The image of this beautiful cow at the Cow’s Ball in Bohinj, Slovenia has stayed with me since attending this wonderful local annual festival in Bohinj last September. It is an annual ritual in which the local people celebrate and honour the cows as they bring them down from the high mountain pastures to the valleys below each fall. I loved the Slovenian people’s connection and closeness to nature and the way they have kept their old customs. But this is not a travel article. There is a terrible poignancy about looking into the face of an animal and looking into its eyes, especially when you don’t stand on the moral high ground of being a vegetarian (which I am not). But this is not about vegetarianism either.
About a month later I had this dream, which has also stayed with me, and which has brought me back to the age-old question made famous in The Grail Legend. In my dream I was shown a place where many human corpses (supposedly criminals) had been beheaded and hung upside down so the blood would drain away. It was reminiscent of a slaughterhouse. I could see three levels from where I stood – each one the same. Each head was placed neatly beside its corpse.
Horrified but transfixed, I wondered, what were these corpses doing there? What was the purpose? What is our purpose? Whether we end up on a peg or end up in the ground or as burnt ashes, what purpose does our life serve? In The Grail Legend, the question was “Whom does the Grail serve?
On waking, I wondered if the blood was drained away and used in some way, and I was reminded of the blood sacrifices that were an inherent demand of man’s earliest religious experiences. Despite the modern face of our civilization we still make blood sacrifices through our endless warring with each other, although these sacrifices often seem meaningless and devoid of any higher purpose than the lust for power, domination and control.
Emma Jung, a Jungian analyst in her own right, spent her life devoted to the study of the legend of the Holy Grail. Eventually after her death, renowned Jungian analyst, Marie Louise von Franz completed the book entitled The Grail Legend, which Emma had been working on for so long. In this book, they emphasize, “ it is not so much the crucifixion of Christ which is looked upon as the redeeming factor but rather the blood flowing from his side after his death”. As they point out, from time immemorial, blood was seen as embodying the life principle and was considered the seat of the soul. The Holy Grail, was the mythological chalice that was held up to catch his blood, and because of its shape, it symbolizes the feminine principle. It is also often seen as the chalice that was used at the Last Supper.
Perceval is the young man who is returning from his adventures with King Arthur to find his mother, and lands up at the Grail Castle – understood by Emma Jung and von Franz as the motherly realm of the unconscious. Here he finds the wounded Grail King (sometimes known as the Fisher King) whose wound will not heal. He sits in his castle, rich but maimed with this festering sore. His kingdom is sick and stagnating, and nothing can help him. According to the legend, he guards a mysterious, life-preserving and sustenance-dispensing object, the Holy Grail or chalice. The king can only be restored to life if a knight of excellent character finds the castle and at first sight of the Grail asks a certain question. If he does not, everything will remain the same, the castle will vanish and the knight will have to set out once more on his journey. The land will lay in waste. If the knight does succeed in asking the question, the King will be restored to health and the land will begin to grow green, and the hero will become the guardian of the Grail from that time on. At the feast which is served, Perceval sees a beautiful chalice mysteriously paraded by a gorgeous maiden, but he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t ask anything about it. He is a young soul and does not yet understand life. He is not questing for meaning or truth – he is still in the domain of the ego.
The chalice containing blood is a symbol of the feminine. And so too is the Holy Sepulchre or grave, which also has “ a maternal meaning, since the mother is not only the place of birth, but also as Mother Earth, that which receives the dead back into herself……Both the food- and drink-imparting, life bestowing aspect and the aspect of death and the grave are exhibited by the Grail. They mystery of coming into being and of ceasing to be is bound up with the image of the mother; this explains why Mysteries with this process as the content of their ritual were connected with the cult of mother goddesses such as Demeter and Isis. (p.127, 128, The Grail Legend).
As I pondered the interconnectivity of all life I was reminded of this poem by Rumi:
For thousands and thousands of years I lived as a mineral
And then I died and became a plant.
And for thousands and thousands of years I lived as a vegetable
And then I died and became an animal.
And for thousands and thousands of years I lived as an animal
And then I died and became a human.
Tell me. What have I ever lost by dying?
translated by Coleman Barks
What feeds on us I wondered. And whom do we serve?
Referring to the Grail King, and quoting Jung, they say, “Psychologically he represents a symbol of the Self become visible in a human being, to which the entire social and psychic organization of his people is adjusted.” (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis) He is a symbol of man in his fallen, stricken state and seems unable to cure himself or his land.
I cannot do justice to the book or their research in this small essay, so I will have to limit myself to a few of the most salient points for me. As Emma Jung and von Franz examine myths of the Grail from various cultures and time, they talk about a common motif…..that there was a violation of the fairy kingdom and of nature, and the theft of the bowl (chalice).
“Thus a wrong against a feminine being and a plundering of nature was perpetrated. It is interesting and remarkable that the origin of the trouble was looked upon as an offence committed against the fairy world, i.e., actually against nature. The motif of the plundering of the fairy world appears in numerous legends and fairy-tales, such as the legends of the Swan maidens and the Rheingold. It is always a question of something either unlawful won from, or done to, nature which results in a curse……The fairies and the maidens in the hills do not so much personify evil in feminine form as they do a purely natural aspect of the anima, They are, as it were, the soul of the spring or tree or place and equally, what man feels psychically in such places. The growth of masculine consciousness and of the patriarchal logos principle of the Christian outlook are concerned in no small measure with this development. They have certainly made possible the emancipation of the human which has given man mastery over nature. That which has been stolen from nature must, at the same time, however, be understood as something ‘torn from the unconscious’…………….a deadening and violation of nature, which imply a tremendous los of soul, have gradually resulted from the achievement of consciousness effected by Christianity.” (Pp.204, 205 The Grail Legend)
As I reflected on my dream image I wondered about the meaningless of a life which has severed itself from the pursuit of consciousness. If we do not devote our lives to the pursuit of consciousness, wisdom and truth in some way, then we are just fodder for a higher cycle of life. If we do not serve consciousness with a respect for the feminine ideals – kindness, relatedness, compassion, then Kali in all her bloodthirstiness will mow us down. Kali is the goddess who understands the wisdom of destroying the old before new growth can begin. In my dream it doesn’t seem to matter that all these corpses are strung up like so much meat in a slaughterhouse. It is a horrifying sight, but there is a matter-of-factness about it my dream.
We will all die in the end, one way or another, and it is good to keep that in mind. When we look back at our lives, we won’t say, I wish I had made more money and spent less time with my family. We won’t say, I wish I hadn’t been as kind or as compassionate or that I had spent less time helping others.
The cow – a sacred image of the feminine in India, here symbolizes nature, in all her beauty, and she sacrifices herself for us over and over. But we should ask ourselves, whom or what do we serve?
Here is the nectar of the great teacher, Coleman Barks reciting Rumi – Connection – The Natural Ecstasy
All quotes are from The Grail Legend by Emma Jung and Marie Louise von Franz