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Coffee & Wisdom 02.51: Dancing in the Chapel Perilous Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about the psychological images that become embedded in talking about how the mind works..


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is coffee and Wisdom. And this week we have been looking at some ideas from depth psychology, if you will, that at least go in to that direction after coming out of various literature and mythology. And I’m calling it dancing in the Chapel Palace. Now, yesterday, I did cover the idea that this idea of the chapel perilous has gone on into some new areas. And I want to trace how that got there. In occult terminology, Chapel Perilous is a psychological state in which an individual cannot be certain whether they have been aided or hindered by some force outside the realm of the natural world, something supernatural or whether what appeared to be supernatural interference was a product of their own vivid imaginations. Now we know where the the humanists among us are going to come down on this. But for a lot of people, this is a very difficult thing to kind of suss out. And so we want to look at how this works. So how did this a cult and, you know, looks kind of scary.

How did that develop out of something that looks fairly mundane and kind of peaceful and even pastoral? Here are pictures from the original Assyrian tales as redone during the Victorian era. Sir Lancelot and the Witch. There’s the Holy Grail here. We have the round table and here is the Holy Grail in the middle of it with some kind of halo rainbow effect going on there. As I mentioned yesterday, all of this is developed out of a book called Limor Darker by Thomas Mallery. And it’s a compilation of French and English theory and tales from the early to late medieval period. The book coming out in fourteen eighty five. So how did we get from there to here in which the chapel perilous occurs in all sorts of science fiction and fantasy? Why did it cross that line, which doesn’t at first appear to be a very logical leap? Well, the first step was to say Eliot’s the wasteland at the chapel, pyrolysis mentioned in the wasteland. And we know that because T.S. Eliot told us so in the footnotes to the book, he says this.

These blinds are from his idea of the chapel, peerless in this decayed hole among the mountains in the faint moonlight, the grass is singing over the tumbled graves. About the chapel, there is the empty chapel. Only the wind’s home. It has no windows and the door swings. Dry bones can harm no one. Well, now, that’s kind of cryptic if we want to talk about it. But we do see the outlines of the chapel perilous appearing in this. So how do we get there? Well, we have to trace it back to Eliot’s source. And he has this to say in his footnotes, not only the title, but the plan. And a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem. The Wasteland were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend from ritual to romance, indeed, so deeply am I indebted? This Westons book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do, and I recommend it apart from the great interest of the book itself. To any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble to another work of anthropology, I am indebted in general, one which has influenced a generation profoundly. I mean the Golden Bough I have used, especially the two volumes Adonis, Attisso, Syrus, anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies. So vegetations ceremonies is where Elliott is going with this. We’ll get there. But first off, let’s stop off to look at Jessie LWR book. She was a British writer, a freelance writer, and the book specifically was published in Nineteen Twenty Just West and from ritual to Romance, an account of the Holy Grail from ancient ritual to Christian symbol.

So we have this idea that the Holy Grail is then a Christian symbol of the theory and knights are looking for it for some reason, and not just the fact that it’s a holy artifact. And where does that come from? If we begin to trace it back? The idea? In these days was that it was based on some kind of pagan ritual probably having to do with fertility rights, so that’s where we’re going with this, Jesse Weston says in her chapter on the perilous chapel. Students of the Grail romances will remember that in many of the versions, the hero sometimes it is a heroine meets with the strange and terrifying adventure in a mysterious chapel and adventure which we are given to understand is fraught with extreme peril to life. The details vary. Sometimes there is a dead body laid on the altar. We saw that yesterday. That’s how it appears in the more darker. Sometimes a black hand extinguishes the tapers. There are strange and threatening voices, and the general impression is that this is an adventure in which supernatural and evil forces are engaged. So that is the starting point for T.S. Eliot’s look at the perilous chapel. Nowadays, from ritual, romance is considered fanciful. That was an interesting idea, but not really based on on traditional scholarship, but it introduced to a wider audience the concept that the theory and legends related pre-Christian rituals, specifically fertility rituals or what Eliot was calling vegetation rituals. All right. So that’s the main thing to keep in mind here as we go forward.

