The Chalice of Magdalene – Is this the Holy Grail?
On January 12th this year BBC News ran a story concerning Mary Magdalene, the woman depicted as a close companion of Jesus in the New Testament. The Vatican has elevated her status amongst the saints to equal that of Jesus’ male disciples, and a major new movie about her life, staring Rooney Mara ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), is soon to be released. Most people will be familiar with this biblical character thanks to novelist Dan Brown, who suggests that she was Jesus’ wife. The Church, of course, vehemently denies such a notion, and it is certainly not found anywhere in the Bible. However, since the Middle Ages, Mary’s portrayal in a different but equally illustrious role has all but been forgotten: she was guardian of the Chalice of Magdalene— a biblical artifact that may have been the original Holy Grail.
The Immortality of the Grail
Today the Holy Grail is usually considered to be the cup said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper. According to the Bible, Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples shortly before he was arrested, tried, and condemned to death. According to legend, one of Jesus’ followers, Joseph of Arimathea, used the same cup to collect a few drops of Christ’s blood during the Crucifixion, thus bestowing it with sacred power. Those who drank from it, it was said, could be cured of all ills, and even attain immortality. The Da Vinci Code portrayed the Grail as merely a symbolic representation of Jesus’ purported bloodline through a secret marriage to Mary Magdalene, but in the original traditions the Grail was neither of these.
The Tales of King Arthur
When the Grail first appears in literature – at least the oldest surviving literature – it is in the stories of King Arthur. The earliest is in the work of the French poet Chrétien de Troyes around 1190, who describes the relic as a golden plate set with precious stones. As the story remained unfinished upon the author’s death, nothing is revealed concerning the Grail’s origins. Nevertheless, we are told that to eat from it prolongs life indefinitely. Meanwhile, in Germany, another Arthurian romance was composed by the author Wolfram von Eschenbach, in which he depicts the Grail as a magical stone that somehow both nourishes and grants wisdom to those who possess it. And in Britain, an anonymous Welsh tale called Peredur depicts the Grail as a severed head – whose, we are not told - that imparts words of wisdom. There are medieval works in which the Grail is said to be various other items, including a carving of Christ, a book, even the bones of the Virgin Mary.
The origin of the word Grail is unclear. Despite Dan Brown’s popularization of the theory that the Old French San Graal (meaning “Holy Grail”) comes from the words sang réal - "royal blood" - most literary scholars believe it to have originated with Medieval Latin word gradalis, meaning a dish or container. Whatever its origin, by the early 1200s the word had become firmly associated with any especially holy relic thought to have had links with the historical Jesus. It was only in the later Middle Ages that the Grail came to be regarded exclusively as the cup of the Last Supper, as authors increasingly followed the lead of the oldest known work to portray it as such: Joseph d'Arimathe by the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron around the year 1200.
As in other Arthurian tales, Robert has the Grail sought by Arthur’s knights in order to cure the king of an ailment that prevents him from effectively ruling Britain. Many medieval Arthurian romances have one of Arthur’s knights, usually Perceval, discovering the Grail in a chapel in a place called the White Castle, found in the White Town.
Sir Perceval and the Grail Maiden by the nineteenth-century German artist Ferdinand Piloty. (Revista Eco )
White Castle in White Town
In England, there is indeed a castle referred to during the Middle Ages by this very name. Built of light-colored stone, from which it gets its name, it is in the village of Whittington in the county of Shropshire, close to the border between England and Wales. Moreover, the name Whittington actually comes from early English, meaning, literally, White Town.
The White Castle at Whittington. (Photography by Deborah Cartwright)
In the early 1200’s, the owner of this castle, a baron by the name of Fulk Fitz Warine, became the subject of an anonymously-composed romantic tale entitled Fulke le Fitz Waryn in which Whittington Castle is specifically associated with both the Arthurian story and the Holy Grail. Understandably, because this and other Arthurian romances reference “the White Castle in the White Town,” local tradition has long associated the place with the Grail legend. Fascinatingly, in the mid-1800’s, a direct descendant of Fulk Fitz Warine claimed that his family had owned the Grail for centuries and that he still possessed it. He was a Shropshire antiquarian named Thomas Wright. (The Fitz Warines were ancestors on his mother’s side.)