“What is it?
The phantom of a cup that comes and goes?”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I have often thought that the perennial Quest for the Grail isn’t so much about finding some object called “the Grail” so much as it is discovering what, exactly, this “Grail” thing is. If it’s a “thing” at all. Or why anyone should desire to “achieve” it.
Many, perhaps most, traditional cultures have some Grail-like object in their legends and myths. A magic or healing stone from the gods. A cornucopia with a never-ending supply of whatever food one desires.
Many scholars hold that in these tales, particularly of Celtic origin, are to be found the earliest impulse towards the Grail legend as it has come down to us. With the Saxon invasions of Celtic Britain after the fall of Rome, these tales, progressively Christianized and nationalized, made their way from Wales and Cornwall across the Channel to Brittany and the French Court.
With Chrétien de Troyes (and later in English, Malory), the Grail is the cup Christ used in the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper—the “holy chalice” (Sangraal) and the next day was held by St. Joseph of Arimathea to catch some of the crucified Savior’s blood on Calvary. Joseph then took the cup to England (Glastonbury) where it became a fixture in many an Arthurian tale.
(N.B.: It is a source of amusement and amazement to me that the French, at war with the British for the better part of a millenium, should have been the literary carvers of the legend of King Arthur, the king who united their great enemy, Britain. But such is the irony of history.)
In our times, the Indiana Jones movies dipped into this stream for its Last Crusade, in which the Cup of the Carpenter, desired by the Nazis as a source of supernatural Power, gives eternal life to anyone who drinks from it…or eternal death for anyone who “chooses poorly.”
But speaking of the Nazis, in stories from the German-speaking side of things, particularly Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Grail is often not a cup at all but, as with some of the original Germanic myths, a precious stone from heaven with magical powers. According to a fascinating book I’m reading just now, the quest for the Grail symbolizes mystical intiation.
In any event, in a perverted mashup of Norse mythology, Theosophical theories about humanity’s “Root Races,” and a screwy but widely popular take on Darwinism, the blood mysticism inherent in Grail myth got sucked up in the early twentieth century into a spooky vein of fascist/Nazi ideology made famous by Himmler’s “Black Camelot,” Wewelsberg Castle, the so-called “Vatican of the SS.” To these murderous mystics, the Grail, whatever its outer form, was a symbol of the “Sang Real,” the “holy blood.” Not the blood of a Jewish carpenter, mind you, but the “pure blood” of the Aryan race descended from Wotan in the icy realms of hyperborean Thule.
Fans of the Priory of Sion and Dan Brown will recognize this “bloody” interpretation of the term Sangreal, and they have their own twist on the theme of “holy blood.” (Another one with potential political implications.) Borrowing liberally from Frankish legends, the Cathars, sundry secret societies, and the SS archeologist and mystic, Otto Rahn, this vein of Grail lore holds the Grail as a secret symbol of the womb of Mary Magdalene, through which the holy bloodline of Jesus comes down to our times in the descendants of Merovingian kings. While some variants of this theme are most interested in promoting a Divine Feminine aspect of esoteric Christianity, others make sure its adherents understand that their Jesus was no Jew but an Aryan. One can’t help but wonder if their main interest in promoting (or railing against) this Magdalene/Merovingian bloodline thing isn’t to forward one or more obscure (and sometimes neo-fascist and neo-monarchist) political agenda. it is fascinating, but not always comforting, to see how popular this vein of Grail myth is in our own day.
In a more metaphorical vein, our own time exhibits many a writer on spiritual subjects for whom “the Grail” is not an object to be found or possessed, but a symbol for the Quest which is the human journey towards God, towards Blessedness, towards the ultimate in human potential, whatever that may be.
Obversely (some would say, perversely) few of us in our day can hear the words “holy grail” without instantly thinking of Monty Python and the… However much I cherish that loopy movie, and laugh at its every bit of shtick, it has served as a potent postmod de-sacralizer for the very notion of Quest or Sacredness.
Finally, and far worse, modern Capitalism and consumerist culture has commodified the Grail Quest into a dreadful marketing cliché, shilling every tschotscke, every device, and every self-improvement plan to be had in the Verse, especially on the internet. If you don’t believe me, google the term “holy grail” and you’ll see what a panoply of goodies are being marketed as the ultimate in its niche, from Jay-Z’s album to the latest “holy grail of weight loss” diet pills.
As for this writer, all of these fascinating aspects of the Grail will find a place in my work-in-progress, the completion of which is a significant part of my own personal Grail Quest. As I research and write, I’ll keep you posted on what I discover along the journey.
For further reading:
- The BBC has a wonderful gallery by historian Richard Barbur on the history of the Grail
- Sangraal.com, one of my favorite websites. A veritable rabbit’s hole of Grail lore.
- The UK’s Gresham College has a quick overview from Grail historian Juliette Wood: