Healing Powers in Welsh and Christian Narrative

Restoration and resurrection are common thematic attributes in both Celtic and Christian narrative that intersect in miraculous, powerful ways. The surface level motifs reinforce the life giving, healing power of God and show the confluence of parallels between the otherworld, spirit world and christian world. The Grail Legend provides a scene filled with wonder that encapsulates the magic of healing for a wounded knight on the Quest. In the Mabignonian, the reader is introduced to the Cauldron of Rebirth and the Birds of Rhiannon, both compelling examples that closely correlate with the Grail’s ability. In a final example, a passage from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel illuminates the mystery of resurrection and restoration, further intersecting with the previous examples in unfathomable ways.

In the Quest for the Holy Grail a wounded knight, who is carried on a litter, approaches the ancient chapel where the Grail is being held. He approaches the marble cross before the chapel and summons the grail with the following words: “Fayre sweet Lorde, which ys here within the holy vessell, take hede unto me, that I may be hole of this malody.” (Malory, pp 515) These words appropriately summon the Holy Vessel, which provides the necessary substance to miraculously heal the wounded knight. The knight touches and kisses the silver table that the Holy Grail is upon while a bright candelabrum illuminates the area; the Holy Grail is carried in thin air without anyone holding it. It is seen that the Grail heals those who call upon it. Robert De Boron relates that the key to the unlocking the grail is in the words spoken. These are the secret words that are passed on by the guardians of the grail through generations. When Perceval achieves the Grail Quest he learns from Bron that the Lord will “entrust to this man’s keeping the sacred words that He taught Joseph when He gave him the Grail in prison.” (Boron, pp 154) What ever are those sacred words? The reader never learns the secret words that were entrusted to Joseph when he was given the grail in prison, and here is what Boron says about it: “Jesus spoke other words to Joseph which I dare not tell you- nor could I, even if I wanted to, if I did not have the high book in which they are written: and that is the creed of the great mystery of the Grail.” (Boron, pp 22) What is the key that permits the grail to heal and fill its company with an abundance of grace?

During the same scene, Lancelot is dismayed when he is paralytic shock and unable to move in the presence of the grail. The hermit who advises Lancelot on the Grail Quest tells him: “No sweetness can lodge among such great callousness.” He learns that, because of his mortal sin, he is unworthy of the healing powers of the grail and cannot commune with it. The words to unlock the healing of the grail are incorporated into the required state of grace necessary to behold it, lest the pursuant becomes blind through their sin and ignorance. The hermit who advises him later says that when Jesus “rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey…the sons of the Hebrews welcomed him by singing the sweet songs.” This sweet song is that which is sung to heal all maladies and is the same as those sacred words entrusted to Joseph and used by the wounded knight who earnestly calls out to receive that consequential power; it is the same very words that the Holy Spirit provides, which we find in scripture at Jesus’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.” (Mark 11 9-10) The secret words of the grail, that Boron doesn’t disclose, are the same sweet songs that the hebrews sing and holds the same power to summon the grail. Unsurprisingly do we see the grail powers and the grail as an object in itself migrating between Great Britain and Sarras, which is the nearby city to Jerusalem.

At a similar juncture, Welsh myth intersects with this theme in deep ways. When Bendigeidfran retreats after the cataclysmic battle with Matholwch in the second branch of the Mabignonian, he returns to Harlech, otherwise known as the High Rock fortress. He and his companions, only a few of which survived the slaughter in Ireland, are filled with sorrow and remorse. A great feast begins, and so the story tells: “They went to Harlech and were regaled with food and drink. Three birds came and began to sing them a song, and all the songs they had heard were harsh compared to that one. Of all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, they remembered none of it nor of any grief in the world.” (Mab, pp 23) The birds sing a song that lull the listeners into a state of mirth and joy, forgetting all sorrows from the past. They lose the memory of sorrow, which is a miraculous form of healing. The close correlation between these song birds and the feelings expressed by those who sit at the Holy Grail table with Joseph is striking: “When those who had sat down to eat sensed the sweetness and the fulfillment of their hearts, they very soon forgot the others.” (Boron, pp 35) The reader is given additional information about the mythical birds who are otherwise called the Birds of Rhiannon; it is said that they have the power to “wake the dead and send the living to sleep.” (Mab, pp 18) It is clear that the song birds are demonstrating healing properties similar to that of the grail, in which the beholder is reconciled from his wounds by amending his memory while there is equal evidence of resurrection.

