp (Gen 32:1-2), calling to mind his previous encounter at Bethel. He is anxious about seeing his brother again, realizing he and his family could easily be overpowered and killed by his superior forces. As usual, Jacob resorts to cunning and tries to placate his brother through strategy and diplomacy, breaking his family into two parts so one can escape, and sending gifts to soften his arrival. Then, in the night, a supernatural figure appears and wrestles with Jacob.

“And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank” (Gen 32:22-32).

Here, Jacob once more encounters a thin place between heaven and earth. But this time he must physically struggle with what he sees. The trickster, who has previously relied exclusively on his cunning, is now forced to battle directly, engaging in physical combat. It is only through this struggle, this fundamental change in orientation and appropriation of his brother’s approach to life, that he is given a new name. He is now not Jacob, the schemer, but Israel, a prince with power. And, in the process, he is given a wound in his thigh, a wound which parallels the grail king Anfortas’s wound in the groin in Wolfram’s Parzival (IX.479).

In both stories a fundamental change of identity occurs when the hero not only comes face to face with God, but in so doing, adopts an opposite way of being in the world. Jacob, who relied on cunning, must learn to fight directly, but Parzival must take the opposite approach. He is a natural warrior, yet foolish on account of being deprived of an education. He becomes a knight by King Arthur by killing Ither the Red Knight and taking his armor, thus becoming the Red Knight himself. Wolfram may have meant to signal that Parzival should be seen as following Esau’s red warrior path (Gen 25:25). But, like Jacob, Parzival fails to attain his destiny by following his habitual mode of life. It is only by gaining wisdom, learning the true nature of God and how to ask the right questions, and by the learning to receive grace (as he did when his sword broke and he recognized his brother Feirefiz) that his identity could transform from Red Knight to Grail King. Parzival, like Jacob, wrestles with God, at points claiming to fight against him, because he feels that God has betrayed him (IX.461). But his transformation occurs when he relies not on his battle instincts, but on his spiritual insight. When he does so, he is declared, like Jacob, to have wrestled with God and won. Once Trevrizent learns that Parzival has been elected to the kingship of the grail, he declares:

“Greater miracle has seldom happened, since your defiance has caused God’s endless Trinity to be acquiescent to your will (groezer wunder selten ie geschach, sît ir ab got erzürnet hât daz sîn endelôsiu Trinitât iwers willen werhaft worden ist)” (XVI.798).

In light of these striking structural similarities, the biblical story of Jacob thus provides a likely backdrop for Wolfram’s account of the grail.

Parzival’s Theological Education

Wolfram’s story of the grail is inseparable from the story of Parzival’s theological education. For, though Wolfram describes his tale as that of a man who “won the Grail, as was decreed for him”, and, in the end, was “brought to where Fortune had, despite all, intended him to go” (XV.827), the outworkings of fortune turn upon the state of Parzival’s soul. The story is thus simultaneously one of a bold (küene) hero, who, though at first ignorant, laggardly grows wise (træclîche wîs) (I.4).


To understand Wolfram’s account of Parzival’s theological education, it is necessary to first sketch some of the background he invents concerning Parzival’s parents and the state of the grail kingdom. According to Wolfram, the grail was entrusted to Titurel, the first grail king. He then passed the office to his son Frimutel, who himself bore several children, most notably, Anfortas (the fallen Grail King), Trevrizent (the monk who instructs Parzival), and Herzeloyde (Parzival’s mother). When Frimutel dies, the office is passed to Anfortas, but he pursues it in the wrong spirit. Though the Grail King may marry, he may only devote himself the person to whom the grail directs him (IX.478). Anfortas did not do this, and conducted himself according to the ordinary model of knighthood, dedicating himself to the service of the lady Orgeluse.11 “ ‘Amore!’ was his battle-cry. Such a call is, however, not entirely compatible with humility (dêmuot)” (IX.478-479). Because he commits himself to mundane norms of knighthood unfitting for the high order of the grail, he is wounded in the genitals by a poisoned spear (IX.479) and is condemned to suffer torment until a destined knight arrives to ask the question that can heal him (IX.483). Trevrizent, in light of his brother’s suffering, renounces knightly activity and devotes himself to God’s service as a hermit, hoping this will bring about his brother’s salvation.

Herzeloyde is sent out by the grail to marry Castis12 King of Waleis and Norgals, but he dies before the marriage is consumated, and she inherits his kingdoms. Herzeloyde then marries the valiant knight Gahmuret. But, Gahmuret continues to seek knightly adventures, and leaves on a quest while she is still pregnant with his son. He dies in battle, and Herzeloyde almost goes insane with grief. She and her retinue retreat to a forest, the Waste of Soltane, to keep her son Parzival far from courtly society and to ensure that he will learn nothing of knighthood, so that he will not go off in search of deadly adventures as his father did (III.117).

