The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion – Chapter 3

Mar 30th, 2013 | By | Category: The Grail, Work in Progress

3 – The Hallows

                                     À l’horizon lointain is paradise, 

                                   abest silentium, le cor éclate
                                    – et meurt, Columba mused, but Kentigern
                                    replied, renaît et se prolonge.

 Edwin Morgan

 LANGUAGE HAD evolved as a form of social communication by about 250,000 years ago.  Our closest living relatives – the apes – maintain their relationships by grooming.  But this takes time.  Sooner or later, groups become so large that it is no longer practical or cost-effective in time terms to cultivate allies and placate antagonists by patiently picking ticks out of their fur.  Verbal communication solves this problem: it’s quicker, and you can ‘groom’ more of your fellows at once.

The use of language in non-social contexts (e.g. tool-making, or describing the environment) probably came later.  Starting about 60,000 years ago, a huge change came in the way early humans thought about the world.  The first signs of art and religion began to appear.  The change seems to have occurred when different areas of intelligence became joined-up.  It was now possible to think of non-human things, such as animals, in human terms (‘anthropomorphism’) and vice versa (‘totemism’), or of technical things, e.g. tools, as having a social function (‘art’).

Early art – such as the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, which date back to the Late Stone Age – was effectively an extension of language.  That is, it was a form of communication which married the social intelligence required for language to the study of natural history (observing animals) and the exercise of technical skills (reproducing them in visual form).  The cave paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic share the same metaphorical basis as the ‘primitive’ language of the Divine age: the images resemble what they represent.

The next great leap came about 5,000 years ago with invention of writing.  Again, the driving force seems to have been increasing social complexity.

Writing emerged from the first cities in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and especially from Sumer (modern Iraq).  The earliest examples were essentially bureaucratic: tallies and accounts necessary for the administration of burgeoning communities.  But with the development of cuneiform (wedge-shaped impressions made in clay) more complex records became possible.  The Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, one of the world’s oldest literary works, survives on clay tablets from the 2nd millennium BC.

The major developments in writing and the transmission of the written word can help us to differentiate between the successive phases of social evolution which we have termed the Divine (‘magical’), Heroic (‘religious-aristocratic’) and Human (‘democratic’) ages.

It is often claimed that those Divine age intellectuals known as the Druids wrote little if anything down.  To counter this argument we have the testimony of Julius Caesar (100-44 BC).  Caesar studied the Druids in Gaul and observed that ‘in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters.’  The Druids had mastered the Greek alphabet, although they declined to commit their secrets to writing so as not to ‘relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory’ (De Bello Gallico 6:14).

The Heroic age was never so coy.  The era of religion and aristocracy is predominantly the age of the Word.

Whereas the Druids preferred to keep their knowledge secret, the Church grew by distributing copies of its sacred texts.  The book or scroll (Greek biblion, whence ‘Bible’) became the repository of all wisdom, fiercely guarded by the priesthood.

For upwards of 1,000 years the Church maintained its stranglehold on learning by monopolising the written word.  It was during this period that the first Grail romances appeared.  Naturally, the medieval Grail legends were written under the auspices of the Church and were therefore imbued with Christian thought.  Whatever the Grail had been beforehand, it was reinvented – principally by the Cistercians – to serve a Christian purpose.

 (Re)writing the past
The Church lost its iron grip on the written word when Johannes Gutenberg (c 1395-1468) invented his process of moveable type printing.  This ushered in the Human age by allowing knowledge and ideas to be published widely, thereby undermining the authority of those hierarchical institutions (the Church, the nobility) which had governed the Heroic age.

Significantly, perhaps, one of the first works published in England using this new printing method was Caxton’s 1485 edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which duly became the ‘authorised’ version of the Arthurian legends.

In 1970, Arthur C. Clarke predicted that satellites would ‘bring the accumulated knowledge of the world to your fingertips’.  Two decades later, this prediction came true with Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web.

Now, nothing is secret.  The written word has become thoroughly democratised.  Knowledge is available to all.

It is also unregulated, of course.  The internet offers proof of Nietzsche’s dictum, ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’.  We should also be aware of the religious-aristocratic backlash which impairs the search for knowledge.  Just as the scientific discoveries of the Human age – Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance – have been denounced by believers in the absolute authority of the Bible, so the study of history is suffering from the revisionist tendencies of conservative thinkers.

History begins with the written record.  But for much of our history, the written word was rigorously censored.  All forms of learning which were not approved by the Church were ruthlessly suppressed – as we saw with the example of the Cathars.  Those who seek to reinforce a religious-aristocratic view of the past start with a considerable advantage: their Heroic age predecessors controlled the written accounts.

The Heroic age mindset strives to restrict the admissible evidence to whatever supports its case and angrily dismisses all other sources.  It does so in the pretence that it is obeying scientific principles (only selected archive materials are valid resources), but it is deluding itself.  Its unspoken aim is to restore the religious-aristocratic outlook of the past, and this can only be achieved through the methods of the Heroic age: dogmatism, belligerence and censorship.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the study of Arthur and the Grail.

How, then, are we to battle our way through the fog of obfuscation which was conjured up by the medieval Church – and has been reconstituted by the latter-day champions of religious-aristocratic thinking – in order to recover the original form of the Grail?

