From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part III)

GalahadBors and Percival achieve the Grail. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co

In the first and second part of my essay, From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part I), (Part II), I focused on the subject of the cauldron and its importance in the life and mythology of the Celtic peoples, presenting its role in various Welsh and Irish myths. I then started exploring its evolution/transformation to the Holy Grail of the Matter of Britain, shedding light on the theory the Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar, Lewis Spence, proposes in his magnus opus, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain.

In the third part, I’ll continue with the discussion of Spence’s theory about the vessel being actually the cauldron featured in Taliesin’s poem, The Spoils of Annwn as well as his views regarding the figures of the knights of the Round Table.

In the beginning of the unfinished fifth verse romance of Chrétien de Troyes, Conte du Graal, we read a story that the general concensus regards as not composed by the author of the main body of the poem. The account refers to the land of Logres, the eastern portion of ancient England, and to a group of female sacred guardians who resided in springs and wells and offered provisions to weary travellers.

King Amangons reigned over that country and he abused one of these maidens, spiriting away her golden cup. In the wake of such violation, these supernatural damsels withdrew from human contact. As a result, the springs dried up, the trees and flowers shrivelled up and died and the whole country turned into a wasteland. In the end, the Court of the ”Rich Fisher”, a centre of mystical origins from which flowed plenty, mysteriously vanished, nowhere to be seen.

Spence explains the passage offers an example of failure of divine kingship and the tragic consequences of such an ill deed. Amangons didn’t hold on to his virtue and personal sanctity, the royal deliquency dooming the entire community by causing the death of the land. The king’s wrongdoing greatly offended the genii of fertility and because of that, his people were subjected to famine.

The news travelled fast and the knights of the Round Table caught wind of Amangons’ shameful act, for his own men had followed suit and treated the maidens with equal disrespect. The knights sought out the Court of the Rich Fisher, a mighty enchanter. The land of the Fisher King was finally discovered by Gawain and Perceval. However, Perceval didn’t question the meaning of the marvels he beheld while he dwelled in the casle. Consequently, he failed to break the enchantment that had condemned the King to be isolated from the rest of mankind.

The knights’ quest and adventures regarding the Fisher King are more fully detailed in the Queste del Graal. The tale recounts how Perceval and Bors reach Castle Corbenic, the resting place of the Grail associated with Celtic legend. Galahad leaves behind his companions in order to undergo the Grail test. A crowned man suffering a wound enters the hall accompanied by the spirit of Joseph of Arimathea which is carried to the table where the Grail rests by a host of angels.

A blood-dripping lance shows, the drops flowing into the holy receptacle. Galahad is advised not to journey from the land before he heals the Maimed King, the latter meant to spend the rest of his days in an abbey after his legs have been restored to health through anointment by the lance’s blood.

At this point, Spence concentrates upon the burning question central not only to the revitalization of the wounded king but to the retrieval of the Grail as well. The story doesn’t specify what the thing to be asked by the knight meant to heal the King was, in order to reverse the effects of the spell that sapped him of his strength. Upon facing the test, Perceval didn’t ask the question, thus failing to pass it and dooming the King to further misery and inaction.

Spence conjectures the ‘’sesame’’ query as he calls it seemed to have been, ‘’Unto whom one serveth of the Grail’’? If such a question was cried out, the Fisher King would unseal his lips and confess certain secret words to the one asking him, offering the very key to unlock the mystery of the Grail.

But if Pervecal’s first venturing to Corbenic didn’t end on a happy note, his second coming didn’t play out the same way. For he remembered his duty and managed to put forth the arcane question. In a German version of the story, Gawain asks himself but seems content with the reply he’s already seen the Grail and doesn’t press for further answers. In the Petit Saint Graal, the writer refuses to reveal the magic words and in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the writer claims the Grail wasn’t a cup but a stone that miraculously offered plenty of food and drink, something which has its origins in various Celtic myths.

In most versions of the romances, the wound the Fisher King has sustained is found on both thighs, the significance of which Spence has explained is symbolic of the King’s sins and the loss of his divine status. In the Mabinogion, Bran suffers a wound in the leg by an arrow. Upon his death, he falls into an enchanted state. His companions sever his head according to his orders, thus rendering him into the state of a sleeping god. In a parallel fashion, his surrogate, Arthur, is wounded and ferried to the otherwordly isle of Avallon in a state hovering between life and death.

The Grail, Spence argues, is nothing else but the cauldron of abundance and inspiration featured so frequently in the body of ancient Celtic literature. The Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Danan (as I wrote in the first part of my essay) had four treasures in their possession: the Stone of Destiny, the sword of Lugh, his spear, and the cauldron of the god Dagda, which never left anyone hungry. In the Irish account of the battle of Magh Rath, more than one cauldron of similar nature is mentioned which made its appearance in the older Irish literary tradition.

In the Welsh literary tradition of the Mabinogion, in the story of Branwen, we read about Bran’s cauldron, a magical vessel that restored to life the dead warriors placed within it. From a literary perspective, the tale comes from the tenth/eleventh century, but its actual roots are far older than that. And in the story of the bard Taliesin, we read of the cauldron of inspiration, belonging to the enchantress Ceridwen. In the poem The Spoils of Annwn, Arthur braves the depths of the titular otherwordly domain and spirits away a cauldron of similar properties.

The Cauldron of Inspiration, E. Wallcousins

The Welsh scholar and Celticist Sir John Rhys, was of the opinion the Annuvian vessel was one and the same with the Grail, both possessing the same properties of recognizing the undeserving, healing the wounded and sick and proffering supernatural stamina to the soul.

The Spoils of Annwn, a cryptic poem of sixty lines in Middle Welsh in the Book of Taliesin, recounts King Arthur’s descent into the depths of Annwn along with his warrior band in order to steal away the pearl-rimmed cauldron that didn’t boil the food of a coward and benefit from its secret knowledge.

Charles Squire has proven that the Castle of Corbenic of the French romance, the Grail’s repository, is none other than the fortress of Caer Pedryvan, the seat of the cauldron of Annwn. In the French poem, the castle is situated on the other side of the river, a fact that alludes to its otherwordly location. Something which has been further pointed out by Alfred Nutt as the forefront of Celtic story.

Intriguing is the connection Spence makes between the name of ‘’the Fisher King’’ and the ancient Celtic motif of the salmon of knowledge. The Salmon story narrates the early adventures of Fionn mac Cumhaill. In the tale, an ordinary salmon ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from nine hazel trees around the well. Thus, the salmon gained all the world’s knowledge. The first person to consume its flesh would be bestowed with wisdom.

Striking similarities with the Grail story are seen in the Scottish Celtic tale of the Story of the Lay of the Great Fool, found in the Popular Tales of the West Highlands. More specifically, it presents many themes featured in the mabinogi of Peredur. Like Peredur, Cumhall’s son grows in the wilderness. He kills his father’s murderer and gains the world’s knowledge when he catches and eats the magic trout. In the end, he wins back his father’s lands.

The common link between this tale with the story of Finn and the salmon of knowledge as well as with that of Peredur in the Mabinogion is generous proof that they all derive from a common source.

In the fourth and last part, I’ll wrap up my essay with Spence’s final conclusions about the origins of the Holy Grail and its association with the Nilotic myth of the god Osiris, a figure whose cult bears many similarities with Arthur, as well as with the way I’ve incorporated the cauldron and other similar vessels into my own mythic fantasy novel.


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