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King Arthur – the Christian pagan?

14 May

(As well as updating older post as I develop the ebook, I am also going create some new blogs out of the additional material that’s going into it. Here’s the first).

A Christo-Pagan symbol called "Pentacross...

A Christo-Pagan symbol called “Pentacrossagram”. Which is a Christian Cross within or mounted on a Pagan Pentagram. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question about what religion King Arthur followed depends on which King Arthur we’re referring to? King Arthur of the Medieval Romances is most definitely Christian as is the one of the Historia Britonnum.; the mythical one appears to have been a Christian and a possible historic one of the Late-5th century would most likely be a Christian, but this would also be dependent on which part of Britain he was from.

In Culhwch ac Olwen, (possibly 11th century) where Arthur has many ‘pagan’ friends, such as Gwyn ap Nudd (of the Otherworld) and the god Mabon, he or Cai mention “Heaven” at least three timesWhether these mentions were part of the original story or were added later we may never know, but, if they did want to make Arthur like the one of the Historia Britonnum (H.B.) of the Early-9th century, they did very little to do so. Had they wanted to change him to a Christian hero against the Otherworld they could have gone much further. Of course, it is thought there were many more Arthurian tales around in the 9th to 11th centuries and some of these could have made more of his Christianity.

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is much debate about what religion Arthur might have been – mainly in the lay community – and many are determined to make him either a pagan or devout and exemplar Christian. We’ve no idea exactly what he might have believed in (although we know what they made him in the H.B), because we don’t know where exactly he might have been from, or when. There is a very high probability that he’d be a Christian if he’d been from south of Hadrian’s Wall as it had been the official religion since 381 and the Council of Constantinople, when orthodoxy was imposed and any heretics (whether pagan or other Christian sects, such as Pelagianism) were not tolerated after that … not that this stopped some British from practicing Pelagianism, possibly up to the Mid-5th century. Things may also have changed in some regions once the empire had lost its hold over Britannia and the church lost some of its enforcement powers.

Christianity itself had been tolerated and not persecuted since the emperor Constantine the Great made it so in 313. (See: Freeman, AD 381, 2008). Three British bishops had been present at the Council of Arles in 314. (Eborius, bishop of York, Restitutus, bishop of London, Adelfius, bishop of Lincoln).

Eusebius wrote

“The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.” (De Demonstratione Evan­gellii, Lib. 111).

Possibly the first British saint, Alban, was martyred around 250AD, perhaps even earlier, and there are the legends regarding King Lucius (c.156) being Christian and St. Cadval (c.170) possibly being from Britain. Even if these legends aren’t true there had been Christians on the island for a long time. Britain also produced St. Patrick in the 5th century and, in the next century, a whole host of other British and Welsh saints. But the church was a very different organisation then. Any ‘churches’ were in the declining remaining cities, whilst other priests (presbyter) and bishops (sacerdos) could have been attached to royal courts with some being itinerant.

So, as you can see, Christianity had been present in Britain for at least two hundred years in one form or another before any possible Late-5th century Arthur came along. It had been the official religion for almost one hundred years. Gildas, in his Early-6th century De Excidio Britanniae, makes no reference to British pagans (of the elite) and he would be the first to do so had it been present, in his part of the oldl diocese at least. No pagan shrines, apart from Anglo-Saxons ones, have been found for this period. However, there’s every possibility that some, probably peasants, went ‘underground’ with any ‘old beliefs’. Perhaps this is what encouraged some of them to go over to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture in the east of the island.

The level of Christianity must have changed in the lifetime of a possible historical Arthur. If he lived between c.475 and c.525 he must have witnessed its spread and, possibly, the nature of its influence and power. If he resided north of the Wall in what is now northern England and southern Scotland he may have seen its introduction and the way it changed the various societies there as they were influenced both from their southern neighbours and from monastic sites like Whitehorn (Candida Casa - the ‘White (or ‘Shining’) House’) founded by Saint Ninian in what is now southwest Scotland. This site is thought to have been there since the Late-4th century.

