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Grail, The


GRAIL, THE . Late in the twelfth century, a mystic theme appeared in Western literature that was fast taken up as the central feature of chivalric romances with a religious message and appeal. The key image of the theme is "the Grail," or, frequently, "the Holy Grail," which is still a metaphor for spiritual salvation and the goal of a quest by the elect. As a religious concept the Grail is of interest for having served, for about one century and in the context of contemporary civilization, as a symbol with, in social terms, a strongly aristocratic connotation. The two pivotal works of the Grail cycle, Conte del Graal (or Perceval) by Chrétien de Troyes and Joseph d'Arimathie (or Roman de l'estoire dou Graal) by Robert de Borron, were dedicated, respectively, to Count Philip of Flanders and Count Gautier of Montfaucon, both feudal lords, both Crusaders who died in the Holy Land.

The Forerunner: ChrÉtien's Grail Procession

It is widely accepted that the earliest appearance of the Grail theme is in Chrétien's Conte del Graal, written in the late eighties of the twelfth century but left unfinished, probably because of the author's death. The relevant narrative is concentrated in two brief scenes, the one set in the "Grail Castle," the other in the "Hermitage." An innocent young knight, unaware of the realities of life and aimlessly wandering, is directed by a mysterious fisher to a mysterious castle. In the hall he meets the same fisher, the "Fisher King" and lord of the castle, an invalid bound to his couch. The youth then sees a strange procession passing by, full of symbols: a squire with a white lance, from which a drop of blood falls on his hand; two squires bearing golden candelabra; a noble maiden carrying a graal, a receptacle set with precious gems and shedding a brilliant light; another maiden with a platter of silver. The young knight, who has not yet matured enough to fulfill his destiny and who overrates the chivalric virtue of silence, does not ask the question of charity expected of him, "Who is served with the graal?" He thus fails to meet the test that would have restored the ailing Fisher King and the wastelands surrounding him. When he awakens the next morning the spell has disappeared, the castle is empty, and he resumes his wanderings, now in search of the lost castle. After five years he is directed to a hermitage and begs help from a holy man, who consents to the repentant's desire for salvation. The Fisher King, he learns, is his uncle, whose father's life was sustained by a Host brought to him in the Grail.

Christianization of ChrÉtien's Prototype

Soon after Chrétien, in whose Grail fragment Christian doctrine is handled in rather ambiguous terms (as pointed out by Leonardo Olschki, 1966), the topos is again taken up and transformed into the central feature of a spiritual, and ever more Christian, body of literature. The following titles exemplify the genre.

Robert de Borron (late twelfth to early thirteenth century) is the author of Joseph d'Arimathie, written in verse and, somewhat like a Christian legend, based on apocryphal gospels, the Evangelium Nicodemi and the Vindicta Salvatoris (Vengeance of the Lord). Joseph, thrown into prison, survives thanks to the veissel in which Christ, during the last supper, instituted the Eucharist and in which his blood was gathered during the passion. The symbolization has taken a sharp turn: The Host, which was the content of the Grail in Chrétien's story, is here replaced by Christ's holy blood, and the vessel itself has changed into the chalice of the sacrament. Borron, furthermore, links the evangelization of Britain with the transfer of the Grail to the West.

A prose version of Joseph d'Arimathie, named Didot-Perceval (after the manuscript collection in which it is preserved) and attributed to the same Robert de Borron, is patterned after Chrétien yet has a distinct religious reinterpretation of the happenings: The Grail of the procession, for example, becomes the receptacle of the last supper, and Perceval, if he passes the test, will become the guardian of Christ's blood.

Perlesvaus, a prose text (written between 1191 and 1212), blends a chivalric romance with a Christian allegory, strongly in the Cistercian spirit. Here the Knights of the Grail have become knightly monks.

