Tag Archives: Arcturus

In The Name Of ‘Arthur’

Concept for ebook cover

Concept for ebook cover

Firstly, apologies for any subscriber who received that last rouge post. I was trying out a new piece of software and it published the image without me realising I wasn’t going to be asked if I was sure I wanted it published!

Secondly, apologies for the massive gaps between these blogs, but this has been due to work, ill health and working on the eBook whilst recovering from an operation. That has been the one positive side to all this and it is a lot further on.

However, as you can see from the image, the title of the book has changed. Not only the title, but the whole theme of it. Rather than just dealing with whether there was a historical Arthur of the 5th and 6th centuries I decided to expand it to include, not only the various candidates for the derivation of the name and the myths, but all the known ‘Arthurs’ from 8th century BC Greece to a Duke of Brittany in the Late-12th century. In fact, the eBook, or, rather, eTome, now goes from 800BC to AD1200. It not only covers all the known ‘Arthurs’ but the history of Britannia at the time they are said to have existed, whether that be in physical or story form. This has, of course, expanded it somewhat and also created a great deal more work for myself, but it has been worth it as the whole point of this exercise was as a detailed research document to help with a screen- or radio play. It has worked, and I am also (finally) currently developing the latter.

Below is part of the Introduction:

When it comes to Arthurian scholarship there are two main schools of thought with regards to the Arthur who allegedly fought as the Siege of Mount Badon in the Late-5th or Early 6th centuries (an Arthur that will become known in this work as ‘Arthur’ III): the first school argues that he was a mythological figure (an Arthur who will become known to us as ‘Arthur’ X) from the early Welsh tradition who was historicised (an ‘Arthur’ X who was made into an ‘Arthur’ III) . The second school says that he was a historical figure who was later mythologised (an ‘Arthur’ III who became an ‘Arthur’ X). Both arguments have sub-groups within them. The historicised mythical school gives the original, if not of the myth then the name, as a Greek and Roman demi-god (Arktouros/Arcturus – who I will call ‘Arthur’ I); or a Roman general (Lucius Artorius Castus – ‘Arthur’ II), or some unknown British deity or folk hero. The mythologised historical Arthur school are divided between when an ‘Arthur’ III lived? where he lived? this not being his name but an epithet for another name, such as Ambrosius Aurelianus; Arthur was his name but he was known by an epithet, such as Riothamus; or him actually being a later Arthur, such as Artúr mac Áedán (‘Arthur’ IV) of what is now Argyle in the Western Isles of Scotland or Arthur map Pedr (‘Arthur’ VII) from what is now Dyfed in southwest Wales; and they are also broken up into the various arguments given as to how this Arthur was mythologised. We can add to this lot a third school, who see Arthur as mainly a literary figure. This is the strange world you have just entered in to!

Those who follow the Arthurian question either fall in to one school or the other. You will be very hard pressed to find someone who thinks he could have been both – that is a completely separate ‘Arthur’ III and an ‘Arthur’ X, related only in name - but this is what this present work will also explore: could there have been a mythical character and historical figure, who fought at Badon, whose commonality was only their name? However, it is about far more than that. It is about the history of the isles of Britannia during the periods covered but especially from the 4th century to the 12th century AD. (In brief form of course!). To understand an ‘Arthur’ III, if he existed, we must understand the Britain in which he is said to have lived and the Britain in which his fame developed and would fashion him into a medieval king in shining armour.

