Grail Stories

Last year, in Valencia, I saw the Holy Grail. It wasn’t a big deal.

At the city cathedral is a chalice, the Santo Caliz, that is purported to be the very cup that Jesus Christ held at the Last Supper. The cup that Joseph of Arimathea held up to Christ on the cross. Indiana Jones, the knights of King Arthur, and Robert Langdon turned the globe inside out looking for this thing, and here it is just in a museum. Big signs throughout the cathedral point tourists its way: “HOLY GRAIL” written in nine languages. And you don’t have to do anything to see it other than pay the six-euro entrance fee. It’s a remarkably ordinary transaction for something that’s supposed to have had Jesus’s blood in it.

The cup — a semisphere of polished dark agate, Oriental in design, and studded with gems — is housed in a special chapel, once used for the burial of bishops, and presented to visitors through a gilded prism. You sit in the pews and you look at it. Around you, frescoes relate Bible stories: Moses receiving the Ten Commandments; Jesus crowning his mother in Heaven. Indiana Jones was wrong, by the way, when he picked that Christ in His humility would elect to drink from a musty old carpenter’s cup. This thing in Valencia is dishware par decadence. I don’t know what you’d feel comfortable drinking from it — money?

Cathedral brochures make the case for why this cup should be considered the Holy Grail. The Cathedral can trace the cup’s custody to 1399, when it was given to the Spanish kings. Prior to that, it is postulated, the cup was possessed by a succession of popes, who used it to celebrate Mass, until the eight-century invasion of the Umayyad Caliphate prompted them to hide the sacred relic in the Pyrenees. The popes received the chalice, so the story goes, from Saint Lawrence, who got it from Saint Peter, who boosted it at the break-up of the Last Supper like a fan grabbing a band’s set list from the stage.

In 1960, the archaeologist Antonio Beltrán dated the chalice to the first century B.C. On that basis, it’s considered the most likely candidate to be the actual cup from which Christ drank. The Cathedral assumes the tacit recognition of the Vatican: in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated with it and called it a “famous chalice”; in 1982, Pope John Paul II gave it a kiss.

Whether this is the cup of Christ or not, it’s a relic of extraordinary provenance — and on exhibit in Valencia, it is so thoroughly normalised. The quest for the Holy Grail, a literary perennial, concludes pretty snappily in the twenty-first century, with a ticket and an audio guide.

The keeper of the Grail isn’t an immortal knight or the Fisher King but a guy who sometimes replies “Thank you!” to reviews of the Grail on TripAdvisor. In general, the Holy Grail does good but not great on TripAdvisor: it’s ranked the 17th best thing to do in the city, coming in behind the aquarium, sixteen room escape games all tied for third, and renting a bike.

When tourists pass through the Chapel of the Grail, a few take a seat and wear quiet, yellow headphones around their necks, wondering perhaps what is the respectful amount of time to genuflect before the Holy Grail before you can go and get tapas.

How mad Sir Lancelot of the Round Table would have been at this whole situation. Arthurian legend supposes the Grail was taken from the leftovers of the Last Supper not by Saint Peter, as Valencia would have it, but Joseph of Arimathea, who then filled it with Christ’s blood. When he was later trapped in a cave for years, he sipped on that to sustain himself. The blood of Christ naturally conferred health and everlasting life; though you wonder if Joseph knew that or if he was like the first guy to try drinking the stuff coming out of a cow’s udders.

After that, Joseph purportedly traveled to England and stashed the Grail somewhere secret so knights could go and find it if they ever got bored.

King Arthur tasked Lancelot and his noble knights with finding the Grail, as they were sitting around the Round Table not doing anything and Arthur was over it. In the end, it was Lancelot’s son, pure-hearted Sir Galahad, who found the Grail, and upon the mere sight of its glory was delivered unto rapturous ecstasy. What I’ve just seen is so stupendous, Galahad decided, that I would like nothing more now than to die. Angels then carried him into Heaven.

The Failure of Sir Lancelot.

