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

NB: There may be less citation than I would like in these current blogs because I’m in Austria, away from my books. I will try to add them when I return home in April.

UPDATED 14.5.12

ORIGINS

Nowhere in the early, pre-Galfridian (pre Geoffrey of Monmouth) Arthurian Welsh stories (excluding the genealogies for the moment) is there a mention of Arthur’s ‘biological’ origins. Unlike the mythological Fionn mac Cumhail or Gwyn ap Nudd (more below) he is given no patronym. He’s not ‘ap Uthyr’ – son of Uthyr. (Uthyr is not given as his father until Geoffrey of Monmouth). This could be a problem for both a historical and a mythical Arthur. If he’s mythical, this would mean he may have to be the first of his mythological line, so to speak. The Welsh, like their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, liked to show their descent from gods (even when they were Christians) and yet there are no mythical lineages back to an Arthur (unless you could the later MacArthur/Campbell genealogies), and, perhaps more importantly, no royal line trying to claim descent from him. This could be simply because he’d been historicised so well; it could also be because he existed but his origins weren’t preserved, just like Ambrosius’ weren’t. As for the lack of patronym, this may not have been something given in the 5th century. Gildas gives no patronyms for his historical British figures. If his exploits were only known from poems, these poems probably never mentioned his father. There is, however, a lineage given for Arthur back to the god Llyr. (More on that later).

GWYDION & ARTAIUS

Gods with similar traits were very often known by different names in different cultures. There is one from Wales, Gwydion, who had the same traits as the Gaulish god, Artaius (another bear god), who the Romans associated with Mercury (Mercurius Artaius). This god of the air had the same shapeshifting qualities as Gwydion … as well as those given to Arthur’s magician Menw ap Teirgwaedd in Culhwch, Merlin and, possibly later, Uthur. These qualities – the ability to shape shift into a bear for example – is what you might expect from a bear-derived sky god.

Tomas Green has tried to show an association with the Romano-British deity Mars Alator (possibly meaning “Huntsman” or “Cherisher”), known from an inscription at an altar at the Roman fort of ARBEIA (South Shields) and a silver-gilt votive plaque at Barkway, Hertfordshire. A huntsman would be more in keeping with Arthur. I mention the following elsewhere but will repeat it here.

Green has argued that the poem ‘The Chair of the Sovereign/Prince‘ or ‘The Chair of Teyrnon (‘Kadeir Teyrnon’), shows Arthur as a mythical figure because it relates him to the divine person of Teyrnon (from the Mabinogion) and of the god Alator: ‘echen aladwr’, (“of the family of Aladwr”). (“A Note of Aladur, Alator and Arthur”, STUDIA CELTICA, 41, 2007, 237-41 Available at http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/papers/Aladur.pdf). He also treats it as pre-Galfridian. However, as August Hunt points out in one of his blogs:

 “Arthur was of the family of the Breton Aldroenus, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the Welsh genealogies, this Aldroenus becomes Aldwr. Uther’s father Constantine/Custennin was the brother of this Aldwr. ‘Aladwr’ is thus merely a slight misspelling or corruption of Aldwr.  Arthur is ‘of the family of Al(a)dwr’ and not of the god Alator [...] The poem is thus immediately shown to NOT be pre-Galfridian. We must, therefore, be extremely cautious in how we approach this material. Especially as components from earlier Welsh tradition and from Geoffrey can be mixed in the same composition.”

Available at http://darkavalonbooks.posterous.com/uther-dragon-ambrosius-aurelianus-and-the-rea

Had these shapeshifting sky-god qualities been something Arthur of the Welsh legends had, it would be an open-and-shut case. Instead, he has qualities more like the Irish character Fionn mac Cumhail.

A BRITISH FINN?