So, besides covering the usual questions around if there was a historical figure of the Late-5th to Early-6th centuries, this work covers all the aspects of the Arthurian mythologies from 800BC up to AD1200 as well, including one of the candidates for not only his name, but, in at least one scholars eyes [1], the inspiration for some of earliest Welsh stories: Zeus’ bastard offspring-come-star and constellation, Arktouros/Arcturus. The constellation is now known as Boötes, ‘The Ploughman‘, but the star Arcturus (the Latin version of the name) is still called such, forming his knee and being the fourth brightest in the Northern Hemisphere. Not only may this have been the origin of the name (one of several others possibilities) but in medieval times one of the constellations associated with him, The Plough (Ursa Major), had the name Arthur’s Wain (Arthur’s Wagon). So this is why we start our story in  ancient Greece. But this is only one small aspect of the mythological Arthur and we will look at the early Welsh tradition that showed an Arthur not only different from his later Anglo-Norman guise but from the one in the Welsh, 9th century ‘Historia Brittonum’ (‘History of the Britons’). Not a Saxon fighter but a killer of giants, witches and magical boars.

We will, of course, explore all of Arcturus’ Earthly counterparts. That is in the plural because, as you now know, there were several historical figures named Arthur, or variants thereof, such as the Gaelic equivalents of Artúr/Artur/Artuir, some of whom with this name have been argued to be the ‘original’. It is an odd fact that it was Gaelic speaking or cultural influenced areas of Britain that used the name (as well as Ireland) when no royal British or later Welshmen would give their sons this name. Even the British descended Bretons would christen their sons Arthur. Why not the Britons?

We will also look to the earth and examine the archaeology of the periods covered; a science from which we have gained a great deal of our information about the so called ‘Dark Ages’; better known to archaeologist as Sub- or Post-Roman and Early Medieval Britain. Archaeology’s view of Early Medieval Britannia seems to be a little different to that portrayed by the (very limited) texts we have. Which are right? Is our interpretation wrong?

Every text examined is in the chronological order in which it is thought to have appeared and not in the order of the events and the peoples’ lives it describes. This is important because we need to be aware of how long after the events a work was written, how this affected what was reported and how these authors influenced future works? I will, now and again come out of this chronology where it’s necessary, especially in the case of forwarding modern scholarly and archaeological discoveries and opinions.

The ebook is designed so those with more knowledge of either ancient British history or Arthuriana can jump to any relevant sections by clicking on them in the Contents. Those about or related to an Arthur are in purple, whilst those about Britannia or its archaeology are in black. I have also given the most relevant Arthurian related sections an asterix  (*) listing next to them, with *** being the most relevant or of interest, in my opinion. So, to break the four parts down:

… and I will break the four parts down in another post.

Thanks for reading and any comments,


[1]: Professor Graham Anderson, ‘King Arthur of Antiquity’ (2004)


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Arthurian ebook update

Yes, still working on it. I’d hoped to have had it out by now but decided to change the format, which, of course, had a knock-on effect. A video editing deadline has also prevented me from doing as much as I would have liked to have done, but I have three weeks holiday coming up, in which time out hope to complete it … ‘hope’ being the operative word!

I’m also still playing around with the title, and, as you can see by the image, it’s currently called ‘King’ Arthur – Folklore, Fact and Fiction, with the subtitle of ‘An exploration of the Arthurs of early history, folklore & mythology‘. (Arthurs, plural, referring to not only an Arthur of Badon, but the one of mythology, topography and fiction, Arcturus (Arktouros), Lucius Artorius CastusArtúr mac Áedán, Artúr mac Coaning, Arthur ap Pedr, Artuir filio Bicoir, Artharus rig Cruthni, Artur mac Bruide, Arthur Penuchel and other Breton Arthurs). If there are any better suggestions out there for a title, I’m very willing to hear them.

I have been expanding the section on the Historia Brittonum (H.B.) and the 12 supposed battles of Arthur after coming across several papers and books that I hadn’t read before. These don’t so much go into where the battles might have been but cover more about the political and ecclesiastical situation at the time the book was compiled and how they affected the work’s outcome. In my ebook I’m actually more interested in where the H.B.’s readers, both British and English, may have thought the battles to have been at the time. They probably had as many arguments about them as we do! I also discuss what rumblings there might have been to the Arthurian section of the H.B. if, as suggested by the likes of Nicholas HIgham and Thomas Green, they were made up for the purpose? If these battles were mostly news to its readers, there must have been some kind of reaction. I may post this chapter either as a multipart  blog, or as a link to the PDF version of it in the near future. This will depend on time.

