In the first part of my essay, From the Cauldron to the Grail, I wrote about the significance of the cauldron in the everyday life of the Celtic peoples and the way it is presented and included in their myths and legends.
Mainly, I touched on the Welsh and Irish tradition, focusing on the symbolic function of the cauldron in narratives pertaining to the Welsh figures of Cerridwen, Brân the Blessed, Peredur and Arthur and the Irish gods Dagda and Manannán mac Lir.
In the second part, my primary focus will be on the evolution of the cauldron to the Holy Grail of the Arthurian tradition.
In my Book Review: The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, I presented in order the topics the Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar Lewis Spence explores in his magnus opus. As he moves towards the end, he makes a commendable attempt to unearth the origin of the Arthurian myth. Putting forth a compelling theory, Spence declares the figure of Arthur belongs more to mythology than to history. He identifies him with the god Bran and proposes that Arthur was the object of a cult. We’re told that the figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus was probably a historical person, a Romano-British noble and general who fought against the Saxons.
Perhaps it was him who founded the cult of Arthur. Both a solar deity and one of war who aided the Celts in the dark years of foreign invasion, Arthur probably infused them with patriotic enthusiasm and the strength required to fight against the foreign conquerors. What’s even more enticing is the connection Spence points out between Arthur and Osiris and the wounded Fisher King.
Spence sheds light on the figure of Osiris, presenting him as a deity existing in a state between life and death, asleep until called to awaken. Just like Arthur who, residing in the isle of Avallon, awaits to wake to life and aid Britain in its hour of need. Additionally, Spence states that Arthur and the Fisher king are one and the same, for Arthur lies wounded, his injury between the thighs symbolizing his sins and the loss of fertility of the land caused by them. A punishment for his trangressions and his fall from the status of the divine king.
Having explored the figure around which an entire body of myth expressed in prose and poetry has been composed, Spence rolls up his sleeves and turns his attention, naturally, to the fabled Holy Grail: the most sought after vessel in the the Matter of Britain, whose genesis , he believes, lies in the isle’s ancient, mythic past.
So let’s delve into the details Lewis Spence presents us with, shall we?
The Holy Grail is the receptacle where Jesus Christ was rumoured to have taken his Last Supper with his disciples. The existence of it, though, folkore assumed, was owed to that of a magical cauldron centered around a Celtic fertility cult.
Etymologically speaking, the word ”Grail” may have its roots on the Low Latin gradale, which referred to a flat dish. Or we could trace its origin in the term San Greal, ”Holy Dish”.
When the Christian faith started spreading over the British isles, its representatives found an already fertile ground sown with a multitude of Celtic sources which they tinged with their own perspective, thus forming a narrative consonant with the Christian creed.
Spence explains the story known as Grand St. Graal, written in
England about the beginning of the thirteenth century. The anonymous author describes how the Holy Grail ended up on the British shores. A man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea was a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus and was seized by the desire to possess something as a token of the scene.
He sought out the house where the Last Supper had taken place and spirited away the dish where Christ had eaten. A knight of Pontius Pilate, Joseph implored the Roman Governor to take the body of Christ and honour it with a proper burial. Pilate consented and Joseph laid the body to a tomb, and the blood that still coursed from the wounds, he collected it inside the dish, which was later named the San Greal.
Furious that Jesus had received an honourable burial, the Jews imprisoned Joseph. The man, however, clung to life in a wondrous manner by means of the holy vessel. Christ himself appeared to Joseph, promising him freedom and conferring him the duty to deliver the gospel to foreign lands.
For forty years, Joseph was confined to his cell. When he embarked on his journy, seventy-five followers set sail along with him, the sacred dish placed in a wooden ark. When Joseph’s son, Josephes, unsealed it, he beheld the passion of the crucifixion on the dish’s surface. Several sacred symbols were also found, among them a rich and beautiful head (reminiscent of Bran’s severed head and the Celtic cult associated with it).
Joseph and his followers partook of the sacrament from the ark in the form of a child. Many were their quests and through many lands they travelled. A pagan King named Seraphe they met, who converted to the Christian faith and was baptised Nasciens.
One of the most significant items of the ark was a blood-dripping lance, a string of prophecies revolving around it. The ship was finally steered to the shores of Britain, which was still a land of thriving paganism. Some of the Britons converted, but those who clung to the old ways were drowned in a flood. A tower was raised over their corpses, the ”Tower of Marvels”, the prophecies foretelling of the comming of a King called Arthur and his reign. A series of adventures and quests were associated with this tower, meeting their end by the last descendant of Nasciens.
Joseph’s wife bore him a son named Galahad. When conflict with the heathens arose in Britain, Mordrains sets sail to the island, bringing reinforcements. They managed to overcome the natives, but Mordrains was heavily wounded and later struck blind upon approaching too close to the Holy Grail, thus withdrawing from the affairs of the world.
Joseph’s kinsman, Brons, came to be in his company. The Round Table was then constructed and a seat was left vacant, reserved for the one who would conclude with these adventures. Josephes became the keeper of the Grail. Upon Joseph’s death, the Grail found its resting place in ”Terre Foraine” and a long line of kepers succeeded Josephes, all of whom earned the individual titled of ”the Fisher King”.
Spence then proceeds to recount further accounts, which despite their differences, bear many similarities, such as the poem of Robert de Borron’s Joseph of Arimathea and the legends of the Grail in the Queste de Graal, The Conte de Graal, the Didot Perceval and Perceval le Gallois, all of which narrate the adventures of Perceval, Galahad and the rest f the knights who quest after the Holy Grail.
Other legends feature Joseph of Arimathea and his followers travelling from the South of France and settling in Glastonbury through Wales where they built a church of wattles and taught the natives the Christian faith. The British publisher Alfred Nutt held the opinion that Glastonbury was associated with a local cult of the Celtic god Bran and his sacred head. We read that, “At some time in the course of the twelfth century, the old Christian site of Glastonbury took, as it were, the place of the Celtic Paradise (Avalon). It seems far more likely that the transformation was effected in virtue of some local tradition than wholly through the medium of foreign romances.”
Spence returns to the Celtic tongue and explains that the locality of Glastonbury was formely known as Ynys Witryn, ”the Island of Glass”, a term for the Celtic Otherworld, as we’re told the monks of Glastonbury strove to wipe out its name and all its heathen connections, although the new name was merely a cloaked version of the Celtic appellation.
A host of British names pop up in the Grail stories. Pelles, one of the keepers of the Grail, is a Normanized form of Pwyll. His offspring, Pellam, could be Pryderi. The ruler of the fairies, Gwyn ap Nudd, transforms into Sir Gwuinas. SirMelias seeems to be the Cornish figure of Melwas.
Evalach, amongst the early converts of the Grail, is Avalach, the King of the Celtic otherwordly isle of Avallon. Perceval is the equivalent of the Welsh character Peredur and Brons is probably the god Bran.
Alfred Nutt divided the stories of the Holy Grail into two branches: the first concerns its origins and wanderings and the second the quests of the knights of the Round Table in their attempts to retrieve the sacred vessel. Spence clarifies that the majority of the romances allude to both motifs.
The first branch refers to the legends of the Christian provenance while the second is about the hero’s adventure to find the Holy Frail and his visit to the castle of a sick/maimed king. There, he encounters the Grail. However, he doesn’t inquire about the meaning of what he sees, something that renders his quest a failure, as he invites misfortune upon hmself and the castle’s residents.
Upon entering a second time, though, he puts forth the question, breaking the enchantment over the sick king in the act or in some versions he’s bestowed the Grail kingship as a reward for his perseverance.
Spence once more circles back to the figure of Brons as presented in the narrative of the Joseph of Arimathea. He argues that he’s a figure suggestive of Bran and the version of the story that features him is the older of the two Christian versions. A Celtic war deity, Bran has in his possession a mystical dish upon which later his sacred head is place. He’s, also, the owner of a magical cauldron which can restore the dead to life.
Bran’s one of the gods of the Celtic Otherworld in the British myths and in the Welsh tradition he’s seen as the chief figure in a legend of conversion, hence the title ”Bran the Blessed”. And in the Hengwrt manuscript there’s a mention of Blessed Bran’s Head. This evolutionary line is proof of the gradual transformation of the Christian saint from the pagan deity.
