Graal, Or Grail the Holy (in old French, san greal; in old English, sancgreall; either from Fr. saint, holy, and the Celtic greall, Provencal grazal, and mediaeval Latin gradalis, a vase or cup, or from the French sang real, the "real blood " of Christ), one of the leading themes of mediaeval romance, fabled to have been the cup or chalice used by Christ in the last supper, and in which he changed the wine into his blood. This chalice, preserved by Joseph of Arimathea, had also received the blood which flowed from the side of Christ on the cross. So says the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus; but no early mention is made of it by either profane or ecclesiastical writers. In the 12th century, at the dawn of romantic literature, it reappeared as the central subject of the prophecies of Merlin, and the object of the adventurous quest of the knights of the round table. Romance mixed it up with the struggles in Spain between Moors and Christians, and with the foundation of the order of templars in Palestine. In the Arthurian romances Joseph of Arimathea (sometimes confounded with a bishop named Joseph sent by St. Augustine from Africa to England), on his arrival in Britain, consecrated his son first bishop of the island, and made his Christian relatives kings instead of the British pagan kings.
Kept in prison by the Jews during the 50 years which immediately followed the death of Christ, he had been preserved from the approaches of old age by the possession of the holy graal, and was released by the Saviour in person, who taught him the words of the mass, and bade him renew daily the sacrament of the last supper. The holy graal lay thus at the foundation of the Christian priesthood. St. Joseph of Arimathea, in some forms of the legend, was the ever-living possessor of the precious relic; in others he died after the lapse of several centuries, bestowing his authority and the holy graal on his son, who in his turn died after consecrating one of his relatives as his successor. The last possessor, a contemporary of King Arthur, unmindful of his holy trust, sinned, and forthwith the holy vessel disappeared and was lost. The knights of the round table undertook the task of recovering it; but it baffled the seekers, as no one could see it who was not a virgin in body. Lancelot of the lake had arrived at the door of the chamber where the holy graal was; warned to depart, he nevertheless ventured to look in, "and saw a table of silver and the holy vessel covered with red samite, and many angels about it, whereof one of them held a candell of wax burning, and the other held a crosse and the ornaments of the alter." Having dared to enter, a blast of fire smote him to the ground, where he lay "twenty-four days and as many nights as a dead man." It was reserved to Sir Galahad, who was possessed of perfect purity, to behold it peacefully before his death.
Immediately after this event the holy graal was taken up to heaven. In other romances Sir Percival is distinguished in the place of Sir Galahad. At a later period several churches in France and Italy claimed to possess the holy graal; and in 1101 the crusaders obtained a cup which was believed for some time to be identical with it, and which is still preserved in the cathedral of Genoa. - The Queste du Saint Graal is among the longest of live great romances composing the Arthurian cycle. The Parcival and Tltu-ral of Wolfram von Eschenbach treat the same subject. See also Tennyson's "Idyls of the King," and "History of the Holy Grail," edited from MS. by F. J. Furnivall (London, 1874).