Rosmerta

Re-blogged from DUNBRYTHON

Rosmerta, from a relief in Gloucester

You bring to us

The Cup of Plenty
For the Harvest

The Vat , the Dish
The Mixing Bowl

The Vessel from the Well Shaft
Drawing sweet water from the Earth

Bringing for us the Waters of Life
Bringing before us the Mirror Pool of Vision

So you are named
ROSMERTA

The Great Provider
The Far Seer

Whose Shining Cup annoints
Shaping the Ways of the World

Bestowing Plenty, the Wealth we hold
In common, Sovereignty claimed

But gained only with your Blessing:
Bless us who would hold the Earth for you

Bless us when we challenge those
Who seek to hold it without Love.



Notes and
Resonances

We need a modern version of Sovereignty and how we relate to a Goddess of Sovereignty in our times when power is held without such validation.

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Michael Enright traces the office of Cup-Bearer in early Germanic and Celtic societies back to Rosmerta with her Cup, Ladle and Bucket. See: Lady With a Mead Cup (Four Courts Press,1996). He also links the role of Cup-Bearer with that of Prophetess and in particular with the Seer Veleda, referred to by Tacitus in Germania. 

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John Carey  examines the role of  Sovereignty as a young woman  and Cup-Bearer  associated with Lug in the early Irish tale Baile in Scáil  in Ireland and the Grail (Celtic Studies Publications, 2007) and also identifies possible links with Rosmerta, as does Proinsias MacCana in Celtic Mythology (Hamlyn, 1968).

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In a discussion by Rachel Bromwich of the drowning of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir at Cantre’r Gwaelod as described in a poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen, and the role of Mererid as ‘Maiden’ and ‘Fountain Cup-Bearer’ , the context of the office of ‘Machteith’ (‘Maiden’) in Welsh courts is identified.  See The Early Cultures of North-WestEurope ed.  C Fox & B Dickens ( Cambridge, 1950). Mererid, as represented in this poem, appears to be of a type with the well maidens whose violation causes flooding from the well and is a source of several legends in Ireland and Wales explaining the origins of lakes .

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There is an echo of this maiden role in the fourth of the four Mabinogi tales where Math fab Mathonwy has a ‘maiden foot-holder’ called Goewin who later becomes his wife after being raped by his nephew.  In a recent post I suggested that it might be useful to regard both Gwydion and Lleu in that tale as aspects of Lugus. Similarly we may regard Goewin and Aranrhod from the same tale as aspects of Rosmerta : the maiden function as expressed in later offices of Cup-Bearer and the fecundity function in Aranrhod‘s bearing of two children when she, herself, is asked to replace Goewin in this role. But there seem to be a reverse logic operating here. Lleu‘s sovereignty is not affirmed and rather than taking the Sovereignty Goddess for a wife, one is created for him out of flowers when Aranrhod refuses to recognise him. What is going on here?

First we should note that when gods appear in stories their relationships often get mixed up so that partners might appear as husband and wife, parent and child or other relation. Secondly that gods can give rise to a range of human figures when they appear in stories or later lore. Examining the appearances of the god Lugus in Irish stories Mark Williams comments in Ireland’s Immortals (Princeton, 2017) that there might have been “multiple Luguses” including the many heroes, ancestors and legendary kings who seem to be mortals ruling as his representative or alter ego. So Lleu can in this way be both subject to the Sovereignty Goddess as well as being (as Gwydion?) her associate. Is the refusal to recognise him here a continuing consequence of the rape of Goewin in the first part of the tale?

If violating her maiden role can be linked to an attempted subversion of Sovereignty by force, the shape-shifting of Lleu can be seen as a continuation of the shape-shifting imposed on Gwydion and Gilfaethwy as punishment for the rape. Lleu‘s battle with Gronw for the right to rule is the agency of his shift into the form of an eagle. But when he returns to kill Gronw it is Blodeuedd who is transformed into an owl.

