The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion – Chapter 7

Aug 5th, 2013 | By | Category: The Grail

7 – Arthur and Merlin


Still, a man hears what he wants to hear

And disregards the rest 

Paul Simon 

HEROES TEND to appear when they are most needed.  Such was the case with Arthur, who led the Britons against a host of enemies.  In subsequent years, however, the emphasis shifted away from his historical role to his mythical status.  He became the ‘Once and Future King’, destined to return in Britain’s hour of need.

This began as wishful thing.  The alleged discovery of his grave by the Benedictines in 1189 might have turned Glastonbury into a tourist trap but the motives behind the deception were also political: it discomfited the rebellious Welsh, who had long anticipated the reappearance of their national hero.

Today’s Welsh are the descendants of those native Britons who looked up to Arthur as their ‘duke of battles’.  They considered him a champion – the Early Irish caur, a ‘hero’(also coraid; Gaelic curaidh), is cognate with the Welsh cawr, a ‘giant’, and so Arthur frequently appears as a gigantic figure in British lore.  But the subtle move away from him being the leader of the Britons against all comers to him becoming rex quondam, rexque futurus, a paragon of Christian chivalry, was no less political than the exhumation of his purported remains.  In both instances, the deed was done by his enemies, who rewrote his legend to suit their ends.

Much the same could be said of the Grail, the traditions of which were cynically manipulated by medieval monks who had little or no interest in its original form and function.

An understanding of the Grail is not possible without an understanding of who Arthur really was.  Just as a fantasy Grail accompanies the fictional Arthur, so the actual Grail and the genuine Arthur are of a piece.

It is not enough merely to establish who Arthur was and what the Grail was for, though, because both continue to be the subjects of reactionary and revisionist scholarship.  It behoves us to recognise the nature of this blight, and that requires us to grapple with the psychobiology of Heroic age thinking.

Arthur Koestler, in The Sleepwalkers (1959), sought to explain how our perceptions of the cosmos have changed over time.  In a section entitled ‘Dark Interlude’, he quoted Professor Whitehead: 

In the year 1500 Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BC. 

Archimedes is on record as having remarked that Aristarchus of Samos (born in 310 BC) ‘supposed that the fixed stars and the sun are immoveable, but that the earth is carried round the sun in a circle’.

The place of the Sun at the centre of our solar system was no secret.  Julian – the so-called ‘Apostate’ – wrote of the Sun in the 4th century AD: 

He leads the dance of the stars; his foresight guides all generation in nature.  Around him, their King, the planets dance their rounds; they revolve around him in the perfect harmony of their distances which are exactly circumscribed, as the sages affirm, who contemplate the events in the skies … 

The science was basically sound, even if the lyricism smacked of Sun-worship.  But all that was about to be forgotten.

The Church opposed the pursuit of knowledge – as St Augustine made clear at the end of the 4th century: 

… there can also be in the mind itself … a certain vain desire and curiosity, not only of taking delights in the body, but of making experiments with the body’s aid, and cloaked under the name of learning and knowledge … Thus men proceed to investigate the phenomena of nature – the part of nature external to us – though the knowledge is of no value to them … 

So what had gone wrong? 

Left vs right
Looked at from above, the human brain resembles a large walnut.  It consists of two halves connected by a tough bundle of nerve fibres known as the corpus callosum.

The twin cerebral hemispheres carry out somewhat different functions.  Generally, the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and is usually the logical, analytical half of the brain: both the major areas involved in language skills are located in the left hemisphere.

The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and leads in the fields of intuition and imagination.  It also excels at interpreting non-verbal forms of communication (e.g. intonation, accentuation, overall meaning).

To be born is to enter a world of apparent dualities: male/female; mind/body; day/night; ‘us’/‘them’, etc.  The brain appears to have evolved to reflect and encompass duality, so that – up to a point – the left brain ‘thinks’ and understands words while the right brain ‘feels’ and comprehends tone of voice.

These functional differences have taken on a cultural complexion.  The right brain controls the left (Latin sinister) hand, whereas the left brain controls the right; the dominance of right-handedness evolved in tandem with tool-making and language abilities, both of which require a measure of dexterity – from the Latin dexter, meaning ‘right’.  If the left-brain is effectively objective and ‘masculine’ (abstract thought; ‘light’; ‘spirit’), the right-brain is correspondingly subjective and ‘feminine’ (body-image; ‘dark’; ‘matter’).

One of the principal aims of magic is the union of opposites.  This is often represented as a ‘sacred marriage’ (hieros gamos) in which the male/female elements combine to form a new wholeness.  In such a state there is no inner and outer, no subject and object, no self and other.  All things become one.

The union of opposites can be thought of as a process which, under the right conditions, takes place in the brain itself.  It is the perfect marriage of the cerebral hemispheres and the formation of an ‘androgynous’ unit, like the hermaphroditic child that is born of the combination of (male) Sun and (female) Moon in the spiritual practice of alchemy.

The harmonious functioning of both hemispheres allows for an equal balance of the Logos (from the Greek lego, ‘I say’) principle of the left-brain and the Eros (a Greek word meaning ‘intimate love’) principle of the right.  In other words, the logical, discriminatory, ‘masculine’ side of the brain is married to the imagistic, connection-seeking, ‘feminine’ side, allowing us to see both the minute details and the bigger picture.

When the shaman awakens the ‘serpent power’ of Kundalini – the vital energy of his ‘low’ self or unihipili – and coaxes it up the length of his spine, that energy spreads first into the right hemisphere, which has more extensive connections with the limbic system or ‘palaeomammalian’ brain than the left.

