The Holy Grail: Part 3 – St. Teresa of Avila & Other Associations

Replica of the Holy Grail at the Cathedral of Valencia, Spain. By Lancastermerrin88 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of the Holy Grail at the Cathedral of Valencia, Spain. By Lancastermerrin88 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve looked at the Celtic and Medieval evolutions of the Grail story, so now here are some odds and ends, including one theory involving my favorite saint.

The Grail story became associated with the Knights Templar in Wolfram’s Parzival. Here it is mentioned as a stone that fell from Heaven and was used as a sanctuary of the neutral angels during the battle between the armies of St. Michael and Lucifer. This becomes associated with the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy, a miraculous substance said to be able to turn metal into gold and grant immortality to the one who discovers it. This same story also gives us a detailed picture of the Grail temple, a large castle in which the Grail is housed, usually surrounded by forest or sea, accessible only by a narrow bridge.

This castle leads to one of the most bizarre associations I’ve ever seen. (I’m sure there are plenty of others.) In her book, The Holy Grail, Norma Lorre Goodrich claims that the Grail is tied to St. Teresa of Avila, and her mystical masterpiece, The Interior Castle. (For those who don’t know, I’m a bit of a superfan when it comes to St. Teresa of Avila. She’s the patron saint of writers and was an admitted hypochondriac who suffered throughout her life from anxiety, so of course I love her.) I first read The Interior Castle when I was 14 and have read it many times since, along with St. Teresa’s other works and many biographies of her life. The Interior Castle is one of the great works of Catholic mystical literature, one that I know very well.


Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany by Peter Paul Rubens [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, CC-BY-SA-2.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr (], via Wikimedia Commons

After spending a while on the etymology of the city of Castile (where St. Teresa was born)  Goodrich immediately associates the titular interior castle with the Grail castle: “Her castle of the heart and soul resembles the Grail Castle, which of course, she never would have mentioned because it was neither rejected nor accepted by the Catholic Church” (119). Actually no, she wouldn’t have mentioned it because she probably hadn’t heard of it and even if she had, it has nothing to do with her subject. The Interior Castle uses the symbolism of a castle with many levels/rooms to describe the soul’s mystical ascent to perfection and union with God.

Goodrich goes on to give a rambling, if not entirely accurate, summary of the book, marveling at how someone in the 1500s could have had such a grasp of symbolism. (Religious women of the time were highly educated. Assuming St. Teresa had some natural writing talent, I fail to understand why this is so surprising.) Then there is a strange reference to Guinevere. Speaking of another of the saint’s symbols, Goodrich writes, “To Saint Theresa, as to Queen Guinevere along the Marches into Ireland, the sacred spring dilates the soul as if bubbling from the earth it had no way to drain away, so that explains the saint, the faster the pure water bubbled, the larger the pool expanded (120-121).” I’m not sure what Goodrich is talking about here, but to St. Teresa, water is a symbol of purification and grace. The spring that runs through the castle is part of its lower (less advanced) mansions, where it serves to refresh and prepare the soul toiling toward perfection.

Stretching even further into Arthurian Grail myth, Goodrich says “The Arthurian hero Perceval comes instantly to mind in the saint’s use of the second, more commonly understood symbol, the dove” (122). Um, I LOVE Arthurian legend, but I have never once thought of any of the characters when reading about the soul being compared to a dove. As Goodrich later notes, St. Teresa’s use of the dove is meant to signify the flight of a pure soul from one mansion to another. It is a tender, innocent creature, not a reference to a character added to the legend some 400 years before, even if Perceval is the king of the Grail castle. If anyone was going to be king of Teresa’s castle, it would be Jesus, to whom the soul is “spiritually married” in the innermost mansion.

By the end of her argument, Goodrich seems to back off her direct associations a bit, implying that her only reason for mentioning Teresa is that she is one of the spiritual descendants of the Grail, just like the priestesses who once performed sacred rituals at the Grail castle (126), concluding, “Saint Theresa has written what nobody before her wrote, about such a castle as might have suited the Castle of the Holy Grail, a work so profound and so beautiful that the Grail Questers could not have failed to agree” (128). As far as I know, the only person to ever associate the Grail with Saint Teresa is Goodrich. If she is putting forth a personal Grail theory, that is her right, but it shouldn’t be written in such a way that it sounds like St. Teresa was purposefully alluding to it in her work.

As I step down off my soapbox, I hope you all have enjoyed this brief foray into the world of the Holy Grail.

What are your thoughts on Goodrich’s theory? What other Grail stories have you heard?


