fbpx

Is the Holy Grail Real? The Legend and Meaning of the Mythic Chalice

As a sucker for a good relic mystery and suspense thriller, I figured the next book I wrote was pretty obvious. And as a super fan of Indiana Jones stretching back to my early teens, here we are again on another Jones-esque quest—but obviously quite different from his adventure.

Hence Grail of Power—another thriller in my religious conspiracy thriller series, but with a technothriller edge.

The idea of the Holy Grail has always intrigued me. And as a trained historical theologian, I’ve especially wondered what to make of the mythic relic. It wasn’t until I dug into the history behind the legends that I really began to understand the full significance of the myth—to which I owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Barber’s book The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief for the meticulous research of that history and theological significance.

But what is the legend of the mythical Holy Grail, what is it’s historical significance, and what does it mean? Keep reading to discover the intriguing history behind the story.

Is the Holy Grail a real Church relic?

In a word: no. However, it is true there has been somewhat of a tradition surrounding the cup Christ bore at the Last Supper. Consider this account a pilgrim Arculf gave of his adventures, a most enlightening account:

Between the basilica of Golgotha and the Martyrium, there is a chapel in which is the chalice of the Lord, which he himself blessed with his own hand and gave to the apostles when reclining with them at supper the day before he suffered. The chalice is silver, has the measure of a Gaulish pint, and has two handles fashioned on either side…After the resurrection the Lord drank from this same chalice, according to the supping with the apostles. The holy Arculf saw it, and through an opening of the perforated lid of the reliquary where it reposes, he touched it with his own hand which he had kissed. All the people of the city flock to it with great veneration. Arculf saw the soldier’s lance as well, with which he pierced the side of the Lord when he was hanging on the cross. This lance is in the porch of the basilica of Constantine…

The story of Arculf and what he recounted from his visit to the Holy Land is an accurate one that Richard Barber includes in a chapter exploring “The Grail Outside the Romances,” where he also lists several more contenders for the mythic chalice:

  • Nothing is heard about Arculf’s grail again, though there is a late-thirteenth century reference to a copy of the Grail in Byzantium.
  • There is the Antioch Chalice, which is secured at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum explains, “When it was discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, this “chalice” was claimed to have been found in Antioch, a city so important to the early Christians that it was recognized with Rome and Alexandria as one of the great sees of the church. The chalice’s plain silver interior bowl was then ambitiously identified as the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.”
  • Genoa claims a vessel of the Last Supper, the sacro catino, a green hexagonal bowel that has been claimed to be a vessel into which Nicodemus caught Christ’s blood.
  • Valencia Cathedral has garnered more publicity for its santo caliz chalice, a simple agate cup that seems to be a genuine Greco-Roman artifact from the Near East with an Arabic inscription whose meaning is disputed.
  • The Nanteos Cup has received a considerable amount of attention given its conspiratorial story of being secreted away in the night from Glastonbury by a band of seven monks while King Henry’s henchmen descended upon the famous abbey. However fanciful of a tale it is, there has indeed been a considerable tradition associated with Joseph of Arimathea and Glastonbury, as well as the Grail itself, which the Medieval grail romance writers seem to have exploited. However, most Church historians have dismissed the notion, arguing the Benedictine monk Augustine from Rome (different than St. Augustine of Hippo) is the true “Apostle to the English” and not Joseph of Arimathea bearing the grail as Medieval tradition had it.
  • Finally, there is the intrigue surrounding the Cathars, Otto Rahn, and the Nazi search for the mythic Grail. The Cathars were a heretical sect of Christianity that had far more in common with ancient Gnosticism than with the historic Church. Rahn became attracted to studying Wolfram von Eschenbach’s grail romance and the history of the Cathars and was fixated on the mention of the Holy Grail being concealed in the holy mountain of Montsalvat, which he took as the Cathar stronghold of Montségur. Rahn was deputized by Himmler’s chief esotericist to conduct research into the Holy Grail, among other misadventures. He also wrote a few books on the matter, Crusade Against the Grail. The Nazis were in search of the Grail along with a number of other religious relics for less than holy reasons—so George Lucas got at least that part right!

It is true that the Church has disavowed any claim to the Holy Grail, writing it off as a Medieval myth devised by French and English romance writers during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion found in the New Testament do not mention anything about a chalice catching his blood, much less borne by Joseph of Arimathea. However, the myth has endured through the ages, nonetheless, seemingly carried along by every wind of fanciful conspiracy theory. Certainly, it is a construct of the creative imagination, but many within Christianity have viewed it as an embodiment of the highest Christian ideal and experience: the Eucharist. That was also the heart of the story that the original grail romance writers taught, as well.

