Literary and scientific sources of information about prehistory that can be compared with the archaeological framework
Preliterate societies without writing relied on memory. Important families kept verbal records to tell them what happened to their ancestors. When such traditions seem to indicate a memory there are often associated details that seem absurd. The foundation legends below will show that if the assumption of memory is true, the associated features may fall in place as supportive.
In this early part of the book many names that appear later in the book are mentioned as examples of some aspect of behaviour. Their significance will be revealed as the book progresses. As the topics being discussed are usually 5000 years old, the chance of individuals being remembered are small. Many references are to gods and goddesses, those that are not are usual titles that indicate function such as Prince of Wales for the heir to the throne today.
The Irish foundation legend The book called Lebor Gabala Erenn (the Book of the Takings of Ireland) is a collection of poems and prose narratives that purports to be a History of the Irish people. The earliest version is contained in a text of the 12th century. The editor and translator of it into English, R.A.S Macalister, described it as ‘a drastically artificial elaboration, by scholastic pedants, of primary folk traditions’ (Macalister II 252). This considerable compilation records a series of colonizations accompanied by imaginary events such as rivers and lakes appearing where there were none before and whole populations dying at once leaving the country empty. The comments about water might appear to rule out Lebor Gabala as a source of memories from the distant past but though the first impression might be that it is all nonsense, even the extreme events could be distorted echoes of real happenings, the first could refer to a rise in the water table due to either the post-glacial melt or to the climatic change that led to the formation of peat; the second to plagues.
The Book of the Takings would scarcely have been worth translating for Macalister or worth examining for us if there was no basis of folk tradition underlying the ‘artificial elaboration’. Macalister was Professor of Archaeology at University College Dublin for over 30 years and an expert on Ireland before agriculture, a period represented in the legend by the female leader of immigrants to Ireland, Cessair. Macalister would have realised that the stories of Cessair and Partholon were the early history of Ireland but he would have known that no one would believe it so he left a trail for others to follow when the time was right. Piggott, a decade later, was also not believed when he made a similar statement about a different aspect of British prehistory. I am fortunate in being able to take advantage of Macalister’s gift and to support Piggott’s discovery.
The story of the earliest people to reach Ireland in ‘The Book of the takings of Ireland’ is particularly interesting. In it Cessair started with her people at Meroe on the Nile (Macalister vol 2 p 203). This at 17° north of the equator is halfway from the Mediterranean to Leakey’s cradle of humanity in the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania. When she left the Nile she spent ten years in (or along the coast of) Egypt before travelling to the Caspian Sea, the Cimmerian Sea and then to the Alps, spending a day in Asia Minor on the way. From the Alps the route went to Spain and finally there was a nine-day voyage to Ireland. The times spent are mostly nonsense but there is an obvious pattern. All the places mentioned except the Alps are on a sea or a river. That and the last stage of her route suggest that Cessair was water-borne. The Nile seems not to be regarded as an alternative route ‘out of Africa’ but from Lake Victoria it is downhill all the way to the Mediterranean (see Genetics and the Irish Foundation legend in the Introduction for confirmation of the movement of sub-Saharan male genes). Cessair is the only woman to lead immigrants to Ireland and arrived in Ireland before farming. She and her people were hunter-gatherers and spoke a different language from people of the later ‘takings’ (Macalister IV 129). All the later male ‘takers’ of Ireland are said to have been descended from the male Rifath Scot.
Scota is said the have been daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh and her son was called Goidel. The name Scot is now restricted to Scotland but it was members of the Irish tribe of Scotti that exported the name there in the dark Ages. Previously the language in Scotland had been Brittonic as in Britain and Brittany. The version of ancient Celtic language spoken in Ireland is now called Goidelic, after Goidel. ‘Pharaoh’ could be an embellishment but Egypt as the home of Scottish and Goidelic matches Cessair’s origin on the Nile.
Cessair’s people will have stopped for unknown periods in addition to being on the move for millennia. Perhaps she and the male ‘takers’ should be considered as the representatives of a culture, possibly deities.
By the time Cessair’s hunter-gatherer people arrived in Ireland they would have been acclimatized to the rigours of the Atlantic and able to use the winds and currents to go where they wanted at a speed far greater than on foot. The shortest distance between Wales and Ireland, I50km, can be sailed in a small boat with more than one person aboard, in good weather, at 4 knots in 24 hours.
The hunter-gatherers left their genes along the coast of the Bay of Biscay (shown by the dark patches of over 80% today on Map 1) and in Brittany, Cornwall, the Welsh peninsulas, Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides and Orkney, though later often displaced on the islands by Scandinavian incursions. Seamanship is evident in reality by the bluestones coming from Wales by water and traffic between Orkney and Durrington Walls, which is close to Stonehenge, 800 miles as the crow flies, much of it over rough country and forest would have been difficult over land but easier by boat for the members of the coastal Alliance (see the Wonderful Youth in Chapter 5), who would each have been familiar with their own stretch of the Atlantic coast.
Cessair was the earliest to lead a ‘taking’ and the only woman. This draws attention to a progressive diminution in the contribution made by prominent women after farming began. Traditions say that Ireland was named after three goddesses, Eriu, Banba and Fotla (Rees and Rees 96), and women founded almost all the ancient ceremonial centres in Ireland, including Tara, seat of the High kings of Ireland, (Rees & Rees 167). The patriarchal attitudes of narrators seem to have affected their stories, though a diminished version of the goddess of Sovereignty did still chose kings at Tara until the advent of Christianity.
The ‘taker’ to arrive in Ireland after Cessair was Partholon who had a different language. By bringing the apparatus of farming he introduced the Neolithic Age to a place where there were no houses or husbandry and people lived on what they could catch or find (Macalister III 39). Notable introductions described were houses in settled communities; domesticated cattle; ploughs, to prepare the ground for sowing grain (but not the wheel); ale, made from fermented grain; and the quern to grind grain into flour (Rees & Rees 110).
Photo 1a.1 A neolithic quern and rubbing stone Claire H Used to grind grain into flour. .
Neither Partholon nor any subsequent ‘taker’ in prehistory replaced the genes of Cessair’s men, whose line remains almost undiluted to this day in the north-west of Ireland (up to 98 % in Sykes 2006 160).
Partholon is said in the Book of the Takings of Ireland to have been followed by the people of Nemed as the sole occupants of Ireland; after them came the Fir Bolg; and then the Tuatha Dé Danann, the latter being a pantheon comprised of the goddess Danu and her children. The three supposedly later prehistoric ‘colonists’ of Ireland can all be identified as first-farmers by their behaviour. The people of Nemed cleared away the tangled wood to provide a rich harvest of corn, and the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann were the first to be ruled by kings (Rees & Rees). Kings are not likely to have been introduced before the Neolithic because nomadic hunter-gatherers were not dependent on the continued occupation of a limited area of land so would have been less likely to submit to the centralized authority implied by kingship. As the ‘later’ takings have the same characteristics as Partholon’s, they may be no more than echoes of it. In a still later ‘taking’ the sons of Mil are said to have followed the northward route from Spain up the west coast of France that both the Book of the Taking of Ireland and the geneticists say our neolithic precursors took. The sons of Mil may be a version of earlier events or a later phase of them.
After Partholon there was no further dramatic change to arable farming practice except for the introduction of the wheel, horses, pigs and sheep. These have not been remembered except perhaps for a story about the first pigs to reach Wales in ‘Math, son of Mathonwy’ in the Mabinogi (Gantz 99). The pigs had been given to Pryderi by Arawn, king of Annwvyn (the otherworld) and were kept at Rhuddlan Teifi, a little north east of Glen Cuch in Cardigan. The brothers Gwydyon and Gilfaethwy, sons of the goddess Dôn, obtained the pigs by deceit and drove them to Math’s territory in the north, Gwynneth. There Gwydyon and Pryderi fought for the pigs and Pryderi was killed. All the players in this scene are deities or their children. There is just one possible contact with reality. Rhuddlan Teifi is not far from the point of entry of incomers from the Morbihan who had already brought domesticated cattle.