Firstly, we need to remember how people thought, and how they expressed their thoughts, in the spirit-haunted universe of the Divine age.

This means that we must approach the existing written sources with the awareness that traces of magical Divine age thinking might still be detectable, even though they were glossed over by Heroic age hands.  The process requires us to sift the nuggets of authentic tradition from the silt of later matter, rather as if we were panning for gold.

We should also be on the lookout for information which is not to be found in the early literature.

To the Divine age mind, the landscape itself is a record of the past (we might think of the Australian aborigine recalling the events of the Dreamtime in his songlines).  Place-names tell their own stories.  Legends often preserve a link with remote antiquity.  One could even argue that folklore is a Divine age record held in the local memory – which is why so many historians of a Heroic age bent really don’t like it.

There is a third source of information, distinct from the living language of the landscape and the glimmerings of genuine tradition in later literature.  This additional resource is art: specifically, art which has survived because it was rendered in stone. 

The land of the Grail
But it is one thing to know what to look out for; it is another thing altogether to know where to look.

A quick survey of the sources we have considered thus far reveals a recurring theme – one which is routinely smothered by those scholars whose thinking is blinkered by imperialistic Heroic age obsessions.  That persistent theme is the connection between Arthur and his heroes, and the Grail and its mysteries, and Scotland.

In Perceval, le Conte du Graal (c 1180), Chrétien de Troyes described the sword which was presented to Perceval the Welshman by the Fisher King.  This sword ‘could not be broken except in one singularly perilous circumstance known only to him who had forged and tempered it’ (a similar sword is broken three times, and twice repaired, by Peredur of York in the British version of the tale).

Perceval is then told that the sword could only be ‘rehammered, retempered, and repaired’ at the ‘lake beyond Cotouatre’.  The notes to the Penguin edition of Chrétien’s Arthurian Romances state that: 

Cotouatre apparently derives from Scottewatre, i.e., the Firth of Forth. 

This ‘Scottish water’ once marked the northernmost border of Britain.

The Cistercian author of L’Estoire del Saint Graal claimed in the 1230s that Joseph of Arimathea and his son, Josephus, were both buried in Scotland (‘escoce’), possibly at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders, although this was later altered to benefit the Benedictine monks of Glastonbury in England.  The Cistercian-influenced Queste del Saint Graal (c 1230) also remarked that one Celydoine, an ancestor of the Grail knights, Lancelot and Galahad, was ‘the first Christian king to hold sway over Scotland.’

These stories also feature a sword – ‘the richest and most marvellous sword ever forged’ – which is found by Galahad and called the Sword of Strange Hangings.  Its hilt ‘had two sides, and these two sides were of different beasts.’  On one side was depicted ‘a manner of serpent which frequents Calidoine [Scotland] more than any other land’; on the other, ‘a fish which frequents the River Euphrates and no other water’.  A curious link between Scottish serpents and fish from Mesopotamia will be considered later.

The Arthurian Roman de Fergus, written by Guillaume le Clerc, is set almost exclusively in Scotland, with especial emphasis on Galloway, Lothian, Aberdeenshire and Melrose.  At much the same time – circa 1200 – a French poet named Béroul composed his romance of Tristan, in which King Arthur and his Round Table of chivalrous knights are located at Stirling, on the River Forth.

Before all of these, in about AD 1120, one Lambert, Canon of St Omer in Brittany, produced his encyclopaedic Liber Floridus (‘Book of Flowers’).  Lambert wrote: 

There is in Britain a palace of the warrior Arthur [‘Artuir militis’], built with marvellous art and variety, in which the history of all his exploits and wars is to be seen in sculpture. 

Lambert of St Omer then amended ‘in Britain’ to ‘in the land of the Picts’, indicating that Arthur’s palace was to be found in the Pictish realms of northern Scotland, beyond the River Forth.

There are also the more recent examples of Otto Rahn, Grail-hunter extraordinaire, who considered himself to be ‘in Arthur’s bosom’ when he climbed the volcanic outcrop of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, and Dan Brown who, in The Da Vinci Code, led his protagonists on an elaborate trail to the chapel at Rosslyn, south of Edinburgh, with the words: 

                        The Holy Grail ‘neath ancient Roslin waits.

We can choose to ignore such clues (as so many self-professed experts have done), in which case we will never find the original Grail.

Or we can follow them – as the proper study of history requires us to do. 

We start with Welsh literature.

One of the oldest languages in Europe, Welsh had achieved its modern form by the 6th century AD: the time of Arthur.  It was spoken throughout North Britain, including what is now southern Scotland.

As we saw in Chapter 1, the story of Peredur, whose father ‘owned the Earldom of the North’, was preserved in two medieval manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest.  It was one of several native tales which were translated in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest and published as The Mabinogion (‘Tales of Youth’ or ‘Fables of the Early Age’).

The Peredur legend sees Owain son of Urien talking with Peredur in the forest and later helping him to remove the armour of the knight who had stolen the golden cup from Gwenhwyfar.  Owain ap Urien has his own romance in the Mabinogion collection.  It is entitled, Owain, or the Countess of the Fountain.

