The Legends About the Quest For the Holy Grail

Holy Grail appeared in many branches of Celtic mythology, especially the Arthurian legend widely circulated in Wales and England. With the rise of Christianity in real world, the Holy Grail became the key element in Celtic mythology. The best example is the quest for the Holy Grail.

What was the Holy Grail?

The Holy Grail was a chalice used by Jesus and his apostles except Judas when they had the Passover meal on 14th day of Kislev in 33 AD, the eve of Passion Sunday. Jesus lifted this chalice asked his apostles to drink up the red wine which symbolized his blood, and thus he created the crucifixion ceremony. In later times, it was believed that this chalice had some kind of magic because of this special occasion. According to legend, the magical furnace in Annwn (the other world) was the predecessor of the Holy Grail.

In many legends, anyone who found the Holy Grail and drank water with it would be reborn, become forever young and immortal. Such legends are widely adapted for works of literature, film, television and video games.

In 2014, after three-year research and quest, two historians from University of Lyon found the Holy Grail used by Jesus as depicted in Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

In older Celtic legends, the holy vessel was a magic cauldron; while in the Arthurian legend, it was replaced by the chalice that had been used in the Last Supper and used to hold the blood of Jesus who was tied to the crucifix. According to legend, the Holy Grail was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea. Later it was missing and became the treasure that the Knights of the Round Table were scrambling to find. Their quest for the Holy Grail evolved into the story of “the Maimed King or Fisher King Bron/Bran and knights”.

As time passed, King Arthur’s territory kept expanding. According to legend, he ruled France, defeated the declining Roman Empire, and was crowned by the Bishop of Rome in the Roman cathedral. That was the most glorious days in King Arthur’s life. Later, King Arthur began to shift his interest to the quest for legendary treasure. His fellow knights left capital Camelot for the legendary Holy Grail either under his order or voluntarily, but most of them never returned. As thus, the knights at the Round Table became fewer and fewer. King Arthur’s strong empire began to go downhill.

At the end of the Holy Grail legend, three Knights of the Round Table found the Holy Grail: the most secular knight Sir Bors de Ganis, the simplest knight Sir Percivale, and the purest knight Sir Galahad (son of Sir Lancelot). But only Galahad could lift the Holy Grail, “as if he was holding the body of Jesus with both hands”. The moment he lifted the Holy Grail, numberless angels came and carried his soul to the paradise.  

The origin of the Holy Grail

One of the common Christian ceremonies is the Holy Communion, where people drink red wine that symbolizes the blood of Jesus. The Arthurian legend is based on a famous story: a Roman soldier named Longinus pierced the side of Jesus with a lance, so as to confirm his death. At that time, Joseph of Arimathea used the chalice Jesus had used in the Last Supper to hold the blood. This chalice is generally believed to be the Holy Grail. The body of Jesus was said to be buried in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. As the English army commanded by Edward I was smashed in the crusade expedition, he needed to reorganize the army and restore the morale after returning from Palestine in 1274 AD. King Arthur’s knights were described as fighters sacrificed for the just cause. And the quest for Holy Grail could idealize this objective better.

As Joseph of Arimathea was the follower of Jesus, he was imprisoned by the Roman soon after the crucifixion of Jesus. He must had preserved the Holy Grail, carried it with him, traveled via Rome to southern France, and lived in Languedoc for some time with Mary Magdalene and other followers. It is said that he went to England and spent the rest of his life in Glastonbury in southern England. The first Christian church in Britain was built here. Today the relics of monastery can still be seen, and the Holy Grail might have been hidden in there. But since then, the Holy Grail had disappeared. This was also the beginning of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail.

It is believed that the Holy Grail had stayed in Italy for three hundred years, and it was first kept by Saint Lawrence, a deacon of the Roman Curia. It is also said that, in the late 3rd century, he sent two soldiers from the Spanish Legion to escort it back to Huesca, a Spanish city where it originally was. But he had a sad and miserable end: Pope Sixtus II, his good friend and one of the earliest martyrs in Roman Christian church, was murdered by the Roman emperor Valerius. The date quoted here is based on rumors. Pope Sixtus II was actually murdered in 258 AD. A few days after Pope Sixtus was executed, Saint Lawrence was also burnt to death on an iron grill. The Holy Grail was preserved in the St. Peter’s Basilica till 711 AD. On the Romanesque corridors in the basilica, there are some patterns which might imply the existence of the Holy Grail. One of them shows that an angel hands over a chalice to Jesus.

Wolfram von Eschenbach, who died in 1230 AD, was widely believed to be the finest Germanic trouvere in the Middle Ages. One of his works, Parzival, later became the theme of Richard Wagner’s operas. An important source of the materials he used was the works of Chrétien de Troyes, integrating with other materials provided Kyot the Provençal. Kyot’s narration was probably based on his experience in Spain, where there were many Muslin and Jewish philosopher; and Toledo, the center of science and culture in Spain at that time. Wolfram insisted that, the Holy Grail was a magic stone like the “cornucopia”, which provided inexhaustible food and eternal youth.

The final resting place of the Holy Grail was a chapel of Valencia Cathedral in Spain. The Roman Catholic Church never revered it as a holy article, but they acknowledged that it was the chalice used by Jesus in the Last Supper, and had been used by Popes before Saint Lawrence escorted it to Spain. Today the Holy Grail was protected by bullet-proof glass. Navarre was a kingdom founded in southwestern Pyrenees Mountains in 9th century AD. Its heyday was between 11th and 12th century. The royal family of Navarre possessed the thrones of Spanish independent kingdoms such as Castile, Aragon and León through joint-marriage, and even acquired the sovereignty over France in the 13th century. In the early 16th century, the southern part of Navarre was occupied by the Kingdom of Spain, while the western part was annexed by France after Henry III of Navarre became the Henry IV of France. The king of Navarre sent his men to escort the Holy Grail to the Valencia Cathedral. The Holy Grail had stayed in there since then and was only temporarily relocated elsewhere due to safety concerns during the Spanish War of Independence and Spanish Civil War.

The pure-gold pedestal of Holy Grail was inlaid with 28 pearls, 2 rubies and 2 emeralds. The body of Holy Grail was 5.5 cm in height, 9.5 cm in diameter, and 3mm in the thickness of the wall of Holy Grail. With the pedestal included, the Holy Grail was 17 cm in height and 14.5 cm in width. Antonio Beltran, an eminent archaeologist, said that the Holy Grail we see today was made in the Royal Monastery of San Juan de la Peña, presumably by a goldsmith from Byzantium. The upper part of Holy Grail was originally made in the Near East, either Alexandria in Egypt or Antioch in Syria. Beltran said that, undoubtedly, the Holy Grail was made between the latter half of the 1st century BC and the first half of the 1st century AD. This period happened to be the time of Jesus.

Antonio Beltran explained that, the real pedestal of Holy Grail was made of stone. On the pedestal of this chalice, there curved a snippet of Arabic inscription that no one could translated completely and exactly. There were various translations: “for the One that Brings Glory”, “Ave Maria”, “the Merciful” (what Arabs call Allah) and “the Compassionate”.  According to some legends, the inscription “LAPIS EXCILLIS” also often appeared.

We might never get to know what the Holy Grail is really like, but the delicate and beautiful chalice we can see today (in Spain) might also be the real Holy Grail used by Jesus two millennia ago. And to a large extent, it laid the foundation of the mythology and romanticism in the West. The ”Holy Grail” still attracts people today, and it is a part of our cultural structure. In this sense, the meaning of the quest of Holy Grail is not only about finding this chalice, but also about learning what the Holy Grail is and what it means.