England’s Dreaming #5 – The Holy Grail

So we’re still wandering through the byways of myths and legends, and today my dyed-in-the-wool Methodism is going to come out. Because we’re heading into some distinctly Christian – specifically Catholic – folklore, and I’m sorry but I’m a child of the Reformation. And that’s why, when we head into Dan Brown territory, a nerve ending in the corner of my eye starts to twitch, and as we find ourselves on a Grail quest, boy is it twitching!

Because the Holy Grail isn’t in the Bible, or at least not in any direct way – Jesus coins the wine/blood symbolism at the Last Supper but there’s no great description of a Grail, they just use a cup to drink from. Boring and conventional I know, but there you go. No, the Holy Grail is basically a medieval plot device.

See, somewhere between 1181 and 1190, a French poet called Chretian de Troyes wrote Perceval: The Story of the Grail. During the poem, Perceval manages to impress King Arthur, fall in love, meets the Fisher King and has a vision of the Grail. Here it’s an object of power, capable of healing the Fisher King if only Perceval asks the right questions – which he fails to do. It’s nothing to do with the Bloodline of Christ, it’s just the cup that the King’s communion is carried in, important because that’s the only food and drink he’s receiving.

The Grail became holy around a decade later, when Robort de Boron fills in the gaps of its history – Joseph of Arimathea uses the cup from the Last Supper to collect some of Christ’s blood after the crucifixion, eventually making his way to Britain (which links in with an early tradition that had Joseph and a bunch of other minor characters from the Gospels making their way across Europe, as well as being the source of the idea that Jesus once visited England as a boy – cue Jerusalem). None of this really has anything to do with the Bible – effectively it’s New Testament fanfic. Somewhere along the line the Grail became the object of a quest carried out by Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and it became enshrined in literature as a sacred macguffin.

However, things get squinky.

Because in French, ‘Holy Grail’ is ‘San Greal’… But ‘Sang Real’ is ‘Royal Blood’. And that’s where we enter conspiracy theory territory, because when you’re talking about Christianity, ‘Royal Blood’ can only really refer to that of Jesus. And in some interpretations, the Grail is seen as a metaphor for a secret – that Christ survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdelene, and had a daughter, the Royal Bloodline. This theory came to public attention in the eighties, but Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code brought it to a mass audience. After all, if you assume this secret is a threat to powerful people, then you’ve got yourself the ingredients of an airport thriller novel with very short chapters.

Thing is, it claims more historical accuracy than it probably should have.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll just rant about one particular thing – the whole Mary Magdelene thing is fanfic. In the Bible, she’s someone Jesus healed and who became one of his followers; she was also the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection. However, in 591, Pope Gregory made a speech that assumed a bunch of women in the New Testament were, in fact, the same person, leading to the assumption that Mary Magdelene was a former prostitute (they eventually corrected the mistake in 1969). In contrast to this, the Gospel of Philip implies that she may have been in a relationship with Jesus – leading to the male disciples complaining of favouritism. This is one of the earliest sources for the whole Bloodline of Christ thing, but the problem is that the Gospel of Philip is way later than the four canonical gospels (basically, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the standard gospels, being the earliest – or based on the earliest – documents. The apocryphal gospels are a lot later and are often out-of-character – back to the fanfic analogy).

That said, I think I can see why the sacred bloodline thing is attractive to some people, and it’s not about Jesus (because, theologically speaking, the whole Jesus story falls apart without the crucifixion/resurrection – any claims for Him being a good moral teacher are blown out the water by that, as His understanding of what he was here to do is based within that context – without that, the bloodline thing stops being ‘holy’ and just becomes about some bloke who had some kids), although it would deal a death-blow to the foundations of Christianity and quite a few people would be down with that. But no, I think part of the reason the Bloodline thing caught on is the importance it gives to Mary Magdelene.

See, historically speaking women have had a raw deal from organised religion. In this particular context, it hasn’t exactly been helped by the way in which Catholicism developed the back-stories of the two ‘main’ Marys – Jesus mother became a sinless eternal virgin, Mary Magdelene became a prostitute, the maiden and the hooker, two almost stereotypical (and somewhat sexist) views of women (neither of which have much biblical evidence – for instance, after the Virgin Birth there’s no suggestion that Jesus’s brothers and sisters were anything other the normal result of a relationship between Mary and Joseph).

So when the bloodline story puts Mary Magdelene front and centre, it’s almost as if it’s addressing an injustice – and maybe the Grail’s symbolic nature here represents the quest for a religion that doesn’t prop up patriarchal systems. And maybe in some ways it succeeds in that – The Da Vinci Code debunking is the reason I learned about Mary not being a prostitute, for instance.

But while I agree that the Church has some issues it needs to face (although I’m Methodist, we have no problem with women ministers, priesthood of all believers and all that), I’m not big on using the Grail to bring pull the rug from under Christianity. Because despite what has been done to the message down the years, the story of Christ is still powerful and moving and world-changing and transformative… And the conspiracy theories aren’t. There’s a reason that, in the earliest story, the Grail is symbolic of a power that can heal a near mortal wound.

In the end, the Grail is a plot device, a quest, a journey; maybe even the journey we’re all on. And if nothing else, it should tell us to ask the right questions while we’re on that journey. Because that’s when the purpose of the journey becomes clear.

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