It has captured the imaginations of many for centuries, but just what is the Holy Grail?
According to legend, the Holy Grail is the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea would later use the Grail to collect the blood of Jesus during his crucifixion. Common versions of the story hold that anyone in possession of the Grail will be granted special powers. While current versions of the Grail story are based in myth, developed primarily during medieval times, that has not stopped some for hunting after this mysterious Christian relic.
How did the legend of the Holy Grail come about?
What is the Holy Grail?
The Holy Grail has found its way into many different myths and stories over the years, serving as an especially important motif in Arthurian literature.
It is thought the word “grail” comes from the Latin word gradale, which describes a serving platter used at banquets. The first written reference to a magnificent “grail” can be found in Perceval, le Conte du Graal, an unfinished romance written by Chrétien de Troyes around 1190. In this work, the Grail has not yet acquired its Christian ties. Chrétien refers to the object simply as “un graal” (a grail), rather than ‘The Grail”. In this context, we see that in early uses, the Grail had not yet achieved the reputation it has today.
Chrétien’s account of the Grail was extremely influential, inspiring other writers to continue, translate, and reimagine his work in the later 12th and early 13th centuries.
The Grail became “Holy” through the work of Robert de Boron, taking on many of the traits that are popular in the Christian Grail story. In his verse romance, Joseph d’Arimathie, written between 1191 and 1202, Robert tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea, and how he used the chalice from the Last Supper to collect the blood of Christ as he was being removed from the cross. In the story, Joseph is thrown in prison and Jesus appears to him. Jesus explains to him the power of the Grail, and upon his release, Joseph gathers followers to head west, where he founds a dynasty of Grail keepers.
Over the years, the Grail has been described as a cup, chalice, dish, platter, stone, and in recent years, the womb of Mary Magdalene. Most literary works depict the Holy Grail as having various powers, like the power to heal.
The Holy Grail in Arthurian Legend
The Holy Grail was an especially popular object in medieval literature, found in various stories throughout Europe. One tale claims the Holy Grail was brought to Glastonbury, England, by followers of Joseph of Arimathea. Another holds that the Knights Templar stole the Grail from the Temple Mount, taking it back to the West.
The Grail was commonly featured in stories of King Arthur. These tales often told of epic quests to try and recover this ancient object. In many of the legends, the Holy Grail had the power to heal and bring about immortality.
The Holy Grail in Popular Culture Today
Today, the Holy Grail remains a popular literary motif. It has garnered recent interest after showing up as a major theme of Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code (2003). But stories of the Grail have also spread into film and television.
The first on-screen depiction of the Holy Grail came in the silent film Parsifal in 1904. Since then, it has shown up many other times. A few popular films which include the Grail are:
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
- Excalibur (1981)
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
- The Fisher King (1991)
The Holy Grail remains a popular object in the imaginations of many to this day.
If you liked this post, then perhaps you would like this one about the Top 10 Medieval Urban Legends and Tall Tales.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.