Glossary: Holy Grail

Glossary entry for
Holy Grail

The quest for the Holy Grail is central to the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. The Grail is a complex symbol whose origins are varied and go way back in time. The earliest antecedant of the Grail is the cauldron as a mother-symbol of containment and fertility. In Greek mythology the cornucopia is associated with fertility, bountifulness, and prosperity. The goat Amalthea who suckled Zeus was put in the sky and became associated with the Zodiac sign of Capricorn. From one horn flowed ambrosia, and from the other nectar: hence the Horn of Plenty.

In Celtic tradition there are many legends involving cauldrons with life enhancing qualities. In the tale of "Culhwch and Olwen" from the Mabinogion, Arthur and his heroes make a raid on the Otherworld to steal the Cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman. This cauldron would not boil meat for cowards and would give the best cuts of meat to the most valorous heroes. The Irish king Matholwch had a cauldron for raising dead soldiers to life. The cauldron was seen as a vessel of healing: in legend there was the cauldron of venom and the cauldron of cure, into both of which the young hero is plunged after his labours in order to harden him for future endeavours and to restore him to health. Gwion-Taliesin received three drops on his fingers from Cerridwen's cauldron, which gave him knowledge of all time and poetic inspiration. On the Blessed Island there was a cauldron that could predict future events and it was fanned by nine oracular maidens.

The earliest Arthurian legends come from Celtic sources, and it can be seen how the Grail symbolism has been strongly influenced by Celtic tradition. In Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach the Fisher King, keeper of the Grail's secret, has been struck down by a mysterious illness and the countryside has turned into a wasteland. When Parzival asks the right question ("Where is the Grail to be found?"), the King recovers and the land is restored to life. Parzival then becomes King, and custodian of the Grail.

Some legends abscribe Christian symbolism to the Grail. In the "Queste del Saint Graal" Lancelot tried to drink from a spring, but in vain because of his sin. Nascien the hermit says: "It is the Holy Grail, it is the grace of the Holy Spirit. The fountain is the sweet rain, the sweet word of the gospel, in which the heart of the truly repentant sinner finds such great sweetness that the more he tastes it, so much the more does he desire it". In the poem "Joseph d'Arimathie" by Robert de Boron of Burgandy, Joseph of Arithmea catches drops of blood from Christ on the cross into the Grail, and takes it to England. It then becomes a veritable cornucopia, serving "wine to all and other dishes in great plenty".

Thus the Holy Grail is a rich and complex symbol whose origins can be traced to different sources. However, common threads can be discerned from among the various interpretations. To obtain the benefits of the Grail a quest is involved, and the quester must be worthy. Once achieved the Grail confers great benefits, such as regeneration, abundance, and spiritual well-being.

Contributed by Alan Pert, Sydney, Australia

Some references used:

  1. J.E.Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (1971)
  2. Ad de Vries, Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery (1976)
  3. Roger S.Loomis, The Grail: From Celtic myth to Christian symbol (1963)
  4. Caitlin and John Matthews. Hallowquest: Tarot magic and the Arthurian Mysteries (1990)

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