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. 

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.

The Decline of the British Kingdoms

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.

Columban Dal Riata


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When St. Columba arrived in Scotland as part of his penance for his part in the Battle of Cuil Dremne (563), legend says that King Conall of Dal Riata granted him the island of Iona for use as a monastery. He soon had a local scriptorium, writing center, so that from that time on historical events were recorded in Dal Riata.
Before 563, there would have been only oral memory. We only have one historical source for that period, the Senchus Fer n’Alban. It was written in around 660, a century after Columba arrived, and for the express purpose of generating nationalistic sentiment against Northumbria. The work gives a clear genealogical descent from Conall and Gabrán back to their common paternal grandfather Domangart. 
The only other Dal Riatan historical source for the period is Columba’s biography, written in about 697 and based on Iona’s historical records and whatever oral legends were to be had. Considering how much longer a monk could live than a layman, there might have been quite a few stories floating around. Anyway, the Vita Columba gave Conall and Gabrán’s parentage, but never named their common grandfather.

You might say the writer, Adamnan, simply had no interest in family trees, but Adamnan was a relative of Columba and a descendant of kings. It might be argued that Columba somehow did not know, but to be ignorant of host kingdom’s royal family in any way would have been unthinkable. We must at least consider that Gabrán and Conall did not have a common grandfather.

That suggestion demands a second look at the book, and perusing the Vita Columba we see that Columba never seems to go to any hall, castle, or even hill-fort while in Dal Riata. It was not that Adamnan opposed speaking of them, either. If his royal heritage is not enough to prove he had no compunctions about them, he does go into detail about Columba’s visit to Brude’s fortress in Pictland.1

Another omission is also important. Although the “official” history makes it clear that both Loairn and Óengusa of Cenéls Loairn and Óengusa were active around this time, neither one of them is mentioned. Conall and Gabrán are, and so are several members of the official family that are not in the official history, peasants, thieves, and monks; just not cenéls Loairn and Óengusa.

Many of the people Columba talks to in Dal Riata do not even seem to be noble. Actually, paging through the book the word pirate comes to mind. For instance, Erc is blatantly addressed as “the Robber”.2    There is also a chapter about Johan son of Conall son of Comgall in which he is clearly described as a bandit with his own group of men.3

All of the above suggests that the family tree was altered in the Senchus. More than that, it puts into question whether or not there was even a royal Dal Riata dynasty at all when Columba arrived.4

Stronger evidence of that last thought can be found in what little we know of the Convention at Druim Cett (574). Now there is a concensus that the High-King of Ireland, Áed mac Ainmuirech, conceded that Scottish Dal Riata would pay no tribute and provide no warriors. In return, Dal Riata promised that its fleet would be at his command.5

In the past, those believing that Scottish Dal Riata was originally part of Irish Dal Riata believed that this compromise gave Scottish Dal Riata its first taste of freedom from Ireland. Looked at from Áed’s perspective, though, the compromise is all wrong. He would have had no reason to give up tribute and fighting men. On the contrary, considering the weakened state of his dynasty and the fact that his predecessors had needed to fight throughout their reigns, he would have had every reason to believe he needed more military strength.

Instead of Druim Cett signaling the beginning of Scottish independence, we should think of it more as an acceptance of dependence. In return for making their veteran crews available to the high-king, the Irish pirates in Britain were accepted as a nominal kingdom under the high-king and as such they were protectedfrom all the kingdoms they had stolen from.

So if there was no royal family in the Dal Riata of 563 and for years afterwards what was there? We will be wisest to start with what we know; that is not in the Senchus but the Vita Columba. There are, in fact, at least three distinct clans to be found there – the families represented by Domnall, Gabrán, and Conall. There are possibly others. Erc “the Robber” is a likely clan leader. Colgu was an important person in Ireland, so his presence in Dal Riata raises the possibility that a lesser line may have migrated there.

Why pirates, or at least raiders whose leaders came from royal families? As was mentioned above, during the fifth century the western coast of Britain was invaded by the Irish, who used bases in Britain to stage attacks further inland. What we know about them is that the Irish who held the land and managed to build a kingdom were related to Irish royalty, but we have no way of knowing if they were in every case the only group that settled in an area or just the most successful one. It is only because of the Vita Columba that we know there were several clans in Dal Riata.

Dal Riata made for a good pirate base, and in some ways was the best British base. The region has many islands with shifting beaches. Sea depths can change. An area like that would have been navigable for someone who lived there but hazardous for anyone hoping to attack in heavy ships. It would have been more practical to attack in smaller ships, currachs. The problem with that idea was that a currach could only carry a few men and as soon as it came into a narrow area it would have made an easy target for ambush by land or sea; the perfect pirate base.

