Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Cauldron Quest

The good news: there's finally a good (i.e. historically trustworthy) book about the Grail.

The bad news: if you're looking for deep pagan mysteries, there aren't any. The Grail is entirely a product of the Christian imagination.

To put it differently: in the seething cauldron that is the human imagination, Grail lore is a stew made from Christian ingredients, with only the merest hint of pagan seasoning.

In medievalist Richard Barber's masterful The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Barber traces the origin of the Grail, term and motif, from its entirely orthodox Christian beginnings in late 12th century northern France to its transubstantiation into a secular (and, latterly, new pagan) symbol in the 20th and 21st centuries. It's a fascinating ride.

The Grail romances were written in a frenzy of (secular) literary creativity between 1190 and 1240. Far from preserving ancient lore, they are almost entirely a product of their own times. This was a period of intellectual ferment as well, during which Western Christianity was fixated on articulating the nature of Christ's “Real Presence” in the eucharist. This was the century in which Thomas Aquinas defined this presence in Aristotelian terms as “transubstantiation”; it is the century in which the feast of Corpus Christi, which celebrated Christ's presence in the eucharist, was established and spread throughout the Western Church. At the same time, Europe was flooded with "relics" pilfered from the churches of Constantinople after the abortive Second Crusade's looting of that city in 1204.

Barber shows convincingly how the Grail emerged from contemporary Christian thought, iconography, and liturgy.

The Grail's supposed “pagan roots” emerge only late in the story, when 19th century historians attempted to trace a proto-history for the concept of the Grail. Here they hearken back to the legendary Vessels of Plenty and the Cauldron Quests of Keltic mythology. Any such historical connections, while intriguing—did you know that Corbenic, the name of the Grail Castle, may derive from the Welsh Caer Bannug, “horned fort” or “fort of the horns”?—must (quite honestly) be deemed tenuous in the extreme. The Grail—like the Tarot, which emerged several centuries later—is originally, and thoroughly, a product of the medieval Christian imagination.

Well, so. Am I saying that the Grail and its lore have no relevance for contemporary pagans? Am I suggesting that we write I am...the holy Grail of immortality out of the Charge of the Goddess?

No, not at all. If the Grail gives you insight into your own tribal ways, so be it.

But if you're looking for a basis for lore or praxis, I am saying that the Grail and its mythos might not be the best place to begin. If you're seeking deep pagan meaning, look elsewhere. Whatever its purported “archetypal” (whatever that means) significance, the Grail originates in Christian thought. Caveat mutuator: Let the borrower beware.

In the seething cauldron of creativity (heroically looted from the Underworld, as the stories tell) that is the modern pagan imagination, Grail lore remains at best a minor seasoning in the stew.



Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (2004), Harvard University Press


Above: The "Glastonbury Bowl" (circa 100 BCE)




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Friday, 08 September 2017

    Well, that's actually quite refreshing. I thought it was a stretch to link the grail to Cerridwen's cauldron. Why not Dagda's cauldron or Aegir's cauldron? So the grail is an underutilized Christian symbol we can claim for fun and heritage. I for one have no trouble slapping a neo-pagan coat on top of a Christian layer on top of a pagan layer. As long as I treat my Christian heritage as something to build on it shouldn't be a problem.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 09 September 2017

    Living cultures have the wisdom to learn from one another. So far as I can tell, that's how we've always done it.
    Come to think of it, one could think of those Cauldron Quests to the Underworld as charter myths for intercultural borrowing.

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