Yesterday, President Obama mentioned a “holy grail.” What does it mean exactly?

In a speech yesterday, President Obama called tax cuts for the wealthy the Republicans’ “Holy Grail.” The term is so rich in myth and history that we can’t resist the opportunity for elucidation.

For the record, the President was using the term “Holy Grail” informally and figuratively. In his quote, the reference implies “any greatly desired and sought-after objective; ultimate ideal or reward.” We are more interested in the context where the grail involves blood, perilous quests, and knights.

Historically, the Holy Grail is believed to be the cup or bowl that Jesus used at the Last Supper. According to legend, the cup was given to Joseph of Arimathea, who donated his tomb to receive Jesus’ body. The lore continues that the grail was eventually transported to England.

The grail (which derives from the Old French graal, “cup,”) became a key subject of many medieval legends. It often takes the form of a sacred cup, chalice, or vessel. It is the object that the Knights of the Round Table clamored for because of its suspected powers, such as the ability to regenerate life. Only a knight of pure virtue could find or eventually possess it. The most famous contemporary reference to the grail is in the blockbuster “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

While President Obama would certainly appreciate the possession of the legendary artifact, it’s likely that he would be perfectly happy to gain something equally elusive: political compromise.

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