You are all familiar with the myth and legend of Parsifal (or “Percival” in English) — even whether or not you realise it and know it as such. It’s blasted across the airwaves every day. It is, perhaps, even the ruling myth of the Western sensibility, with very old roots in the Hermetic Philosophy. Rudolf Steiner reputedly even adopted the legend of Parsifal as his pedagogical model and pattern for his Waldorf Schools. Luke Skywalker, in The Star Wars franchise, is consciously modeled on Parsifal, and the legend is the very likely candidate as model also for “holistic branding” or “brand religion”.
Years ago, in the old Dark Age Blog, I commented on how the Parisfal legend marked the beginning of the High Middle Ages — the story of the fool who becomes a Grail Knight — and ends with Don Quixote, the knight who becomes a fool once more and is mocked by the upcoming revolutionary bourgeoisie. Parsifal and Don Quixote “book end” that Age — are its Prometheus (forethought or foresight) and its Epimetheus (afterthought or hindsight); it’s rise and fall. The original Parsifal, though, is Hermetic code — an alchemical fable.
First of all, if you look up the name “Parsifal” (or “Percival”), current etymological dictionaries will say that it means “pierces the valley”, which might be true enough in a coincidental or incidental sort of way, as we’ll see. More likely it means “pierces the veil” — the “veil” being, in Medieval terms, the “Cloud of Unknowing” or what we know as “Veil of Maya”. The ambiguity about Parsifal’s name here is owing to one of Parsifal’s first transformative adventures, when he penetrates into the magician Klingsor’s realm — the Valley of the Flowermaidens and the Garden of Delights which is only an illusion spun by Klingsor to fool Parsifal. “Valley” and “veil” here are quite interchangeable. Parsifal succeeds in defeating the illusion and spell cast by both Klingsor, the ruler of the valley, and the witch Kundry.
You may recognise that motif — it’s also the Buddha’s struggle with the “Lord of Illusions” named “Mara” who likewise sends flowermaidents to seduce the Buddha away from his path. Klingsor is Mara. In Star Wars, Darth Vader is Klingsor with much the same pedigree — Klingsor being a former Knight of the Grail (or Jedi) who was drawn into the “dark side”.
Klingsor is our contemporary “brandmeister” — spinning and selling illusions; illusions of beauty, illusions of truth, illusions of the good, or those things that Colbert referred to as “truthiness”.
So, the story of Parsifal is the story of the transmutation of lead into gold. Parsifal is the naive, ignorant, innocent, country bumpkin who (although secretly of noble stock) rises through a series of adventures to become a Grail Knight and redeems the suffering Grail Kingdom (Harry Potter is another Parsifal too). There are, of course, precursors to the Parsifal legend — David and Goliath, or even the life of Jesus, born into ignoble and humble circumstances (although secretly and significantly a scion of the House of David) becomes the Messiah and Lord.
As you can appreciate, I think, Parsifal is another rendering of the Prodigal Son parable — a prince by origin, he forgets his roots, descends into the “faraway land” of ignorance through folly, and ends in ignominy as a swineherd living amongst swine, and at the very nadir of his existence, comes to remembrance of himself and his roots, and begins the long journey back to his original high estate.
The Parsifal legend also influenced Hitler in his self-conception, it should be added. Richard Wagner set the Parsifal legend to music, which greatly moved Hitler, for he saw in the legend and in Wagner’s heroic rendering of it (something which disgusted Nietzsche, by the way) his own rise from humble village origins in Austria, and as “the Little Corporal” to “Der Führer“. Hitler’s identification with Parsifal was so complete, in fact, that he too undertook a quest for “the Spear of Destiny” — the Lance of Longinus that was said to have pierced the side of Jesus on the cross. The magical relic was alleged to guarantee power and empire to whoever possessed it, and is a very prominent symbol in the Parsifal legend. Whether Hitler actually believed in the inherent magic of the Spear of Destiny, he certainly couldn’t have overlooked the propaganda value of possessing it and the psychodrama of holding it. The irony in this is, of course, that in his apparent obsession with the Spear of Destiny, he resembled Klingsor more than he did Parsifal — and Thomas Mann’s “Mario the Magician”, a parable about Hitler, certainly drew out that comparison with Klingsor. Nonetheless, Nazi propaganda posters often depicted Hitler as Lohengrin, a Grail Knight, and, significantly, the son of Parsifal.
The myth of the Entrepreneur very much follows the Parsifal legend — the usual backstory being the “self-made man” of humble origins who ascends from the working class or the farm to the “commanding heights”. It’s a common enough formula in branding and advertising too — Pepsi versus Coke, Apple versus IBM (or Microsoft), Avis versus Hertz, the plucky underdog who, with true grit and perseverance, struggles heroically with Goliath or the Juggernaut. Here, the brand becomes the villain or hero and the psychodrama of its backstory is played out in the advertising and in the media. Entrepreneurialism is a kind of gamesmanship in which the mythic is performed and acted out, albeit in terms of class society and commercial culture in which “self-overcoming” and transcendence is recast as social climbing. Even evolution is understood in terms of the mythic — from humble origins in worm and ape, ascending by degrees to become the “crown of creation” or even the “overman”. On the other hand, a lot of myth and lore has it the other way round — the human descended from a state of knowing or a “Golden Age” into darkness and ignorance. Our intuition is in conflict with our intellect, and this conflict gets cast in social terms as “romantic” or “classical” orientations and predilections (William Blake versus Isaac Newton, for example).
Steiner found in the Parsifal legend a pattern — the various stages in the maturation of the individual leading to his ideal of self-guiding “ethical individualism”. Branding, inasmuch as it mines the past in terms of myth and parable for its “brand personalities”, might claim that it only tells stories and that it “mirrors” human nature and society. So be it, except “mirrors” always show images reversed from true.
“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” is one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. It is, in essence, the meaning of the Parsifal myth. It is, however, Klingsor’s task and aim to fool Parsifal with a counterfeit of wisdom of “the genuine imitation” variety. There’s really more than one reason to suggest that our contemporary brandmeister is the modern incarnation of Klingsor the magician.