The Fisher King

Man in Black Hoodie Sitting on Black Chair

He is the last of the distinguished family line of guardians of the Holy Grail. But he was  wounded. He was not only unable to fulfill his duties, he was also unable to father a next generation to carry on after his death. His impotence affected the fertility of his land, reducing it to a barren wasteland. All he could do was fish in the river near his castle and wait for the elusive “chosen one” who could heal him.

The figure of the Fisher King in Arthurian legend is arguably one of the most well-known figures of a guardian in a heroic legend. However, the Fisher King, or at least the concept of the Fisher King, was already an ancient figure even in that time; with qualities which can be traced all the way back to Greek and Babylonian mythology. His story is an example of what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls the “Monomyth”, the Hero’s Journey, or story of man’s search for himself. The common element to this motive is the presence of a youth in quest of adventures, a supernatural being cursed into a handicap in an isolated place.

Man observing fish swimming under ice

A long time ago, the Fisher King was a prince of a great kingdom. When he was riding around the castle one night, he came upon a campfire and saw a salmon spitted, which sizzled as it cooked above the fire. As there was no one there, the prince waited for the camper to return. After waiting for a bit longer, the prince removed the fish from the fire. He then took a bite of the salmon. Suddenly, the prince spat the fish out of his mouth, because it was still much too hot to eat. Then, he lost his balance and fell into the fire, screaming in agony as a sharp, hot brand impaled his testicles.

In great pain, the prince fell unconscious to the ground. He was found in the morning by a one of his father’s soldiers and brought back to the castle to be medicated. But despite their best efforts, his wound would not heal. The prince was crippled and could no longer ride the fields and woods of his kingdom. Even when, in time the prince became king, his wound still would not heal. His strength evaporated with his inactivity and his kingdom fell into waste. The only activity that seemed to give him pleasure was fishing in the lakes close to his castle.

Parsival (or Percival) was a young boy determined to become a knight. He found his way to King Arthur’s Court and, like others in the court, he often heard of the story of a crippled king who lived in a mysterious castle in the mist. One night, on a mission for King Arthur, Parsival traveled through a woodland area where he saw a lake with a fisherman in a small boat. He asked the fisherman if there was an inn close by to spend the night. The fisherman told him that there was no lodging within thirty miles, but Parsival was welcomed stay the night at his house.

Parsival arrives at the Grail Castle to be greeted by the Fisher King in an illustration for a 1330 manuscript.

Parsival said thank you and, following the fisherman’s direction, rode a little way down the road leading into a mysterious castle. He went into the castle’s courtyard where he witnessed a strange procession of ladies and knights carrying several mysterious objects.

All present were healed from their maladies after drinking from a glowing cup, except for the strange fisherman he saw earlier who lay groaning on a litter. Parsival wondered why the fisherman should be denied healing, but he was unsure whether he should speak. Therefore, he did not ask for any explanation. When Parsival woke up the next morning, he found the castle deserted. He then mounted his horse and rode out the gate. Behind him, he saw the castle fading into the mist and disappeared. As he rode on, Parsival felt that, because of his hesitation, he had failed the Fisher King and himself.

Parsival continued his training in knighthood and for many years fought alongside King Arthur. Twenty years later, just before his retirement, he set out for one last quest in the name of King Arthur. In his journey, he found an isolated lake. Near the shore was a small boat with the figure of a man. Parsival recognized him as the same fisherman he had encountered twenty years before, looking exactly the same as the first time he had seen him. Parsival hailed the fisherman, asking again for a place to stay the night. Again, he was invited to stay the night at the fisherman’s house.

That night, Parsival witnessed the strange procession again. This time, when the fisherman failed to rise, the now aged Parsival rose and asked the question he didn’t ask twenty years ago, “Whom does the Grail serve?” This question was greeted by silence. Suddenly, a voice answered, “The Grail serves the Grail King!”

At this answer, the fisherman healed and rose from his litter and the court erupted in cheers of joy. For many years, the castle had waited for a hero who would come and ask this question. Outside, the land began to change, as fields and pastures began to form in the midst of the forest, crops sprung up, and wildlife returned. Gradually, over the next three days, the castle and its surroundings returned to the old kingdom. Free of pain, the Fisher King celebrated his healing. However, as his curse and his immortality lifted, he rapidly aged and after only three days, died an old man.

Percival in Newell Convers Wyeth's illustration for Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur (1922)
Parsival in Newell Convers Wyeth’s illustration for Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur (1922)

The researches of Jessie L. Weston and Dr. Robert Eisler have shed some light upon the character and functions of the Fisher King. The wise Adapa, son of Ea in Babylonian mythology, Vishnu and Orpheus, all were fishermen at one point of their stories. Both historians then inferred that any ancient mythological figure who bears the title of “fisherman” is for this reason a supernatural being, a god or, at the very least, a hero. Then it would be logical to think that a divine fisherman is closely connected with the sea, and that he shares the character and functions of marine divinities in general.  An example is Poseidon, ancient Greek’s sea-god who is said to possess immense wealth, since he is the owner of everything lost at sea and the whole of the sea itself. In fact, he is said to sleep on piles of gold. We thus have here a “rich” fisher in the role of the ancient Greek’s Poseidon, god of the sea.

