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The quest for Arthurs Holy Grail properly begins with the cauldron of the Irish king Odgar son of Aodh and his steward Diwrnach. This cauldron, which in the Arthurian poem The Spoils of Annwn belonged to the Chief the Underworld, was stolen from Odgar by Arthur and his men in the early Welsh Mabinogion tale, "Culhwch and Olwen."
Odgars cauldron is
taken to the house of Llwydeu son of Cil Coed at Porth
Cerddin in Dyfed. Llwydeu is the magician Llwyd son of
Cil Coed, the owner of an Otherworld basin in "Manwydan
Son of Llyr". Pryderi and his mother Rhiannon become
stuck fast to this basin, which resides in a typical
When Geoffrey of Monmouth (in his Life of Merlin) populated Avalon, he placed there nine goddesses, reflective both of the nine maidens who warm the cauldron in The Spoils of Annwm and of the nine virgin priestesses who inhabited the Ile de Sein off the coast of Brittany, according to the 1st century geographer Pomponius Mela. The Ile de Sein priestesses could cure the sick, foretell the future, control the weather and assume animal disguises.
I have elsewhere written about Glastonburys misidentification with Arthurs Avalon. As mentioned above, Glastonbury was, through false etymology, thought to be the Caer Wydr or Glass Fort of The Spoils of Annwn. The true Avalon is the Aballava/Avallana Roman fort at Burgh-By-Sands in Cumbria, not far west of the Camboglanna/Camlann Roman fort at Castlesteads, the scene of Arthurs last fatal battle. While the Spoils of Annwn underworld is not localized, its association with Avalon may not be coincidental.
Cauldrons like those of Gundestrup, Duchcov, Llyn Cerrig Bach and Llyn Fawr were used as deposits in sacred lakes and bogs. Lakes, like caves and chambered tombs, were considered entrances to the Underworld. If an actual cauldron were ever present at the true Arthurian Avalon, i.e. Burgh-By-Sands, it would most certainly have been deposited in Burgh Marsh, the once extensive moss that surrounded the Avalon fort. However, in my article on Arthur's battles, I have shown that the actual lake of the Lady of the Lake would appear to be the one at Lochmaben in Dumfries, just a few miles NNW of Aballava.
The proper identification of Odgar and Diwrnach (variants Dyrnwch, Dyrnfwch, Drynog, Tyrnog) is of importance, therefore, only in that it would help us gain understanding of this particular cauldron. There is no reason to give the cauldron of the Culhwch and Olwen story precedence over the one found in The Spoils of Annwn.
Odgar, given that his
father is said to be Aodh, i.e Aedh, "Fire",
looks to be the Leinster king Aedh Cerr son of Colman son
of Cairbre who died c. 591. Diwrnach, as has been
surmised before, it a Welsh form of the Irish name
Tigernach. As Aedh Cerr is recorded as a king of Leinster
and Kildare in Leinster had a 6th century bishop named St.
Tigernach, it is probably this saint who is intended as
We have seen that in the
Arthur story the cauldron of Diwrnach/Dyrnog/Tigernach is
taken to Dyfed, where it is left at the house of Llwydeu
son of Cil Coed. Once again, it has long been recognized
that this Llwydeu is the Llwyd son of Cil Coed of the
Mabinogion tale "Manawydan Son of Llyr". Llwyd
owns a magical golden basin in a typical Otherworld fairy
mound castle (sidh). Llwyd has been linked to
Ludchurch, Welsh Eglwys Llwyd, hard by the stream of Cil
Coed in Pembroke. But the Porth Cerddin, "Port of
the Rowan", where Arthur disembarks with the
cauldron, has not been found in any of the extant local
place-names in this part of Dyfed. Supposedly, the Mesur-y-pair
or "Measure of the Cauldron," is to be found at
This Otherworld castle of Llwyd of Cil Coed is probably the ancient fort that stands atop the hill overlooking Ludchurch.
The notion that Llwyd may be a Welsh version of the Irish hero Liath son of Celtchair, whose name is preserved in the famous fairy hill in County Longford called Bri Liath, is certainly significant. Bri Leith was for a time the home of the goddess Etaine Echraide, that is, Etain "Horse-rider. Midir (*Medio-rix, King of the Middle, i.e. of Midhe; see J. Uhlich Einige britannische Lehnnamen im Irischen: Brenainn, Cathair/Cathaer und Midir, Zeitschrift fur Celtische Philologie, 49-50, 1997, 894), the god who owned Bri Liath, possessed a magical cauldron, which was stolen from him by Cu Roi. The fortified hill at Ludchurch may well have been thought of as the Welsh counterpart of Bri Liath in Ireland and, hence, became the respository of the horse goddesss patera.
