Holy Grail

In Christian mythology the Holy Grail was the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, which was said to possess miraculous powers, and the gift of eternal life to all who drank from it. According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea used the Grail to catch Christ’s blood from the foot of the cross. He then took the object to Britain where his descendants continued to keep it safe. The quest for the Holy Grail is an important aspect of Arthurian myth and legend, immortalised in the many Grail romances.

The original Grail romances consisted of 8 stories written within a period of 30 years, from 1190 to 1220 AD. The first of these was written in France by Chrétien de Troyes, entitled Le Conte du Graal. This was followed shortly afterwards by 2 so called continuations to the original unfinished story, written by anonymous authors. Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie then appeared around 1200, at the same time as an anonymous French romance known as Didot Perceval. The German epic Parzival, written by Wolfram von Eschenbach was then composed in 1205. A revised edition entiled Perlesvaus and 2 further Grail stories known as the Vulgate Cycle were the final versions to appear around 1220.

Chretien de Troyes claimed to have obtained his story from a book left to him by his patron Count Philip of Flanders, shortly before Philip left for the crusades. The hero Perceval is introduced as Perceval of Wales, a young warrior brought up in the forests of Snowdonia by his widowed mother. He travels to King Arthurs court in order to train as a Knight, but due to his naiveity, his master teaches him to remain silent and not ask questions. After his training, Perceval sets out to return home, but during the journey he encounters two fishermen who direct him to a mysterious castle. Once inside Perceval is invited to a banquet in honour of the castle’s Lord, known as the Rich Fisher. During the banquet Perceval witnesses a strange procession, in which he sees the Grail. However due to his training, Perceval refrains from asking the meaning of what he has seen. He leaves the castle, unable to remember its whereabouts. Eventually he meets a hermit who informs him that he is, unbeknown to him the grandson of the Rich Fisher and heir to the Grail. However before he can claim this birthright he must ask the right question. Here the story ends, without telling us what the question is.

These early romances then centred around the Grail hero Perceval and his quest to uncover the true meaning of the Grail. In most versions, the hero must prove himself worthy to be in the presence of the sacred object and fulfil his role as guardian. In the earlier tales, Perceval’s immaturity prevents him from fulfilling this destiny, as he fails to ask the right questions. Before he can take his rightful place, he must grow both spiritually and mentally. In the later stories the Grail is a symbol of God’s grace, available to all but only realised and understood by those who work on themselves in a spiritual sense.

Each successive romance added more detail to the mystery surrounding the Grail. The Continuations tell us that the Grail was made by Joseph of Arimathea, who collected the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. We are told that he placed it at the feet of Jesus as he was crucified, and collected the blood which flowed from his feet. He then left Palestine and journeyed to Britain, where the Grail was entrusted to the care of his descendants. This is the first romance to describe Perceval and the Rich Fisher as direct descendants of Joseph. The later romance entitled Didot Perceval portrays Perceval as the grandson of Bran the Blessed. According to historian Laurence Gardener Bran is a true descendant of Joseph of Arimathea, as was King Arthur himself.

Some believe that the Grail legends originate with Celtic myth and folklore, citing similarities between the Grail and the mystical cauldron of Bran the Blessed. Bran’s cauldron was said to possess the gift of restoring life and supplied a never ending supply of food. Some versions of the legend feature magical dishes or platters that test the heroes power or worthiness to rule, as only the true sovereign of the correct lineage could possess them. It seems though that Bran and his descendants were part of that

Others believe that the Grail is a purely Christian symbol, the cup of the last supper, which in Catholicism is used to promote the sacrament of Eucharist or Communion. It was not until 492 CE that Pope Gelasius I introduced the practise as part of Christian orthodoxy, believing it to be symbolic of the blood of Christ. In so doing, he denounced all those who did not partake of alcohol as heretics. This same Pope also stated that babies who died having received Baptism but not Communion would go straight to hell. He sounds like a nice man.

