From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part IV)

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes

In the first, second and third part of my essay, From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part I), (Part II), (Part III), I concentrated on the subject of the cauldron and its significance in the everyday life, mythology and literature of the Celtic peoples, showcasing the way it features in various Welsh and Irish myths.

I focused on its evolution/transformation to the Holy Grail of the Matter of Britain as it’s explained in the theory put forth by the Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar, Lewis Spence, in his magnus opus, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain: one that proposes the sacred vessel is actually the cauldron we read about in Taliesin’a poem, The Spoils of Annwn.

In the fourth and last part, I’ll complete my essay with Spence’s final extrapolation regarding the origins of the Holy Grail and its close association with the Nilotic myth of the Egyptian god Osiris as well as with the way I’ve made use of the cauldron and other similar vessels in my own mythic fantasy novel.

Spence argues with full conviction the Grail legend meshed with that of the divine King and the ”Maimed King” is one and the same with Arthur, his legend of slumbering in an island or cave or in a resting place underneath a mountain of indubitable fame. Arthur is undoubtedly the wounded king who, trasported to the otherwordly isle of Avalon, is taken care of by nine supernatural enchantresses, resembling in this regard the Grail King.

Through his sinful deeds or the wound sustained in his thighs, he suffers the loss of his divine status and the land over which he rules becones barren until he breaks free from his enchantment. The tale of Amangons (about which I wrote in the third part) provides enough proof. In one of the Arthurian myths, wherever Arthur steps, the land becomes sterile for a span of seven years, a storyline related to the maimed/sinful king.

The arc of the holy receptacle was incorporated into the narrative of the divine king and through curious ways reached the British shores at a fairly early period and fused with native Celtic traditions of similar nature such as those of the salmon of knowledge and the Annuvian cauldron. Unquestionably, it has formed part of the mythical material that relates to the cultus and rituals of the divine king.

Throughout The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, Spence explains the reasons why the myth of Arthur bears a strong resemblance to the tradition of the divine king, one that originated in the ancient times of the Nile country. He further stresses the legend of the Holy Grail can be traced back to the same Nilotic myth, which morphed into a melange with the tales of the native British cauldron.

The Nilotic myth was birthed during a terrible period of famine in the island of Elephantine. In the same fashion, another circumstance gave birth to the cauldron when Arthur braved the Annuvian depths and reached the fortress of Caer Pedryvan. Such myth served multiple functions, Spence claims, as it not only brought to life the legend of the Grail but possibly that of others, like the Fountain of Youth in the mythical land of Bimini whose waters the native tribes believed to gift a man with youth and longevity. In some versions of the Holy Grail, when the Fisher King is restored to health, the land once again flourishes and the rivers swell and flow.

All these enduring myths and fables later came to be associated with the Christian narrative of the Grail. Of course, the foundation had already been built in Britain as there existed already such beliefs, the fruit of fusion between Celtic and Egyptian conceptions.

Upon this amalgamation, the later French and English romances were added, all these lays attesting to the mixed descent of the Grail arc. That constitutes sufficient proof for Spence who contends the cultus of Arthur—a blend of British and Egyptian Neo-Platonic notions—must have held considerable sway over the Grail legend, especially considering the identification of Arthur with Osiris.

In a nutshell, the Arthurian cult, it appears, had wholly absorbed the character and attributes of the Egyptian god Osiris and transferred them to the British titular god, as is evidenced by every known segment of his myth.

What I’ve found most refreshing in Spence’s views is that, unlike other scholars and literary figures, he hasn’t made a series of painful and frustrating attempts to ground Arthur and the ancestry of the Holy Grail to historical reality. Even though he acknowledges there existed the cult of Arthur where he was worshipped as a solar and war deity—established by Ambrosius Aurelianus—he dispenses with such ideas from the beginning and dons the lenses of comparative mythology and literary tradition in order to unearth the truth of the matter. And he’s certainly erudite enough and possess a most lucid mind to make a strong case.

Herculean have been all the efforts throughout the centuries to disclose and decode the mystical origins of the Grail. With so many voices opining on the subject, it’s an impossible task to determine who is right and who is wrong. Perhaps every perspective may carry some truth, some more and others less. However, it’s an undeniable fact the majority of those who have seriously studied the Grail legend are convinced of its Celtic lineage.

Cauldrons, cups, dishes and other similar vessels—as has been indicated so far—are a staple of the Celtic literary tradition and mythology, their symbolic significance manifesting in various ways: feritility, wisdom, resurrection, knowledge etc.

My own mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, heavily inspired by the atmosphere and the tales contained in The Mabinogion, couldn’t possibly remain aloof from all that magnificent lore. So, until now, there have been two instances where I’ve incorporated into my own work subplots that revolve around such fabled receptacles.

In the first, Morella, the main character needs to help Anna, a close friend and knightess, who was badly injured in battle against the fairies. Both characters possess the gift of awen, which is the seed of all magic. Anna has healed herself as much as she can through her own magical abilities, but more has to be done to fully regain her former strength.

In comes their former mentor, Cyprianus, who tells them of a faraway island beyond the North Wind that cannot be traced in any map called Hyperborea. Here I made use of the existing legend of the Boreades tribe whom the ancient Greeks identified as Celtic, residing in the Northest corner of the Earth. As I made use of the second branch of the Mabinogi and the Pair Dadeni that plays an important role in the story, marrying the two myths.

The Pair Dadeni, literally the cauldron of rebirth, is a magical cauldron able to revive the dead that originally belonged to a pair of giants: Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymydei Cymeinfoll. In my own novel, I rendered the pair rulers of the isle of Hyperborea and guardians of the Pair Dadeni, which is hidden in a double-mouthed, crystal cave. The cauldron of rebirth restores to life people heavily wounded in war or those on the throes of death.

But the cauldron doesn’t function on its own, for next to it I conceived the existence of a cluster of rocks where a stream bubbles, an amethyst goblet wedged into one of the stony clefts. The cauldron’s water possesses cleansing powers. Once the goblet is immersed within, it must be filled with blood and consumed twice for the rest of a person’s life from full moon to full moon.

If the consumer is a wounded warrior, the blood must flow from the veins of the enemy who caused the harm. If someone dying, the blood must flow from the veins of a loved one.

The second instance is actually the pearl-rimmed cauldron that doesn’t boil the food of a coward Arthur coveted in The Spoils of Annwn. Morella, like the British King, braves the depths of Annwn—the otherwordly residence of the dead—in order to reunite with her mother and find the answers she seeks. Before she completes her quest, though, she must pass a test: enter the isle’s ancient temple, encounter the nine otherwordly maidens who tend to the cauldron with their fiery breath and drink from its mead that is the very source of awen and consequently all magic.

Morella drinks the liquor with success, in the process flooded with powerful visions she had never before experienced as a seer, before she recovers and meets with her mother.

Whether in the form of a supernatural cauldron, a mystical cup or a sacred dish, the receptacle of the Celtic myths and legends is an object that still rouses the popular imagination and exerts considerable fascination over our imagined reality.

Perhaps because it represents humanity’s deepest longings and aspirations: the gaining of the world’s knowledge and the mysteries that govern it, the acquisition of wisdom that exceeds mortal boundaries and touches upon the divine, the healing of the body and the flight from death, the love of beauty and the chase of eternal youth.

But above all, the eternal celebration of life through the means of nourishment, abundance and fertility.

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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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 contais 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.

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