What exactly is the Holy Grail – and why has its meaning eluded us for centuries?

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Type “Holy Grail” into Google and … well, you probably don’t need me to finish that sentence. The sheer multiplicity of what any search engine throws up demonstrates that there is no clear consensus as to what the Grail is or was. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people out there claiming to know its history, true meaning and even where to find it.

Modern authors, perhaps most (in)famously Dan Brown, offer new interpretations and, even when these are clearly and explicitly rooted in little more than imaginative fiction, they get picked up and bandied about as if a new scientific and irrefutable truth has been discovered. The Grail, though, will perhaps always eschew definition. But why?

The first known mention of a Grail (“un graal”) is made in a narrative spun by a 12th century writer of French romance, Chrétien de Troyes, who might reasonably be referred to as the Dan Brown of his day – though some scholars would argue that the quality of Chrétien’s writing far exceeds anything Brown has so far produced.

Chrétien’s Grail is mystical indeed – it is a dish, big and wide enough to take a salmon, that seems capable to delivering food and sustenance. To obtain the Grail requires asking a particular question at the Grail Castle. Unfortunately, the exact question (“Whom does the Grail serve?”) is only revealed after the Grail quester, the hapless Perceval, has missed the opportunity to ask it. It seems he is not quite ready, not quite mature enough, for the Grail.

But if this dish is the “first” Grail, then why do we now have so many possible Grails? Indeed, it is, at turns, depicted as the chalice of the Last Supper or of the Crucifixion or both, or as a stone containing the elixir of life, or even as the bloodline of Christ. And this list is hardly exhaustive. The reason most likely has to do with the fact that Chrétien appears to have died before completing his story, leaving the crucial questions as to what the Grail is and means tantalisingly unanswered. And it did not take long for others to try to answer them for him.

Robert de Boron, a poet writing within 20 or so years of Chrétien (circa 1190-1200), seems to have been the first to have associated the Grail with the cup of the Last Supper. In Robert’s prehistory of the object, Joseph of Arimathea took the Grail to the Crucifixion and used it to catch Christ’s blood. In the years that followed (1200-1230), anonymous writers of prose romances fixated upon the Last Supper’s Holy Chalice and made the Grail the subject of a quest by various knights of King Arthur’s court. In Germany, by contrast, the knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach reimagined the Grail as “Lapsit exillis” – an item more commonly referred to these days as the “Philosopher’s Stone”.

None of these is anything like Chrétien’s Grail, of course, so we can fairly ask: did medieval audiences have any more of a clue about the nature of the Holy Grail than we do today?

Publishing the Grail

My recent book delves into the medieval publishing history of the French romances that contain references to the Grail legend, asking questions about the narratives’ compilation into manuscript books. Sometimes, a given text will be bound alongside other types of texts, some of which seemingly have nothing to do with the Grail whatsoever. So, what sorts of texts do we find accompanying Grail narratives in medieval books? Can this tell us anything about what medieval audiences knew or understood of the Grail?

The picture is varied, but a broad chronological trend is possible to spot. Some of the few earliest manuscript books we still have see Grail narratives compiled alone, but a pattern quickly appears for including them into collected volumes. In these cases, Grail narratives can be found alongside historical, religious or other narrative (or fictional) texts. A picture emerges, therefore, of a Grail just as lacking in clear definition as that of today.

Perhaps the Grail served as a useful tool that could be deployed in all manner of contexts to help communicate the required message, whatever that message may have been. We still see this today, of course, such as when we use the phrase “The Holy Grail of…” to describe the practically unobtainable, but highly desirable prize in just about any area you can think of. There is even a guitar effect-pedal named “holy grail”.

Once the prose romances of the 13th century started to appear, though, the Grail took on a proper life of its own. Like a modern soap opera, these romances comprised vast reams of narrative threads, riddled with independent episodes and inconsistencies. They occupied entire books, often enormous and lavishly illustrated, and today these offer evidence that literature about the Grail evaded straightforward understanding and needed to be set apart – physically and figuratively. In other words, Grail literature had a distinctive quality – it was, as we might call it today, a genre in its own right.