If the left hemisphere can be lulled into co-operating – say, through repetitive drumming, which relaxes the left-brain, or the use of psychoactive drugs, which reward the left-brain by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine – the ‘serpent power’ can be used by both hemispheres to energise the frontal lobes, quickening and intensifying the brain waves until a higher state of consciousness is reached.

Breaking down the imaginary divisions between ‘male’ and ‘female’ is a necessary precursor to enlightenment (the goal of initiation).  The trainee shaman is therefore presented with peculiar sights – people wearing animal heads; men dressed as women – in order to dissolve the boundaries of cultural conditioning.

The coniine in hemlock, meanwhile, binds to the acetylcholine receptors in the brain, triggering the release of dopamine and creating a sense of euphoria.  This is one way of pleasuring the left hemisphere (there are heavier concentrations of dopamine in the left amygdala) into opening itself up to the ‘erotic’ embrace of its feminine counterpart. 

The Fall
As expressions of Eros go, the Venus of Willendorf statuette (roughly 23,000 BC) is surely as good as any.  Primitive cultures rejoiced in the nurturing feminine and the intuitive, image-forming, pattern-recognising abilities of the right-brain hemisphere.  They also heard the gods speaking to them directly through their right brains (just as Mozart claimed that tunes wandered spontaneously into his head from the right side).

The Biblical ‘Fall’ from innocence – or primal connectedness – occurred in the Fertile Crescent, between the Persian Gulf and the Valley of the Nile, perhaps 10,000 years ago.  Oannes the Fish-Man came up from the sea to teach the people of Sumer mathematics, writing and city-building – all left-brain activities.

In the Bible, this is associated with the birth of agriculture.  Adam disobeyed God (‘YHWH’ or ‘IHOH’) by eating the fruit of the World-Tree, ‘a tree to be desired to make one wise’, and as a result of his disobedience he was compelled to work the land.

But it was Eve who took the blame.  She had been advised by the ‘serpent’ to try the fruit.  Adam and Eve thus became ‘as gods, knowing good and evil’: ‘And the eyes of them both were opened’.

The fruit was the original ‘golden apple’ or oak-gall, from which we acquired iron-gall ink.  In short, we learnt how to read and write.  The antediluvian wisdom handed down by Oannes gave rise to the Neolithic Revolution, setting mankind on the road to modernity.

Something, however, was lost.  The formation of letters (initially, symbolic hieroglyphs) is a function of the right-brain hemisphere.  Grammar, spelling, syntax and verbal comprehension, though, are left-brain specialities.  The cost of literacy was that we became locked in the left – logical, analytical – sides of our heads.  We learnt how to discriminate and forgot how to assimilate.

The Divine age was alert to the dangers of left-brain dominance.  The switch from right-brain Eros to left-brain Logos creates an obsession with order and bookkeeping, with codified laws and divide-and-conquer.  This is why the Celtic Druids (like the Mithraists) memorised their knowledge, transmitting it orally.  The Druids ensured that only the most highly-trained sages were entrusted with the art of writing.  They knew that, in the wrong hands, literacy led to bickering and nit-picking.

The most important secret passed on by Oannes to the people of Mesopotamia might have been the means by which such a lapse into left-brain imbalance could be averted.  The Gospel of John would later insist that the foundation of all things was ‘The Word’ – even though the only ‘sign’ that Jesus offered to his ‘evil generation’ had been ‘the sign of the prophet Jonas’.  This must have been the symbol of the Oannes-like Fish-Man, Jonah (Hebrew Yona, Greek Ionas – ‘dove’), who spent three days in the belly of the ‘Whale’, anticipating the three days Jesus would spend in the rock-tomb.

It would appear that, far from seeking to establish a new religion of The Word (Logos incarnate), Jesus himself followed an ancient path which required the ‘sacred marriage’ of the cerebral hemispheres, the ‘death’ of the divided self and the ‘rebirth’ of the unified (i.e. ‘individuated’) initiate.

By his own actions, Jesus dissolved the apparent dualities which arise whenever the left-brain becomes too dominant.  But his followers were trapped in the world of The Word and began rigorously to reinforce those very divisions which Jesus had sought to abolish.

Denying the initiatory experience which breaks down the barriers erected by the left-brain in order to assert its dominance over the right, the Church became schizoid.  Increasingly suspicious of the right-brain realm (femininity, physicality, sensuality), the Heroic age descended into paranoia, haunted by phantoms – imagos of its own making – and confirming its identity (‘us’) by dehumanising and demonising its enemies (‘them’).

The Bible, as we know it, came into existence at the end of the 4th century AD, when the final selection of texts to be included was ratified by a Church council (although the Bible still takes different forms, from the 66 books of the Protestant Bible to the 81 books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church).  The Church now had a powerful weapon – a book of rules which theoretically stipulated the proper responses to all of life’s eventualities.

The Church then proceeded to alter perceptions of reality to fit the blueprint outlined in its scriptures.  The Greeks in the 6th century BC had known that the Earth is spherical.  By the 6th century AD, it had become a ‘disc’ and was placed firmly back at the centre of the cosmos, with the Sun obliged to circle around it.

Most medieval maps bore no relation to the arrangement of the heavenly bodies or the layout of the continents.  Astonishingly, the Church knew that its atlases did not reflect the world-as-it-was.  Mariners in fact had accurate maps which faithfully replicated the actual world.  But the Church would only authorise maps which presented an idealised, ‘theological’ view of things.  To do otherwise would have required an engagement with reality which the Church – like a ‘split-brain’ patient – was incapable of accommodating.

The Church was also conscious of the similarities between its Christian religion and the Mysteries of Mithras, which had preceded it.  To account for this, a number of early Christian writers (Augustine, Julian Martyr, Tertullian and Julius Firmicus Maternus) devised a bizarre explanation.

