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The Holy Grail


The Grail. The Holy Chalice. The Cauldron.
Sangrail. Sangreal. Sang-real. The Holy Grail.
The Cup of the Last Supper
The Cup of the Crucifixtion

The origin of the 'Legend of The Holy Grail' is believed to belong to the ancient Britons probably of Welsh and Keltic heritage as known in Goidelic and Brythonic myths which have at their core a mystical tradition.

The term 'Grail' itself is believed to originate from the Latin 'gradale' meaning a dish used during a meal. 'Chrétien de Troyes' (See Chrétien de Troyes) is known to have referred to such an object, whereas Wolfram von Eschenbach refers to a Grail made of stone which protected the beholder from death during the ensuing week and provided sustenance.

In the poems 'The Spoils of Annwn' accredited to the Welsh bard 'Taliesin' (See Taliesin) of the sixth-century is a description of a sacred vessel that is sought in the Annwn, the Underworld, by a group of learned mystics, believed to be a vessel akin to the symbolism of the Grail.

'The three properties of the cauldron -
inexhaustibility, inspiration and regeneration...fertility.'

The mystics were believed to have entered Annwn to find the 'Cauldron of Pwyll' reputed by Taliesin to be a vessel that -

'by the breath of nine damsels it is gently warmed'.

The Cauldron possessed many magical powers including speech, its appearance being noted as -

'with a ridge round its edge of pearls,'.

Pwyll, father of 'Pryderi', was 'Lord of Annwn' and lame (See Pwyll). He has often been likened to the 'Ruler of Hades' or 'Satan', later still being known in Norman-Grail legends as the 'Fisher King' (See Fisher King). Pwyll is described by Robert de Borron in the twelfth-thirteenth-century as -

'much knew he of black art, more than a hundred times changed in his semblance.'.

Pwyll was believed to have kept the Cauldron at the 'Four-cornered Castle' in the 'Isle of the Active Door'. The castle was referred to as the 'Caer Sidi' or 'Caer Pedrvan'.

In the Norman Arthurian legends the names and locations are very similar to the ancient legends. The location of 'The Graal', or 'The Grail' was known in ancient legend as being in the ownership of 'Pelles', sometimes referred to as 'Peleur', being safely secured in the 'Peaked Castle', or 'Horned Castle'. This castle was referred to as the 'Castle of Carbonek' or 'Caer Bannuac' (See Pelles).

The Grail possessed the ability to; heal the sick, or in Arthur's case, the mortally wounded; the power to ensure that all who are worthy to approach it remain youthful; and the power to provide sumptuous food of any type except for those who are not yet worthy to eat from it or approach it, perhaps, as is referred to in Taliesin's poem, as they are cowards. Here we see the glimmer of the Christian influence, with only those being strong enough and pure of mind, body and spirit being able to seek and approach the Grail. This reminds us of the spiritual quest of the Christian Knights of the Round Table, men who were strong in both faith and action, with 'Peredur', later 'Perceval', being the chief exponent of these qualities and the Knight who undertakes to seek the sacred vessel. What is evident is that a fusion of myth, tradition and legend leads us to see the Sacred Chalice of Christianity and the Celtic Mystical Cauldron associated with Pagansim bound tightly together since the development of the Christian doctrine in Britain, typifed in Norman-Graal legend and Arthurian romance (See Peredur). This new Grail was said to manifest only those who were worthy of seeing it, first appearing in legend when the country had fallen into a wasteland after the fall of the Western forces in the Holy Land. The Grail legends then can be seen to be symbolic of the need to underpin the faith of the people at this time.

Whilst it is Joseph of Arimathea in Norman and Christian Arthurian legend who was reputed to have brought 'The Holy Grail' to the West, to 'Glastonbury' (See Glastonbury), in ancient Welsh literature it was Bron. It has been suggested that 'The Chalice' was the same sacred vessel as 'The Holy Grail' brought by 'Bran the Blessed' (See Bran the Blessed), also known as 'Bron' or 'Brons' to the West. Bron features in Welsh literature, but it is now thought that Bron is a product of early Christianity leading to a reworking of the legend, transforming him into the person known as 'Joseph of Arimathea' (See Joesph of Arimathea). Bron was said to have come from Palestine to the West 'floating on a shirt belonging to Joseph's son'. Yet Bron is also now seen as a later development coming after Bran the Blessed, who, it was said, came to Ireland. Could this be the 'Island of the Blessed' referred to in the early Celtic Church? Rather than there being a sacred vessel, the head of Bran, is referred to as 'the mystical head', taking the place of The Grail. After his funeral there was said to be eight years of happiness with no shortage of food and drink for all that knew him, and especially for his funeral bearers.

Throughout Norman and Christian Arthurian legend, 'The Quest for the Holy Grail', or 'The Grail', is a search for a magical cup which brings enlightenment brought by Joseph of Arimathea to Britain. A few stories tell of the cup being brought by angels from heaven and given to sacred Knights, perhaps the Knights of the Round Table, or their earlier counterparts.

