Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia


Graal, Graaus, Graaux, Gradale, Graï, Grasal, Greal, Grëaus, Sangradale, Sangreal

The bowl or chalice mentioned by Chrétien de Troyes in Perceval as a beautiful golden dish with some mysterious properties. Robert de Boron connected it with the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, granting it enduring fame as the Holy Grail.

The Grail stories can be divided neatly into two classes: the early tales, in which Perceval is the Grail Hero; and the post-Robert de Boron romances, in which Galahad becomes the successful Grail knight. Contrary to popular belief, the Grail does not appear in the scriptures. The Gospels do mention a bowl from which Christ (Jesus of Nazareth) ate the Paschal lamb at the Last Supper, and a cup which he shared with this disciples. Later writers identified the Grail with these objects, but the Bible attaches no special significance to them as holy relics.

Chrétien de Troyes lived in the second half of the twelfth century and was the poet at the court of Countess Marie de Champagne, the daughter of the French king Louis VII. He was the one who introduced the character of Lancelot, and named Arthur’s court at Camelot. About 1180, Chrétien de Troyes wrote Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal (The Story of the Grail), a story which he claimed to have adapted from a Latin book given to him by Count Philip of Flanders. There is no compelling reason to disbelieve that Chrétien had a written source for the story, though this source has since been lost.

Chrétien’s tale concerns the adventures of Perceval. The young Perceval had been raised in a sheltered existence by his mother who kept him ignorant of the world. One day Perceval encounters some knights and, despite his mother’s advice, he leaves for Arthur’s court. From there he embarks on his first adventure and encounters a strange castle of the enigmatic, wounded Fisher King. The Fisher King invites Perceval for dinner and, during the meal, Perceval beholds a procession of squires who walk through the room carrying a Bleeding Lance and a set of candelabra. These squires are followed by a maiden carrying a graal, a wide dish made of gold, adorned with precious jewels, radiant with a brilliant light. Three times the procession passed in front of Perceval, but Perceval, warned by his tutor not to talk too much, refrained from asking about the graal or who it served.

When he woke up the next morning, he found the castle deserted and he departed. He soon came across his maiden cousin, who rebuked him for failing to ask about the Grail, for by doing so, he would have cured the Fisher King. Later, he visited his uncle in a hermitage, who provided further information about the Grail: it contained a single mass wafer which was served to the Maimed King, the Fisher King’s infirm father. Shortly after these revelations, Chrétien’s story turns to the adventures of Gawain and never returns; Chrétien apparently died before reaching a conclusion.

Chrétien’s story is simultaneously stirring and frustrating in its mystery. What are the Grail’s origins? What is its significance? Would Perceval have returned the Fisher King’s castle? Was Perceval or Gawain destined to complete the adventure? Perhaps most important of all, how closely did Chrétien follow his source? What material was contained in the book given to him by the Count of Flanders?

Chrétien’s being the earliest known account, it might be as well to list the order of the Grail Procession as he describes it.

  1. The Lance Bearer
  2. Two lads each carrying a ten-candle candlestic
  3. The Grail Maiden
  4. The maiden bearing the silver platter

Chrétien names neither the Grail Castle nor the Grail Maiden. Nor does he give the Fisher King a personal name, though he identifies him as Percivale’s uncle.

Who was the Fisher King, and why was he ill? Chrétien does not go into details on this. Indeed, although he sets Perceval off on a quest of expiation, the story remains unfinished. It is one of the great cliff-hangers of medieval literature, and set scores of other poets and writers off on their own quest to complete the story.

The romances after Chrétien de Troyes

The enigma surrounding Chrétien’s graal and the intended conclusion of its conte inspired four Continuations, two prologues (Bliocadran and the Elucidation), and four adaptions (Perlesvaus, Wolfram’s Parzival, Heinrich von dem Türlin’s Diu Crône, and the Welsh Peredur) over the next half century. In each of these tales, we learn new, and sometimes contradictory, things about the Grail and the residents of the Grail Castle.

The First Continuation of Perceval first tells us that the Grail provided food and wine for the Fisher King’s company, a notion which appears in later Grail romances but not, as some believe, in Chrétien. Both the Second Continuation and Perlesvaus say that it contained the blood of Christ, either reflecting or forecasting the influence of Robert de Boron’s Joseph. The First Continuation is also the first to link the Fisher King’s injury with the transformation of his kingdom into the Waste Land, which is found later in the Vulgate romances.

