Myth Monday: The Underworld (World Mythology)

October 15, 2018

By Kara Newcastle

Pretty much every culture in the world had some kind of myth about life after death. Some of these places were heavenly, some were horrifying, and some were, well, kind of boring. Here’s a selection of post-life destinations for the ancient deceased.

Ancient Greece: The realm of the dead was called Hades, named after its eponymous king, and was divided into three sections: The Elysian Fields, a paradise for heroes; the Asphodel Fields, an ordinary area for the common folk; and Tartarus, a place of creative torment for sinners and evil-doers. The souls of the dead were escorted to the Underworld by Hermes, the messenger god, who would leave them on the banks of the Styx, the River of Blood (one of seven rivers that wound through Hades.) The dead would have to pay the ferryman Charon to escort them safely to the opposite side of the Styx, where they would be sorted into their afterlives by three judges. If a soul decided that they would like to take another shot at living, they would drink from the Lethe, the River of Oblivion, forget all about their past lives and be reborn into a new body. The entrance to Hades was guarded by the giant three-headed dog Cerberus, who would drag back any soul that tried to escape and shred any living being that tried to enter. Four living men were permitted to enter (Hercules, Orpheus, Theseus, and Pirithous) but getting away wasn’t exactly easy.

Amat has been a good girl, give her a treat!

Ancient Egypt: The afterlife, called Duat or the Field of Reeds, was a paradise, but only if you could survive the journey to get there. The road to heaven was filled with hundreds of monsters and demons that would try to destroy any human souls that journeyed to the afterlife. Deceased Egyptians were buried with a Book of the Dead, a combination travel guide and spell book to help protect them from the vile creatures. Led by the jackal-headed god of mummification Anubis, the deceased would negotiate their way past all the monsters and meet the god of the dead Osiris, and Ma’at, the goddess of truth. There the soul would place their heart on one side of a scale, and Ma’at would place the Feather of Truth on the other side. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the soul was deemed worthy of paradise and permitted into Duat. If the feather outweighed the heart, Ma’at would take the heart and toss it to Amat, the crocodile-headed/lion-maned/hippo-bodied she-monster that guarded the gates to heaven (not like what you see in Moon Knight). Amat would devour the heart, and the sinful spirit would be obliterated. In addition, the snake demon of darkness Apep escaped the underworld every night to wage war with the gods on earth. The sun god Ra would turn himself into a cat and whack off Apep’s head with a knife.

Sumeria: the land of the dead, Irkalla, was ruled by Ereshikgal, a dread goddess whose upper torso was that of a beautiful living woman but her lower torso was a decaying body. She was so powerful that she was able to kill her sister Inanna, the goddess of love, sex, and war (don’t worry, the gods brought her back.) The Sumerian underworld had seven gates (like the Greek underworld had seven rivers), and each gate was guarded by a huge creature called a Scorpion. The only living being known to enter the Underworld and escape was the Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh entered the underworld to seek out the spirit of the ancient king Utanpishtim, and from him learn the secret to immortality.

Dut duh duh dah dun, dut duh duh DAH dun, dut duh duh duuuuuuuun!

Vikings: Put it this way; if you were a warrior and you were annihilated on the field of battle, then lucky you! You either get chosen by the Valkyries, the warrior daughters of the king of the Viking gods Odin and taken to Valhalla to party with the king, or you get chosen by Freya, the goddess of sex and war, and go party with her—doesn’t matter what you were like in life, if you died in battle, then you got the grand prize. Anybody who wasn’t killed while fighting went to an icy cold hell beneath the earth called Niflheim, ruled by the dread goddess Hel. Like Ereshikgal, Hel looked like a beautiful, normal human woman on top but was a rotting corpse below. Her monster dog Garm guarded the gates of Niflheim.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem reanimated-in-an-underworld-city-of-walking-corpses-on-the-other-side-of-the-most-disgusting-river-in-the-universe bones …

Maya: of all the underworlds to go to, Xibalba shouldn’t be anywhere on anybody’s list. The place is nasty. Tim Burton would take one look at the place, back up, and say, “Holy shit.” How messed up is it? Well, first you have to enter a cave, then cross over a river of blood, then a river of scorpions, and then (I hope you’re not eating as you read this) a river of pus to get there. Xibalba is set up like a city inhabited by rotting corpses (though the Hero Twins’ mother was supposed to be very human-looking), with buildings such as the House of Bats, where huge bat demons would swoop down and chop off your head, which would then be taken to be used in a ball game. The inhabitants were mean, petty, vicious, and vindictive. And apparently, you could die in Xibalba … where the deceased spirits of the deceased spirits went after that I don’t know.

Everybody, meet Xolotl. He’s a good, if terrifying, doggie.

