Aspects of the Grail

What is The Grail? What are its origins? Is it the cup of the Last Supper, or does it have older Pagan roots? In the following essay and accompanying audio lecture given by Professor Roland Rotherham you will be taken from the room of the Last Supper, to the mount of the crucifixion, and back further in time and into the underworld of Annwn.
Spiral triskelion (formed from mathematical Archimedean spirals), occasionally used as a Christian Trinitarian symbol

The Grail Quest in England

When undertaking anything resembling a ‘Grail Quest’, it is first necessary to identify the type of grail that you are searching for. Recently much has been made of the book “The DaVinci Code”, this put forward the theory, in novel form, that the concept of the Holy Grail was that of Mary Magdalene carrying the child of The Christ and his descendants walking the Earth today. This book has resulted in many ‘spin off’ books and television programmes as well as much publicity, ensuring the book as a best-seller!! However, this is not a new theory and was indeed published in 1985 as “The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail” by Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh. There is nothing new in the world!

We must bear in mind that whereas this might or might not be a factual theory it is not the one that concerns us here at this moment.

Please remember that if you acknowledge the fact there was a man called Jesus of Nazareth, whether or not you consider him to be a messiah, then you must also acknowledge that if He ate a last meal with His friends which will become known as “The Last Supper” and there is no reason to doubt this as it was the feast of The Passover and all families and friends were sharing this meal, then He would need something to put the wine into. Its only common sense, you must have a cup or bowl of some sort unless you want to pass around a bottle for people to drink from and THAT is highly unlikely.

So, that leaves us with a cup that will become known as the Holy Grail, it may not even have survived the night. It may have been clay and dropped while clearing up, we just don’t know, that’s what makes it so fascinating. No-one has ever found it to prove or disprove otherwise.

But, and here we enter the area of belief and legend, we not only have that cup but two more to search for. As well as the cup the wine had to be served in there was also the cup or bowl used by Saint Joseph of Arimathea who attended the crucifixion and the caught the blood and water that flowed from the side of Jesus as he was pierced by a spear used by the soldier Gaius Cassius, (Or Longinus), that gives us two but there was still another cup to enter legend.

It is at this point that Mary Magdalene enters our story. Not only was she present at the crucifixion but she also accompanied the body into the tomb and there she dressed the body with ointment to prepare it for its entombment. The small cup she had that contained the ointment she also used to keep the blood in from the wounds of Jesus as they continued to ooze blood while she worked on His body.

According to British legend both of these vessels, the bowl of Joseph and the cup of Mary, made their way into England and remain there to this day. But where and what is their story? To follow this we must start in the border country between England and Wales, in a little town called Llangollen.

This lovely little market town lies in an area called “The Welsh Marches” or border lands and is surrounded on all sides by mountains. One of these mountains has at its summit the ruins of a castle and is known as “Dinas Bran”. Here we have a strange merging of the modern grail legends and also those of the earlier Celtic stories. Dinas Bran, or the “Mountain of Bran”, is meant to be the fortress of a dark-age demi-god called “Bendegievran” or “Bran the Blessed”. He was said to be giant and no hall could hold him. He was believed to own a magical cauldron, one of the first ‘grail’ type vessels in British folklore. This cauldron was so powerful that it if a warrior was killed in battle if you placed him into the cauldron at night he would rise in the morning alive but would not have the power of speech. Also, it would produce the finest foods at will for heroes but not cook food for cowards. Here we can see a direct link to the vision King Arthur and his knights have of the grail when it first appears before them and “Everyman beheld in front of him that which he most desired to eat and drink, miraculously granted by the power of the Grail”.

Bran the Blessed had a sacred bird, the raven, and these birds would fly and counsel him on what was happening in the world. The castle is called in the legends “Castle Corbenic” and the old English word for a raven is a “Corben”. Even now ravens are to be found at its peak so it may be the “Castle of Ravens” and therefore the “Castle of Bran”.

No more than one mile away from Dinas Bran lies the abbey of “Vale Crucis” or the “Valley of the Cross”, here it is believed that the bowl of Joseph was hidden for a while during a period in the middle of the 16th century when the abbeys of Britain were being closed by King Henry 8th, this period is known as the “Dissolution” and many fine buildings were destroyed by this monarch as he joined the Protestant faith and crushed the Catholic churches and kept their wealth for himself.

