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So what is it?
"Grail" is a word like "Ark" that doesn't really exist in any non-holy context, but it probably comes from the Old French word graal which means cup or bowl. As English has historically developed with the Bible, the phrase "holy grail" has been adapted metaphorically for objects being searched for.
The actual Holy Grail of legend is said to be the drinking cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper before he was betrayed by Judas, the occasion on which the Christian traditions of the Eucharist and transubstantiation are based. The Grail is commonly depicted as an elaborate golden vessel, despite the implausibility of an itinerant preacher in the Middle East using such tableware.
Other variants of the Grail myth suggest that the cup was instead used to collect Christ's blood as he died on the cross, or even that the same cup was used for both purposes. These myths, largely originating in Europe during the Middle Ages, promoted the theological link between Christ's blood and the communion wine, and the myth that the grail still existed tied in with the medieval fascination with relics, and the crusading ideal of reclaiming the Holy Lands and their treasures.
The Grail stories might have also been influenced by pagan Celtic myths about a magical cauldron. This school is favored by scholars Roger Loomis and Jessie Weston, whereas others believe it to be purely Christian in origin, such as Joseph Goering.
The Grail story was first attached to Arthurian literature by the French writer Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century in his Perceval, the Story of the Grail. The attachment of the Grail to the Arthur stories was continued later by German author Wolfram von Eschenbach in his Parzival. During this time, the Arthur stories were in wider circulation in France and Germany than in England, and were largely being developed by French and German writers. The earlier Arthurian stories came primarily from Celtic mythology, though notably not Anglo-Saxon mythology. Although Arthur is commonly portrayed today as an ancient King of England, the stories have hardly any basis in Anglo-Saxon culture at all. If there was a historical King Arthur, he was on the side of the Britons (the ancestors of the Welsh), against the Anglo-Saxons.
The cup was believed to have been preserved by Joseph of Arimathea, who later brought it to England, according to French writer Robert de Boron in his verse romance Joseph d’Arimathie writing in the 13th century. The first known use of "England" to refer to the southern part of the island of Great Britain occurs in 897, long after the period of the Arthurian stories. During that time, it was more common to use the name Albion to refer to all of what is now Great Britain. The notion that Joseph brought the Grail to England originates in a French narrative poem that became a powerful political tool in English hands. Starting in the 14th century, monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed their abbey had been founded by Joseph, and in the 15th century, English delegates to church councils claimed precedence over French and Spanish ones because of the Joseph story.
These stories promoted the values of chivalry, portraying the search for the Grail as the ultimate holy quest in which a knight could prove his valor, courage, devotion and piety. What happened to the Grail afterwards is uncertain, but certainly it has never been found and there have been few serious non-fictitious attempts to locate it.
The Da Vinci Code
An alternative theory, proposed in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and
plagiarised promoted in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, is that the Holy Grail motif in history and literature is a coded reference to the secret descendants of Jesus. This is based in part on a etymological conjecture that the medieval French sang real (royal blood) was miswritten as san greal. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, late medieval writers came up with a false etymology for sangréal, an alternative name for "Holy Grail." The encyclopedia states that in Old French, san graal or san gréal means "Holy Grail" and sang réal means "royal blood"; later writers played on this pun. In modern French "Holy Grail" would be Saint Graal.
Where is it now?
Other possible locations include Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, San Isidro Basilica in León (Spain), Maryland, Minnesota, and Nova Scotia's Oak Island Money Pit. Oh and the Castle Aaargh, if you must.
Realistically, of course, if it did exist it was most likely an unremarkable vessel in and of itself (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade did probably get this right, so maybe the Grail's at Petra), and might have been used and reused as an ordinary item until it broke or simply wore out, and ended up in a trash midden somewhere. Alternatively, it might have been kept as a sacred item by one of the early Christian groups, but if so it was lost before Christianity and the Bible were standardized under Constantine. If it still exists today, it would probably be impossible to find because there'd be no way to recognize it for what it is.
Most Arthurian films have omitted references to the Grail mythology with the notable exception of John Boorman's Excalibur (1980) and the French 1974 film Lancelot du Lac.
A critically panned and commercially unsuccessful Biblical epic dealing with the Grail was the 1954 film The Silver Chalice, based on Thomas Costain's novel. It was the film debut of Paul Newman, who has always regarded the film as an embarassment. The film has sometimes been mockingly referred to as Paul Newman and the Holy Grail.
In recent decades, the Holy Grail has been popularised in satire (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), matinee-style action-adventure film (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and a thriller based on the pseudohistorical theories of Baigent and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code). Robin Williams plays a mad professor obsessed with the Grail in The Fisher King. The Babylon 5 episode "Grail" features the last member of a society dedicated to searching for the Holy Grail, which is assumed to be some kind of cup with special healing powers, not necessarily connected to Christianity specifically.
The Grail has also been the focus of at least one game, Azrael's Tear. Basically, futuristic Indiana Jones, set in an underground fortress in Scotland, from where the Knights Templar were supposed to rise and take over the world alongside the Priory of Sion. It's the forgotten Deus Ex of adventure games.
- See, for example, Holy Spirit.