Aztec: the Aztec underworld was called Mictlan, ruled by King Mictlanecuhtli (“King of the Dead”) and Queen Mictecacihuatl (“Queen of the Dead”) and while pretty much everybody wound up there, the journey to the underworld was difficult (hey, nobody said it would ever be easy.) Escorted by the dogman-like psychopomp Xolotl, the spirit had to endure challenges such as a wind that blew knives around, and a river of blood with deadly jaguars (I don’t know if the jaguars are actually in the river of blood.) Mictlan is divided into nine parts, with areas reserved for people who died in a particular way, such as in childbirth. However, people who died in a water-related mishap were sent instead to the paradise Tlalocan, ruled by the rain god Tlaloc and his wife Chalchiuhtlicue … maybe because they felt bad about it?

Celtic: The Celtic Underworld really isn’t so much of an underworld as much as it is a mystical island paradise that lay in the West. The people of Britain believed in Avalon, the Island of Apples, ruled by the fairy Morgan and the final resting place of King Arthur. One of the many lands of the dead in Irish mythology was Magh Meall, ruled by the sea god Manannan Mac Lir (or sometimes the Fomorrian king Tethra) who kept an impressive dining hall where he provided wonderful mead and meat from his immortal pigs (they regenerated after being slaughtered.) There were thought to be about a thousand of these lands, collectively called the Blessed Isles or the Summerlands, but, unlike most of the other underworlds we’ve examined, ordinary humans could visit them, and frequently did. Unfortunately, there’s a price to pay for visiting the land of the dead; time passes differently there, and some stories claim that for every hour spent in the Blessed Isles, one day goes by in the real world.

      A famous legend from Irish mythology told of a prince named Bran, who set sail with a number of his men to visit these islands. When Bran decided it was time to head home, the spirits warned him not to set foot on human-inhabited land, or he’d die. Upon returning to Ireland, he and his crew met a group of strangely dressed people on the shore. He told him that he was Prince Bran, but the bewildered people didn’t believe him, saying that Bran and his men died over a hundred years before. One of his men, so frustrated at not being believed, jumped over the edge of the ship, and the second his foot touched the sand, he turned instantly to ash. Shocked by the death, Bran told his story to the horrified Irish, then he and his men turned their ship away and sailed back to the Blessed Isles. Interesting note: the country of Brazil was so named because, hundreds of years ago, a group of Irish traveled across the Atlantic, searching for these islands, but instead are thought to have found America (they didn’t turn to ash upon returning home, luckily.) Many years later an explorer who found this part of South America thought that this must have been the area the Irish spoke of and named it Brazil, after one of the mythical islands called Hy Bresail.

Yama king, Youdu you.

Chinese: Ever seen Big Trouble in Little China? (If not, shame on you.) Remember how Wang remarked, “The Chinese have a lot of hells”? Well, it’s true; some legends say in Diyu, the Chinese underworld, there are as few as three and as many as 12,800 “courts”, each designated to punish a soul for a particular sin, and ruled by ten fearsome judges known as the Yama kings. Diyu is so big, it actually has a capital city, called Youdu, and the realm is divided into eight cold hells, eight hot hells, and a few thousand different hells for various other sins. Every person passes through each part of Diyu for cleansing, staying there for however long the attending Yama king thinks is appropriate. Once the soul is deemed clean, it is allowed to leave Diyu and be reincarnated. Many years later, Taoism declared that there were only eighteen hells, with one Yama king who ruled over all these courts and appointed judges to each court. These hells included tortures such as being trampled by animals, freezing, having boiling liquid poured down their throats, being thrown off a cliff into a valley filled with knives, or drowning in a pool of rotten blood—for starters. The soul would be ripped apart, and then restored to relive the tortures over and over again.

A mother’s work is never done.

Japanese: In the beginning, there was the goddess Izanami and her brother-husband, Izanagi. They lived in happiness until Izanami tragically died while giving birth to the god of fire. Izanagi was devastated and determined to bring her back. He traveled underground to the cold, dark land of Yomi and called for his wife. Izanami, hidden in the darkness, called back to him that she could not follow him because she had eaten the food of the underworld and was now bound there, and then she went to sleep. Determined not to leave her, Izanagi groped through the dark until he felt the wooden comb in Izanami’s hair. Taking it, he set a flame to it to make a torch—then recoiled in revulsion when he saw what was once his beautiful wife. Izanami was now a rotting corpse! Izanagi screamed in horror, waking Izanami. Izanami was so outraged at his rejection of her that she chased after him, siccing several demon women on him as well. Izanagi managed to outrun his corpse-wife, emerging out onto the sunlit surface and quickly rolling a boulder over the entrance to Yomi. On the other side, Izanami screamed that she would kill 1,000 people a day in retaliation for his rejection. Izanagi answered by saying that he would grant life to 1,500 people in response. No matter what though, everyone, regardless of who they were in life went to the dull land of Yomi, which is neither a heaven nor hell … just kind of a holding tank for spirits.