It is clear from the whole description that Chrétien was drawing upon some older legend with profoundly deeper meaning. In fact, the basis of his story comes from a Celtic legend which surfaces elsewhere as the tale of “Peredur, Son of Evrawc” in the Mabinogion. This is a collection of Celtic tales and legends, some of which date back certainly to the years before the Norman Conquest, although none surviving in writing earlier than the twelfth century. Their appearance in books is thus contemporaneous with Chrétien’s stories. It is interesting that it was at the same time that both the Norman French court and Celtic scholars were bringing the Arthurian stories into the written form. How much of this was national pride and rivalry and how much of it was a serious attempt to explore the mysteries and realities of the past is difficult to say. Whatever the reason, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw a remarkable flowering of Arthurian literature which was to dominate the Anglo-Norman world for two decades.

In the Celtic “Story of Perceval,” a more distant story has started to emerge. In the shape of Peredur, or Perceval, we come to see that here is an innocent youth who realizes that he must understand the nature of the Grail (not acquire the Grail itself) in order to restore the Fisher King (who may signify the Land) to health. Evidently some time before this story happens the Land has been despoiled, and something must be done to restore it. Just was that is, is the crux of the Grail legend.

It is worth just mentioning in passing that there was a real Peredur. He was a Celtic ruler of York in the sixth century, living perhaps fifty years after the time of King Arthur. He was one of the strong kings of the North who fought at the Battle of Arthuret in about 575, at Galloway just north of Hadrian’s Wall. He and his allies were trying to save Britain from the invading Saxons and Norsemen as well as the Picts and Irish. One could read into this a very real origin for the notion of the failing health of Britain, with the land being invaded and plundered from all directions in the centuries following the fall of Rome. Although it is Arthur who is remembered above all in legend as the man who held back the Saxon onslaught, he was not alone – clearly other legends stuck to other heroes, and with Peredur we may have a rather more mystical portrayal of a king who, despite valiant efforts, failed to restore the Realm.

Wolfram von Eschenbach thought that the Grail was a stone, perhaps confusing graal for the French grais, meaning “sandstone,” or perhaps confusing the stones adorning the Grail (as in Chrétien) with the Grail itself. The Grail had fallen from heaven during Lucifer’s war with the angels. Instructions to the Grail Family appeared on the stone’s surface. As in the First Continuation, it provided its keepers with unlimited food and drink, and anyone who gazed upon it could not die within the following week. Wolfram describes the Grail as a gift from God to the elite Grail Family – spiritual agents in the world of man.

In Heinrich’s Diu Crône, we learn that the entire Grail company is in fact dead, and that the Grail Question is needed not to cure the Fisher King, but to free the inhabitants of the Grail Castle from a living death.

In the tales that reach a conclusion, Perceval visits the Grail Castle a second time, asks the Grail Question, heals the Fisher King, and becomes the new Grail King himself (an exception is Diu Crône, in which Gawain becomes the Grail hero but returns to Arthur’s court). The Grail is generally carried away to heaven upon Perceval’s death.

Joseph of Arimathea and the Fisher King

Around the turn of the thirteenth century, Robert de Boron wrote Joseph d’Arimathie, the tale which shaped almost all future Grail romances. Identifying the Grail with the bowl or chalice in which Christ instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Robert turned the Grail into the “Holy” Grail. As early as a decade later, Robert’s story was reworked and expanded into the Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal. These “Grail histories” describe the migration of the Grail from Jerusalem to Britain in the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, a figure who appears briefly in each of the four Gospels.

Joseph, a soldier of Pontius Pilate and a disciple of Christ, sought to preserve artifacts touched by Christ for future generations. He went to Christ’s house and retrieved the Grail. Taking it to the crucifixion site, he caught Christ’s blood in the bowl. After he obtained and entombed Jesus’s body, the Jews threw him in a prison to rot, but the Grail sustained him for over forty years. Upon his release, he embarked for western lands with a sizable company of followers. His followers ate supper around the Grail Table, which anticipated the Round Table. Once in Britain, the Grail was entrusted to the sons of Bron, who concstructed Corbenic (Carbonek), the Grail Castle. Bron’s descendants acted as keepers of the Grail until the coming of the Grail Hero, who would complete all the spiritual adventures in Britain.

