Holy Grail

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The Damsel of the Sanct Grael by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

The Holy Grail is a vessel that serves as an important motif in Arthurian literature. Different traditions describe it as a cup, dish or stone with miraculous powers that provide happiness, eternal youth or sustenance in infinite abundance, often in the custody of the Fisher King. The term "holy grail" is often used to denote an object or goal that is sought after for its great significance.[1]

A "grail", wondrous but not explicitly holy, first appears in Perceval, le Conte du Graal, an unfinished romance written by Chrétien de Troyes around 1190. Here, Chrétien's story attracted many continuators, translators and interpreters in the later 12th and early 13th centuries, including Wolfram von Eschenbach, who perceived the Grail as a stone. In the late 12th century, Robert de Boron wrote in Joseph d'Arimathie that the Grail was Jesus's vessel from the Last Supper, which Joseph of Arimathea used to catch Christ's blood at the Crucifixion. Thereafter, the Holy Grail became interwoven with the legend of the Holy Chalice, the Last Supper cup, a theme continued in works such as the Vulgate Cycle, the Post-Vulgate Cycle, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.[2]


The word graal, as it is earliest spelled, comes from Old French graal or greal, cognate with Old Provençal grazal and Old Catalan gresal, meaning "a cup or bowl of earth, wood, or metal" (or other various types of vessels in different Occitan dialects).[3] The most commonly accepted etymology derives it from Latin gradalis or gradale via an earlier form, cratalis, a derivative of crater or cratus, which was, in turn, borrowed from Greek krater (κρατήρ, a large wine-mixing vessel).[3][4][5][6][7] Alternative suggestions include a derivative of cratis, a name for a type of woven basket that came to refer to a dish,[8] or a derivative of Latin gradus meaning "'by degree', 'by stages', applied to a dish brought to the table in different stages or services during a meal".[9]

Late medieval writers such as Thomas Malory invented a fanciful new etymology for Old French san-graal (or san-gréal), meaning "Holy Grail", by parsing it as sang real, meaning "royal blood".[10] After the cycle of Grail romances was well established, later writers used this alternative etymology. Since then, "Sang real" is sometimes employed to lend a medievalising air in referring to the Holy Grail. This connection with royal blood bore fruit in a modern bestseller linking many historical conspiracy theories. (See § Modern interpretations below.)

Medieval literature[edit]

Galahad, Bors and Percival achieve the Grail. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co. Wool and silk on cotton warp, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

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 works from the first group are:

  • The Perceval, the Story of the Grail by 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 Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which adapted at least the holiness of Robert's Grail into the framework of Chrétien's story. In Wolfram'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 Benedictine monks, have identified the castle with their real sanctuary of Montserrat in Catalonia.
  • The Didot Perceval, named after the manuscript's former owner, and purportedly a prosification of Robert de Boron's sequel to Joseph d'Arimathie.
  • The Welsh romance Peredur son of Efrawg, generally included in the Mabinogion, likely at least indirectly founded on Chrétien's poem but including very striking differences from it, preserving as it does elements of pre-Christian traditions such as the Celtic cult of the head.
  • Perlesvaus, called the "least canonical" Grail romance because of its very different character.
  • The German Diu Crône (The Crown), in which Gawain, rather than Perceval (Percival), achieves the Grail.
  • The Lancelot section of the vast Vulgate Cycle, which introduces the new Grail hero, Galahad.
  • The Queste del Saint Graal, another part of the Vulgate Cycle, concerning the adventures of Galahad and his achievement of the Grail.

Of the second group 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.
  • Verses by Rigaut de Barbezieux, a late 12th or early 13th-century[11] Provençal troubador, where mention is made of Perceval, the lance, and the Grail ("Like Perceval when he lived, who stood amazed in contemplation, so that he was quite unable to ask what purpose the lance and grail served" - "Attressi con Persavaus el temps que vivia, que s'esbait d'esgarder tant qu'anc non saup demandar de que servia la lansa ni-l grazaus"[12]).

