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.


The Arthurian Realm: The Romance of Tristan and Isolde

Under the influence!

884px-leighton-tristan_and_isolde-1902Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThis article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: The Tragic Romance of Tristan and Isolde on September 27, 2018 by zteve t evans.

The Romance of Tristan and Isolde

The tale of Tristan and Isolde became a popular Arthurian tale during the 12th century, though it is believed to go back much further, having connections to Celtic legends. It is a tragic romance that tells of the adulterous relationship between Tristan, and Isolde, the wife of Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, making a classic love triangle that sooner or later must be broken by death. In many ways it mirrors the love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere and King Arthur, though it is believed to be older. The spelling of the names and the names of some characters vary and there are many different versions, but all…

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The Prophecy of Merlin: The Two Dragons

Under the influence!

vortigern-dragons Vortigern and Merlin and the Two Dragons – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Arthurian realm of legend and romance destiny and fate play essential parts in many of the legends and stories.  The practise of some writers from the Romances back to Geoffrey of Monmouth to link to earlier works and legends often gives a sense that the main characters and events are governed by some supernatural force that shapes destiny and fate. Events that happened many years and sometimes centuries earlier, become linked to important events in later legends and stories returning to the fore after lying dormant. One of these events involved two important players in the Arthurian world, both having played a part in shaping the destiny of Britain before Arthur was even born.  These two were Vortigern who usurped the throne of Britain and a young Myrddin Emrys, also known as Myrddin Ambrosius or…

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The Great Myths #30: The Holy Grail Appears (Middle High German) — word and silence

The story of the Holy Grail’s appearance to a young man named Perceval/Parzival/Parsifal, is told in many places, and goes something like this: he comes by chance upon the Grail Castle, and is introduced to a wounded man, the Fisher King; during a feast that night, the Grail appears, and if only Parzival would ask […]

via The Great Myths #30: The Holy Grail Appears (Middle High German) — word and silence

Sir Galahad the Perfect Knight

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Sir Galahad first appeared in medieval Arthurian romance in the Lancelot-Grail cycle of works and then later in Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.  He was the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic and became one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.  When he came of age he was considered the best knight in the world and the perfect knight and was renowned for his gallantry and purity becoming one of only three Knights of the Round Table to achieve the Holy Grail.  The other two were Sir Bors and Sir Percival.  Pieced together here is a brief look at his early life and how through his immaculate behavior he rose to such an exalted status  achieving the Holy Grail and a spiritual dimension which remained frustratingly out of reach of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and most of the the other Knights of the Round Table and concludes by comparing his achievements with those of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.

King Pelles

King Pelles the lord of Corbenic the Grail Castle, in the land of Listeneise  and was Galahad’s maternal grandfather.  He was also one of the line of the guardians of the Holy Grail. In some Arthurian romances  Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Britain and gave it to Bron, his brother-in-law, to keep safe and Pelles was descended from Bron. In some versions of Arthurian romance Pelles is also known as the Fisher King or Maimed King.

Pelles had been wounded in the legs or groin resulting in a loss of fertility and his impotence was reflected in the well-being his of kingdom making it infertile and a Wasteland. This is why he was sometimes called the Maimed King.  The only activity he appeared able to do was go fishing.  His servants had to carry him to to the water’s edge and there he would spend his time fishing which is why  he is sometimes called the Fisher King.   Galahad was important to King Pelles as he was the only one who could heal his wound.

Elaine and Lancelot

King Pelles had a daughter named Elaine and he had been forewarned by magical means that Lancelot would become the father of his daughter’s child.  This child would grow to become the world’s best and most perfect knight and be chosen by God to achieve the Holy Grail.  He was the chosen one who would be the only one pure enough to be able to heal his wound.  There was a problem though. Lancelot was dedicated solely to Guinevere, his true love and would never knowingly sleep with another woman.   Nevertheless Pelles was desperate for the liaison to take place and decided to seek magical help from Dame Brusen.  She was one of Elaine’s servants who was skilled in the art of sorcery to help his cause.  She gives Pelles a magic ring for Elaine to wear which gives her the likeness of Guinevere.

Elaine wears the magic ring and transforms into the a double of Guinevere.  Lancelot is fooled by the masquerade and they sleep together.  When he discovers the deception he is angry and ashamed and threatens to kill her.  She tells hims she is with his child and he relents but leaves Corbenic.

Elaine in due course gives birth to his son who she names Galahad.  This is the name Lancelot was baptized with when he was born.   It was the Lady of the Lake who fostered and raised Lancelot in her magical realm and it was she who named him Lancelot du Lac, or Lancelot of the Lake.