Where did all this come in to more contemporary thought? Well, here’s T.S. Eliot. And by golly, a young Francis Ford Coppola is making a documentary about him in the mid 1960s.

Coppola falls in love with the work of T.S. Eliot and knows the wasteland very well. He knows that footnote that I just read to you. And so in his great work, The Apocalypse Now, we have two books that are in the bookshelves of the main one of the main characters that Colonel Kurtz. And one is that’s why I showed you that particular paperback that’s ritual to romance, and the other is a copy of The Golden Bough. So those two works are informing the ideas behind Apocalypse Now. And of course, if you’ve seen the film, you know that Marlon Brando plays a very scary colonel, Walter Kurtz, who says Exterminate all the brutes. He is there, quoting from an earlier book by Joseph Conrad called Heart of Darkness. So all of this is some kind of symbolism that is adding up to something. Where are we going with the chapel? Perilous. Let’s look a little bit further. So let’s go back to the Golden Bow by Sir James Frazier. One of the fathers of anthropology in this book was published in 1890. T.S. Eliot says in this footnotes that this is a book that really affects his entire generation. So this is a quote from Frazier and Age of Magic preceded an age of religion. The characteristic difference between magic and religion is that whereas magic aims at controlling nature directly nowadays, we would call that animism.

Religion aims at controlling it indirectly through the mediation of a powerful supernatural being or beings to whom man appeals for help and protection. Frazier as as many anthropologists of the day, considering that the human mind goes from some kind of very primitive understanding of the powers of nature, then into religion as a way of understanding the powers of nature and then in humanity’s maturity, we go into science. Now we’ve seen that that didn’t work out as they thought it would in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But that was the idea from that time period. For myth changes, while custom remains constant, men continue to do what their fathers did before them. Now, the reasons on which their fathers acted have been long forgotten. The history of religion as a long attempt to reconcile the old custom with new reason to find a sound theory for an absurd practice. You see what Frasier really thinks. He thinks that the whole project of religion is kind of a little bit absurd, but he can’t say it too directly and he’s a little bit careful, as we’ll get to in just a moment.

But you see how he’s arguing that this goes along. These practices go all the way back to what we would call animistic, or at that time they called pagan practice and then comes forward into the more contemporary religions practice nowadays. But there are the same rituals that are moving through this. And what is one of the central rituals in this?

Well, it is the. Fertility gods, says Frazier and also West, and eventually Frazier carefully outlines gods who are killed and resurrected or gods who descend to the underworld in winter and reappear in spring. So this is the main idea is that part of the circle of the seasons gives us winter, comes into spring and summer, and that transition is a very frightening time for people. And it has to happen because we’ve got to come out of that dark time and go into the time when we can plant and reap and harvest and stay alive. So he traces some gods that follow this pattern. Dionysus, Demetre ATIS or Sirus Adonis Krishna. See how he’s going around the world to Temmuz. He doesn’t mention Quetzalcoatl because he’s not interested in any kind of native as he would see it religions. But Quetzalcoatl is one, Mithra, which was very noticeable in the Roman Empire period. That gives us Jesus and then Ostara, which is the northern pagan God that Easter is named after. So you see the idea here, all of these gods are killed and descend to the underworld and then come back and spring is reborn in some way or other. Or in the case of Demetre, she goes down to visit her husband, who is Hades, and then comes back in the spring to visit her mother. So Jesse LW and added the Fisher King to this list. And impotent and unhealthy king revived by the Holy Grail, rescued from the chapel. Perilous. The Golden Bough doesn’t mention this part of the story whatsoever. It’s really not part of any of the religious developments through the time, but it is embedded in older romance literature from France and so Jessell West and adds the idea of the Fisher King, and that goes directly into Eliot’s The Wasteland.