A group of five romances in prose, attributed to Walter Map and called the Vulgate Cycle (12151230), was the most popular of the Grail versions. Among them are the Estoire del Saint Graal and the Queste del Graal. In these stories the quest of illustrious knights for the Grail is told in terms of expiation and redemption, election and rejection. The Christianization is emphasized by changing the carrier of the Grail, according to sacramental usage, from a woman to a man. The knights' worldly virtues have been replaced by chastity and charity. The Grail, now the goal of the quest, symbolizes the blending of the two worlds of contemporary civilization, knighthood and religion.

The Elusive Grail

The corpus of the Grail romances raises questions that, in general, are unanswerable. The Grail itself has remained a riddle: Its shape varies from vase to cup to dish to stone; the use is that of a talisman or a reliquary; its symbolic meaning shifts with the context. By the middle of the twelfth century the term appears in the western French dialects, still marked by the indefinite article as a common noun ("a grail"). This is also the way Chrétien uses it. But already in his prologue, and from Borron on, it is commonly used as a proper name, "the Grail." The derivation of the word itself is still hypothetical. There is a consensus on a base form gradalis, but the consensus stops at the root morpheme of gradalis: It has been variously identified as gradus ("degree, step"), implying that food was placed in the vessel "step by step"; as cratis ("wickerwork") or creta ("fuller's earth"), both of which hint at the material used in making the receptacle; and as cratus, a shortened tenth-to-thirteenth-century Latin form of the Greco-Latin cratera/craterus ("crater"), secondarily expanded by the suffix -alis in analogy to other words for vessels, such as baucalis and garalis.

The long history of exegesis, striving to bare the issue of the myth, has been moving in two directions. The one is synchronic: It relates a work to the events and currents of its time and thereby aims to discover the meaning (sens ) a story may have had for its contemporary public. The other direction is diachronic: It centers on the subject matter (matière ), which it locates in a tradition and which it derives, as far as possible, from specific models. Knowledge of the model highlights the "message" of the work.

The Synchronic View

The impact of the contemporary world on the Grail corpus and, above all, on Chrétien's Conte del Graal has been traced to religious diversity and policy, upper-class education and ethical perceptions, and to events of historical import. Various interpretations follow.

1. The objects carried in the ceremonious procession before the Fisher King, such as the Host in the Grail, the bleeding lance, and the candelabra, have been explained as echoes of the eucharistic procession practiced in the Byzantine Mass (Konrad Burdach, William A. Nitze).

2. The extensive Christianization manifest in the Queste del Saint Graal has been interpreted as a reflection of Cistercian mysticism, specifically that of Bernard of Clairvaux (Albert Pauphilet, Étienne Gilson).

3. The spiritual structure of the Conte is related to ideas current at Chartres, the Western center of the twelfth-century Renaissance. Chrétien realizes in his work what Bernard Silvester, the humanist, requested of a true author: "Being a philosopher, he has to write about the nature of human life." And Chrétien has created in Perceval a character motivated by the two forces of theology and charity, from which the Fisher King and the wastelands expect their redemption (Leo Pollmann).

4. The legend implies a heretical attempt (Nitze speaks of its "heterodox tinge") to fight the supremacy of Rome and to replace Rome's propaganda of the doctrine by another authority (Giulio Bertoni).

5. The Grail myth is considered a militant allegory, inspired by the activity of Count Philip of Flanders, against the heresy of the Cathari and other dualistic sects; the father of the Fisher King is the Perfect Man of Catharism (Otto Rahn, Leonardo Olschki). To Olschki, the castle, representing the dualistic beliefs, is contrasted to the hermitage, which stands for Christian orthodoxy; and Perceval does not yield to the lure of the former but embraces the true faith of the latter.

6. Chrétien's Conte del Graal is an Erziehungsroman, a novel of education, describing the military, chivalric, spiritual, and religious formation of Perceval, the perfect knight and the perfect Christian (Martín de Riquer). Specifically, because Perceval displays traits of Prince Philip Augustus, the Conte seems to have been designed as a "mirror of princes," sponsored by Philip of Flanders to further the education of his royal godson and pupil, the future king (Rita Lejeune).

7. Perceval symbolizes the two virtues of prowess and charity (defined as "love of God"), and charity finally prevails over prowess (David C. Fowler).