The Grail was considered a bowl or dish when first described by Chrétien de Troyes. There, it is a processional salver, a tray, used to serve at a feast.[13] Hélinand of Froidmont described a grail as a "wide and deep saucer" (scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda); other authors had their own ideas. Robert de Boron portrayed it as the vessel of the Last Supper. Peredur son of Efrawg had no Grail as such, presenting the hero instead with a platter containing his kinsman's bloody, severed head.[14]

Chrétien de Troyes[edit]

The Grail is first featured in Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail) by Chrétien de Troyes,[15] who claims he was working from a source book given to him by his patron, Count Philip of Flanders.[16] 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".[17]

Chrétien refers to this object not as "The Grail" but as "a grail" (un graal), showing the word was used, in its earliest literary context, as a common noun. For Chrétien a 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 honour. The story of the Wounded King's mystical fasting is not unique; several saints were said to have lived without food besides communion, for instance Saint Catherine of Genoa. This may imply that Chrétien intended the Mass wafer to be the significant part of the ritual, and the Grail to be a mere prop.[18]

Wolfram von Eschenbach[edit]

In Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach, citing the authority of a certain (probably fictional) Kyot the Provençal, claimed the Grail was a Stone (called Lapsit exillis[19] which in alchemy is the name of the Philosopher's stone), the sanctuary of the neutral angels who took neither side during Lucifer's rebellion.[19]

Joseph Campbell considered Parzival the greatest of the Grail stories, told from a heroic view, where Parzival, is a married man and a self-motivated figure.[2] There are Alchemical and Gnostic themes running through Wolfram's Parzival. Campbell sees the Grail as, "...a stone vessel, which was brought down from heaven. Now what he (Wolfram) is doing is imitating the Muslim Kaaba, the stone at Mecca that was brought down from heaven".[20] At the end of the story, writing appears on the stone which reads: "...any Templar whom God should bestow on a distant people for their lord must forbid them to ask his name of lineage, but must help them gain their rights".[21] Campbell explains that for the first time in the history of civilization: "Here is the idea of the king ruling, not in his name, but in the name of the people."[22]

Robert de Boron[edit]

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 its Christian context.[23] 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 authors of the Vulgate Cycle used the Grail as a symbol of divine grace; Galahad, illegitimate son of Lancelot and Elaine, the world's greatest knight and the Grail Bearer at the castle of Corbenic, is destined to achieve the Grail, his spiritual purity making him a greater warrior than even his illustrious father.[24] Galahad and the interpretation of the Grail involving him were picked up in the 15th century by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d'Arthur and remain popular today.[25]

Modern interpretations[edit]

Scholarly hypotheses[edit]

Scholars have long speculated on the origins of the Holy Grail before Chrétien, suggesting that it may contain elements of the trope of magical cauldrons from Celtic mythology combined with Christian legend surrounding the Eucharist,[26] the latter found in Eastern Christian sources, conceivably in that of the Byzantine Mass, or even Persian sources.[27] The view that the "origin" of the Grail legend should be seen as deriving from Celtic mythology was championed by Roger Sherman Loomis, Alfred Nutt and Jessie Weston. 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.

The opposing view dismissed the "Celtic" connections as spurious and interpreted the legend as essentially Christian in origin. Joseph Goering of the University of Toronto 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, Spain), 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 Chrétien de Troyes. Goering argues that they were the original inspiration for the Grail legend.[28][29]

Psychologists Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz used analytical psychology to interpret the Grail as a series of symbols in their book The Grail Legend.[30] This expanded on interpretations by Carl Jung, which were later invoked by Joseph Campbell.[30]

Richard Barber (2004) argued that the Grail legend is connected to the introduction of "more ceremony and mysticism" surrounding the sacrament of the Eucharist in the high medieval period, proposing that the first Grail stories may have been connected to the "renewal in this traditional sacrament".[31] Scavone[who?] (1999, 2003) has argued that the "Grail" in origin referred to the Shroud of Turin.[32] Goulven Peron (2016) suggested that the Holy Grail may reflect the horn of the river-god Achelous as described by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.[33]


The Grail legend was incorporated with the "Priory of Sion" hoax and popularised in the 1982 Holy Blood, Holy Grail. The narrative developed here is that Jesus survived the cross to father children with Mary Magdalene whose descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty. The "Grail" is taken as a reference to Mary Magdalene and the Merovingian lineage as the "receptacle" of Jesus' bloodline (playing on the sang real etymology).[34][35] In The Sign and the Seal (1992), Graham Hancock asserts that the Grail story is a coded description of the Ark of the Covenant.[36]


The story of the Grail and of the quest to find it became increasingly popular in the 19th century, referred to in literature such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Arthurian cycle the Idylls of the King. A sexualised interpretation of the grail, now identified with female genitalia, appeared in 1870 in Hargrave Jennings' book The Rosicrucians, Their Rites and Mysteries.[37]

T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922) loosely follows the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King combined with vignettes of contemporary British society. In his first note to the poem Eliot attributes the title to Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance. The allusion is to the wounding of the Fisher King and the subsequent sterility of his lands. A poem strikingly similar in theme and language called written by Madison Cawein, was published in 1913 in Poetry.[38]

