jump to navigation
  • Latin or Celtic Arthur? August 10, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    Beachcombing has that distinctive ringing in his inner ear: the sure sign that he has an Arthurian post coming on. In fact, he is being drawn, ‘like a dog returning to its vomit’ (Prov 26, 11), to an early obsession of his, the origin of the name Arthur.

    First, for those lucky folks who do not spend their every waking moment wondering about the Arthur of the Celts, a quick recap.

    It is certain that Arthur was a hero of the British Celts (Cornish, Welsh, Bretons) in the early Middle Ages. But, some impossibly suspect poems aside, the earliest datable reference we have is a ninth-century Welsh chronicle the Historia Brittonum. The HB cannot have been written much less than two hundred years though after Arthur lived and probably it was written many centuries after the name Arthur was first muttered: all the signs are that it is entirely unreliable.

    Beachcombing has long been fascinated by Arthur’s name because given the appalling quality of our early sources  the name is the only good clue we have as to Arthur’s origins.

    So where does the name ‘Arthur’ come from?

    Well, here there are two schools of thought – there are actually twenty but Beachcombing is sticking to the credible suggestions leaving Sanskrit, Iroquois and Farsi gently to one side.

    The first is that Arthur is Latin and derives from a rather obscure Latin name Artorius. This is complicated by the fact that, as the Celticist, Rachel Bromwich noted many years ago, in medieval sources Arthur is sometimes written in Latin as Arcturus, a bright star in the Bootes constellation (the Herdsman).

    The second possibility is that Arthur is in origin a Celtic word – and here suggestions are legion but some of the most convincing are Arto-rig-ios (bear king) or Art-gwr (bear man). There is also the possibility that Arthur was borrowed from a Celtic Irish name that would make everything doubly or, Ireland being Ireland, triply complicated…

    The temptation, of course, is to say who cares? What does it matter if Arthur is Celtic or Latin? But actually it matters terribly.

    If Arthur’s name was Latin in origin then we know that Arthur lived in Britain (or, to hedge our bets, in Britain or an adjacent region) in the centuries between the Roman invasion of the island and, say, the seventh century when British and Irish sources begin to pop up after a long Dark Age.

    However, if Arthur’s name is Celtic in origin then the possibilities multiply. We may be dealing with a historical figure. But we may also be dealing with a British-Celtic god who sneaked by the back door into history. In that case all the thousands of books and articles on a historical Arthur (where he lived, what he did etc etc) are so much wood pulp. Most of them are, in any case, unusable but that is another story

    In any case,  in recent years there has been a shift among Celticists, the experts in the field.

    For most of the second half of the twentieth-century Celticists took Arthur’s Latin origins for granted. Today though an increasing number (a majority?) would plump for a Celtic origin for the name.

    In part, this depends on the increasing realisation that the Celtic Arthur acts in legend more like a Celtic divinity than a Celtic king.

    Beachcombing is, for largely visceral and unscientific reasons, a Latin traditionalist. So he is bound to note that historical figures can take on the guises of divine figures in myth: Charlemagne, Caesar, Barbarossa etc. But there is certainly a strong case to be made that the Arthur we read of in Celtic legend has little or nothing to do with history.

    A vital book in this revolution has been Concepts of Arthur by Thomas Green – not the Mormon polygamist – (2008). Beachcombing hopes that Tom is wrong about Arthur being a Celtic god: indeed, half of Beachcombing’s identity depends on there once having been a Camelot and a dappled mare with lovely Guinevere upon it, but CoA is a brilliant if necessarily demanding read.

    Beachcombing would be interested in other suggestions for the origins of Arthur, especially the weird ones. drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom