"Save Seven, None Returned"
Arthur, Kinship and Kingship
By Kate Westwood
Published Samhain 1997
It was around the 5th century that a synod was called to bring Britain's Celtic Christian Church into line with Rome. In Britain the church owed as much to Druidry (and by inference, paganism) as it did to Christianity. Rome was not pleased with our Isles and many hitherto honoured Gods and Goddesses were either Canonised - like Bridget - or, became the butt-end of nasty folklore, such as Wayland, Freya and Cerridwen. Much the same happened to our sacred sites. The most popular sprouted churches. The less popular, sprouted scary legends.
The oral traditions suffered much the same fate as god/desses and sacred sites and, though scribed in Medieval times, they were given a 5th/6th century back-drop. The tales were, of course, much older than either of these times and were probably of Druidic origin. (Perhaps coming from an age before Druids were called Druids - though this is pure speculation.) The Arthuriad, the Matter of Britain, was part of those oral traditions. It is possible that the Arthur of the 5th/6th century was no more than an inspired creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, as some people claim. Maybe all that so-called history was just a re-telling of bardic tales, a modernisation of old stories, as authors such as Mary Stewart, Parke Godwin, Marion Bradley and Guy Gavriel Kay have done in our age.
Of course Arthur could have been a tribal leader or Roman soldier who lived in, or around, the 5/6th centuries. Who become the Ard-Ri (High King) of our Isles. Who did heroic deeds. Who married a Queen, had a sorceress sister and was advised by a wizard. He may even be the one who built Tintagel. And maybe not.
The folk of these legends could have been real people who, by their actions and fame, had their lives and deeds told and re-told in fire-side tales. Who became heroes or gods of legend and folktale. People whose lives and true history had ancient tales laid upon them like mantles, until they became living legends. Perhaps, for their time, they became The Arthur, The Gwynevere, The Morgan or even The Merlin. Of course, we know little about the actual beliefs and feelings of a people dead some 15 centuries. But through legends, stories and maybe archaeology there is room to speculate about the lives of Arthurian characters - if they ever lived.
Through tales like the Mabinogion and the Irish cycles (which are somewhat less tampered with than Albion's) we gather that the female power and lineage of the Celtic women was giving way to a patrilineal system. It would seem that power was being transferred from the female to the male. This trend, once the pendulum had swung past balance, led to the witch burnings of the Middle Ages. It is hoped our own times are the start of the pendulum swinging back to balance.
As Britain had female Druids and Bards as well as male, it's reasonable to assume that, prior to the synod, priestesses (Celtic Christian ones) were part of the churches priesthood. It is also reasonable to assume that, though the Sacred Marriage between king/chieftain and the Land had probably fallen into disuse, the memory of it would still be around. Equably assumable is that the chief of a tribe was as likely to be from the old ways as from the new. This would mean that in some places a king became so because his father was king before him. He could also be chief because the Headwoman - representing the Land's Sovereignty and the Goddess herself - had chosen him as her consort. This blood-line would not be hereditary - at least not via the male line. This, as regards Arthur, is vital as is the fact that only a whole and fit king could rule.
In Irish legend Nuatha forfeits kingship when he looses his arm. Kingship is only restored when one of silver is fashioned by the Tuatha to replace his flesh one. Also it is the sickness of the king (Arthur) or the groin injury of the Fisher king (i.e. loss of the Land's fertility) which causes the Wastelands. These will be healed by the finding of the Grail (Cauldron of rebirth and healing in pagan terms). The search for the supper cup of Christ overlaying and mingling with the tales of the Cauldron of Rebirth brought about the Grail Quest Cycle.
The matrilineal system (running along side the patrilineal one) means a man's heir is his sister's son rather than the one he sired. A woman's is the child she bears. (Somewhere it's suggested that the younger child is heir - hence the youngest brother in many folk tales winning the princess - Sovereignty). Once the tribe was held by a woman - the HeadWoman. A man became chief through marriage to her. Her children were her heirs and also those of any brother she may have. They were never the heirs of her consort. This is vital to Gwenevere. The chief would have been the most able bodied of men in order to lead the tribe. He may have been chosen through competitions to show prowess, hunting or warriors skills. He may have been a seven year king whose reign resulted in his willing sacrifice - as in the 'Corn King'. Whether this was so in 5th century Britain is almost irrelevant where the legends are concerned but important to a real-life Arthur and Gwenevere.
Britain, then, was a country invaded and settled by Romans and Saxons alike. Their church had been seriously re-moulded, god/desses demoted and sacred sites taken by the new religion. Pretty good considering Christianity entered Britain in peace. This religion has a dying man nailed to a tree who resurrects three days later. Not unlike pagan themes like Odin, who hung for nine days and nights on the World's Tree, Yggdrasil. Reminiscent too of Hesu, or Esus, a spirit closely linked with Oak trees, the tree for whom it is believed the Druids were named (Men of Oak). It is also worth mentioning that Odin, in order to transcend death (resurrection) gave up one eye. The bible has a quote 'if thine eye be single...' referring to viewing the kingdom of heaven which brings Odin to mind.
