There are many definitions of what this revered and most holy of objects is. It is widely believed that the Holy Grail is a dish, plate, cup, or stone that has strong links within Arthurian literature. Chrétien de Troyes in his unfinished romance, Perceval le Gallois depicted it as a ceremonial salver. Wolfram von Eschenbach made it a precious stone called, lapis exillis, which fell from Heaven and had been the sanctuary of angels who stood apart from either side during Lucifer’s rebellion; The angelic equivalent of ‘sitting on the fence.’
Another theory holds that the earliest stories that depicted the Grail in a Christian way were simply meant to promote the sacrament of Holy Communion. A train of thought championed by Roger Sherman Loomis, amongst others, holds that the Grail legend comes from early Celtic mythology. Loomis traced similarities between medieval Welsh literature and Iris literature and the Grail romances.
There are also those who would argue that the Holy Grail is not an artefact at all but rather a symbol of attaining spiritual enlightenment. The Grail has of course featured in works of non-fiction. Generally such works seek to interpret its meaning in new ways. 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. This type of interpretation had previously been used by Carl Jung, and later by Joseph Campbell.
What’s in a name? Well on this occasion, apparently, a whole lot! The word, in its earliest spelling, Graal, comes from the Old French meaning ‘a cup or bowl of earth, wood, or metal’. The Catholic Encyclopaedia tells us that late medieval writers developed a false etymology for sangréal, an alternative name for the Holy Grail. In old French san graal or san gréal means Holy Grail and sang real means royal blood. Sang real is sometimes used in order to give the Holy Grail a medieval air. We can see the connection with royal blood in, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which claims that the real Grail is not a cup but rather refers to Mary Magdalene as the receptacle of Jesus’ blood line and, of course in Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.
The Formation of The Grail legend.
Early Grail literature fell into two types. The first, Grail romances, are concerned with King Arthur’s knights visiting the Grail castle or setting out on a quest to find the Grail. The second stream is concerned with the history of the Grail in the time of Joseph of Arimathea.
The Grail legends became connected with the legends of the Holy Chalice; Joseph of Arimathea and the vessels of the Last Supper and crucifixion of Jesus, when Robert de Baron published Joseph d’Arimathie, in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Great Britain. Later writers built on this and wrote how Joseph used the Grail to catch Christ’s blood and founded a society of guardians to keep it safe.
Belief in the Grail has never ceased and it is as popular now as ever. Next time we will look at modern stories of the Grail and speculations as to its whereabouts.