Chapter 5: The Holy Grail?

Having found a plausible explanation for the obscure lameness suffered by the Keeper of the Grail Keeper, it seemed appropriate to see what we could learn about that intriguing object, the Holy Grail.

Like the ‘Perilous’ motif, the Grail was a late French addition to the British Arthurian corpus. At its first appearance, in Crestien’s twelfth-century Conte del Graal, carried by a maiden, it was a significant object but neither holy nor unique. The mysteries of the Grail had begun to hint at fertility rituals when Robert de Boron converted the object to Christianity. It was Robert who imported Joseph of Arimathea to be its Keeper and who identified the Grail as the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and by Joseph to collect the blood of Christ on the cross. This is pious invention. But there is continuity under the surface.

The Grail may be a late addition to Arthurian tradition, but before everything there was something else. Those who introduced the Grail into a story already overloaded with hunting symbolism no doubt knew very well that any bowl or cup-shaped object, especially one used to collect blood, was a symbol for the vulva of the Mother Goddess which, in turn, is a metaphor for a deer ambush. Those who collected Scottish and Welsh folklore consistently failed to record this impressive image but there are references to a menstruating goddess in the less prudish mythology of Ireland.1 In the light of this symbolism it is appropriate that the Grail was carried by a young woman, representing the Goddess, and that the bleeding spear in the story was carried by a young man.

At the same time, in a different dimension, it was and remains normal practice to bleed animals prior to slaughter and to collect their blood in some kind of receptacle. This prevents the meat from tainting and the blood supplies the makings of a black pudding which is still a popular item throughout Europe.

This pedestrian ancestry for the most potent spiritual symbol in Europe is confirmed by the absence of any depth in the word 'grail'. What we see is very largely what we get. According to Chambers, O.Fr. graal or grael ‘flat dish’ is from L.Lat. gradale ‘flat dish’ which is remotely related to Gr. krater ‘bowl’. The double vowel of grail appears to conceal a lost aspirate, as is also the case with E. grail ‘gradual’ and grail ‘gravel’, two unrelated words. We looked for relevant words with the consonantal structures CRL, CRD and CRDL/CRDR.

CRL words
broil (E.) ‘to cook over hot coals, to grill’.
corral (Sp.) ‘enclosure to drive hunted animals into, cattle pen’.
graile (Fr.) ‘trumpet, hunting horn’.
graille (Fr.) ‘food’.
graillon (Fr.) ‘roasted fat’.
grealach (G.) ‘a deer’s entrails; to disembowel a deer’; Sc. gralloch.
grill (E.) ‘a gridiron, barbecue’.
grille (Fr.) ‘a lattice, grating or screen of iron bars in a window or door’.
kraal (Du.) ‘animal pen’.

CRD words
cràdh (G.) ‘pain, anguish, torment’.
cratis (Lat.) ‘a hurdle, wickerwork’, as Skrt. crath ‘to tie’. Hurdles were used to control trapped deer. A cratis was cast over condemned persons who had been thrown into water, and stones were heaped on it in order to sink them. It is not difficult to see in this a technique devised by hunters.
creatach (G.) ‘hurdle’.
criot (G.) ‘earthen vessel’, from crioth ‘clay’.
crodh (G.) ‘cattle, herds’.
crotch (E.) ‘fork of the body; private parts’.
croth (G.) ‘confine in a pen, folk’.
crotte (Fr.) ‘animal droppings, excrement’, a sign of wealth, indicative of penned animals.
crudus (Lat.) ‘bloody, bleeding; raw, uncooked meat’.
gradus (Lat.) ‘position adopted by a combatant (a hunter at an ambush)’.
graid, greadh or greigh (G.) ‘herd, flock’, Lat. grex, gregis.
grate (E.) ‘a framework of bars to contain a fire or to secure an opening in a door’.
grid (E.) ‘a frame of iron bars for broiling over a fire; a gridiron’. Green branches may have served in place of iron bars. The gridiron figures in the deaths of St Laurence, who was roasted alive on a grid, and St Faith, a young girl who was roasted to death on a brazen bed and then beheaded.
gride (E.) ‘to pierce’.
krateutai (Gr.) ‘the forks of the stand in which a spit turns’. No doubt it made a sharp grating noise: cf Fr. grater ‘to scratch’ and E. gride ‘a harsh grating sound’. Is this the origin of the ‘cricket on the hearth’ (Fr. grillon)?

CRDL andr CRDR words
cradle (E.) ‘a framework’.
crithear (G.) drinking-cup’.
crotal (G.) ‘cymbal’ – in some sense a signalling system used by hunters.
crotal (G.) ‘lichen used to make a red or brown dye’. In Barra the red crotal of the rocks melted by frost was known as fuil na sluagh ‘the blood of the troop (of hunters)’.2
gradale (L.Lat.) ‘a flat dish’. It is a remote cognate of E. platei.
gredire (M.E.) ‘gridiron’, perhaps from Lat. craticula ‘small grill’.
griddle or girdle (E.) ‘flat iron plate for baking cakes’.
hurdle (E.) ‘light frame used as a barrier or gate’.
krater (Gr.) ‘a cup in which wine was mixed with water; a bowl’.
krotalon (Gr.) ‘a rattle or clapper used in the rites of Mystery religions’; no doubt once used by hunters and shepherds.

