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.
he 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.
essie 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.
oomis 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.
Right: this carving from Jaén Cathedral shows an oriental or Moorish philosopher and an occidental knight with a stone that fell from Heaven.
olfram'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.
n 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
... 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).
Arthur, the Once and Future King
ith 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.
he 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.
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:
Copyright J. Horner, by permission.
he 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.
he 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:
n 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:
n 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.
here 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.
Left: Parsifal Act 3, Washington Opera 2000. Production and designs by Roberto Oswald. ©Washington Opera.
esearch 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:
Left: The Grail is uncovered at the end of the opera, in a NY Met production.
agner 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.