Arthur, Arthurian, Celtic myth, Chretien de Troyes, Dysgyl, Fertility Goddess, Galahad, Gawain, Great Goddess, Gwalchmai, Holy Grail, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Perceval, Peredur, Post-Roman, Sub-Roman Britain
By the time I entered my last year of studies I was confused. I saw Christian/Jewish/Celtic/Nature Rituals in every passage of the grail literature. With so many viable contributors I really had no idea what the grail actually was. And then I realized that I needed a base. I needed to strip away everything that I could see came later in the development of the corpus and what remained, hopefully, would be what the grail was.
It was plain from the start that Chrétien had been the first widely read author of the grail story on the continent. So I did some background checking. Philip of Flanders was his patron. He had once made a trip to the Holy Land where the King of Jerusalem had considered making him the Regent. Philip’s own plan was to have his vassals marry into the ruling family so that he could be crowned king himself. Philip was unable to force the issue, and when his aspirations came to light he was sent home empty handed. He spent the remainder of his career trying to reach the same pinnacle of achievement he had in Jerusalem, but died before he could.
Coincidentally, Philip’s career matches much of what happens to Perceval in Le Conte. Or is it coincidence? The more I looked into Philips’s career and compared it to Perceval’s, the more similarities I found. And if Le Conte and all the romances that followed Chrétien had plots that were a part of a later stratum, that meant they were all useless in understanding what the grail was. It also meant that the Christian aspects weren’t necessarily old, and the Jewish details were definitely from Chrétien. No other author used them, and of course Chrétien’s name suggested he might be Jewish himself.a
This left me with only one useful plot – the one found in Peredur. For anyone who has ever read the Mabinogion tales, that particular story is a mess. A dozen haphazard stories tied together in much the same fashion as a 1960s t.v. show. It looked like a disorganized pile of motifs. It is a disorganized pile of motifs. That is probably why it has not received much attention. However, it did have one scene at the end that seemed to draw the entire story to a close.
Peredur runs into a group of women and a cauldron. They end up fighting. It is then that Gwalchmai (Gawain) and other Arthurian warriors appear and together they kill the witches and destroy their cauldron.
So I started researching the various aspects of that scene. Cauldrons are found throughout Celtic literature, with or without Arthur. They heal, revive the dead, and even produce food; something like the properties of the grail. Women are mentioned with a cauldron only two other times. Once in “Preiddeu Annwn”, where there are nine and they are attacked by Arthur. And that reminded me, medieval Welsh dysgl translates as cup/cauldron/chalice.
The second instance is in the Larzac tablet, and there the women witches call themselves daughters, sisters, and mothers to one another. It is clear that they were a part of a coven. There are males here, but they are not kings, princes, heirs, or what-not. There is no position like Perceval was supposed to inherit in Chrétien. But I already knew he was wrong.
In the two references of Arthur in conjunction with witches or maidens and a cauldron they were either killed or stolen from. They didn’t seem to represent anything political, so they must have been religious. It occurred to me that the grail story was about the destruction of a coven or covens of individuals who didn’t follow Christianity. In the fifth century similar events were happening on the continent. St. Martin is perhaps the most famous leader of these attacks on pagan temples. And it appears to have happened in Britain, too.
I was disappointed after such a long journey, as I am sure any readers of this blog are right now. On the other hand it is nice to know. The Holy Grail is found!