The remarks about the ‘takings’ of Ireland are not intended to demonstrate the accuracy of oral tradition in general. Indeed, the conclusion expressed above that most of the invasions are duplications conforms to the literary view that many aspects of invasions are repeated in others. Against this background no reliance could be put on any single reference to something that merely sounded like an action performed in a particular phase of prehistory. Even two or three references might be viewed with scepticism but such a detailed description of a change from nomadic fishing, fowling and hunting to a settled life in which growing grain was the most important feature can be taken seriously, particularly as a neolithic date for Partholon is supported by two mentions in Perceforest. In one a certain Barcolan, whose name contains the same consonant structure as Partholon, set up stones ‘in the manner of a temple’ in Ireland and there is an associated reference to a stone platform used to expose bodies before the bones were placed in passage graves. In this romance there is a myth, a memory of a neolithic ritual. It is as follows:
In the Island of Aren (Aran, off the west coast of Ireland) the dead were not buried but were placed on noble stones so that the living could know their fathers, mothers and ancestors (in Perceforest Bryant 2011 752). Gerald the Welshman had mentioned a century and a half earlier than Perceforest that human corpses were not buried on Aran (O’Meara section 39) but this does not seem to have suggested exposing corpses to scavengers (excarnation) to clean bones before placing them in passage graves. The difference in Perceforest is the reference to ‘noble stones’, in this context noble signifying consecrated, and associations with the Neolithic through Partholon/Barcolan’s other neolithic activities.
The British foundation legend As already mentioned in Genetics in the Introduction the British foundation legend as recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History refers to a place close to Anatolia as the origin of British people. That suggests ‘Brit’ would have brought agriculture with him, a parallel of Partholon doing the same to Ireland. The two stories fit together as the Irish version starts at Meroe on the Nile and Geoffrey’s route mentions the strait of Gibraltar (as the Pillars of Hercules). The Irish version refers to the presence of hunter-gatherers at the destination, while in the British the land when they reached it was populated by giants (GoM 1 16). Giants, like Troy, sound ridiculous but Geoffrey of Monmouth calls Stonehenge ‘the giants dance’. Perhaps ‘made by giants’ is a reference to the enormous monuments that were comparatively new and would have seemed impossible for later immigrants to make themselves.
Both foundation legends refer to journeys in boats from the eastern Mediterranean to Ireland and Britain, perhaps with long intervals ashore from time to time. The Irish foundation legend provides a satisfactory description of British male and female genes coming from Africa. The British adds Anatolia with its neolithic techniques, and a memory of west coast travel with its four generations of earlier travellers near Gibraltar.
The Mabinogi The main Welsh source of information that might be useful in the present context is the Mabinogi, a collection of stories compiled from two medieval Welsh manuscripts referring to earlier oral traditions. The first four books are regarded as the purest as they are without influences from French romances. They are called the Four Branches. The distinction between the Four Branches and the rest is an artificial one, imposed by clerics who did not want to hear references to pagan behaviour and hoped to do so by excluding that material. Fortunately they did not always succeed as there are references in the Four Branches to events that match pagan behaviour. Being original they are the most authentic. Among them are aspects of paganism originally restricted to Wales.
In the first of the branches, Pwyll ruled over Annwfn (the Otherworld), disguised as Arawn and with Arawn’s wife, for exactly a year then fought a battle at a boundary to capture the kingdom of Annwfn. Rhiannon, Pwyll’s wife is now recognized as being a horse goddess and Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, sat on the Gorsedd and was faced with magical barrenness when all traces of human activity vanished locally from the face of the earth. The Gorsedd/Perilous Seat was near Pwyll’s court at Arberth. Pwyll ruled at Arberth and Glen Cuch. All these places are in the area where some of the Welsh stones now at Stonehenge came from.
In the second branch Bran is now acknowledged by the strictest Welsh authorities to have been a Welsh god. He, his sister Branwen and Manawyddan were children of Llyr (in Ireland a sea god). Bran and his sister were present at Aberffraw and Aber Alaw on the island of Anglesey off the north-west coast of Wales, where a barrow is associated with her. Bran had his base at Harlech, where he sat on the stone that, since ‘lech’ means stone, gives the place its name. This stone seems to have been a sitting place that might be comparable to the sitting place at Arberth in a small way. The book will show that Bran as king Bran migrated from the south of Brittany to Wales with his brother, king Bors, who as might be expected of Bran’s brother, will be shown to be an important god.
The third branch is named after Manawyddan, another ruler of a Welsh province. He had the most important of his adventures at Arberth but he and his companions including his wife Rhiannon, the horse goddess, Pwyll’s widow, travelled to Hereford and several other unnamed towns in Britain, the men living as craftsmen.
And in the fourth branch Math was lord of Gwynedd (North Wales) and resided at Caer Dathal, opposite Anglesey at the west end of the Menai Strait roughly where Caernarfon now stands. He suffered from a strange restriction, being obliged to keep his feet in the folds of a virgin’s lap, except in times of war. In the Welsh tradition this is a ‘geis’, a taboo, and was often put on a hero or some other important individual (Gantz 98/9). Gwydyon and Gilvaethwy, sons of the goddess Dôn, looked after his kingdom in his place. Caer Dathal was also the home of Aranrhod, a daughter of Dôn so a Welsh goddess, whose residence was either in a constellation of stars or a now submerged harbour off the Wales coast between Caer Dathal and Aber Menei. The fourth branch is largely concerned with the adventures of the children of Dôn, who make up a small Welsh pantheon. Their Irish equivalents, the Children of the goddess Danu are now generally accepted to have been pagan deities.
The headquarters of the rulers of the Four Branches, the core of the Welsh tradition, are all in a black area on Map1. Evidence of a linguistic boundary corresponding to the genetic one is demonstrated by a remark of E.K.Chambers in Arthur of Britain (1927 p 69). He says that the Mabinogi was probably written in a district where the Irish language form of Celtic (Goidelic) prevailed at the time of writing, as opposed to the Brittonic of Wales and Cornwall today. This cultural boundary is remarkably exact. No doubt the genetic line is an approximation, Map 4 is out of date and the quotation is only an opinion but both archaeology and genetics show a cultural barrier along this line in the Neolithic.
Arthurian romances as a source of memories
In the Foreword the paganism missing from Welsh traditions was described as converted by poets into the Arthurian romances for the entertainment of literate French-speaking Breton courts. Writing when paganism was not forgotten they converted memories into stories from the 12th century AD onward. Of these only a few have been translated into English. What appears to be British, and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Matter of Britain’, was originally written in French. The French versions (listed in G.D.West French Arthurian Prose Romances Toronto 1978) are usually used here rather than Malory’s Death of Arthur.
The main French sources used were edited by Lods 1950, Loseth 1890, Paris and Ulrich 1886, Perrett and Weill 1990, Roussineau 1993, Sommer 1908-1916, Taylor 1979, Williams 1922, N.Cousteau 1528, Arnold 1938, Hucher 1875. Adams 1983. The main sources translated into English are : Bryant 1978, 192, 2001, 2011, Hatto 1960, Kipler and Carroll 1991, Loomis 1951, Matarasso 1971, Roach 1941, 1949.
Camelot, Sarras and Stonehenge Anyone familiar with the romances will know that Stonehenge is never mentioned in them, at least not under that name. Camelot is equally elusive. There have been many attempts to identify it such as Winchester or Colchester and many other places but none of them have the necessary status. All the seekers, perhaps with Saxons in mind, were aiming far too late, apparently not being aware at the time these guesses were made that the case for a ‘historical’ Arthur has been destroyed (see below under Stories of Camelot…). Though Camelot is represented in the Foreword by another name, Sarras, and is said to be Stonehenge, the following texts provide the whole story
1 Camelot is described in a romance as ‘The richest city of the Sarrasins [the people of Sarras] in Great Britain and of so great authority that the pagan kings were crowned there and paganism was greater there than anywhere else in the kingdom’ (Sommer I 244 and see Darrah 1981 149 for the original French text). The ‘Great’ of Great Britain was originally used to avoid confusion with Brittany, Little Britain, long before the sun never set on its colonies.
2 At Camelot (as the City of Sarras) there was a sun temple. The moon and planets were also worshipped but the sun more so than the rest. (St Graal ed Hucher II 130f).
3 The Round Table, which was made at Cardoel in Wales, ‘was devised by Merlin to embody a very subtle meaning for in its name it mirrors the roundness of the earth, the concentric spheres of the planets [that is the seven moving heavenly bodies, the five planets visible to the naked eye plus the sun and moon ] and of the elements of the firmament; and in these heavenly spheres we see the stars and many things besides; whence it follows that the Round Table is a true epitome of the universe’ (Matarasso 99).