8. The decadence and fall of the kingdom of Jerusalem function as a starting point. An analogy can be drawn between the concept of the Crusades and the religious theme of the Grail: The quest for and conquest of a Christian ideal is transferred to the elect in a castle of mystery. The construct of defeat and renewal represents an underlying exhortation to persevere in the Crusades (Helen Adolf).

9. The quest for the Grail is the conversion of the Jewish Temple, intended to offset further bloodshed of the Jews by fanatic Crusaders. Chrétien was working against the hatred of the Jews (Urban T. Holmes, Jr., M. Amelia Klenke).

10. The Grail procession was inspired by representations in Christian art of the Crucifixion, with such figures as Longinus, the carrier of the lance, and a beautiful young woman who gathers the blood of Christ in a vase; she in turn becomes an allegory of the church who brings the Eucharist to the Old King (Riquer). Similarly, Klenke relates the objects of the procession to the cathedral art of contemporary France.

11. According to C. G. Jung's depth psychology, the vessel is not a historical reality but an idea, or primal image, and as such is of universal significance, found in untold numbers of myths and legends.

The Diachronic View

The supposed models of the Grail romances vary widely as to provenance and genre. They include specific paradigms such as the Indic Vedas, an Iranian national epic, the Alexander legend of late antiquity. But three great traditions of medieval culture are now recognized as the dominant influences: Christian legends, Celtic folklore, and ancient rituals.

Christian legends

The hypothesis of a Christian foundation of the Grail myth centers on the objects in the Grail procession. The apocryphal gospel Vindicta Salvatoris contributed a cardinal episode to Robert de Borron's version: that of the elect, Joseph of Arimathea, kept alive by a vesselan image deeply noted in Christian tradition. Once in existence (as Willy Staerk points out), the Grail blended with the varying perceptions of the last supper in early Christianity. Staerk recognizes five connotations of the Grail: vessel with Christ's blood; receptacle of the last supper; calix of the first Eucharist; receptacle of the Host; calix in which the first Mass was celebrated. The image of the lance, too, was embedded in the Christian tradition: It is the lance with which Longinus, a pagan soldier and Christian martyr, opened the side of the crucified Christ (Jn. 19:34). Longinus turned into the hero of a legend (Burdach). The third object, the silver plate (tailleor d'arjant ), has been repeatedly identified as the paten on which the calix of the Last Supper was placed. Some analysts question the assumption of an underlying Christian model and see Chrétien's Conte, the first medieval form of the Grail story, as still "pré-Christianisé" (the term used by Pierre Gallais). They see in Robert de Borron's Christian version an ex post facto reconstruction of the myth's "early history," produced with the aid of pseudogospels.

Celtic folklore

Because the Arthurian world provides the milieu for the Grail romances, the repeated attempts to derive features of the myth from Celtic lore are certainly justified. Irish sagas and Welsh tales, it is assumed, were taken up by Breton storytellers, who adapted their themes to the French environment. The Grail objects are among such themes: The magic horn of the gods, the wish platter, and the horn of plenty anticipate the Grail, and the spear of Lugh, either dripping blood or held before a caldron of blood, returns in Chrétien's bleeding lance. Above all, one character vital to the narrative, the Fisher King, has his Celtic counterpart: The maimed king, his wound, and his wastelands reflect the pagan belief, transferred into Celtic lore, that the reproductive forces of nature were related to the sexual potency of the ruler (R. S. Loomis, William A. Nitze, Emma Jung and Marie Louise von Franz).

Ancient rituals

The Grail myth in its sundry versions can be read as a saga of nature worship (Jessie L. Weston). The mythic prototype discernible behind it is the ancient cult of Adonis, the deity linked to vegetation and fertility and symbolizing the fading and rebirth of nature. He was the lover of both Persephone, goddess of death, and Aphrodite, goddess of love, and thus always on his way from death to life, and from life to death. Proceeding from there, Weston interprets the episodes and characters of the Grail story in terms of a nature ritual: The maimed Fisher King, deprived of his reproductive powers, is to be restored to life by the fulfillment of the quest, and thus is an analogue of the wastelands; cup and lance are the sexual symbols of female and male, just as blood stands for life; the Grail, by providing the sacramental meal, represents the source of life.