It is true that Bri
Leith is not in the Leinster of Aedh Cerr, nor is it
anywhere near Tigernachs Kildare, Clones or Clogher.
However, the author of Culhwch and Olwen probably
utilized these two Irish figures solely because they were
roughly contemporary with Arthur.
Of course, it must be remembered that the Culhwch and Olwen tale essentially identifies the cauldron brought from Ireland with the patera of Rhiannon/Epona Regina in Dyfed. And it was Epona who was worshipped by Roman cavalrymen.
A patera was a shallow dish used to offer food or drink to the gods and goddesses in Roman times. Often the patera is shown over an altar and it is known that libations could be poured from a patera onto an altar.
The Christian transformation of the cauldron/patera into the Grail (from medieval Latin gradale, a serving platter or dish, at first holding either Christ as a fish or Christ as a Mass wafer, i.e. the body of Christ), then into the cup that held Christs blood (the prototypical chalice of the Mass service, something made plain in the Perlesvaus, which has Arthur introduce the chalice into the Mass after observing the Grail) and finally into a stone (Wolfram von Eschenbachs lapsit exillis, which draws its power from a Mass-wafer brought down from heaven each year on Good Friday and placed on the stone by the Holy Spirit in the guise of a dove).
Robert de Boron, the first writer of a Grail romance, properly hints that the Christian Grail, a substitute for the patera of Epona, was conveyed to the vales of Avaron, i.e. Avalon. But the Grail romances soon altered this story, having the precious object housed instead in the Castle of Corbenic. From Corbenic the Grail is returned to the Holy Land, where it ascends into heaven and is never seen again by mortal men. Even earlier versions of the story, like that of the Manessier Continuation of Chretiens Conte Du Graal, inform us that the Grail was taken up to heaven. Yet modern-day questors continue to look for the Grail.
Of Corbenic itself, I am in total agreement that this word derives from the French word for raven. Long ago it was suggested that Castell Dinas Bran in northern Wales might be meant, this place being associated by the romance writers with the pagan Bran of cauldron fame (see below). I am now able to prove by analysis of place-names found in the romances that Corbenic is, in fact, Dinas Bran.
Corbenic is in Listenois or Listinois, which itself is either in or the same as La Terre Foraine, the "Land Beyond". In the Land Beyond is a city called "Malta". Corbenic has a church of "Notre Dame", i.e. of St. Mary.
"Malta" was the clue to unraveling this mystery. This is Mold in Flintshire, Wales. As Corbenic is founded for Alan son of Bron or Brons (= the Welsh Bran), it is surely not a coincidence that Mold is encircled on three sides by the Afon Alun or Alyn (from Celtic *alauna). Le Terre Foraine or the "Land Beyond" is this part of Wales to the west of the March of Wales, or Marchia Wallia, as it was called. For most of the period when the March of Wales (the boundary between England and Wales) existed, the fringe of Flintshire was "beyond" it to the west, in Pura Wallia. Listinois is a slightly corrupt form of the Welsh Dinas, preceded by the Old French definite article. Hence the "isle of Listinois" (isle being, as is often the case, "valley" in the medieval sense) of the valley of the dinas. The dinas or "fort" in question is, of course, Dinas Bran, also called Castell Dinas Bran. Corbenic, then, is indeed derived from Old French corbin, "raven", a substitute for the Welsh bran, "raven".
Notre Dame or "Our Lady" Mary is a reference to Valle Crucis Abbey hard by Castell Dinas Bran. In 1200 Madog ap Gruffydd, Lord of Powys Fadog, established Valle Crucis Abbey. It was this same Madog or his son Gruffydd Maelor II who built the medieval castle of Dinas Bran. According to G. Vernon Price, 'Originally the Church at Chirk was regarded as a chapel attached to the Llangollen Church. The benefice was recognised as under the control of the abbey by Bishop Anian II when he visited Oswestry in 1275.' In the Taxation of Pope Nicholas in 1291 the Church at Chirk is reported as Eglwys y waen ("Church of the Moor") and with the appropriation of the Church by Valle Crucis Abbey it was re-dedicated to St. Mary.