In the absence of clear definition, it is human nature to impose meaning. This is what happens with the Grail today and, according to the evidence of medieval book compilation, it is almost certainly what happened in the Middle Ages, too. Just as modern guitarists use their “holy grail” to experiment with all kinds of sounds, so medieval writers and publishers of romance used the Grail as an adaptable and creative instrument for conveying a particular message to their audience, the nature of which could be very different from one book to the next.

Whether the audience always understood that message, of course, is another matter entirely.

in by Leah Tether


This is the man who turned Christianity into a global religion. Do you even know his name?

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Who founded Christianity?

It is an age-old debate.

Christ? Well, yes. Of course. Obviously.

St Peter? Also yes. Christ built his church upon the rock — so the faithful believe, following the Gospel of St Matthew.

St Paul? Yes again. In first century Galilee, there were no schools for those who farmed, fished, or worked with their hands. St Peter was a simple workers from an agrarian community, and there is no reason to suppose he could read, write, or speak any language other than his native Aramaic.  By contrast, St Paul was a highly educated and literate intellectual. He was a Roman citizen of Cilicia (south-eastern Turkey), and his native language was Greek — which enabled his letters and public speaking to be understood across the vast reaches of the empire. His indefatigable thinking, preaching, and writing unquestionably defined great swathes of Christianity.

Yet in some senses, asking who founded Christianity is a fatuous question. The Greek honorific title Christos (meaning the Annointed One) and the word Christianos (Christian) would have meant nothing to Yeshu’a, which was the Aramaic name Jesus would have answered to. The words were never used in his life time. The first recorded occasion was years later, miles to the north-west in Antioch.

Beyond the words, how many of Christianity’s reported 41,000 denominations would they recognise today? Would any of the buildings, activities, liturgies, theologies, vestments, ecstatic glossolalia, and all the rest be familiar?

Whatever the answer, there is, in fact, one more person to add to this list — and he definitely would recognise the 1.5 billion Catholics and Orthodox Christians alive today. He was not a founder of Christianity. But he was definitely one of its most important figures. Ever.

Flavius Theodosius was born in Spain in AD 347, and one of his two most memorable achievements was to be the last man to rule over both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires.

But his truly lasting achievement was perhaps one of the ten decisions that have most shaped the post-Roman world.

Today, the 27th of February, in AD 380, Theodosius proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our clemency and moderation should continue in the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus … . We authorise the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians. (Theodosius I, Cunctos populos)

At the time, the empire heaved with colourful temples to everything you can think of. Cicero called the Romans “the most religious people” (religiosissima gens), and the sheer variety of popular cults proves it. Worshippers could find everything from traditional Graeco-Roman deities, the Egyptian cults of Isis, Osiris, and Serapis, the ubiquitous near-eastern mystery religions of Mithras, Cybele, and Attis, and hundreds of others — all spiced up with the usual sacrificial fare and traditional temple prostitutes.

But enough was enough. To reinforce the status of Christianity as the sole imperial religion, Theodosius outlawed all pagan practices.

It was a highly controversial move, and he must have been aware of its enormity.

Even the Serb, Emperor Constantine I (AD 305 to 337), had not gone that far.

It is true that Constantine is reported to have fought and won the decisive battle of the Milvian Bridge with the Chi Rho daubed onto his men’s shields. He had apparently seen a vision of the Christian symbol in the sky, along with the Greek words ἐν τούτῳ νίκα (en touto nika, “In this, conquer”), and it had inspired him. Once emperor, in AD 313 he promptly enacted the Edict of Milan to guarantee freedom of religion throughout the empire.