Herzeloyde’s Teaching

This is where the story of Parzival’s education begins. His mother and all who surround him conspire to “conceal chivarly from him” (III.117) and cheat him of “kingly ways” (III.118). Yet, despite her best efforts, she sees that his heart stirs at the song of birds overhead. “She observed that her child’s breast swelled at the sound of their voices, compelled to it by lineage and his desire” (III.118). As a result, she attempts to exterminate all the birds. “Lady Herzeloyde turned her hostility against the birds, although she knew no reason for it. She intended to silence their sound. She commanded her ploughmen and farmhands to make haste to choke and catch the birds” (III.118-119). The fact that it is birds and their song that awaken Parzival’s latent royal desire may symbolize the awakening of his spiritual yearnings. For birds were often taken as omens in the ancient world, and the fact that they fly between heaven and earth gives them a fitting status as mediators between gods and men. Philosopher Julius Evola, for example, speculates:

“If we compare the atmosphere to a condition that no longer belongs to the earth element, then the beings living in the atmosphere, namely, birds, have often symbolized supernatural natures, gods, or angels in many traditions, including the Christian one. Consequently, the birds’ language has symbolized the ‘language of the gods,’ which is understood when one reaches a certain phase of inner awakening.”13

Yet, this awakening is something that Parzival’s mother irrationally tries to choke out of him by attempting to strangle the birds and silence their song. In response, Parzival asks a question,14 one which initiates his theological education. He asks: “What grudge do they [her servants] bear the birdlets?” (III.119). This question causes his mother to have a change of heart, and she responds:

“Why do I contravene His commandment—He who is, after all, the Highest God? Shall birds for my sake abandon joy?” (III.119).

Here Herzeloyde is reminded of God and his commandment, and repents of her desire to kill the birds. This then prompts Parzival to ask what is perhaps the most decisive question of the book: “Alas, mother, what is God (waz ist got)?” His mother answers, providing him with his first piece of theological instruction. She explains:

“Son, I’ll tell you, in all earnest. He is even brighter than the day, He who took upon himself a countenance fashioned after man’s countenance. Son, take one piece of advice to heart, and call upon Him in your hour of need. His loyalty has always offered help to the world. But then there is one who is called Hell’s lord—He is black, disloyalty does not avoid him. Turn your thoughts away from him, and also from doubt’s deviation” (III.119).

Here, echoing duality of the prologue, Herzeloyde contrasts God with the Devil, associating the former with light and loyalty (triwe), and the latter with darkness and disloyalty (untriwe). Indeed, Wolfram summarizes Herzeloyde’s teaching at the end of the paragraph when he notes that “His mother taught him in full the distinction between darkness (vinster) and light (lieht)” (III.119). God is thus described as shining forth in his eternity, ever true and unchanging, while the devil operates in the realm of becoming, inconstant, and ruling where the mind falls into doubt’s deviation (zwîvels wanke). Yet, she also attributes a further feature to the divine nature, one essential to the theological vision of Wolfram’s poem, claiming that God exists within the world of Becoming, taking on man’s countenance. Because the realms of Being and Becoming converge in God, He can be relied on to help (hilfe) in our hour of need should we call to him.

This teaching nourishes Parzival’s spirits and his boldness is said to have “leapt and bounded” (III.120). Yet he interprets his mother’s teaching only in its most immediate physical sense. For example, he hears hoofbeats and believes that it may be the Devil, and this inspires him to try to hunt him with his Javelin, thinking to himself: “What have I heard? Oh, if only the Devil would come now, in his fearful wrath! I would take him on, for sure! My mother talks of his terrors—I believe her courage is daunted” (III.120). And, when he finds the source of the sound, he continues to take his mother’s teaching literally. He sees a group of knights whose armor shines. “He had never seen anything so bright” (III.122), and so he believes them to be God and prostrates himself before them in supplication. “The boy thought in all sincerity that each of these was a god. Then he stood there no longer, but threw himself into the path, down upon his knees. Loudly the boy then cried: ‘Help, God! You surely have help in your power’” (III.120-121). The bemused knights inform him that they are knights and not God, and Parzival asks them about the nature of knighthood and who confers it (III.123). They respond that it is granted by King Arthur, and that if he travels to his castle he may well become a knight himself. Parzival decides to do just that.

He informs his mother of what he has learned and asks for a horse so he can travel to King Arthur’s court. His mother is distraught. She had put much effort into keeping him from knowing his knightly lineage and going out in search of adventure, but his nature expressed itself anyway. She concedes and gives him a horse and clothing, but only the most ridiculous, hoping that he will soon be humiliated, give up his quest, and return home. Wolfram describes her thought process as follows:

“The boy, foolish (tump) yet worthy (wert), repeatedly asked his mother for a horse. It grieved her to the heart. She thought: ‘I don’t want to deny him anything, but it’ll have to be a most miserable nag!’ Then the queen thought: ‘Lots of people are prone to scorn. My child shall wear fool’s clothes (tôren kleider) over his fair body. If he is torn and trounced, he may well come back home to me.’ (III.126)

After having thus equipped him to fail, she gives him some advice on how he should conduct himself as an aspiring knight:

“On untrodden roads you must avoid dark fords—those which are shallow and clear, there you must ride boldly. You must cultivate courteous ways, offer all the world a greeting. If a gray, wise man is willing to teach you courtesy, as he well knows how, you must follow his instructions willingly, and not be angry with him. Son, let this be commended to you: wherever you may win a good woman’s ring and her greeting, take them—they will cure you of sorrow. You must hasten towards her kiss and grasp her firmly in your embrace—that will bring good fortune and high spirits, provided she is chaste and worthy” (III.127-128).

Parzival then departs, and, unbeknownst to him, his mother dies of grief as a result. “When she could no longer see her son, he having ridden off… that lady slow to falsity fell down upon the ground, where grief gave her such a cut that death did not shun her” (III.128).

Throughout his journey to Arthur’s court, Parzival continues to follow his mother’s instructions to the letter. When he encounters a shallow brook over which he could easily have stepped, he refuses to pass over it, since its waters are dark. Instead, he spends a whole day following it, and only crosses when he finds a ford where the water is clear (III.129). He greets every person he meets announcing that his mother has told him to do so, declaring, “God keep you, so my mother advised me!” (III.145). When he sees a lady in her tent, he takes his mother’s advice literally by stealing a kiss from her and seizing her ring, thereby bringing her much trouble, since her husband comes to believe she has been unfaithful. And, after gaining knighthood at Arthur’s court (by slaying the Red Knight Ither to whom he is unknowingly related), he is further educated by the old knight Gurnemanz, thus carrying out the final part of his mother’s instructions. When he comes to Gurnemanz’s castle he announces. “My mother urged me to take advice from him who has gray locks. I’ll willingly serve you to that end, since my mother told me so” (III.162-163).

Gurnemanz’s Teaching

Thankfully, Gurnemanz receives him kindly and takes him into his fatherly care (III.165). This commences the next phase of Parzival’s education: his education into the norms of Knighthood. Gurnemanz begins by giving him new clothes to replace the fool’s garb given to him by his mother (III.168). He then instructs him in the ritual of the mass (III.169) and educates him in a knightly code of conduct. He bluntly asserts:

“You talk like a little child! Why not be silent concerning your mother altogether, and pay heed to other matters? Hold fast to my counsel—it will part you from wrongdoing.” (III.170).

Gurnemanz advises him not to be shameless, and to to be generous to those in need (III.170). He should be moderate (III.171), show mercy to those he defeats in battle (III.171), care for his armor after use (III.172), remain “manly and of good spirits” (III.172), and be truthful and unwavering in relation to women (III.172). And, most consequentially for the story, Gurnemanz advises him to refrain from asking questions:

“You must not ask many questions. Nor should you hold back from considered counter-speech, meeting a man’s questioning head on if he wants to sound you out with words. You can hear and see, taste and smell—that must bring you near to knowledge” (III.171).

Here Gurnemanz claims that knowledge is gained by direct sensory experience–what one hears, sees, tastes, and smells for oneself. The knightly way, claims Gurnemanz, is to gain knowledge by experience and refrain from asking questions of others. Nonetheless, Gurnemanz does temper this approach and suggest another way of knowing at the very end of his speech when he speaks of the nature of women. He claims:

“I tell you more of woman’s order. Man and woman are all one, just like the sun that shone today and the name that denotes day—neither of these may be separated from the other. They blossom from a single seed. Mark this with discernment (des nemet künstelîche war)” (III.172-173).

Here Gurnemanz admits that mere sensory experience does not suffice for knowledge. For, he claims that empirical consciousness is cognitively penetrated. Objects and words are grounded in a primoridal unity. Our experience of the shining sun, for example, cannot be articulated apart from the concept <sun>. And this union, Gurnemanz claims, must be approached artfully and with discernment, suggesting that, to know rightly, one must perceive the union of spirit and matter. And this, one might think, requires the asking of questions since the conceptual layer of experience is grasped dialectically.

Parzival takes Gurnemanz’s advice to heart, but, again, he does so only in the most literal manner. This serves him well in regard to knightly conduct. He distinguishes himself by defending the besieged city of Pelapeire and winning the heart of its queen, Condwiramurs (she who brings love), the most beautiful woman in the world (Book IV). Yet, when he leaves the mundane order of knighthood and enters the kingdom of the grail, Gurnemanz’s advice fails him.

Parzival’s Failure

After leaving his newly wedded wife Condwiramurs on what he believes to be a short trip to search for knightly adventure and to find out how his mother is doing (IV.223), his horse, of its own volition, leads him to a different kind of adventure. Wolfram describes Parzival as being conveyed to the Grail kingdom as if by magic:

“Forcibly, the horse dragged the reins over fallen tree-trunks and through the marsh, for no man’s hand guided it. The adventure makes known to us that in the course of that day he rode so far that a bird would have been hard put to fly all that distance. Unless the adventure has deceived me, his journey was not nearly on great on that day when he speared Ither [the Red Knight], and afterwards, when he made his way from Graharz to the land of Brobarz [a journey in which he rode at an unbelievable pace]” (V.224).

In this strange realm, he sees a man whom he takes to be a fisherman, but who is, in reality, the wounded Grail King Anfortas. Anfortas directs Parzival to the Grail Castle, telling him he will attend him that evening if Parzival should arrive there (V.226). Parzival finds the castle and is welcomed when he announces he was invited by the fisherman. The company greats him hospitably, and he is shown the grail procession that evening. What he sees is clearly wondrous, and the Grail’s miraculous provision of food should have been enough to cause Parzival to inquire into the matter before him. Parzival could heal Anfortas and step into his kingship, restoring order to Monsalvæsche simply by asking a question. All he needs to do is respond appropriately to the wonder before him. But Parzival fails to do so, relying instead on the rules of mundane knighthood he learned from Gurnemanz, not knowing that they fail to apply in the loftier realm of the Grail. Indeed, he even considers asking about what he sees, but decides not to in light of Gurnemanz’s advice:

“Parzival marked well the opulence and this great mystery, yet out of courtesy he refrained from asking questions thinking: ‘Gurnemanz advised me, in his great and limitless loyalty, that I ought not to ask many questions. What if my stay here turns out like that with him there? Without asking questions, I’ll learn how it stands in this household” (V. 239).

Parzival here misreads the situation in two crucial ways. First, he takes it to be governed by the secular rules of knighthood Gurnemanz taught him. And, second, he takes it to be akin to the situation in which he encountered Gurnemanz himself. Parzvial thinks that grail knights will instruct him, delivering him from ignorance, when, in fact, he is the one with the power to deliver them. Parzival does not realize that he can give, as well as receive, outside of the domain of physical combat. Anfortas even gives him a mystical sword, and explicitly mentions his suffering, but Parzival continues to misperceive the situation and fails to ask the question:

“As these thoughts passed through his mind, a squire approached, carrying a sword. Its scabbard was worth a thousand marks; its hilt was a ruby, and its blade, too, might well be the cause of great wonder. The host gave it to his guest, saying: ‘Lord, I took this into extremity in many a place, before God afflicted my body. Now let this be your compensation, if you are not well treated here. You’re well capable of carrying it along all roads. Whenever you test its mettle, you will be protected in battle.

Alas that he did not ask then! I am still unhappy for him on that account, for when he took the sword into his hand, he was admonished to ask the question. I also grieve for his gentle host, whom misfortune does not spare, but from which he would have been absolved by questioning” (V.239-240).

The final chance at redemption is squandered as Parzival goes to sleep. I suspect that Wolfram intends Parzival’s sleep to indicate his inability to remain awake to the reality of the grail, and his choice to drift into back into unconsciousness. He describes the scene as follows:

“The host said to his guest: ‘I believe your bed has been prepared. If you are weary, then my advice is that you go and lie down to sleep. ‘

Now I ought to rise the hue and cry because of this parting they are enacting! Great harm will make itself known to them both.

From the camp-bed Parzival, that youth of high lineage, stepped back onto the carpet. The host wished him goodnight. The company of knights then leapt up in their entirety, some of them pressing closer to him. Next they led the young man into a chamber, which was so splendidly adorned, embellished by such a bed that my poverty pains me forever, seeing that the earth flourishes with such luxury. To that bed poverty was a stranger. As if glowing in fire, a phellel-silk lay upon it, of bright hue. Parzival then asked the knights to go back to their chamber, as he saw no other beds there. With his permission they departed” (V242-243).

And, as if to provide him with one final chance to prove himself, maidens enter his room to offer him drinks and fruits. And, as they enter, they announce “you must stay awake for our sake, for a while yet.” (V.244) Yet, after conversing with them for a little while, Parzival goes to sleep. But his sleep is a troubled one, and he is immediately made aware that something has gone drastically wrong.

“Parzival did not lie alone. Keeping him company until daybreak, harsh toil lay upon him. Future sufferings sent their harbingers to him in his sleep….Thus his dream was stitched with sword-blows about the seam, trimmed with many a splendid joust. From head-on charges he suffered great duress in his sleep. Even if he’d died thirty times over, he’d rather have endured that awake—such payment did discomfort dole out to him” (V. 245).

He wakes from the dream, an omen whose fitting response would be to seek out his host and ask a question, but he again fails do so, deciding to go back to sleep.

“Because of these fearful matters he had no choice but to wake-up in his extremity, his veins and bones sweating. Day, by then, was shining through the windows. He said: ‘Alas, where are the youths, why are they not here before me? Who is to hand me my clothes? The warrior lay waiting for them to come, until he fell asleep again. No-one talked or called out there-they were all hidden. About mid-morning the young man woke up again. Immediately the bold knight rose” (V.245).

He gets up, finds the castle abandoned, and discovers the sword his host had given him, leaving him with two swords. Parzival, still thinking that the situation resembles his previous knightly battles, suspects that Anfortas is besieged by human enemies and seeks to assist him by offering his support in combat.

“On the carpet the noble warrior saw his armor and two swords lying. One his host had ordered he be given; the other was from Gaheviez. Then he said to himself at once: ‘Alas, what is the meaning of this? In truth, I must put on this armor. I suffered such torture in my sleep that waking peril most likely lies head of me before the day is out. If this host is pressed by war, then I will gladly carry out his command!” (V.246).

When he leaves the Grail castle, the drawbridge shuts behind him, and he hears one of the company shout:

“Go, and take the sun’s hatred with you!’ said the squire: ‘You are a goose! If only you’d opened your gob and questioned the host! It has cost you much fame” (V.247).

Parzival is aware that something has gone wrong, but he is not clear what it is or how it involves him. Still believing that the matter concerns the duties of mundane knighthood, he sets out in search of the grail company, believing that they have gone off to battle, leaving him behind because they think him a coward. Wolfram recounts:

“Parzival set off after them, hard on the tracks he saw there, thinking: ‘Those who have ridden ahead of me will, I believe, do battle today, valorously, in my host’s cause. If they were so inclined, then their ranks would not be weakened by including me. There would be no wavering then—I would help them in their need and earn my bread, and also this wondrous sword which their noble lord has given me. Undeservedly I carry it. They perhaps believe that I am a coward!’ Falsity’s foe headed off along the hoofmark’s track” (V.248-249).

Wolfram thus makes clear that Parzival still operates from a spirit of nobility, being “falsity’s foe”, and intends to make things right. He just doesn’t know how, and the only option he can imagine is to atone through knightly combat.

Sigune and Cundrie’s False Teaching

Parzival soon comes to learn the nature of his failure when he encounters his cousin Sigune who tells him of the nature of the grail castle Munsalvæsche, “rich in earth’s perfection (ist erden wunsches rîche)” (V.251). She explains that only those whom it calls can arrive there. And learning he has visited it, she expects him to have redeemed the Grail King from his suffering and to have inherited the grail kingdom for himself, a kingdom of a higher order than any on earth. For, had he stepped into his office as Grail King, he would have gained “sovereign power over all the air has touched! Tame and wild will serve you, along with wealth, perfection (wunsch) is allotted to you.” (V.252). If he would have “given the question its due”, he would rule a domain “high above the noble (hôhe ob den werden)” and would have gained “possession of absolute perfection upon this earth (den wunsch ûf der erden) (V.254).