Many saints of the period, in what became Wales, either started life as or were warriors kings or princes. Even the much chastised Maglocunus (Mailcun/Maelgwn/Malgun) of Gwynedd by the 6th century cleric Gildas gave up his monarchy for a while and became a monk. However, monasticism wasn’t as large a movement as it became in Medieval times.

The British Christians did seem to cause problem for the Roman church now and again, firstly with the anti-elite, no-original-sin Pelagius (Early-5th century) and then with Gaulish Bishops complaining that two British priests were actually preaching to woman! But it would be wrong to think there was a very different, unified ‘Celtic’ church; it was still a relatively conservative ‘Catholic’ Christianity, but with difference. To quote Patrick Wormald:

“One of the common misconceptions is that there was a ‘Roman Church’ to which the ‘Celtic’ was nationally opposed.”

(‘Bede and the ‘Church of the English’, The Times of Bede, Edited by Stephen Baxter, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006, p. 207.)

Illustration from page 16 of The Boy's King Ar...

Illustration from page 16 of The Boy’s King Arthur: “And when they came to the sword that the hand held, King Arthur took it up.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They respected the pope as much as their continental brethren, and we are also reminded by Wormald that there were many differences even between the Irish and British churches. Most scholars prefer the term ‘Insular Christianity to ‘Celtic’ Christianity.

This doesn’t mean that a historical 5th century Arthur wouldn’t have believed in pagan elements and traditions, just as many culture, even today, mix them; he just may not have ‘worshipped’ them or, if he did, he’d stay quiet about it. Throwing swords into water was one such tradition, and we know that this was done well into the Middle Ages. (Prior, Britain A,D. p.216) There are, of course, many pagan overtones to both the early and later Arthurian stories, from magical boars to Avalon and swords in stones. Even Christianity couldn’t bury these long held beliefs … and besides, they made a great story!

Thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments, thoughts and corrections,

Mak

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17 responses to “King Arthur – the Christian pagan?

  1. Alex Jones

    May 14, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    I sit amongst the faction who think King Arthur was Riothamus, and that this was a Christian leader. His contempt for the old religion was best expressed with the unfortunate disclosure of the head of Bran as detailed in the triads.

     
  2. badonicus

    May 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks Alex. There are three observation I make about this:

    1. No one knows when the various Triads date to – their conceptions that is – or when the tradition they are based on dates from.
    2. No one knows if the Arthur in question is purely mythical or if a historical Arthur was attached to earlier stories.
    3. Arthur digs up Bran’s head because he believes only he can protect Britain and not Bran. I can’t see how this has (necessarily) anything to do with Christianity. It’s also interesting that Arthur is given a lineage from Bran (and Llyr) in the Mostyn MS 117 Genealogies, known as the Bonedd yr Arwyr (‘Descent of the Heroes’). Not a very nice way to treat a supposed ancestor! :)

    My views on Riothamus, briefly, are that there is no reason this isn’t a personal name, like Riocatus, and not an epithet. Sodonius, his friend, addresses him as Riothamus. That is you think Riothamus was the bases for Arthur and not his name? I have read and understand Geoffrey Ashe’s arguments, I’m just not convinced by them.

    Thanks,

    Mak

     
    • Alex Jones

      May 14, 2012 at 8:16 pm

      Hi Mak,
      Bran symbolises the totality of ancient Druid knowledge, the bridge between everything. The leader of leaders was considered the “bridge” the representative of the people, the land, the goddess. Bran is said to have uttered: “let him who be chief be a bridge to his people”.

      The standard mode of government amongst the Celt is like that of Galatia; a type of democracy where leaders are elected by those entitled to vote, which includes the stewards and the general. In Galatia there were three tribes, of which each had a steward; none of these stewards could leave to make war; this was the duty of the general, whose duty was to defend the nation, its people and its religion.