4 Few comments on the shape and style of the Round Table have been made. An exception is in The Quest of the Holy Grail, just quoted from, where it is likened to a hayrack ‘even as the spaces at a hayrack are marked off by wooden bars, so are there pillars at the Round Table which separate the seats from one another (Matarasso 170).
.The Quest of the Holy Grail, interprets the ‘Holy’ Grail as a Christian relic. It is a god source of paganism as aspects of it have slipped past Christian censors.
1 shows Camelot in an entirely new light. In reality the only place in the British Isles that matches Camelot/Sarras, where, in 2 above the sun and moon were worshipped, is, as will be shown in more detail in the book, Stonehenge with its sun alignments at solstices and a moon alignment built into the original plan (Plan 2 of Stonehenge In Chapter 3 ). 3 brings Welsh Cardoel into the frame. It was there that Merlin made the Round Table (Sommer II 58) with its astronomical associations as in the quotation from Matarasso. In 4 the pillars of the analogy sound like those of the bluestone circle. The seats between the pillars are an intriguing possibility at a time when people squatted on the ground.
I to 4 show the astronomical aspects of Camelot, which are unique in myth (exccpt for a sun-bower owned by Macan at Newgrange), match the accurate sun and moon alignments of Stonehenge, which are unique to Britain in reality. 3 adds another aspect of reality. The only substantial round object moved from Cardoel to Camelot/Stonehenge in traditions is the Round Table and the only object moved in fact is the Bluestone circle. They are names for the same thing’.
The statements in the four panels see Camelot in different but overlapping ways. Together they provide a foundation that will support the relevance of other texts about Stonehenge. This conclusion that what seems a nucleus of fantasy can be matched to prehistoric fact will lead to either catastrophic failure or to more discoveries of the same kind.
The stories of Camelot as a source of memories and myths If the affairs of the people who built Stonehenge and their deities have been passed on by word of mouth for 4000 years it is not without distortion, embellishment and changes in names and actions. Well known individuals in the end product are: Arthur, Merlin and Guenever, Launcelot, Isoud and Tristram. Because readers may be familiar with Malory’s Death of Arthur his spellings are used instead of those in the French romances. They and all that goes with them have, like the sword in the stone, an air of fantasy, which is appropriate enough. If they are the end product of a long process of verbal repetition we will have to dig deep below Tennyson’s Victorian ‘Idylls’ and below the ‘Saxons’ whom the ‘real’ Arthur is said to have fought, to find links between them and Stonehenge. A major stage in sorting out the literary tangle was the removal of the Arthurian court from post-Roman Britain about thirtyfive years ago by D.N.Dumville and others.
Pauline Matarasso, always percipient, writing just before that, remarks of the Arthurian legends that: ‘The [matter of Britain] appears to hark back, at any rate in part, to a corpus of Celtic myth and legend… and asks: ‘How the figure of Arthur came to be connected with this material is far from being clear’. This situation will have to be explained. The status of Arthur himself is indeed a problem. He is known to be different in an unexpected way from any of the other important figures in the romances derived from Breton traditions. He and Camelot are unknown in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. How did this phantom, whose name was unknown in ancient Wales and only spoken of in French literature, gradually appear in historical times in the stories of Welsh bards until he and his court eventually became the central feature of those stories, collecting many unrelated tales on the way?
It is difficult to believe that some unknown figure could have been promoted to such eminence. For the change to take place could only have occurred if the name Arthur replaced that of someone else, perhaps with a similar name, who was entitled to a supreme position. No doubt King Arthur will always be attached to the group of stories about the personages who are now being allocated to a distant past but a changed name is not unusual in the texts quoted here. For instance, in the preamble to Table 3 in Chapter 8 there is the story of the sword in the stone, with Galahad replaced by Arthur or vice versa.
Arthur’s original name had already been found in 1924 by Kemp Malone, a Canadian, who argued that Arthur was a doublet of his own father, Uther Pendragon. Chambers mentioned this identification in Arthur of Britain a few years later. In that book he also published the documents that swung opinion towards a ‘real’ Arthur. With the appearance of what seemed then to be a post-Roman Arthur, the problem of whom Arthur replaced no longer existed and Malone’s suggestion was forgotten. No one now believes in an Arthur of the 6th century AD, so Malone’s suggestion may be taken more seriously. But Uther does not seem to comply with the requirement of importance. His true circumstances are not widely known because Sir Thomas Malory began his Death of Arthur with Arthur’s birth and says little about Uther but the latter does play a substantial part in earlier Arthurian romances so Malone’s suggestion was appropriate.
More recently Welsh scholars have unwittingly supported Malone. They have scrutinized the name Uther Pendragon and have suggested that ‘dragon’ is an honorific title signifying military might. Taking ‘dragon’ away leaves ‘Uther Pen’ (or Ben) in which the Pen or Ben means ‘head’. They point out that the name ‘Uther’ cannot be distinguished from the Welsh word ‘aruth(u)r’, meaning ‘terrible’, so Uther Ben means ‘The Terrible Head’. This title is considered to refer to the severed head of the Welsh god Bran (Gantz p 80). Bran is even better than Uther as having the status to be the original of Arthur. And ‘aruth(u)r’ is just as likely to slip into Arthur as into Uther, so the names Uther and Arthur cannot be distinguished from each other. A byproduct of this argument is that Uther is another name for Bran and so is Arthur. The description of a type of grave associated with Bran in Table 1 will shows it to be neolithic yet he still behaves like a god in surviving Welsh stories. For the name Arthur to have almost no variations shows the change to it was recent. Bran has more than a dozen variations (see Chapter 1b). Arthur is far from being a replica of Bran because his fame has attracted the stories of other heroes. No doubt Arthur and his court will always be remembered in its latest form with Arthur at its head.
If these sweeping adjustments to the names of such prominent people are wrong the mistakes cannot fail to be noticed.
Perceforest Perceforest is an enormous romance that might seem to rule itself out of consideration by mixing Arthurian romance with Alexander the Great. Fortunately its pre-Christian format has enabled it to include descriptions of a number of temples and a summer solstice event that have not been mentioned in other romances (see Darrah 1994 174ff). Line by line translations of parts of it have been available in French for parts of the book but an English version giving a complete account of most episodes, linked by extensive passages of background material, has been published by Nigel Bryant in 2011, a massive work itself of 820 pages. Among other memories Perceforest confirms Partholon’s presumed Neolithic date by associating him with ‘a place of stones in the manner of a temple’ and with excariation on the Irish island of Aran, exposing dead bodies of the elite to scavengers so that the cleaned bones could be stored in passage graves.
Nennius The monk Nennius of Bangor in North Wales was once thought to be the compiler of the Latin historical miscellany of 830 AD referred to above as the History of the Britons. Recently his involvement has been disputed but ‘Nennius’ is a useful single-word name for that book. In the present context of memories ‘Nennius’ is important for a couple of pages called ‘The Tale of Embreis’ 300 years before Geoffrey of Monmouth used it as a source. The ‘Tale’, irrational and full of magic, sounds as if its proper place is in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Yet because it is Welsh and much earlier than romances or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History it will turn out to be one of the most important documents referred to in this book (see ‘The wonderful youth Embreis in Chapter 5). ‘Nennius’ makes the earliest reference to the burials in the periphery of Stonehenge as ‘300 noblemen’, identfying them as an elite.
Geoffrey of Monmouth Geoffrey, a cleric like Nennius, wrote his History of the British in Latin in 1136. He claimed to have a source in an ancient book written in the British language. He was familiar with the British foundation legend and as mentioned in the Foreword he also knew about the Irish immigrant Partholon. His History is an alternative Latin source of Arthurian legends, and where Geoffrey has copied from Nennius his stories are earlier than the French. The abbreviation GoM is used here for his History. When his other Book The life of Merlin is referred to, that is pointed out.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
This is the only source that is not in Welsh or Latin. Its interest is that the story begins at Christmas (lines 65/6), regarded here as the end of the old year . A massive knight with green skin and hair challenges any knight at Arthur’s court to behead him and to meet again after a year to offer his own head in return. Gawain accepts the challenge and cuts off the Green knight’s head with a single blow of an axe. The green knight picks up the head, puts it back in place and leaves. After numerous adventures Gawain comes to the meeting place, a green chapel, where he expects to find the Green Knight (line 2104). This is described as a mound, a sort of bold knoll (2171/2) and later as a ghastly cathedral overgrown with grass (2190). ‘It had a hole at one end and at either side and its walls, matted with weeds and moss, enclosed a cavity like an old cave (2181/2).
The green knight, cut down at the winter solstice, appears intact towards the end of the story. He, like other Green Men, represents a vegetation deity. The mound is unmistakably a passage grave, an association between the Arthurian court and the Neolithic Age that supports the same conclusion elsewhere in the book.
Information from Classical observers is provided in Chapter 5
Grooved Ware During four centuries in the early Neolithic there was a single style of pottery decoration over much of the British Isles. This style, Grooved Ware, did not come from a single source but was made from local clays. It is remarkable in several ways. The design was locally popular throughout Britain. Grooved ware was used on some of the Orkney islands and Unstan ware, unique to Orkney and with a similar pattern on the rim on others. Grooved ware may have originated in Orkney and spread to become the sole or main ceramic style in use in Britain. It shares motifs with passage grave art. In the east of what is now England it is to be found on the coast and along rivers, particularly near their sources. It is even more widespread in Scotland and there is some in Ireland, particularly around the Boyne. In general, though there are some deposits in domestic situations, most of the finds are in what might be called ceremonial centres. Yet only a few small shards have been found at Stonehenge, while there are massive amounts associated with feasting at Durrington Walls, only 3 km away and intimately linked with Stonehenge; also there is some at Amesbury, the nearest town to Stonehenge. In England this pottery draws together many apparently diverse features. Its patterns has been found in association with carvings of circles and swastikas on rocks in northern England. Some of the motifs are said to be similar to those on the Folkton Drums, dated to the very end of the Neolithic, and there are other motifs on the drums that are comparable to those on the earlier Boyne tombs. them.
Photo 1a2 The Folkton Drums in the British Museum Jononmac46
The Folkton chalk drums nearly 9cm high were found in a child’s grave. There are pairs of eyes with joined eyebrows above a vertical line for the nose on
Grooved Ware has left an unexpected legacy. The builders of later barrows tended to choose sites where Grooved Ware had been plentiful. Half the round barrows in Wessex had Grooved Ware shards in undisturbed soil under them or in the earthen coverings.
Though the style of decoration is recognizable over wide areas and over long periods, not many of the motifs are common to all the different areas. The impression is of people using the same style but with a strong local accent. It has been guessed that all the prehistoric decorative motifs found on stone or pottery would have been widely used on less durable objects, such as wood, fabric and human skin. These decorations are thought to have had symbolic meaning. For what it is worth, anthropologists report that tribes unaffected by civilization believe that appropriately decorated food vessels will attract the ancestors to share a meal with the living.
Methods: dating memories, analysis of names, using tables, using dubious sources etc.
The missionaries who confronted west coast paganism in about AD 500 may have left descriptions of what they encountered, though in much later sources, but they have certainly left tangible traces, such as by burying stone idols or incorporating a symbol of paganism in a structure. There would be no point in doing so if these trophies were not being worshipped at the time of the encounter. If what is found can be dated it often turns out to be much earlier than when it was buried. Examples shown in photographs are the breasts and necklace motif in the foreword that has it origin in the Late Neolithic; at Knowlton a church is sited in the middle of a neolithic henge (a henge is an enclosure with a ditch and a bank outside it, usually with one or two entrances); at Locoal Mendon it is a fragment of neolithic art, identified as a neolithic axe by a reputable archaeologist, that was inserted in the stonework over the entrance; at Locmariaquer a neolithic cow cult is remembered by bulls on a monolith; and in Rudston churchyard (see Rudston Church in Chapter 4) the largest prehistoric standing stone in Britain is enclosed within the churchyard and is of the Late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. An intention to confront paganism is supported by the dedication of Rudston church to All Saints because on that day the saints unified to be the major Christian force in the fight against paganism on the eve of Samhain, the Celtic New Year’s Eve the day being celebrated on November 1st. There is the same dedication at Carnac church in Brittany, a parish that includes about 3000 stone pillars. Also at Locoal Mendon the dedication is to St John, the summer solstice saint. In all the instances available pagan beliefs lasted much longer than might be expected both before and sometimes after the time of the missionaries. The latest burial under a church may be of the stone idol with the breasts and necklace motif under a church built in about AD 1500 at le Castel on Guernsey and illustrated in the Foreword. This symbol was first engraved on stones in the ‘covered alleys’ of Brittany and near Paris before 2500 BC and worship continued at Quinipili until well after AD 1700.
Missionaries may also have inadvertently preserved pagan stories by mistaking the pagan belief that the young male consort of a pagan goddess volunteered to die as the main tenet of Christianity and mistaking the pagan vessel that held the blood of a sacrificial victim for the communion cup. As Jessie Weston remarked in 1920: ‘We cannot refrain from the conclusion that there was something in the legend that not merely made possible, but actually invited’ a transition from paganism to Christianity (Weston 127). The most notable examples of pagan material that would otherwise have been censored are in The Quest of the Holy Grail translated by Pauline.M. Matarasso. In the author’s Introduction to her translation of this romance she has made many helpful references to the Celtic myths that have been transformed into an apparently Christian text. Another example of the same tendency is the transformation of the Celtic god Bran into St Joseph of Arimathea with his base at Glastonbury (see Chapter 7). It is the Welsh Mabinogi that by a description of the Grail procession dispels any thought of it being a Christian symbol (see ‘earliest form of Grail procession’ in Chapter 7). Matarasso was well aware of the pagan undercurrent but nobly chose to set out the book as the narrator intended. This is our good fortune as the numerous references to it here show. All the texts above are examined in detail later with references to sources.
Analysis of Personal and Place Names
In some of the most important changes in names, such as Camelot for the City of Sarras the names are entirely different but their identity can be confirmed by comparing characteristics. Here examples of the accidental erosion and distortion of both names and content in stories that have been repeated over centuries are studied. The wide range of names of some individuals or places may seem baffling but it is a sign of transmission of memories of an important person or place in more than one oral channel and in more than one language. River names are among the most stable, with many Celtic river names surviving in England.
The river the Welsh call Habren was Sabrina to the Romans and in English is Severn.
Apart from the change from H to S (See last paragraph of ‘Island Temple’ in Chapter 5), and a common change from ‘b’ to ‘v’ or vice versa, the consonant structure is stable. Only the vowels are variable.
There are several reasons for an individual or place to have more than one name. Some people changed their names late in life. Launcelot at birth was christened Galahad at the Fountain Stone and only in later life was provided with the name Launcelot by his divine protectress, the Damsel of the Lake. And a group of early immigrants were given new names, one example being Evelake who began life as Mordrain. Perhaps these names were given after some ceremony as they are described as given after baptism. When a place or person with more than one name is referred to here the form relative to the topic being discussed is put first, followed by the name in the source e.g. Stonehenge (as Sarras) or Embreis (as Merlin).
Some names are eroded or may be altered grammatically, often by added letters at either end such as the initial letter. Or a Welsh word may reflect the gender of the previous word or in other instances a word ending may signify gender. There are also standard variations such a switch from ‘b’ to ‘p’ or vice versa at the Welsh border.The name Bran has many varieties. One is eroded to Ban with a letter missing; another, with ‘v’ replacing ‘b’, Bran becomes Evrain. In Norman French ‘g’ may replace ‘v’, ‘u’ or ‘w’, as in Guilliamus for William in legal documents. This makes the form of Bran ‘Evrain’ into the -agrain of Mabonagrain and the -grance of Leodegrance, who was Guenever’s father in Malory’s Death of Arthur. Bran (as Guenever’s father) has other versions of his name that include that include the sequence B r n, such as Ocuran and Gogvran. The list below shows that sequence appearing in several other names except the eroded form Ban.
Another similar list to be presented later, with eight more variations in Bran’s name, is duplicated here to show the full range.
The many changes in the two small ables indicate that Bran’s names are the end products of more repetitions than most other deities. Arthur, with no variations, can be explained as a very late alternative name for Bran (as already mentioned). The oldest names obviously show most variation. Merlin is another name that has no alternatives, showing his name is a recent replacement of some other individual or god.
Hibernia is introduced to show that, like the names of the river Severn, to have the sequence on its own may not be enough. Relationships and characteristics must demonstrate the possibility of divinity.
Igraine is well known to be Arthur’s mother. She had several brothers one of whom called Gwrvoddw is mentioned in the story of ‘How Culhwch won Olwen’ in the Mabinogi but only as a member of a list (Gantz 143). However, Gwrvoddw has the same name as king Gorbodug of Britain in Geoffrey’s History (GoMII 16). The latter appears in romances as Urbaduc, a pagan king (or possibly a god). Gorbodug/Urbaduc can be identified as neolithic because Urbaduc had a stone tomb that was reused to hold Launcelot’s friend Galehot and again for the burial of Launcelot himself. Reuse is a characteristic of neolithic passage graves (for Urbaduc see also Tristram’s Tomb in the preamble to Chapter 6). For reasons explains below Igraine and her relations are probably deities.
In the next list below the top three similar names have the same consonant structure and ‘w’ may be used as ‘o’ as in ‘cwm’ for Anglo-Saxon ‘coombe’.
The British king who in the episode in the Foreword met Partholon on his way to Ireland had the unusual name Barbtruc. His nams is compared above with the Gorbaduc group. At first glance the initial ‘B’ looks a little remote from ‘G’ but Norman transfer of ‘g’ to ‘v’ and hence ‘b’ can be used to show Barbtruc belongs to the table. Also because of the position of the tongue while speaking ‘t’ is sometimes an alternative for ‘d’, and for a different reason ‘c’ may change into ‘g’. And because ‘v’ and ‘b’ are interchangeable the only consonant out of place in Barbtruc is the second ‘r’. The neolithic date of Urbaduc’s grave shows Barbtruc to match the date of Partholon.
Reference to Partholon may be controversial as Irish academics point out that the name Partholon is only a version of Bartholomew, which is not an Irish name at all and dismiss him as a fiction. However there is more to this episode than they are aware of, for in the romance Perceforest Partholon can be identified with Barcolan who has associations with the Neolithic and whose name ‘t’ replacing ‘c’ could be twisted into Bartholomew.
The small table above shows Barbtruc to be equivalent to Gwrvoddw who was a brother of Igraine, well known to be Arthur’s mother, so Barbtruc was Arthur’s uncle. Igraine brings a new group of names into the Neolithic including her two sisters. One was Culhwch’s mother ‘Bright Day’ and the other Custenhin’s grotesque wife, whose embrace was powerful enough to shatter a log of wood. Igraine and her sisters could be neolithic goddesses. Morgan le Fay and the wife of king Lot of Orkney were Arthur’s sisters. Morgan is the only woman to be described.in a traditional story as a goddess (in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight line 2452). In this group of unfamiliar names there is a glimpse of an ancient pantheon. Only Igraine and Morgan have been remembered in more detail.
At a ‘Castle of Maidens’ there was a trio of three generations of women consisting of Igraine, her daughter (Lot’s wife) and her granddaughter, Lot’s wife’s daughter. This trio from matriarchal times has the appearance of a triple goddess.
Finally there is a list of the names equated with Embreis under ‘The marvellous Youth’ in Chapter 5. Embreis, from the oldest Welsh tradition available, dated AD 800, is little known but will turn out to be the founder of Stonehenge.
The chance of the name of an individuals surviving from the Neolithic is extremely small. Most of the names discussed in this Section could be of deities but when a few individuals such as Perceval or Galahad are identified as men, their names are likely to be job titles, that is indications that the same function was performed by numerous individuals, either in succession or in different places.
Tables are a useful format to compare stories in many disciplines. For instance in archaeology to compare food debris at different sites, with a vertical column for each site and horizontal lines for kinds of debris such as animal bones, bird bones, sea shells, nut shells and so on.
Using dubious sources
Many of the stories examined are from unexpected or unreliable sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History, which is not regarded as reliable but two analogies explain why paganism may be found in such sources. One example of using a dubious source is that if a shard of pottery or a worked flint is found in a rabbit scrape or a molehill, an archaeologist may be able to determine its style and age without reference to the place it had been moved from. A second example is that archaeologists have found trails of human footprints in solidified mud. In one of these no depression could be recognized as a footprint. No one would guess that any of the prints on its own was made by a living creature. Yet the pattern is clear, with the right spacing for each stride, the length is increased when the individual ran, and there is a parallel second trail with smaller prints closer together. A human with a child left prints in mud that can be dated by geologists.
If a pattern of footprints can provide dateable information, so can other patterns. This analogy works as well as the first but it suggests that there is a bottom limit to the number of useful examples of a pattern of behaviour. In this instance two footprints would be useless, four to six suggestive but the two more complicated aspects, running and the child, leave no doubt of the origin of the pattern of footprints. There is a probability aspect that means conclusions deduced from comparing groups of a small number of stories may be possible or even probable but not certain. In any situation involving probability near misses are to be expected, indeed their absence would be suspicious. However even a single statement that is particularly revealing, unique or fits closely into a pattern may still be of interest. The Basques mentioned in the Foreword are an example. Twenty years ago no one would have guessed that they shared their male genes with the Irish.
Dates are now provided for archaeologists by measuring the proportion of an isotope of carbon that changes its form at known rates, enabling ancient living material to be dated even if charred. This technique, now refined to the point that it maybe able to distinguish between objects 5000 years old and a century or two apart, has revolutionized the field. These dates have a probability of 95% between upper and lower limits specified for each date.
The enamel in human teeth is not replaced during life. Ratios of strontium and oxygen isotopes in teeth allow the childhood home of an individual to be found. The ‘Amesbury Archer’ found near Stonehenge can be traced back to somewhere near the Alps and the ‘Boscombe Bowmen’, also found under a barrow near Stonehenge, to the west coast of Britain.
Other material aspects of the Neolithic
The Celtic calendar
The Table below shows the relationship of the Celtic quarter days to the Christianized versions used in traditional stories and to their astronomical equivalents.
|Celtic cross quarter days||Christianized version||Astronomical marker|
|Samhain Eve of Nov 1st beginning of the Celtic year||All Saints Day Nov 1st||Winter solstice Dec 20/21beginning of the solar year|
|Imbolc Eve of Feb 1st||Candlemas Feb 2nd||Spring equinox March 20|
|Beltaine Eve of May 1st||Whitsunday variable||Summer solstice June 20/21|
|Lugnasad Eve of August 1st||Lammas Aug 1st||Autumn equinox Sept 22/23|
Whitsunday being a moveable feast, never earlier than May 10th, is not a satisfactory replacement of May 1st but narrators seem to have regarded it as the equivalent.
In a romance Bran is said to have decreed at Cardoel in Wales that his people should attend a ceremony at the erection of a bluestone circle there on Beltaine, Samhain and Christmas Day (Sommer II 58) and after that annually. The decree was made when the bluestones were set up while still in Wales so before 3000 BC when they were moved to Stonehenge. The Celtic Calendar had arrived in Wales and so, as Christmas Day, had a solstice alignment.
The Celts regarded winter as before summer and night before day so Samhain, 1st November, is the beginning of the Celtic year and the event is celebrated on the evening before. That explains why the Celtic quarter days are close to 50 days before the solstices and equinoxes. Our present calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar to start on Januarry 1st eleven days after the solstice.
The equinoxes are exact expressions of a calendar because they happen on a single day while at the solstices the sun stays at the same place on the horizon for a day or two before and after in the latitude of Stonehenge, longer at Newgrange and longer still in Orkney. The position of the sun on an equinox could have been obtained by halving the angle on the horizon between summer sunrise and winter sunrise or summer sunset and winter sunset (see diagram in Appendix: Naked Eye Astronomy at Stonehenge).
Bran’s decree in Wales, before 3000 BC, of a calendar that does not refer to the moon for days of festivity is a remarkable display of astronomical competence.
Material aspects of types of prehistoric structure referred to in traditional stories, most of them in romances
1. Burial places with access ( Listed in Chapter 2a and in more detail in Chapter 6) . Removal of relics from Tristram’s tomb and ceremonies held in it suggest it was a passage grave (see Tristram’s Tomb in Chapter 6)
2. A temple in Britain or Ireland with an astronomical alignment (in Chapter5 ). The only places that qualify are Stonehenge and the massive passage graves of Newgrange in Ireland and Maes Howe on Orkney. These are all neolithic.
3 Stone structures, including single stones or blocks of stone called perrons, also moved stones and one example of a floated stone that arrived at Camelot on a winter solstice (see Table 3 Chapter 8 items 4 a and b for references to the latter).
4. The capstone of a barrow with access, noted by Markale in 1983 (see ‘Grave of two lovers and of Merlin in Chapter 7)
5. Earthen structures, including mounds, barrows and banks (listed in Chapter 2c. Some of these are clearly neolithic.
6. Timber structures, such as palisades and palisaded enclosures. These often leave marks in the ground, left when posts have rotted away (see Clochidés, Isle of Gold and Geraint and Enid in Chapter 9)
- Boats carrying Basque people northwards along the Atlantic coasts of Spain and France, intending to settle in Ireland. These have been remembered in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History (for details see GoM III 12).