Music and painting[edit]

The combination of hushed reverence, chromatic harmonies and sexualized imagery in Richard Wagner's late opera Parsifal, premiered in 1882, developed this theme, associating the grail – now periodically producing blood – directly with female fertility.[41] The high seriousness of the subject was also epitomized in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting in which a woman modeled by Alexa Wilding holds the Grail with one hand, while adopting a gesture of blessing with the other.[42]

A major mural series depicting the Quest for the Holy Grail was done by the artist Edwin Austin Abbey during the first decade of the 20th century for the Boston Public Library. Other artists, including George Frederic Watts[43] and William Dyce, also portrayed grail subjects.[44]

Film and other media[edit]

Diary from the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade displayed at the Hollywood Museum

In the cinema, the Holy Grail debuted in the 1904 silent film Parsifal. More recent adaptations of the motif include the hit films Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and The Fisher King (1991).

  • The Silver Chalice, a novel about the Grail by Thomas B. Costain, was made into a 1954 film.
  • In The Light of Faith (1922), Lon Chaney attempted to steal the Grail.
  • Lancelot du Lac (1974) was made by Robert Bresson.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is a comedic adaptation, adapted in 2004 as the stage production Spamalot.
  • John Boorman, in his film Excalibur (1985), attempted to restore a more traditional heroic representation of an Arthurian tale, in which the Grail is revealed as a mystical means to revitalise Arthur and the barren land to which his depressive sickness is connected.
  • Influenced by the 1982 publication of the ostensibly non-fiction The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) the "grail" is taken to refer to Mary Magdalene as the "receptacle" of Jesus' bloodline (playing on the sang real etymology). In Brown's novel, it is hinted that this Grail was long buried beneath Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, but that in recent decades its guardians had it moved to a secret chamber embedded in the floor beneath the Inverted Pyramid in the entrance of the Louvre museum.
  • It is also a central theme in the Stargate SG-1 (season 10) episode "The Quest".
  • In the Fate series and related spinoffs, the Holy Grail serves as the prize of the Holy Grail War, granting a single wish to the victor of the battle royale. However, it's hinted at throughout the series that this Grail is not the real chalice of Christ, but is actually an item of uncertain nature created by mages some generations ago.
  • In the video game Persona 5, the Holy Grail is the Treasure of the game's final Palace, representing the combined desires of all of humanity for a higher power to take control their lives and make a world that has no sense of individuality.
  • In the television series Knightfall, the search for the Holy Grail by the Knights Templar is a major theme of the series' first season. The Grail, which appears as a simple earthenware cup, is coveted by various factions including the Pope, who thinks that possession of it will enable him to ignite another Crusade.
  • In the season one episode "Grail" of the television series Babylon 5, a man named Aldous Gajic visits Babylon 5 in his continuing quest to find the Holy Grail. His quest is primarily a plot device - the episode's action revolves not around the quest but rather around his presence and impact on the life of a station resident.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Merium-Webster. "Definition of Holy Grail". Merium-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2017. 
  2. ^ a b Campbell, Joseph. Transformations of Myth Through Time. Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1990, page 210.
  3. ^ a b Diez, Friedrich. An etymological dictionary of the Romance languages, Williams and Norgate, 1864, p. 236.
  4. ^ Nitze, William A. Concerning the Word Graal, Greal, Modern Philology, Vol. 13, No. 11 (Mar., 1916), pp. 681-684 .
  5. ^ Jung, Emma and von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Grail Legend, Princeton University Press, 1998, pp. 116-117.
  6. ^ Skeat, Walter William. Joseph of Arimathie, Pub. for the Early English Text Society, by N. Trübner & Co., 1871, pp. xxxvi-xxxvii
  7. ^ Mueller, Eduard. Etymologisches Wörterbuch der englischen Sprache: A-K, chettler, 1865, p. 461.
  8. ^ Barber, Richard. The Holy Grail: imagination and belief, Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 93.
  9. ^ Richard O'Gorman, "Grail" in Norris J. Lacy, The Arthurian Encyclopedia, 1986
  10. ^ Barber, Richard, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 215.
  11. ^ Barber, Richard. The Holy Grail: imagination and belief, Harvard University Press, 2004, p 418
