The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion – Chapter 6

Jul 8th, 2013 | By | Category: The Grail

6 – Into the Cave 

                                    My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

                                    My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk … 

John Keats 

THE PREVIOUS chapter opened with a Gaelic proverb, predicting that the ‘Isle of Columba the cleric’ will still ‘swim’ when its neighbours have vanished beneath the waves, and the disclosure that Iona has long been considered a ‘thin’ place, where the veil between worlds is unusually permeable.

In this chapter, we shall consider Iona’s status as a sacred centre and the role of initiation in the ancient Mystery tradition.

It is unclear why Iona was expected to survive a catastrophic rise in sea-level.  But what is beyond doubt is that the isle was one of the first outcrops of land to appear on the planet’s surface.  Its bedrock is largely composed of Lewisian Gneiss, which solidified more than 2.5 billion years ago.  Iona was – to all intents and purposes – the birthplace of the world.

Like his Human age counterpart, the tourist, the Heroic age pilgrim generally saw only what he had come to see.  For reasons of survival, though, the Divine age seeker tended to see more; her eyes were trained to read the natural environment in ways ours are not.  The notable absence of fossils in the rocks of Iona might have assured her that the island was special.  It was primeval, antediluvian – in a word, Ogygian.

‘Ogygian’ (meaning ‘primal’, ‘from the dawn of time’) comes from Ogyges, a mythical king of Greece.  He survived the ‘Ogygian Flood’, which Plato dated to around 10,000 years BC, and either he or his sons founded the ancient cities of Eleusis and Thebes.

Ogyges also gave his name to an island: Homer referred to it in his Odyssey as ‘the island of Ogygia, where is the Navel of the sea’.

Homer’s phrase, Omphalos thallasses, indicates a World-Navel, a sacred centre on a par with Delphi, except that this one was situated in Okeanos, the great river which encircled the world.  In other words, the ‘Navel of the sea’ lay in the Atlantic Ocean.

Plutarch determined that the ‘isle Ogygian’ was located to the west of Britain, in the ‘Gulf of Kronos’.  It was therefore equated with the Isle of the Blessed on which Zeus had imprisoned his father, the god of fertility and abundance.

According to legend, Kronos had been forewarned that he would be overthrown by one of his sons, and so he devoured each of them at birth.  The mother of Zeus wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes and tricked Kronos into swallowing it in place of her newborn son.  This stone was the Omphalos Stone which was later installed at the cult centre of Delphi, in the shadow of Mount Parnassus.

There was a connection, then, between the Greek omphalos or ‘World-Navel’ at Delphi and the Atlantic ‘Navel’ off the coast of Britain.  The one comprised the stone which Kronos had swallowed, believing it to be his son Zeus; the other was the western isle on which Zeus interred his father, setting the hundred-headed Briareos to stand guard over him, the tradition being (in Plutarch’s words) that ‘sleep is the bond forged for Kronos’.

It was to this ‘palace of Kronos, 

                        Where soothing breezes off the Ocean
                        Breathe over the Isle of the Blessed 

that those who had scrupulously honoured their oaths were taken by Zeus ‘at the end’ – as the poet Pindar wrote in the 5th century BC.

Kronos evidently combined the functions of an agricultural deity and a god of the dead – as did the Egyptian Osiris, amongst others.  It was in the latter capacity that Kronos was depicted with a raven, his name – as Robert Graves argued – possibly deriving from korone, the Greek word for a ‘crow’. 

The hero of Homer’s Odyssey was washed up on the ‘island of Ogygia’ after he was shipwrecked.

As he made his way home from the Trojan War, Odysseus lost his ship and its crew in a series of misadventures.  A beautiful nymph then held him captive on ‘the remote island’, intending to make Odysseus her immortal consort.  Her name, Kalypso, derived from a word meaning to cover or conceal.

Previously, Odysseus had crossed the ‘River of Ocean’ to the mysterious Grove of Persephone, where he had raised the dead: 

… unmarried youths, old men who had suffered greatly, once-happy girls with grief fresh in their hearts, and a great throng of warriors killed in battle, their spear-wounds gaping and all their armour stained with blood. 

Odysseus had spoken with several unhappy shades, including that of Achilles, who demanded to know how Odysseus dared to ‘come below to Hades’ realm, where the dead live on as mindless disembodied ghosts?’

This is clearly the underworld of those ‘weak and feckless discarnate souls’ which we encountered in Chapter 4.  It is the ‘Hades’ described by Dr Robert Crookall in his study of Out-of-the-Body Experiences, where jealous ‘hinderers’ remain trapped in a dark place, held back by emotional attachments.

Homer’s account of the ‘Halls of Hades’ contrasts sharply with his description of the Ogygian isle where Odysseus is later held prisoner.

Zeus sends his messenger Hermes to instruct Kalypso, the ‘Nymph of the plaited tresses’, to release Odysseus.  Hermes flies across the sea to ‘the remote island’ and the ‘great cavern where the Nymph of the lovely locks was living.’

Her cave was ‘sheltered by a copse of alders and fragrant cypresses’, the haunt of ‘wide-winged birds … birds of the coast’.  Around the mouth of the cave trailed a ‘thriving garden vine’.  Four springs poured forth ‘crystal rivulets’, and ‘in soft meadows on either side iris and wild celery flourished’.

Even an ‘immortal visitor’ must ‘pause to gaze in wonder and delight’ at such a setting.

Odysseus was spending his nights in the ‘vaulted cavern’, sleeping with Kalypso.  His days, though, were passed ‘sitting disconsolately on the shore’ and looking out ‘with streaming eyes across the watery wilderness.’

Having raised the earthbound spirits from Hades, Odysseus had now graduated to becoming the lover of the queen of the dead (Kalypso) and to sitting on the shore of ‘the remote island’ which – like the ‘remote island’ of the Hebridean Saga of Sir Uallabh son of Horn – had a ‘great cave’ on it.

The position of Odysseus, gazing out across the ‘Sea of Shadows’, as the Atlantic was known, recalls Professor Whitehead’s description of ‘some substance like granite on a sandy beach near the water’s edge’.  That is to say, Odysseus was poised between the ‘“Hades” conditions’ of the earthbound spirits and the ‘“Paradise” conditions’ which lay beyond the oceanic ‘river’.  And there, in his ‘accustomed place’, he wept for the ‘mindless disembodied ghosts’ of his comrades and yearned for the Paradise across the waves.

There is a ‘vaulted cavern’ on the Isle of Iona.  It is a large Neolithic chambered cairn known as Sithean Mór.  This was the ‘sídh of Emain’ – the ‘fruitful place’ of ‘bright apple-trees’.

Recent speculation has suggested that certain Norse names for Iona signified an ‘Island of the Cave’ – in Gaelic, I-uamha (pronounced ‘ee-oo-va’), which might have been what Adomnán had in mind when he wrote of the Ioua insula.

The Sithean Mór burial mound stands on the west side of Iona, between the Hill-Fort of Manannán and the Gully of Little-Bran’s Man-Servant.  Granite spurs poke out into the Atlantic Ocean from the sandy beach nearby.

One of them, immediately to the west of the ‘vaulted cavern’, is called Sgeir na Caoneig – ‘Rock of the Weeper’.

Eo Feasa
Ogyges was an ‘aboriginal’ who made it through the cataclysmic deluge, thereby preserving the wisdom which would inform the death-and-rebirth Mystery cult of Eleusis in Greece.

In Irish mythology, the Flood-survivor was called Fintan.  His legend, as told in the 11th-century Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘Book of the Taking of Ireland’), relates that Noah’s granddaughter was advised by an idol to escape the deluge in a ship.

She sailed for seven years with three men and 49 women, finally reaching Ireland.  Fintan became responsible for all the women, but he abandoned them.  They all perished in the Flood – apart from Fintan, who transformed himself into a salmon and hid in a cave known as Fintan’s Grave.

Fintan lived on for many years, acquiring the epithet ‘Wise’.  He was the original ‘Salmon of Knowledge’, Bradan an Eòlais or Eo Feasa.  Later Druids thought of themselves as ‘salmon’ (Old Irish , Welsh eog) and were often described as ‘speckled’ (Gaelic breac, Welsh brych), implying that they were tattooed with salmon-like spots.

The legendary Hebridean hero, Fionn mac Cumhail, received the gift of knowledge directly from a salmon – although another legend has him acquiring youthfulness and wisdom by drinking from a golden cup which was kept in a burial mound.  Taliesin’s initiatory ordeal (see Chapter 3) ended with him being fished out of a salmon-weir.

The Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen features the search for an imprisoned youth, during which the heroes consult a series of ancient animals until they come to the eldest and wisest, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw.  This Salmon had fifty fishing spears sticking out of its back, recalling the fifty fishing nets tended by Gartnait mac Áedáin, the elder brother of the first ‘Arthur’ on record, on the royal burial isle of the Scots.

Eo – a name used for Iona until the 9th century – could mean either ‘yew’ or ‘salmon’.  Being comfortable with correspondences, the Divine age mind would have recognised the similarities between the oldest of trees and the most ancient of creatures.  The common theme is antiquity, that Ogygian quality, and given that Iona (Eo) is made up of the world’s oldest rocks it was reasonable to think of its ‘World-Tree’ (eo) as the home of a Druidic ‘Salmon’ ().  In fact, a Hill of the Salmon stands in the very centre of the island, its Gaelic name – Cnoc nam Bradhan Beag – also suggesting a ‘Little Hill of Knowledge’ or ‘Hillock of Judgement’.

Fintan survived the Flood (by becoming a ‘salmon’).  So too did Ogyges, whose name was applied to an island off the British coast.  Both preserved beliefs from before the ‘Ogygian deluge’.  That Flood was dated by Plato to the end of the last ice age (around 10,000 years BC) when sea levels rose by as much as 130 metres and Britain was cut off from the Continent.

Julius Caesar remarked that Druidism was ‘supposed to have been devised in Britain’.  Perhaps the primeval wisdom of Fintan, the first Salmon of Knowledge, had indeed survived the flooding caused by melting glaciers in the now-isolated British Isles.

Alexander of Miletus reported in the 1st century BC that the Druids believed in the ‘Pythagorean doctrine … that the souls of men are immortal’.  Caesar likewise noted the Druidic belief that ‘the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another’.

The antiquity of this belief might be indicated by the cave-painting at Lascaux which shows a bird-headed shaman lying supine, still alive (penis erect) even though his soul has left his body in the form of a bird.

Predating the ‘Ogygian deluge’ by at least 5,000 years, the Lascaux image hints at the ancient understanding that the soul can live on outside the body. 