The Fisher King himself, the object of Perceval's quest, has remained an enigmatic figure, although some (see Roger Sherman Loomis) have identified this figure with the Celtic god Bran, the Bron/s (Christianized form, Hebron) of later Grail romance. Such an identification makes a great deal of sense, given the presence of the decapitated head in Peredur son of Efrawg's grail procession and the god's laming in Branwen daughter of Llyr - or emasculation, if the Morddwyd Tyllion/"Pierced Thigh" is, as seems probable, a designation for Bran. Chretien's Fisher King had been, after all, "struck by a javelin through both thighs" during the course of a battle. Finally, we will see that a magical cauldron plays a major role in Bran's story.
Unfortunately, no source presents Bran as a fisherman. How, then, do we account for Chretien's Fisher King? I thought at first Roi Pescheur was a French attempt at King Pisear, an owner of a lightning-spear later given to the god Lugh in the Irish story The Fate of the Children of Tuirenn. Pisear, however, lacks the qualities assigned to the Fisher King, especially the sacred laming. It is possible that Chretien or his source took the name Bran to be the Welsh word brenin, "king", equivalent to OFr. roi. Bran's title Bendigeid, "Blessed, Holy", may have been given an opposite meaning at some point by substituting Old French pecheur, "sinner". Pecheur itself would later have been replaced - perhaps as a pun - by the very similar OFr. pescheur,"fisherman". Bendigeid Vran/Bran thus became "Roi Pescheur".
Other famous cauldrons are spoken of in Welsh tradition. The first is that belonging to Ceridwen. It was this cauldron from which Taliesin stole the gift of prophecy, poetry and transformation. Modern scholars claim that Ceridwen is from two Old Welsh words meaning "Bent or Crooked Woman.
The Irish goddess
Cliodhna, in addition to her two sacred rocks (one near
Ross Carbery and the other near Mallow), had a palace on
Lough Derg, the lake of the god Eochaid ("Horse-rider")
of the Red Eye, i.e. of the sun. Tadg ("Poet")
son of Cian visited the goddess at her palace and was
given the three birds and an emerald cup. She told
Tadg that the birds would guide him home and keep him
from sadness, while the cup would turn water into wine.
If he parted from the cup, he would die and she would
bury him. His soul would then come to reside at her
palace by the apple tree.
The French romancers borrowed the story of Brans cauldron (Brons the Fisher King or Maimed King) and linked it improperly to Arthur. As we have seen, Arthurs cauldron did not have anything to do with the one found in the Mabinogion story of Branwen Daughter of Llyr.
The land or city of Sarras "on the confines of Egypt", the last resting place of the Grail, would seem to be the Biblical land of Seir. We could make a case for this by examining the name of a king of Sarras, Evelake or Mordrain. Evelake/Mordrain, as has been surmised before, is the Welsh Avallach/Aballac, father of the goddess Modron. His name is found spelled Amalech in the Nennius genealogies, where he is a son of Beli Mawr. A form like Amalech was, in turn, related to the Biblical Amalek, eponymous founder of the Amalekites:
Here are the descendents of Esau, the father of Edom, in the mountainous region of Seir... Eliphaz... The sons of Eliphaz were... Amalek. GENESIS 36:9-12
Here are the chiefs of the sons of Esau... the sons of Eliphaz... chief Amalek.GENESIS 36:15-16
However, the name of the king of Sarras in the time of Galahad is significant and may point in another direction for this final earthly resting place of the Grail. He is called (Es)corant or (Es)corante. This is very similar to that of the 6th century St. Corentin (called Corenti in a medieval document which refers to the church of Cury near Helston in Cornwall). Corentin was of Plomodiern, 30 km NNE of Quimper. He later became the first bishop of Quimper, at that time called Cornugallia, i.e. Cornouaille.
St. Gildas, in one of his two Lives, is said to have established a monastery at Rhuys in Cornouaille. He died at Rhuys and was buried there, while the other Life has him dying and being buried at Glastonbury. It is surely not a coincidence that Rhuys is in the parish of Sarzeau. Indeed, Gildass monastery of Rhuys is on the tip of the Sarzeau peninsula. In my opinion, "Sarras" is an error or substitution for this very Sarzeau, with its "king" being Saint Corentin, the first bishop of Cornouaille.