I am most grateful to historian and author Tim Clarkson* for mentioning the ebook over at his Senchus blogsite. I am indeed honoured.

Until the next time,


*Not wanting to appear like a creep, but I would thoroughly recommend all three of Tim’s books: ‘Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland’, ‘The Picts: a history and ‘The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings’.


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


English: Scanned from frontispiece of Ab Ithel...

Annales Cambriae

Everyone’s conclusions to this are going to be different, depending on many different factors: how long you’ve been studying the Arthurian subject, how much you’ve read, your culture, your beliefs, your personality.  My conclusions, in a sense, don’t matter, it’s how these blogs have affected your views on the subject.

The original question I posed was:

Can it be deduced with any certainty or probability that the Arthur depicted in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, said to have fought at the first battle of Mount Badon, was based on a historical character of the Late-5th/Early-6th centuries or an earlier mythical or folkloric figure? or that he could have been both?”

Can there be any certainty that he was a historic figure that fought at Badon? As long as there’s disagreement on the validity of the H.B and the A.C., no. (Perhaps some individuals can be certain, but it’s hard to see there ever being a consensus, unless there’s some miraculous find to prove he existed). Could he have been purely mythical or folkloric? Yes, but I cannot see how there can be any certainty of it. Could he have been both? Yes, but there can be no certainty about that either. Yet many people are certain of one or the other.

Page from the Book of Aneurin , MS c. 1275. Fr...

Y Gododdin

Probability is another matter. If the probability question where to do with the weight of evidence and the odds of existence to none-existence, then the odds would (probably) be against his existence. But this depends on the interpretation of the evidence in the first place. For example, if you think the Welsh material probably came from a mythical figure you will have a different outcome to if you think the material probably came from Arthur of Badon, or his name replaced a mythical figure. The same goes for the information in Y Gododdin, the Historia Britonnum and the Annales Cambriae. If you think these sources valid you have a totally different outcome to if you don’t. If you think they’re valid, historical documents, then he existed. Even if it’s only the H.B. that can be taken as valid (if not accurate) then he existed. But if you don’t … So, we probably can’t use probability!

For me, there is no firm conclusion to be had, but I hope I’ve, at least, added something to this debate. It cannot be proven that there was a historical, 5th century Arthur, that’s impossible to do, but I hope these blogs have shown that, if there was one, there’s no reason his name couldn’t have come about by the same means argued for the 6th and 7th century Arthur/Artúrs by Higham et al; or that, if his name (and some stories) did derive from folkloric or mythical sources, or there was also a mythical (or historical) character(s) of similar or the same name, why later confusion, even by the 9th century or before, would arise. In essence, Higham’s and Green’s argument for the naming of the other Arthurs can be applied to an early Arthur. Why? Because it appears (to me) that this Arthur of Welsh folklore or myth bears little or no resemblance to the Arthur in the H.B.. 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. However, this doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been a Saxon fighting Briton who got turned into this fantastical character, just as Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Urien were used in stories that had nothing to do with their actual lives. These stories alone prove that this happened and this is too often ignored.

From how I interpret the evidence, we cannot rule out a historical figure who fought at Badon being the ‘original’ and the later legends and topographical and onomastic sites merely being a distortion in response to folk culture and internal and external political events. That’s probably the simplest answer, but the simplest answer isn’t always the right one. Nor can we rule out that there was no ‘Arthur of Badon’ … but it is also possible that there were two totally independent mythical and historical characters that were merged and confused, or even a mythical figure whose name was changed to Arthur, be that earlier than the 6th century or after. The problem arises as to why a purely British folkloric or mythical figure would be given a Latin name (rather than a Latinized name), be that Arturius or Arturus. It would have to be yet another unique case. But that also doen’t mean it couldn’t have happened. (‘Arthur’s Wain‘ – The Plough – could be an indication that Arcturus became Arturus).

