The Origin of the Holy Grail

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"The Origin of the Holy Grail" by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.
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This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan’s Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:

Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Thank you,

Mark S. Harris

AKA: Stefan li Rous

Note: First published in the Summer 1996 issue of "Tournaments Illuminated".
The Origin of the Holy Grail


Da'ved Man of Letters

Lord Xaviar the Eccentric.
The Grail's history has shadowy ties with pagan legends.

During the Middle Ages the legend of the grail became

Christianized and was added to Arthurian legend. The Arthurian

legend is comprised of a large and varied collection of fictional

works. These stories have been reinterperted, altered, blended,

and made up to suit the audience of the time. To limit the scope

of this article these stories are used only as a source of

reference. The word grail is a common noun of provencal origin

(gradalis or gradale) that derived from the Latin cratalis. At

the end of the 12th century Holinand de Frodemont (a monk)

comparied gradalis (ie grail) to the Latin Scutella (basin) as

they seemed to be used interchangably in the past. This seams to

have had influence of the version written by Robert du Boron.
The Grail was said to possess unlimited healing power and is

considered to have been a point of contact with a supernatural or

spiritual realm. The origin of the Grail legend can be

attributed to the ancient and universal concept of sacred vessels

used as symbols of power and the source of miracles. Such

vessels are found in Celtic, Egyptian, and Vedic mythology and in

various tribal traditions as cups, cauldrons, platters or tubs

representing inspiration, rebirth, and regeneration. They often

are used to symbolize the womb, as a place of serenity, security

and rebirth. The grail even has parallels in alchemy by the use

of the philosophers's stone, which represents man's unification

with God.

The Grail myth seems to have strong roots in the folklore of

the British Isles, which contains many accounts of magic

cauldrons, kettles, cups and drinking horns. It is probable that

the Grail idea was derived from early legends of talismans which

conferred great boons upon the finder as, for example, the shoes

of swiftness, the cloak of invisibility and so forth. These

stories appear to have been altered and absorbed by early

Medieval Christian writers. In classical and Celtic mythologies

the Grail or the Graal is a vessel of plenty and symbolizes

regeneration of all life. Its supply of nutrients being

inexhaustible and those who possessed it never had worry of

hunger or thirst. According to one version, even those persons

terminally ill could not die within eight days of beholding the

The theory that the Arthur story along with the grails

beginings were developed in the British Isles has flaws. There

is no Anglo-Norman version to be examined and all the middle

english versions are derived from the French. This too is not

solid in its foundation as the geography of the French quest

romances is obviously British and revolves around the resting

place of the grail being in Britain. The long centuries of

warfare between these two groups of people would sugesst that the

stories must have been altered to suit, and then changed over

The migration of oral traditions translated into French by

bards might explain these early romances having British locales.

Story migration might be accepted on a larger scale, due to some

recent evidence. It seems that the inspiration for Arthur and

his Knights and the quest for the Holy Grail may come from a

tradition far older then that of the Ancient Celts-Brythonic or

otherwise. It is suggested that the Arthurian Romances found

their beginnings in the steppes of south Russia. This area is

inhabited by an ancient Persian-speaking people known as the

Sarmatians. In their traditions they have a quest for a magical

cup called the Amonga. This Amonga never runs dry, and only

those who are without fault and of exceptional courage are worthy

of, possessing the sacred cup.
The British legends of Arthur do not exist before 100 A.D.,

it is then possible that the story migrated through some trading

contacts between the Celtics' and the Persians. These contacts

have been documented as early as the fifth century B.C.

According to The Roman historian Dio Cassius, Sarmatians were

posted in Britain along Hadrians wall. Archaeological evidence

at Ribchester shows that a Sarmatian community existed there for

several centuries. It is not known how well, if at all this

community integrated into the local populace after the Roman


The Grail's Religious significance increases as years pass,

and the story is reinterpreted by more authors. In the earliest

versions traces of christian influence appear sparsely, while in

later versions it becomes the main theme. The Grail Legend has

often been held by certain writers to support the theory that the

Church of England or the Catholic Church has existed since the

foundation of the world. The Grail though never fully accepted

by Catholic hierarchy, was never denied or labeled as heretical.

It is possible that the Grail was never fully accepted because it

could not be identified with a relic. The story seems to have

been allowed to continue by the Church because of its enormous

popularity and belief.

Though some controversy exists as to whether the Grail was a

cup or a platter, it is generally depicted in art as a chalice of

considerable size and incredible beauty. This might have been

influenced by the early Church to have it become the cup used by

Christ at the last supper, thereby making the story spiritual.

This indecision by various writers might be directly related to

the various vessels of plenty in Celtic tales. According to the

story of Branwen (from the Mabinogion Collection by Lady

Charlotte Guest 1838-1849), there was a cauldron that could

restore the dead to life by placing the corpse into it. Another

tale from the Mabinogion is Peredur, son of Efrawg, in this

version a platter bearing a severed human head is used as a

feeding vessel and is the substitution for a bejeweled Grail.

