Joseph Campbell taking questions about Parzival, the Graal, and God – Grail Legends at the Ojai Foundation


How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival were Fed with the Sanc Grael; But Sir Percival's Sister Died by the Way  Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864

Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Fed with the Sanc Grael – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864

God is a function, God experienced is a function of your manner of experience. The elementary idea of God is transcendent of all forms, of all names, the tongue has never soiled it, it never got there.  So, any idea of God is historically conditioned, it’s a local idea no matter how much noise people make about it, it’s just a local notion.  And so, as man transforms, so are the laws of God transformed.  The laws of God are functions of the human psyche in its historic expression and development.  That’s what we get here, and this if Wolfram.

~Joseph Campbell, Grail Legends at the Ojai Foundation

The following is a verbatim transcription of the Q&A portion of a talk entitled Grail Legends, given by Joseph Campbell at the Ojai Foundation before his death in 1987.   We Meme Merchants quote this material frequently, so I thought I would present it to the public since this material is otherwise hard to obtain in digital form since it was originally on audio tape.  So far as I know, no one has ever produced a complete transcript of the presentation.

Question One

Man:  “When… at the point in the story, the Parzival story, he goes back finally to ask the question. The messenger of the Graal comes, I think, to Gawain’s wedding.”

Campbell:  “Yes, that’s right.”

Man:  “Before that he was unable to go back to the Graal Castle because you only get one try.”

Campbell:  “Yes.”

Man:  “How is it that he got another try?”

Campbell:  “When Trevrizent, the hermit who he had visited, heard of this and sought Parzival , he said, ‘Parzival, by your courage and compassion you have changed the laws of God.’  That’s good European man-first stuff!”

“God is a function, God experienced is a function of your manner of experience. The elementary idea of God is transcendent of all forms, of all names, the tongue has never soiled it, it never got there.  So, any idea of God is historically conditioned, it’s a local idea no matter how much noise people make about it, it’s just a local notion.  And so, as man transforms, so are the laws of God transformed.  The laws of God are functions of the human psyche in its historic expression and development.  That’s what we get here, and this if Wolfram.”

Question Two

Woman:   “When you spoke of the ‘Parzival’, and that line down the middle, [“The pierce-vale, yes.”] The line down the middle of current theological thinking… I remember reading an introduction to Euripides, that the God he presented in his plays had absolutely nothing to do with the normal Greek Gods of the day.  And, if I remember correctly, the God that King Leir calls upon in Shakespeare, again, very little connected to the current notion at that time of what the Christian God was.  Um….”

Campbell:  “As you follow any tradition, any historical tradition of God knowledge, the early states are relatively naive, the Gods are though of as out there, as though the Gods are out there.  And, then there comes a stage where the people realize those Gods are created by the human imagination, and they [begin to] speak of something that transcends them.  Now with our biblical tradition where God is a kind of supernatural fact beyond which there is nothing, we are stuck with the concretization of a folk idea.  Primitive traditions and most of the oriental traditions do not see the image of God [Volkergedanken] as a supernatural fact anywhere.  A God is a personification of a quantum of energy, life energy.

Now, there are two orders of Gods you might say, the image that is supposed to represent the totality of the energy pouring into the world, that’s the highest personification, but the energy is first, the personification is going to be conditioned by the historical conditions of the personifier.  Do you see the point?  it seems to be very clear.  And then, that totality of energy pouring into the world manifests itself through different modes, these are usually symbolized as the elements you know: air, earth, fire, and water and then you have a pantheon.  Pantheons are personifications of the energy of life in its various modes of manifestation.  It’s as easy as that.

So, the main thing to realize is the concept of energy consciousness, which is the support, the ground of all being; it can’t be named, it’s undifferentiated.  It has no fact-uality.  All facts are manifestations of that energy.  The syllable om is, in the kundalini, spoken of the sound that is made by no two things striking together, the sound of one hand clapping.  That sound is the sound of the energy of the Universe of which all things are manifestations.  So, first the sound, then manifestations.  Manifestations include images of God.  [images of ]God’s second, you just have to put that into your head if you are going to compare mythologies with each other.

I had a funny experience with Buber years ago.  He was in New York lecturing to a small group about this size, and I got the notion that I didn’t know what he was talking about when he was talking about God, I didn’t know what he meant.  Did he mean the mystery behind the galaxies, the millions of galaxies?  or did he mean that character in the Old Testament? or what was he talking about?  So, I raised my hand and he asked me, ‘Well, what is it Mr. Campbell?’  I said, ‘Well, there’s a word being used here today that I don’t understand.’  And, he said, ‘What is it?’  I said, ‘God!’  ‘You don’t know what God means?’  ‘I don’t know what you mean by God,  You’ve told us God has hidden his face.  People are not experiencing God anymore.  I’ve just come from India where people are experiencing God all the time.’  And what do you think he said to that? ‘Do you mean to compare?’ Ohoo….”