What it means, to me at least, is that it cannot be stated categorically that Arthur of the 5th century was historical, but neither can it be stated categorically he was purely mythical or folkloric. But it’s possible that the name was all of these things. However, if Arthur cannot be categorically stated to have been real from the evidence we have, then other Early Medieval figures who are considered historical without question should be treated in the same way.

(I’ve italicized ‘possible’ twice above as that is, in the end, all we can use).

Hywel Dda

Whichever historical Arthur you go for, whether that be one who was at Badon, Artur ap Pedr or Artúr mac Áedán, you have to come up with theories that explain the anomalies between them and the sources. You either have to come up with reasons why Arthur of Badon doesn’t appear in genealogies or near contemporary sources or why one of these other Arthur’s were said to be at Badon; and how, if their respective royal houses knew they were THE Arthur, they didn’t make political mileage from it. Neither Demetia/Dyfed or Dalriada appear to have done so … although the MacArthur/Campbells tried to do so later (See THIS blog). Adomnán makes nothing of Artúr, only his father Áedán. Hywel Dda of Dyfed could, perhaps, have slipped it into to his Laws somewhere that they were the descendants of the great Arthur, but he didn’t. If any of them did try and do so, it’s been suppressed or lost.

So, has my 65% leaning towards a historical Arthur changed? Yes. It may have gone to up 67% now. Why? Because of re-looking at the H.B. battle list and the use of Arthur here. Unless there was something in the Welsh tradition about a Saxon fighting Arthur it doesn’t make sense, to me at least, that he would be used if he was the same as the Welsh folkloric figure we know of today. Of course, stories of a mythical Arthur who fought Saxons might have been around and they’ve been lost, but we can only look at the evidence as it is.

What I may consider now more than before I started these blogs is the possibility of an independent mythical figure alongside the historic one(s). A figure that was, at some point in history, given the name Arturius/Arthur/Arturus, but who may have started life under another guise.

Having said all the above, I want to finish by quoting Christopher Gidlow from his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’ (2010):

“It is worrying just how convoluted, how complex, the arguments against Arthur are. Faced with the mass of evidence, opponents are forced to imagine an unknown British god called Arthur (with a convenient taboo against naming him), or landscape features named after other Arthurs of earlier history or mythology whose importance to the inhabitants is nowhere attested. These chimerical Arthurs have left legends which have, for inscrutable reasons, been attached to a military figure of the fifth or sixth century who, if he existed, cannot possibly have borne the name Arthur. Whatever name he had must, despite his importance, have become irretrievably lost. The author of the Historia Brittonum has for his own purpose for the Britons, uniquely put this composite figure in a narrative which otherwise only features major figures already placed in this time period. All other references to Arthur as a historical figure derive from this single source. The counter-argument, that Arthur was a real person who fought the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, who later attracted legendary tall tales, has the advantage of simplicity and requires fewer unknown steps and sources.” (p.193)

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



Arthurian Probability Test

King Arthur, Merlin, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and Guinevere decide to go to their favorite restaurant to share some mead and grilled meats. They sit down at a round table for five, and as soon as they do, Lancelot notes, “We sat down around the table in age order! What are the odds of that?”

Merlin smiles broadly. “This is easily solved without any magic.” He then shared the answer. What did he say the odds were?

I’ll give the answer soon!


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


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?


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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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?

Drawing of the Lucius Artorius Castus inscript...

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.


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.



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


English: "Jack the Giant-Killer" by ...

A giant step for mankind?

