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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > October 2015 > Need to Know

Need to Know

1 BIRTH OF A LEGEND

Where did the Holy Grail come from? And what might it be?

HALLOWED CHALICE The Last Supper and first Eucharist, during which Jesus serves wine in the Holy Chalice
ALAMY X1, ART ARCHIVE X1, CORBIS X1, GETTY X1

25,000

The number of lines in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival poem

Holy relics purporting to originate from the earthly life of Jesus are common currency across the Catholic world – with various churches claiming to hold everything from the Holy Prepuce (Jesus’s foreskin) through to nails used during his crucifixion. The most iconic and sought-after souvenir of all, however, is the ever-elusive Holy Grail.

The enduring obsession with the Holy Grail is fuelled by the fact that its form, location and very existence remain a complete enigma. It’s popularly believed to be a goblet used during the Last Supper and then employed by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ’s blood when his side was pierced with a spear during his crucifixion. However, some depictions have it as a bowl or a serving plate, or even as the womb of Mary Magdalene – in a scenario where she bears Jesus’s off spring.

The Holy Chalice from the Last Supper is referenced in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (which historians believe were written c80-100 AD), but it was 1,000 years later that the tale of the Grail became popular, when the medieval romantics began to pen poems about it, entwining the yarn with Arthurian sagas.

The first-known reference to the Grail was made by French poet Chrétien de Troyes in Perceval, le Conte du Graal (which translates as ‘Percival, the Story of the Grail’), an unfinished poem written sometime between 1181 and 1190. Chrétien credits a source book, but the original work remains a mystery. His fantastical yarn sees Percival – one of King Arthur’s knights – visit the realm of the Fisher King (the last in a line of men entrusted with the keeping of the Grail). There, he beholds several revered items, including a graal (‘grail’) – an elaborate bowl from which the King eats a communion wafer. Although the Grail is more prop than main player in this poem, it inspired other writers to develop the concept.

In Joseph d’Arimathie, written between 1191 and 1202, fellow Frenchman Robert de Boron fused the Holy Chalice used at the Last Supper, and the Holy Grail, a vessel containing Jesus’s blood. Joseph of Arimathea is cast as the protector of the Grail, the first of a long line of guardians that will include Percival.

In the early 13th century, German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach developed the story in Parzival, (‘Percival’), an epic poem in which the hero embarks on a quest to recover the Grail. The Welsh romance Peredur continued the theme, but the story really took form in the Vulgate Cycle, a series of Arthurian legends written anonymously in the 13th century.

Two centuries later, Sir omas Malory translated these legends into English in Le Morte D’Arthur and the sagas – especially the quest for the Grail – have enjoyed waves of popularity ever since, being retold by a colourful collection of raconteurs from Wagner and Tennyson through to Monty Python, Spielberg and Dan Brown. But is there any fact amongst all the fantasy?

A HERO’S PLACE

NEW MASTER Galahad leads the legendary knights of the Round Table

Galahad takes his place at the ‘Siege Perilous’ – the seat of the Round Table which was said to symbolise Judas the betrayer’s place, and which was saved for the Grail’s hero.

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The October 2015 issue of History Revealed
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