Myth Monday: The Most Powerful Swords in Mythology (World Mythology)

Myth Monday: The Most Powerful Swords in Mythology

By Kara Newcastle

Ever seen Disney’s Hercules? At one point, Herc comes up against the evil centaur Nessus, loses his sword in the river and starts to panic. As Hercules thrashes around searching for his sword, he tries to refocus himself by repeating what he’s learned in hero-training.

“Right. Rule number 15 … A hero is only as good as his weapon!!”

Here, Hercules grabs a hold of something and brandishes it triumphantly … only to realize it’s a fish. That aside, Hercules wasn’t entirely wrong; for some mythological characters, the weapon makes the hero. And some of their swords are pretty damn cool (there were so many to chose from, I might do another list in the future!)

  1. Excalibur (England): Of course, this one’s a gimme, but no mystical weapons list would be complete without it. To begin, Excalibur was not the sword that King Arthur pulled from the stone (that’s a literary shortcut authors and Hollywood like to use); after Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, he used it on several campaigns, eventually shattering. Deciding it was time for Arthur to have a sword worthy of a king of all England, the wizard Merlin took the young king to meet the Lady of the Lake (one of many), where the water spirit gifted Arthur the magical sword Excalibur and its scabbard. The scabbard was enchanted so that whoever wore it would not bleed to death in battle. However, the sorceress Morgan Le Fey stole it and threw it back into the lake, so after Arthur fought his evil son Mordred he died from his wounds. In most versions of the story, Arthur orders his knight Sir Bedivere to throw Excalibur back into the lake, where it is caught by the Lady of the Lake.
Katana_blade_1505_Osofune_school by Rama

2. Kusanagi The Grasscutter (Japan): After slaying the multi-headed Orochi Serpent, the storm god Susanoo proceeded to chop up the dragon’s body. Upon cutting off the dragon’s fourth tail Susanoo was surprised to find a sword inside. Calling it Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, Susanoo presented it to his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu as a sort of peace offering after all their feuding. Amaterasu passed the sword down to her descendants, and eventually it came into the possession of the hero Yamato Takeru. One day Takeru was trapped in a field by his enemies, who set the grass on fire in the hopes of killing him. Depserate to escape, Takeru drew the divine sword to cut back the grass, but when he did he found that the sword had the power to control the wind. Takeru used the sword to turn the fire back onto his enemies, and afterwards gave it the name that it is known by today: Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the Grasscutter. The sword continues to be bestowed upon different family members and is featured in a number of stories. Today, it’s alleged that the Kusanagi no Tsurugi is kept at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, Japan. Said to be too divine to be view by mortal eyes, its kept locked away. The last time it was seen was in 2019 at Emperor Naruhito’s ascension ceremony. It symbolizes the virtue of valor and is one of the Imperial Treasures.

3. Fragarach (Ireland): Forged by the gods, the sword was first owned by Manannan Mac Lir, the god of the sea. Also known as the Retaliator, the Whisperer and the Answerer, it was bestowed upon Nuada, the first high king of Ireland. Kings of Ireland had to be physically perfect, so when Nuada lost his arm in battle, he abdicated in favor of Lugh, the future god of the sun, and gave him Fragarach as the symbol of his kingship. Fragarach was incredibly powerful; it could easily cleave through a shield or wall, delivered wounds that were always fatal, made its opponents weak, and, when held against a person’s throat, had the ability to force the person to tell the truth (which is why it was also called the Answerer.)

  1. The Harpe (Greece): A harpe is a sword that is either sickle-shaped, or has a straight blade with a sickle-like point protruding out towards the tip. Sometimes the myths say that Cronus used a harpe made of flint or adamantine to castrated his father Uranus, but the harpe was most famously used by the hero Perseus. A son of Zeus (big surprise), Perseus was determined to protect his mother Danae from King Polydectes of Seriphos, who wanted to marry her. Wanting to get the boy out of the way, Polydectes manipulated Perseus into going on a quest to slay the monster Medusa and bring back her head. Perseus found the way to Medusa’s cave, but was at a loss as to how to kill her without being turned into stone by her stare. The answer of course came from the gods: Athena gave Perseus a highly reflective shield, Hades gave him his helmet of invisibility, Hermes gave him his winged sandals, and Zeus gave Perseus a harpe made of adamantine (sorry, I can’t help but look at Zeus at this point as an absentee father trying to make good with his son.) Not only as Perseus able to use the harpe and the other gifts to kill Medusa, he also used the sword to destroy a sea monster summoned by the god Poseidon. (Side note: it was not known as a kraken. The kraken is a Norwegian sea monster. All the same, that still stands as a really cool quote to yell.)

5. Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār (Persian): This emerald-encrusted sword once owned by King Solomon was featured in the world’s longest epic poem, Amir Arsalan-e Namadar, and was wielded by the eponymous hero (Amir Arsalan, if that helps) on his many quests. One of his quests was to face the giant, horned demon Fulad-zereh, who had been terrorizing the world by flying through the air and kidnapping beautiful women, and now had usurped the throne of the fairy king and turned many of his courtiers to stone. Fulad-zereh’s mother was a powerful witch, and she had enchanted Fulad-zereh so that nothing could harm him … except for the sword Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār (she might as well have been designing the first Death Star.) Knowing this, Fulad-zereh guarded the sword carefully, but Amir Arsalan was able to outwit him and kill both Fulad-zereh and his mother with Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār. The sword was so powerful that any wound that it inflicted would not heal unless treated with a special potion—an ingredient of which was Fulad-zereh’s brain, but Amir Arsalan had no problem making it.

6. Beowulf’s swords Hrunting and Næġling (Danish): Two swords are noted in the epic poem Beowulf, and interestingly, despite their unique abilities neither one of them help him. Beowulf was a warrior from Geatland, and he and his men were summoned by King Hrothgar of the Danes to help them kill the monster Grendel, who had been raiding Hrothgar’s drinking hall. Not long after arriving at the great hall, Beowulf proceeded to boast about his many adventures, irritating the king’s retainer Unferth. Unferth accused Beowulf of lying, to which Beowulf mocked him back. After witnessing Beowulf disarm Grendel—literally—Unferth falls quiet. The Geats and Danes don’t have long to celebrate Beowulf’s victory, as Grendel’s even more monstrous mother comes for revenge. They pursue her to a lake, where she plunges to the depths. There, Unferth hands Beowulf his sword Hrunting, telling Beowulf that the sword would never fail the one who held it. Happy for the gift, Beowulf leapt into the lake after Grendel’s mother and drew Hrunting … only to find that it was useless against the creature. This has led some scholars to wonder if Unferth had lied about the sword’s power in the hopes that Beowulf would lose (don’t worry, he didn’t.) Many years later, Beowulf’s kingdom is attacked by a dragon, and Beowulf, now an old man, goes out to confront it. He takes with him the sword Næġling, a very ancient weapon that had been passed down to him through his family and was said to contain immense power. Unfortunately, by now Beowulf is too old to wield it properly, and he is killed by the dragon’s venom.

7. Gram (Norse): Once upon a time, the Norse warrior Sigmund was enjoying himself mightily at the wedding feast of his sister Signy. As he parties with the other Vikings, a stranger in a black cloak enters the hall and walks straight up to the Barnstokker tree growing in the middle of it. The man draws out a sword, lifts it up, and plunges it straight into the trunk of the tree. The man says to all in the stunned hall, “He who pulls out this sword will keep it as a gift from me, and he will know that he never carried a better sword than this.” The man was Odin, the king of the gods in disguise, and as soon as he walked out of the hall every man there lunged for the sword. Only Sigmund was able to pull it free. King Siggeir becomes envious and tries to buy the sword Gram, but when Sigmund won’t part with it, the king begins a campaign of murder and torture against Sigmund and his family. Sigmund manages to keep the sword until it is broken in battle by Odin himself. Sigmund’s wife Hjordis keeps both pieces for their future son, Sigurd. Years later a dwarf named Regin tells Sigurd about an amazing hoard of gold guarded by the dragon Fafnir, and Sigurd promises to slay the dragon if Regin can forge him a sword. Regin repairs Gram, and Sigurd uses it on several quests. The last time Gram is seen is when it is placed between the bodies of Sigurd and the Valkyrie Brunhilde on their funeral pyre.

8. Kladenets/Mech-samosek (Russia): The actual translation of “kladenets” is a little tricky, but most stories that feature the Kladenets describe it as a “self-swinging sword”—in other words, a sword that fights on its own. Also known as a mech-samosek, the sword cannot be forged, it has to be retrieved by a hero from a burial mound (the root word of the name means “treasure”,) and will do the fighting for the hero itself. Some versions state that the sword must be held, that it can kill anyone with a single blow, but if you hit the dead body a second time the sword will bounce back and cut your own head off. The Kladenets is most frequently listed as the weapon of the folk hero Ivan Tsarevich.

