The Holy Grail

In any discussion of the Holy Grail, one thing must be clearly understood:


I know that recently some imaginative writers have decided that “Holy Grail”—San Greal—is simply a misprint for Sang Real, “Royal Blood,” and that medieval writers were using it as a code for a hidden secret. This is cute but there are a number of problems in the theory, the most important being that this only works in modern Spanish. Old French, the language of the first Grail poems, would write it Saint Graal, Grel, or even Gresal.1Spelling was an art form in the Middle Ages. The Old French word grail meant “grill,” as in “barbeque.” Malory, in the fifteenth century, called it the Sankgreall. “Thys ys he by whom the Sankgreall shall be encheved.”2 The German, used by Wolfram von Eschenbach, is Helligen Grâl.3 The Basque is azken afarian Kristiok erabili,” or “Christ’s last meal stirred liquid.”4 (All right, my Basque is minimal.)

At any rate, in no other language of the Middle Ages can “Holy Grail” be twisted to mean “Holy Blood.”

Are we all convinced?

Now we can look at the history of the tale of the Grail and its connection to the Templars.


Detail of Holy Grail, “Roman de Tristan,” second half of the fifteenth Century.
(Giraudon/Art Resource, NY)

The first story mentioning the Grail was written by the poet Chrétien de Troyes at the end of the twelfth century. It concerns a young knight, Perceval, who stops for the night at a castle. There he discovers a lord who is bedridden. The lord greets Perceval and invites him to stay the night. As they are eating dinner, a strange procession passes through the room. First comes a man carrying a lance. At the tip of it is one drop of blood, which slides down the lance until it reaches the hand of the man carrying it. He is followed by two other servants, each with a tray of candles. After them is a beautiful girl who holds in both hands a “graal,” or vessel of gold covered in precious gems. She is followed by another girl carrying a silver platter.

Perceval is very curious about this but has been told that it’s rude to ask questions, so he says nothing. The next day he leaves the castle. Some distance away he finds a young woman sitting under an oak tree, sobbing because her lover has just had his head chopped off. She stops her lamentation long enough to tell Perceval that he has been at the castle of the Fisher King, who has been crippled in battle. She can’t believe that he didn’t ask why the lance bled or where the girl was going with the graal. If he had, the king would have been cured. Perceval grieves that he has missed the opportunity to heal the king. Then he continues on with other adventures. The story moves to Gawain and never returns to Perceval or the Grail.

We don’t know where Chrétien got the material for the tale of Perceval. It was composed for Philip of Alsace, the count of Flanders, who was the cousin of Henry II of England. Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, were fond of the Arthurian legends. Eleanor was even at Glastonbury when the supposed bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were disinterred in 1191. Philip was also the grandson of Fulk of Anjou, king of Jerusalem. Both his parents had been to Jerusalem several times and his mother, Sybilla, had joined a convent there, where she died.

The idea for the Grail may have come from a Breton story or even Welsh, since Perceval is said by Chrétien to be from Wales. In the Welsh saga, The Mabinogian, the story of Culhwch and Olwen has a passage in it where the hero must find the cup of Llwyr, “for there is no vessel in the world which can hold that strong drink, save it.”5 Next he must get the “food bag of Gwyddneu Long-Shank: if the whole world should come around it . . . the meat that everyone wished for he would find therein.”6 These tasks are part of a long series of seemingly impossible feats that must be done if Culhwch is to win the hand of Olwen. The magic cup and food bag are in the same tradition as the horn of plenty. It isn’t likely that Chrétien read Welsh, but various scholars have suggested that the theme for Perceval came from a tradition that would have been familiar to his listeners.7

While not everyone agrees with the theory that the story grew from Celtic myth, I tend to think that parts of his Grail legend are an attempt by Chrétien to make sense of a myth that he doesn’t really understand. One example of this is when the woman under the tree explains to Perceval that the lord is called the Fisher King because he likes to go fishing. 8 But this may have just been Chrétien’s sense of humor.

Perhaps if Chrétien had told the reader what he had in mind for the Grail, it would not have become such an object of mystery and speculation. But the story caught the imagination of many and over the next fifty years a number of Grail stories were written, usually as part of the Arthurian legends.