In that same Welsh source does one find the story of the miraculous Cauldron of Rebirth, a third example and most closely correlated to the object of the grail. The cauldron’s owner is the mysterious Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid who is most noticeably described as a giant of a man emerging out of a lake with a cauldron on his back. Matholwch tells us: “I was hunting one day in Ireland, on top of a mound over looking a lake called the Lake of the Cauldron. A large man with yellow red hair came out of this lake with a cauldron on his back.” (Mab, 18) Yet, when they are brought into the land, disputes and quarrels arose between the new immigrants and the locals, which ended in a gruesome conflict. A prison house of iron was constructed, the foreigners are invited in and charcoal is placed beneath the house. When they have become drunk on wine the charcoal is lit aflame and the whole house is burned in hopes to slay the strangers, but Llasar and his wife opportunely escape. They escape to Wales with the cauldron, giving it unto Bendigeidfran as a gift. It is called the Cauldron of Rebirth because it contains this wondrous property: “the property of this cauldron is that if you throw into it one of your men who is killed today, then by tomorrow he will be as good as ever, except he will not be able to speak.” (Mab, 24) This marvelous object is, in turn, gifted to Matholwch as compensation for the maiming of his horses after the marriage arrangement between him and Branwen. The mutilation and maiming of Matholwch’s horse is a major insult and compensation, in accordance with Welsh Law, is a requisite. Later, when Efnysien, the same instigator of the initial insult, throes Branwen’s son into the fire a vicious battle ensues. This battle is the end of the marriage partnership between the Welsh and Irish. During the battle, the cauldron is used to revive the Irish army. Eventually, Efnysien pretends to be a dead warrior, gains entry to the cauldron, and stretches out inside it so that it is destroyed completely.

The Cauldron of Rebirth is a memorable object that has the power to bring back to life the dead. The Holy Grail and the Birds of Rhiannon equally share the same functions, as seen in the healing of the wounded knight and the entrancement of Bendigeidfran and his assembly on Harlech. The power of these objects is miraculous in nature and capable of transcending the laws of the physical world. It is when drawing the connection that one can designate the parallels between the Cauldron of Rebirth, the Holy Grail and the Birds of Rhiannon and begin to translate them into one single substance: a restorative power that can heal and resurrect life. This world of defining meaning through symbolism was constrained at a time when oppositional ideologies where contending and in translation, which is why a final connection must be made to provide the proper supportive foundation for this evidence. One see’s the subtle links between Pagan and Christian symbolism and begins to wonder how those bits and pieces were retained in translation. It is seen that culture is not destroyed but built upon. Indeed, much of the Celtic culture was retained within the Christian narrative, and built upon over existing centuries.

