Holy-Grail-art - 1/9/97
"The Origin of the Holy Grail" by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.
NOTE: See also the files: tomato-hist-art, salt-comm-art, Arthur-bib, Arthur-msg,
utensils-msg, p-tableware-msg, mazers-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called StefanŐs Florilegium.
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Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
Note: First published in the Summer 1996 issue of "Tournaments Illuminated".
The Origin of the Holy Grail
Da'ved Man of Letters
Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.
The Grail's history has shadowy ties with pagan legends.
During the Middle Ages the legend of the grail became
Christianized and was added to Arthurian legend. The Arthurian
legend is comprised of a large and varied collection of fictional
works. These stories have been reinterperted, altered, blended,
and made up to suit the audience of the time. To limit the scope
of this article these stories are used only as a source of
reference. The word grail is a common noun of provencal origin
(gradalis or gradale) that derived from the Latin cratalis. At
the end of the 12th century Holinand de Frodemont (a monk)
comparied gradalis (ie grail) to the Latin Scutella (basin) as
they seemed to be used interchangably in the past. This seams to
have had influence of the version written by Robert du Boron.
The Grail was said to possess unlimited healing power and is
considered to have been a point of contact with a supernatural or
spiritual realm. The origin of the Grail legend can be
attributed to the ancient and universal concept of sacred vessels
used as symbols of power and the source of miracles. Such
vessels are found in Celtic, Egyptian, and Vedic mythology and in
various tribal traditions as cups, cauldrons, platters or tubs
representing inspiration, rebirth, and regeneration. They often
are used to symbolize the womb, as a place of serenity, security
and rebirth. The grail even has parallels in alchemy by the use
of the philosophers's stone, which represents man's unification
The Grail myth seems to have strong roots in the folklore of
the British Isles, which contains many accounts of magic
cauldrons, kettles, cups and drinking horns. It is probable that
the Grail idea was derived from early legends of talismans which
conferred great boons upon the finder as, for example, the shoes
of swiftness, the cloak of invisibility and so forth. These
stories appear to have been altered and absorbed by early
Medieval Christian writers. In classical and Celtic mythologies
the Grail or the Graal is a vessel of plenty and symbolizes
regeneration of all life. Its supply of nutrients being
inexhaustible and those who possessed it never had worry of
hunger or thirst. According to one version, even those persons
terminally ill could not die within eight days of beholding the
The theory that the Arthur story along with the grails
beginings were developed in the British Isles has flaws. There
is no Anglo-Norman version to be examined and all the middle
english versions are derived from the French. This too is not
solid in its foundation as the geography of the French quest
romances is obviously British and revolves around the resting
place of the grail being in Britain. The long centuries of
warfare between these two groups of people would sugesst that the
stories must have been altered to suit, and then changed over
The migration of oral traditions translated into French by
bards might explain these early romances having British locales.
Story migration might be accepted on a larger scale, due to some
recent evidence. It seems that the inspiration for Arthur and
his Knights and the quest for the Holy Grail may come from a
tradition far older then that of the Ancient Celts-Brythonic or
otherwise. It is suggested that the Arthurian Romances found
their beginnings in the steppes of south Russia. This area is
inhabited by an ancient Persian-speaking people known as the
Sarmatians. In their traditions they have a quest for a magical
cup called the Amonga. This Amonga never runs dry, and only
those who are without fault and of exceptional courage are worthy
of, possessing the sacred cup.
The British legends of Arthur do not exist before 100 A.D.,
it is then possible that the story migrated through some trading
contacts between the Celtics' and the Persians. These contacts
have been documented as early as the fifth century B.C.
According to The Roman historian Dio Cassius, Sarmatians were
posted in Britain along Hadrians wall. Archaeological evidence
at Ribchester shows that a Sarmatian community existed there for
several centuries. It is not known how well, if at all this
community integrated into the local populace after the Roman
The Grail's Religious significance increases as years pass,
and the story is reinterpreted by more authors. In the earliest
versions traces of christian influence appear sparsely, while in
later versions it becomes the main theme. The Grail Legend has
often been held by certain writers to support the theory that the
Church of England or the Catholic Church has existed since the
foundation of the world. The Grail though never fully accepted
by Catholic hierarchy, was never denied or labeled as heretical.
It is possible that the Grail was never fully accepted because it
could not be identified with a relic. The story seems to have
been allowed to continue by the Church because of its enormous
popularity and belief.
Though some controversy exists as to whether the Grail was a
cup or a platter, it is generally depicted in art as a chalice of
considerable size and incredible beauty. This might have been
influenced by the early Church to have it become the cup used by
Christ at the last supper, thereby making the story spiritual.
This indecision by various writers might be directly related to
the various vessels of plenty in Celtic tales. According to the
story of Branwen (from the Mabinogion Collection by Lady
Charlotte Guest 1838-1849), there was a cauldron that could
restore the dead to life by placing the corpse into it. Another
tale from the Mabinogion is Peredur, son of Efrawg, in this
version a platter bearing a severed human head is used as a
feeding vessel and is the substitution for a bejeweled Grail.
