From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part II)

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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.