The Holy Grail by Norma Lorre Goodrich
King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews

The Holy Grail: Part 2 – Medieval Associations

Agate bowl at the Hofburg museum, thought to be the origin of the Holy Grail stories. Image is public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Agate bowl at the Hofburg Museum in Vienna, thought to be the origin of the Holy Grail stories. Image is public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, we looked at the possible Celtic origins of the Grail stories. This week, we’ll see how it came to be the story we know today.

Medieval Tales
By the time Chretien de Troyes came on the scene in the 1100s, the world was a much different place than in Celtic myth. For one, Christianity had taken over as the main religion of Britain. For another, the ideas of chivalry and courtly love were beginning to become popular. In Chretien’s tale, Perceval finds the grail (which is written with a small “g” and isn’t given miraculous powers). There is little description, only that it was brought into the room by a beautiful maiden. “When she entered holding the grail, so brilliant a light appeared that the candles lost their brightness like the stars or the moon when the sun rises” (quoted in Matthews 84). The story features a wounded king like the later Fisher King, a procession and questions that must be asked of the grail, but the whole story appears to be unfinished. Many speculate that Chretien died before completing it (a fear of every single writer who ever lived).

Many people believe Chretien’s grail to be more of a dish or plate than a cup or chalice. (Side note, when I was 11, I was lucky enough to visit Austrian relatives in Vienna. We visited the Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of the Habsburgs. In the museum, there is an agate dish said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper. It’s also said to have been one of the inspirations for the Holy Grail.)

Vision of the Holy Grail. Tapestry from Museum and Art Gallery of Birmingham. William Morris [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Vision of the Holy Grail. Tapestry from Museum and Art Gallery of Birmingham. William Morris [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Three people attempted to finish what Chretien started. Gautier de Danans has both Perceval and Gawain encounter the Grail, which is now clearly associated with Jesus, and also with the spear that pierced Jesus’ side (the Spear of Destiny, which can trace its mythological origins back to the spear of the Celtic god Lugh, but that’s another story). Matthews makes the point that the Christianization of the Grail shouldn’t be surprising because many of the men who expanded on the Celtic legends were Christian monks and priests (88).

The next person to add to the story was named Menasier. He identifies the spear with the centurion Longinus (Roar, anyone?) and drawing on an earlier story called Joseph of Arimathea, associates the Grail with Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to have used it to catch the blood of Jesus while preparing his body to be placed in the tomb. Around the same time, Gerbert de Monteille changed the ending to the story, having Perceval sire a line of Grail knights, a story that would later inspire Wager’s opera Parsifal.

The Vulgate Cycle
The Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian legend is five interconnected stories that tell the entire story of King Arthur. This story is attributed to Cistercian monks in the twelfth and thirteenth century. The introduction says the author had a vision of Christ in which He gave the author a book detailing the history of the Holy Grail, beginning with the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In these stories, new elements include the Grail Castle of Corbenic, the line of Grail kings, the Maimed King and the Wasteland. The third story in the series introduces the relationship between Lancelot and Elaine, which results in the birth of Galahad, who will go on to be the new hero of the Grail Quest.  By the fourth story, Galahad has his Grail procession vision and the quest as we know it begins. Lancelot, Gawain and Galahad all have adventures on the quest, and the Round Table is for the first time associated with “three great fellowships and tables” (Matthews 106), the other two being the those of the Last Supper and the Holy Grail. After many adventures, Christ appears with the Grail and gives the three knights a chance to drink from it. The last work in the cycle is primarily concerned with the story of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair. These five stories would go on to influence Malory, who would rework them into Morte D’Arthur, the story that is perhaps most recognizable to us today.

Next week, other associations with the Grail and a very strange theory involving a saint and a famous mystical work.

King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews

The Holy Grail: Part 1 – Celtic Myth

Title: "Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail" by Franz Stassen. WikiParker at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Title: “Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail” by Franz Stassen. WikiParker at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

You could easily dedicate an entire blog to the subject of the Holy Grail (and I’m sure someone has). According to Celtic/Arthurian scholar John Matthews, “there are more than 100 extant texts which deal with the subjects of Arthur and the Grail (7).

But the Grail wasn’t always part of Arthurian legend. We have 12th century French poet Chertien de Troyes to thank for adding the Grail Quest to the legends. I’m not an expert in this area, but I did do some research into the nature of the Grail for book 2, so I thought I’d share an overview of what I learned over the next few weeks.

The Grail has taken on many forms over the years. “Proposals as varied and curious in their origin in the lost continent of Atlantis to their being a memory of the krater or mixing bowl of the gods in Greek myth, have been set forward. Others have declared the Grail to be a bloodline descending from Christ and the Magdalene, the hidden treasure of the Knights Templar and the secret teaching of the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect of the twelfth century” (Matthews 40). But putting those aside, let’s look at the possible Celtic origins of the Grail and how it evolved to the chalice we think of today.

The Grail in Celtic Myth
The earliest stories don’t include the Grail at all. Many times there was a quest, oftentimes for one or more of the 13 treasures of Britain or some strange request of the gods, but those were more like warrior’s tales than the pilgrimage-like quest we think of.

Even though it is inextricably linked with Christ, the Grail may, in fact, have its origins in pre-Christian myths. In these stories, it’s not a cup or chalice, but a cauldron – the main cooking implement of the pre-Roman Celts, and therefore associated with nourishment and life-giving powers. Celtic myth has cauldrons a-plenty, the most famous of which is probably the cauldron of the goddess Ceridwen. To make a long story short, in the “Story of Taliesin,” Ceridwen cooks up a potion to make her ugly son so smart no one would notice his looks. But he never got to drink it. The boy brewing the potion was burned by the liquid and without thinking, licked his sore finger, thus ingesting all the knowledge of the world. He became Taliesin, a bard well-known for his wisdom, and thought by some to be the inspiration for or precursor to Merlin.

Tthe Gundestrup Cauldron, a Celtic style cauldron on display at the National Museum  in Denmark. Photo used with permission from Malene Thyssen,

The Gundestrup Cauldron, a Celtic style cauldron on display at the National Museum in Denmark. Photo used with permission from Malene Thyssen,

In the Preiddeu Annwn (Spoils of the In-World), Arthur is first mentioned questing for what could be the earliest direct reference to the Grail, the Cauldron of Annwn (inspiration). It was guarded by nine maidens, possibly priestesses, and it was quite a battle to get to it. Only seven of Arthur’s men returned, and we aren’t told if they ever found the cauldron, or what exactly it was.

Then there is the Cauldron of Rebirth, also commonly associated with the goddess Ceridwen. In the tale of The Mabinogion, there is a story called “The Story of Branwen.” It is here we see the cauldron as giving life back to dead warriors. They return from the Otherworld almost in a zombie-like state, for they are unable to tell anyone of their experience in the Otherworld. In this story, the hero, Bran, leads a group of warriors to find the cauldron, but it is destroyed in a fight. As in the  Preiddeu Annwn, only seven men survive (seven being a highly symbolic number).

Next week, we’ll take a look at the medieval stories of the Grail, and then delve into a truly strange theory involving St. Teresa of Avila.

What do you think of the Grail? Do you think it could date back to pre-Christian Celtic myth or is it purely a Christian relic? What have you read about the Grail, either in fiction or non-fiction?


King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews

Tyler R. Tichelaar: Searching for King Arthur in Turkey

Note from Nicole: Today’s post comes from Arthurian scholar and historical fiction author, Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. You may remember his name from a review of his book, “King Arthur’s Children,” that I did a few months ago. I’m thrilled to have him with us because he can always be counted on for thought-provoking insight into Arthurian legend. I will be in Ireland when this post runs, but Tyler is ready to respond to any comments/questions you may have.

I am honored to be a guest on Nicole Evelina’s blog. When I told her I was going to Turkey and it had Arthurian connections, she was surprised and asked me whether I would blog about my trip and those connections when I got home.

While I did not find any legitimate evidence that King Arthur ever visited Turkey, Turkey has many connections to the Arthurian legend, including being home to King Arthur’s ancestors and to many stories and relics that later figure in the Arthurian legends. In fact, I could fill many blog posts with the connections between Arthur and Turkey, but I will just briefly hit some of the highlights here and include a few photographs from my trip.

King Arthur’s Ancestors in Turkey

The ruins of Troy (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)

Who were King Arthur’s ancestors? According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was descended from Brutus, for whom Britain was named. Brutus came to Britain from Italy where he was a descendant of Aeneas, founder of Rome. Aeneas was a survivor who escaped from Troy after the city fell. Aeneas’ tale is told in The Aeneid by Virgil, and he is also mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. Aeneas was part of the Trojan royal family. Therefore, we can say that King Arthur was a Trojan. Today, it is difficult to imagine what the city of Troy must have looked like since the ruins of Troy are hardly more than small remnants of walls that remain, but even so, I found it spine-tingling to visit those ruins and imagine what it would have been like to live in Troy. Had there been no Trojan War, perhaps there would have been no King Arthur.

