Google the word, “Grail,” and you’ll get a bunch of hits displaying the “Holy Grail” of this and the “Holy Grail” of that. For example, someone called Dr. Oz is pimping the Holy Grail of weight loss. There’s even a Holy Grail song by a singer who calls himself Jay Z… JZ?
But, did you ever stop to think about the word “grail” itself? What does it mean? Where did it come from?
If you look in the encyclopediae, you’ll discover that “grail” is the name of a legendary sacred vessel, identified with Christ’s cup at the last supper and the chalice of the Eucharist. It is also the theme of a famous medieval cycle of tales beginning in the late 12th Century with Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished conte d’aventure, Perceval, Le Conte du Graal, and Robert de Boron’s vita, Josephe d’Arimathie, finally culminating in Thomas Malory’s late 15th-Century, Quest for the Holy Grail.
But, where does the word itself, “grail,” come from. It isn’t Aramaic or Koine Greek. Jesus, at the Passover Seder table, didn’t say, “Hey Peter! Would you mind passing me the grail!”
The word is actually from the Old French, graal, the language, in which its earliest chroniclers, Chrétien and Robert, wrote. The word seems to have indicated neither a drinking cup nor chalice, but a serving platter for delicacies… something no well-equipped castle or medieval feasting hall would have been without! In fact, I think we have a few grails kicking around the dining hall of the school where I teach!
This origin seems to have been explained by the Cistercian chronicler Helinandus (d. circa CE 1230), who, under the date of about CE 717, mentions of a vision, shown to a hermit concerning the dish used by Christ at the Last Supper, and about which the hermit then wrote a Latin book called Gradale.
Now in French, gradalis or gradale means a dish (scutella), wide and somewhat deep, in which costly viands are wont to be served to the rich in degrees (gradatim), one morsel after another in different rows. In popular speech it is also called greal because it is pleasant (grata) and acceptable to him eating therein…
Chretien’s description of the vessel he characterizes as a graal, does not contradict Helinandus’ claim,
The graal, which had proceeded ahead, was of pure refined gold. And, the graal was set with many kinds of precious stones, the richest and most costly in the sea and on the earth. These stones in the graal certainly surpassed all others (Le graal, qui aloit devant, / de fin or esmeré estoit; / pierres precieuses avoit / el graal de maintes menieres, / des plus riches et des plus chieres / qui an mer ne an terre soient; / totes autres pierres valoient / celes del graal sanz dotance (Perceval, vv 3232-39).
Chretien’s description does not specifically identify the vessel as a serving dish, but doesn’t deny it either. So, there no evidence in this late 12th-century text to reject the Halinandus’ claim that the old French word, graal, meant a dish or a serving platter. He was actually around when graals were used? He couldn’t have gotten it too wrong?
So, how does the word come to be identified with Christ’s drinking cup at the Last Supper?
Certainly, some have attempted to derive the word, graal, from garalis or from cratalis, a crater, a mixing bowl, used in the ancient world for mixing wine with water. But, these derivations, although an ingenious attempt to bridge some imagined semiotic gap between serving platter and chalice, are generally dismissed.
There’s an interesting clue in Robert de Boron’s, Josephe. In this text, the vessel called, “graal,” is the vessel used by Christ to consecrate the Eucharistic wine at the last supper and later, to collect the blood from his dead body. So, we understand a vessel deep enough to drink from, a cup, or a chalice.
In the beginning of the narrative, Robert describes this object simply as a vessel, veissiaus. It is only after the vessel manifests its miraculous properties does it become the graal.
The Grail is used to separate the elect from the sinners in Joseph’s people. There seems to be some sympathetic connection, some empathy, between the elect and the Grail which indicates their salvation and their worthiness to remain among Joseph’s people. Those, who are to be damned, feel nothing from the Grail.
Petrus, one of Joseph’s disciples, explains,
Petrus answered: “I have no desire to conceal that. Those who desire to call it right, will rightly call it the Graal. For I believe whoever sees the Graal will find it agreeable. It charms all those of this land. They find it pleasant and agreeable. Those who are able to remain with it and can bear its presence, when they see it, they feel delight. They are as happy as a fish when a man holds it in his hand, and it can escape from his hand and return to swimming unconfined in the water.” When the others heard this, they agreed heartily. 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 (Petrus respont: «N’ou quier celer, / Qui à droit le vourra nommer, / Par droit Graal l’apelera; / Car nus le Graal ne verra, / Ce croi-je, qu’il ne li agrée: / A touz ceus pleist de la contrée, / A touz agrée et abelist; / En li vooir hunt cil delist / Qui avec lui pueent durer / Et de sa compeignie user, / Autant unt d’eise cum poisson / Quant en sa mein le tient uns hon / Et de sa mein puet eschaper / Et en grant iaue aler noer.» / Quant cil l’oient, se l’greent bien; / Autre non ne greent-il rien / Fors tant que Gaal ( sic ) eit à non: / Par droit agréer s’i doit-on. / Tout ainsi cil qui s’en alerent / Et cil ausi qui demeurerent / Le veissel unt Graal nummé / Pour la reison que j’ei conté (Josephe, vv vv. 2680-701).
The vessel is called graal because it gives pleasure, agrée, to those who are worthy of it. This miraculous force, manifested through the graal, is in Christian belief evidence of the out-flowing of God’s sanctifying grace to the elect, gratia. So naturally, “When the others heard this, they agreed heartily. They would agree to no other name, but that it should be called the Grail.”
So, the term graal does not describe physically the literal object, the type of vessel.
Graal is an allegory indicating the vessel’s function, a source of grace, gratia, through the sacrament of the Eucharist, the transubstantiation of wine into the blood of Christ during the consecration of the Christian mass, which gives spiritual pleasure, agréer, to those who are not already damned by their sinful nature.
And, I bet you thought being a medievalist was boring!
Ton père est un hamster et ta mère sent des baies de sureau!