The Mystery of the Holy Grail


Grail History
 
 SANGRAAL
 The Mystery of the Holy Grail
 JJ Collins
 
 
The Holy Grail is one of the most enduring symbols in medieval Christian
legend.  It stirs in the imagination images of Knights of old, Arthur's
Round table, the glory to the Quest, and the power of God.  It's
popularity has survived even today, where it can be found in films, books,
video games and Monty Python.  The Grail is by its very nature,
mysterious, and it is that mystery that still intrigues historians,
mythographers and poets, and it is that mystery into which I intend to dip
my academic toe.
 
The Legend of the Grail
The story of the Grail varies greatly from author to author, but for
purposes of clarity, but most versions share a few central points.  I draw
the basic Grail story from these:
 
  At the Last Supper, Jesus filled a vessel with wine and passed it among
his disciples, instructing them to "drink his blood."   Later, as Christ
was removed from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea collected the blood of the
Savior in this vessel.  Fleeing Jerusalem, Joseph carried the cup with
him, some say to England, to Glastonbury, others say to the Pyrenees.
There he established a castle, and his family and descendants were made
guardians of this vessel, this Holy Grail.
 
  Later, by some accounts during the reign of Arthur, a knight, called
Perceval or Parzival, the son of a widow, goes in quest of the Grail.  He
comes upon the Grail Castle, which is guarded and inhabited by an order of
Knights, and is ruled by a lame man, wounded in his thigh, called the
Fisher King.  The area surrounding the castle is a desolate wasteland, and
the King is dying.  Perceval is invited to dine in the castle.
 
  It is a strange meal indeed.  It begins with a procession, which
included many wondrous things, and finally a man carrying a lance dripping
with blood and a woman carrying the Grail.  The grail supplies food for
the full company of knights, and somehow sustains the dying King.  After
the meal, Perceval sleeps, and when he awakes, finds the castle abandoned.
 
  After searching for many years, Perceval discovers the truth about the
Grail.  He finds out that the Fisher King is his uncle, and that Perceval
had been "called" by the Grail to be its new protector.  Had he, Perceval
learns, asked, "Who does one serve with the Grail?"  the old King would
have been healed and his land replenished.  Some say that Perceval again
found his way to the castle and asked the Grail Question, others say he
never completed his quest.
 
 
History of the Legend
 The Grail first appeared in the 1180's in the unfinished poem Conte del
Graal, written by Chrtien de Troyes.  His version followed the story as I
presented it, but lacked the association of Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea.
Perceval discovers his heritage from an old hermit that he encounters in
the second half of the poem.  Chrtien's death, however, left the story
unresolved.
 
  The man responsible for Christianizing the Grail story appears to have
been Robert de Borron in his Joseph d'Arimathie, ou Roman de l'histoire
dou Graal, written about ten years after Chrtien's.  In this story does
the Grail specifically take on the significance of the cup that held the
Blood of Christ.  De Borron make Perceval not the nephew but the grandson
of the Fisher King, and his story is set in the time of Joseph of
Arimathea.  Like Chrtien, de Borron claimed that his story had come from
an earlier source.
 
 The next major Grail story, and one of the most striking, is the
anonymous Perlesvaus.  Here, Perceval encounters the Grail Knights, who
appear like some sort of monastic brotherhood.  They dressed in a white
raiment with a red cross on the breast.  Throughout this story there are
strong allusions to alchemy and mysticism.  It's tone and content differ
greatly from it predecessors, but the basic facts of the story remain
the same.
 
 
 The best-known of the Grail sagas in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival.
Written sometime within forty years after Chrtien's, Wolfram's begins with
an introduction condemning Chrtien's Grail story as false.  Wolfram
explains that the story was transmitted to him by a man known a Kyot, who
had discovered the story in Toledo from a "heathen" called Flegetanis.
Kyot, in his own research, discovered the secret of the Grail was
connected to the house of Anjou. In Wolfram's tale, he  goes into great
detail about the nature of the Grail Knights.  He describes how they are
"called" by the Grail.  Most importantly, though, he names them: they are
Templeisen.
 
