The Grail is a Spiritual mystery in the Western esoteric tradition. The Grail is a pagan story which became Christianized but retained much of its pagan imagery and symbolism. The Grail is a gateway to Paradise, a point of contact with a supernatural and spiritual realm. It possesses unlimited healing power and makes possible a direct apprehension of the Divine.

As a pagan image, the Grail is a cup of regeneration, the vessel in which the life of the world is preserved and which symbolizes the body of the Goddess or Great Mother. In its Christianized form, the Grail is the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper and which held his blood following the crucifixion. It is not known whether such an object truly existed or exists, and there is no definitive image of it.

As a spiritual mystery, the Grail represents regeneration through Christ’s teachings; in medieval belief, blood embodied the soul and in Christ’s case, even his divinity. Various versions of the Grail legend exist. The first written texts appeared toward the end of the 12th century and were popular through the 14th century, though it is likely that the story existed earlier in oral pagan tradition.

An account attributed to the sixth-century Celtic bard Taliesin but appearing 400 years after his life tells of a magic cauldron in Annwn, the Otherworld. The cauldron, guarded by nine maidens, is sought by King Arthur’s men. As versions of the core story proliferated, elements of classical and Celtic mythology, Christian iconography, Arabic poetry, and Sufi teachings were incorporated.

The Grail was first identified with the Last Supper in about 1190. The Grail was never fully accepted in Catholic apocrypha, but neither was it denied nor labeled as heretical. Probably it was never fully accepted because it could not be identified with a relic, although lore held that the Grail cup was kept hidden by the order of the knights templar in the castle of Muntsalvaesch (thought to be Montsegur).

The Grail became widely popular in medieval chivalric lore. Its symbolisms were absorbed into rosicrucian esoterica. According to a Christian version of the Grail Story, Joseph of Arimathea is charged with preparing Christ’s body for the tomb. He has obtained the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, and while he washes the body, he uses the cup to catch blood which flows from the wounds.

When the body of Christ disappears from the tomb, Joseph is accused of stealing it and is jailed without food. Christ appears to him, puts the cup in his care, and teaches him various mysteries, including the Mass. Joseph remains alive in prison by a mysterious dove which appears every day and leaves a wafer in the cup.

After his release in 70, according to one version, Joseph travels to Britain, where he founds the first Christian church at Glastonbury, dedicated to Mary, mother of Christ. He enshrines the Grail in the church. The Chalice Well at Glastonbury also is associated with the Grail. Its iron and mineral-laced waters have been considered a sacred healing spring.

In another version, Joseph passes the Grail to Bron, his sister’s husband, who becomes the Rich Fisher when he feeds many from the cup with a single fish. The company goes to Avaron (perhaps Avalon, the Otherworld of Arthurian lore) and waits for a new Grail keeper.

The Grail is housed in a temple on Muntsalvaesch, the Mountain of Salvation. It is guarded by an Order of Grail Knights. The grail keeper, who is king, is wounded in the thighs or genitals by a spear (associated with the spear wounds of Christ). The causes of the wound are varied, but the result is that the kingdom withers and becomes the Waste Land; it can only be restored when the king is restored to health (a motif common in folk and fairy tales).

Thus begin the Arthurian quests for the Grail. At Pentecost, the Grail appears floating in a sunbeam to the Knights of the Round Table, who pledge to find it. The quests are initiations. Galahad the pure, Perceval the fool, and Bors the humble are the only knights to find the Grail. Lancelot, stained by his impure love for Queen Guinevere, fails. Perceval finds the wounded king and is asked the ritual question that can heal him: “Whom does the Grail serve?” The answer is not given, but it is the king. Perceval answers correctly, the king heals and is permitted to die, and the Waste Land is restored.

The three knights then travel East to Sarras, the Heavenly City, where they celebrate the mysteries of the Grail, and a Mass is said using the Grail. Galahad dies in sanctity and the Grail ascends to heaven. Perceval takes the king’s place, and Bors returns to Camelot.

Early origins of the Grail legend may be found in the ancient and universal motif of sacred vessel as a symbol of power and the source of miracles. Such vessels, feminine symbols, are in Vedic, Egyptian, classical and Celtic mythology, and various mystery traditions as cups or cauldrons of inspiration, rebirth, and regeneration. In Tibetan Buddhism, a corollary is found in the human skulls that represent vessels of transformation.

In alchemy, the Grail is represented by the philosopher’s stone, a symbol of unification with God. The Grail also is represented by other feminine symbols, such as a dish, a womb, or another stone. One version of the legend, Parzival, finished in 1207 by Wolfram von Eschenbach, said the Grail was an emerald that fell from Lucifer’s crown during his battle with God and was brought to Earth by angels. Carl G. Jung said that the story of the Grail remains psychically alive in modern times, coming to the fore in times of collective need.

The Grail quest is a search for truth and the real Self and may be seen as a paradigm of the modern spiritual journey to restore the Waste Land and become whole again. There are many paths to the Grail. According to lore, the Grail may be seen only by those who have attained a certain spiritual consciousness, who have raised themselves above the limitations of the senses.



  • Hall, Manly P. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. 1928. Reprint, Los Angeles: The Philosophic Research Society, 1977.
  • Jung, Emma, and Marie-Louise von Franz. The Grail Legend. 1960. Reprint, Boston: Sigo Press, 1986.
  • Matthews, John. The Grail: Quest for the Eternal. New York: Crossroad, 1981.
  • Matthews, John (ed.). At the Table of the Grail: Magic and the Use of Imagination. 1984. Reprint, London: Arkana, 1987.

The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.