The story opens with Arthur relaxing in the company of his loyal servant, Cai.  Owain is also there, as is Cynon son of Clydno (Clydno Eidyn ruled in Edinburgh in the mid-500s; his son Cynon was, like Owain and Peredur, a 6th-century prince of North Britain).  While Arthur snoozes, Cynon tells Owain and Cai about an adventure which once befell him.

In search of a challenge, Cynon was directed to a mound in a forest.  On the middle of the mound was a gigantic black man with one foot, one eye in the middle of his forehead, and an iron club; he was the keeper of the forest and its animals.  He sent Cynon to a vale ‘like a great waterway’ with a tree in its midst.  Beneath the tree was a fountain, and beside the spring a marble slab.  On the slab was a silver bowl fastened by a silver chain.  By throwing water from the bowl onto the slab, Cynon whipped up a fiendish storm and was then attacked by a black knight on a black horse.

Cynon failed to defeat the black knight and has heard no more about the mound, the tree, the fountain or the bowl.  He cannot tell ‘how the root of this tale is in the dominions of the emperor Arthur without its being hit upon’.

Owain decides to retrace Cynon’s steps.  He finds the tree with the fountain, casts water from the bowl onto the slab, weathers the storm, does battle with the black knight and pursues him to a ‘great shining city’.  There, he marries the Lady of the Fountain, whose lord he killed, and then guards the spring ‘with spear and sword’.  After three years Arthur sets out to find him, accompanied by his servant Cai and his nephew Gwalchmai (the ‘Gawain’ of the later romances).  They too find the bowl, create the storm, and do battle with Owain in his new guise as the black knight.

The silver bowl on the marble slab has its counterpart in another of the Mabinogion tales.  In Manawydan son of Llyr, Pryderi (‘Anxiety’) is out hunting with his stepfather, Manawydan.  They chase a ‘wild boar of shining white’ into a strange new castle.  Manawydan is suspicious, but Pryderi ventures into the fortress, which appears to be empty apart from ‘a fountain with marble work around it, and on the edge of the fountain a golden bowl fastened to four chains, and that upon a marble slab.’

Pryderi is struck by the ‘great beauty of the gold and with the exceeding good workmanship of the bowl’.  He touches it, and his hands stick to the bowl, his feet stick to the slab, and ‘all his power of speech forsook him so that he could not utter one word.’ 

Thirteen treasures
Manawydan tells Pryderi’s mother about the boar-hunt.  She sets out to find the mysterious castle and, alongside Pryderi, becomes stuck fast to the golden bowl and the marble slab.  ‘And with that, as soon as it was night, lo, a peal of thunder over them, and a fall of mist, and thereupon the castle [caer] vanished, and away with them too.’

The whole thing turns out to have been a trap set by a ‘bishop’ named Llwyd ap Cil Coed (‘Grey/Holy son of the Hermitage of the Wood’) as a punishment for Pryderi’s mother.

This is not Llwyd’s only appearance in The Mabinogion.  In Culhwch and Olwen, probably the oldest of the tales, he is named as ‘Arthur’s chief huntsman’.

Culhwch is the grandson of Celydon Wledig, the ‘Ruler’ of southern Scotland.  He is also ‘first cousin to Arthur’.  In order to marry Olwen, the daughter of the ‘Chief Giant’ Yspaddaden, Culhwch seeks the help of Arthur and a host of extraordinary warriors.  Reluctantly, the ‘Chief Giant’ sets the heroes a series of daunting tasks, one of which is to acquire the cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman, the ‘steward of Odgar son of Aedd king of Ireland’, to boil the meat for the wedding.

Arthur and his men seize the cauldron by force and bring it back ‘full of the treasures of Ireland’.  They disembark at the house of Llwyd son of Cil Coed – ‘And Mesur-y-peir [‘Measure-of-the-cauldron’] is there.’

Among the old manuscripts held in the National Library of Wales is one – Peniarth 51 – which lists thirteen remarkable treasures.  Other manuscripts of the 15th and 16th centuries provide more information about these ‘Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ (Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain), the earliest sources referring to them as the treasures ‘which were in the North’.

Most of the treasures do indeed have a northern provenance.  The first is a white-hilted sword owned by Rhydderch the Generous, who governed Strathclyde from his chief seat at Dumbarton, near Glasgow, in the late-6th and early-7th centuries.  His father, Tudwal, was associated with another of the treasures: a whetstone which would only sharpen the blade of a brave warrior.

Other treasures came from the ruling dynasty of Strathclyde – the Hamper of Gwyddno Garanhir, which could supply food for 100 men (Gwyddno was a cousin of Rhydderch), and the Halter of Clydno Eidyn, which would harness any horse the rider wished for (Clydno was the father of Cynon).  The Chariot of Morgan the Wealthy, which could take a person wherever he wanted to be, was likewise associated with the North; Morgan supplanted Clydno Eidyn as the chieftain of Lothian in about 559.

Arthur is named in connection with one of the hallows: a cloak of invisibility known as the Mantle of Arthur in Cernyw (usually translated as ‘Cornwall’, although this is misleading).  Another treasure – the Coat of Padarn Red-Coat – probably had a northern origin, being named after Paternus, a warlord who defending the Stirling region in the last days of the Roman occupation of Britain.  There is also the golden ‘Chessboard’ (gwyddbwyll) of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio, who led the Selgovae warriors of the Scottish Borders and was killed at the Battle of Arderydd in circa 573, when ‘Merlin went mad’.