Because it was so easy to hide or defend, it would have been difficult to unite the area as well; a raiding party could evade any chieftain trying to unite the raiding crews almost indefinitely.

Not that there would have been any general need for unity during the fifth and sixth centuries. Each raiding group was mobile and could function independently. Irish and British targets were available on the sea and land, and there was no real threat to any group at the time and no potential threat in the foreseeable future.

Yet, with all these factors against unification, within about a dozen years of Columba landing Dal Riata was unquestionably united under a single king – Áedán. That timing, coupled with the strength of Columba’s overpowering personality, tells us that the Irish saint was probably the cause, but why?

The most obvious reason is stability. Columba had left an island where dominance was contested by a few kingdoms, but within each region there was general unity. Dal Riata had none of that. As an intelligent man raised in a dynastic household Columba would have been aware of the political and economic advantages, and awareness of the Picts’ and Strathclyde’s power would have given him an imminent reason to force Dal Riata together. The Battle of Teloch or Delgu (574), at which Dúnchad son of Conall and many other Dal Riatan leaders died, would have served as a good warning for the Dal Riata chieftains – no one could conquer Dal Riata, but none of the bands was safe, either.

As a religious man, so many different factions would have caused him problems; how would he administer to them all equally. Each time he visited one group he would have risked offending all the others or worse he would give them an excuse to fight among themselves. One leader of Dal Riata would have eliminated that issue.

Once the wheels were in motion, Columba thought he could influence them; he hoped to make Eoganán son of Gabrán the king,6  though no specific reason is given. The author only brings this up because interfering in political affairs is what had gotten the Irish saint exiled in the first place. Columba eventually allowed the election to take place naturally and duly crowned Áedán, Eoganán’s brother, as king.

The Dal Riata after Druim Cett took on a new persona, an extroverted one. Though we are uncertain about dates, it is known that Áedán raided Orkney, fought at the Island of Man, battled the Miathi of the Upper Forth, warred against the Picts, and plundered the capital of Strathclyde – Alt Clut or modern Dumbarton. We also know that he fought multiple battles against the Northumbrians leading up to his signal defeat against Æthelfrith at Degsastan. The moment Dal Riata was joined into one kingdom it became an island wide power and Áedán was clearly not shy about testing the extents of that power. He was so active, and his exploits so influential, that he is one of the few non-Welsh figures remembered in the Welsh Triads.7

1 Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 2.36.

2 Ibid, 1.33. Considering the the obvious transformations and additions to the Dal Riata genealogy, it is tempting to consider this “robber”, an expected description for a monk about a chieftain, to be the father of Fergus in the official Dal Riata history. 

3 Ibid, 2.23.

4 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 132-5.

5 Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History A.D. 500-1286, (Stamford, 1990), 83 fn. 2; Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1980), 148-9; Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriada, (Edinburgh, 1974), 1-2; Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, (London, rev. 2001), 110.

6 Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 3.5.

7 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), triads 29 and 54. He is called “the Wily”.

The Setting for the Rise of Germanic Kingships

One alliance against Rhun, two at Arfderydd, two at Catraeth, and the only Germanic chieftains that actually do anything up until the last decade or the sixth century are the ally of Gododdin, the two Northumbrians that Urien and his allies fought against, and the Ælle whose people the future pope Gregory came across. Part of the reason why they are so rare is because the Germanic people themselves did not have the ability to write throughout the middle part of the sixth century.Another reason is propaganda; we should know more about Iurminric than we do, but because the people of Kent needed a clear history of superiority over the British his activities did not measure up. Northumbria put all of its known chieftains into a single king-list, but we know now that several of the people on that list were contemporary rulers.

Finally, that until the last century or so of this period the Germanic people did not have real kings. At the beginning of the century they operated in clans, and during the time of the British alliances during the middle sixth century, they transitioned into local kingships themselves.

There is archeological evidence of this transition; high status sites only emerge around mid-century and become fewer and wealthier as they approach the end of the century, telling us in the physical record the same thing we can guess from the historical record.

The question is how did the Germanic kingships go from nonexistence before around 550 to relative obscurity and then regional and island-wide dominance by the early seventh century? In the distant past it was assumed that the Historia Brittonum, Historia Ecclesiastica, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and De Excidio Britanniae were not only consistent with each other but provided an accurate account of the Germanic kingships; they had begun with Hengest receiving Kent and the landings of the future kings of Wessex, Sussex, and so on. In that model, there was no great transition apart from the dynasties finishing up the conquest of their respective kingdoms from the British at around that time.

