There appears to be three (or even four) different Arthurs going on here: the giant who has a giant dog and giant son (although who is never himself called a giant!), who throws boulders around for a hobby; the superhuman, superhero giant slayer of the tales like Culhwch ac Olwen from the 10th century, and the soldier of the Historia Brittonum … if he was. We could add the Messianic Arthur if he wasn’t the same as one of the other mythical Arthurs. Culhwch ac Olwen also shows us another thing: whilst undoubtedly it came from an earlier period than the 10th century when it is believed to have been written, it contains no elements of the Arthur of the H.B.. In fact, in none of the Arthurian tales contained within what has become known as The Mabinogion has this soldier figure been added, when he could have been in its later development. This soldier doesn’t appear in the stories until the early 12th century with Geoffrey of Monmouth, unless the dating of the Breton Legend of St. Geoznovius to the early 11th century is correct, which depicts a similar (King) Arthur and says it is based on an earlier work called the Ystoria Britanica, is correct.
So, the question is: are these stories, poems and sites from a legendary historical figure, or the historicized mythical or folkloric figure?
ALL OR NOTHING – EITHER/OR
As with many things Arthurian, the answers to these questions tend to get polarized into the ‘all or nothing’ or ‘either/or’ arguments that are applied to the subject. Here are two example:
- ‘Ambrosius Aurelianus was the victor at Badon so Arthur couldn’t have been there because Gildas doesn’t mention him’, or “Arthur was the victor at Badon not Ambrosius’. Why couldn’t Arthur have been at Badon too? Why couldn’t they both have had victory claimed in their name by different factions (or bards) … that is, if the argument that Ambrosius was definitely the victor of Badon actually stands, which some scholars think it doesn’t, or isn’t conclusive? (Higham, 1994 for example). It can be (and is) argued that the 6th century writer Gildas in De Excidio Britannia (DEB) champions Ambrosius because it had to be seen that, yet again, a Roman (which is what Gildas calls him) saved the day, and not, as usual, an unmartial Briton. Even if Gildas knew Arthur had been present, and even if he saw him as a good guy, it may not have suited his argument if Arthur was seen as decidedly British or, God forbid, an Hiberno-Briton (Gael/British mixed blood) or Hiberno-Britannian (Gael speaker of Britannia).
- ‘The 12 battles of Arthur in the H.B. were all made up’ or ‘All those battle actually happened!” Why do all the battles have to have been made up or happened? Why not just a few to pad it out? Why couldn’t some have been accidentally added to this Arthur from another Arthur?
Here’s another example: if the princes who were given the name Arthur/Artúr in the 6th and 7th centuries were, as argued by the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp, named after a famous mythical or folkloric figure and not a slightly earlier historical character, then, by the same argument, why couldn’t a 5th century Arthur have been named after this same hypothetical figure of legend or myth? (An Arthur who may have fought at the famous battle of Mount Badon a century before the births of at least two of these other Arthurs). After all, they are indeed arguing that there was a mythical Arthur alongside these other historical Arthurs.
As to the name: ‘it was either mythical/folkloric or historical, but not both.’ In fact, it had to be two of those things by this argument. To argue it came from a mythical source is to admit it also became historical as well, when it was given to the various 6th and 7th century princes (if there was no earlier Arthur of Badon). They certainly aren’t historicized mythical figures. If it was folkloric, then it may have first been historic (say from Lucius Artorius Castus - as put forward by Higham), then folkloric, then historic (when given to the first Arthur) … before becoming folkloric again. (Hope you’re following this?!). This is what Higham and Green are suggesting, but in slightly different ways with Green leaning towards a mythical figure, not folkloric or legendary. However, whilst they don’t deny the 6th century King Arthur of Demetia, for example, possibly being named after a mythical or legendary figure, there is no consideration that Arthur of Badon could have been too, because they equate the mythical stories and onomastic and topographic sites with him.
On the issue of the name, Nick Higham in his book ‘King Arthur Myth-Making & History’ (2002), suggests that …
“The great strength of this position lies in the field of philological development. Given the known sound changes occurring over a period, the development of ‘Arthur from Artorius is ‘phonologically perfect’ (Professor Richard Coates, personal communication). p.74
“Arthur therefore seems to have originated as a Roman name Artorius but then was developed orally as an agent of legendary power [...]” p.95
If the name is from Latin Artorius (Insular Latin Arturius), via Lucius Artorius Castus as Higham suggests, then how did a British folkloric figure come to have a Roman name? Higham wonders at a possible bear cult or character, even though the name Artorius may have nothing to do with bears (*artos/arth), it not deriving from a Celtic language, or there being no bear cult attested to in Britain (although a jade bear has been found). He points out that this naming could have been of an existing British folkloric figure renamed during Roman occupation, after someone, such as Lucius Artorius Castus, (only named after him, but not him) because his name was close enough to an existing British character – for example Artos – or, that it was a Latin decknamen that substituted the Artos name. This could possible, but this may have to be a folkloric character (as argued by Higham) rather than a mythical deity (as argued by Green). For the latter we’d have to find a bear cult. But none of the other Romanized British deities have had their names dramatically changed, as far as I know. Here are others: Apollo Belinus, Apollo Maponos), Apollo Cunomaglus, Deus Maglus, and Mars Nodens. We might expect Mars or Mercury Artos, but why Artorius if he wasn’t associated with bears in the first place? Mars Arcturus (Arturus) if it came via Arcturus might be a better option, but we still have to find him. (See below).