Very close to the abbey stands a very curious stone on a small mound. It is about two metres high and is said to have inscribed on its sides the ‘family tree’ of the warlord who would become known as King Arthur in legend. This strange stone is called “The Pillar of Eliseg”, as Eliseg is the prince who had it erected in honour of his family history.

On the road that leads back into England from Wales we come across the small village of Whittington. This tiny dorp is easily overlooked but it has within it one of the most precious sites in England dealing with the grail legends, that of Whittington Castle.

This outstanding ruined castle features large in the grail quest. It is said to have been the home of a Payne Peveril, (We believe that from Peveril the name Percival was formed). In history the father of Payne was one Alan li Crux, in the legends Percivals father, in the Didot version, was called Alain li Gros. Three romances place the grail castle near a place called “The White Town” and indeed, that’s what Whittington means, White Town. Coincidence? Perhaps but unlikely.

Payne Peverils castle is said to have belonged to someone named Bran and in at least five different grail romances the grail king or ‘Fisher King’ is named as Bron. Also it was said that the grail rested in the guardianship of the descendants of King Arthur, Payne Peverils wife was called Lynette and she was a direct descendant of the warlord Owain Ddantgwyn and he MAY have been the character who became called Arthur, Ddantgwyn was known as “The Bear”, that being the true meaning of the name Arthur.

The grail that was said to have been entrusted to them was not, however, the cup/bowl of Saint Joseph of Arimathea but the ointment cup used by Mary Magdalene. She is said to have brought it with her to Britain or “The Isles of the Blessed” early in the 1st century. Certainly history tells us that a chapel was built right next to the castle and in it was housed a relic of great importance.

Whatever the legend and whatever the fact it is certain that Whittington Castle is one of the most romantic sites associated with the grail quest and is rightly known as ‘England’s Premier Grail Castle”.

It has become almost impossible to speak of the grail without the mention of King Arthur and this involvement, one with the other, is found in many grail sites in Britain. None however more important than Glastonbury, that magical little town set in the Somerset levels and said to be the spiritual heart of all England.

Apart from its beauty as an early medieval town, it is overshadowed by two great structures which form its heart. One is its great abbey, at one time the largest abbey in all England, and secondly the mysterious “Glastonbury Tor”, a vast hill with a maze cut into its sides and legends radiating from its centre.

First if we look at the abbey. It is popularly believed that it was formed in the early 1st century ad and by no less a person than Joseph of Arimathea himself. Local legend gives two dates for this, the years 36 and 63 are both used, it all comes down to personal belief. What is certain is that it gained the reputation of being the first Christian house of worship built ‘Above Ground’, remember that in Europe the early Christians were having to meet in catacombs and private houses for fear of persecution, this was not the case in Britain.

It is believed by many that when Joseph arrived he carried with him the cup/bowl he had at the crucifixion and it was concealed at the abbey for its protection. Galstonbury remained of great importance until the ‘Dissolution’ of Henry 8th meant its downfall, the abbot refusing to give in to the kings demands and indeed being horribly executed for his courage. As the monks fled, it is said that one of them carried with him the ‘bowl’ of Joseph and after trying to hide at abbeys that had not yet met their fate, one of them being Vale Crucis in Llangollen, he arrived with the bowl at Nanteos house in Wales and there gave this bowl to the family who lived there (The family wish to remain anonymous as they still have this relic today). All he said was “This our greatest treasure, keep it well and it will keep you”. He never used the word ‘Grail’ but this simple wooden bowl made of olive-wood has long been thought of as being the grail of Joseph and many healing miracles are still performed to this day using its power.

Also, if we go back to the 12th century, Glastonbury was struck be a terrible fire which destroyed it totally. All the great buildings, including the remains of an extremely ancient ‘wattle and daub’ chapel, said to have been the original building, were sent crumbling down to the ground. As the rebuilding was taking place the monks found what they claimed was the grave of King Arthur and his queen Guenivere, their bones laid in a painted oak container and with a large lead cross over it saying “Here lies King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon, the once and future king with his second wife Guenivere”. All very convenient ofcourse as the abbey needed money to continue its rebuilding and the grave of Arthur would guarantee many pilgrims, but we must always keep an open mind. After all he had to buried somewhere and where more fitting than the greatest abbey in all England.

