Chapter 9

Chapter 9

Vigorous rulers chosen by combat

How `Stonehenge was abandoned, use of metals,  and use of a new system to select a consort for the Sovereignty.

A little more than a century after the sarsen structure began in about 2500 BC the Avenue Banks were set up but no significant changes to the stones took place apart from minor alterations to the positions of the bluestones.

The Copper Age began soon after 2500 BC and lasted 200 years (M.Parker.Pearson 310). The places where copper was first mined and smelted in Ireland and Britain tended to be  coastal, like the dolmens, round barrows over passage graves and many of the megaliths. The very first copper mining and smelting may have been at Ross Island, not an island but the tip of a peninsula in Killarney National Park, County Kerry, south-west Ireland. And the largest haul of worked copper so far been found is three axes at Ronaldsway on the Isle of Man.   Beaker pottery was found at both sites.

The sites of early copper mines, copper finds or Beakers of the Copper Age in Britain mentioned by Julian Heath in Life in Copper Age Britain are roughly as follows:

On the West Coast On the East Coast, with different origins and similar to Dutch forms
Ross Island, s-w coast of Ireland Beechwood Park, Inverness
Ronaldsway on s-e coast of Isle of Man
Newmill on Tayside  
The Island of Coll in the Hebrides
Biggar, upper Clydesdale
Talbenny, Pembrokeshire
Sutton, Glamorgan (Alderley Edge, Cheshire ca 1780 BC)
Copa Hill, near Aberystwyth Amesbury Archer, Wessex
Boscombe Bowmen, Wessex but likely to have west coast origin Wellington Quarry, Hereford, but with maritime type beaker

Pebbles of tin ore from Cornwall and Devon may have been exported at this time but Bronze, the tough alloy of tin and copper, only came into use at about 2100 BC. Then  theEarly Bronze Age began. That saw rearrangements of the bluestones in what have been labelled the Q and R holes. There are no memories of these so they are outside the scope of this book

The end of Stonehenge

The last sign on the ground of activity inside the bank and ditch was  a set of holes in radial pairs outside each pillar of the lintelled ring in 1600 BC. These have been called the Y and Z Holes.

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Photo 9.1 The Y and Z Holes   downloaded from Anthony Johnson.’s Solving Stonehenge by Sitehut.  The Z Holes are inside the Y Holes

On p 206 Antony Johnson has shown how geometry could have been  used to overcome the problem of needing a circle outside the sarsens, which prevented  one being drawn with a post in the centre and a rope.  The  way to overcome this problem was to use the fact that that each Y Hole was at the tip of an equilateral triangle with each side the length between two Z Holes.  The only measurement that needed to be chosen was the distance between the outside of the sarsens and  inner circle of Z holes.   Stating with, say,  sarsen 15 a measurement would have been made to get the position of the centre  of  pit Z15. This could be confirmed  by checking equal distances from the centres of sarsens 14  and 16 .   After three Z Holes were marked the position of Y 15 at the tip of the triangle and opposite Z 15 would  have been marked and so on clockwise round the circle.  There would have been minor faults but with every position being set out separately there would have been no cumulative errors.

Looking only at the space from sarsens to  Z Holes whatever system they were using seems to have been quite stable for the northern part of the site. Unfortunately after a certain point the rigorous precision of the sarsens was not reproduced. The crunch point is in the south-east.  After Y and Z3,  the Z Holes got closer to the sarsens and further from the Y Holes. After Stone 7 a correction was attempted by putting the next two Y holes inside the Y ring.  The guiding hand had  ceased to function.  A second correction was attempted by putting the next Y hole on the Y ring but the damage was done. It was clear by then that the  two sets of holes would not meet tidily. Hole Z 8 was never dug and the project was  abandoned  The holes were left to be silted up with wind-blown dust from the neighbouring fields.