      King Arthur played on this ancient idea, which was one reason he had so much support across Britain, for the individual rulers kept their power as “stewards” but authorised King Arthur as their “general”. There is no such thing amongst the Celts as kings and queens, these are Roman inventions, they were elected stewards.

      King Arthur in my opinion played upon the traditions of Bran to win over support, but he failed to honour what Bran represented, his hubris preferred his own generalship (and Christianity). The stories that mention King Arthur amongst the Welsh are all condemning if you look at them carefully. The story of King Arthurs wife running off with Lancelot is symbolic of the land turning its back on King Arthur; if the land turns against its representative, the “king” loses his footstool and power. When there is split between the land and its representative then the wasteland follows. King Arthur transformed from hope to tyrant, the “winter archetype” alike to Gwyn Ap Nudd. King Arthur failed in his disrespectful raid upon the otherworld; the grail, the symbol of transformation and renewal emerged because of King Arthur’s failure as a supposed representative of the land.

       
      • badonicus

        May 15, 2012 at 11:47 am

        Very interesting thoughts there Alex. I’ll take them point by point:

        Bran symbolises the totality of ancient Druid knowledge, the bridge between everything. The leader of leaders was considered the “bridge” the representative of the people, the land, the goddess. Bran is said to have uttered: “let him who be chief be a bridge to his people”.

        Whose interpretation is it that Bran “symbolises the totality of ancient Druid knowledge”? I’ve heard many theories on Bran but not that one. Bran and the land, yes. The line “let him who be chief be a bridge to his people” could also be based on thoughts at the time it was composed and possibly the idealised concept of what a ruler should be, just as Finn McCool’s bards gave his idealised version of how warriors should behave. The simple morale being, govern well or die.

        The standard mode of government amongst the Celt is like that of Galatia; a type of democracy where leaders are elected by those entitled to vote, which includes the stewards and the general. In Galatia there were three tribes, of which each had a steward; none of these stewards could leave to make war; this was the duty of the general, whose duty was to defend the nation, its people and its religion.

        We’ve no idea if there was the same model in all the various regions. The Irish were supposed to have chosen their High King, but that’s about all we know. No modern scholar would say that was the system in Britain either pre or post-Roman. (Please read King Arthur – A Provincial Dux, Comes or Tribunus? – Part One for the arguments on the state of government in the Late-5th century). This system, of course, could be closer to the Roman one.

        Just so anyone else reading this knows what we’re talking about, here’s what Strabo said about the Galatians:

        “To the south of the Paphlagonians are the Galatians, of whom there are three tribes; two of them, the Trocmi and the Tolistobogii, have their names from their chiefs; the third, the Tectosages, from the tribe of that name in Celtica. The Galatians took possession of this country after wandering about for a long period, and overrunning the country subject to the Attalic and the Bithynian kings, until they received by a voluntary cession the present Galatia, or Gallo-Græcia, as it is called. Leonnorius seems to have been the chief leader of these people when they passed over into Asia. There were three nations that spoke the same language, and in no respect differed from one another. Each of them was divided into four portions called tetrarchies, and had its own tetrarch [governor of the fourth part of a province or subordinate ruler], its own judge, and one
        superintendent of the army, all of whom were under the control of the tetrarch , and two subordinate superintendents of the army. The Council of the twelve Tetrarchs consisted of three hundred persons, who assembled at a place called the Drynemetum. The council determined causes relative to murder, the others were decided by the tetrarchs and the judges. Such, anciently, was the political
        constitution of Galatia; but, in our time, the government was in the hands of three chiefs, then of two, and at last it was administered by Deiotarus, who was succeeded by Amyntas. At present, the Romans possess this as well as all the country which was subject to Amyntas, and have reduced it into one province.”

        “Geography” Book 12. from 12.5.1

        But this is prior to the Romans and thngs would have changed once they were in charge. This system could be similar to what Gildas describes with tyrannos (kings), iudex (judges) and duces (both ‘royal’ and none royal military leaders) in Britain in the Early-5th century. This seems based both on British and Roman systems.

        King Arthur played on this ancient idea, which was one reason he had so much support across Britain, for the individual rulers kept their power as “stewards” but authorised King Arthur as their “general”. There is no such thing amongst the Celts as kings and queens, these are Roman inventions, they were elected stewards.

        How do you know Arthur had support across Britain … or do you mean his mythos did? Otherwise, that’s supposition not fact. This would be basing your argument on a hypothesis that is a very shaky one. No ‘Celtic’ expert I know would not say they had kings and queens. They weren’t kings and queens in the medieval sense, with God given rights, but they were kings and queens (mostly kings!) never-the-less, or ‘super-thugs’ as Reece has called some of them. The Britons were not ‘Celts’, per se and they most certainly had kings and queens, even if this was a Roman identification. Just look at the Irish or Picts, who had very little to do with the Romans.

        King Arthur in my opinion played upon the traditions of Bran to win over support, but he failed to honour what Bran represented, his hubris preferred his own generalship (and Christianity).

        It’s a theory.

        The stories that mention King Arthur amongst the Welsh are all condemning if you look at them carefully.

        I have looked at them, very carefully, and they are not all condemning him. You mention Preiddeu Annwfn or Preiddeu Annwn (‘The Spoils of Annwfn’) below, and that certainly uses him to prove the point that you didn’t go up against the ancient gods. Whether this was a commonly held view or just the bard’s one (said to be Taliesin but probably not) is another matter. It very possibly led to the Grail Quest of the Romances.

        The story of King Arthurs wife running off with Lancelot is symbolic of the land turning its back on King Arthur; if the land turns against its representative, the “king” loses his footstool and power.

        That’s the medieval Arthur of the Romances, not Arthur of the Welsh who is portrayed in a very different manner. There is no Lancelot running off with Gwenhwyfar in the earlier tradition, only his wife being abducted, either by Melwas of Medraut.

        When there is split between the land and its representative then the wasteland follows. King Arthur transformed from hope to tyrant, the “winter archetype” alike to Gwyn Ap Nudd. King Arthur failed in his disrespectful raid upon the otherworld; the grail, the symbol of transformation and renewal emerged because of King Arthur’s failure as a supposed representative of the land.

        It seems as if you’re basing your judgement of a what a historical Arthur might have been on what the later storytellers and bards made him in to. If we consider how any information about a historical figure could have come down to us, most likely eulogizing him if it came from bards or Latin panegyrics, then it’s hard to understand how we’d know more, unless he had his critics. If he was portrayed this way back in the 6th to 8th centuries, he was a very strange choice for the H.B.. In fact, apart from the mention of one battle (Traith Tribruit) he has no similarities to the Arthur of the Welsh tradition at all. One’s a ‘Saxon’ fighter, the other isn’t. One fights giants and the Otherworld, the other one doesn’t appear to. One supposedly was a leader of battles for kings of Britain, the other one wasn’t. One fought at Badon, the one of the early tradition didn’t. (It’s like having two men called Fred being accused of the same crime purely because they shared the same name).

        Thanks again,

        Mak

         
      • Jonathan Jarrett

        July 8, 2012 at 12:29 am

        It seems to me that there’s a weird parallel between the story of Arthur unearthing Bran’s head and Edward I’s translocation of the supposed body of Arthur to Glastonbury, and accordingly I am tempted to apply the kind of interpretation of the latter that’s now current, to wit that Edward was disarming a Welsh focus of opposition, locating it firmly under his control and making it fuel for his own reputation, to the former situation. I mean, if we found an early medieval king anywhere else disinterring the supposed body of a pre-Christian divinity and binning it, we’d assume he was a hard-line Christian closing down a pagan shrine, wouldn’t we? I wonder if that’s not the simplest answer here as well, if it actually happened (and the Edward episode helps to show that you don’t have necessarily to believe in the identity of what you’re disinterring to think it worthwhile to do it), and that what we have in the Triads is a story-teller’s ret-conning of Arthur’s motives in the light of how he knew Arthur’s story ended…

         
      • Alex Jones

        July 8, 2012 at 9:27 am

        The ancient kings often appealed to older roots to win support for power, there was a lot of spinning and falsehood going on. A task of the historian is to work through the illusions to find the authentic.