King Arthur’s bloodline is also often linked to the Emperor Constantine, best known for having made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Some sources claim that Constantine was father to Ambrosius Aurelianus, and some scholars think Ambrosius was the real source for King Arthur, while more typically he is depicted as King Arthur’s uncle, brother to Uther Pendragon. Since the Emperor Constantine died in 337 and Arthur traditionally is believed to have died at the Battle of Camlann circa 539, it seems unlikely that the Emperor Constantine was his grandfather, but other traditions link Arthur to Magnus Maximus who vied for the throne of Rome, and Arthur might have also been related to Constantine when it’s considered that many traditions claim Constantine’s mother, Helen, was a British noblewoman and also that Constantine was himself born in Britain. Notably, Arthur’s successor as King of Britain is also named Constantine.

Chapel built on Virgin Mary’s House near Ephesus (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)

The British chroniclers of the Middle Ages linked Constantine as a descendant from Joseph of Arimathea; Joseph prominently figures in the Grail Legends and reputedly was Jesus’ uncle and may have brought Jesus to Britain where he spent his “missing” years of childhood that are not documented in the Bible.

If King Arthur were related to Constantine, and therefore, also to Joseph of Arimathea, he may have also been related to the Virgin Mary since Joseph of Arimathea is often believed to have been Mary’s uncle (so technically Jesus’ great-uncle). Mary traveled to Turkey with the apostle John some time after the Crucifixion. She made her home near Ephesus, one of the seven churches of Revelation. Today a chapel is built upon the place where once her house is believed to have stood.

The Grail Legend
What would the Arthurian legend be without the quest for the Holy Grail? One candidate for the true Holy Grail is a chalice in Spain at the monastery of San Juan de la Peña. According to Wikipedia, archaeologists say the artifact is a 1st century Middle Eastern stone vessel, possibly from Antioch in present day Turkey.

Another holy relic associated with the Grail legends is the Lance of Longinus, which pierced Christ’s side during the Crucifixion. It is often featured with the Holy Grail in the Grail legends and is one of the items carried in a procession that Percival witnesses. This spear was brought from the Holy Land to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey) in the seventh century. It was housed in Hagia Sophia. Later it was moved to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos. The point of the lance, which was now set in an icon, was acquired by the Latin Emperor, Baldwin II of Constantinople, who later sold it to Louis IX of France.

King Arthur and the Roman Emperor

Hagia Sophia (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)

Several versions of the Arthurian legend cite Arthur’s conflict with the Roman emperor as reason for his journey to the Continent, leaving the kingdom of Britain in Mordred’s hands. Of course, Rome fell in 476 and usually Arthur is seen as living after this date. Therefore, it is more likely that it is the Byzantine Emperor who demands fealty from Arthur. The Byzantine Empire was also in decline in the 5th century but reached its greatest extent during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (527-565), placing him as emperor toward the end of Arthur’s reign, so I suspect Justinian’s increasing power may have been reason for him demanding fealty from a former Roman province such as Britain; therefore, I suspect he is the emperor with whom Arthur has a conflict. The term Byzantine was not applied until recent times by historians, while the medieval chroniclers would have thought of the Byzantine Emperor as the Roman Emperor—especially since there would have been no Holy Roman Emperor until Charlemagne in 800 A.D.

Emperor Justinian

In addition, Parke Godwin in his novel Beloved Exile (1984) about Guinevere’s life after the Battle of Camlann has her end up at the Court of the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. Constantinople at that time would have been the most resplendent and important city in Christendom.

Anachronistic King Arthur Tales in Turkey
Believe it or not, there is a legend that claims that King Arthur piloted an ark (just like Noah did) during the Deluge (see Noah’s ark reputedly ended up on top of Mt. Ararat in modern day Turkey. There’s no word where Arthur’s ark ended up. Perhaps Arthur was a time traveler, since the Great Flood would have taken place about 6,000 years before Arthur lived.

Another interesting anachronism is the tale of “The Turke and Sir Gawain” which can be read at: The Turks were not known to Western Europeans really until five centuries after Arthur’s time when they entered modern day Turkey and defeated the Byzantine Emperor in 1071. They continued as an increasing threat to Christendom and Europe through their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This poem was composed about 1500 when the Ottoman Empire ruled by the Turks was at its height and a severe threat to Christendom, so the modern day Turkish threat was cast upon the Arthurian legend.

Therefore, a good case can be made for the significant relationship between the land of Turkey and its people and their influence on the Arthurian legend. Finally, if my Turkey-King Arthur connections are not convincing enough, perhaps you would prefer some good cooking. A quick search on the Internet will find plenty of recipes for using King Arthur Flour to make various turkey dishes including turkey and dumplings:

Tyler R. Tichelaar

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is a scholar and novelist on the Arthurian legend. You can visit him at his blog and his website