Holy Grail

In Christian mythology, the Holy Grail was the dish, plate, cup or vessel that Jesus drank from during the Last Supper. It was said to have the power to heal all wounds. The quest for the Holy Grail makes up an important segment of the Arthurian cycle. The legend may be a combination of genuine Christian lore with a Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with special powers. Whether graal is Celtic or Old French, it never refers to any cup or bowl but this. Though some Christian revisionists insist that the Holy Grail is not to be confused with the Holy Chalice, the vessel which Jesus used at the Last Supper to serve the wine, this has been the historical practice; various vessels have been put forward as the Last Supper chalice.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it was only after the cycle of Grail romances was well established, identifying the cup of the Last Supper with the Grail, that late medieval writers came up with a false etymology from the fact that in Old French, san grial means "Holy Grail" and sang rial means "royal blood". Since then, Sangreal is sometimes employed to lend a medievalizing air in referring to the Holy Grail. This connection with royal blood bore fruit in a modern best-seller linking many historical conspiracies (see below).

The development of the Grail legend has been traced in detail by cultural historians: it is a gothic legend, which first came together in the form of written romances, deriving perhaps from some pre-Christian folkloric hints, in the later 12th and early 13th centuries. The early Grail romances centered on Percival and were then woven into the more general Arthurian fabric. The Grail romances started in France and were translated into other European vernaculars; only a handful of non-French romances added any essential new elements.

Myths of the Grail fall into two kinds of narratives: the history or fate of the Grail and the quest for the Grail.


Origins of the Grail

Distribution of Grail ideas

Various notions of the Holy Grail are currently very widespread in Western Society (especially British and American), popularized through numerous medieval and modern works (see below) and linked with the predominantly Anglo-French (but also with some German influence) cycle of stories about King Arthur and his knights. Because of this wide distribution most Americans and West Europeans assume that the Grail idea is universally well known.

The stories of the Grail are totally absent from Eastern Orthodox teachings and are not a part of the culture and mythos of those countries that were and are Orthodox (Orthodox Arabs, Orthodox Slavs, Orthodox Romanians, Orthodox Greeks). This is even more true of the Arthurian myths which were not well known (until the present day Hollywood retellings) east of Germany. The notions of the Grail, its importance, and prominence are, and should always be regarded as, a set of ideas that are essentially local and particular, being linked with Catholic or formerly Catholic locales, Celtic mythology, and Anglo-French medieval storytelling. The contemporary wide distribution of these ideas is due to the huge influence of the pop culture of countries where the Grail Myth was prominent in the Middle Ages.

Early forms of the Grail

The origins of the Grail can be traced back to early Celtic lore involving a hero/traveller who finds himself within an "other world", one that is on a magical plane parallel to ours. The transition from one world to another is usually described subtly, such as an unnoticeable and gradual change in the scenery. The role of the Grail was simply as a platter, or dish, that would never go empty and be presented to signify the mystical nature of the other world.

On the other hand, Joseph Goering of University of Toronto (Goering 2005) has identified sources for Grail imagery in 12th-century wall paintings from churches in the Catalan Pyrenees (now mostly removed to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona) that present unique iconic images of the Virgin Mary holding a bowl that radiates tongues of fire, images that predate the first literary account by Chrétien de Troyes. Goering argues that they were the original inspiration for the grail legend.

The Grail and the Fisher King

The tale of the Fisher King involves a king who is lame in one leg (a euphemism for impotency) which in turn causes the land to become barren (infertile). The hero (Gawain in the earlier tales with Percival or Galahad in the later retellings) encounters the Fisher King and is invited to a feast, as in the older other-world tales. The Grail is again presented as a platter of plenty but is also presented as part of a series of mystical relics, which also included a spear that drips blood and a broken sword. The purpose of the relics is to incite the hero to question them and thereby, through some unknown means, break the enchantment of the infirm king and the barren land, although the hero invariably fails to do so.