So the Holy Grail is rescued from the chapel, perilous and brought back. And the Fisher King then, through sympathetic magic, has his kingdom once again become fertile. So we have the idea that the Fisher King, almost dead, impotent ET is brought back to life. And so his land, his dead land, his wasteland is brought back to fruition through sympathetic magic, the idea that nature and human emotions are in some way connected with each other. Now this idea becomes known as the Hero’s Journey, which was brought to the mainstream by Joseph Campbell in the 1950s. So you see how this traces through from the 80s, 90s into the nineteen twenties and then comes on into our own time, popularized again and again becoming from a anthropological idea then to an idea of very much embedded in literature. And as we’ll get to also the psychology of the time through union analysis and then into the idea of the hero’s journey in. Joseph Campbell is a great book on that. From the nineteen fifties, the hero with a thousand faces. The idea there being that the same hero’s journey informs all of these different kinds of heroes. So Joseph Campbell says the journey of the hero is about the courage to seek the depths, the image of creative rebirth, creative rebirth. You see the eternal cycle of change within us, the seasons, the uncanny discovery that the seeker is the mystery which the seeker seeks to know. The hero’s journey is a symbol that binds in the original sense of the word to distinct, distant ideas. The spiritual quest of the ancients with the modern search for identity always the one shapeshifting, yet marvelously constant story that we find.

That’s Joseph Campbell talking about the idea of the hero’s journey and how he thought that the whole matrix of ideas here are both religious and also of a spiritual or a psychological nature. The Hero’s Journey map from Joseph Campbell goes like this. If we look at the top of the clock, we start out in the ordinary world.

The hero is living and just like you and me, then that hero is called to some kind of adventure by some kind of happenings. Maybe mom and dad are murdered, who knows? But something happens to trigger this. First off, the hero refuses the call. He or she says, no, I can’t do it. It’s too dangerous, I don’t care anymore, etc.. However, then the hero meets up with a mentor. Who says this is the way this can be done? You’re the chosen one. This is what you have to do. And then that hero crosses the threshold into some kind of magical world. So we have here the ordinary world and then a special world. The ancients would see this as the underworld. It can be all kinds of different things, although caves are in darkness, are very much part of most of the stories that this is involved in. So then we approach the Dragons Den. The hero dies and goes to then the bottom part, the exact opposite from the ordinary world down to this ordeal in the magical spiritual world. And then, by golly, the hero wins and seizes some kind of treasure in medieval romances. This is usually going down and killing a dragon and bringing back the Dragons horde, one of which would be the some kind of chalice or the Holy Grail. And then the road back, the hero is coming back to the real world being resurrection again, a reproduction of the idea of this from a time of the gods to return of with the boon, that thing that has gotten, that treasure that has gotten down there in the underworld, in that special world is brought back then to the ordinary world. And yes, if you know your Star Wars saga, George Lucas hired Joseph Campbell, as a matter of fact, to map out his first stories dealing with this idea of a hero’s journey. And it is reproduced over and over in the various Star Wars sagas that have come along subsequently. And so it does work and Hollywood can make money on it clearly.

So that’s the way this comes into a more popular imagination. And that’s where the the chapel perilous will cross the line from just a bit of confused theory and romance into a larger idea of the psychological world that in which we search for identity and that. And also there’s something dangerous about that place, as we will see tomorrow, but then brings back that knowledge. If if the hero survives, which most of the time they do. Right. And they come back and bring some kind of knowledge and light to the world above. So that’s the idea of the hero’s journey directly based on a theory and romance.

And Weston and Frazier would argue much older ideas of how the human religious impulse sees the cycle of the seasons and nature. So that’s where we are today. And we’ll go into the more occult ideas tomorrow. Thanks for listening. And on Wednesday at seven p.m., we’ll be dealing with Joseph the Trickster. We’ve been looking at the patriarchs in Genesis from Hebrew Scripture. Tomorrow night we will be looking at Joseph and the various trickster elements that go into his journey into Egypt. Speaking of an underworld and how he brings back a boon from that to his family, which saves the children of Israel.

So I’ll see you back tomorrow. Thanks for listening today.

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