Homer and the Holy Grail

The Twelfth-century poet Chrétien de Troyes left his poem The Story of the Grail unfinished. The Mystery of the Grail, it seems, refuses to be summed up so easily. The story is ongoing, constantly transformed by the very process of human existence. It is never completely literal nor is it always metaphor. It evokes a quest whereby the masculine hero initially seeks the object and finds instead solace and fulfillment within his own soul. Thus, the Grail is a spiritual talisman between two realities of consciousness--the mortal and the divine. The Grail is a story that leads us to the nexus point, to the threshold of human possibility, where we discover our own healing in the heroic cycle itself.

Someone in the literary history of human storytelling--perhaps Lord, Alfred Tennyson--wrote, "Triumph and Tragedy are equal impostors." Such an epiphany suggests that heroes must, well-knowingly, transcend the seduction of success and the grief of tragedy to find completion. We must not lust for fame itself, for hubris and arrogance live within the boasts of human achievement. On the other hand, when tragedy (without transcendence) is the single outcome of human action, we have only a drama of despair and ruin. For this reason, the ancient Greeks emphasized balance, for in balance we recognize the path toward truth. Yet, it is in seeking truth, not in finding it, that we find provision for humanity and the soul.

Consider the ancient and mysterious Greek city of Mycenae and the age of heroes. Through the pillars of the Lion's Gate we, quite literally, enter western civilization. On one side, we hear the bard sing the story of the Trojan War. Homer's Iliad shows us our capacity for depredation. When Achilles receives the news of Patroclus' death, he takes center stage in the poem. Rage cuts Achilles off from humanity; his soul is defined in the extremes of human brutality and overwhelming physical prowess (Book 20, 563-569). Increasingly daemonic, not merely human, he becomes war personified; driven by a raw mixture of tragedy and his own irrepressible quest for vengeance (menis); Achilles' becomes a tragic beast--the inevitable import of Book 24 lets us all consider the implications of unrestrained human action.

On the other side of the Lion's Gate, we see Homer's Odyssey, an epic story of the individual's triumph against all odds. Odysseus is the par excellence of the Myth of Self, symbolizing and celebrating the unlimited potential of human endeavor. Yet from the great hall of Olympus, Zeus declares, "Greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man." It is Odysseus' insistence on shouting his own praises--when he lauds his victories and glories to the blinded Polyphemos--that brings Poseidon's fierce wrath down upon his life and the lives of his crew. It is the boasting that undermines the hero's ability to accept limitations or make use of possibilities.

Homer's two epics are the seminal, narrative stones set high in the doorway of western consciousness. These keystone stories are cultural records of the human journey beyond the Lion's gate. They guide us into the undiscovered country at the center of self and society.