Decoding King Arthur and the Grail

How can a Norse god become the famous King Arthur? Easily. A busy librarian on the desk at the Interpretation Centre at the ancient royal burial mounds of pre-Christian Uppsala in Sweden was unaware that she had just thrown a bombshell into my world, and into British history.

For some years I have been an accidental hobbyist collecting evidence with which to decode the origin of Britain’s mythical King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail, a quest which is the defining feature of his court and realm. I stress that I am not suggesting yet another “real” Arthur, nor a “real” Holy Grail; in fact, my decoding puts paid to those who hold such hopes. Here I offer a necessarily condensed version of my main approach and some findings which I am currently writing into a book.

This investigation appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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My interest first arose when in Sweden, visiting the ancient burial mound site of Swedish royalty, in Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala). The similarities between this site and the seventh-century Sutton Hoo ship burial site in Essex have long been noted by archaeologists. On a display in the Uppsala site’s Interpretation Centre I had seen the unusual word Alfoor next to the name of the Norse god Odin. Out of curiosity I had jotted it down. I was at that time living in north-western England and was interested in the strong Norse heritage there on the edge of the Irish Sea. As I was departing the Interpretation Centre I asked a busy librarian on the desk how one might, using an Old Norse accent, pronounce this word Alfoor, and passed her my written copying of the name. Her answer came without a blink. “I think that would be pronounced Ah-thur,” she said, putting the emphasis on the second syllable. She then turned back to her computer, unaware that she had just thrown me a bombshell.

The Scandinavian god Odin, known as Woden/Wotan in Germany, is called the All Father, a term also applied to the Irish Dagda (a proxy name which simply means “The Good God” in Old Irish). “All Father” was written as “Alfoor” in this Swedish display rather than the more usual Swedish three-syllable form of “Alfathir”. The librarian, in a genuine attempt to answer my query, had done the condensing required by the difficult phonemic juxtaposition implied by the pronunciation marks, producing only two clear syllables. The bombshell was that suddenly, accidentally, I had a key to the origin of a name that has eluded scholars for not just generations, but well over a millennium. That name echoes throughout Britain as belonging to a great British hero: Arthur.

For Arthur is the unexplained name that attaches to over 2000 sites throughout the British Isles and into Ireland, in particular to Neolithic ruins and to wild and high places. Recent scholarly work has certainly pointed to the mythic nature of Arthur, correctly dismissing any genuine historicity for a person of that name, but all writers to date have got no closer to the name than to suggest the reference is to some mysteriously unknown “culture hero”, possibly associated with bears.

The British historian David Dumville has referred to the “no smoke without fire” searchers for a “real” Arthur, who have come up with not much more than, in his term for it, “King Arthur lived in my postcode”; which signifies a mythic element to be uncovered, if indicative sounds and tales of Arthur are to be found everywhere. So there is certainly a lot of smoke surrounding Arthur. Arthurian smoke swirled around Britain and Europe for many centuries until the Renaissance brought in a Roman and Greek revival. Until then, tales about Arthur were second only to biblical stories in their reach and impact, written down first in twelfth-century Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth and then consolidated by Sir Thomas Malory into the classic fifteenth-century English printed version, Morte d’Arthur. And now I had the name. But no evidence for it.

Even to me, it seemed absurd at first. How can a Norse god become the famous King Arthur?

You’ve never heard of Odin in relationship to Arthur because from the Roman conquest on, Odin was a forbidden name in Britain, proscribed by the Caesars and then by Christianity. The common identity of Odin and Arthur is obvious, once I retrieve his name from under the heavy hand of Rome. We can start by outlining some general features of Odin, and of the king known as Arthur, and then move on to look for Odin’s name in Britain, to show that it aligns with references to Arthur (the All Father) and that the Grail legends recall a religious conflict. I can then trace how Arthur and some other puzzling ciphers entered British history due to some “fake news” from an extremely worried British cleric.

