Chapter Six The Holy Grail in Europe


When the Celts arrived in Western Europe, having traveled across the Alps and central Europe, they brought with them not only iron, but the horse. One of their customs was to throw their swords (to which they attributed magical powers) , along with bits of jewelry, into what they perceived to be sacred lakes. As King Arthur lay dying, one of his closest followers is said to have thrown his sword, Excalibur, into such a lake in accor­dance with Celtic tradition. Lakes were believed to be the entrance to the underworld, the kingdom of the Dead, which was thought to be situated at the center of the earth. Arthur is said to have died on the island ofAvalon. It is not clear where Avalon was. Some say it was at Michael’s Mount off the south­ern English coast, others at Mont St. Michel off the French coast. The area around Glastonbury is also thought to have been the possible location, as legend has it that Arthur is buried there. The name “Avalon” is associated with apples, and Excalibur is said to have been forged at Glastonbury.

Excalibur served King Arthur well; it could defeat any foe and it is said that Arthur became King only because he was able to take Excalibur from the stone in which it was fixed. Others say that this story refers allegorically to Arthur’s abil­ity to extract iron from rock which was one of the skills that the Celts brought with them.

In addition to sacred swords, there are many ancient tradi­tions regarding sacred vessels, such as the “Horn of Plenty,” which could purportedly provide a never-ending supply of food and comfort. This notion must have been appealing to those living in often hunger-stricken times. Many contain­ers such as bowls, jugs, chalices and cauldrons were consid­ered to have supernatural powers. Similarly the Grail was thought to bring nourishment and salvation.

According to a Celtic tradition, King Arthur and his men engaged themselves in a quest for a magical cauldron. It was not until the Middle Ages that the story was removed from its Pagan background and given a Christian significance. Arthur was a popular king, believed to be the only person who could defeat the invading Scots after the departure of the Romans in the fifth century, and he heralded a long period of calm prosperity afterwards. In his time, Christianity was taking hold in a Britain still heavily influ­enced by Paganism. Legends from this time have both Pagan and Christian influences.

The Celts believed that nature was divine and that every­thing within it communicated with man. The countryside was alive with fairies and elves who mapped out man’s for­tunes. The good were rewarded, the bad punished. Warriors were believed to be resurrected at Judgment Day unless they had been beheaded, which was the typical fate of enemies captured.

One of the most common rituals in the Christian religion is communion in which the blood of Christ, represented by wine, is drunk. The basis of the Arthurian version of the leg­end is the story that the Roman captain, Longinus, pierced the side of Christ when he was crucified to make sure that he was dead. Then Joseph of Arimathea collected the blood in the same chalice that Christ had used for the wine at the Last Supper. This chalice is generally thought to be the Holy Grail. The corpse of Christ was then said to be put into the family vault of Joseph of Arimathea. Upon the return of the English soldiers from Palestine to England in 1274, after the nearly-failed Crusade of Edward I, English morale needed a boost. King Arthur’s knights were depicted as simple war­riors in search of a cause. The quest for the Holy Grail ful­filled this purpose perfectly.

As Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Christ, he was imprisoned by the Romans shortly after the Crucifixion. He is supposed to have kept the chalice, and to have taken it with him on his journeys to Rome and the south of France, where he lived for some time in the Languedoc province with Mary Magdalene and some of the other disciples. He (possibly along-with the Christ himself) is thought to have then gone to England where he spent the rest of his life in what is now the southern English town of Glastonbury. The first Christian church in Britain was founded there, on the spot where the present ruins of the abbey now stand and where the Holy Grail was perhaps kept. It was then lost and the quest by King Arthur and his knights to find it started from this point.

Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail is thought to have started at a lake (where he intended to enter the underworld) near Camelot, if, indeed, Camelot existed. He was initially denied entry, but managed to persuade the various ghosts and demons to let him in. He then managed to take the vessel from them. If it did exist, it would have been taken to Arthur’s headquarters, which would most likely have been a · collection of rough wooden huts, lacking the palatial grandeur of the Hollywood version. It could have been in any one of several possible locations. One of the most like­ly is the hill-fort of Cadbury in Somerset in southern England, where there was a large fifth century settlement. It was not until the eleventh century, 500 years after Arthur’s death, that interest in him and his knights started. By tradi­tion they conformed to the qualities of chivalry and honor in creating a classless utopian society. It was an age of right­eousness in which communication with the supernatural was thought to be possible. King Arthur and his knights served as a reminder of Christ and his disciples. The Arthurian court was, however, torn apart by the love that Lancelot had for Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. She was con­demned to death and Lancelot banished. Lancelot was even­tually overcome by remorse and joined a monastery, where he lived for the rest of his life.

The Middle Ages was a period of great piety and this was when the age of the pilgrimage started. One of the present­day major Christian pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela started at this time and there are many small churches on the route that was (and still is) used. In about 1200 the Catholic Church accepted the idea of Transubstantiation ­that is, the turning of wine into the actual blood of Christ. Chretien ofTroy wrote his Grail romances at this time, cre­ating a Christian story from a Pagan concept.

Not everyone agreed with the way that the Catholic Church was developing. The Cathars, advocating a life of poverty and simplicity, rejected the opulence that was characteristic of the Church at that time. In true Dan Brown-style coding, they preferred to think of their Church as AMOR (“Love”) rather than ROMA (“Rome”). The Pope launched a persecu­tion of the Cathars and they were besieged at Montsegur in southern France, where it is thought that they kept the Grail, among other treasures, although there is no clear evi­dence to suggest this. They managed to have it all smuggled out before the two week siege, which ended with many of them being burned alive.

