The Holy Grail is traditionally thought to be the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper, and that Joseph of Arimathea used to collect Jesus’s blood at his crucifixion. This, upon further investigation begins to become unclear.
In fact, there isn’t much, if anything, in the biblical texts to support the idea of a Holy Grail. It is romanticized in poetic sources that this cup (or as it turns out, perhaps a bowl, given a time-relevant definition) had become a source of divine immortality, after it had been interweaved with a story available at the time, and perhaps the most prominent heavenly figure within the time period.
As we’ll see, two tales seem to merge in the historic dark ages, when the holy grail namesake emerges in Arthurian legend. Before this time period, the ‘Holy Grail’ doesn’t appear in many stories.
The properties of the Grail bare a remarkable resemblance to another: The Horn of Plenty.
The Horn of Plenty is spread through several nations’ histories, with an indeterminate origin—most likely Greek, or Roman. It was said to bestow endless food and nourishment. In the Greek origin story, it is made a divine object when the God, Zeus, then a baby hidden away from his baby-eating father, broke the horn off his carer, Amalthea, and it became an endless source of nourishment, The Cornucopia. (Yes, it’s also a foodie phrase).
I can’t find any early written sources for the story of Zeus. Although Greek Mythology could put the date as far back as 3,000 years. What I could find, was in The Iliad. Specifically in the tale of Heracles, when he wrestled with the God, Achelous. Achelous took the form of a bull and Heracles tore off his horn, which became the Horn of Plenty.
The earliest dating of the Western transcripts of the Iliad would put the earliest verified usage to 800BC.
That’s far earlier than the first written reference to The Holy Grail, which makes its first appearance in the late 12th century in the work of Chretien de Troyes. Even at this stage it’s not yet a cup, but a plate carrying a single mass wafer; one that sustains the wounded ‘Fisher King’. (There are heavy references to Christ here).
Perhaps the idea of the horn of plenty subliminally slipped itself into the workings of Chretien. An artist is bound to have studied other writings. Or, maybe, it was something more substantial. Chretien himself was a Templar, and they have often been connected with the Grail in whispers among the people. This was because the Templar order were initially based out of the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. It’s believed that the remains of The Temple of Solomon are buried below. (This is where the Knights Templar take their full name from: The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon). Rumors spread concerning what relics they may have discovered there, such as the Ark of the Covenant, and the Holy Grail itself.
The formation of the Holy Grail and its power seems to solidify in our minds as it begins to become a part of Arthurian legend.
Chretien de Troyes is established as the first to write stories of the grail. He did so in the very city where Templarism was established.
It’s very interesting that the time of templars and the tales of Arthur would find themselves established during the same period in history. The Arthurian stories themselves bear resemblance to the nature of the Knights Templar and their holy quest. (The knights of the round table and their quest for the holy grail).
Historians themselves posit the idea that following Chretien’s work, “It is more than probable that, from first to last, Templars… either wrote or sanctioned many of the Grail stories.” The origins of this magical goblet and its influence on the tales of Arthur become clearer as we go back in history.
The Real King Arthur
In the late sixth century we find a King Aidan, who had four sons. The oldest of his sons was named Artur. Artur was his father’s war commander, and crown prince. While he was never made King, (he died during battle before his own father’s death) in the earliest tales of the fictional Arthur, he was not King, but a war commander.
There is much research that has been done on the for and against in establishing this historical character as the Arthur of legend. Obviously, even if he was the origin, information likely evolved and changed over the centuries, and muddied the waters of the original tales. This could easily have lead to the confusion we face today, where we are able to find support for both sides.
What is relevant to our ‘quest’ for the Grail’s origins is the legend of the 6th century Artur and his father.
King Aidan was said to be of the bloodline of Joseph of Arimethea. The very same Joseph that was supposed to have buried Jesus and used the grail to collect his blood. What an intriguing coincidental link. As I explored the subject, it’s a fascinating tale that seems to blur the line between legend and history before returning to legend.
Interesting that a spiritual object supposed to bestow endless abundance would find its story written in the depths of the dark ages; a period of time that’s been likened to a spiritual wasteland.
The story may have emanated from exactly that.
A Light in the Dark (Ages)
The story of Arthur was a way to try and bring people back to a time of hope, and maybe the manifestation of that became the Holy Grail. Rumors of the holy bloodline may have been the basis for using this specific character in later fantasies.
A good example of a similar occurrence would be the origins of Dracula in Vlad the Impaler.
Upon evaluating this information, it expresses just how unclear the Grail’s origins as a magical artifact have become. The mind of its literary creators have been lost to history and we can’t be certain of its evolution. It’s easy to see that the Holy Grail itself may have been inspired or influenced by the mythology of the Horn of Plenty, as it’s common for new stories to be an evolution or retelling of old ones. We can also see that it was much later that the Grail was bestowed with its magical properties through fiction. What makes its history so intriguing however, are the links that lay beneath the surface. Such as the ancestry of our potential source for the historical King Arthur, and the link between him, his biblical ancestor, and the Holy Grail.
Could the Grail have been wisdom passed down through the centuries? Wisdom that transcended mortal existence and gave its holder—its ‘drinker’ eternal life? It brings to mind the phrase ‘tough to swallow’ as an example of aphorism that we use when referring to information given to us. So there’s an example of us personifying the receiving of information as a kind of drink.
The Holy Grail We Know Today
The writer to truly develop the Grail into the divine form we know today came after Chretien and was perhaps influenced by him, although the author claims that his tale comes from an ancient source. (This appears to be a common thread among earlier AD writers—including Chretien).
The story comes from a German. One Wolfram Eschenbach. He claims to have received the information and background to his tale from a poet whom he refers to as Kyot. This character, Wolfram claims, discovered a neglected Arabic manuscript in Spain. The manuscript was said to be written by Flegetanis, a muslim astronomer and descendant of King Solomon himself, that claimed to have discovered the secret of the Holy Grail in the stars.
Kyot, while traveling across Europe to follow the history of the brotherhood of the Holy Grail, was the one to come across the history of Parzival, then writing the tale which Wolfram would ultimately retell. This is all according to Wolfram, and as there is not an accurate or concrete record of the man referred to as ‘Kyot’, it is often said that he was a pseudo-source through which Wolfram enacted the story.
In Wolfram’s tale, the Grail begins to develop its divine nature, something akin to the philosopher’s stone of Harry Potter for those seeking a reference point. An object both material and transcendent, with a kind of life-force of its own; having to grant its own permission to be carried. (Seeking someone who is worthy). It is uniquely a stone in his telling; the stone of the Phoenix—of death and resurrection. One can sustain life with its use.
Eternal Wisdom Of The Holy Grail
What Flegetanis wrote in the manuscript of his discovery in the stars (if it even exists) is a mystery. But no doubt it was not physical to him. That part came from the mind of the poet seeking to hide its secrets in the parable of Parzival.
What could it have been that Flegetanis uncovered gazing up into the night sky?
Perhaps he saw the inner workings of the universe and in that moment realized the immortal nature of the soul. Perhaps it is a fairy tale. But something tells me that there is more to this tale of a Grail that weaves fiction with philosophy, and finds itself across time with many links among its admirers.
I’m of the opinion that it’s a knowledge to be attained; a knowledge that provides these things through awareness of a higher truth. I believe that these storytellers used objects to create something comprehendible that allows pontification of its ideas and the possibility for an epiphany in awareness. Planting a seed in the minds of its readers to impart wisdom of the soul.
For more studies on religious symbolism and their potential true meanings, check out my article on the location of the Ark of the Covenant.