Leafing through a book written about my great-great-grandfather, the composer Richard Wagner, I came across an account of his death in February 1883 which I had missed on a previous reading. It mentioned that the last thing he did in his life was to commence an article entitled 'The Feminine Element in Mankind'. The author of the account writes, "... after the words 'Liebe-Tragik', the pen drops from his hand".
Just over one hundred years later I was reading a book entitled The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail when I came upon an early paragraph which related that Richard Wagner had visited the little village of Rennes-Le-Château in the Pyrenees before he wrote his last opera, Parsifal. This was extremely strange to me as my family had only just moved to Wales, not far from Nanteos Mansion, near Aberystwyth, where the famous wooden Cup of Nanteos (sometimes known as the Welsh Grail) used to reside. According to local tradition this eighteenth-century residence was the resting place for the Grail Cup when the monks of Glastonbury Abbey fled at the time of King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Various accounts with which I was familiar had referred to Richard Wagner staying at Nanteos just prior to working on Parsifal, but why would modern writers wish to link him very definitely to a little French village in the Pyrenees? The answer came as I continued the book, which tells of a village priest, Bérenger Saunière, who suddenly became extremely wealthy after discovering some documents in a Church consecrated to Mary Magdalene at Rennes-Le-Château. The treasure was apparently linked to a secretive order called Sion (originally connected with the Knights Templars) which was established to protect the Holy Grail and certain secrets from being revealed. In fact, the authors suggested that Holy Grail (from Sangréal) means Blood Royal and that many writers, painters and composers had been the guardians of these secrets, preserving them in their respective art forms throughout the centuries. Codes and ciphers had been used in their writings, while paintings and murals contained numerous allegorical features. Most intriguing of all, however, was a list of apparent Grand Masters of the underground stream - a list which included names like Léonardo de Vinci, Robert Fludd, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy and Jean Cocteau.
I began to research into these connections and especially into the seemingly heretical relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, whom the authors suggested had been married and produced a child. This was the reason why the Order of Sion was put into place: to protect the royal lineage of Jesus. Coming from a strong background of the Church of England faith (having been a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral) my immediate reaction was one of horror! This was completely against the Church's teaching and yet I constantly found supportive references to the Magdalene in other texts.
The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail also put forward the notion that the Crucifixion of Jesus was a staged event. This idea seemed to be without any foundation and I could not help feel that it was slipped in to gain maximum press exposure (which it certainly accomplished) rather than realising the truth and significance of the martyrdom of Christ. If the Crucifixion had been staged, then it would surely have gone wrong at the precise moment when the centurian's spear - the Spear of Longinus - performed the Dolorous Blow which established the path that is the Destiny of all Christians.
In the years 1945 and 1947 there were two discoveries which made a considerable impact on our comprehension of the Bible texts and have opened up a very interesting debate. These are the Nag Hammadi Codices and the Dead Sea Scrolls. They bring a new insight to the beginning of the Christian era and to the period when the familiar Gospels were originally written. The unearthed documents include gnostic writings which recount a deep division within the early Church and offer a very different perspective of many of the characters portrayed in the New Testament. Most striking of all are the many accounts of arguments and jealousies which prevailed between Mary Magdalene and the apostles Peter and Paul.
In the non-canonical Gospel of Mary, the Magdalene is described as the "woman who new All", but elsewhere, in the Gospel of Philip, the jealousy of the male disciples comes to light: "The companion of the [Saviour is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all the disciples and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended by it...]. They said to him, 'Why do you love her more than all of us?' The Saviour answered and said to them, 'Why do I not love you as [I love] her?'"
Another passage in the Gospel of Mary relates directly to Peter's personality. After the Crucifixion, he refused to believe that Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene first, saying: "Did he really speak privately with a woman, [and] not openly to us?" Mary replies, "My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Saviour?" Levi then tries to stop the dispute from escalating: "Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you, indeed, to reject her? Surely the Lord new her very well. That is why he loved her more than us."
