Masaryk University Faculty of Arts

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Lucie Duzbabová

Celtic Mythology in the Arthurian Legend

Master’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature


I would like to thank my supervisor prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A. for her patience and kind help, as well as for her helpful suggestions and valuable advice.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 1

2. Celtic Mythology 4

2.1 The World of the Celts 4

2.1.1 The Origin of the Celtic people 5

2.1.2 Celtic Society 7

2.2 The Role of Religion and Mythology in the Life of the Celts 9

3. Irish Mythology 15

3.1 The Mythological Cycle 18

3.2 The Ulster Cycle 22

3.3 The Fionn Cycle 25

3.4 The Kings Cycle 29

4. Welsh Mythology 34

4.1 The Mabinogion 36

4.1.1 First Branch of the Mabinogi 38

4.1.2 Second Branch of the Mabinogi 41

4.1.3 Third Branch of the Mabinogi 43

4.1.4 Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi 45

4.1.5 Other Stories of the Mabinogi 48

5. The Arthurian Legend 51

5.1 The Origins and First Literary Mentions of the Arthurian Legend 52

5.2 King Arthur in History and Legend 56

5.3 Modern Adaptations and Interpretations of the Arthurian Legend 61

6. Instances of Celtic Mythology in the Arthurian Legend 63

6.1 Christianity versus Mythology 63

6.2 Celtic Elements in the Arthurian Legend 65

7. Conclusion 81

Bibliography 85

Summary 89

Resumé 90

1. Introduction

The Arthurian legend is one of the most important texts in the English literary tradition. It is one of the core texts of medieval English literature and it is also considered to be one of the most powerful texts of the ancient times. Although its most popular version by Sir Thomas Malory called Le Morte d’Arthur was printed by William Caxton in 1485 it still attracts a wide readership not only from general public but from the academic circles as well all over the world nowadays. However, it is a story covered with certain mystery; although it has been subject of study of numerous scholars nobody has yet said with certainty whether it is a real story or pure fiction or whether it has its roots in ancient Celtic times or not. According to the legend King Arthur lived in Cornwall in the south-western part of Britain, the place with deeply rooted Celtic mythological traditions and therefore it can be assumed that Celtic mythology left some imprints on the legend. On one hand it cannot be said for sure that the legend has its roots in the pagan Celtic times for the historical records are scarce and often imprecise, on the other hand its Celtic origin cannot be utterly dismissed either for Celtic culture and tradition is deeply interwoven with the history and mythology of Great Britain and Ireland. Although we are not sure of the precise origins of the Arthurian legend there is high probability that it was influenced not only by Christianity but it can be assumed that it was to a certain extent influenced by the mythology of the Celtic people living on the British Isles as well.

The aim of this thesis is to find out whether there are some aspects, themes or symbols of the pagan Celtic mythology that appear in the Arthurian legend and if so, what role they play there and to what extent they influence the legend. Although the legend has been studied countless times by various scholars it has mostly been viewed from the Christian point of view and not much attention has been paid to the possible Celtic aspects of the story. The legend will therefore be approached not from the traditional Christian point of view but from a less traditional Celtic perspective.

The first part of the thesis focuses on Celtic myths and mythology in general – it deals with the origins of Celtic mythology, the sources and the main themes of Celtic myths. It tries to identify their characteristics: what characters play important roles in them, what mood and atmosphere the stories have, what purpose the stories served and what was their place in Celtic society. Apart from focusing on the texts only, the first part of the thesis deals with the cultural aspect of Celtic mythology as well. It explores the everyday world of the Celts, it shows the origin of Celtic people, their customs and traditions as well as their everyday life and beliefs, which are then reflected in their mythology. The second part of the thesis explores the Arthurian legend and its relationship and connection with Celtic mythology. It focuses on the origins of the Arthurian legend as well as on the historicity of King Arthur and the appearance of the mythological elements in the story.

The first chapter of the thesis focuses on the world of the Celts on the British Isles. It explores the way people in the Celtic times lived, how they made their living, what were the main elements of their cultural and artistic life as well as the main aspects of their beliefs and traditions. The way people live is mirrored in their mythology and literature, and therefore it is important to obtain some information about the way of living of the Celtic peoples before studying their mythology.