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant (Pair Dyrnwch Gawr) is another of the Thirteen Treasures: ‘if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in it, it would boil quickly’.

There can be little doubt that this cauldron was pretty much the same as the Cauldron of Diwrnach, which Arthur and his men brought back from Ireland to boil the meat for the wedding of Arthur’s first cousin.

Primary chief bard
The Cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman – or Dyrnwch the Giant – was captured and deposited, ‘full of the treasures of Ireland’, in the care of Arthur’s ‘chief huntsman’, Llwyd son of Cil Coed.  In the tale of Manawydan son of Llyr it is Llwyd son of Cil Coed who traps Pryderi and his mother by means of a golden bowl on a marble slab, which fixes them to the spot and deprives them of the power of speech.  The story of Owain tells of a silver bowl, attached to a marble slab, which – like the golden bowl in Manawydan – is able to conjure up a storm, after which the challenger does battle with a fearsome knight clad all in black.

In his poem Preiddeu Annwn (‘Treasures of Annwn’), the ‘Primary Chief Bard’ Taliesin described the ‘cauldron of lofty utterance’: 

                        By the breath of nine maidens it is warmed:
                        It is the cauldron of the Lord of Annwn, whosoever desires it;
                        A band about the rim, around the edge,
                        It will not boil the meat of a coward, it will not avail him.

Taliesin’s Preiddeu Annwn is often interpreted along the lines of Arthur’s cauldron-raid into Ireland, as recounted in Culhwch and Olwen, but it is wrong to do so.  The common assumption is that Annwn (pronounced ‘an-noon’) was some sort of Otherworldly realm, and so Preiddeu Annwn is taken to be an account of a voyage led by Arthur into a parallel dimension in search of the cauldron.  In fact, Annwn was an actual place.  Later poets thought of it as ‘Avalon’.

The Book of Taliesin (Peniarth MS 2) dates from the first half of the 14th century, although many of its 56 poems belong to an earlier period.  Some of the verses were written in praise of Urien, a prince of North Britain, and his son Owain.  Other poems praise Gwallog the Battle-Horseman and his father Lleënog, a 6th-century prince associated with Loch Lomond and the Lennox region north of Glasgow (Lleënog and Gwallog were probably the historical models for Lancelot of the Lake and his son, Galahad).  There are also ample references to Arthur – not as a legendary hero of yore, but as a man whom Taliesin knew.

The story of Taliesin is inseparable from that of the cauldron.  The early part of the Chief Bard’s career is related in the 16th-century Hanes Taliesin.

The tale starts with a supernatural couple, Tegid the Bald and his wife Ceridwen, who lived at Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake) in North Wales.  They had two children: an ugly boy named Morfrân and a beautiful daughter called Creirwy.

To compensate Morfrân for his hideous looks – he was also known as Afagddu or ‘Black Water-beast’ – Ceridwen resolved to provide him with the gifts of verse and vision.  She prepared the cauldron of inspiration and science, which would boil for a year and a day before three precious drops of its liquor could be extracted.  A young lad named Gwion Bach was tasked with stirring the cauldron.

While Ceridwen’s back was turned, three hot droplets splashed onto Little Gwion’s hand.  He thrust his fingers into his mouth and instantly received the enlightenment which had been meant for Morfrân.  The cauldron gave a shriek and broke apart, spilling its dregs into a stream and poisoning the horses of Gwyddno Garanhir.

As Ceridwen came lumbering after him, Gwion turned himself into a hare.  She chased him in the form of a greyhound.  He leapt into a river, becoming a fish, but she kept up her pursuit as an otter-bitch.  Gwion took to the air as a bird; Ceridwen flew after him in hawk-form.

Finally, Gwion transformed himself into a grain of wheat.

Ceridwen became a hen and swallowed him whole.

The long freshwater lake of Llyn Tegid in North Wales is reputedly the home of a water-monster affectionately known as ‘Teggie’.  This was presumably the inspiration for the figure of Tegid the Bald (the name comes from Tacitus, the ‘Silent’ one), who was said to have his dwelling in the middle of the lake.  The ‘wife’ of this lake-spirit was apparently the mistress of the cauldron.  Her name – Ceridwen – meant ‘Blessed Song’.

Morfrân (‘Sea-Crow’) appears elsewhere in Welsh literature.  He is named in Culhwch and Olwen as one of the handful of survivors of Arthur’s last battle (‘so exceedingly ugly was he; all thought he was a devil helping’), and a medieval list of the Twenty-Four Horsemen of Arthur’s Court identifies Morfrân as one of the three ‘Offensive Knights’.  He also seems to have been the father of a poet who went mad and became known as the ‘crazy man’ or myrddin; this was later given a Norman-French spin to re-emerge as ‘Merlin’.

As for the lovely Creirwy or ‘Heron’, I have previously argued (in The King Arthur Conspiracy) that she was a priestess of the cauldron cult and a British princess of the North who was destined to become the mother of Arthur.  Arthur himself was probably initiated at Llyn Tegid: at the southern end of the lake stood an old Roman auxiliary fortress, now known as Caer Gai – ‘Cai’s Fort’ – after Arthur’s steadfast servant.

