Slightly different approach for awhile



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Hey, sorry I have been away for awhile.  Many changes going on at the moment, and hanging over my head a deadline; I am supposed to hand in a finished draft for a readable history of Britain from 367-664.  The outline is written, most of it is on paper I have a little research to do before it is.  My big problem at this point is a lot of tedious editing.  I thought, maybe, anyone interested in the topic might get a kick out of me putting up chapters as I complete them.  So, don’t expect them regularly, but I will start putting them on my blog.  Today, an introduction:


In a way, our understanding of British history has developed a lot like a person as he or she matures from a small child into adulthood. During the nineteenth century everything about Britain during the Dark Ages was understandable and most issues were seen as black or white. Gildas had provided a list of events from the Late Roman occupation up to his birth in about 527. Bede had added accurate details for that period and continued the history up to the seventh century. Nennius’ Historia Brittonum filled in what few blanks there were of the period along with many British events and names while The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gave a detailed history of the English kingdoms’ development. Geoffrey of Monmouth provided an overview – themes and fluidity. There were of course discrepancies between all these sources, but it was believed they were nothing more than simple and honest misunderstandings between honest historians of the distant past.

The focus of historical studies then was to find better ways of understanding the materials so that all of them made sense together. With that in mind, scholars spent their careers pouring over the same four basic sources. Meanwhile, archeologists continued to improve their methods for uncovering the past. The revelation that Carbon disintegrated at a steady rate helped with dating as did the study of tree rings. Progressively more careful ways of digging and recording information helped as well.

The trouble was that the more scholars learned about history and archeology, the more obvious it became that the four traditional sources of the period were related to and inspired by each other. Once that was recognized their agreement really did not mean anything positive. In fact, it just meant that Gildas was the only one who knew anything about the fifth century unless it could be proven that Bede, Historia Brittonum, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had used other sources.

Optimistic caution followed their revelation; experts claimed to know less and their studies became more specific as they made in-depth studies on each of the basic four, learning about their sources and eventually the motivations for their writing. The studies revealed more and more bias and less and less real knowledge of the period.

Dr. Dumville brought post-Roman studies to an extreme during the 1970s with a series of articles pointing out the basic oversights in the most-used sources. It was Ninnius, not Nennius, who claimed to have written the Historia Brittonum. His authorship was debated. The work had been written and rewritten for very political reasons and was not necessarily accurate. Similar accusations were thrown at Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Dumville flatly stated that any events which occurred between the departure of Roman troops in 409 and the beginnings of contemporary recordkeeping in the mid-sixth century were irrecoverable.

Historical and archeological scholars had largely pulled away from Dumville’s stance by the 1990s. Several literary experts began studying the individual sources at length. Professor Koch even attempted to reconstruct several sixth-century poems, Y Gododdin, “Marwnad Cunedda”, “Trawsganu Cynan Garwyn”, “Moliant Cadwallon”, and “Marwnad Cynddylan”. Professors Rowland Haycock and Jenny Rowland have studied many other poems in-depth to provide context and meanings for them line by line. The important recent works of Thomas Charles-Edwards and a new generation of historians have revealed new ways of looking at the sources and the period.

The modern era of Arthurian studies began on shaky foundations as well. Arthur and his twelve battles had after all been named in the Historia Brittonum. Studies by Jessie Weston and Alfred Nutt speculated that the Holy Grail was based on Romanian and Turkish religious observances or alternatively Celtic mythology. Nutt’s work continued with Roger Loomis, who connected Arthur to a sun god and his war-band with various figures in Irish Mythology. His thoughts held the field until the 1960s, promoting translations of Arthurian works from medieval Welsh, English, French, German, Italian, Danish, and Spanish with his popularity.

The 1960s saw scholars trained in Celtic literature approaching Arthurian studies with different and more disciplined approaches to the subject. Rachel Bromwich ended all doubt about the origins of Arthur’s name while continuing work by her and other experts researched how and when the materials had transferred to the continent. John Morris’ Age of Arthur was a book written by a widely knowledgeable expert in the area, but its unestablished theories were in the short term viewed as a step back in the area.
Since then, Arthuriana really continued on in two veins. One group of scholars and good capitalists have written book after book finding different ways of saying the same things about Gildas, Historia Brittonum, the Annales Cambriae, Bede, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with varying levels of academic knowledge and economic success.

At the highest levels, the work of distentangling sources, influences on Arthurian literature, and character name histories has been at the forefront. Intensive studies have been accomplished on the continental romances, the Welsh stories, and their relationships. Peredur, Lancelot, and Gawain have been the subjects of several papers as well.

Several changes have occurred on both fronts over the last few years. As Professor Koch recently pointed out, the last of Professor Ifor Williams’ students died. Williams was a brilliant scholar but his reputation and charisma stifled the growth of an entire generation of scholars. With their decline and deaths progress has come in leaps and bounds; new and innovative work has been done on every major work of literature from this period. This has led to new approaches in the way historians have interpreted the period. It has also guided new methodologies. In 2012, the present author developed a new and more accurate means of extracting historical information from historical, pseudo-historical, and literary sources through intensive studies of the materials followed by a strict application of the results. The immediate results were a better understanding of the traditional Guinevere abduction and the Holy Grail legend. More far-reaching uses were found in a study of Arthur’s historicity and an exploration of Hengest and Gwrtheyrn’s place in history. It was found that, stripping away all the materials we know to be biased, the history of Britain between 410 and the end of the sixth century is very different from any picture we have yet developed.

In a very real way, what is laid out below is simply a continuation of the author’s previous work in context supplemented with the latest scholarly works. Approached from another perspective, the present monolith is a summary and rationalization of everything that has been accomplished in the subject of post-Roman Britain up to this point.

What follows below has several goals. First, to demonstrate a pattern of disintegration in Roman Britain that reached a climax in the decades after the Britons overthrew Constantine’s government and were refused Roman rule. In addition, I will demonstrate that the breakdown of Roman social, political, and economic order occurred with the re-emergence of the British social structure.

Second, the Britannia section will demonstrate the continuation of political and linguistic romanitas at the local level. Third, historical and archeological evidence will show the nature of Romano-Germanic culture. This evidence will be used to demonstrate how the Germanic tribes were divided during their service as foederati. The same evidence will show that they continued to function as separate entities after Rome had left Rome, during their initial revolt, and throughout the rest of the fifth century.

Fourth, several chapters will be devoted to explaining how the Picts and Irish immigrants to Britain had the political stability and military strength to overwhelm the Britons wherever they attacked. Concurrently, they will demonstrate why both culture groups were unable or unwilling to exploit their advantage through a permanent conquest. Fifth, chapters devoted to the sub-Roman period will walk through the process by which both the Germanic tribes and the British villages developed from isolated groups into full and integrated kingships in less than two centuries.

Sixth, evidence will be presented that demonstrates Christianity was not a thriving religion among all the Britons. Instead, evidence will be presented to show that it survived the fifth century along the borders of the old Roman province of Britannia and only developed into the dominant religion after all semblance of Roman culture had dissipated from everyday life. It is also hoped that the data will present Anglo-Saxon Christianity as a product of economic pressure which was used for the spread of political power. Finally, the author hopes to explore the fact that the Germanic conquest of British lands was inevitable.

A great deal has been learned and unlearned since the modern study of post-Roman Britain began in the nineteenth century. However, as complex as the sources and a study of the history has become there is still much that can be understood about the period, many underlying themes and controlling factors to understand, and new ways and more useful methods of looking at the few historical sources at our disposal. Post-Roman Britain is no longer as easy as Geoffrey of Monmouth portrayed the subject in his famous 1136 work, but neither is beyond our understanding, either.

1 Dumville, “ ‘Nennius’ and the Historia Brittonum”, SC 11 (Cardiff, 1976), 78-95.
2 Chadwick, “Early Culture and Learning in North Wales”, Studies in the Early British Church, ed. Nora K. Chadwick, (Cambridge, 1958), 29-36; Dumville, “Historia Brittonum: An Insular History from the Carolingian Age”; Historiographie im frühen Mittelalter, eds. A Scharer and G. Scheibelreiter, (Munich, 1994), 411; Higham, King Arthur: Mythmaking and History, (New York, 2002), 130.
3 Kirby, “Bede and Northumbrian Chronology”, EHR 78 (London, 1963), 514-527; “Bede’s Native Sources for the Historia Ecclesiastica”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 48 (London, 1965-1966), 341-371; “Problems of early West Saxon history”, EHR 80 (London, 1965), 10-29; “Vortigern”, BBCS 23 (Cardiff, 1970), 37-59; “Northumbria in the time of Bede”, St. Wilfrid at Hexham, ed. David Kirby, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1974), 2-4.
4 Dumville, “Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend”, History 62 (London, 1977a), 173-192.
5 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997); Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013).
6 Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, trans. and ed. Marged Haycock, (Cardiff, 2007); Early Welsh Saga Poetry, trans. and ed. Jenny Rowland, (Cambridge, 1990).
7 Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (London, 1988); Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (Leicester, 1989); Leslie Abrams and James P. Carley (eds.) The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey. Essays in Honour of the Ninetieth Birthday of C.A. Ralegh Radford, (Woodbridge, 1991); Higham, Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons, (London, 1992); Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800, (Leicester, 1994); Higham, An English Empire, (Manchester, 1995); King Arthur: Mythmaking and History, (New York, 2002); Scott DeGregorio (ed.) Innovation and Tradition in the Writings of the Venerable Bede, (Morgantown, 2006).
8 Weston, The Legend of Sir Gawain, (London, 1897); The Quest of the Holy Grail, (London, 1913); From Ritual to Romance, (London, 1920) Nutt, Alfred. Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail. (London, 1888).
9 Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, (New York, 1927); Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien, (New York, 1949); Wales and the Arthurian Legend, (Cardiff, 1956); The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, (Cardiff, 1963).
10 Bromwich, “First Transmission from England to France”, The Arthur of the Welsh, Rachel Bromwich, Brynley F. Roberts, and Alfred O.H. Jarman (eds.) (Cardiff, 1991), 273-298; Bullock-Davies, Professional Interpreters and the Matter of Britain, (Cardiff, 1966).
11 Nothing is to be gained by listing individuals or their works. The simple fact that a physics professor has written as an equal to experts in this field is telling enough about the state of its integrity.
12 Charles-Edwards, “The Date of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi”, THSC (London, 1971), 263-98; Laurie, Two Studies in Chrétien de Troyes, (Geneva, 1972); Buschinger and Zink (eds.), Lancelot-Lanzelet: Hier et Aujourdhui, (Reineke, 1995); W.H. Jackson and Sylvia A. Ranawake (eds.), The Tristan of the Germans, (Cardiff, 2000); Karen Pratt and Glynn Burgess (eds.) The Arthur of the French: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature, (Cardiff, 2006).
13 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, ed. and trans. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978); Brouland, “Peredur ab Efrawg”, Perceval-Parzival; Hier et Aujourdhui, ed. Danielle Buschinger and Wolfgang Spiewok, (Reineke, 1994), 59-70; Bugge, “Fertility myth and female sovereignty in the weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell”, CR 39.2 (University Park, 2004), 198-218.
14 Goetinck, Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, (Cardiff, 1975); Busby, Gauvain in Old French Literature, (Amsterdam, 1980); Gowans, Cei and the Arthurian Legend, (Cambridge, 1988).
15 Johnson, Origins of Arthurian Romances, (Madison, 2012); Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014); Hengest, Gwrtheyrn and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014).

Historical Sources


As often happens when you think a little out of the box, I learned a little last week and the week before.  So for this entry, I’d like to do something that may be a little dry but I think if you read through you may find it interesting.

The source.  For an historian, there is no such thing as a neutral one.  Practical experience supports that. Watch the football game last Sunday and then listen to ten different witnesses.  Anyone can watch every single play that occurred, but you will still have ten different stories.  They may mostly have the same heroes and villains but different details will be important.

An historical source is more difficult.  Take The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as an example.  They purport to have British information back to the fifth century, to catalogue the landings and foundations of Wessex, Sussex, Kent, and Northumbria.  But you look a little deeper and you realize East Anglia, Mercia, and Berneich are absent.

Why?  A cursory look into the chronicle’s history says it was probably written down while King Alfred was on the run from the Danes in the ninth century.  That doesn’t explain the omissions, but it does make you wonder how far back the early information can be believed.

The sources for the chronicles were – mainly – Bede and the Kentish Source.  In both materials we have an answer to Mercia; Kent never had to worry about Mercia during the era when it was creating its source, and Bede did his best to erase Mercia from history in his own works.  Both also explain East Anglia.  The kingdom hadn’t become prominent when Kent was writing, and had fallen into anonymity by the time Bede did.  Kent had no records of Northumbrian activities, while Bede was busy creating the image that Northumbria had always been just one kingdom and not the four or five it had been.

Bede had his own interests in writing.  He wanted to point out that the Germanic people were better than the Britons, that the Roman faith was better than the Celtic, and that Northumbria was the greatest kingdom.  Because of his priorities, he tended to bend facts he didn’t like and ignore events that fell out of his sphere of influence.  His sources, well, were extensive.  I could probably write another blog later, simply list them, and it might fill up the page.  Each of them would have had their own interests and limitations, too.

The Kentish Source was designed to make Kent the first and rightful leading kingdom in Britain.  The foundation legend of Kent is utter fantasy, with no basis in archeological or historical fact.  The details there were borrowed and expanded from Gildas, who didn’t know how the Germanic peoples had come to Britain himself.  The nature of the story made clear that no Germanic group could possibly have landed in Britain before them.

Some Wessex names also suggest an early Wessex source.  Of course in making a chronicle the native information had to be fitted into the histories of the Kentish Source and Bede.  That is why the settlements are clearly laid out as they are; Bede had said that the first Germanic over-king had been AElle of Sussex, followed by Ceawlin.  It was already established that Hengest had settled Kent before everyone else, which meant that Sussex was second and Wessex third.

You might be asking yourself how any of the confusion above could possibly have any relevance except for those of us insane enough to study everthing Arthurian.  Simple.  Arthur may have confused all the literature that happens to name him in any context, but his fame didn’t effect the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  It is a typical source.  And sources weren’t wholly biased then only to get better as the years went by.  Sources from modern times are just as biased, often just as many times removed from fact, and occasionally just as divorced from reality.

On that note, have a nice day 🙂

Some Thoughts on the Big and Little of it



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Last week I pointed out that the Indo-European peoples had more than their share of stories about their predecessors being abnormally short (gnomes/elves/fairies) or tall (giants) and asked anyone who was interested if they might have any ideas as to why that was.

The responses I got seemed to favor the theory that the conquering group was a few inches taller or shorter than the people they conquered and that this difference was exaggerrated with time and the tellings.  That makes sense I guess.  It’s rare that any two modern culture groups are roughly equal in height, or even build.  It only makes sense that these differences would have been noticed and amplified with time.

So, another curiosity is that these other-sized people seem to be associated with magic.  The fairies, for instance, have an entire world within each sidh.  The dwarves are astonishing craftsmen.  Elves, gnomes, leprechauns, sprites, Titans, and Jotuns each have some – magical ability.  Why?

And here is only speculation, but I’ll draw it from history.  In the fifth century of the common era, the Roman Empire collapsed and barbarian tribes quickly settled in its ruins.  Not surprisingly, the barbarians respected Roman culture, emulated Roman language, and preserved as much of it as they were able to.  Clearly, the civilization with the better technology or the larger armies is not always the one that wins.  The Germanic tribes of the era knew this.

So what if the pre-Indo-Europeans had better crafting skills than the invaders, as the fairies and the Norse dwarves have?  What if they were able to mine gold better, like the leprechauns seem to (else why would they always have gold)?  Perhaps the earlier cultures had a better, or deeper, understanding of the Earth with its cycles, agriculture, and lack of morality, like the jotuns and titans.

The Celts, Norse, even the Greeks had no respect for the people they conquered.  The Norse hardly speak of it, the Greeks mention the Pelasgians as a worthless culture that was suited to slavery, and the Irish don’t seem to respect the previous cultures even as they talk about them.

Yet it’s hard to deny when another culture has something yours does not.  You can wrap it in magic if you want, you can make them act malicious, but if you are going to characterize them there has to be some accuracy in what you say about them.

Just a thought.

What do you think?  I am not holding my breath that some Atlantean civilization will appear in the archeological record or surface at some point in the near future, but what do you think of the idea that sometimes the more technologically advanced group was conquered and their technology died with them?  Maybe they had some medical device or technique that would take hundreds of years to re-find, or maybe they just knew a little bit more about the native plants, animals, and landscape than the invaders.

Fairies and Giants, Elves and Gnomes



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I thought this week I would do things a little different; a brief commentary followed by a couple questions I hope will generate some interesting responses.

Anyone who’s read my blogs has seen that the fairies from Celtic folklore were believed to be descendants from earlier races that had been defeated.  Unable to go any further west, they hid themselves inside the hills and created their own worlds there.  I might add to this that there were legends of giants in Ireland and Scotland who used to throw boulders at each other.  That was how the natives explained why the local rocks from Scotland and Northern Ireland resembled each other so closely.

So much for the old stuff.  Did you also know that in Norse Mythology it was the gods (the mythological representations of the Indo-European invaders) who had driven the giants (Jotuns) into the mountains so that the mortals could enjoy the land?  Odin kept a sharp look out for Jotun incursions, and Thor would often go into their realm to test himself and remind the giants that there was a reason they stayed in the mountains.  But again, the giants represented an older culture while the Aesir were the invaders.

In Greek mythology the mortals didn’t even appear until Zeus and his siblings (the invaders) defeated the Titans (the Pelasgians).  It was then that the king of the gods raped a nymph and by her fathered the first humans.  But, Zeus’ activities for another day.

Interesting, too, that the Jotuns are linked to the elements of stone, fire, and lightning.  The Titans are connected with the Earth in general.  You could make the case that the Celtic fairies are tied to the ground as well because they live inside it.

So my questions are these:

1. Why did the defeated cultures either become giants or undersized people?

2. Why are they connected to the Earth and elements?

The Mysterious Celtic Isles



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J.R.R. Tolkien was considered the greatest translator of his generation, specializing in Celtic as well as Norse works.  He drew heavily on his translations while he was writing about Middle Earth, the direct translation of Norse Midgard.  Knowing he was a translator, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see the Norse influences in much of his fictional writings – dwarfs (as per Tolkien), elves, giants, orcs, and trolls all come from the Norse as does the concept of humans able to transform into animals.  The Celtic side is more difficult to see because we aren’t as well educated there but the wizards, the connection with animals, and the idea of plants thinking and moving probably came from them.

At the end of The Return of the King the remaining elves and wizards take a sea voyage to the west, from which it is made clear they will never return and no human, dwarf, or hobbit (apart from three exceptions) can ever go.  That is also Celtic.  Hy Breasil, Caer Sidi, Annwn and a half-dozen other disappearing/reappearing islands and fortresses are to be found in Celtic mythology.  They were all located to the west, all of them were islands where no one aged, and none of them could be found easily.

What do we know for certain about them?  Very little.  The argument has been made that Hy Breasil and other mysterious western islands were simply the Irish and Welsh names for Atlantis, back in the nineteenth century and before.  The Celtic people, and especially the Irish, were renowned as explorers.  An ecclesiastic named Brendan is thought to have sailed all the way to the Americas in the 500s.  It’s possible that an earlier explorer made a similar voyage and for whatever reason decided that the Native Americans he found there were ageless.

I pointed out the connection to Tolkien because he was probably more knowledgeable about the mysterious Celtic islands than any person since him.  In his descriptions, from The Lord of the Rings and elsewhere, he described the western island as belonging to a different reality, something like the different “worlds” or realms to be found in Norse Mythology.  These could only be accessed by certain species.  The gods could of course get to any realm but humans were stuck in Midgard, the elves in Alfheim (Elf home), and so forth.

So, is it possible that Hy Breasil was only supposed to be found by certain people?  Maaaaybe.  So who?  The answer to that is simple.  A little over a year ago I wrote about Irish mythology and explained that many of the Tuatha de Danaan’s enemies fled and hid after their defeat.  Some became known as fairies while others became leprechauns or were known by a host of other names with similar personalities.  None of them are said to have fled to an island in the west.  However, the Celtic peoples believed that the previous inhabitants of the island had all possessed magical powers and the Fomorians, original settlers of Ireland in myth, seem to disappear after they are finally defeated.  If I were to take a guess, I’d say that somewhere there was a belief that they had escaped to an island that was impossible to find.  The only thing that was eventually remembered was that there was an island out there that nobody could find and that was home.  And as with all the other homes of conquered peoples, in Hy Breasil the people didn’t age.

Just a guess mind you.

Some Thoughts on that Guy from Nazareth



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I would like to start this off by emphasizing that I am not out to attack the religion that was founded on the teachings of that famous son of David nearly two millennia ago.  I only want to put one part of that religion into an historical context.  The Greeks had a young man who had fallen in love with Aphrodite.  His name was Adonis.  By an arrangement with Hades, he was rejuvenated every spring into a beautiful young man.  The Greeks weren’t the only culture with a similar story.  In Egypt, Osiris died and came back from the with the help of his wife.  Among the Mesopotamians there was a god named Tammuz, whille the Canaanites knew him as Ba’al.  Closer to home the Phrygians knew him as Attis and the Etruscans as Atunis.  In all cases these deities were associated with seasonal fertility, in all cases they came back from the dead.

Just like our familiar hero of Christianity.  I don’t bring this up to discount Christianity, as I prefaced this blog with.  What I am pointing out is a common theme.  From modern Iraq to Italy, from Greece to Egypt, there is typically a fertility god associated with life-death-rebirth.  And Jesus, or whatever the person’s given name was (surely he was not given the title of savior as a personal name, that would have made for awkward social situations) just happened to be born along the crossroads.

It is generally accepted among scholars that there have been trade routes since the earliest times.  For instance we know that the Phoenicians sailed the Mediterranean as traders and after them it was the Greeks.  We know that the there was a trade route from India to Egypt.  It is also reasonable that the most central and logical gathering point for all these trading routes would have been Israel.

And Jesus was born and raised there, as were all of his followers during his lifetime.

In modern times we have come to celebrate the new year on January first.  It’s kind of silly when you think about it, January 1st is an unimportant day.  It is not quite in the middle of winter and it has no astronomical or practical use.  In ancient and probably in prehistoric times, however, the spring equinox was the first day of the new year.  It signaled the emergence of new life and a resurgence of food.  When humans began planting crops, the new year meant a time for that.  It should come as no surprise that festivals regarding all of the deities named above took place around the spring equinox.

Which is exactly the dating for Easter.  And as three was a magical number for the ancients, it was common for the entire spring ceremony to take three days.  Which is exactly what happens with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Does this mean that events in the New Testament were shifted around known and accepted pagan ceremonies when the Gospels were finally written down decades after the events they described?  Of course not.  Does it mean that Jesus might have manipulated events to coincide with known and accepted ceremonies?  Highly doubtful.  It’s just interesting that there are so many curious similarities between Jesus’ death and the religions that penetrated every part of the region he was in.  The timing of his death, his life-death-rebirth, and the number three.  That’s all.

The Origins of the Arthurian Romances



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Some guy, I won’t name names, once wrote a book with the same title.  This has nothing to do with that.  Instead, I’d like to talk about how exactly how the first romances came about.  Anyone who has studied much about the Arthurian legend will recognize the name of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in 1136 wrote Historia Regum Britanniae.  They would also know that he introduced Arthur to the continent.  There, with the help of Bretons and through the passing of crusaders to the continent, the legends of Arthur came to be told in Brittany and in time to the rest of France.

But they were not romances, none of them were.  Nor would they necessarily have developed into them.  A few decades after Geoffrey, there was a lovely young Countess of Aquitaine by the name of Eleanor.  The King of France managed to woo her and the land that came with her, but she was not happy with their marriage.  And, being a strong-willed woman with a great deal of power, she was not willing to maintain the status quo.

Enter the man who would later be Henry II of England.  He heard about Eleanor and realized what a golden political opportunity he had been presented with.  Then he met her, and they both fell in love.  Now I don’t take that phrase lightly.  She fell in love with him and vice versa, to the point where he wrote her poetry and together they presided over love courts.