The Grail and Arthurian legend

The story of the Fisher King and the Grail was later incorporated into the Arthurian myths. At first presented as a retelling of the older Fisher King tale, it eventually evolved into an explicit "quest" for the Grail.

The beginnings of the Grail in literature

Chrétien de Troyes

The Grail is first featured in Perceval, le Conte del Graal (The Story of the Grail) by Chrétien de Troyes, who claims he was working from a source book given to him by his patron, Count Philip of Flanders. In this incomplete poem, dated sometime between 1180 and 1191, the object has not yet acquired the implications of holiness it would have in later works. While dining in the magical abode of the Fisher King, Perceval witnesses a wondrous procession in which youths carry magnificent objects from one chamber to another, passing before him at each course of the meal. First comes a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabras. Finally, a beautiful young girl emerges bearing an elaborately decorated graal, or "grail".

Chrétien refers to his object not as "The Grail" but as un graal, showing the word was used, in its earliest literary context, as a common noun. For Chrétien the grail was a wide, somewhat deep dish or bowl, interesting because it contained not a pike, salmon or lamprey, as the audience may have expected for such a container, but a single Mass wafer which provided sustenance for the Fisher King’s crippled father.

Perceval, who had been warned against talking too much, remains silent through all of this, and wakes up the next morning alone. He later learns that if he had asked the appropriate questions about what he saw, he would have healed his maimed host, much to his honor.

Robert de Boron

Though Chrétien’s account is the earliest and most influential of all Grail texts, it was in the work of Robert de Boron that the Grail truly became the “Holy Grail” and assumed the form most familiar to modern readers. In his verse romance Joseph d’Arimathie, composed between 1191 and 1202, Robert tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea acquiring the chalice of the Last Supper to collect Christ’s blood upon His removal from the cross. Joseph is thrown in prison where Christ visits him and explains the mysteries of the blessed cup. Upon his release Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

The Grail in other early literature

After this point, Grail literature divides into two classes. The first concerns King Arthur’s knights visiting the Grail castle or questing after the object; the second concerns the Grail’s history in the time of Joseph of Arimathea.

The nine most important works from the first group are:

  • The Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes.
  • Four continuations of Chrétien’s poem, by authors of differing vision and talent, designed to bring the story to a close.
  • The German Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which adapted at least the holiness of Robert’s Grail into the framework of Chrétien’s story.
  • The Didot Perceval, named after the manuscript’s former owner, and purportedly a prosification of Robert de Boron’s sequal to Joseph d’Arimathie.
  • The Welsh romance Peredur (generally included in the Mabinogion), based on Chrétien’s poem but including very striking differences from it.
  • Perlesvaus, called the "least canonical" Grail romance because of its very different character.
  • The German Diu Crone (The Crown), in which Gawain, rather than Perceval, achieves the Grail.
  • The Prose Lancelot, part of the vast Vulgate Cycle and introducing the new Grail hero, Galahad.
  • The Quest del Saint Grail, another part of the Vulgate Cycle, concerning the adventures of Galahad and his achievement of the Grail.

Of the second class there are:

  • Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie,
  • The Estoire del Saint Graal, the first part of the Vulgate cycle (but written after Lancelot and the Queste), based on Robert’s tale but expanding it greatly with many new details.

Though all these works have their roots in Chrétien, several contain pieces of tradition not found in Chrétien which are possibly derived from earlier sources.

The Grail canon

Fate of the Grail

A number of knights undertook the quest for the Grail, in tales annexed to Arthurian legend. Some of these tales tell of knights who succeeded, like Percival or the virginal Galahad; others tell of knights who failed to achieve the grail because of their tragic flaws, like Lancelot. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's telling, the Grail was kept safe at the castle of Munsalvaesche (mons salvationis) or Montsalvat, entrusted to Titurel, the first Grail-King. Some, not least the monks of Montserrat, have identified the castle with the real sanctuary of Montserrat in Catalonia.

