The Grail, by Henri Fantin-Latour
Above: Henri Fantin-Latour: The Grail (Prelude to Lohengrin), 1892.
open quotes The Grail, according to my own interpretation, is the goblet used at the Last Supper in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the Saviour's blood on the Cross. close quotes
[Richard Wagner, letter to Mathilde Wesendonk, 30 May 1859]

What exactly is the Holy Grail?

The Holy Grail is the object of the Grail Quest. In Arthurian legend (the Grail Romances) there are varying descriptions of this object. In the earlier accounts the Grail is either described (by Wolfram von Eschenbach) as a stone that was brought to earth by angels; or in other versions as a bowl, or a cup, or "a dish of considerable size", large enough to contain a salmon. Wolfram also refers to it as lapis exillis, which has been interpreted as "the stone of the exiles", by which alchemists referred to the philosophers' stone. Or it can be "a magic talisman of plenty", a cornucopia, that magically provides delicious food and drink. In other romances it becomes a relic of Christ's passion: either the dish from which Christ and the disciples ate the Last Supper, or the chalice in which Joseph of Arimathie caught the Saviour's blood (sang real, from which, sankgreal or sangrail) on the cross.

The legends of the Holy Grail are woven of three strands: a Celtic tradition of otherworld vessels and supernaturally powerful weapons; an Arabic or Byzantine tradition of a mysterious stone that had fallen from the heavens; and a Christian tradition, perhaps of Gnostic or heretical origin, of a mysterious talisman.

The Grail in popular culture: Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade

Celtic Traditions of the Grail

Arthur Rackham: the Grail Bearer, Repanse de Schoye

Jessie Weston held the view that there lay at the root of the Grail tradition, the rites of a secret mystery cult. The Grail might have been a sacramental dish of the kind used in the Orphic tradition and apparently taken over by the Christian Church; this possibility is explored in the fourth volume of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God. Miss Weston also suggested that the Bleeding Lance, carried by a squire, and the Grail, carried by a maiden, must have been originally symbolic elements of a classical mystery rite.

Loomis held the alternative view that the origin of the Grail legends was Celtic. The Celtic gods of the Underworld or of the Land Beneath the Waves (Nodens or Nuadua, Gwynn ap Nudd, Manannnan Mac Lir, Bran the Blessed) possessed magic vessels of inexhaustible ambrosia and were to be found in mysterious castles hidden in mist, surrounded by water or by impenetrable forest.

Eastern Traditions of the Grail

Carving from Jaen Cathedral showing a stone that fell from the sky
Right: this carving from Jaén Cathedral shows an oriental or Moorish philosopher and an occidental knight with a stone that fell from Heaven.

Wolfram's Parzival contains passages that reveal a knowledge of events in the Levant, as might have been told by returning crusaders. Indeed, Wolfram claims to have taken his subject matter from a book given to him by Philip, Duke of Flanders, who had been in those lands in 1177. He also cites as a source a certain mysterious Kyot, who provided him with further material from the south of France or perhaps Moorish Spain (and the Kabbalah of the Spanish Jews). So there are Arabic and other exotic elements in Wolfram's story that do not appear in his primary source, Chrétien's unfinished poem.

In Wolfram's account, the Grail is a stone that fell from the heavens. According to Wolfram, it is by the power of this stone that the phoenix burns and becomes ashes, and then returns to life. Hence Wagner's reference to the meteoric stone in the mosque at Mecca:

open quotes... the early Christians learned, namely, that the Moors in the Caaba at Mecca (deriving from the pre- Muhammadan religion) venerated a miraculous stone (a sunstone - or meteoric stone - but at all events one that had fallen from heaven). close quotes
[Richard Wagner, letter to Mathilde Wesendonk, 30 May 1859]

Christian Interpretations of the Grail

Arthur, the Once and Future King

With the appearance in 1136 of The History of the Kings of Britain, an extraordinary book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the names of the mythical hero Arthur and the mythical wizard Merlin became inseparably linked. The book became the medieval equivalent of a best seller, with an enormous number of copies being made (in an age before the printing press) and circulated throughout western Europe. Many adaptations and paraphrases were made in Latin prose and verse, and then vernacular versions appeared in Old English, Old French or Welsh. The characters and ideas of Geoffrey's book were developed by French writers, such as Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes. Other tales were related to the court of Arthur: these included the love story of Tristam and Yseult or Tristan and Isolde (of which the earliest version appeared around 1150) and the story of the Grail and its guardian, the Fisher King.

The Grail reveals itself to Arthur and his knights

Grail Romances

The medieval romances that tell of the Holy Grail divide into two groups, according to R.S. Loomis. In the first group are the different versions of the story of the quester who visits the Grail Castle, where he witnesses miracles but fails to ask the vital Question. In the earlier versions of this story, the quester is either Gawain or Perceval. In the second and smaller group are the romances dealing with Joseph of Arimathea and the early history of the Grail. These describe the legend of a sacred vessel in which the blood of Christ had been captured and that was preserved by the family of Joseph.

Grail romances, group 1:

  • Perceval, the Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes, who left it unfinished in about 1190. It is the last of his five Arthurian romances. This is the "definitive" story of Sir Percival and his Quest for the Holy Grail.
  • Four Continuations of Chrétien's poem, by authors of differing vision and talent, designed to bring the story to a close. The two earlier Continuations are anonymous, the others are attributed respectively to Manessier (written between 1214 and 1227?) and to Gerbert de Montreuil (about 1230). Jessie L. Weston argued that the first continuation, in which Perceval is scarcely mentioned, is a reworking of an earlier story about Gawain.
  • Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, an epic poem from the first decade of the 13th century, which adapted the holiness of Robert's Grail into the framework of Chrétien's story. It tells of the adventures of Parzival and Gawain, knights of the round table, and of the Grail which in this version is a stone.
  • The Welsh/Breton prose romance Peredur the son of Efrawc, an imperfect version of Chrétien's poem and one of the Continuations, with some influence from native Welsh literature. Here there is no Grail as such: in its place there is a man's head on a platter. There has been much discussion of whether Peredur is based on the Perceval and if so, whether the Welsh author had lost or forgotten much of Chrétien's poem. An alternative is that both poems draw upon pre-existing Welsh and Breton tales.
  • The Didot Perceval, named after the manuscript's former owner, a prose romance, possibly based upon Robert de Boron's sequel to Joseph d'Arimathie (see below).
  • The Perlesvaus, called the "least canonical" Grail romance because of its very different (more religious) character. English translation by Sebastian Evans as the High History of the Holy Grail. Here the Grail is a mysterious object that appears in many different forms. This romance is mainly distinguished by monks, who provide a pious commentary on the action, and its greater than average content of violence, blood, decapitation and dismemberment. The Middle Welsh prose romance Y Seint Graal consists of a version of the Vulgate Queste in which Peredur is the hero, followed by an adaptation of the Perlesvaus.
  • The German poem Diu Crône (The Crown), in which it is Gawain, rather than Perceval, who achieves the Grail.
  • The Lancelot (third) section of the vast Vulgate Cycle, which introduces a new Grail hero, Sir Galahad, son of Lancelot by the lady Elaine.
  • The Queste del Saint Graal, fourth part of the Vulgate Cycle, concerning the adventures of Galahad and his achievement of the Grail. Malory's books XI through XVII are an abridged version of this romance. There is a rather different Queste in the Post-Vulgate Cycle, which introduces new characters (in the Grail context): Tristan seeks the Grail, while king Mark invades Arthur's realm, takes back Iseut and nearly captures Camelot.

Grail romances, group 2:

  • Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, probably written between 1191 and 1199. Concerning the (mostly fictional) early history of the Grail. This was followed by two more verse romances: Merlin of which only a part survives and a lost Perceval. The Didot Perceval is believed to be a prose version of the latter.
  • L'Estoire del Saint Graal, the first part of the Vulgate Cycle but written after Lancelot and the Queste. There is an inferior English verse translation by Henry Lovelich from the first half of the 15th century, The History of the Holy Grail.
  • The late (post-1250) poem Sone de Nansai or Sone de Nausay, which reveals that the Grail Castle is located on an island off the coast of Norway, contains a brief early history of the Grail that is based on the Estoire.

Campbell's Phases

The Grail romances, although initially only related to Merlin but not to Arthur, gradually merged into Arthurian literature. Joseph Campbell divided Arthurian and Grail literature into four overlapping phases:

  • Anglo-Norman patriotic epics: 1136- 1205
  • French courtly romances: 1160- 1230
  • Religious legends of the Grail: 1180- 1230
  • German biographical epics: 1200- 1215
Chapel with floating Grail © J. Horner
Copyright J. Horner, by permission.