Eleanor had given birth to several children by her first husband, however, and the most noteworthy was one Marie de Champagne.  Marie was raised in the atmosphere her mother was a part of, but she saw medieval love as disadvatageous to the woman.  You could call her a feminist.  Marie espoused a philosophy that came to be known as courtly love.  It had two main facets, that true love was to be foud outside of marriage, and that the man must absolutely submissive to the woman.  She hired one man to write down her philosphy, but then she hired a masterful poet named Chretien de Troyes to show her philosophy in action.  Chretien finally did so in a poem called “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” or “The Knight of the Cart”, the story of Guinevere’s abduction and rescue.

Chretien was the first person to write the Arthurian romance and his work was excellent within his genre, but the romance did not immediately become part of the Arthurian genre.  In Germany a few years later the same story would be written as Lanzelet and would present the hero as a womanizer while the queen would be connected only to Arthur.  Still, once presented by one of the great writers of the High Middle Ages, the idea of the romance would not die, and its association with Arthurian literature was inevitable.

We owe the hero Arthur to Geoffrey, but the Arthurian romance that the world loves and cherishes we owe to a twelfth-century French woman who had her own unique form of feminism and used the Arthurian stories as a vehicle for demonstrating how her philosophy should be put into practice.  Thanks Marie de Champagne!

What’s in a Number



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I was doing a little research on a related subject when I came across a simple fact; up until the Crusades Europeans only used Roman numerals.  Think about how difficult that would be.  Roman Numerals are simple enough with a sun dial, the numbers never get too big to be obnoxious.  However, think about adding up the number of warriors that you and your vassals have – xv + xxiii + ilxii and so forth.  I have seen the Tribal Hidage dating from the Arthurian period and it amounts to a list of kingdoms and taxes due.  The list is only a few dozen but in that format it would be difficult to tally.

Now imagine working with basic multiplication and division.  Very difficult, right?  It is much too easy to get lost when dealing with up to eight symbols that might be used to represent a single digit.  I personally can’t imagine doing any mathematics that I could not do in my head if all I could use were the symbols i,v,x,l, and c.

Now imagine basic algebra; 2x + 7 = 13/2x = 6/x=3

with “a” as a symbol for an unknown number it becomes iia + vii = xiii/iia = vi/a=iii

How about 3x^2 + 15x + 18=0/3(x +3)(x+2)=0/x=-2 and -3

You could get to iiia^ii +xva + xviii, but you could go no further in the equation.  Before the introduction of the zero with the Arabic system the Europeans had a placeholder for no number, but no real conception of zero.  Negative numbers aren’t even possible without it, either.

Because of the absence of both the zero and negative numbers Trigonometry, Calculus, and advanced mathematics in general are impossible.  Even if someone had managed to do equations without either they would have been extremely complicated procedures.  To have invented any of the higher mathematics would have been entirely inconceivable.

So, a brief history.  In 1095 the Byzantine Pope contacted the Roman Pope and requested assistance.  Ostensibly it was to recover the Holy Land from the unbelievers, but Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands for some time by then.  The reality was that the Muslims were encroaching on Byzantine lands and the remnant of Ancient Rome was unable to stop them.  The call was meant to get reinforcements so that the Byzantine Empire could limp on for awhile longer.

It worked.  Despite progressively less effective crusades (and the occasional tragedies such as the Children’s Crusade), the Muslim people were put back on their heels enough that it wouldn’t be till almost 60 years after the last crusade, in 1396, that the city of Constantinople would fall.

Western Europe was not directly effected by that, however.  With the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century and the resulting conflicts between the two superpowers, there is no way to be certain that Germany or Italy would have dealt with an invading force of Muslims.

Unexpected though it was, Western Europe’s greatest positive from the crusades was the exposure to new ideas.  Many of them were actually old ideas that had been preserved in areas from India to Egypt that were by controlled by the Muslims.  Some were new.  Arabic Numerals were perhaps the most important of all these in the development of science much as the exposure to Greek philosophy would be important to the development of Renaissance thinking.

Why Kings Lived so Long in the Ancient World



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The other day I was working on a broad history of the post-Roman period and I came across Oswald, a king of the Northumbrians during the seventh century.  A little math and I realized he had lived to the ripe old age of fifty-eight.  Keeping in mind the general maximum for the non-religious during the era, he had lived three years beyond what any person could reasonably expect to be.  I was, tongue away from cheek, astonished.

Then again, kings did have certain advantages over commoners.  Certainly they participated in battles and, in an era when a strap of leather tied around the ankles passed for shoes, one bad move could have anyone on their back or limping with a broken ankle.  In the hall no one knew the Heimlich Maneuver, so a loose bone in the throat could kill any person.  With a diet focused on meat, heart disease was an issue as well.  As a person’s bodily secretions were considered holy they never bathed, which made a perfect environment for communicable diseases.

And yet a man like Oswald lived to fifty-eight.  And fought battles.

In battle, every member of a king’s war-band was absolutely committed to the king’s life first and foremost.  If the king’s life was at risk, it was every man’s responsibility and holy duty to stand between him and death.  If the king died and a single warrior from his war-band survived he was humiliated.

That might seem a little extreme to us, living as we do in a world where politicians are regularly found to be dishonest and are dispensed with easily, where loyalty is more the office of the gullible than the elite of society it may seem odd to us that warriors would so willingly and so inevitably lay down their lives for their lord.  But it is not unheard of even in this century.  The President of the United States is a man constantly protected by bodyguards.

And the Early Medieval King, of the Irish, Pictish, British, or Germanic peoples, had a much more personal bond to his men than the President has with those who protect him.  Every day for their first few years of service, warriors lived in their king’s hall, partaking of his bounty in the food they ate, the drink they imbibed, even in the women they enjoyed.  The king gave them silver off of his person, weaponry and armor from his personal cache, coins, horses, dogs.  When they had proven their worth they were allowed to live away from the hall in their own homes.  Still, they remained on the king’s land and lived off of his wealth.  For a warrior, everything that he was, that he had enjoyed, that he owned, was due to his king.  He was everything because of his lord, and he must have felt like he would be nothing without him.  No wonder that the war-band was utterly loyal to their king to the death.

No wonder that a man like Oswald could live to the ripe old age of 58.  He wasn’t alone, either.  Even in the first century of British and English kingship (roughly 470 to 670) the occasional individual pops up who managed to live beyond fifty-five, even past sixty on rare occasion.

Dyeus Pater:  The Original IE Storm God




As you may or may not know, the idea of Indo-European (or Aryan before the Nazis abused the term) arose when someone noticed some strong linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and Latin.  Once the connection was made many European languages and several over the Middle East and into India were similarly connected to a race whose language was the forerunner of them all.

But it also opened up the possibility of other connections for many of the cultures between Ireland and India, among them the original Indo-European religion.  And primary among their pantheon of gods was Dyeus Phter, controller of storms who worked from the mountains.  I don’t want to bore anyone with the subtleties of linguistics (nor am I qualified to get into a lengthy discussion), but the basics are this:  As the core of the Celtic, Nordic, Romance, Greek, Indic, and Persian language groups were developing they made subtle changes to their vocabulary and this translated to the deities they worshipped.  He became Zeus among the Greeks, Thor and Tyr for the Norse, Dies Piter with the Romans, Dyaus Pita for the Indians, and the Illyrians called him Dei Patrous.  The Indo-Iranians, Baltic, Celtic, and Slavic peoples would worhship him as Deva/Daevas, Dievas, Deuos, and Div respectively.

But it’s also clear the nature of the god changed along with his name.  Though he existed among the Indo-Europeans as the father of the gods (“Dyeus” meaning god and “Pater” father) he did not retain that position unilaterally.  Part of the reason for that might have been because of the cultures the Indo-Europeans conquered after they had separated.  Other reasons might have been their new environment or their varied experiences as distinct cultures.  The Norse for instance would retain Thor’s attributes but would soften his personality into the protector of mankind and something of a bumpkin while Odin would become the dominant god.  He seems to have no linguistic relative anywhere, but his name is an indicator of mystical wisdom.

What is clear is that Dyeus Pater began his existence as a storm god.  A culture’s deities tend to reflect the culture they came from which means that the Indo-Europeans of pre-3000 B.C.E. felt very much at the mercy of the elements and hoped that by worshipping the strongest god, the god of lightning, they might give themselves a better chance of survival.  This changed as everyday survival became more certain; the sun would come to symbolize prosperity and health, the sea would remain inconsistent but would gain importance as the Indo-Europeans developed naval trading.  The forge, wine, and war would all come into their own in the following centuries.  The cultures they conquered would additionally give them a mother goddess, fertility, and respect for the moon.  It was with the storm-god, though, that the Indo-Europeans had their core.

Warriors, Women, and Sexuality



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In Greek mythology, a young woman named Caenis is raped by one of the gods.  He is so pleased with his conquest that he offers her any prize for the pleasure he has given her.  She asks for two things, to be a man and to be impenetrable.  She lives out the rest of her life as a great warrior named Caeneus.  She is finally killed when her enemies manage to bury her alive.

Throughout Greek, Indian, Norse, and even Celtic (in short Indo-European) mythology and legend women appear occasionally in the role of warriors.  Inevitably, these women lose some aspect of their womanhood in the process.  They can never be with a man and retain their warrior abilities.  The valkyrie Brunhild does so and becomes nothing more than a very small woman bent on getting revenge on the men who have deceived her.  Atalanta marries but loses all of the speed that had made her an Olympic athlete in the bargain.

This rule seems to be an arbitrary one.  For instance, it doesn’t apply to queens.  Boudicea was long renowned as one of the great British chieftains because of her significance in the revolt against Britain.  Amazons were immune, too.

But in both cases, there are loopholes.  Boudicea married a consort, a man of lesser status and the Amazons didn’t marry men, they had sex with them.  There was no relationship and therefore no loss of their power.  The one Amazon queen known to have married, Antiope, immediately lost her warrior abilities when she submitted to Theseus’ authority.

It is an old myth, that somehow a woman loses her independence and ability to fight once she has submitted to marriage.  It is a belief supported in the myths, too.  That doesn’t make it any less foolish.  Perhaps that’s why Wonder Woman has traditionally been portrayed without Steve Trevor, and maybe that’s why Supergirl is portrayed alone.

Maybe that’s another reason I have always preferred Marvel.  The Invisible Woman and Jean Grey are two of the most powerful beings in that universe and they have regularly been connected with Mr. Fantastic and Cyclops, respectively.  Neither relationship has diminished their power.  They have both had children as well.

The Mafia and Arthur



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The comparison of one of the most famous, upright, romantic ideals with a cornerstone of crime looks at first sight like a cry for attention, or as one of those challenges I’ve occasionally given myself just to see what kind of a ridiculous explanation I can come up with on the spot.  It’s not either, though.  The comparison is a valid one, a comparison I have used in teaching and have kept in mind in my writing.

When I envision the development of the first British war-bands (and I have to envision as there are no records of it) I imagine the Germanic clans raiding and slowly spreading their authority over British villages.  All over Britain I think of charismatic young Britons eventually gathering together their own groups of trouble-makers to stop them.  The invaders stopped, these leaders realize that they are more powerful than he could have imagined.  His followers likewise enjoy their new importance and neither of them want to lose it.  So they wouldn’t.

But young men didn’t lead villages, by common custom and Roman law elders did.  That meant they had no ready way of becoming a part of the government, which in turn meant no means of feeding and supplying themselves.  So, instead of working with the system in place they created a government over it.  That would have been easy enough.  With war veterans carrying the prestige of success and already having the most able-bodied and aggressive people of the area there was no one to stop them.  The leader could also make the legitimate point that “The raiders might come back.”  Then they demanded what they thought they needed to live on.

When I consider the origins of tribute among the British villages of the era, I think of it more as protection money.  On the surface, it was money spent to protect the villages from a renewal of Germanic aggression.  Beneath that, though, was the unspoken threat that their own king was keeping his men in check through the tribute.  Without it, they had no reason not to ravage through their own villages.

Thoughts of Sir Thomas Mallory are likely floating through your head about now, of a warm and fuzzy kingdom where courtesy and honor reign over everything.  But such high-minded concepts can only be afforded in a place where there is stability and maturity.  The fifth and sixth centuries were anything but that.  The Roman structure had been swept away and native customs were struggling to emerge again.  Political institutions were gone and social conventions long forgotten.  The Arthur we see in Trioedd Ynys Prydein and Culhwch ac Olwen was more cunning than his peers, not more honorable.  He was a better fighter and tactician, not necessarily a better ruler.  Arthur might have been courteous, but never with the people he depended on for food and armaments or the other chieftains of Britain.  He couldn’t afford to be.  Living in a place where the oldest people still remembered existing without a king he could not have hoped to create and enforce a false lineage.  All he had was the intimidation of his person and his warriors.  If villages didn’t believe that he would punish them for not paying tribute they wouldn’t pay.  If another chieftain thought he could beat Arthur one on one, he attacked.  The only way to survive was by being more intelligent, more cunning, and more brutal to your enemies and your villages.

The mafia has another aspect, too, and one that makes it appealing.  Membership in a family can mean a great deal of money and power.  Those rewards, though, come at a price.  Most people in that line of work don’t live to old age.  In the Arthurian era, the maximum life-span for someone not in the church was fifty-five.  A warrior who made it that long would have been extremely lucky.  A warrior who lived to forty would have been exceptional.




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The ancient world was extremely confined with the concerns of everyday life, brigands, and simply the unknown keeping a vast majority of the population from roaming much beyond the villages of their particular civilization.  For that reason, there were always lands just beyond their knowledge whose people, customs, and even the land were left to the imagination.  That’s why Odysseus and his men landed on a shore where everyone fell asleep, and an island inhabited by a sorceress.

Traders and sailors realized this early on.  Maybe out of some strange sense of humor or perhaps because they were telling their customers what they wanted to hear, they often told tales of islands beyond their sphere of knowledge where life was easy and good.  Islands were especially easy to spread stories about.  Those unaccustomed to the sea believed that they floated somewhat, while even trained pilots had a difficult time precisely locating anything out in the middle of the ocean with no visible background to use as a landmark.

Perhaps that’s why islands were so common when speaking of a land of the dead.  The Elysian Fields were thought to lie in the Western Ocean (Atlantic), perhaps the Azores, Cape Verde, or even Bermuda.  Mag Mell or Tir na nOg had the same function for the Irish, who believed their heaven was an island to the west or something under the water.  The Avalon of the British was often linked to Sicily or other unnamed islands of the Mediterranean.

The common ground for all these places of the dead was that they were distant islands well beyond the reach of an ordinary person of which next to nothing was known and that was all rumor and innuendo.

Which brings us to the British land of the dead.  It’s been said that Glastonbury was the land of the dead for the ancient Celts because a twelfth century writer named Gerald of Wales had once said as much.  He even gave the area a name that relates to Avalon through it’s root of apple.  However, the connection is not to be believed just because Gerald said it.  If a person believed everything that has been written about Glastonbury he would have to start off by accepting that Jesus Christ himself founded the monastery there after his resurrection and that Joseph of Arimathea later visited it.

It is possible that Gerald of Wales spoke the truth about Glastonbury’s etymology.  If he did, though, it means nothing.  Apples are a common fruit in Britain because of the climate; it seems only natural that someone might have named the area after them.

Perhaps most convincing is the simple fact that Glastonbury has never been distant let alone inaccessible to the inhabitants of Britain.  Islands in the Mediterranean have been, islands west of Ireland would have been, but the Glastonbury area was as easily reached as every other area of the island all through the historical period.  The only reason why that truth has never been pointed out is prestige; Glastonbury spent the latter part of the Middle Ages trying to gain enough of a reputation that it could sustain itself through the income of pilgrims.  Apparently, the monastery was so successful in that regard that even a blatant lie from that time is still accepted as truth.

War-Band Chemistry



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The war-band seems to be a polycultural phenomenon and is associated with any kingships that depend more on raiding for stability than a bureaucracy.  They are, for that reason, to be found all over the world at different times.

Unfortunately, historians only have real descriptions of the Celtic and Germanic war-bands, and those descriptions aren’t lengthy.  What we do know is that it was considered humiliating for any warrior to survive the death of their king in battle.  We also know that new warriors slept in the feasting hall, that more experienced men might have hovels nearby, and that the most trusted men would be given their own plots of land where they were allowed to form their war-bands.  Bards or their analogues often acted as entertainment in this setting and were clearly paid more for extolling the accomplishments of the king first and his warriors second.  Finally, warriors saw their king as their own personal patron.  He granted precious metals by taking them off his person.  He gave out weapons, armor, and livestock from his personal store.  A king was, in short, a father to his band of warriors.  Teulu, the Welsh word for war-band, also means family in Modern Welsh.

It is possible for a leader to have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of fanatical followers.  Hitler managed it in our century.  But such is rare even now, Hitler had a magnetism coupled with a gift for oratory that is studied by students of the art.  Other leaders manage the loyalty of entire countries as well but on a lesser scale.  Most have no magnetism and their oratory could be used as bedtime music.

Still, it is possible that someone could have even millions of devoted people in the modern era.  This is because of technological advances that allow citizens to see and hear their leaders -radio, t.v., even Youtube.  Arthur, Hrolf Kraki, and likely others kings such as Achilles and Gilgamesh were limited to the personal tools that were only effective at short-range.  They had the torque of silver or gold broken off from their arm to give to a warrior or a sword.  Such a direct act does create a closer bond, to be sure, but it isn’t something that can be done across a kingdom.

In fact, it would be difficult to do with a very large army.  The largest Germanic or British halls yet discovered could have held roughly one hundred warriors.  That is one hundred warriors sitting in a feast at one time so (and I am just throwing out guesses at this point) perhaps a half-dozen counselors who only came to the hall on special occasions, fifty to seventy less experienced men that had their own personal possessions and lived outside the hall, and the rest who slept on the floor there where they literally lived off the king’s generosity until they had proven themselves to him.  The process was designed to generate loyalty and to weed out those who were not worthy warriors or were not loyal.  But the inherent flaw in the system, clearly, was the size such a system allowed.  That halls have been found that could have housed no greater than one hundred men marks a clear upper limit as to how many men a king could bond directly to himself.

King’s had vassals as well, and these men would have theoretically been loyal to the king.  The reality is that they would have been loyal to their lord, the man who created the personal bond with them.  But, since early kings only allowed their most trusted warriors to be sub-rulers, the distinction was unimportant.  If a vassal’s men were loyal to their lord and the lord was loyal to his king, then then the men were ultimately loyal to the king.

The British Heroic Age



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In people’s curiosity over King Arthur, the fact that he lived in an heroic age is often overlooked.  But I think knowing that and understanding it are fundamental to grasping the world he lived in and the means by which his accomplishments were remembered.  The Heroic Age is a phenomenon which is widespread in Indo-European history but is not limited to that culture.  A quick run-down of histories many manifestations should give you a better idea of the concept.

Sumerian:  Very little is known about the earliest recorded heroic age.  It extended from 2700 to 2500 B.C.E., when several of the city-states of Mesopotamia, most notably Gilgamesh, battled each other in constant warfare.  A limited number of tales about them have survived.  However, archeological evidence demonstrates that all the remembered heroes of legend in this era were historical characters.

Indian:  This era is remembered chiefly for the events found in the Mahabharata.  The range of the period is unknown, though it probably took place between 1100 and 1800 B.C.E.  Several of the characters in the epic are named in king-lists and for that reason are considered historical.

Greek:  Probably all of the Trojan Wars took place in this era, traditionally between and inclusive of the Argonauts and the destruction of Troy, roughly 1400 and 1200 B.C.E.  Historically it is known that Troy fell in this period but also that the entire Mediterranean region suffered an extended agricultural collapse.  The traditional records among the Greek city-states consistently name heroic age kings as their rulers in within a long list of kings.

Irish:  Traditionally set in the first century before the common era and focusing on Conchobar and his most famous warrior Cu Chulainn.  The tales involve the local infighting of many kings.  There is no known reason for the inception of the heroic age, but the island is poorly recorded in this era.

Persian:  Focusing on the third century to the first century before the common era as well as Prince Rustam, the period was characterized by regular skirmishes against nomads, especially the Tochari and the Indo-Scythians.  Historically it began with the break-up of Alexander’s empire and ended when the Parthians conquered the area.

Germanic:  The culture began its heroic age with the invasion of the Germanic tribes into Europe in search of land, food, and supplies and ended with the development of stable kingdoms, ca. 350-600.  Several key heroic age figures, including Beowulf, Hrolf Kraki, and Sigurd, are accepted as historical figures because of complementary historical and archeological information.

British:  Arthur’s heroic age began with the rise of kingships in response to continuing Germanic settlements on their lands and continued until cattle raiding was generally replaced with large-scale warfare, ca. 470-600.  Apart from Arthur, a host of figures who appear in praise poetry and folkloric materials are generally accepted as historical.

Some points of comparison?  Where anything is known about the beginning of an heroic age it is the result of an economic or political calamity, e.g. plague or some sort of political disintegration.  This is so with the British Heroic Age.  In all cases but the British the central characters have all been alternatively proven as historical characters.  And perhaps as coincidence and perhaps not, most known heroic ages occurred in Indo-European cultures.

British Warfare and Cows



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Post-Roman Britain is signified by the slow loss of Roman culture as the British were inexorably smothered by the overwhelming forces of the Germanic peoples.  The Welsh Annals and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are filled with the dates of battles in which the former lost ground to the latter.  Odd to imagine that the primary military actions of the period were cattle raids.

The phrase means exactly what it suggests, a king and his group of warriors coming to another king’s hall and stealing his cattle.  Sometimes it could be done with stealth, but very often there was at least some skirmishing.  The most famous raid was remembered in Tain Bo Cuailgne, in which the Irish hero Cu Chulainn held off the entire army of Munster for a month before the rest of Ulster came to his aid.  Raids are suggested in the twelve genuine Taliesin poems and the mindset of the raid is present in many of the early Arthurian materials – “Preiddeu Annwn”, “Pa Gur”, Vita Cadoci, Culhwch ac Olwen, and so forth.

In imagining how the cattle raids were so common, a person must first imagine the period.  Certainly British kingships developed as a response to Germanic settlements and as a means to stop them, which means that they did fight in open battles.  However, as was seen in an earlier blog, war-bands were not very large.  At the beginning of the period, perhaps a dozen warriors might have made a typical war-band.  A group that large could not have absorbed many losses, which means they could not have survived for length of time fighting time of consistent pitched battles.

And yet without the threat of being plundered the villages who gave them the food and supplies they lived off of would have had no reason to continue funding them and war-bands would have had no practical function.  However, in raiding and being raided by other local warlords the illusion of danger was maintained and the villages were willing to continue paying tribute.  Cattle raiding had several other purposes as well; it allowed the warriors to let off a little testosterone, it kept them sharp for combat, and it may well have helped to weed out the weakest kings and war-bands.  After all, the king who has his cattle taken but can’t steal any himself is not as fit to rule as those he is competing against.  This in turn meant that the villages he had ruled would be absorbed by better kings, thus helping them to expand their power and bring the Britons under a smaller number of rulers.

It can be argued that cattle raiding doesn’t sound very heroic, nor were the stakes quite as high if warriors were simply stealing from opposing kings.  However, cattle raids were the basis of Celtic kingship.  However, in a period where populations were small and armor often amounted to leather cuirasses, they were the one safe way of maintaining the size of the war-band, keeping the warriors in fighting shape, and working out a pecking order among them.  Men like Arthur may have fought in significant battles during their careers.  However, if the careers of later kings are any indication, these were limited to two or maybe three.  Cattle raids were probably where Arthur made his name, raids like the one immortalized in “Preiddeu Annwn”.

Entertainment among Post-Roman Britons



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I thought it might be a little entertaining this week to list off some of the distractions among the warriors.  Everyone of course knows about the drinking of honey-wine (bragawt) and the impromptu creations of bards.  I think that a brief listing will help to fill out what a normal day was like in Arthur’s court.

Acrobat:  Cartwheels, roundoffs, and rolls.  Maybe some few managed flips but there is no record of any training school so the tricks would have been simple.

Bard:  This class of entertainer was not as we normally imagine, a storyteller, so much as a master of the legends and myths who had learned to integrate that knowledge into poetry and the invention or modification of royal lineages.

Draughts:  Similar to a game of dice, it was a game played between warriors, peasants, and even children.

Farter:  Believe it or not, some entertainers could make their living by passing gas.  Whether the fun was in the sound or the smell was unknown, however this group of people were not above using artificial devices to imitate the effect.

Gwyddbwyll:  An antecedent of chess, though exactly how it was played is unknown

Harpist:  Regularly accompanied with songs.

Idiot:  Individuals of limited intelligence seem to have been in demand, probably because of their social awkwardness and their lack of understanding.  Someone able to act like a fool was equally appealing.

Jester:  Much as in later times, his job was to make the king and his men laugh.

Juggler:  The simple ability to keep three objects in the air was extremely marketable.  A juggler may not have been a full-time entertainer but it might have enhanced the income of a farmer or craftsman.

Piper:  An expert in the use of the bagpipe.

Storyteller:  Not as well-esteemed as bards, they knew hundreds if not thousands of tales and had been trained in how to alter the materials and their presentation to fit the mood of the audience.

Wrestling:  A common form of competition, wrestling didn’t have the same basic rules as the modern sport.  It likely involved strangle holds, punching, and kicking.

In many ways British culture was more refined than ours with their appreciation for history, culture, the intricacies of poetry.  In many ways they were just as base with their love of professional farters and hall girls.  I think it’s interesting that in the darkest period of western civilization we had the same level of variations in our entertainments.

The Round Table



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It’s unfortunate that one of the icons of Arthur in the modern eyes is the Round Table.  As you can see above, Early Medieval feasting halls were small and simple.  Comparable to Norse longhouses, they were not very wide but could be quite long with a single table stretching most of the length of the hall, a ditch underneath for waste, benches on either side for the warriors, and a chair for the chieftain.

There is no physical evidence in the halls – no table, no ditch, no adjusted structure – for a round table during the fifth or sixth century.  There is also no evidence that it existed in Arthurian literature until Wace invented it in 1155.  And that writer, more Geoffrey of Monmouth’s translator, said only that its members were among the greatest warriors and that many were nobles and kings in their own right.

Other aspects of the Round Table could not be historical.  The concept of courtly love did not exist until Marie de Champagne patronized its inception with Andreas Capellanus and Chretien de Troyes in the late twelfth century.  The modern world has developed the Madonna/Whore perspective on women, and this was very much a part of the Arthurian world as well.  Whereas a woman who had come to the hall willing to give herself to any man in return for food and shelter was not respected, a man’s wife would have been.  But not quite the way the modern world would view respect.  A man could be involved in seven forms of marriage ranging from a one-night stand to a standing arrangement to something more convention.  Even with Christian influence he could be involved with more than one woman at a time.  By long-held custom, women could only own land if all male heirs died, and she could not pass on her possessions unless their were no male heirs

Chivalry was also not known yet.  Respect for a worthy opponent was given, but it was not expected.  Certainly kings made their way through entire careers without showing any chivalric qualities.  Early on, they were probably the most successful kings.

However, not everything about the Round Table legend may be wrong.  As a king Arthur did have a personal retinue of warriors, and Arthur’s men are mentioned time and again as the epitome of perfect warriors throughout the romances.  Arthur’s extensive court-list is highlighted in Culhwch ac Olwen and his warriors are noted for their unique qualities in Trioedd ynys Prydein.  In all of Welsh literature even the most celebrated of other kings only have one or two warriors who have been linked to them.  Not Arthur, he has over a hundred.

Their composition as Wace gives it unlikely.  Successful kings acquired land and gave it out to their best warriors so that they could serve as vassals.  In fact this arrangement would eventually become inherited and the vassals would in time develop into nobles.  In the fifth and sixth centuries there were dozens if not hundreds of kingdoms, so it seems reasonable that princes who were unlikely to succeed their fathers might have found other halls to serve in.  If that is accepted, then certainly Arthur’s may have been the most famous of them all.

Nor may the number be that far off from reality, either.  Most medieval writers gave 150 Knights of the Round Table, which in itself is an odd number I think no one has ever explained.  Historically, many of the British feasting halls that have been excavated might have held a dozen or twenty warriors, but some halls might have seated up to a hundred.  Accounting for a few vassals with war-bands of their own, 150 seems like a reasonable, if high, number of men at any one time.

The “knights” were also a fluid group, with deaths often allowing for new entries.  In an era where the maximum life-span was 55, and the average man was dead by 25, such was a given.

To be a Citizen in the Roman Empire




I involved myself in an interesting discussion the other day, several aspects of which I found enlightening regarding the Roman Empire.  The first curiosity I realized had to do with perceptions of identity.  Apart from areas of great fertility, culture groups generally centered around the tribe unless they were united under a powerful leader or were threatened by an outside force.  These situations generally led to a very temporary situation; united tribes might speak a common language and participate in its military but as soon as the central authority weakened or the threat was diverted each group sought total independence again.

Rome was different than Persia, Macedonia, Carthage, Assyrian, and every other empire and confederacy before it.  Though it was an empire, its citizens considered themselves to be of a single nationality and sharing a common culture.  This was for several reasons, both organic and manufactured.

The most obvious was language.  Latin was the language of the conquerors, which made it the language all people hoping to work in the empire had to know.  Rome generally made accepting the new language as painless as possible, too.  There was no extra tax on the conquered, no reason for the provinces to feel put down.  In fact, the brightest segment of the population was offered a free education and employment in the empire’s government.

With the coming of Rome roads were improved to the most durable and easily used transportation system in the world, complete with government funded stations at regular intervals.  Rome had a very stable economy for most of its history, which meant that a new province normally enjoyed a level of prosperity it had never known before.  Rome also had one of the strongest political foundations the world had ever seen, which meant that the new province was also being run more smoothly than ever.  There are few better ways to win the loyalty of an entire culture than by offering it superior governance.

Unique at the time, Rome followed a practice of religious tolerance.  This was modified slightly with the introduction of emperor-worship and later Christianity, but by that time the regional gods had been assimilated to the Roman, and with that the regional religions had been connected to Rome’s.  Once the emperors had accepted Christianity, it was a relatively peaceful  process to bring the entire empire to the new religion.

There was also a great deal of manufactured unity.  Provincial governors were always sent from Rome, which meant that all rule was coming from a central location.  These governors would install their own bureaucracy as well, bringing in people from throughout the empire and with them persons from all over the empire who were all very Roman.

The military also played a part.  Soldiers were asked to serve for 20 years in the military, but law gave a retiring soldier the option of a free plot of land on the frontier where they had served.  This brought Romanized people into new provinces and hastened their Romanization.  Soldiers who instead returned home would bring the memory of having served with people from all provinces, reinforcing the sense of a unified empire.

There were of course exceptionions to the Romanization process.  Britain was never fully conquered and so its border regions – Wales, northern England, and even Cornwall – were never fully indoctrinated into Rome’s culture.  The same can be said of Rome’s Asian frontier.  However, even here Rome’s influence could be felt.  Foederati stationed along Hadrian’s Wall in the third century were taking on Roman names within two generations while many of Wales’ kingdoms claimed Maxen Wledig, Maximus, as the father of their founder’s wife.

Hengest and Horsa, AEsc and Oisc



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Who was Hengest?  A legend fragment that seems to be related to Beowulf suggests he was a banished chieftain.  The Gildas-Bede-Historia BrittonumThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tradition would seem to confirm the latter.  And that seems plausible; there is no point in moving across a sea unless there is a reason to leave home.

The easy connections end there, however.  As vague as Gildas is about the dates when the first Germanic foederati arrived, he makes it perfectly clear that Hengest and his cohorts do come after the Romans leave (while Gwrtheyrn is overlord of Britain in fact, but that particular anachronism has been otherwise discussed).  Gildas is here wrong.  We know from the archeological and Rome’s historical evidence that there were foederati in Britain as early as 300.  We also know that the last recorded chieftains were Fraomar and one Ansehis, a name easily miswritten as Anschis and from there possibly corrupted to Hengest.  But I’ll get back to that.

Gildas wasn’t real big on names, so it should come as no surprise that he mentioned no additional Anglo-Saxons in his history.  It’s disappointing, however, and makes for a difficult reconstruction of early post-Roman Britain.  Added to that, the Germanic foundation legends were necessarily oral (Christianity in 616 would introduce writing for the first time), and oral legends about the history of a dynasty tend to follow a consistent pattern that makes for good reading but poor history.

The pattern works as follows.  First the founder of the line is named and his traditional accomplishments recounted.  Then history is really bent and twisted.  Very little is usually known about a founder’s ancestors as anarchy tends to precede the foundation of a family, so the hole in the past is exploited.  In order to add strength and prestige to a dynasty, any and all famous warriors and kings of the past might be added to the beginning of a lineage.  So for instance if the U.S. had gained its independence in an oral climate and had decided on a monarchy we might have recorded that Miles Standish had been Washington’s father and Daniel Boone his grandfather.  Pocahantas would have been named as his divinely inspired mother.

The Kentish royal line was known as the Oiscingas.  Oisc was therefore the founder, and most likely was an historical figure.  Nothing before that can be believed, however.  That point must be clear.  Hengest, Horsa, and AEsc could possibly have been Oisc’s ancestors, but only if they had been noteworthy leaders in their own right who had been remembered for one or two accomplishments.  That any of those men were ancestors to Oisc is about as likely as Standish being a real ancestor of George Washington.

What do we know of the Germanic people in Kent before Oisc?  If they are otherwise identifiable (which is unlikely), Hengest was likely the fourth century figure Ansehis:  It seems reasonable that there was a prominent chieftain in Kent during the mid-fifth century rebellion, and AEsc is the most likely candidate.  If Oisc was the grandfather of AEthelberht (another assumption), he was active in the middle of the sixth century.  Reasonably he could have been contemporary to Gwrtheyrn.

Historicity in the Dark Ages:  Beowulf



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Most people have read something about King Arthur, whether it be one of the dozens of books by pseudo-scholars claiming to know all of his knights’ names or an expert who more than likely considers Arthur a myth.  The seriously curious have even been through the evidence.  The problem with discussing anything about Arthur is that every aspect of the subject is so hopelessly complex that a definitive answer has proven all but impossible to win general agreement on.  But saying all that hardly brings the point out very well, comparison works much better.  The case of Beowulf is a relatively straightforward one by comparison, and a general concensus comparatively simple.

Beowulf is mentioned in the famous poem by that name in which he is spoken of from the Geatish perspective.  As Bjowulf he can be found in Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and Bjarkarimur, where he is mentioned from the Danish and Swedish perspective, respectively.  What these all have in their favor is that none of them is a retelling of another.  Interpretations of the monster Grendel, of Beowulf’s relationship with the Danes, and of the relative good and bad of the various characters and dynasties change from story to story.

While Beowulf is one of the earliest English poems, it was written centuries after the sixth century events of the story (between the eighth and eleventh centuries) and has been heavily influenced by Christianity.  The same goes with Hrolf Kraki’s Saga of which all copies date to the fourteenth century, while Bjarkarimur was written in the fifteenth century and is therefore even less reliable.  Even though the literature of three opposing dynasties mention him, all three were written down late enough to have been influenced by each other in the sense that an invented character could have been inserted into all three tellings.

The single conclusive piece of evidence that any of the people and events of Beowulf are historical seems to be a haphazard connection.  In the poem Beowulf’s king, Hygelac, is killed on a raid against the Franks.  Gregory of Tours, the Frankish historian, records that a Danish king Chlochilaicus was killed on a raid against the Frisians in roughly 520.  As Chlochilaicus is good Latin for Old English Hygelac, the connection is considered valid and the possibility of a second Hygelac ignored.  And, as Hygelac is mentioned in all three native sources as the uncle of Beowulf it has been postulated that the famous Geat must have existed as well.

There are also lesser pieces of evidence.  Heorot, the hall as described in all three works as the home of Hrothgar and his dynasty, has been found based on their descriptions.  There are no major chronological difficulties between the story as it comes across in all three sources and what is known of the history.

With Beowulf there has been no conflation with myth, nor has a body of romances developed around him over the last few centuries.  There are histories mixed with legendary material.  Even there, with him, there is no way to be certain.  Though there is a concensus that Beowulf did exists, there is no way to be certain.  With Arthur, to be even that straightforward is impossible.

From Historical Event to Romance:   Four Easy Steps



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Apologies for my absence.  Lots of applying for jobs, fellowships, and publishers going on.  As an apology,  I’ve cleaned up and hopefully improved some of the pages on my site.  I have also written out a critical bibliography which I am happy to expand on with requests.  If the book is older, I have no doubt read it.  If it is newer I’m likely to know the author and should be reading it if I haven’t already.

Onto the week’s topic.  My thesis and most of my thinking since then has been based on the theory that medieval romances began as historical events.  Unlike the modern story based on historical facts, however, they were never transitioned in one step; the process was much more interesting.
An event happened.  Just to make it tangible let’s say our end product will be Le Chevalier de la Charrette by Chrétien de Troyes.  So the event is simple, someone attempts to steal Arthur’s wife in order to marry her and become the legal ruler of the land she represents.  Our abductor is of course foiled, likely being killed as an example to other potential usurpers.

There are no historians in sixth-century Britain, so bards take up the story.  They begin with the core elements, but the nature of their education demands that the story itself changes almost immediately.  Motifs are thrown in, like the sword and water bridges or an episode involving Picts or Pictish symbols.  If it was interesting enough, it would survive in an oral environment for centuries.

In the years following William the Conqueror’s conquest of Britain, his Breton allies would make use of their position to gather as much of the Welsh materials as possible.  Their latimari would act mainly as translators of the materials, no doubt altering a few things but mainly transferring the Welsh stories onto the continent into the more familiar French language.

Trouveres, professional storytellers, would take up the story from there.  The evidence is that they focused on single qualities for each of the Arthurian characters – Tristan became associated with the hunt, Gawain with courtly love, and so forth.  Arthurian tales normally made use of the plot to introduce them and their stereotyped qualities.

Romance poets, like Chrétien de Troyes, took up the mantel from there.  Under the influence of patrons like Marie de Champagne they had their own specific goals as well; the rendering of courtly love into a story form.  Specifically in the case of Chrétien and Marie, the character of L’Ancelot, the servant, was generated to replace the original hero.  So, too, were scenes like the bloodstained sheets and the tournament where he was told to do his worst before he was allowed to shine in her honor.

The transformation, as massive as it was from reality to romance, shouldn’t surprise anyone.  The telephone game gives us all a good idea of what happens when a story is passed from one person to another.  The time factor (700 years) and the different interests of the various groups who passed on the tales would only have magnified the changes over time.  The surprise is that anything recognizable as from about 500 has survived at all.

The Knight of the Cart



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Anyone familiar with things Arthurian (and if your reading this you should be 😄) knows about at least two events in the Arthurian legend, the search for the Holy Grail and the abduction of Arthur’s queen.  The latter I have detailed at length, so this week I would like to explore the abduction.  The written version most people are familiar with is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, itself derived from Chrétien de Troyes.  The original has Meleagant beating up Keu (Kay) before kidnapping Ginover (Guinevere).  The young knight takes her to his father’s castle where Gauvain and Lancelot find them.  There Meleagant is defeated by Lancelot and, after a series of other episodes, the queen is restored to Arthur.

But that’s not really all there is.  Chrétien’s version is called “Le Chevalier de la Charrette”, the knight of the cart, because at one point Lancelot demeans himself by riding in a peasant cart in order to get to the queen more quickly.  Gauvain is several times in this story and in other Chrétien romances described as a lady’s man, yet Lancelot is the person who sleeps with Ginover.  Meleagant is described as stealing the queen out of lust, yet there is no indication that he was anything but a gentleman to her during the captivity.

There is something from another of Chrétien’s romances as well, “Le Conte du Graal” where Perceval first comes upon Arthur.  On that occasion a knight has intentionally spilled a cup of wine onto the queen.  The rest of the court is stunned, and Perceval seems to save the day by embarrassing the man responsible.

Again, the scene seems odd when viewed from modern eyes.  It should have seemed unnecessary and forced to a medieval audience as well, then again a twelfth-century group would not have been as focused on plot as we are.  And there is a reasonable explanation to the cup and the wine.

One of my earlier blogs dealt with the concept that a Celtic king’s wife, his queen, represented the land he ruled.  This was celebrated in a kingship ceremony, one which is illustrated in a myth involving Conn and the god Lug, and less so in Perceval’s scene at the grail castle.  In it a young woman, presumably the land in a human form, offers a cup to the rightful king.  In accepting it he “marries” the land and takes responsibility for its well-being.

The cup, then, symbolizes kingship as much as the woman.  That understood, the scene in “Le Conte du Graal” can be seen as an interpretation of a very old motif in Celtic literature – the abduction of kingship symbols as a means of claiming kingship.

Lancelot, too, seems to be a royal person (or at least he was superimposed over a royal character).  The cart he is forced to ride is explained as a common cart but the description more resembles a Celtic war chariot.  There is also a curious series of symbols (comb and mirror, bull) in the story that are to be found on Pictish stones and seem to have been symbols of royalty.  That he is reclaiming a queen suggests someone else has attempted to usurp his throne.

The Major Arthurian Families



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Before I present a few family histories I should explain a couple things.  Living in an age where a person was judged by his father’s accomplishments and often addressed by his patronymic, Arthur is not consistently known as the son of Uthr/Uther in British literature.  Peredur/Perceval is originally known as the son of Efrawg, a Cymricization of Latin Ebrauc, modern York; it should come as no surprise that Perceval’s father changes with the author.  Lancelot is consistently the son of Ban/Pant, but he was either invented by Geoffrey as a nod to events current in his time or (and more likely) by Chretien.  In the latter case his name originally was L’Ancelot, the servant, as it appears on several manuscripts from the oldest originals.  Modred is either the son or the nephew of Arthur, though originally he appears to have been an independent king who was either an enemy or, more likely, an ally at Camlann.

That said, there are three major families in the Arthurian universe, Arthur’s, Perceval’s, and Lancelot’s.  Arthur first.  A -, /, or \ indicates the next generation, thus Amlawdd had three children:

Pre-Galfridic Welsh sources

Amlawdd-Uthr-             Arthur-      Amr

                                                 \      Llacheu

                \Madog-       -Eliwlod


Note that Gwalchmai is not here.  He was made Arthur’s nephew with Geoffrey of Monmouth, and had no siblings at that time.  Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach made no further familial connections, but Gawain begins to have brothers with those who followed.  Women were considered of no personal significance (apart from their symbolic connection to the land), and so it is common for there to be multiple names for a hero’s mother.  Instead of listing them I’ve given the men his sisters married, who are consistent.  Arthur’s family continued to develop until the Vulgate version of the Arthurian Romances, where it crystallized:



       -Loth-  -Owain

       -Urien- Gawain

                  – Gareth

                  – Gaheris

                  – Agravain

Urien was a king of Cumbria in the middle or late sixth century.  Loth ruled Lothian about a generation earlier.  Arthur, as I’ve said before, ruled in the late fifth or early sixth century.  Next, Lancelot’s family:

Elaine- Lancelot-Galahad

          – Ector


             Bors-Elyan the White

Lanzelet makes Lancelot a maternal nephew of Arthur, but that seems like an author-specific connection as it disagrees with every source before and after.  Perceval’s family is last:


           -Pelles-    -Elaine-Galahad






You will recall that the name of Perceval’s father was never known.  The grail was actually a device used by nature worshippers (see my ‘Origins of Arthurian Romances’), who followed the fertility god Belatacudros, euhemerized into the legendary Welsh king Beli and bastardized on the continent into Pelles and Pellinore, among other characters.  And that is why Perceval, associated with the grail, eventually came to be associated with Pellinore.

The Written History of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ 



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One of my first big lessons in graduate school was that sources, no matter how much useful information they have and despite how early they were written, can never be taken at face value.  Take the Historia Brittonum, for instance.  Written in about 829, probably by a monk named Ninnius (as Professor Dumville has educated us, he was not named Nennius), in Gwynedd.  In the preface he says that he has simply compiled everything he could find into a history.  It is an attractive confession.  The history provides a complete history of the British people from their first immigration and through the Roman withdrawal.  It then goes into great detail about Vortigern, Hengest and Horsa, St. Germanus, and several other individuals and kingdoms of the post-Roman period, providing a wonderful background for the British of the period.

The problem is, people in the ninth century didn’t write histories just to write them.  Generally speaking, histories were politically motivated.  In 829, King Rhodri Mawr was in his fourth year as the ruler of Gwynedd.  His accession had marked the foundation of a new dynasty, and the history served to solidify his position by strengthening the kingdom’s history.

Further than that, the Gwynedd of the ninth century was the most powerful British polity.  In the wake of continuing Anglo-Saxon incursions, Rhodri saw it as Gwynedd’s responsibility to unite the British kingdoms against them.  Seen from that perspective, the history’s choice of entries makes consistent sense with a sensible goal; when united the British were unstoppable, when divided they were vulnerable.  To that end there is an entire chapter devoted to Urien, who is credited with leading an alliance of prominent British kings against the Anglo-Saxons much like Rhodri hoped to.  Cadwallon, too, is mentioned as uniting many of the British kingdoms and allying with Mercia in attaining supremacy in the north.  A descendant of Urien is recorded there as attempting to usurp the Northumbrian crown.

It showed support of its own kingdom with a chapter devoted to the original foundation of Gwynedd, demonstrating a connection with Rome, a legitimate conquest of a foreign power, and the actions of strong early kings.  The history showed support for Powys in the St. Germanus chapter, where the saint himself was credited with legitimizing the foundation of the Powysian dynasty.

Just from the above background it’s clear that Ninnius lied; he didn’t just throw together anything he could find.  Even the original entries about Vortigern were put there for a reason; Rhodri Mawr married into his dynasty.

But the original history was not the final draft.  The Historia Brittonum was rewritten in the tenth century, again for political reasons.  At that time Dyfed was the dominant British power and her king wasn’t as much interested in a British alliance as a Dyfedian empire.  Dyfed wasn’t interested in conquering one, either.  It’s rulers instead used political tools to attain their ends.  They were clever to, never attacking Gwynedd directly as their dynasty was descended from it.  They also didn’t have a new history written, they edited the old one to their advantage.  

The new version began by attacking Powys, whose territories they coveted.  It was in the Dyfed version where Vortigern was first attacked.  Following Bede he was blamed for the Anglo-Saxon invasion.  Here, though, he was additionally accused of allowing his lust for a woman to lead him into giving away Kent, slept with his daughter, allowed his son to fight off the Anglo-Saxons as he cowered, and finally called for the death of a fatherless child before the great hero Ambrosius showed up and defeated him.




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Vortigern is traditionally the fifth-century king who invited the Anglo-Saxons over to the British Isles and in the process initiated their conquest of England.  However, it’s a faulty tradition.

That emerges in a study of the sources he appears in.  A common myth is that Vortigern is first mentioned in Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae.  He does not.  Gildas’ information becomes shaky in the middle of the fifth century, before which a “superbus tyrannus” is mentioned in conjunction with the invitation to Anglo-Saxon mercenaries.  Coincidentally, the title means great king.  Vortigern, and the Welsh equivalent Gwrtheyrn, also translates as great king.

Vortigern first appears with Bede some three hundred years after his supposed life.  Here we are given an exact reiteration of what is found in Gildas.  Which means only that Bede assumed that Gildas meant Vortigern when he wrote superbus tyrannus.

The next source that names him is Historia Brittonum, a book written in Gwynedd.  Those copied directly from the original manuscript do say Vortigern invited the Anglo-Saxons Hengest and Horsa, a la Gildas.  However, they also credit him with founding the Powys dynasty.  Powys, coincidentally, was a close ally to Gwynedd at the time of the book’s creation.

