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The Search for the Holy Grail

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In Christian mythology, the Holy Grail was the dish, plate, cup or vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper, said to possess miraculous powers. According to many versions of the story, Joseph of Arimathea used the Grail to catch Christ's blood while interring him and then took the object to Britain, where he founded a line of guardians to keep it safe. The quest for the Holy Grail makes up an important segment of the Arthurian cycle, appearing first in works by Chrйtien de Troyes (Loomis 1961). The legend may combine Christian lore with a Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with special powers.

The development of the Grail legend has been traced in detail by cultural historians: It is a gothic legend, which first came together in the form of written romances, deriving perhaps from some pre-Christian folklore hints, in the later 12th and early 13th centuries. The early Grail romances centered on Percival and were woven into the more general Arthurian fabric. The Grail romances started in France and were translated into other European vernaculars; only a handful of non-French romances added any essential new elements.

Some of the Grail legend is interwoven with legends of the Holy Chalice.

The Grail

The Grail plays a different role everywhere it appears, but in most versions of the legend the hero must prove himself worthy to be in its presence. In the early tales, Percival's immaturity prevents him from fulfilling his destiny when he first encounters the Grail, and he must grow spiritually and mentally before he can locate it again. In later tellings the Grail is a symbol of God's grace, available to all but only fully realized by those who prepare themselves spiritually, like the saintly Galahad.

Early forms of the Grail

There are two schools of thought concerning the Grail's origin. The first, championed by Roger Sherman Loomis, Alfred Nutt, and Jessie Weston, holds that it derived from early Celtic myth and folklore. Loomis traced a number of parallels between Medieval Welsh literature and Irish material and the Grail romances, including similarities between the Mabinogion's Bran the Blessed and the Arthurian Fisher King, and between Bran's life-restoring cauldron and the Grail. Other legends featured magical platters or dishes that symbolize otherworldly power or test the hero's worth. Sometimes the items generate a never-ending supply of food, sometimes they can raise the dead. Sometimes they decide who the next king should be, as only the true sovereign could hold them.

On the other hand, some scholars believe the Grail began as a purely Christian symbol. For example, Joseph Goering of the University of Toronto (Goering 2005) has identified sources for Grail imagery in 12th-century wall paintings from churches in the Catalan Pyrenees (now mostly removed to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona), which present unique iconic images of the Virgin Mary holding a bowl that radiates tongues of fire, images that predate the first literary account by Chrйtien de Troyes. Goering argues that they were the original inspiration for the Grail legend.

Another recent theory holds that the earliest stories that cast the Grail in a Christian light were meant to promote the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Holy Communion. Although the practice of Holy Communion was first alluded to in the Christian Bible and defined by theologians in the first centuries A.D., it was around the time of the appearance of the first Christianized Grail literature that the Roman church was beginning to add more ceremony and mysticism around this particular sacrament. Thus, the first Grail stories may have been celebrations of a renewal in this traditional sacrament (Barber, 2004).[2] This theory has some backing by the fact that Grail legends are almost entirely a phenomenon of the Western church (see below).

Most scholars today accept that both Christian and Celtic traditions contributed to the legend's development, though many of the early Celtic-based arguments are largely discredited (Loomis himself came to reject much of Weston and Nutt's work). The general view is that the central theme of the Grail is Christian, even when not explicitly religious, but that much of the setting and imagery of the early romances is drawn from Celtic material.

Etymology of graal

The word graal, as it is earliest spelled, appears to be an Old French adaptation of the Latin gradalis, meaning a dish brought to the table in different stages of a meal. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, after the cycle of Grail romances was well established, late medieval writers came up with a false etymology for sangreal an alternate name for "Holy Grail". In Old French, san grial means "Holy Grail" and sang rial means "royal blood"; later writers played on this pun. Since then, Sangreal is sometimes employed to lend a medievalizing air in referring to the Holy Grail. This connection with royal blood bore fruit in a modern best-seller linking many historical conspiracies

Chrйtien de Troyes

The Grail is first featured in Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail) by Chrйtien de Troyes, who claims he was working from a source book given to him by his patron, Count Philip of Flanders. In this incomplete poem, dated sometime between 1180 and 1191, the object has not yet acquired the implications of holiness it would have in later works. While dining in the magical abode of the Fisher King, Perceval witnesses a wondrous procession in which youths carry magnificent objects from one chamber to another, passing before him at each course of the meal. First comes a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabras. Finally, a beautiful young girl emerges bearing an elaborately decorated graal, or "grail".

Chrйtien refers to his object not as "The Grail" but as un graal, showing the word was used, in its earliest literary context, as a common noun. For Chrйtien the grail was a wide, somewhat deep dish or bowl, interesting because it contained not a pike, salmon or lamprey, as the audience may have expected for such a container, but a single Mass wafer which provided sustenance for the Fisher King's crippled father.

Perceval, who had been warned against talking too much, remains silent through all of this, and wakes up the next morning alone. He later learns that if he had asked the appropriate questions about what he saw, he would have healed his maimed host, much to his honor.

Robert

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