More recently, Professor Arnold and others have proposed that the unstable nature of early kingship and the need for each dynasty to prove its worth would have resulted in conflict and the rapid assimilation of kingdoms into progressively larger and more powerful kingdoms. This sounds very much like the model the author has suggested for British kingships. There is one significant difference, though. We know that kingships in the Romanized areas began around 470 or so, when the first known bards appear. By perhaps 530 (60 years later), powerful regional kingships like Rhun and Gwrtheyrn had emerged. Even through the early kingship of Urien, though, bards still spoke of cattle raiding and no British leader from this period ever assimilated as much land as Kent or Northumbria into a single kingdom. On the other hand we hear of no dateable and historical Germanic leaders until no earlier than 550, and already by 600 or earlier (50 years) we see the first full size kingdoms.

What is more interesting is that, though we know from the physical evidence that there was cattle raiding among the early Germanic kingdoms there are no skop poems that speak of them. Though there are a couple figures we could equate with the vague British gwledig of the past like Dewrarth and Coel in Soemil and maybe Ida, the Germanic people in Britain never generated an heroic cycle like Arthur, Conchobar of Ireland, or Hrolf Kraki in Denmark. We could guess that by the time the Germanic people had the ability to record they were no longer living in an heroic culture, but it is hard to believe that no memory of the recent past would have been preserved somewhere.

So, with a long history of kingship on the continent, the Germanic people took around eight decades longer than the Romanized Britons to develop kingship, but once they did they took less time to build larger and stronger kingdoms. How could the Germanic people have formed stable political units so smoothly, and just in time to take advantage of the failing British strength?

It has been hypothesized above that Gwrtheyrn controlled Kent at the peak of his power. The Historia Brittonum claims that Urien had conquered much of Northumbria during his ascendancy but likely Morcant and Gwallog, who ruled kingdoms adjacent to Northumbria, had territories in the region too. For Y Gododdin to be so interested in Deira, at least some the kingdoms involved must have taken tribute from villages in the area as well.

It has also been seen that the taxation system collapsed throughout Britain when the Roman government was decapitated at the provincial level. When they developed the local British kingships used a new kind of taxation system; one where villages as a whole were responsible for collecting a predetermined amount of food and goods and passing it along to the local king. As local kingships were absorbed by the more successful dynasties, the villages continued to give their taxes to the original dynasty or to a man installed by the new king, who then passed it along to his king. The system was not equally fair to all villagers or villages, but it did mean that the time an over-king spent collecting tribute did not grow too much as his kingdom expanded.

That worked well when British kings were adding British territories to their kingdoms. However, if the archeology has not mislead us and the Anglo-Saxons of the early to middle sixth century had no kings or kingdoms, it would have made taking tribute from them time consuming. As each village had its own ruling clan, every settlement in an area would need to be passed through. An over-king like Urien might theoretically spend the entire summer collecting tribute from a large enough territory.

It seems to this writer that the simplest way to overcome that problem would have been to appoint an Anglo-Saxon to do the job. A local man, or better yet an Anglo-Saxon from the king’s war-band, would be ideal. Either choice would be aware of the culture and personally know the language; both attributes would help to avoid many problems involved in ruling a different culture. And as with all the king’s tributaries, this hypothetical tax collector would be allowed to erect a hall and gather his own band of warriors to enforce collection of the tribute and protect the territory.

Under the powerful kings who dominated the middle of the sixth century, these hypothetical puppet tax collectors would have been very useful, saving the British kings time and effort and giving them money, livestock, and supplies. However, the last of the dominant British kings faded in the last third of the sixth century.

As British power declined, their former tax collectors would have been in a perfect position to assume independent authority themselves; they had been collecting tribute already and had a group of warriors at their command. The author has no direct evidence for this suggestion, only the fact that it fits the evidence and the curious detail that Northumbria, Wessex, Sussex, and Kent, the same regions that were most likely controlled by British over-kings during the middle or late sixth century, were the first regions to develop regional kingships.

Once the Germanic kingdoms had emerged as regional powerhouses the British days were numbered. England, then as now, is far more fertile in the south and east than in the north and west, and much more fertile than either Wales or Scotland. Greater fertility meant they could grow more food with less labor. Greater amounts of food meant the Germanic kingdoms could support a larger population. A larger population in turn guaranteed more warriors for the battlefield. Once the Germanic people had the chance to take full advantage of their numbers, the British people would find it impossible to match the English armies.