So, Arthur was seen as having a giant son and a giant dog by the 9th/10th centuries, but just how many of these sites existed before the this time we may never know. (If there had have been more in the northern half of Wales one would think they too would have been included in the Mirabilia). These two, and other later mentioned sites, certainly fit the superhuman or ‘giant’ of folk legend and not Arthur the soldier, apart from, perhaps the hillfort Moel Arthur (‘bare hill of Arthur’), but this Bronze Age hillfort’s Arthurian naming date is unknown. It was recorded before the 17th century as Moel Arthur so it wasn’t made up by the Victorians. (A record of the antiquities of Wales and its marches (vol 1)’, Cambrian Archaeological Assoc., 1850 pp.181-2). However, it also gets no mention in the H.B., so it’s likely to be after the 12th century.

What I have not seen expressed by Padel et al, is, as I explored in Part One, that the amount of sites named after this ‘giant’/superhuman Arthur are unique even for giants. Giants are very often a local character giving their names to local features. There were certainly plenty of giants in Wales. A look at The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings by Sion Dafydd Rhys (c. 1600) can show you just how many. (Read it at the Mary Jones’ website: ).

The one important point to make about the giants of Wales, as can be seen by the above mentioned work, is that they are nearly always named ‘gawr’, meaning, funnily enough, ‘giant’. Here are some (in no particular order): Gogyrfan Gawr (Gwenhwyfar’s da), Idris Gawr, Itta Gawr, Rica/Rhitta Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cribwr Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed and the place was renamed as Cribarth), Oyle Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Cedwyn Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ceimiad Gawr (whom, supposedly, Arthur killed), Ophrom Gawr, Ysbryn Gawr, Iwni Gawr, Gwedros Gawr, Howel Gawr, Llyphan Gawr, Pyscoc Gawr, Hedoc Gawr, Diddanel Gawr … and there are many more. (What we don’t know about these is if they had always been mythical or if some of them they were based on ancient figures of history). Yet there is not one instance of Arthur Gawr, only an Arthur seen as a giant slayer. So, did they think of him as a giant at all, or mainly a larger-than-life superhuman?

Him being seen in the landscape as a folkloric giant-killer could have been in response to the later Arthurian stories, or visa versa; yet, even after Arthur the soldier and king took root, post Geoffrey of Monmouth, still onomastic sites were been named in honour of this superhuman Arthur. Padel notes that sites were still being given his name in the 18th century following the ‘giant’ or superhuman Arthur lines (Padel, 2000, p.106). This is very interesting, considering that the later stories had gone away from this more mythical portrayal; he was now an all too human king … even if he did still fight giants. It seems it had simply become a tradition’ or was a separate tradition. Is this what happened very early on? Were there, even in the 7th and 8th centuries, two (or more) very different Arthurs in circulation?

If in doubt, blame the English!

Peoples of Britain circa 600

We also must not forget that the 7th to 10th centuries were a time when the kingdoms that were developing into Wales and Scotland were threatened (and in some areas dominated) by the ‘English’, notably the kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria.  Were the common folk (as opposed to the warriors) of the British areas of the period no different to a modern audience in times of crisis? Did they too like a good ‘fantasy’ (not that they saw it as a fantasy in the way we do) to take their minds off things, not a story about an all-too-mortal-human-sized soldier? (The oldest Arthurian Welsh stories that have survived make no mention of the ‘Saxons’, another reason given for Arthur not being historical). Was it a time when you’d want a supernatural or giant slaying hero on your side? A slayer of the ‘giant’ English? Make him Messianic and you even got a giant slaying hero who can come back and slay the Anglo-Saxons again … maybe.

These Arthurian sites (and local stories) could be argued to be as much in response to the threats from Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, and later Anglo-Normans, as well as later Welsh nationalism, than just because they were a good yarn about a possible ancient mythical or folkloric figure who was everywhere in Britain right from the get-go. The uncertain times could have spawned the amount of them in the areas once inhabited by the Britons, across the Isles. Once Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History was out and grew into the Arthurian Romances, so too the number of sites grew. Just because he was seen as being in all these places later in history, doesn’t necessarily mean he was in all these places in the 6th and 7th centuries, whether he was mythical or not.