This list shows circumstances in romances that might be memories of ritual behaviour, that is myths.
|Depositions in water|
|Location||Ritual behaviour in Arthurian romances|
|Pool, weapon in||Excalibur, received by the spirit of the pool|
|River, cauldron in||thrown by Perceval|
|River, severed head in||thrown by Perceval’s sister, Dandrane|
|Spring, severed head in||of King Launcelot, grandfather of Sir Launcelot|
|Pit (a dried up well,severed head in)||of Meleagant (who abducted Guenever) cut off by Launcelot }|
|Other descriptions of ritual behaviour|
|Sitting places||The Gorsedd at Arberth, which was a throne-mound in the Mabinogi. The Lord of Wild Animals sat on a mound in ‘The Countess of the Fountain’ and in reality the idol of Quinipili was put on a mound when she was found and worship continued as before (see Chapter 4).|
|Floating in boats to burial||The dying Arthur to the Island of Avalon; Perceval’s dead sister and the living Galahad floated separately to Stonehenge (asSarras) and were buried there; and the Damsel of Astolat who died of love for Launcelot floated to Stonehenge(as Camelot), where she was buried.|
|Man-made and natural boundaries||Single combat to death at, also depositions at the latter.|
|Springs (called fountains)||are often foundwhere single combat takes place|
|Significant trees||are often found at cult sites where there is a spring in a glade|
|Underground chambers||Contain idols of Evelake’s lover, of Isoud, of Branwen (as Brangain) and of a giant with one leg (in Table2).|
|Specific islands||Avalon; St Samson’s island, where Tristram fought a prince of Ireland; the Isle of Gold and the Isle of Brandigan see Chapter 9. All except Avalon, home of Morgan the Goddess and her 8 sisters, are scenes of ritual conflict|
|May 1st||Guenever and her retinue are described as Maying at Camelot. May 1st was an occasion for sexual indulgence in Britain as late as the sixteenth century (see Stubbes).|
|Other annual ritual events||Bran (as Uther) decreed that the people of Cardoel should be present at the Round Table on Beltaine, (May 1st) Samhain (Nov 1st) and Christmas Day (i.e. winter solstice). A summer solstice celebration is mentioned in Perceforest. Annual kingship|
|Christianization||St Gildas and St David both built a monastery over a pagan site. For St David it was a spring, a common pagan site. See also Chartres, Holywell and Dunawd’s healing spring (examples in Chapter 4).|
|Breast and necklace motifs on pillars of Late Neolithic French covered alleys||On free standing stones of Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. One buried under a monastery in 500 AD, another under a church in 1500 AD. (referred to in the Foreword). They have the same motif as on the ‘covered alleys’.|
|Cemetery for elite burialsPagan sites buried under Chapels||At Stonehenge in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History (see Foreword) and Chapter 8 and for reality Mike Parker Pearson mentions the possibility of elite burial (201).See Chapter 4|
The significance of living in tents and bowers will be described below.in Chapter 1c
Activities in the items listed continued over long periods and were widely spread. They provide numerous examples of paganism only a few of which are present in the Mabinogi. When examined in detail some will reveal memories of rituals associated with named sites such as Arberth, Chartres and St David’s. In due course Cardoel, where Merlin made the Round Table, will be provided with an approximate location in the real world (See Cardoel in Wales under the heading ‘The rest of this Charter is about activities in Wales in Chapter 7). When associations with deities have been disclosed during examination of texts in the course of the book, the important part played by romances in preserving details of pagan rituals in the Atlantic coast will be confirmed. The Welsh tradition when extended by romances will be comparable to the myths of Greece and Ireland though simpler because it was cut off by the advent of Christianity so not overlaid by centuries of later development.
Three deities will be shown to dominate the scene: the Goddess of Sovereignty, who has many names; Bran, a Welsh god; and Embreis, to be shown as another Welsh god but little known under that name though familiar to readers of Arthurian romances as Merlin. For more about the Goddess of Sovereignty see under that name in Chapter 1c. Names of unfamiliar deities may be mentioned from time to time and later the patterns of their behaviour will show their status. The Sovereignty under various names is the most frequently mentioned deity in romances.
Protective burials in traditional literature
In the Mabinogi the severed head of the Welsh god Bran was taken from the island of Gwales to London and buried there on top of the White Hill as an apotropaic (turning away evil) talisman. It is said the effect was that ‘while the head was concealed no plague came across the sea to this island’ (Gantz 81). The British prince Vortimer, who is said in Geoffrey’s History, probably wrongly, to be Vortigern’s son and a sixth century opponent of the Saxon invaders, ‘commanded that a brazen pyramid should be wrought for him, and set up in the haven wherein the Saxons were wont to land, and that after his death his body should be buried on the top thereof, so that when the barbarians beheld his image thereupon they should back their sail and turn them home again to Germany’ (GoM VI 14). Also the British King, Belinus, said to be a brother of Bran and to be the father of Gurgaint Barbtruc (who was Igraine’s brother see Table of names above), built a gate on the Thames at a place now called after him Billingsgate. There he set up a tall tower with a quay at the base. When he died his ashes were put in a golden urn on the top of the tower (GoM III 10). None of these can be taken seriously but they have a common theme of burial of a king or god in a high place at a port, in two of them for protection of the people of the country. A possible prehistoric example of significant burials of this kind is at Hambledon Hill (Burl 60), where the human skulls buried in the ditch round the neolithic causewayed enclosure may have provided magical protection to the site. By about 3200 BC real ramparts had superseded the skulls.
Burials of animal skulls near the south entrance of Stonehenge (Chapter 3) are assumed to be foundation deposits. The cremated remains of elite men there were near the bank and ditch so may have been have been protective.
Aspects of paganism that are often referred to in literary sources, such as mounds, May 1st, living in archaic structures, the Goddess of Sovereignty, mutilation, deposition (burial of possessions) etc
Mounds are mentioned in two different circumstances. They may be the covering of graves, either large if neolithic or small if Bronze Age, if so they are called barrows. Or they may be to elevate a person or a ceremony. An example of the latter in a romance is that Joseph (see Chapter 7) and Bron burnt the idols on top of the Giants Hill, which was two days journey from Stonehenge (as Camelot). They then sat on top of the hill with the Perilous Seat between them. When an unauthorized person sat on this seat, flaming hands from the sky seized him and carried him away ‘burning like a faggot’ (Sommer I 246f) and in reality the idol of Quinipili was put on a mound when she was found and worship continued as before (see Chapter 4).
It is impossible to read about this hill two days journey from Stonehenge without thinking of Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in prehistoric Europe and visible from miles around (see photo under Avebury in Chapter 3). There is nothing to confirm the idea that this hill was intended to make rituals widely visible, particularly at night, but no other reason for making it except as an elevated platform has been found.
A significant mound in a romance is called a ‘tertre’ (a hillock) surrounded by a palisade and defended by Clochidés against all comers (see Chapter 9). In Brittany a passage grave is sometimes called a tertre.
In the Mabinogi there are several mounds with interesting properties. The most important is the Gorsedd of Arberth. It was a magical throne-mound. Any royal sitter would receive blows and wounds or see a marvel. Marvels at Arberth included the appearance of the horse goddess Rhiannon and magical barrenness, when all traces of human occupation disappeared (Gantz 52, 86). Kings did not get an easy ride in prehistory. Their thrones could be described as perilous seats, like the one of that name at the Arthurian Round Table, which will be shown to be the throne of an annual king (in Chapter 8). Other mounds are; the Goddess of Sovereignty when seated on a mound gave Peredur a magic token then disappeared (Gantz 242); and the Lord of Wild Animals in ‘The Countess of the Fountain’ sat on a mound. In Brittany the mound over the chamber on the Island of Gavrinis had a chapel built on top and so did Bran’s temple-tomb.