However, if there’s an ancient foundation for the figure of Bran, the same cannot be said for the legend of Joseph, which appears in the latter half of the 12th century, at the time where the romances were beginning to take shape. Spence mentions that an older legend of Joseph and his actions was known in Britain during the eight century when the rest of Europe was ignorant of it.
However, Spence fiercely argues, that cannot confute the Celtic origins of the myth as the rival version associated with Brons/Bran clearly shows multiple times the Celtic roots of the legend.
In the following post, I’ll continue presenting Spence’s view regarding the storyline of the Holy Grail, Merlin and the role of the knights of the Round Table and the way he establishes the cauldron found in the poem The Spoils of Annwn as the basis for the holy receptacle.
One of the objects that features prominently in the history of the ancient Celtic peoples, their mythology and literature is the cauldron. A receptacle of paramount importance, it served many purposes, not the least providing the household with food and helping sustain life.
Akin to the cornucopia of the ancient Greek mythology, the cauldron functioned primarily as a symbol of wealth and profusion, playing the same role as the cup of plenty that recurs as a staple in various tales and myths of Celtic birth, just like we can see in the figure of the Gallo-Roman deity, Rosmerta, who personified feritility and abundance.
In the multiple branches of Celtic tradition, the cauldron assumes manifold services: the revelation of truth and bravery, the aquisition of knowledge and poetic inspiration, the resurrection of the dead and sovereignty of the king over the land amongst other things.
The Cauldron of Knowledge
In the Welsh tale of Taliesin, the last one in the prose collection of the Mabinogion, the enchantress Cerridwen is the wife of Tegid Foel with whom she lives near Bala lake in North Wales. She’s the mother of two, a son and a daughter. While Creirwy is a beaitiful maiden, Morfran is hideously ugly.
In an attempt to compensate for her son’s lack of looks, Cerridwen seeks to grant him wisdom. She brews a potion in her magical cauldron and instructs Morda, a blind man, to tend to the fire beneath it and the young Gwion Bach to stir the concoction. The first three drops of the liquid bestow the gift of wisdom while the rest are fatal.
The first three hot drops spill upon Gwion’s thumb, which he sucks into his mouth, claiming the boon Cerridwen intended for her son. She gives chase to him in a cycle where both her and Gwion take on the forms of many animals in a game of hide and seek.
In the final act of transformations, Cerridwen becomes a hen and swallows Gwion as a single grain of corn, thus becoming pregnant with him. Having decided to muder him after his birth, she changes her mind upon witnessing his beauty. She sews him inside a leather-skin bag and flings him into the waves of the ocean. The babe doesn’t die, but gets rescued on a Welsh shore and is raised by a prince named Elffin ap Gwyddno. The reborn infant is none other than the legendary bard Taliesin, carrying the blesssing of awen.
The Cauldron of Brân the Blessed
In the same vein of Welsh mythology, in the second Branch of the Mabinogion, Branwen ferch Llŷr, Brân, the mighty warrior-god, obtains a magical cauldron from Cerridwen (pair dadeni). The vessel has supernatural properties as it can resurrect the corpse of a dead warrior placed inside it (something which is believed to be depicted on the Gunderstrup Cauldron).
Brân offers it as a wedding gift to his sister, Brawnwen, and her new husband Math, the king of Ireland. When war breaks out between the British and the Irish, Brân sets out to reclaim his gift with a band of knights, of whom only seven remain alive in the end.
A poisoned spear wounds Brân in the foot, a theme found, also, in the Arthurian legend and the figure of the Fisher King who guards the Holy Grail. In some versions of Welsh stories, Brân marries Anna who’s the daughter of Joseph of Arimathea who brought the vessel all the way to Britain.
Similar to Arthur’s adventure, only seven warriors return home from Brân’s warband. In a parallel fashion, after his death, Brân travels to Annwn, the Welsh otherworold as Arthur sails to the otherwordly isle of Avalon. Some scholars have put forth the theory that Cerrridwen’s cauldron of knowledge and rebirth is actually the Holy Grail Arthur is after his whole life.
The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant
The cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant is listed as one of the Thirteen Treasures of the island of Britain and it operates as a test to dinstinguish the brave men from the cowards. It wouldn’t boil the meat of a coward but would do so if the food belonged to a valiant person.