First another quote:

“In the Scotorum Historia, “History of the Scots,” compiled by Hector Boece (1527) and translated later into Older Scots by John Bellenden as the Chronicles of Scotland, the Irish hero Finn MacCool is depicted as a giant, and the narratives attached to him are compared to tales of Arthur. Boece and his translators contrast the “gestes [deeds] of Arthur” favorably with the “vulgar” traditions about Finn MacCool. It is easy to over-interpret such references, but Finn and Arthur as leaders of warrior bands have much in common, and both are endowed with gigantic stature (Nagy 1985). A series of Welsh tales gathered in the early seventeenth century with the specific purpose of defending Geoffrey’s history against the attacks of men like Hector Boece also characterized Arthur as a giant or a trickster/giant-slayer.” (Juliette Wood, A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Helen Fulton, 2009, p.107)

There have been similarities (although there are differences) shown between Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool), the Irish mythical hunter-warrior-poet, and Arthur. (Fionn (Fair) was his nickname, his actual name was Deimne)A mythological Arthur (or one of the elements that made him up) could have been the British equivalent of Finn. Did his British counterpart have originally had a similar name, like other British/Irish gods, which then was changed to Arthur?

Cognate with Finn would be Gwyn (‘Fair’) or Gwen (‘White’). There is, of course,Gwyn ap Nudd (son of Nudd), and Finn’s grandfather’s name was Nuada, so was he Finn’s British counterpart? There is one reference to this Gwyn as a “magic warrior huntsman” – which he is in the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth – , but, in general, they are two very different characters and he seems different from the Arthur persona. There is a character called Gwen Pendragon (the only other early pendragon we know of) who supposedly held Arthur prisoner for three days.

There are six other gwen/gwyn (‘white’/‘fair’) association with Arthur: his wife Gwenhwyfar (‘White Phantom’); his ship Predwyn (‘Fair Form’); his magical cloak Gwenn (‘White’); the name of his feasting hall is Ehangwen (‘Broad-fair [white?]’); his dagger Carnwennan (‘White-hilted One’), and one could include his shield Wyneb Gwrthucher (‘Face Of Evening’).  Coincidences with the names Gwen/Gwyn most likely, but they still give pause for thought.

If Arthur was a version of Gwyn ap Nudd, his story, even pre-Galfridian, had changed somewhat since their divergence, but this would be expected. But I doubt very much if Arthur and Gwyn ap Nudd are one and the same, and they appear together in Culhwch ac Olwen.

It would be interesting if Arthur did replace Finn in Cambro-Irish southwest Wales, as he doesn’t seem to have done so in western Scotland, which could be an indication and just how much more British those of Demetia (modern day Dyfed and Ceredigion) where in comparison to those of the north.

No, honest, it’s true!

I have often read how like Finn the character of Arthur is in the early stories, but I thought I ought to look at this myself, and see just how similar they are. I’ll do this through a list:

