13 June 2006

Grail Questions

1st Edition: 15 December 1993
2nd Edition: 5 June 2006

Un graal entre ses dues mains 3220
Une Damoisele tenoit
Qui avec les valles venoit,
Bele et gente et bien acsemee….
Li graaus, qui aloit devant, 3232
De fin or emere estoit;
Prescieuses pierres avoit
El grail, de maintes manieres,
Des plus riches et des plus chieres 3236
Qui en mer ne en terre soient;
Totes autres pierres passoient
Celes del graal sanz dotance. [1]


Before we can begin any serious discussion of the Holy Grail, we must first, I think, do a bit to debunk the topic. There is much about the Grail that leads many to contemplate its mysteries; even to discussions, scholarly and otherwise, of what, in fact, the Grail might be. So much so that it seems to the serious researcher to have become a sort of “Where’s Waldo” exercise of discerning doppelgangers and obstructive theories.

The Grail legend made its very first appearance in the unfinished work of Chretien de Troyes c. 1190 and spawned a series of continuations and variations over the following 50 years. So many variations exist in this body of work; Chretien and his continuators, Robert de Boron’s Grail Cycle, the Vulgate-Lancelot Cycle and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Germanic variation, that it seems prudent to present a Grail “framework” that relates the most common elements of all these.

The Common Grail: A young knight happens upon the Grail Castle and meets the Wounded King. The Grail and a Bleeding Lance, and other less wonderous items are shown to the knight in a procession. The knight, though either amazement, selfishness or because he’s been advised not to ask too many questions of a host, fails to ask about the Grail and, or the Lance; what they mean, what their purpose is, whom they serve. The knight learns that if he had asked, the Wounded King would have been healed and his kingdom restored. The knight vows to seek the Grail Castle/Grail/Lance again and set right his misdeed. Passing many adventures, progressing as a knight he eventually finds the object of the quest and asks the necessary question. The Wounded King and his lands are healed and the knight is rewarded.

Even this Common Grail does not really incorporate the Vulgate-Lancelot, which features four Grail heroes, and no Wounded King. It is this variation, not only in the tale, but in the details of how the Grail is used, portrayed, behaves, and described, not to mention the use (and misuse) of them that have lead to a dazzling array of “Grails.”

So malleable is the idea of the Grail that it is difficult for anyone to get a handle on it; to define it. In fact, one becomes afraid to define it, for fear of diminishing some of its potency. Even so, I have found what seem to be three different Grails: the Fantastic Grail, the Christian Grail and the Pagan Grail.[2]

The Fantastic Grail

Perceval (a medieval knight) and a Hedgehog are standing together on a drawbridge to a castle. Just beyond the open portcullis there is, suspended in the air, a grail.

Perceval: What is this strange grail at the end of the drawbridge? Somehow it reminds me of a story.
Hedgehog: That is the Grail.
Perceval: Could it be that this grail appears somewhat fantastic? Something is not right about that Grail.
Hedgehog: It is the Grail. The vessel that provides food of whatever sort is desired to whoever shall desire it.
Perceval: But the grail hasn’t been invented yet. It will only be invented by Chretien de Troyes some five hundred years from now. And thus I have proved that your grail is impossible.
Hedgehog: A persuasive argument Perceval. But is it not beautiful anyway?
Perceval: Yes. It is that. Do you think a lot about Beauty, Hedgehog?
Hedgehog: Oh no. I never seem to have time to think about Essences or Archetypes.
Perceval: Not even the Meaning of Life?
Hedgehog: No. Never.[3]

At its most abstract, the Grail is that which is striven for but cannot be achieved; the quixotic “Impossible Dream.” The dramatic call it “the quest for the eternal” and the pragmatic call it a Utopian dream. For those of us who fall somewhere between, it is a symbol malleable enough to fit into any time or life.

Perhaps, some would caution, we should not delve too far into the matter for fear of dispelling the magic and wonder that the Grail commands. I’ve never been one for accepting the unexamined and, like Indiana Jones confronted with a selection of cups to choose from, I’m willing to take the chance that making an enlightened choice will be more healing than divisive. In fact, I chose to take my cue from the Grail hero; that only by asking the questions, will the Quest be completed.

Origins: What is it?