1 Bassett, “In Search of the Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Steven Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 23; Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and consent”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Peter H. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood, (Leeds, 1977), 18-20; Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Peter H. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood, (Leeds, 1977b), 91-92; Yorke, “The Kingdom of the East Saxons”, ASE 14 (London, 1985), 1-30; Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (New York, 1988), 197-199.

2 Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (New York, 1988), 211-29; Arnold, “Social evolution in post-Roman western Europe”, European Social Evolution, ed. John L. Bintliff, (Bradford, 1984), 277-94; Scull, “Archaeology, early Anglo-Saxon society and the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms”, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 6 (Oxford, 1993), 65-82; Hodges, Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade A.D. 600-1000, (London, 1982); Arnold, “Stress as a factor in social and economic change”, Ranking, Resource and Exchange, eds. A.Collin Renfrew and Stephen Shennan, (Cambridge, 1982), 124-31; Arnold, “Wealth and social structure: a matter of life and death”, Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries 1979, ed. Philip A. Rahtz, Tania M. Dickinson, and Loma Watts, (Oxford, 1980), 81-142; Hodges, “State formation and the role of trade in Middle Saxon England”, Social Organisation and Settlement, eds. David R. Green, Colin Haselgrove, and Matthew Spriggs, (Oxford, 1978), 439-54; Sawyer, From Roman Britain to Norman England, (London, 1978); Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and king-lists”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Philip H. Sawyer and Ian N. Woods, (Leeds, 1977b), 72-104; Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent, (Oxford, 1971). 

3 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xxxv-xli. 

Another Book?


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Britain; 367-664 is at the publisher and should be available in August.  I’ll continue publishing chapters for the next few books and any errors you may find I will make use of when the manuscript is sent back to me.

Now, I have no immediate plans to write something as massive as that any time soon, but I have already gotten the unofficial go-ahead to write another book.  It will be a series of loosely connected essays on topics in post-Roman Britain, sort of like my usual post only more fully researched and with footnotes.  And since you are the people most interested in Arthuriana I thought I would ask if there was something you would like to see.  So far this is what I have, divided loosely by subjects.  It should come to a little more than 100 pages.


-Arthur and Nationalism

-Did Arthur Exist?  Where and When?

-What does Dux Brittanorum mean?

-Sword and the Stone

-The Story behind the Abduction

-The Story behind Owain’s Adventure


-Badon’s Importance, date, and placement


-The 12 Battles

-Battle Sizes


-What is the grail?


Knights of the Round Table

-Members of his war-band; historical and literary



-Cei, the Grumbler

-So how many knights did he have at one time?

-What was the Round Table?

-Gawain’s Brothers

-The Round Table at Winchester



-Lancelot’s Kin






-Peasant-Warrior ratios













-The Dragon



-Grail Castle

-Who were the Picts?

-Who were the Anglo-Saxons?


-What was Logres?


-How did the legends become romances?

-The story of Marie de Champagne

-The Story of Chretien de Troyes

-The story of Philip of Flanders

-Geoffrey of Monmouth



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Four chapters ago Gwrtheyrn was briefly mentioned as an example of evolving British kingship during the sixth century. Eleven chapters before that, his development as a literary character was examined as a part of The Kentish Source’s development. To understand his career better, it will be simplest to focus on his progression as a character in British history and then critically examine that against what we have already learned.
Gwrtheyrn first appears in Gildas as superbus tyrannus – “Overking”. There he is credited with inviting the first Germanic tribes over to Britain. In the Late Roman tradition, he settled them in the troubled areas of the island and promised to feed and house them in return for their services as mercenaries against the Picts and their fellow Germanic tribesmen.

This story is all wrong though. As we have seen, there is no evidence that a single king controlled Britain during the fifth century. In fact, from the break down of Roman provincial government, to the settlements of the Irish, the known activities of the fifth century kings, and into the sixth century alliances demonstrates a consistent trend of emerging and developing kingships beginning in the late fifth century. As we will see in the pages below, these kingdoms continued to increase in size and complexity until they became the medieval kingdoms that would survive remain in place for most of the Middle Ages.

We have also seen that the Romans had been bringing Germanic tribes as foederati to Britain from the fourth century; they were already on the island when Gildas had his superbus tyrannus inviting them in the fifth century. Realizing that, we can see why Gildas had to include an over-king in his history; he needed one to explain why the Germanic peoples were on the island.

Knowing what we know now we can empathize with Gildas. He saw the Romans as the instruments of God’s forgiveness and because of that could nbg nbot imagine them ever making the mistake of bringing the Germanic peoples to the island. What made more sense to him was that a Briton king had been at fault, someone who must have ruled Britain so that he had the necessary power. That was why he placed the introduction of the foederati after Aetius, that and a probably weak oral memory of the time between Aetius and Badon.