         
      • badonicus

        July 8, 2012 at 9:29 am

        I think you’re right Jonathan that Edward was trying to ‘disarm’ the Welsh of their hero. Welsh tradition has it that he also took ‘Arthur’s Crown’ (‘Coron Arthur‘) and destroyed it. Of course, it wasn’t Arthur’s crown at all, but Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s coronet (Talaith Llywelyn).

         
  3. ritaroberts

    May 15, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Oh! How I wish someone would find proof that there was really a King Arthur from the legends we have been brought up with. There is such a lot of controvesy.

     
    • badonicus

      May 15, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      As long as there are different ways to interpret the evidence there’ll always be controversy. If you just want a King Arthur, however, then there’s Arthur ap Petr of Demetia, who was a king Arthur! :)

       
  4. Nicole Evelina

    May 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Great post, Mak! Thanks for your constant insight!

     
    • badonicus

      May 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      So glad you found them of interest Nicole.

       
  5. ritaroberts

    July 8, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Oh dear me,! Arthur gets so complicated does’nt he. I like your up to date post and really enjoy them which means Im hooked. Thanks for your hard research and for sharing.

     
  6. Flint F. Johnson

    April 10, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    My thought is that, like many of his contemporaries he was converted because it helped him politically in some way. His attacks on fertility cults is a strong argument for my position. Whether or not he actually believed, though, is anyone’s guess. Constantine lived the life of a pagan but helped Christianity. He still wasn’t baptized till he was on his deathbed.

     
  7. Oleksandr Galamon

    April 20, 2014 at 11:16 am

    This was an incredibly captivating read, throwing the sword in the water was supposed to be like washing hands of one’s blood, it meant giving up on your beliefs and drowning them but that also creates a rippling effect which means that any historical representations of the events that once happened will have had been told and/or passed down via generations. Bede was King Arthur and King Arthur was Bede’s warrior but that’s where the boat comes in…the heretic behind King Arthur was Bede whom was part of the round table except the round table wasn’t round at all…some beliefs held still tell stories that the table was in fact a 6 point table of a ‘Satanic’ star also known as a pentagram nowadays but the current representation of the pentagram is the whole point and notion of one’s beliefs whereby it is Satanic to even believe that the star of the demon is capable of summoning anything although of course spells and other such things exist in order to acquire from the dead what once belonged to the living. Pentagram or the FIVE sided star of the pentagon also meant that the sixth point of the star remained hidden at all times, the 6th point was the limbo that we all dance; the circle around the star is limbo and the five points of life represent living but the 6th point means giving back to the dead also known as dying which means that a sprit is present within a living soul.

     
  8. Oleksandr Galamon

    April 20, 2014 at 11:30 am

    P.S this historical reminder was incredibly beautiful in itself, makes me once again proud to be of Paganic descents which mean different things to different people or vice versa. What I would love to say is thank you for the article as well as the troubles that one has to go through in order to obtain quotes of such repercussions. I have one thing to say; if you’re lacking Hell in your life then move in with me, my family is just god damn beautiful in their actions. Anger and hatred and curses on cursives.

     
  9. Flint F. Johnson

    June 25, 2014 at 1:48 am

    You’ve definitely been reading the right people. My thoughts after reading about the bardic traditions and the influences on medieval writers are that most of the literature pertaining directly to him cannot be trusted on this subject. Many saints dealt with pagan kings, even in the south, which suggests that even there Christianity was still trying establish itself. As with the continental kings, many of them probably only converted for political reasons and retained much of their traditional beliefs (as you said). Not that there is any definitive answer, just my thoughts. And as Arthur’s name is the most recognizable of the period, he was probably both good and smart.

     

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