A similar narrative can be traced back to the native tale of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion where Arthur must retrieve the cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman, steward to Odgar, son of Aedd, king of Ireland so that Culwch can marry Olwen.
Arthur asks king Odgar to hand him the cauldron but Diwrnach doesn’t want to part with it. Arthur travels to the island with a small party. Diwrnach still refuses his request. Arthur’s champion, Bedwyr, snatches the cauldron and instructs one of Arthur’s servants to carry it on his back.
Llenlleawg the Irishman flourishes the sword, Caledfwlch, and kills Diwrnach and his men. A fight between Arthur and the Irish ensues, but Arthur and his men survive. Carrying the cauldron to Prydwen, they set sail and return to Britain.
The Holy Grail in the Mabinogion
Continuing with the Welsh tradition and the Mabinogion, the romance of Peredur treats us with another narrative where a grail or salver makes its appearance, closely connected with the cult of the severed head. The titular character is an orphan from the side of his father, and he lives with his mother in seclusion in the woods.
At some point, he comes across a group of knights and decides to travel to Arthur’s court to become one of them. There, subjected to Cei’s verbal taunts, Peredur embarks on new adventures after promising to avenge Cei’s insults.
On his journey, he meets two of his uncles. The first trains him in the use of arms and instructs him not to question what he sees. The second takes on the role of Chrétien’s Fisher King. In lieu of presenting him with a grail, he brings forth a salver that contains a man’s severed head. Honouring his first uncle’s request, he doesn’t insist to have the man’s identity revealed.
He sets out to further adventures and stays with the Nine Witches of Cloucester and encounters Angharad Golden-Hand, his soulmate. In the end, Peredur learns the severed head belonged to his cousin whom the Nine Witches slew. He strikes against them and kills them in retaliation, gaining heroic status.
Having discussed the presence of the cauldron in Welsh mythology, now I’m moving on to explore its represantation in its Irish counterpart.
The Cauldron of the Dagda
In early Irish literature, the gods of light and goodness, the Tuatha Dé Dannann possess four magical treasures which they brought from the four cities of Murias, Folias, Gorias and Findias. Danu’s son, Dagda accompanied them.
One of those treasures was the magical cauldron of Dagda from which no company ever left unsatisfied. Known as Undry, it was rumoured to be bottomless.
On the eve of the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadth, Dagda went to the Fomorian camp. There, he was forced to swallow a vast cauldron filled with a porridge of milk flour, fat, pigs and goats enough to sate the hunger of fifty men. Dagda was temporarily turned into an old, fat man, but in the end he mated with a Fomorian maiden who promised to turn her magic against her people.
The Cauldron of Manannán
Manannán mac Lir holds a significant place in Irish mythology. A mighty warrior and king of the Otherworld, he’s often associated with the marine domain and viewed as a sea deity. Frequently serving as a psychopomp, he commands the weather elements and the mists between the worlds.
Although he bears an affiliation with the Tuatha Dé Danann, many scholars agree his origins go even further back, to a much older race of deities. Cognate with the Welsh figure of Manawydan fab Llŷr, Manannán appears to be in possession of a cauldron of regeneration. Proof of that can be found in the narrative of Cormac mac Airt.
Manannán shows up at Cormac’s ramparts as a warrior, telling him he comes from a land where old age, sickness, death, decay and falsehood are unknown, referring to the Otherworld, which in Irish mythology is, also, called the Land of Youth and the Land of the Living.
From this brief examination of Welsh and Irish myths, it becomes obvious that the cauldron, initially a cooking vessel providing nourishment to the members of a household, turned into a receptacle of fabled proportions, offering the gift of life itself as well as knowledge, wisdom and the general power of regeneration. A thing which shouldn’t read strange as it symbolizes femeninity, its shape recalling to mind that of a woman’s womb and all its positive, blood-giving attributes.
In the following parts of my essay, I’ll focus on the theory proposed by Lewis Spence who traces the origins of the Holy Grail to the cauldron in the poem the Spoils of Annwn as well as discuss how I have incorporated the idea of the cauldron in my own mythic fantasy novel.