So glorious, so mysterious, the Holy Grail symbolizes an elusive object of desire. Although now usually identified as the chalice of the Last Supper sought by Arthurian heroes, the Grail has been pictured as a dish, a ciborium, and even a white stone. Indeed, for a long time, its name had a rather mundane meaning.
The word “grail” is derived through Old French from the Latin gradale (by degrees) and refers to a type of deep platter from which foods were served—course by course—at a medieval banquet. “Grail” is first recorded in English in 1330 with alternative spellings: greal, graal, and graile. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1470) renders “Holy Grail” as both “Sankgreal” and “Holy Grayle.” He sometimes gives “Sankgreal” a false etymology (from “sang real”) as “the blessed bloode of our Lorde Jhesu Crist” instead of the vessel containing it (Sank greal).
This grail—not yet “holy”—appears seemingly out of nowhere in the Conte del Graal (also known as Perceval), a French romance by Chretien de Troyes written in the late twelfth century. Chretien’s grail is a large jeweled dish containing a single Mass wafer that a maiden carries during a banquet at an enchanted castle. The maimed king who presides over the gathering has been wounded in the genitals, and his country is a wasteland because of his infirmity. Neither he nor his land can be healed unless the poem’s naive young hero, Perceval, asks: “Whom does one serve with the grail?”
Chretien’s poem remained unfinished and the dish un-explained at the end of his career. Four undistinguished continuators tried to carry on. But about 1200, a Burgundian poet named Robert de Boron successfully expanded the story, although this survives only in a prose adaptation known as the Didot-Perceval. Robert turns the grail from a dish into the cup of the Last Supper (serving as a ciborium rather than a chalice) and has the Grail-king wounded by the holy lance of Longinus that had pierced the side of Jesus. Robert had previously written Joseph d’Arimathie in which the sacred cup, which had also caught Christ’s blood at the deposition from the cross, feeds Joseph during 43 years of captivity. After adventures in the Near East, Joseph’s son brings the Grail to England where his relatives become the hereditary Grail-keepers and ancestors of Perceval.
Robert’s material was incorporated into the so-called Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romances in prose (1215-35). The portion titled La Queste del Saint Graal shows Cistercian influence and may have been written by a monk. This is the most explicitly Christian version of the Grail legend, for it makes the quest a spiritual odyssey that only the most virtuous can complete. Here the Grail—originally the dish from which the Paschal lamb was served stands for divine grace.
The Vulgate Cycle was a major source for Malory, whose Le Morte D’Arthur is the “canonical” telling of the story for English speakers. In both the Vulgate and Malory, Sir Perceval/Percivale is one of the three purest knights of the Round Table. Along with Sir Bors and the faultless Sir Galahad, he’s privileged to take part in the Grail ritual and receive Holy Communion from the hands of Jesus Himself. Galahad heals the maimed Grail-king with Christ’s blood dripping from the holy lance. Finally, the Grail company sees the vessel and lance taken back into heaven. Galahad dies soon after, Perceval dies a year after becoming a hermit, and Bors returns to Camelot to tell their tale. The Holy Grail is now permanently out of reach.
Between Chretien and Malory, Arthurian romances spread all over Europe from Italy to Iberia to Iceland and carried with them the story of the Holy Grail. German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach shaped the material in an original way for his Parzival (1210). Wolfram’s Grail is a mysterious white stone that may be derived from a magical object in a romance about Alexander the Great. This Grail is called the lapsit exilis, possibly mangled Latin for “small stone.” Brought to Earth by the neutral angels at the time of Lucifer’s fall, it generates whatever food and drink diners in the Grail castle desire, revives the dead, cures the sick, and keeps those who behold it young. From time to time, the names of children called to serve the Grail appear written on the stone. The boys will become celibate Grail-knights known as Templeisen, but the girls will eventually leave to marry. Every Good Friday, a heavenly dove lays a Host on the stone to feed the wounded Grail-king. Only when his obtuse young nephew, Parzival, finally asks, “Dear Uncle, what ails you?” is the old king healed. The Grail chooses Parzival as the next king.
Wolfram’s innovations never become standard. Even Richard Wagner’s opera version, Parsifal (1882), changes the Grail back to a cup, which is what his audience expected to see. Wagner also made his hero a virgin rather than a married man, among other alterations, including the spelling of his name. Wagner’s Lohengrin (1850), featuring Parsifal’s son, is only marginally a Grail story.
