I suspect that when Peredur, later called Percival of the Round Table, first met the Fisher King, that he didn’t immediately understand the connection between the unhealing wound in the old King’s groin and the infertile, unwell state of the land all around. Young Peredur hadn’t yet internalized our widespread interconnectedness, didn’t yet quite see how the failure of any part of the interdependent web of life to live up to its unique role unavoidably impacts that entire web. Peredur also hadn’t yet realized his own role in that web, and in such existential confusion how could he see beyond his own skin? Perhaps he had not heard the lore of nearby Ireland, the tales of King Nuada, who abdicated his throne the moment he lost his hand in battle, knowing that by the ancient law of his people an unwhole King could only lead to an unwhole land. Of course, in those myths, the wounded King Nuada was succeeded by King Bres, who though whole of body bore a wounded soul – and likely exacted a far deeper scar on the land.
But Peredur lacked such a mythological education, and was not thinking of the interconnected web of diversity that collaboratively dances Life into being. Rather, like many of us today, Peredur was largely thinking about Peredur. As a result, the first time he met the Fisher King, he missed an opportunity. Had he truly seen the King before him – had he seen the inextricable link between the wellness of the land itself and that of the man before him – had he seen his own crucial and unavoidable responsibility to participate in the renewal of that wellness – then he would have saved himself and many others years of pain and exile. Yet, this he could not do. He did not yet know the way.
Those years of pain and wandering deepened Peredur, and when he finally met the Fisher King once again, decades later, he had grown. This time, he could see through his own skin, to the wound of the King before him. Witnessing that wound, Peredur reached out in understanding and care, and the King healed. With this, the land renewed, and life grew again.
Kings. Who needs them? Conquerors high on their own arrogance have done far too much in recent millennia. Why not let the Fisher King, and Kingship itself, die from its wounds?
Yet, the link between Land and King runs back far older than Empire, and indeed runs strong in traditional stories and indigenous cultures all around the world. In some of the earliest recorded myths that we know – from Sumer, the “breadbasket of civilization” – Inanna, Goddess of the Growing Earth, enters passionately into sacred marriage with Dumuzi the Shepherd, who through this lovemaking with the Daughter of the Earth becomes King, and becomes inextricably linked to the earth’s own renewal.
Jesus Christ, a later expression of this same mythic presence, came as a storied Renewing King, a lord of the living vine. His sympathetic relationship with the people and the land, his own death and rebirth linked to the renewal of life and fertility, echoes forward in time to Peredur and the Fisher King. His courtship with Mary Magdelena, particularly as told in the Gnostic Scriptures, echoes back to the similarly ever-renewing courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi…
I hear these stories of Kings from long ago, I hear of widespread ancient rituals in which Kings, far from politicians and conquerors, instead sacrificed themselves or were sacrificed for the renewal of the land. Such Kings had less to do with power than with eros, less to do with conquest than with vitality, less to do with politics than with the magic of the seasons. Such Kings renewed life, made love, lived as vessels in sympathetic alchemical link with the land.
Once upon a time, in a time before the rise of empire, I believe we had not yet become collectively confused about the difference between Conquerors and Kings. Still, these myths remain, and as we recall them, I wonder – perhaps, like Peredur, we will one day look back on our wandering exile in an afflicted land, and give thanks that it made us wiser.
Julian Michels is a Ph.D. student in East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where he studies mythology, storytelling, and initiatory traditions.