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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Ten

To be or not to be?

No one argues that the 6th and 7th century Hiberno-Britannians with the name Arthur didn’t exist, and this is because they either have genealogies (Arthur ap Pedr) or are attested to in trusted historical documents (Artúr mac Áedán, Artúr mac Coaning, Arthur ap Bicoir). Yet Arthur of Badon is attested to in two historical documents (and some dubious genealogies), but we are told these cannot be given as evidence, because they are not contemporary (Dumville) or the Arthur they contain isn’t historical (Higham et al). Adomnán‘s Vita Columba (Life of Columbac.690), which mentions Artúr mac Áedán, isn’t contemporary either, having been written sixty or so years after Artúr mac Áedán’s death. The difference is in the time between their lives and when they were written about, with Arthur of Badon being 300 years after the (possible) events and the others being much nearer in time; not to mention all the mythical stories and sites that are argued to belong to this same ‘Arthur of Badon’.

Yet those who have concluded Arthur of Badon didn’t exist do not relate the fantastical stories and the onomastic and topographical sites to these other historical Arthurs as proof that they also didn’t exist. Why not? Because they are not in the H.B.? Because they don’t claim to have killed 960/940 men? Because they didn’t have legends written about them (although some argue Artúr mac Áedán (Barber) or even Arthur ap Pedr (Dark) are the bases for all the above)? Because they don’t have onomastic and topographical sites named after them … as far as we know? Or is it because they didn’t have Triads written about them (even though some of the triads mention Arthur but not Badon, and many are later additions)?

Well, in Artúr mac Áedán’s case it’s because of a ‘reliable’ source and Arthur ap Pedr two sources, (Arthur ap Bicoir is still open for debate – see THIS blog), and it’s mainly down to lack of reliable genealogy and all the other ‘stuff’ attached to him in Arthur of Badon’s case.

What if we didn’t have Arthur ap Pedr’s genealogies (British and Irish) or other historical sources telling us of these other Arthurs? What if they too had been lost? Would they too then be deemed mythical or folkloric, because Arthur of the fantastical stories was? Would they be seen as mere insertions into stories of the same mythical Arthur? Or would it have the opposite affect and Arthur of the H.B. and A.C. would be looked on in a more favourable light? It’s hard to answer of course.

If the theories that Arthur of Badon didn’t exist were correct, then how does this affect these other Arthurs, historical and mythical? Well, it doesn’t, because if he didn’t exist they are all still there … obviously. What changes with regards to these others if Arthur of Badon did exist? If he were then inserted into history? In theory nothing. If the other historical Arthurs can exist without affecting the fantastical stories one jot, which is what is suggested, and they were named after the mythical/folkloric figure, then saying Arthur of Badon existed would have no affect either, if you take out of the equation that it was he who spawned the early folkloric material or that these others were named after the Badon man.

Of course, if those other historical Arthurs were named after Arthur of Badon and he didn’t exist, then neither would they … or not with those names. Or if the early Welsh stories came from him, they would cease to exist also, (unless the hero was originally another name). But if the early Welsh stories aren’t about a historical Arthur of Badon, as Padel, Higham and Green argue, just as they’re not about Arthur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán as far as we know, but only use or have the same name, then, if Arthur of Badon was named by the same process, why couldn’t he also exist?

Not a striking resemblance!

Merlin reads his prohecies to King Vortigern. ...

Even Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Welsh fantastical Arthur, and he seems to only use some associated names, such as Gwenhwyfar, Cai and Bedwyr and others from other eras that the Welsh tales attached to Arthur willy-nilly, as well as Badon and Camlann (Camblan). If he used anything else that he says came from a “very ancient book” from Britannia, and Britannia was Wales (as opposed to the argument that it was Brittany), then it’s been lost. (As a side note, Britannia could indeed be Wales as there are a few medieval document that call it such – see Blake and Lloyd, 2003). Did this ‘ancient book’ show a more historical figure? We’ll never know, but it should be noted that Geoffrey specifically refers to this ‘ancient book’ when he gets to the conflict between Mordred and Arthur in Winchester and the Battle of Camblan. (History of the Kings of Britain, Book XI, Ch.1, Ch.2). This could have been his only use of it? We also have no indication of just how ancient it might have been. However, if this was the use of it, it means his ‘ancient’ source showed Arthur fighting in civil war, not against the Anglo-Saxons.

The Welsh tales only relate to Arthur being at Badon in one instance, created after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. Apart from this story (The Dream of Rhonabwy – Late-12th/Early-13th centuries) he has nothing to do with Saxons in the pre-Galfridian tradition. In fact, he bears no resemblance to any historical Arthur that we know of, including the soldier in the H.B.. It means, if he is mythological, or by the 9th century an historicized mythical figure, Nennius inserted him without making any reference or giving any similarities to the known Arthur figure of the stories and did it in a bardic, battle poetry way. A style he uses no where else. If this is the case, he was a) being extremely clever b) his sources had already made this figure into a ‘real’ person with accompanying poetry c) he had more realistic folkloric stories we no longer posses d) it’s about a real Arthur of Badon, e) it’s about some other Arthur replaced in time. f) it’s a mixture of some of the above.

