How the Holy Grail was brought from Jerusalem to Glastonbury
Dion Fortune was one of many who have highlighted the significance of Glastonbury as a sacred centre for the islands of Britain, not least the part it plays in the legend of how the Grail was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea. There are some aspects of the early history of the Grail which DF would not have known simply because the relevant texts were not available to her, but which provide some important information concerning the connection between the Grail, Glastonbury and Jerusalem. This essay focusses on one of these early texts, the prosaically entitled The History of the Holy Grail which constitutes the first part of the collection of five stories known as the Vulgate Cycle or Lancelot-Grail. It was written in the early 13th century by an unknown author or group of authors. Compared to the vividly imagined versions of writers such Chretien de Troyes and Malory it can be a little tedious. However, the narrative reveals a number of events that hint of an actual or historical basis, not least because they do not impress as the sort of story anyone would be likely to invent.
The History begins with an account of how Joseph of Arimathea takes the dish used by Christ at the Last Supper and uses it during the crucifixion as a receptacle for Christ’s blood. Immediately following Christ’s death, Joseph is imprisoned in a tower for forty years where he is miraculously sustained by the power of Christ’s blood which is still present within the dish.
Upon his release, Joseph gathers together a Company of men and women who have already shown their understanding of the meaning of this Mystery. We are not told how they understood its significance or how Joseph was able to recognise them, but the implication is that these folk were already members of an existing spiritual, religious or Mystery tradition into which the Grail Mysteries were to become embedded. Joseph and his Company set out with the dish, which from this point onwards is referred to as the Grail, towards their destination of Britain which is described as the ‘white’ or ‘fair’ land. They could simply have boarded a boat at one of the Mediterranean ports but instead they embark on a journey that takes them through a number of actual and imaginary locations in the Holy Land where they experience a series of strange adventures. Many of these adventures are clearly of a symbolic nature and it appears that what is actually happening on this journey, which moves with ease between the outer and inner worlds, is the formation of a Mystery School based on the profound significance of the actual blood of Christ contained within the Grail.
The Company are referred to in this story as ‘Christians’ but they are quite unlike the group of believers who at the same time were forming what was to become the accepted Christianity of the Church. One of the essential differences between the two ‘churches’ is that those who came to be known as Christians in the more conventional sense have at the heart of their religion a belief in the transubstantiated blood of the wine of the Eucharist. At the heart of the Company of the Grail is an individual experience of the transformational properties of the actual blood of Christ, of the power of spiritual enlightenment it conveys, and of the significance of the presence of the actual blood within the earth.
The History of the Grail describes the Grail’s ability to facilitate a direct, personal experience of the Divine which can uniquely sustain, nourish and transform. Although members of what might be called a ‘Grail Priesthood’ or, at least, as a succession of ‘spiritual guardians’ of the Grail are identified, of whom Joseph of Arimathea is the first, their role is to facilitate rather than to intervene, govern or control. Another significant difference between the two churches is that the ‘Grail experience’ often takes place within a natural, simple, outdoor setting with the minimum of paraphernalia and in locations that have a symbolic or sacred presence within the physical landscape. Thus right from the start, the ‘Church of the Grail’ is linked with the notion of an ‘Inner landscape’ and the symbolic properties present in the land. This contrasts with the tradition of the exoteric Christian Church which maintains a structured, formal hierarchy that depends for its authority on apostolic succession and whose rites are usually celebrated indoors - although of course often within a truly inspiring and magnificent building.
The History’s description of the Grail’s first adventure after it has left Jerusalem sets out these principles of ‘Grail Christianity’ quite clearly and, most importantly in regard to its eventual destination, these principles were maintained and upheld once the Grail had reached Glastonbury. Immediately after leaving Jerusalem, Joseph and the Company of the Grail go camping. They walk for two miles beyond the city walls to a nearby wood, where they cut down some branches, gather together some twigs and each build themselves a little hut. Joseph takes the opportunity to construct a suitable wooden chest or cupboard in which the Grail can be carried more securely.
It would be easy to overlook this first adventure were it not that the location of the wood is described as being near to the village of Bethany. The topographical symbolism of this location highlights three areas of meaning that were to become essential features in ‘The Church of the Grail.’
1. The geographical location of Bethany
Bethany is situated a couple of miles to the east of Jerusalem. If we consider the East to be the direction of the incoming spirit, we might think of Bethany as symbolically ‘nearer to the East’ than Jerusalem. It brings to mind the very special area in some cathedrals that lies beyond, or further East, than the high altar. Although only a small village, Bethany played a remarkable role in the life of Christ to the extent that it might be considered, certainly within the Grail mythology, as a ‘spiritual alternative’ to the official centre of power in Jerusalem.
Bethany lies on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho which is famously described in the Bible in the story of the Good Samaritan. The two cities are only 17 miles apart, but Jerusalem lies 2500 feet above sea level and enjoys a temperate Mediterranean climate while Jericho lies 850 feet below sea level and exists as a small oasis town in the middle of a desert. Jericho, incidentally, is one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world and probably dates from 9000 B.C. The road between them, anciently known as The Way of Blood, descends rapidly through rocky passes and describes an extraordinary change of landscape from the pleasant, wooded Mediterranean hillside into arid desert. Travelling along this road 2000 years ago must have felt like descending into another world.