According to one legend, Joseph was sent to Britain in AD 63. He was said to have brought with him two cruets containing the blood and sweat of Christ, as well as the Chalice. He was head of a delegation of disciples by the apostle Philip, then in Gaul. Joseph acquired land from a local king and established the first Christian church at Glastonbury. This particular legend was, perhaps not surprisingly, promoted by the Abbey of Glastonbury itself, almost certainly as part of its continuing propaganda in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it sought to establish itself as both the resting place of Arthur and as the primacy of Christianity in Britain.

The legend states that Joseph then entrusted the Grail to someone who is named Brons or Brân, who may have been one of Joseph’s companions, or possibly even his brother or brother-in-law. This man became the second Guardian of the Grail after Joseph. There are links here to Brân the Blessed, another great Celtic hero and protector of Britain. Brân was reputed to own a magic cauldron that could restore life. He was mortally wounded, and before his death he commanded that his head be buried at the White Mount, in what is now London, to serve as a talisman protecting the Land. This is reputedly now the site of the Tower of London.

In Robert, the Grail does not provide food and healing – themes which probably come from a Celtic origin. Instead, it is a means of providing spiritual glory to Joseph’s fellowship, a means of identifying the sinners among the group, and of communicating with God. It fills and satisifies their spirits rather than their stomachs. It is a symbolic representation of Christ among the fellowship.

Some legends nickname Brân the Fisher King, because he provided fish for Joseph. Other legends reserve the title Fisher King for later Guardians of the Grail, in particular one who is wounded in a joust and is thereafter unable to ride. He thus passes his time fishing. All these attempts to give a reason for the name are colourful but ineffective. There is much stronger attribution linked directly to the Christian message. Christ called his disciples “fishers of men,” and the early symbol of Christianity, prior to the use of the cross, was of a fish. The title Fisher King makes much more sense when linked to the Christian faith and seen as indicating the Head of that faith in Britain – in other words the King or Leader of the Fishers of Men.

The concept of a Fisher King separate and distinct from the Head of the Roman Church in Britain, which was established by Augustine at Canterbury in AD 596, highlights yet more conflict. There was considerable opposition to Augustine from the Celtic church, already established in parts of Britain, and Augustine’s efforts to establish his sovereignty over the native British at the Conference of Aust on the Severn in AD 603 was unsuccessful. In fact, this rift was part of a much greater schism that had arisen as far back as the year AD 416. In that year the teachings of a British monk, Pelagius, were regarded as heresy. Pelagius challenged the beliefs of the Roman church, particularly on the grounds of free will and original sin, but he also maintained that the apostolic succession of the Roman church from Saint Peter was debatable. Although he did not directly confirm a British primacy, the implication is there. How much did Pelagius know about the story of Joseph of Arimathea and about the origins of the Celtic church?

So here is more fragmentation of Britain in the years both before and after Arthur. Not only was Britain being conquered by Saxons and other invaders, but the Celtic church was under threat from Rome. We can add even more problems. There had been a total eclipse of the sun in AD 538, visible clearly from Britain, which would have been regarded as an omen and a portent. This was in or around the same year that Merlin saw the death of King Arthur at Camlann, and was followed by a devastating bubonic plague that decimated Europe in the mid-sixth century. The powerful Welsh king Maelgwn of Gwynned died of it in AD 549. There was indeed considerable illness in the land, and the Fisher King was ailing. No wonder there was a yearning from the Celtic church to restore the King and help the Land.

Somewhere in all of this, however, greater mystical matters were being implied. Henry Lincoln and Michael Baigent cause quite a stir with their book “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” in 1983, when they suggested that the Grail was the true body of Christ. The idea of the Grail as a metaphor for the human body containing the Holy Spirit would seem to be a late development. In recent times the Holy Blood/Holy Grail theory has become widely known because of its appearance in popular books. These argue that the Grails was a bloodline descending from Christ and they postulate that the Cathars or Albigensians, a heretical body of the Middle Ages, were much involved. However, as the Cathars regarded sexual reproduction as evil, they would hardly have cherished a line of descent. Elaborations of this theory have involved beings from outher space and pre-Columbian contact with America. Lincoln and Baigent maintained that He had survived the Cross and had been brought out of Palestine by Joseph, along with Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus later married. She bore Him a son. It was that bloodline that the Guardians of the Grail protected from that day to this. The authors maintain that Jesus’ descendants became the Merovingian kings of France. These kings were contemporaries of Arthur, establishing a dynasty that ruled from around AD 460 to 751. It there is any thruth in this, then it raises another fascinating line of enquiry.