The presence of Gwyddno Garanhir, or at least his horses, in the Taliesin story is also telling.  Gwyddno – like Creirwy – was a royal youth of Strathclyde.  His magical hamper became one of the Treasures of Britain.

The actual initiation required Gwion Bach to imbibe three drops of the cauldron’s ‘liquor of science and inspiration’.  Any more than that might have been fatal.  Gwion survived the ordeal, including the violent hallucinations, and gestated for nine months in the belly of the cauldron-goddess.  He was then reborn.  The initiatrix placed him inside a wicker coracle with a leather canopy and set him adrift.

Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Tall-Crane’) was residing on the Welsh coast.  On the eve of May Day he sent his son, a ‘most hapless’ and ‘needy’ boy named Elffin, to fetch one hundred pounds worth of salmon from the weir on the River Dovey.  Elffin found the coracle trapped in the weir.  He drew back the leather canopy and saw a young man inside.  The front of the young man’s head had been shaved in the Druidic tonsure and possibly tattooed with salmon-like speckles.

Elffin exclaimed, ‘Behold, a radiant brow!’

And so Gwion Bach received his new name: tal iesin (‘beautiful brow’).

With his own personal bard in tow, Elffin’s fortunes improved immeasurably.  He and Taliesin pitched up at the Deganwy court of Maelgwn, Lord of Gwynedd, who died in circa 547.  There, Elffin underwent his own initiation.  Taliesin outsmarted Maelgwn’s 24 bards and released Elffin from his ritual imprisonment.  Elffin son of Gwyddno was rewarded with a ‘cauldron full of gold’.

Taliesin became one of the greatest poets of his age.  He was recalled, three centuries later, as one of five British bards of renown, alongside Aneirin, who would nod to Taliesin in his elegiac Y Gododdin poem (c 600): 

                        Of mead from the horn,
                        Of the men of Catraeth,
                        I not I, Aneirin,
                        As Taliesin
                        Of skilful song knows,
                        Sang ‘The Gododdin’
                        Before the daybreak dawned brightly. 

Aneirin’s poem told of a catastrophic military campaign and ascribed the disaster to the ‘yellow, sweet, ensnaring’ mead which the warriors of Lothian had drunk and which turned to ‘poison’ in their bellies.  Also mentioned in Aneirin’s battle-poem are those princely northern heroes whose names are becoming familiar to us: Owain, Cynon, Elffin, Gwyddno, Peredur …

And Arthur. 

The Lion
From North Wales, Taliesin travelled to North Britain.  He saw the Men of the North in action: ‘From Glasgow [penryn wleth] to Loch Ryan [lwch reon],’ he observed, ‘The Cymry are battle-brave heroes’.  And when he wasn’t singing their praises, he was singing about the cauldron.

‘Let the boiler simmer / the excellent cauldron of five-trees,’ he declaimed in The Seat of Taliesin, ‘… and drunk-making mead-horns / to bring to the dragon [or ‘leader’] the Druidic gift.’

In The Seat of the Overlord he sang in praise of the ‘blessed Arthur’: ‘Exalted when wise from the cauldron / Gogyrwen of three inspirations’.

The meaning of Gogyrwen is obscure.  In Welsh, a ‘cuckoo’ is cog or y gog.  The equivalent in Scottish Gaelic is cuach – which is also the word for a drinking bowl or goblet, as in the Scots quaich, a two-handled cup of friendship.  The compound Gogyrwen could therefore signify the ‘Cup of inspiration’: Y Gog-yr-awen.  The later movement of medieval Welsh poets known as Y Gogynfeirdd would then have been ‘The Cup of the bards’.

Thus, in his Song of the Sons of Llyr, Taliesin sang, ‘Superior is the seat of the cauldron of Ceridwen, / From it comes my tongue’s desire ever to praise Gogyrwen.’  And another poet of the time could recite: 

                        Strong song, ode of Ceridwen, Gogyrwen of blended seeds,
                        Mixed grain of riches, elevated speech, the skilful singer,
                        Cuhelyn the Wise, pure Briton, exalted authority,
                        Skilfully he sings, Áedán’s clerical grandson,
                        Cheerful cub of the Lion … 

Cuhelyn’s reference to the ‘Lion’ (llew) recalls another story from The Mabinogion.  The legend of Math son of Mathonwy is set in North Wales, where Taliesin underwent his initiation, and features the death of Pryderi in a war fought between the Britons, during which a princess falls pregnant.  The child is raised by his uncle, who happens to be a wizard.  When the time comes for the boy to be named, his mother is lured onboard a magic ship.  She sees the boy take aim at a little wren and strike it ‘between the sinew of its leg and the bone.’  The princess laughs: ‘Faith, with a deft hand has the fair one hit it.’  The boy is duly named Lleu Llaw Gyffes (‘Fair Skilful Hand’).  The name is also rendered as Llew (‘Lion’).

The magician creates a wife for Llew out of flowers.  She conspires with her lover to assassinate Llew.  But Llew can only be murdered in the most unusual circumstances: he cannot be slain indoors or outside, on horseback or on foot, and the weapon which wounds him must be a whole year in the making.