Following a similar line of thought, Nitze senses behind Perceval's story, with the decisive role of his mother and the nonrole of his father, echoes of a matriarchal system; and he sees in the suffering of the Fisher King and his land, to be ended by the initiate's (at first unasked) question, the key to the Grail procession: the restoration of life and vegetation. This leitmotiv is prefigured (without, as Nitze emphasizes, an immediate connection) in ancient ceremonies such as the Eleusinian mysteries and the cults of Mithra and Isis.

Count Philip's Book

In his prologue to the Conte, Chrétien states that Count Philip of Flanders transmitted to him a book containing a very good story, the Tale of the Grail, with the suggestion "to turn it into rime." This cryptic statement by the author about his source has provoked numerous hypotheses, not least concerning its reliability. Because Chrétien is unlikely to have made a playful or insincere reference to the illustrious name of his patron, one must assume that the model for the Conte was a real one and that it was a story written in prose. Of the sources mentioned here, ancient rituals anticipated, in several respects, the sen of Chrétien's Grail narrative, and Celtic lore prefigured various details of the objects and characters. But none of these analogues, nor their aggregate, amount to what Chrétien's prologue praised as "the best story every told at a royal court." Yet such a story, the authors of this article suggest, did exist. The model was the Isis Book, the eleventh bookhalf fiction and half a personal memoirof Apuleius's novel, the Metamorphoses (second century). In Chrétien's time the Metamorphoses existed in Florence in at least one manuscript but was not well known in France and had hardly been exploited for literary purposes. A comparison reveals both direct analogues between the works of Apuleius and Chrétien, and source material contained in the Apuleian text, which Chrétien may have associated with features of other traditions.


The similarities cover subject matter, structure, textual homologies, and major and minor details. The Isis Book is, in the words of Arthur Darby Nock, "one of the great ancient documents of a conversion." Its theme, like that of the Conte, is the salvation and rebirth of a young man, Lucius, who is selfish and a sinner and yet a select, and who after his tribulations (narrated in the preceding ten books) is initiated into a mystery religion. The Isis Book, in the portions comparable to Chrétien's Grail story, describes the procession of Isis and the conversion of Lucius. The Isis procession, moving in ritual order, is dominated, just as Chrétien's procession is, by gold, light, beauty, and mystery. Lucius's conversion, like Perceval's, is staged as a dialogue between two characters, the initiate and the initiator. The phases of the ritual run parallel in both versions, with numerous textual concordances: selection; the initiate's readiness; his prayer for help; revelation; the hortatory sermon; the initiation.

Four topoi occurring in the Conte, three of them in the hermitage scene, are prefigured in a Hermetic dialogue which was traditionally ascribed to Apuleius and likewise narrates an initiation. From the ninth century on, an apocryphal treatise, the Asclepius, was included among the works of Apuleius. The editio princeps (1469) of the Metamorphoses, based on an unknown manuscript, contained the Asclepius. In short, it is not clear whether Count Philip's book contained the treatise together with the novel or not. The Asclepius was the Latin translation of a Greek dialogue that described the catechesis of Asklepios by the mystagogue Hermes Trismegistos. It was familiar to and often quoted by the prominent authors of the school of Chartres. The analogues to the Conte are a secluded sanctuary as the locus of the ritual, with four men present; the Hermetic term malitia for spiritual ignorance (agnosia ), rendered as mal by Chrétien; a vegetarian meal ending the conversion; and the topos of the wastelands as an apocalyptic vision of Egypt, which in the Conte is tied to Perceval's (failed) test.


Chrétien's technique of syncretism seems to emerge from his use of the Isis procession, which provides motifs for the two central features of his Grail scene.

