Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance … To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.
– T.S. Eliot introduction to “Notes on the Waste Land” 1923
The Sun might be the oldest and most universal human representation of a supreme deity. Some have deconstructed Christian mythology and compared it to myths like that of Horus and Osiris to make the argument that Christ is, or has been framed as, another form of Sun God. Whether or not this is true, it is true that many ancient cultures featured Sun deities, and that there are certain similarities between the story of Christ and older Sun deity myths.
Because of its key connection to all life on earth, and because it is visible as it passes across the sky every day, the Sun is probably an ideal concrete representation of a universal deity. At night, when the Sun is “sleeping,” “dead,” or “underground,” the Moon shines, acting as the Sun’s reflective foil. The Sun, Moon, and Stars are common characters (gods, goddesses) in mythology worldwide.
Modern Europe was deeply influenced by the Roman empire which continued cultural and mythological concepts from Ancient Greece, which in turn inherited mythological concepts from Ancient Egypt. Underneath all of that, Europe has its own pagan roots.
Roman religious practices intermingled with those of the European tribes. Later, as Christendom became the prevailing religious and political force, alternate rituals were also obviously kept alive. The May Queen ceremony is one mainstream example of an old vegetation ritual which continues today. Even the use of Christmas Trees is thought to have its roots in pagan ceremonies. These rituals are connected to Sun and Tree dieties, Fisher King / Holy Grail mythology, and the idea of blood (human) sacrifice.
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
– T.S. Eliot The Wasteland I. Burial of the Dead
In his 1923 “Notes On The Waste Land”, when T.S. Eliot mentions “certain references to vegetation ceremonies,” in From Ritual to Romance (1920) and The Golden Bough (1922), he’s talking in part about human sacrifice rituals, which in The Wasteland, he links to this Game. The Wasteland is usually said to be a commentary on Eliot’s marriage and/or World War I which had ended just five years before The Wasteland was published. To whatever extent those connections are significant, one thing is certain: The Wasteland sketches, and comments on, The Game, its timbre, and some of the ways it connects ancient and modern times.
As far as human sacrifice, when it occurs, the the general idea behind it seems to be that the sacrifice (of a King, of his eldest Son, or of a virginal boy or girl) charms the gods and brings a fertile harvest.
The Pawnees annually sacrificed a human victim in spring when they sowed their fields. The sacrifice was believed to have been enjoined on them by the Morning Star, or by a certain bird which the Morning Star had sent to them as its messenger. The bird was stuffed and preserved as a powerful talisman. They thought that an omission of this sacrifice would be followed by the total failure of the crops of maize, beans, and pumpkins. The victim was a captive of either sex. He was clad in the gayest and most costly attire, was fattened on the choicest food, and carefully kept in ignorance of his doom. When he was fat enough, they bound him to a cross in the presence of the multitude, danced a solemn dance, then cleft his head with a tomahawk and shot him with arrows.
– The Golden Bough, Chapter 47 § 3. Human Sacrifices for the Crops
To me, the mentality behind sacrificing a “virgin” for the sake of a good harvest seems archaic. It also seems problematic in light of 21st century laws and concepts of human rights. I don’t have difficulty understanding self-sacrifice: a dangerous, difficult, act undertaken voluntarily in order to serve a greater good. My difficulty is with idea that one person or group of people may commit a violent or oppressive act against another person or group, even for “religious” reasons, such as the purification of the soil or the pacification of a bloodthirsty God. To me, this type of behavior would seem to encourage a traumatic, fraught relationship with one’s God, a relationship which could potentially end up creating a vast perpetual cycle of violence in the form of war, conquest, and incarceration worldwide. But that’s just my personal opinion.
In fact it seems like the idea of choosing a particular individual to fill a sacrificial role (Sacred King, Sun King, Fisher King) may be inexorably tied to the cradle of western civilization, to shepherd cultures, and to the concept of kings as divinely chosen leaders. Therefore, for better or worse, the idea of blood sacrifice as a form of healing or rejuvenation underlies much of our cultural and political landscape.
The idea of a great sacrifice which “ends the wasteland” may have been particularly important as Europe went through long cycles of war, oppression, and violence during the era of the Western Schism, Reformation/Counter-Reformation, and Enlightenment. Eventually it was tied to the new power networks which formed during the industrial and post-industrial age.
The idea of choosing someone “common” (debased but secretly sacred) to fill the role of a hanged King fits into Mary-quite-contrary looking-glass world of mythic reversals. Wounded, hidden, and/or cursed princes and princesses are found in well-known fairy tales like The Frog Prince, The Princess and the Pea, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), and Beauty and the Beast.
It does seem like the concept of a sacrificial king and cycles of bloodshed and renewal are key to understanding western European art, myth, politics, and culture. It is an ancient link to the idea of a Sun deity who dies every night, and is reborn every morning.
By the way, if there is a Holy Grail to be found in this particular scavenger hunt, I believe it is an inverted Grail, either taking the form of the Liberty Bell in the city of brotherly love, Philidelphia, or, more likely, the lightning-attracting aluminum hat atop the Washington Monument.