What’s in a name?

If Arthur was mythical or folkloric we still have to account for a British figure being given what seems to be a none British name, as most etymologist agree that Artorius is the best candidate with no British or Irish etymology working (so far) to make ‘Arthur’. (See THIS blog). In fact, not only a none-British name but not even a Romanized version of a British name, which is what was given to the known British deities. (Unless Higham is right about it being a decknamen). If, for example, he was named *Arto(s) (Bear), he should become something like Mars Artos to the Romano-British or the Roman soldiers who adopted him. The other possibility is from the star and Greek mythical figure, who was called Arcturus in Latin. However, we’d still be looking at the British taking a Latin named mythical figure for one of their own. But this is a subject all of its own and we’ll look in more depth at these later.

I’ll finish this part with a quote from Juliette Wood in the book A Companion to Arthurian Literature:

“The use of folklore in works such as chronicles reveals a great deal about cultural attitudes and about the interpretations writers wish to convey (Wood 1998). Insofar as it is possible to talk about an original Arthur, he seems to have been a hero of legend without a clear genealogy or location (Padel 1994; Green 2007). One of the many contentious aspects of sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work or the Arthurian romances is the degree to which popular beliefs and oral tradition about a legendary hero contributed to the creation of a symbol of medieval kingship and courtly virtue. Geoffrey seems to have favored elements that allowed him to present Arthur as historical and realistic. He did, however, incorporate traditions about giants, such as the giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, whom Arthur has to defeat. Encounters between heroes and giants are frequently localized at unusual landscape features, and heroes themselves are often depicted as gigantic, larger than life figures (Padel 1991; Grooms 1993: 79–110). The location of the narratives and the confrontations between giant and hero follow a traditional legendary pattern, but the relation between traditional and learned lore is never simple.”

In Part Five I want to look at Arthur the soldier and explore the various arguments as to whether he was a historical or mythical soldier.

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



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

UPDATED 21.5.12 

What’s in a name?

Before getting into the possible meaning of the name Arthur and where it might have originated from, there’s a quote I’d like to make from Thomas Green’s book, ‘Concepts of Arthur‘:

“To have all four [of these 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, a layman, to criticise the late, great Rachel Bromwich, but there are some other names that seemed to have been used on a number of occasions, which might be worth looking at.  These are:

Constantine/Constantin/Costentyn/Custennin/Custennyn (and many other variations)

Caraticus/Coroticus/Ceretic/Caratawc/Caradog/Cerdic (?)

Geraint, Gereint









There are probably more, but these are the ones I have spotted. Yet a search of the Welsh Brut y Tywysogion‘The Chronicle of the Princes’ (Jesus MS 111 Red Book of Hergest), which covers six hundred years of north Walian history, will bring up only one Arthur, and that is the Arthur, mentioned in a Latin verse commemorating Rhys of Gwerthrynion on his death in 1197.

Cesar et Arthurus leo fortis uterque sub armis

Nil par vel similis Resus utrique fuit.”

“Julius Caesar and Arthur, each a strong lion under arms

Nothing like or similar to either one was Res (Rhys).”

(Kindly translated by Christopher Gwinn)

The south Walian didn’t use the name either, from what we can glean from the genealogies. (The only possible 12th century Welshman was a priest called Arthur of Bardsey). The same period in Ireland brings up at least five Arthurs: ARTUIR on a tombstone in Co. Tipperary,  Fergus mac Artuir (Leinster), Artur mac Muiredaigh (Western Liffey), Artúr ua Tuathail, Artúr Clérech, Artúr mac Bruide (Source: ‘Early Irish examples of the name ‘Arthur’, Bart Jaski)

Surprisingly, we do not get the reuse of Ambrosius or even the British version of it, Emrys, as far as I’m aware.  Why not, I wonder?  It could be because the others gained national and international fame and Ambrosius, for all Gildas’ praising, only gained relatively ‘local’ fame.  Or, perhaps, they just didn’t like the it!

