I know that Efrawg sounds perfectly Welsh, but it’s actually just the British version of Latin Eboracum, modern York. Now that’s a little odd for a man’s name, but then again it isn’t actually a man’s name. You see there actually was an historical Peredur. His father’s name was Eliffer and most scholars locate him around York. See how that works, Peredur was from York so his patronym was mistakenly mixed up with the area he ruled.
I know that Efrawg, the name of Peredur’s father in the Welsh romance, might sound perfectly Welsh but it’s actually just the British version of Latin Eboracum. In turn, Eboracum was the Roman name for modern York. You might think it was a little odd to name a person after a city, and you’d be right to. You see there actually was an historical Peredur. His father’s name was Eliffer and most scholars locate their kingdom around York. See how that works, Peredur was from York and his father’s name was kinda similar to the main city in the area and somehow or other the two got mixed up.
I know, that probably sounds a little odd and it probably also sounds like quite a leap without too much evidence. If that was all we knew, it would be. But there have been a lot of eras similar to what we find in post-Roman Britain during the world’s history – the Germanic, Sumerian, and Greek heroic ages are only the most widely known. Many people, but especially Hector and Nora Chadwick, have studied them all as a group. In the process, they’ve learn a lot of things about how heroic cycles develop.
One of the main ingredients to these periods is that most of the extant literature is oral. Another is that the political situation unstable. What that means is that whichever ruler the bards like best – whether because they are magnetic, or generous, or simply great warrior-kings – eventually becomes the central figure in the literature of the period. In the case of Britain it seems that Arthur was that person. As the literature develops, it attracts less popular kings and warriors from the era (and supernatural figures once in a while but not as a rule) into the cycle.
So, back to Peredur son of Efrawg/Eliffer? We know of a few Peredur’s in the period, but none were as powerful as him. He was present at Arfderydd, one of the largest battles of the sixth century. His death is recorded, even though we don’t have any idea when most British rulers died in his era. Most importantly, Peredur appears in the Welsh Triads a total of four times, and in the earliest section. Since we already know that Peredur was probably a person, it was most likely this person.
The problem, of course, was that once Peredur’s patronymic had been changed it never stabilized again. Chretien wouldn’t name the father, but most of the authors who followed him would all delight in changing his name – continuators, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Sir Thomas Malory, Vulgate, and so forth. No one really knows why the father’s name kept changing, but it definitely hasn’t helped understand exactly what Peredur’s original story was, or how it was developing when it was brought into the Arthurian orbit.
Just before Peredur comes to Arthur’s court a Black Knight shows up, challenges the honor of Arthur’s court, and humiliates Gwenhwyfar by spilling her cup of wine as he steals it. The scene seems to make no sense, going as it does from a confrontation about kingship to the simple theft of a cup and the accidental insult to Arthur’s queen.
Then Peredur arrives, a naive boy who doesn’t know what to expect. In his usual cruelty, Cei despises the boy. No one (no one? Not Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, or a host of other “flowers of knighthood”?) at the court dares to chase after the Black Knight, so Cei sarcastically tells Peredur to go fetch the cup.
As the hero of course Peredur succeeds in his first task and sends the cup back. But really, what can the kingship, the theft of a cup, and insulting the queen have to do with one another? And if there is something there, why does it have anything to do with a boy who doesn’t even know how to put armor on?
So let’s start again and work under the assumption that the story has been distorted from something a little more historical. That means we need to start with the connections we know; a queen and a cup are both closely linked to the religious aspect of kingship. The Black Knight challenges Arthur’s right to be the king, steals the queen’s cup, and humiliates the queen in the process. This Black Knight episode is, then, a simple challenge to Arthur’s kingship. It’s the same as what happens when the queen is abducted in Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Iwein, and Dialogue Between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. We can simplify the scene; the Black Knight could have told Arthur he didn’t deserve the throne and to prove it he stole the cup that symbolized his right to rule and humiliated his queen, the symbol of the land. The Black Knight couldn’t have been more direct if he’d slapped Arthur with a glove.
