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)
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 Artūrius. To 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:
- ‘bear king’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-rigos - OW Artorix
- ‘bear’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto (with Latin decknamen of Artōrius)
- ‘bear man’ – Neo-Brittonic *Arto-guiros - OW Arthguir/Arthwr
- ‘guardian of the bear’ – from Greek star *Arktourus – Latin Arcturus – Neo-Brittonic *Arturus
- Classical Latin Artōrius - Insular Latin Artūrius - Neo Brittonic *Artur - OW Arthur.
(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 Irish ‘úr’, 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 http://babelstone.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/ogham-stones-of-wales.html)
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,