Yet another ‘mound’ is Mons Ambrius, the Stonehenge site, which in Table 3A is called the Dolorous Mount. ‘Dolorous’ might be a memory of priestly sacrifices buried there but ‘Mount’ or ‘Mound’ is not an accurate description of the site, though it is elevated relative to Amesbury in the valley below. A possible explanation is that the plan of Stonehenge is similar to that of the circular passage graves of the Atlantic Coast, which do have mounds. The circle of stone pillars matches the ring of curb stones round the mound, and the Avenue, combined with the solar corridor, transmitting light through a series of arches, corresponds to light passing into the passage of a solstice aligned passage grave. As the only example of a megalithic structure to remain in use into another epoch it might have carried the same symbolism and been thought of as functionally a mount or mound though the site is in fact flat but slightly sloping. The ritual mound that the idol of Quinipili (see Chapter 4) was replaced on when she was found continued to be used into the 6th century AD, when she was buried under a monastery. The Mound of the Hostages at Tara, a barrow, contained hundreds of burials in a group of structures that was later the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, in use until Christian times.
Living in archaic structures
Many memories of shelters are of ritual structures rather than domestic. In both the Welsh ‘Peredur’ and its French equivalent, in which Perceval is the hero, the Proud Damsel sat on a golden throne wearing rich jewels in an elaborate tent in a clearing (Gantz 220). Both young men approached with a feeling of religious awe. The pavilion may have been made of the finest brocade, but it is still a tent. Even in a place where there is built accommodation close by, there is sometimes a tent. Occasionally the tent occupied by equivalents of the Proud Damsel and her consort, the Proud Knight, is replaced by an even less formal structure as in The Fair Unknown where the defender of a ford was in a hut made of freshly cut branches in the middle of a meadow. The statue menhir of St Sernin, representing the same powerful goddess, has bare feet, The imaginations of narrators might introduce castles and palaces to enhance their stories but nothing as flimsy as a tent. Religions are very conservative. From monks to cardinals the standard dress when on duty is archaic. For deities and their worshippers to be found in tents or structures of leafy branches might imply that the custom began when those shelters were the norm for both people and deities. The Sovereignty carries with her a memory of the time before the Neolithic, when houses were introduced. At that time she was Flora and her domain was the static parts of living nature, while her consort Faunus was the god of animals.
The odd association of wealth and power with a tent suggests other young women who live in tents or bowers at a ritual site may be identified as the Sovereignty. Another example of a deity living in a tent is Bran (Gantz 69) though usually said to have done so because his great size prevented him living in a house, this may be another example of archaic behaviour.
When Launcelot killed an enemy of the Damsel of the Lake she rewarded him with a tent. It must have been as elaborate as the Proud Damsel’s, for this seems to be another example of memory of archaic ritual behaviour.
In Perceforest there is a record of an insubstantial shelter on a much larger scale, an opulent lodge made of leafy boughs, also in the middle of a meadow. The king gave a banquet in this for knights, ladies and damsels (Roussineau Part IV ch.1 pp. 23 and 37, lines 647 and 1089). In King Ponthus (Mather 55), there is another example of a Great Hall made of green boughs at a large gathering at a spring.
The Damsel of the Lake is identified by Malory’s name for her, Nimve, as a nymph, a goddess of pools or springs. Many springs are said to have gushed out where a woman’s throat was cut and her blood fell on the ground. The pagan presence of springs was so powerful that many of them were later Christianized though apparently not the one at Bath.
There are many references to water, often associated with women and in unreal situations. In a romance the Damsel of the Lake lived in an underwater home, where she brought up Launcelot and two cousins; the Countess of the Fountain owes her name to a spring where a ritual was performed to cause rainfall; and numerous damsels and groups of women of mixed ages were to be found beside springs for what appear to be ritual reasons. In reality the hot spring of Bath was called Aqua Sulis in Roman times after a British goddess, Sul, said to be the sun, but equated with Minerva by the Romans. Another goddess at a known site is Nemetona, also at Bath. The mineral spring at Buxton was called after Arnemetia, another nymph of a spring. The -nemet- in these names means holy. At Holywell in Flintshire St Winefride was the victim; and there are places with the name Holywell in half a dozen other counties. Dunawd may be the only named pagan remembered for her spilt blood causing a healing spring to flow and perhaps the only pagan woman recorded as associated with a healing well (under St David’s in Chapter 4) but the many Christians who suffered in the same way suggests there were many more. Dunawd’s spring was renamed as St David’s Well and was buried under St David’s Cathedral. As goddesses in romances and the Welsh tradition sometimes gave weapons to young men, the hand that caught Excalibur may be female and the event could t be the return of the sword to it original giver. Much later at Coventina’s Well, near the Roman Wall at Carrowbrough in Northumberland over 14,000 coins were found, also bronze votive objects, brooches and a human skull. Not all healing wells were dedicated to women but men were a minority. St Teilo is one of them. His well at Llandilo near Maen-clochog is surrounded by the remains of many prehistoric monuments. Water from the well was drunk from a human skull because that was believed to give it more healing power.
A great spring festival was held at Barenton on Whitsunday. 0T
he women present disguised themselves in green leaves and garlands. May 1st is described as the beginning of the year in that story. Belief in the ability of the spring to cause rain continued almost to the beginning of the 20th century (Arch. Camb, 1898 V, xv, 276). Whitsunday here is a replacement for May 1st, (see Celtic calendar in Chapter 1b).
Photo 1c1 Allegory of Spring by Botticelli (part).
There was dancing and singing until late at night, an evocation of the spring festival, perhaps inspired by the same tradition as a similar episode in Perceforest except that the large number of conceptions that took place at the Spring Marriage there are not mentioned in Ponthus, but see Stubbes on the next page. In Chrétien de Troyes ‘The story of the Grail (Perceval)’ bowers and arbours surrounded the Proud Damsel’s pavilion. Bowers seem to have been a normal accompaniment of pre-Christian ritual activities. In early Christians were instructed not to object to some minor expressions of paganism such as the building of bowers round churches. The celebration of May 1st is likely to be a memory of a very ancient ceremony. On that day green leaves were an essential feature of the festival in the 17th century as they were when Guenever went maying with her company ‘bedashed with herbs, mosses and flowers, in the best manner and freshest’ (Malory XIX 2). She was abducted by a man clad in green leaves, whom her maids thought to be a satyr. This abduction, or perhaps elopement, is one of many that, for reasons that will be explained later, confirm Guenever to be a name for the Sovereignty.
In Britain the practice of building bowers at festivals continued at least until Stubbes described the setting up of the maypole, when bowers and arbours were set up around it. The occasion was notable for sexual license for ‘scarcely a third part of the maids going out into the woods on the eve of May 1st returned home again undefiled’ (Philip Stubbes c 1583 Anatomie of Abuses in Agnlia ed Kidney.
The celebration of Flora/Primavera on May 1st in 16th century England is likely to be a late example of an ancient attitude to life. Stubbes describes men, women and girls spending a night in the woods, selecting a maypole and dragging it to the village with garlanded oxen. On that day green leaves were as essential a feature of the festival as they were when Guenever celebrated spring at a date that will be shown later to be not much after 3000 BC.
Flora, the goddess of vegetation may appear in romances without the initial ‘F’ as Lore, the daughter of Do of Cardoel (see p 123). She and the Damsel of the Lake as the goddess of hunting are both likely to be primitive deities earlier than agriculture and to have been popular everywhere under different names.
The Green Man is a figure from myth, thought to be linked to spring and is remembered in medieval churches and still today as a name for public houses.
Photo 1c2 Carving of a Green Man on the underside of a tilting seat at Ludlow Church Simon Garbutt
What is attempted in this book, recovering the details of ancient beliefs and activities, and associating them with sites might be called ‘rescue anthropology’. It is unlikely to be more than partially successful, and that only if there are a sufficient number of correspondences between the variants on a particular theme. Then it may be said that elements of the composite stood a good chance of referring to the original. Fortunately there are a few themes that are repeated often enough to be useful in this way. The most important are compared in Tables in Chapters 6 and 8.
The Goddess of Sovereignty
According to Matarasso (12) ‘in primitive times it was believed that the fertility of a domain was related to the potency of the ruler …’ This situation is frequently referred to in romances where the goddess Sovereignty had no divine partner but chose as her consort the strongest man to be the ruler. He was expected to set an example to her people and as soon as his strength declined he would be replaced. In the Mabinogi just one brief and bloodless mention of this pagan tenet has survived. Pwyll, ruler of Dyfed, was summoned by his people to Preseli to be told that he was childless and they would not put up with it, but there the narrator has put the wife’s ability to have a child in question (Gantz 59).
