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 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.

Book Review: The Child that Went with the Fairies

Lilaia Moreli - Words Are Sacred

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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story The Child that Went with the Fairies narrates the tale of a poor widow and her four children living in a sublime Irish landscape. While the three youngest are outside playing and the sister and mother are busy doing their tasks, the youngest of all the siblings, Billy, is taken away by the ”Good People” as the fair folk are called in the story. Little Billy returns to his family from time to time until one day he vanishes altogether, never to reappear, and is considered dead.

On the surface, The Child that Went with the Fairies, resembles a typical, supernatural tale where a child is kidnapped by some otherwordly folks under mysterious circumstances and is forever torn apart from his loved ones. But Le Fanu is an astute writer who knows how to add layers upon layers of meaning, rendering his work…

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William Butler Yeats: The Stolen Child


Glencar Waterfall, County Leitrim 

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

Book Review: The Child that Went with the Fairies

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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story The Child that Went with the Fairies narrates the tale of a poor widow and her four children living in a sublime Irish landscape. While the three youngest are outside playing and the sister and mother are busy doing their tasks, the youngest of all the siblings, Billy, is taken away by the ”Good People” as the fair folk are called in the story. Little Billy returns to his family from time to time until one day he vanishes altogether, never to reappear, and is considered dead.

On the surface, The Child that Went with the Fairies, resembles a typical, supernatural tale where a child is kidnapped by some otherwordly folks under mysterious circumstances and is forever torn apart from his loved ones. But Le Fanu is an astute writer who knows how to add layers upon layers of meaning, rendering his work ripe for various interpretations.

Le Fanu begins with lush, orgiastic descriptions of the Irish nature with bogs and hills and range of mountains. This is the very landscape where Le Fanu himself grew up and lived, thus the tale is presented as a true account.

In the tale, superstitions abound. They are not to be ridiculed. Instead, they are taken seriously and even the priest employs natural means to repel the fairies. The mother, who espouses all this legacy of supernatural tradition, passes it onto her oldest daughter, Nelly. This is a rich cultural identity that has to be transmitted to the younger generations. The local inhabitants possess a strong culture with long-standing traditions that give them a distinct national identity.

As we read the story, we come to realize that one of the themes permeating the narrative is that of haunting. The hill in which the fairies reside casts a shadow that looms over the landscape, frightening the people of the village. But it’s not only their physical presence that terrifies the people but, also, the traditions and strange tales of fear that accompany them. These creatures have the ability to cross the threshold between the world of substance and the world of illusions, between life and death, between form and spirit. The natural laws that govern humans do not touch them. Therefore, they are the ”Other”.

But the field of haunting doesn’t pertain to the fairies alone. The dead can haunt as well. Death, either literal or figurative, is a spectre that torments the family. Billy is considered dead by his mother and siblings. When he comes back to his family’s cabin, only his two young siblings can see him due to the fact that they, too, have come in contact with the fairy realm. The mother and eldest sister, due to being devout guardians of the traditions and cultural legacy, cannot. Later, Billy’s brother will keep on seeing him sporadically and being haunted by his memory. In this way, fairies become a symbol of death.

Another very important theme in the story is that of appearance and illusion. The fairy lady’s beauty and charm are repeatedly stressed. She tosses apples at the children and uses glamour so as to distract them and entices Billy with kisses and caresses. The siblings, despite sensing the malice of the fairies, cannot resist and ”take a bite”. They cannot realize the danger the fairies represent as they are too young to pay heed to their mother’s teachings and warnings. They are too stunned by the lady’s allure. While they’re chasing the apples, they are literally chasing after illusions that will never be materialized or fulfilled, but will only make them stray from the path of safety.

Woven into the narrative is the polarity between the ”we” and the ”other”, or  between the nation and the imperialistic power to be more precise. If we substitute the word ”fairy” with ”English”, the tale is viewed under a different light. Le Fanu, conscious of his identity as Irish, makes a merciless critique against the imperial dominance of the English. All the riches and the glorious display of formality of the fairy ceremony hint at the presumed superiority and authority of the English dominance. By virtue of its own long-standing tradition and aristocratic birth, it converts into a predator preying on the one it considers weak and easy to possess.

It is at this point that Le Fanu bares his writerly teeth most aggressively. By striking a comparison between the imperialistic power and the fairies,  it becomes evident that since the fairies can rule only through the means of illusion, therefore the imperialistic power lacks substance. Thus, it is unnatural and rotten.

But the fairy lady is not the sole representation of the idea of ”Otherness”. Le Fanu takes care to describe the lady’s companion inside the carriage: a black woman. The black woman is an inherent part of the imperialistic power and its bitter fruit, namely slavery. One could say that her role in the story is, at best, nebulous. It never becomes completely evident what her function is and what her relationship to the fairy lady is.

Le Fanu, once again, returns to his favourite theme, that of the contrast between essence and perception, truth and illusion. The exotic, dark sight of the black woman strikes the children with terror while they are enthralled by the fairy lady, for they perceive malignity in the first who is laughing with some kind of inside joke and beauty in the second.

But appearances can be mortally deceptive. Is the black woman shaking with amusement or fear because she knows what dreadful fate awaits the children at the hands of the fairy lady? Is she stuffing her mouth with a handkerchief so as not to let her amusement be heard or does she force herself to be quiet out of fear of the fairy lady and therefore doesn’t cry out a warning to the children to save them? Is she truly mad at the children or terrified at the thought of what is about to happen to them?

