The Central Symbol of the Legend

   That the vessel is so frequently considered to be life-giving or life-maintaining is readily understandable when we realize how extremely important it must have been for earliest man to possess a receptacle in which, for instance, water, the stuff of life par excellence, could be transported or stored.  According to Jung’s definition, the archetypes represent innate predispositions to human behaviour in certain life situations and the ability to grasp their meaning.  The image of the vessel could therefore correspond to such a “pattern,” to a possibility inherent in the psyche of finding or producing a vessel and of discovering its uses.  TGL 114

Thus, in nearly all mythologies there is a miraculous vessel.  Sometimes it dispenses youth and life, at other times it possesses the power of healing, and occasionally, as with the mead cauldron of the Nordic Ymir, inspiring strength and wisdom are to be found in it.  Often, especially as a cooking pot, it effects transformations; by this attribute it achieved exceptional renown as the vas Hermitis of alchemy.  TGL 114

Thus F. Locke asserts quite rightly that the symbol of the Grail is an archetypal image of polyvalent meaning.  TGL 121

Like the vessel, the grave has a maternal meaning, since the mother is not only the place of birth but also, as Mother Earth, that which receives the dead back into herself.  TGL 127

As Jung has pointed out, the vessel (vas) in alchemy is a true symbol, representing a mystical idea and exhibiting correspondingly extensive connections of meaning.  The legendary writer of antiquity, Maria Prophetissa, says of it that “the whole secret lies in knowing about the Hermetic vessel.”  The vessel is always One, and it must be round like the vault of heaven so that celestial influences can contribute to the work.  It is also often called a matrix or uterus in which the filius philosophorum (son of the philosophers) is born, and at the same time it is, in a mysterious way, identical with its contents.  For instance, it is simply the aqua permanens itself.  Mercurius is “our true hidden vessel, and also the Philosophical Garden in which our sun rises and ascends.”  It is itself the lapis philosophorum.  Inasmuch as it contains and gathers up dispersed matter, it can also be interpreted psychologically as a concept, a concept that is not, however, arbitrarily attributed to the unconscious by consciousness, but that develops from the unconscious itself, as a result of observing it with painstaking care.  TGL 142

   In this sense it is a theoria in which the unconscious explains itself.  Modern depth psychology has rediscovered a similar way of using the manifestations of the unconscious psyche as a “vessel” in order to assimilate its contents.  This is the method known as “active imagination”, which Jung defines an “an active evocation of the inner images secundum naturam.”  This means that one does not fantasy aimlessly into the blue but, on the contrary, tries to grasp the meaning of the inner object in its quality of a faithfully reproduced mental image.  It is a very real achievement of thinking and imagination.  The process produces symbolic stories or dialogues with an inner partner who personifies the unconscious, and these activities bring about a mutual rapproachement and synthesis of the conscious and unconscious halves of the personality.  At the same time there arises in consciousness an attitude that is willing to take the contents of the unconscious into lasting consideration and, as far as possible, to understand and incorporate them into real life.  In a way, the individual becomes like a vessel for the inflowing contents of unconscious.  In this sense the German mystics use the word vaz (vase) as a designation of man. 

That the alchemical vessel has to do with visual understanding is also seen in a statement by Senior quoted in a treatise by Theobald de Hoghelande (sixteenth century) to the effect that “the vision” of the Hermetic vessel “is more to be sought” than the “scripture.”  By beholding it, man attains (vous), the higher consciousness, which is found in the vessel.  So the vessel also becomes a uterus for the spiritual renewal or rebirth of the individual.  TGL 143

   In early times, the contents of the vessel, the arcane substance, had already been compared to the waters of the Nile or to the dismembered Osiris, thus admitting to its secret, divine nature.  The vessel, therefore, also appears to represent an inner readiness for relating to the archetype of the Self.  TGL 144

 In this connection it should be note that to the nations of northwestern Europe, Christianity was a product of what was to them the remote and more advanced Mediterranean culture, which had been grafted on to their own primitive and barbaric mentality.  Because they possessed no intellectual instrument, no differentiated thinking with which to grasp its meaning, there was no alternative for them but to allow the new and foreign faith they adopted to sink down until, in the depths of the soul, it animated a latent archetype.  In this way it was therefore more fundamentally and securely assimilated than it would have been by an understanding based merely on intellect or feeling.  TGL 144

   As Jung has shown in Psychology and Alchemy and Mysterium Coniunctionis, medieval alchemy, like the Grail legend, also mirrors a similar process in the assimilation of Chrisianity, a process which at the same time represents a reshaping and a further development of the Christian contents.  For this reason, the vessel signifies not only the possibility of psychic assimilation, but is also a matrix in which the archetype of the Self is transformed even further.  TGL 145