ARTHUR: Go and tell your master that…he can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail.

GUARD: Well, I’ll ask him, but I don’t think he’ll be very keen…He’s already got one…

— Monty Python and the Holy Grail


Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti (1828-1882) The Damsel of the Sanct Grael (Public domain)

Sometime around the year 1400, English historian John Hardyng noticed a curious ambiguity in the French phrase san-gréal, which until then had meant “Holy Grail,” a grail being a cup (from Ancient Greek krater, a wine mixing bowl). The legend of the grail had been around since 1180, when the great French storyteller, Chrétien de Troyes, introduced a (not the) grail into his romances about King Arthur. Originally a dish carrying a single communion wafer, another French romancer, Robert de Boron, soon morphed de Troyes’ grail into The Holy Grail, the vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea collected the blood of Christ when he was taken down from the cross. The ambiguity, spotted two centuries later, is that san-gréal can be parsed as sang-réal, that is, “royal blood.” A trivial coincidence which, six hundred years later, would help create a bestseller (80 million copies!) and blockbuster movie thanks to novelist Dan Brown: The DaVinci Code.

To be clear, there’s zero evidence for a grail, holy or not, between the purported death of Christ on the cross and the writing of Chrétien de Troyes. The “Grail Tale” originated entirely from the rich imagination of this French romance writer who lived over a thousand years after the time of the Biblical story.

Today, though, it’s part of our heritage, along with stories, embellished and embroidered over the years, that include the siege of Troy, the founding of Britain by Brutus, King Charlemagne’s knights, and the “Once and Future King” (Arthur), which will keep storytellers and moviemakers busy for the foreseeable future.

Saying it’s all a myth, of course, won’t stop True Believers from searching for the Holy Grail, either in the form of a cup (there’s one in Genoa Cathedral, another in Valencia, Spain) or in its “royal blood” identification. The latter was, of course, the basis of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, in which Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a royal blood line, the sang-réal, a legend that has carried down to the present day. The tale of Jesus’ wife, perhaps originating with the Gnostic Gospel of Philip (Jesus “kissed her often”), was given fresh impetus in the 13th century by the Cathars (“pure ones”), a breakaway Christian sect that thrived briefly in southern France and northern Italy. More recently, Dan Brown’s novel (based on a previous mashup of old and new stories, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) invokes the centuries-old machinations of the “Priory of Sion” to keep the bloodline secret. Only problem is that the Priory of Sion wasn’t founded until 1956!

“The Last Supper” in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

It’s all great fun, of course, but beyond being the world’s greatest MacGuffin, the Holy Grail doesn’t stand up to much inspection. And no, the “woman” next to Jesus in Leonardo’s Last Supper painting (much restored) isn’t Mary Magdalene, it’s the Apostle John. He may need a haircut, as does James (second from left), but I’m hardly one to complain.