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The Holy Grail

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A jewel-encrusted metal platter giving off rays of power.

The image of the Holy Grail often occurs in the literature of the Western World. Most people will have some sort of an idea that it is a magic cup. Others may have heard that it is a stone. Devout Christians may believe it is associated in some way with Jesus Christ. Recent ludicrous publications have claimed it is not a cup but a bloodline. It's all a bit vague.

So what is or was the Holy Grail? Should we be out looking for it? Is it relevant to modern society? Can it even be pinned down at all? This Entry attempts to answer these questions.

What is the Grail?

It may seem odd to state right at the start what the Grail is, but it will save a lot of trouble later. The Grail is a literary symbol. It's not an actual object, and it is not a bloodline. It is a symbol used by authors, starting in the 12th and 13th Centuries and later revived in the 19th Century to represent something very important. The problem is trying to figure out what the Grail represents, as different authors used it to mean different things.

The Last Supper of Jesus Christ

If you're a Christian, you can skip this bit, as you'll already know the story.

The last meal that Jesus Christ ate before he died is known as the Last Supper. He and his 12 closest associates, the apostles, ate together. During the meal, Jesus took some bread and some wine, and gave them to the others saying that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood. The apostles ate the bread and drank the wine. Jesus asked them to repeat these actions in memory of him.

Christians the world over have done as he asked, saying the same words and sharing the bread and wine. This is known as the communion ceremony. But even among Christians there is much debate on exactly what Jesus meant by this. Protestants take the view that the communion ceremony is purely a way of remembering Jesus. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, take the view that when Jesus said 'this is my body' and 'this is my blood', he really meant it: the bread and wine are changed in some special way to be the body and blood of Christ, so that those who eat and drink it get a special sort of life force, known as 'grace', from the action.

At the time when the Grail legends were written down, Christians believed the Communion bread and wine were really the flesh and blood of Christ. It's essential to understand this to appreciate what the Grail was all about.

The First Grail

The story of the Grail starts in the late 12th Century, with a French troubadour called Chrétien of Troyes. Troyes is a town about 150km to the southeast of Paris. Chrétien was a master story teller and specialised in the new style called roman1 because it was done in the Romanz language - this early form of French had previously been considered to be a debased form of Latin, which was the language used by the Church and for all official documents. Gradually, the Romanz that the people spoke was being recognised as a separate language suitable for writing literature. Chrétien's stories were written in verse for the knights of the realm.

The knights were a new class of people, professional soldiers who were each in charge of an estate. When they were not fighting wars, they had to manage their estates and to practise their knightly skills - tourneys were organised, which were fake wars in which lots of knights would get injured or killed. Gradually as time went on, these evolved into a series of single combats, knight against knight, with jousting and other types of warfare.

The whole idea of chivalry, a code of ethics which governed how a knight should act, was just being invented, and Chrétien's stories not only featured many aspects of chivalry, but in part invented them.

Many of the tales were told about King Arthur and his Knights. The story of these legendary characters appears to have arrived in France from the Norman conquest of England but the details are not clear. Nevertheless, Chrétien and his fellow troubadours invented new stories about the knights, both as example to the real knights of France of how they should behave, and as entertainment.

Chrétien's last work was an ambitious one, but he never finished it. It has two names: Perceval and The Story of the Grail (Le Conte du Graal). Despite the story not being finished, it was very well received and sparked off an amazing flurry of literature - over the next 50 years, many different writers told and retold the same story in different versions. Some continued and finished off Chrétien's work, others rewrote it from scratch, provided prequels, and set it in different contexts.

This is something similar to the publishing of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings which sparked off the fantasy fiction genre, or the arrival in cinemas of the first Star Wars movie, which suddenly made Science Fiction movies mainstream. The difference is that the sudden burst of writing based on Chrétien's tale all appear to be the same story retold. This doesn't usually happen these days with books, but it is common enough with films - look at all the different versions of Batman in the movies over the last 30 years.

Chrétien's story was the first to mention the Grail, so it is worth going into in some detail.

The Story of the Grail

Perceval is a young man who is ignorant and naïve. He goes out hunting one day and encounters some knights. He is very impressed and decides he wants to be a knight himself. He arrives at King Arthur's court, but is mocked for his ignorance. He leaves the court and goes out into the world. He meets a real knight and fights with him. Perceval gets lucky, kills the knight and takes his armour.

Various adventures happen to Perceval. One evening, just as darkness is falling, he comes to a castle. The people there invite him in and treat him as an honoured guest: he is seated at the dinner table beside the lord of the castle, who is injured and can't rise to greet him.

