I finally finished re-reading The Grail Legend, and now better understand its place within the Jungian world view. In particular, the remarkable conflict between the natural and the spiritual within the individual and collective consciousness, and how that dynamic can be understood by analyzing the writings of the times.
The dawn of the second millenium was a time of rising dominance of the Christian mindset among the peoples of northwestern Europe. The spirits that animated the natural environment were being pushed back into the unconscious to make way for the Spirit that came from above. That Spirit, together with God the father and that most powerful symbol of the Self, Jesus Christ, left no room in consciousness for nature spirits. The Church had moved in, a kind of spiritual Walmart that suffered no competition from the local mythologies, to supply all the spiritual needs.
But those nature spirits did not simply go away — they are a fundamental component of the human psyche. So back they went, not into the forests, but into the unconscious.
For Jungians, the Grail legends are a way to analyze the collective unconscious of the times. The myth becomes the dream of the age, which can be studied and understood as any dream. Merlin is the key symbol for the nature spirit; he is a bridge as it were for the coming of this new spirituality. It is he who establishes Arthur and the round table and the quest for the Grail, thus setting the stage for a new social order that would bring Europe out of the dark ages. And when his task is done and Percival takes his place as the new Grail king, back Merlin goes, back into the forest.
In the last few pages of The Grail Legend, von Franz quotes early from Jung’s Alchemical Studies about the role of the 15th century alchemist Paracelsus as a symbol for the return of the nature spirits. It has to do with the fundamentally different place of humans in relationship to the Spirit. With Christianity, humans were subject to the will of God and bound to serve this outside Spirit that could come down from heaven and influence humans. With the rise of alchemy, we saw the return of the idea that there is a divine spirit within Nature, and that it was up to humans, especially alchemists, to unlock the spirit from matter. This is the key transformational idea that ultimately defines to the age of reason: that humans were the central force in understanding the world. Alchemy, as a proto-science, unlocks the door to the daemons that early Christianity had banished.
So back from the unconscious came the influence of the animal spirit, only this time its not out on the surface for everyone to see. Rather, it stays unconscious to a very large degree. Despite Paracelsus convoluted (proto-post-modernist)?) ramblings about the alchemical secret of freeing the spirit from matter, consciously he is still a practicing Christian. Alchemy is framed as this huge secret that only the “worthy” can truly understand. High spirituality with dark materialism: It’s a paradox of opposites that soon became a critical force in the evolution of society.
In many ways, the influence of the animal spirit and the belief in its power became more like a spiritual possession by the material world, a condition that fundamentally defines our current psyches. The alchemical process provided a formal, systematic approach to unlocking the secrets of nature. Its successes and failures, particularly in medicine, created a framework for experimentation that any “reasonable” man could follow and expand upon.
Today, we live in an age of human-centered dominance of the natural world. But have we really dominated the material world? Or have iron and fire been liberated to dominate us?
I would argue that we have become possessed by the things that we have created. We have surrendered up our lives in the pursuit of making things and acquiring thing. The secrets of nature are revealed, and then come back to bite us in the ass.
We make packages. We buy packages. We discard packages. All for the things inside the packages. Yet in many ways our lives are still empty. Just like the packages when we’re done with them.