The reason Augustine landed in Kent and was able to establish his church at Canterbury was because Kent was already converted to the Church of Rome. The Kentish king Aethelbert had a few years earlier married Bertha, the daughter of the Merovingian king Charibert. The marriage arrangement stipulated that Bertha be allowed to continue her faith, and she thus established a core of adherents to the Church of Rome amongst the English, who were still predominantly pagan. The bloodline of Christ would thus have continued through the sons of Aethelbert, although, ironically, Aethelbert’s son and successor, Eadbald, reamained a pagan. The strife that followed Aethelbert’s death to establish Christianity amongst the English, and in opposition to the Celtic church, resulted in considerable conflict in the land. It is quite possible that if the legend of the Merovingian descend had leaked out, then rumours of the true Grail being with the Saxons and not the Celts would have cause considerable confusion and consternation amongst the followers of Christ. Who were they to follow? What was the answer? Indeed, what was the question?

Maybe here we have some hint of the problem that faced Peredur/Percival. His failure to ask the right question and consider the nature of the Grail meant that the Land was not restored. We can start to see that what was facing the Grail Questers was the whole problem about who they should be following. Was the Church of Rome the real harbour of the Grail of Christ, or did it still rest firmly with the British, through the Fisher King?

Its links at this stage to the Arthurian legend are clearly tenuous, but because the strife in the Land, both temporally and spiritually, happened contemporaneously with the developmentof the Arthurian mythos, it is not surprising that the oral tradition that developed should start to make connections.

One of these connections is slightly bizarre, but under analysis may help our understanding a little further. In the Arthurian legend as consolidated by Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur we have the story of the Knight of the Two SwordsSir Balin. Balin was something of a hothead, who killed almost anything that moved. He was a staunch supporter of Arthur, though he managed to incur Arthur’s wrath by killing the Lady of the Lake in one of his wilder moments. Balin was always questing, and on one of his adventures he encounters an invisible knight, Sir Garlon. He kills Garlon, which angers Garlon’s brother, King Pellam. Pellam and Balin now clash. In the battle Balin’s sword is broken, and as he is chased around Pellam’s castle he finds the Spear of Longinus on the walls and, wrenching it free, turns and stabs Pellam.

Pellam is known elsewhere as Pelleam or Pellehan, and is the Maimed King whose health must be reostored. It can only be restored if his wounds are avenged. The Maimed King is sometimes treated as the Fisher King, or the Fisher King’s brother. Either way, we realize that it was Balin’s action, using the very spear that had maimed Jesus on the Cross, that has brought destruction to the Land. His action has been called the Dolorous Stroke. It was this destruction that Percival could have reversed had he asked about the nature of the Grail procession, which meant he had to gain an understanding of how the Maimed King came to be injured and who it was he needed to avenge.

The Grail Quest

Robert de Boron also wrote a Perceval, which is now lost but was adapted into the French Didot-Perceval. According to this version, Perceval caused the Fisher King’s sickness by arrogantly sitting in the Round Table’s Perilous Seat. Both of these tales preserved Perceval as the Grail Hero but were eclipsed by the Vulgate Queste, which replaces Perceval with Galahad, Lancelot’s son and the best knight in the world. In all Grail tales prior to the Queste, Perceval literally stumbles upon the Grail Castle. Neither Arthur nor any of his other knights are involved in the proceedings. The Vulgate Queste scraps these previous versions and introduced the Grail “Quest,” in which all of Arthur’s knights participated for the express purpose of finding the Holy Grail. The Post-Vulgate Cycle, the Prose Tristan, and Malory faithfully adapted this version.

The Vulgate Cycle incorporates both types of Grail romance, the Quest and the History. It is clearer, perhaps, in the Vulgate than in Malory that to the medieval reader seeking the Grail meant not so much “seeing” or “finding” it – it had, after all, been seen, and it was known to reside most of the time at Carbonek – as to behold it clear and unveiled. Arriving at Carbonek Castle was fairly easy. One time Sir Bors de Ganis visited there without suspecting he was near a place of great and perilous adventure.