Following him was Bede, a man who was no fool by his exquisite Latin and careful scholarship. He was locked into the story though. By the time he wrote two hundred years later Gildas was already remembered as a great scholar and his history as the history of post-Roman Britain.

Even if he had been willing to challenge Gildas, his ecclesiastical superiors had given him The Kentish Source as the official history and it confirmed everything Gildas had written. Bede really had no other choice but to write the story he had in front of him. We know he expanded the Gildasian history, probably using The Kentish Source, adding the names of the two Germanic chieftains, Hengest and Horsa, and along with a brief biography. Because we know that he was so strongly Northumbrian, it was probably he who had added a snippet about two additional chieftains who fought in the north but were related to Hengest. His contribution to the history strengthened Northumbria’s claim to power in his century by connecting the kingdom’s earliest leaders with the most famous the man who had outwitted the British over-king and legally been given possession of Kent.

When the Historia Brittonum was originally written during the ninth century, most of that story was probably ignored. After all, it was written in Powys by the son-in-law of the Powysian king, and Rhodri had the history written to help him unite the British kingdoms under his kingdom’s leadership.

It was rewritten in the tenth century, though, and the purpose of the Dyfed revision was to undermine Powys’ authority by attacking one of its most revered kings. At the time, Hywel Dda ruled the kingdom and he was firmly allied with Æthelstan, so Hywel probably had access to The Kentish Source through him. He made use of it, for the first time blending the British memory of Gwrtheyrn’s power and dynastic importance with Vortigern’s control of Britain, flaws, and chronology through the suggestion of their name similarity – Vortigern was the Latin form of Welsh Gwrtheyrn.

In this new version of history, Gwrtheyrn had emerged as the leader of all Britain after 410 but was still being attacked by the Picts and Germanic peoples. Hoping for a solution he took counsel with his nobles and decided to invite Anglo-Saxon mercenaries onto the island to help him. These foederati performed their jobs well, but then their leaders fooled him into allowing more and more warriors from the continent. They fooled him again when they introduced him to a Germanic woman who seduced him. He insisted on marrying her, and Hengest insisted on Kent as a dowry. That was when he had lost control.

His son Vortimer (properly Gwrthefyr if the information had come from a Briton source) now emerged to beat the Anglo-Saxons nearly back to the eastern coast but was killed in the fighting. At that point, old Gwrtheyrn returned to the story. He was captured when all of his nobles were killed and ransomed for more territory. When the ransom was agreed upon, he spent his remaining days hidden inside a fortress only to be burned alive when two dragons emerged from its foundations.

Alfred, or whoever commissioned The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, happily made use of the story about the cunning Germanic chieftains and the fool they had stolen Britain from. Besides cutting back the story to fit into a chronicle form, the editor(s) only made two changes to the tale. The first was that Gwrtheyrn’s son was never mentioned because the English probably had no memory of one. The second was that they reversed the order of the battles so that it looked like the Anglo-Saxons were conquering territory instead of losing it.

Without a doubt, what we know about Gwrtheyrn comes mainly from Gildas and the mistaken association between his superbus tyrannus and the historical Gwrtheyrn. Sorting through the information gaps, personal, religious, and political motivations there is very little else to be learned about Gwrtheyrn. Very little, but there is something of value.

First of all there are the names. The interchangeability of roles between the superbus tyrannus, Vortigern, and Gwrtheyrn have been widely accepted as showing they were considered the same people in the historical tradition. The Historia Brittonum also names an Outigern as roughly contemporary to Maelgwn, Ida, and the five bards and imples that all eight men were important in their time – the bards for their abilities and the kings for their successes; Koch has even suggested that the here implies that the first named poet, Talhaearn, was attached to Outigern. Yet we know nothing whatsoever about this king otherwise. In Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, the author proposed a simple scribal error; dyslexia might have switched Votigern to Outigern, and Votigern is a close form of Vortigern.

Finally there is Gwrthefyr son of Gwrtheyrn. His name translates as “great prince” while his “father” ’s name translates as “over-king”; similar but not identical. He also only appears in Historia Brittonum, and only so that he can fight Hengest in four battles – Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone. Bede says there was fighting between Vortigern and Hengest, but names no battles making it possible that he had simply eliminated British victories from his history.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also says the battles were fought between Vortigern and Hengest but names them; ÆgelesÞrep (Aylesford), Crecganford (Crayford), Wippedesfleot (near Ebbsfleet), and a fourth unknown site. Historia Brittonum names them too; Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone.