So why doesn’t Arthur go out and defend his own honor? For the same reason that Lancelot rescues the queen in Le Chevalier de la Charrette; a new hero is given the role of the king to show that he is just as interesting as the more established characters. It doesn’t change the fact, though, that the Black Knight is just another story about someone challenging Arthur’s right to be the king – just like in Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Iwein, and Dialogue Between Arthur and Gwenhwyfar.
So, not such a silly cup.
Witches, maidens, it’s all a matter of perspective really. At the end of Peredur, the hero comes upon nine witches. Luckily Gwalchmei shows up with Arthur’s warriors and together they make short work of the women and their cauldron. Part of the back story is that the witches had killed his cousin, making their deaths a matter of revenge – standard legal practice in the Middle Ages.
Magic and women are actually common even in the earliest Arthurian pieces of literature. In Preiddeu Annwn, Arthur is credited with stealing a magic cauldron from nine maidens – without the mention of revenge. It’s a theft, like a cattle raid. Now, I realize that doesn’t sound nearly as noble as revenge, but it is the earlier work, both linguistically and culturally, and the simple fact that it doesn’t sound “Arthurian” is a good reason for believing that version. When you think about it, even without the motivation it seems more wrong to be stealing (and presumably killing) from “maidens” than “witches”.
Safe to say that Preiddeu Annwn is the older and more accurate version, which means we need to reconcile a British chieftain with stealing kitchenware from a group of defenseless women. That seems a little ridiculous though. Not even in the most gruesome tales do kings do things like that without some reason.
So maybe the reason is in that cauldron. The Welsh would have called it a dysgyl (translated to French as cors or corn as in Carbonek), and in the hands of women and certain very lucky kings, cauldrons had the power to revive the wounded, give life to the dead, and act as a cornucopia. The cauldron was a central element of many fertility cults involving Belatacudros. We also know that, as Christianity took root in Post-Roman Britain, pagan groups were often attacked with their temples destroyed and followers often killed. Now Arthur was probably not in regular contact with the continent, but there was trade up and down the western coast with Europe and he may have had a port. Besides, even without the push, uniting his kingdom against a group that was different might have proven very useful if he had tried to spread his power base much beyond his hall and some local villages.
Peredur finding and helping to destroy a coven that had killed his cousin? More like Arthur leading a crusade to gain political support.
It occurred to me this morning that many of you might never have heard of Peredur ap Efrawg, the Welsh version of Le Conte du Graal. Most of you that have probably don’t think too much of it, either. Scholars have rarely made too much use of the story in Arthurian studies, calling it little more than a retelling with plenty of useless stories packed in to make it sound nonsensical. To be honest, it looks a lot like a medieval version of someone well-versed in Grimm’s Fairy Tales telling a story about a popular sports hero – Le Bron James Holds back the Warriors but Dies Heroically in the End.
That doesn’t mean that the episodes aren’t interesting though. So, I propose that for the next few weeks I will explore some of the more curious segments, author’s choice unless someone asks for a particular scene or character.
The Addanc. In Peredur, the hero finds out that the creature lives in a cave. Each day it kills three nearby princes only to have them resurrected. They three brothers wake up the next day and go out to meet the Addanc only to die again. When Peredur finds out about this he asks to join them, but the brothers refuse on the grounds that if he is killed they won’t be able to bring him back to life. So, being the fool he is, Peredur sets out to meet the Addanc alone. Along the way he meets a woman (more on that in a different blog) who gives him an advantage which he uses to kill the monster. When the brothers appear at the cave they tell him he was foretold as the slayer of the Addanc.
The story as it is works as a vehicle for Peredur to meet Angharad, his helper. But the Addanc is a lot more interesting than as a means to foward the awkward plot. The Addanc is actually common in Welsh literature, where it’s known as the Afanc. In the stories, afancs are to be found in lakes or nearby caves. In short, they’re lake monsters who prey on the unwary. The addancs actually sound a lot like the Loch Ness Monster at first sight, or an alligator whose family somehow survived the last ice age.
