The word chalice derives from the Greek kalyx through the Latin calyx, in which it simply means ‘cup’. A chalice is, in fact, simply a cup meant to hold drinkable liquid, although it has come to have more specific connotations. Generally chalices are looked upon as religious objects, and in the modern world are most often associated with Christian masses, out of which the Eucharist wine is drunk.
The most common shape for a chalice is with a large bowl on top, with a stem that widens out as it goes down to a flat base. Most chalices have fairly wide bowls, but some are smaller, sometimes then referred to instead as a goblet.
The chalice plays a central role in Christianity, as it serves as the vessel for the liquid which either represents, or is viewed literally as, the blood of Christ. A chalice has therefore been used in Christian services since the early Church, and in many periods of history religious chalices were intricately decorated, and often made of precious materials and encrusted with gems. Because of its central place in the Mass, as well as its material beauty, the Christian chalice is usually treated with a great deal of respect and reverence.
The chalice used by Christ during the Last Supper is, in some traditions, viewed as being imbued with miraculous powers. In this context the chalice is usually referred to as the Holy Grail, and an entire body of literature has sprung up around speculation as to its history, purported powers, and current location. This same chalice is often said to have been used to catch the blood of Christ following the crucifixion.
Many neo-Pagan faiths also make use of the chalice in their rituals. In this context the chalice is usually meant to represent the feminine principle, and as in Christianity often contains a liquid meant to be ceremonially shared by participants in a ritual. In the Wiccan Great Rite the chalice is used in conjunction with a ceremonial dagger (the Athame) to represent the merging of the female and male energies.
The chalice is also traditionally one of the four suits of the tarot. Along with swords, wands, and disks, the chalices make up the 56 cards of the minor arcana. In this context, the term chalice is often replaced by cup. The tarot chalice is associated with the element of water, with love and emotions, and with the clergy. It is also analogous to the suit of hearts in modern playing cards.
Historically chalices come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Old stone chalices can be found throughout the Mediterranean back thousands of years, modern Anglican churches may have unadorned silver chalices, and many Catholic examples are made of gold with rubies, emeralds, and sapphires adorning them.