   The story progressed in several directions from there.  Some authors
emphasized the Christian elements of the story.  Others, like Wolfram,
emphasized the mystical.  The story soon became intermixed with the
Arthurian saga, Perceval becoming a Knight of the Round Table, with Arthur
ordering the quest for the Grail, and even having Galahad, Gauvain or
Launcelot as the discoverer of the Grail.  Suddenly, at the beginning of
the fourteenth century, the Grail legend disappeared from popular
literature, only to reemerge later.
 
The Problem of Origins
  There are as many theories about the origin of the Grail story as there
are scholars that have written on the subject.  Many of them are plausible
and well supported, so much so that it would seem an impossible task to
ferret the good from the bad.  But a few arguments have gained significant
steam in recent years, and those are the ones that I will discuss.
 
    By far the most popular Grail theory today is that of Celtic origin.
Throughout Celtic mythology, there are examples of sacred cups and
cauldrons imbued with magical powers to heal and feed.  Such a cauldron is
included in the seven gifts given by the Tuatha de Dannans, a family of
early Irish god-heroes, to Ireland.  The most obvious example of these
vessel, however, is the cauldron of Bran the Blessed.  This cauldron would
resurrect dead warrior thrown into it.  It also, by some tellings,
provided an endless supply of food.  And the Grail King is, by Chrtien,
call Bron or Brons.
 
 This argument is tenable, especially considering the incorporation of
other Celtic themes into the Grail legend, such as King Arthur.  But the
Celtic cauldrons are far from unique in there use of sacred vessels with
rejuvenative powers.  Such vessels can be found in Greece, e.g. the
Cornucopia, the horn of the goat that nursed Zeus that gives endless food,
in India as the sacred Yoni, in Egypt, in Russia, in almost all cultures.
To Hermitics and Alchemists, the cup is symbolic of the element of Water,
and specifically, of the pure, receptive female principle.  Emma Jung,
steeped in he father's Depth Psychology, insists that the universality of
this symbol derives from the collective unconscious, but there is a
simpler answer.  A cup, in shape and function, resembles the vagina.
It is a receptacle for the man's seed.  It is woman, the source of new
life.  Thus, the cup, the vessel, the grail, has become a symbol of
fertility, of the renewal of life.
 
  But there is something unique to the Grail legend that separates it from
a pagan fertility myth and makes it specifically Christian: it is the cup
that held the blood of Christ.  It is not, perhaps, symbolic of the
feminine principle in general, but of one woman in particular, the
Magdalene, she that bore the children of Jesus.  Thus, the Holy Grail
becomes a symbol of the descendants of Jesus.  The authors of Holy Blood,
Holy Grail go so far as to suggest that the very words San Graal, Holy
Grail, may be a corruption of Sang Raal or Sang Ral, royal blood.  This is
unlikely, for the first description of the Grail, in Chrtien, describes it
as a common noun, "une graal."  It is possible that later authors may
have become aware of this pun and thus propagated the use of the compound
Sangraal.
 
 
The Grail as Initiation and Allegory
   According to Henry and Rene Kahane, there is a direct antecedent to
Chrtien's Grail story.  By Chrtien's own account, the Grail story was
first presented to him by the Count of Flanders, who asked Chrtien to
write a poetic version.  It is possible that the story presented to him
was taken from The Isis Book, part of Apuleius's Metamorphoses.  It is the
story of the initiation of a young man into a mystery school.  The Isis
Book contains numerous parallels to Chrtien's Grail story, including a
feeble king, a procession containing a spear and a cup that rejuvenates
the old king.  These analogs are so striking it is difficult to believe
that Chrtien was not in some part if not directly influenced by The Isis
Book.  If, like The Isis Book, the Grail legend is the story of an
initiation into a mystery school, it begins to take on a whole new life,
and several points become clearer.  Perceval, the young knight, has been
"called" by the Grail to be initiated into its ranks.  The Fisher King
clearly represents Christ, the "fisher of men."
 
