14.10.15

TRACKING THE GRAIL

Simon Andrew Sinclair. The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion. Moon Books, 2015.

Even though the word is around a thousand years old, there is still magic in it. It is still used to evoke the pinnacle of humankind’s achievements; the sine qua non in any and every field of endeavour. Thought by many to be the vessel from which Jesus Christ drank at the Last Supper and that His blood was collected in at His crucifixion, the very first story that we know of that mentions it by name actually made reference to a type of serving dish with compartments normally for sweetmeats and delicacies for the nobility. 

Chrétien de Troyes was possibly a herald-at-arms at the court of Marie de France, who was his patron. His final, unfinished work, Perceval, le Conte du Graal, includes a description of the sacred platter. It is detailed enough to lead at least one researcher to claim that they have found the original upon which de Troyes’ grail was based. The plate in question is the Patène de Serpentine which can be found in the Département des Objets d'art, Haut Moyen Age of the Louvre Museum in Paris. This was not used to serve elaborate or rare food as such; rather it was apparently used as a paten, a plate to hold communion wafers, for the French royal court. It also has inlaid fishes; once a popular early Christian symbol. It is reckoned that de Troyes caught sight of this and he was impressed enough to use it as the model for his fictional plate. Although far from conclusive, this looks like the best and most prosaic candidate for a “real” Grail to date.

This work attempts to cover widely-varying aspects of the Grail mystery. The author describes the physical manifestations of it, the spiritual, numinous nature of it and, finally, the scientific basis that any object claiming to be the Grail may have associated with it. There is also a strong current running through that claims that a historical King Arthur was based, along with the deeds associated with him, in Scotland. The thrust of this evidence is the subject of another volume. This tome has some endnotes and sources of importance that were referred to in the writing of it, but no index; always confusing where a nonfiction book is concerned. It was also written as a part work and published on a blog over the course of one year. There is enough repetition for some tighter editing to have been carried out.

This book concerns itself with just about every piece of grail-related information that can be found - and then some. The reader is introduced early on to the metaphysical writings of Eugène Ionesco and TS Eliot. They then find themselves passed along a chain of ideas with great rapidity. Some of these chains barely stop to give the reader a chance to find detailed and nuanced concepts, and some of these concepts do deserve some perusal. For example, Stirling mentions a tenuous link with Mithraism and symbols relating to “grail”-related tales from Welsh and Irish mythology. There is then a leap to associating this with the now-notorious Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. According to the writer, “Rosslyn Chapel stands above the river North-Esk in Midlothian near Edinburgh. Mithraic iconography has been detected among the profusion of carvings which adorn the chapel’s walls and ceiling, leading to the suggestion that this quirky ‘Grail Chapel’ was built over an ancient Mithraeum”.

I have every confidence that the reader will ask “What Mithraic iconography? Who suggested that it was a ‘Grail Chapel’?”. I also feel duty-bound to add that, when he does use sources, one of them is Dan Brown. This alone really does not inspire confidence. The ‘science’ involved here is very much of the metaphysical, seeping into references to alchemy. This work seems to be aimed at pagans, with large parts of the text devoted to the supposed spiritual and scientific concepts associated with the sacred vessel, but there is almost nothing about any material grail, as the idea of the Grail is what is considered relevant. - Trevor Pyne

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