9. Thuận Thiên (Vietnam): In 1418, seeing that the land we now know as Vietnam was suffering under Ming control, Long Voung, the Dragon King, decided that it was time he helped the humans out. The best way to do that was to bestow his own sword upon them, but there was one problem: the sword came in two pieces. Long Voung sent the blade of the sword down river, where it was dredged up by a local fisherman three times. Realizing that this was something significant, the fisherman brought the blade home and kept it in a corner for several years. After some time Le Loi, a general at this time, visited the fisherman’s home. Almost immediately, the sword blade began to glow brightly. Holding it up, Le Loi saw the words Thuận Thiên, “Heaven’s Will,” etched on the blade. Seeing this as another sign, the fisherman insisted that General Le Loi take the blade. Some time later, Le Loi was fleeing his enemies through the woods, when a sparkle caught his eye. Looking up, he saw a jewel-studded empty sword hilt dangling in the branches of a banyan tree. Bewildered, Le Loi climbed up, pulled down the hilt, and fitted it into the blade he found at the fisherman’s house. Seeing that the pieces fit together perfectly, Le Loi realized this was a sign from heaven, showing him that he had the gods’ approval. The sword caused Le Loi to grow extremely tall, and have the strength of a thousand men, and seeing him with the divine weapon help rally the people of Vietnam to his side. Within ten years, the Vietnamese had driven out the Ming Chinese, and Vietnam was now an independent country with Le Loi as its king. A year later, Le Loi was on a pleasure cruise on Ho Luc Thuy (Green Lake), when a giant turtle with a golden shell emerged from the water and swam towards him. In a human voice, the turtle told Le Loi that his task was complete, and that he needed to return Thuận Thiên before its divine power corrupted him. Le Loi looked down at the sword at his side (which was twitching towards the turtle, as if wanting to go to it) and realized that the turtle was right. He tossed Thuận Thiên to the turtle, who caught it in its beak, and then sank beneath the water. Since then the lake has been known as the Lake of the Returned Sword, or Sword Lake.

10. Skofnung (Norse):I was trying to focus on as many different swords without repeating myself, but I came across this one. I don’t remember ever reading about it before, and there’s not a whole lot I found right now, but it’s just too cool not to mention.

The origins of Skofnung are a little murky, but early writings of the sword say that it was stolen from a burial mound by the Icelandic Viking Skeggi of Midfirth, who was chosen by lot to go in and get it. Eventually, it comes into the possession of Danish king Hrolf Kraki, who declared it to be the greatest sword of any in the Northlands. Not only was it supernaturally sharp and incredibly strong, it was also possessed by the souls of twelve of Hrolf’s most faithful warriors (and HOW did that happen? I’m not totally sure I want to know.) The sword passes hands several times and is even the lone survivor of a shipwreck. At one point one of the owners warns a friend that any cut made by Skofnung will not heal unless it is rubbed with the Skofnung Stone, which I don’t know exactly what that is. Mostly I’m just hung up on the ghosts of twelve dead berserkers bound to the sword right now.

Myth Monday: The Battle of the Holly King and the Oak King (European Mythology)

Myth Monday: The Battle of the Holly King and the Oak King (European Mythology)

By Kara Newcastle

Oblężenie_Malborka_2019_(11) by Jakub T. Jankiewicz wikimedia commons

At the autumnal equinox, the Holly King emerges. With him comes the darkness, the cold winds and heavy snows. Death follows in his wake, causing the grasses to wither and the trees to drop their leaves. The crops die in the fields, the game animals flee from the forests. No new life comes into the world. All is dark and frigid.

It is at Midwinter when the Holly King is at his greatest power that his most hated enemy, the Oak King, is born. At the end of Solstice, the longest night of the year, the Oak King returns to our world, and with him comes the sunlight and warmth. He grows quickly, and readies himself, for the time will soon come when he must fight the Holly King to save the world from winter.

At the spring equinox, the young, hale Oak King confronts the aged Holly King in the forest. At once they do battle, raging back and forth until the Oak King triumphs, striking down the Holly King. The Oak King claims his rival’s position as ruler of the world, bringing the spring with him, as well as returning fertility to the land. The snows melt, the crops sprout, and animals give birth. People emerge from where they hid in their homes and rejoice.

The Oak King rules the earth in light, until the autumn returns. It is then that the Oak King ages, and the Holly King, reborn, returns to reclaim his throne.

And so the cycle continues. Though they despise one another, neither the Oak King nor the Holly King can remain the sole victor; they are two opposite halves of the same coin, and one cannot exist without the other. Neither is wholly good, nor wholly evil, but both are needed for the balance of the cosmos.