More proof of this is in his lameness, for Jesus is by some portrayed as
lame.  He is wounded by man's straying from his true teachings, and from
the authority of his bloodline.  The desolate kingdom is the suffering
mankind, no longer walking with Christ.  The Grail, the Vessel of the
Blood of Christ, is his dynasty, the embodiment of the secret teaching
that has been forgotten by the established church.  Thus, by asking who
one serves in serving the Grail, one learns the true teachings.  The Grail
Knights are the initiates, those privy to the secret teaching, who through
this knowledge, will redeem the world and return them to the true Christ.
 
  If this allegory holds any verity, if the Grail story serves like the
Secret Gospel of Mark, as an initiation into some society that carries, at
least believes itself to carry, the true message of Jesus, then a most
important question arises  who were the initiates?  Who comprised this
mystery school?
 
The Templars
 The most resounding possibility, especially in light of Wolfram's
Parzival, is the Order of Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of
Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar.  The Knights Templar were a
chivalric order founded in 1111 or 1112 by Hughes de Payen, a nobleman and
vassal of the count of Champagne, and eight others.  For the first nine
years of the order's existence, these nine comprised the whole of the
Knights Templar, but the Temple soon grew in size, influence, and power.
Within a century, the Templars owned land all over Europe and the Holy
Land, and had gained such wealth that they engaged in large-scale banking,
building the foundation of the modern banking system.
 
 In 1307, seeing the Templars as a threat to his authority, King Philippe
IV of France had all Templars in France arrested on a most interesting
array of charges, including blasphemy, ritualized desecration of the cross
and infanticide and the worship of an idol called Baphomet in the form of
a disembodied head.  Through torture and coercion the authorities obtained
many confessions, and, eventually, many Templars, including their Grand-
Master, Jacques de Molay, were executed.  Many other nations followed
suit, and the Pope dissolved the order.  Though remnants survived in Spain
and Scotland, this was effectively the end of the Knights Templar.
 
 The Templars have many obvious similarities with the Grail Knights
described by the romanciers.  They were a religious order of warrior, who
dressed in white mantles blazoned with a red cross.  They called their
initiates from select families and seemed to have some sort of ritualized
initiation.  They swore total allegiance to their Grand-Master, as the
Grail Knights did to the Fisher King.  Wolfram, of course, even calls them
Templars by name, but there are deeper similarities.  In Perlesvaus,
Perceval comes upon a wooden cross in a forest.  When he bends to kiss it,
he is pushed aside by some Grail Knights who proceed to spit on and defame
the cross.  This sort of activity is precisely what the Templars were
accused of in their persecution.  In both Perlesvaus and Parzival, there
are allusions to infanticide and homosexuality, two other supposed crimes
of the Templars.  And in one Welsh Grail story, Peredur, the Grail is
described as a plate upon which rests a disembodied head, reminiscent of
the Baphomet heads supposedly found at Templar shrines.
 
 Another thing that the Grail stories and the Templars have in common
is Troyes, the court of Champagne.  Chrtien, as well as several other
Grail poets, wrote with the count of Champagne as their patron.  Not only
was the founder of the Templars a vassal of Champagne, but the count
himself became a Templar in 1124.  The Count of Flanders, the supposed
source of Chrtien's story, had close ties to Champagne and the Templars,
and the count of Anjou, who, according to Wolfram, was the holder of the
secret of the Grail, was also a Templar.
 
Did, then, the Knights Templar, possess some kind of secret knowledge,
and if so, what was its nature?  There are many possibilities.  In their
travels in the Holy Land, the Templars became familiar with the beliefs of
their Muslim adversaries, and became almost friendly with the Hashishin,
roughly the Islamic equivalent of the Templars.  The founder of the
Hashishin, or Assassins, Hassan E Sabbah, was an initiate of an
Alexandrian gnostic school.  In the Holy Land, the Templars may have come
in contact with some sort of esoteric or gnostic teaching.
 