In this case, the black woman doesn’t represent a powerful, aggressive other, but a repressed figure living in perpetual terror under the iron force of imperialism. Her regal, colourful garments suggest that she comes from a rich cultural background. But her position now perhaps indicates that she’s not part of an independent nation anymore but a slave with a strangled voice not allowed to speak. Having that in mind, perhaps the black woman functions as a warning as to what happens when nations or cultures are dominated by others. Le Fanu remarks that her face is a ”death’s head”. In that manner, she maintains a connection with the dead or perhaps one could even point out that her role in the story is to function as a death knell for poor Billy.

While in many fictional works youth and innocence are praised, in this tale they become the very qualities that condemn the children. The siblings cannot perceive the threat coming their way.  Troubled by the fearsome aspect of the black woman, they are unable to read ”the writing on the wall”. The person who could be their saving grace is viewed as a malevolent figure while the person who wishes them harm is seen as the angel.

Nowhere in the story is the notion of illusion highlighted more than in the figure of Billy. When the child is last seen inside the cabin he is haggard and his clothes are in tatters. The great splendour of the fairy realm is nothing but a sham. Billy has found no nourishment, no warmth and no affection. He is a tragic figure because while he straddles two worlds he doesn’t belong to either.  He is a double ”Other” both in the world of the mortals and in the fairy dimension, stuck in the threshold of two cultures, condemned to wander between these two but never living fully in either anymore.

For all intents and purposes, Billy becomes a figure without identity, without roots. He is dead or perhaps a ghost. In essence, he is wiped out of existence. The fact that he doesn’t have a headstone where he can be properly buried by his family and mourned speaks volumes. There’s no place for him in his family anymore because his identity is non-existent. In fact, Billy is not unlike the black woman. In losing his cultural identity, he becomes an immaterial shadow.

We cannot delve into the mind of Le Fanu so as to claim with certainty what the intended message of the story is. Is the Irish writer providing the reader with a cautionary tale about the danger of what happens when one becomes estranged from their own cultural background and national legacy? Is the focus of the story the evils that befall one from the loss of cultural identity?

As is the case with Carmilla, Le Fanu relishes the game between reliability and unreliability. Credibility and perception are challenged. Are we as readers to believe the children’s tale? Or are we to believe that the villagers and their ways are sound? Are the fairies the wicked ones or are they pitiable figures suffering from malicious and ignorant superstitions? Most importantly, are the children the only ones who misjudge the idea of ”Otherness” or do the adults have to plead guilty as well?

The figure of Billy certainly raises some intriguing questions. We’re often reminded of his beauty. Blonde, blue-eyed and the youngest of the siblings. Is his attractiveness something that sets him apart from the other members of his family? It certainly is. If we take this fact into consideration, can we say that he was naturally destined to be alienated and marginalized by virtue of his physical aspect? Was he doomed from the start?

When reading the story, one notices there’s a common link that connects Billy and the fairy lady. They are both pleasing to the eye, and that’s why they are attracted to each other. Once again, the notion of perception takes the central stage. Both cultures judge based on appearances and surfaces, unable to view the ”Other” as the ”Other” truly is. In a society where illusions and senses reign supreme, what hope remains for unclouded and unbiased judgment?

How is the ”Other” perceived? Is the ”Other” the surface we regard or is there some kind of deeper essence? Are we to project onto the ”Other” our fancies and preconceived ideas or are we to peel away the blindfold and peer into the objective reality?

Is Billy dead or is he forgotten because he embraced another culture? Is he marginalized and estranged by virtue of his association with the fairies or is he an outcast by his family due to his natural ”Otherness”? Is he forced into another culture because his own repels him? But if Billy is a pariah in the mortal world, he doesn’t seem to fare much better in the fairy realm either.

The existence of the black woman adds another layer to the story, highlighting the fact that it’s not a simple matter of ”us” versus ”them” mentality. There are various types of ”Other” and various reasons for the base of ”Otherness”.

Le Fanu has given us a story where the English and Irish cultures violently clash. The issue of identity is an extremely complex one, thus making it difficult to define it and come to a resolution. What is an identity and which are its proper characteristics? Who is the one to give us an identity? Are we born with one or is it forced upon us by our environment? If we happen to differ, can this identity be revoked despite not this being our fault? And if we lack an identity, are we practically non-existent or can we choose an identity ourselves and belong within a culture without fear of rejection due to our ”Otherness”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Myths #33: The Child Cúchulainn Gets His Name (Celtic)

Human Pages

myths_and_legends3b_the_celtic_race_28191029_281478031515129When Culand the smith offered Conchubur his hospitality, he said that a large host should not come, for the feast would be the fruit not of lands and possessions but of his tongs and his two hands. Conchubur went with fifty of his oldest and most illustrious heroes in their chariots. First, however, he visited the playing field, for it was his custom when leaving or returning to seek the boys’ blessing; and he saw Cú Chulaind driving the ball past the three fifties of boys and defeating them. When they drove at the hole, Cú Chulaind filed the hole with his balls, and the boys could not stop them; when the boys drove at the hole, he defended it alone, and not a single ball went in. When they wrestled, he overthrew the three fifties of boys by himself, but all of them together could not overthrow him. When…

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