What is the Holy Grail?

Dear Cecil: I like to read the Straight Dope columns on religious artifacts. You have covered the Ark of the Covenant and a little bit about the Dead Sea scrolls, and I would like to know about the Holy Grail. I wasn’t born into a Bible-reading family, so my knowledge of the subject is limited. I know it was used by Christ at the Last Supper and was used by Joseph of Arimathea to gather the blood of the fallen Christ. I want to know some more of the details surrounding it, and what some theories are regarding its location today. Also, are there still people searching for it? Nelson Bartlett


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Nelson, we need to get with the program here. The Holy Grail is an invention. It turns up in works of fiction. Some of the works in question are classics, notably Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (“The Death of Arthur,” c. 1470), in which the Grail — reimagined as a symbol of mystical union with God — is the object of the prototypical knightly quest. The notion of a quest for a talisman of incomparable value still fascinates romantics (and not a few screenwriters) lo these many centuries later. But the object of the quest, to some extent then and certainly now, is little more than a McGuffin, to use Hitchcock’s term — a pretext that propels the story. You might as well search for Excalibur, or for Frodo’s magic ring.

A few things you need to understand about the Holy Grail. First, notwithstanding the impression you may get from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it’s not necessarily the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Though commonly depicted as a chalice or as the dish holding the Paschal Lamb, in some accounts it’s a cauldron, a philosopher’s stone, or an emerald struck from Lucifer’s crown as he plunged into hell.

Second, the Grail-as-mystical-object doesn’t appear in ancient Christian texts — unlike, say, the Ark of the Covenant. The earliest mention we know of is in a retelling of the King Arthur legend called Le Conte du Graal, written in the last quarter of the 12th century by the French poet Chretien de Troyes. Chretien, who’s credited with inventing the courtly romance, wrote several Arthurian tales, apparently based on Celtic sources. The Grail in Chretien’s story is a fancy platter with an otherworldly (but not explicitly religious) aura. The knight Perceval sees it while feasting at the castle of the Fisher King, where it’s brought in as part of a procession of mysterious objects. Though curious, Perceval holds his tongue — he’s already been scolded for asking too many questions. Big mistake. Because he fails to inquire about the Grail, the Fisher King and his castle are doomed to remain in a netherworld, neither dead nor alive. To rectify matters, Perceval must embark on a quest, which drives the rest of the tale.

Chretien apparently died before he could finish the story — that was left to later writers, called “continuators,” who worked over a span of about 50 years. Their versions vary considerably in detail, most obviously with respect to what the Grail was, but on the whole they made the religious angle much more overt. Other writers during the same period wrote “histories” of the Grail that purported to trace its origin to the time of Christ. Scholars have long debated where the different elements of the tale came from; present appearances to the contrary, much of the story probably is of non-Christian origin.

At any rate, it seems safe to say that early Grail writers understood they were trafficking in fiction. They felt no compunction about combining legends from far-flung cultures or introducing new twists. For example, the bit about Joseph of Arimathea using the Grail to collect the blood of Jesus first turns up in a Grail history by Robert de Boron that appeared around 1200. In the New Testament, Joseph is a minor figure, a wealthy disciple who obtains Jesus’s body after the Crucifixion and furnishes the tomb. De Boron’s history has him collecting the blood of Jesus in the Grail, then being imprisoned by the Jews for 40 years, during which time the Grail miraculously sustains him; afterward he travels to Britain and establishes its first Christian community. De Boron probably got some of these details from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, but that book doesn’t even mention the Grail; seems pretty clear to me that de Boron was making a lot of things up.

So no, people aren’t still searching for the Grail, and they never were. Though several actual cups possibly connected with the death of Christ have turned up over the millennia, the Grail of the stories came into being a mere eight centuries ago — it isn’t part of early Christian tradition, much less a real artifact. You may have thought it sacrilegious when Spielberg used the Grail to jump-start a ripping yarn, but from a certain point of view, that’s what it’s always been for.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.