The Devil – they said – had knowingly pre-empted the advent of Christ by inventing a religion, hundreds of years beforehand, which almost exactly mirrored Christianity, in order to confuse and corrupt the pagans.

At once, we see the flaw in Heroic age thinking.  The reasoning centres of the left-brain had been set a task: to dismiss Mithraism as an inferior copy of Christianity.  The reality principle of the right-brain would have told them that Christianity had quite obviously helped itself to whatever it required from the earlier religion.  But the left-brain refused to consult the right.  Having predetermined the outcome it wanted (it was ‘only obeying orders’) it set about torturing logic and common sense to make the pieces fit, regardless of the evidence.

Any mindset capable of convincing itself that what came first must have been modelled on what came much later is unlikely to produce honest witnesses.  Then as now, the Heroic age mentality decides what it prefers to believe and then seeks out the evidence to confirm its position, burying that which contradicts it.  Being mentally divided against itself, it cannot accept that it is doing this and angrily accuses its opponents of the same intellectual dishonesty.  Metaphorically and (to some extent) literally, its left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is doing.  Like a psychopath, it neither knows nor cares when it is telling lies.

With that in mind, let us now look at what many commentators claim is the historical evidence for the existence of Arthur.  This typically takes the form of just four sources: 

De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (‘Of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’), written by Gildas the Wise in about 545;

Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’), by the Venerable Bede, circa 731;

Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’), attributed to a monk named Nennius and composed in about 829;

Annales Cambriae (‘Annals of Wales’), compiled in the 12th century.

Two of these sources (Gildas and Bede) do not mention Arthur at all.  They are counted as evidence simply because – unlike those historical sources that do mention Arthur – they make possible the persistent misrepresentation of who Arthur really was.

Annales Cambriae
The Annals of Wales were collated from notes jotted in the margins of Easter Tables.

Easter is a moveable feast, its dating dependent on the phases of the Moon.  Early monasteries kept records to track the 84-year cycle which was used to calculate the dates of Easter up until the Synod of Whitby in AD 664.  Significant occurrences were sometimes noted down alongside the annual entries for Easter.  These marginalia were later transcribed in separate ‘annals’, which therefore provide a basic historical chronicle.

Two entries in the Annales Cambriae refer to Arthur: 

(Year 72)     The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors …

(Year 93)     The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medrod perished. 

The entry for ‘Year 9’ states that ‘Easter [was] altered on the Lord’s Day by Pope Leo.’  This happened in AD 455, and so it would appear that ‘Year 1’ in the annals was 447 in the Anno Domini dating system.  Consequently, the Battle of Badon (‘Bellum badonis’) can be dated to AD 518 and the Strife of Camlann (‘Gueith cam lann’) to 539.

Both entries, however, were added in later – probably hundreds of years after the events concerned.  They may not be entirely accurate.

The Heroic age mindset is still prevalent among historians, though, and some point to the Annales Cambriae as ‘proof’ that Arthur flourished in the late-5th and/or early-6th centuries.  This is a triumph of faith over reason. 

It also explains the inclusion of the De excidio et conquestu Britanniae as one of the ‘admissible’ sources for Arthur, for in describing the aftermath of the Roman occupation of southern Britain, St Gildas referred to a ‘siege of Badon Hill’ (‘obsessionis Badonici montis’) at which the native Britons fought the invading Saxons to a standstill.

Gildas, as we have noted, said nothing at all about Arthur.  Even so, the assumption that the ‘siege of Badon Hill’ mentioned by Gildas was the same as the ‘Battle of Badon’, which the Welsh Annals apparently ascribe to circa AD 518, justifies the belief that Arthur was essentially a man of the south.

Nennius, compiling his Historia Brittonum in about 829, observed that Arthur was a soldier (‘miles’) and the commander-in-chief (‘dux bellorum’ – ‘duke of battles’) who led the Britons to a series of 12 remarkable victories against the Saxons.  The last of these was on ‘Mount Badon’ (‘Mons Badonis’).  Again, this is generally assumed to have been the ‘Badon Hill’ siege to which St Gildas had referred.

Such assumptions are dangerous.  But here we find Heroic age thinking in all its duplicitous glory: the assumption that the three ‘Badon’ separate references all concerned the same battle is presented as fact by commentators who want Arthur to have been something he wasn’t.  They won’t admit that – as we shall discover – there is evidence which strongly suggests that they were not the same battle at all.

Evidence contrary to established beliefs is usually discounted.  For example, the Canon of St Omer in Brittany used a Gaelic version of Arthur’s name in his Liber Floridus (c 1120).  Like Nennius before him, Lambert of St Omer considered Arthur to have been primarily a soldier, but while Nennius only left clues as to where Arthur had been active, Lambert was more specific: 

There is in Britain – in the land of the Picts – a palace of the warrior Arthur, built with marvellous art and variety, in which the history of all his exploits and wars is to be seen in sculpture.

Lambert had given the game away: Arthur the warrior (‘Artuir militis’) was based in the North.  And so Lambert’s testimony is routinely ignored. 

‘No Arthur’
St Gildas was born in North Britain in roundabout the year 500.  His celebrated open letter, De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, contains a blistering verbal assault on five contemporary princes.  The last to feel the lash of the saint’s tongue was Maelgwn, the ‘dragon of the island’.

Maelgwn the Tall was the ruler of Gwynedd.  His death is dated in the Welsh Annals to 547 or 549.

The story of Taliesin (see Chapter 3) also involves Maelgwn.  After his cauldron initiation at Llyn Tegid in Gwynedd, the Chief Bard pitched up at Maelgwn’s court on the coast of North Wales.  This offers a start date of some time in the 540s for Taliesin’s career, just as it dates the vituperative open letter penned by St Gildas to roughly the same decade.

Much of Taliesin’s life was spent in North Britain during the latter half of the 6th century.  He repeatedly mentioned Arthur in his poetry, beginning with his Cad Goddau – 

                        Druids versed in letters
                        Prophesy that Arthur
                        Is the longed-for one of the tribe … 

and culminating with Preiddeu Annwn

                        And when we went with Arthur, famous toil,
                        Except for seven, no one rose from the Mound of Mead-Drunkenness. 

The clear implication is that Arthur was a late-6th century northerner.  This contradicts the orthodox view of Arthur (active many years earlier in the south), and so Taliesin’s reportage is not accepted as valid evidence.

Neither is one of the greatest poems of ancient Britain.  Aneirin, a princely bard of the North, composed his Y Gododdin towards the very end of the 6th century.  The poem laments the deaths of many illustrious warriors of Lothian, the oldest surviving version including these lines: 

                        Gochore brein du ar uur
                        caer cein bei ef Arthur
                        rug ciuin uerthi ig disur … 

This was translated by William Forbes Skene in the 19th century: 

                        Black ravens croaked on the wall
                        Of the beautiful Caer.  He was an Arthur
                        In the midst of the exhausting conflict … 

It has since become customary to translate the lines thus: 

                        He fed black ravens on the rampart
                        Of the fortress, though he was no Arthur
                        He did mighty deeds in battle … 

The difference is small but telling.  Scholars now claim that the poem referred to someone who was ‘no Arthur’ – even though there is no negative in the original.

The lines composed by Aneirin actually meant something like this: 

                        Black ravens sang [praises] over the man-servant
                        [of the] fair fort.  He blamed Arthur;
                        the dogs cursed in return for our wailing … 

The ‘fair fort’ recalls the ‘fort finer than all dwellings’ of the praise poem for Raghnall son of Somerled (see Chapter 5).  That ‘fine mead-fort’ of Emain Ablach (‘Avalon’) also compares with the ‘Mound of Mead-Drunkenness’ mentioned by Taliesin in his Treasures of Annwn.

This ‘fair fort’ (Welsh caer) was almost certainly the Big Spirit-Mound (an Sithean Mór) or ‘Hill of the Angels’ on Iona, adjacent to the Gully of Little-Bran’s Man-Servant (Sloc ‘ille Bhranáin).  The ‘man-servant’ in question is most likely to have been Arthur’s loyal seneschal, Cai (Irish ‘Cian’).

The point is that by mistranslating Y Gododdin scholars have ruled Aneirin’s poem inadmissible as evidence in the quest for Arthur.  The longstanding prejudice which insists that Arthur must have been a southerner who fought against the Saxons in about AD 500 requires any contemporary source which places him in North Britain in about AD 600 to be misconstrued.  And so a rogue negative has been sneaked into Y Gododdin – ‘he was no Arthur’ – simply to distance Arthur from the North.

It seems that any evidence which challenges the consensus can be distorted, denounced and discarded, because the myth of the southern Arthur must be preserved at all costs. 

The earliest dateable reference to anyone by the name of Arthur occurs in the Life of Columba, written by Adomnán of Iona.

A copy of Adomnán’s Vita Columbae was discovered at Reichenau in Germany in 1621; it had been transcribed by a monk of Iona who died in AD 713.  The likelihood is that Adomnán wrote his hagiography for the centenary of Columba’s death (St Columba died in 597) and so it predates the first ‘acceptable’ document to mention Arthur – the Historia Brittonum of ‘Nennius’ – by more than 100 years.

Adomnán disclosed that Columba had prophesied the fates of the sons of Áedán mac Gabráin, a Scottish king ordained by Columba in 574.  Artúr or Artuir was one of three sons of Áedán who were destined to ‘fall in battle, slain by enemies.’

According to Adomnán, St Columba’s prediction came true: Artúr and Eochaid Find were killed in a ‘battle of the Miathi’.  Domangart was also ‘defeated and slain in battle in Saxonia [England]’.

The Miathi – otherwise ‘Maeatae’ – were one of ‘the two most important tribes of the Britons (in the North)’.  They were the Picts who inhabited the low-lying lands of central Scotland, in contrast to the ‘Caledonian’ tribes of the Highlands.  Johannes Xiphilinus, in his abridgement of Cassius Dio’s writings, indicated that they dwelt ‘close to the wall which divides the island [of Britain] into two parts’ – this rampart being the Antonine Wall, constructed by Roman troops in the 2nd century AD between the estuaries of the Forth and Clyde rivers.  The tribal name of the Miathi is recalled at Dumyat, the ‘Hill-Fort-of-the-Miathi’, north-east of Stirling, and at Myot Hill, near Falkirk.

A date for the ‘battle of the Miathi’ in which Artúr mac Áedáin fell is provided by the 14th-century Annals of Tigernach, from the Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise.  The entry for the year 594 in the Tigernach annals records: 

… The slaying of the sons of Áedán i.e. Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Find & Artúr, in the battle of Circhenn, in which Áedán was the victor … 

This ‘battle of Circhenn’ (‘cath Chirchind’) would have been fought in the Pictish province of Circenn – that is, Angus and the Mearns, immediately north of the Tay estuary in eastern Scotland.  This was the territory of the Miathi.

Arthur son of Áedán apparently fell in a battle of about 594, fought against those perennial enemies of the Romanised Britons, the tattooed or ‘painted’ spearmen of the Lowland Picts.

Bran son of Áedán – who also fell in the battle of the Miathi – is named in the 15th-century Annals of Ulster, which date the battle to 595 or 596 and list only ‘Bran and Domangart’ as casualties.

The presence of Bran (‘Raven’) in these Irish chronicles reminds us that the ‘Horn of Brân … from the North’ was one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, and that Bran son of Llyr was associated with the magical ‘apple-isle’ of Emain.

We have seen that Brân seems to have been linked to an individual known as Lugh or Llew (‘Lion’).  Lugh is identified in Irish literature as a son of Cian, and he appears as such in Aneirin’s Y Gododdin elegy: 

                        The one son of Cian from beyond Bannog,
                        In the trampling of the Gododdin, on the raining of wounds,
                        Fie! when not Lliw Sea-Born*, no one. 

(*Llyrnach – ‘Llyr’s man’)

It was on the ‘Island of the Son of Cian’ that Áedán mac Gabráin, King of the Scots, recovered the ‘vat of gold and silver’ which had been buried by his eldest son, Gartnait.

The same Gartnait mac Áedáin was the king of the Highland Picts at the time of the ‘battle of Circhenn’ in which Arthur son of Áedán was ‘slain by enemies.’ 

Geoffrey of Monmouth
The first Arthur on record fell in a battle against the Miathi or Lowland Picts in Circenn (Angus) in about 594.

Lambert of St Omer remarked that the ‘palace of the warrior Arthur’ was located ‘in the land of the Picts’, where ‘the history of all his wars and exploits is to be seen in sculpture’ (Lambert was presumably referring to the battle scenes depicted on Pictish symbol stones).

Up until 1120, then, Arthur seems to have been recognised as a figure of the North who fought and died in Scotland.  So how did the conviction arise that he was born and buried at the opposite end of Britain?

The fault lies with a 12th-century churchman called Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Born around the year 1100, Geoffrey’s background was probably Breton.  His forebears had followed William, Duke of Normandy, across the English Channel and perhaps even took part in William’s defeat of the Saxons in 1066.

Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, who did their best to forget about Arthur, the Normans were fascinated by the legends of the British hero.  Indeed, the so-called ‘Grail Chapel’ of Rosslyn, near Edinburgh, was built by one of the original Norman families, the Sinclairs or St Clairs from Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in northern France.  The Norman obsession with all things Arthurian meant that Geoffrey of Monmouth was writing for an eager audience when he authored his Historia Regum Britanniae in about 1137.

Geoffrey’s main sources for his History of the Kings of Britain were those which we have already come across: Of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (Gildas), the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Bede) and the History of the Britons (‘Nennius’).  Out of these, Geoffrey wove a fabulous narrative history of the British Isles, beginning with Brutus – ‘the leader of those who survived the fall of Troy’ – and ending with the death of Cadwaladr, King of Gwynedd, in the late-7th century.

About one-fifth of Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae was devoted to ‘King Arthur’.  In fact, there never was – there never has been – a king named Arthur.  The Britons referred to their original Arthur as ymerawdwr, from the Latin imperator, meaning ‘emperor’.

Geoffrey singlehandedly concocted the muddled legend of King Arthur.  He took what he could find about the historical Arthur, processed that information through the religious-aristocratic belief system of his time, and came up with a lot of nonsense.  Sadly, his pseudo-historical gibberish appeals to scholars of a similar Heroic age persuasion, with the result that Arthur – the ‘King’ who never was – became decidedly ‘English’, and a Christian to boot.

It was Geoffrey who set the scene of Arthur’s conception in the far south-west of Britain.  The error might have been an innocent one (Geoffrey probably did not speak Welsh); alternatively, he might have been swayed by a cynical desire to flatter his patron, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, whose brother was the Earl of Cornwall.  Either way, Geoffrey took a Welsh place-name – Cernyw – and mistranslated it as ‘Cornwall’.

One of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain was Llen Arthur yng Ngernyw, the ‘Mantle of Arthur in Cernyw’.  The lack of any hard evidence for a historical Arthur in, or even near, southern Britain makes it unlikely that Arthur would have worn his cloak in Cornwall. 

A better derivation of Cernyw would be from the Welsh carn, a burial cairn, or the Early Irish cern – ‘corner’, ‘region’ – and yw, ‘yews’.  This would suggest that the Cernyw where Arthur wore his mantle of invisibility was the chambered burial cairn on Iona: the ‘fair fort’ of the ‘Yewy’ isle or ‘Island of the Sacred Trees’.

By misinterpreting Cernyw, Geoffrey dragged Arthur and his comrades southwards, where – thanks to the obstinacy of Heroic age thinkers – they have remained ever since. 

Myrddin Wyllt
Arthur was not the only victim of Geoffrey’s meddling.  The character he named ‘Merlin’ plays a minor role in the History of the Kings of Britain – he improbably transports the Giant’s Ring (Stonehenge) from Ireland to Britain and colludes in the seduction of Arthur’s mother by ‘Utherpendragon’.

Geoffrey took a fable from the Historia Brittonum about a boy called ‘Ambros’ and retold it as the story of ‘Merlin’.  The original tale had actually concerned the young Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romano-British commander who rallied the Britons against the Saxons in the late-5th century.  There was no connection between Ambrosius and Arthur, who flourished 100 years later.  Geoffrey had got the wrong ‘Merlin’.

He returned to the subject of ‘Merlin’ several years after completing his Historia Regum Britanniae.  Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini (c 1150) features a very different Merlin from the one he had previously presented to the world.

Geoffrey’s two Merlins – the sorcerer of the History of the Kings of Britain and the prophet of the Life of Merlin – are poles apart.  The former, drawn from a folktale concerning a 5th-century leader of the Britons, is a figure of fantasy.  The latter sprang whole from the traditions surrounding a myrddin or ‘crazy man’ of the late-6th century.  Though Geoffrey struggled to merge the two characters, they were in reality two different historical persons.

