By Danica Nuccitelli

I believe that the Holy Grail was originally a Celtic rather than a Christian icon. The Celtic civilizations predated Christianity by thousands of years, and much of the symbolism and imagery in the Grail legends seem more Pagan than Christian. Is it possible that the Grail stories were Celtic legends later adapted to fit the Christian society?

It is almost impossible to create a formal analysis of the Holy Grail, because descriptions thereof vary greatly. The Grail was described by Chrétien de Troyes, the monk who first wrote down the grail legends, [Fig. 1] as being "a wide and slightly deep dish, about 60 or 70 cms. across in which, the Abbot of Froidmont tells us in 1215, 'costly viands are commonly placed for the rich.'" And according to Christian legend, it was the cup from the Last Supper containing the wine Jesus Christ poured to symbolize his own blood.

Among all these legends, however, there are very few concrete details. It's described variously as a dish, a cup, a chalice, and a cauldron; with incredible detail and beauty, or extremely plain. Its location and the purpose of searching for it are vague- 'the Ultimate Quest,' 'communion with God', 'enlightenment'?

According to Compton's Encyclopedia, "A religious element was added [to the Arthurian legends] with the legend of the quest of the Holy Grail, the cup which had been used by Christ at the Last Supper and which only the pure in heart and deed might behold." Galahad was the only Knight of the Round Table able to see the Grail, when they found it; "Seated at dinner one day, the Knights of the Round Table were talking of the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. Suddenly, the torches in the great hall went out. Across the darkness streamed a band of silver light. Against that, they saw the faint outlines of a rose-colored cup. Only Sir Galahad saw the cup clearly- 'all crimson and glowing like a ruby.' He also heard a voice which said, 'Galahad, follow me.'" [Fig. 2] According to legend, Galahad's faith and chastity gave him powers above the other Knights'; he was the only one to find the Grail, only to die before being able to retrieve it. We can see from this that, at least in Christian legend, the Grail was a test of purity and holiness, a religious legend spread eagerly by the Church to promote their values.

But, knowing that the Arthurian legends had many Celtic elements in them, and that the "grail" image is common in many cultures' legends, was the "Holy Grail" originally a Christian image? If the story represented such a high ideal of Christian life, why was it never recognized by the Catholic Church?

This deserves a closer look at the origins of the competing cultures in this argument- Christianity and Celtic Paganism.

Celtic Paganism is polytheistic. The Celts worshipped various different Gods and Goddesses in charge of the harvest, war, childbirth, etc., but one common thread wove through the deities. In general, the Celts worshipped a "Triple God" and a "Triple Goddess" - a God and Goddess in three different aspects of life. The Goddess- aspects were known as the Virgin, Mother, and Crone; the God-aspects as the Son, Father, and King- not unlike the Trinity in Christian worship. In Celtic art, these could be found symbolically represented everywhere by a triple spiral for the Goddess and a three-faced being for the God. [Fig. 3]

Celtic Ireland was a matricentered society, counting heredity through the mother's rather than the father's side of the family. Women were the ones who gave birth, and so were associated with the fertility of the earth and the Goddess. "Women were revered since they held the divine principle of creativity within their bodies." But the genders were equal in religion; either men or women could be priests and priestesses, and the gods could be approached by people of either sex, of any part of the Celtic society.

The Celtic religions regarded nature as sacred. "Celtic worship was inspired by natural sources. It began with the mysterious earth itself," [Fig. 4] "the source of fertility, of life, of support.... Prayer typically took place in a copse of oak trees on a grassy knoll, with the waters of a pool or small stream glistening nearby. Such a grove seemed already sacred, the residence of a God, or made holy by association: at the water or under the trees they invoked the deity and made offerings." Trees- the yew, the ash, and especially the oak- were mentioned frequently in the poems which remain from this culture. Animals were often the objects of worship, and were usually connected with a God or Goddess. An example of this is the raven, which represented a war deity. Bulls, in Celtic mythology as well as that of the Minoans, Myceneans, and Greeks, represented virility and strength. Horns on a human figure often meant it was a deity. [Fig. 5]

The Celtic religion had no one starting point, as Christianity did. Cave paintings and carvings from the early Paleolithic have been found depicting the same deities which were worshipped by the Celts. A good example of these is the Venus of Willendorf, a carving of the 'Mother Goddess,' [Fig. 6] and a cave painting from Les Trois Fréres, in the French Pyrenees. [Fig. 7] Raymond Buckland said,"As humankind developed, so did religion- for that is [what the figures and rituals] had become. It developed slowly and naturally. Man spread across Europe taking the gods with him. In different countries the gods would perhaps be known by different names, but they were essentially the same gods. The Horned God, originally the God of Hunting, now looked upon more as the God of Death and what came after; and the Goddess, of Fertility and Rebirth."

Christianity, on the other hand, is a monotheistic religion. In general it worships The Father (God) the Son (Jesus, who came to earth to spread God's word) and the Holy Sprit (God's Will) as aspects of one God.8

Christian philosophy does not regard the Earth as being a sacred part of the religion; it was created by God for man's use. "And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky. and over every living things that moves on the earth.' Then God said, 'Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food;' and it was so." The fact that Christianity doesn't focus on nature as being at all special or sacred is a large part of the reason that Christian art isn't organic [Figs. 8-9], as Celtic art is [Figs. 10-12]. Symbols that the Celts associated with the Earth and with fertility, therefore, are unlikely to be found in Christian art.

After Jesus was crucified, his followers were convinced that he had risen from the dead and that they were filled with the power of the 'Holy Spirit.' They formed the first Christian community in Jerusalem.

By the middle of the first century AD, missionaries like Saint Paul were spreading the new religion among the people living in Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, Greece, and Italy. With the destruction of the Church of Jerusalem by the Romans during the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70, Christianity was officially separated from Judaism, and slowly grew from being merely a Jewish sect to becoming a religion in its own right, practiced world-wide.

In the third and early fourth centuries AD, the Christians were subjected to religious persecution by the Romans, because they refused to pay homage to the Emperor or the Roman deities. Some of the most savage persecution was under Diocletian in AD 303-13, and the Roman Emperor Decius in AD 249-51. Many of the Christians, however, welcomed their subsequent martyrdom, feeling that it brought them closer to Jesus, and the Christian religion continued to expand. New movements began- Novatianism and Donatism- as a result of a disagreement within the Church as to whether sacraments could still be given by clerics who had denied their faith under torture, and even whether people who had denied their faith could be readmitted to the Church.

Some of the persecution going on, however, was done by the Christian Church. Christianity believes fiercely that their God is the only God, as many religions do, and as the Christian religion evolved, the Church set out to fight for this belief by converting as many people as possible to their beliefs, and direct belief away from the other religions of the time. The Bible taught that following another religion or believing in another set of deities was sinful and would damn you to burn in Hell in the afterlife, so they set out to "save" the rest of the world from this fate.

The way they did this was to publicly and Biblically denounce followers of other religions: "And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but give hearty approval to those who practice them."

The Theodosian Code stated "We [Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian Augustus to Isidorus, Praetorian Prefect] interdict all persons of criminal Pagan mind from the immolation of victims, from damnable sacrifices, and from all other such practices that are prohibited by the authority of the more ancient sanctions. We command that all their fanes, temples, and shrines, if even now any remain entire, shall be destroyed by the command of the magistrates, and shall be purified by the command of the venerable Christian religion. All men shall know that if it should appear, by suitable proof before a competent judge, that any person has mocked this law, he shall be punished with death."