Odin and Arthur

One-eyed Odin is a complex god, a very ancient god of prophecy, whose Brythonic name of Eiddyn seems suggestively cognate to that of the Greek sea god Poseidon (pos is an honorific), possibly carried by sea voyagers. Both contain the sound of idein, the Greek verb “to see”, although other etymologies are possible for each god. Odin’s single-eye “seeing” is ancient; it is the all-seeing eye of Mediterranean mythos that hangs over Picasso’s Guernica. Odin exchanged his other eye in return for complete knowledge, as he hung suffering Christ-like for nine days on the Tree of Worlds, where Middle Earth exists between Asgard, home of the gods above, and the nether regions of fate and the winter lands of death.

We know of Odin mainly through the slightly Christianised vision of Snorri Sturluson, the early thirteenth-century Icelandic recorder of sagas. Odin was the chief god of a north-west European warrior culture, a father god of all the tribal chiefs or “fathers”, a war god, a sun god, a psychopomp overseeing the souls of the dead, a cosmological time lord across the ages, and a “forbidden” god with hundreds of proxy names, including Beli/Belinus, the “shining one”, a name common in early Britain. His insignia were ravens, dragons, wolves, hounds, large cats, goats, bears and the bear constellation Ursa. Blood red is the symbolic colour of Odin; probably the “Red Ravager” of the old Welsh Triads.

Arthur we know as a famous “created” king, a king who never was, historicised by Monmouth and Malory from folk tales and fabrications drawn from diverse sources. These included usurpers in Britain who sought the Roman Imperium and the real king called Alfred who finally drew a line against the ninth-century Viking invasion of Britain. In brief, Arthur’s fable is that of a medieval-staged time when Britain was self-ruled by a mighty king who fought against the Romans and invading Dark Age “Saxons”; a fierce warrior-king, a battle leader, a fair and just ruler. Continuance of Arthur’s kingdom was presaged upon finding the Holy Grail, an unknown item of ritual and magic, which would restore lost lands and prestige to a mysterious Fisher King. This quest for the Grail created many knightly Arthurian adventures, but the quest ended when one worthy knight, Galahad (whose name meant “hallowed”) eventually found the Grail after many other (less Christian, less godly?) knights had failed. Arthur’s wife then caused his downfall in what is clearly a contest of “sovereignty” or right to rule.

Her name was Guinevere (the etymology is of a white river spirit). She has many aspects of Brigantia, sovereignty goddess of northern Britain, and Ireland’s Brigid (a remnant of matrilineal land tenure, not to be confused with matriarchy). Guinevere had three love affairs which eventually destroyed the comradeship of Arthur’s court. First, she was enticed by a “summer king”, aligning our hero to widespread seasonal “dying and rising god” motifs when Arthur arrives to reclaim her. Second, she was seduced by Lancelot, one of Arthur’s favourite knights who sat at Arthur’s round table. Finally, she betrayed Arthur during his absence fighting in Gaul by being deployed into the arms of Mordred, a “death name”. Mordred was said to be Arthur’s son or matrilineal nephew via his liaison with a Valkyrie-styled “faery” called Morgan le Fey. Arthur’s defeat by Mordred in Tennyson’s “last dim weird battle of the west” sent him to live on the mystical isle of Avalon, where Morgan and other “Faery Queens” revived him to await Britain’s need and his eventual heroic return. Morgan was also the lover of Merlin, a “half-demon” alchemist figure as well as a wild man of the greenwoods, who provided Arthur with a magical conception and a sword by which he proved his right to rule by drawing it from a stone when others could not. Older Breton and Welsh myths emphasised the more magical aspects of Arthur and Merlin, such as when Arthur fought with trees, or Merlin shape-shifted into a bird.

The legends contain many allusions to Bronze Age practices. Some aspects may even refer back to the Neolithic and pre-Neolithic. In further work, not detailed here, I suggest that the pre-Indo-European Basque word Atar/Ator (meaning “father”), provides us with the Latin Artorius gens and Arcadian Arkus god kings, as a separate etymology to Alfoor for the term Arthur. I go back to the paleolinguistics of the well-instanced bull and bear cults of European hunters: for the bull-father tor (Taurus) god A/tor produces tyr/lyr/tew/lew/lug, who link later to Odin. I also examine Crom, the Neolithic Lord of Time.