The next two chapters deal with Celtic mythology in detail. The third chapter deals with Irish mythology, it shows its themes and motifs as well as the division of the stories into four cycles. The Mythological Cycle contains the earliest Irish myths and describes the first settlement of Ireland. The Ulster Cycle is connected with the province of Ulster and the stories in this cycle are mostly related to the Irish mythological hero called Cú Chulainn. The next is the Fionn Cycle which is likewise connected with a hero, this time Fionn mac Cumhaill and his men. And finally there is the Kings Cycle focusing on the Irish kings and rulers from different historical periods. The fourth chapter focuses on Welsh mythology, its characteristics and main motifs. The Welsh mythological stories that survived to our days thanks to the work of Lady Charlotte Guest, who translated them into modern English in the nineteenth century, can be found in a collection called the Mabinogion, which is dealt with in detail in the fourth chapter.

The following chapter is devoted to the Arthurian legend itself. It explores the origins of the legend and it also focuses on the historicity of King Arthur, tracing him back to the ancient times. Some later adaptations and interpretations of the legend are mentioned in the chapter as well.

Finally, the last chapter deals with the Celtic elements and their role in the Arthurian legend. First it focuses on the roles Christianity and Celtic mythology played in the time of the creation of the Arthurian legend and then it tries to give an answer to the question of the Celtic origin of the legend and focuses on the location of particular Celtic elements in it.

2. Celtic Mythology

Before dealing with Celtic mythology in greater detail, let us consider the word mythology itself. What is it? What does it mean? And why was it so important for the ancient civilizations and why does it still attract the attention of today’s researchers as well as lay men? According to the Oxford English Dictionary mythology is “A body or collection of myths, especially those relating to a particular person or thing, or belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition”. In other words it is a collection of mythological stories that tell us something about certain group of people and their culture. Mythology, or the study of myths thus gives us a better picture of the ancient people and their cultures, for myth is “the fundamental form of all knowing, all consciousness” (Brantlinger 29). The study of mythology of a nation can reveal the essential beliefs of the people, their lifestyles, customs and traditions. It is also closely related to any peoples’ history and so it is part of the cultural heritage of every nation. Therefore if one studies the history and culture of a nation, one should start with its mythology.

But before we plunge deeper into the study of Celtic mythology it is important to find out first something about the origin of Celtic people, about their everyday life as well as their beliefs and traditions which will help us better understand the stories themselves.
2.1 The World of the Celts

The ancient Celtic world and its culture have always attracted attention of various scholars as well as of the general public. When people hear the word Celtic they usually connect it with such words as mystery and spirituality. As the modern world becomes more commercialized and globalised, the world “Celtic” becomes more and more popular as well as is the whole Celtic culture. It has already begun at the turn of the last century when the Celtic revival took place especially in Great Britain and Ireland where many people became interested in the Celtic traditions and art as well as in the old Irish literature and poetry . Even today, and especially in the last few decades, the interest in Celtic culture and way of life has been undergoing a kind of revival and rebirth.

The Celtic heritage is still alive in many inhabitants of today’s Europe, especially in the parts of the world where the Celtic people used to live and where their culture took the strongest roots such as in some parts of central Europe, in France or in Great Britain and in Ireland where some people still keep using some of the ancient Gaelic languages. The traces of Celtic culture can be found across the whole of Europe for their culture once spread from the Iberian Peninsula to what is modern Turkey. But do we really know whose culture are we celebrating and reviving? Who were the often idealized and modernized Celtic peoples? Do we know where they came from, what they looked like, how they lived or what they worshipped?
2.1.1 The Origin of the Celtic People

The Celtic people transmitted most of their wisdom and stories orally and therefore did not leave many written records about their culture and way of living behind them, however, some answers to the questions concerning their origin and culture can be found in archaeological material and research as well as in the records of ancient Romans and Greeks who were their trading partners and who had the chance of observing their way of life during the invasion of the British Isles. Some of the important Roman sources of our knowledge about the Celts are for example the works of Herodotos, Strabo and most importantly the Commentaries on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar. Finally, a lot of information can be found in the myths and legends of Celtic people that were found especially on the British Isles and in Ireland. However, it is important to note, as Anne Ross in her work Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts points out, that “much of the literary evidence from which we derive a great deal of information about the Celtic past, was written down in Ireland, at a post-pagan period, under the aegis of the Christian Church” (17) and therefore we cannot be sure about the original form of the myths which might have been slightly reshaped in order to suit the needs and requirements of the Christian period. Due to the scarcity of materials it is nevertheless one of the only few sources of our knowledge about Celtic mythology and culture so we have no other option than to assume their veracity.

