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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Arthur didn’t exist, and this is because they either have genealogies (Arthur ap Pedr) or are attested to in trusted historical documents (Artúr mac Áedán, Artúr mac Coaning, Arthur ap Bicoir). Yet Arthur of Badon is attested to in two historical documents (and some dubious genealogies), but we are told these cannot be given as evidence, because they are not contemporary (Dumville) or the Arthur they contain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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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Nine

BATTLING WITH THE BATTLES … AGAIN! (Part Two)

It’s argued by the mythical or folkloric camp that these Arthurian battles had to be seen as wide ranging because it had to show Arthur as a figure who commanded the kings of a united ex-Roman diocese of Britannia … this being the only way to defeat the ‘English’. It’s also argued that a Britannia of the time wasn’t united and had fragmented, so such a figure couldn’t have existed. The latter point may be closer to the truth, but this still doesn’t mean a figure couldn’t have been wide ranging, especially if he was something like a ‘mercenary’ general. (See THIS blog for further discussion). However, he could still have been historical, not wide ranging, but made so for the purpose of the H.B.. But if the H.B.’s audience thought all but two of these battles were northern, they wouldn’t be seeing him as pan-British anyway. They may have been seeing him as another hero of Hen Gogledd (the Old North) like those of Y Gododdin and Urien Rheged … whether he was in actuality or not.

Could Nennius have been clever enough to make up these battles for this reason, or choose the battles of others and attach them to Arthur? It’s conceivable, but he too, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, might have to claim he had an ‘ancient book’ or sources that no one else had seen to get away with it. He would know some of the English would read this and if they knew none of these Arthurian battles happened it wouldn’t have the affect it was supposed to have … on them at least.

Of course, if Arthur was historical and these battles (in general) were actual events that had been recorded in poetry, and they were mostly in northern regions (or were thought to be), then he would be the perfect choice for Nennius. He would have a British hero and one who defeated the North Walian’s contemporary foes. If he was also the victor at Badon, (or was thought to have been) that makes him the hero of the southern Britons H.B. readers against Wessex.

Please consider …

There seems to be no consideration by those who argue this list coming from a mythical or folkloric Arthur that Tribruit could have been a real battle that was mythologised. Bregion as a battle Urien Rheged fought – an insignificant battle in the Taliesin poem – could have been a battle fought in the same location; or, as Gidlow points out, an Arthurian battle attributed to Urien! To say the battle of Urbe Legionis was ‘borrowed’ from the Battle of Chester doesn’t make much sense, considering Nennius (or whoever) would have known it was a defeat for the British and would have known his North Walian audience, whose ancestors would have fought there, knew. (King Arthur of Demetia could have been present at that battle however). Not to mention the difference in names between this and Cair Lion/Cair Leon (unless Nennius deliberately changed it). Or was it used as an answer to the defeat at the Battle of Chester to show that the score wasn’t 1 – 0 but 1 -1? The Bassa explanation hardly makes sense either. It’s not what the battle’s called in the poems and no river of that name is mentioned. The only possible mythical battle we could identify would be Traith Tribruit. (But, you may see all this differently).

So, are we asked to except this battle list as either fictional or derivative merely because the name Arthur is attributed to them? Would it be a different case if some other figure’s name was there?

Once again it should be stressed: if some of the characters preceding Arthur in the H.B. had not been attested elsewhere we would think them mythological too because they have supernatural occurrences attached to them: Vortigern’s magical tower, Ambrosius’ virgin birth, St. Patrick’s angel in the burning bush, St. Germanus’ fire from heaven, etc. The only thing applied to Arthur is the killing of 960 (or 940) at his own hand … or, rather, God’s hand. So this was in keeping with the preceding stories. If ‘Nennius’ was trying to big him up in the same way he does to the others he didn’t do a very good job. Arthur simply fought twelve battles and won at Badon. The Vatican recension of the H.B. went to pains to make sure we knew Arthur was merely a soldier (miles). Did they do this to counter English claims (or even Welsh ones) that this Arthur never existed and didn’t beat them at Badon? We’ll never know. The difference is, Arthur’s name seems to have spread like wildfire.

In the next part we’ll look at the weight of evidence as well as the other Arthurs and how it might effect them if Arthur of Badon didn’t exist.

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

Mak

 

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

THREE ARTHURS?