During the meal, a strange procession goes past: a boy leads the way carrying a lance, point upwards. Drops of blood come from the tip of the lance and run down the shaft, without drying. Next come two more boys carrying candlesticks. After the boys comes a beautiful girl carrying a grail - the word is a rare one, but not unknown. It means a serving dish made of metal. This grail is made of gold and is studded with precious stones. Perceval can't see what is in the grail. Finally there is another girl carrying a silver cup. The procession leaves the hall and goes into another room. Everybody looks expectantly at Perceval, thinking he will ask what that was all about, what was in the grail and who were they bringing it to feed. Perceval, however, has been told it is not polite to ask questions, so he keeps quiet.

The following morning, he wakes up to find the castle deserted - there's no sign of anybody, so he sets out again and has more adventures. Later he discovers that if he had asked the questions about the grail, the noble lord, who is called the Fisher King, would have been miraculously cured of his affliction. That's why everybody was looking at Perceval so expectantly. He is set the task of finding the grail again, and this time asking the question so that the lord will be healed. In this way, he will have earned the right to be called a knight.

After many years of questing to find the grail, Perceval encounters a hermit who explains to him that it is only through the knowledge of God and of his son Jesus Christ that Perceval can achieve the rank of Knight. The grail in the procession held not a fish, as you might expect, but a single piece of communion bread, and it was being brought to the Fisher King's father, who was so holy that he could survive by eating nothing but communion bread.

There is also a second task to be achieved, the explanation of the blood-tipped lance, and this one is allotted to another knight, Sir Gawain. The story goes on to tell of his exploits.

Unfortunately, because the story was left unfinished, we never find out what happens to Perceval and Gawain, to the grail and the lance.

Within The Story of the Grail, the phrase 'Holy Grail' is never used, although on one occasion the grail is described as 'such a holy thing'. Although the grail appears in the title of the story, it is not really as important as it sounds, being just one of the many wonders that Perceval sees - the only reason it becomes the title of the tale is because Perceval can't see what's in it, but is afraid to ask. It's interesting as well that we are expected to think there might be a fish in the grail. That makes it quite clearly a dish for food, not a cup for liquids.

The Grail Becomes Holy and Stony

Over the next 50 years or so, there were many retellings of Chrétien's story. Some wrote new endings, with the original story left unchanged. Others retold it from scratch, adding lots of explanatory detail. Some changed the details considerably, involving extra knights such as Lancelot, Bors and Galahad.

We don't know exactly what order these other versions of the story were written, as the authors didn't put dates on their manuscripts, and often did not even add their own names. Even when we know the names, we generally don't know anything else about the authors. Of these other narratives, there are probably three that best represent the whole genre, and they are as important as the original, in that the later Grail legends that have come down to modern times are as much based on them as on the original story.

Robert de Boron's Joseph of Arimathea

Robert de Boron was a poet from the village of Boron near Montbéliard in what is now Eastern France. His retelling of the story was entitled The History of the Grail (L'Estoire dou Graal). It came in three volumes: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, and Perceval. Each of these was originally written in verse and later rewritten in prose. Unfortunately, only the first volume and the first 500 lines of the second have survived in verse, but we have prose versions of all three works. It is in Joseph of Arimathea that we find something new - an explanation of what the Grail is and where it came from.

The story starts in the time of Jesus Christ himself. The Grail, now called the 'Holy Grail' for the first time, is the serving dish used at the Last Supper. It is the one that Christ used to hold the bread, so it is a holy vessel. After the meal, Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Jesus who had not been present at the meal, got hold of the Grail. According to the Bible, when Christ died, his body was taken down from the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea, who wrapped it in clean linen and placed it in a tomb. In Robert's story, while Joseph was cleaning and wrapping the body, he collected the blood that flowed from the wounds in the Grail, making it twice holy through contact with the holy bread and the holy blood. (The story does not say what he did with the blood afterwards.)

After Jesus rose from the dead, the tomb was found empty. Joseph was arrested and thrown in prison. While in prison, Jesus came to him, gave him the Grail and told him to use it in a commemoration service, re-enacting the events of the Last Supper. This is similar to the ceremony within the Christian Mass. Joseph set up the Company of the Grail, who carried on this tradition.

Many centuries later, we have the story of Perceval's adventures, which were more or less the same as in Chrétien's original story. In Robert's version, the wounded lord, the Fisher King, is called Bron. The same procession of Lance and Grail takes place, and Perceval fails to ask the all-important question. He is destined to wander the world, seeking for enlightenment for another eight years. In this version, there is a conclusion to the story - Perceval finally arrives back at the castle, the Grail procession takes place again and this time, Perceval asks the question. Bron is cured, and is taken away to heaven. Perceval takes his place as the Keeper of the Grail.

