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What is the Holy Grail?

Updated on December 26, 2016

The Holy Grail, in medieval legend, a sacred and miraculous vessel. It is variously identified as a vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper or as the chalice in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Christ after the Crucifixion. According to one Christian version of the legend the Holy Grail was given by Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea, who took it to England in 64 A.D. The vessel was then lost, and the search for it became the subject of many different tales. The quest for the Holy Grail figured prominently in the cycle of legends about King Arthur and his knights.

In Le Morte Darthur, a 15th-century prose romance by Thomas Malory, the search for the Holy Grail is undertaken by several knights. Among them is Galahad, who joins the knights at King Arthur's Round Table. He is seated in Siege Perilous, a chair reserved for the knight who will find the Holy Grail. All the other knights vow to undertake the search, although they are warned that only the pure in heart can succeed. Lancelot is disqualified from the quest because of his sins, although he glimpses the grail. Only Galahad, Perceval, and Rors are virtuous enough to succeed in the search. During a vision, Galahad is shown the grail by Joseph of Arimathea. After Galahad's death the grail rises to Heaven and never appears again.

There have been many other versions of the legend.

In a 12th-century French romance, Perceval is the hero, and the story has strong elements of ancient pagan fertility ritual. In another medieval tale the Holy Grail is not a vessel, but a stone that has life-giving powers.

Adaptations of the legend have been used in many works of art, including Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Idylls of the King, Sir Edward Hume-Jones' murals of Morte d'Arthur at Oxford University, England, and Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal. The American poet Edward Arlington Robinson used the Holy Grail as an important symbol in his Arthurian poem Merlin (1917).   

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