Poor Lancelot, on the other hand, poured his heart out into the Grail quest, but was not permitted even to cast eyes upon it, because he was an adulterer, and thus insufficiently chivalrous. Denied its divinity for the simple crime of being a knight who fucked. For following his heart and loving Queen Guinevere, he suffered unspeakable religious torment, and returned to the Round Table a punk.

Now anyone can view the Grail; any dirtbag. The Cathedral doesn’t give one shit what you’ve done. If you can pay six euro, you’re pure enough.

The nonchalance of that ritual would have thrown Elsa Schneider for a loop as well. She was the blonde Nazi paramour from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who pursued the Grail for the glory of the Third Reich, a corrupted echo of the Arthurian Grail quest. Elsa was doomed by her inability to temper her lust for the Grail; she couldn’t let it go, and it killed her.

Everybody who walks through the Valencia Cathedral today has one up on Lancelot and Elsa: they can both look at the Grail and walk away from it. It’d sound absurd to Sir Lancelot that absolutely anyone now can see the Holy Grail and that most of them would rank doing so a lower priority than getting some decent paella. It’s also absurd, sitting in that chapel, to think that Elsa was so in thrall to the Grail that she would die for it.

The Holy Grail in 2017 is myth made unremarkable, the passion it once inspired brutalised and bent to the regular arc of reality. As soon as Christ picked it up, the Grail’s been a symbol — but it’s a symbol now of normalisation.

“You stood up to be counted with the enemy of the everything the Grail stands for,” Indiana tells Elsa in a heated moment. But at this moment in time, Elsa has more in common with the Grail than ever. As the Holy Grail is today quotidian, so too, bizarrely, are Nazis.

As much the embodiment of absolute evil as Jesus Christ is of absolute good, the Nazis of today don’t march into Paris, but run think tanks and give lectures, and have found in the championship of white nationalism common cause with the President of the United States and his caucus.

“We have a wonderful OPPORTUNITY here folks… Donald Trump’s campaign statements, if nothing else, have SHOWN that ‘our views’ are NOT so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are,” wrote the leader of the American Nazi Party, cheerily, on the normalising effect the rise of Donald Trump has had on the politics of the Third Reich. In 2017, as fascism blinks into legitimacy across the globe like a teenage breakout, Nazis are verified on Twitter and profiled in magazines as “dapper white nationalists” — where, like Elsa Schneider, the venality of their politics is clouded and moderated by physical beauty.

There’s a place for Elsa in 2017, as there is for a Holy Grail devoid of any magic. A Nazi can go and check out the Holy Grail without anybody making a fuss. Banality asserts itself with the force of oceans, wiping out castles.

We made the Grail mysterious, it must be said. Jesus didn’t say in the Gospels that here was a cool cup He found and was going to bleed into and that all the Disciples should grab a straw, and that by the way His blood was magic.

“Drink from it, all of you,” is all that He said about it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” The cup itself doesn’t feature in the Bible after that. Its significance was a later invention by medieval poets.

In that sense, the Grail is now what it was always supposed to be: a cup. If that’s disappointing, maybe the lesson here is that as you shouldn’t meet your heroes, neither should you meet your cups.

Our own search for the Grail concluded without epiphany or illumination but we got a glass of wine at a café and that was pretty good. Sitting at a table on the sidewalk, my fiancée asked the three Spanish students next to us what they thought about the Holy Grail being a Valencia fixture.

“It is not important,” one of them insisted. “It is not important at all. The arm of Saint Vincent is far more important.

After that he turned to his friends. “Why are they asking us these dumb questions?” he complained in Spanish. “These questions are not important.”

On another nearby table were an American and a German who’d become friends on a walking tour. The American had a girlfriend in California who didn’t like that he spent all his time traveling; however, he admitted, that is just the way he is, like the bus from Speed.

Neither of them were particularly interested in hearing about the Holy Grail. The American confided to us in reverent tones a rumour he heard from his tour guide: that somewhere in Valencia was a place that did mojitos for one euro. Only one euro, and you could order as many mojitos as you wanted. Somewhere in the city.

We found them. They were fine.

Special thanks as ever to Aisling Conlon, who speaks Spanish and laughed when those students called us both stupid.