Weight of evidence v popular evidence

There is the argument that the weight of the evidence is in favour of a mythical or folkloric Arthur. It is, and if the Y Gododdin, H.B. and A.C. are discounted as evidence, then the scales tip completely that way, and there isn’t really anything left for an Arthur of Badon.  But it depends on what weight ‘popular’ belief has against actual evidence (evidence that is interpreted differently by different people), if these three documents are not discounted. Is amount of evidence equal to its ‘weight’? This could be like saying that a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold, because there’s a lot more of it. Perhaps a better analogy might be a pound of gold foil wrapped feathers, and, as we know, all that glitters isn’t gold. Once you have concluded (or believe) that the H.B. Arthurian section to be either made-up or that Nennius (and his audience) believed the Arthur in question was historical when he wasn’t, and that the A.C. simply followed in the steps of the H.B.; or that Nennius took another Arthur and deliberately (or accidentally) placed him earlier than he was, then that is that for Arthur being at Badon … unless there was a third battle of Badon no one’s aware of. (Complicated, ain’t it!?)

On the point of the mention of Arthur in Y Gododdin, there isn’t agreement on its dating, which is why I’ve been reluctant to include it  here. John Koch’s (The Gododdin of Aneirin, 1997), gives a 6th/7th century date – which would make it the first mention of an Arthur – but not all scholars agree.  Some believe it could be a later interpolation (Charles-Edwards et al) possibly not being attached until the 8th or 9th centuries with Graham Isaac going for the 10th century. Thomas Green sees the killing of a vast amount of men as described in the H.B. battle list as proof of Arthur’s mythical status and why he was named in it. Taken out of context, it does seem like that. Within the H.B. it is one of the least fantastical things. Even if Koch is wrong and it is a later interpolation, this only works if you believe the H.B. to be about a mythical figure. It’s a circular argument. If the H.B. is about a real person, and the comparison in Y Gododdin refers to this, then it is, in the interpolator’s mind, still comparing Gwawrddur to a real figure. What it does mean is that what Koch sees as a near contemporary source mentioning him, isn’t. (For more on this see THIS blog).

THOSE OTHER ARTHURS

I find that the 6th and 7th century Arthurs’ name giving to Gael descended people and not Britons is explained away too readily, by both camps. By elements of the ‘historical Arthur’ camp it is a name the British wouldn’t use out of awe or respect for Arthur of Badon, but the Gaels would use the name because they didn’t have the same reverence for it. This ‘historic’ argument doesn’t make much sense, to me at least, because Artúr mac Áedán supposedly came from the union of a Gael and Briton, which, most likely was for political reasons; would he name a son Arthur knowing it wouldn’t go down well with the wife or her family? Maybe, I suppose. But in Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr may have been more Briton than Gael, for all we know, living in a Gaelic dominated (or cultural) area (as could have Arthur ap Bicoir if he’s a historical figure) and still the name was given. (Besides, the Britons would name their sons after famous military leaders as demonstrated earlier). But no Briton or even later Welshman would use the name for their princes and the first to give his son it would be an English king with a Welsh family name, Henry (Tudor) VII in the 15th century. The Welsh said Henry was  the ‘Son of Prophesy’, so perhaps he thought naming his son Arthur would help that prophesy along? It didn’t, and Arthur died young.

For the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp these Arthurs were named after a mythical or folkloric figure, and the British wouldn’t do this for the same reasons of awe and respect (Batram).  This could make sense, to some degree, except the British would use mythical names if Bran is anything to go by, as well as Belin (Apollo Belinus), Mabon (Apollo Maponos), Conmail (Apollo Cunomaglus), Mael (Deus Maglus), and Nudd (Mars Nodens). (My thanks to Chris Gwinn who pointed these out). But, as I’ve already said, if they were named after some mythical or folkloric figure (maybe one that covered both cultures?), then why couldn’t an earlier Arthur (of Badon fame) be named for the same reason, with him also been of Gael descent and having nothing to do with his mythical/folkloric counterpart apart from his name? The argument doesn’t follow for the name giving.

There is another point here: if it is thought a mythical/folkloric Arthur by the Early-9th century had become historicized, then the Britons weren’t naming their sons Arthur because he was mythical or folkloric by this stage. Either way – be he historical or mythical/folkloric – he was, to them, a real man. They liked naming their sons after famous leaders, and, as shown above, they had no problem naming their sons after mythical figures. So what was the problem with Arthur or his name?

Etymologically speaking …

Most etymologists would argue that the Gaels would have to get the name Artúr via the Britons using the Insular Latin Arturius (from Classical Latin Artorius), as it wouldn’t be a name they would use directly because it was Latin. However, Arthur of Demetia’s father was called Pedr (Peter), from Latin PETRVS, so they would use Latin names, it’s just that Artorius/Arturius doesn’t appear to be a common name in Britain … but neither does Pedr. If it wasn’t via Latin, the problem, as it is with Brittonic, is creating this name from two Goidelic words that would produce Artúr. Whilst there are many ‘Art’ names in Irish, there are none, apart from Artúr, ending with ‘úr’.  Old Irishúr’, can mean ‘noble’:- (c) of persons (a) noble, generous, (b) fair, active. It can also mean `evil’. However, there are no attested names anywhere that use úr as the second element, so it would have to be unique. That’s not out of the question, but it makes it harder to argue.

You see many websites putting forward ‘Arth+gwr’ – Brittonic *arto+guiros (‘Bear Man’) as the meaning of the name, but that should produce Arthwr. You also see ‘Arth+rix’ – Brittonic *arto+rigos (‘Bear King’) but that should make *Arthir/*Erthir or *Arthric. At present, until Chris Gwinn shows us his new theory, the name is more likely to be derived from Arturius, with Arturus (from the star Arcturus) being another possibility. (More later).

In another blog I explored the possibility that the Britons didn’t use the name because it was seen as an Hiberno-British (not Irish) name, but even this isn’t satisfactory. Whatever the reasons for the Brittonic speaking Britons not using the name, it may have been for different reasons at different points in history. Could it initially have been because it was seen as a name used by Goidelic speakers, then it gained a superstition around it? I’ve recently wondered if it could be because it seemed like a hybrid name to the British that didn’t make total sense to them? To the Gaels it could have made some kind of sense even if they wouldn’t normally use úr as the second part of a name. To the Britons (and later Welsh) it might have sounded like ‘Bear-ur’. (That letter u is a long vowel in Brittonic and Old Welsh. In Middle and Modern Welsh the u becomes similar to a long vowel e, which is why Cymru (Wales) is pronounced something like Kumry). It would need further investigation by someone who knows a lot more than I (Chris Gwinn?) as to whether there were other compound names coming from either Insular Latin or older Brittonic that, as they mutated, didn’t make total sense, so were only used once. Names that mutated completely to make no sense may not have been a problem?

In the penultimate part of this blog I will look at one other piece of evidence I have not seen explored (but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been!) that could be used by both the historical and mythical/folkloric camps.

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

Mak

 

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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Four – UPDATE

I have been meaning to update this particular blog for sometime now and have finally been able to do so.

Part Four of the blog looks at the character of Arthur son of Bicoir, and just after writing it I was made aware of some other information. It’s taking me this long to get a hold of the book containing that information and it does change things somewhat.

To read this part of the blog, click HERE. To start at Part One, click HERE.

Thanks,

Mak

 

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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Eleven

UPDATED 3.6.12

Connections?

Before getting on to my conclusion, I want to see what connections, besides the obvious ones, there are with these Hiberno-British Arthurs and the Arthur of Badon. I will list those already mentioned first. Some will have more ‘strength’ to them than others.

  1. They are either Hiberno-Britons or live in Hibernian (Gael) dominated areas or areas of Hibernian influence or descent.
  2. Three may have been given the name between ca 570 and 600, with one of them of the earlier date.
  3. The mention in Y Gododdin (if dated correctly by Koch) is around the same time.
  4. All but one are in the north.
  5. One of the battles from the Historia Britonnum – Celidon Wood – is identified as being in the northern area between the Walls by some (but not all!).
  6. The Battle of Camlan is identified by some as being on the Wall, at Camboglanna (but not all!).
  7. The battle at the confluence or estuary of the Glein is identified as being in the northern area between the Walls by some (but not all!).
  8. The Annales Cambriae were written in a once Cambro-Irish area.

Which Arthur?

There are, of course, two very distinct things I am looking at here: my conclusion on the evidence and what to make an Arthur of a screenplay.  They are not the same.

There are five questions that can be asked:

  1. Do I think one of these was the ‘original’?
  2. Do I think it is possible one of these was the ‘original’?
  3. Was there no ‘original’ and the later Arthur was an amalgamation of some of these and other historical figures?
  4. Was the ‘original’ mythical?
  5. Are these named after an ‘original’ of Badon fame or is one of these the ‘original’?

The answer to the No. 1 is, there can be no certainty about anything, but from how I read the evidence (and others will see it differently) I think not. However, this may rest on whether John Koch’s datings are right or not.

The second is, yes, it’s always possible one of these was the ‘original’ … and by ‘original’ I mean the one whose name was used to hang everything else off.

The third is, yes, it’s possible there was no actual ‘original’ and Arthur of the H.B. was an amalgamation of some of the other Arthurs, or even a mythical or folkloric figure called Arthur in answer to question five. But more on this later.

The answer to the fourth question depends on the dating of Artúr mac Áedán and whether he was, in fact, the later Artúr mac Conaing. If Arthur map Pedr is a generation (or even two) before this Artúr then that changes things.  He could then be the ‘original’. We then have to rely on the much later Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae to tell us he wasn’t.

In answer to question five; yes it’s possible all the Arthur’s (which could include an Arthur of Badon) where named after an earlier mythical figure. This is explored in greater detail in THIS Blog.

If these Arthurs were named at roughly the same time or just before the name appears in Y Gododdin (if it is dated correctly by Koch), it does strengthen the argument that another historical Arthur came before them.  From this research I certainly cannot see how there could be any certainty that the name in Y Gododdin refers to Artúr mac Áedán.  If this Arthur can be considered then so should Arthur son of Bicoir (if he’s not in fact Arthur of Badon) and Arthur map Petr, but the latter may have the best strength, in my opinion. Subsequent Arthurs to the above mentioned in the north could indeed be named in honour of either one of them or an ‘original’ of Badon fame.

There is a theory that places the battle of Mount Badon, not just to a possible decade but to something far more specific: February, 483! This solution, by D. O. Croinin, is based on the 84 year ‘paschal cycle’. (The ‘lost’ irish 84-year easter table rediscovered, Peritia (6-7), 1987-1988, p. 238). If it’s correct, could these (or one or two of them) Arthurs have been named because they were born on the 100th anniversary of Badon?  Could this also be the case of his mention in Y Gododdin, if Koch’s dating is anywhere near correct?

