King Arthur In Australia? June 15, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
The Beachcombings are overjoyed as they have finally found a new aupair, an Australian tango dancer (truly). And in her honour Beach thought he would offer up today an obscure, indeed, an almost forgotten source for the Arthurian legend, a twelfth-century poem by the name of Draco Normannicus (Norman Battle Standard) with an almost impossibly curious reference to the antipodes. The author of this work, written in 1167, was one Étienne, a native of Rouen in Normandy. Through his verse Étienne described the recent successes of the Norman dynasty that controlled England and its then king, Henry II.
Henry, like many twelfth-century monarchs, was a keen Arthurian, emulating Arthur in his conquests, ambitions and knightly excellence (killing bishops and that kind of thing). Given Henry’s interests it was only natural then that Étienne insert an episode concerning Arthur in his poem. But what is strange is the character of that episode. In the previous year Henry had campaigned in Brittany. It was in the midst of these Breton battles that Henry received ‘a letter from Arthur to Henry’, epistola Arturi ad Henericum.
Arthur, according to the poet, had written to Henry to explain that he had been resting in the antipodes awaiting the hour of his return. Arthur goes on to tell Henry that he now rules these antipodes. Then, explanations and niceties out of the way, Arthur blusters and threatens. He has been angered, he writes, by a message from a Breton partisan fighting Henry, and so has sailed back from the antipodes to the woods of Cornwall. Here Arthur is preparing his warriors and he will soon attack Henry, unless the English king treats the Bretons better. On this note the unlikely letter ends, with Étienne describing Henry’s reaction. The English king laughs and ‘not at all scared’ states that he will conquer Brittany whatever Arthur might do. But Henry does pay one small tribute to his hero. He concedes that he would hold conquered Brittany on Arthur’s behalf.
This is, by any measure, an extraordinary passage and yet it is one that most historians of the Arthurian legend pass over, considering it an unfunny Norman joke. Some of the detail suggests, though, authentic British-Celtic traditions. First we have the antipodes, a medieval nod to unknown, mysterious islands out in the ocean such as those that thronged early maps. And even a glance at the stories of the insular Celts and their Breton cousins will show that these peoples both had traditions that their fairy worlds or even a Christian heaven were to be found on islands deep in the ocean: think Pedrog or Madog or St Brendan.
Antipodes, then, was an elegant, Latinate way of referring to such mythic Celtic realms. By decamping to the antipodes Étienne’s Arthur had, in fact, done the same thing as the Arthur of British-Celtic tradition when, after the Battle of Camlann, he is taken away to a better place by fairies on a boat, a place in which he will cure his mortal wounds and await his country’s hour of need.
To these touches should be added, too, the detail that Arthur was, according to Étienne, basing his operations out of certain woods in Cornwall. These words are reminiscent of the court of Celli Wic, the glade in that region where Welsh bards claimed that Arthur resided.
As mentioned above, historians are inclined to write off this part of Étienne’s poem as a joke. But, bizarre as this may seem, it may have been a real life event. It is quite possible that a Breton leader had openly called upon Arthur to come to Brittany’s aid ‘from the islands of the ocean’, or – just possibly – that some imaginative Breton nationalists, knowing Henry’s Arthurian predilections, had sent a letter purporting to be from Arthur to court. Stranger things happened in the Middle Ages. Or had Arthur really decamped to and conquered Australia?