Fascinating as the tale goes, there’s one thing about the myth of the Holly King and the Oak King that troubles mythographers: nobody is really sure where the story came from. While it contains elements from Celtic, Nordic and Germanic mythologies, it can’t really be firmly pinned down to any one particular place. The myth gained widespread attention in the 1970s when Wiccan leaders Janet and Stewart Farrar incorporated the story into their practices. However, scholar Robert Graves mentioned the Kings in his book The White Goddess, published in 1948, and James George Frazer discussed a similar myth in his book The Golden Bough, published in 1890, meaning that some version of the Holly King vs. Oak King myth was known long before the Wiccan and Neopagan revival. It’s likely that this was a mythology known largely to certain groups in early Europe that were not Celtic, but eventually traveled though the continent and picked up various new details in the retellings, as myths and legends are wont to do.

Here’s an example: Celtic Druids saw holly as a symbol of rebirth, as the leaves remained green and the berries red throughout the dead of winter, when everything else had died. Additionally, holly likes to attach itself to healthy trees, such as oaks, which were sacred to the Druids. When the oak trees lost their leaves in the fall, the holly stood out starkly against the bare trunks. Somehow, the holly had survived while the oak had died. At the return of spring, however, the oaks regained their leaves, and the holly was lost from sight.

While that explains the link of holly/winter and oak/summer, the problem is that the Celts didn’t celebrate equinoxes, but people like the Saxons and the Norse did.

See? Mythological evolution.

In some later medieval retellings of the myth, not only do the Holly and Oak Kings fight for control of the seasons, but they also fight for the right to marry a beautiful girl who symbolizes the Earth. Indeed, in some Wiccan and Neopagan religions, the Holly and Oak Kings are seen as the dark and light aspects (respectively) of the Horned God fighting each other over the Goddess’s love. Other religions suggest that the Holly King and Oak King divide the year equally with no combat, and some even suggest that they are brothers.

Hang on, we’re not done yet!

The Oak King has evolved into or at least contributed to, the image and belief of the Greenman (also known as the Green Man and Jack in the Green,) a fertility god and a protective spirit of the forest, (and one of my all-time favorite songs by Type O Negative) that is portrayed as being made of leaves. Like Swamp Thing, but without the smell. If you visit old churches in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, you’ll likely see carvings or pictures in stained glass windows of a human-like face with leaves and vines sprouting out from it; that’s the Greenman.

And yes, I’m aware that there’s also the theory that a Bigfoot-like creature may have contributed to the legends of the Greenman, but that’s for another blog. Be patient.

Additionally, some people believe that since the Holly King was portrayed as an older man with a white beard, frequently dressed in red robes, sometimes said to ride in a sleigh pulled by eight stags, and appears only at wintertime, he may have contributed to the creation of the myth of Santa Claus (Santa’s real! Real, I say!) and Father Christmas. We’ll have to go into more depth about that during the December blogs.

The return of the Oak King and similar deities was often celebrated on May 1st—Beltane in Celtic mythology and some Neopagan and Wiccan religions—and frequently those festivals featured a Maypole. The Maypole—a tall wooden pole which is wound about with ribbons by dancing people—was essentially a symbol of the springtime god’s erect phallus. The dancing and decorating of the pole was to celebrate the god’s sexual union with the earth goddess, thus returning fertility to the world. Think about that the next time you go to a RenFaire.

Myth Monday: The Holy Grail (Christian Legend)

Myth Monday: The Holy Grail

By Kara Newcastle



473px-Holy_Grail_of_Valencia by Jmjriz agate cup
Holy Grail of Valencia by Jmjriz, wikimedia



Here’s something I didn’t expect to see in my newsfeed a week or so ago:


Nicolas Cage on the set of National Treasure 2, by KirkWeaver, wikimedia


Yeah, so, apparently, whilst recovering from alcoholism, Nicholas Cage delved deep into books on philosophy and mythology, and in the process became hooked on the legends of the Holy Grail. He was so enamored of the tales that he actually went on several trips to visit locations associated with the Grail, and even purchased some land in Rhode Island that had something to do with the chalice as well—or maybe not, he was being evasive on that point.

Interestingly though, Cage said that he found his own (interpretation of) the grail, and it’s not in cup form. So, what could it be? What is the grail, exactly?

Let me try to explain as much as I can squeeze into this blog.

639px-Holy-grail-round-table-ms-fr-112-3-f5r-1470-detail by Evrard d'Espinques


Firstly, let’s address the word “grail”: “Grail” comes from the French word “greal,” which means “vessel,” something that holds foods or liquids. Therefore, a grail is a cup, chalice, plate, bowl, or even a cauldron. The thought that it was a cup or chalice comes from the Bible, specifically from the scene of the Last Supper, when Jesus Christ blessed a cup of wine and passed it amongst his apostles, encouraging them to drink and become unified. In medieval times, the Holy Grail was thought to be either this cup, a similar cup used to catch Jesus’s blood as he died on the Cross, or the same cup used at the Last Supper was also used to catch his blood. (This is where “Sangreal” comes into play, I’ll get to that it a minute.) There’s no mention of any of Jesus’s blood being gathered at his crucifixion in the Bible—this was added to the legend much later.