In Chapter 3 we encountered the Sword of Strange Hangings – the sword which Sir Galahad sailed to a ‘lonely’ isle to find.

Another adventurer before him had carried the sword to ‘a western island, far removed’, where he was attacked by a giant.  The sword had snapped, although it was later repaired by magical means.  It was, then, essentially the same as the sword, designed to break at a critical moment, which was given to Perceval the Welshman in the ‘hidden retreat’ of the Fisher King and the sword which Peredur of York practised breaking and repairing in Peredur fab Efrog.

The sword is described in the Queste del Saint Graal (c 1230) as having a hilt made of two ribs, ‘and each of these was taken from a most unusual beast … 

The first belonged to a species of serpent more often found in Caledonia [Scotland] than elsewhere … The second came from a fish, which is not unduly big and which lives in the river Euphrates and no other. 

The first rib renders a man impervious to heat.  The second deprives him of his memories of joy and sorrow, allowing him to focus on the task in hand.

There is no obvious connection between an apocryphal Scottish ‘serpent’ and a mythical Mesopotamian ‘fish’.  But we know that the ‘serpent power’ of Kundalini, which is thought to lie coiled at the base of the spine, has its equivalent in the mighty serpent which sleeps among the roots of the World-Tree.

The Yogi or shaman raises the ‘serpent power’ up through his spine to achieve enlightenment.  This discipline, or something like it, might explain why British Druids were described as ‘snakes’ (Welsh naddred, singular neidr – ‘adder’; neidrwydd, ‘serpent-presence’, being an old Welsh word for a ‘temple’).  Christian writers certainly referred to pagan priests as ‘vipers’ with ‘three-forked tongues’ and claimed that St Patrick banished them all from Ireland, much as St Columba was said to have rid the Isle of Iona of ‘serpents’.

If the Scottish ‘serpent’ was really a Druidic Salmon of Knowledge, then there is an intriguing parallel in Mesopotamian mythology.

Fragmentary tablets dating from the 14th century BC tell of seven sages who passed their antediluvian wisdom on to mankind after the Flood.  The first of these was known in Sumer as Adapa, U-An or Uannes – a name rendered in Greek by Berossus, a Babylonian historian of the 3rd century BC, as ‘Oannes’.

Early Mesopotamian literature described the wise men who brought to the people between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers ‘all the knowledge that they would ever receive’ as ‘pure paradu-fish’.  Their bones were associated with holy shrines.

Oannes himself was depicted as having the head of a fish resting on top of his head, his human body ‘covered by the scales and tail of a fish’.  He came up from the Persian Gulf every day to teach people the secrets of writing, mathematics and geometry, the arts of city-building and the proper way to conduct rituals, but returned to the ocean at the end of each day ‘because he was amphibious’.

The remembrance of some kind of primordial Fish-Man permeated Proto-Indo-European culture.  The earliest stone sculptures in Europe were found at Lepenski Vir in Serbia; dating from around 7,000 BC, many of these sandstone figurines are humanoid in form but piscine in nature: they are people with fish-like features.

Migrating outwards from their East European homelands, the Indo-European peoples transported their memories of these sea-based pioneers far and wide.  Thus, in the ancient Indian Agnipurana text, for example, a Divine Fish saves Manu and the seven Richis from the apocalyptic Flood, after which he blesses the survivors with the redeeming and purifying Matsyapurana or ‘Fish-Legend’. 

Writing – one of the arts taught by Oannes – flourished in Sumer, beside the Euphrates.  The Epic of Gilgamesh (3rd millennium BC) tells of the Sumerian city-building king who tracked down a ‘Faraway’ survivor of the Flood in an attempt to discover the secret of immortality (the secret lay in a plant which grew underwater; Gilgamesh found the plant but then lost it to a serpent).

Long thought of as the original Garden of Eden, Mesopotamia had something in common with the Isle of Iona.  Both featured World-Trees with resident serpents: the one caused the Fall of mankind by introducing the art of writing, for which the golden oak-apples provided ink; the other became the site of a busy scriptorium.  And the Druidic ‘serpents’ of Scotland and the Fish-Men of the Euphrates were both associated with the antediluvian wisdom embodied by the Salmon of Knowledge.

The claim has yet to be made that the ‘Iouan’ isle was named after U-An, or Oannes, the semi-aquatic Mesopotamian sage.  A comparable suggestion was put forward in the 18th century, however, when Ioua became ‘Iona’.

Based in part on the presence of two granite outcrops and a sliver of sand known as John’s Island (Eilean Eoin), immediately to the east of Iona, and John’s Graveyard (Cladh Iain) on the east side of Iona itself, the theory went that Iona was I-Eóin, the ‘Isle of John’ – St John, that is, who predicted the coming of a greater prophet than himself and initiated Jesus into his ministry by baptising him at Bethabara, the ‘House of the Ford’ on the River Jordan, after which Jesus began to recruit his disciples, promising to make them ‘fishers of men’.

The Greek name for John – Ioannes (Armenian Hovhannes) – compares with that of the Mesopotamian Fish-Man, Oannes (Armenian Hovhannes), raising the possibility that we are looking at the same tradition.

The folklorist Joseph Campbell noticed the comparison and argued that the baptism ritual practised by John went back as far as the ‘God of the House of Water’ in the Sumerian city of Eridu.