The date of this event, 1600 BC, signals the end of Stonehenge by then  in the Bronze Age.  By that time elite burials were made outside Stonehenge under much smaller round barrows without access. There had been a change from communal effort to construct the large projects of the Megalithic Era to the burial of individuals with personal belongings. Stonehenge was the last and most sophisticated fling of the communal builders.

Even before Stonehenge was built a new development in civilization had begun on the Continent  Oetzi, the Ice Man, had a copper axe in 3300 BC.  A millennium later the Amerbury Archer was buried near Stonehenge with three small copper knives among the grave goods. The last date roughly corresponds to the discovery of sources of copper in Ireland in about 2300 BC, The Amesbury Archer also had two pot beakers in his grave.  They indicate the arrival of the Beaker Culture. This spread over all Europe. It can be recognised by the beakers in graves with flint arrowheads and stone wrist guards.  The people lived on milk products and vegetables. They seem to have had a cattle culture and measured wealth by the size of herds. They may have been successors of the earlier  ‘cowherd dukes’.

Use of Metals

The only  metal apart from copper in use before the Early Bronze Age was gold, which can be obtained by panning, separating out heavier small particles from sand and gravel in some rivers. There have been 15 finds in the Wessex area, compared with half a d ozen from other counties. Two finds were near Stonehenge, The Amesbury Archer and a relation in a grave next to his both has twists of gold that might be earrings of hair ornaments.

bush barrow one

Photo 9.2 Bush Barrow   D.A.P

Also one of the round barrows set up in a barrow cemetery at Normanton Down, visible from Stonehenge, contained the skeleton of a well-built man with weapons and gold ornaments.  The latter consisted of decorated plates with designs based on hexagons, now on display at the Wiltshire museum in Devises.


photo  9.3 The Rillaton Cup                                             Fae

Human remains were found in a stone cist in a round barrow of perhaps1700 BC on Bodmin moor in Cornwall. They were accompanied by this cup, a bronze dagger, beads, pottery and glass.

mold cape

Photo 9.4 The Mold Cape Flintshire Wales                    David Monniaux


Inert Photo 9.5 Detail of the Mold Cape

This gold cape 400mm across is now in the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff. It is getting on for 4000 years old. It was lined with thin copper sheet and would have had 2 or 300 amber beads attached. It is thought to be associated with a female grave.

Beads of amber, a translucent form of fossilised tree resin, have also been found in a bowl barrow of 2100 BC west of the New King Barrows, in sight of Stonehenge and less than a km from it. The barrow was excavated in the nineteenth century and recently by Paul Ashbee.  Amber can be found on the Norfolk coast but has also been imported from the Baltic.

Other minerals used for beads and other decorations were jet and Shale. Jet from Whitby is black and takes a good polish (much used later by Queen Victoria and the Victorians).

The ‘Challenge’ system

There was a change in style of kingship in a new regime from election of a member of a priestly ruling-house (as for maimed kings under Mutilation in Chapter 1c and Galahad as an annual king in Chapter 8) to selection by combat, remembered in romances by the preoccupation of the knights of the Round Table with fighting for women. There is a change from a communal efforts to an individual ones. The Challenge system  seems to fit the single or few interments with personal goods in the small round barrows of the Early Bronze Age that followed sarsen Stonehenge. The Challenge system is  recorded in the opening pages of Sir J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough as still happening near Rome 2000 years after the round barrows of the  facade.

The stories in this chapter play out the comment  of Mary Williams mentioned in Chapter 6 that the hero is a worshipper of the goddess but later with the same goddess but different rules.

