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. This has led many historians to doubt the historical existence of an Arthur figure.
There have nonetheless been a multitude of books and articles, proposing theories on the origins of King Arthur – historical or otherwise. Here we feature some of those diverse perspectives. Just who (or what) was Arthur?
A historical figure?
Assuming that there was a historical Arthur at the core of Arthurian legend, the four most popular theories are summed up as follows…
(a) Arthur the post-Roman war-leader fighting against Anglo-Saxon invaders;
(b) the Northern Arthur, deriving from northern England / southern Scotland;
(c) Arthur the Emperor, conquering large parts of northern Europe; and
(d) the South-Western Arthur, associated with Cornwall/Tintagel and Glastonbury.
For more on the above, check out this article at Arthuriana.co.uk: The Monstrous Regiment of Arthurs: A Critical Guide
The possible historical Arthurs have been explored in more detail by various writers. To name but a few…
- the Belgian author Philip Coppens explored the Northern Arthur in his book Land of the Gods; the idea being that southern Scotland was the land of Arthur.
- Edward Watson has delved into the explorations and conquests of an imperial Arthur in his blogpost King Arthur and the Northern Enchantment.
- Historian and lecturer Geoffrey Ashe was an advocate of the South-Western Arthur, and he also suggested a link to northern France. Specifically that Riothamus, a Romano-British military leader of the 5th century, settled in a place called Avallon in present day Burgundy. Riothamus may have formed the basis of ‘King Arthur’.
- The author, John Whitehead, writing back in 1959, thought that the 1st century British chieftain Caratacus, was the basis of Arthur. Rather than fighting the Saxons, Caractacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain, until he was captured and hauled back to Rome.
- The Arthuria article mentions Wales under both the Northern and the South- Western Arthur, and author and ley-hunter Laurence Main has proposed that Arthur had Welsh origins. Namely that he was the uncle of St Tydecho and hailed from Gwent, South Wales; and that Arthur’s final battle at Camlann took place in Gwynedd, North Wales – see King Arthur’s Camlann.
The idea of a Welsh focus of the Arthurian stories has also been explored by two indefatigable researchers, Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett. Wilson and Blackett propose that there were two historical King Arthurs. Firstly, an ‘Arthur I’ figure from the 4th century, who may have been a British based emperor of Western Europe. Secondly, a more local king Arthur who lived in South Wales from 503 to 579. The legendary King Arthur was based on both. Their theories are set out in their books, and in The Holy Kingdom jointly authored with Adrian Gilbert.
A mythical hero or pagan god?
Following on the heels of the historical Arthur theories, are ideas that he was a mythical hero or pagan god…
Researcher Thomas Green makes 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 9th 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. This is 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 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 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]
Continuing the theme of bear-gods, here are several authors who specifically link Arthur with the heavens, and a possible return…
Patrick McCafferty and Mike Baillie make the case that comets from the mid 6th 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 crise; the symptoms of close encounters with comets, of which several appear to be recorded in the 6th century, when the skies were much busier than they are today. [source: The Celtic Gods – Comets in Irish Mythology]
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]
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]
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. He also suggests 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]