But finding Carbonek was no guarantee that the Grail would feed or heal you, or even that you would be let into the castle. Ector de Maris, arriving as his brother Lancelot sat with the castle folk to be fed the Sangreal, was turned away as unworthy; Lionel, coming just as Galahad and eleven other knights were sitting down to the climactic mysteries, was similarly turned away at the door. To sleep at Carbonek, in the part which Sir Bors named the Castle Adventurous, could be extremely harrowing, if not downright dangerous – one might see all sorts of visions, including battling beasts, might be grievously wounded by mystical weapons and healed again, after a while, by the Grail, and so on.

The Grail fed the worthy, giving each other food he liked best (shades here, very likely, of its Pagan origins). It healed wounds. It was not confined to Carbonek, but appeared of itself from time to time and place to place to heal knights, and once it passed through Arthur’s hall at Camelot when the knights were sitting at dinner and fed them itself, thus touching off the great general Grail Quest.

To embark on the Grail Quest, you must confess your sins; you must not take along your lady; and it would not be a bad idea to restrict yourself to a diet of bread and water, maybe wear a hair shirt, and garb yourself in some symbolic outer garment (Sir Bors wore a scarlet coat while on the Quest). You need not be a virgin – Bors achieved the Grail, although he had once trespassed on his virginity – but you must remain celibate while on the Quest. Take heed: If you enter this Quest unworthingly, you will return worse than you set out; this may explain why Lancelot, relapsing into his old sinful affair with Guenevere, grew careless about keeping it secret, why the Round Table seems generally to have gone to pot after the Quest, and why even Bors (after his return to court) did some rather surprising things for a saintly man to do.

Although women are absolutely forbidden to accompany their knights on the Quest, the fact that a maiden damsel was the Grail Bearer at Carbonek and that Percivale’s saintly sister, Amide, played a major role in the Adventures suggest that a damsel may undertake the Quest alone, under the same moral condition as a knight. It is interesting, indeed, that although Nascien absolutely forbade any knight who went on the Grail Adventures to travel with a women, the only three knights who achieved the Grail were, in fact, those who traveled at least part of the time with a damsel, Amide.

King Arthur, the Holy Grail. Artist: H.D. Johnson

The Quest commenced after the Grail appeared to Arthur’s knights during the Pentecost feast. Galahad’s success had been pre-ordained since Joseph’s time, and only the purest of Arthur’s knights had any hope of achieving it with him. In the end, only two of them – Perceval and Bors, who God tested vigorously – measured up, although another dozen or so knights were allowed to witness the quest’s completion. Lancelot, to his despair, was denied fulfillment because of his sin with Guenevere, though he was allowed a vision of his son’s success. Other knights, such as Gawain and Ector, learned that their lustful and murderous ways had excluded them as well.

The quest itself involved a number of episodes which, together, ended all the spiritual adventures in Britain. It culminated when Galahad, Perceval, and Bors attended a mass held in Corbenic by the spirit of either Joseph of Arimathea or his son Josephus. Galahad healed the Maimed King with blood from the Bleeding Lance, and the three knights embarked with the Grail for the ancient city of Sarras. There, another holy mass ended with the Grail lifted into heaven by the hand of God. Galahad and Perceval died in Sarras, but Bors returned to Camelot, where Arthur learned that a good number of his knights had been killed in the adventures. In addition to depleting the ranks of the Round Table, the Grail Quest also left a spiritual vacuum which contributed to Arthur’s eventual downfall.

Notice that of the twelve knights who achieve the Grail Quest in Malory, only three – Galahad, Percivale, and Bors – are British. The rest represent various other European countries.

It should be pointed out that neither the early Perceval Grail Quest nor the later Galahad Grail Quest circled around the objective of finding the Grail and gaining possession of it, or of bringing it back to Camelot. There is no question of removing the Grail from the Grail Castle. The goal, in both version, is to understand the Grail, to grasp its meaning. Success depends on the knight’s spirituality and purity rather than his dedication or prowess.

The name and origin of the Grail

It has been widely accepted that the word Grail and its early variations – graal, greal, and grazal – derive from the Low Latin word gradalis or cratalis, meaning “bowl.” The Cistercian chronicler Helinandus (dead about 1230) explained the word Grail as deriving from the Latin gradale, which is the same root as our word “grade,” and means something that is part of a series or sequence. It is a wide and rather deep dish in which costly foods were served gradatim, meaning successively, one morsel after another. It was popularly called Graalz because it was pleasing (grata). This grail, or serving dish, was something that was brought to the dining table at certain stages during a meal. It came to be something of a special dish, containing rich meats or delicacies.

Some writers of Grail romances tried to link it with the French agreer – “agreeable” – as the Grail was agreeable to all who saw it. After Robert de Boron called it the Holy Grail, Saint Grail or Sangreal, some authors caused confusion by dividing the word in the wrong place, producing Sang Real, or “royal blood,” referring to the contents of the Grail rather than the Grail itself. This incorrect division has produced far-flung theories of the Grail’s origin even in modern times.

Studies into the origin of the Grail have focused on three theories:

  1. A Christian origin.
  2. A Celtic origin.
  3. An origin in pagan fertility ritual.

Adherents to the Christian origin theory point to the Eucharistic properties of the Grail even in Chrétien, noting that it contained a wafer or Corpus Christi and that the description of the Grail Procession recalls a report of a Byzantine mass written in the seventh or eighth centuries. The Fisher King is to be identified with Christ himself, as allegories of Christ as a fisherman abound in biblical literature. Christian origin theorists note that shortly after Chrétien’s Perceval, the Bleeding Lance was linked to the spear that pierced Christ’s side, and that the Grail itself was said to contain the blood of Christ.

Proponents of the Celtic theory look for progenitors of the Grail in the Welsh cauldron tales. In The Spoils of Annwn, tell of the plunder by Arthur and his men of the land of Annwfn whereby they acquired what became known as the Treasures of Britain. This includes a magic cauldron from the otherworld which will not boil the food of a coward; in Culhwch and Olwen, he brings it back from Ireland; and in the non-Arthurian Branwen, King Bran the Blessed also takes it from the Irish king. Among these cauldrons’ properties are the ability to separate heroes from cowards (represented in Robert’s Joseph when the Grail separates the pious from the sinners), the power to provide unlimited food and drink to its owner (as the Grail does in the First Continuation of Perceval and Wolfram), and the capability to restore life to the dead. Bran, represented in Robert de Boron as Bron, is to be identified with the Fisher King, as he also receives wounds which causes his land to waste. Another possible origin of the Grail in Welsh legend is the dysgl (“dish”) of Rydderch the Generous, listed among the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, which also provided food and drink to worthy warriors. Yet another theory revolves around the Horn of Bran, also mentioned in the “Thirteen Treasures,” which has the same food-providing properties as the cauldron and dysgl.

The ritual theory identifies the Grail legends with the ancient myth of the Vegetation Spirit, represented in the Egyptian tales of Osiris and the Greek stories of Demeter. It focuses on the link between the Fisher King and the Waste Land, noting that the Fisher King’s wound is located in the thighs or groin. His infirmity therefore implies a loss of fertility which is connected with the destitution of the Waste Land: flowers fail to blossom, crops do not grow, and rivers run dry.

Each theory has a merit, and it is likely that the earliest Grail legends combined elements from Christian, Celtic, and pagan myth to achieve the most alluring of the Arthurian themes.

If we revert to our original concept of a Britain split between the Celtic church and the Church of Rome, then it becomes fairly evident that Percival’s question had to relate to identifying the nature of that division. Since it was a Roman spear that had injured the Maimed King (and also maimed Christ) then by extension it was the Roman church that was the enemy and the Celtic church that had to be avenged. The Quest for the Holy Grail became a Quest to rescue the Celtic church and to prove its pre-eminence over the Roman church. It thus had to prove that the Celtic church’s claim to its Christian origins was stronger than the claim of the Roman church. This conflict raged through Britain for three generations until it was resolved by King Oswy of Northumberland at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, when he found in favour of the Roman church.

Little wonder, then, that at that stage the Celtic church resorted to establishing its tales and legends to perpetuate its own beliefs. The Waste Land of Britain that was drawn into the Arthurian legend was the strife between the two churches further aggravated by the continual encroachment on Celtic lands by the Saxons and Norsemen. By their Quest for perfection and ultimate redemption, the knights of King Arthur would establish the primacy of the Celtic church.

All of this, though, is just one interpretation of the Grail myth, at a very superficial level. The Celtic church’s Quest very rapidly became the quest of each individual to search in his heart for an understanding of the true religion and to follow that course. It was a difficult decision. Somewhere in the background, though, we can imagine that the successors of the Fisher King continued, maintaining their right to the primacy of the Christian church. Maybe in so doing they had some physical proof. Not just proof of the Grail itself, in physical form, but of other Treasures or Relics – in particular those portrayed in the story of Peredur. These are also known as the Four Hallows:

  • The Sword which beheaded John the Baptist
  • The Platter on which the Baptist’s head was carried
  • The Lance which speared Jesus’ side at the crucifixion
  • The Cup or Chalice that held his blood

Were these treasures held somewhere in Britain, in the Grail Castle, defended by a succession of Protectors?