Beachcombing is not serious: however, any other suggestions/explanations would be most welcome. Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT
28 June 2011: When Beach wrote all this he naively thought that he might get a couple of emails about the Latin sense of antipodes, not a theory that ancient or medieval Mediterranean travellers had actually made it to New Zealand!! However, KMH kindly supplied the following from www.beforeus.com: Mount Moehau, on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, plunges steeply into the sea. Draped in subtropical rain forest, downcut by waterfalls and precipitous gorges, the region oozes mystery and enchantment. Here, says Maori legend, the Turehu people, light-skinned, with reddish hair, made their last stand. The Maoris say they found them in parts of New Zealand. As the Maoris encroached, the Turehu retreated further into the hills, particularly of the Coromandel Peninsula. Here the mountains of Moehau, steep and remote, became their final refuge. Since they sought concealment near the misty summit of Moehau, the Turehu were sometimes spoken of as the “Mist People”. Their voices and the ghostly piping of their flutes could often be heard in the dense forest. Huge gourds they grew. They built forts from interlaced supplejack, a long thick woody vine that trailed across the tall forest trees. According to other Pacific islanders, people answering the same physical description had come from the east — from the direction of South America — long, long ago. And would you believe, in South America I ran into similar traditions of a light-skinned, red-haired, blue-eyed race. According to legends, these people had settled and built cyclopean stone cities (whose ruins survive), but following a war had fled westward across the Pacific. Was there some link, here? Could they have been the same people? And pushing the question a little further, could these people of historical tradition have been the descendants of some ancient traders whose story we shall now relate? The evidence suggests that a significant portion of the early American civilization came from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Its intermediaries were Phoenicians and Hebrews, who were accompanied by Thracians and Scythians, who were accustomed to hire themselves out as mercenaries. They sailed from Ezion-geber on the Red Sea to a destination called Ophir, whose actual location has been traditionally difficult to determine. This should, however, occasion no surprise, since the Phoenicians adopted a policy of secrecy as to their routes and destinations after the Greeks displaced them on the eastern Mediterranean some 150 years before the expeditions that sailed from Ezion-geber. Their route may be tracked across the Pacific by observing such traces as still exist of the presence of nations which formed the personnel of these expeditions. This is possible because the Phoenicians, on their longer routes, were accustomed to establishing stations for repairing and revictualling their ships and ports of call. How long did these voyages continue? We have no means of determining accurately. However, it is likely that they continued for some 300 years, until the Assyrians and Babylonians occupied strategic land and closed areas of Middle East territory that were crucial to the continuance of the voyages. At the time of the conquest of Peru, the Spaniards noticed that many of the Inca ruling caste were paler of skin and had reddish tints in their hair, as distinct from the native mountain peasants of the Andes, who were generally of distinctly Mongoloid ancestry. Inca legends spoke of certain white and bearded men who advanced from the shores of Lake Titicaca, established an ascendancy over the natives, and brought civilization. Ancient representations in stone, as well as portrait jars from the ruins of the city of Chan, in coastal Peru, show white, bearded men. And mummified corpses of chiefs from the oldest layers of graves in this region bear hair that is auburn or blond, wavy and fine. Reports frequently surface concerning ancient “white” tribes still surviving in isolated pockets of the Americas. South American legend records that some of the bearded white men who built the enormous stone cities found in ruins there eventually left to sail westward… into the Pacific Ocean. Polynesian legends still current are living proof that the bearded white men arrived safely in Polynesia. But there is evidence more substantial than legend on some of these islands: pyramids, helmets and panpipes. As well as proof that irrigation, trepanning and head-deformation were practised. These same Pacific Islanders knew that the earth was round — and they had a vast astronomical knowledge, as well as a calendar curiously similar to that in the Americas. On some of the islands, early missionaries found people of a lighter skin, who sported reddish hair and blue eyes. Which made me prick up my ears when I learned of a discovery on the other side of the world. Some sarcophagi had been found at the old Phoenician city of Sidon. On these were some lavishly colored representations which suggest that some of the deceased were blue-eyed and had dark red hair. Now I prefer not to speculate. It’s just a thought. At the beginning of this letter to you, I was musing on a New Zealand Maori tradition of light-skinned people with red hair and blue eyes, having long ago been driven by the Maori people into a last refuge on the Coromandel Peninsula. And the thought just crossed my mind. Could some descendants of the crews of the Hiram-Solomon maritime expeditions have reached even the remote land of New Zealand? In distributing their products to the ends of the earth, the Phoenicians brought within the range of their influence practically every center of population, civilized and uncivilized, known to the ancient world. This is just one of the intriguing mysteries I’ve been digging up for you in the Ark of the Covenant pack. The Phoenicians teamed up with the Hebrews to sail the world in search of gold, silver and other treasures for Solomon’s Temple. Then being constructed in Jerusalem. And the very center-piece of that wonder of the world was the mysterious golden chest known as the Ark of the Covenant… Box of life, death and incredible golden wealth. It’s been estimated that the gold alone could be worth 2 billion dollars.’ SY writes in meanwhile to show that not just the Phoenicians but also the Celts got to the antipodes! The man to watch here is apparently one Martin Doutré. Beachcombing has no words… Thanks KMH and thanks SY!