The story of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion collection
includes four vessels of plenty including a cup, a platter, a
horn and the cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman. In this account
Arthur and his Knights steal the cauldron.
One of the earliest accounts is believed to have been told
by a sixth-century bard known as Taliesin. This account tells of
a magic cauldron in Annwfn, watched over and guarded by nine
maidens, which is sought by King Arthur's men. This story was
saved for posterity in the Welsh poem called The Spoils of Annwfn
(from the Book of Taliesin, 1275).
The earliest surviving text is Perceval or Le Conte du
Graal. This was the last in a series of five Arthurian romances
written in octosyllabic couplets (by Chretien de Troiyes 1175 and
1190) and left unfinished. Chretien de Troiyes claims to have
based his works on a book that Count Philip of Flanders gave to
him. Chretien implies that the grail is a dish or platter by
stating that "The Grail did not provide a pike, a lamprey, or a
salmon." This would not be logical if he or his readers thought
of the vessel as a chalice or cup. Some readers of Chretien's
Romances believe he invented some of the more marvelous episodes
using a few Celtic names to give an exotic appeal. Scholars of
medieval literature have concluded that Chretiens work is at
least part based on fragments of one or more mythologies.
In Parzival, (finished in 1207) Wolfram von Eschenbach
claims to have based his version of the grail story on the
writings of Kyot. Kyot is reputed to have been a Provencal poet
who wrote in old French using Latin sources. Kyot claims to have
found a book (at Toledo in Spain) written by an astrologer,
Flegitanis which contains the grail story. Experts have come to
the conclusion that certain parts of Wolfram work are based on
Chretiens work. Wolfram appears to try to avoid this comparison
by speaking with very low regard for Chretien and several parts
of his narrative. Wolfram being a man of strong religious belief
added the need for celibacy for those who guard the Grail. The
major difference in Wolfram's version is that his Grail is not a
chalice, it is a magic stone. Stone meaning anything from the
ground, as it is described as a cup carved from a giant emerald.
This emerald is further supposed to be the center stone from
Lucifers crown. The stone fell to earth when the Angel Michael
struck the crown with his flaming sword, while they battled.
The Robert de Boron poem Joseph d'Arimathie (written between
1170 and 1212) recounts the Grail's early history and links the
Grail with the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. It also
tells of how Joseph of Arimathea used it to catch the blood that
flowed from christs wounds as he hung upon the cross. Queste del
Saint Graal (written between 1215 and 1230) is the fourth part of
a huge body of work called the Vulgate cycle. It is stated in
the third, fourth, and fifth manuscripts (Lancelot, Queste, and
Mort Artu), that Master Walter map is the Author of the Vulgate
cycle. This has been questioned by many scholars and is now
generally considered to have been written by several authors.
The little credible evidence suggests that the writers lived and
wrote in Champagne or Burgundy between 1210 and 1230. The
Vulgate cycle changes the quest into a search for mystical union
with god. These versions show direct influence of the teachings
of St Bernard of Clairuaux.
The fall of the Holy Land in 1291 and the dissolution of the
Knight Templars between 1307 and 1314 coincide with the temporary
disappearance of the grail romances from history. The legend was
revived when Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte Darthur (1470 based
on The Vulgate cycle). This is a controversial version as Malory
is noted as writing his manuscript while in prison. This work
was broken up and printed by Caxton in 1485. This brought the
Arthurian legends to the English speaking masses. Le Morte
Darthur became the most widely read and familiar, if not accepted
version in the middle ages. The Arthurian legends have remained
(in one version or another) prominent in western culture ever
The Grail is often sought, but seldom or never found. This
baffling search for an unattainable good is something that every
human being can understand and appreciate. All the Authors agree
on one point, that the Grail is an important part of the
Arthurian legends. Strong evidence points to the origin of Grail
tradition beginning in Ireland. The Irish posses the oldest
native literature in northern Europe. This literature contains
deities and supernaturally endowed persons and objects.
It is believed that the Welsh absorbed some of this Irish
lore from captives and Irish residents and used it to flesh out
the legend of Arthur. This may be the connection needed to give
credit to the Sarmatians, for the origin of the Grail. Whether
or not these traditions were influenced by other peoples may
never be proven, but this doesn't have any bearing on what the
Christianized Grail symbolizes.
Psychiatrist Carl G Jung said the story and overall meaning
of the Grail is very alive in modern times. The Grail quest is a
search for truth and the real Self, and may be seen as a paradigm
of the modern spiritual journey to restore the Waste Land and
become whole again. There are many paths to the Grail and they
may be found only by those who have attained a certain spiritual
consciousness, who have raised themselves above the limitations
of the senses.
The Grail in symbolizing rejuvenation provided hope to a
downtrodden age. This story like most Christian teachings served
to calm and reassure the masses. The Arthurian Romances as a
whole gave all people an ideal to aim for, a goal to reach. The
quest for the Grail had played a part in the development and the
growth of chivalry, but that's another article, for another time.
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Copyright 1996 by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric,
<Lord_Xaviar_the_eccentric@yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication
in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and is notified by
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
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