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Teml Ceridwen Y Bala

Goddess Temple of Bala

The Nanteos Cup – a Holy Grail in Wales?

 The Nanteos cup, photographed at different angles by the National Library of Wales

Above: The Nanteos cup, photographed at different angles by the National Library of Wales1

Does the Holy Grail exist in this earthly realm? Certainly there are many who believe that a vessel with healing powers is to be found here in Britain, perhaps in Glastonbury. But the Nanteos Cup now in the National Library of Wales is also thought by many people to be the grail – as are many other containers throughout the world. But what exactly is the grail?

In the recently published and very detailed The Nanteos Grail: the evolution of a holy relic2, the authors note possible precursors to the hallowed grail. For example in Branwen, Daughter of Llyr there is a magical Cauldron of Rebirth, said originally to have been owned by a giant, Llassar LLaes Gyfnewid, and his wife Cymideu Cymeinfoll, who can, the authors go on to say, be identified with Cerridwen and her husband, Tegid Foel. And in the poem Prieddeu Annwn, attributed to Taliesin, Arthur leads a raid on the Otherworld to steal the magical cauldron of Pen Annwn, which will not boil the food of a coward.

Medieval tales of King Arthur and his court seem to take for granted that the king was necessarily the consort of the Goddess of Sovereignty; that he must marry the land itself in order to be a legitimate ruler, and although this idea is no longer consciously held by most of us the seemingly eternal popularity of Arthurian stories suggests that the concept of sovereignty being in the gift of Goddess still exists in some form in our collective unconscious. The “Matter of Britain”, that body of legend involving both sovereignty and the grail, never seems to lose its appeal and possibly underpins our common nationhood. Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised at the five-mile queue of people waiting to pay their respects to the long-serving Queen Elizabeth II, and which even as I write has its own live Queue Tracker on YouTube, promising a waiting time of at least 14 hours and complete with weather predictions.

But if a king must marry the Goddess of Sovereignty, how does a queen partake in this mystery? Perhaps – consciously or otherwise – she becomes a priestess of that Goddess on her accession to the throne, able to embody Her when required. It’s true that a photo which began to circulate on social media within days of the Queen’s death showed her being initiated as an Honorary Ovate to the Gorsedd of the Bards in 1946, six years before her accession, but I’m very unsure if this could be regarded as evidence for conscious priestesshood!

Joseph Campbell wrote:

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”3

The Church itself seems to have fallen into the “metaphor as fact” camp, in which belief in a tangible grail did not just give people an object to seek and exalt, it also allowed that object to come under the control of the church. A grail that can clearly be linked to the crucifixion was obviously a great deal more acceptable to an increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian heirarchy than any number of magical cauldrons, however metaphorical. The idea of a physical grail first appeared in Chrétien de Troyes Perceval, the Story of the Grail, published in the late 12th century, but it wasn’t until Robert de Boron took up the idea in his poem Joseph d’Arimathie that the dish became known as Holy, as the cup that collected Christ’s blood at the crucifixion.

Just as many ancient cauldrons had healing powers, the same is claimed for the various containers today thought to be the grail, as is the case with the Nanteos Cup. For many years in the possession of the Powell family of Nanteos (which means something like Nightingale Brook), it is said to have been taken to the house formerly on that site by seven monks from the Cistercian Abaty Ystrad Fflur (Strata Florida Abbey), perhaps not its first such journey as some stories say it was taken there from Glastonbury where Joseph of Arimathea had originally carried it after the crucifixion. The stories suggest that the grail was taken to Strata Florida to keep it out of the hands of Henry VIII’s Reformation Commissioners and from Strata Florida for the same reason.