In this manner, Sigune informs Parzival that he has encountered a higher order of reality than he has been accustomed to thus far. Yet, when she learns that he has failed to ask the question (V.255), she grows enraged, and, as a result, herself fails to grasp the true reality of the grail’s domain. She lashes out at Parzival and conveys to him a false theology. After she derides him as an “accursed man”, who is “dead to bliss” (V.255), Parzival responds by seeking to atone for his actions. “Then he said: ‘My dear cousin, show me more kindness. I shall atone, if I have done wrong” (V.255). To this she responds that there can be no forgiveness for his sin, and cuts all ties with him. “ ‘There shall be no atonement for you!’ said the maiden. ‘I know full well that at Munsalvæsche honor and knightly fame vanished from you. You’ll find no further converse of any kind now from me!’ With that Parzival parted from her.” (V.255).

Parzival receives similarly erroneous theological tidings from Cundrie, a messenger of the grail kingdom. She interrupts the proceedings of the Arthurian court after Parzival is admitted to the Round Table, claiming that they have dishonored themselves for accepting someone so disloyal (VI.315-316). Yet, rather than merely announcing Parzival’s wrongdoing, she, like Sigune, is overcome by emotion and presents him with a false picture of God. She claims that he “is destined for Hell, as appointed in Heaven before the Highest hand”, and as a result, “he is doomed upon this earth”, and “a ban on salvation” (VI.316). She declares he is “accursed” and “Hell’s lords’ plaything” (VI.16). Here again, he is told that atonement is impossible, that God himself has predestined him for Hell, and that the Devil is his true master.

Taking these pronouncements to heart, Parzival abandons his trust in God and even turns against Him. He leaves the Aruthurian Knights hoping to somehow return to the grail kingdom and clear his name. And, when Gawan, who is also leaving on a quest, announces that he will put his trust in God’s power, Parzival responds:

“ ‘Alas, what is God? If He were mighty, He would not have given us both such scorn—if God could live in power. I served Him as His subject, hoping for favor from Him. Now I’ll refuse him service. If He is capable of enmity, that I shall bear. Friend, when combat’s time comes for you, let a woman fight for you. Let your hand be guided by her in whom you have recognized chastity and womanly kindness. Let her love guard you there. I don’t know when I shall see you next. May my wishes for you be fulfilled.” (VI.332).

Here Parzvial asks the same question that he posed to his mother at the commencement of his theological education, ‘Alas, what is God?’ (III.119). But now he asks it from a spirit of bitterness, declaring that he he bares enmity to God and will refuse him service. He advises that Gawan put his trust in women instead of God, an ironic statement given the false picture of God handed to him by Sigune and Cundrie. Parzival then rides of in a quest for the grail for many years, falling into the background, as the story tracks the adventures of Gawan.

Trevrizent’s Teaching

Things begin to shift for Parzival when he once more encounters Sigune and she offers him her forgiveness. When he sees her again, she announces “let all my vengeance upon you be renounced!” (IX.441). And when she learns he has been seeking the grail once more, she admits that God may redeem him. “Now may His hand help you, to whom all troubles are known. Perhaps you may so far succeed that a trail may take you where you will see Munsalvæsche, where you tell me your happiness lies” (IX.422).

Yet the main turning point for Parzival occurs on Good Friday when he finds an old knight and his daughters making a pilgrimage to see a hermit. The old man is puzzled by the fact that Parzival wears his armor, since it is not customary to do so on Good Friday. (IX.447). Parzival responds that he can no longer tell one day from another and that he no longer serves God.

“Parzival replied to him: ‘Sir, I do not know one way or the other how the year’s juncture stands, nor how the weeks’ count advances. How the days are named is all unknown to me. I used to serve one who is called God, before his Favor imposed such scornful disgrace upon me—never did my mind waver from Him whose help I had been told. Now His help has failed me” (IX.447).

The knight responds by asking whether he means the God who became man and suffered for the sake of humanity, and suggests that Parzival speak with the holy man to whom they are traveling. “He will give you counsel, penance for your misdeed. If you wish to tell him of your contrition, he will part you of your sins.” (IX.448). And, the knight’s daughters, too, ask him to travel along with them (IX.449). But Parzival decides not to, thinking it would be unfitting for him to travel with them, since he holds enmity with Him whom they serve. “My parting from them is more seemly, since I bear enmity toward Him whom they love from their hearts, and they hope for help from Him who has barred His help from me, and not sparred me sorrows.” (IX.450). Yet, though he departs from them, their kindness and devotion cause him to once more think upon God and turn to Him for help.

“Away rides Herzeloyde’s fruit. His manly courtesy counseled him chastity and pity. Because the young Herzeloyde had bequeathed loyalty to him, his heart’s contrition arose. For the first time he then thought about who had perfected all the world, about his Creator, how potent He was. He said: ‘What if God has at His disposal such help as may vanquish my sadness? If He ever grew well-disposed towards a knight—if a knight ever earned His reward—or if shield and sword may prove so worthy of His help, and true manly valor, that His help may protect me from sorrows—if today is His helpful day, then let Him help, if help he may” (IX.451).

Parzival is still limited in that he continues to think of God only in terms of earthly knighthood, but he nonetheless turns to Him in sincere faith, hoping once more for His help. He entrusts his journey to God and lets go of his horse’s reins.

“He said: ‘If God’s power is so sublime that it can guide both horses and beasts, and people too, I will praise His power. If God’s skill possesses such help, let it direct this Castilian of mine along the best road for my journey. Then His goodness will indeed make help manifest. Now go as God chooses!” (IX.452).