This book is where all the truly nasty accusations – his poor judgment with Hengest, his foolish dowry of Kent, his inability to control the Anglo-Saxons or even his own people, or his sexual relationship with his daughter.  But the original history was written in roughly 829, and all the versions where this new information is given are based on a tenth century version.  This updated Historia Brittonum was written in Dyfed.  In the tenth century, Dyfed was attempting to unite all of the British kingdoms.  It could not rewrite history regarding Gwynedd as Dyfed’s dynasty was closely related to the Gwynedd family.  However, Dyfed could attack Powys.  By adding so much negative press to his story, it did just that.

Incidentally, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mentions Vortigern.  The initial note is taken directly from Gildas, or Bede.  After that, there are several battles taken from Historia Brittonum

In sum, Gildas made up history during the mid-fifth century and before because he did not have any.  But he did not mention Gwrtheyrn.  All historical sources that followed were based on an assumption that Gildas had meant Vortigern.  As they were clearly wrong, Vortigern’s place in the historical record is uncertain.

The Welsh geneologies, once resolved of inconsistencies by Dr. Molly Miller, give a clear chronology for the infamous Powysian king; he lived in the middle of the sixth century.  As a man living in the sixth century and not the fifth he could not have taken part in the legend of Hengest and Horsa.  And, as all the most vicious stories about Vortigern were written by Dyfed during its dynasty’s attempts to usurp control of Powys, the claims of Vortigern’s incompetence, stupidity, and incestuous relationship cannot be accepted without discussion.




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Wicca is a religion created in the 1950s based mainly on the research of Margaret Meade on prehistoric cultures.  Her work has since been undermined.  However, the core of Wicca is simply a belief in a feminine deity as represented by the moon, birth, and earth and a masculine entity which is the sun and fertility.  There is normally an element of magic as well.

Margaret Meade lived in an era when scholarship as we know it was just in its infancy.  However, there are elements in the Wiccan beliefs that suggest she was on the right track.  The Greek, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Phoenician religions all had a fertility goddess as well as a young and virile god.  These latter would die as a part of a yearly cycle and would be reborn in conjunction with the spring plantings.  The rebirth of the god and the gift of life and life-giving plants and animals were normally treated as magical.  

In Wicca’s various manifestations the male and female element are treated as a religion of two gods, a religion of many gods, a belief in one god with two aspects, one of archetypes, or simply as symbols for how to see the world.  Magic can be only the mystical elements of reproduction or can exist as a supernatural entity.  The afterlife may or may not be a part of beliefs.  Morality is not consistent, as ceremonies may involve open acts of sexuality or may be simply symbolic in its treatment of the male and female (I found it interesting that the chalice and knife were normally used, something to be found in grail mythology).  There is no equivalent to a Bible or the Ten Commandments.  However, there is a universal philosophy among Wiccan beliefs that the religion is earth-derived and that any deeds one does, good or bad, will be revisited on a person threefold, in mind, body, and spirit.

There is also a strong connection among practitioners with the “witches” of Medieval Europe who were burned for being strong-willed women, even though our knowledge of the beliefs of these women is shaky, limited as it is to their use of the equinoxes and solstices as major holidays.  Granted, Wicca now uses the same four dates in many of its variants, but these are not the four major holidays nor were they a part of the religion from the beginning.  Even if they were, the use of Easter/Eostre, midsummer, Halloween/All Hallow’s Eve, and Christmas/midwinter is a common one throughout the world, necessitating no connection between medieval witchcraft and modern Wicca.

Although not one of the traditional religions and not a derivative, Wicca has not been made fun of from what I’ve seen of popular culture.  The one instance of Wicca I know off hand is to be found in the Buffyverse (as opposed to witchcraft which is everywhere from Harry Potter to Charmed).  There it is strongly linked to the newest technology – computers, and associated strongly with nature and nurturing.  Then again, before Joss Whedon got involved with things Marvel, his creations were always filled with strong and powerful women – Buffy, the Slayers, and Willow, Zoe, and Echo.

The Trojan Wars



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Wicca was suggested this week, but I think that will require a little more research than I want to devote while finishing off some other writing.  I hope you will accept my substitute, the Trojan Wars.

Everyone knows about the Trojan War, either as written by Homer himself or through the reasonable movie facsimile done a few years ago.  The romance of Paris and Helen, the foolish bravado of Achilles conflicting with the regal arrogance of Agamemnon, and the terrible situation Priam and Hector are forced into are all good storytelling.

The truth is that if a minion behaved as Achilles does toward Agamemnon, he would have had his throat slit as he slept.  If he didn’t, his king would lose his hold over his other minions and himself be killed.  The fact is that Odysseus is the real hero of The Iliad and Homer’s sequel The Odyssey.  He enlists Achilles, then uses his hubris to defeat Hector.  He convinces Agamemnon to employ the Trojan Horse.  He is no slouch as a fighter either, he alone can string his own bow and does his share of damage on the plain of Troy.

The land Troy was set on, controlling access into the Black Sea, made it a valuable location for centuries.  That the Greeks were annoyed with whomever they found interfering with their trade makes perfect sense as well.  The new idea, the one that has probably caught your eye, is the concept of multiple attacks on the city.  The archaeological evidence is there.  There were about a dozen versions of the same city built on the same land by the time Alexander the Great passed through centuries later, and half of those existed between his time and the traditional date for the Trojan War of 1200.

Evidence for different wars can be found in Homer as well, where weapons of different ages are described, from Bronze to Iron.  The specific descriptions of swords, spears, and even horse apparel are clearly from several different time frames too.

There are also the Greek myths.  Several isolated legends suggest that different men lead an expedition to Troy, and many more are worded such that interpretation is possible.  According to myth, Hercules himself tore down one set of walls when he felt he had been underpaid for working on them.

Agamemnon may very well have led several war-bands into a war there.  Judging from his impotence without Odysseus and Achilles and his reception when he returned home (murdered), he likely failed to sack the town.

Achilles is so closely linked with Hector as the main emotional storyline in Homer that he may have killed the Trojan leader (in a period where the maximum life-span was fifty-five, he would have fought the king and no prince).  However, as the tradition has it that he died before the city was taken, historically he may have been killed on the plains of Troy as well.

To Odysseus legend gives the Trojan Horse and the eventual return home.  Clearly under his leadership the city was taken.  However, whether he was the first attacker or the last is unknown, whether they all lived within a few generations or five hundred years apart is unknown as well.

The Druids



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Druids have become, in the modern lexicon, a symbol of Celtic magic or mysticism.  Part of that is the fault of the early Christians in Britain and Ireland; they portrayed druids as the keepers of the old religion who had to be outshone in order to usher in the new; Columba defeats a Druid several times in bringing Christianity to Brude, king of the Picts.  No doubt stories abounded about Patrick accomplishing the same feats in Ireland.

Part of the problem also has to do with our perceptions of magic.  Today we see the craft as the province of people who study for years, people who go by the names of witches and wizards.  But that was not the case in the ancient and medieval worlds.  As has been seen, bards were wordsmiths, and for that reason their creations had a supernatural quality.  The king’s power over his people rested in the divine provenance of a deity or the land itself.  A talented smith could put magic into his weapons and armor.  Magic was not limited to those who studied the supernatural, but to those who studied their craft to a high degree of precision.

There is a limited amount of information about druids, and much of that is either second-hand or contradictory.  They liked oaks and mistletoe, probably because of the male symbolism of both plants.  They were respected among all the Celtic tribes regardless of where or to whom they were born.  They often acted as diplomats.  The pre-Christian Romans feared them.  That’s about all we know.

But that last bit of information is perhaps the most interesting.  The Romans accepted all religions up until the deification of their emperors, and even then they only insisted that all peoples in the empire worshipped the dead emperors as a part of their native pantheon.  Only three groups had issue with that law.  The Jewish people would be forced to scatter as a result into their diaspora, the Christians would be persecuted within the empire until Christianity became the state religion, and the druids who were wiped out.

Notice that the Celtic people were not persecuted.  In fact there is no record of any Celtic people suffering under Roman rule, apart for the druids themselves.  Does that mean druids had their own separate religion, perhaps monotheistic?  Could they have been more politically influential than our limited records suggest and have been fomenting some massive rebellion?  No person really has any idea.  All we can be certain of is that in the first century, the Roman army went to the island of Anglesey in Britain and there slaughtered the druids.  That is the last time any druids living south of Antonine’s Wall were ever mentioned in any source.

The Socio-Economic Importance of the Bard



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As someone who has studied the “Arthurian period” at length I have noticed some things that irritate and frighten me.  First Knight comes to mind, being wrong in its interpretation and understanding of the story, in error about the love triangle, the philosophies involved, and the armaments.  But I have learned to live with it and media like it.  After all if a person wants the romantic delusions of the Arthurian period they are either going to enjoy it blissfully or enjoy it despite me.

But for those who want to understand, the socio-economic situation was a fascinating one.  Today I would like to start with the bard.  Bards have been explained as the storytellers, the entertainers, the keepers of culture.  And they were.  There is no accurate source that tells us how long they studied their craft, or exactly what they had to learn before they were allowed to practice, but we can guess.  They had to know the mythology of their people, all the regional legends and many politically important local tales as well.  They learned probably hundreds of motifs, dozens of techniques to captivate audiences, and their ability to create intricately rhymed verse on short notice was honed to a legendary status.  It has been said that their gift for words was so powerful that a satire foretelling doom could guarantee the demise of any warrior or king.

As legendary as they might sound, however, in the Britain of 500 they held a political significance even superior to kings.  At that time, British kingships were just emerging throughout England, Wales, and parts of Scotland from a several hundred year dormancy.  The tradition of kingship was dead.  The old bloodlines were forgotten or extinct.  And British kingship was nothing like living under Roman rule.  The Romans had possessed innumerable soldiers, unlimited money, and were centered hundreds of miles away.  The kings of post-Roman Britain had perhaps a dozen men, only as much money and possessions as a handful of villages could provide, and in 500 were hardly a day’s walk away.  To be blunt, they didn’t have tradition, numbers, resources, or even the necessary distance from their subjects to make themselves intimidating.  They were men.  They were leaders of warriors, but they had been born to farmers or craftsmen.  They would get old and weak, and someone else would replace them.

Bards served as the glue that held the early kingdoms together.  They used their training and reputations to cement on a philosophical and emotional level the position early kings had established militarily so that they could gain the economic benefits of the villages under their rule.

How, exactly?  Because of their background, it was believed that bards knew the culture and history of the entire Celtic peoples.  They didn’t of course, but perception was more important than reality.  They took the knowledge they had about history and applied it to the area they were working.  To put this in context, a king who has recently gained power finds himself in an awkward position.  As his parents were farmers or craftsmen and most or all of his more distant relatives were as well he has nothing upon which to validate his position.  But a bard happens through and offers his services.  The king gladly accepts and within weeks or months he suddenly has a glowing past filled with mythical and legendary warriors who were all blessed by the gods.

Of course the history wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter.  A bard was believed to have such power with words that if he said it was the truth, it was.

Taranis and the Celts Original Mythology



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Taranis is one of the last pan-Celtic gods.  The etymology of his name also makes him the only clearly Indo-European deity I have come across so far (though Eponis the horse deity is a likely second).  Taranis comes from Proto-Celtic Toranis, which means thunder.  He resembles Thor, Deor, and Zeus and has both the same root word, Dyeus, and the same basic weapon.  Also in common with Norse Thor/Deor and Greek Zeus, he was likely the leader of the Celtic pantheon at some point in their history.  As such he would have been a war god.

However, circumstances were different for the Celts which is why the same deity has a different place in their pantheon.  The more I research into the Celts’ religion the better I understand why it developed the way it did.  The Greeks lived in an enclosed region – isolated from the rest of the world but their various city-states were mutually accessible.  That meant that any invading force was able to remain in contact after the conquest.  This ease of communication helped them overwhelm the indigenous population’s pantheon.  Greek deities are consistently portrayed throughout Greece for this reason.

Rome began as a single city-state which guaranteed that the native religion was consistently portrayed.  The Norse constantly interacted with each other from the moment they migrated into the Scandinavian region through raiding as well as trading.  Their interchange allowed their gods to maintain both their positions in the pantheon and their personalities throughout Norway, Denmark, and Sweden and down to Germany.

The Celts, however, dwelled in lands that were unevenly invaded; the Irish were not overwhelmed by all the waves of people that Britain was, and Britain was not invaded by as many groups as the continent saw.  Britain and Ireland remained in fairly close communication for most of the centuries they were independent (the Irish Sea Province), whereas the English Channel often served as a barrier to the rest of Europe.  The results of these varying levels of influence were multi-fold.

It is a sociological fact that an invading culture has to do something with the religion of the conquered.  Smothering it by killing its followers only makes the religion a source of rebellion.  Instead, the indigenous gods are often incorporated into the religion of the conquerors.  In Greece, Zeus’ many love affairs are normally seen as a literary symbol for Indo-European tribes invading and rendering the local goddesses subservient.  The existence of previous generations are another means of assimilation; as the son of the previous ruling deity Zeus had a legitimacy that was far more insidious than simple conquest.

The Celts may have attempted a similar approach, but because of the distances involved that approach would have resulted in different priorities, different relationships, different compromises, and in the end a different pantheon of gods throughout the Celtic world.  It could not have been otherwise.

Because of this, local beliefs seem to have had varying degrees of success in dominating the new religion.  As has been seen the Children of Danaan, a pre-Celtic pantheon, dominated Ireland and several of its gods are known on the continent.  Taranis, an Indo-European god, is known throughout the Celtic regions but doesn’t seem to have been dominant anywhere.

The end result is that if a Celt had traveled from Bulgaria to Ireland in the first century before the Common Era, he probably would not have recognized many of the gods that were worshipped along the way, and of those he did recognize many of them would have seemed out of place to him.

Danu and the Celts Original Religion



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The Celts were never culturally united like the Greeks, nor were they close enough so that their best athletes could gather for games every four years during their heyday.  This left them unable to standardize their beliefs into a coherent whole.  Nor was the religion written down till most of the Irish people had been conquered.  As a result, the religion’s original form is hidden; those they conquered blended inconsistently with the conqueror’s religion.  Local and pre-Celtic gods became part of the pantheon in some areas that were never known to other Celts.  Because of the late recording of the religion pan-Celtic deities are sometimes only known from one or two sites.  The poor archealogical record makes discerning between less popular pan-Celtic deities and local gods difficult.  What I have discussed so far amounts to the following:  Lug, a king of the gods that has qualities more like the multi-talented Hermes.  Cernunnos and Belatacudros, who seem like two aspects of the Young and Dying God theme so common in the Mediterranean with Adonis and Osiris.  Bran, who had magical powers and whose head was so infused with it that he survived for decades after being severed from his body.  I know of nothing in all of mythology that matches that.

Others must be searched for.  The Norse have Auddumla, a fertility goddess transformed into a cow that creates life by licking away the ice of the world.  The Greeks have Gaea and her mirror self in Rhea who are the life-givers of the gods and the world.  The Celts claim no original source.  The only hint there is of an origin myth is found in the name of the last second-to-last conquerors of Ireland, Tuatha de Danann or the Descendents of Danu.  Danu is mentioned directly in none of the Celtic myths.  She was prominent in their rites, however, archealogy has confirmed this.  And she was greatly respected.  The Danube, Dneister, Dneiper, and Don rivers are likely named after her.

The fact that the Tuatha de Danaan called themselves her descendents suggests that they had no knowledge of the male element in reproduction while they were still migrating.  Otherwise they would have been known, as the Ionian invaders of Greece were known, by their common male ancestor.  That information alone suggests the Tuatha de Danaan may have come to Britain several thousand years before the Celts who would come to worship them.

Which puts new light on what I have written above.  In every other group of people I have run across there has been a religion of the conquerors.  In some cases, like the Greek civilization, the religion of the conquered has been retained by relegating their gods to lesser positions in the new pantheon or by adding them in as a previous generation of gods.  But not with the Celts.  That is an assumption which scholars and casual readers have made in looking at the Celts (an assumption I had made).  But their religion is completely unknown before they came to Europe.  All evidence of it seems to have been overpowered or inextricably entangled with the native religion.  That’s a shame, because in preserving them both we have lost each’s uniqueness and with that the ability to appreciate and study them as independent belief systems.

Lug; Not Big and Dumb



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This pan-Celtic god of the Tuatha de Danaan is known as Lugus, in Ireland (and most famously) as Lug, and possibly in Britain as Llew Llaw Gyffes.  To the Romans he was Mercury, the playful and inventive god.  He was in Irish myth half-Tuatha de Danaan.  His most famous story involves his entry into the war-band of the Tuatha de Danaan.  Approaching the gate to their fortress he was faced with a situation familiar in Celtic myth; he had to prove to the gatekeeper that he was worthy of joining the Tuatha de Danaan.  His response was that he was an expert wrights man, but the gatekeeper refused him because the Tuatha de Danaan already had one.  He then said he was a smith, a champion, a swordsman, and an expert at several other skills, but the clan already had a master of each trade.   Finally he asked if they had anyone who was an expert at all of his skills.  There was none and he was accepted.

Lug would soon win his way into the heart of the Tuatha de Danaan king, Nuada, who would make him the king’s champion and ask him to lead their forces against the Fomorians.  In that war he would be victorious.  In the course of it, Nuada would be killed and Lug would be proclaimed the new king.

Lug is portrayed as the quintessential high-king, capable of doing everything better than the people under him, of ruling well and guiding his people to happiness.  That’s where I was introduced to him.  There is a legend that the first great high-king of the last Irish invaders, Cormac, once suffered the abduction of his wife (abduction is a common theme in Irish myth and is related to the treatment of the queen as a personification of the land he rules).  Cormac’s men searched a year for her, but at the end of that time it was Cormac himself who located her.  She was being kept in the hall of Lug.

Thereafter followed a ceremony in which a maiden approached Lug and asked him “To whom shall the cup be served?”

Lug indicated Cormac and the maiden gave him the cup.  He drank and returned it to her.  She asked the question over and over again, and each time Lug responded by naming off a descendent of Cormac.  The cup, like the woman, was a symbol of kingship.  When the ceremony was over Cormac was given back his wife, reinforced in the title of Ireland’s high-king.

He is also half-Fomorian.  That is an explanation for his abilities beyond the physical and intellectual.  He is often described as a trickster, breaking cultural norms much like Loki does in the Norse myths but with more the helpful intentions of the Native American coyote trickster.  That seems odd considering Lug is the king of the gods, or maybe it should seem exactly right for a Celtic god more closely tied to magic and inspiration than to war and kingship.  After all, the Tuatha only elected him king because their king had died and he had defeated their enemy.  Lug was not born to kingship or fighting but was able to adapt to it because of his other skills.

Bran the Blessed



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A son of Llyr, the British god Bran is known for two things.  The first is that he owned a cauldron that could resuscite any dead animal.  The second is that, dead, his head continued to entertain the surviving members of his war-band for eighty-seven years.

The story associated with him begins with Matholwch, King of Ireland.  He came to Britain to woo the hand of Branwen, Bran’s sister.  Bran and Branwen were amenable but their half-brother Efnisien was not.  In defiance he mutilated their horses.  Hoping to sooth relations, Bran gave Matholwch his magic cauldron.  Using his new gift he restored his horses and the marriage took place.  Matholwch and his new bride went to Ireland.

But Matholwch never forgave the incident.  Insulted at the slight given him he mistreated Branwen from the start of their marriage.  Eventually she sent word to her brother of her plight.  Bran responded by assembling an army.  In the resulting battle the cauldron was destroyed by Efniesin, all of the Britons but seven were killed, and Branwen died of a broken heart.  Bran, gravely wounded, told his own people to sever his head and take it with them as they retreated.

Even put in context, the cauldron and the living head seem like an odd pair of details to be attached to a British god.  However, they are in a way connected, and their connection touches on some core aspects of Arthuriana.  Magical cauldrons are normal features in Celtic mythology and legend, having cornucopic, healing, and even life-giving qualities.  All of these attributes can also be seen in the grail, which sustains the grail court with food and whose proximity allows the grail-king to survive even though he has been mortally wound.  But the holy grail is clearly Celtic, as has been seen.  The giveaway is in its name – given as Corbenic and translated as something like Blessed Horn or cornucopia.

The second item seems absolutely fantastic at first glance, a talking head (insert joke).  However, the Celts believed that a person’s head was mystical and contained the soul of that person.  When Bran’s own people decapitated him they were able to preserve it because of its innate magic and Bran’s godly power.  For the Celts, the story of Bran and his sister was a simple tale of betrayal built upon well-known cultural foundations.

During the twelfth century, the magical cauldron and the court of Bran tied in well with the developing continental mythology of the grail.  The qualities of life-giving and food-producing sounded like the miracles of Christ himself while the life-beyond-death of Bran resembled the story of the grail-king as it had been told from Chrétien on.  In the thirteenth-century, author Robert de Boron would even introduce the name Bron for the grail king, completing the integration of Bran to the story of the holy grail.

Belatacudros and Cernunnos



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As inconsistent as it is, the Irish mythology is far and away the most complete Celtic Mythology that has survived.  In that respect it can give you a good feel for what the religion was like as a culture.  For instance, the Greeks euhemerized the two historical invasions of their region into two succeeding generations of gods, with the the first two being depicted as evil (Uranos and Chronos both swallow their children) and therefore the emergence of a new generation is made out to be an improvement.  With the Greeks the first generation is totally impersonal, the second is full of nature personifications, and in the third the gods interact greatly with humans.

The Celts present their history without that seeming bias.  The Fomorians are never associated with evil.  For them the only differentiation seems to be that the Fomori had magic, and the Milesians were smarter.  The Fomori may lead you into their realm, but they generally try to help mankind.

With that backdrop in place, I would like to focus on the Welsh material a little more.  I would like to start with two of the British gods, both near and dear to me from my graduate days.  They are often found associated with each other in native archeological digs.  Belatacudros was a god of death, closely associated with the fertility deity Cernunnos.  Belatacudros was likely associated with crows, the scavengers of the dead.  Cernunnos’ symbol was the horns of a stag (his initial syllable of “cer” is probably from Celtic “horn”.  Pictures of Cernunnos normally include a cauldron or some sort of vat.  Together the two gods made for a sort of two-aspect deity along the same lines as Adonis among the Phoenicians or Osiris among the Egyptians.  As Belatacudros he was nature dying and when transformed into Cernunnos he was the rebirth.  

Belatacudros was worshipped among the troops along Hadrian’s Wall, probably because he was linked to crows and death.  The Romano-British who followed would also take an interest in him.  Although they knew of more powerful gods like Lug and Manawydan, they generally chose him, in his shortened version of Beli, as the founder for their dynasties.  I can only assume he was so appealing because of that same connection with crows and death.  Both are often associated with warrior-kings in the British literature.

Belatacudros also shows up in Arthurian romances (which is where I found him).  There he is consistently linked to the holy grail in the persons of Pelles (the Grail King) or Pellinore (one of the protectors of the grail).  On the surface that seems odd.  As a Christian symbol, the association of death is wrong.

However, now that we know the grail was a cauldron used in the fertility rites by a subsection of British culture, it is feasible to see Belatacudros as an integral component of those rites.  In modern parlance, Belatacudros was the Old Year and Cernunnos the New Year.  That would explain their contrasting symbolism and undeniable association in the archeological record.

However, their connection with the grail lore and each other would make both Belatacudros and Cernunnos pre-Celtic deities that the Celts had forgotten were foreign gods.  I think that’s very interesting.  Hera and Aphrodite are two examples of pre-Greek deities.  Hera’s function is the cuckolded wife and Aphrodite is a nymphomaniac.  But for the Celts, there was no conflict in blending the old gods with the new pantheon and giving them a place of real importance.

Leprechauns and Shoes



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I’ll admit from the start that I have no direct answer for why leprechauns are associated with shoes.  However, if you’ll bear with me for a moment I may be able to provide some small satisfaction on the matter.

When Lug came to the Tuatha de Danaan, he was asked by the gatekeeper what he could provide for the tribe.  He responded with a number of professions of which he was a master.  Frustratingly, each time he named one he was told that there was already a member of the tribe who was an expert in that field.  He only gained entrance when he asked if any member of the tribe had mastered all of the professions he had named.  No one had.