Oannes brought his wisdom up from the Euphrates; John baptised people in the Jordan.  The latter ritual involved a passage through the river from east to west.  It took place at the House of the Ford, suggesting that the aim was not so much immersion as transition – replicating the journey of the released ‘double’ as it makes its way from the ‘“Hades” conditions’ to Paradise through the waters of the second death (which is also a ‘rebirth’).

This practice had probably originated in a Proto-Indo-European ‘Fish’ cult, and so the early Church adopted the Ichthys symbol of the fish as its secret sign.

The croix pattée or Cross of St John, as worn by the Knights Templar, is distinguished by the splayed ends of its arms, pattée coming from the French word for an animal’s paw.  It effectively has eight arms – like the compass rose which indicates the eight cardinal and intermediate directions – and was therefore a symbol of totality; it was also known as the Fishtail or Regeneration Cross, its eight points being related to the symbol for infinity – ∞ – which is also the Ouroboros or snake-biting-its-own-tail image of the eternal cycle of death-and-rebirth.

Being ‘very near the west’, the Isle of Iona stood at the edge of the ‘Sea of Shadows’, that oceanic river which the souls of the fortunate dead must cross.  Baptism was a preparation for that final journey.  But the association with St John does not end there.

The head of John the Baptist was placed on a bloody platter – like the gory head seen by Peredur of York in his uncle’s castle, or the head of Brân the Blessed at the ‘fair and regal spot overlooking the ocean’. 

Blood and water
There was an element of play-acting in the baptism ritual.  It signified that the initiate had shed his ‘semi-physical’ vehicle of vitality in the waters to re-emerge as a ‘super-physical’ Soul Body, represented in the Bible by the descent of the Spirit in the form of a ‘dove’ (Hebrew Yonah, Latin Columba).

But to make contact with the higher realm of the eternal Souls, something more was needed.

The World-Tree was the natural site for the more advanced level of initiation.  The Biblical location is Mount Calvary (Calvariae locus in Latin, Kraniou topos in Greek), otherwise Golgotha, the ‘place of the skull’, where the skull of Adam, the original man and the first farmer, was buried.

Another appropriate place would have been the Omphalos thallasses or ‘Navel of the sea’, that ‘remote island’ where Kronos, the god of the harvest, was buried.

It was essential that there was an enclosed space nearby in which the initiate could be rested, the chances of surviving a cardiac arrest being greatly increased if the body is kept cool.  In the Bible, this was a ‘sepulchre, which had been hewn out of a rock’.  On Iona, it was Sithean Mór, the ‘vaulted cavern’ or chambered burial mound which the monks of Columba dubbed Colliculus angelorum – ‘Hill of the Angels’.

Jesus was crucified at Golgotha.  A relatively common form of punishment, crucifixion caused an agonisingly long-drawn-out death.  But Jesus spent very little time on the Cross.  He was crucified in the morning and was dead by mid-afternoon.  This amazed Pontius Pilate, who ‘marvelled if he were already dead’.

It was possible to survive such a brief crucifixion.  Titus Flavius Josephus, a 1st-century historian born in Jerusalem, recalled that three men of his acquaintance had been crucified but, at his request, were ‘taken down’ to receive care – ‘yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.’

Two men were crucified alongside Jesus.  The Gospel of John states that soldiers broke the legs of the others to hasten their demise but that Jesus’ legs were not broken because he was already dead.

The cause of his death is hinted at in John 19: 

Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with the vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth.

When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. 

Luke also mentions the vinegar.  The Gospel of Mark indicates that Jesus was offered ‘wine mingled with myrrh, but he received it not’; he later drank vinegar from a sponge and ‘gave up the ghost’.

Matthew explains – ‘They gave him vinegar to drink, mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof he would not drink’, although Jesus did eventually drink the vinegar from a sponge.

Vinegar is a stimulant.  And yet it seems to have had the opposite effect on Jesus: he drank it and ‘gave up the ghost’.

Then something very odd happened.  According to John, ‘one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came thereout blood and water.’

The other Gospels only mention a Centurion in the vicinity.  The wound to Christ’s side, however, became the standard medieval explanation for the blood-dripping spear of the Grail tradition.

The issue of blood and water was taken as proof that Jesus had died.

But corpses do not spout water.

It was not just vinegar that Jesus was offered.  John refers to ‘hyssop’.  Mark has ‘wine mingled with myrrh’.  Matthew suggests a concoction of vinegar ‘mingled with gall’.  The Hebrew word used in the latter instance is rosh.

Elsewhere in the Bible, rosh is usually translated as ‘hemlock’. 

Hemlock – Conium maculatum – contains a number of pyridine alkaloids, including the nicotine-like neurotoxin coniine, which disrupts the workings of the nervous system.  It was used in Ancient Greece to poison condemned prisoners.

The philosopher Socrates was given an infusion of hemlock after he was sentenced to death in 399 BC.  Plato described the death of Socrates in Phaedro, his treatise on the immortality of the soul.

Socrates lay down when his legs began to grow heavy.  His jailer pinched his feet, asking him if he could feel that.  Socrates said ‘No’.  The paralysis moved up his thighs towards the groin.  The jailer told him that when the ‘chill’ reached his heart, ‘he would be gone’.

The coniine in hemlock blocks the neuromuscular junction.  As few as five seeds mixed with alcohol are enough to prove fatal.  The respiratory muscles become paralysed.  Only artificial respiration can keep the victim alive long enough for the effects of the coniine to wear off, 48-72 hours later.

