The Holy Grail is most often identified as a serving dish or a chalice that was used by Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.) during the Last Supper. The word "grail" may have originated from "garalis," which derives from the medieval Latin word "cratalis" (a mixing bowl). Garalis became "greal" in medieval French, "grail" in English. Another possible origin for the word is based on the writings of a Christian monk named Helinandus, who served the Cistercian order as a chronicler and died around 1230. He wrote of a hermit who around the year 717 saw a vision of a dish used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. The hermit supposedly wrote a book in Latin and called the dish "gradale." In French, gradale meant a wide and deep dish on which various meats are placed; it is similar to the word "greal" ("pleasant"). Greal was the word used to describe the dish in French tales, and it became "grail" in English.
In the history that developed after grail stories emerged, Joseph of Arimathea came into possession of the vessel following the crucifixion of Jesus. As the story continues, Joseph of Arimathea was imprisoned for several
years for expressing his faith that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God. After being released, he traveled to Britain and took the grail with him. When he died, the grail passed on to his descendants. The grail had magical qualities for the righteous, providing food and assurances of the grace of God. A few generations later, because of some transgression and a general lack of humility and virtue by keepers of the grail, the powers of the vessel were lost and its existence was virtually forgotten.
The legend of the grail has been perpetuated through literature since the twelfth century, particularly in tales involving knights of Camelot who served the legendary King Arthur of Britain. Stories of their quests to find the Holy Grail blend supernatural adventures, love stories, Christian myth, and the lore of Celts, a people who occupied much of Europe until the spreading of the Roman Empire.
King Arthur, the legendary ruler of ancient Britain, was most likely based on a figure from around 500 or earlier. According to Celtic lore, Arthur helped stave off invasions by Angles and Saxons, Germanic tribes that subsequently conquered Britain in the fifth century. Arthur became more established as a historical figure during the 1100s, when a book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100–1154), History of the Kings of Britain, included details of his heroic reign. Much of Geoffrey's material was gathered from folktales and contains historical and chronological inaccuracies. However, Geoffrey's work was popular and was translated from its original Latin into French (by a poet named Wace) around 1155 and into Middle English (by a poet named Layamon) a few years later. Between 1160 and 1180, the French poet Chretien de Troyes (fl. 1170) wrote five major works about Arthur and his knights based on history and legend.
Chretien helped introduce and popularize the grail legend, but he died before completing a full account of the mysterious and powerful object kept in the Grail Castle. In his version, Arthur's knights Gauvain (Gwain in English) and Perceval (Percival in English, Parzeval and Parsifal in German) journey to the castle where the grail is kept. Chretien's unfinished manuscript was continued by others.
Around 1200, the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170–c. 1220) wrote a grail legend, Parzeval, about a youth who sets out to become a knight in King Arthur's court. Along the way the title character stops at the castle of the Fisher King, where Parzeval witnesses a procession bearing a glowing object (the grail) and a spear (the one that wounded Christ). In the presence of the grail, the Fisher King is struck dumb. Parzeval fails to inquire about the mysterious procession and the objects. Since Parzeval had a pure soul, he could have spoken in the presence of the grail and used its magical powers to heal the infirm Fisher King. Only much later, after many wanderings, does Parzeval learn about the true nature of the grail and his missed opportunity. He returns to the castle of the Fisher King, who is revealed to be his uncle, heals him, and restores the king's land, which had become barren when he became infirm.
Later stories concerning the Holy Grail reflect the influence of Christianity, most notably Morte d'Arthur by the fifteenth-century English writer Sir Thomas Malory (fl. 1470). In this most famous collection of Arthurian tales, the grail becomes the object of a quest among the knights of the roundtable at King Arthur's castle, Camelot. Sir Galahad, who is completely without sin, eventually realizes the grail quest. He is in the company of Sir Bors and Sir Percival (Parzeval), two other virtuous knights, but Sir Galahad, as an emblem of Christian virtue, alone achieves the grail.
Arthurian legends and the grail may be based to some extent on Celtic lore. The Holy Grail might well have been developed from references to magic cauldrons that appear in many Celtic myths and practices. In her book From Ritual to Romance (1920), Jessie Weston traced some similarities between Celtic myths and grail legends. Some Celtic fertility rituals,
The legendary Holy Grail remains nearly as popular in modern culture as it was during the period from 1150 to 1250. Back then, grail stories were a hit in the courts of France, England, and Germany. Nowadays, books about grail adventures are popular, as are films ranging from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), to Excalibur (1981), to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Whether magical or divine, the grail persists as a symbol of a higher order of being for which people are searching, a striving toward some ultimate achievement.