Looking to the West: The Ritual Cup
Adapted from a slide lecture delivered to Coven Quiddity/The Akashic Temple
Stamford, CT, August 19, 2009
The ritual cup is a magickal and mystical symbol and a tool important to both pagan and Christian spirituality and mysticism. The cup represents the element of water. As a ritual tool representing water, it rests on the western side of the altar. As a meditation on the water element, the cup is associated with water, emotion, sensuality, intuition and the deeper consciousness, and also selflessness, sacrifice, and the pathways between worlds.
In Wicca and neopagan traditions, it represents the Goddess. As a representation of the Goddess, it has a prominent place on the pagan altar. That place is left of center, which is the area associated with the moon and the divine feminine. In ancient times, the cup was an implement associated with both the sacrifice of the dying and resurrecting god and the potential for ecstatic gnosis in states of liminal consciousness.
In the second part of Book ABA (Book IV), the mage Aleister Crowley refers to the “Magick Cup” as a symbol of the magician’s Understanding. He compares it with one of the sephira of the Kabbalist Tree of Life called Binah. Binah is associated with the feminine/lunar polarity and with the planet Saturn. Simply put, the “Understanding” or “Knowledge” implied in Binah concerns that of duality and limitation in contrast to union in the divine reality. It is the knowledge about the hard realities about life but also the assurance that there is a way to enlightenment in the divine source.
Crowley says: “This Cup is full of bitterness, and of blood, and of intoxication.” On the one hand, the statement refers to the cup’s association with the sephira Binah. On the other, it refers to its association with the unconscious—the place of dreams and unwieldy thought processes. In achieving self-mastery, the magickal worker must strive to know the self and master personal consciousness instead of being mastered or led astray by it. In practice, this can be like walking a razor’s edge teetering between self-actualization and insanity. Like Dionysian rites, the path is initiatic and typically of a “shamanic” or “Tantric” type.
Crowley’s statement also refers to sacrifice wherein life gives of itself for life. This concept is strongly seen in the Christian, Mithraic, Bacchic and other pagan mysteries.
Cauldron and Grail Mysteries
In Gnostic and mystical Greco-Roman/Middle Eastern paganism at the turn of the first millennium CE (the same time as the emergence of early Christianity), the highest idea of God was that of the divine light. The sun was a symbol of this. The vegetation god—that is, the dying and resurrecting god—was a manifestation of this light and sustained life through self-sacrifice, often symbolized by grain and fermented drink. One of the iconic symbols for this concept of life, death, and regeneration was the cup or chalice or the drinking horn/horn of plenty, which, if we travel north, is related to the cauldron.
Although the drinking horn, chalice, or cup were utilitarian and special objects in and unto themselves, they also may be miniaturized versions of the cauldron—which became associated with a “greal” (also spelled “graal” and “greel”) from which we get the word “grail.” We think of the grail as a chalice. In Arthurian legend, it is inferred to be the chalice that 1) collected the blood of the crucified Christ and 2) was used at the Last Supper. But “greal’ is an archaic French term for the medieval Latin word “gradale.” A gradale is a wide, deep dish used to serve a fancy meal. Gradale, in turn, is related to the Latin word, gradatim, which means “great” and abundant. Some also say that the word grail is derived from the Latin garalis or cratalis—which also mean “crater,” or “big bowl.”
In An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Doreen Valiente says of the cauldron: “A cauldron is an all-bracing symbol of Nature, the Great Mother. As a vessel, it represents the feminine principle. Standing upon three legs, it recalls the triple moon goddess. The four elements of life enter into it, as it needs fire to boil it, water to fill it, the green herbs to cook it, and the fragrant steam arises into air.”
She goes on to say: “[It] is itself a vessel of transformation, because it takes raw uneatable things and transforms them into food; makes herbs and roots in to medicines and potent drugs; and is the emblem of woman as the greatest form of transformation, who takes the seed of man and transforms it into a child. In a sense, to the pagans all Nature was a cauldron of regeneration, in which all things, men, beasts, plants, the stars of heaven, the lands and waters themselves seethed and were transformed.”
Valiente notes that the Rosicrucians, a Hermetic Christian order of occultists, agree. She quotes Hargrave Jennings in The Rosicrucians, Their Rites and Mysteries which was published in 1870: “We claim the cauldron of the witches as, in the original, the vase or urn of the fiery transmigration, in which all things in the world change.”
But although the cauldron is part of legendary witch lore, it did not originate with “witches.” It was an important item in Druidic and Celtic homes and had religious value because of its life-sustaining properties.