The ambush is staged on a riverbank.  A bath is set, with a thatched frame over it.  Llew bathes and, as he rises, places one foot on the edge of the tub and the other on the back of a goat.  He is therefore acutely vulnerable, and the poisoned spear finds its mark.

The word for a ‘bath’ or ‘tub’ in Welsh is pair.  It is the same as the word for a ‘cauldron’.

Given Taliesin’s intimate knowledge of the cauldron and his connections with Arthur and his heroes, it is no surprise to find that the Primary Chief Bard appears in the Mabinogion stories.  He is among the plethora of warriors cited in Culhwch and Olwen, while his son is named as one of Arthur’s advisers in Breuddwyd Rhonabwy (‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’), which presents a visionary account of Arthur’s last battle.  Afaon son of Taliesin is described therein as ‘the most accomplished and wisest young man in the kingdom’, and he is first seen with the ‘cross-grained forward youth’ Elffin son of Gwyddno – Taliesin’s old playmate from Wales. 

The blessed Raven
Taliesin is also named as one of the seven survivors of a terrible battle in the legend of Branwen ferch Llyr.

The story begins with Brân, the ‘crowned king’ of the Island of Britain, sitting on a rock overlooking the sea with his brother, Manawydan son of Llyr.  They spy 13 ships bringing Matholwch, king of Ireland, to seek the hand of Brân’s sister in marriage.

Brân is the Welsh word for a ‘raven’ (the name Brân evolved into the ‘Bron’, ‘Brons’ and ‘Bors’ of the Grail tradition).  He is called ‘Brân the Blessed’ – Bendigeidfrân.  This chimes with the ‘blessed Arthur’ (‘Arthur fendigan’) of Taliesin’s Seat of the Overlord poem.  As Taliesin boasted in his Song of the Sons of Llyr: ‘I have been with Brân in Ireland.’

Brân’s sister is Branwen – ‘White-Raven’.  The other child of Llyr (‘Sea’) in the tale is Manawydan who, elsewhere in The Mabinogion, is the stepfather of Pryderi.

The Irish counterpart of Manawydan was the Hebridean sea-god, Manannán mac Lir.  The name denotes a ‘dear one of Manau’ and refers to the Manau Gododdin region around Stirling on the River Forth, where the French poet Béroul located Arthur and his Round Table warriors.

The name of Matholwch, ‘king of Ireland’, derives from math (‘sort’, ‘kind’) and golwch (‘worship’ or ‘prayer’) – a most revealing designation.

Brân agrees to marry his sister to the Irish king.  But one of his brothers takes umbrage and mutilates the horses of Matholwch.  To make amends, Brân gives the Irish king a cauldron – 

… and the virtue of the cauldron is this: a man of thine slain today, cast him into the cauldron, and by tomorrow he will be as well as he was at the best, save that he will not have power of speech. 

The cauldron came originally from Ireland.  Matholwch had seen it carried out of a lake by a pair of giants, but he found the cauldron’s warriors ‘hated and unwelcome’ and tried to destroy them.  Brân, by way of contrast, considered them ‘the best that anyone has seen.’

Matholwch marries Branwen, but his followers mistreat her.  When Brân hears of this he sets sail for Ireland, the masts of his numerous ships resembling a forest on the sea.

Brân could never be ‘contained within a house’ (like Llew, who could not be killed indoors).  Nevertheless, the Irish build a hall, fill it with warriors hidden in sacks, and invite Brân and his men inside to parley. 

A fight breaks out.  The Irish kindle a fire under the cauldron of rebirth, so that every slain Irish warrior can be rejuvenated.  Eventually, Brân’s brother gets into the cauldron and breaks it.

The Irish are vanquished.  Brân, however, has been wounded by a poisoned spear and only seven of his men remain alive.  He instructs them to strike off his head and carry it away for burial.

Brân’s disembodied head keeps the companions entertained for many years.  It is possibly the same severed head on its blood-soaked platter which Peredur of York saw in the castle of his uncle, the Fisher King.

The cauldron of British tradition compares with the Grail of medieval romance – it provided nourishment of a mystical nature; it would serve only the brave, and it could restore the dead to life.  But it was also a source of conflict.

Taliesin’s Treasures of Annwn poem reveals that it was present at Arthur’s burial, which was attended by the survivors of a catastrophic adventure: 

                        And when we went with Arthur, famous toil,

                        Except for seven, no one rose from the Mound of Mead-Drunkenness. 

And Aneirin put the shocking defeat of the army of Lothian down to the ‘sweet, ensnaring’ mead which turned to ‘poison’ in their bellies. 

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur and his comrades seize the cauldron from Ireland.  It is left in the care of a ‘bishop’, who uses it to trap Pryderi and his mother.

Another king or ‘bishop’ – Matholwch, of the ‘Prayer-Sort’ – tried to entrap a couple connected with the cauldron, although they escaped and took the cauldron to Britain.  Brân the Blessed gives the cauldron to Matholwch, who deploys it when Brân goes to war with him over his abusive maltreatment of Branwen.

Pryderi and his stepfather Manawydan (whose name betrays his links with Manau Gododdin in the North) are both present when the cauldron becomes the focus of strife.  They appear, with Taliesin, among the seven survivors of the devastation.

