The Cauldron of the God
eltic mythology is full of magic vessels. Another of the Four Treasures was the
cauldron (coire) of the Dagda, which never ran dry and from which no one ever went away unsatisfied.
Just as the food and drink of mortals supports
human life, so in mythology the food and drink of the otherworld supports the immortal life and eternal youth of its inhabitants. Zeus and the Greek gods lived
on the nectar and ambrosia of immortality. The Norse gods ate the apples of Idun, which kept them for ever young. The Irish god Goibniu brewed beer in a cauldron
for the otherworld feast which preserved the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the Irish deities, from ageing and death. The Dagda's inexhaustible cauldron could bring the dead
back to life... the Welsh god Brân owned a cauldron which reanimated dead warriors who were placed in it...
If the Grail is descended from otherworld vessels of this kind — not from any one of them in particular but from the idea of them — then
it too should be connected with regeneration and eternal life. There is already a hint that it is, when the banquet is served to Perceval
and the Fisher King. The table on which the food is placed is made of ivory, resting on trestles of ebony, and we are specifically told that ebony last for ever,
because it does not rot and cannot burn. There would be no point in this comment [by the poet Chrétien] unless it is meant to suggest
that the scene in the castle has something to do with immortality, or 'lasting for ever'.
[Richard Cavendish, King Arthur and the Grail.]
t is possible that in his last opera Parsifal, Richard Wagner was
reviving (consciously or unconsciously) a tradition that was older than the Grail romances in which he had found some of his raw material. The complementary relics
of the Grail and the Spear as they appear in the opera are not only linked but drawn towards each other. It might
even be said that these strange hallows in some way direct the action of the opera: at one point, Wagner's protagonist Parsifal
says that he heard the Grail call out to him, asking the hero to save it from hands stained with sin. It is only when Parsifal holds the Spear in his hand that he knows that it belongs with the Grail, that he
has a mission, and that his mission is to reunite the two of them.
agner's Grail is not a cauldron and neither were the
Grails of the romances: in some cases a cup, in Wolfram a stone, and in other texts not clearly defined but a vessel larger than a cup.
It is striking that Wagner's Spear starts to bleed only when it is in the presence of the Grail; in the last lines
of the opera, the hero describes the yearning of the Spear for the blood that flows in the Grail. Here there is a reference to the interpretation of these objects as Christian relics: the blood that flows from the Spear into the Grail is the divine blood. For Wagner this was the essence of free-willed suffering, which in some mystical
way he saw as the only hope for a regeneration of mankind.
© Derrick Everett 1996-2017. This page last updated (tweaked slightly for mobile devices; reduced page width to 860px; added an image)
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