What was the original legend of the Grail?

Much of the origin of the legends surrounding the Holy Grail became the foundation for the mythic chalice that Jesus Christ bore at the Last Supper and that held his blood that spilled from the wound in his side. That original story was written by Chrétien de Troyes and expanded upon by Robert de Boron and Sir Thomas Malory, among others.

The grail romances, as they were known, were part of a wider set of literature in the Middle Ages on King Arthur and his knights. The French poet Chrétien de Troyes was instrumental in crystallizing the legend, presenting the Grail as a means of not only examining the chivalric ideal but also the spiritual one. This remained core to subsequent tales, in which knights search for the legendary vessel. He introduced the symbol in his final tale, Conte del Graal—Story of the Grail.

As the core of the story goes, a Welsh lad named Perceval undertakes a series of quests to become a knight in Arthur’s court—one of which lands him at a castle where he encounters the mysterious Fisher King, who is wounded and offers a sword to the lad as a gift. Afterward, the Grail Procession commences, made up of a young man bearing the bleeding lance, later understood to be that of the centurion who pierced Christ’s side; a young woman bearing a gleaming Grail made of precious materials, gold and stones and the like; and finally, a young maiden with a carving dish. Although the lad initially fails the quest for neglecting to ask the ritualistic question that would have healed the suffering king, this failure and a confrontation undressing him as an unworthy, wicked man spurs him on to devote his life to serving God and finding the Grail again. Subsequent romances would build upon this narrative, but the basic scaffolding of the story remained unchanged.

Originally, the Grail wasn’t an explicitly Christian artifact, although the story was thoroughly Christian. Robert de Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea literary work would cement the Grail legend into an explicitly Christian symbol, specifically as the cup Christ bore at the Last Supper and the chalice Joseph of Arimathea used to catch Christ’s blood at the cross. This was then connected with the tradition surrounding the man who claimed and buried Jesus’ body in the tomb. As the legend goes, Pontius Pilate presented the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper to Joseph of Arimathea, who in turn was said to have collected Christ’s blood from the gaping wound in his side made from the lance of the Roman soldier Longinus. Robert de Boron drew upon an Apocrypha text in a section of the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus known as the Acts of Pilate, in which Joseph was imprisoned by the Jews after Jesus disappeared post-resurrection. In the original version, the Grail itself is not mentioned, only that Joseph’s faith was miraculously sustained. However, in Robert de Boron’s retelling, Christ himself appeared to the man in prison bearing the Grail and instructed him to celebrate Mass in commemoration of his death on the cross—a major feature of the grail romances.

What was the major thematic message told by the original grail romance writers?

The Eucharist has been closely bound up with the Grail. In fact, Chrétien’s account climaxes when ‘Perceval came to recognize that God received death and was crucified,’ as he wrote, ‘And at Easter, most worthily, Perceval received communion.’ This is an interesting literary feature given what was happening around that time historically. From the start, early Christians took seriously Jesus’ exhortation to remember the new covenant made possible through the blood he shed and the violence his body endured for our sins by drinking the cup of wine and eating of bread. Matthew recorded in his Gospel (Matthew 26:26–29) this exhortation:

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Then the apostle Paul reminded early Christians of these instructions in his first letter to the Church of Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:23–26) instituting the Lord’s Supper as a regular practice among the earliest followers of Jesus:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Celebrating the Eucharist or Holy Communion was meant to be an act of declaration as much as it was an act of identification—remembering Jesus’ sacrificial act on the cross through the symbols was a way to identify with his death by dying to sin and rebellion against God, while also announcing the forgiveness and new life made possible through it. And from the fourth century through the twelfth, the role and meaning of the Eucharist developed and changed considerably. A belief began to emerge that the consecrated bread and wine actually became the body and blood of Christ, called transubstantiation. This doctrine became an essential and rather dramatic ritual at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church at the time; it still is.

Throughout Church history, the meaning of this ritual has been debated: some have reacted to the Catholic belief that the elements actually transform in substance into Jesus’ body and blood by insisting they remain bread and wine, but are essentially equated with Jesus’ body and blood in a spiritual way to provoke and nourish faith; others insist the bread and wine (or, is often the case, Welch’s grape juice) are merely symbolic natural means of remembering the supernatural event of Christ’s sacrifice. Regardless, Christians have always memorialized Jesus’ selfless act of sacrifice—his broken body and shed blood—by remembering that death through the breaking of bread and pouring of wine with the chalice, the grail, if you will.

