Echoes of an Older God?

Some Notes on Arthur as a Pagan Deity

By Eddie Murray

Loch Arthur looking north

Loch Arthur looking north

This talk grew out of  a discussion with Stuart McHardy. When Stuart first mooted the idea of his organising a conference on the historical Scottish Arthur, I suggested that at least some mention should be made of the ‘other’ Arthur, and he agreed.

‘And whence came Arthur?’ asked the writer L. Sprague de Camp:

‘The name is that, not of a mortal man, but of a god. The pre-Christians worshipped a god called Artur by the Irish and Artaius by the Gauls. The name has been variously connected with words for “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.’

This talk grew out of  a discussion with Stuart McHardy. When Stuart first mooted the idea of his organising a conference on the historical Scottish Arthur, I suggested that at least some mention should be made of the ‘other’ Arthur, and he agreed.

‘And whence came Arthur?’ asked the writer L. Sprague de Camp:

‘The name is that, not of a mortal man, but of a god. The pre-Christians worshipped a god called Artur by the Irish and Artaius by the Gauls. The name has been variously connected with words for “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.’

Other suggestions for the origin of the name are Artor, ‘the ploughman’, Ar du, Welsh for the dark ploughed earth, and Ard Dhu, Gaelic for ‘the dark one’.

In the introduction to her recent book on the historical Arthur, Elizabeth Jenkins points out that the myth of Arthur maintained an ‘extraordinary power’ over the minds of our ancestors, and that

‘it enthralled them before it had been written down. They saw Arthur on the earth, where hillsides, caves, boulders and streams bore his name; they saw him in the sky, where they called the glittering Great Bear “Arthur’s Wain”, and Arcturus, the fastest-moving of all the brighter stars, they saw as another symbol of his name; they heard him in the air, naming the wind after him [as in the verse]

Arthur o’Bower has broken his band

And he comes roaring up the land;

[He was] leader of the Ride of the Dead, who collects the souls and rides with them through the air at night.’

That is the Arthur I want to talk about today, the ancient Arthur, Arthur as a Pagan deity.

In his recent book, John Grigsby recounts how as a 16 year-old schoolboy he first came across the legends of Arthur. He was ‘instantly smitten’, he wrote, and set about reading everything about Arthur he could lay his hands on. ‘What interested me,’ he writes,

‘was not so much the question of whether the existence of Arthur could be proven historically (though I thought it probable), but the discovery of something vital about my own and my country’s heritage that my formal education had ignored. I had been taught about Odysseus and Hercules at school, but little mention had been made of Arthur… I knew the tales of Jacob and Moses, but what of … Gawain and Guinevere?’ he asked. ‘It was as if our native traditions were deemed less worthy than those of the Classical world – as if they occupied a cultural blind spot.’

So Grigsby delved deep into Arthurian myth and legend.

‘The legends surrounding Arthur… I soon discovered,’ he wrote, ‘were rooted in traditions from a time far earlier than the Dark Ages in which he was supposed to have lived. Behind the lords and ladies of the Arthurian legends lay, for the most part, the gods and goddesses of a prehistoric Iron Age people… whose modern day descendants – the Irish, Welsh, Scots and Bretons – still speak the ancient tongue… The witch Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, for instance, was no other than a version of the Irish war goddess Morrigan clothed in medieval dress…’

Grigsby realised that he was dealing with ancient indigenous pagan myths. He wrote:

‘My study of native myth opened up a whole new dimension to the landscape in which I lived. I awoke to find a land saturated in fable and ancient lore as rich as the “dreamtime” of the Australian aborigines, to whom every feature of the earth had its own story, its own mythical resonance.’

And THAT is how I view my inheritance of Arthur; as a native myth, part of a land saturated in fable and ancient lore whose every feature has its own mythical resonance.

Grigsby went on to write a book called Warriors of the Wasteland, in which he takes the Grail myth right back to its Pagan roots, and is well worth reading. Earlier research on the same theme was, of course, done by England’s leading scholar of Arthurian legend, Jessie Weston who argued in her famous book From Ritual to Romance that the main motifs of the Grail legend had descended directly from a pagan mystery religion concerned with fertility. According to Professor Ronald Hutton, ‘she seemed to have shown that the greatest literature of medieval England, like its religion, represented a thin Christian screen overlying an essential paganism. Such a vision of the past,’ he added, ‘transcended religious loyalties.’

So, who is this ancient god Arthur? Where do start to look for him?

ARTHUR & OSIRIS

About the same time that Jessie Weston was working on her thesis that the Grail myth was based on an ancient fertility ritual, another academic, Dr L A Waddell, (or Wadd-ell if you’re from Morningside) was writing best sellers about race and civilization. In 1930 he published a book called The British Edda in which he tried to show that the native myths of Northern Europe had been brought here by the Airyans who had swept west from India in ancient times, bringing civilization with them, along with blond hair.

In the British Edda, according to Murray Hope, ‘Waddell is blatantly outspoken regarding … “Semitic calumnies against the ancient Sumerians”, while the original Aryan/Sumerian Arthur, his consort and his people are spoken of in glowing Promethean terms as the progenitors of civilization.’ According to Waddell, the original Arthur and Guinevere were a Sumerian god and goddess called Her-Thor and Gunn-Iffa. But, as you may have realised, Waddell was a racist theoretician and an anti-Semite and his research has been thoroughly discredited. His readership all but evaporated when the Nazis adopted the racist concept of the Aryan,s who were deemed to be big, strapping and fair-haired – like Hitler himself.

So, the once-fashionable notion that the civilising Aryans swept west and eventually became the Celts who invaded Britain in successive waves is no longer tenable. A growing consensus is that the Celts, or rather Celtic-speaking peoples, are the indigenous inhabitants of these islands who evolved their own language, that has come down to us in its Q-Celtic and P-Celtic, or Gaelic and Welsh forms. Language of course does not define ethnicity, and if I stray today and say ‘Celts’ or ‘Celtic’ you will know that I mean, of course, ‘Celtic-speaking peoples.’

So, back to Arthur the god.

In the 1940s the Scottish writer Lewis Spence, a man who was able to combine a scholarly learning with a passion for myth and magic, wrote: ‘That Arthur and Osiris are figures originating in a common source must be reasonably clear to the student of myth.’

And indeed if we compare them, the myth of Osiris and the myth of Arthur do have some striking parallels. Osiris, whose Egyptian name was AS-AR, was the god of the common people, a god of Earth and male fertility. It takes two to tango, and Osiris was responsible for fertilizing the goddess who gave birth to the crops, etc. He was in a sense the first ‘Green Man’ and rebirth whose role also entailed regular trips to the Underworld. He was also the keeper of souls, the god of the Afterlife who both judged and cared for the dead, and assured the immortality of the righteous. He was always portrayed lying in a coffin, his penis erect.

Without going too in-depth, if we bullet-point similarities between the Osiris and Arthur myths we get some interesting results, for example:

  • • Osiris mates with his sister Isis, ‘the Great Enchantress,’ and she gives birth to a son. Arthur mates with his half-sister Morgan, another enchantress, and she too gives birth to a son.
  • • While alive, both Osiris and Arthur make trips to the Underworld.
  • • Osiris is treacherously slain by his uncle, Set.  Arthur is treacherously slain by his nephew/son, Mordred.
  • • Arthur’s body is taken in a boat by his sister to Avalon, ‘the place of the apples.’ The body of Osiris is taken in a boat by his sisters to a place called A-ALU, where fruit and grain grow in abundance. ‘There,’ wrote Lewis Spence, ‘he would rule as the god of the not-dead, awaiting a glorious resurrection.’ Arthur of course would await the time when his people would call on him.
  • • And Arthur and Osiris are both said to be buried at many different locations.

Osiris seems to have been very anciently worshipped in caves and high places, and then in stone tombs in sacred groves, where worshippers could go to commune with the god and the ancestors. We note that around Britain there are numerous Neolithic burial sites, dolmens, cromlechs, chambered tombs etc. which are associated with Arthur in legend and folklore and where evidence suggests people also went to commune with the ancestors. Many have legends of giants connected with them.

Alan Richardson has noted another parallel in the two myths. After the ‘death’ of Osiris, Horus goes to war with the treacherous Set and the war turns the country into a wasteland. After Set is defeated the victorious Horus goes to visit Osiris in the Underworld. Richardson quotes from an ancient Egyptian text called ‘Coffin Text Number Two’:

Horus says that he has ‘come hither…to sit in the room of … Osiris, and to dispel the sickness of the suffering god, that I… that I may reveal to you the matter of Osiris’s thigh.’ Richardson explains that Horus is there:

‘to cure a mysterious wound in the thigh – a euphemism for the genitals – so that life will gush forth upon the land again. In order to cure Osiris fully, Horus first has to ask… what ails him, in a manner that exactly parallels the question which had to be asked of the Fisher King in Arthurian mythology. The latter, ruler of a wasteland and keeper of the Holy Grail, suffered the same “wound in the thigh” as Osiris. In both cases, once the question is put, the wound heals, life gushes forth upon the land again and… order is restored.’