However, the idea of a sacred vessel is much older than the myth of the Holy Grail itself. In Celtic mythology, there were several magical cauldrons used by gods and heroes to feed, heal, and even bring people back from the dead. Bran the Blessed, the giant king of England, was said to possess a cauldron that would bring dead soldiers back to life after their bodies had been immersed inside of it. The Cauldron of Annwn would produce an endless supply of food for brave warriors—cowards would get none.


The Gundstrup Cauldron. Dead soldiers are dunked into the magic cauldron and brought back to life. Also known as the best way to create your own personal zombie army.


The Celtic tradition of sacred cauldrons was either transformed into or applied to medieval myths about the Christian Holy Grail. In Arthurian legends, the Holy Grail appeared to King Arthur and his knights at the Round Table and bestowed upon them all their favorite foods and drink, and Lancelot had a vision of the Holy Grail healing a gravely wounded knight. The power of the Holy Grail was also used to cure the unhealing wounds of the Fisher King, restoring health and fertility to both him and his kingdom. Likely, these stories and more were used to help convert pagan Britons and Celts to Christianity.

Oh, and to confuse things further, new theories in the last few decades suggest that the Grail was actually an alabaster perfume jar used when the repentant woman washed Jesus’s feet, or when his female followers anointed his body for burial following the Crucifixion. One guy even claims to have found it.


Here’s a piece everyone loves to debate about: read as “San Greal,” this is French for “Holy Grail.” Read as “Sang Real,” this is French for “Blood Royal.” Alternative historians and conspiracy theorists jump on this as proof that the Holy Grail was not a physical cup but an actual bloodline descending from Jesus Christ. Before I address that, read the next part.


Hard to say; while it’s possible that a cup that Jesus used could have survived over a thousand years, there’s no solid proof that it ever existed. Furthermore, there are so many legends and so many different locations claiming to have the “real” Holy Grail that we might never know.

Furthermore, nobody seems to be able to not only agree on what the Grail was (cup or dish?), but what it was made from either. In Arthurian legends, the Grail was depicted as a highly ornate chalice. Biblical scholars and Indiana Jones assume that, given that Jesus and his disciples carried so little money and stayed at places that couldn’t afford to provide fancy tableware, if the Grail was real, then it was probably something plain, made out of wood, clay or possibly stone.

Some later stories insist that the Holy Grail was actually carved out of a huge emerald that fell from Lucifer’s crown following his failed rebellion in Heaven and his banishment to Hell. Somebody found the emerald, thought it would make a great drinking cup, and it somehow found its way to Jesus. During the Crusades, the Knights Templar once captured a green goblet said to be made of emerald and was the same cup Jesus used at the Holy Grail. It was later proved to be ordinary glass.

Now for the part everybody wants to read …



According to one legend, Jesus Christ wanted complete equality between the sexes, so not only did he have male disciples, he had female ones as well. Among these was Mary Magdalene, with whom he fell in love with and married. The story goes that Mary Magdalene was several months pregnant with their child when Jesus was executed on the cross. Mary Magdalene was the one who witnessed Jesus’s resurrection but, as the story goes, it became increasingly dangerous to have any association with Christ. To save her and her unborn child, Jesus’s great uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, took her, the Holy Grail, a cruet of Christ’s blood and a cruet of his sweat, and they fled across the Mediterranean, arriving in what is now Marseille, France. There, Mary gave birth to a daughter she named Sarah, who eventually married into what would become the Merovingian royal family, establishing a bloodline descendent from Jesus.

Hence Sang Real—Blood Royal.

Is any of this true? We have no way of knowing, but that area of France certainly believes it. They have many stories about Mary Magdalene arriving in a boat and living as a religious hermit in the caves in Provence. They even have a reliquary (an ornate receptacle designed to hold the bones of saints) containing the skull and bones they claim is hers. Tests have proven that the skull is in fact female, but nobody has proven that the bloodline actually exists.

Makes for good stories, though.


Okay, I’ll try to make this quick; pre-Christian cultures, particularly in Europe, were predominately matriarchal, or at least had high esteem for women, and worshipped supreme Mother Goddess. Cauldrons, bowls and eventually things like chalices were used to physically represent the womb, and the addition of dark red wine represented life-giving menstrual blood. Cauldrons and bowls held nourishing sustenance, just as a woman’s body nourishes a baby. Furthermore, spears were a common symbol for men’s genitalia (read: erect penises), and the act of copulation—particularly sacred intercourse—was sometimes depicted as an upright spear set into a chalice.


