Celtic Legends

It is likely that the roots of the Grail romances (and other "Arthurian" literature) are to be found in Welsh and Irish mythology. In one of the Irish echtrai summarised below, the god Lugh might be seen as the prototype of the Fisher King, while his daughter could be the original Grail bearer. Both tales concern kingship, specifically the sovereignty of Ireland.

The Kiss of Sovereignty

First we will consider an Irish legend concerning a young hero called Niall of the Nine Hostages (Niall Nóigiallach). Niall was on a hunting expedition with his four brothers. One of the brothers went to fetch water from a spring and there met a hideous hag who demanded a kiss; the boy ran away. The same thing happened to each brother in turn, until Niall went to the holy spring. He kissed the old crone and one thing led to another. The old hag turned into a radiantly beautiful woman, who told Niall that she was the Sovereignty of Ireland. Her ugliness was a sign that it was not easy to attain the kingship which Niall had now won.Image: Celtic brooch Image: Celtic brooch Image: Celtic brooch

Image: Ace of cups

The Magic Vessels of the Otherworld Castle

There is another Irish legend called Baile in Scail (The Phantom's Frenzy). It tells of how the hero, Conn of the Hundred Battles, discovered a marvellous stone, the Lia Fail, which shrieked to signify the number of his descendants who would be kings. In the usual Celtic fashion, Conn lost his way in a mist and, guided by a rider, arrived at a castle in the Otherworld. There he met the lord of the castle (who was in fact the god Lugh) and beside him a beautiful girl. She sat on a throne of crystal and had beside her a silver vat which never ran dry of ale, a golden cup and another vessel of gold from which she gave Conn a generous helping of meat. Then she filled the golden cup with golden mead and asked, "to whom shall this cup be given?" - to which Lugh replied, "serve it to Conn of the Hundred Battles". As the girl repeatedly refilled the hero's cup, she asked the same question and the god named in turn each of the kings who would be descended from Conn. Finally, Lugh, the girl and the castle all disappeared, leaving Conn in possession of the golden vessels.

Footnote 1: Here it should be noted that Wagner's main source of Celtic legends was a Breton collection that included the Peredur. His Bayreuth library contains some volumes of Erin, a collection of Irish folktales and legends in German translation.

© Derrick Everett 1996-2019. This page last updated (removed summary attributes from table elements and names from anchors) --- Thu 19 Sep 2019 19:30 CET ---