You could easily dedicate an entire blog to the subject of the Holy Grail (and I’m sure someone has). According to Celtic/Arthurian scholar John Matthews, “there are more than 100 extant texts which deal with the subjects of Arthur and the Grail (7).
But the Grail wasn’t always part of Arthurian legend. We have 12th century French poet Chertien de Troyes to thank for adding the Grail Quest to the legends. I’m not an expert in this area, but I did do some research into the nature of the Grail for book 2, so I thought I’d share an overview of what I learned over the next few weeks.
The Grail has taken on many forms over the years. “Proposals as varied and curious in their origin in the lost continent of Atlantis to their being a memory of the krater or mixing bowl of the gods in Greek myth, have been set forward. Others have declared the Grail to be a bloodline descending from Christ and the Magdalene, the hidden treasure of the Knights Templar and the secret teaching of the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect of the twelfth century” (Matthews 40). But putting those aside, let’s look at the possible Celtic origins of the Grail and how it evolved to the chalice we think of today.
The Grail in Celtic Myth
The earliest stories don’t include the Grail at all. Many times there was a quest, oftentimes for one or more of the 13 treasures of Britain or some strange request of the gods, but those were more like warrior’s tales than the pilgrimage-like quest we think of.
Even though it is inextricably linked with Christ, the Grail may, in fact, have its origins in pre-Christian myths. In these stories, it’s not a cup or chalice, but a cauldron – the main cooking implement of the pre-Roman Celts, and therefore associated with nourishment and life-giving powers. Celtic myth has cauldrons a-plenty, the most famous of which is probably the cauldron of the goddess Ceridwen. To make a long story short, in the “Story of Taliesin,” Ceridwen cooks up a potion to make her ugly son so smart no one would notice his looks. But he never got to drink it. The boy brewing the potion was burned by the liquid and without thinking, licked his sore finger, thus ingesting all the knowledge of the world. He became Taliesin, a bard well-known for his wisdom, and thought by some to be the inspiration for or precursor to Merlin.
In the Preiddeu Annwn (Spoils of the In-World), Arthur is first mentioned questing for what could be the earliest direct reference to the Grail, the Cauldron of Annwn (inspiration). It was guarded by nine maidens, possibly priestesses, and it was quite a battle to get to it. Only seven of Arthur’s men returned, and we aren’t told if they ever found the cauldron, or what exactly it was.
Then there is the Cauldron of Rebirth, also commonly associated with the goddess Ceridwen. In the tale of The Mabinogion, there is a story called “The Story of Branwen.” It is here we see the cauldron as giving life back to dead warriors. They return from the Otherworld almost in a zombie-like state, for they are unable to tell anyone of their experience in the Otherworld. In this story, the hero, Bran, leads a group of warriors to find the cauldron, but it is destroyed in a fight. As in the Preiddeu Annwn, only seven men survive (seven being a highly symbolic number).
Next week, we’ll take a look at the medieval stories of the Grail, and then delve into a truly strange theory involving St. Teresa of Avila.
What do you think of the Grail? Do you think it could date back to pre-Christian Celtic myth or is it purely a Christian relic? What have you read about the Grail, either in fiction or non-fiction?
King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews