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The Holy Grail of Grail Stories

The much sought after ancient relic that has fascinated everyone from Indiana Jones to Monty Python doesn’t appear in the Christian Bible. So where did this legend begin?

Maggie Phillips
April 05, 2023
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Tiffany Chin
Tiffany Chin

“I was raised without much in the way of religion,” filmmaker Jeff Reichert wrote in a post about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Reverse Shot, the magazine for the Museum of the Moving Image. “For the longest time, a simple cup that I saw in a movie fixed for me an entire vision of the Christian religion.” Reichert probably isn’t the only person for whom this was (and is) the case. He goes on to marvel that the Holy Grail became “an idea so potent in that culturally dominant collection of tales we call Christianity that it has, over time, achieved the status of widely employed secular metaphor (X item is the Holy Grail of Y field/search/ambition, etc.),” even though it doesn’t appear in the Christian Bible at all. Moreover, despite being the Western folklore tradition’s ultimate MacGuffin, there was never a genuine cult around the cup used at the Last Supper, the way, for example, many Christians even today venerate relics believed to have belonged to or been touched by holy people. Nevertheless, the Grail has its champions, who insist that it had at least great symbolic meaning, somewhere in ancient times. Like Arthur himself, the once and future king, the Grail speaks to the preoccupations of the present by reaching back to a remote past.

It’s Holy Week, which means Christians all over the world are meditating on the Last Supper ahead of Easter. It’s an image that comes to many of us by way of Leonardo da Vinci: Jesus and his disciples gathered for a final meal, just before he is apprehended by Roman authorities, tried, and ultimately crucified. Popularly associated with this iconic mise-en-scène is the Holy Grail, the cup out of which Jesus and his followers drank (or the one that collected some of his blood at the Crucifixion, depending on the version). If you don’t think about it too much, it seems like the kind of thing devout believers would get excited about it. But the fact of the matter is, while you can find religious people in 2023 who believe the crown of thorns is at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, or that the Emperor Constantine’s mother discovered the true cross in Jerusalem, you’re almost wholly unlikely to find anyone with a passionate devotion to the Holy Grail, or a popular pilgrimage site claiming to be associated with it. Although the Grail is often elusive—Indy and his dad have to leave it in a collapsed desert temple along with a few Nazi corpses, and Arthur and his knights are all arrested by modern day police at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail before they can obtain it—the Grail is nevertheless easily found in the collective psyche of the West. Despite their differences in tone and genre, both films employ centuries-old Grail lore and its theme of the quest. The evident outcome has been decades of cultural relevance as one of the periodic revivals of interest in the Grail and its associated stories through the centuries. But if this continued hold on the popular imagination is not rooted in any genuine Christian doctrine or tradition, where does it come from? The answer is weird, and not wholly satisfactory for anyone wanting a simple, straightforward explanation.

In his essay, Reichert does a solid job of quickly explaining where Grail stories originate: namely, medieval France and England, with some pre-Christian Celtic mythological motifs sprinkled throughout. Twelfth- and 13th-century French tales called romances first start to talk about a Grail, and to introduce the figure of Joseph of Arimathea as a key figure, Reichert writes. Joseph of Arimathea is a bit player in the Christian Gospels as the man who takes Jesus’ body after his death and secures a burial site for it. But according to Reichert, 12th-century poet Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie seems to be among the first installments in the Grail extended universe, building out Joseph’s character, and positing that through him the chalice traveled West and ultimately settled in Britain. Python fans will be familiar with Joseph of Arimathea as the figure who may or may not have been dictating his last words on the wall of a cave, promising “he who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of Aaargh.”

The Pythons, it is clear from the Joseph of Arimathea name drop, knew their Grail lore. A gag like the line “She’s been setting light to our beacon, which, I just remembered, is grail-shaped,” assumes an additional layer of humor when you know that it isn’t at all clear what it would mean for something to be “grail-shaped.” The etymology of the word “grail” to mean cup is itself uncertain, and the earliest mentions of a grail in Arthurian lore describe it as a sort of jeweled, not especially intrinsically holy, serving dish carrying food, and not a cup. And the self-important Brits trying to retrieve the Grail (or at least look at it) from a remote castle of taunting French knights is in fact a rather literal representation of how these myths were handed down to us. Far from being quintessentially British, Arthur, his knights, and their quests, were initially French creations, perhaps inspired by legends brought over by Welsh emigres to Brittany, France, in the fifth and sixth centuries.

“Those guys were scholars,” said Brian Cogan, a Molloy College professor currently on sabbatical, and author of Everything I Ever Needed to Know About _____* I Learned from Monty Python. “Those guys were much better educated than we are, with just their Cambridge and Oxford basic degrees.”

I think we all need a quest. It’s a very good way of looking at life. What is our ambition? What are we doing?

Writing just before de Boron was Chrétien de Troyes, the French poet credited with inaugurating the literary Grail tradition with his unfinished (or is it?) work, Perceval ou Le cont du Graal. Throughout the 13th century, certain familiar characters from de Troyes were reimagined and recontextualized in subsequent tellings by other authors, the way superheroes in comic books are today. We all know Bruce Wayne lives at Wayne Manor with his butler Alfred after his parents were killed in front of him when he was a young boy. But fans may choose different continuities where Robin is not a young circus performer named Dick Grayson, but Batman’s son, Damian Wayne.

Medieval scholar Juliette Wood offers a concise summary in a 2002 article for the Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium. While noting “there is no simple line of influence,” the various Grail stories from de Troyes onward usually include the following elements in some form or other:

A mysterious vessel or object which sustains life and/or provides sustenance is guarded in a castle which is difficult to find. The owner of the castle is either lame or sick and often (but not always) the surrounding land is barren. The owner can only be restored if a knight finds the castle and, after seeing a mysterious procession, asks a certain question. If he fails, as the knight does, everything will remain as before and the search must begin again. After wanderings and adventures (many of which relate to events which the young hero failed to understand the first time), the knight returns and asks the question which cures the king and restores the land. The hero knight succeeds the wounded king (usually the Fisher King) as guardian of the castle and its contents.

The idea of a (Holy) Grail seems to have kicked off out of nowhere in the 13th century, spawning a variety of weird, eerie stories that involve unidentified disembodied hands extinguishing candles, mysterious chapels in the woods, and talking severed heads. They also often conclude with a lot of narrative loose ends. These mystifying stories with no readily apparent historical catalyst have created what scholars call “the Grail problem” of trying to determine just what the Grail is, and why. Wood describes a “proliferation of theories” as scholars through the years have tried to synthesize the complex nature of the various diverging Grail romances into a single coherent narrative.

According to Wood, our current understanding of the Grail comes to us through the Victorians, the result of an explosion of aesthetic and historical interest in the medieval era in Britain. The British reclaimed Arthur and his knights from the French, and solidified them as part of their national identity. At the same time, a host of ideas about the strange Grail stories began to develop. These ideas assumed the Grail romances contained information about “real or imagined philosophical systems” that could “transform individuals and society, but which threaten the establishment.”

Some contended the tales were Christianized adaptations of Celtic myth. Perhaps, went another line of thinking, they were a coded history of the Knights Templar, or the early days of the Holy Roman Empire? Since they all contain a coming-of-age component, others theorized that the Grail romances were descriptions of pagan initiation rituals that had survived as folklore.

It was the Victorians taking the whole thing too seriously that seems to have appealed to Monty Python’s sensibilities. “They realized how silly things are,” Cogan said. “All authority is essentially silly. All establishment figures are essentially silly, and there’s no particular reason to believe in political leaders.”

Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.

But the approach of treating the Grail as something literal or having meaning outside of the romances is to put something of an anachronistic Protestant lens on stories that were written in a very different time, when relics, popular piety, and crusades were in the ether. Their authors were medieval Catholics who believed in transubstantiation—that the bread and wine at the Mass literally become the body and blood of Christ. If that’s your operating assumption, the cup becomes rather beside the point.

The stories were not written to be read in isolation, but to be performed aloud to groups, said Sarah Jane Murray, a professor on Baylor University’s great texts faculty, and the author of From Plato to Lancelot: A Preface to Chrétien de Troyes. As such, they may have been presented to medieval audiences as something completely different (as the Pythons would say). “The scene is kind of humorous, if you think about it,” Murray said of the scene where the protagonist first encounters the eponymous flatware at the mysterious Grail Castle. A mysterious platter is processed past Perceval three times, along with a few other enchanted objects, “and he still doesn’t ask any questions,” she said, since he was advised once by an early mentor not to ask too many questions. Perceval’s incuriosity begets a series of negative consequences for him as the rest of his story unfolds.

In Murray’s opinion, this gets to the crux of the Grail story as told by de Troyes. She believes he is telling a story “in terms of contemplating,” she said, “and asking questions about things that defy reason and our natural understanding.” Murray questions the scholarly orthodoxy that the story is left unfinished, asserting that Perceval’s quest takes him on a followable narrative arc from naif to glory-seeking knight, to prayerful penitent in a chapel at the end of his story.