Wagner was hardly alone in turning to the Grail for inspiration. Although the taste for Arthurian romances faded out after the Renaissance, the Romantic era rediscovered them, as it rediscovered the Middle Ages. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem cycle The Idylls of the King (completed in 1885) created a revival almost single-handedly. It was a favorite subject for the Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian artists. Victorians even concocted a popular legend that the Grail lay hidden in the chalice well at Glastonbury, staining the stones there red with the Holy Blood.
The literary impact of Grail legends continued into the 20th century. “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot (1925) uses that Grail as a metaphor for the modern world. Charles Williams depicts a contemporary conflict between Good and Evil involving the Grail in his novel War in Heaven (1930), while his poetry cycles Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) are metaphysical retellings of Arthurian romance. Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968) combines the Grail with Melville’s white whale and makes it a science-fiction power source. The wasteland is Hollywood in Lancelot by Walker Percy (1978), but Las Vegas plays that role in Last Call by Tim Powers (1992). Moles seek a Grail- like white stone in William Horwood’s talking beast tale, Duncton Wood (1980).
Film has also drawn on the same source in diverse ways: farce in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), romantic fantasy in Excalibur (1981), pulp adventure in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and modern fable in The Fisher King (1991).
This small sample of works derived from Grail stories bears witness to the extraordinary richness of the symbol. Out of it have come universal myth motifs: ever-filled vessels, miraculous food, and the union of king and land plus specific elements from some Indo-European cultures, all molded by medieval Christianity.
The Roots of the Holy Grail
Academic consensus gives the Grail a Celtic origin. The foremost campaigner for this view is Arthurian scholar Roger Sherman Loomis, whose book, The Grail: From Celtic Symbol to Christian Myth (1963), traces it to Irish tales of cauldrons and drinking horns that never run empty as well as accounts of journeys to the Happy Otherworld. The maiden Grail-bearer is based on the personified Sovereignty of Ireland, a woman who gives her cup only to the worthy. These elements were transmitted to Wales, then to Brittany, with Breton storytellers spreading them around northern France where the medieval romances first appeared. Loomis assumes that the material had been much altered by misunderstandings and oral process: There was no one “original” Grail myth.
A newer and more controversial theory is proposed by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor in From Scythia to Camelot (1994). They trace the Grail motifs back to ancient Scythian peoples of the Crimea whose symbolic Cup of Sovereignty fell from heaven and whose modern descendants in the former Soviet Union still tell stories about a supernatural cup/cauldron that judges the merit of heroes— including an Arthur-like figure.
These myths were supposedly brought into Europe by two waves of Scythian-derived barbarian invaders in Roman times: the Sarmatians who were sent to Britain in the second century and the Alans who settled in Brittany and Provence in the fifth century. Their old stories could have mingled with historical incidents such as the looting of precious church vessels, supposedly including plunder from the Jewish Temple, taken during the sack of Rome in 410. Littleton and Malcor see the latter event as the origin of the Grail procession.
But it was the connection with the Holy Eucharist that fixed the Grail in medieval minds. The old myths might never have gained such popularity without the Christianization that brought them in line with medieval iconography and devotional practice.
Medieval artists illustrated Grail romances with the costumes, props, and settings of their own day, just as they did with scenes from the Bible or classical antiquity. As a Eucharistic vessel, the Grail was expected to resemble those actually used in the liturgy. Grail “accessories” such as the holy lance and the broken sword of David repaired by Galahad recall relics, votive offerings of weapons, and royal regalia preserved in churches.
In addition to its use at the Last Supper—the first Mass—the Grail was supposed to have been used to catch the blood of the crucified Savior. The “chalice at the cross” motif that had emerged at the end of the first millennium shows a chalice collecting blood alone, borne by angels, or in the hand of an allegorical woman representing Ecclesia (the Church) who holds a spear-like staff in her other hand. Surely this resonated with the female Grail-bearer.
Grail romances appeared just as Eucharistic devotion was gaining favor, expressed in the elevation of the Host during Mass, Corpus Christi processions, preachers’ parables, and miracle stories. Hosts that levitate, bleed, discriminate among recipients, serve as the sole food of saints, and reveal visions of Christ appear often in Eucharistic miracles and in Grail adventures. Devout contemplation of the elevated or exposed Host was believed to convey not only grace but well-being and protection, as does an encounter with the Grail.
The medieval Church took no official position on Grail romances. But the cathedral of Valencia claims to possess the actual vessel, a red stone cup from the time of Christ mounted as a splendid chalice during the Middle Ages. Its legend—which owes nothing whatever to the romances—claims that it was sent to Spain by the Roman martyr St. Lawrence. Donated to the cathedral in 1437, it’s kept in a special chapel and was once used for Mass by Pope John Paul II.
The Stories Multiply
Regardless of mythological roots, literary embellishments, and popular fancies, the Holy Grail became firmly linked to the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. It is Jesus and none other that the vessel contains, “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.” Consider the climax of La Queste del Saint Graal (in P. M. Matarasso’s translation). The worthy knights who have completed the quest hear Mass said by Bishop Josephus, son of Joseph of Arimathea who had survived for years on miraculous Hosts from the Grail. At the moment of consecration, “there descended from above a figure like unto a child, whose countenance glowed and blazed bright as fire; and he entered the bread, which quite distinctly took on human form before the eyes of those assembled there.” Later, Josephus vanishes and the company “saw the figure of a man appear from out of the Holy Vessel, unclothed, and bleeding from his hands and feet and side….” This is Jesus who gives each knight Communion in the usual way, but the wafer tastes wonderfully sweet. The scene resembles medieval Eucharistic miracles in which Christ is unveiled beneath the appearances of bread. Pagan prototypes have been Christianized.
Nevertheless, heterodox alternatives still have their followings. For them, a landmark book was Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920). Linder the influence of Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890), Weston imagined that the Grail was derived from fertility rites and vegetation folklore as well as esoteric teachings of Oriental mystery religions, Gnostics, and Cathars as well as heresies among the Knights Templar.
But Loomis dismisses the lot, denouncing “Miss Wes- ton’s fascinating theory of a lost mystery cult conveyed by Eastern merchants from the Mediterranean to Britain, and of secret initiation rites enacted in remote ages—a theory also discredited by the absence of any reference to such a cult in the mass of medieval testimony of heresy.” Loomis discounts a Provencal (and presumably Cathar) source for Parzival as “preposterous” and rejects its Grail-knights, the Templeisen, as actual Templars. For Loomis, the Grail legends were “surely not the esoteric doctrines of heretical cults” nor intended as antipapal propaganda. Furthermore, the antimaterialist Gnostics and Cathars could never have envisioned Christ present in the Eucharist.
Weston also popularized the notion of the Four Grail Hallows (Cup, Lance, Sword, Stone/Dish) being perpetuated in the suits of Tarot cards (Cups, Wands, Swords, Pentangles) and then in the suits of ordinary playing cards. Weston’s discredited notions are still popular among present-day occultists such as Margaret Starbird, who calls the tarot a Cathar catechism. This conveniently ignores real history, in which tarot cards were invented in early 15th- century Italy as a harmless game—not an occult tool—and postdate playing cards by at least 50 years. Neither has anything to do with Cathars or Templars.
The Grail as a symbol for secret knowledge also fascinated Adolf Hitler. The occult-infatuated Nazis set up twelve SS officers as Grail-knights in a rebuilt castle at Vevelsburg, Westphalia, where their sinister rites may have included human sacrifice.
Pagans and neo-Gnostics still grab for the Grail, but the leading esoteric interpretation today is the one promoted in Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003). Brown maintains that the Grail is the womb of Mary Magdalene who bore the merely human Christ’s child, establishing a lineage of holy blood that still continues, and that Grail quests were covert searches for the lost “divine feminine.” Brown’s claims are heavily dependent on Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a groundless specimen of pseudo-history by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln (1982).
Contrary to Brown’s assertions, there’s ample evidence from both Scripture and Patristic sources that Christians have always believed Jesus to be divine and no evidence for a sexual relationship between him and the Magdalen (see my “Dismantling The Da Vinci Code,” September 2003, Crisis). Although the Grail as a vessel is feminine in a Freudian sense, it has—from its first appearance in medieval literature—always contained the Holy Eucharist.
Therefore, the only person who can claim to be a living Grail is Mary the God-Bearer, not Mary Magdalene. In pregnancy and by nursing, the Blessed Mother gave her blood and milk to become the Body and Blood of Christ. As a result, she’s honored with a litany of titles that sanctify woman-as-container: Ark of the Covenant, House of Gold, Vessel of Honor, Singular Vessel of Devotion. This Holy Grail was assumed into heaven, yet the chalice and ciborium at every Mass are genuine Grails. And so each of us is given the grace to be a Galahad, our earthly Grail quest ending at the altar.