The Holy Grail: Sacred Cup or Female Prophet?

  By 3psi|0n, 19 June 2007; Revised
  Category: Medieval Europe
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The Holy Grail, in today’s society has been misleadingly portrayed through books, movies and Grail legends to be a Sacred Cup, which bestowed special powers upon the individual who drank from it, and that person had to be noble enough with a true heart in order to be worthy of finding the grail. However, while this is but the most commonly known and accepted theory, it is only one of many possible explanations to what the grail actually is.

[Perceval, le Conte du Graals]
The Grail is first featured in Perceval, le Conte du Graals, where there is a main character by the name of Perceval, who encounters the grail but is prevented from fulfilling his destiny because of his immaturity, and he must grow spiritually and mentally before he can locate it again. In later tales, the Grail is a symbol of God's grace, available to all but only fully realised by those who prepare themselves spiritually. Also, in typical Grail stories and legends, there are many recurring themes. One of them is the unknown vessel or object that sustains life; the grail, which is usually found in a mysterious castle. In this castle there is usually a king, who sends the knight out on a quest. There will be many attempts in this quest, and not every knight is eligible to stand before this vessel. Also, there is always a beautiful girl who is holding the vessel. The knight also has to be familiar with chivalry, and act accordingly. The vessel can be characterized in a procession with many jewels adorning it, or it can simply be made of gold.

[Christian Mythology, the Arthurian Cycle]
According to Christian mythology, the Holy Grail was the dish, plate, or cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, said to possess miraculous powers. The connection of Joseph of Arimathea with the Grail legend dates from Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie (late 12th century) in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Great Britain; building upon this theme, later writers recounted how Joseph used the Grail to catch Christ's blood while interring him and that in Britain he founded a line of guardians to keep it safe. The quest for the Holy Grail makes up an important segment of the Arthurian cycle, appearing first in works by Chrétien de Troyes. The legend may combine Christian lore with a Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with special powers. The development of the Grail legend has been traced in detail by cultural historians: It is a legend which first came together in the form of written romances, deriving perhaps from some pre-Christian folklore hints, in the later 12th and early 13th centuries. The early Grail romances centered on Percival and were woven into the more general Arthurian fabric. Some of the Grail legend is interwoven with legends of the Holy Chalice.

[Joseph d’Arimathie]

Even 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 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.

[Ch16, The End of the Quest, The Grail from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol]

Chapter XVI, The End of the Quest, from the book The Grail from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, attempts to solve questions about the Holy Grail like where it originated, what significance its story had in its earliest form or forms, how it was propagated and transmitted, what the secret of its extraordinary appeal to the imagination was, why there was such inconsistency and variety in its forms, what other possible influences there were on it, and are there any central and significant messages for posterity that is yet to be discovered?

The Holy Grail was traditionally the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper
The Holy Grail was traditionally the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper
The Grail
The Grail legends form a branch of the popular Arthurian cycle, and would therefore have been interpreted by scholars who had learnt about the origin and development of that cycle, taking into account special factors such as mythical, ritualistic, and doctrinal, even though they hardly affected the other Arthurian romances.

The starting-point of the Grail tradition is though to be Ireland. The Irish derivation of several principal elements in the Tristan romance is now widely accepted by those familiar with the evidence. The suspected similar origin for the various abductions of Guinevere and other recurrent Arthurian motifs suggest an antecedent probability that there may be similarities between the Grail stories and the Irish sagas.

The Irish sagas which present the most significant resemblance in outline or in conspicuous features to the versions of the visit to the grail castle and are classed as echtrai, and tell of the visits of mortals to the island homes or the palaces of the immortals, where they are regaled sumptuously with drink and food, and witness marvels. In the echtrai, someone finds counter-parts of the inviting host, the damsel bearing a golden vessel, the disappearance of the host, the wasteland which needs to be disenchanted, and the chess-boards of precious metal. In other Irish sagas someone discovers self-moving drinking horns, a damsel of hideous aspect who is metamorphosed into a radiant beauty, a blood-feud brought on by the slaying of the hero’s father, and one modern Irish folk-tale seems to have preserved the unique counterpart of the question test.

Irish literature and oral tradition, as the best authorities agree, had a profound influence on the Welsh, and when the sagas mentioned passed over to Wales they blended with similar native traditions. In Welsh literature, moreover, one can detect the originals of the Maimed king and the dwarf king in Bran and Beli,, the nexus between the king’s health and the fertility and prosperity of his kingdom, an island Elysium whose denizens are exempt from old age, and a group of magic talismans of the grail castle in Perlesvaus. Of these, the drinking horn of Bran and the platter of Rhydderch are of supreme importance, the latter being the counterpart of the Grail.

The chapter then goes on for a while, eventually to the how the Celtic legend was transmitted to the non-Celtic world, which was accomplished almost entirely by the cousins of the Welsh, the bilingual Bretons. These were a class of professional story-tellers and singers who ranged the European continent and Great Britain, finding patrons wherever French was understood and creating prodigious vogue for these novel and romantic tales, particularly in the courts of kings and courts and the halls of barons and knights. Though scorned and denounced at first by the clergy, these conteurs finally won their opponents over, to the extent that by the end of the twelfth century several romances can be attributed to clerical authorship, and by 1230 the great Vulgate cycle had been composed, at least in large part, in the cloister.

However, in the process of translating and adapting this to French audiences and readers, the somewhat wild and fanatic stories of Celtic heathendom, mistakes and misconceptions occurred inevitably. One of the misinterpretations, which was frequently repeated, had momentous consequences for the development of the grail legend.

After having had a look at a few of the many different perspectives on the Holy Grail and the Grail legends, I have to conclude that I am more convinced by the idea of the cup being the centre of the mysterious Grail. That being said, I still think that even though the cup is involved, I believe that it by itself is not the grail. But instead the that is undertaken by the various personalities that have been portrayed in several of the numerous stories and such. And only after the individual has proven themselves worthy, can they truly obtain the ‘grail’, which would serve as a symbol to their efforts and accomplishments they have achieved along the way.


F.J. Remy


The Holy Grail

New York

Robert Appleton Company



Roger Sherman Loomis


The Grail from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol


Chapter XVI, Pg 270-277


Emma Jung and Marie-Louise Von Franz


The Grail Legend


Chapter XXIII, pg 378-389


Richard Barber


The Holy Grail – Imagination and Belief


Chapter 21


Michael McGoodwin

18 February 2006



Evaluative review - "The Grail from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol"

With chapter XVI, pg 270-277 of ‘ by Roger Sherman Loomis, which is a secondary source as it is a written account of one of the grail legends, is very useful as it provides a wealth of information about one of the perspectives on the Holy Grail and Grail Legends. However, this source can be seen as somewhat biased because it fails to mention many of the other ideas and perspectives relating to the grail, and only focuses almost entirely on one. This has a great impact on the reliability of the source when it comes to considering if any of the other ideas may be related to the one it is written about, as well as if it may have left out some details about the relationships between the other ideas and its own. With these negative aspects of the source aside, it still proved to be extremely valuable source for this project as it provided much information even if it was only about the idea that it was presenting, which was that the grail was a cup that encountered once but failed to ask about it, and had to overcome his immaturity before he is able to re-encounter it and learn more about it.