In the tractate entitled Pistis Sophia (Faith Wisdom) Peter is bitter about Mary Magdalene's domination of a conversation with Jesus, and urges him to silence her. Later, Mary tells Jesus, "Peter makes me hesitate; I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race." That last phrase came at me like a bolt of lightning! What if Mary Magdalene actually had been compromised when the New Testament was compiled by the bishops! What if the truth of her story was suppressed to suit the male domination of a Church founded upon the sexist attitudes of the disciples, especially those of of Peter and Paul. They were, as everyone knows, the main leaders of the early Christians and the Church of Rome is, after all, called the Church of St Peter. What if Peter's hatred of the Magdalene was sufficient to meet out that sort of historical revenge upon her!
On thinking about this, it occurred to me that many other females mentioned in the Bible have been given a similarly hard time. Eve was the 'temptress' in the Garden of Eden. To some people even Mary the mother of Jesus was a virgin - denoting a sort of spiritual DNA genetic alteration. In fact, the Church's refusal to afford her any measure of sexuality is, in many ways, an insult to Mary. By Church decree, numerous women have been burned as witches (Joan of Arc as an example) for daring to have alternative beliefs. Clearly, the way that Mary Magdalene has been depicted as a whore in Church teaching is extremely questionable in view of the lately discovered accounts.
Another very curious story emanates from a gnostic work entitled Questions of Mary [Magdalene] noted by Epiphanies, which states: "Jesus gave them a revelation when he took them with him up the mountain. He prayed, and then took a woman out of his side and began to have sexual intercourse with her. He caught his ejaculated semen in order to demonstrate that such behaviour was necessary for us to live". The most interesting passage of all, however, concludes the Gospel of Thomas: "Simon Peter said to them [the disciples], 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.' Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'" What struck me immediately upon reading the Thomas section was that there was something very apparently wrong with the English translation. But if the indefinite 'a' was placed before the two entries where 'male' was mentioned, it would then read: "Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her, in order to make her a male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself a male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
Throughout the centuries, women have been dominated by men and treated as second-class citizens. The Church has fuelled this endeavour in its determination to prevent full priesthood for women. In defence of this, many male ministers who oppose female priests cite a passage from Genesis 2-3, proclaiming that "... a man ... is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman for man.)"
In 1 Corinthians 14 (which might have been written by Paul or perhaps inserted by someone else) it is said that "... the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but they should be subordinate ... it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." In Roman times women had little choice but to accept being bound over in the newly devised forms of the legal marriage vows. However, centuries before in Greece and Egypt, women were far more emancipated, socially, politically and legally. Bishop Clement of Rome went so far as to say that women should "remain in the rule of subjection" to their husbands and, by the end of the second century, woman's rights to worship were explicitly condemned. Indeed, such female worship was branded as heretical.
Today, at last, we have arrived at a new understanding of the prerequisite role of women. The Church of England is waking-up in the face of a strong suffragette contingent of female lay preachers, and the first ordination of women deaconesses took place in Bristol in 1994. After years of argument the Anglican Church is finally having to accept the natural balance. As seen on TV, the scenes at the final meeting of the Synod in 1994 (with some of the male ministers yelling at Archbishop Carey, behaving like football-match hooligans) took many people by surprise. The majority of onlookers cannot, of course, understand what all the fuss is about, for this is supposed to be the enlightened age wherein equality of the sexes manifests in all quarters. How much better is the company whose executive management includes women directors. Why, then, should the Church be so exclusive?
Currently, there is a good deal of talk about the British Government's so-called Family Values, a politically contrived concept which is preached if not practised. Additionally, the Anglican hierarchy maintains that parish churches are going to have to change, while many are going to be closed or amalgamated with others. The congregations are falling in most areas and yet many still fail to see the logic of female ministers taking a full part in the parish communities. Many wives of vicars actually work as hard as their husbands in parish work and many are loved for their obvious vocational spirit. Would it not be far more effective if husband and wife vicars were appointed to some parishes? There are many occasions when parishioners would prefer to talk to woman about affairs of the heart and women would, in many respects, be more sympathetic listeners. This uplifting balance would surely start to bring back the congregations. Meanwhile, the right of women to now preside over the Communion is the most significant advance of the Anglican Church in centuries. In South America there are already great problems due to the lack of available priests to administer to the needs of the population.
