Sunday, April 26, 2015

 

UNMASKING KING ARTHUR. Etymology reveals the basis of Arthurian legend

Now uploaded on to my website, stevemoxon.co.uk, is the latest of my mythology papers: following on from the etymology-based investigation into the origin of Robin Hood mythology, here's the same re King Arthur; and the conclusion is as surprising as for Robin Hood, and a close parallel. There is now a cohesive framework for English mythology.
 
UNMASKING KING ARTHUR
Etymology reveals the basis of Arthurian legend
by Steve Moxon, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK. stevemoxon3(at)talktalk.net
Creative Commons copyright Steve Moxon, April 2015
 
Following the successful etymological investigation into the origin of Robin Hood mythology – see the major investigation on this site -- the prospect of a similar resolution of the mystery of the roots of the King Arthur name obviously beckoned. It would be more complete to include an account of the other most central figure in English mythology rather than leaving off with just Robin Hood – and England's most renowned dragon legend. I had put it off, assuming the luck I had with the Robin Hood project would not be repeated, given that no 'way in' had suggested itself: there was no clue handed to me, as had spurred me to look into the Robin Hood name (an encounter with elderly residents of Hood Hill in South Yorkshire, who proffered the tradition of a mythical association and meaning of the name of the hill). It was not until 2015, after some updating of the Robin Hood text, that finally I began as a diversion a little provisional digging. Amazingly, the derivation presented itself in the same evening I had started work, so it turned out to be the briefest of research and writing projects.

Thought to be a deity of the ancient Britons rendered into a supposedly real (though obviously not an) historical figure within a genealogy of British kings, Arthur turns out to be of greater antiquity than this account presupposes. Usually thought to mean 'bear' or 'stone', there is no cogent basis to this, even if these meanings could be made sense of. The Welsh and Gaelic word for 'bear' is the single-syllable arth or art, leaving the second syllable unexplained, unless – it has been suggested – it is -(g)wr, 'man'. This is dismissed in a (surprisingly useful) Wikipaedia entry: "There are phonological difficulties with this theory -- notably that a Brittonic compound name Arto-uiros should produce Old Welsh Artgur and Middle/Modern Welsh Arthwr and not Arthur (in Welsh poetry the name is always spelled Arthur and is exclusively rhymed with words ending in -ur – never words ending in -wr – which confirms that the second element cannot be (g)wr 'man'). As a supposedly more plausible possibility, suggested on the site is Artu-rig-ios, from arto-rig, meaning 'bear- king', but how/why this would be further compounded is not explained, never mind what the significance might be of the bear in any mythology, ancient British or otherwise. It's evidently a straw-clutching exercise.
     In some etymologies there is a two-syllable putative origin in 'Celtic' (whether Brittonic or Goidelic is unspecified, so does this mean proto-Celtic?) artos, but then the second syllable does not appear to readily give rise to that corresponding in arthur. A root in artos is offered in a database of Scottish names (available at http://www.amethyst-night.com/names/scotmale.html): "Artair — (AHR-shtuhr), 'eagle-like' or 'high, noble'; Gaelic form of Arthur, fr. Celtic artos 'bear', or poss. borrowed from Latin Artorius." At first sight, this would seem to be more promising, until you consider that the meaning appears to be a generic extension from the specific figure of King Arthur – artair apparently here is a mere Gaelicisation of a word/name from another (Celtic) language, which just takes us back to the usual suggestion of a meaning of 'bear'. But a rendering into Gaelic would seem to have it backwards, in that the name was more common historically in Gaelic than in Welsh. A Gaelic origin looks the more likely; in which case the name underwent a transition from a Gaelic to a Welsh form and then to English, or, possibly – though surely unlikely -- direct from Gaelic to English.