God responds to this act of faith, and Parzival’s horse takes him to Trevrizent the hermit, the holy man of whom the old knight had spoken. It is Trevrizent who completes Parzival’s theological education by showing him a loftier vision of God.

Parzival addresses Trevrizent directly much as he did Gahmuret earlier in his life, announcing “Sir, now give me counsel. I am a man who possesses sin.” (IX.456). And, like Gahmuret, Trevrizent obliges. He reiterates the doctrine that God is truth and light, but he elucidates the image more fully. Interestingly, though he articulates his theology in largely Christian symbols, he claims it was also announced by Plato and Sibyl the prophetess (IX.465).15

“Be faithful without any deviation, for God himself is faithfulness (sît getriwe ân allez wenken, sît got selbe ein triuwe ist). False cunning never found favor with Him. We must let him profit from having done much for us, for His noble, high lineage took on man’s image for our sake (sît sîn edel hôher art durch uns ze menschen bilde wart). God means and is the Truth (got heizt und ist diu wârheit). False conduct has always grieved Him. You must ponder deeply (bedenken) upon this. He’s incapable of deserting anyone (ern kan an niemen wenken). Now teach (lêret) your thoughts (gedanke) this lesson: be on your guard against deserting (wanke) Him!” (IX.462).

Here Trevrizent explains that God is True, Eternal, and Unchanging. As such, He is faithfulness, standing in contrast to all change and deviation. Yet, Trevrizent maintains, this does not mean that God stands in opposition to the world of Becoming. Rather, from the fullness of His faithfulness, He has taken on our human lineage, bridging the two realms. If God has become man, then Parzival, a man, must guard his thoughts from wandering, and, bring them to the stillness of God.

Similarly, Trevrizent expands on the idea that God is light. Parzival’s mother, and

Wolfram’s preface have thus far defined God’s light in terms of the contrast between light and darkness. But Trevrizent deepens this image, by pointing out that, though God is pure light, He is a light of such an order that, unlike the physical sun, He can shine even through darkness. Trevrizent explains:

“Of the True Lover (wâren minnaere) these sweet tidings tell that He is a translucent light (ein durchliuhtec lieht), and does not deviate from His love (und wenket sîner minne nieht). That man to whom He makes love manifest will be well content with His love. (swem er minne erzeigen sol, dem wirt mit sîner minne wol). These matters are divided: to all the world He offers for purchase both His love (minne) and His hatred (haz). Judge now which of the two helps more. The guilty man, lacking contrition, flees divine faith (gotlîchen triuwe), but he who atones for his sins’ guilt serves to earn noble grace (swer ab wandelt sünden shulde, der dient nâch werder hulde).

That grace is borne by Him who passes through thoughts. Thought resists the sun’s glance. Thought is barred without a lock, protected against all Creation. Thought is darkness without radiance (gedanc ist vinster âne schîn). The Godhead is capable of such purity that it shines through darkness’s wall, and has run that concealing leap which neither makes din nor sounds out when it leaps from the heart.” (IX.466).

Though there is no darkness in God, his light is so pure and translucent that it penetrates the darkness of the human heart. God’s light thus transcends the simple dualisms set forth earlier in the poem. It is not as if God and the Devil are two equal powers, eternally at war. Rather, God’s light and love emanate through all levels of reality, encompassing both the realms of Being and Becoming. And, as a result, if Parzival would receive God’s love, all he must do is alter his thoughts. “Now alter your thoughts (nu kêret iwer gemüete), so that He may thank you for your goodness (güete).” (IX.467). If Parzvial would turn his mind to God, shining eternally within his experience, he himself will partake of that divine radiance.

This doctrine of a higher light which stands above the contrast with darkness explains the otherwise puzzling astrological references within the poem. Anfortas’s suffering, for example, is said to grow worse under the influence of Saturn and the Moon (IX.489-490).16 Classical astrology is constructed from the contrast between light and darkness. Saturn, with its domicile in Capricorn, stands in opposition, to the Moon, one of the two luminaries, with its domicile in Cancer. Saturn would be a representative of darkness, and the Moon of light. Yet, both bring suffering to Anfortas, because of the disorder of his soul. Similarly, Saturn, the planet believed to be the furthest from us and the closest to the eternal, and the Moon, the planet closest to our terrestrial life, both cause him suffering. Both the near and the far bring him pain, on account of his spiritual condition. And this basic contrast also explains a passage which has puzzled commentators, in which Mars and Jupiter are also said to increase Anfortas’s pain (XVI.789). Mars, in traditional astrology, is said to be the nocturnal malefic, and Jupiter the diurnal benefic, thus standing in contrast to each other. (They also oppose each other in their exaltations of Capricorn and Cancer respectively). Yet both of these, even the erstwhile benefic Jupiter, bring pain to Anfortas because his mind is out of step with the heavens.

This interpretation is born out by the fact that, when Cundrie announces that Parzival has been elected to the grail, and that salvation is at hand. She names all seven traditional planets, and notes that they now all signify joy.

“Seven stars she then named in the heathen tongue. Those names were recognized by wealthy, noble Feierfiz, who sat before her, black and white. She said: ‘Now take note, Parzival: the highest planet Zval, and swift Almustri, Almaret, and bright-shining Samsi, manifest good fortune for you. The fifth is called Alligafir, and the sixth Alkiter, and the nearest to us Alkamer. I do not speak this out of any dream. These are the firmament’s brindle, which rein in its race. Their dispute has ever contested its course. Sorrow is an orphan now for your part. All that the planets’ journey encompasses and that their radiance covers are goals staked out for you to attain and win. Your grief must perish—except for insatiety alone—the Grail and the Grail’s power forbid you fellowship with with such false company. In your youth you reared sorrow. Coming joy has deceived you of that. You have fought and won the soul’s rest, and awaited in anxiety the body’s joy” (XV.782.).

