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.
Owain Departs from Landine, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (19th century)
The term Mabinogion refers to the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. The collection covers eleven prose stories of miscellaneous literary genres, offering a colourful panorama of drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy and humour.
A fruit of Celtic culture, the tales are steeped in the Welsh mentality, customs, habits, spirituality and general worldview of this nation. All peoples throughout history have developed a concept of parallel dimensions, of worlds that cooexist within the terrain of reality where the mortals reside: the realm of the glorious heroes of the past, the gods and the dead.
The Celts were no exception to this rule. The idea of the otherworld featured prominently in the Celtic imagined reality, and the four branches of the Mabinogion overflow with a peculiar system of magical faith that seamlessly blends with the natural world, totally stripped of the cloak of the supernatural.
The Celtic otherworld cannot be understood or presented as a cohesive, uniform universe, but rather as a dreamlike, fluid entity comprising of various spheres where space and time diverge from mortal perception and abide by a host of different rules. It is a vague, nebulous place (often referred to as separated by a veil from the mortal world). The dwelling of powerful magical beings of incomparable beauty called fairies and the dead.
Access to it could be gained at certain liminal timeframes, like during the feast of Samhain and Beltaine, thus generating traffic between the mortal and the otherwordly folk and bringing forth a chaotic situation where boundaries collapsed and the living and the dead interacted with impunity.
Known by several names like Kaer Siddi, Mag Mell, Tir na nOg, and Annwfn, the Celtic otherwold could be adjoined to the real world or existing in a totally different plane below the earth or even across the ocean. One could enter it through magical portals, mounds, caves, mountains, forests and rivers.
The insular Celts, living on islands and surrounded by sea and engulfted by virginal territories of thick woodlands, often projected their own familiar reality onto the otherworld, their fancy conceiving it amidst forests or as a cluster of isles where no other season existed but spring or summer, with days full of warmth and light, where old age and sickness were always absent, food and drink always abundant, music flowing over, falsehood never uttered and the otherwordly denizens possessing riveting beauty and charm.
Many of the tales within the Mabinogion often narrate incidents and marvels that take place close to or on hills and mounds. Such places the Celts imagined them as sources of liminality, a fact that may carry an association with Bronze Age tumuli. In Pwyll, Prince of Dyved, the titular character sits atop the mound of Gorsedd Arberth and witnesses ‘something wonderful’ – his otherworldly future bride.
In another episode, upon the same mound, a blanket of mist settles heavily on Dyved, leaving behind a desolate land. Later, on this mound, Manawydan forces the sorcerer Llwyd to release Rhiannon and Pryderi from their enchanted imprisonment.
In the second branch, the Irish king Matholwch is hunting on top of a mound when
he spies the giant Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his equally large wife
emerging from the lake with a cauldron on his back.
Water is another door to the otherworld, a fact proven in the second branch where Manawydan, Pryderi and the rest of the survivors spend eighty years on the island of Gwales.
The otherwold it is possible, too, to coexist literally on the fringes of the real world as shows the tale of Pwyll whom Arawn leads there from the kingdom of Dyved.
The Mabinogion employs certain symbols and phenomena to foreshadow the coming of a supernatural occurence. A blanket of mist frequently swirls upon the land out of the blue like in the tale of the black night and the fountain and in the story where Rhiannon and Pryderi vanish within the magical fort in Dyved.
Such a bizarre natural phenomenon is often accompanied by a loud noise usually in the form of a clap of thunder. However, different types of clamour are also employed. For instance, in the first branch Teyrnon hears ‘a loud noise, and after the noise an enormous claw comes through the window’. In the third branch, Manawydan hears ‘the loudest noise in the world’ just as the mice appear. And in the fourth branch, as Arianhod steps over Math’s wand she births a son, who ‘gave a loud cry’, and as Lleu was turned into an eagle he ‘gave a horrible scream’.
The hunting of a stag is another device that heralds an otherwordly encounter or the appearance of some miraculous event. Pwyll is hunting when he meets Arawn, king of the dead. Blodeuedd and Gronw meet during a stag hunt and begin their illicit affair
Many of the otherwordly figures as well as the animals encountered in the tales are described as radiant, shiny and fair beyond comparison. Pwyll thought of Arawn’s court, ‘the most beautifully adorned buildings anyone had ever seen’, his war-band had ‘the fairest and best-equipped men that anyone had ever seen’, and the queen was ‘the most beautiful woman that anyone had ever seen’. He found the queen to be ‘the most noble woman and most gracious of disposition and discourse he had ever seen’, and the court had ‘the most food and drink and golden vessels and royal jewels.’