Chretien de Troyes did not bother to capitalize his use of the world graal, having not foreseen, perhaps, the eminent position to which this artifact would ascend. His mention of it though is the very first mention known from the late 12th Century. He does tell us, however, that is made of gold and is encrusted with precious gems. The first to use the capitalized word was Robert de Boron, a later writer who adapted and completed Chretien’s unfinished Perceval. De Boron’s Grail had become more mystical and had gained the appellation “Holy” in its title.

Chretien did not explicitly tell us that the graal was a cup as our modern view says.[4] This silence also afflicts all other early Grail writers except de Boron. It is he who originates what would become our modern view of the Grail. The unknown author of the First Continuation makes the Grail expressly Christian, claiming that is was the vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea made and set at the foot of the Cross to catch the blood of Christ at his Crucifixion. De Boron also relates that it was the very Chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. This link between Grail and the character of Joseph of Arimathea was inspired by the fourth century Gospel of Nicodemus[5], an apocryphal work which speaks of the Acts of Pilate and Christ’s descent into Hell.[6] Here we learn the actions of Joseph, whom the Canonical Gospels[7] agree obtained the body of Christ from the Roman authorities and with Nicodemus (supported by John’s Gospel) quickly prepared for his burial before sunset signaled the beginning of the Sabbath. In Nicodemus, nor in the Canonical Gospels, for that matter, no vessel is mentioned, only the association of Joseph of Arimathea with the Body of Christ.[8] Despite this, the divergence of the nature of the Grail continued, and in fact continues even today.

Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose Parzival is hailed by many as a literary achievement of the Middle Ages second only to Dante’s Divine Comedy, describes the Grail instead as a stone which chooses those who serve it by writing that appears on its surface. Perlesvaus identifies it with the cup of the Crucifixion, but does not mention the Last Supper and it undergoes a further transformation; Gawain, who has joined Perceval as a Grail hero, sees visions of the Grail in three different forms and Perceval sees five. The Prose Lancelot provides no description at all but calls it the Sankgreal, or “Royal Blood,”[9] and the Queste del Saint Graal describes it as the Beatific Vision. De Boron’s vision though, as mentioned earlier, is the one that persists popularly today, because of the popularity of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, inspired by de Boron’s tale, as well as the still latter acceptance by Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson of Malory’s version.[10]

The Christian Grail

The Christian Grail is not merely the cup of the Last Supper. Not enough that this cup should have held the transubstantiated Blood of Christ from the very first Eucharist or that it touched the lips of Christ as well as those of all the Apostles, it also was used by its guardian, and possibly craftsman, Joseph of Arimathea, to catch the actual Blood of Christ after the Deposition.

From there it was, in most stories of the Maitre de Bretagne, transported to Britain by Joseph of his family.[11] Most modern authors, playwrights and movie writers begin with this story as given.[12] But as we have seen there are no limits to the variations even among the contemporary stories. George Lucas’ version, for example, is unique in that it does not mention the Crucifixion cup aspect, but only the Last Supper connection.

These inconsistencies have lead some to say that we do not know what the word ‘Grail,’ or Chretien’s original ‘graal,’ means and have taken this as their cue to develop theories that range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Others have stated that we do know the definition.

“Graal,’ they say, is a reflex of the Latin ‘graddale,’ which means “by degree” or “at stages.” This applied to a platter brought to the table at courses of a meal. Further argument says that this word was in use in French and can be found in other writing of the Middle Ages such as the definition given by Helinand de Froidmont in the early 13th Century:

Gradalis autem sive grfadale gallice dictur scutella lata et aliqantulum profunda in qua pretosae dapes com suo jure divitibus solent apponi gradatim,… et dictur vulgari nomine graalz.

This is:

‘A wide and somewhat deep dish in which costly meats and their broths are customarily placed for the rich,… and it is commonly called a grail.’[13]

While I am not prepared to accept this definition, it follows Chretien’s use of the word, others who also did not found themselves far afield, for they did accept something else that I cannot. It is the one thread that runs through nearly all the theories, visions and miracles discussed so far.

This assumption was only natural to writers of the Middle Ages. In fact, not to have accepted it might have got the writer into quite a lot of trouble. That assumption is that the Grail must be a Christian artifact, relic or symbol. Interestingly, the Christian Church, then and in its modern forms has never accepted the Grail as an actual relic and in fact holds the Grail stories as somewhat heterodox.

