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.
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 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.
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.