Teyrnon’s horse was described as ‘no stallion or mare was more handsome.’ And the three magical birds of Rhiannon made ‘all other birdsong sound harsh by comparison’. When Peyderi attempts to persuade Manawydan to wed his mother, he says ‘you have never heard a woman converse better than Rhiannon. When she was in her prime no woman was more beautiful’. And Manawydan thiks ‘he had never seen a woman who was fairer or more beautiful than her’. Lleu is presented as ‘the most handsome lad that anyone had ever seen’ and Blodeuwedd is ‘the fairest and most beautiful maiden that anyone had ever seen.’
One of the staples of the Otherwold is the relativity of space and time which never ceases exciting the human imagination. Flowing both faster and slower, time seems to follow edicts of its own and space eludes being defined or pinned down on any specific map, creating something of a sui generis.
Rhiannon’s horse cannot be overtaken no matter how fast or slow one pursues it
and yet, at the same time it appears to be moving slowly.
The different course of time becomes abundantly clear when the survivors against the Irish spend eighty years at Gwales, yet they do not age and are not aware of such a long passage, whilst Bran’s severed head remains intact and able to converse freely and entertain his companions. Rhiannon’s three magical birds warble their notes, yet no matter how distand their song sounds, the survivors perceive it, ‘as clear as if the birds were there with them.’
A year and a day appears to be a liminal timeframe in the Mabinogion as many important events are arranged within that slot. But other dates carry significance as well. May Eve was traditionally the cusp of the Celtic year, the time when each year Teyrnon’s mare births a foal. But also the time Arthur in the tale of Culwch and Olwen decides upon the battle between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythyr for the denouement of their love triangle with Creidyladd. Possibly a symbolic strife between the personification of the summer and winter god.
The Celtic Oltherworld, known as Annwn in the Welsh tradition and mythology, was the abode of the fairies and the dead. Not a compact, unified land, it consisted of various territories conceived as islands in the imagined Celtic reality where no old age or sickness threatened their denizens, food was always abundant and spring/summer always reigned.
Many of these otherwordly domains feature prominently in the Mabinogion. This post focuses on the first part of the first branch, narrating the tale of Pwyll, Princed of Dyfed, his venturing into the realm of Annwn and his lifelong friendship with King Arawn.
Presented here is a retelling of the story of the time Pwyll of Dyfed spent in Annwfn in the body of Arawn. It is the first part of the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed or Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed, which is the First Branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It tells how he and Arawn became friends and of his sojourn in Annwfn.
Pwyll of Dyfed
One day as Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed was out hunting in the region of Glyn Cuch his hounds raised a stag. The stag took off at great speed with the hounds hard on its trail and Pwyll spurred his horse forward in pursuit sounding his hunting horn. The stag was moving fast but the hounds were keeping up and he was keeping up with the hounds. In the speed and excitement of the chase…
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From the tales contained in the Mabinogion—the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions—that of Culhwch and Olwen is one of the most fascinating, its complexity, symbolism and various metaphors revealing it to be much more than a common folktale, elevating it to a rich work of art. This post focuses on a particulat episode recounted in the story, analyzing its themes and exploring the truth behind the powerful myth as well as its relevance to our life in the present.
Culhwch and Olwen is one of the oldest and most fascinating repositories of ancient British mythology. It originates from two texts; a fragmented version in The White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and full version in The Red Book of Hergest (1400). The main narrative centres on Culhwch’s quest to win Olwen for which he enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue; a medley of historical and mythological characters.
Embedded within it we find fragments of other tales which may be of older origin and have stood alone. These include the hunt for the legendary boar Twrch Twryth and release of Mabon from imprisonment in Gloucester. Most significantly for me as someone who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd, we find the story of his rivalry with Gwythyr ap Greidol for the love of Creiddylad and their battle for her every May Day.
This story is central to understanding Gwyn’s mythology. Because…
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