I read President Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father and especially noted the part about the Muslim half of his family--his half brother, his absent father and his half sister and I thought where have I seen this story before? And then I heard the inauguration speech where he reached out to the Muslims and I suddenly realized, it was Parsifal in The Fisher King myth and that Obama may be embodying that archetype.
I remember Joseph Campbell writing that the defining myth for the west and for our time is the Fisher King myth which is a part of the larger story of the Quest for the Holy Grail. He wrote extensively on the subject and it became an important universal symbol for the psychologist Carl Jung and his wife. The quest for the grail, which transformed the Middle Ages, was the discovery of the importance of the feminine, the quest for wholeness. This myth is the quest for the restoration of the spiritual life in western man. Jung said that the grail myth was amongst the most important myths in western civilization. The Fisher King myth is deeply embedded in our collective unconscious and has endured in our literature and music from Wagner’s Parsifal to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to The DaVinci code. This story has also influenced film making from Excalibur to Monty Python’s Holy Grail and the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The Grail is a potent image in our modern psyche and reaches back to pre-history. Let’s review the myth of Parsifal and see how it relates to President Obama’s story.
The story of the grail as we know it today was part of a group of romances written between 1170 and 1190 by Chretien deTroyes. Historians say that so many of the issues we struggle with today began in the twelfth century. Later, the epic poem Parzival was written by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the middle ages, circa. 1200 to 1210. Von Eschenbach was interested in Islamic cultures and he imagined a world where Christians and Moslems would come together as brothers. This is the major theme of his poem. This story became obscure until the Romantic period. Blake and Shelley brought the story back into favor because they felt that Puritanism and science had effectively annihilated both the feminine soul and the masculine spirit. They found the imagery to describe this state in the Wasteland.
I am giving a short version of the myth of the Holy Grail here and just concentrating on Parsifal and the Grail King, also known as the Fisher King, and leaving out the rest of the story which includes King Arthur and all the knights and their exploits. The King who held the throne before Parsifal was named Amfortas which means infirmity or he who is without power. He would often boast and was led into reckless confrontations that were not necessary. He had titled power but it was not legitimately won because he had only inherited and not rightly earned his high office. The grail kingdom lead by Amfortas was a community built for protection from invasion and intrusion and was held together by loyalty. He had taken on power and authority that he was not able to handle, hence his kingdom withered under his neglect and his kingdom became a wasteland.
Amfortas only found relief by fishing. That is why he became known as the Fisher King. Water symbolizes the unconscious and his fishing could mean doing inner work such as working with dreams, meditation, active imagination, drawing, music or poetry.
The myth says that the healing of the maimed king could only be accomplished by an uncorrupted youth who would merit the crown through his authentic life work and experience. This is where Parsifal enters the scene. Parsifal’s father experienced exotic and exciting adventures while traveling to foreign lands. He married a heathen queen, and then returned to the west to marry and father Parsifal. He returns to the east and when he died he left two widows one of which had a son she named Parsifal. He was raised in a forest far from the court of Amorfas by his mother and grandfather who taught him never to ask questions. He takes a journey to find his father and then comes to the court and sees the king is wounded and the land is a wasteland; it is spiritually bankrupt. He is filled with compassion and wants to ask “What ails you, what is wrong with your kingdom?” and then he remembers that he was taught not to ask questions so he did not speak. He didn’t act in a spontaneous noble way.
While he was dining with the Grail king, a procession enters the dining hall made up of a young man bearing a bleeding lance, a young woman carrying a shining grail made of precious materials and a maiden with a carving dish. Everyone in the court is quiet and there is no explanation for this event. He wants to ask about this procession and what it means but again he remains silent. Parsifal decides to leave and at that point the king gives him a beautiful sword that is designed to break at a critical moment.
He continues his journey and meets a Moslem knight on the road and they joust. Parsifal’s sword breaks, they reconcile and find out that they are brothers. He finds out that he has a half-sister and they talk about their father. Campbell said this represents two sons of the same god, Islam and Christianity reconciling.He continues his journey and stops and stays with a hermit who tells him that he failed in his task by not asking the right question. He says “you can never find the castle again; it is part of God’s plan”. Parsifal says, “yes, I can do it.” He had tenacity of purpose to change God’s law.
It takes Parsifal five years to find the castle again and this time he asks the king, “What ails you?” The country is healed and he becomes the grail king and represents the highest spiritual values which are compassion and loyalty. Only by asking appropriate questions and addressing our conflicts do we transform and move from ego-bondage to identification with the creative self.
The grail is a chalice or a cup and it is in the procession next to the lance. Some say this represents male and female energies which need to be integrated before we can heal our world. This conforms to the idea of the Sacred Marriage in Jung’s work, the polarity of opposites and the necessary reconciling of these opposites in ourselves and in our society.
The grail is a mystery; some say it was a low broad serving dish; some say it held the blood of Jesus though this is in doubt because it is believed that the Grail myth comes from the east, probably from Islamic countries or pre-Christian Celtic mythology. The fisher king is about a society that is spiritually, morally and intellectually barren by the war. Traditionally the wasteland myth concerns the struggle, the quest to restore fertility.
Others have noticed that Obama seems obessed with asking the right questons. I read the following in Esquire Magazine's article on Joe Biden. He is being quoted here: “The guy (Obama) is really disciplined. He listens and then he asks the right question.” From JOE by John H. Richardson__ February, 2009 issue of Esquire Magazine. And I read this in the Washington Post "The reason we keep getting the wrong answers," Obama says, "is that we keep asking the wrong questions. Ask not whether government is too big or too small but whether it works. Ask not whether the free market is a force for good or ill but whether its bounty is adequately shared. Ask not whether the next generation will be better off than the last but whether we can throw off the shackles of stale partisanship, worn-out dogmas and narrow self-interest to do what everyone knows we must”. ___ from Obama and the Expansion of Possiblity by Steven Pearlstein, Jan 21, Washington Post. And finally, during the campaign, right before the election, Obama got his economic team on the phone and opened by saying, “Here are 4 questions I have for you.”
Whether we know if or not, we are all playing out a myth or parts of different myths. One of Jung’s major contributions was the idea of the collective unconscious. He saw the Collective Unconscious as a shared pool of symbolism which is often expressed in the form of religions, myths and legends. The myths and legends consisted of stories based around a recognizable series of figures called archetypes. The archetype figures are common to all cultures and describe a typical human experience. These archetypes dwell in all of us and we can find ourselves playing out an archetype in a myth that is centuries old. I think President Obama is here to play the role of Parsifal and restore the Wasteland. In the film, Excalibur, Parsifal answers the question. Who does the Grail serve? “The king and the land -- they are one.”
Parsifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach
How to Read Literature like a Professor – Thomas C Foster
Myths to Live By – Joseph Campbell
The Fisher King & The Handless Maiden – Robert A Johnson
Parsifal: The Quest of the Grail Knight by Katherine Paterson
The Holy Grail – Pokay Modern Scholar CD’s
Modern Poets – Rosenthal
The Golden Bough – J. G. Frazer
The Holy Grail – Giles Morgan
© Janet Kane 2009