Corentin himself may have been associated with the Grail because of the miraculous fish he sustained himself with at his well in the forest of Nevet (Nevet = Nemet; cf. Nemetona above, i.e. "holy grove"). He would eat of this fish every day, and the next day it would be alive again. This motif if very similar to what we find in some accounts of the Fisher King.
If I am right, then the final resting place of the Grail assuming it is a physical object that did not ascend into heaven with Galahads soul, as the literary tradition insists, and assuming it was not subsequently relocated with Gildass relics to Berry is to be found at Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys in Sarzeau.
Gildas himself, however,
was quite possibly confused with a Breton saint named
Gueltas. There are those who hold that the true
founder of the religious establishment at Rhuys was,
therefore, not Gildas, but Gueltas.I once thought Gildas/Gueltas
was the prototype for the Arthurian Galahad or Galaad,
but I now realize this is wrong.
A great deal of mystery has surrounded the nature of the Christian object called the Holy Grail. The authors of the various Grail romances doubtless intended to convey such mystery and they have, to a remarkable extent, been successful. Today theories range from the Grail being a Christianized version of an ancient Celtic cauldron of plenty, a medieval relic, an archetype, a symbol of the ecstatic vision of God. New Age and neopagan tendancies are further blurring whatever meaning the Grail may once have had. This kind of blurring is made that much easier by the fact that the Grail authors often employed different symbols and different contexts for their Grails.
Is there any way to make the Grail a little less slippery for modern questors? I believe so. What follows is a brief comparative analysis of the so-called "procession scenes" found in the Grail romances. I have tried to avoid allowing mystical or religious feeling from interfering with what aims to be a straight-forward, logical attempt to interpret the nature of Grail symbology. I am here concerned neither with the theological nor psychological applications of the Grail. Yet at the same time I have tried to remain true to what the objects themselves may have represented to a people who were pre-scientific in their outlook.
A. Chretien's Procession
The white lance dripping blood is, as is evidenced by similar weapons in Celtic mythology, a typical lightning-weapon. While I can in no way prove it, I suspect the blood symbolizes rays of sunlight (see below under the discussion of Manessier's Continuation), which "bleed" from the sun. The flames of the candles on the candelabra represent the stars. The golden grail is the sun. The silver carving dish is the moon. Chretien tells us that the grail so brightly illumined the hall
"that the candles lost their brilliance like stars and the moon when the sun rises." In other words, he tells us in no uncertain terms that three of the objects present - the candles, the grail and the carving dish- represent the stars, sun and moon, respectively. Gold is known to be the color and metal of the sun, while silver is sacred to the moon.
We have seen that the word grail, or rather, graal, is well attested in the medieval period, being applied to a serving dish or platter. The Fisher King's Grail contains a single Holy Wafer (= the body of Christ) and this wafer alone sustains the Fisher King. Chretien may be punning when he says that the Grail does not hold a pike, salmon or lamprey: Christ's symbol was the fish, and since Christ's body is contained in the Grail, in essence there is a fish there after all. It is a solar fish on a lunar platter.
B. Peredur Son of Efrawg
The spear is the same lightning-spear of Chretien's account, the platter the lunar vessel and the bloody head a distinctly Welsh substitute for the solar grail. The Welsh author was probably thinking of the god Bran's head, also a solar symbol. Though a bloody head as a religious symbol may seem overtly pagan, the Christians had their own version of Bran's head on a lunar platter: the head of St. John the Baptist on a dish.
C. Robert de Boron
Robert first made Chretien's solar grail into the cup of the Last Supper, used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood that fell from the Crucified Christ. This cup has been recognized as the prototype of the Mass chalice. Because the chalice holds Christ's blood, it is probably symbolic of Christ's solar body.
D. Pseudo-Wauchier Continuation of Chretien
The bier may be lunar in nature, as was the platter bearing the solar god's head. The body in this context is that of the dead/lame/emasculated solar king. The broken sword here replaces the lightning-lance, which is elsewhere in the romance referred to as the lance of Longinus. The Roman Longinus used this lance to pierce Christ's side during the Crucifixion. Thus Christ the Fisher of Souls is identified with the solar Fisher King.
The silk cloth may represent the cloud which veils or hides the sun and moon (for the cloud as the Holy Spirit, see the discussion of Wolfram Von Eschenbach's Parzival below).
E. Manessier's Continuation
Holy Grail (sun), trencher (moon) and lance (lightning) accompany Perceval's soul to heaven. Because the lunar trencher is used here to "cover" the solar grail and prevent the Holy Blood from being exposed, we can be fairly certain that the Holy Blood is indeed a symbol for the sun's light. In a solar eclipse, the sun is indeed covered by the moon and its light shielded from our view.