If they are named after Arthur of Badon the weight of evidence might balance in favour of him being from the north, who came south; but that cannot rule out a southern, including what is now Wales, or even a Dumnonian one who went north.  If he was purely a military commander, again, I’d favour the north … but only just.  If he was also a great king – something I want to leave for another article/blog – then we may need to look at another area entirely: the east for example.  However, this might rule out an Hiberno-British Arthur, but not totally if one Gael parent went east and married.

The  Arthur I haven’t covered yet is Lucius Artorius Castus.

Lucius Artorius Castus (2nd century AD)

Lucius Artorius Castus, is the 2nd. century historical Roman commander that Linda A. Malcor and the late C. Scott Littleton championed as the ‘original’ … and the one the film King Arthur put in completely the wrong century! (Malcor & Littleton, ‘From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail,’ 2000).  Is it possible that his deeds, or name, were passed down through the centuries to kick-start the legend? Yes, it’s possible. It’s even possible that if there was an Hiberno-British Arthur of Badon fame he was named after him … or a folkloric character he inspired. If there wasn’t an Arthur of Badon, then it’s possible that Arthur ap Pedr was named for the same reasons. But why didn’t those of purely British areas use the name if this was the case? Out of awe? Out of respect? If so, it seems odd that those of mixed race or a mixed cultural areas would.

Christopher Gwinn, at the King Arthur Group on Facebook has pointed out, and goes into in depth at his web page, that Castus was a Praefectus Legionis (ranking below a tribunus or general) with for the VI Victrix at York by the time he was in Britain, and an aging one at that. (See http://www.christophergwinn.com/celticstudies/lac/lac.html ). This rank went to men aged 50-60 and their duties were in the camp itself, not on campaigns. However, he is later said to have commanded the Britanicimiae, which might be a corruption for *Britanniciniae, (a British originated unit or units) in Vindobona and Pannonia. Could these exploits, or earlier ones when he was a centurio with various legions or as Praepositus of a fleet in Italy have got back to Britain? I think this might be stretching things a little. But, who knows? There has recently been a conference in Croatia about LAC, the results of which are yet to be published, and which might change some of the arguments here.

However, once again I would suggest we try not to think in the ‘all or noting’ or ‘either/or term. There could have been another famous Artōrius we’re simply unaware of.

The Sarmatians are also tied-in with this Artorius along with some of their legends being the bases for the Arthurian ones. It is possible, but a universal similarity in some legends could also explain it. The main argument I would level against this is why we don’t see these Ossetian (the region from which the Sarmatian are said to have come) stories appearing in the earliest Welsh Arthurian tale of Culhwch ac Olwen? The similarities don’t seem to appear until much later.

L. Artorius Castus is thought to be from Dalmatia (the Balkans) but a number of Italian scholars think the name to be Messapic (southeast Italy on the ‘heal’) but of unknown meaning. (Chelotti, Morizio, Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, 1990, pp. 261, 264).  Another derivation could be from the Latinisation of the Etruscan name Arnthur.(Volume 5, Issue 2 of Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 2nd Edition, 1966, p. 72, pp. 333-339).

Artorius is, in fact, a family name (nomen) and LAC would most likely have been known by the praenomen Lucius, not Artorius, to his friends at least, or by his cognomen, Castus. The name is not attested anywhere  in Britain, besides LAC, but must have been at some point to be given to a mythical or historical figure. It’s relatively common elsewhere in the Roman world.

Great name!

As I have shown, those names reused tended to be the names of great men – Caroticus and Constantine to name but two – and these names were obviously passed down through centuries in some cases. It is possible that this is how the name Arthur came to be used, via Vulgate Latin Arturius, and epigraphic evidence shows that it was a name used throughout the Roman empire, although perhaps not in Britain. If this was the reason the Hiberno-British were giving their sons the name, then one of these Artorii before them had greatness, and logic dictates that he was the first one.

So the conclusion to this part of the question is there can be no certainty about anything, but the evidence, to me at least, seems to point to the ‘original’ either being an Hiberno-Briton of greatness, whether that be Arthur map Pedr, or someone called Artúr mac Iobhair/Arthur ap Vthvr. This argument, of course, hinges on the British name Arthur coming via Vulgate Latin Arturius and Goidelic (Irish) Artúr. The doesn’t rule out all of these figures (including an Arthur of Badon) getting their names from some mythical or folkloric figure. (See the blog, called King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both?,  which covers this question in more detail).

There is one last point to be made. There could have been an Arthur of Badon fame who didn’t actually fight at Badon! By this I mean an Arthur who lived at that time, who was a great military leader. but never fought at that battle but was later associated with it.

In the end, the writer of a novel or a screenplay has to make a choice, and that choice is not going to be liked by a certain portion of Arthurian ‘positivists’ as Gidlow calls them.  (I’d call myself a ‘probablist’!).  The other factor is you’re telling a story, not making a documentary, and that story has to be able to sell.  The majority of your audience won’t care in the slightest if it’s based on certain ‘facts’, they just want a good yarn and so do producers.  It’s very conceivable, in the case of a screenplay, that a studio might buy it from you and that’s the end of your involvement as they hire a more experienced writer to complete it.  It is, at that point, their property, not yours, and they can do what they want with it.