It is said that, when the Tuatha de Danaan were sent underground by the Milesians, each group of them was assigned a separate sidh, or hill that served as doorway to the Otherworld.  Reasonably, all the groups, cities, or tribes of Tuatha de Danaan would have had the same concerns as they had in the days when Lug had gained entrance.  Namely, that there should be one expert for every craft at every sidh.

The leprechauns are generally associated with the Tuatha de Danaan.  The leprechauns have the same diminutive size, magical powers, and general association with the sidh as they have.  It is also a curiosity that leprechaun is an anglicisized of ‘leipreachán’.  Irish ‘ea’ regularly transitions to ‘ei’ and ‘á’ to ‘ó’, giving a folk etymology breaks the first two syllables down to ‘leith’ or half and “bróg” or shoe, in other words someone working on one of a pair of shoes.  By that thinking, the leprechaun may be nothing more than a specialist to be found in every tribe.  Naturally smiths, carpenters, and other experts would have been welcome, too.

It is curious that, as mentioned in my previous blog, the Fomorians are associated with magic and that, until the Milesians, they were able to hold Ireland from all invasions.  Only the Tuatha de Danaan, who intermarried with them, were able to retain control of Ireland.  Both facts speak of a hidden knowledge among this original race.  The leprechaun may have been the keeper of that knowledge, or one aspect of it that was the most recognizable to the invaders.  There is no way to know now.  The Fomorians left no records, and their story is too deeply buried in Irish Mythology to learn anything about them.

What can be recovered about them is minimal, and here I would happily invite any thoughts.  Up until recently they were thought to wear red.  They were normally seen working on a single shoe.  They did each own a pot of gold, and if captured they could grant three wishes in exchange for their freedom.  Those few things are all that can be reconstructed of them.

Celtic Pantheon: An Overview



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As per a recent request, I will write a bit on Celtic mythology.  I will warn at the outset that the Celts did not leave a relatively neat and orderly mythology like the Greek, Romans, Norse, or even the Egyptians.  They also did not have one set of legends for all Celts.  Of all the Celtic peoples the Irish were independent longest, and their mythology the most thoroughly laid out.  We will begin with them.

According to the oldest oral memories, the Fomorians were the first settlers on Ireland.  Little is known of them apart from that.  When Partholon and his people came to Ireland some time later they managed to defeat them for control of the island.  However, after a few years there was a plague and all of Partholon’s people died.

Nemed and his people came next.  They also conquered the Fomorians.  However, when Nemed died his people were driven from power.  When they attempted to revolt a huge wave overwhelmed Nemed’s followers.  Only thirty survived, and they scattered throughout the world.

The Fir Bolg were the next invaders.  However, the Fomorians were nowhere to be found they simply settled the island.  Eventually the Tuatha dé Danaan, survivors of Nemed’s people, returned to the island.  Through conquest and then intermarriage with the Fomorians (now emerged from wherever they had hidden), the Tuatha dé Danaan defeated the Fir Bolg.

The last invasion was of the Milesians (the present Gaelic population).  They defeated the intermixed population and made a truce in which the land would be divided in half.  The greatest Gaelic poet was asked to decide how that would best be done.  He gave the land above the earth to his own people and that underground to the Tuatha dé Danaan.  Defeated and outwitted, the Tuatha dé Danaan went underground and now inhabit only the sidh, the fairy hills.

The Tuatha dé Danaan are the fairies of Irish lore, beings of tremendous power who like to bait humans into the Celtic Otherworld.  They are also the gods of Irish Mythology.  And this is where Celtic Mythology falls in on itself.  Lug led the Tuatha against the Fomorians, but historians have him dead long before the Milesians invaded.  Another king, the sea-god Manannan, led the Tuatha dé Danaan underground after the Milesians arrived.  And yet, when Conn of the Hundred Battles is first awarded the high-kingship centuries later it is Lug who arranges it.

It is an unfortunate fact in the preservation of Celtic Mythology that monks were largely responsible for all extant materials.  They had an unfortunate habit of bending time and space to make native myths fit with the established chronology of their own religion.  That makes Celtic mythology particularly difficult for two reasons.  For one, we can be reasonably certain that Lug did not die according to Celtic legend because he was a god.  But we cannot be positive.   The Celts may well have introduced some aspect of the migration of souls to his story so that his body died and his soul transferred to another, essentially allowing him to be immortal in a different way.

Second, there is the question of the Tuatha dé Danaan’s retreat in the face of the Milesians.  If the Tuatha dé Danaan  were possessed of godlike powers, why would they need to?  If they simply gave up their land to the Milesians, what was their reasoning?

The Fomorians are equally baffling.  They seem to have been the original inhabitants and seem to have had some supernatural powers that made them somehow superior to every race they came up against.  We know almost nothing of them, however.  Likely they fall into the same category as the Jotuns of the North and the Pelagians of prehistoric Greece.  They were a conquered people whose technology or philosophy was never fully understood by the conquerors and because of that the conquerors maintained a respect for the conquered.

Holy Grail 4:  A Solution



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By the time I entered my last year of studies I was confused.  I saw Christian/Jewish/Celtic/Nature Rituals in every passage of the grail literature.  With so many viable contributors I really had no idea what the grail actually was.  And then I realized that I needed a base.  I needed to strip away everything that I could see came later in the development of the corpus and what remained, hopefully, would be what the grail was.

It was plain from the start that Chrétien had been the first widely read author of the grail story on the continent.  So I did some background checking.  Philip of Flanders was his patron.  He had once made a trip to the Holy Land where the King of Jerusalem had considered making him the Regent.  Philip’s own plan was to have his vassals marry into the ruling family so that he could be crowned king himself.  Philip was unable to force the issue, and when his aspirations came to light he was sent home empty handed.  He spent the remainder of his career trying to reach the same pinnacle of achievement he had in Jerusalem, but died before he could.

Coincidentally, Philip’s career matches much of what happens to Perceval in Le Conte.  Or is it coincidence?  The more I looked into Philips’s career and compared it to Perceval’s, the more similarities I found.  And if Le Conte and all the romances that followed Chrétien had plots that were a part of a later stratum, that meant they were all useless in understanding what the grail was.  It also meant that the Christian aspects weren’t necessarily old, and the Jewish details were definitely from Chrétien.  No other author used them, and of course Chrétien’s name suggested he might be Jewish himself.a

This left me with only one useful plot – the one found in Peredur.  For anyone who has ever read the Mabinogion tales, that particular story is a mess.  A dozen haphazard stories tied together in much the same fashion as a 1960s t.v. show.  It looked like a disorganized pile of motifs.  It is a disorganized pile of motifs.  That is probably why it has not received much attention.  However, it did have one scene at the end that seemed to draw the entire story to a close.

Peredur runs into a group of women and a cauldron.  They end up fighting.  It is then that Gwalchmai (Gawain) and other Arthurian warriors appear and together they kill the witches and destroy their cauldron.

So I started researching the various aspects of that scene.  Cauldrons are found throughout Celtic literature, with or without Arthur.  They heal, revive the dead, and even produce food; something like the properties of the grail.  Women are mentioned with a cauldron only two other times.  Once in “Preiddeu Annwn”, where there are nine and they are attacked by Arthur.  And that reminded me, medieval Welsh dysgl translates as cup/cauldron/chalice.

The second instance is in the Larzac tablet, and there the women witches call themselves daughters, sisters, and mothers to one another.  It is clear that they were a part of a coven.  There are males here, but they are not kings, princes, heirs, or what-not.  There is no position like Perceval was supposed to inherit in Chrétien.  But I already knew he was wrong.

In the two references of Arthur in conjunction with witches or maidens and a cauldron they were either killed or stolen from.  They didn’t seem to represent anything political, so they must have been religious.  It occurred to me that the grail story was about the destruction of a coven or covens of individuals who didn’t follow Christianity.  In the fifth century similar events were happening on the continent.  St. Martin is perhaps the most famous leader of these attacks on pagan temples.  And it appears to have happened in Britain, too.

I was disappointed after such a long journey, as I am sure any readers of this blog are right now.  On the other hand it is nice to know.  The Holy Grail is found!

Holy Grail 3:  A Couple Other Theories



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Christian/Celtic.  I thought I had heard it all.  Until I realized I had not read the oldest and the newest theories on the grail.  Eventually my research into Loomis (the foremost expert on the Celtic theory and a legend in Arthurian studies) led me to a pair of scholars from the era previous to him – Alfred Nutt and Jessie Weston.  They were proponents of what were called nature cults.  Of the two Weston was the most outspoken, and her theory the most thoroughly explained.

What Weston proposed, basically, was that the grail ceremony varied from author to author because when it was stripped of all its romantic trappings it was actually a nature cult.  Since nature cults were not part of a systematized religion, they would logically differ greatly from region to region.  Her argument was that the character of Perceval was the oldest and most consistent hero, but his universal quality had misled people.  The ceremonies he witnessed in various stories were simply local.

Weston’s idea of layers to the grail story was something that had been assumed by Loomis in his work, but hearing it got me thinking about the concept.  So, too, her theory that the story would be different by region as the ceremony was different in almost all details between authors.  I had come across nothing that explained Wolfram von Eschenbach (his Parzival was a response to Chrétien’s Le Conte du Graal)’s description of a black stone, for instance, and her idea made allowance for that.

However, what Weston lacked was any real evidence.  She might be able to call up a detail in Greece that would explain some aspect of Chrétien’s story, or in Russia to explain Wolfram, but there was never any direct correlation.  Basically, the theory was so strong because it was impossible to disprove.  This made the theory seriously flawed upon deeper examination.  Too flawed to simply accept.

So I turned to Weinraub,  the proponent of a Jewish theory.  He started off with a very curious bit of trivia; Chrétien de Troyes means of Christian of Troyes.  But what would be the point of a man calling himself Christian in a Christian city?  Unless of course he was of a different religion, and only the Jewish people were living in France at the time.

Weinraub went on to detail the foods, the manner of service, serving trays, means by which the guests sat, and even the conversation that goes on in Chrétien’s story.  The similarity was undeniable; what Chrétien had documented was clearly a description of the Passover meal.  The similarity even seemed to follow through with that pesky question that Perceval was supposed to ask; for whom is the grail?  The youngest, or least experienced person at the feast was supposed to ask a question that resembled it greatly.

There were still some issues to be confronted, such as the odd passages in Peredur, or even how the Jewish theme had permeated that version of the story.  Still, I thought I was more on track with Weinraub than with any theory I had come across before it.

Holy Grail 2:  A Celtic Menagerie



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Unfortunately, a deeper read into the grail literature did not deepen my confidence in the Christian theory.  For one there was Chrétien and his famous grail story, Le Conte de Graal.  His insistence on odd details like a head on a platter, the maimed king, and his explanation that the king had been injured by the grail of Longinus struck me as either having a depth that was not explained properly or had not been understood by the author.  The grail, too, seemed wrongly described.  It is of silver and is called a platter whereas the grail is supposed to be either the cup he used at the last supper (given his surroundings it would be of wood or clay) or, in grail lore, the vessel into which he bled while on the cross.

Other writers were of no help.  Wolfram von Eschenbach was Chrétien’s contemporary and therefore would have had access to the same sources as Chrétien, yet he describes the grail as a black rock.  The Continuators of Chrétien go on and on about the adventures leading up to a return to the grail castle but explain nothing more about the grail or the castle.  Diu Crône, a German of the next century, presents the same problems.  The Vulgate, Malory, and later works only grow progressively more confusing in their internal inconsistencies and their variations with each other.

And then there was Peredur.  Said to be a Welsh version of Chrétien’s Le Conte du Graal, it has almost nothing in common with its French counterpart.  And at the end of the story the hero comes across a group of witches working around a cauldron who attack him on sight.  At his moment of peril, Gwalchmai and Arthur’s other warriors come in and kill all of the witches.  This is treated as the climax of the story and Peredur is hailed as a hero.  One must ask what is going on.

Further education on the nature of Celtic literary instruction offered an explanation that seemed to satisfy the questions a Christian approach presented.  During the course of their education, bards were taught hundreds if not thousands of tales, but in conjunction with the core stories they were also asked to learn an even greater number of motifs and techniques.  These were to be used  personalizing each performance for each particular audience or setting.

And things began to fall in place.  I admit to feeling like Roger Sherman Loomis with his wide grasp of Celtic culture and ability to draw answers from the body of Celtic myth.  The reason the grail castle is in different places, why Perceval goes on so many entirely different quests for the same object, and the entire contents of Peredur could be explained if it was just assumed that the bards had known of a story involving a hero and a few basic points but not much about his exploits.  He would naturally have been connected to the most famous of the British kings – Arthur.  The Wise Fool seems to be the main theme in all variations.  The odd question Perceval is to ask reminds one of the cup ceremony as first noted in a myth about Conn and the original high-king.  The head, being a part of Celtic culture, makes sense.  So does the variety of mutually exclusive details – each author was taking the materials that had been passed to him, materials a bard might have given an intermediary during the course of one particular performance.  For the Celts with their concept of oral storytelling, the details were always fluid.  But for the continentals the entire story was set in stone.  My view had been as well, I’d expected one clear and easy story to emerge from all the different authors where there was instead only some scattered portions of the plot and a few odd details that were consistent.

Holy Grail I:  Body of Christ



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When I first read that the Holy Grail was so important because it had once contained the blood of Christ I was skeptical.  After all, Middle Age Europe was filled with merchants selling pieces of the Cross Jesus died on, cuttings of his hair, his bones, and any other object associated with the last days of his life.  All of those that have ever been tested have proven frauds.

Of course there was the surface evidence.  Though Lancelot was the perfect knight, his affair with the queen made him too tainted to win the grail.  Deeply flawed knights often died on the quest for the grail, while lesser knights whose hearts were pure (Galahad, Perceval, Bors) were in this religious atmosphere much greater than they ever had been.  But that was not so believable.

As I began to read more of the Medieval literature, my suspicions were somewhat allayed.  Claims of Perceval’s descent from Joseph of Arimathea gave the story depth as Joseph was traditionally the man who provided Jesus’ grave site and was gifted items from the Apostles.  When I learned that Lancelot was cousin to Perceval and that his son and another cousin, Galahad and Bors, were descended from Joseph as well I was confident that the Christian solution was the right one.

The oft-repeated story that Perceval was the heir to the ownership of the grail, through Joseph, put things in perspective.  This was the story of one boy’s maturity to a point where he was worthy of the grail, a sort of journey of the true Christian that had been recorded and perhaps altered to create a parable.

Other items fell into place as well.  Though there was much of the fantastic in the stories, some of them had tidbits I questioned.  Knights, or in a fifth-century context warriors, converted to Christianity made sense on an island only recently exposed to the religion.

The feast, too, makes sense.  In the original version by Chrétien de Troyes, many of the foods and the manner of eating make perfect sense from a Jewish context.  It is a Passover meal, and it is the time of Passover according to the story.

Names, too, seemed reasonable.  Carbonek, for instance, is totally nonsensical against the geography of Britain.  Car/Caer means castle or fortress, usually of Roman manufacture, and there is no record of the place in any official record.  However, French cors and Welsh corff means body.  If the name meant “Christ’s body” or some such it would explain the absence.  No other explanation has ever been seriously offered.

Cei the Grumbler



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If you have read much of the Arthurian Corpus you are undoubtedly aware of Sir Kay/Keii/Cei.  He is most familiar in the role Malory put him in and Disney made famous, as a foster brother of Arthur.  Kay is integral to the story of Arthur’s kingship too, as it was during one of his tournaments that he broke his sword and sent Arthur in search of another.  The sword he came upon was the sword of kingship, the sword in the stone, which he effortlessly withdrew.  Kay became Arthur’s first knight, and though he always thought himself better than he was, his loyalty to Arthur was unswerving.

Reading more about Kay, you might also know him as Arthur’s seneschal and in the role of a foil.  He is generally the character who belittles the new knight or the character who goes first on each adventure only to fail so that the hero can succeed and make his name at Arthur’s court in the process.

What you may not be aware of is that in the oldest tales Cei is the gatekeeper.  This was a position in a Celtic king’s court that was very different from a seneschal; it was a position of honor and respect among warriors.  The role was not about guarding the entrance to the castle, but about judging the potential value of any man requesting to be one of the king’s warriors.  This would have been done by verbal, physical, or even martial tests.  And if the warrior was accepted by the gatekeeper he would be welcomed into the war-band.

Hopefully this little insight explains a great deal about the many scenes Cei is found in.  He is challenging the new warriors not because he is a bully but because it is his function in Arthur’s court.  His role as foil, then, is nothing more than interpretation of this cultural feature by writers unfamiliar with it.

Not so obvious are several other instances.  In “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” Cei confronts Meleagant and is humiliated by him during the abduction of Guinovere.  During the course of the poem Lancelot will defeat Meleagant and recover the queen.  In “Le Conte du Graal” Cei is the knight who stands up to the Black Knight and is quickly dismissed.  The Black Knight embarrasses the queen and steals her chalice before Perceval defeats him and recovers the chalice.  When the role of Cei is viewed from its origins, the two scenes can be seen as nothing more than variations on a theme.  Kay is the stock bully whose failure makes the hero’s eventual success look all the more amazing.

He was so closely associated with that role that it led to the addition of another knight to the Arthurian Corpus, Caelogrenant.  Caelogrenant is most notable in “Yvain”, where he plays the Kay role to the eventual hero.  It is interesting that the name, when liberally employing Arthurian linguistics, roughly translates to “Cei the Grumbler”.  If one considers for a moment the traditional position of the gatekeeper and tries to see that role in action from the perspective of a medieval observer, grumbler would be an apt descriptor for him.

This idea mainly came from a book by Linda Gowans

Cei and the Arthurian Legend (Arthurian Studies)

Egyptian Gods and their Heads




A few years ago I did some intense research into the prehistoric cultures of the world and in the process I ran across some interesting stuff.  Since I had no topic suggestions this week I thought I might share some of those findings pertaining to the unique habit of the ancient Egyptians to give animal masks to their gods.

As modern civilizations do, prehistoric cultures commonly linked animals with aspects of humanity.  So for instance the hawk, as a bird of prey, dominated the air and for this reason was a perfect symbol for the sun.  So was the lion, because its mane had the color and texture of solar rays.  As with a bull, the ram’s power was a symbol of virility, while the spirals of its horns represented the waxing of the sun’s strength.  The serpent was considered a symbol of immortality and regeneration because of its ability to shed its skin and retain its youth.  It was also considered a symbol of wisdom.  Oddly enough, all of these animals, but particularly the hawk and the ram, were closely tied with the sun-god Ra.  And of course he was typically represented with the head of a hawk.

The pattern continues as one looks at the masks that are associated with each Egyptian god.  Nut is the mother of many gods and is represented as a cow – whose milk and meat gave humans fertility and life.  The sun- and death-god Horus was normally given a falcon’s head, and falcon’s generally symbolized both aspects in prehistoric cultures.  Isis was the ideal mother and had the power of life, and her symbols were the cow (symbol of fertility) and the sun (life, vulva, cycles).  Hathor is often depicted as a cow and her symbols were a cow’s horns, the sun, and a snake.  She was a mother goddess, so the symbols for fertility, the moon, life and the vulva, and immortality, respectively, make good sense in association with her.

The list can go on and on.  Every Egyptian god is either given an animal’s head or represented as an animal and associated with symbols displaying their particular abilities.  What is truly fascinating about the connections, however, is that some of the symbols make little sense in the context of Pharaonic Egypt.  Serpents have been tied to evil of various sorts since the dawn of civilization, so while it makes little sense to see a serpent associated with a mother goddess, it is downright confusing to see it tied to the most important god of the Egyptian pantheon.  Hathor and Isis are both connected with the sun, which is traditionally associated with youth and inspiration, not motherhood.

It is curious that some of the most significant icons of Egyptian culture would be connected to symbols not associated with their roles in Egyptian culture.  However, it should be remembered that the Egyptians did not simply appear in 5000 B.C.E.  Even then the region was the product of centuries, if not millennia, of history.

Deity        God of           Headpiece       Symbol

Geb                World                                  Snake                  Wisdom/Youth

Osiris             Death/Afterlife                     Green                  Rebirth

Bast               Protector of Lower Egypt    Lioness                Protects cubs, excellent hunter

Set                 Chaos                                 Set Animal           Unknown

Thoth             Wisdom                               Baboon                Intelligence

It should be noted that Set’s name seems to have no origins and no meaning, implying it was either invented or taken from a now extinct language family.

A Life-Span Conundrum



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It need hardly be proven that life-spans have been lengthening over the last few centuries with improvements in technology and sanitation.  Nor is any evidence necessary to say that the Black Death and the fall of the Roman Empire paralleled all-time lows.  What I found interesting in my British studies, however, were two books written by one Molly Miller.  Her researches determined that the maximum life-span in the ancient world – from 2000 B.C.E. until the fall of Rome, was usually about 55 (for the curious, 26 was the average for men and 24 for women in Arthurian Britain).  Those living to 50 represented 3% of the population or less for all but two groups.  The Neanderthals were entirely unrepresented after 50, and the Cro-Magnons had 10% of their population surviving.

Consider that.  Modern humans are generally dated to the end of the ice age, so roughly 10,000 B.C.E. on.  Cro-Magnons were active only before that date, surviving in an era of extreme temperatures, limited food sources, and no agriculture.  And yet 7% more of their population survived to age 50.  Humankind would only reach that number during the height of Roman civilization, in peaceful periods across China, and in scattered places and periods up until perhaps 1000 of the Common Era

Of course Molly Miller was interested in using the studies for generating the maximum life-spans, reproductive ranges, and such for post-Roman Britain so she ignored the abherrant numbers of the Cro-Magnon skeletons.  But we can’t.  Something changed profoundly after glaciers retreated.  Regions went through drastic alerations in water and weather.  Egypt, for instance, was at various times in its prehistoric post-glacial past quite wet.

The argument (let’s call it the Daniken Proposal) could be made that aliens somehow came to our world and gave us advanced techniques for living longer.  But then again why didn’t those techniques at least let prehistoric humans live as long as we can in the present day?  Why is there no evidence of these aliens’ technology.

Others would argue that somehow we were more advanced then than we would be again for thousands of years.  They would have us believe that hordes of less enlightened people would overrun the advanced civilizations, replacing pyramids with huts and commerce with warfare.  Their actions would bring us to a chaos we would be centuries in overcoming.

Whatever the case may be, something about how we lived or how we interacted with our environment or each other was fundamentally different in the time before 10,000 B.C.E. than what it is now.  Without the ability to farm and the pottery, settlements, and protection of numbers that came with it, our species managed something that would not be equalled again for thousands of years.  I for one would love to know the reason why.




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Ceridwen is one of those interesting figures in British myth and legend that seems to occupy both the historical and the mythical realms at first sight.  She is clearly historical in her associations; she is married to a fifth-century king named Tegid Foel, a peninsula across from Welsh Anglesey named Lleyn.  She is also known as the mother of the warriors Sanddef and Morfan, both associated with Arthur, who was active around 500.  Finally, Ceridwen is connected with Taliesin, a figure of the mid to late sixth century.

Ceridwen also has supernatural qualities which has led to associations with gods in the past, but which are better linked with medieval conceptions of witchcraft.  These present in the conception of Taliesin.  Morfan was a repugnant child, so the story goes, and his mother decided that he should have wisdom and inspiration to compensate for it.  To do that, she concocted a potion that would need to brew for one year and a day and from which the first three drops would grant wisdom.  Then she assigned a boy to stir it.  Three drops landed on the boy’s thumb, giving him wisdom when he sucked on it.  Realizing what he’d done he fled Ceridwen, morphing into various guises as he did so.  Ceridwen each time found him and transformed into a predator.  Finally she swallowed the boy in the form of a kernel of corn.  In time she gave birth to Taliesin, whom medieval legend assigned otherworldly abilities of time and space.

Unfortunately, her historical connections fall apart on further review.  Medieval wives are virtually unknown in the first few centuries after Rome fell because they held no military or political significance.  The few women who are associated with kings in this period (Gwenhwyfar/Guinevere comes to mind) were instead avatars of the land a king ruled, the living personification of the land.  Thus if Guinevere was not an historical queen she would have been the symbolic kingdom for every ruler of that area from time immemorial till well into the historical era.  Similarly Ceridwen, if she was Tegid’s queen, would not have existed as a real person.

This leaves her magical qualities, though all of them are only mentioned in conjunction with Taliesin; swallowing and conceiving reminds one of how Zeus impregnated Demeter.  A cauldron of inspiration is a motif to be found extensively in Celtic as well as Norse myth.

The more one knows about Ceridwen, the less one can certainly pin on her.  One thing is clear, however.  There is about her no story involving a sword.  She is only connected to Arthur through her two sons.  And, though her husband is said to have been active around Llyn Tegid, modern Bala Lake, she is not connected with it.  For all of this, she is in no way directly connected with Ninian.

However, it is possible that she was in some way an inspiration for a single aspect of the Lady of the Lake.  If she was the avatar of Lleyn’s kingship, and if that kingship was associated with a specific sword at some point, it is conceivable that the spreading Arthurian corpus could have absorbed a particular scene of her giving that sword to the new king from local legend, in the process stripping it of Ceridwen and Tegid’s name and supplanting them with Arthur and the more widely known Ninian.  However, that is no more than idle speculation; a guess.

Galahad and His Mum



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The grail hero was originally Peredur/Perceval.  He is present in the oldest extant “Arthurian” stories and is the most common grail hero in Arthurian literature.  He also seems to have the older elements associated with him; the relationship to the Welsh Peredur and the grafting of the story from Phillip of Flanders’ life.

However, as the Arthurian corpus began to grow and develop, there were two problems with the continued use of Perceval in the grail story.  For one, he was associated with an established tale involving a buffoon who persevered and gained wisdom through his own efforts.  Such literature was simple and had roots deep in the legends of Europe, but did not appeal to the higher echelons of society that were reading grail stories.

The second problem was even greater than the first, that Perceval was not Lancelot.  Lancelot grew in popularity from the moment he came off of Chretien’s pen in the late twelfth century, and was by 1250 perhaps the most popular hero in King Arthur’s court.  However, because of his affair with the queen, one of the most popular topics in Arthurian literature, he was unforgiveably stained on a religious level.  No writer dared to pen him as the pinnacle of religion necessary to achieve the grail.  Instead, his inability in this one quest served to differentiate it from every other.

Instead of Lancelot as the new grail hero, a son was created.  This addition to the Arthurian Corpus had several problems, however.  Lancelot was famous for his absolute devotion to Guinevere, and Guinevere could never bear his child.

So another character was created, Elaine (an Anglification of Helen).  As Lancelot was the best knight, it was only right that his lover be absolutely beautiful.  And as Perceval was the nephew to the grail king, so it was necessary that Elaine was his daughter.

That left only the means by which the child should be conceived.  It was accomplished with the same spell that Geoffrey of Monmouth had used in Arthur’s conception; a spell to alter the appearance of Elaine.

For much of the above reasoning the evidence is incomplete, but that it leads away from Galahad’s character being even as old as Lancelot (1190s) seems unavoidable.  The earliest story we possess is about a naive boy slowly growing in understanding about the real world even as he grows as a Christian.  In contrast, Galahad arrives at Arthur’s court a perfect knight – pure and chivalrous.

It has been mentioned that Galahad is the young version of Lancelot.  I remember reading that as well, probably in the ‘Vulgate’.  It is poetic license and no more, the intent is that Galahad is what Lancelot could have been if he would not have committed adultery.  So is the explanation that Galahad was given his name because his father had been called that as a child.  At the time of Galahad’s insertion into the Arthurian corpus Lancelot’s childhood was still being formed.  The only source on the matter was ‘Lanzelet’, and it made no such claim.




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Lancelot is an interesting figure.  Forgetting linguistics for a moment (as Arthurian names often did as they transferred from Britain to the continent), he does not exist in Britain as far as personality and place in Arthur’s court.  He first appears with Chretien de Troyes in ‘Erec et Enide’ and is first featured in his “Le Chevalier de la Charrette”.  His sudden appearance has led to three theories about his original persona:

He is Llwch Llenlleawc, Llwch the bounding one.  This has been appealing because of an interesting reinterpretation of his feat at the Sword Bridge episode in Chretien de Troyes.  There he crossed it with his hands, whereas in Irish tales they are jumped in one leap.

He is in many extant Chretien manuscripts named L’Ancelot.  The direct translation of this is “The servant” which, given his willingness to be Guinevere’s love slave in the stories and the philosophy of Chretien’s patron Marie de Champagne, makes perfect sense.  Lancelot would in that case be an invention of Chretien.

Through some feasible linguistic transformation it is possible that L’Ancelot is a French version of Anguselaus.  Anguselaus was a prominent figure in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history, History of the Kings of Britain.  However, there is no trace of any connection between him and the queen there.

The first option seems unlikely and in fact the translation is not certain.  He is not known in the stories as the man who beat the sword bridge but as a great fighter who is the best of Arthur’s knights.  And, like other Celtic warriors, his nickname should reflect that.

The connection to Angus would make this character Pictish and a very late addition about whom nothing is known prior to Geoffrey.  That fact would make any traditional origins highly unlikely. It is not a likely one anyway.  As Tatlock long ago addressed, names and locations in Geoffrey’s work were inserted to reflect contemporary events.  Anguselaus of Moray, for instance, was at the time of the writing a recent rebel.  There is no reason to believe he was also an historical figure of the sixth century.

This puts us in an awkward position with regards to Lancelot’s place in Arthurian literature; either he was an invention of seven centuries after the fact or he is a traditional figure who mysteriously has no history before 1136.  Both choices leave him as a character that did not belong in the cycle of Arthurian stories before Geoffrey of Monmouth placed him there.

As to his development, Chretien represented him as entirely devoted to Guinevere.  He provided a single instance of adultery between them and several of his willingness to give anything for her.  These characteristics would be taken as stock features of his personality from that point on.  Parallel to this would be a development of Lancelot as the ideal courtly knight.  By the time of the Vulgate romances and Sir Thomas Malory in the fifteenth century, Lancelot had developed into a long-time adulterer and Arthur’s most celebrated knight.  It was only natural that this dual development would lead to a rewriting of Arthur’s demise.  In the later works Lancelot and Guinevere’s lust for each other became the basic reason for the fragmentation and destruction of the Arthurian kingdom.

Niniane; the Lady of the Lake



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The first mention of either the Lady of the Lake or Ninian (Niniane, Vivian, etc.) is to be found in the late work Prose Merlin.  Her character remains much the same through to Sir Thomas Malory, who simply makes the story more complex.  In all the stories that name her Ninian is a fully developed character.  She is the original owner of Arthur’s second sword and later becomes Merlin’s pupil.

However, as with many aspects of the Arthurian literary world, there are serious gaps in reasoning with her story, and these gaps suggest a very different origin for her.  For instance, Merlin somehow knows she will betray him, but teaches her anyway.  The romances explain that he does so because he loves her, but that sounds like more of a rationalization of something not understood than an historical fact that is.

The end of her story is that Niniane does trap Merlin in a cave the moment her studies are over.  He is left there, alive (again, no serious explanation).  It certainly is not out of malice for Arthur.  Ninian takes over as his counselor for the remainder of his reign and does her best to help him.  She is also one of the four women who takes him to Avalon.  That is the extent of Ninian’s literary career.  Clearly her original character and the transformation have been hidden by chance and misunderstandings.

Uinniau was a prominent ecclesiastic of sixth century Britain who may have been Columba’s teacher.  He was known as Ninian in Welsh saints’ lives or Nynia by Bede.  However, much of Scotland has place-names derived from his proper name of Uinniau.  This Uinniau was known for three things mainly.  First, he was one of the most knowledgeable persons of his age.  Second, he was a great teacher who made his monastery of Whithorn was a primary center of learning in Britain.  Finally, it is known that he would occasionally go on a retreat to a nearby cave, known as St. Ninian’s Cave, which was several miles away from his monastery.

Ninian would eventually became the form by which Uinniau was exclusively known.  In fact, the process must have been an early one.  Bede, writing in 725, knew him only by that name.  It was an unfortunate circumstance that Ninian was a Celtic name, and the romance writers who would treat Arthur on the continent spoke Germanic and Latin languages.  The unfamiliarity with Celtic would lead to confusion over his gender, and he became a she there.

Arthur was an attractive figure in the literature of the Middle Ages, gravitating all manner of figures, motifs, and stories to him.  In previous blogs I have mentioned the attraction of the Myrddin (Merlin) legend and the figure of Urien.  The same sort of fate awaited Uinniau.  Long before Arthur had become a figure of romance, Uinniau’s dominant name-form had become to Ninian.  For the Celtic speaker that was still a male name, but for continentals it was female.

That change from male to female, from independent ecclesiastic to intelligent layperson was where Uinniau became a different literary figure.  Once Uinniau was a part of the Arthurian universe, his reputation for intelligence would have drawn him to the already established Merlin; in an irony of history a lunatic (Myrddin) became the teacher of one of the best-read people of the age (Uinniau).  Once that  transformation was accomplished, the latent aspects of Uinniau’s memory easily made their way into Arthurian the tales, and Merlin was trapped in the cave Uinnau had used as a refuge.

I won’t pretend to know how Ninian became the Lady of the Lake.  However, she would not have begun her Arthurian career that way.  She would have started off as Merlin’s pupil and successor with the qualities of her historical precursor intact.  She was associated with a lake only by Robert de Boron, an author that I have discovered in my research was not one to stick with his traditional sources.  It is possible he knew of some Celtic tale which he used to enhance Uinniau’s mythology.  It is equally possible he used something more contemporary.  That part of the history of the Lady of the Lake we may never know.

The Ultimate Goddess




This I have been sitting on for awhile.  Below is a listing of some of the more important fertility deities, grouped by geography.  If one starts with China and assumes a diffusion from that point over time, then the initial letter of deities’ names change by a predictable pattern; it moves along the plosive consonant chart.  Generally in English, that is q->g->k->d->t->b->p.  So the Chinese gods Nu-Kua and Kui begin with a phonetic “q”.  Hindu gods begin with “g”, and have “k”.  The fact that the names there continue up through “b” suggests that prehistoric India was inundated with several waves of fertility goddesses over a long period of time.  History would support this conclusion.  Their Greek cousins similarly had “g”, and “t” in their fertility goddesses, and several examples of the slightly off line “th”.  Celts had “t”.

The Fertile Crescent had a “k”, while the next generation had “t” and the initial consonant was absent in another goddess.  As one would expect, Egypt has the early “g” and slightly later “k”.  Among the older cultures of Europe, the Basque have a “k” and the Etruscans a “t”.

The concept of a fertility goddess appears to have traveled in other directions as well.  The Inuit have fertility beings beginning with a soft “g” and a “p”.  Going south, the Polynesians have a “k” and “t”.

It should be said that listing below is not comprehensive of all the gods of every pantheon.  On the other hand, I could easily add twice this number to a list if I was willing to account for other factors in consonant shifting.  I think the data below stands well on its own, no need to complicate things.

What does it mean?  The neat answer is that the concept of Mother Earth is a universal one that  was developed through millennia of trade and given a standard name before the break up of trade routes with the development of martial regions in the fifth millennium.  The honest answer is simply that what is summed up below represents something very interesting in the early development of human culture.




Hindu Sumeria Inuit Other

Gauri Ki Pinga Ekhi (Basque)

Kala Pana Tinia (Etruscan)

Kali Babylonian Yhi

Bhu Tiamat

Bagla Ea


Kui Egyptian

Avatea Geb

Atea Enki

Greek Celtic

Gaea Brigantia







There seems to be no blogs dealing with the concept of a universal goddess that isn’t drenched in feminist propaganda that overwhelms the subject or some sort of retaliation to that propaganda.  That’s a shame, this is potentially a very interesting subject. 

Prehistoric Migrations

It has been awhile since I posted. Since then I’ve published an article pushing back the historical horizon of the Northern Memorandum to the early- or mid-sixth century, a paper separating Camlann from a supervolcanic eruption in 536, and an unpleasant review of a King Arthur book. I’m working on a few more right now, but I always have side projects. Take this for instance:

After realizing that there were more than one species coexisting on the planet towards the end of the last ice age I was curious about the spread of the Homo species in general. I admit the graphic is a little rough but I think the point is made. Fun fact, sapiens, Denisovan, and Neanderthal coexisted, mingled, and we are descendants of that mingling. Apparently there are two other undefined species that constitute the remaining genetic codes of some Africans and southeast Asians.

The Episodes of Peredur, the Son of ?


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I know that Efrawg sounds perfectly Welsh, but it’s actually just the British version of Latin Eboracum, modern York.  Now that’s a little odd for a man’s name, but then again it isn’t actually a man’s name.  You see there actually was an historical Peredur.  His father’s name was Eliffer and most scholars locate him around York.  See how that works, Peredur was from York so his patronym was mistakenly mixed up with the area he ruled.

The Early Kings

Two chapters ago the military, political, and economic situation that forced the creation of British kingships were explored and explained. In the last chapter the author laid out the new economic and social reality, demonstrating the delicate balance between kings, bards, warriors, and peasants in every kingdom. Together, they should have provided a solid foundation for understanding the context of British kingdoms in the late fifth century.

But the above essays have only given us a broad look at how the kingdoms came into existence and functioned. We know little more about specific kingdoms, and much of that information is based on outdated information. Most of our knowledge comes from Gildas and his perceptions of British history up until the battle of Badon. But as we have seen in Chapter 3, Gildas could not have known what was happening much before the rise of Ambrosius.

His statements about a single person, his tyrant, ruling post-Roman Britain were based on the assumption that the foederati came to Britain after Rome had left and during that hazy period before he was born; he needed a vehicle to explain how the Germanic people had come to be settled on the island and why they had attacked and his superbus tyrannus served that purpose. If he had known the foederati were already on the island by 410 he would have had no need to include his tyrant. And if Gildas had omitted him then Historia Brittonum, Bede, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and all later histories that based their fifth-century history on him would have had no reason to add him.
Gildas is clearly not a reliable guide for early British kingships. We do know the names of several kings who were active during the fifth and early sixth centuries and even a few about whom we know more than their names and their patronymics. Those few – British, Irish, Pictish, and Germanic – will be examined in the following pages to see if they might throw more light on the nature of early kingships in Britain. They will be listed by region and culture first and only then by chronology. With any luck the essay below will help to provide a better perspective on how kingship developed in post-Roman Britain.

Y Hen Ogled
The Pictish kings and many of the northern British lived in regions which had been under little or no Roman rule. It seems reasonable that many of the kings from this area already had a working kingship tradition by the late fifth century.
Cunedda is traditionally credited with establishing the kingdom of Gwynedd after a migration from Gododdin. As his son Einion has traditionally been generally dated to about 500 (see below), Cunedda has been placed in the last last third of the fifth century.
Between Molly Miller’s genealogical work and John Koch’s examination of Marwnad Cunedda, there is little doubt now that Cunedda probably never left the north. That the poem does not mention his ancestors suggests that the bardic tradition may not have been fully developed at the time of his death. If so it would push Cunedda’s floruit back to the range of 410 to 470.
Meirchion is best known as the grandfather of Urien and Llywarch. In fact, that is all that is known about him – no battles or place-names are connected to him anywhere in British literature. The period does not have too many sources, so that fact would not normally seem too unusual but Urien had the most famous bard of the period on his payroll. And as the court bard it would have been Taliesin’s duty to record every praiseworthy act of his patron and his patron’s ancestry.
It would have also been his obligation to extend Urien’s family history back artificially with locally famous kings when Urien’s ancestors were no longer remembered. With such short lifespans it is possible that Urien never knew his grandfather (mathematically there is a 50/50 chance he knew his father as an adult), so that Meirchion might have been unrelated chieftain from the same area who was attached to Urien’s family tree to make it more prestigious.
The same argument could be made about Meirchion’s “sons” sons Cynfarch and Elidyr, but the triads do mention that Llywarch son of Elidyr was one of the chieftains who never reclaimed their inheritance, which indicates his father held lands and lost them. If Cynfarch was a king it is extremely unlikely that he ruled a different area than his brother, so that Cynfarch would have ruled the same kingdom first. Following that line of reasoning, Urien gained his kingdom by conquering it from whoever had taken it from his uncle.
Meirchion and his sons point out the uncertainty of kingship during the period. Urien, one of the most famous kings of this era, may not have been the son of a king and there is no way of knowing who his historical grandfather actually was.
According to both versions of the Vita Kentigerni, Lleudun was a king of Dun Pelder, a hill-fort in Medieval Lleuddinyawn and modern Lothian. Lleudun does not appear in any genealogies or king-lists, but as we’ve seen these vitae are some of our oldest sources. Both report that he was Kentigern’s (born 483×519) grandfather and Cynan Colledawc’s (465×521) father. That would put Lleudun’s floruit anywhere from the middle of the fifth to the early part of the sixth century, which meshes well with what we already know about other rulers of Lleuddinyawn; outside of the vitae Ymellyrn is the next known chieftain of the region and he was active in the early to mid-sixth century.
The vitae also tell us something about the geography of Lleudun’s kingdom. He is only associated with sites located within a few miles of Dun Pelder. When he is pursuing his daughter and grandson he stops as soon as they cross the Firth of Forth. Lleudun disappears from the story after that. Both these details suggest that Lleudun ruled over a fairly small area.
In Arthurian stories there is a Loth of Lothian who is Arthur’s brother-in-law. Lleudun was probably the inspiration for his character. Arthur lived during the same era, so it is even possible that the two were contemporaries.
Arthur was already a popular figure in British lore before 1136, but it is because of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his translators that he became the most popular figure of the period. By the end of the Middle Ages, regions throughout the island and people from as far away as Cornwall and the Highlands were connected to him in legends and folk tales. His legend spread in time too; mythological figures and people living as late as the twelfth century were eventually connected to him.
We know a great deal less about the historical Arthur. Most of his early stories involve raiding or defending against raids. Hueil’s attack has been mentioned above. The Welsh Triads say he attempted a raid on Drystan son of Tallwch. The Vita Cadoci claims Arthur helped Gwynllyw in the abduction of Gwladys daughter of Brychan, though the Life of Saint Gwynllyw is clear that the marriage was peaceful and Arthur was not present.
Where he lived has been debated as well. Local legends focus on Wales, but that was where the last independent British kingdoms were. As the author has shown, the most credible evidence is to be found in other areas. Personal name data is useful; Pelles, Pellinore, Pellam, and several other names are forms of Belatacudros, who was a British god closely connected to Hadrian’s Wall. Of the other warriors associated with Arthur in the earliest materials, most of those that have any geographical connections are linked to Cumbria and Galloway. Once their bias is accounted for, for several native sources mention Carlisle or something that might be a confused form of Carlisle. The romances, too, seem to point to Carlisle.
Carlisle might just have been the legionary fortress of Luguvalium, which would have given Arthur a pre-existing base along with a connection to Rome. We do know that Carlisle was inhabited during the late sixth century and that at that point its Roman structures were still visible.
How much power did Arthur have? Medieval legends have him conquering much of Europe. The earliest literature makes him a simple raider and assigns him a handful of men. What has been seen above suggests many active kings in the late fifth century, each controlling small areas of land. It is reasonable to think of Arthur being one of them.
Ceredig, the next northern king under study here, was never put in an extant saint’s life. What we know of him comes from two sources. In the genealogies he is given the title gwledig, which means at least dynastic founder, but has been interpreted as “emperor”. Strathclyde was located above Hadrian’s Wall, and as we have seen the Romans abandoned that area decades before they lost control of Britain. In the Late Roman period, it was common for the Romans to create buffer states between themselves and a potential threat to Rome. It has often been suggested they did so in northern Britain too. If they did, which would have been useful in protecting the northern borders against the Picts, it is very likely that the region would have went through the process of several competing chieftainships into a united kingdom as early as the mid-fifth century. As the first king of the region gwledig would have been a legitimate title.
The second source is Patrick’s Epistola, where he is called Coroticus. E.A. Thompson suggested that Patrick could have been speaking to an Irish king because the context of the letter is that Ceredig had remained near to Patrick, and because Patrick was able to excommunicate him. However, Ceredig could have remained in the area days later if he had set up a camp and was conducting several village raids in the area. As Dumville once pointed out, we have no idea what the politics of the fifth century were. We have no idea about the religious politics either. Patrick might have had the authority to excommunicate any ruler acting in his area of influence. He might not and might have done it anyway. That would explain the writing of his Confessio.
A second possibility has been the Ceredig who was the eponymous ruler of Ceredigion. Now that Ceredig has been dissociated from the Gwynedd lineage, there are only dates that can be associated with members of the dynasty – a Ceredig’s death in 616 and his descendant’s obit in 807. Allowing for a three-year window on either side of both dates we are given Ceredig’s birth year in the mid- to late-sixth century. Even if Ceredig’s obit is thrown out, it is only possible that Ceredig Patrick’s nemesis if Ceredigion managed 35-year generations, Ceredig was a young man, and Patrick very near his death at the time of the Epistola. All these conditions are feasible but unlikely, especially when we keep in mind that Patrick’s area of activity was northeast Ireland, which was easiest to access from Stathclyde.
As Charles-Edwards recently pointed out, the way Patrick addresses Coroticus only makes sense if his kingdom had a consisten history as a Roman client. Strathclyde would have from the second century, Ireland could not have and Ceredigion could only have been a client kingdom sporadically over the last century or so of Roman occupation.
This means that Patrick, an ecclesiastic with little or no political knowledge, probably just got it wrong when he called Ceredig a chieftain. Actually, his assumption speaks more to his own background. If he assumed that Ceredig was a simple chieftain who ruled a hall and nearby villages, then that might have been the norm in the area where he completed his training. The evidence suggests that this area was transitioning into kingships during his early adulthood.
Cynfelyn has the same problem as Cynfarch above, the actions of his son Clydno Eiddin, and even grandson Cynon, are known but we have nothing on Cynfelyn himself. So, starting with what we know, the Black Book of Chirk gives Clydno the epithet Eydin. As Eydin was Late Medieval Welsh for modern Edinburgh, it is reasonable to assume that Edinburgh was his central location. And, as the body of Welsh literature suggests no British conquest of Edinburgh, it is reasonable to assume that if Cynfelyn was a chieftain he probably ruled from there too.
Cynfelyn’s grandson Cynon participated at Catraeth in the late sixth century, while Clydno was active a few years later during Run son of Maelgwn’s reign, placing Cynfelyn’s floruit in the early part of the sixth century.
Cynfelyn and his “son” and “grandson” are interesting because we already know that Dunpelder, a second hill-fort in Lothian, was also occupied during the early sixth century. Lleudun, of Dunpelder, may have been Cynfelyn’s contemporary.
Coel should also be mentioned in any kings of the Old North list. The genealogies say he fathered several dynasties, but work by Dr. Miller showed that to be chronologically unlikely if not impossible. She proposed instead the same sort of bardic intervention we have come across already; Coel was a popular early British hero whose name was added to several dynasties to enhance their traditions.
We can be certain that Coel was a famous king in his time and that his name was remembered. However, since no credible historical source mentions him that could give us any idea when he lived we have no idea if he was active in 410 or 510.
We cannot even know where he was active. Our only clues are in the genealogies themselves and oral tradition. Tradition is easy; it says that the Kyle area in what was Pictland is named after him and that he was buried in Coylton, what would become Strathclyde but was not near the capital of Dumbarton. Of course one of oral tradition’s big flaws is that it is passed down by word of mouth, in this case for millennia.
The family trees give more difficult results because in them he is the ancestor of kings from Reged (Cumbria), Edinburgh, somewhere in the Pennines Mountains, Elmet, and around Arthuret. The logical conclusion is that Coel controlled all these regions but as we have seen the theme during the early Middle Ages was of small kingdoms absorbing one another, not of large kingdoms breaking up. More frustrating, none of his “descendants” are located anywhere near either Kyle or Coylton. If there is any useable data here it is the association of Coel with Kyle, suggesting that Coel was actually a Pict.

