The History and Meaning of the Holy Grail

From Ancient Origins to Modern Times

Holy Grail (chalice) in a cave, lit by a stream of sunshine from above

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The Holy Grail is usually described as the cup from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper and was also used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Jesus’ blood when he was crucified. There are, however, many different versions of the Holy Grail myth, some of which confer it spiritual and supernatural powers, or describe it as objects other than a cup, including a dish, a stone, and even Mary Magdalen's womb.

Key Takeaways: The Holy Grail

  • The Holy Grail is usually described as the cup that Christ drank from during the Last Supper, which was also used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ's blood during the crucifixion.
  • The story of the Holy Grail has ancient roots and has changed dramatically over the years.
  • The best known version of the story of the Holy Grail comes from the Mort d'Arthur, a tale of the Knights of the Round Table written by Sir Thomas Malory during the 1400s.
  • The Grail is described as having a wide range of spiritual and magical attributes, but is also thought of as an ultimate object of achievement or desire.
  • While it is generally believed that the Grail is a mythical object, some believe that it exists and can be found.

Ancient Origins of the Holy Grail

The Holy Grail has been described in many ways by scholars, poets, and even composers. In part, this is because its roots are complex and its significance has changed over time. There is no single original story of the Holy Grail.

Most scholars believe that the Grail originated in Celtic (Irish) mythology. There, ancient stories related to the Grail include tales of drinking horns and cauldrons that never run empty. Another theory suggests that the Grail story is much older than the Celts. According to this theory, the Grail originated with the ancient Scythian people whose empire in the Crimea was founded in the third century BCE. The story from that civilization describes the Cup of Sovereignty which fell from heaven and can judge the merits of men. 

It is possible that these stories made their way to England and France in the fifth century CE, during Roman times. If that is the case, the ancient stories may have mingled with those of incidents that occurred during the sacking of Rome, when sacred vessels were stolen from churches.

The Story of the Holy Grail in the Early Middle Ages

By around 1100 CE, the story of the Grail was strongly connected with the eucharist. The original Grail, said to be the cup from which Jesus drank at the last supper, is also said to be the same cup used to collect Christ's blood during the crucifixion. Jesus himself makes the connection between wine and blood in the Book of Matthew 26:27–28: 

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, spoke a blessing and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is My body.” 27 Then He took the cup, gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Perceval, the Story of the Grail

The first known writing about the Holy Grail in connection with the story of King Arthur was Perceval, the Story of the Grail, a romance in verse written at the end of the 12th century by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes. The poem was still in progress when the poet died; additional material was added by later authors. Perceval, which may have originated the idea of a quest for the Holy Grail, describes the Grail not as a cup but as a golden serving dish. 

The story of Perceval tells of a young knight of King Arthur's court who, after several heroic encounters, sets off to visit his mother. Along the way, he encounters the Fisher King, an important figure in the story of the Grail. The Fisher King, also known as the Wounded or Maimed King, has been injured in the leg or groin in such a way that he is impotent and unable to stand, fight, or produce an heir; instead, he sits in a small boat and fishes. The Fisher King is also the guardian of the Holy Grail.

Invited to spend the night at the Fisher King's castle, Perceval observes a strange ritual. Young women and men walk in a procession from room to room in the castle, carrying priceless objects: a bleeding lance, candelabras, and an elaborate Grail (serving dish). Too polite to ask about this strange custom, Perceval remains silent. In the morning he awakes alone; the castle has disappeared. As he continues his journey, Perceval encounters a girl who tells him that had he asked about the Grail, the Fisher King's wound would have been healed.

Parzival, an Arthurian Romance

In 1210, about 40 years after the publication of Perceval, Wolfram von Eschenbach produced a work called Parzival. Written in middle high German, the romance tells very much the same story as that told by Chrétien de Troyes, but with a few important differences:

  • The Fisher King is given a name—Anfortas.
  • The Fisher King's wound is explained: the Grail determines who the Grail Keeper will marry, but Anfortas attempted to defy it. The wound was a punishment for his disobedience.
  • The Grail, in this story, is not a container at all. Instead, it is a translucent gemstone placed on an altar carried by a woman.
  • At the end of the story, with his new understanding, Parzival returns to cure the Fisher King's wound.

Joseph d'Arimathe by Robert Boron

The poem Joseph d'Arimathe was written during the mid-1200s by the French poet Robert de Boron. This poem, for the first time, brought together the story of the Grail and the Fisher King with the story of Christ and his crucifixion.