The Gospels reveal that Jesus drank vinegar (soured wine) mingled with a bitter substance – ‘gall’ or hemlock – and then ‘gave up the ghost’.

Christ’s side was then pierced by a spear.  A similar fate befell Llew Skilful Hand in the Welsh tale of Math son of Mathonwy.  Llew was struck by a poisoned spear ‘which smote him in the side’.  He ‘flew up in the form of an eagle’ and was later found perched among the upper branches of an oak or World-Tree.

Llew received his name when his mother saw him striking a wren ‘between the sinew of its leg and the bone’.  The Welsh word for a ‘wren’ – dryw – was also the word for a ‘seer’, and so the leg-wound dealt by Llew Skilful Hand was possibly part of the ritual initiation of a prophetic bard.

Brân the Blessed was fatally wounded – in the foot – by a poisoned spear.  His nickname, Morddwyd Tyllion (‘Pierced Thighs’), suggests however that he too had previously been ‘pierced’ as part of some initiatory ritual.

Arthur likewise sustained an initiatory leg-wound, as we shall soon discover.

The wound which Llew Skilful Hand inflicted on the little ‘wren’ or seer was surgically precise: ‘between the sinew of its leg and the bone’.  It would appear that the spear-point had entered the flesh beside the tendon of the popliteus muscle, puncturing one of the five or six oval-shaped lymph nodes embedded in the fatty tissue at the back of the knee.

The word ‘lymph’ comes from Lympha, a Roman goddess of fresh water who was associated with Fons (‘Source’), the god of springs and fountains, and with healing, inspiration and divine frenzy (Latin lympho, lymphare – to become crazy). To see a vision of a water-goddess was to become ‘Nymph-possessed’ (Greek numpholêptoi), which was rendered in Latin as lymphatici.

Lymph is, of course, the watery substance which flows through the lymphatic system.  It is related to blood, in that it carries recycled blood plasma back to the heart, and it contains white blood cells (‘lymphocytes’).  These cells attack pathogens which have entered the body.  The increase of immune system cells fighting the infection from the intruding pathogens causes the body’s lymph nodes to expand and become ‘swollen’.

A puncture wound to a swollen lymph node would release both blood and ‘water’ (lymph).  Jesus was reputedly pierced ‘in the side’, which implies a wound to the inguinal lymph nodes at the top of the thigh and in the groin area.  The piercing of the leg by Llew Skilful Hand, meanwhile, suggests a wound to the popliteal lymph nodes behind the knee-joint.

Either way, rupturing the lower lymph nodes would drain some of the poisonous pathogens which had been ingested in the sour-wine-and-hemlock infusion out of the bloodstream. 

The healing wound
If the chthonic serpent coils around the World-Tree, where was the snake at the Crucifixion?

The answer must be: in the body of Jesus himself.

It was the ‘serpent power’ which was raised up his spine to achieve transcendence.

Poison hemlock works from the feet upwards, paralysing the muscles as it goes and eventually depriving the victim of the power of speech.  Piercing the lymph nodes in the knee or upper thigh would partially arrest the progress of the neurotoxins before they reached the heart.  Blood and water would flow from the wound, indicating that the initiate had ‘died’.

Indeed, a kind of death had taken place.  The coniine in the bloodstream rapidly produced a nicotine-like ‘head rush’ akin to the surge of vital energy up the spine towards the ‘heavenly doors’ at the top of the head.  The initiate lost consciousness (‘gave up the ghost’).

The effects of the coniine would last for 2 to 3 days.  It was during this period that Jesus descended into ‘Hades’ (‘And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept, arose’ – Matthew 27), the ultimate aim being for the released ‘double’ to attain the ‘Paradise’ state of the Soul Body (‘And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven’ – Luke 24).

As we have seen, several groups – Muslims, Cathars, Templars, etc. – repudiated the Crucifixion, some even holding the Cross in contempt (the Templars seemingly preferred their ‘Baphomet’ head).  They might have considered the Crucifix irrelevant: it was not the cross that killed Christ, but the ‘vinegar … mingled with gall’.

The early Church was rather embarrassed by this.  Origen, writing in AD 248, referred to an officiating priest of Athens who took hemlock to ‘restrain his passions within the limits prescribed by himself’ and to ‘check them at their seat’ – ‘and thus he was accounted pure’.  But Christians, Origen insisted, had ‘no need of hemlock to fit them for the pure service of God’, their faith being quite sufficient for the task (Contra Celsum 48).

John Chrysostom (late 4th century) wrote in one of his Homilies that the Crucifixion trumped every alternative form of knowledge.  Others had preached the soul’s immortality, but none of them mattered: 

But among them also, it will be said, many have been found contemners of death.  Tell me who?  Was it he who drank the hemlock?

Chrysostom declined to name Socrates.  He did, however, insist that the Greek philosopher had no choice in the matter: ‘he drank when he was not at liberty to drink or not to drink’.  Only Christian martyrs elected to suffer.  Everyone else took the easy way out, whether they meant to or not.

The reasoning was disingenuous, but it had its purpose, which was to proclaim that only one individual had ever hung on the World-Tree.  Only one person had ever died and been resurrected, and only His followers chose torment and death of their own free will.

By taking the hemlock, Jesus had ensured that nobody else had to.  Such, at least, was the position of the Church, which would not tolerate any repetition of the ritual.

That it was a ritual is implicit in the Bible.  There was ‘a vessel full of vinegar’ close by.  A substance – probably hemlock – was mixed with the wine and administered to Jesus.

