Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Holy Grail in Arthurian Legend

The Holy Grail is most well known as having been the vessel from which Christ drank during the Last Supper.  In this legend the Holy Grail, it was given to Christ's grand-uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who used the vessel to capture Christ's blood and sweat while he hung on the cross.  After Christ's death, Joseph was said to have been imprisoned in a rock tomb similar to the one he had given for the body of his grand-nephew.  He was left to starve but was sustained for years by the Holy Grail, which provided food and drink for him every day.  Later, Joseph travelled to Britain, bringing the Grail with him and settling in Ynys Witrin (Glastonbury), but the Grail was taken to Carbenic where it was kept in a castle that was guarded by the Grail Kings, descended of Joseph's daughter Anna (Enygeus) and her husband, Brons.
Joseph of Arimathea is depicted in this 14th Century
Here the Holy Grail stayed and was prophesised to be rediscovered by the one man able of sitting in the Siege Perilous - one of the unoccupied chairs of the Round Table that could only seat the most noble and pure of knights.  Many of Arthur's knights went in search of the Grail.  In this tale, the Grail waited for Galahad, son of Lancelot, while Perceval failed to ask the correct questions and left empty-handed, and Lancelot was prevented from entering the castle because he was an adulterer.  Galahad entered the castle and asked the questions correctly.  He gazed upon the Holy Grail and his life became complete.  He and the Grail were then lifted up to Heaven.

From the start of this tale, one might assume that the Holy Grail should appear in the Bible, but this is not the case.  The Holy Grail first appears as simply 'graal' in Chretien de Troyes' Perceval, le Conte du Graal, composed around 1181-90.  He describes it as made of fine pure gold and set qith precious stones of many kinds.  The word is probably derived from the Old French word 'graal' meaning 'broad and capacious dish or salver'.  Though it is best known as a cup or chalice, the Holy Grail has been variously described as a platter, dish, cornucopia, horn of plenty, a book, or even a stone.

The Quest for the Holy Grail “Chretien de Troyes, “Yvain,” 13th c.
... A girl
Entered with the, holding

A grail-dish in both her hands -
She walked into the hall,
Holding this grail, it glowed
With so great a light that the candles
Suddenly seemed to grow dim,
Like the moon and stars when the sun
Appears in the sky...
The grail that led the procession
Was made of the purest gold,
Studded with jewels of every
King, the richest and most costly
Found on land or sea.

Perceval, le Conte du Graal by Chretien de Troyes

The quest for a divine vessel has been a popular theme in Arthurian legend and it has been so since well before medieval writers introduced the 'Holy Grail'.  This divine vessel appears in the Mabinogian tale of Culwch and Olwen, but is particularly well known in the Preiddeu Annwn or Spoil of the Underworld as told by Taliesin.  In this tale, Arthur and his warriors sail to the Celtic Otherworld to capture the pearl-rimmed Cauldron of Annwfn, the giver of plenty and prophecy.  It was apparently last discovered at Caer-Skiddi (or Wydyr), an island bound castle of glass, where it was guarded by nine divine maidens.  Apparently the perils were too much for Arthur and his men, with the mission being abandoned and only seven of their group returning home.

The Gundestrup Cauldron
My poetry
from the cauldron
it was uttered.
From the breath of nine maidens
it was kindled.
The cauldron of the chief of Annwfn:
what is its fashion?
A dark ridge around its border
and pearls.
And when we went with Arthur,
brilliant difficulty.
Except seven 
none rose up
from the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness.
Preiddeu Annwn or Spoil of the Underworld

Celtic Cauldrons were used during ceremonial feasts as early as the late Bronze Age.  Ritual deposits in Llyn Fawr (Glamorgan) included such vessels.  The best known example is the Gundestrup Cauldron which was discovered in the peat bogs of Jutland (Denmark).  The cauldron is decorated with the portraits of many Celtic deities and would have once held up to 28.5 gallons.  Other Celtic legends mention cauldrons: the Rider of Sidhe possessed a cauldron that could never be emptied, providing a neverending supply of sustenance and restorative properties.

Some believe the Holy Grail is not an object but an ideal.  When something is referred to as one's Holy Grail, it implies something that is sought after with passion but could be forever out of reach.  It signifies a great goal or achievement, or something of great importance.  This is represented in the Welsh tale Peredur, found in the Mabinogion, where the Grail is not an object but the quest itself.  The glory is to be found in the chivalrous acts carried out during the quest, not an object to be acquired at the end of the quest.

And she quoth, 'Now indeed I know thee, for in sooth art thou Parzival!
Didst thou see the mournful monarch?  Didst thou see the wondrous Grail?
Ah!  tell me the joyful tidings, may his woe at last stilled?
Well is thee that the blessed journey thou hast ta'en, now shall earth be filled,
As far as the winds of heaven may blow, with thy fair renown;
Naught on earth but shall do thee service, fulfilment each wish shall crown!'
                                                           Parzival, a knightly epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach

Chretien's introduction of the graal was a great inspiration to other medieval authors and, due to his tale never being completed, many felt that they could not only complete the story but improve on it.  The seeker of the Grail varies from tale to tale, some naming Perceval and others naming Galahad.  One such author, Wolfram von Eschenbach, renamed Perceval as Parzival, composing his tale in rhyming couplets in the first decade of the 13th century.  He tells us that he is writing his tale because Chretien did not do justice to the Grail story, possibly due to the tale having been left incomplete and the lack of explanation of the Grail.  Although the romance seems to be based on Chretien's tale, Wolfram claims that he is working from a better version written by a poet named Kyot.

Wolfram's tale explains more about the Grail than Chretien did, telling us that the Grail is not the vessel of Chretien's tale, nor the cup used during the Last Supper.  Instead the Grail is called lapsit exillis - a stone with so much power that it allows a phoenix to rise from its own ashes, and that anyone who sees it, no matter how ill he or she might be, will not die within a week, nor will they age or change appearance.  Every Good Friday a dove from Heaven deposites a small white wafer on the stone from which it gets its power.

They would agree to no other name, but that it should be called the Grail; and it is right that people should agree in this way.  Both those who departed and those who remained called the vessel the Grail, for the reason I have told you.
                                                    Joseph of Arimathea: A Romance of the Grail By Robert (de Boron)

Robert de Boron, writing in the last decade of the 12th century or the first few years of the 13th century, wrote his octosyllabic French verse romance Joseph d'Arimathie, which is of great importance in the development of the Grail legend.  Robert's is the first romance to turn Chretien's graal into the now familiar Holy Grail, by linking it to the cup used by Christ during the Last Supper.  In this tale, Perceval is the one to find the castle and, on his second visit, to ask the correct questions, leading him to assume the position of Fisher King.

Sir Galahad's Vision of the Holy Grail by Sir Joseph Noel Paton
There have been many various items used to represent the Holy Grail.  It has, like King Arthur, been invented by the input of many different authors over many hundreds of years.  The Holy Grail may mean something different to everyone and, due to its beginnings and its evolution over the years, there is no one definition to explain it's appearance or use.

That's all for today.  Next time we will learn about Merlin.

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