Holy Grail and Its Healing Properties

A handcolored etching of the Holy Grail, from a series of illustrations for Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal (1882).

Holy Grail is a mystical cup that was thought by Christians to have healing properties.

The Holy Grail is first mentioned in the Arthurian romance Perceval, Le Conte du Graaf (c. 1181) by Chretien de Troyes (1135–1183). The Grail itself is simply a beautifully decorated chalice, or cup, used to hold the Mass wafer, which Catholics receive as the literal, transubstantiated body of Christ. In the story, the wafer sustains the injured Fisher King, who lives by this bread alone. In its earliest conception, therefore, the Holy Grail is best thought of as a romantic medieval appropriation of the Eucharist, which brings health to those who partake of it.

The thirteenth-century poet Robert de Boron added to the Grail legend by describing it as the combination of the chalice Jesus used at the Last Supper and the blood of Jesus that Joseph of Arimathea saved during the crucifixion. In this way, Joseph of Arimathea became the first of the Grail guardians, and it was his task to keep the Grail safe until it could help in healing the faithful. In later Arthurian romances, the “Grail Quest” is undertaken by King Arthur’s knights as a means to help restore Camelot-the near paradisiacal kingdom on Earth—which is being torn apart by sin.

Sir Thomas Malory wrote of the Holy Grail in Le Marte d’Arthur (1485): “Then looked they and saw a man come out of the holy vessel …”

Although the Holy Grail has gradually become more than a simple metaphor for the Eucharist, it still retains the strong Christian notion that Jesus’s sacrifice makes possible redemption not only as the healing of moral brokenness (the forgiveness of sins) but also the healing of nonmoral brokenness (the restoration of broken bodies, dying lands, and so on). The legend of the Holy Grail depicts humanity’s quest for redemption, but also hints at what that redemption might look like.

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