Symbols of the Grail Procession and Ritual

Parsifal:  Wer ist der Gral?
Gurnemanz: Das sagt sich nicht;
doch, du selbst zu ihm erkoren,
bleibt dir die Kunde unverloren.
[Parsifal, Act I]  
The Grail's secret must be concealed
And never by any man revealed ...
[The Elucidation, lines 4-5.]  

The Hallows of the Grail Castle

A characteristic feature of the medieval Grail romances is the atmosphere of mystery that surrounds the Grail. It is a mystical talisman of which one usually may not speak, although the knowledge of it may be revealed to those worthy of the revelation. The Grail appears in a procession, details of which differ in various versions of the visit of the Quester (Gawain, Perceval, etc.) to the Grail castle, in which it is accompanied by other mysterious objects.

In her ground-breaking study From Ritual to Romance Jessie Laidlay Weston drew attention to the relationship between four of these occult symbols (sometimes called the Grail Hallows), and the suits of the Tarot cards. A Tarot pack contains four suits of cards: Cups, Wands, Swords and Dishes (or Pentangles or Pentacles).


Card from the Rider-Waite tarot: ace of cups

The Grail is variously described as a cup or deep dish. In the earlier Grail romances, the word graal is not explained, perhaps because the readers could be expected to be familiar with the word. Not long after Chrétien wrote his poem, the monk Hélinand of Froidmont defined the similar word gradale as meaning scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda, a wide and slightly deep dish. Only later, in Robert de Boron's Joseph of Arimathea, was the Grail identified with a cup or chalice. The Grail in the Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach is a stone that fell from heaven but which, strangely, retains the association with food that is more natural in versions where it is a dish or cup. In the Perlesvaus the Grail can appear in any one of five different forms. Scholars have proposed that the original Grail was either a magic cauldron or a horn of plenty or cornucopia.


Card from the Rider-Waite tarot: ace of wands

The bleeding lance of the Grail castle is another curious feature of the Grail romances. Quite early in the development of the story, it was identified with the lance of Longinus that had pierced the side of Christ. Thus it suggests a link between the wound of the Maimed King, if dealt by the lance, and that of Christ. Originally, however, the bleeding lance was probably a magic weapon. The bleeding is described either as a continuous stream of blood (as in Wolfram) or a single drop (as in Chrétien) or as three drops.

J essie Laidlay Weston concluded that the cup and the lance were sexual symbols, pointing to a relationship between the story of the Grail castle and ancient fertility rites (which she thought might be of Gnostic or Cathar origin). She noted that, in some of the Gawain versions of the tale, the lance appeared upright in the Grail, so that the cup received the blood. This suggests that the Grail is somewhat larger than a normal cup; in the Perlesvaus, a later development of the story, where the blood also runs into the Grail, Gawain sees a chalice within the Grail. R.S.Loomis drew attention to certain similarities between the lance of the Grail castle and the spear that appears in the tale of the Irish hero Brian, from the Fate of the Children of Turenn, which stands inverted in a magic cauldron.


Card from the Rider-Waite tarot: ace of swords

Another magical weapon is the sword that appears in most of the accounts of the Grail procession. In some versions it seems to have been the sword, rather than the lance, that injured the Maimed King, or felled the dead knight, so causing the wasting of the land. The task of the Quester, whether Gawain or Perceval, may be to ask a significant Question, or it may be to mend a broken sword.

open quotes As students are well aware, the Sword of the Grail romances is a very elusive and perplexing feature. It takes upon itself various forms; it may be a broken sword, the re-welding of which is an essential condition of achieving the quest; it may be a 'presentation' sword, given to the hero on his arrival at the Grail castle, but a gift of dubious value, as it will break, either after the first blow, or in an unspecified peril, foreseen, however, by its original maker. Or it may be the sword with which John the Baptist was beheaded; or the sword of Judas Maccabeus, gifted with self-acting powers; or a mysterious sword as estranges ranges, which may be identified with the the preceding weapon. close quotes

[J.L.Weston, The Quest of the Holy Grail.]

