Joseph of Arimathea: Keeper of the Grail

Chrétien’s grail was a serving dish upon rich meats and delicacies magically appeared.  For later writers it was the chalice Christ used at the last Supper.  The magical blood-dripping lance inspired by the Spear of Lugh becomes the Spear which pierced our Lord on the cross.  These relics were brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy merchant who paid for Christ’s entombment. 

The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (also known as Acts of Pilate) said that the Pharisees captured Joseph and imprisoned him so that they could kill him on Sunday.  But when they came to his cell that morning they found he had disappeared.  That was the first surprise of their day.  Facing increasingly uncomfortable questions from the people claiming to have seen Jesus alive, the Pharisees send an apology to Joseph at his Arimathea home and acknowledge his miraculous escape was proof God did not want him killed.  Joseph returns to Jerusalem and testifies:

In the evening of the Preparation, when you secured me in prison, I fell a-praying throughout the whole night, and throughout the whole day of the Sabbath. And at midnight I see the prison-house that four angels lifted it up, holding it by the four corners. And Jesus came in like lightning, and I fell to the ground from fear. Taking hold of me, therefore, by the hand, he raised me, saying, Fear not, Joseph. Thereafter, embracing me, he kissed me, and said, Turn thyself, and see who I am. Turning myself, therefore, and looking, I said, My lord, I know not who thou art. He says, I am Jesus, whom thou didst bury the day before yesterday. I say to him, Show me the tomb, and then I shall believe. He took me, therefore, by the hand, and led me away to the tomb, which had been opened. And seeing the linen and the napkin, and recognising him, I said, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; and I adored him. Then taking me by the hand, and accompanied by the angels, he brought me to my house in Arimathaea, and said to me, Sit here for forty days; for I go to my disciples, in order that I may enable them fully to proclaim my resurrection.

Though Nicodemus did not make it into the New Testament, tales of Joseph were widespread throughout Christendom.  Robert of Boron, in his 1200 Joseph of Arimathea, expounded further on the Nicodemus story.  Joseph and Nicodemus took Christ down from the cross.  Joseph kept some of his blood in the chalice from the Last Supper.  Christ appears to Joseph in his dungeon carrying the chalice, now called the Grail.  Each day for thirty-five years a dove flies in his window bearing a single Eucharist wafer:  this sustains Joseph until he is freed. 

From there Joseph travels to a distant land with the Grail and a relative named Hebron who is most often called Bron.  (Shades of the Celtic god Bran!)  There he, Bron and ten other virtuous men enjoy a never-ending feast on food which only the righteous can eat or even see.  Bron has twelve mighty sons.  The story ends with the company heading west “toward Avalon.”  Bron, the “Rich Fisherman,” moves to Britain.  Alain, Bron’s chosen son, leads his eleven brothers westward as well.  Joseph passes the Grail to Bron, then dies.

Cornwall’s tin mines have attracted foreign traders since the Bronze Age began.  The Phoenicians and later the Romans grew wealthy exporting Cornwall ingots.  A popular Briton legend claimed Joseph of Arimathea was a tin merchant who traveled to Cornwall with a teenage Jesus.  This tale inspired Blake to ask, in his Jerusalem,

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey claimed Joseph of Arimathea had founded Britannia’s first church on its grounds.  When he thrust his staff into the ground it blossomed as Glastonbury’s famous Holy Thorn which bloomed on Christmas and Easter.  And Joseph’s connection to the Grail took on special importance in 1191 when Glastonbury monks discovered two skeletons in a hollowed log marked with a cross proclaiming “Here lies buried the glorious king Arthur and Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.”

Gerald of Wales, an eyewitness to the disinterment, noted that Arthur’s bones “were so huge that his shank-bone when placed against the tallest man in the place, reached a good three inches above his knee” and that “the eye-socket was a good palm in width.”  The pious son of a Norman father and Welsh mother, Gerald hoped this discovery would tamp down embarrassing old superstitions

[T]he body of Arthur, who had been mortally wounded, was carried off by a certain noble matron, called Morgan, who was his cousin, to the Isle of Avalon, which is now known as Glastonbury. Under Morgan’s supervision the corpse was buried in the churchyard there. As a result, the credulous Britons and their bards invented the legend that a fantastic sorceress called Morgan had removed Arthur’s body to the Isle of Avalon, so that she might cure his wounds there. According to them, once he has recovered from his wounds this strong and all-powerful King will return to rule over the Britons in the normal way. The result of all this is that they really expect him to come back, just as the Jews, led astray by even greater stupidity, misfortune and misplaced faith, really expect their Messiah to return.

Even Gerald’s contemporaries expressed skepticism about the Glastonbury find.  After an 1184 fire and the 1189 death of Henry II, Glastonbury Abbey was desperately short on funds.  Since the tombs of Arthur and Guinevere were destroyed during the Reformation and their contents scattered, we have no way of ascertaining who or what was inside the great marble sarcophagi the monks built for them.  But we know that for every skeptic there were hundreds of believers ready to pay homage to Arthur, Guinevere and Joseph of Arimathea.  Baptized legends and bones defined a new England the way the Homeric myths helped a bunch of squabbling city-states forge a Hellenic identity. 

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