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The Grail Legend: Pagan Origins

By Mark Adderley

In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the Holy Grail is the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. It was later used to collect the blood of Christ, and is sought by all the knights of the Round Table. But achievement of this quest is reserved for the very best—not those who excel in martial deeds, in combat and in tournament, but those whose devotion to God is strongest. Malory’s version of the quest for the Holy Grail is the one that is best known today, and so it comes as a great shock to first-time readers of Arthurian literature that the oldest stories of the Grail are barely, if at all, Christian. Certainly, the Grail as it first appears has little to do with the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, or the Christian sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. How it came to be that way is a long and complex story.

The earliest texts that contain something like the Grail are Celtic—that is, Irish and Welsh—mythological stories. How pagan Celtic stories came to appear in the France of the Middle Ages is a fascinating story in itself; the eminent Arthurian scholar of the early twentieth century, R. S. Loomis, has argued that pagan Irish stories were transmitted through Wales to Brittany, in northern France, and from Brittany into France, where they were Christianized; the remnants of the pagan stories can be detected through the veneer of Christian piety.

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