From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part I)

Cerridwen by Christopher Williams

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 contais 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.

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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.