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The Quest For The Holy Grail: Celtic Magic Cauldrons

The Quest For The Holy Grail: Celtic Magic Cauldrons

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Growing up reading Arthurian legends, one would probably think the Grail is a cup. Not just any cup, of course, but a holy cup associated with Jesus and the Last Supper. One would probably also know that the Knights of the Round Table were sent on the Quest for the Grail. However, things are not always (or often) what they seem, and the true nature of the Grail is much more complicated. In fact, the seeds of story of the Grail were sown long before the Arthurian legends were written down. The origins of the Grail can most likely be found in the magical cauldrons described in ancient Celtic mythology. Although there is ongoing scholarly debate on specific topics, it is undeniable that Welsh, Irish, Cornish or Breton legend and folklore formed the basis for many of the characters and themes immortalized in the Arthurian literature.

The Celtic Gundestrup Cauldron, the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen ( CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Celtic Gundestrup Cauldron, the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Magical Celtic Cauldrons

These magical Celtic cauldrons not only occurred in myth: there is proof of their physical existence. Discovered in Denmark, the Gundestrup cauldron is a large, gilded, silver basin that dates to the second or first century BC. It may be one of the prototypes of the Arthurian Grail and is, at the very least, material evidence of the importance of ritual cauldrons. Its exquisite embossed designs represent a variety of Celtic deities, including an antlered god (perhaps Cernunnos) sitting in a surprisingly yogic-like pose, surrounded by wild animals.

In medieval Irish mythology, the god-like Tuatha dé Danann had four magical treasures or ‘jewels’: the Stone of Fáil, the Spear of Lugh, Núada’s Sword of Light, and the Cauldron of the great god-king druid Dagda. This cauldron could provide food and nourishment for the multitude, no matter how large. It never ran empty.

Cernunnos, Pilier des Nautes (Thermes de Cluny) (Brodigny/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cernunnos, Pilier des Nautes (Thermes de Cluny) ( Brodigny/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

Another important legendary cauldron is described in The Tale of Taliesin, often included in the 12th-century collection of medieval Welsh legends called The Mabinogion. In this story, a magical cauldron was utilized by the powerful sorceress or goddess Ceridwen. Ceridwen (also called Kerdwin, whose name can mean white, fair, blessed, bent, crooked, poetry or song), had a magical cauldron in which she brewed many things, including poetic inspiration. The following story links her and her cauldron to transformation and rebirth—attributes that are echoed in the Christian associations linked to the Holy Grail.

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Dr Elyn Aviva (neé Ellen Feinberg), Ph.D., M.Div., is an independent researcher specializing in sacred sites, powerful places, comparative religion, and pilgrimage. Along with her husband, Gary White, Elyn is co-author of the transformational-travel guidebook series, Powerful Places. She is also the author of  Melita’s Quest for the Grail

Top Image : The Attainment or The Achievement of the Grail, version woven 1895-96, now in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery ( Public Domain )

By Elyn Aviva

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