Who of us can resist a book or movie that features a heroic quest, especially one that features the enigmatic Holy Grail? To discover whether the grail is myth or reality, let’s take a look at the history of objects believed to have special powers. Celtic legends of magic cauldrons and ‘horns of plenty’ fueled human imagination long before the 12th century writer Chrétien de Troyes first penned the original grail story, Perceval le Gallois (known later as The Count of the Holy Grail). The horn of plenty or cornucopia, associated with Greek and Roman goddesses of good fortune, were said to bring abundance and prosperity. The original Celtic cauldron was believed to have been used by the goddess/enchantress Ceridwen to prepare three drops of inspiration that could grant knowledge and wisdom. Cauldrons were also said to have the power to grant wishes and reanimate dead soldiers so they could continue fighting. In de Troyes story, the grail was fictional and ‘wondrous,’ but it was not yet considered either real or holy. However, the story quickly took on a life of its own. As the grail changed and grew with each retelling of the story, it became very real in the minds of many.
In the late 12th century a book called Joseph d'Arimathie by Robert de Boron, connected the quest legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to the cup used by Jesus at the last supper. Supposedly Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man who was said to have buried Jesus, used the cup to catch Jesus’ blood during the crucifixion. The myth also contends that Jesus appeared in an apparition and gave the cup to Joseph, which he then transported to Glastonbury England. There, Joseph was said to have established a line of men charged with the protection of the grail. Other stories evolved, including that of the Fisher King, in which the well being of the grail’s keepers coincided with the safety of the grail. According to Sir Thomas Malory’s, book Le Morte D’arthur, the Arthurian knight, Sir Galahad, was known as a man of spiritual purity. In the story, Sir Galahad has a vision of the grail and eventually found it. His reward was said to be a mystical union with God.
Other myths claim that the grail was not a chalice or cup, but a rock that fell from heaven. The grail was also thought to be a symbol of divine grace. Although history gives us little reason to suspect that the grail is anything other than a myth, belief in its reality continues to grow. Searches have never ceased, and the quest has consumed the life and fortune of many a seeker. The grail has often been associated with the Knights Templar, and several churches claim they have this sacred vessel in their possession. Supposedly several saints have been charged with the cup’s care and have carried it all over Europe and the Middle East in their attempts to assure its safety.
Currently, grail mythology has become the focus of many conspiracy theorists. Their theories include the idea that the grail was not a cup, but the womb of Mary Magdalene, who served as a vessel to give birth to Jesus’ child and carry on his bloodline. Theorists claim this bloodline still exists through a dynasty of European rulers known as the Merovingians. Others claim the grail is actually a set of documents that expose Jesus as fully human and pull the rug from under church doctrines that claim he was God incarnate.
The grail has been the goal of both treasure seekers and spiritual seekers, but the important lesson that’s connected to the grail is not what might appear to be obvious on the surface. The belief that an object such as a caldron, cornucopia, the grail, the philosopher’s stone or the fountain of youth could magically transform us is seductive. This concept appeals strongly to our desire that something or someone outside us can, and will, save us. But sages tell us again and again that spirituality is not something that comes from outside us. It has always been an inner, ‘do-it-yourself’ experience. As the Buddha advised, “Be a lamp to yourself. Be your own confidence. Hold to the truth within yourself, as the only truth… It is you who must make the effort, masters only point the way”
Although the thought of taking part in a dramatic quest can be extremely exciting, it fools us into thinking that we can solve our problems by doing something. Still, many feel certain that spiritual growth depends on action of some sort, whether it’s good works, a spiritual practice, making a pilgrimage or going from one guru to the next. It’s true that Jesus told his followers to “Keep on asking, and it will be given to you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you,” but he was referring to an internal questioning. (Matthew 7:7) As Rumi observed, “There is nothing outside yourself, look within. Everything you want is there.” The spiritual quest is internal, a quest you can go on while sitting quietly in your room.
As the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wisely advised, “Look within, within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up if thou will ever dig…Honor the highest within yourself; it is the power on which all things depend, and the light by which all life is guided. Waste no more time talking about great souls and how they should be. Become one yourself.” The ‘sacred object’ and the ‘holy quest’ both make great story lines, but don’t offer us much of value on a spiritual level. Enjoy the heroes in books and movies, have fun watching their adventures, cheer when they find the Holy Grail, but remember that the only real treasure is within you!
Lee & Steven Hager are the authors of several books exploring the dynamic synergy of science, spirituality and gnosis including The Beginning of Fearlessness: Quantum Prodigal Son and The Gospel of Thomas: Where Science Meets Spirituality. To learn more, visit their website: http://thebeginningoffearlessness.com or follow on Twitter @LSHager