Celtic Myths and Legends related to the Grail, the Spear & the Fisher King

... all our Christian legends have a foreign, pagan origin [Richard Wagner, Wesendonck-Briefe 190-5]


It is likely that the mythological roots of the Grail romances (and other Arthurian literature or Arthurian legend) are to be found in Celtic myths, legends and folklore. This idea was proposed, together with detailed comparisons of Arthurian tales to Celtic literature and tradition, during the 19th century by several folklorists, including J.F. Campbell and Alfred Nutt1 in England, the Comte de la Villemarqué in France and Karl Simrock in Germany. Characters who appear in the romances were identifed by R.S. Loomis with Celtic gods and goddesses, in particular with deities mentioned in Irish myths. In one of the Irish echtrai summarised below, the faerie deity Lugh might be seen as the mythical prototype of the Fisher King, while his daughter could be the original Grail bearer. Both tales concern kingship: specifically the sovereignty of Ireland, who was personified by the fairy goddess Ériu. The relationship between the king and his land is represented by a mystical marriage between the king and the goddess.

The Harp of Erin: oil painting by Thomas Buchanan Read Right: "The Harp of Erin" by T.B. Read.

Kiss of Sovereignty

First we will consider a story from Irish mythology concerning a young hero called Niall of the Nine Hostages (Niall Nóigiallach) who becomes king of Ireland. Niall was on a hunting expedition with his four brothers. One of the brothers went to fetch water from a spring and there met a hideous hag who demanded a kiss; the boy ran away. The same thing happened to each brother in turn, until Niall went to the magical spring. He kissed the old crone and one thing led to another. The old hag turned into a radiantly beautiful woman, who told Niall that she was the Sovereignty of Ireland. Her ugliness was a sign that it was not easy to attain the kingship which Niall had now won.

Ace of cups

The Magic Vessels of the Otherworld Castle

There is another Irish legend called Baile in Scail (The Phantom's Frenzy). It tells of how the hero, Conn of the Hundred Battles, discovered a marvellous stone, the Lia Fail, which shrieked to signify the number of his descendants who would be kings. In the usual Celtic fashion, Conn lost his way in a mist and, guided by a rider, arrived at a castle in the Otherworld. There he met the lord of the castle (who was in fact the god Lugh) and beside him a beautiful girl. She sat on a throne of crystal and had beside her a silver vat which never ran dry of ale, a golden cup and another vessel of gold from which she gave Conn a generous helping of meat. Then she filled the golden cup with golden mead and asked, "to whom shall this cup be given?" — to which Lugh replied, "serve it to Conn of the Hundred Battles". As the girl repeatedly refilled the hero's cup, she asked the same question and the god named in turn each of the kings who would be descended from Conn. Finally, Lugh, the girl and the castle all disappeared, leaving Conn in possession of the golden vessels.

Spears and Cauldrons

R.S. Loomis drew attention to certain similarities between the lance of the Grail castle and the spear that appears in the tale of the Irish hero Brian, from the Fate of the Children of Turenn.

The reviving cauldron. Illustration for the Mabinogion by Alan Lee
Above: Branwen daughter of Llyr gives king Mallolwch the reviving cauldron of Llassar Llaes Gyngwyd. An illustration for the Mabinogion by Alan Lee.

open quotes The three sons of Turenn were compelled by the god Lug to fetch for him the spear of King Pisear. When they reached his castle, Brian demanded the spear, at which Pisear attacked him. Brian killed the king and put his courtiers to flight. Then he and his brothers went to the room in which the spear was kept. They found it head down in a cauldron of boiling water, from which it was taken and delivered to Lug. This spear is one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. close quotes

According to Loomis, the spear that stands in the cauldron of hot water is identical with the Lúin of Celtchar, which (as described in one Middle Irish text) becomes hot and must be quenched in a cauldron of venom. In another Middle Irish text, there is a spear that becomes hot and needs to be quenched in a cauldron of blood. However, there is no evidence to support the identification of the Lúin with the spear of Lug, apart from the common association with a cauldron. One is a spear that bleeds into a cauldron and the other is a spear that becomes hot and can be cooled in a cauldron of liquid.

Celtic Cauldrons

Celtic 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.

open quotes 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'. close quotes

[Richard Cavendish, King Arthur and the Grail.]

Wagner's Grail

It is possible that in his last opera Parsifal, Richard Wagner 2 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.

Wagner'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.

Footnote 1: Alfred Nutt in particular was an influential advocate of the Celtic origins of the Grail Romances. For more details see his book Studies on the legend of the Holy Grail.

Footnote 2: Here it should be noted that Wagner's main source for Celtic mythology was a Breton collection that included the Peredur. His Bayreuth library contains some volumes of Erin, a collection of Irish folktales and legends in German translation.

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