The Proud Damsel and her consort, the Proud Knight of the Glade

These are generic names for the Sovereignty and her partner. She is the young woman wearing a golden hair-band studded with jewels who sat in a golden chair in a tent, which was in a clearing in the forest. She appears in the almost identical stories of Peredur in the Mabinogi (Gantz 220) and that of Perceval in a romance (Kibler and Carroll 389). In the French sources the tent is sometimes in a meadow but in many instances meadow is replaced by ‘lande’, which means a ‘clearing in a forest’ or in English a glade. Translators have often taken lande to have its modern meaning of ‘barren ground’, resulting in an inappropriate title such as ‘The Proud Knight of the Barren Heath’. In fact lande is derived from an original ‘landa’ for an enclosed space. Landa is the same word as the Shakespearian laund, meaning a glade. Both are developed from the same root as ‘lawn’. See also Gallais p. 55: ‘lande’ which could be a meadow. The same conclusion can be drawn from the Welsh title of the Proud Knight. That is Sybarw Llanerch meaning, Goetinck explains in her study of ‘Peredur’ in 1975, ‘the Pride of the Clearing’. Malory correctly translated the Proud Knight as Sir Miles of the Launde in which Miles means soldier. A clearing in woodland may seem no more prestigious to have in a title than a heath, but a glade is a numinous place and attracted the attention of an ancient cult as described in ‘The King of the Woodland Clearing’ in Chapter 5.

In the Latin account of a combat initiated by a broken branch the goddess involved is Diana, in the romance versions it is the Sovereignty under different local names. There seems to be a discrepancy here, not surprising because of the distance of time and place, but in the story of Merlin and the Damsel of the Lake the lake is called Diana’s and the Damsel of the Lake, who was probably a goddess, does behave like Diana when she appears at Camelot as a huntress dressed in a short green tunic with bow and arrows and a pack of hounds. The Damsel of the Lake is as likely as the Countess of the Fountain to be another name for the Sovereignty.

In these stories the consort is often a ‘ruler’ but that is not royalty as we understand it today, for he leads the precarious life of sacred kingship. Frazer is not the sole source. Robert Graves refers to ‘the sacred king who, legitimately and ceremonially, had always killed his predecessor’ (I 82 item 12).

The bulk of the evidence for this form of kingship is from romances but hints of it in the ancient Welsh stories of the Mabinogi give it a firmer footing. Already mentioned are that the important ruler of Dyfed, Pwyll, the first individual mentioned in the Mabinogi, was told by his people that they would not permit him to remain childless. Another is that he ruled over the Otherworld for exactly a year.

One of the clearest examples of the rite of Nemi is in a story written in Welsh in the Mabinogi (Gantz 196 – 206) though it probably took place in Brittany.  It as follows:

The Countess of the Fountain

Prologue: A young man seeking adventure left the safety of normal existence. Before long he encountered a black giant with one leg and one eye in the centre of his forehead, sitting on a mound in a clearing (Gantz 196). This strange creature, a form of Merlin, had control over all the wild animals of the forest. His part was to send the youth to ‘Merlin’s spring’  in the forest of Broceliande in Brittany, illustrated in Chapter 7. The story continues in three acts, as follows:

Act 1 The Challenge:                                                                                                   The adventurer next had to take part in a rainmaking charm. A cup of water from the spring, when dashed on a particular rock, provoked a tempest accompanied by a downpour. This spring is the ‘fountain’ of the Countess’s title.

Act 2 Single Combat:

Dashing the water on the stone had a second effect. It acted as a challenge to a powerful black knight whose custom was to defend the spring. In the encounter that followed, Owein, the hero of the story, defeated the defending knight who, mortally wounded, rode back to his castle pursued by Owein.

Act 3 Marriage and defence of the Fountain:

The hero, in pursuit of his dying opponent, reached the black knight’s castle but was trapped between the portcullis and the gate. Fortunately a girl with yellow hair, a gold headband and dressed in yellow brocade rescued him by making him invisible. She also persuaded the widow of the black knight to marry the victor by pointing out to her that the only means of defending the realm was to defend the fountain. The Countess told her people that the earldom could not be defended except by horse and arms and strength. She then offered herself to any husband who could defend the Fountain. None of her own people stood in Owein’s way, so he and the Countess were married. All the men of the earldom then swore allegiance to him. After that ‘Owein held the position of defender of the fountain with spear and sword’, dressed in black like his predecessor. All the characters in this story except for the enchantress who made Owein invisible and the giant herdsman with one eye in the middle of his forehead are portrayed as human and they are provided with human emotions, so the Countess (although was a goddess) at first expressed revulsion at accepting the addresses of her husband’s killer. Nevertheless this story has long been recognized as a parallel of the rite of Nemi but told at a time when jousting on horseback was fashionable. Owein’s duty as a consort is clearly stated to be to defend. Any opponent can make the challenge, which is a distinctive element of the system.

