Mary Magdalene: Bearer of the Holy Grailsam
by Margaret Starbird
Lives there anyone who has not heard of the Holy Grail? Anyone who has not been moved to mourn its loss? The stories of the Holy Grail stir within us a poignant memory of something vastly precious, now tragically lost. The land is a wasteland now, parched and sear, the plants stunted, the streams of living water reduced to a trickle. Only the return of the Grail can heal the wounded Fisher-King and restore well being of his stricken domain. The myth of the lost vessel inspired knights of medieval Europe to set out on bold adventures described in various legends of the quest for the Holy Grail.
According to some scholars, legends about the Holy Grail circulated in oral tradition long before they appeared in the written stories of medieval poets like ChrÃªtien de Troyes, Robert de Boron and Wolfram von Eschenbach. The myths and stories surrounding the lost Grail are assuredly old–no one can say how old!–but it is alleged that the Grail was the sacred vessel that once contained the blood of Christ. One story insists that the Grail is a cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, the Passover Meal celebrated on the night he was arrested, the very vessel in which he instituted the Holy Eucharist as described in the Synoptic Gospels of the New Testatment.
Another story says the Grail was the cup held aloft by Joseph of Arimathea at the foot of the cross to catch streams of blood flowing from the wounds of the dying Savior. Still another legend insists that it was Mary Magdalene who held the cup at the foot of the cross and caught the blood of Christ in her precious jar. One version of the story claims that Mary Magdalene, traveling under the protection of her brother Lazarus and Joseph of Arimathea, brought the Holy Grail to the coast of France. On one point, many of the legends seem to agree: the Grail was a sacred vessel, holy because it once contained the blood of Jesus. For centuries this elusive artifact has been sought relentlessly, and several antique cups have even been claimed to be the true Grail of Christ.
I am particularly intrigued by the medieval legend, indigenous to the Southern coast of France, that Mary Magdalene was the bearer of the “sangraal,” the Old French word translated “holy grail.” Surviving versions of the legend says that this woman, the devoted follower of Jesus who was first to encounter him on Easter morning, traveled with a group of family and close friends into exile, fleeing persecutions of Christians in A.D. 42. The little group arrived on the Mediterranean Coast of Gaul in a boat with no oars after narrowly escaping death during a storm at sea. With them on the boat was a pre-adolescent child named Sarah, commemorated today with a statue and celebration on her feastday, 24 May, in the little French town of Les Stes-Marie-de-la-Mer. This girl child is known as “Sarah the Egyptian.” The legend assumes that Sarah was maidservant to the three Maries–Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi–who are celebrated for bringing Christianity to the Roman province known as Gaul. A colorful Gipsy folk festival has grown up around this legend celebrating the arrival of these refugees from Jerusalem, including Lazarus and Martha, brother and sister of the Mary known to Christians as “the Magdalene.”
In 1985 I read a book that seemed to me at the time to be utterly blasphemous, a book called “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, Richard Leigh) that suggested that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and that their bloodline survived in Western Europe.1 The word “sangraal” had, it seems, been misunderstood. When the word was broken after the “n” (san graal) it was thought to mean “Holy Grail,” but if it was broken after the “g,” the word rendered “sang raal,” which in Old French meant “blood royal.”
We are now faced with a legend that says that Mary Magdalene brought the “blood royal” to the coast of France in 42 A.D. One does not carry the blood royal in an alabaster ointment jar with a lid. The blood of kings is carried in the veins of a child. In the revised interpretation of the Medieval legend, the “vessel” that once contained the “sang raal” was not an artifact, but rather, a woman–Mary Magdalene herself–mother of a royal offspring of the Davidic bloodline.
Suddenly the “Grail” myth takes on an entirely different shape. No wonder the knights in armor sought in vain for the elusive artifact.
The mistaken object of their search was presumed to be an artifact when it should have been the memory of a woman they sought. It is in restoring the “Bride” that the sacred King is healed of his thigh wound. The “chalice” is an ancient symbol for the sacred feminine and the ancient goddesses are often associated with the “Vesica Piscis”–the () shape identified in the Greek New Testament gematria with “h Magdalhnh,” the epithet given to the Mary whom early Christians identified with “the tower/stronghold” in the prophetic book of Micah.2
A number of legends associate the Merovingian kings with the royal bloodline of Jesus and Magdalene. One of their myths apparently hints that an ancestress of the Merovingians was a mermaid, and another says that the mother of their founding leader Meroveeâ€™ was impregnated by a sea monster. In each of these myths, the prevailing kernel of truth seems to be that this ancestry is “part man, part fish.” Since among early Christians Christ was widely identified as the “ICHTHYS” (the Fish) and Mary Magdalene was identified with the shape known as the “vessel of the fish,” I believe that the ancestral mythologies of the Merovingians refer to the myth of their royal lineage. Bizarre as this conclusion may appear, it rests on the fact that myths are often vehicles for veiled truths too dangerous to be revealed.
If legends of the bloodline of the “sang raal” are true, then we must ask if there is any evidence of a child. What child of the union of Mary Magdalene and Jesus might have survived in Western Europe to be the eventual ancestress of the Frankish dynasty. Where is there a child mentioned in the legends of Mary Magdalene? This quest brings us back to Sarah, the adolescent refugee girl on the boat, whose name means “Princess” in Hebrew. Might she not have been the forgotten child of the “sang raal”–the blood royal of Israel’s kings? Her age is right. She was described as “pre-adolescent”–between 9 and 12 years old–at the time of the boatâ€™s arrival in A.D. 42. But her face is dark in artistic tradition. She is called “Sarah the Egyptian.” Could little Sarah be the daughter of Mary Magdalene?
My own view is that this child was born after the Crucifixion of Jesus, probably in Egypt where the friends of Jesus would probably have taken Mary Magdalene to ensure her safety and that of her child in the aftermath of the turmoil following the news of the resurrection of their crucified King. Possibly they returned briefly to Jerusalem in the interim years and were reunited with Lazarus and Martha, the brother and sister of Mary, and with other close family and friends.3 Then, faced with severe prosecutions, probably those of Saul/Paul, they allegedly boarded a small boat and fled across the sea to the relative safety of Gaul.
So the child called Sarah might very well have been the “little lost princess” of western fairytale, who is eventually found and united with the handsome prince. In the book of Lamentations (4:8) we encounter an interesting passage that describes the plight of the royal princes of the house of Judah, the lineage of the Davidic kings: “their faces, once white as milk, are now black as soot. They are not recognized in the streets.” Might this passage be reflected in the dark visage of the saint called “Sarah the Egyptian.” I believe her darkness is a symbolic reference to her royal bloodline, the line of the Davidic Kings of Judah, the “sangraal.” They are now in exile, deposed and hidden, â€œnot recognized in the streets.â€
The Holy Grail is a powerful symbol on many levels. The chalice is intimately connected with the “sacred cauldron” of creativity so explicitly illustrated by the “Vesica Piscis” which is also the symbol irrevocably associated with Mary “the Magdalene” by the gematria of her epithet.4 When the Bride is restored, the wasteland is healed and the crops and herds thrive–the desert blooms. This is the age-old promise inherent in the paradigm of sacred union–the partnership of the archetypal Bride and Bridegroom. The “Grail” promises are echoes of this ‘sacred reunion’ so long repressed in Christian mythology.
In my view, establishing the claims of an elite family or king to a modern throne by means of legitimizing the â€œbloodlineâ€ is irrelevant. The importance of the Grail legend lies in its proclamation of the “sacred union” at the heart of the Christian mythology–that of Christ and Magdalene–which provides a paradigm of partnership for the â€œage to comeâ€ and the new millennium. This is not a new teaching, but an ancient one, supported by the New Testament Scriptures themselves.5
1 Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. “Holy Blood, Holy Grail.” (New York: Dell Publishing Co. 1983). First published as “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” (London: Jonathan Cape, Ltd., 1982).
2 For a more complete explanation of the gematria of Mary Magdalene’s epithet and its connection with the “Vesica Piscis” symbol associated with the Goddess of the ancient world, please see Margaret Starbird, “The Goddess in the Gospels” (Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1998).
3 For the evidence linking Mary Magdalene with Lazarus and Martha of Bethany, please see Margaret Starbird, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar (Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1993) pp. 39-47.
4 See Margaret Starbird, Magdaleneâ€™s Lost Legacy (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, Bear and Company, 2003) for thorough discussion of New Testament gematria and symbolic numbers that reflect the sacred geometry and cosmology of the ancient world.
5 Starbirdâ€™s books (op. cit.), provide strong evidence for the â€œSacred Unionâ€ at the heart of the Christian mythology.
Copyright Â© Margaret Starbird, 2005. All rights reserved.
Margaret Starbird is the author of The Woman With The Alabaster Jar and The Goddess in the Gospels, (both published by Inner Traditions, Bear & Company), cited as sources for Dan Brownâ€™s best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code. Two further titles were published in 2003, Magdaleneâ€™s Lost Legacy (ITI, Bear and Company) and The Feminine Face of Christianity (Quest Books). Please visit Starbirdâ€™s web page for more information about her work.