King Arthur is known to us today as a legendary British leader who led the defence of Britain against the Saxon invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. It was apparently a time of chivalric knights in shining armour, and elegant women in medieval castles. But much of Arthurian legend comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘pseudo-history’ of Britain, and from the fictional medieval romances, leading many historians to doubt the historical existence of an Arthur figure. What follows are the perspectives of various authors and researchers on the origins of Arthurian legend. Who, or what, was Arthur?
Above: The combat of Arthur and Mordred, as illustrated by N.C. Wyeth
A historical figure?
Assuming that there was a historical Arthur at the core of Arthurian legend, the four most popular theories are said to be: (a) Arthur the post-Roman war leader fighting against the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain; (b) the Northern Arthur, deriving from northern England and southern Scotland; (c) Arthur the Emperor, conquering large parts of northern Europe; and (d) the Arthur of south-western England, associated with Cornwall/Tintagel and Glastonbury. [source: The Monstrous Regiment of Arthurs: A Critical Guide]
There are many books and webpages exploring these historical Arthur theories further; for example, Philip Coppens explored the idea of southern Scotland as the land of Arthur in his book Land of the Gods, whilst the explorations and conquests of an imperial Arthur are referenced in the article King Arthur and the Northern Enchantment.
Other locations that have been associated with Arthur include Wales (Laurence Main asserts that Arthur was the uncle of St Tydecho and hailed from Gwent) and northern France (Geoffrey Ashe has suggested that Riothamus, who settled in a place called Avallon in present day Burgundy, may have formed the basis of the Arthur of later legend).
Above: The Death of Arthur, by John Garrick (1862)
A mythical hero or pagan god?
Thomas Green, post-graduate researcher at the University of Oxford and part-time history teacher, has made the case that there never was a prototype historical figure for Arthur, who is best understood as an original folkloric figure who was historicized in the ninth century. Green cites references that appear to favour Arthur as a pan-Brittonic legendary hero, a peerless warrior associated with local topographic folklore. He states that there is no bar to Arthur actually having originally been a god, either as a bear-god, or as a ‘Celtic deity of an all purpose type’, a warrior and protective god, an idea supported by mythologist Ann Ross. [sources: Concepts of Arthur (book) and The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur (paper) both by Thomas Green]
Graham J Cooling, writing in Northern Earth magazine, suggests that Irish immigrants to Britain may have been important in the early stages of Arthurian legend in Britain. Ultimately Cooling’s conclusions accord with those of author L. Sprague and Catherine C. De Camp, who he quotes as follows: “And whence came Arthur? The name is that, not of a mortal man, but of a god. The pre-Christian Celts worshipped a god called Artur by the Irish and Artaius by the Gauls. The name has been variously connected with the words ‘to plough’ (Latin, arare), which makes him a god of agriculture; for ‘bear’ (Greek, arktos) which makes him a bear god; for ‘black’, which makes him a raven god; and so on. In any case Arthur is, like many other heroes, merely a pagan god transformed into a fictional mortal, with the deeds of some real men attributed to him”. [source: King Arthur: an Irish God?, article by Graham J Cooling , Northern Earth magazine #135]
Scottish historian Emmet Sweeney notes that the Arthur of folk tradition is never portrayed fighting the Saxons, and that virtually every element of Arthurian legend has its roots in the pagan past. Sweeney considers that Arthur was a pre-Christian hero-deity, later invoked by Britons following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Sweeney states that Arthur was the Celtic equivalent of Hercules (known for his Twelve Labours in Roman mythology), the divine prototype upon whom most of the Christ idea was based; and the British version of Cúchulainn (an Irish mythological hero), whose story is more or less identical to Arthur’s. [source: Arthur and Stonehenge – Britain’s Lost History by Emmet Sweeney]
Above: Arthurian hero figure
Archaeology postgraduate Patrick McCafferty and professor of dendrochronology (tree rings dating) Mike Baillie make the case that comets from the mid sixth century can help explain Irish mythology and Arthurian legend. The myths of the Celts are riddled with sky and comet imagery. Irish myths about such characters as Cúchulainn, Lugh and Finn and British stories of Arthur and Merlin may have derived from events around AD 536-545. At this time, dated tree rings reveal that the earth was suffering major environmental crises, which can be understood as the symptoms of close encounters with comets, of which several appear to be recorded in the sixth century, when the skies were much busier than they are today. [source: The Celtic Gods – Comets in Irish Mythology by Patrick McCafferty and Mike Baillie]
Author and earth mysteries pioneer John Michell associated Arthur with the stars of the Great Bear constellation (Ursa Major): “Arthur was the spirit guardian of those islands, the keeper of the Bear and also the leader of the bear hunt. His legendary adventures were ritually enacted as the tribes moved around the central pole of their territory, imitating the revolutions of the Great Bear around the pole star. Their totem was the bear; the image of their chief god was Arcturus and the Great Bear constellation, and the title assumed by their leader was Arth Fawr (‘Great Bear’ in Welsh) or Arthur”. [source: New Light of the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury by John Michell]
Author Paul Broadhurst states that the Great Bear was a central figure in the original myth of creation in the northern hemisphere, and the bear was believed to be the great primeval ancestor humanity (hence ‘forebears’). The Great Bear constellation, Ursa Major, circles around the North Star, and was used for navigation (hence taking ‘bearings’). Ancestral stories began: ‘It was in the time when the Bear was Lord…’. Later, bear-worship and star-lore gave way to a Sun-orientated zodiacal system. Broadhurst states that the word Arthur is a title of kingship used throughout the Celtic world. [source: The Secret Land – The Origins of Arthurian Legend and the Grail Quest, by Paul Broadhurst with Robin Heath]
Archaeoastronomer Robin Heath states that an earlier polar mythology was eventually embedded in Arthurian legends. The Great Bear constellation, the seven stars known as Arthur’s Wain, the Dipper and the Plough, was universally used to locate the Polar Star and therefore determine true north. With evolution in time of the Pole Star from the constellation of the Dragon (Draco) to that of the Great Bear we glimpse the astronomical basis for the mythological birth of Arthur, known as The Bear, from his ‘father’, Uther Pendragon. There is evidence of prehistoric and medieval sites containing the name Arthur littered across the western half of the British Isles, and there is undoubtedly a connection between these sites and the north. Heath also notes that Arthur, as a typical solar hero, is associated with Jesus and a host of other solar-heroes who each has 12 followers, knights or disciples respectively. The ‘once and future king’ implies some coming resurrection. [source: The Secret Land – The Origins of Arthurian Legend and the Grail Quest, by Paul Broadhurst with Robin Heath]
Lastly, author and druid David Dom proposes that King Arthur was really an ancient Sun god, known by many different names in the Celtic myths of Wales and Ireland, and that the legends of Arthur are a constant retelling of the seasonal duality between light and darkness. There is the endless battle between the Winter King and the Summer King, regardless of the names by which they are known, and the frequent sojourn into the Underworld, only to return from it again in due time. [source: King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table by David Dom]
Above: Abstract sun-god image from HDW7.com