The location of the story  in the Forest of Broceliande in Brittany,  is far from being irrelevant as it is in a region that was a starting point of the migration of Stonehenge myths to Dyfed and thence to Salisbury Plain.

A romance version of ‘The Countess of the Fountain’ (Sommer VII 124ff), describes a visit by the knight Kalogrenant to the thunderstorm spring. Here the black giant with one leg and one eye is replaced by Embreis (as Merlin) disguised as a giant shepherd with an enormous staff, a grotesque appearance and a voice like a trumpet. So many wild beasts grazed around him that they could not be counted, and if he shouted at them they did not dare to feed. They drank at his fountain nearby, which is the focal point of the Countess’s domain.

Sometimes the founder of the system is mentioned, in this instance it is Lunete, a goddess representing the moon, who also helped the trapped hero and who was a cousin of the Damsel of the Lake. The Damsel and the Countess were both water nymphs.

The ‘Challenge’ system analysed

The system of ritual combat described here as the ‘Challenge’ has several elements.

The commonest are

1) A guarded site, which is often a spring or a place such as a pool or a glade that has a natural boundary, an area surrounded by a palisade of sharpened stakes or a ford or other  river crossing.

2) A natural feature that is often a tree and may have a spring beside it.

3) A challenge is made by a significant act, often noisy such as beating a cymbal or a shield that is hanging from the tree of blowing a trumpet.

4) The reward for success is ‘marriage’ to the resident woman who represents the Sovereignty and temporary rule over her domain. In the example above she is called the Countess and in an another example she is called the Empress of Constantinople (in Chapter 5 and Gantz 246 and 248).

Less frequent

5) The custom is continued by a victorious challenger who continues the defence and will never leave the site alive.

6) The Sovereignty or her lover may live in a tent or even a twig hut on the site, even though there is built accommodation nearby.

The Countess of the Fountain contains the first five of the six elements  but examples with fewer can also fit the description ‘Challenge’.   Items 5) or 6) on their, own or item 3) plus any one of 1), 2) or 4) are enough to be convincing .

The 33 damsels who either sit in a pavilion or by a tree or spring in a meadow (Darrah 1994 pp 252-254), back up the system as the near misses that can be expected.

The French romances do not mention the slaves in Frazer’s account, usually not the title ‘King’ and the broken branch motif is very rare but the Roman version of the system still matches many of the elements listed above and is important as it survived into a literary environment and was recorded.

There are several pagan associations in the ‘Countess of the Fountain’ in addition to the Challenge: the Lord of Wild Animals, a Fomor, a mound,   a rainmaking charm, and Lunete the moon goddess. As the Countess is fought over she is the Sovereignty in addition to being the spirit of a spring.


The Countess of the Fountain may be the most complete example of the Sovereignty but Guenever is the best known. She was born at Cardoel in Wales, where her father gave her the Round Table as her dowry. She was the Sovereignty of Stonehenge and had many suitors. Her first affair may have been in Cardoel. She also met Arthur there and later they married. Next she was abducted by a man covered in green leaves as she Mayed. Launcelot recovered her and kept her but later, when Arthur was campaigning abroad, she was abducted again and married by Mordred who, as she was the Sovereignty, claimed Arthur’s kingdom leading to the final battle where Arthur was mortally wounded.

