The Mystery of the Holy Grail

J. J. 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 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.


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. Its 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.


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 warriors 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 their 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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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