Another, more likely possibility is that the Templars were influenced by
the Cathari, a Christian heretical sect, gnostic in nature, native to the
Languedoc, where the Templars made their headquarters in Europe.  The
Templars were quite friendly with the Cathari, and many Cathari became
high-ranking Templars.  The Cathari, like their Manichaean predecessors,
believed in a "perfect man," a sort of illuminated savior, whom they
called "The Widow's Son," a term applied to Perceval in all of the Grail
romances.  The Cathari denied the cross, and the Templars seem to have
shared many of the Catharic gnostic, dualist beliefs.  The two groups had
much in common, so much so that many scholars have identified the Grail
Knights not as Templars but as Cathari!  Kyot, the source of Wolfram's
story, was probably a Provenal called Guillot or Guiot, a poet, student of
Catharism, and laudent of the Knights Templar.  But the most startling
evidence, the strange possibility that sheds light on the true connection
between the Grail an the Templars, requires a little sidestep.
 
The Grail Family
  One of the more mysterious footnotes in history is the story of the
Principality of Septimania.  Granted by Peppin III to the large Jewish
population in the south of France, its first king, Theodoric, claimed
descent not only from the Merovingian Kings, but lineal descent from King
David himself.  Both the king and the Pope acknowledged this pedigree.
His son, Guillem de Gellone, was a great, almost legendary hero about whom
no less than six medieval epics were written, including Wilehalm by
Wolfram von Eschenbach.  He is closely linked with the Grail family.  More
to the point, his descendant, 17 generations later, was Godfroi de
Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade who was, by the Pope, made King of
Jerusalem.  At the time of the founding of the Templars, Godfroi had died
and his brother Baudoin had taken the throne.  According to legend,
Godfroi and Baudoin's grandfather was Lohengrin, the Swan Knight.
 
Lohengrin was the grandson of Perceval, and Lohengrin himself was a Grail
Knight.  Godfroi was, by legend, a member of the Grail Family, and by
lineage a Merovingian and apparently, rightful King of Jerusalem by his
descent from David.  It is clear that he was aware of this.  When he left
for the first crusade, he sold all of his property.  He intended to stay
in Jerusalem.  Godfroi was close to de Payen and the count of Champagne,
and Baudoin was integral to the founding of the Templars.
 
Conclusions
 This is all highly speculative and intuitive.  An equally plausible
explanation is that Chrtien simply mixed a Celtic or other fertility myth
with certain elements of Chivalry to create his story.  Later Authors
added Christian elements, and with the rise of the Templars, the Templars
integrated into the story.
 
  The other possibility is far more intriguing.  The Templars were an
outward manifestation of a society that believed itself to posses the true
teaching of Christ, a Gnostic belief in self-perfection and enlightenment.
This tradition found its way to France, where it integrated with
Catharism, and where it centered around a family who seem to have been
descended from both the Merovignians and from David, perhaps through
Jesus.  This society served as the source of the Grail legends, which
served as coded initiation stories.  And the leader of this group, a
descendant of Jesus, returned to Jerusalem to claim his birthright.
Regardless of its nature, there was clearly a connection between the
Templars and the Grail.  Whether or not the Templar were the source of the
Grail stories, they have forever been written into the legend of the
Sangraal.
 
 
Bibliography
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Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Holy Blood, Holy
Grail.  New York: Delacorte Press, 1982.
        .The Messianic Legacy. New York: Dell, 1986.
 
"The Grail," The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mercia Eliade. New York:
       MacMillan, 1987.
 
Graves, Robert. King Jesus. New York: Farrar, Straus, Girioux, 1946.
 
Hope, Murry. Practical Celtic Magic. Wellingborough: Aquarian, 1987.
 
Jung, Emma, and Marie-Louise von Franz. The Grail Legend, trans. Andrea
        Dykes. London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1971.
 
Smith, Morton. The Secret Gospel. London: 1978.
 
Spence, Lewis. The Encyclopedia of the Occult. London: Bracken Books,
1988.
 
Waite, A.E. The Holy Grail. New York: The University Press, 1961.
 
Wilson, Robert Anton, The Earth Will Shake. New York: ROC, 1982.
                      The Widow's Son. New York: ROC, 1985.
 
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