Odin's totem (or one of them) is the Raven. The Raven is also Bran's, whose mythology pre-dates and is similar to that of Arthur's. One of the myths of England is that so long as there are Ravens in the Tower of London, (mythologically speaking, known as White Hill or White Mount) England shall never be invaded. Nowadays, to ensure that the ravens never desert the Tower, their wings have been clipped. They too are one of the Guardians of our lands as well as being one of the shapes shifted to by the Irish Morrighan, Warrior and lover of CuChulann. Arthur, human or legendary, walked in the footsteps of the tradition of Bran.
Bran's head rested in London's White Hill - hence the tale of the Ravens - facing out towards France. It was said that for as long as it remained, to quote the Triads "in the position in which it was put there, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to these Isles". This was one of the Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Briton. Arthur disclosed Bran's head for he felt none but his strength should defend these Isles and so became the new guardian. Of course the Saxons came and Arthur's disclosure of the head of Bran became one of the Triads Three Unfortunate Disclosures.
In the Grail Legends, neither Arthur nor Gwenevere make much of an appearance, for it is they who are the initiators of the quests. Perhaps it is Gwenevere herself who is the true initiator for Arthur lays sick, the Land wasted. The Knights of the Round Table, though the characters themselves are old, are almost certainly invented in Medieval times and probably based on the Templar Knights. Certainly the vow of chastity, and their warrior/priest status, strongly suggests this.
The Table was originally part of Gwenevere's dowry, created by Merlin on her father's request. The table is reminiscent of the Giant's Dance, (Stonehenge) which was supernaturally transported from Ireland by Merlin's magic. Perhaps these two tales are one. Maybe the table and the knights are really the Rollrights with Arthur separated from them forever. The king stone stands on a rise. Under here is an entrance to the Hollow Hills (what hill doesn't have an OtherWorld entrance?). Perhaps the woman/witch of blackthorn who cast the spell and guards the stones was none other than Gwenevere (or Morgan), protecting her lands? However, with the Table as part of Gwenevere's dowry, it would be logical that the knights - who held to the Virgin Mary (Goddess as Sovereignty?) and supposedly carried her image on their shield - actually answered to Gwenevere as Sovereignty, rather than to Arthur.
The tales of the Grail and WasteLands read like an OtherWorld journey. With Sovereignty as instigator and the Veil-Between-Worlds being thinner in days past, it makes sense. Where else would you find the Grail/Cauldron than in The Hollow Hills - the Land of Faery - the Land of the Sidhe of Irish myths? Peredur (Percival) is one of those who attain the Grail. His mother - the Widow Woman - is the sister of the Fisher King, thus making Peredur as sister-son the heir of the Fisher King and also the future Grail Keeper. It is worth noting that the Land's Sovereignty is female and the Grail's (usually regarded as a female symbol) keeper, is male. The manifest 'out-there' world is regarded as masculine and the inner world, feminine. Each then has for its keeper, its polarity, its complementary opposite. In the Christian legends, the Fisher King is Joseph of Armithea. who held twelve hides of land (table?) and built the first Christian church. He waited for his nephew (sister-son), Percival, to become his successor. The Fisher King also is named as Bron - it is suggested that Bran was derived from Bron. As Arthur inherited Bran's legends and guardianship, he too is the Fisher King, the Wounded King. Is Peredur then his heir?
The story of Arthur's birth and conception begins in mystery - as does that of many heroes and gods. He is taken into fosterage by Merlin. Merlin's legends are not only older than those of Arthur, but actually have nothing to do with Arthur - unless the oral originals are now lost. So Myrrddin was reborn, brought up through the centuries. Dragged from his retreat on Bardsey Isle in order to take a new place as advisor to Arthur. Myrrddin, awoken from deep slumbers and enchantment (destined to return) brings with him four of the thirteen Hallows of Britain, for Myrddin is their Keeper (and also, incidentally, is Bran). Are they also the four Hallows of Ireland, brought one from each of the four legendary cities of the Tuatha? The same as the four linked with the death of Christ?
Gwenevere, who was almost certainly regarded as being Sovereignty prior to the synod's reforms, confers kingship on Arthur by taking him as consort. As Arthur's supposed father was the previous king of Britain - namely Uther Pendragon - and his mother was of OtherWorld origin - Ygraine - the legends triply legitimise him. As we know, triples were important in Celtic terms.
