From an illustration to Chevy Chase in: -
'Illustrated British Ballads', edited by
G. B. Smith.

h1>Celtic origins of the Holy Grail
Completed 15 June 2003.
Last modified .
© Text Copyright 2003 Michael Wild

I can be reached at:- dagonet_uk 'at',uk



This section refers to the work of Roger Sherman Loomis and to a peculiar book by Lewis Spence. Both authors assert that the inspiration for the invention of the Holy Grail came from magical cauldrons of Celtic myth. Though both examine the problem from different perspectives and use wildly differing approaches, their conclusions are very much alike.

The origins of the Holy Grail according to Roger Sherman Loomis

In his rich and complex book 'The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol' Roger Sherman Loomis presents an intricate jigsaw puzzle that connects features of the Holy Grail legend and the characters involved in its story with Celtic myth. Naturally the correspondences are imprecise for the transmission from Celtic, specifically Welsh, myth involved misapprehension, mistranslation and adaption of themes to the agenda of romance writers.

As to the Holy Grail, Loomis focusses upon its property of providing abundant food to connect it to its Celtic ancestors. He gives as an example the dysgl (dish) of Rhydderch: a historical Welsh king of Strathclyde in Scotland who died in 570. Sometimes called Rhydderch Hael (the generous), myth credits him with possessing a a dish which had the property of providing one with whatever food one wished for (op. cit. P. 58). This is precisely what the Holy Grail did in Malory's account of its appearance at Arthur's court.

Of course this leaves the question of how did a dish (dysgl) become a chalice, or a ciborium, the form in which we are familiar with the Holy Grail. The answer seems to be that in the first Grail romance written (Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval) the Grail, which is here called a Graal was in fact a dish. In fact a contemporary of Chrétien de Troyes defined it as 'a wide and slightly deep dish in which costly viands are customarily placed for rich people' (op. cit. P. 29). It seems that this was not widely known and later authors, taking Chrétien de Troyes assertion that it contained a single mass wafer as their starting point, viewed the Graal as a ciborium (the container in which consecrated mass wafers are kept).

The mention of consecrated mass wafers brings us to another thread of Loomis' argument. According to Roman Catholic dogma the action of a priest in consecrecating the mass wafers draws into them the spiritual essence of Christ, so that they become in a real sense his body (the doctrine of the real prescence). It is this that accounts for the bright illumination that accompanies the Graal in Chrétien de Troyes. Now according to Loomis the notion that the Graal contained the body of Christ was based upon a mis-reading of a translation from the original Welsh. For the Welsh word for horn (korn) translated into mediaeval French as li cors, which also meant body. So that the natural mistake of misinterpretting a statement that the graal contained a 'horn' into an assertion that it contained a 'body' was easily made. It just required a little creative thinking to transform this 'body' into the real prescence of Christ. to make the Graal a Christian sacramental vessel (op. cit. P. 60-1, 241).

The question now is why did the Graal contain a 'horn'? If we follow Loomis' argument further this is because it belonged to the Rich Fisher, who is sometimes called Bron. Bron is equated with the mythical Welsh figure Brân: the possessor of a magical horn that dispensed food and drink: 'the drink and the food that one asked for one received it when one desired' (op. cit. P. 60). This magical horn was one of the thirteen treasures of the island of Britain (op. cit. P. 243). Loomis, in fact, combines the two treasures, the dish and the horn, when he speculates that in the complex process of transferance to continental Arthurian romance they became associated.

....there is no escape from the theory that in early Welsh tradition Brân the Blessed, son of Llyr, was endowed with the two miraculous vessels listed among the Thirteen Treasures of the Isle of Britain, the dysgl (dish) and the corn (horn); that these, though not mentioned in Branwen, supplied the followers of Brân, when they arrived on the western isle of Grassholm, with unfailing quantities of food and drink; but that, like a third vessel in the same list, the cauldron of Dyrnog, they would not serve the unworthy. We must believe that a whole complex of legends grew up about the dish and the horn in the Welsh stage, in association not only with Brân, but also with his kinsman, King Beli.1

1Loomis speculates that Beli was like Brân, a generous provider of food and drink and came to be regarded as a kinsman of Brân. Furthermore, that his name was transformed from Beli to Pelles (king of the Grail Castle of Corbenic) in the development of Arthurian romance (op. cit. pp. 110-1).