It has been suggested by various commentators that the motif of the broken sword is derived from an Irish tale in the Finn cycle. The hero Cailte and a companion enter an Otherworld castle where the host was Fergus Fair-hair. The host asked Cailte to repair a broken sword that the Tuatha Dé Danaan had refused to mend. He did so, and also mended a spear and a javelin. Fergus revealed that each of these weapons was destined to destroy one of the enemies of the gods. After three days, Cailte and two companions left with the weapons. They came to a castle of woman where they were attacked by the enemies of the gods; in the battle, each of the three weapons destroyed one of the enemies.


Pentagram Card from the Rider-Waite tarot: ace of dishes

In Chrétien's account of the Grail procession, it contains a tailléor, or carving dish, of silver. In the Didot Perceval there are two of these dishes. In Wolfram's account, there are instead two silver knives; it has been suggested that Wolfram had some difficulty in translating the word tailléor, although Jessie Weston noted that two knives were associated with the relic of the Holy Blood at the Abbey of Fescamp, and thus related to the Grail in its Christian form.

Celtic Treasures

The Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danaan

It has been suggested that the symbols of the Grail procession might have been originally among the treasures of the Shining Ones, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, of Irish legend. The four treasures were:

  • Stone of Fál (Lia Fáil)
  • Spear of Lug
  • Sword of Núada
  • Cauldron of the Dagda

There is, however, no direct relationship between the bleeding lance and the spear of Lug (which R.S. Loomis identified with the Lúin of Celtchar), nor does the Grail resemble a cauldron (such as the inexhaustible cauldron of the Dagda) in any of the Grail romances, where it is variously described as a broad dish, a cup or (in one case) a stone.

The Thirteen Treasures of Britain

A Welsh document from the early 15th century contains a list of thirteen treasures of Britain. If the origin of this list is much older, then it might be a clue to the Celtic origins of some of the symbols of the Grail procession. One of the treasures is the Horn of Brân Galed, which has the property of never being exhausted and that would provide provide any food or drink on request, one of the many magic vessels of Celtic myth. As early as 1888, Alfred Nutt proposed that the Welsh god Brân was the prototype of the Fisher King, and since then many writers have identified Brân, son of Llŷr, with Robert de Boron's Bron.

Card from the Rider-Waite tarot: Magician with Hallows

The list also includes the dish of Rhydderch (a historic king of Strathclyde in the 6th century) which has the interesting property that it grants whatever food is desired. There is also a cauldron, which might be the same one that appears in poem The Spoils of Annwn; it has the property that it will not boil the food of a coward. R.S.Loomis suggested that this might be the distant origin of a feature in the Prose Lancelot, where the Grail serves food to all except Gawain, who had been judged (by the Grail?) unworthy.

The wall painting found in a cave beneath the castle of Montréal-de-Sos. Right: the wall painting found in a cave beneath the castle of Montréal-de-Sos. It is assumed to refer to a Cathar initiation rite.

The Cathar Initiation Rite

Jessie Laidlay Weston (1850-1928) held the view that central elements of the Grail romances had originated in eyewitness accounts of initiation ceremonies in which certain mysterious symbols played an important part. In 1932, in a cave below the fortress of Montréal-de-Sos near Tarascon, there was found a wall-painting which, it was suggested, was of Cathar origin and dated from the 12th century. It shows a lance, a broken sword, a solar disk, many red crosses and a square panel. The latter contains an inner square. The outer part of the panel, which might represent a table or altar, contains twenty crosses in various forms on a black background; the inner part contains five tear-shaped drops of blood and five white crosses. If the inner part corresponds to the tailléor, then we have all four symbols of the Grail procession.

The Strange Ritual

In discussions of the strange events that are seen by the Quester at the Grail Castle, as they vary between the Grail Romances, it is easy to lose sight of the central point. The varying details do not really matter; what does matter is that the Quester sees a strange ritual, involving various ritual objects, of which he understands nothing.

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