This month we are republishing an article written by our editor Nita Renfrew that we published in our print journal in the fall of 2013. Her article, “The Shamanic Grail Cup – the Sangraal,” traces the origin of the Holy Grail to Mongolian and other Asiatic sources, and recounts her personal discovery of these ancient mysteries. This past summer the Society for Shamanic Practice helped to sponsor a 30-day healing ceremony performed by twelve Mongolian shamans to alleviate the suffering caused by Covid-19 here in North America. Since the pandemic reminds us of how interconnected all the regions of the Earth truly are, we felt it would be encouraging to re-read Nita’s article and recall that sacred images, customs, and ceremonies are also interconnected, and that when we participate in ceremony, no matter where on the planet, we touch into a deep well of wisdom and healing.
The Grail cup is one of the most ancient symbols. The cup that both receives and offers, and also withholds. The cup where change and transformation take place. The cup that is the “Source,” as I was to find some years ago, in a most curious way. The cup that contains ancient shamanic practice.
The Holy Grail can offer nourishment or even poison. It gives and it takes. The Grail is like the Cross in Christianity, an instrument of suffering, transformation, resurrection, and eternal life––a symbol of Love. Shamans in the past always knew that the path to being a shaman-healer, for both individuals and communities, was dismemberment, or shattering, and death of the self, or even of the body; they knew that in order to be an instrument of the spirits, it was necessary to lose everything, to surrender totally. They also knew that, once called, there was no hiding from the spirit that had called, and, once on the path, there was no going back––ever. Shamans knew that the spirits could make your life miserable if you did not do their bidding. And once you had tasted of the cup, you were theirs forever. Jesus Christ knew this in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified, when he prayed: “Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt (Matthew 26:39).” But the cup did not pass. The following day he went obediently to the Cross, where he suffered and died. However, he then, descended into Hades, or Sheol, brought back condemned souls, and was resurrected.
Early on in my life, I decided to find out exactly what the quest for the Holy Grail was about, and I vowed to learn its inner secrets. I read everything I could get my hands on, but it all appeared to miss the mark. It took me most of my life to put the bits and pieces together and realize that the Holy Grail was about shamanic initiation and practice. The information and the practice, along with the transmission, came to me in ways that I could never have anticipated. As I was to learn, the original shamanic practice itself had been dismembered, and the various components were being practiced separately, and needed to be re-membered.
Jesus: Shaman and Grail-Teacher
Among the many pieces of the puzzle that I would need to put together regarding the Holy Grail, an important one came when I attended a workshop with Saami shaman Ailo Gaup. Sitting in the back was an older woman who wore glasses and looked more like a librarian than someone who practiced shamanism. She was quiet, though she participated in all the exercises where we drummed and journeyed, crossed the river of blood, and invoked the Saami spirits: Juksakka, the Bow Woman, and the White Reindeer. She told me that she was an Episcopal priest, and she was there because Jesus Christ had been a shaman, and she wanted to learn shamanism. She explained: Jesus was a healer, performed exorcisms, mediated with the invisible world of spirits, descended into the Underworld to bring back souls, and rose from the dead. I was nonplussed. These were all things that shamans did. This was confirmation from a source that I had not expected, of something that I already suspected.
In 2001 everything in my life fell apart: I went into a state of total despair. I was grasping at straws to keep from going under in my life, and Reiki appeared in the form of a free mini-session which I thought at the time was by chance. It took only a few moments after I felt the magic of the heated energy flowing from the hands placed gently on me to realize that this was what I had been waiting for my entire life. That same day, I scraped together the money for a training that began the next day. My instructor was an Israeli who looked like Jesus Christ, and, during the attunements, I sobbed with all my broken heart as Heaven opened up and filled me with light. Soon after that I learned that I had serious, physical heart trouble.
At that time, it was said that the Japanese originator of Reiki, Mikao Usui, who had received this transmission for healing during an experience of enlightenment in the early 1920s, was a Christian who had discovered Reiki during his search for the way Christ had done healing. And so, I learned from the Israeli that Reiki was Jesus’s method. We were given secret Japanese and Sanskrit symbols to strengthen the Reiki, and I immediately questioned that Jesus Christ would have used these symbols.