More individual stories of challenges of this kind now follow

The broken branch                                                                                                                 

There are only three instances in romances of the broken branch motif (see Chapter 5) as a challenge to provoke single combat as at Nemi. Two are in the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach (Zeydel and Morgan 295; Parzival tr Hatto 302f). Another, somewhat disguised and more complex, is when Gawain is sent by the Proud Damsel (as Orgielleuse) to pick a garland of flowers from the Tree of the Garland. This tree was guarded by King Gramoflanz. To reach the tree Gawain had to perform an almost impossible task, to cross the Perilous Ford.   Having succeeded in this and picked the garland, Gawain was confronted by the owner of the tree, who required him to fight in single combat but not immediately (Zeydel and Morgan 258). The subplot, sending an armed champion on such a dangerous task only for flowers is so absurd that the garland has been omitted in a modern translation though it is clearly derived from the act of breaking a branch, as in the challenge at Nemi. The defender, Gramoflanz, had already killed the Proud Damsel’s previous husband, so Gawain’s story is an instance of the continuation of the custom. His success in bringing the garland to the Proud Damsel entitled him to sleep with her. Narrators speaking of the ‘affairs’ of the Sovereignty never realised she was a goddess.

The only other mentions of the broken branch motif are from the tree in the first  story but no conflict followed .

 For the system to be found in a large number of different forms in western literature as well as at Rome, where 2000 years ago it was regarded as a relic from a distant past, suggests an early origin.

.Balin and Balan

In an incomplete but easily accessible example, Balin and Balan were brothers who fought until both were mortally wounded (Malory II 18). The story begins when Balin made the challenge by crossing a boundary. He heard the blast of a horn and said: ‘That blast is blown for me, for I am the prize, though I am not yet dead’. A hundred women and some knights came singing and dancing to welcome him to a castle, where he was entertained. Then the chief lady of the castle told him he must fight the defender of an island. Unknown to him the defender was his brother, Balan. They fought until both were dying and then recognized each other. Then Balan said to his brother: ‘it happed me to slay a knight that kept this island, and since might I never depart, and no more should ye, brother, an ye might have slain me as ye have, and escaped yourself with the life’.

The site is an island; the natural feature is missing; two defenders are mentioned Balan and the unnamed man he killed, and the horn has been used for the wrong purpose. There seem to be few elements of the ‘challenge’ but the rare continuation of the custom is referred to twice in Balin’s sad speech. The continuation of the custom with the inability of a victor to leave the site are unique to the Challenge system. The story is a good example of the system.


Clochidés and his lover lived in a castle on a mound (tertre) where there was a pavilion and a tree with an ivory horn hanging from it. He defended the mound, which was surrounded by a palisade. Any challenger had to swear to take the defender’s place if successful, before he was allowed to pass the palisade (Sommer V 236-40).

The site is a mound; there is a tree on it; there is a defender; the challenge was made by crossing the boundary; and there is an oath to continue the custom.. Four elements and continuation of the custom make this a good example of a Challenge site.

The Isle of Gold

The Isle of Gold was the home of the Lady of the White Hands (Perret and Weill 47-51). She was the most beautiful young woman ever seen and mistress of a rich city that she inherited from her father. She was doomed to marry the oppressive giant Mauger, defender of the city, unless he was defeated within two years. The fortified city with a palace inside was approached by a road on a dike, which was separated from the buildings by a palisade of 44 (or perhaps 144) sharpened stakes, and there was a large tent where the defender was on guard. All but one of the stakes had the head of a man on it. The next challenger’s head would be put on the last stake if he were to lose. The knight called the Fair Unknown defeated the defender. As a result he was obliged to continue the defence for seven years but the lady fell in love with him. She then excused him from the duty to defend the island. The Fair Unknown lapsed into amorous indulgence and was unable to leave to fulfil other obligations.

The site is the island; it is protected by a palisade; the defender is Mauger; he lived in a tent; the reward is the Lady; and the continuation of the custom existed though not carried out. Another good example of the theme.