The word “graal” was in common use in France then. It meant a vessel or a goblet.9 However, in the grail stories, it soon came to mean a chalice. It was in the thirteenth-century work by Robert de Baron that the word “holy” began to be used with it, as the Grail became identified with the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who provided the tomb for Jesus.10In Christian apocrypha Joseph was also supposed to have used a dish to catch the blood of Jesus as he was dying on the cross.11A much later legend had Joseph, like Mary Magdalene and James, the patriarch of Jerusalem, finding refuge in Europe, in this case, England.

As legends tend to run together, it was a short step from this to making the Grail the cup that caught the blood and Joseph a part of the Arthurian body of tales.

A thirteenth-century version of the Perceval story gives Joseph of Arimathea a nephew, also named Joseph, who is a “good knight, chaste and a virgin in his body, strong and generous of heart.”12 This is the man who becomes the Fisher King and guards “the lance with which Jesus was wounded and the cup with which those who believed in Him . . . collected the blood that flowed from his wounds while he was being crucified.”13 But many other authors gave other names to the king and other explanations for the Grail. Since the story had no basis in fact, writers were free to imagine anything they liked.

In the later medieval French romances the Grail was clearly seen as a Christian relic, something associated with the act of transubstantiation in the Mass. In several of them, the vision of the Grail includes that of a child or of Jesus on the cross.14

It is only in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s German version that the Templars are connected with the Grail. Wolfram makes the Grail a stone, fallen from the sky. It has magical powers that give health and eternal youth. The power of the stone, however, comes from a “small white wafer” brought by a dove every year on Good Friday. “And from that the stone derives whatever good fragrances of drink and food there are on earth, like to the perfection of Paradise. . . . Thus, to the knightly brotherhood, does the power of the Grail give sustenance!”15 The knightly brotherhood is, of course, the Tempeleisen, the guardians of the Grail. This was based loosely on the Templars. However, unlike the Templars, there are women in the Tempeleisen.16

Even though there might be a folkloric base for some of the plot, there is no doubt in any of the Grail stories that the author is a Christian. I see no problem with Wolfram making the Templars guardians of the Grail. When he was writing in the early thirteenth century, the Templars were still seen as those who protected the way for pilgrims to Jerusalem. They might well have been added to the story to make it more immediate, as thriller writers put known organizations in their books to place them firmly in the current time. However, Wolfram and those who drew their stories from his were the only ones who used the Templars in the Grail story. It was not part of the core tradition.

In an interesting study, an art historian has pointed out images of the Virgin Mary in several twelfth-century churches in the north of Spain in which she is holding a dish from which rays of light radiate. He thinks that this might represent the gifts of the Holy Spirit and could be a basis for the Grail story.17 This is intriguing and needs to be followed up by scholars in other areas of Medieval Studies. The main problem is in connecting the authors of the first Grail stories to northern Spain. There is no evidence to support this. A link in other art or literature would be very exciting.

Unfortunately, information like this is too often taken up by people without historical training. They look at the image and fit it into their own pet theories without doing the background research, as we saw with the term San Greal earlier.

Although there is a certain common thread, all the medieval stories about the Grail have a different emphasis. That’s because they are fiction and not intended to be historical accounts. Like the rest of the Arthurian stories, those about the Grail reflect the outlook of the authors and the times in which they lived. At the end of the fifteenth century, when Thomas Malory made his English version of the legend of Arthur, the Grail stories were about the adventures and duties of a Christian knight. Most listeners understood that the magical quests were fantasy and they enjoyed them as many people do science fiction today.

However, the stories about King Arthur and the Grail lost popularity soon after Malory wrote. The message of the Grail was too full of imagery from the Mass to be acceptable to the newly formed Protestant denominations. Along with this, taste in literature changed. “The coming of the Reformation was the moment at which the Grail vanished from poetic imagination.”18

But two centuries later, it appeared again, in an entirely new form. In the eighteenth century the fashion arose for secret societies. Perhaps it was in reaction to the egalitarian beliefs that would produce the American and French revolutions. Perhaps all that rational thought and enlightenment was unfulfilling. I don’t really know. But groups such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasons borrowed freely from arcane texts and mystical treatises of the medieval and ancient world, taking symbols from them and creating new meanings. The Grail was one of these symbols.

The connection between the Templars and the Grail seems to have been reestablished through the efforts of an Austrian named Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. In 1818 he wrote a book that condemned the Masons as a group of heretics directly connected to the Templars and Gnostics. “The conclusion of his work is that a pagan religion survived alongside Catholicism into the Middle Ages, and in the guise of Freemasonry, remained a threat to the Church even in the early nineteenth century.”19

At the same time that the mystical aspects of the Grail were mutating, nineteenth-century-romantic writers and artists were creating their own versions of the stories. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King was arguably the most popular of these in English. In Germany, Wagner’s operas Parsival andLohengrin combined the renewed interest in national origins with his own image of Christianity.

It was the twentieth century that took the Grail to unexplored territory. For the most part, it was still entwined with the story of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Perceval, and Galahad. But these familiar characters appeared in totally different forms. The Grail could be a pagan vessel, as in Marian Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon or a made-up excuse to get out of the house, as in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail it was a pointless quest. None of these modern stories mention the Templars in connection to the Grail.

A whole generation has the Grail and the Templars forever combined thanks to Steven Spielberg and Indiana Jones. However, the knight in the film is never called a Templar. He is only the most worthy of three brothers who found the Grail. In this version, the cup never came to Europe but stayed in a hidden place that looks remarkably like the ancient city of Petra.

Today the Grail is still as much a mysterious symbol to us as it was to medieval listeners. As was true then, the Grail is something different for each person. No two people have ever completely agreed on what the Grail looks like, never mind what it represents. But in current usage today the Holy Grail is everywhere. Awards are “the Holy Grail of Beach Volleyball” for instance. The Holy Grail of a collector is that one rare piece that has been rumored to exist but never seen. It’s the goal just out of reach.

Dan Brown put it very well at the end of The Da Vinci Code: “the Holy Grail is simply a grand idea . . . a glorious unattainable treasure that somehow, even in today’s world of chaos, inspires us.”20

At the end of his excellent study of the Grail legend, Richard Barber gives a listing of the number of times the term “the Holy Grail” has been used in major Western newspapers from 1978 to 2002. In 1978 there were sixteen uses (fifteen in the Washington Post). In 2002 alone, there were 1,082.21

The fact that recent fiction has attached the Grail to the Templars says more about how we see the Templars now than what they were in reality. Perhaps it says that we prefer our Templars to be fictional.


Larousse, Dictionnaire de l’Ancien Francais (Paris, 1992) p. 296. Also, Fredéric Godefroye, Lexique de l’Ancien Français (Paris, 1990) p. 261. Both dictionaries give the first meaning as “cup” or “vase.”


Thomas Malory, Works ed. Eugéne Vinaver (London, 1971) p. 519.


Matthias Lexer, Mittel-hochdeutsches Taschen-wörterbuch p. 75.


Gorka Aulesti and Linda White, Basque-English, English-Basque Dictionary (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1992) p. 516.


Mabinogian, ed. and tr. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (Everyman’s Library, 1949) p. 82.




Richard Barber, The Holy Grail, Imagination and Belief (London: Putnam, 2004) pp. 240-43.


“Perceval le Gallois ou le Conte du Graal,” tr. Lucien Foulet, in Danielle Régnier-Bohler, ed., La Légende Arthurienne, le Graal et la Table Ronde (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1989) p. 47.


Frédèric Godefroy, Lexique de l’Ancien Français (Paris: Champion, 1990) p. 261.


Matthew 27:57-60.


Gospel of Nicodemus.


Christiane Marchello-Nizia, “Perlesvaus, le Haut Livre du Graal,” in Régnier-Bohler, p. 121. (English translation mine)


Ibid., p. 124. (English translation mine)


Barber, p. 112. I find it interesting that these legends were at their most popular in the first half of the thirteenth century, when the crusade against the Cathars was at its height (Barber mentions this) and when anti-Semitism was on the rise, along with the beginning of the libel that Jews stole and desecrated the Host. But that is another subject altogether and I’ll refrain from following it here.


Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival tr. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage (New York: Vintage Books, 1961) book 9, paragraph 470, p. 252.


Ibid., book 9, paragraph 471.


Joseph Goering, The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).


Ibid., p. 223.


Ibid., pp. 308-9.


Richard Barber, p. 444.


Ibid., p. 380. I hope I added it correctly, but that’s the rough amount.

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