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:

  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.

THAT ROMAN?

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 http://www.christophergwinn.com/celticstudies/lac/lac.html, 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:

  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.

Mak

 

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

ARTHUR THE GIANT OR ‘GIANT KILLER’? (Part One)

"King Arthur and the Giant", Book I,...

All the topographical and onomastic sites around Britain point to Arthur being seen as either a giant or someone larger than life with superhuman strength. These are either names given to megalithic monuments in order to explain them, natural features or, in the past, Roman buildings (‘Arthur’s Oven‘ for example). Giants were, at times, invented to explain these Roman building, and even the Dane Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-1220) for example, argued that giants had to exist to explain them.

It’s interesting that in mythology giants are usually (but not always) the bad guys, or stupid, so how did Arthur become to be seen as a giant (if that is, indeed, how he was seen), if he wasn’t mythological?

In answer to the first point, there is another famous ‘good’ giant, and that’s Brân fab Llŷr (son of Llŷr) or Bendigeidfran (‘Bran the Blessed or ‘Blessed Raven’) – with the Irish equivalent Bran mac Febail). It was said he couldn’t fit into a house so a tent had to be arrange for him to meet King Matholwch of Ireland. Arthur has a couple of associations with Brân, which I’ll explore in later parts.

The answer to the second question could be because some topographical and onomastic sites were named by it being passed down that Arthur was a ‘giant of a man’, just as it was with William Wallace. (If the bones that were found at the alleged ‘grave of Arthur’ at Glastonbury Abbey in the 12th century are anything to go by, then he was, indeed, a giant! This is seen as a complete hoax of course … but not by all). Could this have mutated to him being seen as a giant? Or, could it have been the mention in the battle list in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B) of him single handedly – with the aide of God – killing 960/940 Saxons at the battle of Mount Badon? (The number varies in recensions). “No ordinary human could have done that!” they may have thought. If this is something that had been added to his legend at an early stage, then what better way for them to make sense of it? However, it seems more likely – if he wasn’t mythological or folkloric – that it is because many of these great men in the Britons’ (and other cultures’) distant past couldn’t just be men, but had to have some fantastical element to them that gave them their greatness, or be larger than life-size – as attested to in the H.B. - and the people of the time would have believed it too! (Just as they thought ordinary men couldn’t have built Stonehenge, it had to have been giants or superhumans). This is a time when the supernatural and natural were psychologically interwoven. After its initial relating of Arthur being a giant or superhuman it would take on a life of its own down the centuries. (More later).

The peasants?

Who was doing the naming of these sites that made Arthur out to be a giant, or, if not a giant, then superhuman? Bards? storytellers? or the local peasantry? I wonder if it was the latter. Did they have their own stories of Arthur, stories that were different to those of the storyteller’s superhero?  After all, the superhero Arthur either has to get two of his men – Cai and Bedwyr – to fight a giant, or go to Ireland to kill one himself (and many others in Wales!), but there’s no mention in the stories that Arthur was one, unlike his Irish ‘cousin’ Finn. 

Even the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae, from whence the Romantic Arthurian tales sprang, tells us in its origin myth that Albion (Britain) was inhabited “by a few giants” when Brutus and his Trojans set foot on these shores. (The Britons weren’t the only ones to think they were descendants of Trojans, the Franks did too). It goes on to say that Corineus was given Cornwall, where there were more giants than in any other province. Among these giants was the famous Gogmagog. If Arthur was mythological or folkloric was he one of these originally?

It’s a miracle!

The Arthurian sites that have received the most scrutiny are those found in the Mirabilia (‘Miracles’ or ‘Marvels’) section of the Historia Brittonum  – dated to later than the main body of work, probably to the 10th century (Jackson) – which tell us of two miraculous, giant related sites; one, of Arthur’s giant dog, Cabal’s (‘Horse’s’) paw print, created whilst on a hunt for the giant boar Twrch Trwyth (a tale told within Culhwch ac Olwen). The other is of the giant, size-changing grave of his son Amr, whom Arthur is said to have killed.

There is another wonder in the region called Buelt. There is a heap of stones, and one stone laid on the heap having upon it the footmark of a dog. When he hunted boar Troynt (Trwyth and Latinised as Troit) across Wales. Cabal, which was a dog of the warrior Arthur, impressed the stone with the print of his foot, and Arthur afterwards collected a heap of stones beneath the stone in which was the print of his dog’s foot, and it is called Carn Cabal. And people come and take away the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the next day it is found on its heap.” (H.B.)

