The Chintamani of the Roerichs: Tales of an extraterrestrial talisman: 16

16  Nicholas Roerich, the Stone and the legend of the graal
From the very start of my interest in the activities of Nicholas Roerich, I wanted to reach a view about the implication, evident in a number of passages in the Roerichs’ books, that the Stone, as a mineral talisman, was associated by them with the stone of the graal in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival. The association reinforces the fact of the focal importance of the Stone in the Roerichs’ mission, for in doing so they are invoking in their own talisman the powers they attributed to the stone of the graal, which in Wolfram’s poem is called lapis exilis, the ‘mean’ or ‘insignificant’ stone – in a sense, the fragment of stone.
    The Roerichs’ belief was that meteoritic stones could help to bring about on Earth changes prefigured in the cosmos – in their case envisaged as a transformation towards a new age for humanity in which new ethical ideas would be established. To them this meant the forging of a new consciousness, something which owed much not only to the various traditions of messianism which they espoused, but also to the idea of a universal spirituality transcending and unifying all life and matter – symbolically speaking, the immanence of the cosmic graal. This enables us to understand why, for example, in his book Shambhala, in the text of the chapter entitled Urusvati, Nicholas Roerich inserted the following seemingly cryptic Latin phrase: Lapis exilis dicitur origo mundi. In the light of the present context, this can be understood as meaning ‘the meteoritic fragment is said to be the origin of the world’ – or more specifically in the Roerichs’ conception, the foundation of their anticipated ‘New Era’. The passage was written in 1929 at Urusvati, the Roerichs’ home in Kulu in the foothills of the Himalayas, where they settled after the Central Asian Expedition, to await the manifestation of the new epoch.
    The question of the nature and origin of the stone of the graal has attracted many theories, and an identification of the Mongolian meteorite as the parent of Roerich’s Stone might have led to yet another. I tried to develop a plausible explanation to account for this idea, involving the possibility of the transmission of an earlier fragment from the Mongolian meteorite to Jerusalem around the time of the Second Crusade, at a point where it could have become an element in the graal story. However eventually I had to disassociate Roerich’s Stone from my understanding of the graal, since it did not fit in with a group of inter-related facts derived from the original text of the poem and other contemporary materials which were creating a coherent picture of its origin and meaning.
    The two main points internal to the text of Parzival come in answer to the questions, where is the graal to be found at the end of the main narrative, and which historical figure is the character of ‘Prester John’ in the story to be identified with? I suggest that the answers to both questions lie in India, where for centuries the original inheritance of Christianity survived independantly of Rome, and where a figure named ‘John’ who was said to have been appointed by St Thomas the Apostle, the bringer of that original message, as one of his spiritual successors, closely matches the details of ‘Prester John’ in Wolfram’s story. In the poem, the message of the graal concerns the inner spiritual changes which the main protagonists, Parzival and his oriental half-brother, Feirefiz, must demonstrate in order to transform their lives. After a climactic episode bringing about their reconciliation and redemption, Parzival fulfills his destiny to inherit the kingship of the graal in his European homeland, whereas Feirefiz – hitherto a ‘heathen’ – is baptised and marries the graal-bearer, Repanse de Schoye. The couple then set sail for Feirefiz’ homeland, India, a move in which it is seemingly implicit that the graal goes with them. In India Feirefiz begins to spread the Christian message, and there also they have a son whom they call Prester John, a name which becomes the title for the lineage of his successors. Clearly a parallel can be drawn between the ‘Prester John’ in Wolfram’s tale and the historical ‘John’ linked to St Thomas, each of whom became custodians of a transformational spiritual message.
    Whilst Wolfram’s text, thus decoded, reveals an understanding of the meaning and historical context of the graal in Parzival, the crucial factor in my realisation that Wolfram’s stone was unconnected with the Mongolian meteorite was an acceptance of the conclusion of a number of scholars, proposing that the origin of Wolfram’s term referring to the stone of the graal, lapis exilis, lies in a medieval version of the legend of Alexander the Great entitled Iter Alexandri ad Paradisum. In the legend, the stone is not a talisman possessing wish-fulfilling powers, but a mere insignificant symbol for the virtue of humility, which is the message contained in a parable recounted by a sage to Alexander after he had reached the gate of Paradise – and the symbol, with its message, is carried over as a principal theme in Parzival. The legendary tale also reflects the historical record of Alexander’s conquests, where, after reaching the river Indus, he heeded the counsel of the men under his command and ventured no further.
    Roerich had linked his Stone with the stone of the graal in Parzival, yet the evidence from the poem suggests that the symbol itself was a literary fiction whose meaning is concerned with a piece of knowledge about the conduct of life which, although undoubtedly belonging to the original Christian teachings, in Wolfram’s writing is hinted to be best upheld by the branch of the faith established by the followers of St Thomas the Apostle in India. If therefore Roerich had believed in a material connection between the Mongolian meteorite – assuming this was the source of his Stone – and the stone of the graal in Parzival, I now think he is very unlikely to be correct. However, in no sense does it diminish the value of some kind of poetic or metaphorical association, and this may well have been what Roerich had in mind – although, unlike the example of Alexander in the legend, or that of the custodians of the graal in Wolfram’s poem, possession of his Stone did not signify with him a curb on ambition.
The material on the graal in this Section summarises parts of my article ‘Notes on the Meaning of the Gral in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.’ For the full article, visit .


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