Monday, January 21, 2008

Wolfram’s Grail

On Thursday 18 October 2007, I attended a lecture at Georgetown University, sponsored by the Catholic Studies Program, entitled, “The Holy Grail versus the Crusades: Wolfram’s Concept of the Altar.” The lecturer, G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., is a scholar of German literature. A few years earlier I had attended another program by Fr. Murphy at a church in Georgetown based on his book, The Owl, The Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales. As part of that program he showed Disney’s “Snow White,” but no one could figure out how to get the sound working, so we watched it as a silent movie and he narrated, pointing out and explaining some of the symbolism. I recall talking to him at the reception afterwards about the meaning of mistletoe, which, I had heard, is canonically banned from Anglican churches. The present lecture was based on his most recent book, Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival.

There are three authentic versions of the Grail story, which developed in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Chrétien de Troyes (writing 1185-87) was the first to write the word Grail, by which he referred to a deep serving dish, big enough to hold a fish. Like a horn of plenty, it would produce whatever food you wanted – you had only to reach in and take it. The Grail was powered by a host in the bottom. Perceval, in Chrétien, is a naive young man whose mother does not want him to become a knight and get killed. He goes into the woods looking for his mother, sees her faint dead at a bridge, and rides off to look for the Grail. Chrétien never forgives him for letting his mother die. After years spent looking for the Grail, he returns to check on his mother, not seeming to realize she had died. Chrétien did not finish the story, but several other authors wrote endings.

For Robert de Boron (writing 1190-1200), the Grail is the cup from the Last Supper. He picks up on the Eucharist in a way that is very medieval and Catholic. Joseph of Arimathea comes for the body of Christ, a centurion stabs Christ to make sure he is dead, and Joseph catches the blood in a cup from the house of the Last Supper, which he got from Pilate. Being a good orthodox Jew, he wanted to stop the blood from seeping into the ground. The cup containing the blood was buried with Christ, and it was eventually found by St. Helena. [I’m not sure what this last sentence refers to. It does not match Robert de Boron’s version of the Grail story.]

Finally, Wolfram von Eschenbach (writing 1210) depicted the Grail not as a dish, but as a stone – a flat gemstone.

Chrétien’s word graal is not standard French or Latin. It could come from the Latin gradalis (step, a course of a meal) or gratalis (agreeable, gratifying), converted into bad dialectical French and then just transliterated into German.

We must ask the Passover question: Why is this Grail different from all others?

In 1187, Jerusalem had been captured by Muslims. In 1199 it was recaptured by Christians, knights who had sworn an oath to God to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher. The Crusades were preached as an appeal to vassals who were needed by their Lord in Jerusalem. Their goals were 1) to free the Eastern Christians from the Muslims, and 2) to free the Holy Sepulcher.

The sign of the Holy Land is the palm. A “palmer” is a crusader. They did not call themselves crusaders, but pilgrims. When they took the oath, a bishop would give them a cloth cross to sew onto their clothes. It was worn on the shoulder because Christ carried the cross over his shoulder. The pilgrim would hold also his sword upside down as a cross. [Actually, a palmer can be any sort of pilgrim, not just a crusader.]

In 1204, greedy crusaders sacked Constantinople. This obviated the first reason for the Crusades. Relics from Constantinople were stolen, bought, or looted and taken to the West. Sainte-Chapelle, for example, was built to house the Crown of Thorns. It was in this context that Wolfram wrote his Parzival, in which he asserted that the Grail was a stone.

Precious metals and stones come from Paradise. (Eden means pleasure. A pleasure garden is a paradise.)

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stones are there. (Genesis 2:10-12)
The Pishon is probably the river that ends at Colchis, home of the Golden Fleece.

Gems are a remnant of Paradise that we can still play with after the Fall. Red and green stones – the ruby/emerald and garnet/peridot – are especially associated with Paradise. The ruby was thought to be formed from coal by geothermal pressure, its red color capturing the fire that is inside coal. Magnetite was a “magic” stone that could attract iron and point north. Amethyst (Greek for “not drunken”) was the color of wine. Turquoise (“from Turkey”) contains life – it never dries out and turns brown, but remains green forever. Rock crystal (quartz) was liked better than diamond because it was easier to polish. Diamond is the hardest stone known to man, yet light passes through it unhindered. Like the Holy Sepulcher – light passed right through it. Wolfram puts a green cloth around the Grail, representing life.

Fr. Murphy’s theory is that the Muslim capture of Jerusalem in 1187 ruined Chrétien’s planned ending of the Grail story, and that was why he abandoned it. But Wolfram picked up the story, revised it, and continued it to the end. In departing from the earlier versions of the Grail as a cup or a dish, Wolfram was not abandoning the Eucharistic symbolism but re-focusing it. In addition the paten and chalice, you need an altar. Priests on the Crusades carried portable altars of stone. The altar stone was cut with five crosses and a rectangular reliquary, called a “sepulcher,” which contains three pieces of the host in addition to a relic. Wolfram is saying, “You’re going off to the Holy Land to slaughter Muslims when every priest is already carrying a sepulcher in his saddle bag.” The medieval portable altar contained a shroud, host, relics, and incense. The lid had a translucent red or green stone. Do you want to see the Body of Christ? You don’t need to go to Turin – just go to Mass. Christ’s place of enthronement is the altar. In the presence of the altar, you’re back in Paradise. To get to Paradise, drop the reins (a Parzival reference).

Wolfram’s story ends with the Christian Parzival and his Muslim rival Feirefiz discovering that they are half-brothers.

There are two portable altars in the Diocesan Museum at Bamberg, Germany. Fr. Murphy believes that one of these, the Paradise Altar, was Wolfram’s inspiration for the Grail.

To illustrate the last part of the lecture, Fr. Murphy showed us an actual altar stone, as well as a half-scale model of a medieval portable altar that he had commissioned. He also showed slides of the Paradise Altar from various angles. He gave each person in his audience two tiny stones – a garnet and a peridot. A photo of the Paradise Altar appears below. This and another color photo appear in Fr. Murphy’s article in Company magazine.

(Addendum: Company magazine has disappeared from the Web. But another Jesuit magazine article can be found here.)


Sara K. said...

Extremely interesting. -S

James Noel Ward said...

I'd be interested to know whaat he thinks of this:

since the cup is agate, but the medeval base is adorned with many of the precious gems he mentions from the Parzivail version.

Roland said...


I recently acquired a whole book on the history of the Holy Chalice of Valencia, but it's already out on loan. (The same author has written another book on the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oviedo.)

Fr. Murphy's field is medieval German literature, so I think he's interested in the Grail mostly as a medieval literary phenomenon. OTOH, the fact that it's made of agate might give it some connection to his theory.

Of the several claimants to the status of the wine cup of the Last Supper, I think the Valencia Chalice has the strongest case. See the Wikipedia article for details.

Lynn said...


It was your strongest interest in the Holy Grail legends that finally inspired me to start reading them. (Dan loves them- he has used "Galahad" as an online identity.)So of course, now that I want to read the book, I used your entry as a starting point. Yay!

Lynn said...

Roland, how far deep have ypu delved in Scandanavian myth?

Roland said...


I'm sorry I did not see your comment earlier. I know Scandinavian myth quite well - I recall reading stories of the Norse gods for the first time in third or fourth grade - and it has always been my favorite pagan mythos. One summer in college I read translations of both the Nibelungenlied and its Icelandic counterpart, the Volsunga Saga. And I've also had a bit of exposure to Asatru.

Of course, Tolkien was heavily influenced by Scandinavian myth.