For more information on Carn Cabal, go to the Clas Merdin webiste: http://clasmerdin.blogspot.com/2012/01/carn-cabal.html

There’s discussion about the ‘borrowing’ of Irish legends and the changing of them to British (Welsh) themes and heroes, and, if this did happen, it must have especially been the case in the west of Britannia. (In fact, areas of the west were Hibernian (Irish) inhabited or descended). After the fall of the empire this may have been increased along with the contacts with Ireland. The tale of the Twrch Trwyth mention earlier may have been a borrowing from the Irish. (The tale starts in Ireland and then moves to an Hibernian part of Britain – Demetia/Dyfed). In Ireland they had the boar Orc Triath, owned by the goddess Brigit. Killing of this boar could have been seen as the killing of paganism.

As mentioned above, Ireland is where the Arthurian hunt begins. If it was indeed a tale originally from Hibernia/Scotia, then it was given a British hero in the form of Arthur. The question would be, when did it arrive and when was the character (or the name) Arthur attached to it and why? Was he a folkloric or mythical Arthur or Arthur of Badon … or another Arthur entirely?

As mentioned earlier, this nasty swine is also spoken of elsewhere in poetry and legend, and much earlier in one case. The dating of the poem Gwarchan Cynvelyn that was attached to the corpus of Y Gododdin is put to the 7th century by Jarman – or rather the gwarchan are in general. The dating of this particular gwearchan could be doubted because it claims Gwynedd fought at the Battle of Catraeth (the subject of Y Gododdin) and some doubt that they did. It would also mean the battle would have to be later than John Koch thinks for Cynvelyn to have been there. This poem Thomas Green (and others) use as strong evidence that the mythical Arthur was around even in the mid 7th century, arguing that a historical figure couldn’t have been attached to this in the hundred or so years since his supposed death. This may indeed be the case.

(What can be a little confusing about all the above is, on the one hand, the argument that the whole Gwynedd/Gododdin connection (via Cunedda) is just an origin myth and that they weren’t present at Catraeth, with all the references to them being at the battle later additions to the poems, yet this gwearchan is argued to be 7th century, which lays claim to a Gwynedd warrior at Catraeth!)

The first thing that went through my mind when seeing this evidence for an early mythical Arthurian mention (and remember I saw this when I was also concluding that Arthur was mythical at the time) was that it no where actually mentions Arthur in reference to the Twrch Trwyth. In fact, you might wonder why it didn’t mention Arthur if he was present. This particular part of the gwarchan says …

Were I to praise,
Were I to sing,
The Gwarchan would cause high shoots to spring,
Stalks like the collar of Twrch Trwyth,
Monstrously savage, bursting and thrusting through,
When he was attacked in the river
Before his precious things.  (Skene translation)

It’s comparing Cynvelyn (Cynfelyn) with a ravaging boar (as opposed to a raging bore!), just as many warriors were compared with wild beasts. It could have compared Cynvelyn to Arthur too if he was there, but, if he was, the bard chose not to. A mythical Arthur could indeed have been present in the 7th century, but this cannot be seen from this poem, it is only inferred that Arthur was present in the earlier version because he is in a later work. A court of law could not take this as damning evidence, and nor should we. We should see it as a possibility. Arthur himself could have later been made the hero of the boar hunt.

There is something else to consider here, and that is the question if there’s any relationship between this famous tale and Arthur ap Pedr of Demetia? The hunt is supposed to have continued from Ireland to his region, and one also has to wonder if the route the swine took reflects the spread of the tale from Demetia, what is now southwest Wales, firstly east through Wales and then to Cornwall (another Irish inhabited area)? Then we have to ask if this prince was named because of the location of the tale and its mythical pursuer, or after an Arthur of Badon. If it wasn’t for the one (and possibly two) other Arthurs being named around the same time it might be a straight forward answer that it was to do with the boar hunt, but these other Arthur’s throw a Dark Age spanner in the works. Of course, the alternative is that the tale had Arthur ap Pedr made as the hero.

