22 May 2022

THE IMPROBABLE HISTORY OF A HOLY GRAIL

John Matthews, Ian Pegler and Fred Stedman Jones. The Nanteos Grail, the Evolution of a Holy Relic. Amberley, 2022. 

How did a rather chewed – in fact very chewed – wooden bowl come to be regarded by many people as the cup from which Christ and the Disciples drank at the Last Supper. Or else had been carved from the wood of the Cross on which He died? And how did it end up, after many moves and adventures in a library in Aberystwyth? 

There are a number of relics around Christendom claiming to be the Holy Grail, which is rather odd, as there is no biblical reference to such an object, and the idea of it seems to have been created out of thin air in literary sources in the 12th Century, with virtually no previous textual references to such an object. In their first chapter, 'The Great Quest', the authors give a brief but clear summary of the various texts which form the main source of the legend. 

 They point out that “Almost the entire corpus of Grail literature was written between 1170 and 1225, appearing suddenly and ending almost as abruptly” adding significantly that “We can only guess at the extent of oral tradition behind their composition”, if indeed there was any at all. And even if there was clear evidence of a actual Holy Grail, and by some miracle it had been preserved, how does it leap from first-century Jerusalem to a small country house in mid-Wales in the early nineteenth century? Because it is only then that we first come across any written reference to the Nanteos Cup, And at that point we find a suggestion to the route of that journey. 

 This is found in a Welsh language journal, Lleuad yr Oes ['Moon of the Age']. In 1828 a correspondent to the magazine wrote “it is known to most of the residents in the neighbourhood of Aberystwyth” that a cup of “remarkable medical capacity” was held locally at Nanteos House, and that drinking water from it would cure many “diseases of the blood.” The writer introduces the idea that the cup was actually made from the wood of the Cross, the idea that it was the Grail itself is a later accretion to the story. There is very little, if anything, recorded about the history of the cup prior to its appearance as an object of local interest in the Aberystwyth area. However a fairly plausible history taking it back a few hundred years was already becoming attached to it, one which the authors say “has just enough of a reality to give one pause for thought.” 

 The plausible history is that it came from the remote Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida in Cardiganshire. It is likely to have originally been a wooden 'mazer', or drinking bowl of a distinctive shape, of a type made throughout the mediaeval period. The authors speculate that such a bowl may have been used in the infirmary at the abbey and maybe gained something of a reputation for its healing powers. It was said that at some time it had been fitted with a silver rim, to prevent supplicants trying to bite small pieces off for their own use as they were drinking from it. The present state of the object certainly seems to support this idea! 

 At Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, the relic, along with other items from the monastery was supposedly given to the loyally Catholic Stedman family, owners of the then remote Nanteos estate. Some stories stretch the history back earlier, claiming that the monks at Strata Florida received it for safekeeping from the Abbot of Glastonbury, in advance of the Dissolution, thinking that a Welsh location would be safer than the more vulnerable Glastonbury.

Clearer records of the Cup's misadventures can be found in the nineteenth century when its powers were widely accepted locally, and there is a collection of 'receipts' for occasions when the cup was lent out by the Stedman (and later the Powell) family. Usually some valuable item or cash was left as a surety and on its return to Nanteos House was often accompanied by a note from the grateful borrower describing how effective it had been for them. If the cup ever did have a silver rim, it had disappeared by this time, and the nibbling continued, reducing the vessel to less than half its original size, necessitating it being protected inside a glass bowl. 




Well that is the plausible, if not entirely provable, history of the bowl. But the main extraordinary history of the relic as we read it today, was created entirely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the fame of the Cup spread from the farming communities around Nanteos to the wider world, stories and legends attached themselves to it, often to fulfil the aims of one particular group or another. The opening of University College Wales, Aberystwyth, led to a campaign for the establishment of a National Library for Wales at the same location. 

One of the prominent supporters of the campaign was George Eyrie Evans (1857-1939), an antiquarian and a prominent member of a number of historical and learned societies. He had a particular interest in Strata Florida, and at a commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Abbey delivered a speech in which he referred to “the first celebration of Holy Communion, with the chalice, known far and wide as the Healing Cup of Nanteos.” He probably meant that the Cup was used as the original chalice at the Abbey – in fact it definitely was not, as a wooden chalice would have been totally unacceptable at the time – but it would be easy for people to assume that he was referring to the cup as that used by Christ at the Last Supper – the first 'Holy Communion'. 

The fame of the Cup spread, more and more groups and individuals bought into the growing legend, including hoteliers and tradespeople in Aberystwyth, who saw it as a tourist attraction for the area and included the Cup and its growing legend into guidebooks to the area. The Chautauquans were a religious education group founded in America with the aim of training Sunday School teachers and other educationalists. The organisation opened branches in Britain, often associated with Baptist Churches, and members held a number of summer camp retreats in North Wales, where the idea was promoted by local members that the Nanteos Cup was if not actually the Holy Grail, was certainly something very closely associated. This link helped spread the story internationally. 

Throughout this period Nanteos House and the Cup were in the charge of the Powell family, but after the last member of the family died in 1951 there was a legal battle for the ownership of the Nanteos estate and the Cup between a number of parties, as well as campaigners who wanted the cup 'returned' to Glastonbury. Even the British Israelites got involved, in the person of Bob Danvers-Walker, who my older readers may remember as a mellifluous TV and radio 'voice' (Take Your Pick, Housewives' Choice, Dan Dare Pilot of the Future) in the 1950s. 

Eventually the ownership was settled, but not before the cup was moved from place to place in a rather mysterious manner – or even more mysteriously maybe it didn't - as the mysteries of the Cup are not confined to its ancient history, its more recent history is even more debatable and confused. In 2014 the cup was mysteriously stolen, and equally mysteriously returned after a nationwide hunt, in a cloak-and-dagger meeting at a lay-by on a deserted road. 

 It is to the credit of the authors that they have been able to make this complex history understandable to their readers, and the three authors have each been able to bring their own special knowledge to the topic. Although very clearly written and most readable, it is a scholarly and deeply researched study of a curious historical object. But it is also an exploration of how a legend is created, and helps expose the webs of myth, rumour and exploitation that are involved in the creation of many more 'mysteries' than one rather chewed wooden cup, which now rests, permanently we hope, in the most appropriate surroundings of the National Library of Wales, alongside the nation's other legends.
  • John Rimmer.

26 April 2022

BEHIND THE HOAX

Ian Keable. The Century of Deception. The Birth of the Hoax in Eighteenth-Century England. Westbourne Press, 2022. 

So many of the phenomena that Magonia reviews are bedeviled by hoaxes, from the Cottingley Fairies and the Patterson Bigfoot film to the Fox Sisters’ raps. And straight away I’ve started an argument! Once a hoax enters the collective consciousness it is virtually impossible to convince the believer that is is anything but the whole truth. 
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15 April 2022

THE MONSTERS THAT MADE US

Tim Flight. Basilisks and Beowulf : Monsters in the Anglo Saxon World. Reaktion Books, 2021.

This is a well-researched and thought-provoking book, which shines a light on some of the cultural origins of our instinctive human fears. Fear of wolves, of snakes and serpents, of dense forests and deep seas, fear of isolation, fear of chaos and disorder. It tells us much about monsters and Anglo Saxons, but also quite a bit about ourselves.
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9 April 2022

NIGHTMARES AND DAYDREAMS

Nigel Kneale. Nightmares and Daydreams
(BFI Southbank)

Can any single genre pin down Nigel Kneale? He certainly used genres to allow ideas to percolate within their parameters but never fell back on the formulaic. For me it’s Kneale’s speculations, satiric power, emotional warmth, ironic viewpoints and dramatic intelligence that grip: all making for a highly unusual and original writer.
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2 April 2022

MIXED BLOOD LINES

Violet Fenn. A History of the Vampire in Popular Culture. Pen and Sword, 2021.

This book got off to a bad start in its introductory chapter, when the author suggests that Conan Doyle's fascination with fairies was in “the 1800s” rather than the 1920s. In the nineteenth century the fear of being buried alive was a very real issue, as the boundaries between life and death became blurred by developments in medicine, a topic which was discussed in depth in a recent study of the Frankenstein story. 
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27 March 2022

THE BEAST DECLAWED

Juri Herz (Director) Beauty and the Beast (Panna a netvor) Second Run. BluRay 2021.


'Beauty and the Beast' is viewed as a classic text about the awakening of female sexuality in a young virginal woman. There have been many musical, film and stage adaptations, and literary re-workings (Angela Carter’s story “The Tiger’s Bride (1979) is an interesting feminist re-writing of the tale). For many Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1946) is the definitive film adaptation. 
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23 March 2022

MIRROR WRITING

Barry Fitzgerald and Brian Allan, The Deception of Gods and Men: The Price of Power Has Never Been So Great, Flying Disk Press, 2022.

Ghost hunter Barry Fitzgerald and Brain Allan, editor of the online Phenomena Magazine, expertly advance the notion that our interaction with the unknown has shaped and guided the history of humanity. This is not a particularly new idea, Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey shows how mysterious monoliths guide human destiny from the Stone Age to the Space Age to re-birth us as spiritual entities of the Universe. 
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14 March 2022

THE NOT-SO-SECRET SOCIETY

René le Forestier, The Bavarian Illuminati: The Rise and Fall of the World’s Most Secret Society, Inner Traditions, 2022.


French historian René le Forestier’s monumental and solidly scholarly Les Illuminés de Bavière et la franc-maçonnerie allemande has been the go-to work on the original Order of the Illuminati since it came out in 1914. Le Forestier drew on original source material, most significantly documents from the Illuminati archive confiscated by the Bavarian government when it closed the Order down in the mid-1780s, to give the most exhaustively detailed account possible of its origins. He also explored how the myth of the Illuminati’s ongoing power began, making his book a key text for the study of conspiracy beliefs.
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7 March 2022

DEBATABLE DEATH

Sharon Rushton. The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein. Bodleian Library Publishing, 2021.


There have been any number of books, some reviewed in Magonia, which have examined the story of Frankenstein’s ‘creature’ from various perspectives: as an aspect of folklore and popular belief, as a literary theme, as a popular cultural icon. This book looks at Mary Shelley’s masterpiece as a presentation of the medical and scientific controversies of the era in which it was written.
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3 March 2022

LET ALL THE HAUNTS BE YOURS

All the Haunts Be Ours (A Compendium of Folk Horror) Blu Ray Box Set – Severin 2021

Defining the term Folk Horror is as difficult as pinning down what Film Noir is. In place of the mean street we have a mean forest of disturbing forces (both real and mythic). Both are treacherous and shadowy worlds. Although Folk Horror Cinema appears to exhibit common themes or traits it remains remarkably fluid. 
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