It is believed that the Holy Grail was kept in Italy for 300 years, where it was guarded by the monk St. Lawrence, deacon of the Church of Rome. He is thought to have had it taken by two Spanish legionaries to his home town of Huesca in the Spanish Pyrenees towards the end of the third century. His life ended unpleasantly -he was roast­ed on a gridiron a few days after his friend Pope Sixtus II was executed. The Grail was kept at the church of San Pedro el Viejo until 711. There are several examples of Grail imagery in the Romanesque cloister, including an angel passing a cup to Jesus.

Wolfram von Eschenbach, who died in 1230, is generally considered to be the greatest of the medieval German nar­rative poets. One of his major works was Perceval, which was later the subject of the opera by Richard Wagner. One of his main sources was Chretien’s work, written in conjunction with other material that Wolfram claims was provided by Kyot of Provence. Kyot may have based his stories on those that he had heard in Spain, where there were both Muslim and Jewish philosophers, and in Toledo in particular which was a center of science and literature at this time. Wolfram maintained that the,Grail was a stone which had magical powers and, like 1he Horn of Plenty, offered a constant sup­ply of food and eternal youth.

King Alfonso I of Aragon and Navarra used to go to San Pedro el Viejo in Huesco for contemplation. The name Alfonso is closely related to the Latin name Anfortius, and is clearly connected to the Grail story King, Anfortus. It is probable, therefore, that Alfonso was the model for the Grail King. At the end of his life he retreated to San Pedro el Viejo where he was fatally wounded. Likewise, in the Grail leg­end, the Grail King Anfortus waited at his castle for Parcival to bring him the deliverance from his wounds, but it was many years before Parcival reached the castle ofAnfortus. It is likely that Alfonso’s cousin, the Spanish count Perche de Val (1100 -1144) was the model for Parcival.

The Knights Templar are reputed to have been the keepers of the Grail. The Grail castle was said to be visible only in a state of grace and otherwise hidden from sight. These are not the customary characteristics of castles, which were tra­ditionally intended to be conspicuous, dominant and built on high ground to oversee the surrounding land. The con­cept of a hidden castle would have been difficult for the medieval mind ta understand.

However, there is one perfectly hidden place in Spain which fits the description, and that is the monastery of San Juan de Pena. It is considered to be built on the sacred ground where the Spanish province of Aragon originated. The anchor, which was Parcival’s coat of arms, is seen in the bur­ial niches in the large courtyard. It was necessary to move the Grail from place to place in the Pyrenees because of the constant threat from the Muslims. The Monastery of San Juan de la Pena is one of these places where the Grail was kept, and it was from here that it was transferred to its present location.

There is an entry in the Royal Register in the library of Barcelona, Spain, which tells of a fortified abbey and a gift that was made to it. The gift is described by a half-Spanish, half-Latin phrase, calice lapideum, meaning “stone chalice” and refers to the same one that was said to be at the chapel, which is constructed like a temple, in San Juan de la Pena. The Grail would have been kept either in one of the vaults that are hewn out of the stone or else on the altar. This chapel is the room that Parcival was searching for and it is described as a chapel within a castle. The story tells us that when Parcival arrived there, he saw the procession in which the Grail Maiden carried the Grail to the Grail King. A carri­er behind her brought the lance that Longinus used to pierce the side of Christ, which magically continued to bleed from its tip. Following them came a female bearer who carried the platter on which the head of John the Baptist had been presented.

Some readers may remember a book called The Spear of Destiny by Trevor Ravenscroft, which purports to be an historical account of the rise of Hitler to power based on his belief in the magical powers of the spear of Longinus. It is built on the premise that Longinus, who pierced the side of Jesus, held the future of the world in his hands for a brief period. Charlemagne was known to have carried this spear in battle as a lucky talisman. However, a skeptical approach to the book is advised.

The final resting place of the Holy Grail (where we may see it to this day) is in a side chapel in Valencia Cathedral in Spain. Although the Catholic Church has never acknowl­edged it to be a holy relic, they recognize it as the chalice that Christ blessed at the Last Supper and which was used by Popes in Rome until it was taken to Spain by St. Lawrence. It is now kept behind bullet-proof glass.The King of Navarre took the Grail to Valencia Cathedral on March 18, 143 7, and it has remained there ever since, except for two brief peri­ods when it was removed for safe-keeping during the War of Independence against France and during the Spanish Civil War.

Its pure gold base is decorated with 28 pearls, two red gem stones, and two emeralds. Its height is 5.5 cm, diameter 9.5 cm, thickness 3 mm.. Including its base, it measures 17 cm by 14.5 cm. The eminent archaeologist Antonio Beltran says that the Grail as we see it today was made in San Juan de la Pena, probably by goldsmiths from Byzantium. The upper part of the chalice comes from the Near East and was made in either Alexandria or Antioch. Beltran says that it is beyond doubt that the chalice was made sometime between the lat­ter half of the last century BC and the first half of the first century AD. This dates it precisely to the time of Christ.

Antonio Beltran explains that it is the stone base of the com­position that is the actual Grail. On this part, which forms the foot of the vessel, there is an inscription in Arabic which nobody has been able to translate with complete certainty. Various interpretations include “For Him who Gives Splendor”; “Glory to Mary”; “The Merciful One” (which is how the Arabs refer to Allah); and “The Flourishing One.” According to some legends the inscription LAPIS EXCILLIS appeared on it at times.

We shall perhaps never know the true identity of the Holy Grail, but this small and beautiful object, which we can actually visit today, is likely to be the actual cup used by Christ 2000 years ago which has formed the basis for so much of Western mythology and romanticism. The Holy Grail continues to intrigue; it is part of our cultural fabric and the expression itself now has a common slang meaning denoting something which is sought after. The quest for the Holy Grail, then, involved not necessarily the discovery of the physical object itself, but identifying what the Grail is and what it means.