Of all hitherto unlikely measures, the Catholic Church is now having to make special provision to accommodate the numerous Church of England married vicars who wish to protest against women officiates in the Church of England. Since Catholic priests are prevented from marriage, this action creates a splendid dichotomy which will doubtless fuel the disestablishment of male domination in the Roman Church environment but, for the time being, the matter is being strategically managed with as little debate as possible.
To obtain a real balance and harmony in Christian society, we must expect to see, and indeed welcome the ordination of women arch-deacons and bishops along with female archbishops and popes. Such appointments would surely take the Church into the new millennium with a new strength and the potential for increasing congregations. These days many individual church doors actually remain closed for much of the time, locking out their congregation for most of the week so as to facilitate a maximum turn-out on the days of opening! Obviously, this defeats the whole objective of a mission which should be available to people at all times, and the practice must be changed if the Church movement is to survive. Under such a circumstance, then maybe the Church could regain some of the respect it so desperately needs. In the meantime, it is the victim of its own politically controlled hypocrisy and could not be further removed from the desired concept of social ministry and service. Along with such changes could emerge a much needed, heartfelt and sensitive debate about the inner soul of the Church itself - a debate conducted with an openness that would carry with it the chance of a popular restoration. Currently, however, one sees only an establishment in the course of erosion, for the Church's position in society appears to be socially and morally devoid.
On the matter of openness, I have always regarded one of the most significant aspects of the Crucifixion account to be that moment when the curtain of the Temple of Jerusalem was "rent in twain from the top to the bottom". This has translated in my life to mean that if our supposed leaders use the power of secrecy against society for their own benefit (whether at a governmental or local level of community control) then the practice has to be curtailed. The doors of secrecy should be flung wide open, for greed operates freely behind closed doors and ferments away the fruits of honest success. Openness, on the other hand, generates the communication of free spirits with the harmony of wisdom and the result is always the birth of creativity - a state which is necessary for the success of any quest.
A deep instinct of humankind is the need to make discoveries; our history and evolution are anchored by them and revolutions, for good or ill, have resulted from invention. We have, in our own lifetimes, experienced the many results of discovery and invention, while the electronic age has paved the way for the computer age. This is now heading, in turn, towards the new age of Chaos Research coupled with Virtual Reality, which will itself produce another new age. Some of us recoiled when the term New Age became so wildly banded about in recent years, as if it were the first age that was ever 'new'. In much the same way, many would now have us believe, in their naivety, that our entrance to the twenty-first century cements some kind of ultimate achievement. It would, of course, be rather more appropriate to focus our attention upon personal experience and the historical past so as to generate a complete reexamination of where we stand right now and where, perhaps, we are going.
By some standards, the present is a fairly unromantic age which draws its romance from the myths and legends of the past. In fact, much of our psyche embodies the remnants of lore from times long gone - a culture that reflects upon our innermost spirit. Even this, however, is now being literally watered down to suit a politically geared mass requirement.
In the avaricious Western environment, the 1980s widened the division between those who 'had' and those who 'had not'. Consequently, compassion and understanding are not in great supply and many people are presently floundering in what appears to be a no hope or small hope situation. This is not only unacceptable, it is a potentially dangerous state for any nation - a repeat of what occurred between the two Great Wars which resulted in some of the lowest evil ever suffered and witnessed by humankind. The seeds of this past are now growing again, and many countries are seeing a revival of racial intolerance with the dirty fascism that runs alongside. We have all of history to learn from and yet we fail to comprehend the spirals of our own destinies. How many times do we have to repeat the same basic mistakes before we eventually do something to completely wipe ourselves out?
Our planet is already sending us many warning signs and yet there is an apparent resolve to perpetuate an obscene pollution of the very Earth which supports our survival. We are heading at brake-neck speed into a collision with everything we hold so dear, and yet somehow persuade ourselves that we can do little or nothing about it. For many, the ramification of this is a depression of the soul with the result that some individuals turn to drink, drugs or anything which provides an escape from the reality of the circumstance. In such an environment our personal need for discovery evaporates slowly away leaving our souls empty and frustrated.