The Anglo-Saxon Shore
As has been seen, Germanic chieftains were being settled along the southern and eastern shore of Britain as foederati during the fourth century. A careful examination of known early chieftains should reveal something about the nature and development of their kingship tradition.
The first named chieftains to appear are Fraomar and Ansehis. According to Ammianus Marcellinus the first was sent to Britain in 372 with the title of Tribune. The Ravenna Cosmography tells us Ansehis came to Britain as a foederati at about the same time. Linguistic and folkloric studies have connected Ansehis with the legendary section of Kent’s royal geneology. More will be said about him below.
Neither Ammianus nor the cosmography provide us with any further information and no other source names either chieftain, leaving us with nothing specific about either man’s career. However, the fact that they are mentioned does tell us something about Britannia as a whole. In the middle of the fourth century, the most important Germanic chieftains were two simple tribal leaders who were totally insignificant to the rest of the empire.
The next leader in the records is Soemil, a Northumbrian figure who only appears in the Historia Brittonum. There it is claimed that he separated Deira from Bernicia, suggesting he was the first king of the region. The comment is made in the genealogies, where he is listed as the five-generation ancestor of Edwin, placing his birth-range in the second quarter of the fifth century and suggesting he was active at just about the time of the 441 Germanic revolt. But as has been seen, neither the archeology nor the literature supports a Germanic kingship so early. It is possible that Soemil led a contingent of foederati, but not probable. No other region managed to remember the names of their leaders, and Deira had no better recordkeeping than anywhere else. In fact Northumbria only took an interest in recording history decades after Kent. It seems slightly more likely that Soemil was active during the Late Roman period, like Ansehis. This scholar, however, taking note of the claim that he separated Deira from Bernicia, would like to suggest that he was one of the first kings in Deira, perhaps the founder of the Deiran dynasty in the middle sixth century.
At first that might seem highly unlikely; our sources for that time frame have proven to be unreliable at best. However, several scholars have also noted that medieval historians had a tendency to gather contemporary or near contemporary local kings and telescope them into a sequence of prehistoric rulers for the surviving dynasty (one of the bard’s duties). It seems reasonable that Soemil was a victim of just such manipulation. It will be seen that a British alliance controlled much of Northumbria in the middle sixth century; perhaps Soemil separating Deira from Bernicia was in fact Soemil making his small kingdom free of British rule.
What is really interesting here is that Soemil is credited with leading a rebellion against the British at all. According to all other sources the Kentish heroes Hengest and Horsa led the uprising against the Romano-British and led all the Germanic peoples during the entire struggle. Whatever his dates, Soemil’s connection with the separation from Berneich is likely historical, and if he can be safely placed in the range 533×567 he is not called a king. This is very informative about the political situation at the time.

The Britons
Dr. Miller once suggested that a Padarn Peisrud, “red tunic”, traveled south from Gododdin into Gwynedd (northwestern Wales) at some time between Maximus departure in 383 and the last Romano-British emperor elections in 406-407. However, she never was able to provide evidence of that happening. What we do know about Padarn is that he is unknown outside of Gwynedd and that red tunic was a well known badge of office in the Late Roman army. That suggests that Padarn was from the area originally. He may or may not have been a Roman officer, or Roman official, or wealthy Roman who transitioned into a chieftain during the early fifth century. He could just as easily been a Romano-Briton who used “Peisrud” to connect himself to the stability and credibility of the Roman past in the late fifth century. We may never know which possibility is historical fact.
Up until around 1970, Einion Yrth was believed to be just another member of Maelgwn’s dynasty – the man who initiated the conquest of Môn which turned out to be the last region of medieval Gwynedd to be conquered.
Things have changed a lot since then. The discovery of Aberffraw, the medieval capital of Gwynedd, on Môn demonstrated that Gwynedd was centered on the island. Dr. Miller’s work showed that the dynasty may have begun with the conquest of the island around 500; the conquest was not just another addition to the kingdom. More recently, Professor Koch has eliminated Einion Yrth’s “father” Cunedda from the Gwynedd lineage leaving Einion as the founder. We now know that when he came to power he controlled only part of an island off the coast of Gwynedd and that at the time of his death around 500 Môn was not entirely in his possession.
Ambrosius is a unique character in British history. He is not connected to any specific dynasty or region in the early materials and yet he is the only British figure of the fifth century mentioned by Gildas in his De Excidio Britanniae. Gildas places him after the Germanic attack of 441 and before (and possibly including) the Battle of Badon. As Badon has now been securely placed in the range 478×491, meaning that for the British ecclesiastic Ambrosius was active somewhere between 441 and 491.
Gildas is vague on where Ambrosius was active. His only real clue is that De Excidio Britanniae focuses on people in modern Wales and Cornwall and Ambrosius seems to be the holy man’s ideal of a lay-hero.
The Historia Brittonum would connect Ambrosius with two sites. The more memorable is Arfon in Gwynedd, where his presence would bring about Vortigern’s downfall. However, the author has already demonstrated that Vortigern’s character developed in that history to suit Dyfed’s tenth-century political needs The second notice is the Battle of Wallop, against Guitolin. It has generally been placed near Nether Wallop in Hampshire.
Wallop is a stroke of luck because it has no clear motivation and yet tells us where Ambrosius was active directly through the battle site and indirectly through Ambrosius’ connection to Guitolin, a member of the same pedigree as Gwrtheyrn and Gloiu. The latter name is important here because it is the eponym for Gloucester; he and his brothers Bonus, Paul, and Mauron are even named as the city’s builders. It would seem that Ambrosius was active near Gloucester/Wallop.
As outlined above, kingships in the South only formed as a result of the Germanic rebellion and the raiding and invasions that followed. It has also been suggested that the first generation of kings would have had little or no tradition to rely on for continuing a person’s royal line. At first glance at least, it looks like Ambrosius was a victim of that developing convention; either his entire family was gone before he died or his bards had not yet re-established the basic tenets of Celtic kingship and his personal credentials by that time.
Guitolin, participant at Wallop and son of Gloiu, also gives us some useful information because he is not connected to a region or a kingdom, like the figures from other dynasties, instead he is linked with a single city. That suggests he ruled a very small area. It also suggests that, as he was Ambrosius’ rival, either they rose to prominence at roughly the same time or that Ambrosius was never more than a locally important leader. Chronologically, Ambrosius was active between 448 and 491, and intersected with Guitolin’s career at some point making the Gloucester chieftain a figure of the late fifth century as well. As we have seen above, his kingdom was centered on Gloucester.
Cadell first appears in the Historia Brittonum, where he is the central figure in Powys’ foundation story. Dr. Miller’s work with the genealogies has demonstrated that he was active in the first decades of the sixth century, while Professor Koch has suggested Powys might not have been a unified kingdom until the 700s based on linguistic evidence and an historical confusion over the ruling dynasty. The consequences of these realizations are that Cadell may or may not have been the first ruler of his dynasty, but he was definitely only a chieftain with control over a limited number of villages.
Cadell’s name is also interesting; it derives from a shortened form of Roman Catellinius – Catell. The personal name Cadell would be used throughout the Middle Ages, but this is the first time it was used in Britain after Rome left. Its presence suggests a continuing respect for Roman culture and possibly a lingering sense of Romanitas among the native population.
Gwynllyw is known from the Vita Cadoci and the Vita Gundleus as the father of Cadoc and the husband of Gwladys. These connections place his floruit in the early sixth century, a calculation confirmed through less direct calculations.
Both vitae also claim that Gwynllyw and his six brothers inherited a portion of their father’s kingdom, with Gwynllyw acting as overlord for the group. That sounds a lot like the traditional Gwynedd origin legend. As we have seen above, Cunedda was not part of the Gwynedd dynastic family and his “sons” were actually kings of separate kingdoms who were only connected to the ruling family when the royal dynasty tried to solidify its control by making all of the conquered kingdoms a part of the foundation legend. Probably, the similarity means the same thing here as it did for Gwynedd; Gwynllyw’s brothers were not chieftains with their own kingdoms and Gwynllyw probably only controlled a small kingdom himself.

The Picts
Like Ceredig, Caw was also from the north. The Vita Cadoci has Caw saying he was from a place “beyond Bannawc”, which probably means Pictland. One of Caw’s sons was Gildas, while a second son Hueil raided Arthur, putting Caw’s birth-year at roughly the middle of the fifth century.
In the Vita Cadoci, Caw also says that he spent his life raiding. In the context of a saint’s life the commentary makes sense; it would not do for a chieftain to boast about how wide an area he controlled or how many battles he had been in. However, the information is there for the taking anyway.
If Caw was a Pict then the region he controlled had never been under Roman control. That probably also means that Caw was a king and not the simple raider he is called. If he was, then Caw was one independent Pictish ruler from the later fifth century.
Caw’s son Hueil is also placed “beyond Bannawc” in Caradoc’s Vita Gildae. According to the story he came south as a raider into Arthur’s kingdom, making him a contemporary and therefore active somewhere in the two decades on either side of 500.
Drystan son of Tallwch is found in The Welsh Triads, Culhwch ac Olwen, and an obscure poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen. The Welsh Triads are the only source that say anything about him though. Triad 26 names him as the only chieftain Arthur ever failed to steal from.
Drystan’s short entry gives us two facts to work with. The first is his name and the name of his father. Drystan is a form of Drust. Drust is found all over Britain but most of the time in Pictland. Tallwch is the Welsh version of Pictish Talorcan and is only found in Pictland. More than likely that means that Drystan, too, was Pictish.
The second is the fact that Drystan was a chieftain whom other chieftains tried to raid. Among the Briton and Germanic kingdoms cattle raiding disappeared as soon as larger kingdoms developed and stabilized enough to form empires and make alliances; it just was not practical. If the fifth and sixth century Pictish kingdoms were stable and of a comparable size they should have stopped cattle raiding as well. That cattle raiding continued in Drystan’s time suggests one of two things. Either Drystan lived in a different period than Arthur or the Pictish kingdoms were still not very large or stable in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Drystan was active in Arthur’s time, he is mentioned with Arthur in the earliest stratum of the triads, meaning Drystan must have lived during the British Heroic Age (late fifth century until about 650).
Medrawt, or Modred, is another northern figure associated with Arthur early on; he appears in the Annales Cambriae as well as in three separate triads. The annals record that both men fought at Camlann. And, since warriors are generally ignored there it is safe to assume that Medrawt was a king. His association with Arthur suggests that, like him, he was active between the late fifth and the early sixth century, then so was Medrawt.
Now whether the two were friends or foes is hard to determine; the sources are ambiguous. The worst is Annales Cambriae, which says only that the two fought at Camlann. The entry could easily be interpreted as the two men fought against each other, but the more natural reading is that they fought on the same side.
The triads are of no help either. Triad 58 says that two of the great ravages of Britain were when Medrawt went to Arthur’s court and ate everything and when Arthur returned the favor. Those do not seem like the acts of allies, but then again a king would not normally play host to his enemy either.

Irish Kingdoms
Eochaid Allmuir is only listed in one Dyfed genealogy, the Expulsion of the Déisi. Normally, that would make him highly suspect as an historical figure. In this case, however, it is the more believable genealogy; it is the oldest and the only one that does not claim the family was descended from Emperor Maximus’ daughter Anna. Maximus, we will remember, was the the general who had left for the continent in 383 to claim the emperor’s crown in Rome. In 383 Britannia had been relatively stable, still reasonably capable of keeping its enemies at bay. The reasoning for adding Maximus to the lineage is simple, though; he would have given the family prestige because of his heritage. Just as obvious is the reason Eochaid was eliminated; he was the original Irish settler of a dynasty that would claim to be of British origin during the later Middle Ages.
Tradition says that he settled in Britain during the late third century, but a closer examination of the genealogy by Dr. Miller has demonstrated he was active in the early fifth century. Miller’s conclusions make better sense with what we know of Roman Britain, too, it included Dyfed until well into the fourth century.
Tradition has it that the Irish were eventually forced out of Dyfed. The Historia Brittonum claims Cunedda and his sons accomplished it, and elsewhere Urien and his sons were given credit. However, some detective work by Dr. Miller long ago showed that Clydwyn, who was active in the middle of the fifth century, was the local hero. Instead of beating the Irish back though, Clydwyn’s daughter Gwledyr married Aed Brosc, son of Eochaid. It seems that the two dynasties intermarried.
What does that mean for a study of British history? First of all, it shows that there were at least two kingdoms in mid-fifth century Dyfed. Secondly, it suggests that though the Irish dynasty continued thought the fifth century it hid or buried its Irish origins in favor of its native ancestors.
Aed Brosc, son of Corath and grandson of Eochaid Allmuir, was active in the last third of the fifth century. All we know about him comes from the Vita Carantoci, which says that he invaded Ceredigion during Carantoc’s youth. That little tidbit is valuable information though. Ceredigion and Dyfed have a natural border in the Teifi River; there would have been no reason to invade Ceredigion until Aed was in control of Dyfed. And if he was, then we have a good idea of when Dyfed was first brought under one king.
Taken in conjunction with his father and grandfather a little more can be learned about Dyfed’s development in particular and the maturation of kingdoms in general during the fifth century. His grandfather had settled in Dyfed early in the century but only controlled a portion of what would become medieval Dyfed. His father successfully expanded the kingdom, eventually marrying a local princess in order to assimilate a second kingdom. Either Corath or Aed Brosc (son or grandson) managed to conquer the entire area, and only then did Aed attempt a foreign invasion. Within two generations and under ideal conditions, petty chieftainships could have grown into the recognizable kingdoms of the Middle Ages.
Domangart son of Nisse was an independent Irish chieftain or pirate who controlled Kintyre in Dal Riata during the years around 500. Domangart was not the ruler of Dal Riata, but one of many chieftain/pirates operating from the region. Domangart’s son Comgall probably only controlled Kintyre too. As has been seen, the shallow waters and innumerable islands in Dal Riata would have made it an ideal spot for that kind of activity.
Several vitae tell us about the legendary first ruler of Brycheiniog, Brychan. They also say he was the son of Anlach and the grandson of Coronac (possibly Cormac), an Irish king, which by Celtic law would have made him a prince. British genealogies claim he was the father of dozens of sons and daughters, which makes it hard to believe any of them were his children. Only Rhain Dremrud and Glwadys were connected to the same area and are mentioned independently of him. Using them as reference points Brychan would be a figure of the late fifth century; but those are uncertain points of reference. What we can be sure of is that the Irish had been mainly driven out of Britain by 500. It is safe to assume that Brychan had established the kingdom by then and either he or a successor had assimilated it into British culture. From the Vita Cadoci we also know that the capital of Brycheiniog was Talgarth.

Separating the earliest kings by culture and then ordering them by chronology has shown us several useful aspects of post-Roman kingship. The earliest kings came from the non-Roman areas of Britain, areas that had kings before the Romans left like the Picts, or that may have been developing them in the Late Roman era like Strathclyde and Lothian. These were followed by the Irish colonists who were already settling the western coast in the early fifth century. The Britons themselves established chieftainships during the late-fifth century, likely as a response to the Irish settlements in the West and Germanic expansion from the East. Germanic kingships, as we will see below began in the middle of the sixth century.
The above study has been useful from the perspective of size as well. Most of the British and Irish chieftains discussed above have left no evidence of their kingdom’s size. Those who did, though, seem to have ruled over very small areas. For instance, Coel is remembered as a great king in Welsh history, but only the territory of Kintyre is named after him. The early kingdom of Gwynedd began as one of at least two kingdoms on Anglesey and only managed to conquer the whole island around 500. Together, all the above evidence suggests that the earliest kingdoms were very small – maybe a hall and all the villages within sight at first.
The exception to this rule seems to have been the kingdoms that were already in existence or developing before Rome left – the Picts and the north British regions. Regardless of size, though, all the kingdoms of early Post-Roman Britain seem to have been more interested in simple raids than conquests. In the context of the heroic age and as a political tool this makes perfect sense. Raiding made for good stories and praise poetry which could be used to spread a king’s reputation. It was also not decisive; if a king failed to make a successful raid he had not lost a battle. He probably had not lost any men. On the other hand, a king who was regularly the victim of raids and had a hard time making them himself would lose his reputation and the confidence of his villages.
The size of the original petty kingdoms would grow in time. Poor raiding, a chieftain’s death without heirs, or even the rare loss in a battle would weaken many kingships enough to be absorbed by their more competitive neighbors. Other kingdoms would grow through military successes, good harvests, and access to natural resources, assimilating those regions that were less fortunate along the way. Wise rulers would add individual villages to their kingdoms at opportune times. By as early as 520, the surviving kingdoms all over Britain were already developing into the sizes they would become during the medieval period.
Power does not equate to fame, however. While Urien’s rise to control all of Reged is an extant historical record, his accomplishments are the result of Taliesin’s work. Not all widespread conquerors had the good fortune of having Taliesin on their payroll. The man who consolidated all of Kent remains obscured by time, as are the historical activities of Æthelberht before 597, the Pictish and Germanic leaders of 367, and most of the wealthy kings of Tintagel during the late fifth and early sixth centuries.
Gwrtheyrn was likely the most powerful person in southern England during most of his floruit in the middle of the sixth century, and yet many modern scholars still place him in the wrong century. Further, he was blamed for the Anglo-Saxons presence in England because of a misunderstanding of De Excidio Britanniae’s manuscript history and a misinterpretation about one of his more obscure titles. This confusion was undoubtedly helped along by the fortune of Gwrtheyrn’s name among his descendants. The political motivations of Kent made use of both strokes of luck to give themselves validation for their land and their presence in Britain. Gwrtheyrn was not a victim, however; he courted his own disaster. If he had hired a bard of Taliesin’s caliber, the ravages of time and the machinations of the Germanic kingdoms would have had no effect on how his activities came down to us. From Historia Brittonum on he would have been known as one of the most powerful and crafty kings of British history instead of as the fool who lost Britain for the Britons.

The Episodes of Peredur ap Efrawg: Angharad

As you read through the story, one of the comforting sections in its confusing narrative is Peredur’s meeting with Angharad.  She becomes and remains his love interest throughout the rest of the story.  Angharad is a great plot device and comes into play just in time.  Peredur originally leaves his mother to join Arthur as a knight.  After his mishap with Cei and the Black Knight, though, that motive fades.  Having the hero meet the woman of his dreams gives Peredur a reason to keep pursuing quests, but also a tactile reward for his accomplishments.

But that’s just the literary reason why she appears.  The cultural reason is a familiar one to those who have studied Welsh stories, her presence represents the sovereignty aspect of the tale.  Angharad, even though she possesses a real Welsh name and behaves like a woman, is the symbol for a kingdom.  Peredur’s marriage to her will mean that he has ascended to a throne. 

The Northern Memorandum


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The discussion about Arthur’s existence has been active since Geoffrey of Monmouth made him a European sensation in the mid-eleventh century. For many, it revolves around his mention in Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, which is now generally believed to have come from the Northern Memorandum. Personally, I’ve approached the question from several angles no one had ever thought to so it’s not necessary for me to believe that the hypothetical source is early to know Arthur existed. That also means I’m less likely to be biased toward making it any earlier than it has to be. To business; the veracity of both sources depends on the Northern Memorandum written within the lifetime of an individual.

I say this because it has been suggested that people during this period might have lived a hundred years or more, as long as they were able to avoid wars and disease. Between 526 and 547, Britain suffered three major plagues or famines. Between 410 and the time of Gildas’ De Excidio Britanniae, the Germanic migrants expanded west to control what in later times would be Northumbria, Essex, a good portion of Wessex, Sussex, East Anglia, and Kent. And the Germanic peoples were not Christian at that time so that they saw monasteries as storehouses of wealth only. By 632, when Cadwallon would run roughshod over Northumbria, northern Britain was cut off from Wales, suggesting Mercia had expanded to the western coast. Safe to say that nowhere on the island was there a region that could have avoided disease, poor crops, or war for more than a decade. And of course the very young and the very old would have been the most likely to die during plagues, famines, or conquests.

Statistical fact, the average male lived to be 32 and the average female 28 in the first couple centuries of post-Roman Britain.

All that out of the way, we know that the rare churchman could live to be as old as 80. Unlikely as that seems, it means he could have been witness to an event he saw at 5 and wrote it down at about 80. More likely, a person would remember an event from 15 on, but we’ll stick to the extremes. That way whatever dates we come up with won’t be edited for a wider range.

The first dated historical event in either Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae is the Battle of Arfderydd, dated to 573. A boy aware of the event at the time might have recorded it as late as 648. The last northern British dated event is the death of Dunod in 595, and therefore the earliest possible date would be 595. Thus Run, or a monastery associated with him, likely scribed the original Northern Memorandum in 595×648.

Professor Koch long ago suggested a means by which a British history could have been brought into Germanic hands and made use of without bending it to a strictly Germanic bias. At some time after 664, Alhfrith revolted against his father. He was dead by 671. Alfrith was possibly a descendant of Urien according to the Historia Brittonum, which means he might have had access to British records. Modernizing the history for the purpose of showing his ancestry and winning the support of British nobility would have been an excellent motivator for a Northumbrian to put in the details about Rieinmellth marrying a Northumbrian.

However, as he died in 671, the Germanic genealogies end during Ecgfrith’s reign, and the last event of Germanic concern is 685, it’s also a safe bet that the history was rewritten in 685 or later.

There is also one curiosity in the history of the theoretical Northern Memorandum; Patrick is one of three religious figures mentioned in prominent roles (Rhun as the author and Germanus as the nemesis of Vortigern being the other two). But Patrick serves no known purpose for any British history written between 595 and 648. Nor would Alhfrith or Ecgfrith have had any political motivations. In fact, one might argue the British would have had more reason to mention other British saints, while the Northumbrians would have been more likely to name Columba or Aedan. Add to this that Arthur’s presence seems to be interwoven with the Arthurian entries and we are given the suggestion that these two may have been part of a still earlier recension. Is there any evidence as to its date-range, or even that there was an earlier recension? Nope! Just a thought.

For now.

The Southumbrian Theater


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In the South, it seems at least feasible that Gwrtheyrn’s ascendancy created the infrastructure that helped form the first Germanic kingdoms, otherwise there is the unlikely coincidence of Gwrtheyrn/Vortigern’s floruit, Vortigern/Vortimer-Hengest’s battles in Kent (no matter which way the campaign went, Hengest was at some point defending his own kingdom instead of being on the offensive), and the sudden emergence of several Southumbrian overlordships within (at the most) a couple decades after archeology says the first kingships formed.

In the North, we have a very different type of evidence for the same situation. The traditional belief had been that the ill-fated Gododdin expedition had fought at Catraeth in around 600, when Northumbria already had fully formed kingdoms and was approaching unification. As has been seen above, more recently the date for that battle has shifted from around 600 to perhaps 570 or even 540. Just as important, Gododdin’s opponents in the battle have been reimagined not as Germanic kings but British chieftains – Urien, Gwallog, Morgan, and Rhydderch. Both sides apparently had Germanic allies or tributaries fighting alongside them.

This change of dating and focus is in perfect agreement with the archeology, the Taliesin poems, and Historia Brittonum; Urien does fight two Germanic chieftains in the history, but he fights them only in Northumbria and never as threats to his kingdom. In the poems, no Germanic chieftain is mentioned by name against Urien at all. Fflamddwyn, the nickname of a “Bernician” chieftain, does appear in a poem fighting against Owain, but that battle could have been as much as a generation after Catraeth; plenty of time for the Germanic clans to have developed into substantial kingdoms especially now that we know how quickly they grew in size and strength.

In fact, the Taliesin poems can be used to support the new dating and reinforce our new views on the political situation. In the eighth Taliesin poem “Gweith Gwen Ystrat”, line 9, Urien is named as the Lord of Catraeth. This piece of evidence was used by Professor Koch to show Catraeth’s political and military importance to both Urien and the Gododdin expedition.

Catraeth, generally agreed upon as modern Catterick Bridge, was well within Northumbria once it was united in 604/5 by Æthelfrith. If the battle was fought after that or even when Bernicia was an established kingdom (by 593 at the latest), one would imagine Bernicia and/or Æthelfrith would figure prominently in the battle poems; they do not. The fact that Catraeth is in what would be Northumbria by 605 but was in Urien’s possession and was fought over by two predominantly Briton confederacies is strong evidence that there were no developed Germanic kingdoms at the time of the battle, which in turn forces us to the conclusion that Catraeth was fought long before 593.

