Holy Grail



In Christian mythology, the Holy Grail was the dish, plate, cup or vessel that caught Jesus' blood during his crucifixion. It was said to have the power to heal all wounds. A theme joined to the Christianised Arthurian mythos relates to the quest for the Holy Grail.

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.

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 were French; though they were translated into other European vernaculars, no new essential elements were added.




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 prominance 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

There are two schools of thought concerning the Grail's origin. The first, championed by Roger Sherman Loomis, Alfred Nutt, and Jessie Weston, holds that it derived from early Celtic myth and folklore. Loomis traced a number of parallels between Medieval Welsh literature and Irish material and the Grail romances, including similarities between the Mabinogion's Bran the Blessed and the Arthurian Fisher King, and between Bran's life-restoring cauldron and the Grail.

Other legends featured magical platters or dishes that symbolize otherworldly power or test the hero's worth. Sometimes the items generate a never-ending supply of food, sometimes they can raise the dead. Sometimes they decide who the next king should be, as only the true sovereign could hold them.O

On the other hand, some scholars believe the Grail began as a purely Christian symbol. For example, 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), which present unique iconic images of the Virgin Mary holding a bowl that radiates tongues of fire, images that predate the first literary account by Chretien de Troyes. Goering argues that they were the original inspiration for the grail legend.

Another recent theory holds that the earliest stories that cast the Grail in a Christian light were meant to promote the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Holy Communion. Although the practice of Holy Communion was first alluded to in the Christian Bible and defined by theologians in the first centuries A.D., around the time of the appearance of the first Christianized Grail literature, the Roman church was beginning to add more ceremony and mysticism around this particular sacrament.

Thus, the first Grail stories may have been celebrations of a renewal in this traditional sacrament. This theory has some backing by the fact that grail legends are almost entirely a phenomenon of the Western church (see below). As strong cases can be made for both origins, most scholars today accept that both Christian and Celtic lore contributed in the legend's development.




Etymology of Graal

The word graal, as it is earliest spelled, appears to be an Old French adaption of the Latin gradalis, meaning a dish brought to the table in different stages of a meal. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, after the cycle of Grail romances was well established, late medieval writers came up with a false etymology for sangreal an alternate name for "Holy Grail". In Old French, san grial means "Holy Grail" and sang rial means "royal blood"; later writers played on this pun. 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 conspiracie.




The Beginnings of the Grail in Literature

Chretien de Troyes

The Grail is first featured in Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail) by Chretien 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.

Chretien 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 Chretien 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.

Though Chretien'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:

Of the second class there are:

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




Ideas of the Grail

As stated above, the Grail was considered a bowl or dish when first described by Chretien de Troyes. Other authors had their own ideas; Robert de Boron portrayed it as the vessel of the Last Supper, and Peredur had no Grail per se, presenting the hero instead with a platter containing his kinsman's bloody, severed head.

In Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach, citing the authority of a certain (probably fictional) Kyot the Provencal, claimed the Grail was a stone that fell from Heaven, and had been the sanctuary of the Neutral Angels who took neither side during Lucifer's rebellion. The authors of the Vulgate Cycle used the Grail as a symbol of divine grace. Galahad, bastard son of the world's greatest knight, Lancelot, and the Grail Bearer Elaine, is destined to achieve the Grail, his spiritual purity making him a better warrior than even his illustrious father. Galahad and the interpretation of the Grail involving him were picked up in the 15th century by Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte d'Arthur), and remain popular today.

Various notions of the Holy Grail are currently very widespread in Western society (especially British, French 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, Americans and West Europeans sometimes assume that the Grail idea is universally well known.

The stories of the Grail, however, are totally absent from the folklore of those countries that were and are Eastern Orthodox (whether Arabs, Slavs, Romanians, or Greeks). This is true of all Arthurian myths, which were not well known east of Germany until the present-day Hollywood retellings. Nor has the Grail been as popular a subject in some predominantly Catholic areas, such as Spain and Latin America, as it has been elsewhere. The notions of the Grail, its importance, and prominence, are 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.

Some insist the Holy Grail, even if historical, should be considered separate from the Holy Chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper. However, confusion between the two has been the historical practice.




The Later Legend

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.

In Wolfram von Eschenbach's telling, the Grail was kept safe at the castle of Munsalvaesche (mons salvationis), 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, Spain. 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.




Four medieval relics

During the Middle Ages, four major contenders for the position of Holy Grail stood out from the rest. Some of these, like the santo caliz of Valencia, are connected with the Holy Chalice.

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 gral." 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 caliz, 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 Pena 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.




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, Percival, or Galahad) encounters the Fisher King and is invited to a feast, as per 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 infirmed 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 - for example, one telling involved Percival encountering the Fisher King and the Grail before arriving at Camelot, it eventually evolved into an explicit "quest" for the Grail--one such quest ending with twelve knights (of undetermined origin) ascending into Heaven along with the Grail.

Some believe the grial is in the Chalice Well in Glastonbury - put there by Joseph of Arimathea. The search for the vessel became the principal quest of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable - the Sword in the Stone - Excalibur - and the magic of Merlin.




Fate of the Grail

While the Grail formally first appeared in the Perceval le Gallois of Chretien de Troyes and the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach -- both of whom describe it in connection with the Fisher King and how Percival failed to speak and thus cure the infirm king - it was Robert de Boron who added the detail that the Grail was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, when he travelled to the British Isles as the first Christian missionary to the country and established the first Christian church in the British Isles in his verse romance, Joseph d'Arimathie, by Robert de Boron, composed between 1170 and 1212.

A number of knights undertook the quest for the Grail, in tales that have become annexed to the Arthurian mythos. 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'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.

The fate of the Holy Grail is unknown. 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 the Grail was moved variously to either Nova Scotia, or to Accokeek, Maryland by a closeted priest aboard Captain John Smith's ship, or that there is a secret lineage of hereditary keepers of the Grail.




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 (Also spelled Le Morte Darthur) which gave the body of legend its classic form.

Important literary settings of Grail material include Chretien de Troyes' Conte du Graal (French, late 12th century, the first romance to mention the Grail) and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal (German, early 13th century). The parallels between Conte du Graal and Parzifal are striking, but Wolfram stated that his tale came from a Provencal 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 gral." 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 calif, 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 Pena 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.

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 debuted), 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 below Rosslyn Chapel just like one tradition claims, but in recent decades its guardians had it relocated to a secret chamber below 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.

The legend of the Holy Grail is the basis of the use of the 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.

Holy Grail Wikipedia

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