The earliest surviving specific tale of the Grail is the unfinished 12th century story of Perceval (Conte de Graal) by the French Romance writer Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien simply spoke of ‘a grail’; another french writer, Robert de Boron, later christianised this as ‘The Holy Grail’. Seeing the Grail as a Christian symbol led to it being identified as the communion cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Such is the story attached to the wooden bowl also known as the Nanteos Cup, after a mansion in West Wales where it was kept for many years, though it had previously been the property of the nearby medieval abbey of Strata Florida. The cup has more recently been in the news after it was stolen but, since recovered, it is now in the possession of the National Library of Wales, where it is currently on display. I went to see it, though very little is left of it. It is easy to see how, in the later Middle Ages, such a cup should have attained this status as holy relics were the stock in trade of medieval monasteries and cathedrals, far more of them than could possibly be genuine. The relic itself is a symbol, metonymically representing the thing it purports to be or, perhaps, actually is.
But the communion cup, the dish of plenty, the cauldron of mystery have a far older lineage. Consider the words of Glenys Goetink who, in her study of the Welsh grail stories, asserts that, behind the Christian relic, the Grail “derives from one of the talismans found in the dwelling of the Otherworld god; it was of great significance in the ritual of conferring sovereignty upon the hero on the occasion of his visit to the Otherworld.” (*) This is certainly the implication of the story as told by Chrétien and in the parallel Welsh Romance Peredur. The Grail in Chrétien’s story is a dish held by a maiden in an episode in which the questing hero comes across a castle in a remote place. A bleeding lance is also carried through the room where he sits conversing with the lamed Fisher King. In the parallel scene in the Welsh story of Peredur the dish is a platter on which sits a severed head. In both cases Perceval/Peredur does not ask the meaning of the objects carried into the room. In Chrétien’s story Perceval awakes the next morning to find the castle empty and with only one way open for him to leave. After he has left he can’t go back and cannot find the castle again. In both stories the hero is later rebuked for not asking the question which would have healed the king, and then sets off to find the castle again. Chrétien’s tale is unfinished so we never know if Perceval eventually finds the castle. Peredur does find it after a random series of adventures which culminate in the killing, with Arthur’s help, of The Nine Witches of Gloucester.
There has been much speculation from different scholars about influences. It is likely that later medieval writers took the story from the French of Chrétien or his successors. Did Chrétien get his story from Brittany, from the same source as the anonymous Welsh author of Peredur, or were there different sources available to both of them? One certainly earlier possible source is the Irish story Baile in Scáil which several scholars have noticed contains parallel scenes to the episode of the visit to the Grail Castle. ‘Baile’ (modern Irish ‘buile’) means ‘frenzy’, though it is sometimes translated ‘ecstasy’ as in terms of the baile stories it describes the ecstatic frenzy which druids, female seers and other gifted people go into to gain visions or make prophecies, much as Giraldus Cambrensis describes the awenyddion in Wales. John Carey provides an extensive analysis of this tale and its possible links with the Grail stories. Here the frenzied visionary state is entered by a ‘phantom’ who turns out to be Lug, and a woman with a crown of gold who asks ‘to whom shall this cup be given?’. Carey says the following about the similarities between the two stories:
“In both, the protagonist comes upon a rich and mysterious stronghold, which is at first concealed from him. He is lavishly entertained by a gracious host, who seems to be identical with a figure who has acted as a guide earlier in the tale. A central part in the feast is played by a young woman who serves as custodian of a extra-ordinary golden vessel; and the apparition of the vessel is associated with the protagonist being served roasted meat. The question as to who it is whom this vessel serves is the pivot of both stories. After the feast, everything disappears: Perceval falls asleep, then wakes in an empty castle which he is unable to find again after he has left it; Conn passes ‘into the shadow’ of Lug, and is suddenly back in Tara.” (**).
Conn, unlike Perceval, is not found wanting and so his sovereignty, and that of his line backwards and forwards, is confirmed and no further searching, such as that undertaken in the later stories, is necessary. In the Welsh tale the situation is eventually resolved, though the significance of the episode gets lost in the series of other adventures it is mixed up with. In the French tale, and even more so in those that came after it, the quest of the Grail becomes an end in itself. That is it becomes a tale of sin and redemption in the best Christian tradition of the Middle Ages. It also becomes a symbol of purity, or the virtuousness of those who seek it. But what was the original cup of sovereignty that seems still to be fulfilling that function in the Irish story? Carey is suggestive in linking it with the role of the cup bearer as identified by Michael Enright (***) and so, possibly back to Rosmerta. Proinsias Mac Cana also refers to this story and identifies the cup bearer as ‘the Sovereignty of Ireland’, the personification of the land itself, who, coupled with Lug, “can scarcely be dissociated from the Gaulish monuments to Mercury and Rosmerta”.(****)
So is the Grail the Cup of Plenty, Rosmerta’s bounty, offered at the feast with its echoes in later tales of cup bearers, seers and the guardians of sacred wells? That will have to be another story.
* Glenys Goetink Peredur : A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends (Cardiff, 1975)
** John Carey Ireland and The Grail (Aberystwyth, 2007)
*** M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)
**** Proinsias Mac Cana Celtic Mythology (Hamlyn, 1983)