Defining the Myths and Legends
of the Holy Grail

by Norman A. Rubin

Throughout history, different groups have attributed various symbolisms to the Holy Grail. It has been described by ancient cultures as a miraculous provider of food and drink in abundance; the source of providing communication with, or knowledge of God, life and immortality, fertility, healing and eternal perpetual youth; and the cup of the magician and the philosopher's stone (alchemy). In Ancient Egyptian symbolism there is an association between the Cup or Vase of Life and the Heart as life center. Dan Brown's bestselling novel 'The Da Vinci Code' is based on the idea that the real Grail is not a cup but the earthly remains of Mary Magdalene (cast as Jesus' wife), plus a set of ancient documents telling the true story of Jesus, his teachings and descendants.

Some people of the faith say that the Holy Grail is an artifact, a first-century Middle Eastern decorated bronze cup, possibly from Antioch, Syria (now Turkey). It was placed atop an ornate stem and base, made in the medieval era of alabaster, gold, and gemstones, and has been the official papal chalice for many popes, most recently by Pope Benedict XVI.

Note: The word graal, as it is earliest spelled, appears to be an Old French adaption of the Latin gradalis, meaning a dish brought to the table in different stages of a meal. The Grail symbols are a cup, a radiant chalice, a chalice with a heart, the lance, downward triangle, and magical stone.

In early Christian legend the Grail was given to Adam but was left in Paradise (the Garden of Eden) after the fall. It is the center of Paradise and must be re-found. Thus the quest for the Grail was the symbolic return to Paradise, the spiritual center of man and the Universe. According to later Christian mythology, the Holy Grail was the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Christ on the cross. A legend dates from the late 12th century in which Joseph received the Holy Grail from an apparition of Jesus.

The quest for the Holy Grail makes up an important segment of the Arthurian cycle, appearing first in works by Chretien de Troyes "Perceval' in the possession of the 'Fisher King.' The Fisher King character's roots may lie in Celtic Mythology. Thus the legend written by Chretien combines Christian lore with the Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with special powers. The 'Fisher King' figures in Arthurian legend as the latest in a line possessing the Holy Grail.

"In the legends of the Holy Grail, the Lord of the Grail castle and keeper of the Grail and the bleeding Lance was crippled and fishing was his only pastime; his infirmity was bound up the desolation of the land and miserable subjects, and he could only be cured by a question about the holy vessel to be asked by the Grail hero (Perceval)." (In later versions he was joined the knights Galahad and Bors the Younger.)

"Perceval, a young man raised in a forest by his mother in wild of Wales. Perceval's main adventure happens when he meets a mysterious fisherman fishing in the river, who offers him shelter in his castle. When Perceval finds the fisherman already there, lying on a couch in the great hall. A strange procession enters the hall, with a young man carrying a bleeding lance, two squires conveying golden candelabra, a beautiful maiden carrying a golden graal, and another beautiful woman carrying a silver carving dish. Perceval fails to ask what the ceremony means. And the consequence of this is that the Fisher King is not healed, that he would have been had Perceval asked what the procession meant. Perceval learns that the Fisher King is sustained by a single mass wafer served to him each day in the grail. Not understanding the significance of this, he misses the chance to find out the true nature of the grail by not asking about it. When he was made a knight in King Arthur's court he then wanders in the hopes of finding it again."


Legends and myths regarding the search for the Holy Grail have never ceased; the ownership of the holy vessel has been attributed to the Knights Templers in the 12th and 13th centuries. Another legend states it was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, the devoted man who entombed Christ and founded the Christian settlement at Glastonbury.

The interest of the Grail legends later disappeared with the passing of the Middle Ages, but in the 19th century medieval history and legends awoke the interest of writers such as Scott and Tennyson Idylls of the King; of the artists of the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; and of composers, notably Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal. The symbol of the Grail as a mysterious object of search and as the source of the ultimate mystical, or even physical, experience has persisted into the present century in the novels of Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and John Cowper Powys. Today the search for the vessel was the subject for the motion pictures 'Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade' and the 'Fisher King', starring Robin Williams.

The quest for the Grail is the return to Paradise, the spiritual center of man and the universe, and follows the symbolic pattern through trial, tests and encounters with death in search for the hidden meaning and mystery of life. The quest is usually undertaken by a hero brought up in seclusion and ignorant of his true nature. Yet nothing associated with Holy Grail or the Fisher King is ever wholly explicit. It is irresponsible to think there is a conclusive answer or meaning to the legends of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King.


The Encyclopedia of World Mythology - foreward by Rex Warner – Octopus Books Limited, London England

An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols – J.C. Cooper - Thames and Hudson, London, England.

'Le Morte D'Arthur – Sir Thomas Mallory – Random House, New York

' T. H. White's trilogy 'The Once and Future King"(1958)

The Arthurian Cycle

"Chretien de Troyes the greatest of the medieval romance writers. He is known as the first writer to give the name of Camelot to King Arthur. He is also remembered for the introduction of the famous knights Lancelot, Gawain and Perceval into the literature of Arthurian legend. It is Chretien in his poem 'Le Conte del Graal, The Story of the Graal' (Grail--late twelfth century) who first tells us of the Grail (Graal) in the Arthurian Cycle, but he never equated it with the cup of the Last Supper or the cup used to catch the blood of Christ. Chretien used the grail as a symbol of beauty and mystery, but he never presented it as an object of religious devotion. The spiritual aspect was introduced by later writers."

The cycle was series of stories and medieval romances centering on the legendary English King Arthur. The stories chronicle Arthur's life, the adventures of his knights of the round table, and the adulterous love between his knight Sir Lancelot and his queen, Guinevere. The legend was popular in Wales before the 11th century, was brought into literature by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and was adapted by other medieval writers,

"Arthur, who had been reared in secrecy, won acknowledgment as king of Britain by successfully withdrawing a sword from a stone. The sorcerer Merlin, the court magician, then revealed the new king's parentage. Arthur, reigning in his court at Camelot, proved to be a noble king and a mighty warrior. He was the possessor of the miraculous sword Excalibur, given to him by the mysterious Lady of the Lake."

"King Arthur the legendary king of Britain held a court of a band of noble warriors, the 'Knights of the Round Table'. The king's knights rode out to seek to seek adventure and great deeds notably the quest for the Holy Grail. In the Arthurian legend, Sir Lancelot (Lancelot du Lac, or Lancelot of the Lake) is one of the Knights of the Round Table. He is characterized as the greatest and most trusted of Arthur's knights, and plays a part in many of Arthur's victories-- but Arthur's eventual downfall is also brought about in part by Lancelot, whose affair with Arthur's wife Guinevere destroys the unity of Arthur's court. King Arthur was thus betrayed by his beloved wife. Of Arthur's several enemies, the most treacherous were his sister Morgan le Fay and his nephew Mordred. Morgan le Fay was usually represented as an evil sorceress, scheming to win Arthur's throne for herself and her lover. Mordred was his son or nephew.

Wounded in battle against Mordred, he was carried away to Avalon, the land of immortal heroes from which he will return to lead his country in the greatest peril."

In the 15th century, the Arthurian legend reached its finest expression in Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte de Arthur. Sommer (London, 1889-91). The book is a reworking of much of the earlier Arthurian Cycle and Grail material; different tales are combined together and the book glows with the charm and splendor of Mallory's style. The Arthurian cycle is also referred to in literature by Alfred Tennyson's poem the "Idylls of the King" and T.H. White's trilogy The Once and Future King.