Photograph by Burstein Collection/CORBIS
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."
Lasers have cut through previously unknown images of the Christian Apostles in a fourth-century-A.D. Roman catacomb.
A team of evangelical Christian explorers are "99.9 percent" sure they've found Noah's ark in Turkey. Others, well, aren't.
For centuries, people have tried in vain to locate and recover the Bible's most sacred objects. Among the most sought-after of these religious antiquities is the famed Ark of the Covenant.
Recent finds may help reveal who wrote the scrolls. For starters, they may hail from the purported home of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Explore Nat Geo
Investigate a murder in Cleopatra's palace.
Use forensic archaeology to solve the death of China's first emperor.
How much do you know about the ancient Mesoamerican Maya civilization?
National Geographic Magazine
Rome’s border walls were the beginning of its end.
How did the Easter Island statues move? That question puzzles archaeologists—and modern-day islanders.
Archaeologists and artists, armed with the latest tools and techniques, are bringing the life-size army of painted clay soldiers back to life.
Shop Our Space Collection
The Great Energy Challenge is a National Geographic initiative to help you understand our current energy situation. Explore the GEC to figure out and trim your carbon footprint.