Belief in the Grail, and interest in its potential whereabouts, has never ceased. Ownership has been attributed to various groups (including the Knights Templar). There are cups claimed to be the Grail in several churches like the Valencia cathedral. The emerald chalice at Genoa, which was obtained during the crusades at Aleppo at great cost, has been less championed as the Holy Grail since an accident on the road while it was being returned from Paris after the fall of Napoleon revealed that the emerald was green glass. Other stories claim that the Grail is buried beneath Rosslyn Chapel or is to be found deep in the spring at Glastonbury Tor. Still other stories claim that a secret line of hereditary protectors keep the Grail, and local folklore in Nova Scotia and Accokeek, Maryland says that it was moved to these locations by a closeted priest aboard Captain John Smith's ship.

Quest for the Grail

The date of Grail sequences in the Welsh folktales, the Mabinogion are older than the surviving manuscripts (13th century). There is an English poem Sir Percyvelle, of the 15th century. Then the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail were collected in the 15th century by Thomas Malory for his Le Morte D' Arthur which gave the body of legend its classic form.

Important literary settings of Grail material include Chrétien de Troyes' Conte du Graal (French, late 12th century, the first romance to mention the Grail) and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (German, early 13th century). The parallels between Conte du Graal and Parzival are striking, but Wolfram stated that his tale came from a Provençal lay of a certain Kyot (Guiot). Wolfram also states that his romance is being transcribed for him, so the inference is that his sources were not written. Kyot has never been identified, and many have suggested that he does not exist.

Richard Wagner recast Wolfram's version of the legend in his opera Parsifal (1883), opening the floodgates for the Grail in 20th century pop culture, both camp and campy.

Four medieval relics

During the Middle Ages, four major contenders for the position of Holy Grail stood out from the rest.

  1. The earliest record of a chalice from the Last Supper is of a two-handled silver chalice which was kept in a reliquary in a chapel near Jerusalem between the basilica of Golgotha and the Martyrium. This Grail appears only in the account of Arculf, a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon pilgrim who saw it, and through an opening of the perforated lid of the reliquary where it reposed, touched it with his own hand which he had kissed. According to him, it had the measure of a Gaulish pint. All the people of the city flocked to it with great veneration. (Arculf also saw the Holy Lance in the porch of the basilica of Constantine.) This is the only mention of the chalice situated in the Holy Land.
  2. There is a reference in the late thirteenth century to a copy of the Grail being at Constantinople. This occurs in the 13th century German romance, the Younger Titurel: "A second costly dish, very noble and very precious, was fashioned to duplicate this one. In holiness it has no flaw. Men of Constantinople assayed it in their land, (finding) it richer in adornment, they accounted it the true grâl." This Grail was said to have been looted from the church of the Bucoleon during the Fourth Crusade and sent from Constantinople to Troyes by Garnier de Trainel, the then bishop of Troyes, in 1204. It was recorded there in 1610, but it disappeared at the French Revolution.
  3. Of two Grail vessels that survive today, one is at Genoa, in the cathedral. The hexagonal Genoese vessel is known as the sacro catino, the holy basin. Traditionally said to be carved from emerald, it is in fact a green Egyptian glass dish, about eighteen inches (37 cm) across. It was sent to Paris after Napoleon’s conquest of Italy, and was returned broken, which identified the emerald as glass. Its origin is uncertain; according to William of Tyre, writing in about 1170, it was found in the mosque at Caesarea in 1101: "a vase of brilliant green shaped like a bowl." The Genoese, believing that it was of emerald, accepted it in lieu of a large sum of money. An alternative story in a Spanish chronicle says that it was found when Alfonso VII of Castile captured Almeria from the Moors in 1147 with Genoese help, un uaso de piedra esmeralda que era tamanno como una escudiella, "a vase carved from emerald which was like a dish". The Genoese said that this was the only thing they wanted from the sack of Almeria. The identification of the sacro catino with the Grail is not made until later, however, by Jacobus de Voragine in his chronicle of Genoa, written at the close of the 13th century.
  4. The other surviving grail vessel is the santo cáliz, an agate cup in the cathedral of Valencia. It has been set in a medieval mounting and given a foot made of an inverted cup of chalcedony. There is an Arabic inscription. The earliest secure reference to the chalice is in 1399, when it was given by the monastery of San Juan de la Peña to king Martin I of Aragon in exchange for a gold cup. By the end of the century a provenance had been invented for the chalice at Valencia, by which St Peter had brought it to Rome.