Since God’s light is transcendent, it stands above the ordinary duality of light and darkness, his providence being able to operate in with and under all the various planetary influences.

Trevrizent also reveals to Parzival his fundamental sin. Parzival has failed to recognize and to be loyal to his kin. In his desire to become a knight, he left his mother in such a state of grief that she died as a result, and he killed Ither, who unbeknownst to Parzival was his relative, at the behest of Arthur (III.150).17

“You are born of Ither’s stock. Your hand has renounced that kinship, but God has not forgotten it; He is still well capable of assessing it. If you would live in good faith with God, then you must do penance to Him for this. It is with sadness that I tell you this: you bear two great sins. You have slain Ither; you must also mourn for your mother. Her great loyalty urged it upon her—your departure parted her from life, when you left her at last. Now follow my counsel, accept penance for misdeed, and take heed now concerning your end, so that your toil here may win rest for your soul there” (IX.499).

And, in failing to recognize Anfortas as his uncle and to ask the healing question, he has again wronged kin. “Your uncle gave you a sword, too, by which you have been granted sin, since your eloquent mouth unfortunately voiced no question there. Let this sin stand alongside the others” (IX.501).

But, just as it was his sin, the recognition of and fidelity to kinship can also serve as his salvation, since God too has made Himself kin to man. Trevrizent thus sketches out a theology of sin and redemption in which kinship is central. Though he follows the Christian tradition tracing sin back to Adam and Eve, Trevrizent emphasizes the sin of Cain. In “his greedy pursuit of fame” (IX.463) and “paltry possessions”, Cain killed his brother Abel, spilling blood that polluted the previously pure earth (IX.464). “When blood fell upon the pure earth, her maidenhood was forfeit. It was Adam’s child that took it from her. Then, for the first time, man’s malice arose; it has persisted ever since” (IX.464). But, claims Trevrizent, kinship also secures our salvation, since God, in His “high lineage” became our kin (IX.465). “From Adam’s kin arose both grief and delight. Since He who is seen as superior by every angel does not deny us kinship, and since kinship is sins’ cart, so that we must carry sin, may the might of Him with whom mercy keeps mercy, for his faithful humanity has fought with faith (triwen) against unfaith (untriwe).” (IX.465). If, in failing to recognize his kin, Parzival has fallen into sin, then, by learning to see God’s kinship to creation, he can also rise again.

Parzival accepts Trevrizents teaching and departs, leaving his guilt with Trevrizent, and directing his mind to God. On the day of their parting, “Trevrizent, having made his decision, spoke: ‘Give your sin over to me. Before God I am your atonement’s guarantor. And act as I have told you—remain undaunted in that resolve! (belîp des willen unversagt)” (IX.502). Parzival rides off and, from an outward perspective, acts as he has in the past. He continues on his knightly quest for the grail, but, because his internal state of consciousness has changed, becoming reconciled to God, fate begins to work in his favor. For example, when he battles a warrior he thinks to be the knight Gramoflanze but is, in fact, his relative Gawan, Gawan’s pages eventually call out his name, and Parzival can repent before harming him. Though Parzival claims Fortune fled him there, it had actually intervened to stop the battle (XIV.689). And, most crucially, when Parzival battles his half brother Feirefiz, whom, again, he does not recognize, providence intervenes by shattering Parzival’s sword,18 the blade he had taken from Ither the Red Knight.

“The sturdy sword from Gaheviez broke by a blow upon the heathen’s helmet, so that the bold, wealthy stranger, stumbling sought his genuflection. God no longer deigned that what Parzival had taken from the corpse should fittingly be in his hand—the sword he had taken from Ither, and then well befitted his folly (tumpheit). He who had never before sunk at the sword’s swing, the heathen, leapt quickly to his feet then. It was undecided (ungescheiden) as yet. It was for the Highest Hand to judge (zurteil) over them both. May He avert their deaths!” (XV. 744).

And this He does, prompting Feirefiz to speak magnanimously and ask the needed question: “who are you?” (XV.744-745). Once, their identities are revealed, and they rejoice in finding each other, they go to Arthur’s court. There Cundrie returns and announces that Parzival has been elected to be Grail King. He is taken to Munsalvæsche, and heals the realm by asking Anfortas: “uncle, what troubles you (œhem, was wirret dier)?” (XVI.795). Note, how the word here for trouble, wirren, is related to the German world verwirren, to confuse. Perhaps, healing begins when the mind begins to inquire into the nature of its own confusion, rather than allowing itself to be ensnared by the jumbled contents that confront it.


I’d like to conclude with a few lessons we can draw from Wolfram’s tale.