This would certainly account for the legend of the Grail acquiring more mystical and ritual aspects. Down through the centuries the legend, and its many contributory aspects, has become integrated with other beliefs and practices until it has become so overlaid with ritual that its innermost secrets are almost impossible to plumb. There are clearly much deeper mystical interpretations of the Grail that see it as a symbol of perfection which, once attained, allows the spirit to advance from this mortal plane of existence onto a greater spiritual plane. This shows that much earlier Gnostic beliefs have been added to the Grail legend – or, more likely, Christian beliefs were added to earlier Gnostic teachings. Either way you have a story which suggests that a true understanding of the nature of the Grail (i.e. a true understanding of the teachings of the Church) will result in an immortal of transcendent existence – the secret of eternal life. That is a quest that we all undertake throughout life. Arguably it is the search for the meaning of life itself. As such, the search for the Holy Grail is the ultimate quest to understand life and to ensure the salvation of our spirit to the next world or plane of existence.

By this token the Grail has no beginning and no end. It is a perpetual myth throughout the years, which is why it has as much meaning today as it did a thousand years ago.

In its final forms, the Grail was the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, the dish on the table at that event, or (in Wolfram) a stone. F. Anderson has argued that the Grail was, in origin, the holy object of a nearly worldwide mystery cult which showed the Trinity symbolically. J.L. Weston thought it part of a pagan fertility rite, involving a story similar to that of Adoinis. Certainly, the idea of a sickly king and a correspondingly sickly land seems to indicate some kind of fertility story but, while Miss Weston felt it must be of oriental provenance, it may be of local Celtic origin. It was thought to serve people with food and this calls to mind the notion of a cauldron of plenty, which is found in Celtic mythology, and reminds one of the Dysgyl of Rhydderch, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. The recorded expedition of Arthur to the Otherworld, apparently to obtain a cauldron, in Preiddeu Annwfn and, what is probably its variant, the story of Arthur’s expedtion to Ireland to obtain a cauldron in Culhwch may be early forms of the story of a Grail quest. However, it has been suggested that the story may originally have been built around a vengeance motif, as indicated by the Welsh Peredur. D.D.R. Owen thinks that the original tale had to do with the naming of a hero who had a cup proffered to him and was asked whom it should serve.

The Christian element in the story is widely thought to be a later overlay and is highlighted to works such as the Queste. P. Matarasso suggests that the Grail experience in the Queste may well have involved some form of perception of God by Galahad. The hero who achieves the Grail is Percivale in the Chrétien Continuations, in Wolfram and in Perlesvaus, Galahad in the Queste and its derivatives; Gawaine in Diu Crône, and, in Malory, Galahad, Percivale and Bors achieve it together, Bors alone then returning to Arthur’s court. J.L. Weston has argued that Gawaine was the original Grail hero, later replaced by Percivale, while J. Matthews takes the view that Gawaine was replaced by Galahad.

According to the Queste, the Grail was carried to Heaven by a hand after Galahad’s death.


About two hundred objects in Europe has been considered to be the Holy Grail. Amongst them are Nanteos Cup.

See also
Etheria | The Legend of King Arthur
Fisher King | The Legend of King Arthur
Fisher King’s Candlesticks | The Legend of King Arthur
Fisher King’s Carving-Dish | The Legend of King Arthur
Lance of Longinus | The Legend of King Arthur
Longinus | The Legend of King Arthur
Longinus’ Spear | The Legend of King Arthur
Maimed King | The Legend of King Arthur

External link
Nanteos Cup |

King Arthur, the Holy Grail | Artist: Howard David Johnson

Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
First Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Attributed to Wauchier of Denain, c. 1200
Second Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Attributed to Wauchier of Denain, c. 1200
Joseph d’Arimathie | Robert de Boron, 1191–1202
Perlesvaus | Early 13th century
Parzival | Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1200–1210
Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1215-1230
Vulgate Estoire del Saint Graal | 1220-1235
Third Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Manessier, c. 1230
Fourth Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval | Gerbert de Montreuil, c. 1230
Diu Crône | Heinrich von dem Türlin, c. 1230
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470