The Grail Legends The Cauldron of Rebirth: The Celtic Grail (The following notes are synthesized from John Matthews, The Elements of the Grail Tradition, Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1990.) As recounted in the book of Welsh tales, The Mabinogian, one of the most important of the Celtic deities was the sow goddess Ceridwen. She had a son who was so ugly no one could bear to look at him. So she decided to better equip him in the world by brewing up a concoction of all knowledge and wisdom. She set about collecting all the things she needed, and she set her servants, an old blind man and a boy named Gwion, to boiling her cauldron. She put the ingredients together, began the mixture to boiling, then left Gwion to stir it while she went out again. While she was away, however, three drops flew out of the cauldron and scalded his finger. He automatically stuck the finger in his mouth and thereby gained all knowledge, for the drops were the distillation of the brew. When Ceridwen returned, she was very angry at the loss of her concoction and began to chase Gwion. With his newfound wisdom, he changed his shape to a hare and fled, but she changed to a greyhound and gave chase. Through several more metamorphoses he continued to flee and she continued to chase him. Finally, in desperation he became a grain of wheat in a pile of chaff; but she became a red hen and ate him up. And nine months later she gave birth to him as her son. She had planned to kill him, but he was beautiful beyond measure, so she tied him in a leather bag and threw him in the sea. He floated nine days and nights until he was caught in the nets of a chieftain. When the bag was opened, those who opened the bag remarked how beautiful was his white brow.And so he was named Taliesin, meaning “radiant brow,” and he became the Chief Bard to the Island of Britain, and a successor to Merlin as a magician and prophet. Thus, at the very first appearance of a cauldron in Celtic literature, it brings wisdom, knowledge, inspiration, and the ability to shape change, all important abilities when crossing the divide into the other world. In another story from The Mabinogian, entitled “Branwen, Daughter of Llyr,” there is the following account: Bran the Blessed was King of Britain, and he arranged for his sister Branwen to marry Matholwch, the King of Ireland. At the wedding feast one of his brothers, Evnissien, took slight at the Irish king and mutilated his horses. Strife seemed imminent, but Bran offered Matholwch the Cauldron of Rebirth, into which dead warriors were placed and came forth alive again. Matholwch already knew of the cauldron, which came originally from Ireland and had been owned by a giant and his wife, Llassar Llaes Gyfnewid and Cymidei Cymeinfoll, who gave birth to a fully armed warrior every six weeks. The giants had been driven out of Ireland and had taken refuge with Bran. Branwen now went to Ireland, where she bore Matholwch a son, but she was so unpopular with the people that she was forbidden his bed and put to work in the kitchens as a scullery maid. There she trained a starling to carry a message to her brother, who, once he heard of her ill treatment, came with all his warriors across the sea. Matholwch retreated and sued for peace, which was granted on condition that he abdicate in favor of Gwern, his son by Branwen. As the feast ensued, Evnissien again came and brought disaster by thrusting the child into the fire. Fighting broke out, and the Irish were winning because they put their fallen warriors into the Cauldron of Rebirth. Evnissien then crawled inside and stretching out, broke the cauldron and his own heart. Bran was wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear and instructed his surviving followers, who numbered only seven, to cut off his head and bear it with them. They journeyed to an island named Gwales, where they were entertained by the head of Bran and the singing of the birds of the goddess Rhiannon for 80 years, during which time they knew no fear or hardship and forgot all they had suffered. Then one of their number opened a forbidden door, and the enchantment ended, so Bran said they should take his head to London and bury it under the White Mount at the Tower of London with its face toward France, where it could continue to bless and protect Britain. With his wound in the thigh, Bran is a prototype for the Fisher King of the Grail later legends. His severed head is also suggestive of a connection with the Templars and with John the Baptist. For more information on the Grail tradition, see the following books: Matthews, John. The Elements of the Grail Tradition. Rockport,Massachusetts: Element Books, 1990. Sources of the Holy Grail. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily