We all know the story of the Grail: it tells of a wonder-working vessel that provides food and drink in abundance that is processed through a mysterious otherworldly castle. Within the castle is a king, known as the Wounded or Fisher King, grievously injured with a spear or sword, usually through the ‘thighs’ (a euphemism for testicles) and as long as his wound remains unhealed, the land is laid waste. It is the purpose of the Grail knight to find the castle and ask a specific question, (sometimes ‘whom does the Grail serve’ or ‘what ails thee, uncle?’) failure to do so results in him waking the next day with the land still blighted, and the castle gone. If, however, the right question is asked, the land and the king are healed, or he is at last allowed to die and the hero succeeds his position as the Grail King.
It’s rather fitting that my book Warriors of the Wasteland, an account of my own solution to the Grail enigma, should follow so soon as after Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s brilliant Jesus Mysteries in the ‘Mysteries Forum’. For in my thesis I conclude that the origins of the Grail myth lies in the same rites of the ‘godman’ Osiris-Dionysos that they believe was the ultimate foundation of the story of Christ. The Grail legends, I argue, were in fact derived from a native British rite of rebirth centred on a Celtic ‘godman’ figure that in later legend is known as the Wounded King. So similar was this deity and his rites to those of Osiris that the Grail feast itself parallels almost point for point one of the most important rites of ancient Egypt — the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony.
It’s rather a startling conclusion when stated just so — but it is the result of over a decade of research into Celtic myth and legend. Initially my quest had not involved the Grail at all. I had become interested in Celtic myth as a teenager and had become fascinated by a newly discovered Iron Age body found miraculously preserved in a peat bog at Lindow Moss in Cheshire. I was at once appalled and intrigued to discover that he had been murdered — perhaps even sacrificed — and it was in attempting to discover how and why he died that I had stumbled on my elucidation of the Grail.
‘Lindow Man’ as he soon became known, was discovered in 1984, one of three bodies to have been found on this site in the last 20 years. This man had been murdered in a horrific manner — in what is known as a ‘triple death’ — stunned with an axe, strangled with a garrotte, his jugular cut with a knife and finally submerged beneath the waters, naked save for a band of fox fur round one arm.
As well as the three bodies so far discovered at Lindow many other ‘bog victims’ have been discovered around NW Europe — the majority dating from the Iron Age and many showing signs of a ritual death. They are variously wounded — sometimes in a triple method — often beheaded or strangled before being placed beneath the preservative waters perhaps in some primitive attempt at mummification. What interested me about this was that in an early version of the Grail myth, the Welsh ‘Peredur,’ the Grail is a silver salver that contains the bloody severed head of a man.
These discoveries did not sit easily with my idealised view of the ancient Celtic peoples — I had of course read Roman accounts of Druidic sacrifice, but I had preferred to think of them as anti-Celtic propaganda. But here was proof to the contrary, and so I set myself the task of looking through Celtic myth to see if I could find any reason why these people had been so barbarously murdered.
My researches into Irish and Welsh myth revealed that, far from dying as sacrifices to some bloodthirsty deity, these ‘victims’ were enacting the role of a god. Echoes of this god could be seen in the figure of Bran (‘Raven’) in Welsh myth, the possessor of a cauldron that could revive the dead, who was wounded in the thigh and then beheaded, although his head was able to talk and entertain his men after his death. With his wound to the thigh and his magical vessel Bran and his like were obviously behind the figure of the Wounded King (named Bron in some versions) — and thus my Grail quest had begun. Was, I wondered, the legend of the Grail the dim memory of the rites that saw the bog bodies of Old Europe sacrificed? If this was the case then the murder — the wounding — was but the first part of a more complex ritual — a ritual that sought to heal the land through asking the victim a question.
Such rites of death and rebirth, I was soon to discover, were widespread in the ancient world.
A major clue that the Grail legend had been based on an ancient rite came from reading Jessie L Weston’s 1920 classic on the Grail From Ritual to Romance.
Weston’s thesis had, in the main, been derived from the work of the British anthropologist J.G.Frazer who, in his 12-volume study of ancient myth and ritual, The Golden Bough, had argued that all ancient religions (including Christianity) were based on rites of fertility. In Frazer’s schema the figure of the god represented the crops — he was the corn spirit who would die at the end of the growing year so he could be reborn in the spring — and the Egyptian god Osiris, who was green, the colour of vegetation, typified such a god. From this primary idea Frazer had argued that when the god’s representative on earth, the sacred king, grew old, so that the crops would not wither he would be killed at the end of a fixed term. And it was in such symbolism that Jessie Weston had found her explanation of the Grail legends — the cup, she said, and the spear, were ritual objects in a secret classical fertility cult, and the wounded king the dying and reviving vegetation spirit. The trouble was that scholars had rightly slated her thesis by demonstrating that there was no evidence to show that the exact cult she described had ever existed in the Classical world.
Such a cult may not have been practised in the Classical world, I thought — but what about the Celtic world?
The connection between the bog victims and Frazer’s ‘vegetation deity’ became suddenly obvious when I discovered that chemical analysis had revealed that Lindow man had gone to his death painted green — like the green-skinned Osiris. What’s more — like the bog men Osiris in one version of his myth is drowned in the Nile, murdered by his brother Seth just as Bran in Celtic myth was also defeated in one version of his tale by his brother, Beli. These were but the most obvious of many parallels between these Celtic gods, their sacrificed counterparts, and the Egyptian Osiris. But how could there be a link between the two? As far as I could see there was no obvious connection between Iron Age Britain and Egypt and therefore I concluded that the link had to be more ancient. The solution was that the cult of this vegetal god had come to Britain from the Near East with the arrival of farming practices around four thousand years BC. And in turning to the Neolithic I would uncover the origin of Bran’s miraculous cauldron of rebirth.
Frazer’s ‘Vegetation god’ whose death and rebirth reflects the vegetal cycle went under many names (Osiris/Attis/Adonis/Tammuz/Persephone), yet his/her myth remained constant. When he is wounded/killed (often by a boar tusk through the thigh) he descends into the underworld the land above becomes a wasteland and winter rages. Only when his lover Isis/Inanna/Ishtar/Demeter finds him in the underworld and brings him back to life is the land reborn and spring arrives — just as the Grail Knight enters the Grail castle to heal the King and rectify the wasteland. His other symbols were the moon, which dies and is reborn each month (and by extension the bull is his animal with its crescent horns) and the serpent, which sheds its skin. Clearly his life mirrored the harvesting, sowing and the new growth of crops but as Freke and Gandy pointed out he was not just a metaphor for the change of the seasons. He was the Osiris-Dionysos of the mysteries — his death and rebirth were symbols in a cult of immortality in which the initiate, like the godman, ‘died’ to his old self, his narrow ‘skin-encapsulated’ ego and was ‘reborn’ through a realisation of his/her oneness with the universal daemon. This is why his cult was so important — it didn’t guarantee good harvests — it offered life-everlasting. But how was this communicated — was it just an act of faith?
It is clear that at Eleusis near Athens the mysteries of the Goddess Demeter and her lost and found daughter Persephone offered its neophytes immortality through the drinking of a sacred ritual drink from a sacred ‘cup’ of the mysteries. This ‘kykeon’ as it was called was most probably a liquid made from ergotized barley (ergot contains lysergic acid and was instrumental in the modern creation of LSD). The visions this brew evoked were obviously part of the initiation experience. Might it be that Bran’s cauldron of rebirth contained such a brew? What made this entirely possible was the fact that two of the most famous bog bodies — those of Grauballe and Tollund Man from Denmark had eaten porridge of ergotized barley before their sacrificial deaths. What made such a theory almost certain was that the term ‘mystery’ is derived from the Greek ‘Muein’ which means “to close the mouth.” According to Bran’s legend, those reborn from his cauldron were whole save for the power of speech; they were initiates bound to silence about the mysteries they had experienced.
Had such a cult arrived in Britain with farming?
As Above, So below
In Neolithic Britain I was to discover evidence that there had once existed here a cult of a deity associated with the moon and the bull and of a ritual drinking of hallucinogens that paralleled the religions of the Near East. This period sees the building of massive communal tombs, some crafted with strange designs on their walls that resemble ‘enthogens’ — neurally induced patterns that are usually seen whilst in trance states or under the influence of narcotics. Analysis of pottery from Orkney (where the tradition of stone circles first arises) reveals that hallucinogenic drinks were deliberately brewed in large so-called ‘grooved-ware’ pottery vessels — vessels that archaeologists identify as accompanying the spread of henge building throughout Britain (in which case the modern image of stoned hippies at Stonehenge isn’t that incongruous with what may have occurred there in the past, it seems!).
This new focus on the sky that the building of open-air henge monuments reveal is in line with developments in the Near East where the motion of the heavens was seen as the pattern to be followed on earth — ‘as above, so below’. The ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ of the sun and moon were enacted on earth in the actual death and rebirth of the king (reborn in the person of his successor). In the Near East there is plenty of evidence that Kings actually died aping the death of this god — though in time his role was to be taken by a surrogate or a sacred animal (the origin of the Apis bull of Ancient Egypt). It is possible that such deaths occurred in Neolithic Britain; the appearance of the skeletons of bulls in some late tombs in place of human remains hints that the human bones originally found in these ritual structures were those of divine sacrifices that were later substituted by the divine animal.
I will not discuss here how this cult developed throughout prehistory, nor my theories on the true provenance of brother of wounded king or the psychological change reflected in the conflict between the adherents of this rebirth cult and a new solar religion, as it’s all in the book. I just want to say that in Iron Age there was a great resurgence in this cult after a reversal at the end of the Bronze Age — and that the death of Lindow man belongs to this later period.
