Tag Archives: Holy Grail

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.

Not Camelot

In the English imagination the Arthurian legend is deeply connected with the Christian myth of Britain’s founding. This may not be on the surface, of course, but the places associated with King Arthur (as well as the tales themselves, such as the Holy Grail) overlap with sacred locations. I was reminded of this by a recent Guardian article about Tintagel Castle. Back in the day when my wife and I visited Tintagel with friends, I was still shooting film. Slides, no less. Some wonderful images came out, the way that only Ektachrome delivers, but I haven’t been able to convert them to digital. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. Tintagel is in the news because English Heritage, the owner of the property, is developing it to make it a larger tourist draw. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel. Not in the castle—now in ruins—that was built centuries later, but on the island that is accessed by footbridge over a dramatic cove on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s enough to make you drop your pastie.

Our own little Merlin

Our own little Merlin

Locals, according to The Guardian, protest the dressing up of the historic site. A bas relief of Merlin has been carved into the living rock, and this is hoped to draw the Glastonbury crowd to the southeast. Glastonbury, upon our visit, was already the home of New Age vendors. It too has connections with Arthur. The staff of Joseph of Arimathea can be seen, still growing after all these centuries. The Holy Grail—likely from Celtic mythology of the cauldron—is also associated with Glastonbury. Oh yes, and also King Arthur’s grave. Even apart from Monty Python, the legendary king has captured the imagination of thousands across the centuries. There’s something about Arthur.

The historicity of the king, however, is vigorously debated. The same is true of many religious founders. Those around whom legends grow become more and more inaccessible with the passing of the years. England was Christianized in the seventh century as part of a political expansion. If Arthur ever lived, it was after that period, perhaps in the days before Beowulf. We just don’t know. It is clear, however, that his legend is intertwined with that of those early Christian days. There never was a Holy Grail—of that we can be fairly certain. In the service of myth-making, it is nevertheless indispensable. Staring out over the Ektachrome sea at the ruins of the island castle of Tintagel, it is only too easy to believe. If only I had the pictures to prove it.

Rosslyn, New Texaco

Back before Dan Brown had becoming the Most Important Human Ever, even before he published Angels and Demons, my wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin Glen, Scotland. While not actually seeking the Holy Grail, I had been doing some research on Celtic lore, ostensibly where the Grail legend originates, and so we made our way to the remote and (then) desolate site of this unusual church. Officially the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew, it is, without doubt, the busiest piece of architectural stonework I have ever witnessed. We went for the grail. We stayed for the art.

WikiCommons image, ours isn't this good

WikiCommons image, ours isn't this good

The research I had been conducting (finally published just last year as a contribution to a Festschrift for Nicolas Wyatt) involved the Mabinogian, a repository of Celtic mythology, and the legend of Bran. For sharing the name of a healthful breakfast cereal, Bran is renowned for also having had a life-restoring cauldron. He even made a journey to the netherworld and his head kept singing even after having been dissociated from his body. An uncommon hero indeed. All historical indicators, however, point to the cauldron as the original of the Holy Grail. Certainly the Bible does not mention it, nor does it appear very early in Christian mythology.

People, as Dan Brown’s financial independence loudly indicates, like a good conspiracy theory. There is a comfort in believing that a magical object of great power is out there somewhere and that a rather ordinary Harvard professor (!) might be able to find it, yet resist taking it. Far truer to life is Indiana Jones and the Final Crusade; people feel the need to touch, to control the power beyond themselves. Even at the cost of their lives. Despite the fact that the Grail is a fiction, it simply will not disappear — although no one can find it and it has never been seen. Faith tends not to be based on tangibles. This is attested every time Dan Brown makes his way to the bank and the population reads with wonder about meanings that simply don’t exist.