It is unlikely that Gwenevere was the barren woman portrayed by the medieval scribes, but a mother. As her child, remember, was not regarded as Arthur's heir according to matrilineal ways, Arthur's was his sister-son, Gawain. It is easy to see that, in the new patrilineal system, it could be thought that, as Arthur's heir was sister-son then Gwenevere must have been barren. Her child would be forgotten. (A tentative suggestion. Could her child be the Elen, Grail Maiden and later wife to Lancelot - who in Irish legend is none other than Lugh of the Long Hand? Lugh married the Queen of Ireland - mysteriously unnamed except for an odd little passage in Lady Gregory's 'Gods and Fighting Men'.)
Later, Mordred - who previously was the warrior Arthur fought at Camlann for kingship - became the incestuous child of Arthur and his half-sister (Morgan or Morgause, depending on differing versions). By this means a patrilineal AND matrilineal heir were provided at the same time. It also gave Mordred a good reason for fighting Arthur. As Gawain was regarded as heir it meant Mordred was fighting for his birthright. The introduction of Mordred as heir also means that, by his abduction (or, in some stories, rape) of Gwenevere, who is Sovereignty, he actually relieves Arthur of Kingship. For it is the consort of Sovereignty who is king. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Gwenevere, in her role as Sovereignty, instigated the whole thing in order to heal the lands - by replacing an ailing king with a healthy one. In order to heal the Wastelands and make them once more fertile, it is possible that Arthur, as Old King, would have had to fight Mordred, as New King. The Oak and Holly Kings fight for the Flower Bride - it happens ever year in order for the winter land's to be rebirthed by summer fertility. That, after all, is what the Wastelands are - winter's lands awaiting fertility. It is the story of rebirth - a Mummer's play in action.
If you visit any of our ancient sites, woodlands, bumps and blips in the landscape, they abound with the feel of the Arthuriad. The Rollright Legends are riddled with stories of magic and king's - and just because the name 'Arthur' is not mentioned does not mean that they are not part of the Arthuriad. If Arthur was a living man, then stories such as those of the Rollrights are the very bones that cast his name down through the centuries.
In the Midlands there is an area called Wychbury Hill, which just about every Pagan in the area has heard of if not actually visited. The land, woods and Iron Age Fort scream 'Arthur'. They have a Warrior Guardian on a small hill which brought me to the sharp realisation that Gwenevere was a warrior. That she was also the holder of the Sword which is Arthur's symbol of kingship. It is from the Lady of the Lake that the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) came. True it was made on the Isle of the Lake and is returned to the Lady when Arthur forfeits kingship, but Gwenevere holds it in trust. Almost as if she is the true scabbard for the sword. He will be king only as long as she holds him consort.
The wounding of Arthur
Morgan makes, gives and takes back the scabbard which has the protective quality that prevents Arthur receiving fatal injury. It is by her retrieval of the scabbard and substitution of an exact duplicate - save it does not have the protective quality - that Arthur becomes vulnerable and is wounded at Camlann. This tale may have come about from the properties of one of the Treasures of Britain - though there the treasure is a whet-stone rather than a scabbard. As both are vital to a sword, here is the quote, again from the Triads: "The Whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd: if a brave man sharpens his sword on it, if it (then) drew blood from a man he would die. If a coward sharpened his sword on it then his opponent would be no worse". In effect, by taking the scabbard Morgan takes away his kingship by relieving him of magical protection, leaving him nothing but human. As the Morrighan also relieves CuChulann of his life by removing her protection.
And so, suffering from a mortal wound, Arthur is taken to Avallon to sleep until called to defend Britain. He goes by boat accompanied by three OtherWorld Queens - reputed as being his wife Gwenevere, sister Morgan Le Fey and the Lady of the Lake (three women: echoed by the three Mary's at the crucifixion of Jesus). Some say Avallon is at Ynys Witrin (Glastonbury) beneath the Tor, some say it is a deep cave where Arthur sleeps alongside his knights. For each, a pure white steeds waits, ready to be ridden when Britain calls - for white is the colour of any animal belonging to the OtherWorld. White, with ears of red. Avallon, some say, is where the heart is. And England's heart is in the Midlands. Who can say where Arthur lies - he may well be at Wychbury Hill, laying under the Round Hill, where a buried warrior is rumoured to be. Personally, I don't think he's buried at all. I don't think he ever lived in a fleshy shell. But whether he did or no, the legend certainly does. So, as the saying goes, "The King is dead, long live The King! For, Except Seven, none returned*.
* From 'Preiddeu Annwn' ('Spoils of Annwn') ".....who beyond the Glass Castle (1) saw not the prowess of Arthur six thousand men arrayed along the ramparts with their watchnen we could scarce confer three times the fill of Prydwen (2) we sent with Arthur none but seven returned from the Castle of Treasure none but seven returned from Caer Golur. "
version by Robin Williamson from his book 'The Craneskin Bag'
1: Possibly Glastonbury
2: Arthur's ship
Triad Quotes from Rachel Bromwich's edition (University Press of Wales)