[Note: This is a repost from my Tumblr. The original post was published on May 16, 2022.]
The Holy Grail may be one of the most enduring parts of Arthurian legend. It’s shown up everywhere from Indiana Jones to The Da Vinci Code, and is almost as essential to our modern image of King Arthur as the round table or the sword in the stone. It’s also been the subject of a LOT of academic debate.
See, this is part of a much larger debate around King Arthur, his knights, and whether they’re Christianized versions of pagan figures or a uniquely Christian invention. The thing is, you can make a compelling argument either way, and the Grail is one of the best examples of how murky these waters can be.
While the most popular modern version of the Grail myth is that it was the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper (I even heard this version from my very Catholic parents growing up!), this is actually a fairly recent addition to the story. In its first appearance, there are much fewer Christian references. But fewer Christian elements is not no Christian elements, so the question still remains.
If you’re reading this post, I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the basics of the Holy Grail legend. If this is not the case, I highly recommend Overly Sarcastic Productions’ video on King Arthur and his knights for an introduction:
To understand the religious and cultural elements of the Holy Grail, we need to revisit the earliest version of this story. Chretien de Troyes’s Perceval is the earliest known literary reference to a grail, Holy or otherwise, in connection to Arthur’s knights. It was written in the late 12th century. Since this is the earliest version of the story that we know of, we can assume that at least some parts of it were Chretien’s own invention. From here, we can try to discover the author’s inspirations. This is complicated by the fact that Perceval was unfinished, leaving us with an incomplete legend.
Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which was probably written in the early 13th century, continues beyond where Perceval abruptly ends. It is clear that Wolfram was familiar with Chretien’s work, and it is possible that the two were both working from an older source that has been lost to time. Whether this older source existed or not, we know they drew inspiration from some of the same mythology and folklore.
Parzival can help us fill in the gaps in Perceval. Later versions of the Grail story are helpful in showing the evolution of the legend over time, but if we’re looking for an “original” version, we’re most likely to find it with Chretien and Wolfram.
Much of Chretien de Troyes’s work borrows elements from Celtic folklore, especially from the Celtic groups in and around the British Isles. As a French clerc, he would have been familiar with the work of Breton storytellers, who were popular with French audiences. (Marie de France, one of Chretien’s contemporaries, even claims that her lais are retellings of stories she heard from the Bretons.)
The Bretons are a Celtic ethnic group native to Brittany (modern north-west France) although they may have originally migrated from Cornwall and Devon in modern-day England. As storytellers, they adapted their own folklore to better fit their French audience — it was likely these French-ified versions that Chretien would have been familiar with. Many, though not all, of the basic elements of Chretien’s Grail legend have parallels in surviving Celtic myth, especially Welsh stories, which may hint at an origin in the Celtic folklore.
The names of the heroes Gawain and Percival can be traced back to Welsh roots: “Gwr Gwallt Avwyn” and “Pryderi,” two different names for a demigod who appears in all four branches of the Mabinogi, as well as in earlier Welsh myths. Both Gawain and Percival have adventures that are strikingly similar to those of the Irish folk hero Cuchulain, and a legend revolving around the mythic Irish Cormac features many of the basic elements of Chretien’s Grail story.
In this tale, Cormac is approached by a warrior who claims to be from a land free of age, decay, hatred, and strife. The man kidnaps Cormac’s family, and Cormac pursues him into a mist. He stumbles upon a palace inhabited by a splendid warrior and a beautiful maiden, where he is served with a magic golden cup. The host reveals that he is Manannan mac Lir, god of the sea, and that the cup (which he gifts to Cormac) is used to distinguish between truth and falsehood.
In his work Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Robert Sherman Loomis makes a compelling argument for Manannan or a similar figure being the model for the Fisher King, based on several similarities between the two.
Aside from Manannan’s cup of truth, the Grail can also be linked to a cauldron belonging to the god Welsh god Brân, which could restore life to the dead. This seems a more likely inspiration, as the Grail has healing effects.