Soon, I discovered that Reiki was also a form of prayer, and while praying in that way, I dared to ask Jesus Christ to give me the symbols that he, himself, had used for healing. If anything—and I seriously doubted that I would receive anything––I expected Hebrew or Aramaic symbols. But no, the symbols I was given to use in place of the traditional Usui symbols came to me in the form of light, looking more like what I imagined the Druids and Celts would have used (I realized later that they could also have been from Central Asia). I was told that these were the Grail symbols for healing, so I understood that this was Grail Reiki and I very quickly learned that the symbols could be combined in ways that the traditional Usui symbols could not. I was also told that I should begin to celebrate a Grail Communion ceremony for healing, and that it should consist of water and grain (bread), infused with the Grail symbol energies. Still, I didn’t know whether to take all this seriously—I figured it might just be my imagination.
About shamanism I only knew what little I had read, and what I had learned from Michael Harner in an early-1980s workshop, but I was about to learn that the Grail Reiki work was meant as just one part of a far-wider shamanic practice. When I went into prayer mode again and asked Usui whether these symbols were indeed to be used for Reiki, he said I should use them, that these symbols would be simpler for Westerners. Always doubtful whether my communications with the spirit world were real, in prayer then, I asked Usui to give me a concrete sign that this was so. I said I didn’t want anything like an inner voice, that it needed to be explicit in the visible world. I never expected to get that sign, and I immediately forgot about it.
By that time, however, I had learned that the story of Usui being a Christian and the head of a Christian university was not true. Usui’s memorial stone had been located in a Buddhist cemetery in Tokyo, and there was a short biography inscribed on it. We learned that Usui came from an old Samurai family. On his family crest was a circle with the Pole Star at the top, an ancient Taoist symbol around which revolved the sacred Ursa Major––the Big Dipper. We also learned from his tombstone that Usui had practiced divination and spent time studying in China (where Buddhism was closely intertwined with Taoism). Indeed, Usui’s spiritual connections with Central Asia and the North Pole would prove most important later for understanding why the Grail symbols were revealed to me in the context of Usui Reiki.
I found myself wanting to come up with a certificate for Grail Reiki, and I decided to create a certificate with an image of the Grail on it. I began to look through my collection of Grail books, but nothing seemed to be right, until I picked up a book I had never opened. I was almost at the end of it, when an image of a Communion chalice on a cloth popped out at me, and I immediately knew that this was the one. When I read the inscription on the following page, my stomach went queasy. It said: “The Christian flag in the Shimabara Rebellion, 17th c. Japan.” (1) I looked that up and found that, indeed, Christianity had been outlawed in Japan, and history said the last of the Christians were massacred at that time. This was a piece of history about which I had known nothing. I learned, however, that some Christians had remained and gone underground, including a number of Samurai families. These Christians had continued to practice Christianity secretly, risking horrible public torture and death. (2)
Still, I wondered whether the Grail symbols I was using, even if Usui had endorsed them, had really come from Jesus Christ. But I hesitated to ask Jesus for a sign, fearing that would be pure hubris. Finally, one day, I got up the courage and spoke to him in that form of Reiki prayer where the veils between the visible and invisible worlds are very thin. “Jesus,” I said, “if these are really the symbols you used in healing, please send me a sign so that I know it is not my imagination. And, Jesus, I don’t want an abstract sign, like a voice from a cloud or whatever. I want something very explicit, in the visible world.” Again, I never expected to hear anything more.
A Magdalene Easter
A couple of weeks later, on the Sunday following Easter, I attended a celebration to honor Mary Magdalene, held by the Sisters of Charity. There were some seventy nuns and a sprinkling of lay women at the celebration, in a hall filled with large round tables. At the front of the hall was an altar with the Paschal candle, and a large image of Mary Magdalene preaching to a crowd. As part of the program, there was a reenactment, to music, of Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene in the garden: two nuns danced. The one who represented Jesus Christ wore a long white tunic. Afterwards, a nun placed a bowl with essential oils on each table, and we were told that we should pair up with someone, and that we were to anoint one another in our life’s purpose, to honor Mary Magdalene’s practice of anointing. I recalled how, by some accounts, even, Jesus had learned healing from Mary Magdalene, the anointer. (3)
As I sat there wondering who would be my partner, I watched with trepidation as the nun wearing the long white tunic walked slowly towards me. When she asked me to be her partner, my heart jumped. She stated something about peace and harmony among humans, and I gingerly anointed her hands with some of the oil. Then, it was my turn. I stated my purpose, which was to live a life as a healer on Jesus Christ’s path, and she proceeded to do something that changed everything for me. She took some oil and slowly anointed me, while reiterating my purpose, on the forehead, heart, and hands. But that was not all. To my amazement, she drew with the oils the very same Grail symbols that Jesus had given me—without knowing what she was doing. I was left in kind of a dream state, and said nothing. It was really only after I was at home later that night, alone, that I was able to fully realize what had happened. A holy woman dressed as Jesus Christ, or as Jesus Christ in his female form (whichever way one looked at it), had physically given me a Grail Reiki attunement with the secret healing symbols that Jesus Christ had transmitted to me. And this had all taken place at a celebration honoring his companion, Mary Magdalene.