To include another element into our grail quest we must include the Glastonbury Tor I mentioned earlier. This is a large natural hill that stands over the town looking down on it in an almost parental way. It is topped with the ruins of the church of Saint Michael, the 12th century church that was destroyed by earthquake. But it is the hill itself that will be our main point of interest. The ‘Tor’ as it is locally called, is certainly a natural structure but many years ago, possibly as early as 1000 bc, the sides of the hill had a maze cut into it. Not an ordinary maze either but a ‘Cretan’ maze of great complexity. This was a ceremonial path that wound up and down the sides of the Tor and gradually proceeded to the summit. As the initiate would follow this path so they would achieve higher levels of spiritual awareness as they ascended until gaining the summit where the temple stood. Indeed, it was also the site of another abbey during the Saxon and early medieval times.

The legend though is even more interesting. It is said that the Tor is one of the legendary “Hollow Hills” of Britain. Inside the hill they say that King Arthur and his knights lie sleeping, only to be awakened if Britain is in its greatest danger. However, more interestingly it is also said to be the entrance to one of the Celtic ‘Other-worlds’. Not a vision of heaven or hell but literally another world that lives alongside ours, another dimension of our own. As Glastonbury was once a lake town, in other words the community lived on reclaimed marsh and bog land, it was by boat that you travelled to it, it was believed that if you were a Christian you would land on the shores of the Christian Glastonbury but if your heart was with the old religion you would land in the same place but in this other-world where the pagan religion was still worshipped. This was used to magnificent effect in the superb book “The Mists of Avalon”, in my mind the most important book on Arthur written in the last 50 years.

This ‘Gateway’ was also considered to be an entrance to realm of Faerie, that mysterious land that again exists alongside ours and ruled over by King Gwyn ap Nudd. Yet another concept in parallel dimensions and one that the Celtic people were very used to assuming was part of their everyday world. They believed it was possible to ‘Slip’ between one world and the next without any harm to either world.

At the foot of the Tor lies the “Chalice Well Garden”, this is of great importance in grail lore as it was believed by many that Joseph of Arimathea , if not buried here himself, certainly buried either the bowl or more likely the items referred to as the ‘Cruets’ of the passion. These were two silver jugs that were in his possession and in these jugs he held the blood and water of the passion that had originally flowed from the side of Jesus into the bowl he carried at the crucifixion. The idea of these jugs or cruets became so widely believed in the middle ages that a coat of arms was designed for Glastonbury that showed a shield bearing a rough hewn cross and either side were the jugs with the background of the shield being shown with red and white drops, these resembling the blood and water.

The Chalice Well is certainly a place where one can believe in legends. Its peace and tranquility seem to cover the visitor and its garden layout means that at almost every time of year there are flowers in bloom. The well itself flows with water said to have miraculous healing properties and it so rich in natural iron that as it flows it stains the rocks and pools red, thus perpetuating the legend of the holy blood being buried there.

From the earliest times in history wells and pools, streams and rivers, have been believed to be sacred. Each one with its own guardian or protecting spirit, therefore it is no wonder that as the early Christian faith entered the world they would take over the ancient sites and over-stamp them with their own type of belief and legend, in time many of the old sacred wells and pools became associated with saints and their miracles and yet if we trace them back far enough we can show most of these saints were the old water deities and the protecting priestesses of the sacred waters where people came to make their offerings to the presiding gods and water spirits.

For anyone studying the grail it will always be a journey that will pass from Christian to pagan and back again. It knows no boundaries of legend and belief unlike many other relics. The cup of Christ will be confused with the bowl of Joseph, Arthurs grail will become one with the cauldrons of the other-world. To many this can be confusing but it is also richly rewarding, as you trace these legends and see how and why they mingle and merge it brings you closer to the knowledge of the similarity of beliefs of many people and lands and over many centuries. I sometimes think that the true grail quest is not the chasing of the elusive cup, although it will always start that way, I think it may just be the enlightenment that the chase gives us, the knowledge we gain from the quest not only about others but also, and more importantly, ourselves.

But lets not forget the old saying “Is your quest ended? If you are still alive, NO”!!    

Roland Rotherham 
NB You can find two further essays on aspects of the Grail by the Professor in the Library section of this site, entitled ‘Sacred Blood’ and ‘The Holy Blood at Bruges’