The Grail Quest was a mission issued by King Arthur to his Knights of the Round Table to go out, find the Holy Grail, and claim it for England. Several knights came close to obtaining it, only to be rebuffed by supernatural forces because they were not pure enough to touch the Grail (for example, Lancelot was in every way the ideal knight, but because he lusted for Queen Guinevere, the wife of another man, he had sinned.) The only knight to successfully obtain the Holy Grail was Lancelot’s virginal son Galahad … who died soon after. And the Holy Grail was taken back into Heaven by a host of angels, in case you’re wondering.

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

However, the Grail Quest was really less of the search for the Holy Grail and more the search for meaning and fulfillment for the knights involved: Lancelot sought to become cleansed of his sins, and Percival channeled the healing power of the Holy Grail to heal the long-suffering Fisher King. Nowadays, for people such as Nicholas Cage and others, the Grail Quest holds several meanings, but at some point, it all comes back to self-reflection and philosophical discovery.


Rennes-le-Chateau is a village in the Occitaine region of France and the whom of a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene, built in the 8th century. According to story/rumor, during renovations in the early 1900s, a priest named François Bérenger Saunière moved an altar and discovered documents hidden in the floor beneath it or inside the altar itself. No one knows for certain what the documents said, but many people believed that it held recorded proof that Jesus Christ had married Mary Magdalene and established a bloodline that still exists. People in the area from the time recalled that Saunière seemed to go off the moral deep end after the discovery, allegedly cavorting with women, becoming drunk, dabbling with the occult, you name it. He also became incredibly rich, leading to rumors that either he also discovered treasure inside the church or somebody in the Vatican paid him to keep his mouth shut. (In reality, Saunière was a money-grubbing jerk who was selling Masses and eventually was defrocked for it.)

You can go to Rennes-le-Chateau and have a look for yourself. And feel free to talk to the locals about the Holy Grail—all of this is a boost to their economy.


Apparently, they were; while Hitler himself had a semi-passing interest in the story (he was more interested in the Spear of Destiny, also known as the Bleeding Spear and the Spear of Longinus), finding the Grail was on Himmler’s to-do list. The weasel-faced bastard was obsessed with the occult and was known to have investigated locations in Europe associated with the Grail. The Nazis weren’t so concerned with living forever, as implied by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they wanted the Holy Grail more as a combination “in-your-face” to the rest of the world, proof that a higher power wanted them to succeed, and a rallying point to further unite Germany and their allies.


The mythological reason: following the death and resurrection of Christ, his great uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, took his followers and the Holy Grail, along with a bottle of Christ’s blood and a bottle of his sweat (which doesn’t reappear in the stories after this), and fled to England to escape persecution. There, Joseph buried the Holy Grail in an area now known as Glastonbury.

The socio-political-religious-money reason: claiming that the Holy Grail was in England gave the ancient and medieval British a bragging right, a way to covert the remaining pagans, and a way to rake in cash from devout pilgrims. This seems especially true after the monastery at Glastonbury burned down, and the monks had no way of paying to have a new one built. But then—surprise!—the body of King Arthur, the king who ordered the quest for the Holy Grail, and his wife Guinevere were discovered by the oh-so-astonished monks, who then immediately promoted the hell out of the site. Pilgrims arrived by the hundreds, and the monks raised enough money to rebuild their monastery.

800px-William_Dyce_-_Piety-_The_Knights_of_the_Round_Table_about_to_Depart_in_Quest_of_the_Holy_Grail_-_Google_Art_Project william dyce


There are many stories and theories suggesting that the Templar Knights discovered the Holy Grail (along with other relics, such as the Spear of Destiny and the Ark of the Covenant) in the Holy Land during the Crusades and brought it back to Europe. The theory goes on to say that the Templars kept the Holy Grail hidden, and, following their attack by the king of France, they smuggled it out of France, hid it briefly in Scotland as Roslyn Chapel, then ultimately brought it to the New World. Many people believe that the Holy Grail is currently hidden on Oak Island in Nova Scotia, while others think it’s hidden under or somewhere near the mysterious Newport Tower in Newport, Rhode Island (remember what I said about Nicholas Cage buying land there?).

484px-DSCN3887_newporttower_e The original uploader was Decumanus at English Wikipedia.
Newport Tower, Newport, Rhode Island, by Decumanus at English Wikipedia.


What do I think? I think if I were to keep going with this, I’d be writing yet another book. Otherwise … I don’t know. Maybe I should begin my own Grail Quest and find out for myself.