Tag Archives: Latin

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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In Search of the ‘Original” King Arthur – Part Three

UPDATED 1.6.12

Arthur map Pedr (born c. 570s)

Arthur map Pedr of Demetia (Dyfed and Ceredigion, Wales) has had his birth estimated at c. 570–80 by the late Rachel Bromwich (‘Concepts’, p.178) but to c. 526 by J.W. James (‘The Harleian MS. 3859 genealogy II’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 23 (1969) pp.143–52). It makes a huge difference to the various arguments depending on which of these dates is right. If it’s the former, the names appear almost three generations after Arthur’s supposed death, at almost the same time as, or just after, Artúr mac Áedán. If it’s the latter, earlier date, then his name was given towards the end of the ‘original’s’ life (if Arthur of Badon existed) or not long after it. Most scholars, studying the genealogies, accept the later date.

Legend tells how the Deisi (or Déssi) tribe were ‘thrown out’ of the Ireland and ended up in what is now southwest Wales and was then the Roman civitas of Demetae, which would later become the kingdom of Demetia and then, through political contraction, modern day Dyfed. The fact that this was a Cambro-Irish area is attested by the vast amount of inscribed stone found here with Latin and Irish Ogham writing; more than anywhere else in Britain. Since many of these are dated to the 6th century, it shows the use of the language years after their arrival (if they did arrive), although there was probably continuing contact, especially ecclesiastical.

Ken Dark warns about assuming that the above story is true. It could be an origin myth. This could be one of the regions that was already Goidelic speaking, or its élite were or had been for long time, and this was down to it being on the Irish Sea Zone. However, it makes sense – to me at least – that Irish warriors may also have been brought over to help defend this part of Britannia during the Late Roman period. As I’ll explore later, the ‘myth’ about the expulsion of the Déssi could have given rise to the Arthur of Culhwch ac Olwen.

Some of this Arthur’s forefather’s bear possible Roman names and titles. This could simply be because they wanted to make themselves look grander, as well as giving them legitimacy to rule, and maybe deflect from their Hibernian origins; or it could be because it was a time when there was a resurgence of using Latin names. Cunedda (Cunedag of Manau Gododdin) is also given Latin named ancestors at around the same time, as are those of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock, Scotland).

Here’s what the Expulsion of the Desi says:

 “Eochaid son of Artchorp went across the sea with his children to the territory of Demetia (Demed), and there his sons and grandsons died. From them is descended the kindred of Crimthann (cenel Crimthaind) over there, of which is Tualodor mac Rigin maic Catacuind maic Caittienn maic Clotenn maic Naee maic Artuir maic Retheoir maic Congair maic Gartbuir[Vortipor] maic Alchoil [Agricola] maic Trestin [Triphun] maic Aeda Brosc maic Corath maic Echach Almuir maic Arttchuirp.”

The Jesus College MS 20, 12 genealogies are strikingly similar:

Arthur map Pedr map Cincar map Guortepir [Vortipor] map Aircol [Agricola] map Triphun[Tribune?] map Clotri map Gloitguin map Nimet …

(It should be noted that two other genealogies give this Arthur a slightly different name: Cardiff copy of Hanesyn Hen, p. 77 gives Arth, and the Bodleian MS Rawlinson B 466 gives Arthen. However, the Jesus College MS 20, 12 seems the most trusted.)

There are two more famous names here: the first is the name thought to be on a memorial stone: that of Votiporigis the Protictor, whom many have identified with Vortipor of the Dyfed genealogies and the aging king maligned by the 6th century monk/cleric Gildas. However, today’s linguist do not believe them one and the same.


“The memorial shows that among the rulers of Demetia/Dyfed the Irish and Latin languages – and also Roman culture, regarding the memorial itself and the title protector – carried prestige. The absence of a formula in British is notable. However, the names in the pedigree from the grandfather of Gartbuir/Guortepir [Vortipor] onwards do not look particularly Irish, and in fact point to the integration of the Irish rulers with their British subjects and neighbours.” (p.92)

Interestingly, Arthur map Pedr is only put forward as being the ‘original’, by Dr. Ken Dark. (A Famous Arthur in the Sixth Century? Reconsidering the Origins of the Arthurian Legend,” Reading Medieval Studies, 26, 2000). But how different things would be if there had been literature on him. We’d then have a plethora of papers and books about him and claims that he was King Arthur. Actually, he was a King Arthur … but was he the first?

If there was no Arthur of Badon and if Artúr mac Áedán was instead Artúr mac Conaing (see next), then this Arthur would indeed be the ‘first’ and, it could be argued, those of the north could have taken this king’s name. Of course, he couldn’t have been at Badon and couldn’t have even been at the Second Battle of Badon as it was much later, in 665. Could he be mentioned in Y Gododdin? Possibly, but, again, it’s down to that famous verse’s date of composition.

