Parsifal

There are two myths, that of Parsifal and Psyche which seem to be representative of two ways of being which epitomise two very basic, but entirely different, patterns of development of the masculine and the feminine. These terms can be taken as either meaning men and women, or as the development of the masculine and the feminine in both. Their quests, as described by these myths, are very, very different.

In some ways it is possible to look at the sun in the horoscope and relate it to the mythic hero or heroine. Psyche is, in a sense, the sun in a woman's chart, similarly Parsifal represents the sun in a man's.

Parsifal’s story begins with the child Parsifal and his mother living together in a wood. In some of the versions of the story Parsifal's father is a noble knight who has been killed in battle and to protect her son from the same fate his mother hides him away. There they have lived blissful, innocent and simple lives hunting and fishing and wearing homespun clothes.

The one day a troupe of gallant knights ride through the woods. The sun glints from their shields and Parsifal is dazzled by their splendour and determines to follow them. No forest could hold him now as restlessness and dissatisfaction grow and despite the pleas of his mother he is impelled to go and find the place from which these knights came and become one of them.

In the end, of course, youth has its way and he leaves, dressed in a sackcloth and carrying his wooden spear and the advice of his mother he goes off in pursuit of the knights. In his travels, the young Parsifal wanders in his naivety into and through many adventures, including confrontations with both men and women before finally arriving at the court of King Arthur at Camelot.

Along the way Parsifal asked of everyone of the knights he had met, and how he should go about becoming a knight himself. People told him to go to King Arthur's court. There, if he was brave and strong enough, he would be knighted. Eventually he found his way to Arthur's court, but when he suggested he wanted to be a knight, he was laughed at. They told him knighthood must be earned through a life of valour and noble deeds. But he persisted, asking over and over until he was eventually brought before King Arthur. Arthur was kind and did not laugh, but explained how a man must learn and achieve many things before he may become a knight.

In Arthur's court at this time there was a damsel who had neither laughed nor smiled for six years. Legend had it that when the best knight in all the world appeared, she would burst into laughter. As the damsel saw the Young Man in his homespun tunic, she did indeed burst into joyful laughter. Everyone in the court was very impressed by this. Could this really be the best knight in all the world? King Arthur knighted him on the spot.

Outrageously, this new knight requested of Arthur the armour and horse of the infamous Red Knight – the most feared knight in the land. Despite the foolishness of his appearance and the mirth he endured from some of the knights he managed with his quick eye and forest agility, to slay the Red Knight himself and so earn himself a measure of respect, not to mention gaining a horse and armour in the process.

Continuing his search Parsifal gains slowly in experience, although he is still very innocent of the ways of the world. Until one day he finds himself in a magical castle. In the moat before the castle he meets the fisher king, sick with an incurable wound to the groin that bleeds and suppurates and can not be healed, although is eased by fishing. The king invites him to his castle and gives him instructions to get there.

"Just go down the road a little way, turn left, across the drawbridge." Following these directions he finds the castle. The drawbridge slammed shut just as he crossed it, clipping the back hooves of his horse.

Here he finds himself in the strange and numinous keep of a great castle where four youths take his horse, bathed him and gave him fresh clothing. They then led him to the master of the castle, the Fisher King, and the whole court of the castle – four hundred knights and ladies – greeted him. And so it begins a strange procession including the nightly rituals of the Grail Castle during which Parsifal sees the Grail which is a holy object, either a cup or a stone with miraculous powers. Totally awed Parsifal watches all this going on, and he's dying of curiosity, but he doesn't dare ask anything because he is still adheres to the advice given to him by his mother which is not to ask questions of strangers.

Finally, the wondrous procession passes and the next morning he awakens to find the castle deserted and all the people and everything gone. He saddles his horse and rides back across the drawbridge, which again snapped at his horses back hooves as it slammed shut. Turning about, he finds the castle was nowhere to be seen. Only the forest in which he finds himself has remained. He later comes to realize that he has made a terrible error. Had he asked the right question, then the sick old king would have been redeemed and the barren land saved from destruction. But he very stupidly pretended that the entire vision had nothing to do with him. The question he should have asked was: "Whom does the Grail serve?"