It may also be related to the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann, which consisted of the Stone of Destiny, the Spear of Lugh, the Sword of Light, and the Cauldron of the Dagda. Keep in mind that, in Perceval, the grail appears alongside three other magic items: a bleeding lance, a candelabra, and a silver platter. Note the similarity between the two sets of items.
The Fisher King and/or his father always appears with some sort of malady, either an injury or simply old age. In Perceval, we see that this impotence is reflected in the land — it has been struck by a famine. This reflects a belief among the Irish, Welsh, and other Celtic groups that the health of the king was directly tied to the health of the land.
The fact that the Fisher King is usually depicted with an injury in his “leg” or groin is also significant. Just as the health of the king was tied to the health of the land, the fertility of the king was tied to the fertility of the land. The fact that the Fisher King’s injuries render him impotent means that he is unable to fulfill his role as king, and so his lands are barren. Some Celtic cultures required their king to be “whole of body,” and a serious injury could result in the king being removed and replaced. We see this in the story of Nuada Airgetlám, the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann who lost his kingship after losing an arm in battle.
Christian themes are also evident in early Grail stories, although not as obvious as in later versions. In Perceval, Percival’s nonreligious upbringing in Wales and his lack of faith are referenced many times, while Wolfram’s Percival is a practicing Christian whose crisis of faith and temporary rejection of God are major obstacles in his search for the Grail. In Wolfram’s version, Percival’s brother, Feifirez, is a pagan who is unable to see the Grail at all until he converts. There’s an implication that the Grail Knight must have a strong faith in God and will need Christ’s guidance to complete his quest.
Chretien makes no references to the Grail being associated with the Last Supper or the Crucifixion, but he does reveal that it contains a single consecrated communion host, which sustains the Fisher King’s ailing father. This is an interesting marriage of the Celtic myth of the cauldron of resurrection and the Christian emphasis on the healing power of the Eucharist, which may reflect the synthesis of pagan and Christian beliefs in medieval life.
As it was retold throughout the centuries, the Grail legend became more and more explicitly Christian.
Wolfram von Eschenbach, writing for a German audience who would not have been as familiar with Breton storytelling motifs, instead chooses to make the Christian elements the focus of Parzival. Here, the Grail is given an explicitly Christian history: left on Earth by a host of angels to be guarded by righteous men, its healing properties come from a single communion wafer delivered by a heavenly dove on Good Friday.
The Vulgate and post-Vulgate versions of the tale further up the Christian themes by tying the sacred relics to Joseph of Arimathea, and by associating the Grail directly with the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. This is possibly a result of the Third Crusade bringing holy relics to the forefront of the public imagination in medieval Europe.
Galahad’s replacement of Percival as the protagonist of the tale is especially interesting, as Galahad in many cases serves as a Christ figure and drives home the point that only a truly righteous man can win the Grail. Galahad seems to be a purely literary addition with no older folkloric blueprint, making him a purely Christian folk hero. The transition from Percival’s quest to Galahad’s illustrates the different mindsets of 12th century and late 13th/early 14th century Europeans, requiring a new kind of hero to satisfy audiences who had begun to distance themselves from their pagan ancestors.
The closer we look, the more it seems like the legend of the Grail is both pagan and Christian. In this way, it illustrates the way we have adapted the sacred traditions of our ancestors to fit into our own changing worldviews.
When we talk about the Christian conversion in Europe, it’s important to remember that the switch didn’t happen all at once. In many places, paganism and Christianity were practiced alongside each other for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to identify with both. This is reflected in the stories and songs that have been passed through the ages, and nothing demonstrates that better than the Holy Grail.
- Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance by Roger Sherman Loomis
- “The Synthesis of Anglo-Saxon and Christian Traditions in the Old English Judith” by Sarah E. Eakin
- Gods and Goddesses of Ireland by Morgan Daimler
- Irish Paganism by Morgan Daimler
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