There will also be the question of the last ‘King Arthur’ movie.  Even if one comes to the conclusion that he may have been from the Wall area, is it wise to make him this in light of this other project?  (This film may have been a critical flop, I hated it, but it has grossed £136M around the world to date).  There is now the ‘Camelot’ series (although there’s no second series planned) and a couple of new Arthurian (legend based) movies to contend with, which may make it impossible to sell as a feature film for quite a number of years. (A friend and I had just completed a 1066, Battle of Hastings script when we discovered that three other scripts had beaten us to it! Thanks Helen Hollick! LOL).

Personally, I’ve always wanted to do it as a three-part TV event mini series.  This gives you more chance to explore the story, not have quite the same pressure from a film studio, not have to attach a big name to it and the chance to create a spin-off documentary.  The downside is you don’t have a feature film budget!

Whatever kind of Arthur I go with, although I think he will probably be Hiberno-British one of some description (though that doesn’t mean he was, if he existed), I will make one thing plain in the opening credits:

We will never know the ‘true story’ of Arthur, but through the ages of darkness and from the mists of legends there may shine a glimmer of his life”.

All I have to do now is write it, then try to sell it!

Thanks for reading these blogs and I hope they’ve been at least interesting and at best thought-provoking.

Mak

* THERE IS NOW A POST SCRIPT TO THIS BLOG. CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

** FOR THOSE INTERESTED, THERE’S A RELATED BLOG TO THIS CALLED ‘KING ARTHUR – MAN, MYTH … OR BOTH?‘ TO READ IT, CLICK HERE.

 

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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Eight

Arthur named in ‘Y Gododdin

(Some of what appears below is also in the blog about Arthurian Poetry, so apologies for the duplication if you’ve read those).

Attributed to the bard/prince Neirin/Aneirin, ‘Y Gododdin’ (The Gododdin) is a British poem (actually a collection of poems), the original parts of which are thought to date to the early 7th century. (Koch, 1999).  It tells of a doomed battle at Catraeth (thought by most, but not all, to be Catterick in North Yorkshire) between the men of Gododdin and their allies against the ‘English’ of what would become Northumbria:  the Bernicians and the Deirans.  In it is contained what is thought to be the earliest reference to Arthur:

Ef gwant tra thrichant echasaf,

Ef lladdai a pherfedd ac eithaf,

Oedd gwiw ym mlaen llu llariaf,

Goddolai o haid meirch y gaeaf.

Gocharai brain du ar fur caer

Cyn ni bai ef Arthur.

Rhwng cyfnerthi yng nghlysur,

Yng nghynnor, gwernor Gwawrddur.

 

He charged before three hundred of the finest,

He cut down both centre and wing,

He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,

he gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.

He said black ravens on the ramparts of fortress

Though he was no Arthur.

Among the powerful ones in battle,

in the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.

(Jarman, 1990, V99, 64)

John Koch in his translation of the work conclude that this section is part of the original B Text and not a later addition, as mentioned earlier, although there are other scholars who disagree with him (Isaacs et al). Even if Koch is right, we still can’t be certain, as explored and mentioned in earlier blogs, which Arthur it refers to: an ‘original’ or, possibly, Artúr mac Áedán or even Arthur son of Bicoir, both of whom could have been active in the area.  If we knew the exact date of the battle we might have a better chance of coming to some informed conclusion.  By this I mean, if the battle or the poem took place before Dalriada became the enemy then it could indeed be referring to him.  If it happened after, then it is unlikely.  Unless they were in the habit of praising their enemy.

Unless Y Gododdin is referring to someone other than the Arthur of Badon fame he was obviously gaining public attention in the last quarter of the 6th century and the fact that most of the Arthur names occur in the North has led some to the conclusion that he must have originally been from there or had been active there.  It would certainly make sense of Aneirin mentioning him if he was also their most famous ‘local’ hero.  But ‘local’ could mean anywhere from the Wall northwards.

Richard Barber (The Figure of Arthur) concludes that because the poem deals only with people in the present (or recent past) this Arthur was of the same era.  It’s a valid point, but what if there was another reason?  What if it was because poems about Arthur, whether based on earlier ones or recently written, were current?  This might not only explain why he’s mention in Y Gododdin but why at the same time the name was being given to ‘princes’.  If it was ‘known’ that the hero of these poems was also an HIberno-Briton or Cambro-Irish it would give even more reason.

Praise the lord!

Like many great men before him and since, Arthur may have fallen out of favour towards the end of his life or after.  It happened to Cromwell and it even happened to Churchill.   This could explain the gap between his supposed death and the Arthur names (and poetry) appearing.  However, two or three generations later great swathes of Britain were falling under ‘Angle’ and ‘Saxon’ rule.  The British probably needed a hero more than ever.  Some clever king or his courtly (or warband) bard may have come up with the idea of using Arthur, and a poem, or poems, in the style of newfangled (if they were) battle eulogy, accurate or not, and so it/they was/were composed.

These poems could already have been based on folk memory, unless there was poetry composed during his life and it outlived him, so could themselves have been a corruption – deliberate or otherwise – of events.  Even poetry composed during his life would be eulogies.  Bards weren’t historian, they were there to prays their lords and make them famous, if they could, and there’s plenty of evidence for the early poetry, if not being changed, then added to by later generations. (See ‘A Different Look At An Arthurian Battle Poem’ blog for further thoughts).