The first of these phases was concentrated on Arthur and Merlin, in the books written by Geoffrey of Monmouth and by the French cleric Wace. In the second phase, the focus moved to the king Arthur and his knights, including Perceval and Gawain, whose adventures were described in Chrétien's Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal.

R.S. Loomis and other scholars have argued that, in view of the differences and similarities between the story of Peredur in the Mabinogion and the French works, both Perceval and Peredur son of Evrawc must have derived from a common predecessor, probably written in French, which has been lost without trace. Campbell speculated that there was at this time an entire body of tales based on Celtic (Welsh and Irish) myth. These "folk materials" were to be developed into first oral and then written epics.

The third phase was motivated by an attempt by the Church to take over the popular figures and events of the courtly romances and to utilise them in the promotion of Christian doctrines. There were two major components in this movement:

  • the writings of Robert de Boron, in particular his Joseph d'Arimathie (completed in or around 1199) in which the Grail became, for the first time, a chalice;
  • the Vulgate Cycle (1215-1230, according to R.S. Loomis), including L'Estoire del Saint Graal and La Queste del Saint Graal, in which the Grail is a dish. These romances in Old French were the basis for Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which despite its popular title is in English.
The Miracle of the Grail, by Wilhelm Hauschild

In the final phase, the literature of the Holy Grail reached its apogee in the work of the poet-knight Wolfram von Eschenbach. In Parzival the action moves back and forth between the court of King Arthur and the Grail Castle of the Fisher King. As Oswald Spengler pointed out, it was with Wolfram that western civilisation arrived at a mythology of inwardly motivated quest, directed from within: the tragic line of the individual life develops from within outward, dynamically, functionally.

In Gerbert's Continuation to Chrétien's Perceval, probably written about 1230, the Fisher King reveals that the bleeding spear is the lance that pierced the side of Christ and that the Grail is the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Christ. This had been mentioned in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, finished about 1199.

There is one element of Robert de Boron's story that found its way into Wagner's Parsifal although it does not appear either in Chrétien or the Continuations: the Grail ceremony induces pain in any sinner present. None of this is found in Wolfram and it may be supposed that Wagner had read a text that referred to, or summarised, Joseph d'Arimathie.

Wagner and the Grail

Parsifal, act 3 finale, Washington Opera
Left: Parsifal Act 3, Washington Opera 2000. Production and designs by Roberto Oswald. ©Washington Opera.

Research has probably not identified all of the immediate sources for Wagner's summary of the Grail literature but it is known that he read both secondary and primary material. His claim to have invented the interpretation of the Grail as a chalice is disingenuous, as he must have known about Christian interpretations of the Grail, even before he read Perceval. There is evidence that Wagner had read Chrétien de Troyes and the Continuations in the edition by Ch. Potvin, published in seven volumes between 1866 and 1871, of which there are copies in his Wahnfried library. The first of Potvin's volumes contains a work that has no direct connection with Chrétien: the Perlesvaus, a prose romance that scholars believe was written in northern France, a few years after the death of Chrétien and perhaps as late as 1225. The first sentence in the book is the following: The history of the holy vessel which is called Grail, in which the precious blood of the Saviour was received on the day He was crucified in order to redeem His people from hell ...

Parsifal, act 3 finale, Metropolitan Opera NYC
Left: The Grail is uncovered at the end of the opera, in a NY Met production.

Wagner was familiar with the work of contemporary scholars on the sources of Wolfram's epic but dismissed his interpretation of the Grail as a stone brought to earth by angels. Wagner adopted the Christianised version of the Grail but discarded the Question entirely, made the recovery of the spear the focus of the story and changed some of the names from those found in Wolfram's poem. Many other elements he used, however: such as the election of those who might find their way to the Grail, the life-preserving power of the Grail and the descending dove.

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There are many sites on the Web that refer to the Holy Grail. Here is a selection of diverse and interesting sites, some of them with lists of links:

D.G.Rossetti and B.Jowett at the Oxford Union
And what exactly were they going to do with this Grail when they found it, Mr. Rossetti?

© Derrick Everett 1996-2021. This page last updated (revised meta tags, new link for chrétien) --- ---