The rest of Robert's story concerns King Arthur and the Wizard Merlin, and does not return to the story of the Grail.

Wolfram von Eschenbach's Grail

Wolfram von Eschenbach's version of the story is called Parzifal; this is a German retelling of the story, so the main character's name is given the German spelling. It is superficially quite different from Chrétien's account. In it, the Grail is not a serving dish at all, but a strange crystal - it's a glowing stone which can magically display messages and summon food. Perceval, or Parzifal, once again goes to the castle, known in this version as Munsalvaesche. Once again there is a feast, but now the Grail appears and floats around, summoning food. Writing occasionally appears on the surface of the Grail, and it gives the names of the knights who are allowed join the Company of the Grail and to guard it and its temple2.

Wolfram's story appears to be based on a misinterpretation of Chrétien's - in the original, it mentions the Grail moving through the feast many times. The implication is that as Perceval and the others ate, the Grail was carried back to the room a few times, so that whoever was in there could also eat. But Wolfram seems to take it to mean that the Grail floated around of its own accord and that it somehow provided all the food at the feast.

Wolfram also provides some history for Parzifal himself. His father Gahmuret was a Crusader, who had adventures in the Middle East, marrying a dark-skinned queen there. When he returned to Europe, he married again, to a princess. When Gahmuret was killed in battle, Parzifal's mother decided she wanted nothing further to do with knights, and took Parzifal away to live in the forest, keeping away from all contact with the world. This explains why he is so ignorant and naïve, and yet because of his noble blood he is a suitable candidate to become the keeper of the Grail.

Wolfram also goes into quite a lot of detail on the Grail Company, the group of people who looked after the Grail. They were individually chosen by the Grail itself, and after spending a while in the Company were sent out to augment the aristocracy of Europe, providing rulers to places whose legal rulers had died without heirs.

While all this seems quite far removed from Chrétien's original, there is still the story of Parzifal coming to the castle, the procession with the Lance and the Grail (although in this version, the Lance comes first, and then in a separate procession, the Grail and its entourage enter). There is still the wounded king and Parzifal failing to ask the question, him going out into world and questing for years before returning to the castle and finally asking the question, the king being cured and Parzifal becoming the new Keeper of the Grail.

Wolfram claims that he didn't invent the story but heard it from a poet from Provence called Kyot; he in turn found it in an Arabic manuscript in Moorish Toledo, Spain. This suggests that the story was not invented by Chrétien but was in existence already. This is unlikely to be true, as there is no evidence of the story existing before Chrétien wrote it down. There's also no other record of anyone called Kyot. It's much more likely that Wolfram copied Chrétien's story but attributed it to Kyot to make it seem old and trustworthy. The past was held in great reverence at the time, and invention of new material was discouraged. It was a standard way of opening new works to claim they were ancient tales handed down over the centuries, thereby giving them authenticity.

The Vulgate Cycle

This series of four volumes, also known as the Lancelot-Grail, dates from the early 13th Century. It expands greatly on the tales of the knights, giving us the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. In this version of the story, all of Arthur's knights go in search of the Grail; Lancelot, the greatest of the king's champions in terms of skill in battle, almost gets to it, but fails because of his sin of loving the king's wife. Only Galahad is pure and without sin and so he can find the grail and look inside it. The grail appears in lots of unlikely places, and also in different forms, one of which is a chalice (a tall metal cup for drinking out of). What Galahad sees inside the Grail is not clear because it is a vision for him alone. Soon after this, he is taken away in a magical boat (presumably to heaven) and not seen again.

The message here seems to be that the Grail is a mystical object and only the pure can attain it. Galahad's journey in the boat is clearly to heaven, where he will experience everlasting life. So the Grail recognises good from bad, and offers the promise of eternal life. This is very closely tied in with the promises of Christianity itself. The Grail is once again being used as a symbol for Jesus Christ.

Subsequent Centuries

The story of the Grail went out of fashion in the 16th Century - the Reformation was all about going back to basics, and accepting only what was in the Bible. Elaborate fiction with a Christian basis didn't sit well with this. Nothing further was heard of the Grail until the 19th Century when the Romantics started to look into old legends of the past. The stories were resurrected. Wagner wrote his opera Parsifal, largely based on Wolfram's story, but taking the Grail itself as the cup used to hold the blood of Christ, rather than a stone or crystal.

Finding the Grail

There's a legend, which appears to have started in the 12th or 13th Century, that Joseph of Arimathea came to England and founded the abbey of Glastonbury in Somerset3. Robert de Boron's work mentions briefly that the Grail was in the 'vaus d'Avaron' (vale of Avaron), and in later centuries, this was interpreted to mean the 'isle of Avalon', a known alternative name for Glastonbury - if Joseph had been there, it made sense that he might have brought the Grail with him. In fact, there's a place called Avallon very close to where Robert de Boron lived, so it's much more likely he was talking about that.

The monks of Glastonbury never made a big deal of this legend and never claimed that they had the Grail. By the early 20th Century, however, this had been forgotten. A search was made at Glastonbury for the Grail by a man with the unusual name of Wellesley Tudor Pole, and eventually a glass cup was unearthed that appeared to be very old. Everybody said it must be the Grail and it was displayed for a while in a local museum, before fading into obscurity.

This was only the first of many attempts in various places to uncover an actual cup, despite the fact that the Grail had only ever existed in literature. Some of these, such as the Nanteos Grail, appear to have been hoaxes right from the start. Others, such as the Magdalene Chalice, are undoubtedly ancient but unlikely to be anything more than just Roman artefacts.

Cups claiming to be the 'Holy Chalice', the wine cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, although not claiming to be the 'Holy Grail', exist both in Genoa, Italy, and in Valencia, Spain.

The Universal Grail

By the 20th Century, the Grail was taken to mean either the cup used to collect Jesus's blood as he died or the Holy Chalice, the cup that he used for the wine at the Last Supper, also arguably containing his blood. It's this latter meaning that that most infamous of fictional archaeologists, Indiana Jones, uses in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). This Grail will bestow eternal life to anyone who drinks from it. It is hidden in a cave somewhere in the Near East, and is guarded by an immortal English knight.

The Holy Grail has also come to represent any great goal which we strive for but is virtually unachievable. We might say, for example, that the Holy Grail of medical researchers is a simple cure for cancer.

The Holy Blood, the Holy Grail and Da Vinci

The biggest development in the Grail story in recent times must be the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in 1982. Not only was it immensely successful, but its ideas, in only slightly modified form, also appeared in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the most successful book in the English language of the 21st Century (as of 2011).

The basic idea is that Jesus Christ was not a god, but a mere mortal man. He was the rightful ruler of the Jewish state of Palestine. He married Mary Magdalene at the Wedding of Cana, and they had a child. After his death, Mary Magdalene came with the child to France (by an old tradition, landing at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence). Jesus' descendants survived and went on to rule France as the Merovingian kings, and also became rulers of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. A society set up to preserve this secret survives to this day and over the years has had a series of famous leaders, including artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, composer Claude Débussy and poet Jean Cocteau. The Holy Grail is simply the blood-line of Christ. The authors claim that we should be awestruck that the descendants of Christ are still among us, while simultaneously asserting that the same Christ was nothing more than a small-time claimant to the throne of a small country. They don't appear to see the contradiction in this.

The biggest problem with The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is that it is pure speculation, and anything is possible in such flights of fancy. One of the key pieces of 'evidence' is that the phrase San Greal (Holy Grail) could be a corruption of Sang Réal (Royal Blood). Unfortunately for the authors, it isn't. It was mistakenly written down as Sang Réal by John Hardyng in the 15th Century, but earlier references always divide the words correctly as San Greal and in the earliest description it was just a grail, not even holy. Other evidence in the book works on the principle that the rumours the authors uncovered are too bizarre to have been made up, so they must be true. In fact, they were made up, by a French con-man by the name of Pierre Plantard, apparently in an attempt to give himself an impressive lineage, and possibly to lure the rich and gullible to buy into his society. All in all, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is a good story but just a story, and badly told.

Dan Brown did it better, in that he produced an amusing romp through code-breaking, car chases and conspiracy. In his The Da Vinci Code (2003), he tells basically the same story, but never claims it is anything other than fiction. Nevertheless, it has been taken as being based on fact by many readers who want to know more about his Holy Grail. Brown again claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and produced a series of descendants. The exact nature of the Grail and its location are clear only at the end of this passably enjoyable book, so we won't reveal them here.

1The word for novel in French is still 'roman', while this style of story is called a 'romance' in English.2These are sometimes assumed to be the Knights Templars, but that order was in fact a different group of knights, a historical one.3There's no mention of this legend in the early 12th-Century history of Glastonbury by William of Malmesbury. This work was an attempt to show that the Abbey predated the one in Canterbury and should therefore not be subject to it. The author would undoubtedly have mentioned the legend if he had heard it.

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