The Holy Grail

I love John Boorman’s transcendental movie Excalibur (1981) about King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The scene where the humble Percival finally casts off his sword and armor and finds the grail in a dream-like sequence is a deeply spiritual experience, and reflects so well the secret meaning of the grail.

The Earth Mother’s Cauldron

Through the years we have associated the Biblical story of Christ’s Last Supper and the new covenant of God with the symbol of the cup of Christ, the Holy Grail. But the grail in fact comes from a much older mythology tied to ancient Celtic and Western European folklore and the seasonal changes associated with the movement of the earth and sun in the Northern Hemisphere. To the Celts and the European cultures, the movement of the sun and the seasons were the very source of life and death.

In the Welsh Mabinogion, whose manuscripts date from the 10th-13th century, we see relics of the original ancient pagan myth of the Holy Grail at play; of an early hero named Arthur and his band of men traveling through the Celtic Underworld called Annwn to capture a magical cauldron.

In fact we learn in other versions of this myth that the cauldron or cup was a ‘Bowl of Inspiration’ that the 9 witches of the Earth Mother guarded, and which was used by the Druids to gain wisdom of the secret rights they possessed. But what were they guarding and why? This knowledge has not been passed down to us. No ancient manuscript or Druidic tradition captures it. Modern Scholars still do not know what secrets the Mabinogian Welsh texts still hide.

The Holy Grail’s true purpose is quite obvious, however. This cauldron was in fact a symbol of the womb of the Eternal Earth Mother that gives and takes life, and whose waters held the key to the life of the Earth and its cyclical meaning of life, death, and the resurrection of the spirit. Only the Earth Mother has power over those forces. To reflect that meaning the Holy Grail was used in story to represent her gifts of renewal to the land through a chosen king or leader who symbolically perished on the Winter Solstice, but to be born again in the new year. Ultimately the return of her son the Sun-King after the Winter Solstice was the true purpose of the grail. For he would drink from her to regain life. She controlled his life, death, and rebirth. And so that cup and the mysterious waters it held was a symbol of the waters of the womb of the world which bore his rebirth each new year.

We know much of this was true in ritual for the Druids in Western Briton. For they were said to take the misteltoe (a symbol of the spirit of the Sun), cut it with a golden sickle, then brew a poisonous brew from its berries. They then drank from this dark wine on the day the Earth Mother took the spirit of son (the Sun) away on the winter Solstice for 5 days to the underworld, her womb, until he was birthed again and the Sun returned to warm the earth. The Holy Grail or cauldron held the very spirit of the Earth Mother in her matriarchal form. To drink from it meant renewal. For she was the giver of new life like the bounty of the Earth in spring. Those who drank of her wine in summer were said to be blessed with a great harvest. But those who drank at the Sun’s death did so to save the world, save the Sun itself from eternal death.

This strange cauldron was in fact symbolically wed to the King of the Land, one of the quintessential hero twin archetypes of European Myth. And so in King Arthur’s story we see that connection when he drank from that cup – the male to the female and the subliminal fertility myth hidden in that tale. Arthur’s evil twin wasn’t Mordred, however, but Lancelot, the true Sun King. They were eternal twins symbolically who in the spring and fall fought over the Earth for dominion over her, over her love and power, their conflicts thus renewing the cycle of the seasons and the movement of the sun to the world each spring.

The prototype of this Holy Grail story is in fact the “Fisher King”, the maimed King who is sterile and whose groin is injured by his brother’s shining spear and who can only wait for the return of the Grail to renew him. King Arthur was a later version of him. In the story we hear Percival saying “you and the land are one”. Arthur has lost the Cauldron, the Holy Grail form of the Earth Mother. Divorced from her, his kingdom fails and the so land dies. The journey of the hero to the underworld is the journey to return the Grail to Arthur, restoring his soul but also his marriage to the Earth Mother and the land itself, which is then renewed like him. The Fisher King is then healed and the Earth with it. But in fact the hero then takes his place in the cycle and will eventually lose in battle to the Dark Lord as he, as the dying year and sun fades in the fall, and so become the next Fisher King, until another hero like him saves him in turn. And so the cycle repeats. But the Earth Mother never dies or changes. She is eternal and lasts forever. And so the Hold Grail is a symbol of forever.

In the pagan belief system, this journey of a dead king and his spirit would have occurred at Christmas when the sun had died and left this world. This is why that holiday has such power and yet melancholy for us. Its is a death holiday, in truth. The hero of light on Christmas Eve would perish, the Sun King. His spirit then would then travel to the underworld, the womb, to retrieve the cauldron, drink from it, and be reborn. In the waters of this magic cauldron his spirit would swim like a fish, then be born again from its waters.

We see Authur is really an underworld king, and Lancelot, his greatest night the Sun King. Both men love Gwynevere, you will notice. For she is the symbol of the true subject of the play – she is the Earth Mother in love with two kings. But it is the Holy Grail, the Earth Mother’s cup, that is the true source of the King’s renewal in later stories. For Arthur dies or withers as the underworld king until he drinks from it and is reborn as the light or Sun King, again. But Lancelot is his true twin, The fact the queen must go from Arthur to Lancelot and back complete a full Sun King yearly cycle.

This cycle of the Holy Grail and its meaning is still little known and mysterious to many. But through a careful study of the mythology you can start to understand the secrets of the Celts and why they fashioned such a moving and mysterious tale. And so the King Arthur story of the Holy Grail starts to have more mythic power to us, as the ancient symbols are hidden yet slowly revealed.

Ultimately, however, this story is but psychological hero-worship material, another form of Campbell’s Hero-Journey or the ‘mono-myth’. For we must always search for the grail inside of us, too. We must seek meaning in our life and a secret renewal and return to the earth by the loving hand of the Earth Mother when we die. For our ashes return to her to be reborn. The Holy Grail represents the mystery and yet the essence of our life and death and will to live spiritually beyond death. And so these stories reveal the pool of the dark unconscious Western mind that hides the beauty and horror of our life that is in fact seeking meaning it can never find. It’s the journey into those strange psychological waters and the unknown – like Percival or Ulysses or Luke Skywalker or any number of modern heroes – that then connects us with the earth, to Nature, to the universe, and the primeval and spiritual nature of ourselves.

That’s the true character and meaning of the Holy Grail myth.

In my novel called The Phantammeron this ancient myth has formed the spiritual basis for my own reinvented version of the Holy Grail myth, the cauldron and pool in my books taking a matriarchal power in the series that’s tied to an even darker meaning. But I’ll leave that up to the Phantammeron novels which I hope you will someday read.

– the Author

Created Dec 9, 2016, 4:29 AM

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