“… As an artifact of modern medievalism, Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail may actually tell us a great deal about how that legend has been modified and imported into modern cultural imagination.”
Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies
University of California at Los Angeles
Terry Atkinson, Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail (Portland: Jorvik Press 2013) 167 pp.
I note at the start that Terry Atkinson’s book is not necessarily intended for a scholarly audience; Atkinson himself admits in his introduction that Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail may be “one of those “crackpot’ books” that follows in a similar vein as Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh’s 1989 Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which concluded that the real Holy Grail or Sangreal was actually a bloodline, the “sang real,” of Christ’s familial descent. Despite the clear reference to his predecessors in his title, Atkinson distances himself from Baigent and Leigh by noting the hoax upon which their theory was based as well as making a concerted effort to ground his inquiry in literary evidence. His euhemerization of the Holy Grail ultimately attempts to extract it from its more familiar literary and religious trappings and instead to identify the amanita muscaria mushroom and its hallucinogenic effects as the Grail’s real origin.
Atkinson’s background is in entertainment journalism and his treatment of the literary evidence is basic. As such, it is perhaps more productive to treat his inquiry as a medievalism reflecting the popular conception of literary scholarship as a kind of chivalric quest in search of sacred icons. Toward the end of his introduction, Atkinson asks his readers “like a knight entering the deep, dark, but promising forests of the Grail stories – to sally forth a while before coming to any conclusions” (4). This approach punctuates the whole of Atkinson’s book as he traces a speculative history of the Grail from Chrétien backward. Perhaps this kind of literary questing represents an attempt at identification with a Grail knight like Perceval. Rather than as a revealing piece of scholarship, as an artifact of modern medievalism, Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail may actually tell us a great deal about how that legend has been modified and imported into modern cultural imagination.
Atkinson’s quest begins in Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth-century romance Le Conte du Graal, often hailed as the first Arthurian iteration of the Grail Questand a narrative that offers Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail an embarkation pointfor what becomes a reverse chronology of Grail lore. Atkinson also considersthe role of other prominent contributions to the Arthurian Grail canon, includingcontinuations of Chrétien’s quest, Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathe,and the Old French Vulgate Cycle, as well as older non-Arthurian Celtic andpagan sources. However, Atkinson looks primarily to Chrétien for the basicstructure of the Grail Quest and is particularly concerned with the Grail’s connectionto food or to a consumptive moment that leads to a loss of narrativetime. He finds this loss indicative of a mystical experience that is specificallyconnected to ancient shamanistic practices and the consumption of a hallucinogenicmushroom. Much like Baigent and Leigh, Atkinson treats his sources asintentionally hiding the truth about shamanistic practice, although he does nothave as clear a sense of the cultic purpose for these secrets having been hiddenin literary allusion. From this point on Atkinson, Alice-like, plumbs the vastdepths of a rabbit hole that opens upon the consumption of a certain magicalmushroom.
The fungus in question is known as the amanita muscaria and is perhaps the most recognizable mushroom in fantasy narratives with its white-flecked red cap. Atkinson delves into early cultural traditions of shamanism and ritualistic consumption of hallucinogens and finds this “sacred mushroom” to be hidden at the heart of a number of ancient pagan spiritual rites. Influenced primarily (and almost solely) by Jessie L. Weston’s seminal From Ritual to Romance (1957) Atkinson creates a causal theory that accounts for the obfuscation and transformation of the ancient image of the mushroom into the eucharistic cup that we know now through the lens of medieval romance.
From an academic standpoint there are a number of problems with Atkinson’s book. These issues include the unanswered question of why this secret has been hidden; some rather reaching assertions about the continuance of this tradition of secrecy, even into modern texts like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; an unfamiliarity with the techniques of French romancers which causes him to misread Chrétien’s interlaced narrative as “a wild and wooly tale”; his reliance upon dated scholarship like that of Weston; and finally and most concerning, the almost complete omission of the scholarship of Norris J. Lacy, one of the most prominent Grail scholars of recent decades. Interestingly enough, it is Lacy – in “Introduction: Arthur and/or the Grail” The Grail, the Quest, and the World of Arthur (Cambridge 2008) 11 – who offers one of the most profound insights into exactly what Atkinson’s project may represent when he notes of the mythic significance of the Holy Grail that it, “can be anything or nothing, a holy object or a hoax; the quest can be a sacred enterprise that gives meaning to life or it can be a pointless exercise or an absurd waste of time and humanity.” The end goal of the Grail Quest, Lacy explains, is not to find a useful object or even experience intellectual epiphany but rather to partake in a “beatific vision” (6). While the narrative climax of Atkinson’s research may point toward a culminating experience more similar to a psychedelic drug-trip than to a spiritual revelation, if we consider the overall structure of Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail in light of Le Conte du Graal, we may note some striking similarities between Atkinson’s researcher persona and Chrétien’s Grail knight.
Le Conte du Graal begins when the novice Perceval, raised in a secluded forest and entirely ignorant of chivalric culture, encounters a knight and is inspired to become a part of the Arthurian world. He immediately leaves his home to seek out the court of King Arthur to whom he eventually pledges his service. In true chivalric fashion, he soon departs Arthur’s court, still somewhat ignorant, to experience a quest. Along the way he encounters the aged knight Gornemant of Gohort who trains him in the art of knighthood and sends him back out into the questing world far more prepared. Eventually, Perceval arrives at the Grail castle and encounters the maimed Fisher King. It is here that Perceval first encounters the Grail and, because of a lesson from Gornemant, “whether for good or ill, he did not ask them any question” (Chrétien de Troyes. The Story of the Grail. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes, trans. David Staines [Bloomington/Indianapolis 1990] 379). This reluctance proves a huge mistake and an indicator that Perceval’s quest has only begun. Chrétien’s tale progresses from this point through a number of adventures and even incorporates Gawain but was not actually completed by the poet, though other poets have added to and even completed the Grail Quest since Chrétien. I only summarize Chrétien’s quest because this very narrative sequence of departure, initiation, revelation, refining, and ultimately achievement undergird the structure of Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail. Perhaps as a function of Baigent and Leigh’s book or even the cultural impact of Indiana Jones, in the popular imagination literary research seem to be conceived as a sort of treasure hunt or quest. Atkinson begins with the call to quest, is initiated through the Grail romances and the scholarship of Jesse Weston, is given a vision of the grail by entering into deeper pagan mythologies and herb-lore, and ultimately concludes his quest with the revelation of chemically induced ecstasy. The reader may have to do some extra work to see this conclusion for what it is, but it seems an appropriate incorporation of the conceptual Grail Quest into a modern culture that might understand a drug induced vision in much the same way that a medieval reader might consider the beatific vision. In a landscape lacking in chivalric heroes, perhaps the stoic work of the curious researcher follows in the footsteps of Perceval on the quest for the Holy Grail. Atkinson’s researcher persona shares a great deal in common with Chrétien’s Perceval and while his literary approach has left some unanswered (or unasked) questions about the applicability of his theory to further research, perhaps we might read this as an indicator that his medievalistic quest, like Chrétien’s, remains unfinished but in a way that is both celebratory of the Grail tradition and faithful to its quest.
SCHUYLER E ASTIN UC Riverside