Ask Ivor

Figbar asks: "What is the Holy Grail?"

The Holy Grail is primarily a creation of writers of medieval "romances"—stories based on legend, chivalric love, and adventure.

The earliest surviving text to mention the Holy Grail is Le Roman de Perceval, written by the French poet Chretien de Troyes around 1180, in which the young and inexperienced knight Perceval meets a fisherman who invites him to his nearby castle, where, during dinner, Perceval several times sees a procession of men and women pass by, carrying a peculiar assortment of objects: a white lance that drips blood from its point, two ten-branched candlesticks, a graal (bowl) made of gold and adorned with jewels and giving off a brilliant light, and a silver platter. Perceval is curious but asks no questions. Waking in the morning, he finds the castle entirely deserted. After leaving the castle he meets one woman who tells him that his host was the Fisher King, wounded by a spear that had pierced both his thighs, and that Perceval's failure to ask about the Grail has prevented the king from being healed; and another woman who informs him that it is imperative the Fisher King be healed, otherwise "ladies will lose their husbands, lands will be laid waste... and many knights will die." Perceval sets out on a quest to once again find the Fisher King and the Grail. He spends five years searching, having many adventures, all the while learning about chivalry and spirituality. At the end of Chretien's unfinished poem, Perceval learns that the Grail contains the body of Christ in the form of bread, and a hermit tells him to "believe in God, love God, worship God."

Parzival, written by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach around 1200, identifies the Grail as a magical stone, fallen from heaven ("a host of angels left it on the earth"), that provides whatever food or drink is desired, and also has the power to cure sickness and even aging: "Such power does the stone give a man that flesh and bones are at once made young again." Wolfram's Parzival, like Chretien's, undergoes a spiritual education during his quest for the Grail, and his adventures in chivalry teach him to reject the enticements of the world and to devote himself to divine principles.

Another French poet, Robert de Borron, also around the year 1200, wrote, in his Joseph D'Arimathie, that the Holy Grail was the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, and also used to catch Christ's blood during the crucifixion, and that the cup was later brought to England by Jesus' disciple Joseph of Arimathea.

The Queste del Saint Graal, a prose work written by an unidentified Cistercian monk around 1225, presents the Grail as the dish which held the Passover lamb at the Last Supper. As in Parzival, the Grail can heal the sick, and provide each person with the food they desire. But more importantly the Grail contains "the mysteries and hidden sweets of our Lord, the divine secrets which the most high Master will disclose" to those who are chaste in thought, word and deed. Three knights—Perceval, Bors and Galahad—prove worthy enough to find the Grail, and Christ himself appears to serve them communion from the Grail. Galahad—the chief Grail hero in this version, and a man "so grounded in the love of Christ that no adventure could tempt him into sin"—is allowed to look inside the Grail, and he sees "those things that the heart of man cannot conceive nor tongue relate, my heart was ravished with such joy and bliss... for so great a host of angels was before me and such a multitude of heavenly beings, that I was translated in that moment from the earthly plane to the celestial...."

Various other stories of the Grail were written in the 13th century, in French, in German, and in English, but it is the Queste which came to be the most widely read and to have the most influence on later works, such as Thomas Malory's 15th century Le Morte Darthur.

There are a number of theories about where the writers of the Grail stories got their ideas.

Some regard the Fisher King, wounded in the thighs (or, according to Wolfram, pierced through the testicles) and whose healing is necessary to restore the land to wholeness, as evidence of a fertility cult, with a dying and reviving vegetation god.

The miraculous powers of the Grail are assumed to be associated with the magical vessels-of-plenty and life-giving cauldrons of Celtic mythology.

The lessons in chivalry that the Grail heroes undergo are a reflection of the age of the Crusades, when the knights of Christian Europe joined together in international religious orders, practicing chastity, protection of the weak, preservation of gallantry and honor, loyalty to superiors, pursuit of glory, slaughter of the infidels, and the like.

The Joseph of Arimathea connection, some suggest, was an attempt by the English church to establish an ecclesiastical authority independent of the papacy in Rome, by creating a tradition that linked the English church directly back to Jerusalem. Others suggest that Joseph was brought into the story not because of reservations toward Rome, but simply to more effectively camouflage and Christianize the pagan origins of the Grail.

The mystical experiences of the Grail knights are said to echo the mystical doctrines and teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux.

And then there are the more esoteric theories, such as that the Grail cup was fashioned by angels from an emerald that dropped from Lucifer's forehead when he was hurled into the abyss, or that Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, went back into the Garden of Eden and there obtained the Grail from God as a sign that God had not forgotten mankind, or that the Grail was not a dish but was a casket in which Jesus' blood-stained burial cloths were kept and that this object was discovered in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, or that the Grail that contained Jesus' "blood" was Mary Magdalene's womb and that Mary and her children traveled to the south of France where Jesus' bloodline became the Merovingian dynasty and the Order of the Knights Templar during the First Crusade found proof of this genealogy in the Stables of Solomon beneath the Temple....

And some suggest that the Holy Grail appearing in the center of King Arthur's round table is symbolically comparable to the Hindu Wheel of Transformations or the Chinese image for heaven—a jade disk with a hole in the center—and that it is a symbol of duality, the center contrasted with the circumference, unity with multiplicity, space and time versus spacelessness and timelessness. In the legend of the Accursed Hunter the priest interrupts the Mass to chase after a hare, the soul abandoning the center to chase worldly things, whereas the Grail quester moves in the opposite direction, seeking the mystic center—which, depending on your philosophical preference, is either non-being, emptiness and nothingness, or else illumination, happiness and wholeness.