A trawl through Gaelic lexicons in conjunction with on-line pronunciation checking throws up athaid, athach: 'monster'. The pronunciation suggests a feasible transition, and it is decidedly interesting where this leads: it's a clear derivation from the Gaelic nathair, 'snake', used to denote 'serpent' or 'dragon'. The conceptualisation here is in terms of the weaving motion of a serpentine creature, with its being from Old Irish nathir, in turn from Proto-Celtic natir, related to snath ('thread'), snathad ('needle').The pronunciation is approximately 'narr-hurr', which seems not far from that of arthur, assuming that in Anglicisation the 'th' would no longer remain silent. Evidence of such a change actually happening in transition to English is needed if this putative derivation is to hold water.
     Just such is provided in the place-name Athersley, a village by Barnsley in South Yorkshire. As I explained in the Robin Hood text, 'Celtic' and not least (if not especially) Gaelic roots of Pennine South Yorkshire place-names are commonplace – indeed, it's the more usual derivation rather than from even Anglo-Saxon. Corroborating evidence shows this particular place-name to be derived from nathair in a standard hybrid with a much later common suffix, nathair('s)-leah. What appears to have originated as nathair has undergone a transition through Anglicisation of a dropping of the initial 'n' as well as a sounding of the 'th' as written but silent in the Gaelic.
     Athersley formerly was a name attached to a wood (on which site is now the modern village), by an ancient holy well named St Helen's (now giving its name to an area right by Athersley village). This is a generic naming of holy wells, with Helen apparently derived from Gaelic Aillen, a fire-breathing water-monster; a dragon, or serpent, indeed, with affiliation to water. [Wells were thought of by 'Celts' as interfaces with the 'otherworld', and as such were envisaged as being guarded by mythological creatures -- serpents. So the general category nathair clearly would pertain to St Helen's Well here.] The wood stretched along Carlton Road to Carlton Hill and village, which last was rendered as Carleton or Carlenton in Domesday; and therefore, as with nearby Cawthorne (recorded in Domesday as Caltorn), most likely derived from Gaelic caltuin, 'hazel grove', which is a generic feature of holy significance. The parent model for this derivation is the famous Carlton Hill in Edinburgh. It would appear, then, that just as is also evidenced in place-names at Cawthorne -- with Serpent's Well in this village named after a holy hazel grove -- there is in St Helen's Well and Carlton (Road, Hill and village) likewise a cluster of an ancient holy well and concrete allusions to a serpent and to a hazel grove. This cluster is a hallmark three-way mutual association in Gaelic folklore. All of the evidence here is internally and externally consistent, and thus is fully explained the occurrence of a place-name for the locale with a derivation from nathairAthersley.
     Looking across language use and mythology, there is decisive support for the argument that nathair indeed is the derivation of (King) Arthur, in that the Gaelic compound word righ-nathair – literally 'king-serpent' – is the term for 'cockatrice', 'dragon'; exactly corresponding to the meaning of Arthur's supposed surname, as that of his father in the Welsh tradition: Uther Pendragon (from the Welsh pen-, 'chief').
     It's hard to believe that no-one hitherto had come up with this really quite simple analysis to account for the origin of King Arthur's name. It must be, just as in the case of Robin Hood, that with a failure to fully appreciate the antiquity of much mythology, then there has been no consideration that quintessentially English figures would have even the remotest connection to Gaelic -- especially as any cursory look would be dissuasive in the absence of an appreciation of the quite marked sound changes across the language transition to English. Yet none of these factors should apply to scholars, so where have they been? Apparently, the same place they often are: in 'groupthink' misplaced deference to 'authority', protecting their own position by avoiding the risk of stepping out of line, instead of thinking laterally, putting in some work and doing their job.

From the research into the etymology of the Robin Hood name (see the parallel investigation on this site), it should be clear that a meaning of 'serpent' is the epithet of the pan-'Celtic' primary deity, Bridhe (Brigid). [Rather than reproduce all of the research into this here, it is perhaps best left in the context of the far more extensive etymological excavation that is my Robin Hood paper.] Arthur, then, is not merely akin to Robin Hood in being of Gaelic origin, but appears to be a manifestation of the very same 'earth' goddess of regeneration -- that is, he is the 'sacred king' figure who self-scrifices to the 'earth' goddess; so that he takes her name whilst being dubbed 'king'. This is hardly unexpected given the centrality in Arthurian legend of the 'grail' – another name for the mythical inexhaustible cauldron of regeneration lore; the receptacle of the sacred king's self-sacrificial blood, spilled in homage to the deity with the supposed function of bringing renewed life to the land. [The Arthurian stories in outline are familiar to everyone, and there is much writing on them without requiring any from me.]
     That they appear to us as entirely separate mythologies indicates that the two traditions originated from different cultures separated by language, which later came together through the eclipse of 'Celtic'-speaking regions in the West of England as English became ubiquitous. King Arthur being still more obscure than Robin Hood suggests that Arthur may be the more ancestral figure of the two. On the other hand, whereas Robin Hood seems to be ambiguous as to whether he is the 'red king' self-sacrificial 'sacred king' or the deity to which this self-sacrifice is made; King Arthur is clearly distinguished as the former. It's not clear if this clarity indicates a more recent origin for Arthurian than for Robin Hood mythology. Either way, the profundity of 'regeneration' (the life/death/rebirth never-ending cycle) as being the core concept in the mythological imagination of old -- as, surely, it must remain in some form or other -- is pointed up by this surprising convergence of these two key English legendary personages.

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