Alright, so we know that Urien and Gododdin’s confederacies were active long before 593, and also that the Germanics of the time were not a significant military presence. Even better, we are fairly certain there was no cultural/racial hatred in the era. Historia Brittonum tells us that Urien’s last campaign was intended to drive the Germanic people into the sea. But if there were no Germanic kingdoms that would not have been a major task, and if the Britons did not hate the Germanics for being Germanic there would have been no desire to. So what was the purpose of the campaign? Was he forcing more Germanic clans to pay tribute? Fighting the Gododdin confederacy? Koch has argued eloquently that the Urien and Gododdin confederacies were at war, but are the two mutually exclusive?

Even if there were no significant Germanic kingdoms around the time of the Battle of Catraeth, the archeological record does show that power and wealth was beginning to centralize among the northern Germanic villages. Why?

Again, what fits the evidence best is that the region was already organized by the dominant British kings to make tribute taking and defense from other British chieftains easier and more local. Briton-directed organization would also explain the clear presence of Germanic warriors at Catraeth without the clear evidence of Germanic chieftains leading Germanic warriors there.

What happened next? In the South, Bede handed the modern historian a string of three consecutive over-kings which date-guessing has shown bridged the gap between British suzerainty and the rise of Germanic kingdoms. Because his northern sources had no Northumbrian equivalent to The Kentish Source, he could offer no such favors for his beloved Northumbria. Instead, all he had was simple oral history from the moment writing was possible.

Without Bede’s help, we are left with the raw materials in the Historia Brittonum and its attached genealogies. The former says that Ida was a figure of the mid-sixth century and that his eleven sons – Glappa, Adda, Æthelric, Theodric, Frithuwald, and Hussa among them, ruled immediately after him. Date-guessing using the primary sources has proven that this official scenario is highly improbable. It seems more likely that several of the people named above were the rulers of other Northumbrian kingdoms; they were probably plucked from their historical positions and inserted into Bernicia’s royal family.

There is some evidence for this hypothesis. The conflicting information to be had from our sources is one piece and the unsatisfactory results of date-guessing are another. Others are less obvious; none of the “brothers” were active in the same place. Theodric is mentioned in Historia Brittonum only at Lindesfarne where he was besieged by Urien and his allies. According to the Welsh Triads, Adda fought against the York kings Peredur and Gwrgi at Caer Greu. We also know that Hussa fought against Rheged, Elmet, Strathclyde, and probably a Gododdin kingdom, which suggests he was from a northwestern Bernician kingdom – but this is the weakest of the three connections

The above clues do not give us a conclusive argument, but they do suggest a theory that agrees with archeology, that there were multiple kingships in pre-Æthelfrith Northumbria. It also has the advantage of not conflicting with itself.

The established history has neither. Northumbria did not have its first monastery, and the scriptoria that came with it, until probably 635. If historical writing started immediately (and Aidan was renowned for traveling ceaselessly so this is a big “IF”) and had access to someone who was the maximum of fifty-five, then he would have had access to living memory back no further than 585 under the best of circumstances. More likely he would have had access to accurate memories only back to 595. Even if we assume that Paulinus started writing Northumbrian history when he accompanied Æthelburg up to Northumbria in about 625 (when he established churches, not monasteries), living memory for him would have extended no further back than about 575, and probably 585. There is no conceivable way that there could have been any historical memories regarding a 547 Ida, and probably little or no living memory about Glappa, Adda, Æthelric, Theodric, Frithuwald, and Hussa. The only thing that would have been accessible at that time would have been heroic poems and whatever skop-derived genealogies were in existence.

And even if all the above calculations are wrong, our received history of sixth-century Northumbria clearly conflicts with contemporary British poetry and any attempt at date-guessing. It also does not explain the clear association of at least two kings with specific areas within Northumbria.

Actually, when put like that the scenario reeks bears a little comparison to another dynasty we have already met, Wessex. There at least three dynasties were smashed together to give the impression of a single and united kingdom from its first day of existence by giving several key individuals a genealogy that connected them to a common founder – Cerdic.

In Northumbria, it looks like the process was simpler, or less developed, as all of the suspicious persons were made the sons of Ida. The solution not only bonded the history of Bernicia’s kingdoms into a history where Bernicia had always been united, it push Bernicia’s foundation date further back in time and made the dynasty seem older and more respectable than it actually was.

So when did all the chieftains in the official king-list live? In the South, the genealogies of Wessex have previously been worked out with rough birth-years for most individuals. Not so with Bernicia. However, knowing that Theodric and Hussa were contemporary to Urien and that Hussa’s son was active in 603, the author has previously date guessed several early members of the official Bernician family:

Ida: Born 497×550 Hussa “son of Ida”: 530×570
Æthelric son of Ida: 535×568 Hering son of Hussa: 548×588
Theodric son of Ida: 515×585
Adda “son of Ida”: 515×585

It makes sense that both Æthelric and Theodric would be the sons of Ida. Ida is the legendary founder of the line and he is connected to Bamburgh Castle. In the Historia Brittonum Theodric was laid siege to at Lindesfarne, which is a nearby island. Æthelric is also reasonable as Ida’s son because it was his son Æthelfrith who first united Bernicia and Deira and had the power to create the official (oral) history at a time when there must have been survivors from the various kingdoms he had conquered. It would have made no sense to choose another father in place of his own when his father’s name would have been well known. And as the official genealogy has Ida as his grandfather and the conflicting chieftains as his uncles, it would have made no sense to choose another grandfather, either.

Hussa, on the other hand, is clearly not a son of Ida. The king lists specifically say that Theodric ruled first. Historia Brittonum, on the other hand, tells us that Hussa fought Urien and that Urien died while laying siege to Theodric; clearly a chronological gaff in the re-sewing of Bernician history.

Frithuwald likewise causes problems as a son of Ida. In the official king-list he is placed between Theodric and Hussa, but in the Historia Brittonum he is still alive when Augustine arrives in Britain at 597. It is also clear, in Bede and elsewhere, that all the sons of Ida were dead by 593, when Æthelfrith, from the third generation, began his reign. If Frithuwald was a son of Ida, he could not have been alive in 597. We already know that the king-list has been tampered with, and the Historia Brittonum (and Northern Memoranda writer) would have had no foreseeable reason to make the synchronization; Frithuwald was not the son of Ida.

Previously, the present author had listed Adda as a son of Ida. On further consideration, however, Adda was probably not in the same dynasty. He is not necessary for the genealogy, nor is there any geographical consistency between himself and either Ida, Theodric, or Æthelric. On the contrary, Adda is only noted for battling the York-oriented brothers Peredur and Gwrgi at Caer Greu. His interests were either around York or in an area near to it.

Almost nothing is known of the last brother Glappa, only that he is listed as Ida’s first successor. It is possible that Glappa was an historical son of Ida, but considering the tendencies shown above, it is more likely he was not. It may well be that the reason he immediately succeeds Ida in the official genealogy is that Glappa was the most powerful rival in the bardic records. In that case, his place as Ida’s first-born would have been meant as a nod to Glappa’s surviving family.

So, what do we know about Deira before Æthelfrith conquered it? Soemil has already been discussed; he seems to make the most sense as the person who separated Deira from British-controlled Bernicia in the middle sixth century; he was a northern counterpart to the Sussex Ælle, Ceawlin, and possibly Iurminric.

The next person we know anything about is Ælle, but what we do know is conflicted. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that he came to the throne in 560 and reigned for thirty years. However, it also says he succeeded Ida – of Bernicia! 560 and his reign length are also unbelievable; there is no way there could have been written records in Northumbria before 585?

Bede relays a continental memory, that Gregory saw some of Ælle’s people as slaves before he became pope. As this comes directly from a contemporary continental source it is credible. It also means, as Miller noted, that Ælle was active between when he returned from Constantinople in 585/6 and 590. That is not much, but it does give us one small range of dates in which he know someone was king in Deira.

How long was Soemil active if he was a rebel figure of the mid-sixth century? There is no way to tell. When did Ælle come to power? Again, we cannot know. It is possible that one succeeded the other? Yes, but not in any way probable. If Soemil was remembered for separating Deira from Bernicia, he would have been famous enough for any intelligent skop to insert into his king’s pedigree. So it is very possible that the two were not even related to each other.

Looking forward, we are told that Æthelric succeeded to the kingdom when Ælle died in 588. The inconsistency between the date and the supposed thirty-reign of Ælle (560+30=590) is a reminder that we cannot trust this date either. Nor does the entry give us a relationship between Ælle and Æthelric either. Were they brothers? Father and son? Competitors from different dynasties? That, too, we do not know and have no way of learning.

In the South, Gwrtheyrn’s reign created the organization for several late-sixth century kingships in Sussex, Wessex, and Kent. By about 600 these had coalesced into at least four distinct kingdoms. Above the Humber river, it would seem that the alliance of Urien, Rhydderch, Morcant, and Gwallog aided in the creation of several kingdoms in Bernicia and at least two in Deira. By the historical period these had merged into two, and were well on their way to forming the single kingdom of Northumbria by 604. It would be the continuing struggle between the houses of Deira and Bernicia that would engage Northumbria for most of the rest of the period in question, with several kingdoms only becoming involved long enough to shift the advantage from one house to the other for a few years at a time.

1 As the name of the entire region and not a particular kingdom, “Bernician” could mean any Germanic chieftain from Northumbria.

2 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xiii-xxxiv.

3 Ibid, xii.

4 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 144.

5 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), ch. 63.

6 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), Triad 30.

7 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), ch. 61.

8 To be accurate, it is “Eda Glinvawr” who is placed at Caer Greu. Traditionally this figure has been assumed to be a mistake for Adda because Ida is said to have died some twenty years earlier. However, as one of the benefits of the altered Bernician king-list was to extend the dynasty backward in time, the argument that Ida must have been dead by then is no longer valid. Ida may well have been a contemporary the battle. The author thinks that geography is a better approach. Ida is associated with Bamburgh deep inside Bernician territory, while the York of Peredur and Gwrgi was inside Deiran territory, and therefore any Bernician chieftain fighting them was likely much nearer the border. 

9 Miller has already done a masterful overview of the subject. The approach taken here is largely based on her; “The Dates of Deira”, ASE 8 (London, 1979), 35-61.

10 Miller, “The Dates of Deira”, ASE 8 (London, 1979), 42; Duddon, Gregory the Great, (London, 1905), 156 fn. 3 and 196 fn. 1.

11 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. George Norman Garmonsway, (London, 1953).

12 The author’s study on early Deiran kings showed that there were a number of equally plausible options regarding Ælle and Æthelric, including a theory that they were from two different dynasties; Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 146-7 and 219. Considering the official late sixth-century Bernician dynasty and its relationship with historical reality, two different dynasties seems even more likely.

Germanic Kingship


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Primitive Anglo-Saxon chieftainships developed during the middle of the sixth century, as we have seen possibly emerging because of a structure the powerful British kings installed there. Once present, they conducted their survival of the fittest contest through battles, marriages, and religion, the seven luckiest and strongest dynasties forming into the Heptarchy in a matter of decades.

How they transitioned from newly created kingdoms into a sort of political stalement has been examined many times. Traditionally, historians have tried a biographical approach, almost going from major leader to major leader in chronological order and with a minimum of background as they survey the period on their way to later periods.1   Occasionally, scholars have taken an isolated method and studied the major kingdoms separately; this has usually been accomplished with regional experts writing on their topics in collaboration.2   More recently, entire books have been written on entire kingdoms or centered around one source.3   All of these approaches have had their benefits for better understanding the period. However, none of them helps a lay reader to see the big picture about the English kingdoms from their origins to their maturity in the seventh century.

In this next section the author will take a slightly different approach. After discussing the rise of the Germanic kingdoms, we will use a staggered chronology in our study of the rest of the period – roughly 575 through 654. It will begin with the Picts up through the reign of Bridei son of Maelchon in the 580s. The next major leader was Áedán of Dal Riata, so we will explore the history of his kingdom from the death of Columba until his demise. In this chapter we will go from major leader to leader, examining the origins of each man’s kingdom from the point where we left off until that leader’s death until we arrive at a natural stopping point, the Synod of Whitby in 664. At that point we will survey what we know of the lesser kingdoms, integrating that information into our overall history. It is hoped that the approach as outlined will better help to make each kingdom’s development and their interactions with each other more understandable than has been possible before.

Before we begin, though, it is best to explore and appreciate the nature of Germanic kingship. In many ways, Post-Roman Celtic kingship was similar.

Celtic kingship assumed a powerful connection between a king and the land he ruled which was symbolized in his marriage to the land in the form of his wife. Germanic kingship did as well.4   The Celtic king was also the highest judge, whose rulings as well as his courage in battle ensured the land remained fertile. The same was true with the Germanic king.

It has been seen in chapter 16 that the British king was at the center of the new politico-economic system. He led the warriors and through them protected the villages which allowed for economic and political stability throughout his kingdom. He hired bards, whose function was threefold; to entertain the king and his warriors through praise poetry which reinforced the relationship between the two groups, to remind the villages of the king’s importance to their well-being, to generate a royal geneology that gave the king famous and respected progenitors, and to associate the king with a supernatural relationship with the land along with superhuman wisdom and battle luck.

The warriors were his personal comrades, who lived in his hall and promised to fight and die in return for his hospitality. Without them there was no protection of the villages and the villages had no reason to pay the tribute that brought the king and his warriors the wealth to buy spears, shields, swords, and armor. At the foundation of the system were the villages, who provided the king with silver to give away and purchase armaments with, livestock, food, and labor to keep his buildings intact.

The Germanic king was part of a similar arrangement, with the skop instead of a bard as the educated poet among his people. However, the Germanic king had one additional mechanism which gave him an even greater control over his people than the British kings enjoyed; descent from a king.

Whereas the British rulers tapped the most ancient traditions for their power and their bards padded that mystique with more tangible heroes of the past, they and the people they ruled were influenced by Christianity which only accepted god, and him remote. Germanic gods were much more hands-on. Their myths involved battles against the Jotuns to protect mankind, and their royal genealogies were often founded by Woden or Deor, better known as Odin and Thor. This connection not only gave the Germanic kings a claim to semi-divinity themselves, but also to the divine mana.5

Now Celtic kings were believed to have a connection with the divine too, which was why a kingdom traditionally chose each ruler (even though in reality the entire clan chose a successor which was then ratified by priests), but descent from a god made the Germanic connection more powerful. And because they practiced this form of kingship during their conversion to Christinity, it and specifically the concept of mana remained an important characteristic of Germanic kingship well beyond the seventh century.

What was mana, roughly translated as divine luck? It was not lucky like we would understand it, having great timing, always getting good cards, winning the lottery, etc. A ruler with powerful mana was successful in battles, led a fertile kingdom, made just decisions, and was loved by his warriors.6   It was believed that the gods themselves were looking out for him and everything he possessed.

Mana was passed along in bloodlines, just like the modern world sees traits like strength, speed, and mathematical abilities as genetically influenced traits. And, as athletic and intellectual abilities are passed along in varying degrees, so it was with mana.7

Because mana was such a valuable commodity in a king, it was important for any potential ruler to prove that he possessed the quality in abundance. For that reason it was common for princes, any descendent of a king from several three generations back, to form their own war-bands and go raiding to prove themselves.

The royal mana largely kept the nobles and warriors from questioning the royal family’s right to rule. However, it did not always keep royals safe from their own relatives. When a king died it was not uncommon for princes to fight for the right of succession if it was not clear who the “luckiest” man was. Even during a king’s reign, he was not above his relatives trying to usurp his throne under the right circumstances; as we have seen in the story of the Northern Memorandum and will see in the next chapter, a debatable policy could bring on a revolt while a major defeat meant almost certain death. There are even several Norse stories and Roman references to kings being sacrificed to Woden/Odin when their kingdom suffered several seasons of bad harvests.8

1 Frank M. Stenton is the classic example of this approach; Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1971). Though much maligned, one positive aspect of John Morris’ contribution was that he surveyed each kingdom from their foundation into the Christian era; Morris, The Age of Arthur, (London, 1976).

2 The best example is still Stephen Bassett (ed.) The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (Leicester, 1989).

3 Over the passed thirty years Professor Higham has been the most active in this respect, with An English empire, (Manchester, 1995) and The Kingdom of Northumbria, A.D. 350-1100, (Stroud, 1993) in particular.

4 Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, (Manchester, 1970), 86-7.

5 Ibid, 12-17, 22, 55-6, 86, 113, 90, 94, 109, and 254.

6 de Vries, Altgermanische Religiongeschichte, (Berlin, 1937), 32-43.

7 Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity (Manchester, 1970), 15-17; Turville-Petre, Myth and religion of the North: the religion of ancient Scandinavia, (London, 1964), 260-1; Kern, trans. Stanley B. Grimes, Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, (Oxford, 1939), 14; Chadwick, Origins of the English Nation, (Cambridge, 1907), 303.

8 Marcellinus, Res Gestae, trans. John C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, MA, 1971-72), 5.14, Ynglingasaga, and Heimskringla. The Norse saga materials are well beyond the purview of this book.

The Decline of the British Kingdoms


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Most of the British history books the author has read focus on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms between Rhun’s campaign and the alliances of Urien and the Gododdin on one end and Cadwallon on the other, ignoring the British people completely in the process. Historians do this because we know very little about the British people during this time, little more than the names of several kings really.

Several people have offered their theories. Hamerow argued that the Germanic peoples’ local and extended kin-groups gave them a distinct advantage over the British social structure.1 However, we are not exactly certain how those kin-groups functioned but judging by existing kingship customs and the extant law codes of the period they seem to have been similar to the Celts. In both cases, an extended cousinhood protected each other among the freemen. It could be argued that the English tradition was closer to the modern system of justice with its concept of crimes against the state, but that would not have given the English any obvious advantages in warfare. 

In studying the period, Professor Higham realized the unusual weight Badon had on both British and Germanic histories,2  and suggested that it might have been important independent of Gildas.  He suggested that after the battle some sort of a compromise was worked out between both sides that in the short term forced the Anglo-Saxons to pause in their advance into British territories, but in the end allowed them to develop whatever political structure or military strength they needed to conquer Britain.3

The problem with that theory is that it requires some unlikely assumptions. The first is that the battle had islandwide importance. Gildas’ interests and knowledge were fairly local within his lifetime; he focuses on modern Wales and Cornwall with the kings for instance. It is at least feasible that the Battle of Badon was only locally important too. The knowledge we have gained about political development supports that possibility; we have learned that the British kingdoms were only just forming in the late fifth century and regional alliances were still decades off, while the Germanic people of the late fifth century were still organized into clans controlling individual villages.4   While it might have been possible for several British chiefs to band together, bringing hundreds of villages under a confederation, unless they were being invaded themselves, would have been a impractical.

The fact that the Germanic people were still organized into local clans also means that there would have been no way to work out a compromise after the battle, either. It would have been difficult to make dozens of British chieftains agree on terms, but negotiating with hundreds of Germanic clans would have been impossible unless they had been virtually annihilated – and Gildas makes no claims about that.

Logistics. If a war-band was mounted it might travel thirty or forty miles in a day. At that speed and allowing at least one full day for a battle, it is possible that most Germanic and British war-bands would be able to get to and from the battle in only three days. However, for those three days the entire kingdom would be vulnerable to attacks.5

Finally, Badon itself. Gildas claimed it was the major battle of an entire generation, and if it was the absolute victory he claims it makes sense why English historians never delved into the details. But, if the battle was followed by a compromise which eventually allowed the Germanic people to dominate the island, the English reaction should have been different. One would think that the eventual benefactors would have remembered it with pride as another instance when they had outwitted the British (like Hengest) and as a more important event than the regional accomplishments of Cerdic, Ceawlin, or Ælle. The fact that they did neither probably means that Badon was a major defeat for them. As that seems more likely, we need to look elsewhere for an explanation about why the British kingdoms decline after the mid-sixth century.

To this scholar, the behavior of the British kingdoms after Urien and Rhun’s careers seems like the state of ancient Greece after the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, or the aftermath of a wild New Year’s Eve Party; maybe both comparisons are valid. By the end of the sixth century the British had been in a state of perpetual raiding and warring for over a hundred years, with battles growing larger and more intense as kingdoms grew and allied together in an attempt to control ever larger portions of the island. On the other hand, we hear almost nothing of the Germanic peoples after roughly 500 for decades. While the British were involved in larger and larger battles, the Germanic people were still just raiding. Is it possible that British manpower had been sapped? Battles would deplete the warrior ranks, while invasions would have meant the loss of farmers, without whom there was no food.

At the same time, England has the best farmland on the island.6   While the British lost warriors and peasants to internecine warfare from the late fifth to the late sixth century and survived on lesser farmland, the Anglo-Saxons lost little or nothing and had better crops to grow their population on.

Of course, battles alone did not reduce the British from the dominant power on the island to victims in just a century. It must have strained them, but not so much that they might not have reconquered Britain. There were other issues. Dr. Andrew Breeze has pointed out to me some major volcanic activity in 535-6 which caused major climatic changes throughout the world.7   This would have affected crops and livestock.

At mid-century, Justinian’s Plague hit Britain,8  and that must have put the Britons over the edge. Some scholars have suggested that the British were hit harder and the resulting deaths weakened the British enough that they never recovered.9   That theory seems unlikely on its own though. For one thing, scholars have shown that the Germanic peoples traded both with the continent and the British peoples, demonstrating more than enough contact with bubonic plague regions to have infected their entire population.10

But, if the undermanned British kingdoms had been stretched by nearly a century of war before the plague hit and the Anglo-Saxons had thrived in the meantime, the disease could have hit both groups equally but effected the British much more.

The plague was just the anima though. In organizing the Germanic areas to make tribute-taking more efficient during the early and middle sixth century, the British had inadvertently created the political structure for the Germanic kingdoms – leader, hall, warriors, and villages giving tribute. Once the British people no longer had the strength to control them because of the pandemic,11  the Germanic tax collectors would have simply stopped paying tribute.

So, why do the British kingdoms have an interlude from history after Urien and Rhun of Gwynedd? They were recovering, and the Germanic peoples were too focused on developing from local chieftainships to kingdoms. That focus would allow for the rise of the first Germanic over-kings like Ælle, Ceawlin, Æthelberht, and Æthelfrith while giving the British kingdoms time to replenish their numbers.

1 Hamerow, Rural Settlements and Society in Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 2012).

2 Badon is in both British sources, is mentioned but not explored in Bede, and its effects seen in lower England with The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. 

3 Higham, “From Tribal Chieftains to Christian Kings”, The Anglo-Saxon World, eds. Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan, (New Haven, 2013), 126-78.

4 One major hiccup a reader may have with this theory is Gildas’ testimony, but a close look at his account suggests that the British fought raiders looking for food and supplies, not kings and their war-bands attempting any sort of conquest or even cattle raids. 

5 Having no knowledge of the relations between villages the author must acknowledge that several warriors from each clan/war-band might have come to the battle. That possibility would have made it important islandwide without endangering all the kingdoms represented.

6 “Why farming matters: Wales”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: Scotland”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: Northern Ireland”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015; “Why farming matters: England”, RSPB, retrieved November 2, 2015.

7 Baillie, “Dendrochronology raises questions about the nature of the AD 536 dust-veil event”, The Holocene 4.2 (Washington D.C., 1994), 212-7; “Marking in Marker Dates: Towards and Archaeology with Historical Precision”, World Archaeology 23.2 (Abingdon, 1991), 233-43.

8 “Annales Cambriae”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), entry 547.

9 Wacher, The Towns of Roman Britain, (Berkeley, 1974), 414-422; Russell, “Late Ancient and Medieval Population”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 48.3 (Philadelphia, 1958), 71-99. 

10 “The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Stephen Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 55-74; Brown, History and Climate Change: An Eurocentric Perspective, (Routledge, 2001), 94-5.

11 Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, (New York, 1982), 31.