Ancient Echoes:

Transformations of Celtic Mythology in Arthurian Legend

Arthurian legend is the mixture of countless individuals over some 1500 years. The myth may have a basis in fact; it is certainly possible that an historical King Arthur did indeed exist in the sixth century A.D., a war leader defending post-Roman Britain from the invading Saxons. It is also possible such a figure did not. The question is almost irrelevant, however; whatever the legend's origins, the tale of King Arthur has been used for centuries as a symbol and a vehicle for numerous cultures. Any existing historicity has been obscured through accretion of other mythic material and by authors using the popular and powerful story for their own rhetorical purposes. Thus, the Arthurian legend is an amalgamation of many different creative impulses. One of the richest and most significant of these influences, constituting much of the original source material for the "modern" Arthurian legend, comes from the half-remembered tales of an enigmatic people called the Celts.

The Celts are one of history's most mysterious cultures. "Celtic peoples" are defined as those ethnic groups which spoke or speak a derivative of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family. This definition encompasses many tribes which had no concept of nationhood nor recognized any central authority, yet shared many technological, artistic, and philosophical ideas. Powerful warriors with a rich, complex society, the Celts seem to have originated in central Europe, between the Rhine and the Danube Rivers, nearly 3000 years ago. Discounting proto-Celtic Bronze Age societies (which nonetheless were probably the direct forerunners of the Celts), the first identifiably Celtic society arose c. 1200 B.C. This culture was entirely oral, leaving no written record of its existence. Thus we must use foreign commentators to gain information. The Celts first appear in Greek texts around 500 B.C. By this time, the Celts controlled most of Europe, with their culture dominant from Spain and France to Eastern Europe. In 390 B.C., aggressive Celtic tribes sacked Rome, and likewise the Greek holy city of Delphi in 279 B.C. A Celtic kingdom, Galatia, was founded in Turkey. But when the Roman legions began their campaigns of conquest in the last few centuries B.C., the Celts, while fearsome warriors, were steadily driven back. By the turn of the millenium, only the the Celtic cultures of Britain and Ireland remained untarnished by Roman persecution and assimilation, and even those far-flung bastions were destroyed by the seventh century A.D., leaving only Celtic-speaking descendants and a host of vivid and imaginative myths that were somehow passed along into the new cultural schema.

These legends, themselves fragmentary and half-forgotten, tell us of the people who created them. These are stories filled with the exploits of great warriors and mighty kings--the Celts had an aristocratic warrior-culture, and valued courage and skill at arms. They are rife with magic and the supernatural, being among the most fantastic of any society's mythos--the Celts believed in an Otherworld, and felt that it was very close to our own mortal world, and sometimes beings from one world could even enter the other. Above all, these tales burgeon with energy and verve--the same vivacity that drove the Celts from one end of Europe to the other. But because these were all oral traditions, much has been lost through the ages. What little remains has been garbled in telling and retelling through the centuries, put to various uses and incorporated into new stories. And thus, as Roman culture spread through the Celtic lands and Christianity replaced the old beliefs, much of the venerated lore of the tribes was deposited within one central storehouse, a vehicle that has preserved these tales for over a thousand years: the Arthurian legend.

The Grail Quest

The early Christian Church had a penchant for taking the established folklore of a society and assimilating it into a new Christian dogma, painting over the old pagan character in broad strokes. If one looks for it, however, the origins of Medieval Christian stories can by located fairly easily. The 13th-century French writer Chretien de Troyes first introduced the Grail Quest in the form in which we know it today: the story of how virtuous Christian knights such as Percival and Galahad set forth to find the Holy Grail, the chalice used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. It was further hallowed by catching a few drops of the Son of Man's blood during his crucifixion, and later brought to England (as luck would have it) by Joseph of Arimathea. In the medieval romance, only Galahad, the purest and best of the knights, possessed the grace to actually achieve the Grail. However, this sublime Christian myth has much older roots amid the ancient Celtic tradition.

