top of page

Rhythms of the Grail

Joseph Campbell and The Grateful Dead photographed at Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, CA on November 01, 1986. © Jay Blakesberg. Used with permission.

Amidst the tales of chivalrous knights and exciting Arthurian quests that Joseph Campbell unpacks in Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, he makes an intriguing observation about how the process of so many legends came to be. He states, “One characteristic of medieval storytelling is that the poet didn’t invent the story; he developed it. The bards, troubadours, and minnesingers would take a traditional story and interpret it, giving it new depth and meaning in keeping with the conditions of their particular day and place.” (95) And for reasons I will explain, Campbell’s words have me thinking about The Grateful Dead. 

The Dead’s music is powerful, not because it originates from a single artist’s genius, but instead because it flows out of the collective genius of the artists involved in the making of the music. Their ability to take a mythic story or motif and “interpret it,” to use Campbell’s language, is one of the reasons the band has remained an enduring presence, even while defying the formulaic tropes commonly found in popular music.

Tales of cosmic love, so central to so many of The Dead’s songs, have echoed around the world and been found throughout different cultures in various envelopes of time long before the the band ever took the stage. Campbell notes that The Song of the Cowherd (the Gita Govinda), which celebrates the love of Krishna for Radha, was written around 1172 in India—the same era that also produced the mystic Tristan romances in Europe and The Tale of Genji in Japan. (27) We might say that these mythic motifs move through history in rhythms rather than appearing randomly. It should then be no surprise that those who mastered the mysteries of rhythm sometimes developed a shamanic consciousness. There is no better example of this than Joseph Campbell’s friend Mickey Hart, a drummer for The Grateful Dead as well as a profound thinker and an author with a mythic embrace of music. 

Hart spoke to the relationship between rhythm and myth in an interview about his album RAMU, where wordsmith Robert Hunter, a frequent collaborator with The Grateful Dead, composed lyrics to intertwine with Hart’s rhythms. “He spins tales, he’s a great mythologist, like all those characters that came to life in Dead songs,” Hart said. The lyrics in mythic music often act as signposts where the rhythm serves as the path, moving us closer and closer toward the great mystery of all that is beyond us. 

Circling back to the medieval, another metaphor for the great mystery the path leads to is the Holy Grail. Disturbed by the oversimplified cultural assumption that the Grail is a mere cup, Campbell admonishes us: “It is one of the prime mistakes of many interpreters of mythological symbols to read them as references, not to mysteries of the human spirit, but to earthly or unearthly scenes…This aim is basic to the Grail tradition.” (14) These mysteries of the human spirit are communicated powerfully in the language of the drum. Whether words share their space or not, the drum’s rhythm guides us toward those mysteries. 

Famously, Joseph Campbell attended a Grateful Dead concert after spending time at Mickey Hart’s home. In a lecture Campbell gave later, he reflected on the experience. He admitted his lack of interest in rock music, but called the performance powerful, saying it reminded him of the Dionysian festivals. “This is more than music. It turns something on in here,” Campbell said, pointing to his heart. “And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids.” Several months later Campbell, Hart, and Jerry Garcia came together in a symposium called “Ritual and Rapture, From Dionysus to the Grateful Dead.” Offering evidence of this idea of rhythm providing a path for myth to travel by, Mickey and several collaborators offered a mythic performance called “The African Queen Meets the Holy Ghost.” 

Rhythm offers a rich metaphor for “the path toward the Grail” for a variety of reasons. One of the most poignant is that rhythm can’t be directly touched. It can’t be seized or snatched. It can only be heard, felt, and experienced. We must surrender ourselves to rhythm’s force. Campbell pointed to one particular legend in which the Grail appears to the knights in Arthur’s court obscured by a shroud. Gawain initiates a quest to behold the Grail without its covering and all the other knights join him (136). The shrouded mystery is an invitation, not necessarily to reveal what lies under its cover, but an invitation to the quest, to the journey itself. Rhythm acts as a similar invitation. It invites us beyond ourselves. It moves us toward the transcendent. It invites us to quest, to journey, to consider the infinity of possibility.

What might that quest hold for you?

(Mickey Hart is hosting a book club this summer focusing on the work of Joseph Campbell. Several figures involved in the work of Joseph Campbell, Mickey Hart and the Grateful Dead, as well as the Ritual and Rapture event will be participating. For more information, visit the book club's Facebook page. )


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page