Various Celtic myths, such as those of Cerridwen and Gwion and of Bran-the-Blessed, celebrate the value of the cauldron by referring to it as an instrument of wisdom and regeneration. In the first myth, the goddess Cerridwen brews wisdom in her cauldron, which she intends to give to her son, Morfran. Some of the brew spills onto the finger of a dwarf-servant named Gwion, who then attains the gift of knowledge. Cerridwen is angered by this. Both characters shapeshift as the one chases the other until Cerridwen, in the form of a hen, swallows Gwion, disguised as an ear of corn. Cerridwen becomes pregnant because of this. Nine months later, she gives birth to Taliesen, the greatest of all the Welsh poets. In the Celtic legend of Bran-the-Blessed, Bran, a warrior-god, obtains a cauldron of wisdom and rebirth from Cerridwen. The cauldron can resurrect the corpse of dead warriors placed inside it.
Elements from these myths figure into the Arthurian Grail legend, which combines Christian lore about the chalice used at the Last Supper with more ancient Celtic pagan lore about cauldrons.
Rosicrucian writer Manly P. Hall, says: “There is evidence to support the claim that the story of the Grail is an elaboration of an early pagan Nature myth which has been preserved by reason of the subtle manner in which it was engrafted upon the cult of Christianity. From this particular viewpoint, the Holy Grail is undoubtedly a type of the ark or vessel in which the life of the world is preserved and therefore is significant of the body of the Great Mother—Nature. Its green color relates it to Venus and to the mystery of generation….”
He goes on to say that “The earliest Grail legends describe the cup as a veritable horn of plenty. Its contents were inexhaustible and those who served it never hungered or thirsted.” He is referring to the Cauldron of Dagda, the supreme deity of the Celts. Note that Dagda means “shining divinity" (derived from Proto-IndoEuropean “Dhagho [brilliant]-deiwos [deity, divinity, “shining one”],” so we are talking about a transcendent solar deity here.
The cauldron is said to be gifted to the Tuatha de Danaan by the sun-god, Lugh, whose self-sacrifice is commemorated during Lughnasadh. In myth, the cauldron of plenty feeds a thousand people and revives warriors after battle. This regeneration of warriors is believed to be depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron, which is dated to the 1st century BCE.
Form Is Emptiness
Having pointed out the association between the ritual cup and the womb of the Great Mother, the Holy Grail, the cup of sacrifice and regeneration, I would like you to put it together and think out of the box about the ritual cup.
- To modern pagans and Wiccans, the ritual cup represents the Goddess, named by some simply as The Lady of the Moon, and collectively referring all goddesses that personify the cycles of Nature, Time, and spiritual or occult mysteries.
- The ritual cup symbolizes water because cups hold fluid. Thus, the cup represents the water element and its meanings and correspondences.
- The cup is associated with the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail, which is related to both Celtic pagan spirituality and Christian legend and spirituality. In this sense, it is the cup of enlightenment and the cup of self-sacrifice and regeneration.
The cup then not only represents the divine feminine but the divine masculine as well: the divine mother and son, which is also the divine sun reflected in the waters of life.
But to say that the cup represents the divine feminine—or the Goddess—or that it or its contents represent the divine masculine—or the solar deity, which essentially is the god of death and resurrection, is to say that the cup is really Us. It represents our body—our form. What it contains is life and spirit, the containment and limitation of which is only seeming. As the cup, we are the microcosm in which the macrocosm is reflected.
In its association with the West, the realm of the setting sun, the cup symbolizes liminal space—the space between worlds—where the manifest and unmanifest meet.
In ancient times, waterways were considered to be the pathways between the world of form and the spiritual world of formlessness. Indeed, the cup symbolizes the mystical relationship between form and space, perhaps harkening to the famous line from the Tibetan Buddhist scripture Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra of Supreme Wisdom): “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Form is none other than emptiness; emptiness is none other than form.” And again, a passage from the Yoga-Vashishtha , an Advaita Vedantist scripture, says: “The world is in the mind like space in a jar.” These adages speak about the nature of Self and of Reality as well as the relationship between inside and outside, spirit and matter, form and formlessness. In considering this, we can go beyond patent or sentimental ideas about the ritual cup and touch gnosis.
-Aleister Crowley. Book ABA. http://www.sacred-texts.com/oto/aba/aba2.htm.
-Frater UD. High Magick. Woodbury, Minn: Llewellyn Publications, 2007, 231-233.
-Charles W. King. Gnostics and Their Remains Ancient and Mediaeval. London: David Nutt , 1887(reissued by Kessinger Publishing).
-The Holy Grail. New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06719a.htm.
-Doreen Valiente. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. Blaine, Wash: Phoenix Publishing, 1973; 57-58.
-Manly P. Hall. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. 2003; 309.