Woman:  “Who was this you speaking of?”

Campbell:  “ Martin Buber.   What he has done is convert his folk idea [Volkergedanken] into his notion of the elementary idea [Elementargedanken].  Of course you can compare.  It’s not always to the advantage of the local idea either.  But, that’s important.”

Question Three

Campbell:  “Yes.”

Man:  “I guess I can sustain my metaphoric appreciation of the romances as the stories of the psyche and its quest for knowledge, but after a while you put that aside, and what you see is aristocrats going off along with their sword wrecking civilizations in their wake.”

Campbell:  “Which civilizations did they wreck?”

Man:  “Well…”

Campbell:  “I mean we’re being specific now.”

Man:  “Uh…”

Campbell:  “This is the 12th century.”

Man:  “What gets abandoned, are the women, are, uh, the… Arthur’s whole court is destroyed by courtly love, by Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.”

Campbell:  “In what of the romances?  Not the ones I’ve been talking about.  I’ll tell you what happened with Tennyson. [Note: we think Campbell probably meant T.S.Elliot]  Tennyson got the point of view you’re bringing in. And, the love of Lancelot and Guinevere destroyed the court, that you don’t find in these, things, I’m talking about the 12th century romances”

Man:  “Yes, but so, the question is this, would the Graal itself represent community?”

Campbell:  “No!  It represents the spiritual realization of the individual potentialities.”

Man:  “Let me put it another way… must the world wait for aristocrats to solve their psychic battles…”

Campbell:  “I don’t want to argue about that Marxist problem.  These aristocrats were the ones who created European civilization.  They did.  And, when their aristocratic sentiments began to evaporate, the civilization began to go to pieces.  Well, just read your history, that’s all there is to it.  These are the men who created European civilization.”

Man:  “Are we holding up medieval civilization as a possible psychological ideal for now are we?”

Campbell:  “I wasn’t saying that.  I was speaking about the values, the psychological spiritual values that are represented here.  If you don’t want them, let them go!  But, a lot of people find that we have lost something.

I had a very interesting experience last weekend, actually two weekends ago, lecturing on this same subject in New York.  This… the words Godfrey uses when he is speaking about the experience of love, ‘the one heart that is two, the two hearts that are one,’ and all of that sort of thing.  And, there was a lady in the audience who raised her hand and said, ‘Oh, but that’s just a metaphor.’  It’s not just a metaphor when you are having the experience. [audience chuckling]  When you are having the experience that’s the best way to talk about it.  Now these people are having a set of experiences that are not current in the contemporary world, certainly not on TV or in the journalists’ world.  And, these sentiments have gone, have left us, but it’s my feeling that, for some of us at any rate, they are of personal value and use.  The idea of the gentle heart, the idea of compassion.  I wasn’t going around talking about destroying civilization and leaving women behind; I was talking about finding one’s rapport, one’s relationship, with the world in a way of compassion and gratitude, I didn’t get any of these words you brought in, you brought in another lecture.”

Man:  “I didn’t do that at all, what I was suggesting was that there is way in which these myths, these legends, romances do speak to a certain aspect of contemporary mind, that is the quest to find one’s own way in the world, to explore… to be the wheel that revolves on its own hub.  These are key things that no one would ever discard, the fundamental archetypes of the psyche.”

Campbell:  “Well, good.”

Man:  “And yet, yet.  That kind of concentration can lead to narcissism, that can lead to a turn away from social, cultural, community concerns.  It seems to me that that kind of luxury is something that we ought to examine.”

Campbell:  “Why is that a luxury?

Man:  “You can explain… the state we are in because of that sort of luxury.”

Campbell:  “We have very little of it.  Very little of it.  Luxury.  Um… You know what you are bringing in here?  The third temptation of the Buddha, social dharma.  The very thing that brought about the Wasteland. What I am talking about is an individual’s finding the authenticity of his own life course, not simply doing what everyone in the newspapers tells him to do.  Making the decision of his own life, moving in, with, compassion.   Selflessness is fundamental here not greedy grabbing.  I don’t see that.  But, its a standard, you are bringing in a standard point of view that I have been listening to for fifty years.  When ever anyone tries to make something out of himself, oh gee he’s not taking part in the recent, you know, what ever it is…  [audience laughs]  strike or parade or whatnot.  There is an inner life as well as an outer.  Now you’ve spoken about the danger of the inner life, it turns one into a narcissist, but there it the danger of the outer life which is it turns you into just a blank. [audience laughs]  And, we’ve got plenty of those around.  [more laughs]  So, I heat up a little on this one.

