This article formed the basis for a later work by Ingrid H. Shafer called ‘Eros and the Womanliness of God: Andrew Greely’s Romances of Renewal,’ published by Loyola University Press, 1986.


Reproduced with kind permission from The Camelot Project
at the University of Rochester, NY, USA.
The Holy Grail

by: Ingrid H. Shafer

The Grail legends represent a seamless fusion of pre-Christian and Christian elements. Common motifs of the various versions of the story associated with Chretien de Troyes (c. 1150/1190), Wolfram Von Eschenbach (c. 1170-1220), and others include a magic castle, inhabited by the emasculated Fisher King, a virgin who serves as the Grail bearer, and a male hero on the Grail quest. The pre-Christian Irish “Adventures of Art, Son of Conn” already contains most of the major themes of the Grail quest (Markale 199).

The Grail itself is variously identified as luminous cup, bowl, jewel, and (by Wolfram) stone, capable of providing unlimited food and drink. It is a fountain of youth and health, a source of wisdom and truth. During a visit with God Manannan, King Cormac Son of Art and his family are entertained at a table set with a tablecloth which instantly produces any food demanded. In its Christianized form, the Grail has been identified with the cup Christ used at the last supper, the vessel in which Christ’s blood had been caught by Joseph of Arimathaea, and the Eucharistic cup. The maimed Fisher King is generally also associated with a fiery or bleeding lance which has, in turn, been linked to the Celtic god Lug’s spear and the blade which pierced Jesus’ side.

Reflecting on those motifs, Roger Sherman Loomis concluded that the Grail tradition is Celtic in origin, that it “violates the most elementary proprieties of Christian ethics and ritual,” and thus could “not have originated in a pious fabrication” (Loomis 272). To clinch his case, he asks, “Would a holy relic or even a common paten or ciborium been placed in charge of a lovely damsel, not of a priest or a sacristan?” Answering his own rhetorical question, he concludes, “No wonder the Church has never recognized the Grail romances as authentic and has displayed a shrewd suspicion about their unorthodox background” (272).

Obviously, the Grail story, particularly in its Celtic origins and as related by Wolfram, is at odds with a theology which insists on the absolute masculinity of God, the inferiority of women, and an ethos of sexual asceticism. The Catholic tradition, however, also contains a popular strain, which emphasizes the role of Mary as the Mother of God, the theotokos or God-bearer, and, in function if not in doctrine, the manifestation of the nurturing, healing, maternal, passionately and tenderly loving aspects of divinity, the ancient Magna Mater. And now, three decades after the Second Vatican Council, women serve as Eucharistic ministers.

Some of the conflicting ways the Grail has been portrayed and interpreted can be explained by the fact that it began to captivate the medieval popular imagination during a time of intense religious ferment and intellectual turmoil. The Grail is a powerful symbol of primal female fecundity-nurturance-wisdom-divinity. Not only is the Grail-bearer generally a young woman, but the luminous Grail often contains the image of a child either by itself or within a eucharistic wafer. It takes little imagination to see the archetypal connection between the Grail as vessel-womb being fertilized, and the Christian story of the Incarnation-Annunciation, symbolized by the Eucharistic Cup. In this context it is interesting to note that Henry and Renee Kahane argue that the word “Grail” can be derived from the Greek krater, significant to the Hermeticists.

It seems more than merely coincidental that popular and poetic fascination with the Grail burst forth at exactly the time when the most hotly debated doctrinal issue concerned the mystery of the Eucharist, a controversy which culminated in the promulgation of the dogma of transubstantiation by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In liturgical practice, the Eucharist becomes Communion, the sacramental sacred meal, spiritual food in the form of bread and wine. It reinforced the Christian emphasis on the Incarnation, a sense of God-in-the-world, in contrast to the Cathar insistence that the world and matter, including marriage and procreation, were wholly evil, and that the body of Christ was illusory. And yet, just as viewing the Grail was central to the legend, so gazing at the elevated sacred Host came to be considered potentially as grace-conferring as partaking of Holy Communion (Jungmann 120).

After ruthless official persecution, the Cathars (Albigensians) were exterminated, or at least driven so far underground that they were no longer identified by name. Ironically, if predictably, some of their dualism remained alive and infused the already partially Neo-Platonic Catholic tradition with a new dose of life- and world-negation. Thus it can properly be argued, as Pauline Matarasso does, following Etienne Gilson, that the Quest for the Holy Grail is closely linked to Cistercian ecstasy, God’s love manifested as grace eliciting the human response of pure and spontaneous love leading to the unio mystica, entirely purged of all carnal dimensions (Matarasso 15). In a perversion of the early troubadour ideal, the earthly goal of yearning must now always remain beyond reach. Love of God and the God of Love, chaste Agape and passionate Eros were at war; and the latter was temporarily defeated.

Among the numerous medieval versions of the Quest for the Holy Grail, Mircea Eliade considers Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival “the most complete story and coherent mythology of the Grail” (Eliade 105). Eliade was particularly struck by the fact that Wolfram deliberately included numerous Oriental motifs, and did so with respect. Wolfram claimed that the original source of his tale was a Muslim-Jewish sage; Parzival’s father lived for a while in Africa, where he had a Muslim wife and son; Parzival’s uncle had traveled to Asia and Africa; Parzival’s half-brother’s son would become Prester John, priest/king in India. In summary, Eliade notes that,


Whatever one makes of the works of Wolfram and his successors, it is evident that the symbolism of the Grail and the scenarios it inspires represent a new spiritual synthesis that draws upon the contributions of diverse traditions. Behind this passionate interest in the Orient, one detects a profound disillusionment aroused by the Crusades, the aspiration for a religious tolerance that would have encouraged a rapprochement with Islam, and a nostalgia for a “spiritual chivalry” . . .. (107)

In the original Celtic tradition, however, and in Wolfram’s tale, human love and the yearning for sexual fulfillment were portrayed as positive values. In contrast to Chrétien’s Galahad (who achieves the Grail through ascetic denial of the flesh, because he is a virgin knight – and hence supposedly spiritually perfect), Parzival attains both his beloved, Condwiramurs, and the spiritual Grail. Wolfram portrays nuptial love as a mysterious and immensely powerful secular sacrament.

In addition there is strong evidence in the text that it is precisely conjugal passion which renders Parzival worthy of the Grail. The memory of his wife Condwiramurs not only sustains him in his wanderings, but his election to Grail King is followed almost immediately by prolonged and enthusiastic lovemaking in Condwiramurs’ forest tent. Wolfram reports: “As far as I know he enjoyed his wife’s delights until almost noon. But then the entire army arrived to find out what was going on . . . Now sleep was out of the question. The king and queen got up, and a priest said early Mass” (Wolfram 629-631). Since one suspects that “early Mass” was not generally celebrated at noon, it is obvious that Wolfram considered lovemaking a proper reason for the delay of services. Here, as elsewhere in the epic, Wolfram rejects the clerical claim that the Church is the only mediator between God and humanity. This anticlericalism can explain the unfounded suggestion that Wolfram was a Cathar.

Thus Wolfgang Spiewok, the German translator (from Middle High German) notes in his commentary: “Wolfram transforms courtly romantic love (Minne) into genuine, conjugal love: the foundation and fulfillment of marriage” (699) and, for Wolfram “God is not encountered (as clerical ideologues still insist) through asceticism and denial of the world, but rather through meaningful social relationships in the service of God” (701-2). According to Spiewok, it is Wolfram’s non-dualistic acceptance of the material world which accounted for the immense popularity of his work during the subsequent pre-Reformation centuries. If Spiewok is right, then Wolfram’s story represented a popular antidote to the prevailing dualism of the late Middle Ages.


Primary Work:

Wolfram von Eschenbach. Parzival: Mittelhochdeutsch / Neuhochdeutsch. 2 vols. Trans. Wolfgang Spiewok. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam Jun., 1981.

Secondary Works:

Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas Volume 3: From Muhammad to the Age of Reforms. Trans. Alf Hiltebeitel and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Jungmann, Joseph A. The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Sollemnia). 2. Vols. Trans. Francis R. Brunner. Westminster, ML: Christian Classics, 1986.
Kahane, Henry and Renee. The Krater and the Grail: Hermetic Sources of the Parzival. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Arthurian Tradition & Chretien de Troyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Markale, Jean. Women of the Celts. Trans. A. Mygind, C. Hauch and Peter Henry. London: Gordon Cremonesi, 1975.

Matarasso, Pauline M., trans. The Quest of the Holy Grail. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

Matthews, John. The Grail: Quest for the Eternal. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

Neumann, Erich. Die Grosse Mutter: eine Phanomenologie der weiblichen Gestaltungen des Unbewussten. 1974. Olten: Walter-Verlag, 1985.

All German texts translated by the author.

Ingrid H. Shafer email:

Copyright ?1996, Ingrid H. Shafer. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.