The one thing in this Arthur’s favour is it would be during his time when the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms were emerging and uniting and pushing west. A time when you would need united Britons fighting against a more united enemy or enemies. For this to happen, Demetia would either have to have been a powerful kingdom or this Arthur chosen as their war leader.

This all begs the question of how those of Demetia saw themselves by this Arthur’s time: as Britons or Hiberno-Britannians or simply as Demetians? The names may have gone more British, but the ogham inscribed stone evidence shows they were still commemorating their deceased in Latin and Irish. Of course, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have used Irish and Latin and still thought themselves Britannian. (They could have been tri-lingual).The fact they did not retain any Irish heroes, such as Finn McCool like those in western Scotland did, could indicate they were more British; but this could be a later indicator for both regions and things could have been very different in the Late-5th century.

There are three other things about this Arthur that should be considered:

* He was possibly the one who fought and died at a Battle of Camlann but the date was changed. This could have been at Afon Gamlan (River Camlan) between Demetia (Dyfed) and Venedotia (Gwynedd).

* Some of his exploits could have been attached to an Arthur of Badon.

*This Arthur could have been the one attached to the tales of Arthur in Culhwch ac Olwen and the hunt for the boar Twrch Trwyth.

It is a remarkable coincidence that we have an Cambro-Irish Arthur and that the stories of Culhwch ac Olwen take place in this region. We have a chicken and egg situation here: which came first? I will give a hypothesis as to what could have caused the story of the Twrch Trwyth, but it is pure speculation.

Regardless of whether the story of the expulsion of the Desi was an origin myth or not, at some point it was believed. What better way than to get back at your former homeland than coming up with a story that tells of a man who defeated a fifth of it and killing one of its famous boars (stealing this part from Finn McCool possibly). The question then is, why the name Arthur or Artūrius? Was there a famous legendary Late-Roman commander in the region (not L. Artorius Castus) whose name they chose, or was it from Arthur of Badon or Arthur ap Pedr … or was he a mythical figure named after Arcturus? It could be any of these reason. Arthur ap Pedr was either named after this character (who could have been named after Arthur of Badon) or the character was named after Arthur ap Pedr. Or, as put forward in later blogs, Arthur of Badon and Arthur ap Pedr were both named after this folkloric/mythical/legendary figure.

However, if the character is named after Arthur ap Pedr, then the story has to have been a pan Hiberno-Britannian one and Arthur ap Pedr has to have been born earlier for an Arthur (possibly two) of the north to be given the name c. 570. If the general consensus is that Arthur ap Pedr and Artúr  mac Áedán are contemporary, then that hypothesis has to be rejected, leaving the others.

But if they are all named after a folkloric/mythical/legendary figure he too has to be a pan Hiberno-Britannian (yet not Irish) and one that was given a Romano-British name. The name still may have to have had supplanted that of another mythical figure if it didn’t come from Arcturus.

The alternative is they were all named (or perhaps renamed in the stories cases) after an Arthur of Badon who was of mixed ethnic descent and perhaps who also defeated Scotti raiders. The Irish would have brought with them the story of Finn McCool and there’s no reason to surmise that in southwest Wales this was who could have been renamed and the story changed over time.

It’s a theory.

Brychiniog from the Brecon Beacons


There is no Arthur here, but it’s worth mentioning this small Cambro-Irish kingdom  called Brycheiniog (the Brecons) in what is now south central Wales, which lay to Demetia’s east. Tradition says it was founded by and named after the Cambro-Irish prince Brychan (whom we met in the section on Artúr mac Áedán) from an older British kingdom called Garth Madrun in the mid 5th century, but this could be just tradition.

Brychan was supposedly a son of an Irish settler called Anlach whom, it seems, peacefully took control by marrying the British heiress of Garth Madrun. This tradition also says Brychan sired an extremely large number of children, some of whom went on to become, like their father, saints in Wales and Cornwall. One daughter supposedly being married to Artúr mac Áedán’s grandfather.

Tradition tells how his father, Anlach, went to war with the usurping Irish king, Banadl, of Powys to his northeast. The battle did go his father’s way and Brychan was supposedly sent to Powys to be fostered as part of the treaty. However, whilst the there Brychan was rather a naughty boy having his wicked way with the Irish king’s daughter. He supposedly became pious on his return home and his subjects name the kingdom after him.

How much we can trust any of the above information is another matter but it all obviously made for a good story.

In the next blog we’ll be moving back to the Western Isles to take a look at a very interesting character called Arthur son of Bicoir the Briton (born ca 580-600?).

Thanks for reading,



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