Question Four

Campbell:  “Yes?”

Woman:   “In the discussion around, um, authenticity… authentic life, I’m interested in the, um, the aspect of the woman and the female.  She didn’t seem to be in any of the myths talked about to have any consideration for an authentic life that didn’t seem to be part of…

Campbell:  “Well, the problem with these, eh, myths and epics is they come off the man’s pen, men have written them.  We have very little of what women have written, even lately, comparatively, you see?  And, uh, also the role of the woman here is of inspiration and fulfillment.  And, the women in the courtly love thing, they were the ones who were controlling the game, there’s no doubt about it.

Woman:  “That’s not authenticity.”

Campbell:  “The woman is looking for authenticity in a relationship, so she delays merci until she is guaranteed that this man who is proposing himself to her is one of a gentle heart.  The woman is not in, in the old society, not today, the woman is not in the active role, she is vulnerable more than the male.  And, she here with her vulnerability has found a way to guarantee to herself what she gets in a male is love, not lust, so she determines the relationship.  Now, I’ve read a lot of these things.  I spent two years in Paris on this material.  And, the women were in control, that’s all there is to it.  The man is the one who is advancing, the one performing the acts of guarding bridges, or whatever bit of foolishness she puts on him, [laughter] but, she’s in control.  And her problem is to live in a relationship that is authentic of love, and the only way she can do it is by testing the one who offers himself.  She isn’t offering himself, he’s offering himself.  Do you see what I mean?  But, she’s in control of what happens then with step two.  At least that’s what it looks to me.  I may be wrong

Woman:  “I have a problem with the issue of control and that’s why…”

Campbell: “I see.  The woman, the judgement of the woman was as follows:  if she grants merci too soon she’s savaged, she’s someone who’s just lusting herself.  If she refuses merci after accepting the service she’s savaged.  And, there are plenty of examples that come up in the stories of women of that kind.  And, and, it’s a matter of interaction, interplay between the male and the female, so that highest and most sweet and noble experience of mutual love and, eh, fulfillment through the other can be realized.  That’s what it’s all about, and these people had this idea.  And, it was very different from the idea of social marriage.  Now with respect to marriage in general there are two main stages to it.  The first half of life you might say is the biological marriage, you bring forth children and all of that.  A lot of people go apart when the children have left.  It’s just the most discouraging thing, you hear one after the other, people that you know they, thirty years together, then vroom, they’re off.  They are omitting what I call the alchemical marriage, that, which is this experience of the second half of life in marriage, not bringing up children, all that there, that’s done, but how about the two that are one and the one that are two, and having that come as an experience.  And, that’s what the second half is all about.  And, if you don’t have the notion of that, you wonder why we’re together again, or still. You have the notion of marriage as pleasure, marriage as a long love affair, it isn’t, marriage is an ordeal, and the ordeal is exactly that of dissolving the individual integrity into a larger, into a participation.  That’s what its all about, and it’s rendered on two levels: one on the level of the participation in bringing up a family, the other the participation in realizing the two that are one and the one that are two.  I don’t see any…”

Woman:  “I have one more question about that.  How does individuation fit into that?”

Campbell:  “That is individuation. You are acting in terms of what you as ego have decided.  You have evaluated, you have not just accepting what people put on you, and you’re not just playing a role.  Do you see what I mean?  It’s you that makes the decision, your values.”

Woman:  “We’re choosing, then, to be in a relationship in which the two become one, by that choice that it is an individual choice?”

Campbell:  “Is sure is.  It’s an individual test in the first place, that is put on the other person, then you make up your mind, and then you act.  I don’t see anything complicated about that.”

Question Five

Woman:  “It’s also nice, in terms of what you brought up, that at the same time Lady Murasaki was writing the Tale of Genji, which is the woman’s self-conscious articulation of, really just what you said, but it is from the pen of the woman.”

Campbell:  “Oh.  Good, that’s great, that’s a good idea.  Here is the same kind of aristocratic spiritual game, and Lady Murasaki gives it in the Genji.

Woman:  “And she makes the point that in fact it is the women… even the fact of her writing, the men of the time had turned to China and were all looking outside for their culture, she was taking the Japanese language and making a true art from it, and in so doing was showing how women were binding the world together through the cultivation of arts and refinement.

Campbell:  “Exactly, it is the same period too.  And, its an aristocratic affair.  We, from the literature that is no longer current nowadays, we fail to realize that civilization is the fruit of aristocratic action, and sentiments.  It’s not the folk, the folk gets… it falls down to them.

Question Six

Campbell:  “Yes?”

Man:   “As we were getting ready for your presentation we read a book at the Literacy Library yesterday about the myth and in this particular translation, we don’t know if it’s standard or not because we haven’t read that many, when the knight gets up and says I propose a quest to find the Grail, and next time see it unveiled, Arthur says to this knight, I think is was Sir Gawain, ‘you have mortally wounded me.  It will take more than a year and a day, and you have destroyed the Round Table.’”

Campbell:  “Oh, I’ll tell you what this is.  That’s the second part of the, of the chapter I’m quoting.  The chapter is in the Old French romance of the Queste del Saint Graal.  Um, Mallory in the Morte d’Arthur, which is a 15th century work, and is based on his translation into 15th century English of the French text.  Mallory omits the sentence that I gave you:  But then Arthur said, ‘You have mortally wounded me, because what about the grail?’  and what the implication is, more important than the social organization, is the individual realization, and that is what the grail is, its the individual realization.  Do you see that?  Do you see what I’m saying?”

Man:  “Could you say it one more time?”

Campbell:  “They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth as a group; Arthur liked people in groups, he could then be king, of course.  Uh, ‘They entered the forest, each where they had chosen, where there was no way or path.’  That is omitted in Mallory.  And, so, what me might call the spiritual part of this is not given by Mallory, all he gives is, ‘Oh gee, who am I going to boss around says Arthur?’  Um, This is exactly where the individual quest comes out as the highest, um, adventure of the spirit.  Now, they had worked it out, the group thing, they had done all of that, it’s done!  The second half of life, what about it?  You have your individual realization.  What good is a society of empty barrels?  People who haven’t found their inner life, and don’t know how to find it.  All they know is to hold hands and dance around in circles.  The um..  What about what’s inside?  Hm?  It’s not impossible then to hold hands and dance around in circles.”

Question Seven

Woman:  “The image of the individual breaking into a larger unity through encountering the other person, is that, can that also be represented as a step that’s taken within society?  I mean, when the knights go onto their individual paths, they must encounter other castles, other people, interact with them in some way, and does, is there a step which perhaps the person returns with this understanding without being absorbed into the circle, work within the circle by individual choice to be part of it”

Campbell:  “Remember the Yvain story I just summarized very briefly, of Yvain pouring the water on the rock and then killing the king, becoming the consort of the woman of the Castle?  Then the court comes, you see?, and here you’re being an individual, what about this? come join us.  So he does join them, and goes back and forgets about his individual life.  He forgets his individual spirit.  Then begins the long ordeal of bringing the two together.  Now, you can’t join the individual spirit to the group spirit if you haven’t found your individual spirit yet.  And the group will tell you all about the group spirit.  [laughter]  So, ah, the individual quest is an individual quest and you’ve got to find it. Otherwise you become what Joyce calls, ‘An ordinary dime a dozen type.’  You don’t have any individuality, you just haven’t found yourself, you are a stuffed shirt, quoting clichés, and…”  [laughter]

Question Eight

Campbell: “Yes?”

Man:  “When you find something of a spiritual nature in yourself as an individual, you also at the same time you are aware of the interrelatedness of all things.”

Campbell:  “Well, isn’t that’s it?  That’s the story.  And, then you find who those people are that are all around  you.  “There’s a lovely little story I like to tell, a Hindu fable of the tiger among goats.”

“There was a tigers who was starving hungry, and um, pregnant, very close to giving birth.  She came upon a little flock of goats, and in pouncing on them brought about the birth of the little one and her own death – she over did it.  The goats scatter and they come back to their little grazing place and what they find is a just born tiger and its dead mother.  Well, they have very strong parental instincts, and they adopt the tiger who grows up thinking he’s a goat: he learns to bleat, he learns to eat grass, his teeth can’t chew the grass very well, they are the wrong kind of teeth, and his stomach can’t digest the cellulose, so he grows to be a pretty miserable specimen of his kind.  When this poor little wretch reaches adolescence, a big male tiger comes, pounces on the little flock, and they scatter, but this little fellow isn’t a goat, he didn’t run away, he’s standing there.  And, the big fellow looks at him, ‘What? You living here with these goats?‘  ‘Naaaah!’ says the tiger. [laughter]  The big one is mortified, like a father coming home and seeing his son with long hair.  So, he swats him back and forth a few times, and picks him up by the neck and takes him to a pond where the water is perfectly still.  Now the first… second, aphorism of the yoga sutra says: ‘Yoga is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind.’  Our mind is always in action, try to hold it still, [snaps] try to hold in your mind one thought or one image for ten seconds, you find you have associated images all over the place.  ‘So it is, our minds are like a pond blown by a wind.  And all the images in our minds are come and go and come and go, are broken reflections.’  We identify ourselves with one of those reflections. We say here I come, there I go, oh dear!’  But, oh, make the pond stand still, and there you see the form of forms, the image of images, that is broken up in all these [associated] images… that’s you, and that’s also you, and you, and you.”