Privately, they incorporated as many aspects of the Pagan religions into their own as possible. That way, members of other religious faiths could see how they would be persecuted if they continued worshipping their religion. If they converted, they could find comforting elements of their own religion in Christianity. "The solution was to let the Celts hold onto their Pagan customs, but to somehow turn the feast of Samhain [the Celtic New Year] into a Christian holiday. The church leaders decided to proclaim November 1 as All Hallow Day, a day to honor all the saints who did not already have a feast day of their own. The night before this became All Hallow Evening- later shortened to Halloween."1

Most of the major Celtic holidays were similarly corrupted- notably Christmas and Easter. According to Grolier's, "Despite the beliefs about Christ that the birth stories expressed, the church did not observe a festival for the celebration of the event until the fourth century. The date was chosen to counter the Pagan festivities connected with the winter solstice."

It seems likely that this view of Pagan religion as something to forbid and change probably extended into Pagan art. Any Grail symbols or legends could well have been publicly denied and privately changed into Christian propaganda.

The first Grail story to appear in Christianity was Le Roman du Graal, (The Romance of the Grail). But the most influential Grail legends were in the Queste del San Graal- The Quest of the Holy Grail.

The Knights in this version of the Arthurian legends had to actively pursue "a rigorous spiritual cleansing involving confession, communion, fasting, prayer, and above all, abstinence." These are all qualities and activities (or lack of activities) highly praised by the Church.

And in Robert de Borron's poem "Joseph d'Arimathie," de Borron maintains that Pilate was the one who gave Joseph the Grail, the vessel that Christ had used at the Last Supper. Joseph accepts the Grail and is imprisoned when Christ's tomb is found open. Christ appears to Joseph in jail and tells him that he is now the Guardian of the Grail.

Joseph collects a small group of people around him, including his sister and her husband Bron. A voice comes from the Grail, telling Joseph that some of his friends are guilty of lust. He is told to find a table to commemorate the Last Supper and to have Bron catch a fish. [Fig. 13] Joseph takes Christ's place at the table, leaving one empty seat to be filled by Bron's child. The members of Joseph's party who were lustful are not nourished by Bron's fish and go away, leaving all the seats full except for the one, where Judas originally sat. They then find out that only a grandchild of Bron will be able to take that seat.

Bron's wife, Enygeus, has twelve sons. One of these sons- Alein- will be the next Guardian of the Grail. Joseph gives Bron the Grail to keep an eye on and gives him the keyword that Christ taught him in prison. A man named Petrus is told to travel to the vales of Avaron with Bron and Alein, fulfilling Christ's prediction of a trinity of Guardians.

From the mid-800s and for centuries onward, the Celts were invaded by numerous different peoples, including the Picts and the Vikings. The invaders brought their own legends and cultures with them, crowding many Celts out of Britain and across the English Channel into France. [Fig. 14] These Celts took all the varied legends with them, and by the time the Grail legends were being written, the authors had access to a variety of different legends and stories floating around. [Fig.15]

The oldest of these legends must have been the Irish adventures, the echtrai. The 'Four Treasures of Ireland' have counterparts in the 'Four Hallows of the Grail,' and many of the themes from the Welsh Mabinogion can be found in the Grail stories of the Rich Fisher King and the stories surrounding Perceval.

The Prologue to Le Conte Del Graal begins by describing the realm of Logres, a paradise on Earth. The original Logres was a Celtic concept of the land having an outer and inner aspect; Logres was the inner soul of Britain. In Celtic stories, this world and the next ran parallel, and at places sacred to them such as wells and springs, one could cross the gap between the worlds and explore the other side. Travelers were fed from golden bowls and cups, a common image in Celtic legends.

In the Conte du Graal, the Land of Logres "lost the voice of the Wells."19 King Amangons raped one of the maidens serving at Logres, kidnapped her, and stole her cup. The King's male retainers set about following his example, with the result that there was soon nobody left at the wells. Logres turned into a barren wasteland, the waters all dried up, and everyone left. The heroes of the Grail story must "free the waters" and discover the place where the worlds connect, to "re-establish the precious links between the female sovereignty and the kingship of the realm."