John Carey, in an interesting article on this tale, regards it as a British Myth of Origins (Historyof Religions, Vol 31, 1991). He sees the virgin status of Goewin, and the fact that Math is unmarried, as indicating a timeless ‘Golden Age’ before mortality when the King simply put his feet in the lap of Sovereignty or stood on the Virgin Earth. With the coming of mortality – and therefore sex – the same female figure then becomes his wife. I’m not sure I go along with this as a myth of origins but I do agree that the transformation of Goewin’s maiden status is a crucial element in the thematic development of this story. The shift in her status from maiden to wife seems to me to be about a shift in the protocols for the right to rule. The one time when Math does not have to have his feet in Goewin’s lap is when he is defending his territory. When Lleu is absent from Blodeuedd his rule is challenged.  The banishment of Blodeuedd when Lleu‘s rule is restored could be seen as an appropriation of power from the Sovereignty Goddess whose role seems to be distributed across the three female figures in this story.

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In Gaul, and later in Britain, the Romans paired Rosmerta with their own Mercury rather than Lugus. This seems to have been a process of assimilation following appropriation. There are many ways that sovereignty can be claimed, exercised or subverted. Understanding this may allow us to develop our own sense of how it is exercised, refused or acknowleged in our own time.

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In my own practice at my Water Shrine I acknowledge Mererid as Shrine Guardian and Holder of the Cup of Rosmerta.

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The Grail

Nanteos Cup
The Nanteos Cup – currently on display at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth

The earliest surviving specific tale of the Grail is the unfinished 12th century story of Perceval (Conte de Graal) by the French Romance writer Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien simply spoke of ‘a grail’; another french writer, Robert de Boron, later christianised this as ‘The Holy Grail’. Seeing the Grail as a Christian symbol led to it being identified as the communion cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Such is the story attached to the wooden bowl also known as the Nanteos Cup, after a mansion in West Wales where it was kept for many years, though it had previously been the property of the nearby medieval abbey of Strata Florida. The cup has more recently been in the news after it was stolen but, since recovered, it is now in the possession of the National Library of Wales, where it is currently on display. I went to see it, though very little is left of it. It is easy to see how, in the later Middle Ages, such a cup should have attained this status as holy relics were the stock in trade of medieval monasteries and cathedrals, far more of them than could possibly be genuine. The relic itself is a symbol, metonymically representing the thing it purports to be or, perhaps, actually is.

But the communion cup, the dish of plenty, the cauldron of mystery have a far older lineage. Consider the words of Glenys Goetink who, in her study of the Welsh grail stories, asserts that, behind the Christian relic, the Grail “derives from one of the talismans found in the dwelling of the Otherworld god; it was of great significance in the ritual of conferring sovereignty upon the hero on the occasion of his visit to the Otherworld.” (*) This is certainly the implication of the story as told by Chrétien and in the parallel Welsh Romance Peredur. The Grail in Chrétien’s story is a dish held by a maiden in an episode in which the questing hero comes across a castle in a remote place. A bleeding lance is also carried through the room where he sits conversing with the lamed Fisher King. In the parallel scene in the Welsh story of Peredur the dish is a platter on which sits a severed head. In both cases Perceval/Peredur does not ask the meaning of the objects carried into the room. In Chrétien’s story Perceval awakes the next morning to find the castle empty and with only one way open for him to leave. After he has left he can’t go back and cannot find the castle again. In both stories the hero is later rebuked for not asking the question which would have healed the king, and then sets off to find the castle again. Chrétien’s tale is unfinished so we never know if Perceval eventually finds the castle. Peredur does find it after a random series of adventures which culminate in the killing, with Arthur’s help, of The Nine Witches of Gloucester.