Interestingly, those themes of Christ’s sacrifice central to this ritual—his death and resurrection and the implication of the same for the believer with salvation and eternal life—are also central to the Arthurian romances of the Grail. Sir Thomas Malory in particular heightened the link between the Grail and the Holy Blood, portraying the vessel as an intimate part of Christ’s crucifixion and entwined with the Eucharist. ‘Fair sweet Lord who art here within the holy vessel’ a sick knight prayed in his version of the legend, clearly associating the relic with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world, of which the Eucharist is a continual reminder.

So whether the Grail is or was a real religious relic, the grail romance writers seem to have sought to draw their readers’ attention to the climax and meaning of Jesus’ story: his death on the cross. For as Grail of Power maintains, that is the true power of Jesus and his blood.

 

I’ll leave you with the words of a well-known hymn of the Christian faith that partly inspired the essence of this story, “Power in the Blood,” by Lewis Jones. It perfectly captures the essence of the true power of Jesus’ blood and the reason he was born two thousand years ago:

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood

 

Chorus:
There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the blood of the Lamb.
There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

 

Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful power in the blood. [Chorus]

 

Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Sin stains are lost in its life-giving flow;
There’s wonderful power in the blood. [Chorus]

 

Would you do service for Jesus your King?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you live daily His praises to sing?
There’s wonderful power in the blood. [Chorus]

May you yourself come to know, deep down, the riches of the wonder-working power that Christ’s shed blood brings.

Research is an important part of my process for creating compelling stories that entertain, inform, and inspire. Here are a few of the resources I used to research the history and legend behind the Holy Grail:

  • Barber, Richard, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. www.bouma.us/grail1.
  • Morgan, Giles. The Holy Grail. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 2004. www.bouma.us/grail2.
  • Wood, Juliette. The Holy Grail: History and Legend. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012. www.bouma.us/grail3.
  • Rahn, Otto. Crusade Against the Grail. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2006. www.bouma.us/grail4.

GRAIL OF POWER NOW AVAILABLE

Grab book 5 in the inventive religious thriller series Order of Thaddeus today

Is the Grail so mythical? And why is the Church’s archenemy so desperate to find it?

Those two haunting questions launch the SEPIO agents on their most harrowing mission yet with a clock ticking to find answers just before Christmas. Spanning historic Europe and Medieval Church history, the agents race to solve this threatening puzzle until the final pieces are brought together in a final showdown that will leave readers all at once breathless and inspired.

Engage this propulsive new archaeological thriller adventure straddling thrill and thought, faith and doubt.

Get the book inspired by the facts

Grail of Power

Order of Thaddeus • Book 5

A mythic grail. A legendary quest. A blood with the power to save.

Silas Grey is taking a much-needed vacation after the year has turned his life on end. But when fellow SEPIO agent Matt Gapinski shows up on his beach with a secret mission straight from the Vatican, he knows trouble has found him once again. Which means Day One of his new job with the Order of Thaddeus—ancient defender of the Christian faith—has begun ten days early. And soon it becomes clear an ancient cultic threat is seeking a mythic religious relic:

the Holy Grail that held the blood of Jesus Christ.

But is it so mythical? And why is the Church’s archenemy so desperate to find it?

Those two haunting questions launch the SEPIO agents on their most harrowing mission yet with a clock ticking to find answers just before Christmas. Spanning historic Europe and Medieval Church history, the agents race to solve this threatening puzzle until the final pieces are brought together in a final showdown that will leave readers all at once breathless and inspired.

Grail of Power leverages the familiar conspiracy suspense of Dan Brown, the special-ops muscle of James Rollins’s Sigma Force novels, and the historical insight of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series to deliver an explosive religious conspiracy thriller with a technothriller edge— plumbing the depths and significance of the most recognizable religious figure in history: Jesus of Nazareth.

Combining fact, faith, and fiction like few contemporary religious writers, J. A. Bouma weaves an adventurous, action-packed page-turner new readers will devour—while offering several explosive reveals that will leave fans of the inventive series satisfied with long-awaited answers.

Grab the 5th book in the bestselling series readers have exclaimed: “Indiana Jones, step aside, I have a new hero – Silas Grey!”

Share This