A Quest For The Origins Of The Holy Grail
Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Source: (freepublic.com)
In the 1989 movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the swashbuckling archaeologist embarks on a mission to acquire a cup with the power to grant immortality to anyone who drinks from it. The cup in question was the Holy Grail, an artifact that has existed in the legend for nearly a thousand years.
The exact nature of the Grail varies. The word “grail” itself is likely derived from the Latin word “gradale” which was a deep platter used to serve food during medieval banquets. However, it is also linked to the Old French word “graal,” the Old Provencal “grazal,” and the Old Catalan “gresel.” All of these words refer to a cup or bowl. The Grail has also been described as a chalice, a platter, or a goblet. As to the origin of this particular Grail, popular legend claims it was the cup used at the Last Supper as well as the one used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ’s blood during the crucifixion. Other legends link it to Celtic mythology.
The first textual account of the quest for the Holy Grail appeared around 1180 in Chrétien de Troyes’s Conte del Graal (Story of the Grail). The story followed the Grail from the crucifixion to the death of King Arthur, establishing the basis for future adaptations of the Grail and securing its form like a cup. While later versions of the Grail possess mystical powers such as healing, eternal youth, wealth, and happiness, Troyes’s version had no powers. However, it was used to serve a Mass wafer which granted eternal life.
It was Robert de Boron’s poem Joseph d’Arimathie, written around 1200, that first assigned powers to the Grail itself. De Boron’s poem was also the first to cite the Last Supper as the cup’s origin. According to his tale, Joseph of Arimathea was arrested and placed in a stone tomb similar to that of Christ after he used the Grail to collect Christ’s blood at the crucifixion. Joseph stays alive for several years in the tomb because the Grail provides him with food and drink. After being released from the tomb, he creates a following of Grail keepers called the Grail Kings. The tale goes on to connect with Arthurian legend when King Arthur receives a prophecy about the Grail and the quests for its recovery begin.
Despite the earliest texts connecting it to the story of Christ, many historians believe the Holy Grail has its origins in pre-Christian Celtic mythology. Early Arthurian legend has the knights traveling to the Celtic Otherworld in search of the cauldron of Annwyn which granted “everlasting plenty.” Other legends have them searching for the Cauldron of Ceridwen, the Celtic goddess of inspiration, which granted “knowledge of all things past and present.” But it was de Boron’s story which led to the Grail’s popularity during the Middle Ages.
Interest in the legend has been peaked more recently thanks to a discovery in March of 2014 by two Spanish historians. After three years of research into the location of the Grail, they claimed to have found it at a church in northern Spain where it is said to have been since the eleventh century. Scientific dating on the cup confirms it to have been created sometime between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. However, there is no way to prove whether or not it was the cup used at the Last Supper or if the Holy Grail even exists. That has not stopped people from looking though, as there have been more than two hundred alleged discoveries of the Grail in locations all over the world.
Tags: the holy grail
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