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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 168

1281 Cúchulainn obtained one from the daughter of the king of Scath, and also carried off the king's three cows. In an analogous story, he stole from Cúroi, by the connivance of his wife Bláthnat, her father Mider's cauldron, three cows, and the woman herself. But in another version Cúchulainn and Cúroi go to Mider's stronghold in the Isle of Falga (Elysium), and steal cauldron, cows, and Bláthnat. These were taken from Cúchulainn by Cúroi; hence his revenge as in the previous tale.1283 Thus the theft was from Elysium. In the Welsh poem "The Spoils of Annwfn," Arthur stole a cauldron from Annwfn. Its rim was encrusted with pearls, voices issued from it, it was kept boiling by the breath of nine maidens, and it would not boil a coward's food.1284

As has been seen from the story of Gwion, he was set to watch a cauldron which must boil until it yielded "three drops of the grace of inspiration." It belonged to Tegid Voel and Cerridwen, divine rulers of a Land under the Waters. In the Mabinogi of Branwen, her brother Bran received a cauldron from two beings, a man and a huge woman, who came from a lake. This cauldron was given by him to the {382} king of Erin, and it had the property of restoring to life the slain who were placed in it.1286

The three properties of the cauldron—inexhaustibility, inspiration, and regeneration—may be summed up in one word, fertility; and it is significant that the 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 woman from 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 to life is significant, since in early belief life is associated with what is feminine. Woman as the fruitful mother suggested that the Earth, which produced and nourished, was also female. Hence arose the cult of the Earth-mother who was often also a goddess of love as well as of fertility. Cerridwen, in all probability, was a goddess of fertility, and Branwen a goddess of love.1287 The cult of fertility was usually associated with orgiastic and indiscriminate love-making, and it is not impossible that the cauldron, like the Hindu yoni, was a symbol of fertility.1288 Again, the slaughter and cooking of animals was usually regarded as a sacred act in primitive life. The animals were cooked in enormous cauldrons, which were found as an invariable part of the furniture of every Celtic house. The quantities of meat which they contained may have suggested inexhaustibility to people to whom the cauldron was already a symbol of fertility. Thus the symbolic cauldron of a fertility cult was merged with the cauldron used in the religious {383} slaughter and cooking of animal food. The cauldron was also used in ritual. The Cimri slaughtered human victims over a cauldron and filled it with their blood; victims sacrificed to Teutates were suffocated in a vat (semicupium); and in Ireland "a cauldron of truth" was used in the ordeal of boiling water. Like the food of men which was regarded as the food of the gods, the cauldron of this world became the marvellous cauldron of the Other-world, and as it then became necessary to explain the origin of such cauldrons on earth, myths arose, telling how they had been stolen from the divine land by adventurous heroes, Cúchulainn, Arthur, etc. In other instances, the cauldron is replaced by a magic vessel or cup stolen from supernatural beings by heroes of the Fionn saga or of Märchen.1291 Here, too, it may be noted that the Graal of Arthurian romance has affinities with the Celtic cauldron. In the Conte du Graal of pseudo-Chrétien, a cup comes in of itself and serves all present with food. This is a simple conception of the Graal, but in other poems its magical and sacrosanct character is heightened. It supplies the food which the eater prefers, it gives immortal youth and immunity from wounds. In these respects it presents an unmistakable likeness to the cauldron of Celtic myth. But, again, it was the vessel in which Christ had instituted the Blessed Sacrament; it contained His Blood; and it had been given by our Lord to Joseph of Arimathea. Thus in the Graal there was a fusion of the magic cauldron of Celtic paganism and the Sacred Chalice of Christianity, with the product made mystic and glorious in a most wonderful manner. The story of the Graal became immensely popular, and, deepening in ethical, mystical, and romantic import as time went on, was taken up {384} by one poet after another, who "used it as a type of the loftiest goal of man's effort."1292

In other ways myth told how the gifts of civilisation came from the gods' world. When man came to domesticate animals, it was believed in course of time that the knowledge of domestication or, more usually, the animals themselves had come from the gods, only, in this case, the animals were of a magical, supernatural kind. Such a belief underlies the stories in which Cúchulainn steals cows from their divine owners. In other instances, heroes who obtain a wife from the síd-folk, obtain also cattle from the síd. As has been seen the swine given to Pryderi by Arawn, king of Annwfn, and hitherto unknown to man, are stolen from him by Gwydion, Pryderi being son of Pwyll, a temporary king of Annwfn, and in all probability both were lords of Elysium. The theft, in the original form of the myth, must thus have been from Elysium, though we have a hint in "The Spoils of Annwfn" that Gwydion (Gweir) was unsuccessful and was imprisoned in Annwfn, to which imprisonment the later blending of Annwfn with hell gave a doleful aspect.1294 In a late Welsh MS., a white roebuck and a puppy (or, in the Triads, a bitch, a roebuck, and a lapwing) were stolen by Amæthon from Annwfn, and the story presents archaic features. In some of these tales the animals are transferred to earth by a divine or semi-divine being, in whom we may see an early Celtic culture-hero. The tales are attenuated forms of older myths which showed how all domestic animals were at first the property of the gods, and an echo of these is still heard in Märchen describing the theft of cattle from fairyland. In {385} the most primitive form of the tales the theft was doubtless from the underworld of gods of fertility, the place whither the dead went. But with the rise of myths telling of a distant Elysium, it was inevitable that some tales should connect the animals and the theft with that far-off land. So far as the Irish and Welsh tales are concerned, the thefts seem mainly to be from Elysium.1296

Love-making has a large place in the Elysium tales. Goddesses seek the love of mortals, and the mortal desires to visit Elysium because of their enticements. But the love-making of Elysium is "without sin, without crime," and this phrase may perhaps suggest the existence of ritual sex-unions at stated times for magical influence upon the fertility of the earth, these unions not being regarded as immoral, even when they trespassed on customary tribal law. In some of the stories Elysium is composed of many islands, one of which is the "island of women." These women and their queen give their favours to Bran and his men or to Maelduin and his company. Similar "islands of women" occur in Märchen, still current among Celtic peoples, and actual islands were or still are called by that name—Eigg and Groagez off the Breton coast. Similar islands of women are known to Chinese, Japanese, and Ainu folk-lore, to Greek mythology (Circe's and Calypso's islands), and to ancient Egyptian conceptions of the future life.1299 They were also {386} known elsewhere, and we may therefore assume that in describing such an island as part of Elysium, the Celts were using something common to universal folk-belief. But it may also owe something to actual custom, to the memory of a time when women performed their rites in seclusion, a seclusion perhaps recalled in the references to the mysterious nature of the island, its inaccessibility, and its disappearance once the mortal leaves it. To these rites men may have been admitted by favour, but perhaps to their detriment, because of their temporary partner's extreme erotic madness. This is the case in the Chinese tales of the island of women, and this, rather than home-sickness, may explain the desire of Bran, Oisin, etc., to leave Elysium. Celtic women performed orgiastic rites on islands, as has been seen. All this may have originated the belief in an island of beautiful divine women as part of Elysium, while it also heightened its sensuous aspect.


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