In the next part we’ll look more at giants and why, if Arthur was seen as one, he wasn’t called one before moving on to Part Four and our first look at Arthur the Soldier and the arguments for his historical existence.

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

Mak

See the interesting comments by David Hillman below

 

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King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part One (Introduction)

I actually can’t believe I’m tackling this subject, but here goes …

INTRODUCTION

Whether the figure of Arthur was a historicized mythical or folkloric figure or a mythologized or folkloric man has been debated and written about numerous times, some might say ‘to death’. There’s not much point writing about the subject again unless something new can be brought to the discussion, and that’s what I hope to do at points in this twelve part blog. If I am, accidentally, reiterating what others have said I apologise in advance. I also apologise for not covering everything, but if I did, this would turn into a book! It’s already 20,000 words!

In these blogs the legends I will mainly be referring to are those of the Welsh, which predate those began by the Anglo-(Breton)-Norman Geoffrey of Monmouth (early 12th c) who first made Arthur famous outside Wales and Cornwall, by at least two hundred years. The King Arthur and his famous knights of the roundtable, the Holy Grail and his battles around Europe all came to light between the 12th to 15th centuries, and it will be these stories most will be aware of. The earlier, Welsh tales and poems are, in general, about a very different superhero, who fights – or battles through his men – witches, giants and the Otherworld, but there does appear to be ‘Arthur the Soldier’ in amongst them.

Personally, I have waxed and wained over the years between the one possibility and the other as I have read the various arguments. When I joined the group Arthurnet, I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. I was firmly in the mythical or folkloric camp. Before embarking on this ebook I was about 65% (if a percentage could ever be given!) in favour of the likelihood that the original Arthur was a 5th and 6th century figure of some description … but, who knows, that could swing the other way at some point. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of this. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.

. It will be interesting to see if that percentage has changed by the end of these blogs. The slight leaning to a historical Arthur may give me a bias in that direction, but I will endeavour to stay as objective as possible.

What may help a little is that I’m agnostic. It doesn’t really matter to me whether Arthur really existed or not. I have no nationalistic tendency to want him to have been from what are now England, Scotland, Wales or even Ireland. None of these existed at the time. What I do want is a fair ‘hearing’, so to speak. I will try and do what Christopher Snyder does when he says

My own contributions on the scholarship of Arthurian origins have been attempts to establish a middle ground between academic skepticism and unbridled lay enthusiasm”. (A history of Arthurian scholarship,  Lacy, 2006, p.13).

Although I am in the “lay” camp, of course! There is another quote from Mr. Snyder to keep in mind:

 “ [...] academic historians, playing by the rules of our disciplines, can say little of value about Arthur.” (The Britons,   Snyder, 2003, p.94)

I can go further than a professional historian, but I will endeavour to keep the rules of their disciplines in mind.

Hit of Myth?

First a few ‘for and against’ quotes:

 “Drawing on the postmodern theory of Jean Baudrillard, it is possible to interpret Arthur as a simulacrum – that is, as a copy which has no original. The textual Arthurs that survive are reformatted copies of earlier ideas of Arthur, referring always to each other but never to an originary Arthur, since such a person cannot be identified or retrieved.” (A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Helen Fulton, 2009, p.16)

“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. (Christopher Gidlow in his book ‘Revealing King Arthur’, 2010, p.193)

“This is not the stuff of which history can be made. The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books” (David Dumville, 1977, p.188).

“I disagree, however, with those skeptics who believe there is proof that Arthur is pure fabrication. Theories that trace his origins to mythology or folklore are as unconvincing as those that ‘prove’ his historicity.” (Christopher Snyder, ‘The Britons’, 2003, p.94)

Thomas Charles-Edwards conclusions about the Historia Brittonum were:

At this stage of the enquiry, one can only say there may well have been an historical Arthur [...] but “[...] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him” (1991. p.29).

[Arthur is] above all else [...] a defender of his country against every kind of danger, both internal and external: a slayer of giants and witches, a hunter of monstrous animals — giant boars, a savage cat monster, a winged serpent (or dragon) — and also, as it appears from Culhwch and Preiddeu Annwn, a releaser of prisoners. This concept is substantiated from all the early sources: the poems Pa Gur and Prieddeu Annwn, the Triads, the Saint’s Lives, and the Miribilia attached to the Historia Brittonum [...] in early literature he belongs, like Fionn, to the realm of mythology rather than to that of history.” (R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans (edd.), ‘Culhwch and Olwen. An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale’ (Cardiff, 1992), pp. xxviii-xxix)

That is the question?