The cauldron seemingly had an Irish background.  Amergin, an Irish Druid comparable with Taliesin, extolled it – ‘I sing of the cauldron of wisdom, / Which bestows the gift of every art’ – and the heroic Cú Chullain captured it: 

                        Much gold and silver was in it,
                        Excellent was the gain –
                        And I took away this cauldron,
                        Together with the daughter of the king. 

It came to be thought of as the Cauldron of the Dagda, or Eochaid ‘All-Father’, a High King of the Druidic Tuatha dé Danann whose British counterparts, the Children of (the goddess) Dôn or Danu, populate the early stories of The Mabinogion, alongside the Children of Llyr.  The Dagda’s inexhaustible cauldron of plenty was one of four magical treasures brought from the Northern Isles, the others being a spear, a sword and a stone.

Notably, the Grail mysteries likewise involved a vessel of wisdom, abundance and rebirth, a spear which could wound and heal, a sword which could be broken and repaired, and a stone of power.

There are other Irish and Scottish sources which reveal the cauldron’s impact on Arthur’s family – and we should recall that the Grail-obsessed Nazis fashioned their own ‘gold cauldron/celtic’, presumably for use in arcane militaristic rituals.

For now, though, let us return to the Thirteen Treasures of Britain (‘which were in the North’).

One of these hallows was the Cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman or Dyrnwch the Giant.  Another was Corn Brân Galed o’r Gogledd: the ‘Horn of Brân the Hard from the North’.  The special property of this horn was that ‘whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.’

In Chapter 1, we touched on Robert Biket’s Lai du cor, an amusing 12th-century poem about a drinking horn which poured its contents over any man whose wife had been unfaithful (the only male who stayed dry was ‘Garaduc’ or Caradog: he surfaces in the legend of Brân the Blessed as ‘Caradog son of Brân’, the ‘chief steward’ of Britain).  The Horn of Brân had similar Arthurian associations.  Marginal notes scribbled on the Peniarth 147 manuscript indicate that it was the first treasure which Myrddin (‘Merlin’) had to acquire before he could collect the other twelve.

Guto’r Glyn, a Welsh poet of the 15th century, had this to say about the horn’s owner: 

                        Brân the Hard they called him,
                        Descended from the tribe of the Men of the North;
                        Taliesin, that excellent magician,
                        Made him better than the three Generous ones. 

The ancient traditions preserved in the Welsh Triads or Trioedd Ynys Prydein confirm that ‘Arthur himself was more generous’ than the ‘Three Generous Men of the Island of Britain’.  This merely increases the suspicion that the ‘blessed Arthur’ was also known as the ‘blessed Raven’, Bendigeidfrân.  Indeed, Arthur is said to have been reincarnated as a chough (a member of the Crow family).  The Welsh name for the chough is brân Arthur – ‘Arthur’s crow’.

The significance of Arthur’s alter egos – Brân (‘Raven’) and Llew (‘Lion’) – will become clear in a few chapters’ time. 

Sword and horn
If the original Grail was a mixing bowl like the two-handled krater of ancient Greece – and the early words for the Grail suggest that it was – then a delivery system would have been needed to transfer the liquor from the cauldron to the receiver.

In other words, the cauldron alone was not enough.  A smaller receptacle was required to transport the three magical droplets to the mouth of the initiate: the Gogyrwen, perhaps, if that was indeed the Cup or ‘quaich’ of inspiration (awen).

A drinking horn would have fulfilled this function, especially if it was thought of as a ‘horn of plenty’, like the cornucopia of classical mythology.  The Horn of Brân was indeed a form of cornucopia, providing ‘whatever drink might be wished for’.  In the 13th-century romance, Sone de Nausay, the Grail itself is depicted as an ivory horn ‘carved with many stories’ which had been brought out of Syria by Joseph of Arimathea.

The romances, meanwhile, refer to the Grail Castle as ‘Corbenic’ – possibly from cor benoît, ‘blessed horn’, or the Old French corbin, a ‘raven’ or ‘crow’ (the Scots word for a Hooded Crow is corbie brân lwyd in Welsh).

The horn had a dual purpose.  One end could dispense liquor.  The other end could be blown.  And so the horn which served the ‘yellow, sweet, ensnaring’ mead to the warriors before battle then became an instrument of war, signalling the call to arms.

Two folktales are told of the horn in southern Scotland.  One of these is set in the Eildon Hills, near Melrose in the Scottish Borders; the other at Rosslyn, 25 miles to the north, on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

A horse-trader called Canonbie Dick was crossing Bowden Moor, near Melrose Abbey, one day when he was accosted by an old man in ancient costume, who bought a couple of horses from him.  Canonbie Dick returned with more horses and was led by the stranger through a secret entrance into the hill known as the Lucken Hare.  Inside, Dick saw black horses stabled, each with a sleeping knight clad in black armour beside it.  At the end of the cavern, a great sword and a golden horn lay on a table.

The old man told him that whoever drew the sword and blew the horn would be ‘king of all Britain’, but that everything depended on which of the items he picked up first.

The Rosslyn legend varies in its details.  Beneath the ruins of Rosslyn Castle, an enchanted White Lady of the St Clair family slumbers in a secret chamber, a demonic creature watching over her.  On a table beside her lie a magical sword and a golden horn.