The Vita Merlini recounts the adventures which befell Myrddin Wyllt – also known as Merlinus Caledonensis (the ‘Caledonian’ Merlin) or Merlinus Silvestris (‘Merlin of the Wood’) – after the traumatic incident which sent him insane (Welsh gwyllt – ‘wild’, ‘mad’).  Various poems attributed to this Myrddin were collected in the ancient books of Wales, and Geoffrey must have borrowed from these to create his Life of Merlin; notably, the Dialogue of Myrddin and Gwenddydd his Sister, from the Red Book of Hergest, and the Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin from the Black Book of Carmarthen.

A large part of the Vita Merlini is taken up with Taliesin’s meeting with Myrddin Wyllt.  This includes the Chief Bard’s description of the ‘Island of Apples’ – ‘It was there we took Arthur after the battle of Camlann, where he had been wounded.’

Evidently, a tradition of some antiquity recognised Taliesin and Myrddin Wyllt as acquaintances.  What is more, both 6th-century poets were associated with the Old North.  Taliesin spent many years following the struggles of the cymry or ‘compatriots’ of North Britain: 

                        From Glasgow to Loch Ryan,
                        The Cymry are battle-brave heroes …

The poems of Myrddin, meanwhile, indicate that his ‘twin’ sister Gwenddydd was married to Rhydderch, a historical prince who ruled Strathclyde from his chief seat at Dumbarton in the late-6th and early-7th centuries.  Rhydderch also crops up in Adomnán’s Life of Columba – he secretly consulted the saint about his life expectancy – and his white-hilted sword, Dyrnwyn, became one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.

Scottish tradition remembered Myrddin in the context of Rhydderch’s court.  The Life of Kentigern, written by Jocelin of Furness in the late-12th century (see Chapter 3), refers to ‘a certain foolish man, who was called Laleocen’.  This afflicted soul mourned the death of St Kentigern, first bishop of Glasgow, and prophesied the imminent demise of Rhydderch (both men died in circa 614).

The name ‘Laleocen’ – or ‘Lailoken’ in John of Fordun’s 14th-century Life of St Kentigern – is a Scottish approximation of the Welsh Llallogan (‘Little Honoured One’), which was how Myrddin was addressed by his sister in the poem of their dialogue.  Thus, the Laleocen or Lailoken of southern Scotland was in fact the wild and hairy ‘Merlinus Caledonensis’, Myrddin Wyllt.  He is even identified as ‘Myrddin’ in a stained glass window, which shows him being blessed by St Kentigern, in a church dedicated to Kentigern at Stobo in the Scottish Borders. 

The Welsh Triads tell us that there were three ‘Skilful Bards’ at Arthur’s court: 

                        Myrddin son of Morfryn,
                        Myrddin Emrys,
                        and Taliesin. 

This reflects the damage done by Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Myrddin Emrys – the ‘Ambros’ or Ambrosius of the Historia Brittonum – did not belong there.  But the other two, Taliesin and Myrddin son of Morfryn (‘Sea-Hill’) or Morfrân (‘Sea-Crow’), were contemporaries of Artúr mac Áedáin.

The Triads also recall the ‘Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’.  These were the ‘Battle of Goddau’, the ‘Action of Arderydd’, and the third and worst – ‘Camlan’.

The first of these inspired one of Taliesin’s masterpieces, Cad Goddau (‘Battle of Goddau’), in which the Chief Bard announced that the literate Druids were prophesying that Arthur was ‘the longed-for one of the tribe.’  In another of his poems, Taliesin referred to the armies of Rheged and Goddau doing battle with a common enemy by the River Leven, north of Dumbarton.  Goddau was therefore Taliesin’s name for a particular region – most likely, the thickly-forested domain of the Gododdin warriors of Lothian.

The ‘Battle of Goddau’ apparently took place in the mighty Caledonian forest.  The Historia Brittonum listed one of Arthur’s 12 victories as Cat Coit Celidon, the ‘Battle of Celidon Wood’, and Celidon features repeatedly in the native Arthurian tradition and the romances of the Cistercians: the lead character of Culhwch and Olwen was the grandson of Celyddon Wledig (‘Ruler of Celidon’), while an early version of the Tristan legend has ‘Trystan’ and his lover absconding into the Forest of Celidon.

The ‘Action of Arderydd’ was fought in much the same region of southern Scotland.  Professor W.F. Skene set out to identify the site of Arderydd, presenting his findings to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in February 1865.  Skene established that the focus of the battle was the Moat of Liddel, or Liddel Strength, a fortified hill-top in the Cumbrian parish of Arthuret, on what is now the England-Scotland border.

The Welsh Annals reveal that the ‘Action of Arderydd’ was fought in circa 573.  A copy of the Annales Cambriae now kept in the National Archives adds the information that the battle was – 

… between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; and Merlin went mad. 

Robert Vaughn’s 18th-century edition of the Triads also disclosed that the Arderydd conflict had flared up from a dispute between the ‘shepherds’ of Rhydderch of Strathclyde and Áedán mac Gabráin, soon-to-be King of the Scots.

The Welsh Annals identify the main combatants as the ‘sons of Eliffer’ and ‘Gwenddolau son of Ceidio’.  Eliffer had governed the former Roman civitas of York, which was known to the Britons as Caer Efrog.  He had perished in 559, defending York against an assault by the Germanic Angles from the east, after which the lordship of York passed to his sons.  The Triads name the two sons of Eliffer as Gwrgi and Peredur.

Peredur [son] of York was, of course, the model for Chrétien de Troyes’s ‘Perceval the Welshman’, the native Briton who saw the graal and the blood-dripping spear in the ‘hidden retreat’ of the Fisher King.

Gwenddolau son of Ceidio was another northern prince.  Like Peredur, he was descended from Coel Hen, the ‘duke’ who had commanded the forces of the North at the time of the Roman withdrawal from Britain.

Sometime around 559, Gwenddolau took control of the wild lands of the Selgovae (‘Hunters’), a sub-branch of the Gododdin federation of Lothian.  Their tribal centre was among the Eildon Hills, above the site of Melrose Abbey and the massive Roman fortress of Trimontium.  But in about 573, Gwenddolau moved his war-band into the hill-fort above the Liddel Water to defend his western border. 

Peiryan faban

The Triads describe Gwenddolau as one of the three ‘Bull-Protectors’ of Britain – a Mithraic designation, perhaps.  He was also the owner of the magical chessboard, Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, of which we are told that ‘if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves.  The board was of gold and the men of silver.’

The golden gwyddbwyll of Gwenddolau became one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain (‘that were in the North’).  We caught a glimpse of it in Chapter 5 when, in the Saga of Sir Uallabh son of Horn, the Irish king was seen sadly ‘playing chess on a board of gold’ after burying his wife.

The ‘Action of Arderydd’ might have involved Peredur and Gwenddolau, but the trouble began with two other princes of the North: Rhydderch and Áedán.

Rhydderch was a confidante of both Myrddin Wyllt and St Columba.  His religious affiliations are hard to determine, but the Christians certainly thought of him as a ‘defender of the faith’.  The challenge he presented to Gwenddolau was partly sectarian: his ‘shepherds’ or pastors were gathering on Gwenddolau’s western flank.  Áedán seems to have opposed this.  The outcome of the squabble between Christians and pagans was the ‘futile’ battle of Arderydd, which Rhydderch won ‘after great slaughter’ and ‘Áedán fled the country’.

Myrddin had been on Gwenddolau’s side.  He had attempted to raise a tactical smokescreen, but the ruse backfired.  Under cover of the ‘battle-fog’, Gwenddolau’s enemies stormed the ramparts.  Gwenddolau was killed, as were Myrddin’s brothers, the ‘sons of Morfryn’.

Myrddin escaped into the forest, where he hid from the men of his brother-in-law, Rhydderch the Generous, in an ‘apple-tree’.  He had lost his mind.  In poem after poem, he bemoaned the tribulations which had suffered since the deaths of his lord and kinsmen.

He was not entirely alone.  His sister visited him, as did Taliesin; both were treated to self-pitying laments.  A commanding youth also tracked him down to his mountain lair.  This young man seems to have been even more upset about the outcome at Arderydd than Myrddin was.  So Myrddin sang to him, assuring the ‘son of the cauldron’ (‘peiryan faban’) that Áedán would have his revenge: 

                        Peiryan faban, cease your weeping.
                        Áedán will come across the wide sea …
                        On the islands on the way to the hill of the Irish,
                        A series of bloody encounters, like a race. 

Peiryan faban,’ Myrddin chanted – ‘The encounter of Rhydderch and Áedán by the bright Clyde will resound from the northern border to the south.’

The ‘son of the cauldron’ is not named.  At the same time, though, Taliesin was claiming in his Cad Goddau poem that ‘Druids versed in letters’ were declaring Arthur to be ‘the longed-for one of the tribe’.  And only a year after the Action of Arderydd, St Columba would predict that Arthur son of Áedán would never be king, but would ‘fall in battle, slain by enemies.’

Just four miles from the Moat of Liddel in Cumbria sits the hamlet of Catlowdy.  The Celtic place-name expert, W.J. Watson, interpreted Catlowdy to mean ‘Battle of Lothian’.  A mile or two east of Catlowdy is a spot called Arthur Seat, and south of Arthurseat House we find an incline known as Kays Bank, close to the settlement of Cays House.  The name ‘Kay’ or ‘Cay’ echoes that of Arthur’s faithful servant, Cai.

To find places named after Arthur and Cai in the immediate vicinity of Catlowdy, and so close to the place where ‘Merlin went mad’, is surely to identify the locations of the first two ‘Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’.  The Battle of Lothian (‘Cad Goddau’) and the Action of Arderydd were both ‘futile’ internecine conflicts – and the youthful Arthur was there. 

Revising the dates
The Action of Arderydd – which involved Peredur (‘Perceval’), Myrddin (‘Merlin’) and Áedán mac Gabráin, the father of the first Arthur on record – took place in AD 573, according to the Annals of Wales.

The ‘battle of the Miathi’ or ‘battle of Circhenn’, in which Artúr mac Áedáin was killed, was fought in AD 594, according to the Annals of Tigernach.

These are not the same as the dates given for Arthur’s battles of ‘Badon’ (518) and ‘Camlann’ (539) in the Annales Cambriae.  But one thing should strike us straightaway.

The gap between the Cumbrian battle of Arderydd – which was probably contemporaneous with the ‘Battle of Goddau’ – and the ‘battle of the Miathi’ in Angus was 21 years.  Likewise, the battles of ‘Badon’ and ‘Camlann’ were 21 years apart: 

‘Battle of Badon’     518                 ‘Action of Arderydd’             573

‘Strife of Camlann’  539                 ‘Battle of Circhenn’               594

                                  _____                                                                 _____

Interval:                   21 years                                                         21 years

It would be quite a coincidence if the first and last battles of Arthur son of Áedán and the most famous battles of an entirely separate (and thus far undiscovered) Arthur were, in both instances, exactly 21 years apart.  Could it be, then, that the dates given for Arthur’s battles in the Annales Cambriae are essentially correct but have somehow been wrongly ascribed?