None of the seven sites match which means that the information was probably not taken from the same source. However, Epsford is probably Aylesford, and all seven sites are usually located in Kent. That at least suggests that both the British and the English had a memory of a series of four battles fought by Hengest. The fact that Gwrthefyr shows up nowhere else but replaces Gwrtheyrn for them suggests that Gwrthefyr is yet another doublet, a seam in the blending.

As aspects of Gwrtheyrn’s career that were apparently uninfluenced by the Gildas/Kentish Source tradition Outigern and Gwrthefyr might just allow us to see something historical about the Gwrtheyrn; he was a king recognized as Maelgwn’s equal who fought several battles in or at least near Kent.

That is really not much. However, there are two other details to consider which will throw some light on the mysterious Gwrtheyrn; we know almost nothing about Iurminric the father of Æthelberht and the northern British kings seem to have dominated the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria during the same time frame. Let me explain.

It has not really bothered anyone that we know nothing about Iurminric, and that strikes this scholar as odd. Consider, Æthelberht allowed the Christian mission into his kingdom in 597, along with its ability to write and the potential power that gave the king. A fifty-five year old man at that time could easily be expected to remember back to 557. Æthelberht may have married his Frankish wife (who brought her priest) around 580, meaning that oral memory might have gone back to 540 – 530 if a fifty-five year old at the time had remembered any events back when he or she was five. On the other hand, Iurminric was born in the range 523-560. No matter how you work the numbers, he spent his entire adult career within the limits of oral memory, yet the only two details we have about him are that his name is Frankish, implying a relationship with the Franks back another generation, and that he was the father of Æthelberht. Very odd.

Next piece of information; the northern British kings. As we have seen above, there were at least five different alliances over the last half of the sixth century, at least two of which took tribute from Germanic-held territories. This was a period of British revival and expanding political awareness because the British had already developed kingship and with it access to a stronger political organization along with more warriors under one king. The only southern king we have seen was active during this period outside of Wales and Cornwall is Gwrtheyrn.

Take those unrelated facts and add that to a question about the Hengest battles against Vortigern/Gwrthefyr. We know they could not have been remembered if they had taken place in the fifth century; that and neither Hengest, Vortigern, or Gwrthefyr would have been around to fight them. So why were they remembered in both traditions? What would have been the point of remembering them before they were made a part of The Kentish Source and attached to the Historia Brittonum?

To answer that, we return to the fact that Iurminric would have been active during the middle of the sixth century, roughly the same era as Gwrtheyrn himself. Gwrtheyrn, as we have seen, was remembered in the north for being a powerful king. In the north, the powerful men of his era controlled land all the way to the eastern coast. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that he might have as well?

It would make sense. The Kentish Source was focused on showing the legitimacy of Kent’s rule by demonstrating that its early kings had been smarter and better warriors than their British counterparts. Its writer(s) had not made up the initial landing and the outwitting of Vortigern, so why would they have started making things up with the battles? It seems more likely, at least to the present scholar, that those battles would have been taken from oral memory, and oral memory would only have extended back to the middle sixth century, suggesting that Iurminric might have been the man fighting the battles against Gwrtheyrn.

Why was Iurminric not connected to them? As they are used in Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they are battles of conquest on an island that the Germanic people had just come to. However, if Iurminric was fighting them they would have been battles for independence. Independence might have a certain attraction, but it would also mean that at some point the royal house of Kent had willingly submitted to British authority and that would have gone against the basic purpose of The Kentish Source.

So, instead of deleting the battles altogether, they did what any good medieval historian seems to have done, they repurposed and redated them. The decision demonstrated Hengest’s superior leadership and eliminated the potentially embarrassing fact that as late as the middle sixth century Kent had been paying tribute to the Britons. When in the tenth century Dyfed eliminated the pro-Gwrtheyrn version of the Historia Brittonum and rewrote British history it was an unhoped-for stroke of luck for Kent.

Of course even if the above theory is right there is no way to know who won what battle, or even the campaign. Probably our safest source for that is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle because of its writer’s habit of explicitly saying when the English won and being vague when they did not. It states that Hengest and his son Æsc won Ægelsþrep (probably Aylesford) and another battle and implies that they won at Crecganford (probably Crayford), while it is mute on the victor at Wippedesfleot.

Who was Gwrtheyrn? He was a powerful king who lived at the climax and the twilight of British power. It seems reasonable that Gwrtheyrn claimed sort of tribute over many of the Germanic clans in the south. The author’s appraisal would be that there was a revolt late in his career. Maybe it was led by Iurminric but Ælle, Bede’s first Bretwalda, is a more likely possibility; it would explain his place in Bede’s list and fit in well with the chronology of events that has been worked out above.