In other words, the ritual involved a mixing bowl or krater which, like the Grail, dispensed a ‘liquor of science and inspiration’ infused from ‘blended seeds’.

As this potion took effect, the swollen lymph nodes of the leg were carefully pierced.  Blood and water flowed.  And after three days of intensive care in a ‘sepulchre’ or a ‘vaulted cavern’, the initiate was ‘reborn’. 

Bron Trogain
In the town of Ruthin, North Wales stands a boulder known as Maen Huail.  The local legend goes that Arthur and Huail were rivals (Huail son of Caw being one of the three ‘Royal Knights’ of Arthur’s Court).  The two men fought when Huail tried to seduce one of Arthur’s mistresses.  Arthur was wounded in the knee.  He later took his revenge by beheading Huail on the stone which bears his name.

Garbled though it is, this folktale recalls an initiatory rite.  Arthur drank from the poisoned chalice – the Horn of Brân or ‘Cup-of-inspiration’ – and his lymph nodes were pierced.  Three days of seclusion followed (the Triads indicate that Arthur underwent three such ‘imprisonments’) while his body recovered.  Meanwhile, his soul was exploring the lower and upper worlds of ‘Hades’ and ‘Paradise’.

There is further evidence that Arthur belonged to a Mystery cult predicated on the soul’s journey after death.

Let us remind ourselves that Brân the Blessed and Llew Skilful Hand were both wounded by poisoned spears.  Brân lived on in Arthurian romance, his name evolving through ‘Brons’ to become the Grail knight known as ‘Bors’.  He also appears in Irish legend as the traveller who found the ‘apple-bearing’ island of Manannán mac Lir (who, in British legend, was the brother of Brân).  One form of his name – ‘Bron’ – derives from the Gaelic bròn, meaning ‘sorrow’ or ‘grief’.

The Colloquy of the Ancients (‘Acallam na Senórach’) is a Middle Irish poem which dates from the latter part of the 12th century, when the Grail romances were beginning to proliferate.  During the course of the poem we learn that a major festival was called Bron Trogain trogan being an Irish word for a ‘raven’.

The festival fell on 1 August, ‘the first day of the Trogan-month’.  The same verse in the Acallam na Senórach states that the festival had a new title: Lughnasadh.  The ‘Sorrow of the Raven’ was also the ‘Feast of Lugh’, an occasion which involved sporting competitions and the sacrifice of a bull.

Lugh is often portrayed as an Apollo-type figure.  Apollo the Sun-god sent a raven to bring a cup (‘krater’) of water to a banquet held by Jupiter (Zeus); he was also said to have delivered his prophecies via the raven and to have appeared in raven-form.  Both Lugh and Apollo therefore compare with Brân, the ‘blessed Raven’ whose magical drinking horn became one of the Treasures of Britain.

It is surely significant that when St Columba was banished from Ireland for having rebelled against his High-King he griped about sailing to ‘Alba [Scotland] of the ravens’.

Lugh was also associated with a spear known as ‘Slaughterer’ or the ‘famous yew of the wood’.  It was rumoured to have belonged to Pisear, ‘King of Persia’, and its point had to be kept in water or else it would burst into flames.  Lugh’s spear was in fact one of the ‘jewels’ of the Tuatha dé Danann; it resurfaced in the Grail legends as the blood-letting spear which wounds and heals.

The name ‘Lugh’ relates to the Old Irish luige, an ‘oath’ (Welsh llw).  The Britons rendered the name as Lleu (‘Light’), Lliw (‘Colour’, ‘Countenance’) and Llew (‘Lion’).  The latter converts back into Early Irish as Léu or Léo (Gaelic leóghann or leómhann, pronounced ‘li-oh-vun’).

We might also note that the Gaelic leòn – a ‘wound’ or ‘grief’ – compares with bròn (‘sorrow’) and anticipates the ‘Pierced Thighs’ nickname for Brân in Welsh: Morddwyd TyllionLion – ‘lee-un’ – in Gaelic can signify a ‘fishing-net’; llion – ‘lyunn’ – means ‘liquor’.

Lugh Long-Hand and Llew Skilful Hand were, respectively, the Irish and British names for the same person.  Equally, Brân and Bron were two designations for the selfsame individual.

One was ‘Lion’, the other ‘Raven’. 

Raven and Lion were two of the initiatory grades in the Mysteries of Mithras.

These Mysteries had originated in Persia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, several millennia BC, with a god known as Mithra.  The Persian Mithra compares with Mitra, a god praised in the Sanskrit Rig Veda (‘Mitra … makes men organise themselves … Mitra observes … human establishments’) whose name meant ‘Friend’ or ‘Friendship’.

In fact, the Indo-Iranian word mitra appears to have signified a ‘contract’ or ‘agreement’.  Mithra was indeed a god of oaths and covenants.  His initiates were known as syndexioi: ‘united by the handshake’.

The cult of Mithra spread through Mesopotamia into Anatolia (modern Turkey) and thence throughout the Mediterranean, the Ancient Greeks altering his name to Mithras.  By the 2nd century AD, his Mysteries were celebrated across the Roman Empire.  Inscriptions in many parts of the Roman world honoured deo Soli invicti Mithrae – ‘god of the unconquered Sun, Mithras’ – and in some places he was revered as ‘Apollo-Mithras-Helios’, a sort of composite solar super-deity.