The well-educated heroine of this episode was skilled in arithmetic, geometry, necromancy and astronomy, curiously similar to the academic part of the list of neolithic achievements in the Introduction to this book. When the goddess first ruled women had more power than men. ‘Palisaded enclosure’ is a name commonly used by archaeologists for structures of timber posts.

 Yblis, her father Iweret and Lanzelet at Dodone

In the Lanzelet of the Swiss Ulrich von Zatzikhoven (Webster 1951) the hero came across a clearing in Belforet, the Beautiful Forest. It contained an evergreen lime tree with a spring at its base. A cymbal hung from the tree. Any knight who wished to marry Yblis had to beat the cymbal as a challenge to fight her father Yweret to the death. Nearby there was a small monastery and a cemetery where unsuccessful suitors were buried. Lanzelet made the challenge, killed the father and so obtained the daughter and her inheritance.

Here there is a defended site, a tree, the challenge is made by beating the symbol, Yblis is the prize, and continuation of the custom can be inferred from the cemetery, another good example of the theme and of elite burial.

At Belforet the defender is not a lover or a husband but a father, as he is in another of Lanzelet’s exploits, killing Galagandriez and abducting his daughter. There is another example of killing the father for the daughter to marry in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ (in the Mabinogi) when Ysbaddaden acknowledges that he must die before his daughter marries Culhwch. Also Kalafes was a maimed king who died when his daughter married (in Chapter 7).

The Adventurous Ford

Another instance of the ‘Challenge’ system is the defence of the Adventurous Ford by Urbain, son of the Queen of the Blackthorn, the white flower of the blackthorn or sloe being the first to be seen on hedgerows in spring. Urbain achieved his position as defender in a strange manner. One tempestuous night he saw a damsel riding fast on a mule. He pursued her on horseback, only being able to keep her in sight by flashes of lightning. She led him to a beautiful castle where she welcomed him and offered to become his mistress if he would set up a pavilion at the ford nearby and joust for a year with any knight who attempted the crossing. The castle, with numerous servants and courtiers, was there for their pleasure, but was invisible to the rest of the world. Perceval came upon this ford when Urbain’s year of service was just short of completion. If he had succeeded in keeping the ford for another eight days he would have been considered the best knight in the world. Perceval attacked and won. Now he had the opportunity to defend the ford himself and to gain the prize but he declined and by doing so he offended the Damsel of the Ford who caused a tumult and a thunderstorm.  She also set a flock of large black birds on him, which tried to peck out his eyes. In defending himself he killed one of them with his sword. As it fell to the ground, dying, it changed into a beautiful young woman. The birds were the Damsel and her maidens. They carried off their dead comrade to the island of Avalon, where all would be well with her (Roach, 1941, 998/D930 also 1067/D965, 973; English version Bryant 2001 136-9).

Several themes are woven together in this incident. The guarded site is the ford; the reward is the Damsel and lordship of the invisible castle; and the continuation of the custom is the guardianship of the ford for the next year. Other mythological themes, though not part of the Challenge system, are the invisible dwelling and retinue; the race after a young woman who becomes his mistress (as with Pwyll in the Mabinogi, where the girl is the goddess Rhiannon, and where he also faces a challenge at a ford); and the black birds from Avalon, home of Morgan le Fay which may, it has been suggested by Gallais, identify the Damsel of the Ford as Morgan, presumably on account of her ability to fly. Also according to Gallais (p 28) the name of the defender, Urbain, might be a variant of Urien, who in another context was married to Morgan. They had a son, Owein, the successful challenger in ‘The Countess of the Fountain’.