  12. ^ Sayce, Olive. Exemplary comparison from Homer to Petrarch, DS Brewer, 2008, p. 143.
  13. ^ Staines, David. (Trans.) The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1990, page 380.
  14. ^ Guest, Lady Charlotte. The Mabinogion. A Facsimile Reproduction of the Complete 1877 Edition, Academy Press Limited Edition 1978, Chicago, Ill. page 124.
  15. ^ Loomis, Roger Sherman (1991). The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol[permanent dead link]. Princeton. ISBN 0-691-02075-2
  16. ^ According to a French scholar, the book given by Philip I may be Ovid's The Metamorphoses, in POZ #76(in French).
  17. ^ Staines, David. (Trans.) The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1990, page 379.
  18. ^ Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, (1991), Page 184. Princeton. ISBN 0-691-02075-2
  19. ^ a b Von Eschenbach, Wolfram. Parzival. Hatto, A.T. translator. Penguin Books, 1980, page 239.
  20. ^ Campbell, Joseph. Transformations of Myth Through Time. Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1990, page 246.
  21. ^ Von Eschenbach, Wolfram. Parzival. Hatto, A.T. translator. Penguin Books, 1980, page 406.
  22. ^ Campbell, Joseph. Transformations of Myth Through Time. Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1990, page 259.
  23. ^ Weston, Jessie L. From Ritual To Romance. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1993 (originally published 1920) p.161.
  24. ^ The Quest of The Holy Grail, translated by Matarasso, P.M., Penguin Books, 1969, page 60.
  25. ^ Malory, Sir Thomas, Le Morte D’Arthur, Penguin Books, 1969, Volume II, page 256.
  26. ^ Weston, Jessie L. From Ritual To Romance. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1993 (originally published 1920) p.74 & p.129,
  27. ^ Jung, Emma and von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Grail Legend, Sigo Press, Boston, 1980, p. 14.
  28. ^ Goering, Joseph (2005). The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10661-0. [1]
  29. ^ Rynor, Micah (October 20, 2005). "Holy Grail legend may be tied to paintings". www.news.utoronto.ca.
  30. ^ a b Barber, 248–252.
  31. ^ Barber, Richard (2004). The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01390-5. [2]
  32. ^ D. Scavone: "Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail and the Edessa Icon," Arthuriana vol. 9, no. 4, 3-31 (Winter 1999) (Article and abstract) ;Scavone, "British King Lucius, the Grail and Joseph of Arimathea: The Question of Byzantine Origins.", Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest 10 (2003): 101-42, vol. 10, 101-142 (2003).
  33. ^ Peron, Goulven. L'influence des Metamorphoses d'Ovide sur la visite de Perceval au chateau du Roi Pecheur, Journal of the International Arthurian Society, Vol. 4, Issue 1, 2016, p. 113-134.
  34. ^ Baigent, Michael; Leigh, Richard; Lincoln, Henry (1983). Holy Blood, Holy Grail. New York: Dell. ISBN 0-440-13648-2
  35. ^ Juliette Wood, "The Holy Grail: From Romance Motif to Modern Genre", Folklore, Vol. 111, No. 2. (October 2000), pp. 169-190.
  36. ^ Hancock, Graham (1992). The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. New York: Crown. ISBN 0517578131. 
  37. ^ Writing of the Order of the Garter ceremonies Jennings writes on page 323:- The whole refers to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; set round as sentinels ('in lodge') of the Sangreal, or Holy Graal--the 'Sacrifice Mysterious', or 'Eucharist'. But how is all this magic and sacred in the estimate of the Rosicrucians?' an inquirer will very naturally ask. The answer to all this is very, ample and satisfactory; but particulars must be left to the sagacity of the querist himself, because propriety does not admit of explanation. Suffice it to say, that it is one of the most curious and wonderful subjects which has occupied the attention of antiquaries. That archaeological puzzle, the 'Round Table of King Arthur', is a perfect display of this whole subject of the origin of the 'Garter'; it springs directly from it, being the same object as that enclosed by the mythic garter, 'garder', or 'girther.'
  38. ^ January 1913. "January 1913 : Poetry Magazine". Poetryfoundation.org. Retrieved 21 November 2012. 
  39. ^ "Preface" to A Glastonbury Romance. London: Macdonald, 1955, p. xiii.
  40. ^ Krissdottir, Morine. Descent of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys. London: Overlook Press, 2007, pp. 252-3.
  41. ^ Donington, Robert (1963). Wagner's "Ring" and its Symbols: the Music and the Myth. Faber
  42. ^ "Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828–1882, Tate". 
  43. ^ "George Frederick Watts, 1860-62, Sir Galahad, oil on canvas, 191.8 x 107 cm, Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Museum". 
  44. ^ Shichtman, Martin B.; Carley, James P., (eds.) Culture and the King: The Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend, SUNY Press, Albany, N.Y., 1994, p. 264.

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