So there are, we see, many parallels between the myths of Osiris and Arthur, and some evidence that they have a common origin. And as we know, myth has its own vitality, its own energy that can effortlessly carry it down the centuries or even millennia. Osiris was so ancient that even the Egyptians didn’t know how old he was. The great Egyptologist Wallis Budge saw him as the indigenous god of the Egyptians and suggested that Ra and other members of the pantheon were much later additions.

Alan Richardson also points out that after Set is defeated ‘although Osiris could have reclaimed his throne, he preferred to maintain his kingdom in the Land of the Dead, and it was as God of the Dead that Osiris enjoyed his greatest popularity.’ This might also have been the case with the Arthur the god.

THE RAVEN GOD

Spence theorises that Horus is in fact an incarnation of Osiris who, when he decided to remain in the Underworld as Guardian of Souls, passed on his warrior aspect to Horus, who became the god of battles. In the British myth the evidence seems to indicate that Arthur, even after becoming Underworld god of the Afterlife, retained this aspect. Horus was the hawk-headed god and his bird was thus held sacred, and even worshipped. Arthur has long been associated with another feathered raptor, the raven or crow, both symbolic birds of death in battle. The Gododdin describes a mighty fighter who ‘glutted the ravens on the fortress walls, though he was not Arthur.’

When Cervantes says in his Don Quixote that ‘no Englishman would shoot a crow for Arthur’s sake,’ he was merely repeating a belief that was commonly held in many rural areas until, in some places, the end of the 19th century, a belief that when he died, Arthur’s soul transmigrated into a raven. A man hunting in Cornwall in 1896 reported how, when he pointed his shotgun at a raven, the old countryman with him grabbed his elbow and said, ‘Don’t do that. It might be Arthur,’ and there are many similar reports.

Spence points out that ‘this species of bird… is very closely connected with the figures of Arthurian myth. Arthur himself is spoken of in folklore as having assumed the shape of a raven or crow; Bran is the raven par excellence; Ceridwen had a son whose name is Morvran, or “sea-raven”… Morgan, his sister, may… be connected mythically with the Irish Morrigan, the crow-goddess [and goddess of battle] ‘The bards are occasionally styled “ravens”’

Like Arthur, the god Woden or Odin was also associated with and often symbolised by the raven or crow. And Arthur and Woden are both leaders of the legendary Wild Hunt.

THE WILD HUNT

Variations of the Wild Hunt are found throughout Europe and the British Isles. Wild Hunt legends tell of a spectral hunt which courses across country, through forest or across the sky, usually in the cold dead weeks following the winter solstice, summoning the souls of the departed to the Otherworld. The lead role player varies according to locale. Herne the Hunter in some areas, in Wales Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Dead; in Scotland is better known as the Faery Rade, in Anglo-Saxon areas it was led by Woden. Elsewhere, the psychopompic leader of the Hunt was Arthur.

‘In medieval continental mythology and in regions of Britain,’ says Nigel Jackson, ‘the ancient god-king Arthur is seen as the leader of the Hunt, known in France as the ‘Chasse Arthur’ [Arthur’s Hunt] He took souls away to ‘Arthur’s Bower,’ the chthonic northern airt, and is significantly depicted on the mosaic floor of the Cathedral of Otranto, executed around 1163-65, where he is shown riding upon a horned billy-goat.’

There is a spot where he is still said to appear, says Eric Fitch, ‘and that is South Cadbury in Somerset. Famed for being the possible site of the legendary Camelot, South Cadbury hillfort is traditionally held by locals to contain a cavern where Arthur lies sleeping [and] he is reputed to ride with his knights over the fort and down to a spring to quench the horses’ thirst. There is also an ancient trackway nearby called Arthur’s Lane… where sounds of the Hunt are heard during the winter months.’

The mention of the ancient trackway is interesting. In his essay ‘The Psychotopography of the Ancestral Hunt’ Nigel Jackson writes that ‘The aerial coursings and invisible flights of the Wild Hunt across the nighted world usually follow specific routes, paths of numinous motion which are echoed in trace-lines upon the material landscape. The movement of ancestral souls through the… topography upon the Otherworld journey can be discerned in mysterious track-way alignments on the physical terrain [with loci] such as barrow mounds, dolmens, burial sites and megaliths…’

The tracks have various names such as spirit paths and dead ways. ‘There is some evidence,’ says Jackson, ‘that the terrestrial “Dead-Way” mirrored the celestial trackway of souls’, for example the Great Bear, or ‘Arthur’s Wain.’ The terrestrial paths usually connect ancient sites, like Cadbury Castle, where Arthur lies sleeping in a cavern – just as he is said to do in Arthur’s Seat, in Edinburgh.

ARTHUR”S SEAT

On a personal note, Arthur’s Seat has always intrigued me. I was born and brought up in the Edinburgh working class, and we were always told, if you asked your granny or whoever, that Arthur’s Seat was so-called because Arthur was sleeping there, waiting. That was the popular, albeit tongue-in-cheek, explanation for the placename. And of course, like John Grigsby, I knew nothing about Arthur other than what I’d seen on the telly – he was an English king who sat at a big round table with a bunch of knights in shining armour and went out to fight baddies. But I always enjoyed roaming about Arthur’s Seat with my pals, looking for fossils and coffins. So in later years, 20s or 30s, when I first discovered that it was supposed to have been given its name when the courtly Arthurian romances become popular, I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t.

William Oxenham, in his book The Welsh Origins of Scottish Placenames, which is also well worth reading, describes ‘almost a dozen Arthurian place names distributed along a line running from South Argyll, through Dumbartons, Lothian, Angus, Aberdeenshire and up to Glenlivet in the north east.’

‘It is unlikely,’ he says, ‘that all of these can have resulted from the medieval fictional Romances, and there has to be the possibility that at least some of them are of more ancient origin and commemorate attributes of the “real Arthur” rather than the “fictional Arthur”’, by which presumably he means the historical Arthur as opposed to the one of the medieval romances. But there may be a third explanation.  Oxenham points out that the first record of the name ‘Arthur’s Seat’ in Edinburgh occurs in 1508. He writes that ‘The lateness of this earliest record has usually been cited as a reason to suppose that the name originated only in late medieval times as a fanciful evocation of the Arthurian Romances.’ That seems to still be the received opinion. But is it true?

The first Scottish witch trial for which a detailed indictment has been found is the case of Jonet Boyman from the Canongate, just down the road. In 1572 – only 64 years after the name ‘Arthur’s Seat’ is first recorded – Jonet was indicted for witchcraft and diabolic incantation. She had been trying to cure a sick man called Allan Anderson, and the charges against her included that she had gone to an ‘eldritch’ well on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat and there, according to the indictment, she uttered ‘incantations and evocations of the evil spirits whom she called upon to come and show and declare’ how to cure her patient. According to Jonet, a faery man had appeared on the other side of the well and she charged him, in the name of father, son, King Arthur and his queen, to cure Allan Anderson. The figure told her to wash her patient’s shirt in a south running stream on Arthur’s Seat. She did, and he was cured.

Jonet was sentenced to death, and burned at the stake at the top of the High Street, round about where the Witchery restaurant now stands. Lizanne Henderson and Professor Edward Cowan mention the case in their recent book Scottish Fairy Belief. ‘This fascinating case raises a number of intriguing points,’ they state. ‘A charmer or healer is examined to determine the source of her occult knowledge. At an eldritch well she conjures… an entity in the shape of a man who is charged in the name of Arthur – on the very edge of Arthur’s Seat – to cure her patient.’

If the hill had only relatively recently become known as Arthur’s Seat in honour of courtly romances, what was poor Jonet Boyman doing up there, calling on Arthur to help with in her healing? Was she following a tradition that was much older than Arthurian Romance? Older perhaps than the historical Arthur. A tradition that saw the hill as the home of a powerful chthonic deity?

Arthur’s Seat was always an ‘otherworldly’ spot. Walter Scott describes in his Heart of Midlothian how the people of Edinburgh would avoid it after dark. Until Mayday, that is. In his marvelous book A Midsummer Eve’s Dream, much of which concerns Arthur’s Seat, Alec Hope relates how:

‘The “profaner sort were still at it in the nineteenth century when Arthur’s Seat was their favourite resort for May Day revels. A letter dated in April 1826 describes the beginning of the concourse of people about 4 o’clock in the morning moving through King’s Park to Arthur’s Seat till the whole hill was a moving mass of people. The maypole was set up at the summit and the craftsmen were dancing around it while vendors of whisky moved about among the crowd and the ground was littered with the bodies of the dead drunk.’