F. Queste del Saint Graal silver table
Here the silver table is a lunar object, the grail the sun, the candles the stars, the cloth of red samite the cloud, the bleeding lance the lightning-weapon.
G. Heinrich Von Dem Turlin
for the lunar ark)
J. Grand St. Graal
A very long, tiresome list of "hallows" which I will not attempt to identify. Besides the holy dish of blood, there are the nails of the Crucifixion, the Cross, the vinegar sponge, a scourge, a separate vessel of gold, a man's head, bloody swords, tapers, Christ himself, angels, holy water and a watering pot, a bloody lance head, white cloths and a red samite cloth, basins, towels, gold censors, and a man all in red.
A nice touch is the wooden ark which is built to hold the holy dish. This object was borrowed from the Bible's ark of the covenant, the latter being essentially a portable throne for Yahweh in his solar aspect. Because the throne of the Egyptian pharoah, who was himself considered a human incarnation of the sun god, was the moon goddess Isis, it is likely the ark of the covenant was also lunar in nature. The cherubim which were mounted on either end of the ark of the covenant and spread their protective wings over the mercy seat were typical stormcloud angels. A stormcloud angel or cherub guarded the Garden of Eden with its flaming lighting-sword.
K. Wolfram Von Eschenbach
Wolfram's grail is the strangest of them all: it is a stone called the lapsit exillis.
From Roger Sherman Loomis's The
Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol:
Supposedly the Grail-stone's power is derived from a Holy Wafer (the solar Body of Christ) that is brought down from heaven every year on Good Friday. The Host is at this time placed on the stone by a dove.
What is this dove? Origen, in his Homilies on Exodus (5.1, 5) says that "What the Jews... believe to be a cloud, Paul says is the Holy Spirit..." In the Old Testament the angel or spirit of Yahweh is the cloud. A comparison of the Baptism and Transfiguration from the Gospel of Matthew is enlightening in this regard:
As soon as Jesus was baptized he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, "This is my Son..." (Mt. 3:16)
He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and from the cloud there came a voice which said, "This is my Son..." (Mt. 17:5)
So if the dove is the cloud, the Host or Body of Christ is the sun, then what is the Grail-stone?
I find it interesting that the Gral-stone of Wolfram is said to be the stone the Phoenix uses to light the fire that consumes this magical solar bird. Medieval bestiaries either had the sun's rays or the stone start the fire. However, many Egyptologist's think the benben stone of the bennu bird (= the Phoenix) is to be related to benbenet or the obelisk, and especially to the pyramidal shaped top of an obelisk. The best guess for the symbolic significance of the obelisk is that it represents a ray of the sun, atop which the sun-bird perched.
If this last view is correct, then the stone as a ray of the sun starting the fire and the sun's rays starting the fire are but two different versions of the same mythical story.
Egyptologists have also determined that all obelisks were quarried from Syene/Aswan and were of a special pink granite.
Wolframs descent of the neutral angels onto the Gral-stone during the War in Heaven sounds suspiciously like the descent of angels from heaven onto the upright pillar-stone of Jacob. Such a pillar-stone could easily have represented something similar to that which an obelisk symbolized or have been confused for an obelisk.
Lastly, there is the business about the Holy Wafer being set on the stone every Good Friday. There can be no doubt that this refers to the Cross, which has here been related to both the obelisk/benben stone of the Phoenix and the pillar-stone of Jacob.
We would then have these apparent correspondences:
1) Benben Stone or Obelisk + Bennu Bird or Phoenix
2) Jacob's pillar-stone + angels
3) Gral-stone + the neutral angels
4) The Cross + Christ
What Wolfram is trying to tell us, in other words, is that the Gral-stone is the source of eternal life - or, at least, of eternal rebirth. It represents, literally, the ray (or rays) of the sun, which provides us with food, drink, etc., just as occurs during the Gral feast. The sun is the source of the ray (or rays), and can be portrayed as perching, ascending/descending or crucified on whatever symbol is used to represent the said ray (or rays).
When Wolfram claims that the Gral-stone derives its power from the Holy Wafer placed upon it every Good Friday, he is simply stating the obvious: the benben stone/Cross or ray of the sun derives its power from the sun.
The Magic of the Cauldron is Copyright © 2005, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: August Hunt
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