First we have to define what the correct question is. To ask, “Did Arthur exist?” will illicit the response, “Which Arthur? King Arthur of Malory, of Wace, of Chrétien, of Layamon, of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or ‘William’ the author of the Breton Legend of St. Geoznovius. Or Arthur of the 9th century Historia Brittonum (H.B.), or of the 10th century Annales Cambriae (A.C.); or do we mean Arthur of the early Welsh stories or the early Welsh poetry?” So, the question I will pose is: “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?”

That’s just your opinion!

Opinion as to whether the figure that became the legend of King Arthur was based on a historical person or not, or whether he was one of the other slightly later known historical Arthurs, has vacillated over the decades and centuries between ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’. Today, some of those scholars firmly in the ‘mythical or folkloric Arthur’ camp are David Dumville (1977), Oliver Padel (2000), Nick Higham (1994, 2002) and Thomas Green (2001-2007), following Padel. Those in the ‘historical’ camp (to varying degrees) who look to a possible 5th century Arthur would be Christopher Snyder (2003, 2006), Christopher Gidlow (2004, 2010) and Francis Pryor (2004) … with many a lay historian added to that list. The original as the 6th century prince Artúr mac Áedán of Dal Riata (Dalriada) is put forward by Richard Barber (1972) following suggestions by Norma Chadwick, but also the lay historian David F. Caroll (1996) with 6th century king of Demetia (Dyfed), Arthur ap Pedr, only forwarded by Dr. Ken Dark (2000). Both the Early-7th century Arthur ap Bicoir and Arthur ap Pedr have been explored by August Hunt, but he has since rejected them in favour of the Late-6th century Arthur Penuchel (2011). (Many of you may be unaware of these other Arthurs, and if you’d like to know more about them before reading further, see THIS blog; although they will be discussed here).

It could be argued that some lay historians (and professional historians!) haven’t helped a historical Arthur’s case much either by the way they’ve argued for him, and it is mainly the academic scholars who argue against his existence that put the best cases. (In this respect I hope not to make things worse!). The academic who, to me at least, has made the best case for the possible existence of a historical figure called Arthur (as opposed to someone else who became known as Arthur, such as Riothamus or Ambrosius Aurelianus) is Christopher Gidlow, but even he hasn’t explored the folkloric aspects in detail.

It should be noted from the start that both Nick Higham and Thomas Green had concluded that Arthur didn’t exist before beginning their books on the subject. Higham had concluded this in his book on Gildas’s 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae (DEB): ‘The English Conquest- Gildas and Britain of the fifth century’ (1994). This is because he sees the evidence showing that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ where the ones in charge after Badon, and not the Britons, so there was no place for an Arthur character. Green, in Concept of Arthur (2007), follows Padel’s folkloric Arthur theory and had been writing about this online for a number of years, long before the publication of his book. If you start from those assumptions, or rather conclusions, in a book then you are approaching the subject in the same way as those who start from the assumption that he did exist. The book is there to prove your point. That doesn’t mean what is explore in their books is worthless! Far from it, they are excellent in their ways. It also doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and I bow to their superior knowledge, it does mean this should be kept in mind.

If one looked at the early Welsh material alone, one might have to conclude that Arthur was either mythical or folkloric and Padel does make a very important point in his book, ‘Arthur Of Welsh Literature’ (2000): many (not all) who accepted Arthur as a historical figure (or that he shouldn’t be dispelled as one) do so without considering this Welsh, Cornish and Scottish mythical or folkloric Arthur and the questions these stories and poems throw up with regards to his historicity. I hope not to be one of those and will face these full on in these next (shortish) ten blogs.

So, that’s the introduction. In Part Two we’ll look at Arthur in the landscape of Britain and the possible mythical or folkloric origins, as well as some possible later historical comparisons.

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

Mak

PS: Just in case there are folk out there thinking, “he’s writing ‘a historical’ instead of ‘an historical’, the former is correct. The only time to use ‘an’ is before a word with a silent ‘h’, like ‘honour’. In the past when I’ve used ‘an’, it’s out of habit.

 

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