Strata Florida Abbey ruins

Strata Florida Abbey Ruins4

In The Nanteos Cup the authors say that the earliest writing they were able to find about the cup was in 1828 in a Welsh language journal, when someone wrote in asking for information about the cup and mentioning that it was already well-known to residents of Aberystwyth.5 Going on to note that the healing cup was loaned out by the Powells on request, keeping records of its location and the dates borrowed and returned, the authors add that this was happening at least by 1857 and that a family member said the practice dated back much further. However, they continue, the cup wasn’t immediately associated with the grail, even though a tradition suggested it might have been made from the True Cross (which would of course mean that it couldn’t also be the grail used by Joseph to collect the blood of Christ). Actually thought to be a small mazer bowl, many of which existed at the time, they were commonly used in abbeys for domestic purposes. Mazer bowls were normally made from wood, as is the Nanteos one, often with a metal rim and the cup does does have a groove suggesting there once was such a rim – these were to prevent damage and may have been necessary as the Nanteos cup is now missing much of its wood and it has been proposed that this happened when pilgrims nibbled bits off to keep as relics.6

The fame of the cup spread throughout the 20th century as people wrote about it in books, journals and travel guides, sometimes with questionable accuracy. Postcards of the cup were sold in Aberystwyth and and many claims were made for its provenance. There is no definite record of any carbon dating or other scientific enqury except for an anecdotal report that scientists who examined the cup in 1977 said it was made from wych elm rather than, as is sometimes claimed, olive wood.7

The last of the Powell family died in the early 1950s with no direct heir, and after some legal wranging the estate – and the cup – passed to a Mrs Mirylees. By this time Nanteos had been neglected for years and Mrs Mirylees applied for a special heritage grant to be able to afford renovations – a grant given on the understanding that the house had to be open to the general public for one day a week, which served further to spread the cup’s fame, as did a report on Television Wales and West in 1961.8

There is a long list of cures attributed to the Nanteos Cup and little space here, but a notable case involved a Father Wharton, who had been a priest in Worcestershire and was severely crippled with arthritis. He drank from the cup and asked to be alone with it for a while, then ten minutes later appeared to be completely healed, with no sign of arthritis, a transformation witnessed by several people. Father Wharton went on to live another nine years with no recurrence of the arthritis and the cup’s fame spread even further. A further miracle was claimed when Mrs Mirylees’ own daughter suffered a serious head injury as a toddler and was not expected to live. Her mother took out the cup and began praying. Within minutes a phone call from the hospital confirmed that the child was out of danger.9

Finally, the Mirylees family decided to move away from Nanteos, partly because of the work generated by the constant correspondence about and requests for water from the cup. The estate was broken up and the cup taken to Herefordshire with the family, where it continued to be held and to be loaned out on request, but not without further adventures as it was stolen in 2014. A £2,000 reward was offered in early 2015 and the cup was eventually returned to the owners after a BBC Crimewatch show.10 In 2016 the cup was donated to the National Library of Wales, where it remains on permanent display. Nanteos Mansion is now a hotel.

Whatever we may believe about the Nanteos Cup, our seemingly endless fascination with healing cauldrons and Holy Grails alike suggests, as do current events (and leaving politics aside), that the Matter of Britain remains important to a great many people, consciously or otherwise. Perhaps no one, not Tegid Foel nor even King Charles III may rule without a mystical , probably unconsious, connection to the Goddess of Sovereignty, who here in Bala is Cerridwen Herself.

Geraldine Charles
September 2022

1. Photo: The Nanteos cup, photographed at different angles by the National Library of Wales, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
2. John Matthews, Ian Pegler and Fred Stedman-Jones, The Nanteos Grail: the evolution of a holy relic, 2022, Amberley Publishing
3. Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, 2013, New World Library
4. Photo: Peter Broster, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
5. John Matthews, Ian Pegler and Fred Stedman-Jones, The Nanteos Grail: the evolution of a holy relic, 2022,
Amberley Publishing
6. accessed 18/8/22
7. John Matthews, Ian Pegler and Fred Stedman-Jones, The Nanteos Grail: the evolution of a holy relic, 2022,
Amberley Publishing
8. Ibid
9. Ibid
10. accessed 16/9/22