Of the things that are of profit to all mankind, the worship of God ought rightly to be our first and chiefest care. Christians and all others should have freedom to follow the kind of religion they favour. We therefore announce that all who choose Christianity are to be permitted to continue therein, without any let or hindrance, and are not to be in any way troubled or molested. At the same time, all others are to be allowed the free and unrestricted practice of their religions; for it accords with the good order of the realm and the peacefulness of our times that each should have freedom to worship God after his own choice. (Constantine,The Edict of Milan)

Perhaps the drafters of the First Amendment to the American Constitution had this edict in mind, although they expressed their version significantly less eloquently:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Constantine did not stop with freeing everyone from religious persecution. In AD 325 he convened, presided over, and paid for the first ecumenical Church council. He held it at Nicaea (modern-day Iznik in Turkey), where it oversaw the resolution of numerous key decisions regarding the early Church and its structure. Yet Constantine did it all while still a pagan and pontifex maximus, or head of Rome’s pagan priesthood — a role he officially retained until his death, even after his personal conversion to Christianity late in life. Theodosius was, unsurprisingly, the first emperor to abandon the priestly title, which in time migrated across to the pope.

Today, Christianity has 2.2 billion followers (32 per cent of the world’s population), making it by far the largest, and most evenly spread, religion on the planet. Islam is next at 1.6 billion (23 per cent), followed by Hinduism at 1 billion (15 per cent).

Theodosius is perhaps more responsible for the massive spread of Christianity than either St Peter or St Paul, for the simple reason that religions and their denominations benefit from political backing to light the afterburners and tear free from the pack. This should come as no real surprise — it is how human society generally works.

We have even seen it in England. In the late middle ages, Lollards and the occasional disgruntled theologian grumbled on and off. But it took almost a century of the sheer absolutist power and political resolve of the Tudor monarchs to carve a new church into the ages-old landscape of England.

The same union of religion and politics can be seen elsewhere, too.

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92) was an Islamic preacher and reformer who wished for a simpler form of Islam that better reflected early practice. In many ways, he was the equivalent in Islam of those medieval Catholics who sought the apostolic life of the early desert fathers, or the later Protestant reformers of Europe who strove to take the Church to a perceived former simplicity. Abd al-Wahhab’s ideas were powerful, but they truly became globally significant after they were endorsed and promulgated by Muhammad ibn Saud, whose legacy has shaped the modern state of Saudi Arabia, and whose influence can be felt throughout the Arab world.

Therefore, when Theodosius adopted Nicene Christianity as the imperial religion in AD 380, he set a precedent whose impact is now felt globally. For as the Roman Empire in the West fell, the monarchs who were to fill the void in Europe for the next millennium and a half largely kept Christianity as their state religion. And when they conquered and colonised, they took their religion with them.

Unlike ancient Rome, we no longer exterminate those who profess other religions.

So as Prince Charles ponders becoming Defender of the Faith (a title first given to Henry VIII by Pope Leo X, but then revoked and now conferred by Parliament instead), he has a few questions to consider.

What does it mean, historically, to defend the faith? Henry VIII was given the title in recognition of his most Catholic written refutation and execration of what he saw as Luther’s pernicious heresies. Henry wrote up his passionate arguments in a book he nattily entitled Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which he dedicated to the pope.

That is what it meant to defend the faith in the early 1500s. But what does it require now? In the 21st century, is Defender of the Faith an honorific title, or does it mean something more?

And equally as important. should the Defender of the Faith choose to be a Constantine or a Theodosius? Should he rule over a realm in which he protects his subjects’ freedom to practise a religion of their choice, or should he defend only the state religion?

Prince Charles has made his position clear. He will be the Defender of Faith. Happily the Latin, fidei defensor, does not change with the loss of the definite article.

He has history on his side. For it is interesting to note that everyone has heard of Constantine the Great’s religious toleration — but, for all his seismic historical importance, how many remember Theodosius I?

in The Telegraph

by: Dominic Selwood
Dr Dominic Selwood is a former criminal barrister, novelist and historian with a passion for the less visited corners of the archives. He is the author of the crypto-thriller, The Sword of Moses (2013), and the textbook on the Knights Templar, Knights of the Cloister (1999). He tweets as @DominicSelwood

A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread – and Thou; Isis, Iraq and the real Islamic caliphates

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A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

As a bunch of gun-toting religious maniacs tear apart the Middle East, I’ve been thinking about this verse. It’s from Edward FitzGerald’s 19th-century translation of the 12th-century Persian poet-philosopher-mathematician Omar Khayyam’s quatrain. There have been a few rather different translations, but they seem largely to address the same thing: being with the person you love, singing songs and drinking wine.