Still, because it works so well, because not knowing precisely what it is allows it to be what one likes, and apparently Christian to boot, it has become an extremely powerful symbol of that faith that has never truly embraced it. Even those who say, today, that this dish or cup idea is itself rubbish, such as the genealogist who believes that it was in fact the reliquary of the Shroud of Turin,[14] or even Leigh, Baigent and Lincoln who spin a tale to demonstrate that the Grail is not Christian at all, but the Jewish royal bloodline of David, passed on by a married Christ who either survived or escaped the Crucifixion,[15] to his descendants, the Merovingian dynasty of France,[16] still buy into the basic idea of a Christian origin of the Grail.

The Pagan Grail

If this is true, then a real artifact of the importance that has been described was never spoken of until Chretien nearly 11 centuries after the fat. That seems absurd, barring an attempt to expunge such mention from the record—but what motive would there be for that?

If it was not a real relic then it must have been an invention of Chretien’s imagining. Or an invention of Chretien’s discovering. Two scholars, while traversing different paths, have arrived at the same conclusion. Chretien, they say, did not invent the Grail, nor did he, properly, invent any of his romances. His stories were retellings of ancient Irish tales, updated to his time.

The first argument points to the two great treasures of Irish tales; a horn and a platter. Both of these items could provide the bearer with any quantity of any food desired, a frequent attribute of the Grail. As Christianity became prevalent, the “god Bran” became “King Bran” or “King Bron.”

The Welsh names for these treasures were corn (the Cornucopia, “Horn of Plenty”) and dyscyl. These were rendered in the nominative Old French as cors and graal. Enter Chretien, who, with his own Christian bias, reads these words in his research of the original Irish stories and uses them; Graal as a “platter, large enough to hold lamprey, pike or salmon, but containing none of these but instead a Cors,”[17] misunderstood by Chretien as “Corpus,” which in turn became “Oiste,” the Host, the Body (Corpus) of Christ, served in the Eucharist from a platter.

D’une sole oiste le sert on,
Que l’en cel graal li porte;
Sa vie sostrient en conforte, 6424
Et il qui est le graals.
Et il qui est espititax
Quis se vie plus ne covient
Fors l’oiste qui el graal vient. 6428[18]

From this we see that the definition of graal as a platter probably arose from Chretien, rather than being a previously common usage, Helinand’s much later definition certainly not withstanding.[19]

The second argument both supports and refutes the first at parts. Arthur C.L. Brown presents an exhaustive comparison of the Grail legends, Perceval, Parzival, Peredure, Sir Perceval, and Chretien’s early romances, with surviving Irish and Welsh tales, proving unimpeachably that this was indeed the source of the tale. In his book he identifies the Grail with “a bowl of silver with four corners full of the red ale,” or a plenty-giving criol. He explains that the “c” in Welsh often becomes a “g” in many situations and the etymology of cr-ee-ol becoming gr-ay-l becomes much clearer.[20]

Again Chretien may have misunderstood criol as platter when it truly meant cup, or, in point of fact, could have deliberately made the change for the sake of the Eucharistic parallel. It would have been inappropriate by the standards of the Middle Ages to have served the Host in the Cup, especially as the general congregation did not share in the cup at Mass, but only in the Body.[21]

As for the horn becoming Chretien’s Oiste,[22] this is not even necessary. Once it was decided to put the Christian spin on the story and the cup became a graal, the oiste may have fallen into place as a deliberate change without any misunderstanding. Further, the graal, if it did indeed originate from the Irish cup, may have been a platter in Chretien and corrected to a cup by the later authors who might have been aware of Chretien’s source, so re-correcting the “error.”[23] Even the description of the Criol as ”four cornered” may have prompted Wolfram von Eschenbach to describe the grail as a stone, or even that may have other Irish roots in stories of a stone that cries out when the next man worthy to become king steps upon it.[24] In its turn, Wolfram’s stone likely inspired the “Sword in the Stone” story expanded by Tennyson and popularized by Disney.

This it seems reasonable that the Grail’s true identity is in fact the Pagan Grail, which by translation, modernization, and perhaps misunderstanding became a product of its time; a Christian Grail, which it seems will continue to inspire many more to dream of the Fantastic Grail whatever road they choose to follow.

Perceval and the hedgehog have walked to the portcullis only to find that it has been lowered. They admire the grail from their side of the gate.

Perceval: You mean you’ve never wondered why it is that we are here; who invented us?
Hedgehog: Well now. That is another question. We are the inventions of the Grail King. And the reason we are here is to have a joust.
Perceval: But I am the Best Knight in All the World and, no disrespect intended, you are just a hedgehog. What would be the point of a joust between us?
Hedgehog: You misunderstand. I mean “joust” in the verbal sense. The punt is to make some verbal sense.
Perceval: Verbal scents? I’m sorry but I am quite lost.
Hedgehog: It is to be expected, given your habit of riding all about without ever quite making it where you intended to go. Even so, our purpose is to ask as many questions about the Grail as we can think of.
Perceval: My Uncle Gornemant told me never to ask too many questions, but it seems if that is what we are here for….
Hedgehog: Precisely. Ready, set, begin….

[1] “A beautiful and comely maiden who accompanied the youths held a grail in her hands…. The grail, borne ahead of the procession, was worked with fine gold, and there were in the grail many and precious stones, the finest and most costly in the world; surely the stones in the grail surpassed all others.”
[2] Rene d’Anjou is said to have collected Grail cups. As such I think I can be forgiven for having my three. Incidentally, Eschenbach in his Parzival, says his hero was an ‘Angevin, his father and uncle from Anjou. In further coincidence, Rene’s titles included “Count of Provence,” Eschenbach identified his source as Kyot de Provence.
[3] Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. 29. I have borrowed this author’s device of dialogue to convey Paradox, an Essence with which Grail study will make anyone familiar.
[4] Lacy, Norris J. ed. The New Arthurian Encyclopaedia. London & New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991. 452.
[5] Currer-Briggs, Noel. The Shroud and the Grail. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1987. 19-20.
[6] For any who may be concerned with the question of whether this Gospel came from eyewitness report, the second part of its content, if not the date, should serve in answering the question.
[7] Matthew 28:57-60, Mark 15:42-46, Luke 24:50-54, John 29:25-42.
[8] Gospel of Nicodemus 11:3-13:2
[9] One of the main assertions of the conspiracy theory Holy Blood, Holy Grail is that the term, unknown to the Grail’s originator Chretien, San Greal, which we owe to de Boron, was perhaps misrendered from Sang Real, again, Holy Blood. For some reason the Holy Blood, Holy Grail authors do not mention this very use in Prose Lancelot. See note 16.
[10] Eschenbach, Wolfram von. Parzival. Trans. and Intro. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage. New York: Vintage Books, 1961. xliii-xliv.
[11] Ibid. xliii.
[12] As always with exceptions. Notable is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Among the best modern film treatments along the orthodox line is The Fisher King.
[13] Lacy. ed., 453
[14] Currer-Briggs.
[15] Note that the Roman Catholic Church has stated that the notion of a Married Christ is not unacceptable to the doctrine of the Church. It is only the Protestant Churches that have recoiled from this idea, though all reject the idea that the Crucifixion was a sham.
[16] Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Holy Blood, Holy Grail. New York: Delacorte Press, 1982.
[17] Argument is made that a horn would not have merged with Christian symbology, so it had to be changed. I don’t find much merit. The Irish horn and platter are largely interchangeable and only one was needed for Chretien’s purpose and he seemed to be using the platter though there’s room to differ.
[18] “[The old king] is brought a single Host which is brought to him in the grail; and it sustains his life, such a holy thing is grail. And he is so spiritual that he needs nothing more than the Host contained in the grail.” It is interesting that Eschenbach tells that the Grail derives its power from a single Host brought to it by a dove every Good Friday.
[19] Eschenbach, xli-xlii.
[20] Brown, Arthur C.L. The Origin of the Grail Legend. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966. 367, 439.
[21] A change that would be made as a concession to the congregations during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
[22] Just as there is doubt as to the definition of “Graal,” so too the word “Oiste.” Though it resembles the modern French word for Host, it may also mean an Army, specifically of Angels. In Parzival, Gahmuret, Parzival’s father makes reference to an army of Neutral Angels who sided neither with God or Satan.
[23] Or perhaps I have re-corrected the previously re-corrected error?
[24] Brown has speculated that Eschenbach, while certainly working from Chretien, to whom Eschenbach refers, probably had access to an Ur-Perceval story of older Irish descent then the source Chretien used. This would explain Eschenbach’s major digressions from Chretien where he uses the thus older Irish devices, such as the stone. Brown. 175.