Bethany is located on the eastern side of the white limestone hill now known as the Mount of Olives or ‘Olivet.’ At the foot of the western side of the Mount of Olives (ie, facing towards Jerusalem) is the Garden of Gethsemane (in Aramaic, Gethsemane means ‘oil press’) which Christ visited frequently and was consequently so easily discovered there by Judas. Until perhaps 100 years ago the entire hill was covered in olive trees, some of which have been found to be amongst the oldest in the world. It is not clear from the story whether the Companions were camping on the actual Mount of Olives or in another nearby wood which would probably have been a mixture of olive trees, pomegranates and figs.
The Mount of Olives is one of Jerusalem’s seven hills. In Christ’s time, Jerusalem was known as the City of Seven Hills although the same title was also anciently given to Babylon and Rome - and to a surprising number of modern cities. In Britain, the seven hills of Glastonbury - Beckary, Meare, Godney, Barrow Hill, Marchey and Nyland together with Glastonbury Tor - were identified by John Michell in his book The View over Atlantis. The same concept is found on an inner level, for example in the seven caers or spiritual centres explored by King Arthur and detailed in the poem Preiddeu Annwn. All of these might be considered as earthly manifestations of the qualities of their celestial archetypesx which are the seven stars of the Great Bear.
So if we bring to mind the Grail’s eventual destination in Glastonbury and the inner world of Avalon we can already see some interesting correspondences: the seven hills, the link with an ‘otherworld’ city and the significance of a grove of trees, although of course in Glastonbury these are apple trees rather than olive trees.
2. The Mount of Olives
Lying just to the East of Jerusalem and separated from it by the Kidron Brook, the Mount of Olives functions as a place of prophecy, a Hill of Vision, and a place of Ascension. Of all the places and locations that witnessed significant events in Christ’s life, it is the Mount of Olives that is symbolically nearest to heaven.
It was from the Mount of Olives that Christ made the occultly worded and apocalyptic prophecy that has come to be known as the Olivet Discourse in which He answers the disciples’ question “….what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” It is a matter of debate as to whether His words refer to the past, present or future but an esoteric interpretation of what is meant by ‘the close of the age’ is perhaps the best approach.
It was from the Mount of Olives that Christ ascended into heaven, and in fact Luke (24: 50-51) specifies that the Ascension occurred at Bethany: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.”
According to the Old Testament prophet Zechariah, He will return to exactly same place. Zechariah declares, “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south.” (Zechariah 14:4.)
The Mount of Olives is also, according to the Eastern Orthodox Church, the place where the Virgin Mary was buried and from whence she was later assumed into heaven. The actual location of her Assumption is said to be at the foot of the Mount of Olives, near to the Kidron Brook.
We can therefore see several correlations between the Mount of Olives and Glastonbury Tor which has also been called the Hill of Vision.
3. The village of Bethany
Bethany was Christ’s principal home during His years of travel and teaching in Judea; He often stayed there, resting in the homes of local folk. He was living here immediately before His entry into Jerusalem and it is said that the donkey on which he rode was found in Bethany, tethered to a tree. He returned to Bethany afterwards.
It is in Bethany that much of Christ’s sympathetic relationship with women becomes particularly evident. He stayed in the home of Mary and Martha (who became His disciples) and their brother Lazarus whom He raised from the dead in one of the most spectacular demonstrations of His spiritual power.
Bethany was also the home of Simon the Leper in whose house the remarkable ‘anointing of Christ’ took place. “While Christ was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at table, there came a woman having an alabaster jar of ointment of pure spikenard - very precious. She broke the jar, and poured it over His head.” (Mark 14: 3 - 9) The woman was Mary of Bethany who is often equated with Mary Magdalene.
At this time, priests and kings were anointed, and their kingship or priesthood was conferred by the anointer who himself held great spiritual authority. Much has been written about the meaning of this act in the house at Bethany which was undertaken with apparent spontaneity, by a woman, in a small private home - but suffice it to say that Mary of Bethany/the Magdalene’s action reveals an astonishing absence of any commonly recognised spiritual authority or religious hierarchy. The event suggests either that folk of modest and ‘untrained’ ability were able to play a meaningful role in events of profound spiritual meaning, or that Mary of Bethany represented a spiritual tradition whose existence is otherwise only hinted at. Both of these concepts can be traced within the Grail Mysteries.
The History of the Holy Grail says nothing more of the activities of the newly formed Company of the Grail at Bethany, but during their stay in the wood in this sacred landscape they were sustained and transformed by the power within the Grail which was derived from the actual blood of Christ. Here, in their woodland encampment, they laid down the principles of their spiritual practice and the first structures of what was to take shape as a complete spiritual system and Mystery School. These same principles were later replicated in the Grail’s eventual destination at Glastonbury where there is a similar sacred landscape with its seven hills, the Hill of Vision which is Glastonbury Tor, the circle of withy huts built by the first apostles, and the profound Mystery of the sacred blood which is eternally renewed in the red and white springs.