Modern interpretations

Casual metaphor

The legend of the Holy Grail is the basis of the use of the devalued term holy grail in modern-day culture. This or that "holy grail" is seen as the distant, all-but-unobtainable ultimate goal for a person, organization, or field to achieve. For instance, cold fusion or anti-gravity devices are sometimes characterized as the "holy grail" of applied physics.

Modern retellings

The Holy Grail, by
The Holy Grail, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The combination of hushed reverence and overheated chromatic harmonies of Richard Wagner's late opera Parsifal fatally inflated the Holy Grail theme, while it brought the old medieval tale back into a wider public consciousness. The high seriousness of the subject was also epitomized in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting (illustrated), in which William Morris's soulful Titian-haired wife, at the time the painter's mistress, holds the Grail like a champagne glass that she is about to make ring with a snap of her long finger. The Grail was overripe, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) deflated it and all pseudo-Arthurian posturings.

The Grail had turned up in movies before: it debuted in a silent Parsifal. In The Light of Faith (1922), Lon Chaney attempted to steal it, for the finest of reasons. The Silver Chalice, a novel about the Grail by Thomas B. Costain was made into a 1954 movie (in which Paul Newman débuted), that is considered notably bad by several critics, including Newman himself. Lancelot of the Lake (1974) is Robert Bresson's gritty retelling. Excalibur, a more traditional sex-in-armor representation of an Arthurian tale, in which the Grail is little more than a prop. Brancaleone at the Crusades. The Fisher King and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade place the quest in modern settings, the one serious yet unavoidably faintly camp, the other robustly self-parodying. Science fiction has taken the Quest into interstellar space, figuratively in Samuel R. Delany's 1968 novel Nova, and literally in the 1994 episode "Grail" of the television series Babylon 5.

For the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who assert that their research ultimately reveals that Jesus may not have died on the cross, but lived to marry Mary Magdalene and father children, whose Merovingian bloodline continues today, the Grail is a mere sideshow. Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code is likewise based on the idea that the real Grail is not a cup but the earthly remains of Mary Magdalene (again cast as Jesus' wife), plus a set of ancient documents telling the "true" story of Jesus, his teachings and descendants. In Brown's novel, it is hinted that the Grail was long buried beneath Rosslyn Chapel just like one tradition claims, but in recent decades its guardians had it relocated to a secret chamber embedded in the floor beneath the Inverted Pyramid in front of the Louvre Museum. Of course, the latter location has never been mentioned in real Grail lore. Yet such was the public interest in even a fictionalized Grail that the museum soon had to rope off the exact location mentioned by Brown, lest visitors inflict any damage in a more or less serious attempt to access the supposed hidden chamber. (See: La Pyramide Inversée.)

Related articles

Cornucopia and sampo are other mythical vessels with magical powers.

See Also

Further reading

  • Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol ISBN 0691020752
  • Malcolm Godwin, The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets, & Meaning Revealed ISBN 0670851280
  • Joseph Goering, 2005. The Virgin and the Grail : Origins of a Legend (Yale University Press) ISBN 0300106610 [1] (http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=0300106610)

External links

da:Den hellige gral de:Heiliger Gral el:Άγιο Δισκοπότηρο fr:Graal gl:Grial it:Graal nl:Heilige Graal ja:聖杯 pl:Legenda o świętym Graalu pt:Santo Graal ru:Святой Грааль ro:Graal fi:Graalin malja sv:Graal


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