Fisher kings and incurable wounds are common enough motifs in myths and tales. The ruling principal (or self) is ailing, the wound is to groin or the regenerative part of the self and is incurable which is suggestive of depressions of one sort or another. Midlife depressions are manifestations of the wounded Fisher King the king is ailing and passively waits in the Grail Castle, his kingdom a wasteland. The only ease comes from fishing, or the act of sitting with the unconscious (the waters) and from which the fish (or Christ) may come. Where does he dwell? Down the road to the left, clear instructions that direct one into left brained, intuitive, reflective and symbolic thinking necessary to explore within. The treasure sought here is our own truth but this takes time to discover, forest time. It requires that we get in touch with what we really feel and face that we are in pain over something significant in our lives. The Parsifal in us must ask, "What ails thee?" When we know we will need to make changes in order to be true, which is to be healed.

 

Gates slamming at horses heels is another common motif for whenever we are touched and moved by such a place a part of ourselves is always left behind.

As a ‘male’ story this myth also seems to touch on the issue of finding the real father, the spiritual source, and healing the wounded spirit. The old king can neither live nor die, but lives in a state of agony and impotence while his lands are laid waste. The story tracks the pathway of the youthful Parsifal and the old and ailing king of his middle years. The youthful, foolish Parsifal must find him and care enough to ask the question of him. What is this Grail? Whom does it serve? What has happened to the old king? What is the meaning of this experience? But how can he come to an understanding of such issues, still a youth himself?

Contemplating these questions Parsifal spent more than five years wandering in the forest, as did other knights in quest of the Grail. The knight who becomes lost and cold in the forest had tasks that are far different from those of Psyche or the Handless Maiden. Like men and women who get caught up in appearances and worldly success and then in midlife find themselves like Dante who begins The Inferno with “In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood.”

Here the knight within us all must realize what he has failed to do or did not value sufficiently and lost. Parsifal saw the wound that would not heal and ignored what he saw, which was a failure of compassion. He saw the Grail procession and remained unaffected, staying in his persona. The forest is a place of soul growth for people who are Parsifal, a time to learn about suffering and compassion, humility and humiliation, feminine wisdom and the mysterious Grail or source of knowledge and wisdom.

In the forest, Parsifal encountered many people and puzzling situations which is not so surprising when we consider that forests correspond to the psychological terrain of major times of transition. We may well find ourselves in the forest after intentionally ending some phase of our life, a destructive relationship, job, or other life environment. While as scary as it can be in the midst of a forest, as long and as alone as we may be there, it is a place of psychological landscape that is alive and full of potential. A time of pause and reevaluation and new direction it is a far better place for the soul to be in than the wasteland.

After this, Parsifal begins his conscious quest, which is to find the Grail castle again and ask the right question. Now he knows what he has always looked for, once he has lost it. He was given something by an act of grace but failed to penetrate its meaning. After twenty years of suffering, hardship and further adventures parts of him grow more and more bitter, more disillusioned; sometimes forgetting the reason for his search until eventually he finds the Grail again. It is an old hermit who finally gives Parsifal the instructions he needs: "go a short way, turn left and cross the drawbridge. The grail castle is always close at hand."

Parsifal followed the hermits instruction and found the castle as before – the same ceremonial procession, and the Fisher King groaning on his litter. Finally, after twenty years of experience, he knows enough now to ask the question: "Whom does the Grail serve?". His question was not answered, for with this question, to ask well is also to answer. The old king can now be healed and die in peace, giving his kingdom and the right to be custodian of the Grail to Parsifal.

At Parsifal's question, rejoicing burst forth in the Grail castle. The Fisher King was healed, and peace and happiness finally reigned over the land.

 

Interestingly Parsifal is not a heroic character of the traditional kind. He is no Perseus or Jason, he slays no monsters and redeems no kingdoms. Rather he is rash and impetuous throughout the story. He fumbles and bumbles and is more like the dummling son we encounter in so many fairy tales. Yet from his folly comes his courage as he takes on challenges without at first realising what the consequences might be to himself or anybody else. His is a characteristically youthful masculine spirit, drawn by his fate to a destiny yet not realising even when it bursts on him that there might be such a thing as a destiny. The quality which he possesses in greatest abundance is his brash courage, just as the quality which Psyche possesses in greatest abundance is her fidelity to her love.

The story of the youth and the old king are archetypal and the dialogue between the two a constant feature and underlying pattern that is relevant for all men of all ages. So that when you encounter a personally powerful and evocative myth or story it can be useful to see all the parts of the story are all part of an inner dialogue. Over time they become like a powerful dream and if you can see it in this way, then you can also see that we sometimes identify with one character in that dialogue, and draw other people into our lives to play the other parts. Remember though that the whole story has something to do with ourselves.

 

See also Eros and Psyche and Myths for our Time 

 

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