Grail, Holy
A portion of the Arthurian cycle of romance, of late origin,
embodying a number of tales dealing with the search for a certain
vessel of great sanctity called the ‘‘Grail’’ or ‘‘Graal.’’ Versions
of the story are numerous, the most celebrated of them
being the Conte del Graal, the Grand St. Graal, Sir Percyvalle,
Quete del St. Graal, and Guyot, but there are also many others.
These overlap in many respects, but the standard form of the
story may perhaps be found in the Grand St. Graal, one of the
latest versions, which dates from the thirteenth century.
It tells how Joseph of Arimathea employed a dish used at the
Last Supper to catch the blood of the Redeemer, which flowed
from his body before his burial. The wanderings of Joseph are
then described. He leads a band to Britain, where he is cast into
prison, but is delivered by Evelach or Mordrains, who is instructed
by Christ to assist him. Mordrains builds a monastery
where the Grail is housed. Brons, Joseph’s brother-in-law, has
a son Alain, who is appointed guardian of the Grail. Alain, having
caught a great fish with which he feeds the entire household,
is called ‘‘the Rich Fisher,’’ which becomes the perpetual
title of the Grail keepers. Alain places the Grail in the castle of
Corbenic and in time, various knights of King Arthur’s court
come in quest of the holy vessel. Only the purest of the pure
could approach it, and in due time the knight Percival manages
to see the marvel.
It is probable that the idea of the Grail originated with early
medieval legends of the quest for talismans that conferred
great boons upon the finder, for example, the shoes of swiftness,
the cloak of invisibility, and the ring of Gyges, and that
these stories were interpreted in the light and spirit of medieval
Christianity and mysticism.
The legends may be divided into two classes those that are
connected with the quest for certain talismans, of which the
Grail is only one, and that deal with the personality of the hero
who achieves the quest; and second, those that deal with the nature
and history of the talismans.
A great deal of controversy has raged around the possible
Eastern origin of the Grail legend. Much erudition has been
employed to show that Guyot, a Provençal poet who flourished
in the middle of the twelfth century, found at Toledo, Spain,
an Arabian book by an astrologer, Flegitanis, which contained
the Grail story. But the name ‘‘Flegitanis’’ can by no means be
an Arabian proper name. It could be the Persian felekedânêh, a
combined word which signifies ‘‘astrology,’’ and in that case it
would be the title of an astrological work. Some believed the
legend originated in the mind of Guyot himself, but this conclusion
was strongly opposed by the folklorist Alfred Nutt.
There is, however, some reason to believe that the story might
have been brought from the East by the Knights Templar.
The Grail legend has often been held by various ecclesiastical
apologists to support theories that either the Church of England
or the Roman Catholic Church has existed since the
foundation of the world. From early Christian times the genealogy
of these churches has been traced back through the patriarchs
to numerous apocryphal persons, although it is not stated
whether the religions possessed hierophants in neolithic and
paleolithic times, or just how they originated. Such theories,
which would logically identify Christianity with the grossest
forms of paganism, are confined only to a small group.
The Grail legend was readily embraced by those who saw in
it a link between Palestine and England and an argument for
the special separate foundation of the Anglican Church by direct
emissaries from the Holy Land. Glastonbury was fixed as
the headquarters of the Grail immigrants, and the finding of
a glass dish in the vicinity of the cathedral there some years ago
was held to be confirmation of the story by many of the faithful.
The exact date of this vessel was not definitely estimated, but
there seemed little reason to suppose that it was more than a
few hundred years old.
A new conspiratorial interpretation of the Grail legend is offered
in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), by
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Their
speculation involves suggestions that Jesus did not die on the
Cross, but married and had children. His wife, they postulate,
fled to the south of France with her family, taking with her the
‘‘Royal and Real Blood,’’ the ‘‘Sang-real’’ or Grail of medieval
romance. This line will supposedly culminate in a second Messiah,
all this being the secret of an order named the Prieure de
Sion. Apparently the investigation of this amazing story began
with the mystery of Berenger Sauniere, a parish priest at
Rennes-le-Château in the Pyrenees, who seemed to have discovered
a secret that gave him access to a vast sum of money
before his death, under mysterious circumstances, in 1917.
That secret involved the history of Rennes-le-Château and its
association with the Templars, the Cathars, and the royal
bloodline of the Merovingian dynasty. The story has too many
jumps in history and logic to ever be researched, and only time
will show whether its major claims can be independently substantiated.
Patricia and Lionel Fanthorpe refute the theory of Baigent,
Leigh, and Lincoln in their 1982 book The Holy Grail Revealed
The Real Secret of Rennes-le-Château.
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Calif. Newcastle Pub. Co., 1982.
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Folklore Society, 1888. Reprint, New York Cooper Square
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———. The Quest of the Holy Grail. London G. Bell & Sons,
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