Such connections with Celtic mythology can be found throughout the Grail legends. On the surface, they seem to be extremely male-dominated, a competitive quest between rugged, manly knights to reach the pinnacle of holiness; but underneath, these connections with a female-centered spirituality are rampant. The Lady of the Fountain is one of Her primary aspects in Celtic tales; in the Grail legends, there is a Countess of the Fountain, with whom one of the Knights (Owein) falls in love, and they marry- in the Celtic tales, the hero becomes the Goddess' consort. The Grail stories are full of mysterious female figures, all the different women of the land. Upon scrutiny and comparison with Celtic tales, most of these women turn out to be the Earth Goddess in one of Her three aspects.

For centuries, the Church spread fascinating tales of a Holy Grail, a sacred vessel supposedly containing the blood of Jesus Christ. The Church's stories provided a bright spot in the lives of people in the Middle Ages, a dream to pursue in a time when life was brutish and short.

But the myth of the Holy Grail had a darker side; in many ways, it was a symptom of the corruption and cover-ups in the Church at that time. Christianity didn't only change the Pagan holidays; the deities and legends reappeared, warped almost beyond recognition, as well. The story of the Garden of Eden, for example; the images of Serpent Goddesses, representing immortality and a balanced view of the world, and the images of Trees of Knowledge and Life, were common in many cultures' legends. "ÉThere is weighty evidence that the figure of Eve is based on much older stories in Near Eastern mythology and that the original Eve did appear in the form of a serpent. The name Eve, hawwah, means 'mother of all the living', but hawwah also means 'serpent' in many Semitic languages."20 By depicting her as the woman who lost the human race's chances for living in Eden, and showing the serpent separately as evil, the Devil incarnate, the Church could wrest a tremendous amount of power from the matriarchal Pagan religions.

And the Grail image itself, whether shown as a cauldron, cup, or chalice, was a major motif in Celtic tales. Cerridwen, Goddess of Wisdom, was said to have a Cauldron of the Deep, "from which all things come and to which all things return", the source of Her wisdom. When the Knights of King Arthur completed their quest for the Grail, they were supposed to achieve total holiness and communion with God; when one drank from Cerridwen's cauldron, one supposedly achieved a similar transformation- communion with the Goddess, and total wisdom. And the story of Joseph d'Arimathie, where only the pure can sit at the table with the Grail, parallels the stories of legendary Celtic cauldrons and horns of plenty too closely. There are many such myths in Celtic culture, and most of them involve some sort of Grail-image.

Was the "Holy Grail" originally a Christian image? The Celts pre-dated the Christians by about 35,000 years. When the Christian religion arose, it found ancient civilizations around it, all with ancient myths. The incorporation of such myths into its own literature may have been inevitable, whether it was part of a conscious attempt to increase its power over the other religions, or merely an effect of being surrounded by people who had been raised with the original Pagan theologies. It seems more or less definite that the motifs and plots in the Grail legends were taken from older Pagan stories.

And why did the stricter Catholic Church not approve of the Grail legends, despite their thoroughly holy character? Probably because of their Pagan origins. These origins were obvious to those familiar with the Pagan tales. Although further work in the monasteries caused later editions of the Grail legends to be somewhat more Christian, in theme if not in symbolism, this could not change the facts of their lineage.

Further research into the documents of the Christian Churches- the Catholic Church in particular- from around the 1100s would be helpful, as would research into the early Celtic language and any words it has in common with the Latin. For example, the word for "horn", as in the Celtic Horn of Plenty, may have been mistranslated as "body"- The Sacred Body of Christ, at the Last Supper- in the Grail legends, since the word for "horn" and "body" is the same in Latin, and the monks had never heard of a Horn of Plenty; it wouldn't have occurred to them to translate it that way.

There are some uncertainties regarding this case, but not many. It seems fairly certain, given the nature of the emerging Christian Church and the speed with which Pagan legends would have been traveling, that the Grail legends were Celtic Pagan in origin.