First, Wolfram’s account of a Grail Kingdom standing above the mundane order of knighthood, allows us to imagine a specifically spiritual masculinity. In an era where, in the popular consciousness, masculinity is either reduced to nothing more than a personal brand to be colonized by corporate interests (and the powers behind them) or cut down to the crass generalizations of a so called “evolutionary psychology”, Wolfram’s account of the masculine spirit provides us with a much needed alternitive. For, Wolfram’s vision eschews the presuppositions of both models popular today, by rejecting the idea that masculinity (or feminity for that matter) is grounded in lower order desires, and seeking instead to ground it in a spiritual calling. Julius Evola even goes so far as to suggest that this solar spirituality or spiritual virility is part of an esoteric Ghibellinism, secretly preserving the ideal of an emperor who unites sacred and secular authority. According to Evola,

“To understand and to live by these motifs means to enter into a dimension of suprahistorical realities and, in this way, to gradually reach the certainty that the invisible and inviolable center, the king who must awake, and the avenging and restoring hero are not mere fancies of a dead and romantic past, but rather the truth of those who, today, alone may legitimately be said to be alive.”19

Second, Parzival’s initial conduct at the Grail Castle should remind us that, just because rules function well in one domain, this doesn’t mean that they will function in all domains. Indeed, the rules and customs we inherit, are often the result of a prior compromise with Reality. This is why Daoism, for example, claimed that traditions and customs, though important, were not ultimate, echoing Wolfram’s distinction between letter and spirit. The Tao Te Ching, for example, states:

“When the Great Way disappears/ we meet kindness and justice/ when reason appears/ we meet great deceit/ when the six relations fail/ we meet obedience and love/ when the country is in chaos/ we meet upright officials” (Tao Te Ching, trans. Red Pine, 18).

And, finally, Wolfram’s idea of the healing question should remind us that questions are of vital importance to the spiritual life. Contemporary coaches and therapists rightly point out that the kinds of questions we ask dictate the kinds of answers we will receive. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt 7:7). The mind will automatically search for answers to the questions we pose to it. So, if you ask yourself, why am I such a stupid failure, your mind will supply you with all kinds of possible answers. Whereas, if you asked a more productive question like, how can I solve this problem, your mind will likely provide you with an array of helpful options. Yet, more substantially, Wolfram’s account of the healing question should remind us that the truly transformative questions are those we fear we should not ask. Parzival was afraid of looking foolish and breaking the rules of knightly etiquette, and so said nothing when he beheld something incomparably marvelous. In the same manner, if you fear to ask a question because you fear society will deem you unacceptable, this may be a sign that you hold the question with the power to save. Many today refuse redemption out of fear. This should not be the case, and, if Wolfram has shot his bow aright and our hearts are of suitable material, he will have conveyed to us the bravery, the muot, to ask the healing question. And in an age whose prominent intellectuals and designated “thought leaders” reveal themselves to be poisoned and rapidly spreading their poison through the rest of culture, the need to ask the question is stronger than ever: Friend, what confuses you?

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is Parsifal by Rogelio de Egusquiza and is in the public domain. It can be found here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rogelio_de_Egusquiza_-_Parsifal.jpg]

1 Perceval ou le Conte du Graal

2 See Sidney Johnson, “Doing His Own Thing: Wolfram’s Grail” in A Companion to Wolfram’s Parzival, 80.

3 For example, it is in his that κρατήρ the demiurge mixes the universe into being in Plato’s Timaeus.

4 An additional clue to the esoteric nature of the grail story comes from Wolfram’s claim that Flegetanus was born of Solomon’s line on his father’s side. This connection to Solomon may invoke legends of Solomon’s magic.

5 For more on the concept of “Thing” see Heidegger, “Das Ding”.

6 For a detailed account see Groos, “Wolfram von Eschenbach’s ‘Bow Metaphor’ and the Narrative Technique of Parzival.”

7 For an account of why these were considered to be the three essential phases of the alchemical project see Julius Evola’s “The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art”.

8 “True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true. /That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above,/ to accomplish the miracles of one thing.” The Emerald Tablet.

9 For the importance of the developing theology of the eucharist for the legend of the grail see Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief.

10 The book of Revelation is also a likely influence on Wolfram’s account of the grail. In it, the glorified Christ is said to give hidden manna and a white stone to those who conquer (Rev 2:17), and heaven itself is described as composed of gemstones (Rev 21:10-11, 18-27).

11 The French word orgueilleuse from which the name derives means “proud”.

12 The Latin word ‘castus’ means chaste. See Hatto, An Introduction to a Second Reading of Parzival.

13 Julius Evola, The Mystery of the Grail: Initiation and Magic in the Quest of the Spirit, 109.

14 Foreshadowing the healing question is is to ask later.

15 “Take old tidings in preference to new, if they teach you good faith (triuwe). The dialogist Plato said in his time, as did Sibyl the prophetess, wihtout missing the mark—they said many years ago that there would undeniably come to us a pledge (pfant) against the greatest debt (schulde). The Highest Hand would take us out of Hell by Divine Love. The unchaste he would leave therein” (IX.465).

16 This contrast between Saturn and the Moon is also seen in the lance and the two silver knives in the passage cited above. Because the poison of the spear was hot, it is capable of drawing out Saturn’s frost from Anfortas’s body granting him a little relief. But this frost can only be removed from the spear by two silver knives, silver being a metal associated with the moon.

17 Ither is related to Arthur and has hereditary claims to Britain. Parzival arrives at court right after Ither has challenged Arthur for his lands. If Arthur were to fight him, he would be guilty of harming kin, and, he may already be guilty regarding the disputed inheritance. (III.145). Arthur’s Senechal, Kay, solves the problem by sending Parzival to go fight Ither, most likely sending Parzival to his death (III.150).

18 The love of his wife Condwiramurs also plays an instrumental role here. “Condwiramurs, at that moment, across four kingdoms, took him into her protection there, by loves powers.” (XV.744). Wolfram believes that love can be salvific. Trevrizent, for example, claims that “if you are found in true marriage, then even if you suffer in Hell, that extremity will soon be at an end, and you will be freed from those bonds by God’s help, without any delay” (IX.468).

19 Evola, The Mystery of the Grail, 175.

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