In the book of Ezekiel, there is a remarkable prophecy that provides further insight into the Christian context that is embedded in and in support of the Celtic sources. Ezekiel is whisked off by the “hand of the Lord” and taken to an “open valley.” (Ezekiel, 37 1) Wherein, he finds the valley full of dried up bones. The Lord speaks and says: “Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel, 37 5-6) In this exquisite passage one learns that the Lord has the power to heal and restore life through resurrection. It is in that same faith that the Holy Grail is able to empower the wounded knight, in a single example among many. Meanwhile, the Birds of Rhiannon are also connected with the sweet song in the book of Mark, that is the song that is sung upon the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; Those words are the sweet song that unlocks the mystery of the Grail. The source of all power, as in Celtic Myth and Christian narrative, is reconstructed in the essence of God. These miracles were being produced and audiences were trying to make sense of them. Just as with the Cauldron of Rebirth an army is revived, so in the book of Ezekiel is an army resurrected: “I will open your graces, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.” (Ezekiel, 12 13) When the Christian people spread the word in Great Britain, they told the stories of God and the miracles of Jesus. How is it possible that the Celtic inhabitants had stories with the same miracles, unless the narratives of the Celts and Christians were interwoven, conjoined and interpolated by the Christian scribes who controlled literacy at the time? The Mabignonian, the single most important source of Welsh Myth, is copied down by Christian ecclesiastics and transcribed. Who would doubt that it was interpolated? Rhigyfarch who wrote the Vida St. David was even rumored to have penned it. While the pre-christian stories were held in memory and retold orally via the bards, they were only later written down in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries when the Christian ecclesiastics wrote them down.

On the subject of ecclesiastics the picture becomes quite clear when the death of St. Mungo is subsequently linked to the cauldron of rebirth. Upon his death bed at the ripe age of 185, St. Kentigern (Mungo) is visited by an angel who fills the room with “a fragrance of wondrous and unspeakable odor” that gave him a certain sensation and, “forgetting his age and infirmity”, he shares in the deep pleasures of the Holy Spirit. That visitation helps him forget sorrow and remember his Lord, who was the guiding spirit in his level of “continual martyrdom.” (St. Kentigern, pp 110) The Saint learns that is time for his departure and the angel requests that he die painlessly, for he lived a life without sin. He has prepared a warm bath, and he slips away into the sleep of death when he enters it. Others follow suite into the hot cauldron and enter the “mansions of heaven” with him. This cauldron, that is filled with hot water, is used as a vessel in which the Saint’s holy body migrates from one plane to the next; that is, he is transported from the earthly realm in which he suffered dearly, in pain and torment, and migrates to that spiritual realm that he so greatly desired to be a part of. “The holy man entered a vessel filled with hot water…after lifting his hands and his eyes to heaven, and bowing his head as if sinking into a calm sleep, he yielded up his spirit. For he seemed as free from the pain of death as he stood forth spotless and pure from the corruption of the flesh and the snares of this world.” (St. Kentigern, pp 115) Further connection is drawn between this pool, the sacred waters therein, and an ancient past of histories old. The water in the vessel is likened to the “sheep-pool of Bethesda, in which, after the descent of the angel, one sick man was healed of whatsoever infirmity he had, but he was still liable to death. But in this ablution a very great company of saints is set free from all sickness, to live for ever with Christ.” (St. Kentigern, pp 115) The properties of the water are being heralded and extolled as life-giving, rather than life-taking, making this an important example of healing objects categorized under the Christian narrative.

The transitory nature of the cauldron, or “vessel filled with hot water”, as he calls it, makes an important connection to the Cauldron of Rebirth in the Mabignonian. While some may picture St. Mungo dying in the vessel and writing it off as a glorious ending to a saint’s life, there is something much deeper happening beneath the surface. When one considers the Christian belief of resurrection, St. Mungo isn’t really dying but is being reborn and resurrected in the spirit. This death is really a rebirth, an ascent to the heaven that he has worked diligently his whole life towards. Therefore, the death of St. Kentigern exhibits the Cauldron of Rebirth in a clear christian context because the body is being reborn within the water. This is complimentary in addition to the references of the water as healing, like the spring at Bethesda.