There could be no more doubt in my mind now that Jesus Christ had given me the sign I had asked for.
By this time, I was teaching Reiki regularly, and I was working in a hospital doing Reiki. I had managed to heal myself of heart trouble over a period of two years, primarily with the Reiki, and no medication (I had no medical insurance). In short, I had found my way again into the world, largely through the Grail Reiki, and my future looked rosy to me.
Then everything began to collapse again, and it was at that point that I began to learn from the spirits that the Grail symbols and energy work were a part of a far-wider practice, which was shamanism. And so, I was called, kicking and screaming, to the wider practice, which I was certain I could do without. As I soon found, however, when the spirits call you, there is no refusing them. Only when I fully accepted the calling after many months of trials and tribulations did things begin to go well for me again. It was then that I was able to ascertain that Jesus Christ, indeed, was a shaman in the fullest sense of the word. He led me, along with several other invisible spirits, into various traditions that had to do with the Holy Grail––which I resisted at the time, to no avail––including sending me first south to the Equator and then north, close to the North Pole, to teach Grail Reiki and do special Grail Communion ceremonies for Mother Earth. The deeper significance of this would only become clear to me much later.
And so, Jesus Christ has been my principal Guide in the invisible world. He has always told me that I should help to restore traditional practices, and repair the damage done in his name. He said I should encourage people to stay within their ancestral spiritual traditions, or the one they grew up with, as a base tradition, since, normally, this worked best in the spiritual world of invisible energies. After that, learning different traditions would be something like learning other languages. He also told me to be an inconspicuous follower of his, and to do my healing quietly. He said that when I encountered a great deal of darkness, I was simply to let the light shine through. (At one point, he told me never to use his name in places where people might be offended.) I slowly learned that Grail Reiki had unique properties that made it a shamanic practice. I found that I often knew how to do a shamanic practice before I read about it or was taught. Importantly, I was taught that as long as I used the Grail Reiki as the ground for my other shamanic work, such as for soul retrievals, extractions, clearings, and even depossession work, as well as for ceremony, there was never any danger to me from the invisible world.
As a journalist, I was used to fact checking, and after receiving the Grail healing symbols, I was feeling a strong need to be able to do the same with the information I received from the invisible world. To my amazement, at that point, I began to receive or be guided invisibly to information, on a regular basis, that supported what I was learning about the connections between the Grail and shamanism. First, I learned from a Hungarian scholar friend, who I suddenly heard from after many years, about research showing that the tradition of King Arthur and the Holy Grail in Europe, rather than coming from Celtic sources, as had been thought, could be traced to Asian hero tales about a magical cup––the “Revealer”––that would appear at feasts but served only flawless heroes. The tradition had been brought to Europe by shamanic, nomadic Scythian tribes from Asia that settled in Britain in the 2nd century A.D. and in Gaul in the 5th century. (4)
The written versions of the story of the “Graal,” or “Sangraal,” had first appeared in medieval France. “San” had most-often been equated with the French “san” or “saint,” meaning “holy.” However, there had never been a satisfactory etymology for “Graal,” although it was often said to come from “gradalis” (Latin, “cratalis”) for platter. Sangraal, therefore, was translated into English as “Holy Grail.”
And so, I learned, the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail had a shamanic-Scythian origin somewhere in Central Asia. However, since I had begun working with the Grail healing symbols, I sensed that there was far more to discover. There was a powerful energy surrounding the stories of the quest for this Cup, that I sensed in my bones. Working with the Grail healing symbols had magnified my connection to a mysterious energy that I could only describe as being “higher,” like the North Pole is higher, and “inner,” like the source of the Earth’s magnetic core. This had been particularly evident to me during the Grail ceremony I conducted before a glacier in Greenland. I asked for more guidance from the invisible world.
What Is This Cup?
The question in my mind always was, exactly what is this Cup? And is it a physical Cup?
Suffice it to say that my Hungarian scholar friend revealed to me also that the word “Graal” was Mongolian for “Source.” A light went on in my brain and something very ancient resonated in my heart. So, I asked, was the correct translation for “Sangraal” the “Holy Source?” Answers from the spirit world would often come to me through written texts shortly after I asked, and, in this case, I soon found myself reading a book on Mongolian shamanism, where I learned that, in addition to the word “graal,” the word “sang” also existed in Mongolian:. According to Mongolian shaman Sarangerel, it meant an invocation, with a smudge bowl or smoke. (5)
Therefore, “Sangraal” (or “Sang Graal”) in Mongolian could mean “Invocation of the Source,” which made a lot of sense. And this would make it a ceremony. I wondered when and how this Mongolian tradition had come to Europe. The first known, written story of the Graal––Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte del Graal––appeared in France in the late 12th century, much later than the Scythian settlements in Gaul. However, in Mongolia itself I found that several important nomadic tribes had converted to Christianity much earlier, and they would no doubt have merged their shamanic practices with the new faith.
Indeed, even earlier, Eastern Christians had close ties to Central-Asian shamanic cultures and Taoism in China, which had common roots as well as practices. Already in the 6th century, the shamanic White Huns of Central Asia, a Mongol tribe, had converted to Christianity. And, at that same time, Christianity became established in shamanic Bon Tibet, which had strong connections with Mongolia and the Huns. (The Church remained strong there until at least the 13th century.) Meanwhile, in neighboring China, starting in the 7th century, there were a number “Taoist-Christian” monasteries. (6) And so, the “Graal” tradition could have come to the West from any one of these groups. There were many people traveling back and forth between the Far East and Christian Byzantium, and between Byzantium and Europe, even before the First Crusade in 1095. After the city was sacked by the Crusaders, many relics and rites made their way back to Europe.
And so, the Graal or Sangraal practice, or transmission, must have made its way from Mongolia to France, probably by way of Byzantium, brought by returning Crusaders, or Moslems by way of Spain. Eventually, the Sangraal tradition, probably through resonance and a certain cultural familiarity, seems to have become amalgamated with the Scythian story of the Cup, which had taken root earlier in Europe, and the Celtic stories of magical Cauldrons, and with the Christian story of the Cup of the Last Supper. It was possible, even probable, I mused, that they all had common, ancient roots, and, indeed, there was evidence of this. And so, it seemed very possible that the “Sangraal,” or “Sang Graal” was an Asian shamanic ceremony, or transmission, possibly Christian, invoking the Source. Now, I wondered, to what, exactly, did the word “Graal,” or “Source” refer? The “Source” of what? I knew that there were, in fact, many Mongolian shamanic ceremonies with a cup.
And so, it was now five or six years after I had first learned Reiki and received the Grail healing symbols, plus a physical confirmation that they came from Jesus Christ. And I had been guided by my spirit guides to understand that these symbols were for shamanic healing work, and I had learned that, in Mongolian, “Graal” meant “Source,” and “Sang Graal” might have meant “Invocation of the Source.” And so it was possibly a transmission and invocation ceremony that had come to the West from a shamanic––probably shamanic-Christian––tradition of Central Asia. And yet, I knew there was still something important missing. I didn’t know exactly what was meant by “Source.”
It was then that I had a lucid dream that led to breakthrough information about the origin of the Grail and its function in Central Asia, and the Grail as “Source.” In the dream, there was an Asian-looking man in jeans and a t-shirt, with a large topknot, standing about twenty feet away from me, surrounded by his followers. A voice said to me, “He is the real thing.” Then, the man turned and spoke to me in a language that I could not understand. He pointed a finger straight at me and I felt a powerful electrical shock. After I awoke, I continued to feel shaken by the strong jolt. Later, I figured that it had been an empowerment. But an empowerment of what?
I thought the man must be a spirit, and I began researching traditions where Asian-looking men wore large topknots. At first, I thought he might be a Japanese Samurai spirit, or a Mongolian, or possibly even a Blackfoot Indian spirit. A few months later, however, I recognized the face in a photograph I saw in an article on shamanic Chinese calligraphy. His name was Master Zhongxian Wu and he was from China. He had written a book explaining that Qigong (meaning “energy work”) had come from the shamans of pre-Taoist China some 8,000 years ago. Soon, in 2009, Master Wu would publish another book, which I promptly read, and then I knew immediately why he had appeared to me in a dream. The book had a section on the shamanic origins of the Yijing (better-known as the I Ching, or Book of Change). Here, I found the answer to what I was looking for regarding the function of the Holy Grail as a Cup that was the “Source.” The book explained that in ancient, shamanic China, long before Confucius, it was believed that the knowledge in the Yijing, known as The Heavenly Book, had been channeled from heaven by the wu, or shamans, whose original function was “to connect with the universal energy” and to pass it on to others.