He was said to have been born from a rock, from which he later drew water, and so depictions of his birth often showed a two-handled water vessel on standby.  In remembrance of his rock-birth, Mithraists met in natural or artificial caves.  Each of these caverns or cellars was thought of as a microcosm representing the universe in miniature.

Porphyry, writing his De antro nympharum (‘Cave of the Nymphs’) in the 3rd century AD, described the Mithraic cave: 

Similarly, the Persians [Mithraists] call the place a cave where they introduce an initiate to the mysteries, revealing to him the path by which souls descend and go back again.  For Eubulus tells us that Zoroaster was the first to dedicate a natural cave in honour of Mithras, the creator and father of all.  This cave bore for him the image of the cosmos which Mithras had created, and the things which the cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with the symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos. 

A distinguishing feature of the Mithraic temple or Mithraeum was the carved relief which stood at the inner end of the cave and depicted Mithras killing a huge bull, an image known as the tauroctony.  Typically, Mithras – nude or wearing Anatolian dress – knelt on the bull’s back, pulling its head up by its nostrils and plunging a blade into its neck.  A two-handled vessel (‘krater’) collected the bull’s blood; a dog and/or a snake were usually seen heading towards the wound, while a scorpion seized the bull’s genitals.  A raven flew above the bull or perched on its back and an ear of wheat grew from the bull’s tail.

On either side of this image stood the twins Cautes and Cautopates, holding flaming torches – one pointed upwards, the other downwards – along with representations of Luna (‘Moon’) and Sol (‘Sun’).

A banqueting scene, showing Mithras and Sol feasting on the bull’s hide, was frequently depicted on the reverse of the tauroctony.  By slaying the bull, Mithras had conferred abundance on the world – as Franz Cumont commented: 

From the dying body of the victim were born all the herbs and beneficial plants.  From his spinal cord grew the wheat which would become bread and from his blood came the vine which produced the sacred beverage of the mysteries. 

The tauroctony displayed the constellations from the Spring to the Autumn equinoxes, taking in Taurus the Bull, the twins (Gemini), the dog (Canis Major/Minor), the snake (Hydra), the lion (Leo), the vessel (Crater), the wheat-ear (Spica in Virgo), the raven (Corvus) and Scorpio.

The bull-slaying scene therefore revealed a cosmic drama at the centre of which was Mithras, ‘Father and source of all life’. 

The Mithraic initiate was required to face as many as 80 increasingly demanding challenges in order to demonstrate mastery of fire and hunger, water and thirst (the Sword of Strange Hangings might have proved helpful here).  There was also a baptismal element: the Pseudo-Augustine manuscripts describe a ritual in which the initiates had their hands bound with chicken intestines and were ‘thrown across pits filled with water’; they were then liberated by a saviour who cut through their bonds with a sword.

Once they had proven their worth, the initiates were able to work their way up through the seven grades of Mithraism.

Each grade represented a rung on the cosmic ladder, allowing the initiate to follow the course taken by Mithras when, after his triumphant banquet with Sol, he ascended through the planetary spheres to the heights of immortality.

Like alchemy, the ‘royal art’ in which the purification of the soul was thought of as an ascent through seven levels, from gross matter to perfect ‘gold’, Mithraism re-enacted a seven-stage spiritual journey.

The seven grades were associated with the known planets, ranked roughly in accordance with their relative sizes and perceived attributes:


            Corax                          ‘Raven’                                   (Mercury)

            Nymphus                    ‘Male Nymph/Bride’             (Venus)

            Miles                            ‘Soldier’                                  (Mars)

            Leo                              ‘Lion’                                      (Sun)

            Perses                          ‘Persian’                                 (Moon)

            Heliodromus               ‘Sun-courser’                         (Saturn)

            Pater                           ‘Father’                                   (Jupiter)


On those occasions when a Mithraic cult had more than one ‘Father’ an extra grade – Pater Patrum or ‘Father of Fathers’ – was instituted.

One of the symbols or accoutrements of the Father grade was the patera, a Grail-like libation bowl.  In Irish tradition, the inexhaustible cauldron of plenty belonged to the Dagda, otherwise known as Eochaid Ollathair (‘Yew-of-Battle All-Father’), whose son was the ‘Red Raven’, Bodb Derg.  The Old Irish athir – ‘father’ – was conjoined with eo (‘yew’/‘salmon’/‘Iona’), or the Greek prefix eu- (‘good’), to form the familiar pseudonym for Arthur’s father: Uthyr or ‘Iuthar’.

The cultic objects associated with the Raven grade, at the other end of the initiatory scale, were the drinking cup and the caduceus, a staff entwined with two serpents, which represented healing.

The Lion grade appears to have been pivotal.  It marked the mid-point of the soul’s progress through the celestial spheres and was equated with the Sun.  Like Lugh Long-Hand, the ‘Lion’ – Llew in Welsh – had the attributes of Apollo.

Mithras himself was often portrayed as a winged and naked human figure with the head of a lion and a serpent coiled around his body.  These depictions identify Mithras as the archetypal god or shaman whose ‘serpent power’ is raised up through his spine: the serpent’s head rests on top of the head of the solar lion on the shoulders of the man.