It would help if there was some certainty over where the name ‘Arthur’ comes from or its meaning.  There is no universal agreement on this. One of the main contenders (and the one most etymologist favour) is the Classical Latin name ‘Artōrius’, which, through Vulgar (Insular) Latin renders ArtūriusTo quote Dr Kip Wheeler:

 “The strongest evidence that Arthur may be a historical hero comes from etymology. The name Arthur, unlike Rhiannon or many other Celtic names in Welsh literature, does not appear to originate in the remnants of a divinity. Nitze was among the first to argue convincingly for a link between the etymology of the name “Arthur” with the Latin name Artorius (585-96), as opposed to the Welsh/Irish cognate Arth  (“bear”) as suggested in Bromwich’s introduction to The Arthur of the Welsh. Artorius was a common Roman name from the gens Artoria, one of the founding families of Rome.” (Arthuriana: Summary of the Welsh Tradition, 1999, p.3)

Back to ‘Arthur’

.Contenders for the derivation of Arthur are:

  1. ‘bear king’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-rigos OW Artorix
  2. ‘bear’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto (with Latin decknamen of Artōrius)
  3. ‘bear man’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-guiros - OW Arthguir/Arthwr
  4. ‘guardian of the bear’ – from Greek star *Arktourus – Latin Arcturus – Neo-Brittonic *Arturus
  5. Classical Latin Artōrius - Insular Latin  Artūrius - Neo Brittonic *Artur - OW Arthur.
 (I am indebted to Chris Gwinn of Arthurnet during correspondents at his Celtica-Camelot website for this and following information.  (To see full the discussions go to

(Philips and Keatman in their book King Arthur – The True Story. put forward Owain Ddantgwn (Owain Whitetooth) of Rhôs - a small kingdom next to Gwynedd – as Arthur, saying the name was an epithet. They suggest that Arth (bear) was joined with Latin ursus (bear) to make Arthursus. Apart from the fact this would have to be unique and British epithets attached to names had nothing to do with animals, etymologists simply don’t agree).

*Arto-guiros should make Old Welsh Arthwr and *Arto-rigos, Old Welsh *Erthir or, possibly, *Arthric. *Arto-guiros or *Arto-uiros is one of the British etymologies that has been considered more than most. The reasons are extremely complicated and it will be easiest form me to quote a paragraph on the subject directly fro Thomas Green’s book:

“Whilst *Arto-uiros would have, through regular changes, become Archaic Welsh Art(u)ur, it ought to have developed into Old Welsh *Arthgur and Middle Welsh *Arthwr (see Schrijver, 1995: 151-2 for *-uiros > *(u)ur -wr. Simms-Williams, 1991b: 27,72 discusses the dating of medial -u > -gu-, which he sees as a ninth-century and later development; it is not, however, a universal change, so the name might have been regularly Arthur through the Old Welsh period – Jackson, 1953: 387, 392-3; Higham, 2002:74). There are two possible solutions to this. The first is that the Archaic Welsh (and perhaps Old Welsh) version could have been petrified as Art(h)ur through popular usage, so that it did not participate in the expected later changes. Alternatively, Griffen has argued that *Arto-uiros may have taken the form *Artgur by c.AD 500, at which point he argues it would have regularly become Art(h)ur, as -g- would be lost in this period (Griffen, 1994a: 85-6; Griffen, 1994b). This latter route is very doubtful, however, and we would still have to rely on a petrification in an early form.” (2007, p.190)

That’s how complicated this whole debate is! It is why Artūrius is preferred, because it takes less etymological gymnastics to get it to Arthur.

However, here is another possibility I will forward, following on from these British and Brittany names:




If his name was originally Artorix (*Arto-rigos) this would render Latin Artōrius, which then could have become Insular Latin Artūrius – Neo Brittonic Artur/Arthur – Goidelic Artúr. But, for this to work he would have to have been known by his Latin and not British name, which could be hard to argue as British characters are known by their British names.

