Photo: Holy grail painting

This 1895 painting by Edwin Austin Abbey shows the Arthurian knight Sir Galahad discovering the fabled Holy Grail. The famous chalice earned its spiritual power as the cup used by Jesus Christ during the Last Supper.

Photograph by Burstein Collection/CORBIS

By Richard A. Lovett

In the Bible, the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper is little more than a prop, given no particular prominence. But over the centuries, the fate of this now legendary vessel, the so-called Holy Grail, has come to haunt stories ranging from Arthurian legend to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Because Jesus used the cup during the Last Supper in what became the basis for the Christian Eucharist, the Grail has for many taken on the aura of an extremely holy relic.

The Grail takes on even greater significance from tales that Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus was placed prior to his resurrection, used the cup to collect Jesus' blood while he was being crucified.

Theories abound as to where the cup eventually went. One says the Knights Templar, a medieval military order that persisted for more than 200 years, took it from Jerusalem during the Crusades.

There's also a story in which Joseph carries the Grail to Glastonbury, England, a Roman outpost at the time of Christ's crucifixion. In 1906, in fact, a blue bowl claimed by some to be the Grail was found there, and since then at least four other cups have been proclaimed to be the Grail, two from England and Wales and two from the Middle East.

But the reality, says historian Richard Barber, author of The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, is that the Grail stories are just that—stories.

'Poet With a Remarkable Imagination'

"The whole thing is basically the imagination of a 12th-century poet," he says.

The poet, Chrétien de Troyes, created the initial, "fairly unspecific" story, Barber says, as a way of examining the theology of the Roman Catholic Mass.

"That may sound terribly obscure," he says, "but in the 12th century, the nearest you got to drama, theater, and spectacle, if you were an ordinary person, was the celebration of Mass."

In working through his story, Barber says, Chrétien worked backward from his own time to the time of Christ. "So you've got a poet with a remarkable imagination who invents the idea of the Grail."

In fact, Barber says, the most remarkable thing about the legend is simply the fact that the story appears to have originated with a single writer. "There are so many people out there looking for the thing," he says. "Actually it's more exciting that someone can imagine something in the 12th century ... that is still a hot concept 800 years later."

Not that this means there wasn't a cup. But even if it still exists, Barber asks, how would you know if you found it? "You are not going to come up with a cup with a neat label tied around it saying 'This is the cup of the Last Supper, guaranteed authentic.'"

Archaeologist Fred Hiebert, a National Geographic Society fellow, agrees. "I'm always interested in finding remains of ancient people, especially pottery or metal vessels," he says. But when it comes to linking any such object to a specific legend or biblical story? "We can't do it."

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