“Perceval disappears from the story exactly halfway through what survives,” she said, and the story switches focus to the more vainglorious Gawain. “His life has become a little meaningless” now that he’s gotten everything he set out to accomplish by becoming a knight, she said of Perceval. “He wins all the prizes, he wins all the tournaments.” After five years of professional success, Perceval remembers he has pledged early in his career to find out who the Grail is meant to serve. This, we learn, is the question he failed to ask at the Grail Castle.

Murray said that the knight gets the answer to his unspoken question on Good Friday, when de Troyes has him make his way to a chapel in the woods. There, Perceval divests himself of his armor (“the thing he wanted more than anything at the beginning of the story,” Murray said, when he first encounters knights and is inspired to become one), and spends the night in vigil. On Easter Sunday, he takes Communion.

“So the real question we have to ask ourselves,” Murray said, “is he might not have found the graal, the platter, that he saw at the Fisher King’s castle, but he certainly does get served the blood and the wafer.” It is a scene, Murray said, “a thousand years ahead of that scene in Indiana Jones, where everybody’s trying to figure out which one’s the Grail, and Indy has to realize it’s the carpenter’s cup.” We are all searching for glitzy grails, Murray contends, perhaps trying to recapture earlier transcendental experiences, “but maybe it’s right in front of our nose all the time.” The second half of the book deals with Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, who has a sterling knightly reputation, despite a tendency revealed in the narrative to overpromise and underdeliver in his solipsistic quest for earthly honor. His story (and thus, the entire Perceval narrative), ends abruptly just as he is about to embark on yet another violent adventure. Following Murray’s argument, by presenting Gawain as a worldly alternative to Perceval’s apparent renunciation of courtly glory in exchange for eternal truths, the quest for secular gain constitutes only a monotonous eternal return of the same.

“The answer that [Perceval] finds in the chapel in the woods in a sense is that that Communion and the body that was broken for me serves all of us,” said Murray. “It’s there, it’s waiting under the armor of our daily humdrum and existence. We may not be dressing up as knights anymore and going off to battle and winning tournaments,” she said, but our armor is the portrayal of our selves we present to the world every day. “So what happens when we’re willing to strip all of that away, and realize that there’s something there being served for us,” when we realize we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Viewed in that light, it is hard to consider de Troyes’ story incomplete, Murray believes. “Or, as Monty Python likes to say, did they really ‘run out of funding’?”

For all the serious authors and academics who took up the “Grail Problem” after de Troyes, the true descendants of the 12th-century French writer may be the men of Monty Python. “They had such a surreal sense of humor, they still do,” said Cogan. “That it lasts, it sort of breaks through the time barrier.” Like the film, de Troyes’ tale ends abruptly, actually midsentence. “One has to wonder,” said Murray, “if [de Troyes is] not pulling the same kind of ploy that Monty Python will be inspired to pull in the 20th century, which is saying, ‘The story’s over!’”

Murray’s theory is that de Troyes’ story’s ultimate message “is not to keep on this earthly quest,” she said, “but to realize that what matters is that moment of resurrection for Perceval, that’s deeply personal, in the chapel in the woods at Easter, which is also symbolic of the resurrection.” Perceval’s departure midstory and the sudden break at the end, Murray believes, could be an invitation to future generations to view themselves as the heirs of something that precedes and will outlast them, and to take over the narrative themselves. If de Troyes’ book had resolved in a neat, explanatory summary, she points out, we would not have gotten almost a thousand years of Grail quests and stories.

“I think it’s more interesting to me, at least, that the Grail is a quest,” said Cogan. “And not all quests end in you finding the result of your quest, which Monty Python acknowledges.” To the knights in their film, “the Grail is a concept, as well as a physical object, and they want to find it, but they can’t.” (The Grail never actually appears in the film.)

“I think we all need a quest,” said Cogan. “It’s a very good way of looking at life. What is our ambition? What are we doing?”

Cogan points out that Monty Python’s two films after Holy Grail were treatments of religion (The Life of Brian) and the meaning of life (The Meaning of Life), making a sort of thematic trilogy. Monty Python troupe member Terry Gilliam even went on to further meditate on the Grail theme with his 1991 film The Fisher King.

“You don’t have to be a believer,” said Murray, for the Grail stories to have meaning. As the sudden endings of both de Troyes’ and the Pythons’ own Grail stories suggest, “we have limited time,” she said, so we should spend that time asking the important questions.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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