“It must be born in mind that the Celtic peoples are identified solely by their language and cultures, of which, of course, language is the highest form of cultural expression” – Peter Berresford Ellis (the Druids)
Muin, the eleventh letter of the Ogham, is one of the most misunderstood and mysterious letters of the old Irish alphabet.
Muin is usually associated with the vine of the grape. The Ogham originated in Ireland, however, where the grape was never successfully grown even as a cultivated species.
Muin does not actually mean vine at all – which is finium or finemain – but means a thicket of any thorny plant[i]. According to Robert Graves the plant that the Ogham letter originally referred to was likely to have been the blackberry[ii].
To further add to the confusion, the grape in its purest of forms rarely appears in Celtic myth[iii]. Even wine was a rare commodity and was only found more commonly with the advancement of the church and the holy rite of communion.
This does provide us with some clues, however. Wine was so rare that usually only the priests partook of the wine communion. It became a sacred and revered object. Wine was a drink that would have been known of, yet unobtainable, by the common people[iv].
The process of wine making, like ale or mead-making, is an alchemical one. It should not be a surprise then that the grape, indirectly through wine, becomes a symbol of the greatest religious fusion tale of the Western world. That is the tale of the Holy Grail.
Erynn Rowan Laurie equates Muin to communication, most especially as it pertains to expressed emotions. Liz and Colin Murray link Muin with prophecy – which to them was when one spoke more perceptively and truthfully. John Michael Greer agrees with them but also adds that Muin is a few of insight and intoxication as well.
Nigel Pennick believes that Muin is the gathering together of various items that are needed on ones path or journey. Robert Graves says that the grape is indicative of joy, exhilaration and wrath. He goes on to say that wine, the transformed grape, is the “poet’s drink” of poetic inspiration, which may send one “spiralling towards immortality”.
As is most easy to see, Muin’s meanings are not very agreed upon at all!
What further confuses the researcher is how quickly most Ogham writers abandon Celtic myth and begin to explain their theories by using other cultural references most especially those of the Greeks or Romans. What would the grape have meant within the context of the Celtic tree alphabet however?
The answer is incredibly uncertain. We have various interpretations of Muin to contemplate. The few, or letter, in its grape form is also clearly a more recent addition. Also, there are very few Celtic references to reflect upon in relation to the grape
or even to wine.
For these very reasons I personally find that the legend of the Holy Grail and the eleventh few, Muin, are inseparable and even symbiotic. The Grail is many things, but most important of all, it is the symbol of healing brought to us from the Otherworld.
It is the drink of the Grail, which is wine or blood, which heals the wounded king and ultimately the land itself.
Whole books have been written on the Holy Grail. Scholars to this day continue to debate many aspects of the Grail tradition as it is commonly accepted.
The Grail story is a fusion of Celtic legend, Christian Catholic idealism, medieval upper class culture, the influence of esoteric Islam, the Jewish Kabbalah as well as other possible Eastern influences. The earliest story -as it is now understood of the grail- surfaced at the end of the twelfth century from a French poet named Chretien de Troyes. It is generally accepted that there were previous stories of the same sort circulating orally through the courts by Breton, Welsh and Anglo-Norman story tellers. Chretien influenced other story tellers and -even though the legends fell out of favour at times- the Arthurian tales continue to fascinate and enthral people to this day.
The grail prototype was the cauldron that we have spoken of many times before. In the Mabinogion there is a cauldron quest in which Arthur is involved. There is also a much earlier poem found in the Book of Taliesin in which Arthur and many of his men go to the Otherworld to retrieve a sacred cauldron. Only seven of them return[v].
Christian scholars, along with nationalists who want to claim the Arthur stories as their own, often deny that the grail is a descendant of these cauldron quests. Some claim that the Grail stories sprang up completely independently of these legends, while others that the symbols represented are common throughout the world and may hold similar meanings to various peoples around the globe. There are even many conspiracy theories around the Holy Grail in which some claim that the Grail is in fact the actual cup that Jesus used at the last supper, that the tradition is Catholic/Jewish, and that Celtic mythology had no influence whatsoever.
It is all very confusing, but I can’t help but wonder why no one seems to contemplate the obvious? If the tradition is Catholic/Christian then why use Arthur and the Celts – now sporting the latest and most fashionable medieval armour- in the stories at all? Is it just a coincidence that Arthur and his men sought after an otherworldly cauldron and that Arthur and his men –as told in the courts of France no less- later sought after an otherworldly cup? The very fact that Arthur is there at all proves a Celtic origin. As likely as water runs downhill, so it is that other Celtic images exist in the stories in an altered
form as well. For the church to admit a pagan origin would be terribly embarrassing for a story tradition that has never been officially rejected. Christians don’t often like to admit the pagan roots of many of their stories and traditions, even one such as this one which exists on the fringes. There are also those with the outdated belief that the Celts were mindless barbarians who contributed nothing. These ideas can usually be traced back to cultural conflicts.
(The Cauldron of Inspiration. E. Wallcousins, 1912: An early Grail prototype. The nine maidens keep the cauldron warm with their breath.)
An exhaustive study of the material at hand is very possible[vi].
The Holy Grail has become a Celtic symbol to many whether this is warranted or not. To me there is no doubt. The Arthurian legends speak of the mysteries of the land and of the Otherworld.
Whether the Grail is actually recovered or not differs from story to story. The common theme however is that the Grail offers healing to the wounded, which is most often a regal representative of the land itself.
The drink is wine, sometimes blood, and it pours forth from the ever elusive cup that was said to have been brought to the lands of the Celts by Joseph of Arimathea and buried at Glastonbury. This story was introduced by Robert De Baron.
The cup represents the female divine which is absent from Christianity, but which resonates with many people who are drawn to the old stories.