  1. Outcast or outside of society: Finn is said to be, but I don’t see this in the stories. In history a fianna (warband) could be an outcast bunch of youths, but that’s not what Finn’s warband were. Arthur isn’t an outcast the early stories. This doesn’t seem to happen until the saints’ Lives.
  2. Not a king: Finn isn’t a ‘king’ but Arthur is ‘Sovereign Lord of Britain’ (pen tyrned).
  3. Hunter: Finn seems to mainly hunt dear, and is involved in the hunt for Green Boar of Beinn Gulbain. Arthur hunts the Twrch Trwyth.
  4. Poet: Finn yes and Arthur composes one englyn that satirises Cai.
  5. Has a magical dog: Finn has two dogs and both are also part human. Arthur’s dog is a dog but folk legend made it into a giant one.
  6. Encounter the Otherworld, sidhe/sidde (Faerie): Finn yes, Arthur yes.
  7. Fights known historical foes or other peoples of his own island: Finn yes. (The Norse and other Irish). Arthur no, except in one later Cornish tale.
  8. Death of one of his wives: Finn yes (Saba), Arthur no.
  9. Names his weapons: Arthur yes, Finn no. But Finn is given a magical spear.
  10. Requires his men to know poetry, be warriors and kind to woman; any member of his warband has to pass the three tests and learn the Twelve Books of Poetry: Finn yes. Arthur, no.
  11. Consorts with other mythical and historical characters from other times: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  12. Courts in three parts of the realm: Arthur yes, Finn, no.
  13. Kills giants: Finn yes, Arthur yes.
  14. Kills witches: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  15. Uses his men to do some of the dirty work: Arthur yes, Finn, no.
  16. Has warriors from abroad in his warband: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  17. Gets great wisdom from eating the Salmon of Knowledge and Nuts of Knowledge’: Finn yes, Arthur no, but Cai and Gwyrhr encounter a salmon of wisdom in the River Severn (Afon Hafren).
  18. Dispenses his wise words on the code of the warband: Finn yes. Arthur no.
  19. Captain of the High King’s warband: Finn yes. Arthur no. Arthur is the overall leader of his warband and a ‘Sovereign Lord’ himself. In fact, no pen teulu (the Welsh equivalent of the Irish ri fianna) is mentioned.
  20. Is given a mythical lineage: Finn yes. Arthur is only linked to Brân and his father Llŷr In the Mostyn MS 117 Genealogies, known as the Bonedd yr Arwyr (‘Descent of the Heroes’), but not in the stories.
  21. Relates to druids: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  22. Learn of his childhood: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  23. Hear of him as an old man: Finn yes, Arthur no.
  24. Christian references: Arthur yes, Finn no.
  25. Fights abroad: Arthur yes, Finn no.

So, out of twenty-five comparisons, there are four or five similarities. That’s hardly similar at all. There would, of course, be divergence from a common source but this looks more like some basic folkloric commonalities.

If Arthur did have another name, we may never know what it was, unless Gwen Pendragon was it, but I don’t think it was Finn.

THE NAMING GAME

With regards to these other historical Arthurs and their naming, I will reiterate something I have said in another blog: There’s a quote I’d like to make from Thomas Green’s book, ‘Concepts of Arthur first:

“To have all four [of these historical Arthurs] ‘named after ‘the historical Arthur’ … would be a type of commemoration for which Celtic tradition tradition offers no parallel,’ as no less an authority than Rachel Bromwich has made clear (1975-6: 178-9). So what can the solution be?” (p.49)

Now, I haven’t read this particular work Green cites, and far be it from me to refute the late, great Rachel Bromwich, but there are some other names that seemed to have been used on a number of occasions. Royal houses generally liked to use the names of great leaders, not mythical figures. Here are some of those (British used) name:

  1. Constantine/Constantin/Costentyn/Custennin/Custennyn (and many other variations)
  2. Caraticus/Coroticus/Ceretic/Caratawc/Caradog/Cerdic (?)
  3. Geraint, Gereint
  4. Cadwallon/Catguolaun
  5. Rodri/Rhodri
  6. Ewein/Owein
  7. Dumnagual/Dumngual/Dumnguallaun

The first two names on that list became legendary, but were not mythical. These are names used by the British, but the Irish reused names also, and a look at the king list of Connacht alone will demonstrate this ( http://rootsweb.ancestry.com/~irlkik/ihm/conkings.htm ), with Aed, Ailill and Cathal being popular. Interestingly, they did not use the mythical name Fionn/Finn. (The fact that the Irish didn’t name their sons Fionn is used as evidence for the British not using the name Arthur – more on that in other parts). As for the Picts, they turned this reusing of names into an art form!

If two, or even possibly three of these other historical Arthurs were named around the same time, and one of these was the original, we still have to explain why the others were given the name at the same time, if there was no ‘original’ Arthur of Badon before them. Fashion? Named after a popular mythical or folkloric figure? That’s what Higham and Green suggest.

In the next part we’ll look in greater detail at Arthur’s twelve battles and the arguments for and against their historicity.

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

Mak

 

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