More probable still would be that several leaders emerged among them Ælle, Ceawlin, and Iurminric. In that scheme the former two could have been contemporary Bretwaldas, bringing dozens of villages under one ruler in imitation of the early British kings.

Growing more theoretical as the sources give less information, the fighting was indecisive in Gwrtheyrn’s lifetime, but after he died (probably not in battle as Vortigern’s end has nothing to do with the invaders in either the British or the Germanic versions) the Germanic tribes claimed their independence.

In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Vortigern is not mentioned after the first battle. It is also possible that he lost it and died, and whoever followed him could do no better. Again though, we may never know.

1 De Excidio Britanniae, trans. Michael Winterbottom, (Chichester, 1978), 23.1 

2 The author has elsewhere suggested that he may have taken advantage of this gap in his knowledge to blame Arthur for the Germanic presence because of a family feud involving the death of his brother. There is no better evidence for that theory now than there was then, but it would explain his choice of using an over-king to explain the Germanic presence instead of a simple invasion of Britain; Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2012), 42-9.

3 The Late Roman Empire included many powerful men who were able to carve small kingdoms out of the Roman Empire for decades at a time. If Gildas was well read, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, he may have known this and applied that knowledge to what he did not know about fifth-century Britain. 

4 It has been pointed out that Aetius was the far extent of his oral knowledge, but that is no guarantee that he had access to an unbroken sequence of events from that famous letter to his present day.

5 Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 86. 

6 Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013), 27.

7 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 89; Sims-Williams, “The Settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle”, ASE 12 (London, 1983b), 16.

8 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. George Norman Garmonsway, (London, 1953), years 455, 456, 465, and 473. 

9 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), chapter 44.

10 Brooks places the marriage between the mid-570s and 581; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 50; Stafford, Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages, (Athens, GA, 1983), 35-6, 67-8, 73-4.

11 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 222. Brooks places him in the second quarter of the sixth century because his parents must have been influenced by the Franks to have given him that name; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 46-7.

12 Rhun’s primary concern seems to have been the north, and legend does say he was gone for a long period of time which would have left a void of power in Wales. Even if he had remained in Gwynedd for the relevant part of his career, Gwrtheyrn’s genealogy includes Gloiu, or Gloucester, suggesting that his base was along the Wye River. Their spheres of influence may have never overlapped.

13 It has already been suggested that overlordship probably meant control over less area for the earlier Bretwaldas; Campbell, “The Lost Centuries 400-600”, The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald, (London, 1982), 53-4.

Urien’s Alliance and Y Gododdin

A Northern Alliance

In chapter 63 of the Historia Brittonum, we are introduced to Urien and his exploits in one brief entry.

“Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderethen, and Guallauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.”

The present author has elsewhere examined what we know about Urien’s final campaign and concluded that it happened during the middle third of the sixth century. However, a simpler approach works just as well. As has been seen, the earliest kingships were local in the extreme, with chieftains taking tribute from villages within sight of their own halls and not much further. It was only in the second third of the sixth century that regional British kingships developed. The history of Northumbria is fairly well laid out from 593, when Æthelfrith took the Bernician throne. Within twelve years he had conquered Deira and the other kingdoms of Northumbria, making it unlikely that any alliance of British kings had made him pay tribute. In 605 he threatened Chester, which tells us that there were no northern British kings strong enough to face him. As we will see in the pages below, Northumbria was too strong after that to be seriously threatened for several decades.

But what about the four British kings? The Historia Brittonum does not say they were allied, nor does he state outright that Urien was even the most powerful king of the group. It is fairly clear that he meant that Urien was the most powerful king and the leader. Urien is named first, Urien bottles up the Germanic army, and Urien’s death ends the campaign. One gets the sense that Urien had the same role as Agamemnon in the Iliad.

But then we remember the nature of the source, Historia Brittonum, a compendium history written in the ninth century to strengthen the legitimacy of the new Gwynedd dynasty, which claimed to be descended from Urien. It was in the author’s best interests to represent Urien as the leader of kings because it demonstrated how powerful the dynasty’s most famous ancestor had been. His assassination was a stroke of genius; it led to the dissolution of the alliance and a resurgence of the Bernicians.