But there are two details about the Afanc in Peredur that raise another possibility; it kills people who are then rejuvenated by women and he can only be killed by Peredur. The first point suggests some sort of a connection to the fertility cults Peredur helped to destroy. The fact that Peredur kills it in this story suggests that it might be a version of Peredur’s story in a more symbolic form; he kills the cult as represented by the Adanc.
You might think it’s a little crazy that a story within a story could be a shorter and more symbolic version of the larger tale, but keep in mind that the bards originally told these stories and had to keep them in a storytelling format. The details might have changed a lot over the decades as hundreds if not thousands of bards told and retold them. Peredur, on the other hand, was probably never told orally. It’s too long for one thing. In writing Peredur down an author might well have collected everything connected with Peredur, including the original oral version of the grail story.
So, back to kingship with Gereint. In the Welsh version he accompanies Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) when Arthur and his knights are out hunting. A knight and his dwarf servant insult the queen, and she orders Gereint to follow him. He does and gets lodging from an old man along with a suit of armor and a sword. He goes on to defeat the knight who had insulted Gwenhwyfar. As it turns out, his benefactor used to be the ruler of the area and he has a daughter – Enide. Naturally, Gereint marries Enide and becomes king.
Read the story, the Welsh or the French version, and you won’t be all that impressed. The romance even uses that part as the preliminary for the real story, of how the king shows how he can be in love and be a good knight at the same time. But the first part is the original story. There is a trial by sword, the girl, and the kingship that comes with her just as in Owain. The woman is again the key, the symbol of sovereignty. She lives in a dirty old hovel until the proper king shows up. Once he has proven himself she becomes one of the most beautiful women around.
The same sort of thing shows up with Peredur (Perceval). A Red Knight appears at Arthur’s court just before he does and insults the queen by spilling her cup. Peredur defeats the knight and restores her honor but leaves immediately. Peredur will eventually take a wife and become a king.
The incident with the Red Knight and the cup is found in Chrétien (But not the marriage of course. We in the west think you have to be a virgin to be holy). The cup, like the queen, is a symbol of kingship. In an old Irish myth, the sovereignty of Ireland can only give it to the rightful king. It works on a more local scale too. To take it or even to spill it is a direct attack on the king’s authority to rule.
The Red Knight is a little trickier. In Celtic myth, animals with red ears and/or feet are gateways to the Otherworld. In Arthurian romances, they are a gateway to adventures. And as we’ve already seen, adventures tend seem to gravitate toward kingship. Think of him as a vehicle to get the hero to his destiny. Apart from that you again have two kingship elements, the wife and the cup. Instead of blending them with a romance, though, they are mixed in with a quest. That’s the only reason the themes aren’t clean-cut here, too.
Once you can see how the British stories have a little bit more to them than a simple romance, you can appreciate them better. More importantly, you can appreciate the culture that made them more fully.
Ambrosius, Anglo-Saxons, Arthur, Arthurian, Battle of Camlann, Bedevere, Bedwyr, Beowulf, Cei, Coroticus, Erec, Galahad, Gawain, Gereint, Gwalchmai, Hoel, Hywel, Kay, King Arthur, Lancelot, Lot, Mark, Meleagant, Melwas, Modred, Mordred, Owain, Peredur, Post-Roman, Sub-Roman Britain
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.
Ambrosius, Arthur, Arthurian, bard, Bedevere, Bedwyr, Calogrenant, Cei, Celtic myth, Ceredig, Coroticus, Folklore, Galahad, Gawain, Gereint, Ginover, Guinevere, Gwalchmai, Gwenhwyfar, Hoel, Hywel, Kay, King Arthur, King Lothian, Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Legends, Lot, Mark, Meleagant, Melwas, Modred, Mordred, Morgen, Owain, Perceval, Peredur, Post-Roman, Rion, Sub-Roman Britain, Tristan, Welsh Triads, Y Trioedd ynys Prydein, Yvain
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.
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
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:
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:
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:
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.
Arthur, Arthurian, Celtic myth, Chretien de Troyes, Dysgyl, Fertility Goddess, Galahad, Gawain, Great Goddess, Gwalchmai, Holy Grail, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Perceval, Peredur, Post-Roman, Sub-Roman Britain
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!