What is the Holy Grail?

by Esteban

“Some years ago, when fresh from the study of Sir J. G. Frazer’s epoch-making work, The Golden Bough, I was struck by the resemblance existing between certain features of the Grail story, and characteristic details of the Nature Cults described.

The more closely I analysed the tale, the more striking became the resemblance, and I finally asked myself whether it were not possible that in this mysterious legend–mysterious alike in its character, its sudden appearance, the importance apparently assigned to it, followed by as sudden and complete a disappearancewe might not have the confused record of a ritual, once popular, later surviving under conditions of strict secrecy? (Underlined emphasis in original).

This would fully account for the atmosphere of awe and reverence which even under distinctly non-Christian conditions never fails to surround the Grail, It may act simply as a feeding vessel, It is none the less toute sainte cose; and also for the presence in the tale of distinctly popular, and Folk-lore, elements. Such an interpretation would also explain features irreconcilable with orthodox Christianity, which had caused some scholars to postulate a heterodox origin for the legend, and thus explain its curiously complete disappearance as a literary theme.

In the first volume of my Perceval studies, published in 1906, I hinted at this possible solution of the problem, a solution worked out more fully in a paper read before the Folk-lore Society in December of the same year, and published in Volume XVIII. of the Journal of the Society. By the time my second volume of studies was ready for publication in 1909, further evidence had come into my hands; I was then certain that I was upon the right path, and I felt justified in laying before the public the outlines of a theory of evolution, alike of the legend, and of the literature, to the main principles of which I adhere to-day.

But certain links were missing in the chain of evidence, and the work was not complete. No inconsiderable part of the information at my disposal depended upon personal testimony, the testimony of those who knew of the continued existence of such a ritual, and had actually been initiated into its mysteries–and for such evidence the student of the letter has little respect. He worships the written word; for the oral, living, tradition from which the word derives force and vitality he has little use. Therefore the written word had to be found.

It has taken me some nine or ten years longer to complete the evidence, but the chain is at last linked up, and we can now prove by printed texts the parallels existing between each and every feature of the Grail story and the recorded symbolism of the Mystery cults.

Further, we can show that between these Mystery cults and Christianity there existed at one time a close and intimate union, such a union as of itself involved the practical assimilation of the central rite, in each case a ‘Eucharistic’ Feast, in which the worshippers partook of the Food of Life from the sacred vessels.

In face of the proofs which will be found in these pages I do not think any fair-minded critic will be inclined to dispute any longer the origin of the ‘Holy’ Grail; after all it is as august and ancient an origin as the most tenacious upholder of Its Christian character could desire.

But I should wish it clearly to be understood that the aim of these studies is, as indicated in the title, to determine the origin of the Grail, not to discuss the provenance and interrelation of the different versions. I do not believe this latter task can be satisfactorily achieved unless and until we are of one accord as to the character of the subject matter.

When we have made up our minds as to what the Grail really was, and what it stood for, we shall be able to analyse the romances; to decide which of them contains more, which less, of the original matter, and to group them accordingly.”

Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920. Pp. 3-5.