What would be odd is if Badon was added at this point in time (Late 6th century), had he not fought there.  Not impossible, but any stories must have been passed down through folklore only two or three generations old, regardless of the poetry.  What I do find conceivable, is that it was added much later; after all Badon doesn’t appear to have a rhyming couplet in the Historia Brittonum battle list, although I gave it one in my feeble attempt of a battle poem: Saeson (Saxon). (But it also should be noted that battles could be part of internal rhyming and not just line endings). He could also have gone from being portrayed as fighting at Badon in a poem to being the victor and leader.  These poems may have only called him “leader of battle”, but only this ancient audience may have known his true status.  There are many poems that don’t call their hero a king, even though we know they were.  (See blog ‘Arthur: King or Commander?)

Such poems, in the latter half of the 6th century, must have been used to inspire the British warriors who found themselves fighting against the powerful and ever expanding English.  These hypothetical Arthurian poems (or poem) may have been followed by the rekindling of old stories, some more fanciful than others, and his fame, and the stories, would begin to grow – beyond what he was worth some may have thought – and the poems travelled throughout Britain and beyond, from whichever locale they originated from, recited before battles in certain regions to inspire the combatants.  Not every region may have used this hero.  Some may have been uncertain about his lineage or his mixed blood origins (if they were), others may have sided with whoever it was that defeated him at Camlann. This is, of course, only if he was historical and not an historicized mythical figure. (See THIS blog for that particular discussion)

The naming game

At the time this hypothetical poem is in circulation (if Koch’s dating is right) a prince was born in Dalriada to a king called Áedán and, if we follow this hypothesis, decided to name his son Arturius after this hero of old, in honour of the fact that he too had an Hiberno-British boy.  Not long after (or possibly even before) three hundred miles away in Demetia, a king called Petr has heard the poem and, having a similar mixed blooded (or culturally mixed) son, whom he may have wished greatness upon, names him Arthur also.  As, possibly, does a certain Briton of Kintyre called Bicoir.  Meanwhile Britons simply didn’t use that name, as far as we know. To begin with, perhaps, because it was thought to be an Hiberno-British name; later it may be because of his mythical greatness.

Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) c. 550 – c...

Image via Wikipedia

This hypothetical poem, having reached the North, or having originated from it, is perhaps even recited by a warband bard called Neirin (Aneirin) to inspire the retinues of the Gododdin and their allies against their Bernician, Deiran, Picti, Scotti and probably British foes.  Perhaps their forefathers had even fought with him at the Battle of Celidon Wood … if this too wasn’t a later addition or in another region.  It would makes sense, in a poem that was about ‘local’ figures of fame.  After all, Arthur too supposedly fell in battle and, if those who identify the Battle of Camlan with Camboglanna (Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall are right, it too was in their region. (Lots of “ifs”).

In the great British tradition of the trinity and triad, his fame splits into three different forms: to the peasantry he becomes a stone throwing giant, to the storytellers a fighter of the Otherworld and the supernatural, but to the warband bards and warriors, he remains the ‘leader of battle’, if what came down to Nennius is anything to go by.

But, this is all hypothetical; although it could have as much weight as the Arthur of Y Gododdin being one of these other northern figures.  However, if Arthur map Petr came a generation before all these, it could, as Professor Ken Dark suggests, be him. Someone had to have been given the name first and if we didn’t have Arthur being named as the victor at Badon or the infamous battle list, this is who it might point to.  As stated in a previous blog, even if the Arthur mentioned in Y Gododdin isn’t an Arthur of Badon, it still doesn’t prove there wasn’t one.

In the the next blog I’ll explore another region that could have given us an Hiberno-British Arthur: the Wall.

Thanks for reading,

Mak

 

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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Four

Argyll – Kintyre

* UPDATED 1.6.12

Arthur son of Bicoir (born c. 580-600?)

Arthur son of Bicoir the Briton (ab Artuir filio Bicoir Pretene) is an interesting character as he isn’t given mac or maic for ‘son’, but the Latin filio of the word and is said to be a Briton or from Britain (Pretene). Even the spelling of Pretene is odd as the Irish didn’t use the letter p, and it would normally be spelled Cruthene or the like. It is generally accepted that this is derived from *Qritani or *Qriteni from Pretani, and it can be confusing at times as to whether ‘Britons’ with ‘Picts’ (also called Cruthni) are meant.

It appears that this Arthur was from Kintyre, which was part of Hibernian Dál Riata (Dalriada). This would seem to confirm it was a mixed ethnic area, unless he was brought in from ‘outside’. However, we also don’t know the ethnicity of his mother and, therefore, him … not to mention he could be completely fictional or even another Arthur entirely (see below).

Why was it needed to be said he was a Briton? Possibly because anyone reading the name Arthur would think they were of Hibernian stock … or was it because of what he (supposedly) ended up doing, so they had a Briton to blame?

This Arthur was supposedly involved in some assassination (or execution or invasion) work on either Islay or in what is now Ulster; possibly as an aire echta (‘noble of death-deed’/’nobleman of slaughter’). This is if he wasn’t purely a poetic devise as explored by J F Nagy in A Companion to Arthurian Literature (2009).

