When is a Grail not a Grail?

by | Nov 19, 2011 | What is the Meaning of All This?

Sir Perceval is most traditionally the hero of the grail quest, although in some versions the hero is Sir Galahad, and according to a certain Heinrich von dem Türlin the hero is Sir Gawain.  Heroes come, heroes go, but the grail is always the grail.  Except when it isn’t.  But when it is, it’s always a shallow serving dish.  Except when it isn’t.

Wagner, although he was inspired by the Middle German epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach whose grail is most assuredly of the sideboard variety, changes the dish to a spear.

Dan Brown says it’s Mary Magdalene’s womb.

Monty Python is not specific, but seems to want to indicate that the grail is the cup from the Last Supper.  A popular choice these latter days.

There is historical precedent for all of these alternatives.  The grail, being a metaphor, can mean different things to different people.  The grail, since no one’s actually seen it, can change it’s shape.


Early on in the research stage for What is the Meaning of All This? I came across an internet rumor that the grail (the holy grail) had been brought to Accokeek, Maryland by Sir Walter Raleigh in a ship called the Susan Constant.  The Susan Constant actually existed.  She sailed from England in 1606 with a cargo of 105 of the hardy souls who founded Jamestown.  The last record of her is from 1615.  She is mentioned by name, along with her sister ships on the Jamestown voyage, by – ‘presumably’ as Wikipedia has it – Sir Walter Raleigh.  Except that whoever did pen the mention attributed to Raleigh seems to recall that her name was not Susan but SarahSusan is from Samuel Purchas’ chronicle of the Pilgrims.  We don’t know who got it wrong, but I’m pleased to report that the mix-up has engendered a small but vigorous amount of scholarly controversy.  The floating replica of the ship, which you can see at Jamestown, is named Susan.

The internet rumor did not mention how Raleigh had got his paws on the grail, nor why he’d want to take it to Accokeek.  Nor what he did with it once he got it there.

Accokeek is across the Potomac from Mount Vernon, Virginia.  It just so happens that I have good friends who live in Accokeek.  Maybe I ought to get a metal detector and a shovel, and go out for a visit.

Why Accokeek?  At the time that Raleigh (died 1618) brought the grail, there was no place called Accokeek.  There was an Indian village there by a creek.  The Accokeek Indians, who occupied the site until about 1630.  The first European to sail past this site was Captain John Smith.  In 1652 it was granted to a certain John Withers, who later sold it to a chap named Peyton, who in his turn sold it in 1662 to George Mason.  Who named his plantation Accokeek after the now-absent Indian tribe.

Possibly, whoever cooked up the Accokeek grail rumor willfully or otherwise tricked himself into believing that George Mason was a member of the Masonic Order.  (For all I know, he was, but it seems more likely a coincidence of names.  Any George Mason scholars out there care to set me straight?)

So: The Susan (or Sarah) Constant, which was known to have sailed from England to America.  A written mention of the ship by someone who may have been the storied and infamous Sir Walter Raleigh.  A site named Accokeek (with a faint Captain John Smith connection) owned by the influential George whose name happened to be Mason.

Toss these all together in a shallow serving dish, and what do you have?  The years don’t rightly match up, but hey; at least they’re all in the same century.

How clever of the Knights Templar to have hidden the grail in England.  Where, come to think of it, it would have been handed off to Raleigh by Queen Elizabeth.


Get involved in mystical stuff like a grail quest and you never know what you’ll find.  I found a name for my heroine: Susan Constant.  And a birthplace for her: Accokeek, Maryland.