As we saw earlier, the Welsh Annals do not follow the Anno Domini dating system.  Their ‘Year 1’ corresponds to AD 447, so that ‘Year 72’ (‘Battle of Badon’) works out as AD 518 and ‘Year 93’ (‘Strife of Camlann’) as 539.

The Anno Domini method of dating was pioneered by Dionysius Exiguus in 525 and was introduced into Britain by the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People is cited by some as a historical source for Arthur – even though Bede never mentioned Arthur.  Bede in fact used two dating systems side-by-side: one dated events from the founding of Rome in 753 BC, the other being the system devised by Dionysius Exiguus, which dated events from ‘the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

The dates of Arthur’s battles were inserted into the Annales Cambriae many years later.  The monk who interpolated those entries into the Welsh Annals faced the problem of having to juggle two or more different systems of calculating dates.  He knew that Arthur’s first and last battles had been 21 years apart.  What he had to do was to figure out the dates according to the Anno Domini system and then transpose them into the system used in the Welsh Annals.

He ended up being out to the tune of 55 years.  Both of the dates he hit upon (518 and 539) were 55 years earlier than the dates of Arthur’s battles (573 and 594).  This margin of error can be explained by referring back to Bede.

The first historical event recorded by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum was Julius Caesar’s short-lived incursion into Britain, which occurred in 55 BC.

Knowing that Bede had introduced the Anno Domini dating system to Britain, the unknown monkish scribe perhaps tried to determine when Bede’s system began and mistook 55 BC as the first date in British history – which is, after all, the impression given by Bede in his second chapter.  When the scribe then adjusted the dates of Arthur’s battles to fit them into the scheme adhered to in the Annales Cambriae, he was 55 years out.  By misunderstanding the Anno Domini system, or at least Bede’s groundbreaking use of it in Britain, the monk succeeded in putting Arthur’s first and last battles back 55 years: to 518 and 539, instead of 573 and 594.

That anonymous scribe set a hare running.  He gave scholars an excuse to deny the real Arthur. 

Jaynes, J 1990 The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. London: Penguin.

Joseph, R 2011 Right Hemisphere, Left Hemisphere, Consciousness & the Unconscious Brain and Mind (3rd Edition).

Koestler, A 1989 The Sleepwalkers. London: Arkana.

Laing, RD 1990 The Divided Self. London: Penguin.

Sherley-Price, L 1990 Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Revised by RE Latham). London: Penguin.

Thorpe, L 1966 Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tolstoy, N 1990 The Quest for Merlin. London: Sceptre.

Simon Andrew Stirling trained as an actor at LAMDA before turning professional as a writer.  He has written for several hit TV drama series, as well as adapting an opera libretto and providing scripts for the Open University.  An avid historical researcher, he is the author of The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero (The History Press, 2012) and Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means (The History Press, 2013).  He lives in Worcestershire, UK.

5 Comments to “The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion – Chapter 7”

  1. It has been pointed out to me, quite rightly, that the line in the Y Gododdin poem (“No Arthur”, above) actually reads – “caer ceni bei ef arthur” – and not “caer cein bei ef arthur”.

    I have amended the manuscript accordingly, translating the lines thus:

    “Black ravens sang [praises] over the man-servant
    [Of the] fort of anguish [“caer cyni”] …”

    There are other possible interpretations of “ceni”, but none of them – as far as I am able to determine – warrant translating as “though … no”.


  2. After further research and reflection I am now inclined to translate “ceni” via the Latin “cena” (genitive “cenae” – Gaelic, “cain”). This was a form of duty or homage, a “food-tribute” owed by a vassal to a lord. The “caer” in the Y Gododdin poem would thus have been the “fortress of offerings” or “citadel of food-tribute”, which I feel fits in with the context of the poem.

    • Charles says:

      Simon, it is “ceni” not “cena”. Check the original manuscript and you will see it is clearly “ceni”. Your translation, despite my pointing out to you by Facebook message, is still incorrect. Also I have had no reply to my reply to your message.

      • Thanks, Charles (I don’t know what happened to your Facebook message, I’m afraid).

        You raise a valid point – the text reads “ceni” – although that word, on its own, has no discernible meaning. Scholars in the past have imposed a meaning based on their assumptions about the context of the poem. If their assumptions are wrong (which I believe they are), then their interpretation is also wrong. In other words, they have wrongly interpreted a word, the actual meaning of which is unclear, on the basis of false assumptions. Those false assumptions are themselves a form of cultural bias which sustains the ongoing misinterpretation of the poem as a whole.

        Try putting “ar” and “uur” together, forming one word, and then try doing the same with “caer” and “ceni”. The meaning then starts to appear.


  3. Well now – hasn’t this been a tricky little problem? (I even blogged about it:

    It’s also a lesson in not being browbeaten into accepting interpretations that just don’t seem right to you. Going back to the short quote from Y Gododdin, there has been pressure exerted upon me to translate “ar uur” as “the wall”, which jarred somewhat. I then realised that I had been spending too much time fussing over “caer ceni” and not enough over the preceeding words.

    I now see “ar uur” in the original as “arwr”, a Welsh word meaning “hero” and a much more meaningful interpretation than “the wall”. This naturally impacts on the words immediately following. The individual concerned is the “hero” of “caer ceni”. I think, again, two words have been made out of one word here, and that neither was originally a Welsh word. The words were, in fact, Old Irish, translated – more or less phonetically – into Welsh. Together, they tell us the place of which the dead man was the “hero”. And there will be a lot more about that place in the forthcoming chapters of “The Grail”.

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