This Arthur appears in the 11th century Irish compilation The Annals of Tigernach. The annals gives a fragment of a poem by Bec Boirche, a 7th/8th century Ulster king and, presumably, bard.

 “625 Mongan, son of Fiachna of Lurga was struck with a stone by Arthur son of Bicoir the Briton, and was crushed. About this, Bec Boirche said:

‘Cold is the wind across Islay,

There are warriors in Kintyre,

They shall commit a cruel deed in retribution,

They shall kill Mongan, son of Fiachna.

Where the Church of Cluan Airthir is today,

Renowned were the four there executed;

Cormac Caem, with screaming

And Illann, son of Fiachra;

And the other two, — To whom many territories paid tribute,– Mongan, son of Fiachna of Lurgan and Ronan, son of Tuathal.”

If he was acting as an aire echta, he seems to have gone beyond what this ‘job’ entailed.  Here’s what the Irish Brehon Laws say an aire echta did:

IV 324.-109. The aire echta, why is he so called? Because he is a leader of five who is left to do feats of arms in [a neighbouring territory under] treaty-law for the space of a month, to avenge an offence against the honour of the tuath, one of whose men has been lately slain. If they do not (avenge this) within a month, they come upon treaty-law, so that their beds do not follow him from without. If they kill men within treaty-law, the same five, the aire echta must pay on their behalf, provided that land or bronze of a cauldron be not paid for it, but vessels to the value of a cow. He brings them out then to be …… till the expiration of treaty-law, (taking them) on the number of his protection and (that) of his friends, His retinue and his sick-maintenance are due as (those) of anaire desso.  (MacNeill, 1923, pp.297/298)

Perhaps Arthur got carried away with his work!

There are some, including Arthurian author August Hunt, who wonder if Bicoir is a corruption of Petuir, as B and P can be interchanged, and c an t could be mistaken in these early manuscripts. This would make it possible that Arthur ap Pedr (Petuir) and Arthur son of Bicoir, might be one and the same … although their dating is somewhat different.  He argues that Kintyre in Argyle could instead be Pembroke (Penbrog/Pen broc) in Dyfed. Both names do mean the same: ‘Headland’. But a look at the Domnall Brecc poem from Y Gododdin tells us they called Kintyre, ‘Bentir ‘(Pentir) in British, not ‘Benbroc’.

(The name Bicoir – Latin Beccurus -  is said by Patrick Sims-Williams to come from British *Bikkorix or “Little King”.  (The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: Phonology and Chronology, c. 400-1200).

Personally I’m not so sure about August’s argument. Apart from the dating discrepancy, it’s easy to imagine someone on a dynastic feuding mission from Kintyre to Islay or Ulster, but a little harder from Pembroke … though it’s not impossible, especially if we consider Nagy’s theory, which I’ll get to in a moment.

The odd thing about the poem is it mentions both the Dalriadian territories of Áedán’s (Cenél nGabráin) of Kintyre and Oengus’ (Cenél nOengusa) of Islay. It could mean that he was in Kintyre and would have to pass through Islay on his way to Ulster (Airthir=Armagh). It could also mean they were acting together or that he was from Kintyre and the ‘cold wind’ was blowing from Ulster via Islay, as the version of the poem in the Chronicon Scotorum has depicts:

Cold is the wind across Ile

Which blows against the youth of Cenn-tire;

They will commit a cruel deed in consequence;

They will kill Mongan, son of Fiachna.

Cormac caem and Illand son of Fiachu die.

Ronan, son of Tuathal died:—

Wherever it was this avenging took place it had to be in an area that was under treaty to his. The alternative is he wasn’t an aire echta at all, but the leader of a larger fianna (warband) as a ri fianna (leader of the warband). However, there is also this entry from the Annals of Clacmacnoise for 624 (Quoted by O’Donovan, FM, vol. i. p.243, note z):

“Mangan mac Fiaghna, a well spoken man, and much given to the wooing of woman, was killed by one ??? [Arthur ap] Bicoir, a Welshman, with a stone.” (The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal: To the Land of the Living, Kuno Meyer, 1895/2008, p.76).

Irish and Scottish Dalriada

This one doesn’t even mention Arthur, only Bicoir, whom it calls a Welshman, which may indicates a later dating.  An interesting point here is how there is more than one version of the poem. This just shows that there wasn’t always a respect for accurate oral transmission, and how any poetry about an Arthur of Badon (if he and it existed) could have suffered the same consequences.

This Arthur doesn’t appear to have been a prince, although we’ll never know. (An aire echta could be anyone of this class, from nobleman to prince). He very well could have been considered a Briton rather than a Dalriadan Hibernian, unless even a Dalriadan who was from the British Isles would be termed as being from Britain. He would be contemporary with Artúr mac Conaing, if I’ve got my dating right, and could even have fought along side him. The problem is we don’t know how old he was in 625. Nor do we know the politcal situation between Britons and Gaels around this date. We also don’t know how accurate that poem about him is … and here’s the possible fly in the ointment!

Joseph Falaky Nagy thinks this Arthur could have been used because he was actually the ‘the famous one’. This is because, as mentioned earlier, this Mongán is semi-mythical. Here’s what Nagy says:

 “In light of the fact that Mongán’s conception tale (preserved in a text as early as the seventh or eighth century) stands as the closest Celtic analogue to the account of Arthur’s deception-laden origins given by Geoffrey of Monmouth centuries later (Mac Cana 1972: 128–9), it is tempting to speculate that an Irish author familiar with both narrative traditions thought it would be fitting to have Mongán’s life come to an end at the hands of a figure that he construed as his British counterpart – or that the tradition the author was following was linking together figures who in other respects as well appear to be cognate reflections of a Celtic mythological type.” (2009, pp.117-118)

… and he goes on to remind us …

“In the same early cycle of stories about the mysterious Mongán cited above, in one of the most extraordinary references to reincarnation to be found anywhere in Celtic literatures (Nagy 1997: 303–7), we learn that he was a rebirth of the Irish hero Finn mac Cumaill, around whom is centered the so-called Fenian or Ossianic tradition of story and song, and whose long-lived fame was still attested in the repertoires of Irish and Scottish storytellers of the last century. The connection between Mongán and Arthur would be even stronger, then, if we accept the Dutch Celticist A. G. van Hamel’s unjustly overlooked thesis (anticipated in Nutt & Meyer 1895: 2.22–5) that Arthur the dux bellorum and Finn the leader of Ireland’s premier fian, “hunting and warring band,” are matching cognate manifestations of what he dubbed the Celtic “exemplary hero” (1934: 219–33).”  (p.118)

On the point of Mongán being the rebirth of Finn in one of the stories and Mongán’s semi-mythical status, R. J. MacCulloch noted:

“This twofold account of Mongan’s birth is curious. Perhaps the idea that he was a rebirth of Fionn may have been suggested by the fact that his father was called Fiachna Finn, while it is probable that some old myth of a son of Manannan’s called Mongan was attached to the personality of the historic Mongan.” (The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p.351)

However, I have two thoughts on the above: firstly, Nagy isn’t correct in saying Arthur the “dux bellorum” (of the H.B.) and Finn are “ … matching cognate manifestations of what [Meyer] dubbed the Celtic “exemplary hero”. Finn and the Arthur of Welsh mythology may be similar, but Arthur of the H.B isn’t. Secondly, we don’t know how old the story of the conception of Arthur is. It could be a Geoffrey of Monmouth invention in the Early-12th century. There’s no mention of it in the early tradition that has survived.

Was this Mongán semi-mythical or just purely-mythical? This is important for knowing how to treat Arthur ap Bicoir. Was Mongán, indeed, merged with the  supposed historical leader of the Dál n-Araidhe (south of Ulster Dál Riata) said to be from Ráth Mór (Rathmore) near Lough Neagh in Co. Antrim, Ulster? Or was he only this figure who was himself a complete fabrication? (A similar question to Arthur’s existence). It may be telling that he is missing from the Rawlinson genealogy for the Dál n-Araidhe, which only gives a Echach Iarlathi as the son and heir of Fiachnae mac Báetáin. Of course, if Mongán was only ever a prince and never made it to a king because of being bopped on the head by Arthur, then he wouldn’t be there.

If Bec Boirche’s poem is purely a story, or a semi-legendary one, then this changes things somewhat. The question that could be raised is: were both Mongán and this Arthur semi-mythical figures? There are a couple of interesting things to come out of this: if this Arthur is the one of fame he could not only be the one of Badon but also his father’s name is given as Bicoir (or the name it was thought to be at the time) and this would answers the age-old question about whether Uthur actually was his da or not.

But why would the poet need to say that they were Britons? Nagy interoperates it as “Artú(i)r son of Bicóir” from Britain” and that could be the case, whether they were Gael or not. Kuno Meyer of the 19th century, in Nutt’s Voyage of Bran, points to the same entry in the Bodleian MS., Rawlinson, B. 488, fo. 9b, 2, where it reads …

Mongan mac Fíachna Lurgan ab Artuir filio Bicoir Pretene lapite percussus interit, – Mongan mc Fiachna Lurgan dies struck with a stone by Arthur, son of Bicoir of Preten.”

… and he translates Preten(e) as Pictland. However, no one else does, although a Pict doing the job wouldn’t be out of the question.

There were on and off relations with Alt Clut at the time and, I suppose, it could be possible that the hired a Briton from here to do their dirty work. The downside to this hypothesis is that it would bring the might of the Dál n-Araidhe down on Alt Clut!

Unfortunately, Nagy doesn’t comment on why this Arthur, if he was ‘the famous one’, was said to have killed Cormac, Illand and Ronan. Were these also semi-mythical? Either way, he is still an intriguing character and Nagy’s theory should be given more consideration.

If this poem is an accurate or semi-accurate depiction of events and this Arthur is of the early 7th century, and not ‘the famous one’, then the news of his deeds may have travelled far and wide. He’s the kind of warrior others may have wanted on their side. Is he the one mentioned in Y Gododdin? Once again it comes down to if he was the enemy or not when Y Gododdin was composed, or if this Arthur was a mercenary. Even if the one mentioned in Y Gododdin wasn’t this Arthur, could his exploits have been attached to the legend at a later date? If so, that would most likely have to come via Stathclyde if they did.

In the next blog we’ll be staying in the region to look at two unusual figures. One who was the grandfather of an Arthur – Feradach hoa Artúr (ca 697) – and one who may or may not have had an Arthur name and who was either a Pict or Hiberno-Pict: Artharus rig Cruthni (date uncertain).

Thanks for reading,

Mak

 

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