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by Philip Coppens A Cup or a Stone, that is the Grail question. Though the Grail is often believed to be a cup, for one of the most prominent – and controversial – Grail authors, Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Grail was a stone. He noted how at the Grail Castle, “they live from a stone whose Essence is pure… It is called lapis exilis. By virtue of this stone the Phoenix is burned to ashes, in which she is reborn.” He soon adds: “However ill a mortal man may be, from the day on which he sees the Stone, he cannot die for that week, nor does he lose his colour. For if anyone, maid or man, were to look at the Grail for two hundred years, you would have to admit that his colour was as fresh as in his early prime […] Such powers does the Stone confer on mortal men that their flesh and bones are soon made young again. This stone is also called the Grail.”
In “Servants of the Grail”, I demonstrate that originally, the Grail tradition was in fact part and parcel of the Hermetic tradition and that soon upon its introduction into Western Europe, a propaganda campaign was launched by the Church, to redefine its “true” nature from a pagan – Hermetic – object into a Christian relic, identified with the Cup of the Last Supper. No wonder therefore that Wolfram claimed that falsehoods and wrongs were said of the Grail, which he wanted to address and rectify. And as such, Wolfram’s identification paves the inroads to understand the true nature of the Grail. Having defined the Grail as a stone, nevertheless, does not make it any easier. Imagine the scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where the task is to pick the correct cup from a multitude of possibilities. Imagine anyone’s task to pick the right stone from an entire planet made of stone.
Within a Hermetic context, the Grail – a stone – was linked with the process of awakening: it was believed that just before birth (incarnation), our soul drank from the Waters of Memory and thus forgot its previous incarnations. Some humans, during their lifetime, followed a path of “awakening”, whereby they would be presented with an option to drink from the Waters of Memory again, which would grant them the power to remember their previous incarnations. Attaining this memory while living (rather than upon death) was the primary goal of the Hermetic doctrine and we should see the dictum that man was a mortal god and a god was an immortal man within this context.
As such, within a Hermetic context, we are not looking for a physical stone; the stone represents our body. In fact, it was the Italian philosopher Julius Evola in “The Hermetic Tradition” (1931), who discussed this very notion and who offered an insight into the true nature of the Grail – an insight, it has to be said, which has illuminated few since. Julius Evola Evola had this to say about the identification of the stone with the body: “the choice of the symbol of the Stone for the human body, which is seen as a fixed object – in opposition with the volatility that is the mind. It is the purpose of the mind to acquire a ‘supernatural ability of the regenerated’, when ‘the corporeal principles are elevated to a higher plain’, and the ‘two are made one’ in a ‘spiritual corporeality’; and the word that serves once again to express that corporeality will be this same Stone: the Philosopher’s Stone. The hermetic imperative is: ‘Transform yourselves, ye dead stones into living philosophical stone.’”
In short, the Grail is also the Philosopher’s Stone and we don’t need to look far to find it; perhaps it is so close, that we don’t see it: our mind is living inside of it – our body – and it is the task of those who want to find the Grail, to transform body and soul, make the two one. That, again, was the task of the Hermeticist and the true Grail Quest. Evola’s interpretation is in line with several other, authoritative writings and scholars on the subject. In “The Hermetic Triumph and the Ancient War of the Knights”, an anonymous alchemical treatise first printed in 1740, it is said that “our Stone” exists, but that it hides itself until the artist can lend a hand to Nature. The book was in line with other alchemical processes, which is known to have had a preoccupation with this “stone”.
Giovanni Braccesco, a 16th century alchemist from Brescia, stated: “This is stone and not stone, it is found everywhere, is base and precious, hidden and visible to everyone.”
Another example is from Ostanes, a name used by various several pseudo-anonymous authors of Greek and Latin works from classical antiquity onwards. In one of the works attributed to “Ostanes”, the Kitab el-Fusul, or “The Book of the Twelve Chapters on the Honourable Stone”, it reads: “There is nothing in the world as common as this mysterious thing: it is found in rich and poor, accompanies the traveller and stays with one at home. […] If it were called by its true name, the ignorant would shout: ‘Lie!’ and the intelligent would be perplexed. […] The stone speaks by ye heed it not. It calls to you and ye answer not. O ye sleepers!” Hence, of course, why we had to awaken. Next, the Cosmopolite replied: “What you’re looking for is in front of your eyes; no-one can live without it, all creatures serve it, but few even notice it; and everyone has it in his power.” It is the clear that in this reply, the language used is identical to the language used in the Grail story, while in set-up (a dialogue between a master and a pupil), there are clear correspondences with the manner in which the Hermetic treatises were composed. Finding the Grail was therefore not a treasure hunt, but a spiritual development. Evola explains that the Hermeticum offers several ways towards enlightenment, one of which is the “interior way”, which “begins with the ‘black hieratic stone’ […] the ‘stone that is not a stone’ but an ‘image of the cosmos’ […] – ‘our black lead’ […] along the course of which will rise up Gods and Heroes, ‘heavens and planets’.” He adds that the path is contained in the sigil known as V.I.T.R.I.O.L., which the 15th century alchemist Basilius Valentinus explained as “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem” – “Visit the interior of the earth and rectifying (i.e. purifying) you will find the hidden/secret stone”.
It is clear that the alchemists used various rather flowery words to describe what the true Grail quest was. But rather than spelling it out, they let it distil in the seeker’s mind, just like the alchemical process was seen as a (re)distillation of both body and soul.
With those two known ingredients, the Hermetic alchemical writers normally added that the soul is supernatural, whereas spirit is the collective of the psychobiological energies. The soul was identified with the sun and gold, while the spirit was the moon and mercury. As to the body itself, this was seen as salt. Here, we can thus understand why the alchemical process was often seen as attaining gold, and it is not mineral gold, but the soul that shines that had to be understood here. The 17th century German theologian and mystic Jacob Boehme wrote: “Paradise is still in this world, but man is very far from it, so long as he fails to regenerate himself. And this is the Gold hidden in Saturn.” As such, Boehme captured not only the essence of the Hermetic task, but also the true Grail quest.