There has been much speculation from different scholars about influences. It is likely that later medieval writers took the story from the French of Chrétien or his successors. Did Chrétien get his story from Brittany, from the same source as the anonymous Welsh author of Peredur, or were there different sources available to both of them? One certainly earlier possible source is the Irish story Baile in Scáil which several scholars have noticed contains parallel scenes to the episode of the visit to the Grail Castle. ‘Baile’ (modern Irish ‘buile’) means ‘frenzy’, though it is sometimes translated ‘ecstasy’ as in terms of the baile stories it describes the ecstatic frenzy which druids, female seers and other gifted people go into to gain visions or make prophecies, much as Giraldus Cambrensis describes the awenyddion in Wales. John Carey provides an extensive analysis of this tale and its possible links with the Grail stories. Here the frenzied visionary state is entered by a ‘phantom’ who turns out to be Lug, and a woman with a crown of gold who asks ‘to whom shall this cup be given?’. Carey says the following about the similarities between the two stories:

“In both, the protagonist comes upon a rich and mysterious stronghold, which is at first concealed from him. He is lavishly entertained by a gracious host, who seems to be identical with a figure who has acted as a guide earlier in the tale. A central part in the feast is played by a young woman who serves as custodian of a extra-ordinary golden vessel; and the apparition of the vessel is associated with the protagonist being served roasted meat. The question as to who it is whom this vessel serves is the pivot of both stories. After the feast, everything disappears: Perceval falls asleep, then wakes in an empty castle which he is unable to find again after he has left it; Conn passes ‘into the shadow’ of Lug, and is suddenly back in Tara.” (**).

Conn, unlike Perceval, is not found wanting and so his sovereignty, and that of his line backwards and forwards, is confirmed  and no further searching, such as that undertaken in the later stories, is necessary. In the Welsh tale the situation is eventually resolved, though the significance of the episode gets lost in the series of other adventures it is mixed up with. In the French tale, and even more so in those that came after it, the quest of the Grail becomes an end in itself. That is it becomes a tale of sin and redemption in the best Christian tradition of the Middle Ages. It also becomes a symbol of purity, or the virtuousness of those who seek it. But what was the original cup of sovereignty that seems still to be fulfilling that function in the Irish story? Carey is suggestive in linking it with the role of the cup bearer as identified by Michael Enright (***) and so, possibly back to Rosmerta. Proinsias Mac Cana also refers to this story and identifies the cup bearer as ‘the Sovereignty of Ireland’, the personification of the land itself, who, coupled with Lug, “can scarcely be dissociated from the Gaulish monuments to Mercury and Rosmerta”.(****)

So is the Grail the Cup of Plenty, Rosmerta’s bounty, offered at the feast with its echoes in later tales of cup bearers, seers and the guardians of sacred wells? That will have to be another story.

References
* Glenys Goetink Peredur : A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends (Cardiff, 1975)
** John Carey Ireland and The Grail (Aberystwyth, 2007)
*** M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)
**** Proinsias Mac Cana Celtic Mythology (Hamlyn, 1983)

Inundations

Inundations, not temporary floods but the permanent flowing of waters across the land; there are many stories of such flowings from springs or wells to make lakes, or rushing to meet the sea to re-shape the coastline. There are recurrent stories behind these legends, superficially of pride, arrogance, presumption, though this might mask a quest for knowledge and therefore power. Often the consequences are delayed and the flood comes after many generations (time for the otherworld deities is not our time). The legend of the drowning of Tyno Helig near the estuary of the River Conwy in North wales is typical of the theme where a wicked ruler is told that his descendants will be punished for his deeds and so he thinks he has nothing to worry about, but seven generations later his lands are flooded during a feast and only the harper escapes drowning. This latter detail of the harper is also a common element in the stories. John Rhŷs thought that the theme of delayed punishment for evil deeds was a later development in these stories which originally involved something happening at a sacred well which causes it to overflow. Consider for instance, the story of Boann who looks into Nechtan’s Well of Wisdom which should only be visited by Nechtan and his cup-bearers. The well overflows and chases her all the way to the sea, thereby forming the River Boyne. In the story of the drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod, or the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir, Mererid is herself a cup-bearer and a well-maiden, though the oblique nature of the verses which record this (probably originally contained in a prose saga which supplied more detail) means that the context is unclear.