The story of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion collection

includes four vessels of plenty including a cup, a platter, a

horn and the cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman. In this account

Arthur and his Knights steal the cauldron.
One of the earliest accounts is believed to have been told

by a sixth-century bard known as Taliesin. This account tells of

a magic cauldron in Annwfn, watched over and guarded by nine

maidens, which is sought by King Arthur's men. This story was

saved for posterity in the Welsh poem called The Spoils of Annwfn

(from the Book of Taliesin, 1275).

The earliest surviving text is Perceval or Le Conte du

Graal. This was the last in a series of five Arthurian romances

written in octosyllabic couplets (by Chretien de Troiyes 1175 and

1190) and left unfinished. Chretien de Troiyes claims to have

based his works on a book that Count Philip of Flanders gave to

him. Chretien implies that the grail is a dish or platter by

stating that "The Grail did not provide a pike, a lamprey, or a

salmon." This would not be logical if he or his readers thought

of the vessel as a chalice or cup. Some readers of Chretien's

Romances believe he invented some of the more marvelous episodes

using a few Celtic names to give an exotic appeal. Scholars of

medieval literature have concluded that Chretiens work is at

least part based on fragments of one or more mythologies.
In Parzival, (finished in 1207) Wolfram von Eschenbach

claims to have based his version of the grail story on the

writings of Kyot. Kyot is reputed to have been a Provencal poet

who wrote in old French using Latin sources. Kyot claims to have

found a book (at Toledo in Spain) written by an astrologer,

Flegitanis which contains the grail story. Experts have come to

the conclusion that certain parts of Wolfram work are based on

Chretiens work. Wolfram appears to try to avoid this comparison

by speaking with very low regard for Chretien and several parts

of his narrative. Wolfram being a man of strong religious belief

added the need for celibacy for those who guard the Grail. The

major difference in Wolfram's version is that his Grail is not a

chalice, it is a magic stone. Stone meaning anything from the

ground, as it is described as a cup carved from a giant emerald.

This emerald is further supposed to be the center stone from

Lucifers crown. The stone fell to earth when the Angel Michael

struck the crown with his flaming sword, while they battled.
The Robert de Boron poem Joseph d'Arimathie (written between

1170 and 1212) recounts the Grail's early history and links the

Grail with the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. It also

tells of how Joseph of Arimathea used it to catch the blood that

flowed from christs wounds as he hung upon the cross. Queste del

Saint Graal (written between 1215 and 1230) is the fourth part of

a huge body of work called the Vulgate cycle. It is stated in

the third, fourth, and fifth manuscripts (Lancelot, Queste, and

Mort Artu), that Master Walter map is the Author of the Vulgate

cycle. This has been questioned by many scholars and is now

generally considered to have been written by several authors.

The little credible evidence suggests that the writers lived and

wrote in Champagne or Burgundy between 1210 and 1230. The

Vulgate cycle changes the quest into a search for mystical union

with god. These versions show direct influence of the teachings

of St Bernard of Clairuaux.

The fall of the Holy Land in 1291 and the dissolution of the

Knight Templars between 1307 and 1314 coincide with the temporary

disappearance of the grail romances from history. The legend was

revived when Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte Darthur (1470 based

on The Vulgate cycle). This is a controversial version as Malory

is noted as writing his manuscript while in prison. This work

was broken up and printed by Caxton in 1485. This brought the

Arthurian legends to the English speaking masses. Le Morte

Darthur became the most widely read and familiar, if not accepted

version in the middle ages. The Arthurian legends have remained

(in one version or another) prominent in western culture ever

The Grail is often sought, but seldom or never found. This

baffling search for an unattainable good is something that every

human being can understand and appreciate. All the Authors agree

on one point, that the Grail is an important part of the

Arthurian legends. Strong evidence points to the origin of Grail

tradition beginning in Ireland. The Irish posses the oldest

native literature in northern Europe. This literature contains

deities and supernaturally endowed persons and objects.
It is believed that the Welsh absorbed some of this Irish

lore from captives and Irish residents and used it to flesh out

the legend of Arthur. This may be the connection needed to give

credit to the Sarmatians, for the origin of the Grail. Whether

or not these traditions were influenced by other peoples may

never be proven, but this doesn't have any bearing on what the

Christianized Grail symbolizes.
Psychiatrist Carl G Jung said the story and overall meaning

of the Grail is very alive in modern times. The Grail quest is a

search for truth and the real Self, and may be seen as a paradigm

of the modern spiritual journey to restore the Waste Land and

become whole again. There are many paths to the Grail and they

may be found only by those who have attained a certain spiritual

consciousness, who have raised themselves above the limitations

of the senses.

The Grail in symbolizing rejuvenation provided hope to a

downtrodden age. This story like most Christian teachings served

to calm and reassure the masses. The Arthurian Romances as a

whole gave all people an ideal to aim for, a goal to reach. The

quest for the Grail had played a part in the development and the

growth of chivalry, but that's another article, for another time.


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Copyright 1996 by Lord Xaviar the Eccentric, . Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and is notified by

If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.

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