The Celts were the inhabitants of the iron-age Europe as well as one of the earliest inhabitants of the British Isles and Ireland. They were usually quite tall fair-haired warriors whose original homeland could be found in the central-European area close to the rivers Rhein and Danube whose name, as James MacKillop in his book Myths and Legends of the Celts mentions, was probably derived from the name of the Celtic goddess Danu (11). Later, they moved all over Europe, they settled in Gallia which is today’s France and Belgium, some Celtic tribes settled in the Iberian Peninsula and some went even as far as Anatolia in West Asia, which was known as Galatia. Due to the German and Roman expansions around the turn of the millennium the Celts were forced to move further northwards until they remained only on the British Isles and in Ireland. The roots of Celtic civilization can be found as early as around 2000 B.C. but the Celtic people as we recognize them today appeared sometime around 500 B.C. Although some archaeologists claim that we should not speak about Celts before 600 B.C., which is when the La Tene period started and from which there is archaeological evidence of the existence of some Celtic cultural centres. Some historians, however, claim that some Celtic footprints can be found even earlier, around 800 B.C. in the so called Hallstatt period. The heyday of the Celtic culture is dated between 500 B.C. and 100 B.C. when they were probably gradually replaced by the migrating Germanic tribes as well as by the Romans. The latest evidence of Celtic peoples can be found around 500 AD in some parts of Ireland where, due to the relative isolation of the island, Celtic tradition and culture survived the longest; even relatively long after the continental Celts were conquered by the Germanic and other tribes but then in the fifth century AD when Christianity became fully established on the British Isles as well, the older pagan traditions were gradually forgotten (Clarus 13-18).
2.1.2 Celtic Society

The Celts did not belong to one united nation, and as Anne Ross in her book Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts says: “we are dealing with a scattered barbarian society, not a great nucleated ancient civilization” (16) such as the Greeks or the Romans were; instead, the Celts were distributed among many tribes which even fought each other. The tribes were united only by similar languages belonging to the Indo-European language family and common cultural background. They were great warriors as well as traders; they traded iron, salt, wool and leather with Etruria, Greece as well as with Rome. They had their own silver and gold coins based on the Roman model. The Celts were also quite technologically advanced; they knew how to work with iron so that they could produce better weapons as well as tools and their use of various advanced technologies in agriculture such as the plough made it possible to farm heavier soils so they could farm more land than their ancestors in the past (Rolleston 18-19).

As it has already been said the centre of the Celtic society was the tribe with the family as its central unit. Unfortunately, not much is known about the family organization and life of the Celtic people. What is known is that the tribes were united into separate kingdoms which were ruled by the kings. According to Nora Chadwick there were five main kingdoms that correspond to the modern parts of Ireland: Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Meath (114). The king was believed to be a godlike figure and therefore was very carefully chosen. His initiation was accompanied by various rituals. He for example had to put on the king’s coat and when it fitted him he could become the king or he had to touch the so called stone of the fate which allegedly screamed when the right person touched it (MacKillop 84). The initiation ritual of the Celtic kings will be described in greater detail in the third chapter. Although women enjoyed quite a high status in society the king was always of male sex. When he was too old or unable to rule for another reason he was often sacrificed. As Anne Ross points out: “The failing, ageing king would probably meet his death in a ritual manner before the loss of his powers could affect the fertility of his domain” (161).

The society was divided into three main social classes; the druids, bards, historians, physicians as well as artists and skilled craftsmen belonged to one class, aristocracy, warriors and landowners belonged to another class and the common people together with small farmers constituted the last and lowest class (Ross 44).

The Celtic warriors were very brave and warfare was a common preoccupation of the Celtic peoples. One of the interesting things is that it was not uncommon to find some women warriors and rulers among the men which can be illustrated on the examples of the queens Medb and Boadicea (Chadwick 115-116). Celtic women in general were said to be very brave and they had quite high position and rights in the everyday life as well. It was for example common for a woman to divorce her husband, she had also the right to retain all her possessions which she brought to marriage (Mauduit 115). According to Jan Filip a Celtic man could have more than one wife but only one wife could be the main one (94). If a man had a concubine in his house, his wife was absolved from her guilt of any violent deed except murder for the period of the concubine’s stay while the concubine could hurt her only with her nails (MacKillop 96). Moreover, “if the death of a man awoke suspicion, his wife was interrogated and brought to judgement” (Filip 94). However, all in all women enjoyed quite a high status in the Celtic society if compared for example with women in other historical periods.