Loomis, R. S., The Grail: from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol,Constable: London, 1992 (1963).

Loomis points out a further remsemblance between Brân and Bron in that Bron journeyed to the West with the Holy Grail, and that Brân's head was taken to Grassholme by his followers; the most westerly of the islands off the Welsh coast (op. cit. P. 57). Continuing with the theme of the Thirteen Treasures, Loomis finds another treasure that accounts for a further property of the Holy Grail: the ability it has to deny food. Now he gives as an example of this an adventure of Gawain's at the Grail Castle where he was denied the food that his companions enjoyed in plenty because, when the Grail appeared, his lustful attention was concentrated upon the maiden carrying it rather than upon the sacred vessel. Now, Loomis here cites the example of the seventh of the thirteen treasures of Britain, the cauldron of Tyrnog (Dyrnwch) that would not boil the food of a coward (op. cit. P. 148-152). Of course there is no suggestion that Gawain is a coward, but Loomis points out that the Holy Grail, like the cauldron of Tyrnog, did have the ability to divine character.

7) The cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant: if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in it, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).

Coe, J. B., Young, S., The Celtic Sources for Arthurian Legend, Llanerch, 1995, P. 89)

In addition Loomis notes that the Holy Grail retards ageing, a property he sees as being derived from a part of the story of Brân. After this hero had been beheaded, on his own instructions, his head was taken to the island of Grassholm. Here it remained for eighty years with Brân's followers, who did not age during their stay with the magic head (op cit pp. 108-9).

Criticism of Loomis

Given his obsession with the thirteen treasures of Britain it is surprising that Loomis does not cite treasures 10 and 11 as being associated with the Graal procession in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. For here the graal ( of gold ornamented with gems) is followed by a tailleor (a silver carving platter). As the tenth and eleventh treasures of Britain are a crock (gren) and a dish (desgyl) that share with the Grail the property of providing whatever food is desired, this is an inexplicable oversight. Particularly as these two objects are joined together, like the graal and tailleor. Furthermore, as they are both owned by a cleric, this would legitimise the Christian interpretation that Chrétien de Troyes' clearly intended to place upon the Graal.

10) 11) The crock (gren) and dish (desgyl) of Rhygenydd the Cleric: whatever food might be wished for in them, it might be found.

Coe, J. B., Young, S., The Celtic Sources for Arthurian Legend, Llanerch, 1995, P. 89)

A quality of the Holy Grail that Loomis ignores is the ability it has to cure the sick. Though he does cite examples where it brings the phoenix back to life and prevents the death of those who have been recently near it (op. cit. P. 109). This ignoring of the curative aspects of the Grail is surprising, and does seem to weaken his argument, as these aspects can be related back to a cauldron that was in the possession of Brân in the Mabinogion tale of 'Branwen daughter of LLyr'. This cauldron, that Brân obtained from Llassar LLaes Gyngwyd and his wife Kymeindei Kymeinvall after their escape from a white-hot iron house in Ireland, restored dead warriors to life though they would be dumb thereafter. This can be related to the examples found in Malory where the Holy Grail cures warriors (Percival, Ector de Maris, Lancelot and an un-named knight). Again like the Holy Grail, which passed westward from the Holy Land to Britain, the cauldron of Brân passed from England westward to Ireland. For Brân gave it to Mallolwch, king of Ireland as a partial recompense for an insult that this king had suffered in Britain.

One feels that had Loomis used the two dishes of Rhygenydd and the revivifying cauldron of Brân in his arguments, he would have strengthened the connections that he was making between magical Celtic vessels, and cauldrons, and the Holy Grail.

