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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]

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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. 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 ReadRight: "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
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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.

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Footnote 1: 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.

© Derrick Everett 1996-2020. This page last updated (new filename and URL, updated links) --- 2020-02-24 13:03 CET ---