Without the female divine the king is wounded, the land is barren and the end is looming catastrophic.
The Holy Grail is elusive, like wisdom herself, and seems to only be found by the purest of hearts.
Many seek the Grail. It is the cup, however, that chooses who she will appear to.
As we have moved through the forest of myth -being led by the whispers of the Ogham- we have eventually found our way symbolically to the Otherworld, which is a land of metaphoric imagery and learning, transformation and power.
It is here that we may drink of the sacred wine that will heal us once more and make us whole.
Muin speaks to us from beyond the veil, from a time when wine was unavailable to the common man[vii].
The cup beckons to us to make a toast, and touch her once more to our lips.
The Divine welcomes us home.
Several types of grapes exist naturally throughout eastern North America. In western North America -from British Columbia to California- grapes are grown to be made into wine. Most vineyards offer wine tours and bottles of their product are usually available at a reduced price…
It is impossible for me to think of grapes without remembering my time in Afghanistan.
I was part of the battle group for task force 3-09 and we would often patrol areas around villages in the province of Kandahar. We were mostly operating out of the Sperwan Ghar area. The villages in the area were on the border that divided controlled, or friendly, territory and that which was unfriendly and patrolled by the Taliban.
The villages were surrounded by grape fields that grew up along mud walls in cleverly irrigated maze-like enclosed areas. The hot sun would beat down upon the plants that provided shelter for shade seeking lizards and the occasional cat. Children would run and play in these desert gardens and old, tired looking men with salt stained shirts would move dirt with shovels to manipulate the direction of the plant feeding water. There was a beauty for me there; especially in those vines.
To avoid IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) we would often painstakingly crawl over walls and through irrigation ditches as we maintained a deterring presence from those who liked to threaten or harm the simple villagers. We were literally travelling through people’s back yards. Some of these were beautiful. It was a marvel to see these crops grown in much the same way as they must have been since the very beginning.
I was left with a sense of stepping back in time. Sheppard’s led goats across rock strewn ground seeking out slivers of grass and men walked camels along pathways beside mud compounds and buildings that looked to be hundreds of years old. There was the occasional car, the odd motorcycle or bicycle and the rarely seen water pump that made the whole watering system work. Other than these few tools, that made life slightly easier, the patterns of life had remained relatively similar to our ancient ancestors across the globe, from the Mediterranean to the Holy Land.
Historians once believed that religion was born from the domestication of plants and animals. Humans were then able to settle in one place as the food was available to them. Religion then arose to “promote social cooperation”. The excavation of the site of Gobekli Tepe (9600 – 8200 BC) in Turkey is starting to bring to the fore-front a completely separate theory. Never mind that the architectural marvel believed to be dated at the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution, – which was described as “finding out that someone had built a 747 in their basement with an X-acto knife”- it also made Klaus Schmidt (a German Researcher) reconsider common held beliefs about ancient organized religion. Some are now starting to believe that “wonderment in the natural world” gave birth to religion, which in turn led to the creation of stationary places of worship. These places of worship like Gobekli Tepe created an epicentre. People then found ways to grow food for large groups of people gathering near these sacred sites[viii].
The parallel to modern Afghanistan makes this connection seem easy. People grow food, pomegranates, grapes and small fields of wheat, to trade or consume. They grow the more lavish opium or lesser – but still lucrative- marijuana to sell for provisions or tools to continue to exist in a meagre way. For many of them it is just the filler that exists around a daily devotional practice to an Abrahamic god of the desert. Every morning, and every evening, the call to prayer is chanted forth into the awakening, or settling, day in reverent song.
It is a simple life.
They do not have the luxuries of the west but still they smile. They do not have television, shopping malls, movie theatres, Starbucks, air conditioning, Internet or ice cold drinks. They do not drink alcohol; even wine. They are happy, though, even with so little. They seem to have everything that they need in the moment[ix].
Of course, I am only speaking for half of them. The other half, the women, have less than anyone can imagine.
Perhaps they too, these men of the desert, need a Grail myth. Perhaps they too need to reconnect with the feminine divine which can then restore the balance?
For the Great Mother, the Holy Grail, brings healing and prosperity for all.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” – Rumi
[i]Nigel Pennick. Magical Alphabets.
[ii] The White Goddess.
[iii]There is an Irish story of St. Brendan from the late 9th or early 10th
century. The saint is sailing on an epic journey seeking the Land of Promise.
One of the places he discovers is the Island of the Grape Trees. James MacKillop.
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.
[v] The Spoils of Annwfn or Preiddeu Annwfn
[vi] See the Holy Grail: Its Origins Secrets & Meanings Revealed, Malcolm Godwin for a spiritual tradition perspective and the source for much of the above information. See also the Holy Grail: the History of a Legend, Richard Barber for a more scholarly, yet different perspective from the one I offer. There are many, many books on the Holy Grail including the Grail: a Secret History by John Mathews, the Holy Grail: History, Myth, and Religion by Giles Morgan and on Arthur – King Arthur: the Man and the Legend Revealed by Mike Ashley.
[vii] And even more unavailable to women.
[viii] See, the Birth of Religion, National Geographic June 2011, for the complete article. Charles. C. Mann
[ix] My tour in Afghanistan taught me many things. I remember how after extreme hardship the local people would carry on, after what to my western eyes would seem to be an extremely short period of time. That was not my only observation worth sharing here, though. I will ever after be suspicious of the media after my tour as well. Reporters would write stories of events they were not even present for from the safety of KAF (Kandahar Air Field), stating that they were “reporting from Afghanistan”. I would compare this unethical practice to writing a story on Florida’s everglades from a hotel suite in New York. The events reported were always fictitious and dramatic. These would also either be pro-military or anti-military and were rarely truth based.