The Mystery of the Holy Grail

In the imagination of the Middle Ages, also in ours, the Grail occupies a privileged place.

In its indeterminate and variable nature, according to medieval writing as well as in our metaphors, the Grail means the search for the impossible.

holy grail

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Linked to the symbolism of food, the Grail was very promising in the long term, through the enigmatic sequence proposed from one text to another, sometimes Christianized, sometimes still very close to the Celtic tradition.

Several explanations have been proposed. Defenders of a Christian thesis want to see in the Grail -which in Christianity is just a big hollow plate in which a host is served- a ciborium or chalice, and in the silver tail a paten, in the spear that makes the Holy Spear bleed.

The procession would then be the liturgical process of a sick person receiving Holy Viaticum.

Others, following Frazer, defended a pagan and ritualistic thesis that would link the procession to a cult of fertility and vegetation.

It is true that the sterility of the earth repeats the wound of King Mehaignié, and Percival would thus have missed his initiation into a mystery, since Lance and Grail would be two symbols of sexuality. But the excesses of an ancient comparative mythology have been pointed out.

The Magic

Many of those who defend the Celtic thesis cite reasons that can be found in many stories from Ireland and Wales, where a magic vessel, bowl or cauldron of plenty has the magical virtue of dispensing food and drink at will.

Talismans from the Other World – the spear also appears frequently in Celtic stories, that of the god Lug, that of the god Ongus, the red and black spear of Mac Cecht, there the Celtchar’s spear, and finally the King Arthur’s spear, capable of making the wind bleed.

The Grail raises the unresolved question of the Christianization of a story, and also of the arrangement of elements from several different stories.

Enigmatic scenes parade through our Arthurian literature: each time, mysterious objects and a fascinated hero contemplating, whose silence lasts too long…

The liturgy of gaze, silence and failure sends Perceval and Gauvain back to their misery.

The gradual and discontinuous Christianization of the mystery of the Grail has often been said: religious meanings have come to overdetermine the motives, places and Celtic names.

Mystery of the name first: Christianity uses the word Grail to designate a vessel, a precise object.

The meaning of the word is attested to as a bowl or plate. A passage from Hélinand’s chronicle at the beginning of the 13th century, tells a certain story “quae dicitur de Gradali”: it gives the definition of the object, the image of a hollow dish, probably large.

The King’s House

This image has as its ancestor in medieval Latin the word gradalis, but it also exists in Provençal, which brings it back to the representation of a bowl, a basin, a large plate, thus evoking a dinner service.

This strange object, which appears obsessively in the sequences of the Grail, is only found in the house of King Mehaigné, whose land is sterile.

In Christopher first, Percival sees a white spear pass by, from which a drop of blood falls. A Grail carried by a young lady spreads a strange clarity.

It is made of pure gold, set with precious stones. “No words have come out of my mouth”: Percival the Welshman with the name finally found is at the same time Percival the Lucky! As for those who will follow him, the Earth will remain Gastrointestinal.

In the First Continuation – and this parallel to the moment when Robert de Boron gave a very religious interpretation of the scene – the link with Celtic matter is affirmed. Gauvain finds himself in front of a funeral scene: a beer, a corpse, a broken sword.

He remains as silent as Percival; however, we learn that it is Longin’s spear that pierced the side of Christ who died on the Cross.

The vision of the Grail is bloody here; the magic plate performs a mysterious service before the eyes of Gauvain, who then sees a spear bleeding profusely. The blood flows again in a golden tube.

The Blood of Christ

In the second continuation, Percival tries to clarify the mystery, and the third continuation ends the hero’s visit to the Grail castle: the spear that bleeds is Longin’s, the Grail is the vessel that collected Christ’s blood.

As for the “cutter”, he covered the Grail.

Thus, Percival was crowned King of the Grail after the death of the Fisher King. He reigned for seven years and then retired to a hermitage with the three sacred objects, the Grail, the spear and the carver.

A strange text, the Elucidation placed at the head of a manuscript of Percival and the Continuations speaks more clearly of a Celtic background. It is said that fairies, according to this tale, possessed golden and silver cups.

Raped, they would have let the country wither; more leaves, more flowers, the rivers became rarer, the court of the rich Fisher King, king of fertility, was lost.

But this was before the time of King Arthur, whose knights tried to protect the maidens from the wells and restore the country’s prosperity.

On the other hand, in Robert de Boron’s work, the Grail seems to be the precious relic that served Christ at Easter.

It is necessary to revive the ritual that repeats the Last Supper and that is perpetuated, after Joseph’s death, by the Fisher King, called Bron.


In prose Lancelot could hope to approach the Grail, because only polite perfection gives him access, but he will only be able to glimpse the sacred object.

In Perlesvaus, a sequence with a singular rhythm describes Gauvain’s ecstasy and amazement: before the sight of the spear from which vermeil blood falls, before the Grail in which he believes to see a child, Gauvain, prey of an intense joy, forgets everything: he only thinks of God.

But he says nothing and everyone is alarmed and dismayed.

Because the Earth is Gaste also there, where Gauvain and the young woman pass by as they enter the most frightful of the forests, where “it seemed as if there had never been the slightest greenness: the branches were bare and dry, the trees black and as if burned by fire, and the earth at their feet black and as if burned had no vegetation and was covered with deep cracks”.

In The Search for the Holy Grail, at the end of the story, Gilead sees a spear that bleeds so much that the drops of blood fall into a box. A naked man, all bloody, appears: “This is the bowl where Jesus Christ eats the lamb on Easter Day with his disciples.

The Great King

This is the bowl that served everyone I found at my service to their liking. It is the bowl that no ungodly man could see without suffering it, and because it is pleasant to all in this way, it is rightly called the Holy Grail. “

In the German version of Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose sources are manuscripts of the novel by Chrétien de Troyes, Parzival becomes an Arthurian knight and even a Grail king.

The hermit Trevizent, Parzival’s uncle, reveals to him that the Grail is a “stone”, whose name is not translated.

The magic object also provides food and drink at will and is a source of life, virtues that are conferred by the guest that a dove deposits in the stone every Good Friday.

If the Grail brings out Percival’s simplicity and “nakedness” to the amazement, and reveals the ineptitude of those who will follow him, it can also express the hope of a deepening of the hero and a culmination of the quest.

But the Grail does even more: it indicates the suffering of the barren kingdom and the wound of the king.

The obsession with enigma in the settings left to us by medieval narratives – whether a remnant of archaic myth or a religious object linked to the era of Christ – suggests in any case that the medieval West was very fascinated by the network of meanings that the object carries and that apparently cannot be exhausted.


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