Peredur and the Empress of Constantinople

Constantinople is a title introduced by a narrator to establish the importance of the woman in the story, appropriately so because she is the Sovereignty. Peredur came by chance to a tournament where the Empress ‘wants none but the bravest men, as she has no need of wealth’ (Gantz 247/8). Peredur was offered three cups of wine and killed three other suitors for the Empress. She then reminded him of a promise he had made when she gave him a charm to enable him to kill a monster. After that they ruled together for fourteen years (probably an exaggeration for a time limited kingship of seven years).

The material framework of the challenge theme is missing and there is no continuation of the custom. On the other hand the ‘Empress’ is fought over, she offers the winner a cup and she rules with the strongest man for a fixed period. This exact description of the Sovereignty may be from the original Welsh tradition in the same way as the Welsh versions of the Grail procession, also associated with Peredur, are in Chapter 7.

The Perilous Ford

When the Fair Unknown (also hero in the Isle of Gold above) came to this ford the defender, Bleoberis, had killed many knights there. Merely to cross the ford was a challenge, as the river was a boundary. The defender and his lover lived on the bank of the river in a bower of fresh branches of the Welsh type, in the middle of a meadow (Perrett and Weill 26).

There are only four significant features: a guarded site, a defender, a flimsy dwelling replacing a tent, and a challenge is made by a significant act. Continuation of the custom can be inferred from the repeated deaths at the same place, typical of the system. In spite of its deficiencies, this is a clear example of the system.


This is the only instance of what may be a reference to the Challenge system in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. In it Pwyll of Dyfed, ruled with the appearance of Arawn for exactly a year over Arawn’s country. On the last day Pwyll met the king of a neighbouring country in single combat at a ford. Pwyll’s victory gained the dead opponent’s kingdom (Gantz 49/50). This Welsh example of the challenge theme refers earlier to the river Cuch so the ford may be assumed to have been in a district near a source of bluestones.

Combat at a ford for kingship is the only element of the Challenge system here but more could not be expected in a censored text.

Isoud and Tristram

The story of Isoud and Tristram has a challenge at its heart. Tristram fought for the throne of Cornwall as surrogate for King Mark. The site is a Cornish island, the defender Morholt is a prince of Ireland and the Sovereignty is Mark’s wife Isoud, a princess of Ireland. Narrators have confused ‘Ireland’ as an Atlantic coast influence with Ireland proper and have mistaken Tristram’s worship of the goddess for adultery, so the Challenge theme is hidden except for fighting to the death on an island.

The Castle of Ten Knights

Lamorat defeated the ten knights and then the lord of the castle. This entitled him to marry the lady of the castle. The lord of the castle was not killed. The only indication of the challenge theme is marrying the lady of the castle (Folie Lancelot ed. Bogdanov pp 72f).

 Geraint and Enid

Geraint was advised in advance when he approached the site, which was surrounded by an impenetrable hedge of mist with enchanted games within (Gantz 295-7). ‘Games’ here and in the encounters with paganism in the Lives of saints is used for ritual acts. No man who had crossed through the mist returned alive. When Geraint got nearer he found the hedge was as high as he could see in the sky and stakes with men’s heads on them protruded through the mist. Inside there was a great orchard and in it a gold brocade pavilion with a red top. Near by was an apple tree with a great horn hanging from a branch. There was a girl sitting on a golden chair in the pavilion and an armed knight ready to fight. Geraint had the best of it but did not kill his opponent and by blowing the horn he caused the mist to vanish. He then required the custom should end.

There is a palisaded enclosure, a girl sitting on a golden chair in a tent, a tree and a horn hanging from it. There are several elements of the challenge theme though the horn is not used as a challenge.

The Joy of the Court

In this story Chrétien de Troyes tells a story with a Challenge theme like that of Geraint and Enid but the site is on an island called Brandigan and the ruler is Evrain, also a form of Bran (Kibler and Carroll 103). The garden was enclosed by a ring of air turned by magic into a barrier as strong as iron. Inside it girl sat on a silver bed in the shade of a sycamore tree. Erec overcame the defender, Mabonagrain, but did not kill him. The horn was blown to signal the battle was over and the custom has been abandoned. That released the defender who could leave the site where he had been imprisoned. Chrétien has been criticized for tearing up a Challenge story and reassembling some of the pieces.