The Fisher King

The prelude of the Isis procession, the Anteludia, consists of a bizarre spectacle of persons and properties. Among the many unconnected items are (in this order) the following: a hunting spear; a hunter; a sword; a fowler; a fisherman with hooks; a sedan on which someone is carried; a golden cup; a feeble old man. These eight unrelated words (or phrases) return in Chrétien's word portrait of the Fisher King and his court: a fisherman fishing with hooks in a river (where Perceval meets him first) reappears as the lord of the castle, marked as such by having among his men a hunter and a fowler; maimed by a spear, he is confined to a couch on which he is carried around; he presents a sword to his guest and pours wine from a cup of gold, while he watches the procession that brings the life-sustaining wafer to the feeble old man, his father. By welding these incoherent bits into one figure and linking it to ancient fertility myths and Celtic lore, Chrétien created an impressive character of medieval literature.

The Grail

Two vessels carried in the main body of the Isis procession share the salient features of the Grail, above all, those of its external aspect: Both are golden; in addition, the cymbium ("bowl") sheds an intense light and the urnula ("small urn") is ornamented and mysterious. The inherent powers of the Grail, on the other hand, are prefigured in other sources. Celtic tradition may have contributed the idea of the horn of plenty. As to the ancient rituals, the Corpus Hermeticum seems to have provided with its fourth treatise, entitled The Krater, a model of the Grail that contributed its mystic functions. The Greek text states that "the vessel is divine," repeated nearly verbatim in Chrétien's "Tant sainte chose est li graaus" ("The Grail is so holy an object"). The content of the Hermetic vessel is nous, intellect, which makes one perfect; it is concretized as the wafer that the Grail contains. The Old King (the Fisher King's father), sustained in his retreat by such spiritual rather than material nourishment, evolves, in other words, into Perfect Man. The means by which the Hermetic materials were transmitted to Chrétien is not clear. The fourth treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum was known in Byzantium, to be sure, and Chrétien, quite knowledgeable about contemporary Byzantine affairs, as he demonstrated in his Cligès, could easily have heard about Hermetism and its mystical appeal. But Hermetic ideas were in vogue at the school of Chartres, and if the Old King is a replica of the Hermetic Perfect Man, as he is portrayed in the death scene of Hermes in the contemporary Liber Alcidi, the scene at the Grail Castle turns into an example of twelfth-century theosophy and "literary paganism."

Wolfram's Kyot

With his Grail story Chrétien left a rich legacy to medieval letters; yet his followers divided the heritage. On the one hand, starting with Robert de Borron, the romances of the Grail cycle displayed an ever greater emphasis on the Christian aspect; on the other hand, there stands, by itself, a masterpiece of literature, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (c. 12001212). Its narrative, to be sure, is modeled after Chrétien's Perceval. The differences of content, frequently at the frontier of religion, appear to be related to a difference of sources. But on the question of sources the two authors are not very helpful. Chrétien's puzzling remark about Count Philip's book has its counterpart in Wolfram: He mentions an enigmatic informant, Kyot, as having provided an Arabic model for the Parzival and, in addition, as having expressed his misgivings about Chrétien's choice of the (unspecified) source for Perceval. Questions of Kyot's provenance and even his mere existence have provoked varying hypotheses. On the basis of Wolfram's scattered remarks, of the Catharist beliefs ascribed to the Grail community, and of the striking role that the science of geomancy plays in Parzival, the authors of this article identify Kyot as Guillot (i.e., William) of Tudela, in Navarre, the author of the first part of the Chanson de la Croisade albigeoise. He was, as the author of this work, familiar with Catharism, was an adept of geomancy, had settled around 1199 in southern France, wrote in a Provençal French Mischsprache, and in all probability knew Arabic.