Perhaps they were washing their faces in the morning dew and only appeared dead drunk, though Alec Hope describes an illustration showing a scene of wild revellery. No doubt there was much more than drinking going on after dark. Thousands of working folk from Edinburgh and around were having a blow out, a break from their harsh existences. After Mayday, they avoided Arthur’s Seat after dark.

Arthur’s Seat hit the headlines in July 1836. ‘Our opinion,’ said the front page of the Scotsman newspaper, ‘would be that there are still some of the weird sisters hovering about Mushat’s Cairn and the Windy Gowl, who retain their powers to work the spells of death…’ Shock Horror Probe. Mushat’s Cairn and the Windy Gowl are sites on Arthur’s Seat, where 5 schoolboys looking for rabbits had found a small mini-cave whose entrance was carefully concealed by slates that had been carved into cones at the tops. When they removed the slates they found inside 17 tiny but elaborately decorated coffins, each containing a human figure carved from wood and dressed in funeral clothes.

The boys played with their finds, and some of the coffins disintegrated, but eight survived and were handed to their schoolteacher, who wrote to the Scotsman, which reported that, as was common knowledge in Edinburgh, witches were still prowling about Arthur’s Seat and working their spells of death. ‘Should this really be the case,’ the paper said, ‘we congratulate the public… on the discovery and destruction of this satanic spell-manufactory, the last, we should hope, which the “infernal hags” will ever be permitted to erect in Scotland.’

Fortunately the 8 tiny coffins survived are now in the National Museum of Scotland. But they remain one of Edinburgh’s greatest mysteries. Were they really part of a destructive spell? It doesn’t seem likely.  They appear to have been made almost with care and affection, and Scottish witches generally roasted clay models to blast their victims. A recent theory is that they represented the 17 victims of Burke and Hare, and someone was symbolically giving them a decent burial – though why they should take them up Arthur’s Seat to do it is not explained. What was wrong with the kirkyard?

Another explanation might be that person or persons unknown viewed Arthur’s Seat as the home of a god, the keeper of souls, and were symbolically delivering the souls of the sadly departed into his keeping.

I will close with a quote from the official guide to Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park, published by HMSO:

‘it is worth noting that though there is no longer a church within the Park, its religious associations have not completely disappeared. At Easter people gather to roll gaily painted hard-boiled eggs down the slopes, and every May Day several hundred people climb the summit to attend a service of Christian worship as the day breaks. These are both manifestations of ancient traditions. Egg rolling is an ancient Easter custom, and May Day was once the Festival of Beltane, an important event in the Celtic year. Traditionally on this day, people would gather at sunrise to bathe their faces in the dew. This tradition is still associated with Arthur’s Seat, and the Christian service is a popular continuation of a festivity that is centuries old.’

Easter, of course, is named after a pagan goddess of spring and feminine fertility, Oestre.

So, in conclusion, I must confess to harbouring a reasonable suspicion that what happened to Easter, and to the Beltane rites on Arthur’s Seat, may also have happened to Arthur, the pagan god.

SOURCES

L. Sprague de Camp, Citadels of Mystery, Fontana 1964.

Eric L. Fitch, In Search of Herne the Hunter, Capall Bann, 1994.

John Grigsby, Warriors of the Wasteland, Watkins, 2002.

Lizanne Henderson & Edward J. Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, Birlinn, 2007.

A D Hope,   A Midsummer Eve’s Dream, Edinburgh, 1971.

Murry Hope, Practical Celtic Magic, Aquarian Press, 1987.

Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon, OUP, 1999.

Nigel Jackson, Masks of Misrule, Capall Bann, 1996.

Elizabeth Jenkins, The Mystery of Arthur, (1975), Michael O’Mara, 1990.

William Oxenham, The Welsh Origins of Scottish Place-names, Wales, 2005.

Alan Richardson, Earth God Rising, Llewellyn, 1992.

Lewis Spence, The Mysteries of Britain, Newcastle Publishing, California, 1993.

-          –       The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, (1945), Constable, 1995.

C R Wickham-Jones, Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park: a visitor’s guide, HMSO, 1996.

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