We must not forget a second theme in the book, either; when the Rhodri Mawr was having it written he was trying to unite the British kingdoms under his leadership to beat back the English. Urien was supposed to represent him and serve as a lesson; when the British united they were invincible, and when they started bickering amongst themselves the English kings could easily defeat – as the Historia Brittonum demonstrated with the rise of Æthelfrith after Urien was killed. The above examination leaves us only with a confederacy involving four kings whose known members – Urien, Ryderethen (Rhydderch), and Guallauc (Gwallog) – ruled in the North, and Morcant was likely from Gododdin which was also in the North.

Y Gododdin

As has been seen, Y Gododdin is a eulogy to a group of warriors who went on a campaign against the Deirans to their south and died at the Battle of Catraeth. At this point, Catraeth is fairly well established as modern Catterick in what would be medieval Northumbria, which means that the participants listed in Y Gododdin were attacking the same rough area as Urien and his alliance had.

For the same reasons listed for the Urien alliance, the thinking has gone that the battle was fought after the first third of the sixth century but before 605 by which time Bernicia had conquered Deira and the other kingdoms of Northumbria and was too powerful for the British kings to attack. As far as a sequence of events, most scholars have argued that the Urien alliance was first because it was able to drive the Germanic peoples nearly off the island. At some point after Urien’s demise the Gododdin chieftain gathered a confederacy around himself and attacked Deira.


Recently, Professor John T. Koch of Cambridge presented a more efficient theory. As we have seen, Y Gododdin had existed in two forms, but both were eventually written down in Gwynedd during the same period that saw the collection of materials which were used in Historia Brittonum. Koch’s study and reconstruction of the Y Gododdin poem showed the same Gwynedd interests were in the poem – to extol the virtues of British unity and portray the English as the enemy. He noticed several details in his reconstruction that indicated the enemy’s identity had been kept intentionally vague; the Deirans had been at the battle but they might have had allies.

Going back over the historical Taliesin poems (which he had also done some work on), Koch noted that Catraeth was one of the settlements over which Urien ruled. In itself that was nothing unusual; it made sense that a powerful ruler would have claimed lands well beyond his central territories. However, all of a ruler’s claimed territories would not be listed in praise poems, only his significant holdings. And what would make a settlement more important than if a decisive battle had been won near it?

The theory Koch laid out amounted to this; Urien and his allies – from Strathclyde, Elmet, and probably Lothian – were either allied with the Germanic peoples in the area or ruled over them. The Gododdin king, seeking a balance of power in the North, collected a large group of like-minded kings and Anglo-Saxon leaders, and marched against Urien and the other kings around the Catraeth region. The campaign was a disaster, but the bravery of the men involved lived on in the poem Y Gododdin. Later Gwynedd, capitalizing on the extant literature from both sides, used the Urien alliance’s success to support their hopes for a united British people and the Gododdin’s failure as an epitaph for the brave warriors who had fallen against the Germanic invaders.

Historically of course that did not happen, nor did the Historia Brittonum’s account that Urien and the other kings beat back the Northumbrian kings in a cultural war. All we can really be certain of is that Urien’s coalition won the battle of Catraeth, controlled a large part of Northumbria as a result, and that at least some of their opponents were Germanic. When Urien’s alliance broke up that control fizzled. It would be the last time the Britons would have the upper hand against the Germanic peoples for decades.

1 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 21-27, 112, 139, 142, 144-5, 154, 162, 168-171, 176-7, and 185. 

2 The present author had previously given a range for Urien’s confederacy of 574×620. This is still possible given the birth-ranges of the participants, but they could not have been dominant in Northumbria after 605, which means that if Urien’s traditional death is the historical one it could not have taken place at or after 605 on Lindesfarne.

3 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xiii-xxvi. This in direct contradiction to the traditional view that argued the years around 600 were the most reasonable range for the Battle of Catraeth (Aneirin, Canu Aneirin, ed. Sir Ifor Williams, (Cardiff, 1938), xxviii, xxxi-xxii; Bromwich, (ed.) The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry: Studies by Sir Ifor Williams, (Cardiff, 2nd ed. 1982), 47-49, 52-53; The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem, trans. and ed. Kenneth H. Jackson, (Edinburgh, 1969), 11-12; Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A.D. 80-100, (London, 1984), 20-2; Aneirin: Y Gododdin – Britain Oldest Heroic Poem, trans. and ed. Alfred O.H. Jarman, (Llandysul, 1988), xviii-xx.

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

5 “Book of Taliesin”, trans. John T. Koch and John Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age, (Malden, 1995), 338-42.

6 Taliesin. Canu Taliesin, ed. Sir Ifor Williams, (Cardiff, 1960), II; The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xvi. 

7 Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013), 221-6.

The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xlvii-l.