That’s the image I tend to associate with an Islamic caliphate, although there is some argument over whether or not Khayyam was a religious Muslim: he is described as a Sufi, a member of a spiritual branch of Islam, but also as a hedonist and agnostic. But according to Remi Hauman, a Khayyam scholar, a version of that verse goes even further back, to an actual Umayyad caliph, Walîd Ibn Yazîd, who ruled briefly in AD 743 to 744:

Leave me, Sulaymâ, wine, a singing girl, and a cup. I don’t need any more possessions.
When life is pleasant in Ramlat ‘Alij, and I hold Salmâ in my arms, I would not change places with anyone.

I’ve been thinking about this because the Sunni fanatics of Isis have now called the little territory they’ve carved for themselves on the Iraq-Syria border a new Islamic State, and in fact a “caliphate”. Isis believe that Shias are heretics who should be killed, demand that all Muslims worldwide pledge allegiance to their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who they call the Caliph, and wish to impose an especially brutal form of Sharia.

“They want to build a caliphate,” says Tom Holland, the author of In the Shadow of the Sword, “and that raises the question of what they mean by that.” The original caliphate was the Islamic Arab empire that arose in the years after Mohammed’s death. And, like the Roman empire and the British empire, says Holland, it evolved over centuries – and then “invented its own backstory”, created a tale in which it was set up in the way that Mohammed was instructed by God to set up an empire. “Caliph” means “successor”: the caliphs were supposed to be the successors of the Prophet.

The Sunni/Shia divide, incidentally, stems from a disagreement over whether the caliph should be chosen by the Muslim people, as the Sunnis believe, or appointed by God.

Anyway. As the Khayyam poem suggests, the caliphates were not always what Isis would think of as Islamic. The Caliph al-Mutawakkil, we are told, was murdered by his guard after a night of heavy drinking. As well as the wine, at least one caliph, Al-Hakam II, the Caliph of Cordoba, was openly homosexual, and had a harem of boys; he only bore an heir by having a female concubine dress up in male clothes and take a male name, Jafar. According to the Encyclopedia of Medieval Iberia, in the final centuries of Islamic Spain:

…because of Christian opposition to it and because of immigration and conversion of those who were sympathetic, homosexuality took on a greater ideological role. It had an important place in Islamic mysticism and monasticism; the contemplation of the beardless youth was “an act of worship”, the contemplation of God in human form.

And the harems, the world of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights:

The girls sat around me, and when night came, five of them rose and set up a banquet with plenty of nuts and fragrant herbs. Then they brought the wine vessels and we sat to drink.

With the girls sitting all around me, some singing, some playing the flute, the psalter, the lute, and all other musical instruments, while the bowls and cups went round. I was so happy that I forgot every sorrow in the world, saying to myself, ‘This is the life; alas, that it is fleeting’. Then they said to me, ‘O our lord, choose from among us whomever you wish to spend this night with you’.

Of course this wouldn’t have been the whole story of an Islamic caliphate. But this is part of the story; the caliphates were not, always, harsh puritanical places, but places of learning, places of sybaritic pleasure, places of wine and song.

But, says Tom Holland, Isis aren’t interested in the historical realities as they try to make their own “Caliphate”. “They’re not interested in Omar Khayyam, they’re not interested in the real caliphates: they want to bring to light God’s plan, to restore the civilisation they believe Mohammed built in Medina.” Their image of that civilisation has no basis in historical reality, and they wouldn’t care if it did. But the real story of the caliphates is both more interesting and more complex than their simplistic, brutal vision.

No doubt it would do no good at all. But I wish someone would read Omar Khayyam to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

in The Telegraph

by: Tom Chivers
Tom Chivers is the Telegraph’s assistant comment editor. He writes mainly on science.