The madness of Lancelot

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Soon afterwards Elaine goes to a feast at Arthur’s court.  Although Lancelot is also there he refuses to acknowledge her, making her sorrowful and lovelorn.   She calls her servant Dame Brusen to her and tells her how she is feeling and asks for her help.  Dame Brusen tells Elaine that she will fix it so Lancelot lies with her that night.  Pretending to Lancelot that Guinevere has summoned him she leads him to her chamber, but it is Elaine waiting there for him in bed in the dark and again he sleeps with her.

While he is with Elaine, Guinevere summons him and is furious to discover he is not in his bed chamber and even more so when she discovers him lying with Elaine in hers.  She tells him that she never wants to see or talk to him again and will have nothing more to do with him.  Lancelot is so upset and disturbed at what has happened and with Guinevere’s admonishments that madness takes him and he leaps out of the window running off into the wilderness.

Lost in madness and consumed by grief and sorrow he wanders alone through the wild places before he eventually reaches Corbenic where Elaine finds him insane her garden. She takes him to a chamber in Corbenic Castle where he is allowed to view the Holy Grail, but only through a veil.  Nevertheless this veiled sight of the holy relic is enough to cure him of his insanity.  Although he sees it through the veil, having committed adultery he is not pure enough so he can never be the perfect knight that achieves the Grail.

When his son is born he finally forgives Elaine but will not marry her and instead returns to the court of King Arthur.  The child is named Galahad, after his father’s former name and given to his great aunt to bring up in a nunnery.  Merlin foretells that Galahad will be even more valiant than his father and will achieve the Holy Grail.

Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail

It was not until Galahad became a young man that he was reunited with Sir Lancelot, his father, who makes him a knight.   Lancelot then takes Galahad to Camelot at Pentecost where he joins the court.  A veteran knight who accompanied him leads him to the Round Table and unveils an empty chair which is called the Siege Perilous or the Perilous Seat.  At the advice of Merlin this seat was kept vacant for the knight who was to achieve the Quest for the Holy Grail.

This was his first test or worthiness as this chair in the past had proved deadly for any who had previously sat there who had hoped to find the Grail.  Galahad sits in the seat and survives.  King Arthur sees this and is impressed seeing that there is something special about him and leads him down to a river  where there is a floating stone with a sword embedded in it which bears an inscription  which says,

“Never shall man take me hence but only he by whose side I ought to hang; and he shall be the best knight of the world.”

Galahad tries and takes the sword from the stone and Arthur immediately declares that he is the greatest knight ever.  Arthur invites Galahad to become a member of the Round Table which he accepts.  Not long after the mystical presence of the Holy Grail is briefly experienced by those at King Arthur’s Court and the quest to find the grail is immediately begun. All the Knights of the Round Table embark on the quest leaving Camelot virtually empty.  Arthur is sad because he knows many will die or not return and fears it is the beginning of the end of his kingdom.

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Galahad mainly traveled alone and became involved in many adventures. In one he saves Sir Percival when he was attacked by twenty knights and rescued many maidens in distress.  Eventually he meets up again with Sir Percival who is accompanied by Sir Bors and together they find the sister of Sir Percival who takes them to a ship that will take them over the sea to a distant shore.  Sadly when they reach the shore Percival’s sister has to die that another may live.  To ensure she gets a fit and proper burial Sir Bors takes her body back to her homeland.

Sir Galahad and Sir Percival continue the quest and after many adventures arrive at the court of King Pelles and his son Eliazar.  Pelles and Eliazar are holy men and take Sir Galahad into a room to show him the Holy Grail and they request that he take it to a holy city called Sarras. After being shown the Grail, Sir Galahad asks that he may he may choose the time of his own death which is granted.

While he is on the journey back to Arthur’s court Joseph of Arimathea comes to him and he experiences such feeling of ecstasy that he asks to die there and then.  He says his goodbyes to Sir Percival and Sir Bors and angels appear and he is carried off to heaven as his two friends watch.  Although there is nothing to say that the Holy Grail will not once again be seen on earth it was said that since the ascension to heaven of Galahad there has not been another knight with the necessary qualities of achieving the Holy Grail.

Galahad’s achievement of the Holy Grail

Sir Galahad and the quest for the Holy Grail is one of the later stories that appeared as Arthurian romances grew in popularity.   The thought is that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were not pure enough to achieve such an important religious task. Galahad was introduced into the fold as one of the few who had the purity and personal qualities to qualify him as worthy enough to achieve the Holy Grail.  Just as when Arthur drew the sword from the stone and became the chosen one, Galahad did the same and also became the chosen one. He chose the kingdom of God whereas Arthur built a kingdom on earth.  In taking up the quest for the Holy Grail the priority is to the spiritual rather than the earthly life and Galahad fulfills the spiritual dimension of Arthurian romance and becomes the example for his contemporaries and those coming after him to aspire to.

via Sir Galahad the Perfect Knight