A Clue in the Sky
“Yijing” was a composite of two words: “jing,” which meant a Chinese Classic; and “Yi,” for which the oldest-known oracle-bone character was a cup of water or grain, recorded by pre-Taoist shamans over 4,000 years ago. The Oracle Script, or Seal Script, traditionally, had been considered by shamans to be the means of receiving Heavenly knowledge and universal energy from the “Cup of Heaven,” or Big Dipper, that revolved around the North Pole and was the Source of all knowledge. In ancient China, the symbol for the Big Dipper was a pig or boar, and the explanations for the hexagrams all began: “Boar says,” meaning “Big Dipper says.” Indeed, the Big Dipper was considered to be in charge of karma and the life force, as well as all natural phenomena (including natural disasters and disease), the four seasons, and the balance of Yin and Yang in the universe. The “Heavenly Cup,” also known as the “Jade Balance of Fate,” was considered to be the “heart of the celestial world.” So, “Yi” was the Big Dipper. (7) (Interestingly, I thought, given this discovery, it could be said that the Yijing was the Book of the Holy Cup, or Book of the Grail.)
And so, I realized, if for ancient shamans in that part of the world, the Big Dipper was the primordial Source of all knowledge and universal Qi (as used in healing, which would also make clear connection between the Grail and Usui Reiki, via his family’s guardian, the spirit of the North Pole), it would make sense that these could be attained by invoking the Big Dipper, or Graal, perhaps with a ceremony, the “Sangraal.” So, I began thinking that, while I might have sought to link Usui to Christianity when he said “Keep looking,” he was perhaps pointing toward shamanic Taoism and the North Pole and its two Dippers––two Heavenly Cups. It was not difficult to believe that some Taoist Christians might have embraced this practice. Surely, I mused, it was Usui who had guided me to Master Wu’s writings.
The “Jade Balance of Fate,” I realized, must be an allusion to the green Northern Lights, that result from the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field at the North Pole. And here was another reason, as well, I realized, for the ancients to equate the North Pole with a pouring cup that was the “Source” of all knowledge about nature, and universal energy. Indeed, the Earth’s magnetic field poured out of the Earth’s axis at the North Pole, circled downward, and around like a doughnut shape, or toros, and reentered at the South Pole, forming a cup or chalice-like, energetic shape along the axis. The Big Dipper would have symbolized that cup-shaped electromagnetic field that poured out of the Earth’s core at the North Pole. Furthermore, in shamanic, ancient China, it had been established that there were energy centers on the human body, that corresponded to the seven stars of the Big Dipper, and these continued to be activated by Taoists for healing, as well as for becoming immortal. The Earth’s core energy, then, spilled out into a cup made of seven far-away stars.
I realized, these must be the mysterious energies I had been intended to connect with when I was sent by the spirits to Greenland to do a Grail ceremony for Mother Earth. For, in fact, the polar tradition, where the Big Dipper and Pole star were central, had originally come from the far North, and would have traveled across Mongolia to China. Those people, moreover, had left no known written records.
And thus, the Big Dipper, for shamans in ancient Asia, had been considered the Source of Heavenly knowledge and universal Qi, or energy. All these pieces supported the understanding that I had come to, that the Holy Grail, was a shamanic tradition brought to Europe from the area of the world that Mongolia and China occupy today, and it meant the Source of Heavenly knowledge and universal Qi, or energy. If the “San” or “Sang,” indeed, was also part of the original Mongolian etymology, then there was a Sangraal ceremony: an Invocation of the Source. And there would have been many levels for receiving the energies of the Heavenly Cup—the Grail—according to the shaman’s spiritual development and skills, reflected still today in the various levels of initiation for shamans in Asia. Thus, one could say that the original quest for the Holy Grail was perhaps the quest by Central-Asian shamans for the spiritual knowledge and universal healing energy contained in the magnetic field pouring out of the energetic core of the North Pole, through the seven stars of Heaven that made up the Big Dipper––the primordial Holy Grail.
(1) Godwin, Malcolm. The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets & Meanings Revealed. Viking Studio Books 1994., p. 232.
(2) Endo, Shusaku. Silence. Monumenta Nipponica 1969. I learned that many of the statues of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, where she carried prayer beads, were, in fact, disguised images of the Virgin Mary.
(3) Chilton, Bruce. Mary Magdalene: A Biography. Doubleday/Image 2005.
(4) Littleton, C. Scott; Malcor, Linda A. From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail. New York: Garland Publishing 2000; 1994., p. xxvi-vii; 216.
(5) Sarangerel. Chosen by the Spirits. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books 2001., p. 237.
(6) Palmer, Martin. The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. U.S.: Ballantine Wellspring 2001., pp. 113, 246.
(7) Wu, Master Zhongxian. Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change. London: Singing Dragon 2009., pp. 20-25.