Holy Grail – Origins and Symbolism of an Enigmatic Symbol

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The Holy Grail is a highly enigmatic symbol, connected with Christianity. It has inspired and captivated human imagination for hundreds of years and has transcended its original purpose to become an extremely symbolic and precious object. Here’s a look at what exactly the Holy Grail is and the legends and myths that surround it.

A Mysterious Symbol

The Holy Grail is traditionally viewed as the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper. It’s also believed that Joseph of Arimathea used that same cup to collect Jesus’s blood at his crucifixion. As such, the Holy Grail is worshiped as a sacred Christian symbol as well as – if it is ever to be found – a precious and sacred artifact.

Naturally, the story of the Grail has also spawned a myriad of legends and myths. Many believe that, wherever it is, Christ’s blood is still flowing through it, some believe that the Grail can bestow everlasting life to those who drink from it, and many think its burial place would be consecrated ground and/or that Christ’s blood would be flowing from the ground.

Various theories place the Grail’s resting place in England, France, or Spain, but nothing definitive has been found so far. Either way, even just as a symbol, let alone a potentially real artifact, the Holy Grail is so recognizable that it has become an inseparable part of modern folklore and jargon.

Because of the old Arthurian myths about the search for the Holy Grail, the term has even become an epithet for people’s biggest goals.

What Does the Word Grail Mean?

The word “Grail” comes either from the Latin word gradale, which means a deep platter for food or liquids, or from the French word graal or greal, meaning “a cup or bowl of earth, wood, or metal”. There are also the Old Provençal word grazal and the Old Catalan gresal.

The full term “Holy Grail” likely comes from 15th-century author John Harding who came up with san-graal or san-gréal which is the origin of the modern “Holy Grail”. It’s a play on words, as it’s parsed as sang real or “Royal Blood”, hence the Biblical connection with Christ’s blood in the chalice.

What Does the Grail Symbolize?

The Holy Grail has many symbolic meanings. Here are some:

  • First and foremost, the Holy Grail is said to represent the cup that Jesus and his disciples drank from at the Last Supper.
  • To Christians, the Grail symbolizes forgiveness of sins, Jesus’ resurrection and his sacrifices for humanity.
  • To the Knights Templars, the Holy Grail has been depicted as representing perfection that they strove for.
  • In the English language, the phrase Holy Grail has come to symbolize something that you want but that is very hard to achieve or get. It’s often used as a metaphor for something that’s highly important or special.
Holy grail meaning

The Actual History of The Holy Grail

The earliest known mentions of the Holy Grail, or just a grail that might have been the Holy Grail, come from Middle-Age literary works. The first such known work is the 1190 unfinished romance Perceval, le Conte du Graal of Chrétien de Troyes. The novel introduced the idea of “a Grail” into the Arthurian legends and portrayed it as a precious artifact King Arthur’s knights desperately looked for. In it, the knight Percival discovers the Grail. The novel was later finished and changed several times through its translations.

One such 13th-century translation came from Wolfram von Eschenbach who portrayed the Grail as a stone. Later on, Robert de Boron described the Grail in his Joseph de’Arimathie as Jesus’s vessel. That’s roughly when theologians started associating the Holy Grail with the holy Chalice from the Biblical legend.

There were multiple other books, poems, and theological works that followed, connecting the myth of the Holy Grail with both the Arthurian legends and the Christian New Testament.

Some of the more prominent Arthurian works include:

  • Perceval, the Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes.
  • Parzival, the translation and continuation of Percival’s story by Wolfram von Eschenbach.
  • Four Continuations, a Chrétien poem.
  • Peredur son of Efrawg, a Welsh romance derived from Chrétien’s work.
  • Periesvaus, often described as a “less canonical” romance poem.
  • Diu Crône (The Crown, in German), another Arthurian myth where the knight Gawain rather than Percival finds the Grail.
  • The Vulgate Cycle which introduced Galahad as the new “Grail hero” in the “Lancelot” section of the Cycle.
King Arthur holy grail
Metal Artwork of King Arthur

As for the legends and works connecting the Grail to Joseph of Arimathea, there are several famous ones:

  • Joseph de’Arimathie by Robert de Boron.
  • Estoire del Saint Graal was based on Robert de Boron’s work and expanded it greatly with more details.
  • Various medieval songs and poems by troubadours such as Rigaut de Barbexieux also added to the Christian myths connecting the Holy Grail and the Holy Chalice with the Arthurian myths.

From these first historical literary works spawned all subsequent myths and legends surrounding the Holy Grail. The Knights Templar are a common theory connected with the Grail, for example, as it was believed that they managed to seize the Grail during their presence in Jerusalem and secreted it away.

The Fisher King story from Arthurian legends is another such myth that developed later on. Countless other Arthurian and Christian legends have been developed to the point where today’s Christian denominations have different views on the Holy Grail. Some believe it was a literal physical cup lost through history, while others view it as just a metaphorical legend.

Recent History of the Grail

As with any other supposed Biblical artifact, the Holy Grail has been searched for by historians and theologians for centuries. Many cup- or bowl-like artifacts dating back to the time of Jesus Christ have been claimed to be the Holy Grail.

One such example was a cup discovered in 2014 by Spanish historians in a church in León, northern Spain. The chalice was dated to the period between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. and the claim was accompanied by extensive research by the historians as to how and why the Holy Grail would be in northern Spain. Still, none of this really proved that this was indeed the Holy Grail and not just an old cup.

This is one of many such “discoveries” of the Holy Grail. As of today, there are over 200 alleged “Holy Grails” around the world, each worshiped by at least some people but none definitely proved to be the chalice of Christ.

Holy Grail in Pop-Culture

From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), through Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King movie (1991) and Excalibur (1981), to Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), the holy chalice of Christ has been the subject of countless books, movies, paintings, sculptures, songs, and other pop-culture works.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code even went so far as to portray the Holy Grail not as a cup but as Mary Magdalene’s womb, suggesting that she bore Jesus’s child, making that the royal blood.

Wrapping Up

The Holy Grail will likely be the subject of even more literary works in the future and its legends and myths will continue evolving into new and fascinating ideas. Whether we ever find out about the real Holy Grail remains to be seen, but till then, it continues to be a highly symbolic concept.