Written records of this situation at Nemi in the Alban hills near Rome are set out in Chapter 5. Sir James Frazer relates how the King of the Woodland clearing could be replaced at any time by a man who could kill him but only in romances is it made clear why any man would want to be king. The Goddess was responsible for fertility and her male consorts had unlimited access to women but would be replaced by more virile man when their strength declined.
That this happened in fact in Ireland is revealed by genetics. The last story of the Sovereignty was in Ireland when Niall of the Nine Hostages as a young man went with his four brothers looking for water at the end of a day’s hunting and found a well that was guarded by a hideous hag who demanded a kiss in return for water. The Sovereignty is known to appear sometimes in an ugly form and can be recognized by the offer of a cup. Only Niall gave her a kiss and she turned in his arms into a beautiful maiden who granted him and his sons the kingship of Ireland for many generations for they were high kings of Ireland at Tara, and so it came about (Cross and Slover 508-13).
Genetics show Niall’s male gene are still carried today after over 1500 years by almost 25% of the population of north-west Ireland. This figure is vastly in excess of normal expectation. The gene has been widely spread in the Irish emigrations even to New York and to the author of this book (Sykes 2006 215). This is definite evidence for the proposition that the consort of the Sovereignty had access to many women.
Niall is known in history as ‘of the Nine Hostages’ as he raided the British coast to capture wealthy hostages. One of these was St Patrick, who later returned to convert the Irish people and so put an end to the Sovereignty there,
The Breton poets who passed on information about the Sovereignty thought she was repeatedly eloping or being abducted. As a result these characteristics may identify a woman in a romance as the Sovereignty.
The Goddess of Sovereignty came with our hunter-gatherer ancestors, before kings ruled. The priestesses who designed the system no doubt wished to enhance the fertility of men and the animals they lived off. They did so by copying deer. A policy of allowing men chosen by their strength to have many children will be shown to be present under various names, including the Venuses of Quinipili and le Castel, in the Neolithic in Brittany, Ireland, and Britain but after Christianity prevailed the reason for the system was forgotten.
The Holy Grail
The Grail is described as a vessel with remarkable properties. It is called ‘Holy’ because its first appearance in Britain was as a small bottle of blood and though associated with the Welsh god Bran (called here Joseph of Arimathea, see ‘The two versions of the voyage to West Wales’ in Chapter7 . The blood in it was mistaken for Christ’s. That is what gave thoroughly pagan Bran, with his talking severed head, his title of ‘the Blessed’, and ensured the survival of associated details of paganism. The shape, size, material and function of the Grail have been disputed but it is associated with what seems to have been a ritual procession. In this a youth carried a lance vertically, point down with blood dripping from the tip. He was followed by a girl who carried the Grail above her head. The watching people cried and wailed as it was carried past. There are variations in the detail, the most interesting being the Welsh original, a more bloody version than in the romances, but a good deal of background material has to be accumulated before these remarks have been substantiated (see ‘Another mention of paganism in Wales that has escaped censorship’ in Chapter 7 and Gantz 226).
Much is said about the Grail in romances but in a Christianized form. Pauline Matarasso, translator of The Quest of the Holy Grail, was well aware of the pagan features of this romance. She mentions that ‘underlying the Christian symbolism there flows a primitive current that occasionally threatens to disturb the smooth and limpid surface of the stream’ (13). The story translated by Matarasso ends with Galahad, stated to be a king for exactly a year (282) and dying at an altar.
The commonest example of this is maimed kingship, frequently mentioned in romances. Notable examples of it are King Pelles, who drugged Launcelot and a put him in his daughter’s bed so she would conceived Galahad who being perfect would retrieve the King’s country fro magical barrenness; also Evelake, associated with Stonehenge in Table 2 in Chapter 6. The maimed kings were all maimed by a stroke between the thighs (Sommer 1 253, 288/9). Sometimes the deed is said to have been done by an angel with a face as bright as lightning (Sommer I 77) or a man all in flames but the outcome was castration,
‘Fisher king’ is an alternative name for maimed kings. Galahad, on his accession to the throne/Perilous Seat, sent greetings to his mother’s father, Pelles, a maimed king, and to his grandfather, the Fisher King (as Lord Petchere (for pescheur, fisherman). G D West in his Index of Proper Names in French Arthurian Romances gives as much space to maimed and fisher kings together as to Arthur himself.
Maimed kings have been explained by P.M.Matarasso, who in her introduction to The Quest of the Holy Grail (12) refers to the nature of the wound suffered by maimed kings as follows:
“in primitive times it was popularly believed that the fertility of a domain was related to the potency of the ruler, and the maimed king is generally represented as wounded ‘through the thighs’ ”.
Various euphemisms have been used for the wound of maimed kings, according to the meaning chosen for the French ‘parmi’, which can mean among rather than through. The incident is sometimes called a war injury or said to be a hunting accident. Only the German language version of Parzival openly mentions a wound in the scrotum (Parzival tr Hatto 244) for Perceval’s lamed uncle and also calls him Anfortas, a name suggesting without vigour (Hatto 439). The logic of this ritual situation is that when a king had ceased to be sexually active he suffered this fate and was immediately replaced by a new king. It was supposed that the effect of castration of a king was to make his kingdom barren. That could be avoided by replacing him immediately with a sexually active ruler.
In a romance an old knight who had served Bran (as Uther) at Cardoel in Wales reported that in his day (that is before the bluestones were moved to Stonehenge) knights who took their places to eat at the Round Table were obliged to have facial mutilations. A knight who failed to comply with the rule was sent away from the Table. At that time face-wounds were regarded as the symbol of knights of the Round Table and at a Christmas court at Cardoel in Wales (interpreted here as at the winter solstice) a seriously injured knight was even allowed to die slowly over two or three days in a seat at the Round Table (Sommer I 130/1). Later, in the time of Launcelot, his half-brother Hector, and Galehot at Stonehenge, another custom was substituted. Any knight wishing to take his seat at a high festival was obliged to have conquered a knight by force of arms in the previous week. The knight of Uther’s day who provided the information about Uther’s court at Cardoel considered it no more irksome than that at Stonehenge.
Natural or man-made boundaries are often scenes of conflict. This category includes glades, pools, rivers, palisades, even countries. Three instances of defended palisades are provided in Chapter 9, two of them, Geraint and Enid/the Joy of the Court and the Island of Gold, have severed heads on the stakes. The interest here is that there are the remaining post holes of many palisaded enclosures and no ritual use for them has previously been suggested apart from controlling access. Timber palisaded structures are often associated with henges or Grooved Ware. Those that are not neolithic are usually Bronze Age. Of course there is no reason to suppose that the myths recorded here are linked to these enclosures but this is early in the Book and as memories of more neolithic structures are found the chance of a link between myths of palisaded structures being associated with neolithic ones in reality will increase.
Primitive people often made offerings to their gods. They may have tied ribbons to trees or hung objects from branches, or they may have burnt priceless textiles or basketwork in bonfires but only objects that they deposited in water or buried in acid conditions on land have survived.
The burials of elite members of society referred to in the Foreword are not restricted to the Neolithic. There are a few bodies deposited in bogs in the Bronze Age but most are of the Iron Age (from 1500 BC). The latter sometimes have hands that show no signs of labour. These bog bodies often show signs of several fatal blows, recognized now as ‘triple deaths’. A reference to this obscure form of death is made in Paris and Ulrich p 83, likely to have been written before AD 1300. That is many centuries before bog bodies were scrutinized, so perhaps a minor memory. A possible recollection of a late event of this kind, but never proved, is that St Odhran may have volunteered to be buried alive under the building that preceded St Cuthbert‘s cathedral on the island of Iona.
Buried intact skeletons of aurochs at Boscombe Down, Amesbury, near Stonehenge and Bradley Fen in the Somerset levels could be trophies of a successful hunt but hunting is for eating and at least the Boscombe Down burial is probably of an animal with flesh on the bones because there are flint arrowheads amongst them.
Amongst the oldest depositions are the more than 30,000 flint arrowheads so far found in the pool at Blick Mead in the Stonehenge ritual landscape (Current Archaeology 293 25). These were not lost or discarded as substandard. They seem likely to be gifts to a deity, presumably to that of hunting, as a donation to a deity for past success or to have it in the future.
Deposition in water is well documented from the Bronze Age onward but in the neolithic only in Scandinavia for flint or stone axe heads (Larssen). There are flint axe-heads without hafts at Flag Fen of a much later date.
Listed above are some of the accessible elements of pagan behaviour. The rest of the book will show the material background with which these elements fit in a coherent and credible way.