A name coming from the Greek star Arktourus (Latin Arcturus) would be unusual but not out of the question. After all, this star and its constellation of Boötes, looks after Ursa Minor (‘The Little Bear’) and Ursa Major (‘The Great Bear’), otherwise known as The Plough, and Arthur’s name later became attached to this constellation when it would be known as ‘Arthur’s Wain’ or ‘Arthur’s Hufe’, and this could have derived from Ar(c)turus’ Wain. To the Romans the constellation Ursa Major was known as ‘The Bear-like Wagon’ or ‘The Chariot. (Germanicus Caesar, 1976, p.55)

There are plenty of ‘Art’ based names, both in Britain and Ireland.  In Britain its meaning is ‘bear’ (from Brittonic *artos modern Welsh ‘arth’, plural ‘eirth’) and, possibly, ‘warrior’. In Goidelic it could mean ‘bear’, ‘stone’, ‘noble’ or ‘warrior’. There have been those who put the name Arthur forward as being of Goidelic origin, but the problem is, whilst there are many ‘Art’ names in Irish, there are none, apart from Artúr, ending with ‘úr’ and it’s hard to find a meaning for this … as it is with Brittonic.  The nearest is Old Irishúr’, meaning ‘noble’:- (c) of persons (a) noble, generous, (b) fair, active. It can also mean ‘earth’ or `evil’.  As Dane Prestano pointed out in a comment below:

‘Art’ can mean Bear, God, hero, noble and stone. So various meanings could be constructed in Goidelic, the ‘noble bear/god/hero’, the ‘evil bear/god/hero’. I would have thought the former would be more likely but we do have that Sawley gloss where he is called “horrible from his youth” to contend with. I suppose we do need to find some Goidelic names with this ending to see if either of these were actually used in names., there are no other names with this ending.  It could be unique, but it looks unlikely.

The one problem is with the reversal of the words to get ‘Noble Bear’ (*úr-art). I know it can happen, but I’m just not knowledgeable enough to be sure. My first rendition of Art-úr was ‘bear (of the) earth’ or ‘stone (of the) earth’, which has similarities to Peter (Petr). However, I believe the main problem, as Chris Gwinn points out, is not so much the etymology, but the distinct lack of names ending in úr.

We don’t have that many comparisons of the use of Latin name in Britain for the period but there are a few that have survived. From inscribes stone in Wales: Peturus, Potentinus. Quenvendanus, Marti Pumpeius, ‘great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus’, ‘Etternus son of Victor’, Vitalianus … and from Devon and Cornwall we get:  Ingenuus, Iustus, Latinus. Most other names we know of are Latinised British one. (Source: BableStone

L. Artorius Castus (LAC) 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. Another derivation could be from the Latinisation of the Etruscan name Arnthur. (Chelotti, Morizio, Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, 1990, pp. 261, 264)

Artorius is, in fact, a family name (cognomen) and LAC would most likely have been known by the praenomen Lucius, not Artorius, to his friends at least. It’s not known 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.

If Arthur is a name used by Hiberno-Britannians/Hiberno-Britons, though not necessarily an Hibernian (Gaelic) name as mentioned above, it might go someway to explaining why the British don’t appear to have used it. Could there also have been the added possibility that in Goidelic Artúr had some semblance of a meaning but in Brittonic and Welsh it didn’t – apart from ‘bear – ur‘, so wasn’t used? We still have to understand why the Britons and Welsh wouldn’t name their sons Arthur but were quite happy to have their great folkloric and/or legendary figure have the name … and why a certain 12th century monk/priest called Arthur of Bardsey would take the name.

(For my blog on the pronunciation of the name Arthur in both Brittonic and Goidelic, click HERE).

In the next blog I want to look at the genealogies that include Arthur.

Thanks for reading,



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