An early Welsh poem entitled Preiddeu Annwfn, "The Spoils of Annwn," recounts how King Arthur set sail to Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, or the Land of the Dead. In typical Celtic fashion, his object is to raid this supernatural realm and steal "The cauldron of the Head of Annwn," a powerful magical device and potent symbol in Celtic religion. The mission was a disaster from which only seven of Arthur's warriors returned. It is easy to see the transformation of this mythic journey into the romance of the Grail Quest, both being so alike in quality: the idea of a long and perilous journey in search of a cup/bowl/cauldron symbol which fairly seethes with magical potency. Another major corollary can be found in the Welsh tale of Peredur, obviously an older form of the Percival story popularized by Chretien and the romances. The story obeys the known Grail Quest formula except that the lame Fisher King is the first lord Peredur meets, who teaches the youth proper manners and how to fight, while the custodian of the bleeding lance, et cetera was Peredur's uncle. The bleeding lance, instead of being the spear that gashed the side of Christ, was the weapon used to slay a cousin of Peredur's, and the silver bowl/plate carried the head of that unknown cousin. When this was revealed to Peredur, he set out and with the help of Arthur avenged his slain relatives.

Druids and the Merlin Figure

Celtic society was an elaborate and clearly defined system, with several different branches and roles within it. The traditional roles of freeman farmer and warrior aristrocracy existed, and a chieftain or king ruled the group. However, everywhere within the Celtic world, the intellectual roles not only existed but were developed to a high degree, and were separated into three general professional branches: the Bards, singers of praises and feared satirists; the Vates, diviners and seers (or sometimes Filidh, poets and possibly prophets); and the Druids, the priests and wizards, judges and advisors, prophets and teachers of the Celtic world. Selected mostly from aristocractic stock, and given extensive training (reports are usually around 20 years) which was shrouded in secrecy, the Druids wielded enormous power within the community, being the leaders of its mind and soul. There are even tales that the kings themselves could not speak until the Druids had done so. As one of the most central and important aspects of Celtic society, it is hardly surprising that survived in the myths and legends of the Irish and other Celtic groups. And again, this aspect of Celtic mythology became inextricably linked with the Arthurian mythos.

The obvious link is, of course, the most fascinating and enigmatic figure in the cycle of Arthurian legend: Merlin, the wise and mighty wizard and prophet. First developed as a character by the monk Nennius, Merlin was inserted into the developing Arthurian legend by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the two became inseparable. Displaying all the powers appropriate for a great Druid, Merlin fits the Celtic archetype of king's advisor snugly. All this should be expected, of course, for Merlin originates deep in the Celts' mythic past. Originally Lailoken, the character was already, even in the earliest Welsh poetry, a traditional archetype. Driven mad in battle, Lailoken flees to the forest and lives with the wild beasts, at the same time gaining the potent gift of the second sight (prophecy). The tradition continues with the Welsh character of Myrddin; he is mentioned in several poems, the earliest of which dates to just after A.D. 600, in the role of an archetypal prophet-poet, whose name lends authority to the predictions made by the author. With his name translated to Merlin by Geoffrey, the wizard takes his place as the most prominent Celtic element in the entire Arthurian mythos.

Other Celtic Influences

Anywhere magic and the supernatural intrude into the romances of shining kinghts and chivalric deeds, more than likely the story's true origins are showing themselves. One of the adventures of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn, involving a journey to the Otherworld and decapitation, seems to presage the story of Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain himself seems to be the latter-day avatar of a pagan vegetation or solar deity. The tales of King Fionn and his roving warrior band, the fiana, immediately call to mind analogous stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur's magical sword, Excalibur, symbol of his kingship, also seems to rise from these misty legends. The nature of the sword itself and its attainment from the Lady of the Lake argue persuasively for mystic origins, but the disposal of the sword is even more noteworthy. Sacrifice was common among the Celts, and often took the form of votive offerings presented to the gods in shrines, or surrendured to the forces of nature. There are many examples of weapons and other metal goods cast into pools, rivers, and lakes as offerings; these are especially connected with funerary rites. The casting of a dying king's sword into a magic lake seems almost an open window onto a long lost culture.

The Celts, along with our hopes of ever truly knowing these fascinating peoples, are gone. But their spirit lingers in their stories, the time-honored legends that have become an integral part of our own mythos.

Sources for Graphics

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