Although many hundreds of so-called ‘bog bodies’ have been found they are still too scattered and too few to represent a systematic and widespread cult along the lines of the sacrifices performed by the Aztecs. We don’t know how many of the bog bodies were victims of non-religious murder, or criminals — but the handful of those that we are certain were ritually sacrificed ought to be regarded, perhaps, as the exception rather than the rule — willing sacrifices offered in a particularly needy time. For sacrifice, as I explain more fully in the book, is a creative act that forms the cosmos — the god offers his life to provide food for the world. His death and subsequent rebirth are an attempt to renew the cosmos — it is a redemptive act — which is why Christianity was grafted on so well to these ancient roots.
We have seen how this ‘redemption’ required outside help; the god, to find rebirth, would have to be rescued and this is precisely what we see in the Grail legend. This was the task of the Grail Knight — whose task is to ask a question. But why should this heal the land? What is so important about entering into some sort of ‘communication’ with the wounded king? Luckily an Egyptian parallel answers this for us…
The Grail Question
The Opening of the Mouth ceremony in ancient Egypt took place in the tomb after the death of the Pharaoh. After mummification the son of the dead man would approach the bandaged corpse and forcibly open its mouth with an iron instrument — an act that was supposed to send his soul into the heavens where it would become ‘an Osiris’. Only by enacting this rite could the son become the new Pharaoh.
The origin of this rite lay in an episode in the myth of Osiris in which, following his murder at the hands of his brother Seth, he is bound in bandages (‘the bonds of Seth’) and imprisoned in the underworld. His son Horus journeys to the underworld to wake him from his torpor so, as the pyramid texts make clear, fertility might be restored to the blasted land. As long as he is wounded and imprisoned in the tomb the land is barren — the fertilising fluid is dried up. Clearly the rite was an echo of the rescue of the vegetal god.
It is also obvious that there are parallels to the Grail legend: The Grail castle, otherworldly and difficult to find is the underworld, and the wounded king, injured by his brother, is Osiris. The Grail Knight who journeys thither to ask the vital question and restore fertility to the land is the equivalent to Horus, and in time becomes the new Grail King just as the Horus-King becomes the new Pharaoh.
Perhaps the biggest link between the two schemes is the revelation in Coffin Text 228 that states that Osiris is wounded in the thigh! Horus says:
Tell him I have come thither to save myself…
And to dispel the sickness of the suffering god, so that I can appear an Osiris in strength,
That I may be reborn with him in his renewed vigour,
That I may reveal to you the matter of Osiris’ thigh and read to you from that sealed roll which lies beneath his side,
Whereby the mouths of the gods are opened. (my italics)
The healing of this thigh wound, Egyptologist R. T. Rundle Clark stated, restored fertility to the land.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this rite is the actual act of opening the mummy’s mouth, for in it we see a reflection of precisely why Grail Knight has to ask a question — if he sits in silence nothing happens — but if he promotes a dialogue the dead god wakes and speaks. The plot of an early Irish legend ‘The Phantom’s frenzy’ — a precursor of the Grail legend — reflects the importance of this dialogue with the underworld god in the granting of Kingship. In the tale Conn, the king-to-be, has to descend to the underworld and can only become king when Lugh, the god of the underworld, says his name (and those of his future descendants) in an oracular ecstatic ‘fit’ — the ‘frenzy’ of the title. The fact is that the ‘opening of mouth’ not only frees the soul of the deceased king but also initiates a flow of oracular words — or, in Freke and Gandy’s terminology, opens lines of communication between the initiate and his own latent divinity — his divine spark.
We can be sure that the victims of Celtic sacrifice were subjected, post-mortem, to some kind of oracular rites along the lines of the Opening of the Mouth and it is such rites that are behind the numerous talking severed heads of Celtic myth. Celtic lore is awash with talking heads that bring healing or rebirth to the land — including the head borne on the silver salver in ‘Peredur.’ The point of the Grail question was to get the head to talk.
We find exact parallels to such rites in Germanic myth (which as I state in the book is very closely related to Celtic) where the god Odin receives otherworldly oracular knowledge from the severed head of the giant Mimir. He receives this boon by presenting him with his eye in identical fashion to Horus who is only able to open the mouth of Osiris by similarly offering his eye!
The parallels between the two become more than coincidental when it is realised that the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony once formed part of the so-called ‘Heb Sed’ or ‘Sed’ ritual of Saqqara, in which (before the rite became wholly symbolic) the reigning Pharaoh was stabbed and beheaded before secret rites were performed involving his head.
In my search for the meaning behind an ancient murder I had uncovered a rite of great antiquity that revealed that far from being backward savages the ancient Iron Age peoples of Britain were possessed of a religion as sophisticated as those of Ancient Egypt — a religion, what’s more, that ultimately derived from the same source. It was a religion that saw the offering of human lives in its rites, but which also offered, through its sacred drink, a glimpse of the divinity latent within mankind. And the legend of the Holy Grail that so entranced the Europe of the Middle Ages, was its greatest legacy.