The Origin of the “Holy Grail”
By John Gehring
A source of enigmatic legends, adventurous quests and enduring speculation, the Holy Grail is rivaled by few myths for its power to intrigue.
Where the idea of a Holy Grail originates has long been the subject of debate and varied theories. Many scholars believe the notion of a grail imbued with magical qualities comes from a pagan Celtic legend that told of a cauldron of plenty, or vessel, that was a source of endless nourishment and regeneration. Joseph Goering, a history professor at the University of Toronto and author of The Virgin and the Grail, believes that 12th century paintings found in eight different churches in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain depicts the Virgin Mary holding a radiant vessel that would have been called a grail in the local dialect.
While opinions vary as to the original inspiration for the idea of a Holy Grail, it is widely accepted that a grail, or graal in old French, (serving dish or bowl) first appears in a work of medieval French literature, Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail), written in the late 12th century by the poet Chrétien de Troyes. Here a young knight marvels at a radiant dish emanating light that he sees as part of a procession at a king’s banquet. Awed into silence, the knight fails to ask about the stunning object, but later meets a hermit who explains the dish holds a single Mass wafer that keeps the crippled father of the king alive.
Not much later, in the early 13th century, Robert de Boron writes a grail story called Joseph d’ Arimathie (Joseph of Arimathea). This is the first explicit depiction of the grail as the chalice or cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. In the story Joseph uses the chalice to catch drops of Christ’s blood as he is preparing his burial. When Joseph is imprisoned, the legend says that the grail helps keep him alive and his descendents eventually bring the revered chalice to the West, where it becomes the fabled object of knights’ quests.
While the first literary rendering of the grail myth was left incomplete after Chrétien de Troyes died before finishing his work, Robert de Boron picks up the legend and provides a “pre-history that Christianized the grail,” according to Joan Grimbert, the chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at The Catholic University of America. “This is an incredible transformation,” she notes, and inspires other writers to pick up the theme in what is known as the Lancelot grail cycle or the Vulgate cycle. The cycle, which dates from 1215 to 1235, provides an extended development of the grail story with strong religious overtones in which the grail is a coveted source of divine power.
Fast forward eight centuries, and novelist Dan Brown offers up his own take on the Holy Grail in his bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. Heavily influenced by the non-fiction book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, published in 1982 and greeted with widespread scholarly criticism, Brown’s novel presents the character of Robert Langdon, a Harvard “symbologist,” who explains that the chalice used by Christ is simply an allegory to “protect the true nature of the Holy Grail, a woman.” It is Mary Magdalene-- a follower and wife of Jesus who has Christ’s children--whose womb is the actual Holy Grail that carries the “royal bloodline” of Jesus. The subsequent conspiracy to suppress this explosive truth, Brown’s characters and less than skeptical readers come to believe, has been kept secret by a power-wielding church through the centuries.
Norris Lacy, a professor of French and Medieval Studies at Pennsylvania State University, is the author of The Da Vinci Code: Dan Brown and The Grail That Never Was, a paper published in the scholarly journal Arthuriana. “There are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to start,” Lacy, the Honorary President of the International Arthurian Society, said about Brown’s grail theory. But isn’t The Da Vinci Code simply fiction anyway? Lacy, who notes that Brown has more recently backed down from defending the veracity of his material, addresses the “it’s-just-fiction” argument. “Indeed, Brown himself, whether as a matter of conviction or of commercialism, has done everything possible to persuade readers that he does believe just what the book says,” Lacy writes. “He has insisted on the accuracy, the factual nature, of his information and theories.”
He points out that in the novel the key to unlocking the grail secret lies in a supposed linguistic “error” involving “San Greal,” or Holy Grail, which the novel claims in its most ancient form, should actually be read as “Sang Real,” or Royal Blood. “In fact,” Lacy writes, “that was far from the earliest form. As Arthurians know, the earliest form was simply graal, a common noun referring to a serving dish. The word was first used to indicate a particular (initially mysterious and later specifically holy) object by Chrétien de Troyes in the early thirteenth century.” The form interpreted as “royal blood” is first used in the 15th century.
Lacy views “the most remarkable aspect of this Grail conspiracy theory,” however, as the “circular reasoning” of Brown’s novel in tandem with his “argumentum ex silentio.” Readers are asked to accept the claim that Christ’s secret lineage was in constant danger of being discovered, and if revealed the exposure would challenge a host of sacrosanct beliefs. In Brown’s novel, Lacy observes, since the supposed marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene “is not known to anyone, the Church must have been successful at keeping it quiet—and therefore it must be true. Thus the very lack of proof constitutes its own proof, demonstrating just how effective the conspiracy of silence has been through the centuries.” Ultimately, he describes Brown’s ideas as “elaborate, fascinating, and wrong.”
Joseph Goering, the University of Toronto historian who wrote The Virgin and the Grail, also sees no evidence that Brown’s grail theory holds up. “In a way Dan Brown is doing what every other grail storyteller has done, which is to tell us why the grail is important, but he does this by throwing out all of the old stories and says they are just misrepresentations,” Goering said. “He sets himself outside of the tradition and says everyone else is wrong.”