Mention the name ‘Oedipus’ and most people think of Freud first, and Sophocles only second, if at all. It seems strange – only a little less so when we remember his interest in archaeology – that in setting forth his ideas Freud should have turned to Greek mythology and apparently ignored those closer to home – all the riches of the Germanic, Nordic, and Celtic mythologies that Wagner used only a generation earlier.
Here is the Parsifal story, taken, without checking any sources, from my own memory; as selective and distorting as anybody else’s:
As a child Parsifal lived with his mother – no father about – deep in the forest, with no other human contact. Around puberty he decided he would like to be a knight errant; the sort who rode about in shining armour on a white charger, rescuing damsels in distress. Predictably, his mother tried to keep him at home, but realizing eventually that she would have to let him go she gave him an important piece of advice: never ask questions, because thus to reveal one’s ignorance is to expose oneself to attack.
Parsifal went to a stronghold where a group of knights lived – one imagines him arriving on a pony, and bearing a wooden sword and wearing silver spray-painted cardboard armour – and asked to join the group. He was laughed to scorn and sent away.
Undiscouraged, he simply set about, as it were, a freelance career, rescuing a number of damsels and having the expected erotic encounters. At some point in this part of his career he met a witch, who told him that his great task in life was to meet someone – not a damsel – who could not be found by searching, but who needed Parsifal’s help. Pondering this less than illuminating but somehow authoritative information, he continued his career as before.
One early evening he met the Fisher King. (Imagine – why not? a chap wearing a crown and perched with a fishing-rod on the river bank.) The Fisher King invited Parsifal to dinner. They went through a narrow, perhaps secret, mountain pass and arrived at a castle, where dinner and a night’s rest waited for them.
Here Parsifal met Amfortas, the guardian of the grail. This place was, in fact, known as the Grail castle. There are many ideas about what exactly this ‘Grail’ might be. Christian tradition calls it the ‘Holy Grail’ and identifies it with the cup from which Christ drank at the last supper; it is said to have been brought to
by Joseph of Arimathea. Loony New-Age people have noticed the near homonym in Old French of ‘San Grail’ (Holy Grail) and ‘Sang Real’ (Royal Blood.) Best simply to say that it was an object, or perhaps ‘just’ a concept, of high spiritual significance. Britain
Now Amfortas, the Grail’s guardian, had a wound – variously said to be in his ‘thigh’ or his ‘groin’ – which pained him by day and by night, and would not heal. Parsifal and Amfortas spent the evening together; Parsifal stayed the night in the castle. Setting off again in the morning he carried with him the impression that he had somehow failed Amfortas.
Continuing his knight errantry, Parsifal met again the witch who had given him such vague instructions. He told her of his meeting with the Fisher King and his night at the Grail castle with Amfortas. ‘What?’ she said, ‘And you didn’t ask Amfortas the Grail Question?’ ‘What is the Grail Question?’ ‘If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.’ Parsifal explained that his mother had told him never to ask questions. The witch retorted that there comes a time when a young lad must stop following his mother’s instructions and start making his own decisions. ‘Then I shall again seek out Amfortas at the Grail castle, and do better this time.’ ‘But I told you that they cannot be found by seeking.’ ‘Nevertheless, that is what I shall do.’
Parsifal went away and somewhere around now in his story he met a hermit – a wise man – a Guru if you insist – and spent a long time – perhaps a year, perhaps more – living with him and learning from him. Setting out again on his travels, he did indeed meet the Fisher King again, and again went with him to the Grail castle, and again met Amfortas, whose wound still pained him and would not heal.
This time Parsifal asked ‘What ails thee, Amfortas?’ And straight away Amfortas’ wound started to heal.
It’s a great shame that Freud wrote nothing of this story.