“So, the little tiger looks over into the pond and sees for the first time his own face, and the big tiger puts his own face over the pond too and he says, ‘You see?  You’ve got the face of a tiger!  You’re not a goat!  You’re like me!  Be like me!’  That’s this guru stuff! The pictures. [laughter]  So, the little one started getting an idea.  And, em, the big fellow takes him down to his den, where there are the recently slaughtered remains of a gazelle.  The big fella takes a bloody chunk of this stuff and says, ‘Open your face.’  [laughter]  ‘Well,’ says the little one, ‘I’m a vegetarian.’  [hysterical laughter]  ‘Aw!’ says the big fellow, ‘None of this nonsense!’  And he shoves it down his throat.  And, the little tiger chokes on it.  And the text says, ‘As all do on true doctrine.’ [laughter]  So, choking on the true doctrine, it is never the less getting into his system, into his nerves, into his bloodstream, activating his proper nature.  His proper food activates his proper nature.  He’s a tiger, so for the first time in his life he gives a little tiger stretch, a little tiger roar comes out, tiger roar 101.  And, the big one says, ‘There we are now we can go into the forest and eat tiger food.’ [laughter]  Now, there’s a moral here, that we’re all tigers living with these goats, and uh, as a goat. And, the function of our sociology department is to teaches how to be goats.  Live with the group.  And uh, they uh, the function of spiritual information: mythology, meditation, and so forth is to introduce us to our tiger face, but when you have found your tiger face how are you going to live with these goats?  You better not let them know, you better not let them know that you found your tiger face!”

“When Jesus said, ‘I and my father are one,’ they crucified him.  When Hallaj said, ‘I and my beloved are one,’ they crucified him.  I think it was, Hallaj who said, ‘The function of the orthodox community is to give the mystic his aim, namely union with the All.’  But after the death of Hallaj the Sufis got the message, and this is the answer: You live, you wear the outer garment of the Law.  You do.  And the inner garment of the mystic way.  And, let me just say, before you put on the outer garment, you gotta put on the inner one, huh?  That’s just the order of getting dressed.  So, uh, there’s that.  When it comes time to live with all of the goats its no problem because you know they are tigers, its just they haven’t caught on yet.  So, that’s my message for this afternoon.  [Applause]  Thank you.”

Campbell:  “That tiger among goats story, by the way, is one inflection of a standard story, its that of the son of the King who when he is born is exposed, put out in the woods and picked up by animals or peasants or something like that.  So, he grows up thinking he is a hunter, let’s say, then the king dies, and, uh, the dynasty, the people in charge of all of that, say the kings son is out there, we have to send for him.  So, they  go out and say to him, ‘Come in, you are the king’s son.’  ‘What?  I’m the King’s son?  I thought I was a hunter.’  And the sanskrit for kings son is rajaputravat.  Raja is ‘king’, and putra is ‘son’, and ends with the syllable vat which means ‘like’.  Rajaputravat, ‘like the king’s son’.  So, it is with the tiger, so it is with each of us.  You’ve been the tiger all the while, you thought you were a goat, and rajaputrvat you find your inner tiger.  It’s not a development, its just a change [snaps finger] in perspective, seeing that the kingdom of the father is spread over the earth, and its you.  It’s not a bad story.”

“One way or another, um, this that I’ve been trying to sing this afternoon and this morning, is the song that I’ve been hearing through myths all over the world.  And this, um, that eagle one is particularly appropriate to our world so far as we are European, rather than say, near eastern or far eastern mind.  The idea of the individual journey, that no one can live your life, and if you don’t live it, you have not lived your life, and that’s the Wasteland, that’s the sense of it, doing what everyone told you, the third temptation of the Buddha, perform your duty to society.  Your duty is no good to society is no good, unless you can bring society something that is you, and is authentic, and not simply repeating.  So, now…”

[ends]

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