Playing the Indian Card

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Depressive and the Holy Grail

Through conquering the dragon, the hero typically acquires some magical object: the pearl of immortality, the Golden Fleece, the Golden Apples, Medusa’s head, Gilgamesh’s herb of immortality, the impenetrable hide of the Medean lion, the cornucopia; the Grail. Samson finds honey in the conquered lion’s carcass. Enkidu and Gilgamesh obtain sacred cedar logs. Perhaps not so special to us, but Enkidu on his death bed eulogizes them: “There is no wood like you in our land.”i Moses and the Israelites attain the Promised Land, prefigured by the burning bush and the tablets of the law.

Do these images all represent one thing? For what might they stand as “objective correlative”?

Being indestructible seems one most common theme. The Chinese cintamani around which the dragons dance is an elixir of immortality. So is Gilgamesh’s herb. Utnapishtim informs Gilgamesh,
“There is a plant that looks like a box-thorn, it has prickles like a dog-rose, and will prick one who plucks it. But if you can possess this plant, you’ll be again as you were in your youth.”ii

When Herakles rescues Hesione from the sea monster, similarly, his stated reward is two immortal horses. The skin of the Nemean lion, or the blood of Fafnir, promise invulnerability, surely a related concept.

Draper: The Golden Fleece

Many of the prize objects seem to be made of gold: the fleece, the apples of the Hesperides, Fafnir’s hoard, Beowulf’s dragon’s golden cup. The value everyone everywhere places on gold, in turn, has much to do with its being an incorruptible, an “immortal” metal, resistant to oxidization. Cedar, Enkidu’s and Gilgamesh’s first prize, is evergreen—it does not die back in winter—and, says Wikipedia, it is “exceptionally durable and immune to insect ravages.” Again, a possible image of permanence. Honey has the same salient characteristic: kept for centuries, it will not spoil. Moses’s burning bush “burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed”—an immortal fire.

As for the Holy Grail, it heals fatal wounds; similarly defying mortality.

Sir Percival and Sir Ector have just battled, and given each other mortal blows. They are then brought into the presence of the grail:

... and forthwithal they both were as whole of hide and limb as ever they were in their life-days: then they gave thankings to God with great mildness. O Jesu, said Sir Percivale, what may this mean, that we be thus healed, and right now we were at the point of dying?iii

The head of Medusa, conversely, is an invincible weapon: it brings instant death. But it is a particular kind of death, being turned to stone. This also implies permanence; like the stone tablets of the Mosaic law. Perseus says to Phineas, in exposing to him the gorgon’s head: “I shall make of you a lasting memorial; you will always be seen, standing in my father-in-law’s palace.”iv

Burne-Jones: The Garden of the Hesperides

In the Golden Apples, found hanging on a branch at the place where the sun sets; in the Golden Fleece, found hanging on a branch at the place the sun rises; and perhaps in Moses’s burning bush; we see hints of solar symbolism. The golden objects here, given their locations, seem cognate to the golden sun. Very often, indeed, to achieve his quest, the hero must go to the place where the sun rises or sets: Jason, Herakles, Gilgamesh, Perseus. The sun too is a common image of immortality: sol invictus, the unconquerable sun. It rises again every morning.

The goal of the hero quest, then, is apparently something permanent, something eternal. What is permanent or eternal? God, yes, and heaven; Plato’s ideal forms, if you are a Platonist; and those qualities both Plato and Aristotle called the transcendentals: notably, the moral good, truth, beauty.

The sun is an especially apt correlative for the transcendental: not just because it is immortal for all practical purposes, but because it is the primary source of light and vision. It is to light or to sight what a transcendental is to value, or a Platonic ideal is to a particular object. A thing is of value because it is true, or good, or beautiful. Gold is a comparable image: as coinage, it is accepted as a universal exchange, an abstract symbol of value.

The solution to Samson’s riddle suggests that here honey is also a superlative, and so a possible stand-in for ultimate value:

“What is sweeter than honey?
What is stronger than a lion?” (Judges 14:18)
Honey is thus, at least implicitly, the measure of all sweetness. And so it was, in a world before sugar.

Given that the abused or emotionally betrayed child is deprived by their family experience of any sense of personal worth or any sense of meaning in their life, this quest for absolute value may be necessary to gain some solid ground on which to stand and then to build. With no relative ground of being supplied to them by those around them, such as most of us have from our upbringing, they must find the ultimate ground of being or remain at sea.

A challenging, a heroic task; not everyone is called to be a knight errant. But having attained it, they have attained something not just of personal, but of universal value. They are able to bestow this blessing, this soul-wisdom, on others. That makes the hero.