The function of the spring as a source of healing is at the central flame of the Holy Grail legend. From the spring comes the source of water, and from that source flows an abundance. It is from a rock the spring flows. Equally, it is upon the rock that the Holy Church is built and from it flows the abundance of sweet waters that come from the source: the Godhead. That water nourishes the people and is the divine flow of spiritual grace and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Just as the spring brings with it fresh water, maintaining inhabitants, so does the water of Christ have the power to heal and nourish those who go to it. The Lancelot Grail illuminates this concept further: “That spring can never be emptied, no matter how much one might take from it, for it is the Holy Grail, the grace of the Holy Spirit. The spring is like the gentle rain and the sweet words of the Gospel, where the truly repentant heart finds such great tenderness that the more he tastes it the more he wants. That is the grace of the Holy Grail: the more it provides, the more abundant it becomes, without ever running dry. For this reason, it should rightly b called a spring.” (Lancelot Grail, pp 95) It is from this spring that Christians are ultimately nourished with the heavenly food that sustains both the body and the soul. It is, most pointedly, through the sacraments that this healing power and spiritual transaction is held and celebrated continuously. The ultimate definition of the Holy Grail is that it is the heavenly food that provides, sustains and wards of maladies from those that believe sincerely and follow the precepts of Christ: “This is the sweet food that fed and nourished the people of Israel in the desert for such a long time.” (Lancelot Grail, pp 98) The term manna, as proposed in the bible, is added to the heavenly bread that rained down on the Israelites when they humbly prayed to God for deliverance. The security of food for a medieval people that were without sureties was seen as a critical, life sustaining force. The lack and deprivation of food enhances the awareness of God as the ultimate source of all being.

The Christian Law, which propounds charity and truth, was able to intercede where the secular law failed. Those knight’s in the medieval era who took to heart the law of charity were seen liberating those who were oppressed and lacked food. In the same way Christ gave up his body and blood to free people from their sins the medieval knight gave up his body and blood to make the Christian law a reality and provide justice to the oppressed. In that same way, the hero was in every way following the will of God and embodying Christ.  Peredur at the Castle of Maiden’s vanquished the earl and his son who sinfully oppressed the damsel who had received her kingdom by rightful inheritance. He thereby, “arranged tribute and submission” and “settled and secured her realm” by force of arms. His successful combat is a testament to the establishment of law and order in a place bereft of it. He heals the land, that was a waste land, making it flow with great abundance. Indeed, each of the three days of the battle he secures a captive and demands that he as prisoner provide the maiden with the following: “tonight in her court return to her a third of her realm in full, together with all the prophet you have made from it, and food and drink for a hundred men, and horses and weapons for them, and you will be her prisoner.” (Mab, pp 76) The recompense is subsequently, after three prisoners are defeated, the entirety of the realm in addition to enough provisions, food, drink and horses for six hundred people. The liberator of evil customs is, as reflected as the ancient healer christ, providing the people with what is their own by right and destroying the enemy that takes that from them.

In conclusion, one can gather that there are many examples of healing instruments in medieval narrative that are full of powerful imagery; the audience was bedazzled and ever curious on the subject of the miraculous. These healing properties have a poignant aspect of realism to them, particularly when they symbolize the power of the Christian faith as a restorative power that can directly oppose physical, mental and spiritual maladies. This mystery of resurrection and life restoring objects is about the power of healing in a world full of maladies. In this world we often find ourselves sick. People get physical sicknesses and mental ones too. The path to true healing is hidden in the secret mysteries of these objects. It is in the song of the bird, the word that is sweet water to the lips and is brought to those who thirst for righteousness. The New Law of Christ provides the healing to all physical, mental and spiritual maladies and we need only speak the words, and hear those words, to allow further excavation into those mysteries and that healing power. The key to summon and unlock the mystery of the Holy Grail is more of a consistent effort and willingness for the reader to open their heart and mind to the possibility of faith and the power of belief to oppose evil and sin. The very quest of the Holy Grail is the cleansing of the heart. Just as the wounded knight is restored when he called upon the Lord with an earnest heart, so can we too be restored. The parallel Celtic myths are deeper reflections into that restorative, life giving power.

Sources

Bryant, Nigel. Merlin and the Grail. Cambridge: D.S. Brwer, 2001. Print.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte DArthur. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print.

The Holy Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Davies, Sioned. The Mabinogion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.