Over centuries the concept of a Holy Grail has come to represent the highest of spiritual ideals, although the nature of the grail itself varies from story to story. The symbol of a Grail first appeared in about 1190 in the French poet Chretien de TroyesConte del Graal (Story of the Grail) in which young Perceval, from the court of King Arthur, visits the caste of the mysterious Fisher King. During dinner a handsome youth enters the room, carrying a lance that drips with blood, followed by a beautiful young woman bearing the Grail.

Although not specifically described by Chretien de Troyes, the Grail is said to have been fashioned of pure refined gold and set with many precious stones – the richest and most costly – and have had an extraordinary radiance. It is passed round the dinner table. Because the mystified Perceval asks no questions about the grail or the bleeding spear, the Fisher King will not be cured of two crippling wounds in the thigh; the land will be ruined; hundreds of knights will die; and many widows and orphans will mourn.

 

The meaning of Chretien de Troyes’ unfinished poem is not explained, but many other interpretations of the Grail followed, usually in a Christian context. The Grail in the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea, written about 1200, is the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, and in which Joseph collected the blood of Christ after the crucifixion. The risen Christ directs Joseph or his descendants to take the chalice west to the vales of Avalon, now associated with Glastonbury, in England.

Writing at about the same time, the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzival describes the Grail as a stone symbolizing humility, guarded by a secret brotherhood of knights, for whom it provides all the sustenance they need. The Quest for the Holy Grail, which dates to 1215-1230, introduces Galahad, the son of Lancelot, as the chaste and pure knight who finds the Grail, the dish from which Christ ate the lamb at the Last Supper. As Galahad dies in ecstasy, a hand appears from heaven and takes the Grail away.

 

Scholars believe that stories of the Grail originated in pre-Christian Welsh and Irish tales of heroes who visited their gods and were richly fed from cauldrons of plenty, like the Welsh Platter of Rhydderch, which provided whatever food was desired. There are also links to a legendary king of Britain, Bran the Blessed, who was wounded in the thighs like Chretien’s Fisher King, and whose land was then ruined. It was said that his decapitated head on a silver platter prophesied to his people for many years. In several thirteenth-century poems the Fisher King is called Bron. This is also the name of Joseph’s brother-in-law, who may have accompanied him to England with the sacred chalice.

The Christianization of Celtic legends may have been a deliberate move to replace ancient references to cauldrons of plenty with references to Christian practices and beliefs, specifically that the wine of the Eucharist is or symbolizes Christ’s blood. In 1191 tombs were discovered at Glastonbury – allegedly where the chalice of Christ was hidden. The possibility that the tombs were those of Arthur and Guinevere established the Grail’s links with Arthur’s court and Glastonbury. At that time the abbey was in desperate need of funds for restoration after a devastating fire in 1184, and Henry II, searching for a strong traditional figure to rally his people, decided to exploit the mystique of Glastonbury for his own political ends.

Other stories of the Grail have identified it as a dish, a jewel and even a healing cauldron. Whatever form the Grail may take, if indeed it does have a form, it remains the most potent symbol of purity and perfection.

 


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