Swords and Chalices.


In many Arthurian legends, both ancient and contemporary, there is reference to the four sacred artifacts of ancient Britain- the Sword, Chalice, Cauldron and Spear. The same objects appear in numerous ancient legends and sagas, most notably the sacred cauldron of the ancient Celts and the Holy Grail. Other notable examples include Odin’s magical spear, the Spear of Destiny from Christian mysticism, and the magical sword- Excalibur.

With only a limited understanding of the occult or mysticism, it is easy to see the correspondence between these four sacred objects and the Major Arcana of the tarot deck. In tarot, the sword and chalice (cup) remain the same, the spear changes a little to become the wands or staves and the cauldron changes to the pentacles or coins. From there it is usual to make connections the four physical Elements of the ancient world. Spears/ Wands are Fire, Swords are Wind, Chalices are Water and the Cauldron/ Pentacles are Earth.

Similar groups of four, which correspond to the elements, exist in traditional cultures around the world. For example, in Vietnamese tradition there are four sacred animals; the Turtle, Phoenix, Dragon and Lion-Dog.

However, the main focus of this essay is on the correlation of the sacred objects with masculine and feminine energy.

It is generally understood that the spear (and wands and staves) are masculine and the cauldron (the pentacles or Earth) is feminine, because of obvious sexual connotations. Whilst at first glance the Sword may appear masculine and the chalice appear feminine, it is my belief that both objects are both masculine and feminine.

At this point, it may be worth having a second look at the sketches above.

A sword requires a scabbard and the act of sheathing a sword speaks for itself. A chalice, viewed with an open mind, has both a feminine and a phallic shape.

The theory of this article is that the sacred sword and chalice represent unity and balance between the genders and between masculine and feminine energy.

The chalice or Holy Grail is the more interesting and well documented of the two, and will be discussed first.

The Holy Grail is considered to be the cup of Christ from the Last Supper and is also closely connected to the sacred cups or cauldrons of Pagan traditions. In legends, it grants the power of eternal life or ascension and it is the ultimate goal of the Arthurian knights.

At this point, it is necessary to briefly explain the concept of Chivalry. Although the word originally referred to mounted combat and knighthood it is strongly tied to a certain understanding of Christian ethics and ‘Courtly Love’. It was in many ways a counter reaction to patriarch in the medieval, fundamentalist Christian world. A counter reaction to male dominance in which men embraced sensitivity and the aspects of femininity and raised love of women to to a divine level. In theory, a knight must ‘always rescue a lady in destress.” In Courtly Love an unobtainable woman was favoured, for example the wife of a more powerful man or a maiden awaiting marriage, so that the love of the knight towards the lady was asexual, non physical. The knight was then devoted towards the love of his lady on a spiritual, rather than sexual, level. It was this way of thinking which lead to the Grail Legends.

It is worth noting that similar ideas occurred around the world at the same time. Most notably with the Samurai, who in addition to being great warriors, had a high regard for feminine virtues and service toward women (at least in theory).

There are two main Grail Legends. The quests of Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad, and the lesser know legend of Sir Parzival (Percival). This essay will refer mostly to the literature of Sir Thomas Malory and Sir Wolfram von Eschenbach. Sir Galahad recovers the Grail after a long quest because of his ‘purity’, being a virgin and without ‘sin’, where Lancelot fails because of his adultery with Queen Guinevere. Parzival is a more complex tale, soaked with pagan, mystical and archetypical symbolism. If both legends, the Grail is something which has been lost which needs to found again by a ‘pure’ or innocent hero. In both legends, the knight ascends when the quest is complete.

It can, especially in a Jungian sense, be seen as a quest for the sacred feminine and balance in a patriarchal world. The Grail, a chalice, represents the necessary balance between the masculine and feminine which raises a person up from their current society and mindset. In Jungian psychology a man must be in touch with his subconscious feminine side, and a woman with her masculine side, in order to have a healthier and more enlightened mind. In the grail legends a knight must rediscover the balance between the feminine and masculine.

In summary, the Grail Chalice represents the sacred feminine in a male dominated world and the necessity of balance and unity to the individual.

Now for the sword, which requires only a few notes.

Firstly, a sword without a scabbard is an impractical object, inconvenient and easy to perish. Much like an imbalanced person.

Secondly a sword is a weapon of both defense and offense. As an offensive weapon it is in many ways inferior to an axe or mace (greater hitting power) or a spear or polearm (greater reach) and was often carried as a status symbol and side arm rather than a primary weapon.

Thirdly, consider the legendary Excalibur. This magical sword was gifted by the Lady of the Lake (as feminine a symbol a could be) and its main power lay in its scabbard, which offered magical protection to the wielder. The sword was just a good blade, the power was in the scabbard.

Returning the the Elements, the Wind (Swords) and Water (Cups) would be both be equally masculine and feminine.

Which brings us to the conclusion. In mythological artifacts and mystical theories (tarot, elements or sacred animals) balance between natural forces and gender energies are essential. In the post powerful and sacred objects, the sword and the chalice, these sexual and spiritual energies are combined. This is applicable to both the world at large and the inner mind.




Writer, poet, teacher

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Aki Atkinson

Aki Atkinson

Writer, poet, teacher

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