Ovid describes Pythagoras as a hero in this sense:

Though the gods were far away, he visited their region of the sky, in his mind, and what nature denied to human vision he enjoyed with his inner eye. When he had considered every subject, through concentrated thought, he communicated it widely in public, teaching the silent crowds, who listened in wonder to his words, concerning the origin of the vast universe, and of the causes of things; and what the physical world is; what the gods are; where the snows arise; what the origin of lightning is; whether Jupiter, or the storm-winds, thunder from colliding clouds; what shakes the earth; by what laws the stars move; and whatever else is hidden.v

This all begins to sound mystical: the ultimate goal, after all, the perfect transcendental, must be God himself. Indeed, Sir Galahad, when he achieves the Grail, ascends to heaven:

And therewith he kneeled down to-fore the table and made his prayers, and then suddenly his soul departed to Jesu Christ, and a great multitude of angels bare his soul up to heaven, that the two fellows might well behold it. Also the two fellows saw come from heaven an hand, but they saw not the body. And then it came right to the Vessel, and took it and the spear, and so bare it up to heaven. Sithen was there never man so hardy to say that he had seen the
Knights of the Round Table

That may sound a little too ambitious for most of us. According to the legend, after all, a Galahad comes along only once a creation or so. More humbly, the typical depressive’s quest may achieve something like the second of Alcoholics Anonymous’s famous Twelve Steps: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” This more common grail may be an awareness that there really are transcendent values, and then some sense of what they are. The fundamentals of a religious faith.

On this rock, the depressive may build a life.

Significantly, when he achieves the grail, Sir Launcelot is healed of a “mental illness.” Now that he is lucid, Dame Elaine must explain matters to him:

Sir, said Dame Elaine, into this country ye came like a madman, clean out of your wit, and here have ye been kept as a fool.
These four men and these ladies laid hand on Sir Launcelot, and so they bare him into a tower, and so into a chamber where was the holy vessel of the Sangreal, and by force Sir Launcelot was laid by that holy vessel; and there came an holy man and unhilled that vessel, and so by miracle and by virtue of that holy vessel Sir Launcelot was healed and recovered.vii

Launcelot also has a dream in which the Grail is said specifically to heal an illness called “sorrow”: melancholy.

And so he fell asleep; and half waking and sleeping he saw come by him two palfreys all fair and white, the which bare a litter, therein lying a sick knight. ... All this Sir Launcelot saw and beheld, for he slept not verily; and he heard him say: O sweet Lord, when shall this sorrow leave me? and when shall the holy vessel come by me, wherethrough I shall be blessed? For I have endured thus long, for little trespass. A full great while complained the knight thus, and always Sir Launcelot heard it. With that Sir Launcelot saw the candlestick with the six tapers come before the cross, and he saw nobody that brought it. Also there came a table of silver, and the holy vessel of the Sangreal, which Launcelot had seen aforetime in King Pescheour’s house. And therewith the sick knight set him up, and held up both his hands, and said: Fair sweet Lord, which is here within this holy vessel; take heed unto me that I may be whole of this malady. And therewith on his hands and on his knees he went so nigh that he touched the holy vessel and kissed it, and anon he was whole; and then he said: Lord God, I thank thee, for I am healed of this sickness.viii
Rossetti: The Damsel of the Sangreal.

As for the Golden Fleece, note the story of its origin. It was the fleece of a golden ram (which later became the constellation Aries) sent by Nephele to save two children about to be sacrificed by their father.ix The ram saved them by carrying them off on its back. The fleece thus represents an aid for abused children; fit antidote for an abused childhood.

There is a similar reference in the legend of the Holy Grail. Once recognized, through his ability to sit on the Siege Perilous, as worthy of the grail quest, Sir Galahad is led to a tomb. 

Now, said the good man, go to the tomb and lift it up. So he did, and heard a great noise; and piteously he said, that all men might hear it: Sir Galahad, the servant of Jesu Christ, come thou not nigh me, for thou shalt make me go again there where I have been so long. But Galahad was nothing afraid, but lifted up the stone; and there came out so foul a smoke, and after he saw the foulest figure leap thereout that ever he saw in the likeness of a man; and then he blessed him and wist well it was a fiend. Then heard he a voice say Galahad, I see there environ about thee so many angels that my power may not dere thee. Right so Sir Galahad saw a body all armed lie in that tomb, and beside him a sword. Now, fair brother, said Galahad, let us remove this body, for it is not worthy to lie in this churchyard, for he was a false Christian man. And therewith they all departed and went to the abbey. And anon as he was unarmed a good man came and set him down by him and said: Sir, I shall tell you what betokeneth all that ye saw in the tomb; for that covered body betokeneth the duresse of the world, and the great sin that Our Lord found in the world. For there was such wretchedness that the father loved not the son, nor the son loved not the father; and that was one of the causes that Our Lord took flesh and blood of a clean maiden, for our sins were so great at that time that well-nigh all was wickedness. Truly, said Galahad, I believe you right well.x

The Grail exists, then—indeed, it seems perhaps Jesus himself came into world—to heal a lack of love between parent and child. That is the specific demon to be exorcised by the grail quest.

Every new discovery in science or in culture may also be understood as a hero quest for truth; every decisive moral act a hero quest for the good, “heroic virtue,” as is said of saints; every inspired creative act may be considered a hero quest for the beautiful. The depressive, driven to this quest by personal circumstances, may be expert in this questing business. Hence, perhaps, as Aristotle observes, the great philosophers, or poets, or artists, or military leaders or lawgivers, are almost always melancholics.

iThe Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 7.

ii Ibid. Tablet 11.

iii Malory, Morte d’Arthur, Book 11, Chapter 14.

iv Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 5, ll. 215-250, Innes, trans.

v Ibid., Book 15, ll. 31-108.

vi Morte d’Arthur, Chapter 22.

vii Ibid., Book 12 Ch. 5

viii Ibid., Ch. 18.

ix Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 9, Chapter 34.

x Morte d’Arthur, Book x, Chapter 12.

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