There is considerable similarity in meaning between words in CRL and CRDL, which suggests these two roots have a common origin or, less probably, parallel development. A possible starting point for the CRD words is G. *greadh-ilidh ‘herd-place (trap, pen)’ or some similar word (ilidh is a locative, marking a specific place). One line of development leads to the cratis or hurdle used to contain animals in a trap and from that to the grate or grill used to roast meat. Another line of development leads to butchery or gralloching, to the image of a bleeding crotch, and then to a criot or gradale containing blood.

All of this leads to a single significant point. Whether we consider the Grail romances, Christian symbolism, or our Radical word-list, the significant thing about the Grail is that it contains blood. Although the story is apocryphal, the introduction of Joseph of Arimathea draws specific attention to this fact. Among the general references to hunting and butchery listed above, G. crotal and Lat. crudus refer specifically to blood. Taken with the sexual imagery associated with the Great Mother, they suggest that the primary purpose of the gradale or grail was to collect blood.

If this is true we would expect to find further signs of a CRD word meaning ‘blood’. I found several related words and something more of equal interest. Lat. cruentus ‘bloody, red’ and Lat. cruor ‘a flow of blood’ are said to be from the same root as Lat. crudus ‘bloody, raw’. Both these words and, probably, all those listed above come from an unconsidered word found in Gaelic as crò or cru ‘blood’, or, more accurately, ‘flow of blood’. It certainly refers to the flow of blood when an animal’s throat is cut but it may also be a word for menstruation. Our final word-list on this topic shows beyond doubt that all our bases are covered.

CR ‘blood’ words
crà (G.) ‘blood; red’.
crò (G.) ‘witchcraft; circle; pen; enclose in a pen; strait, narrow; death; blood’. This embraces the entire hunt from the preparatory rituals to the bloody end.
cru (Fr.) ‘uncooked, raw, bloody’.
cru (G.) ‘gore, blood’.
cruach (G.) ‘red’.
cruan (G.) ‘blood-red’.
crudus (Lat.) ‘bloody, bleeding; raw meat’.
crue (Fr.) ‘increase in the flow of a river’.
cruentus (Lat.) ‘bloody, red’.
cruor (Lat.) ‘a flow of blood’.
gorcock (E.) ‘red grouse cock’.
gorcrow (E.) ‘a carrion crow’, lit. ‘red or bloody crow’.
gore (E.) ‘blood’.
gore (E.) ‘to pierce with a pointed object (so that blood flows)’.
gride (E.) ‘to pierce’.
kraujas (Lith.) ‘blood’.
krobh (Ru.) ‘blood’.

There is now no need to postulate *greadh-ilidh or Lat. gradale. We can now equate the Grail directly with *cra-ilidh ‘blood place’, which is both the butchery enclosure where bleeding took place and the vessel used to collect the blood on such occasions. Pagan symbolism was exact: this was the holiest place where blood was shed so that men could get new life. Christian symbolism is explicit. The blood that was shed for the salvation of many was the blood of Jesus, which according to legend was collected in the Grail. Jesus is also a sacrificial lamb who had to be bled to preserve the meat and those who are saved are washed in the blood of the Lamb. The early Church replaced blood with wine but lambs are still killed and eaten at Easter in Greece. The Easter mystery is paralleled by the more explicit rite of Cybele, the Mother Goddess, in which the supplicant, standing below a grill, was drenched by the blood of a sacrificial bull or a ram and given new life.3 Bull sacrifice was probably not, as he suggests, ‘a vicarious substitute for the shedding of human blood' but an actual sacrifice involving the shedding of bull blood as a normal part of the routine.

Such rituals would be quite meaningless if they did not reflect the magically renewing qualities of fresh blood which were once of such vital importance to humankind and which are now all but forgotten. References to drinking the blood of the dead are commonplace in both Irish and Gaelic mythology. They make better sense when we understand that the dead were deer or cattle.

Once again language has shown us a forgotten aspect of the blood-thirsty but peaceful society from which we all emerged.

We cannot separate the Fisher King from the Grail. He is the sacrificial or destined animal who has been deliberately lamed in preparation for the feast, and when his time comes he will be cut by a lance and his blood will be collected in a dish.


In 1829 Meg Dodds offered the following recipe for Scotch Blood Pudding, which she said was ‘much superior to the English receipt’. ‘Salt the blood when drawn, strain it; mix it with a little sweet milk or broth; stir into it shred suet and dried oatmeal, with plenty of pepper, salt and minced onions. Fill the skins and boil and broil as white puddings. Savoury herbs may be added. Observation: the blood will curdle if boiled too quick.’

Today the ingredients of a good French boudin noir are, in order of importance, onions, pig blood, pig fat, pig skin, salt, cream, milk protein, apple, brandy, pepper, and spices, mixed well and packed into a length of pig gut. It is good to see standards being maintained.

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