The source that Kyot transmitted to Wolfram and that Wolfram fused with Chrétien's story was, again in this analysis, the Corpus Hermeticum ascribed to Hermes Trismegistos. The treatises of this body of works communicate the mystical beliefs of a loosely structured brotherhood in second- and third-century Egypt, and they were written in Greek, known in Byzantium, and transmitted to the West through Arabic. The treatise that topically comes closest to Chrétien's Grail fantasy is the one on the soteriological vessel of Hermetism, the Krater. Wolfram re-created the Grail in Hermetic terms as an astral myth. In The Krater it is stated that "God filled a great krater with intellect and sent it down to earth"; similarly, in Wolfram's version, the Grail is an astral vessel whose powers derive from a wafer brought down by a dove. The radiant maiden who carries the vessel in Wolfram's Grail procession also represents a Hermetic concept: She is called Repanse de Schoye, which translates the Greek for "knowledge of joy," the second most important virtue (after knowledge of God) in the process of spiritual rebirth.

The great religious conversion scene at the hermitage in the Conte also seems to be re-created by Wolfram in accord with his Hermetic inspiration. In the treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes Trismegistos appears as the dominant figure: He is a saint, an ascetic, a teacher, a sage; he is the symbol of learning and the founder of astrological science. Wolfram's mystagogue, Trevrizent, appears to be a portrait of Hermes Trismegistos. He is a holy man, has written about religious doctrine, and is a teacher of astrology. This typological derivation accords with the etymological root of this name. The epithet trismegistos, "the thrice-great," was rendered in Arabic as "the thrice-sage," which was translated into medieval Latin as triplex scientia ("threefold wisdom") and into Old French whose obvious (although not documented) equivalent treble escient was, finally, corrupted by Wolfram into Trevrizent.

The works whose resemblances to the Grail myth have been outlined here, the Isis Book for Chrétien and the Corpus Hermeticum for Wolfram, fall within the broad class of sources often subsumed under the label of "ancient rituals." Yet the web of homologies involving subject matter, structure, characters, text, key terms, and the ambience of mystery appears sufficiently dense to consider these works, on the borderline between religion and literature, as the specific models of the two Grail romances.

See Also



The extensive literature on the Grail is regularly reported in the annual Bulletin bibliographique de la Société Internationale Arthurienne (Paris, 1949). An annotated list of contributions from the turn of the century to the late fifties can be found in Urban T. Holmes, Jr., and M. Amelia Klenke's Chrétien de Troyes and the Grail (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1959), pp. 168194. For good overviews from varying standpoints, see Jessie L. Weston's "Grail, The Holy," in The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. (New York, 1910); Martín de Riquer's "Graal," in Dictionnaire des lettres françaises, vol. 4, Le Moyen-Âge, edited by Robert Bossuat and others (Paris, 1964); and Maur Cocheril's "Graal," in Dictionnaire de spiritualité, vol. 6 (Paris, 1967). The constituent works of the Grail cycle are analyzed in R. S. Loomis's Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1959).

The present survey draws, in particular, on the following works: William A. Nitze, "The Fisher King in the Grail Romances," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 24 (1909): 365418; Jessie L. Weston, The Quest of the Holy Grail (1913; New York, 1964); Konrad Burdach, Der Gral, "Forschungen zur Kirchenund Geistesgeschichte," vol. 14 (Stuttgart, 1938); Leo Pollmann, Chrétien de Troyes und der Conte del Graal (Tübingen, 1965); Leonardo Olschki, The Grail Castle and Its Mysteries (Berkeley, Calif., 1966); Emma Jung and Marie Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend (New York, 1970); and two of our own studies, The Krater and the Grail: Hermetic Sources of the Parzival (1965; Urbana, Ill., 1984) and "On the Sources of Chrétien's Grail Story," in Festschrift Walther von Wartburg, edited by Kiert Baldinger (Tübingen, 1968).

New Sources

Barber, Richard W. The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. New York, 2004.

Goodrich, Norma Lorre. The Holy Grail. New York, 1993.

Goodwin, Malcolm. The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets and Meaning Revealed. London, 1994.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Nicholson, Helen J. Love, War, ad the Grail. Boston, 2001.

Phillips, Graham. The Search for the Grail. London, 1995.

Sinclair, Andrew. The Discovery of the Grail. London, 1998.

Wood, Juliette. "The Holy Grail: From Romance Motif to Modern Genre." Folklore 111 (October 2000): 169191.

Henry Kahane (1987)

RenÉe Kahane (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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