On the point of it coming from a bear cult, whilst this is not impossible, no one suggests that all the various ‘dog/hound’ derived names of the period – and there were a lot – means there was a dog cult! As Gidlow points out, if one of the kings that Gildas berated, Maglocunus, had not been mentioned by him in the DEB but had come down through tradition, we might also be thinking he was simply the historicization (and corruption) of the known Romano-British god Apollo Cunomaglos.
A LAC of evidence?
With regards to the much discussed Lucius Artorius Castus; the 3rd century historical figure who is championed by Malcor and Littleton as being the bases for the King Arthur legend. (And was shoehorned into the 5th century for the film King Arthur!), 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 tribuni or general) with for the VI Victrix at York by the time he was in Britain, and an aging one at that. 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?
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 and Olwen? The similarities don’t seem to appear until much later.
YOU’RE A STAR!
The other argument, which is suggested by Green, (after his suggestion that the name could come from Art – gur – ‘Bear Man’ – although this should produce Arthwr) is that the name could have come from Latin Arcturus, which originated in Greek mythology: Arktouros: ‘Guardian of the Bear’, which was both a star and constellation in the northern skies, said to guard both Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. ‘The Plough’, (Ursa Major), known in Germanicus Caesar’s day as the ‘Bear-like wagon’ (Germanicus Caesar, 1976, p.55), was once known as Arthur’s Wain (Wagon) in Britain, which may, indeed, have come via Ar(c)turus’ Wagon. The name deriving from Arcturus is a possibility, as it could mutate to Neo-Brittonic or even Goidelic as Arturus. After all, Arthur of Badon, it is argued, is never written Arthurius (the Welsh form of Artorius) but he is called Arthurus.
Let’s look at the arguments for the name coming from Ar(c)turus in a little more depth. There are several observations arising from this argument:
- If the personal name is via Arturus, and there was no Arthur of Badon, then why isn’t Artúr mac Áedán’s (argued by some to be the first recipient of the name although it could be Arthur ap Pedr) Latin name written as such? It is written Arturius. If they knew where the name derived from, wouldn’t they have written Arturus? That is unless it had been shortened much earlier and was re-Latinized to Arturius.
- If there was a British or Irish myth around this ‘bear’ constellation, then why did it not leave a story within the Arthurian legend that included bears or, at least something to do with characters that might resemble a sky god from Greek mythology in some way, or even include wagons or chariots? Or is Arthur the protector of Britain the personification of Arcturus the protector of the bears as Green suggests? If so, then Arthur was later merged with a hunter-warrior archetype.
- As mentioned above, even if these later Arthurs (or the first one) were named after Arturus, why couldn’t an earlier Arthur have been named after ‘him’/it also. One of these figures was named ‘Arthur’ first, whether that be an Arthur of Badon or even, perhaps, Arthur ap Petr of Demetia (mid to late 6th century), and they were either named because it was just a Latin name they liked, because of folkloric or mythical figure (possibly) renamed after L. Artorius Castus or because of Arturus, or some other figure we’re unaware of. However, we still have to explain why two or even possibly three were named Arthur/Artúr almost at the same time, if their datings are anywhere near close.
An alternative, of course, could be that the mythical Arthur (of the Welsh and Cornish stories) derives from Arturus (or some other mythical figure) and the historical Arthur (from the H.B. and A.C.) is from the name Artorius/Arturius, and these were later to be merged. The name’s origin does not dictate that the original carrier of the name was the Arthur! My real name is Malcolm, but I’m not one of the original followers of St Columba!
So, it would seem that it’s alright to suggest mythical or folkloric derived Arthurs that Higham and Green forward as the source of the name and the legends, even though there’s no actual evidence to back them up, but to suggest some guy may have simply been called Arturius or have even been named after the same folkloric or mythical figure, isn’t founded, because it has no evidence. That doesn’t seem like a level playing field.
In the next part we’ll look at how poetry may have been the source of the first information on Arthur and how a historic figure might have given rise to the fantastical stories.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.