The Celts were not only traders and warriors; they were also great artists and spiritually oriented people. Among the artistic objects that were found during archaeological excavations can be found jewellery, ornamented weapons or various ritual objects and vessels of which the best-known is probably the Gundestrup cauldron found in Denmark in 1891. The main motives of the Celtic artworks were various geometric ornaments such as spirals that according to Ingeborg Clarus could symbolize either the sun or the woman’s cycle (Clarus 42), other important motifs in Celtic art were animals or Celtic gods and goddesses. An interesting fact is that the figurative depiction of Celtic deities had not appeared until the arrival of the Romans. The reason for this, according to J.A. Mauduit, was the fact that the Celtic people considered the anthropomorphic representation of gods as their degradation (165).

The Celts were very spiritual people and the gods and goddesses influenced their life in many respects and therefore the next section will be focused on the role of religion in the life of the Celtic peoples especially on the British Isles.
2.2 The Role of Religion and Mythology in the Life of the Celts

Thanks to the practice of the Celtic priests, known as druids, not to write down anything connected to religious practices or rituals, not many historical records survived to these days. Most of the records and information we have nowadays come either from the archaeological findings or from the Romans who invaded the British Isles around the turn of the millennium. Although these materials were not written by the Celts themselves, they serve as a rich source of our knowledge of the religious and spiritual life of the Celtic people. Another source from which the information connected to religion and mythology can be taken is the Irish and Welsh vernacular literature written by poets and bards from which a lot can be learned about Celtic beliefs and deities as well.

From all the above-mentioned sources it can be assumed that religion, mythology and spirituality played an important role in the life of the pagan Celts. The Celts were highly spiritual people for whom religion and mysticism had their roles in the everyday life. Said in the words of Anne Ross “the everyday life of the Celts included the supernatural equally with the natural, the divine with the mundane; for them the otherworld was as real as the tangible physical world and as ever-present” (174). The importance of the connection of the world of gods and goddesses with the human world can be clearly seen in Irish as well as in Welsh mythology.

The most important figure in Celtic religion was the priest called druid. Druids were sometimes more important than the king or they were at least thought of being of the same importance on the social ladder. Druids were highly educated people who had spent up to twenty years studying before they were able to perform their duties. Apart from their being the wisest and the most educated people in the village as well as the propagators of the religious ideas; their post included other responsibilities as well. The druids were also the judges, arbiters and educators of the young generation. The basic principles of their teachings according to J.A. Mauduit were to be brave, to worship the gods and not to do wrong to anybody else (159).

The Celtic people were closely tied with the natural world that surrounded them as well as ruled their lives all year round. Their religion was therefore closely connected with nature as well. The rituals were performed usually on the sacred places in the open air in sacred groves, at pools, rivers or under a well-grown tree. There were not many temples or shrines built on the British Isles until the arrival of the Romans. The druids as well as the common people preferred natural sanctuaries over the man-made ones. Celtic people often worshiped not only gods and goddesses as we imagine today, but they also worshipped trees, rivers, hills and various animals, especially birds. As J.A. Mauduit says: “The Celts were rural people. [..] They practised the religion of the soil. They venerated wells, mountains as well as trees” (130)1. The most sacred tree was oak, especially an oak with some mistletoe. Mistletoe was a special plant for the Celts and it was often used during religious rituals as well as for medical purposes. It was for example believed that it cured infertility. Not only plants but animals as well played an important part in the Celtic world. Some of the most important animals that were connected to certain gods and goddesses were the horse, dear, boar, dog, snake and salmon and from birds they were above all water birds such as ducks and swans. (Green 81-89).