The views of Lewis Spence

Lewis Spence's views on the origin of the Holy Grail are inseperable from his wider agenda __ the revival of British Druidism. For Spence, this was a patriotic duty. For he saw the spiritual insights of British Druidism, as garnered from existing bardic writings, as being equal in stature to those of oriental mysticism and with the advantage that they were native to this country. The primary insight was of the universe being composed of four circles; Annwn or the abyss, Abred or the physical plane, Gwynvyd or the spiritual plane, and Ceugant or the circle of deity. Annwn was a region that was characterised as being the abyss, a region of chaos and powerlessness: in other words it was a species of Celtic Hell. It was this region that had the potential to become anything in the physical plane of Abred, in which we live. Abred having been produced when God descended from Ceugant, the circle of the deity, into Annwn as an organising principle. Gwynvyd, the spiritual plane, is that to which we humans ascend when we have climbed the ladder of perfection through successive reincarnations: which can include reincarnations as animals if our behaviour as humans deserves this. While Ceugant, the circle of the deity, is reserved for God alone and is impenetrable to humanity, even those who have ascended to the spiritual plane of Gwynvyd.

Central to Spence's thesis concerning the origin of the Holy Grail in magical Celtic cauldrons of the plane of Annwn is his consideration of the poem 'The Spoils of Annwn'. This poem is spoken in the voice of Taliesin, an semi-mythical bard, and relates a journey he undertook with Arthur to the plane of Annwn to wrest its secrets. There is a reference in 'The Spoils pf Annwn' to Taliesin speaking with an voice inspired by a cauldron of enlightenment. This cauldron, for Spence, is clearly that of the goddess Ceridwen, which gave prophetic insight and whose contents Taliesin had accidentally sampled. This property of foretelling the future is ascribed to the Grail in one text: Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, where the Grail is portrayed as a green stone:-

Hear next how those who are chosen for the service of the Grail are revealed. Around the end of the stone an inscription in letters tells the name and lineage of those, be they maids or boys, who are called to make the journey to the Grail. No one needs to erase the inscription, for as soon as it has been read it vanishes.

Loomis, R. S., The Grail: from Celtic myth to Christian symbol, Constable: london, 1992 (1963), P. 210.

Besides being a cauldron of prophetic inspiration, the cauldron of Ceridwen had other properties according to a quotation from MacCulloch's 'Religion of the Ancient Celts' that is given by Spence:-

The three properties of the cauldron__inexhaustibility, inspiration and regeneration__may be summed up in one word, fertility; and it is significant that the (Irish) god with whom such a cauldron was associated, Dagda, was a god of fertility. But we have just seen it associated, directly or indirectly, with goddesses__Cerridwen, Branwen, the women of the lake__and perhaps this may point to an earlier cult of goddesses of fertility, later transferred to gods. In this light the cauldron's power of restoring life is significant, since in early belief life is associated with what is feminine.

Spence, L., The Mysteries of Britain, Senate, 1994, P. 145

Leaving aside the cauldron of Cerridwen. The 'Spoils of Annwn' refers to the cauldron of the 'chief of Annwn' - for Lewis this is clearly Pwyll (who is also named in the poem). This would not 'boil the food of a coward': so that it had the power of discrimination possessed by the cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant and by the Holy Grail.

One point that is common to Loomis and Spence is the idea that Bron, who carried the Holy Grail westward from Israel to Britain can be equated to Brân, who travelled westward from Britain to Ireland


Despite their differing methods, both Loomis and Spence agree that the Holy Grail had its origins in Celtic vessels of plenty. Though both focus on the food providing aspects of these vessels and ignore the regenerative aspects of the Holy Grail, which had clear antecedents in Celtic cauldron that Brân obtained from Llassar LLaes Gyngwyd. Of course the evidence does not provide a precise correspondence between Celtic cauldrons of plenty and the Holy Grail, but the accumulation of affinities does indicate that the ascription of properties to the Holy Grail was influenced to some extent by traditions that related to these cauldrons.

This account of the Holy Grail ignores the bleeding lance that inevitably accompanied the Holy Grail when it was paraded in the Grail Castle. However, my feeling is that this was the weapon (perhaps of a sky god) that had wounded the Fisher King. Also ignored is the fact that the Holy Grail is always carried by a maiden. A contradiction of the practice of the mediaeval church, where only the male priest touched the ciborium that contained the mass wafers.

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