In spite of the anomalies the site is a glade on an island; it was an enclosed space and a horn is blown. There is a tree and the girl sitting on a silver bed near it is sounds like a memory of the Sovereignty in the form of the Proud Damsel.

The most popular of the material aspects displayed in Challenges are: tent about 70%; tree about 60 %; glade, clearing or meadow 40 %; ford 20%; spring 20%; enclosures or palisades 10%; islands 10%. These do not add up to 100 because more than one often appear in a story.

The challenge theme and the stories of Table 2

The affairs of Finn, Diarmait and Grainne; Mark, Tristram, and Isoud have aspects of the Challenge theme and so do Arthur, Launcelot and Guenever. The former are associated with passage graves of the Neolithic, the latter with Stonehenge. There is no contradiction as the Sovereignty chose her partners in many ways over the millennia,

Location of Challenge sites  

Diana’s Mirror in the Alban Hills is the most firmly located site and  though Guenever and Launcelot miss out from  the  lovers in underground chambers, they do  belong to Stonehenge, she as the local name for the Goddess of Sovereignty, he as the local name for her consort for the time being;  there is a possibility that Pwyll’s fight at a ford in Glen Cuch identifies a Challenge site; and though  Isoud is firmly linked  to an underground chamber in Table 2,  Tristram also fights and defeats an ‘Irish’  prince on an unidentified island off the coast of Cornwall.  In Ireland the latest example of a watered down version of the Challenge is at Tara in about AD 400, there  the Sovereignty is represented by the hag who offered  water to Niall of the Nine Hostages.

Myth and reality in various sources                                                                   The ones in Greek and Latin are reports by literate people.   Those of Hecateus are the oldest. Remarkably the reference to Boreas in the latter matches that of the Welsh Embreis (as Bors) and the reference to Boreadae matches the expectation of ancestor worship at Stonehenge.

The report on Britain by the Roman Demetrius has been shown by Table 1 to match Welsh memories. And the detailed report of events at Nemi match those in the last phase at Stonehenge.  The Irish memories of Grainne and Diarmait are of the Challenge theme and the Goddess of Sovereignty lasted there until Christianity reached Ireland. The longevity of the Sovereignty also tends to support use of the conflicts between missionaries in the 6th century AD and local pagans in this book. It is to be expected that the latest phase in prehistory should be remembered in most detail.

German language sources are open about castration and make the only references to the broken branch motif, also they are supportive of the existence of other memories of ritual. And mentions elsewhere of elite burials at Stonehenge are memories of both fact and ritual.

Dating the Challenge system

The difference between the Challenge system and that of the megalithic culture is that the latter was a period of substantial constructions, while in the Challenge the emphasis is on individuals and is associated with simple sites. It seems reasonable to suppose that the change from communal to individual coincides with the change in the Atlantic coastal culture from communal burial to the separate burials of individuals or family groups that followed. Individual burials might have continued at Stonehenge before they appeared in the round barrows of the Bronze Age.

The glade, tree, spring, broken branch, continuation of the custom and a goddess are features of the Challenge system for which we have written records. All of these these have also been remembered in examples of the Challenge theme in Arthurian romances. The goddess is of course given different names and the Challenge is not always made by a broken branch but considering the 2500 years from the earliest record of the Sovereignty on the Breton stones of covered alleys to Rome  the variations are not surprising and since we have no indication that Rome was the source of the Breton stories, there is another 3500 years from the original source to the romances.

The story of a defended tree and the broken branch, which offers access to many women for a limited period, remains unexplained. But there are parallels in nature. The behaviour of the defender of the tree is identical to the alpha male stag, sea lion or gorilla but only the latter could break a branch from a tree to signify a challenge.  Is this a metaphor that has been with us since the childhood of mankind?




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