But no matter. For there is more to say. Both the setting for Tyno Helig and that for Cantre’r Gwaelod are also settings for different surviving versions of the story of Taliesin. Think now of that harper who survives (or is re-born from) the flood. The story of Taliesin begins at Llyn Tegid, the location of another inundation legend which explains the formation of the lake near the town of Bala. This is where Gwion stirred Ceridwen’s cauldron. The River Dee (Dyfrdwy) which runs through the lake, has its own mythos naming its waters as sacred (~>). Gwion looked into, and tasted, the waters of this cauldron and there was an inundation. He gained wisdom just as Finn gained wisdom either by tasting the salmon from the Well of Wisdom or, in another story, tasting drops of water from an otherworld well.

Rosmerta And Mercurius - a relief from Gloucester.
Rosmerta And Mercurius – a representation from Gloucester showing her bucket.

 

In Gaul a god that the Romans called Mercurius – though he may not have had a name before the Romans gave him one – was partnered with Rosmerta, whose name could simply mean ‘The Great Provider’. Rosmerta had a site of devotion at a sacred spring in Gaul and is also commemorated in Bath, the site of the sacred springs of Sulis in Britain. One of her emblems is a bucket (cauldron?) and she is represented with Fortuna on one relief where the bucket could symbolise re-birth. A spring, a cauldron, a brew of otherworld wisdom, welling into our world. A cup-bearer, a well-maiden ~/~ the keeper of the cauldron, a hag. Are these two sides of the same coin, the turning of Fortuna’s wheel? When there is a flow from otherworld streams out of the well or the cauldron, who can catch the essential drops on the tongue, taste the salmon or gather the hazel nuts that have fallen into the the waters of the well?

Think of that harper, the survivor of the flood. Think of Taliesin, re-born from the waters into a weir in which salmon are caught. Think of others whose quest for knowledge transforms them into divine or inspired figures.Then consider that Mercurius, Rosmerta’s partner, may have been known in the lands that overlapped Gaul as Woden, and how a god, taking a different name for a different people, might do things differently, and yet still discover sources of wisdom, of inspiration, and how the mead of poetry from the Cup or Cauldron of Inspiration might be dispensed to the poets, the awenyddion, the drui, from whom the waters of the Cauldron flow as rivers of song.

Of Well Maidens and Cup-Bearers

cup… Disparate things cohere….. from explorations, lore, study, active interpretation of sources, bringing together things from different places, studies of other things held in memory and brought back into focus in new contexts, meditations, inspirations, – rarely sudden revelations – more often slowly forming visions, shapes emerging, patterns forming from the flow, structures of significance …..

So with Mererid , well-maiden and cup-bearer, in a medieval poem attached to a legend of a drowned land on the coast near where I live. She had long been an evocative presence who seemed to have a significance I had not quite fathomed. But as I thought about the legend and discovered the lore associated with it, her identity began to take shape. Floods from springs or wells when their guardians are offended are the legendary origins of many lakes. These guardians are invariably female and it is sometimes stressed, as with the case of Mererid, that she is a maiden. Two words are used to convey this in the poem. In one line she is referred to as ‘morvin’ (simply maiden), but in another line as ‘machteith’ which is also a term indicating a court office. Rachel Bromwich comments that “both interpretations should be borne in mind”. (1)

Many years ago doing quite different research I needed to look at references to protective deities of cities. Ancient cities and other settlements had magical as well as physical walls around them. Gateways through the walls could be physically sealed and locked but magical gateways needed magical seals or keys to open or shut them. The title ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (now inherited by the Pope) originally indicated one who was adept at bridging and sealing protective boundaries. The Vestal Virgins were an institution that was seen to protect Rome, the virginity of the vestals being an essential element in this. In earlier societies this function often inhered in a virgin deity. The virginity of Athene as protectress of Athens was stressed. Studies of the sources for Homer’s Iliad indicate that Troy was seen to be protected in this way and one of these relates that the prophetess Cassandra undid her girdle  as the horse was brought through the city walls in a symbolic breaching of their magical protection. (2)