Most scholars accept that both Christian and Celtic traditions contributed to the legend’s development, though the more orthordox play down the Celtic influence. The central theme certainly appears to be Christian in origin if not in meaning. In each romance the Grail is kept by the family of Perceval, who are themselves the direct descendants of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph is said to have been appointed guardian by none other than Jesus himself. The only problem is that according to Church doctrine it was Peter who was Jesus’ successor, and not Joseph. It seems then that the Grail romances could be an allegory for an alternative apostolistic succession.

According to legend, Joseph formed the first Christian church in Britain, and this is confirmed by several manuscripts within the Vatican archives. During the mid 5th century around the time that Arthur is said to have existed, there existed in Britain an alternative church known as Pelagianism. They seem to have many similarities with the Cathars who flourished in France 500 years later. Both questioned the apostolistic succession of Peter, as first Bishop of Rome, both also questioned the notion of original sin and the need for sacraments, as they they did not believe in the concept of a judgemental God, rather that man was saved by his own grace and efforts. The Cathars also believed that Jesus was married to, or had a relationship with Mary Magdalene, who was the mother of his children.

The word Grail derives from the French graal, or sangraal meaning blood Royal leading to speculation in books such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and the Da Vinci Code that the Grail is in fact symbolic of a bloodline or dynasty which may have been founded by Jesus himself, through his offspring with Mary Magdalene. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that this may well be the case, since the Grail legends are confined only to those regions where Gnosticism, the original version of Christianity in its purest form was taught. Books such as the Gospel of Thomas, from the Nag Hammadi library show that Gnosticism was closer to the original form of Christianity than we have today. Christianity teaches that the only way to God is through the church, but Gnosticism taught that intermediaries were not necessary as we could commune with God direct.

The Merovingian dynasty of France, who ruled from the 5th to the 8th centuries are said to be the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. According to legend, after the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary Magdalene is said to have fled to France with her family and servants, where she later gave birth to a daughter, supposedly Jesus’ daughter.

The idea of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, although controversial has found widespread acceptance within the secular community. The orthodox view maintains that Jesus was as the Bible suggests, celibate, and by definition could not have had children, with Mary or anyone else. The Merovingians then cannot be his descendants, although this is not to say that they were not party to his teachings, as passed on via his Disciples and other followers.

Belief in the Grail, and interest in its possible whereabouts, has never ceased. Ownership has been attributed to various groups, including the Knights Templar. This is probably because they were at the peak of their influence and power around the time that the Grail stories began to circulate. One story, the famous Parzival by German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, immortalised in Wagner’s opera Parsifal, claims that the Knights were protectors of the Grail castle, in which the sacred object was hidden. According to some sources, all nine of the original Knights were descendants of the Jesus bloodline.

There are cups claimed to be the Grail in several churches throughout Europe, most notably Valencia cathedral and also Genoa in Italy. Some believe that the Grail is today hidden in Spain, while others claim it is buried beneath Roslyn Chapel in Scotland, or at the foot of the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. Some believe it was taken by the Templars to the new world, where they hid it at Oak Island, Nova Scotia. Local folklore in Accokeek, Maryland says that it was brought to the town by a closeted priest aboard Captain John Smith’s ship.

The popular Arthurian stories of the Middle Ages depict the Holy Grail as the cup of the Last Supper, which was used to collect Christ’s blood after the Crucifixion. There was also though a far older legend which suggests that the Grail was originally a sacred vessel that belonged to Mary Magdalene. Mary is said to have used this vessel to collect Christ’s blood after he appeared to her in the tomb. However, it was not a chalice that was used, the cup of the last supper, but rather an oil or ointment jar.

The Bible tells of an event which occurred shortly before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest which has long aroused interest as to its meaning. This is the tale documented in two different Gospels of the anointing of Jesus with spikenard contained within an alabaster jar. It is widely believed that Mary of Bethany, the instigator of this anointing, and Mary Magdalene are one and the same, since the Gospel of Luke describes the former as a sinner, and Mary is still regarded, even today as a fallen prostitute. It is this same vessel, which was used for the anointing, that was later used to collect the blood.

Mary’s sacred vessel has been depicted by artists as a variety of different receptacles. such as spice pots, perfume jars, and ointment cups. The word used in the English translation of the Bible for Mary’s unguent vessel is ‘box’, although the earlier Latin Bible uses the word alabastrum,  the Roman name for a container for perfumes or scented oils, so called because they were usually made from alabaster. Such receptacles were fashioned in a variity of shapes and sizes; not only boxes, but also flasks, pots, and jars.

The Marian Chalice as it came to be known is believed to have remained sealed inside the tomb for 400 years, until its discovery by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. The cup was then taken to Rome, where it was believed to possess miraculous healing powers. The chalice remained in Rome until the city was sacked by the barbarians in AD 410. Along with other treasures, it was then taken to the last outpost of Roman civilisation in Western Europe – Britain, where it promptly disappeared.

Both the Holy Grail and the Marian Chalice were vessels that were said to have held the blood of Christ and were also believed to have been hidden in Britain. This suggests that the two stories must have common origins. Both vessels were also linked with King Arthur and his knights. In the Arthurian tales, the Grail is kept in a secret chapel in the White Castle, within the White Town. A 13th century English knight named Fulk Fitz Warine claimed to possess the Marian Chalice. His castle, built from light coloured stone, was known as the White Castle, and the town where it still stands is called Whittington – the old English for ‘White Town’. It was here in the early 1990s that writer Graham Phillips began his search for the lost Marian Chalice.

The relic which was said to be the chalice re-appeared in the mid 19th century, when Fulk’s descendent, a Shropshire writer named Thomas Wright claimed that he had inherited the cup via his ancestors. It was described as a small stone cup made from green alabaster, or onyx. With no heirs to hand it to, Wright hid the cup leaving an elaborate series of clues to its whereabouts, hidden within his poem entitled Sir Gawain and the Red Knight.

The search took Phillips to the ruins of an old chapel in the grounds of Hawkstone Park, near the village of Hodnet, erected by Knight in the 1850’s. The chapel once housed a series of four statues, symbols for the four Gospel writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The window depicting John showed what looked like a female figure holding a chalice, leading Graham to conclude that the chalice must have been hidden somewhere in the statue that symbolised John.

The statue had once stood on a pedestal, where theoretically the chalice could have been hidden. Unfortunately the pedestal was destroyed by Walter Langham when he bought the land in the 1920’s and decided to erect the statue in his garden. Phillips then discovered something very exciting, an old guide book which claimed that when broken apart the pedestal contained a small green cup made from stone.

Phillips then traced and contacted Langham’s descendants and was delighted to find that the cup was still in their possession. It turned out to be a small stone vessel made from green alabaster, about the size and shape of an eggcup. It has since been analysed by the British Museum and identified as a Roman ointment or scent jar dating from the first century AD. Since it is also made from alabaster, it seems highly likely that this could be the original Marian Chalice. This is not however the same as the Holy Grail, which Graham has never claimed to have found.

Despite this fact, when Phillips’ book was published in 1995, it created an uproar which led many groups to come out from the woodwork claiming that they had the original Grail. The Vatican were inundated with calls from ‘interested parties’ asking for their position in all of this. Finally the Pope, John Paul II made a statement that none of these Grails were in fact the real one as the true one was in their possession. This was the first time the Vatican had voiced its opinion on the Grail, let alone admitting to its possession.

The search for the grail can in many ways be likened to the search for God, the search for the purity and the truth that lies at the very heart of mankind. The answer then lies within, as indeed does God. The way to the Grail is therefore through our own hearts and minds, contacting the silence within and listening to our feelings and intuition. To coin a phrase from Conversations with God: ‘If we do not go within we go without.’