Another important part of the Celtic spiritual world was the world of the dead. Celts took death as an inseparable part of life and so likewise, they did not separate the world of the living from the otherworld. The otherworld was often located on an island, and it could be entered through a certain cave, a lake or through bogs. During the Samhain festival on the 31st October the border between the two worlds disappeared and it was possible for people to enter the otherworld and the beings from the otherworld could visit the human world too. The otherworld thus became an inseparable part of this world and therefore it often appears in Celtic mythology as well. The Celts buried their dead in burial mounds and because they believed in some form of life after death they placed in the grave also various objects the dead could use in the otherworld; these included various vessels, jewels, food as well as weapons or sometimes even chariots. (Green 106-111).

The Celtic year was divided into four parts which were in correspondence with the seasons as well as with lunar cycles. The year began, unusually for us, in November with the festival of Samhain when the dead were commemorated. The beginning of the year was in this time of the year because the Celts believed that although on one hand the year-long cycle ends on the other hand it can be viewed as a beginning of the new cycle with the seeds founding their sprouts and everything in nature preparing and gathering strength for a new beginning. The next important festival was Imbolc, celebrated on the 1st February. It was connected with the arrival of spring and with new vital energy as well as with the birth of lambs and fresh sheep milk. The so called dark part of the year was thus ended. During the following festival, Beltaine, which was held on the eve of the 1st May, people celebrated fertility and purified their cattle by driving them between the flames of two fires. This festival was also connected with the first pasture of cattle and symbolized the beginning of something new; the light part of the year began. The last important festival of the Celtic year was Lughnasa probably held in honour of Lugh, the god of the sun. It was held on the 1st August and it was a celebration of the crop similar to modern harvest festivals (Clarus 72-74). Although these were the four most important festivals in the Celtic year, there could be found many other important days such as spring and autumn equinox and summer and winter solstice which were important for the Celtic people as well and are just another example of the interconnectedness of the Celtic people with the natural life cycle.

The Celts did not worship and celebrate only the natural forces, plants and animals but they had a pantheon of their gods and goddesses as well which is sometimes compared to the Roman one. The pantheon was quite complex and not very clearly organized so that sometimes two or even three gods are blended together and it is quite difficult to distinguish them from each other. Moreover, many gods are mixed with their Roman counterparts, which makes it even more difficult to differentiate them. The whole of this work could have been devoted only to the study of Celtic gods but this is not the main theme of the thesis, therefore only the main figures and their spheres of influence will be mentioned here.

The Celtic people venerated both male gods as well as female goddesses. The male gods were usually connected with individual tribes while the female goddesses had usually closer connections to the natural powers and fertility. As far as our knowledge is concerned there were three main male gods: Taranis, Teutates and Esus. Taranis is the god of the skies. He is symbolized by the lightning and is accompanied by an eagle. According to Ingeborg Clarus he is sometimes also equated with Ogmios, the god of spoken word who is often represented as an old man followed by many people who are connected to his tongue by golden chains (28). Ogmius is also regarded as the inventor of the Celtic script ogham. Teutates is a tribal god that cares about the well-being of his tribe, he is also connected with war and is symbolized by a ram. Esus is often depicted as a woodcutter with an axe and is therefore connected with land, trees and wood, he is often seen together with the mistletoe leaves and is thought to have some connection with the otherworld. There is also Dagda, a universal tribal god whom the Celtic peoples are believed to be descended from. Dagda is also called a “good god” and is often mentioned in connection with Morrígan, the goddess of warriors whom he mates with. He is also connected to the goddess of the earth. Another important god is Belenus, the patron of health and healing or Cernunos often depicted with dear antlers on his head. (Clarus 28-33).

The Celtic goddesses are usually depicted as being triadic, which is generally quite common practice in the Celtic tradition. In the Celtic lands the cult of the mother-goddess was very strong as it was quite common with all ancient peoples. One of the main goddess-figures is Brigit, the patron of the healing wells as well as the blacksmiths. The other three often mentioned goddesses that can change into one another and blend into one triadic figure are Ériu after whom Ireland got its name, Banba and Fódla. There is also the raven-goddess of war called Medb and Epona, the goddess of horses, mules and donkeys (ibid.).

These gods and goddesses often appear in the mythological stories in which they can be seen side by side with the mortal people whom they help as well as cause harm, they also sometimes mate with the ordinary people and have offspring with them which then often has heroic future such as in the case of Cú Chulainn, the main hero of the Irish Ulster Cycle, which will be dealt with in greater detail in the following chapter focusing on the Irish Celtic mythology.

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