This leontocephaline or ‘lion-headed’ Mithras stood between the mercurial Raven, with his ‘Horn of Brân’ beaker and caduceus, and the magisterial Father, with his libation bowl or cauldron, as a symbol of the initiate and the ascent of the spirit from the ‘root’ of the spine to the ‘crown’ of the head.  It was a transitional image of Mithras straddling the three worlds – rather like Jesus, the ‘Lion of Judah’, when he was pierced by a lance-wielding ‘Soldier’ and committed his spirit into the hands of the ‘Father’.

The Lughnasadh festival of Lugh-of-the-spear was celebrated in Ireland on 1 August.  Also known as the ‘Raven’s Sorrow’, Bron Trogain, it took place just as the Sun entered Leo.

This was no doubt a crucial moment in the Mysteries of Mithras – a sacrifice, at the start of the harvest season, when the blood of the Taurean bull flowed into the cosmic libation bowl (Crater) between the lion (Leo) and the snake (Hydra). 


By the 4th century AD, Mithraism was Christianity’s main competitor.  Arguably, the two systems had a common source in the Mystery tradition which had emerged from Mesopotamia, the origins of which seemingly predated the Flood.

Constantine the Great proclaimed tolerance of all religions throughout the Roman Empire in 313, thereby placing Christians and Mithraists on an equal footing.  Eight years later, he determined that everyone should observe the ‘venerable day of the Sun’.

This is often held up as proof that the Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity.  But Sunday had been kept holy in honour of Mithras.  The Shabbat of Jewish observance lasted from sundown on Friday till Saturday night.  The Church moved its Sabbath to Sunday, the holy day of Mithraism, in response to Constantine’s decree.

The feast of natalis Solis invicti – the ‘birth of the unconquerable Sun’ – was celebrated by Mithraists on 25 December.  There is no hint in the Bible as to the time of year when Jesus was born.  The Christmas festival was appropriated from the worship of Mithras.

Other traditions flowed from Mithraism to Christianity, including elements of the Last Supper and Holy Communion.  The virginal mother of the celibate Mithras was known as the ‘Mother of God’; shepherds and Persian magi honoured Mithras at his midwinter birth.

The Church also made a habit of building its places of worship on pre-existing shrines.  The Vatican stands on the site of a Roman necropolis which appears to have been dedicated to the ‘rock-born’ Mithras and to have honoured Sol Invicti, the invincible solar hero.  St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was similarly constructed over a Mithraic temple.  The Pope himself is a ‘Father of Fathers’; his ceremonial Mitre – another Mithraic ‘Father’ symbol – represents the head of a fish (evoking memories of Oannes).

In the 360s, the Emperor Julian – dubbed ‘Apostate’ and ‘Transgressor’ by the Christians – described Mithras as ‘the guide of souls’.  This could be considered the last gasp of Mithraism before its light was extinguished by the Church.

But in the farthest flung reaches of the Empire, the Mysteries took a little longer to die out.

At least three Mithraea were built along Hadrian’s Wall, that 2nd-century barrier between the Roman-occupied southern parts of Britain and the barbarian tribes of the North.  The remains of one of these temples can be visited at Carrawburgh in Northumberland.  Rome’s influence did not terminate at Hadrian’s Wall, though, and traces of Mithraism have been found even further to the north.

Rosslyn Chapel stands above the River North-Esk in Midlothian, near Edinburgh.  Mithraic iconography has been detected among the profusion of carvings which adorn the chapel’s walls and ceiling, leading to the suggestion that this quirky ‘Grail Chapel’ was built over an ancient Mithraeum.

Realistically, Rosslyn forms a link in the chain between Mithraism and Scottish Freemasonry, which drew on Mithraic tradition.  Another link was the Knights Templar, who possibly revived the Mysteries of Mithras.  The Templars established their foothold in Scotland at the ‘Warrior’s Town’ (Balantradoch, now Temple) on the east bank of the River South-Esk, six miles from Rosslyn Chapel.

The River North-Esk joins the South-Esk near Lugton (Welsh llug – ‘light’) and then proceeds north to meet the Firth of Forth at Fisher-row.  Just before it reaches the Forth estuary, the river passes an old Roman fortress at Inveresk (‘Mouth-of-the-Water’) where, in 2010, two altar stones were unearthed – one dedicated to Sol Invictus, the other to Mithras.

This is a mere five miles east of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

The Inveresk altar stones are the first dedications to Mithras to be found in Scotland.  Their engravings of a jug and bowl seem reminiscent of those key Grail objects: the horn of the ‘Raven’ and the cauldron of the ‘Father’.

Evidently, the death-and-rebirth Mysteries of Mithras were celebrated, once upon a time, in the heart of what the Grail-hunter, Otto Rahn, called ‘Arthur’s bosom’. 

Beck, R 2006 The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun. Oxford: OUP.

Hutton, R 1991 The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. London: BCA.

Lincoln, B 1991 Death, War, And Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macquarrie, A & MacArthur, EM 1992 Iona through the ages (2nd Edition). Society of West Highland & Island Historical Research.

Matarasso, PM 1969 The Quest of the Holy Grail. London: Penguin.

Rieu, EV 2003 Homer: The Odyssey (Revised translation by DCH Rieu). London: Penguin.

Sandars, NK 1987 The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin.

Simon Andrew Stirling trained as an actor at LAMDA before turning professional as a writer.  He has written for several hit TV drama series, as well as adapting an opera libretto and providing scripts for the Open University.  An avid historical researcher, he is the author of The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero (The History Press, 2012) and Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means (The History Press, 2013).  He lives in Worcestershire, UK.


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