This poem tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have used the cup from the Last Supper to catch blood from a wound in Jesus' side during the crucifixion. The poem goes on to describe Joseph's family bringing the Grail to a place called the vaus d'Avoron (later changed to Avalon, which has been associated with the English town of Glastonbury).

The Vulgate Cycle: Estoire del Saint Graal 

Boron's work (including a poem about Merlin) served as the inspiration of a large set of prose works known as the Vulgate Cycle or Lancelot-Grail. The author is unknown, though it is believed to have been written by a group of monks during the 13th century. The Estoire del Saint Graal (History of the Holy Grail) was part of the Vulgate Cycle.

The History of the Holy Grail builds on Boron's story of Joseph of Arimathea but changes the narrative in many ways. In this version, the Knights of the Round Table go on a quest to find the Grail, but it is made clear that only a spiritually pure person could succeed in the quest. Thus, the search for the Grail becomes a series of moral tales. In the long run, only the purest of the knights was able to find the Grail; instead of Perceval or Parzival, the hero of the story is the pious and virginal Sir Galahad. As in prior versions, Galahad also heals the wounded king.

Morte D'arthur

The famous Morte D'arthur, on which most contemporary versions of the Arthurian legend are based, was almost certainly written in 1485 by Sir Thomas Malory. It contains eight books, the sixth of which, entitled The Noble Tale of the Sangreal, tells the story of the quest for the Holy Grail. In this version, the Grail appears to the Knights of the Round Table as a magical object that is hidden but nevertheless powerful:

In the midst of this storm there entered a sunbeam clearer by seven times than any daylight they had ever seen, and they were all illuminated by the grace of the Holy Ghost. (...) Then there entered into the hall the Holy Grail covered with white silk, but none might see it, nor who bore it.

Having once seen the Grail and its power, the Knights of the Round Table undertake a quest to find it, uncover it, and bring it back to Camelot. The quest is more dangerous than the knights know, especially because the Grail is intended only for the purest among them. Several knights die during the quest; in the long run, the Grail is found by Galahad, Perceval, and Bors—but only Galahad is strong, chaste, and pious enough to finally see the Grail without its silken shroud.

The Grail Story in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The story of the Grail became less popular after the 1300s and only reemerged during the Romantic era of the 19th century, when writers such as Scott and Tennyson and composers such as Richard Wagner rediscovered it. Their works portrayed the Grail in a more symbolic manner—as the ultimate mystical object or the physical incarnation of God's grace.

In the 20th century, the Grail became a focus of stories by C.S. Lewis and other writers, and, later, became the subject of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code and the Indiana Jones movie The Last Crusade.

Significance of the Holy Grail

The significance of the Holy Grail has changed dramatically over the years, and it is even more complex today than in the past. Some interpretations see the Grail as a symbol of purity, while others see it as a very real object capable of being rediscovered today. In fact, several seekers claim to have actually found the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail as a Real Object

Those who believe the Holy Grail is a real object suggest several different possible locations for it. The most popular is that the Grail was brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea. Another holds that the Grail was stolen from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by the Knights Templar during the Crusades and spirited away to a still-secret hiding place. The Nazis believed in the existence of a real Holy Grail, and at one point sought it at Montserrat Abbey near Barcelona.

The Holy Grail as Mary's Womb

One unlikely version of the Grail story suggests that the Grail is neither a cup, a bowl, nor a stone, but is, in fact, the uterus of Mary Magdalen. This version (which serves as the focus of The DaVinci Code) is built around reading the term "san greal" (holy grail) as "sang real" (royal blood). In other words, the Holy Grail is the container of royal blood—Christ's descendant.

The Holy Grail as the Ultimate Object of Desire

In popular culture, the term "the holy grail" is often used to describe the ultimate object of desire or authority in any given area of interest. For example, the Academy Award might be the "holy grail" of the film industry, while stem cells are sometimes referred to as the "holy grail" of medicine.

Sources

  • Barber, Richard. “History - British History in Depth: The Legend of the Holy Grail Gallery.” BBC, BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/hg_gallery_04.shtml.
  • “Library : The Real History of the Holy Grail.” Library : The Real History of the Holy Grail | Catholic Culture, www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6511.
  • Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Grail: from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Constable, 1993.
  • Malory, Thomas, and Joseph Glaser. Le Morte DArthur. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2015.
  • Orton, David Cooper. “The Quest for the Holy Grail.” The British Library - The British Library, The British Library, 13 June 2006, www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/mythical/grail.html.