It seemed to me that the same protective function could apply to well maidens. Wells were often seen as gateways to the Otherworld and if these gateways were not properly protected the steady flow of blessed water might become a deluge, particularly if the guardian of the well ceases to become a virgin either by her own volition or by her violation. But Mererid is also a ‘cup-bearer’. Reading Enright’s elucidations (3) about the role of cup-bearers in Celtic and Germanic cultures and the proposed origins of their functions and identity in the goddess Rosmerta (the ‘great provider’); the ambiguous status of Wealtheow, Hrodgar’s queen and cup-bearer, in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf; the story of the virgin prophetess Veleda in Tacitus’ Germania; all began to bring the picture into focus.

Rosmerta’s emblems are the cup, ladle and bucket. Her cup an emblem of plenty, proffered at the feast; in Gaul she is associated in at least once place with a sacred spring. In her continuing identity in the persons of cup bearers her role becomes differentiated and therefore ambiguous, particularly in later contexts when the religious significance may have been lost but the magical status still remained resonant. A cup bearer might be a maiden and hold an office as such at court but equally there might be an implied sexual element involved in what she represents associated with fertility. Enright says as part of his discussion of these elements, “We may therefore reiterate an argument made constantly in this study – that prophecy, sexuality and the offering of liquor were all part of the same mental construct for Celts and, perhaps, somewhat later, for Germans.” Where her maiden status is associated with protection, the loss of it also implies loss of protection. But it might in other contexts be associated with fertility and so becoming sexually active brings plenty. Her survival into later legends, folklore and story may emphasise only one or the other of these functions exclusively and so appear to be only about a single event such as an inundation or a symbolic offering of plenty by a cup bearer, though often the portrayal of these events retains an aura of something deeper.

What of Mererid? She is a well maiden, whose function is to protect the well. She also bears the cup of plenty. So could her seduction or violation have removed the protection and so caused the flood? And could there be an underlying sense of fertility here too, the release of life-giving waters, but disguised in the story of a catastrophic inundation? Perhaps. It was with such as sense of these possibilities that I moved from undertaking a translation of the poem from The Black Book of Carmarthen, where I felt constrained to at least preserve the narrative and thematic integrity of the original (in spite of also attempting a re-interpretation of the context) to writing my own, freer version of the same poem in an act of imaginative re-casting. Here it is:

Cantre’r Gwaelod

(A free adaptation of the poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen)

 

Wake up Seithennin

Can’t you see what’s happening

The wild sea is rushing in.

 

The well’s cup-bearer,

That girl you had beside you –

You thought it nothing just to take her.

 

Now she’s gone, the well

She keeps is overflowing

And running to the sea’s swell.

 

Can you hear her call

Ringing out across the water?

Your fault has brought you to a fall.

 

Can you hear her berate

The fate that’s brought her

To this end – early or late

 

She sings her lament

Over Gwyddno’s flooded meadows

The cup of plenty now is spent.

 

She rides through the flow –

Mererid – on the bay mare’s back

Her song lulling the pull and tow

 

Of the plaintive waves:

A pearl plucked from its oyster;

Like your bed, empty of its treasure.

There is a single word in the original poem ‘cwyn’ that has been alternatively translated ‘complaint’ and ‘feast’. Did she complain about what had happened to her (as I imply in my translations) or might we suppose that the offering of her cup as a feast has other implications? A mythological reading might include both possibilities simultaneously. Is she here the victim of a violation or an active participant in releasing the flood? You would think as I have translated the poem twice with the same implication, that I was certain about this. But I’m not.

References:

1 Rachel Bromwich  ‘Cantref y Gwaelod and Ker Is’ in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe (Cambridge 1950)

2 Jackson Knight  Epic and Anthropology (London, 1967)

3. M J Enright Lady With a Mead Cup (Dublin, 1995)


–> Further questions for investigation: What is the connection between the deluge legend and the Taliesin story, given that there are two locations for the Taliesin story and each of them is also associated with a deluge legend?