Only the pure were said to have been able to approach the cup, anyone else approaching it would simply see it disappear before their eyes. We know that many of the stories accredited to the sacred vessel, known in early Anglo-Norman romances as the 'Graal' meaning a dish made from expensive metals and stones and equating to the Keltic 'Mowys' or 'Mias', have been developed through the spread of Christianity across Medieval Europe . Yet if we re-examine the ancient Welsh references to a sacred vessel, we find that it is the Cauldron that offers immortality and wisdom to those who drink from it.

Taliesin described the drops, or liquid, from the Cauldron as being able to provide a person with the ability to see -

'The Past, The Present, and The Future.'.

Whilst it has been suggested that the two sacred vessels are diametrically opposed to one another, representing opposite points and faiths, (The Grail representing light, and the Cauldron darkness), we can see that two realms of possibility are established and by their very symbolism therefore connected and interwoven, one of Christian root and the other pre-Christianity.

The Cauldron is associated with the descent into Annwn, the Underworld, this is understood to mean the afterlife, a place of pre-Christian beliefs, where sacrifice and death are known, together with the realms of the unconscious. Taliesin refers to this Cauldron as being retrieved from Annwn by Arthur was able to bring the vessel back as spoil.

The legend of Taliesin himself tells of how he himself was believed to have been born as the result of Ceridwen eating Gwion when both were transformed as the result of the magical properties of the Cauldron's water. This was said to explain Taliesin's ability to reveal the story of Annwn. Taliesin's birth is connected with the sea, with a presumed death and a timely rebirth. These themes are common to both vessels, sacred vessels that whilst taking life can also provide the hope of new life. These qualities can be clearly seen in The Holy Grail/Grail believed to embody the hope of resurrection, of life eternal, being associated with the Last Supper, and the vessel which held Christ, the Redeemer's blood or sweat.

As Christianity became established in Britain the Cauldron is rarely featured, being replaced by The Holy Grail. It has been suggested that this replacement, of one vessel for another, and the associated imagery, is the result of the attempt to eradicate what was called 'the pagan heresy'. Druidism, the Old Religion and pre-Christian practices would have been under threat. Whilst the Grail was linked with the priest and with order, the Cauldron was linked with the Keltic shaman, the possibility of chaos and as we know the ability to know the secrets of the past, present and future. This confronts Christianity with a major problem when only God is omnipotent. Such shamanic powers were evidence of the Devil's work and to be stopped. It seems that here the medieval Arthurian writers were to assist in the domination of one over the other, symbolic it is thought of planned sweeping changes made in the British Isles to religious practice and faith.

If we look elsewhere, to ancient Welsh literature, to the Mabinogion, it becomes clear that the power spoken of, being embodied by the Cauldron, is a common element, and so too is the idea of the quest to find it as exampled by the story of 'Peredur' (See Peredur). This is challenged in the Norman-Grail romances. One of the most obvious points of contention is the development of the character of Peredur, known as 'Perceval' in later Norman-Grail legends. He embodies and reflects the Christian philosophy, being reprimanded on his return for not seeking answers to questions posed to the 'Fisher King'. Yet the ancient Peredur is wise to realise that to ask 'Pwyll, Lord of Annwn' any question when specifically requested not to do so by him would have encouraged enchantment and even disaster. The Lord of Annwn was believed unlikely to provide such information lest others know the secret of his powers.

The Christian Grail romances became most popular during the late twelfth to early thirteenth-century, with 'Robert de Borron' being the first poet to truly provide a new angle on the legends of Arthur, broadening the whole legend to that of seeking the Grail Dish upon which the food of the Last Supper was served to the disciples. Borron is viewed as having been the first to identify the significance of The Grail in 'Joseph d'Arimathie', also known as 'Le Roman de l'Estoire douGraal'. Whilst Perceval and 'Bors de Ganis' (See Bors de Ganis) achieved the quest in French versions of the early legends, by the Middle Ages 'Galahad' (See Galahad) had replaced Perceval as the Grail Knight. Galahad is seen as the purest Knight in 'Malory's' (See Malory) work but the poet 'Tennyson' (See Tennyson) is currently viewed as having influenced the perception of the meaning of The Grail in recent legends.

Arthur's achievment in obtaining the sacred vessel, the cauldron which symbolises Annwn itself, is all the more remarkable. Arthur here is seen as conquering all, the powers of darkness whilst also providing hope. Arthur's descent into Annwn has been considered to be an allegory of his ascent away from it to 'Abred', the 'Earth-plane'. Others have viewed Arthur's achievment as sybolising the resurrection and the rebirth, perhaps even reincarnation, through the passage of life to death and on to the spirit, from Abred to Annwn to 'Gwynvyd', the 'Soul-plane'.

Similar vessels can be found in ancient belief systems, such as Medea of ancient Greek mythology, and the very Mimir's Well itself in Norse legends (See Mimir). These Cauldrons required a sacrifice to be made before the drops could be taken, either spiritually, physically or metaphorically, as one of the main powers that could be sought was the opportunity to be brought back to life from death.

The Quest for The Holy Grail of legend continues , some believing that it will never be found yet others investing hope that its location will be revealed. Some firmly believe that it was thrown into the Chalice Well, Glastonbury whilst others are equally sure that . The search for the Cauldron too continues although it has been said that it could never be found as it lies in the ocean of the past.


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