On the trail of the Holy Grail

In The Da Vinci Code, the Holy Grail is neither an object nor an objective. It symbolises an earthshaking secret: Mary Magdalene bore a child with Jesus.

The mega-selling book—the film version of which opens next week—is fiction. But, as far as Grail legends go, it’s in good company.
The only undeniable truth about the Grail is that there’s no shortage of tales about it.

Since the Holy Grail became part of the popular Christian imagination in the Middle Ages, it’s taken an array of forms. The most enduring Grail image is as a vessel—perhaps a chalice—held by Christ at the Last Supper and later used to catch his blood during his final hours.

But the stories also soar off in many other directions.

In some, the Grail is a stone that fell from heaven and has mystical powers. Others have described it as a kind of Holy Spirit that bestows wisdom and revelation. Or it could be, some scholars suggest, nothing at all. The Grail could simply be an artefact of language that’s still familiar today: a metaphor for a quest in which only the most clever and steadfast can succeed.

Literature

In literature, the search for the Grail has inspired imaginations for centuries, from the sagas of King Arthur to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. In movies, it’s been pursued by Indiana Jones and lampooned by the Monty Python troupe. Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, is based on the medieval story of a young Welsh knight who glimpses the Grail in the castle of its guardian.

Some historians claim that Wagner’s work so captivated Adolf Hitler that he set up an elite Nazi unit to try to find the Grail.

“The important thing about the Grail is its elusive quality,” says Joseph Goering, a University of Toronto professor of medieval history whose 2005 book, The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend draws links to 12th-century paintings of Mary holding an enigmatic, radiant bowl. “The Grail is always leading you on in some ways.”

Many scholars contend the Grail story borrowed elements of Celtic lore and other bits from the myths of antiquity. But it took on a distinctly Christian aura in France about 800 years ago when it became linked to St Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to have received the vessel after the Last Supper and it was used to catch Christ’s blood during the crucifixion.

This has led linguistic detectives to theorise that “grail” comes from the Old French word “graal”, meaning “dish” or “shallow platter”. Yet even here is another dispute. No one is sure where the word even came from. A few—in the vein of The Da Vinci Code—have suggested it comes from “sang real” or “royal blood” in French, as a reference to the bloodline of Christ and the deepest “secret” of the faith.

Boost

Such conspiracies have been given a boost in recent decades by scholarly attention to texts—including mystical Gnostic works and the recently publicised “Gospel of Judas”—that suggest alternative views to the books of the New Testament.

“In some ways the Grail is linked to movements unhappy with the accepted story of Christianity and seeking another version of it,” says Goering.

The idea of the Grail quest—a centrepiece of the Camelot legends—was popularised by the French romantic poet Chretien de Troyes in the late 12th century. Such journeys came to represent the highest expressions of medieval chivalry, courtly romance and spiritual virtue.

In other words, an early literary fad was born. Across Europe, Grail-inspired stories sprouted. They were given a boost by the Crusades and the belief that—somewhere out there—was the Grail castle and other Christian visions such as Prester John, a monarch who was said to preside over a utopian Christian kingdom in the East.

But Grail hunters didn’t just head toward the Holy Land and beyond. The Grail map includes such points as Scotland, Spain and France.

One of the most repeated legends again involves St Joseph of Arimathea. In it, he brings the Grail and Christianity to Britain.

The tale goes that Joseph was imprisoned after the Resurrection, but smuggled the Grail into his cell and it miraculously sustained him with food and water. Upon his release, he takes a band of followers to Britain along with the Grail.

Stories

Stories over the centuries have placed the Grail in the bowels of the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland—which is featured in the The Da Vinci Code—or Glastonbury Tor in south-west Britain, which some contend is the mythical Avalon where King Arthur’s spirit resides.

Other legends have orders such the Knights Templar, a medieval band of warrior monks, stashing the Grail at various other places around Europe.

The Grail’s trail even leads across the Atlantic. Stories say the Templars managed to reach Nova Scotia with the Grail a century before Columbus’s first voyage. Another tale has a priest aboard Captain John Smith’s ship toting the Grail to what would become Maryland in the early 17th century.

All the Grail stories, of course, are based on a mix of conjecture, historical snippets and fantasy. But one thing cannot be disputed: there’s a wave of Grail mania and Grail profits—even as many Christian groups denounce Dan Brown’s novel for its dark portrayals of the powers behind the faith.

Visitors to Rosslyn Chapel jumped by 72% last year compared with 2004. Tour groups in Paris arrange special “Da Vinci” itineraries that include the Louvre, the setting for the book’s opening scenes.

British cartoonist Royston Robertson took a timely jab at the whole affair. Two knights look over the Grail chalice. One says: “I got it on eBay.”—Sapa-AP

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