As a newspaper article reported in the 1920s, whoever blows the horn ‘shall awaken all the echoes in Roslin Glen’.  He must then slay the demon ‘with the charmed “Excalibur” in his hand’.  The White Lady will awaken, and the two will share a treasure of ‘untold wealth’.

A Highlander and his dog once ventured into the castle vault.  His bagpipes were heard, fading away.  Then silence – followed by a single blast of the horn.

And here the legend merges with that of Canonbie Dick, who snatched at the horn and blew it, rousing the sleeping knights, who advanced towards him.  Terrified, he tried to raise the sword, but a great voice boomed: 

                        Woe to the coward that e’er he was born,
                        Who did not draw the sword afore he blew the horn! 

Canonbie Dick found himself hurled back out onto the moor, where he had just enough time to tell his tale before he died.

At Rosslyn, the Highlander was never heard of again, though his dog, it is rumoured, still haunts the woods. 

Son du cor
Melrose and Rosslyn were centres of Cistercian influence, flourishing at the time when the White Monks were repackaging the ‘Holy Grail’ as a Christian chalice.  The legends of both places, however, recall an earlier form of the Grail: a horn (such as that which Fergus of Galloway, in Le Roman de Fergus, was challenged to take from the Black Knight) and a sword, like the one given to Perceval before he saw the graal, which could only be repaired at a lake beyond the River Forth.

A Cistercian monk named Jocelin served as Abbot of Melrose before he became Bishop of Glasgow in 1174.  During his 25-year tenure of the Scottish bishopric he commissioned his namesake, Jocelin of Furness, to write a hagiographical Life of Kentigern, Glasgow’s first bishop and patron saint.

St Kentigern was a contemporary of those 6th-century northern princes – Rhydderch, Gwyddno, Clydno, Morgan, Gwenddolau – whose possessions were among the Treasures of Britain.  A church dedicated to him at Stobo in the Scottish Borders has a window which shows him blessing Myrddin, the original ‘Merlin’, with whom he was associated.

The Glaswegian poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) based one of his Sonnets from Scotland on the supposed meeting of St Kentigern, a prince of North Britain, and St Columba, an Irish prince of the same period who had based his ecclesiastical mission on the Scottish island of Iona.  Morgan’s sonnet is entitled, Colloquy in Glaschu [‘Glasgow’].  It is written in four languages – English, French, Latin and Scots – and it begins: 

                        God but le son du cor, Columba sighed
                        to Kentigern, est triste au fond silvarum! 

St Columba found ‘the sound of the horn … sad at the far end of the woods’.  Not so Kentigern, who saw no harm in it: ‘J’aime le son du cor, when day has died, / deep in the bois’.

‘At the far horizon [‘À l’horizon lointain’] is paradise,’ said Kentigern, ‘it disappears in silence [‘abest silentium’], the horn sounds [‘le cor éclate’] –

‘ – and dies [‘et meurt’], Columba mused, but Kentigern / replied, ‘is reborn and lives on [‘renaît et se prolonge’].  The cell / is filled with song.’

Outside, a young Highlander sings Veni venator – ‘Come, hunter’. 

                        The saints dip startled cups in Mungo’s well. 

Mungo – ‘dear friend’ – was a familiar term for Kentigern.

Edwin Morgan’s Colloquy in Glaschu is undoubtedly an oddity, its medley of different languages doing much to obscure the sonnet’s meaning.  Why, we might ask, did the poet write in such a perplexing mix of tongues?

Was there something he wanted to say, but did not dare say it openly?

The dialogue between St Columba – a royal Irishman of the ‘Prayer-Sort’ – and St Kentigern, a friend of ‘Merlin’, concerns the ‘sound of the horn’ (le son du cor).  Columba doesn’t like it: it’s ‘sad’ and it ‘dies’.  But Kentigern loves it; ‘reborn’, it ‘lives on’.  What are they on about?

The horn, as was noted above, appears as an ivory horn-of-plenty, which is also the Grail, in Sone de Nausay.  ‘Sone’ is the name of the hero of that late-13th century romance.  He visits the abbey where the horn is kept and sees it used in a service, along with a spear which drips blood.  Sone also receives a sword with which he slays the King of Ireland.

If the Old French name Sone was associated with the sacred horn, we might look again at Morgan’s multilingual sonnet, remembering that the disagreement between St Columba and St Kentigern was over le son du cor – ‘the sound of the horn’.

In French, son also means ‘bran’.

Could it be that what St Columba found so distasteful was not the ‘sound’ of the horn but Brân, the ‘blessed Raven’ of the Horn? 

Jones, G & Jones, T 1949 The Mabinogion. London: Everyman’s Library.

Loomis, RS 1967 Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance. New York: Haskell House.

Matthews, J 1991 Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland. London: The Aquarian Press.

Mithen, S 1998 The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science. London: Phoenix.

Morgan, E 2000 New Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet.

Oxbrow, M & Robertson, I 2005 Rosslyn and the Grail. Edinburgh: Mainstream.

Skene, WF 1868 The Four Ancient Books of Wales: The Cymric Poems attributed to the Bards of The Sixth Century. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.

Welsh texts retrieved from and translated by the author.

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