The ancient Irish worshipped a deity called Tethra, which means “sea” or “ocean”, and in the story of Cuchulainn’s visit to the home of Emer (in the Irish text Tochmarc Emire, or “The Wooing Of Emer”) there is a mention of the plain and the herdsman of Tethra. The text adds that the Plain of Tethra is a description for the sea, Tethra’s cattle are the fish of the sea, and that the herdsman is a fisherman. Tethra would then be both a rich king and a fisher god. Tethra is king of the Fomorians and of the underworld. In the Echtra Condla Chaim, the inhabitants of the country of Fomori, who are expecting anxiously the arrival of the hero to change their fates, are said to be the “people of Tethra”. Tethra himself is also waiting for the hero to arrive to see him in the assemblies of his friends who had died before him. A mysterious woman on a ship takes the hero, Conle, to the underworld.

Manannán mac Lir sculpture by John Sutton at Gortmore, Magilligan, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Another fisher god of the ancient Celts was Manannan mac Lir (“Manannan son of the Sea”), who gave his name to the Isle of Man. He is the guardian of the underworld who ferries soul to the afterlife. According to the Book of Fermoy, a manuscript of the 14th to the 15th century, Manannan mac Lir was a pagan and a necromancer who possessed the power to envelope himself and others in a mist to protect them from their enemies. It was by this method that he was said to protect the Isle of Man from discovery. This brings to mind the Grail castle which is also covered in mist. The Grail castle is said to be on the seashore beyond practical navigation – in other words, very isolated.

The word “rich” denotes an ancient sea divinity or a god of the underworld, and the cult title “Fisher” applies specifically to a sea divinity, patron of fishermen and navigators. Therefore, it is possible that the sea-gods of the ancient Celts were also kings of the underworld.  The god of the underworld is mostly associated with wealth. Even if the underworld and wealth were not embodied in the same deity, they are always somewhat related. The most well-known example of this is Ancient Greece’s Persephone, who spends half the year in the underworld with her husband Hades, the god of the underworld, and the other half with her mother Demeter, the goddess of the crops.

File:Frederic Leighton - The Return of Persephone (1891).jpg
Frederic Leighton – The Return of Persephone (1891)

The combination of two functions, the god of the sea and the god of the underworld, in the same divine figure is connected with the ancient Irish idea that the land of the dead is located at the bottom of the sea or on an island or a continent beyond the Atlantic. This combination of the two functions also occurs in Greece, where Poseidon joined to his functions of a god of the sea those of a divinity of the crops as husband of Demeter and the underworld as father of the Erinyes.

What distinguishes the Fisher King from these divine figures is the fact that he is not an Olympian in a paradise or an underworld, but a suffering king. The only divine feature he has preserved, that is his immortality, merely adds to his misery. However, here again he can be compared to more ancient deities. In the Maori creation myth, Rangi, god of the sky was assailed by Taka Roa and was wounded in the groin. The known variants of the myth indicate its similarities to the ancient Greek myth, especially of the mutilation of Ouranos by his son Kronos. Yet, this is not the only Greek story with this motive. Iphiclos is rendered sterile by witchcraft and cured by Melampos. Iphiclos is the owner of large herds watched by a dog which no one dares approach. One day, Melampos tried to steal the herds. He was unsuccessful, got captured himself and recovered his freedom only after curing Iphiclos from his sterility.

File:Terre cuite pleureuse Louvre E27247.jpg
A rare sample of Egyptian terra cotta sculpture which may depict Isis mourning Osiris. The sculpture portrays a woman raising her right arm over her head, a typical gesture of mourning. 15th or 14th century BC.

In Egypt, the wounded ruler is Osiris. Osiris was killed by his twin brother who proceeded to mutilate the corpse of his victim. Osiris’ wife, Isis, then collected parts of his body except his phallus, which she could not find. After his death, Osiris became king of the underworld – He is, then, a mutilated king, like the Fisher King. From the Anatolian origin, there is a legend of a Typhon who reduced Zeus to a state of helplessness by cutting the tendons from his hands and feet. Zeus is freed by Hermes, who enters the cave into which Zeus had been cast and returned his powers to him.

The divine figure stricken with sterility, or inactivity, is not necessarily a god. Sometimes it is a goddess, like the Babylonian story of Ishtar, who passes part of the year in the lower world, which leads to general sterility. The same situation exists in Greece during the period of Demeter’s mourning, threatening mankind, plants and beasts in the field with famine. All these myths are attempts to explain the alternation of the seasons in the temperate zones. During winter the god or goddess is stricken with sterility, or otherwise handicapped. With the coming of spring they are freed from their dungeons and recover their powers after breaking the curse. 

The name Tammuz is thought to be derived from a Sumerian phrase meaning “true son of the deep water.” His name occurs first in Babylonian literature as the spouse of the great mother goddess Ishtar, and, though the records are obscure, it appears that he was believed to be annually borne to the realm of the dead, where his divine mistress followed him. During Tammuz’ and Ishtar’s absences, reproduction ceases on earth and is not resumed until a messenger of Ea is sent to bring them back. The rites of Tammuz were celebrated just before the summer solstice. Prayers were then chanted over an effigy of the god, who was washed with pure water, anointed with oil, and clad in a red robe.  In this, as in the allied cults of Osiris and Dionysos, the symbolism of the water is as a fructifier. Thus the significance of the fishing ceremony symbolizes the recovery of the life force from the water. The fish is an ancient symbol of the spiritual mysteries of life as well as the sign of Christ, as Christians and “disciples” are sometimes called “fishers of men”.

In Celtic myth, a strong link occurs between the salmon and knowledge. When it is time for the salmon to breed, the salmon returns to the place of its origin, fighting against the flow of the river, in order to create. Symbolically, this is understood as a troubled human soul perpetually struggling to reconcile itself to itself – therefore leading the way to the Hero’s Journey.

Bird Flying over Body of Water

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