It is of little wonder that so many have now reached a stage where they feel they have lost the ability to discover and, without the hope of achievement, there is no need for ambition. This is, however, where the ultimate requirement for a Quest originates. It starts when the spirit has found the bottom of the well - at the point where the light is only to be found in a positive upwards course. To a Grail hunter this state is known as the Waste Land - a realm in which to encounter the ambassadors of enlightenment and to meet with others of an open-minded questing spirit. Together with these fellow travellers of the Grail highway one can find a rekindling of creativity and a resurrected ambition from which follows heartening new discovery. The quest for the Holy Grail is a heartfelt quest for the Cup of Life which is, in essence, the womb of nourishment.
If Mary Magdalene was indeed compromised by the disciples and, subsequently, by the Church establishment, then the potency of the Holy Grail becomes extremely powerful. The non-canonical Gospels of the Nag Hammadi Codices make it quite plain that all was not harmonious in the early Church and orthodox Christians demanded that women should "be the subject in everything to their husbands". In fact, the dominance of the male and the regulatory submission of women was so strong that it would surely have been very tempting to alter the character of the female elements in the Bible. This is, arguably, the reason why numerous original texts were not included in the Canon and why the Magdalene's character was literally refashioned.
An example of this type of manipulated portrayal has recently become apparent in the discovery that King Richard III Plantagenet of England had a spinal hump added to all his portraits by a group of artists working for King Henry VIII of the succeeding House of Tudor. Also that Richard could not possibly have murdered the princes in the Tower of London as conventional history tells. In fact, the social divisions created in England by the Wars of the Roses and the subsequent Tudor accession are still very apparent after some five hundred years.
The characters involved in the traditional Quest for the Holy Grail are the archetypes which are contained within our own innermost spirit, while the treasures are to be found in the spirit of us all. Actually, we uncover them every day, but most go unnoticed - lost within an environmental haze. Other paths are to be found in the study of art and music. Many of the deeper examples can only be present in these art forms, since not everything can be put in words with the same impact. There is a thread running through art and music which provides that subtle, feminine aspect which we all need in order to keep our souls in balance and equilibrium.
When openly pursuing the adventurous Quest, unexpected things reveal themselves without explanation at particular moments in time. An example of this this is the personal revelation mentioned at the start of this essay whereby I had previously failed to discover the account of Richard Wagner's death. In practice, it is all a matter of timing; things can so often escape one's attention if the moment is not conducive. Maybe, for all my interest in my family's history, I was not meant to make that particular discovery until that particular moment in time - the moment when I was ready to accept and understand the reality.
I have now written a musical suite entitled the 'Holy Spirit and The Holy Grail' in an attempt to reflect some of the thoughts laid down in this essay and it contains many things that are not possible to put into words. There are numerous symbolic leitmotifs portrayed in this album; some clues are immediate, whilst others require further consideration. It is my hope that this music might help to rekindle the spirit of the Quest in us all - a quest which can only be fulfilled if the female and the male elements are balanced. I wonder (of all the many conflicts which have violated this planet in the name of religion) how many wars would actually have been fought if the intuitive female nature was weighed in the balance against the dominant male ego. Whichever way you choose to approach your own inner quest, whatever your beliefs, religion or elected path, I hope that the 'Holy Spirit and the Holy Grail' will aid your reflections and be of some comfort along the way.
Some readers of this essay might ask why it is that I, a male, am writing in such a way about the Feminine Element. In answer to this, I can only say that in my opinion we males have a lot to answer for, and it is time to redress the historical balance. How curious it is that Richard Wagner wrote the parting words ''Liebe-Tragik'' (Tragic Love) before he died. Surely, the one person to whom these words should be dedicated at the outset of our Quest is the central character of the Holy Grail tradition, Mary Magdalene.
Adrian Wagner, F. Comp. ASMC.
Originally written 5th March 1994 - revised on August 1999.