A “scatter” of names

There is firm evidence of a significant Nordic influence in Britain antedating the Romans. Recent genetics plus the numismatic findings of Daphne Nash Briggs show that there were North Germanic signifiers and linguistic forms in British populations well before Roman occupation or any later Germanic or Norse incursion from the fifth to the tenth centuries. All later incursions acted to reinforce existing Nordic genes, terms, beliefs and myths. Thus a Norse-influenced pronunciation of the All Father name as a common pronunciation with considerable time depth in early Britain is not an unreasonable hypothesis. I can also see Nordic cultural influence in Pictish tribal symbol stones in Scotland: Valkyrie figures, Odin on his horse, and graphic symbols that relate to Norse mythology.

Thus I commenced my own Arthurian quest by seeking the name of the Nordic Odin in Britain, especially alert to any associations with the legends and name of Arthur and particularly seeking any identity I could find between the names of Odin and Arthur. I searched the extensive corpus of the Arthurian legends, plus the early and late textual sources and remnant myths from which the legends are drawn and within which Arthur’s historicity or lack of it is examined. I also looked into place names and genealogies and much else. And I found what I sought, the names Arthur and Odin, often in linked contexts—but not exactly as the original names. I started to recognise how much names changed over time, over place and context, and by the type of record, whether written or oral. I found that the two names I sought could have variants or even fragments which may become embedded in other names; such fragments suggesting a further extended time-depth to these names.

Odin is there if you dig deeply enough into place names and legends. I have catalogued Odin appearing as odi/ordi/oder/oddyn/oddan and in odun/oden/odon/odo variants. Other variants were eton/etin/eaton, eden/edden/edi and eidin/eidynn/eide, also aiden/awyddyn/adin and idi/idius/idri. Boden (a recognised variant of Odin) produces badon/baden/bad, bodin/bodi and bowden/bowes or bow/bo. These forms of Odin are often used in combined names or as name fragments, often in religious contexts. Man/awyddyn for example is a Welsh sea god, and I once sat by mistake on the early Roman altar of a syncretic Mars Coc/idius in Lancaster Castle. The wild Bowes Moor traverses the Pennines. A foreshortened form of Odin emerges as Don, an Irish and Welsh father god (female form Dana). It is generally thought that river names are some of the oldest names. Odin provides the Eden in Old Cumbria, the Hodder in Lancashire’s Forest of Boland, and the Oder, Danube and Don in Europe. Odin thus appears as a very old European god who is well-evidenced in Britain, provided you look hard for him. A revered ancestor of the Anglian kings, his name lies hidden in language, not held in memory. As Woden, he is more in evidence.

Odin’s name is found in Camuloddin (Latinised into a dunum as Camulodunum) near Colchester, the sacred place where after 43 AD the Emperor Claudius deliberately built his massive takeover temple to his own deification as father of the Roman state. Unaccountably till now, Claudius was said to have received homage from distant “Orkney”. Orkney is a Neolithic site recently shown to rival Stonehenge, so this recorded memory likely refers to Odinic obeisance to Roman conquest. Camulus/Camillos was a proxy name for the barbarian war god in Gaul, where Odin had long been proscribed. It belongs to Odin, for we see that Camul also produces Camelot (the lot element from laet, the term for a military base, later the setting for Arthur’s court). Two Camelot place names are still found in Scotland, where legends refer to a “shining castle” that has features much like Valhalla. Odin is also strongly and anciently recalled in the Scottish names of Caledonia, Cullodin and Flodden, and especially in his named home, as ancient Eidynn, in a place now called Edinburgh, Eidynn’s burgh, an etymology not seen before.

But I am correct. The name Guatoddin was the tribal name around Edinburgh in pre-Roman times. Guat is a prefix term which means tribe. I judge that the Romans, as imperialists do, misheard Guatoddin as Votadin, added a genitive i for “of”, and called this tribe the Votadini. The Romans pronounced v as w (a Mumbai-to-Bombay moment). I’m sure of this, because after the Roman departure, the tribe reverted to a Cumbric Brythonic name: the Gododdin. Once more they named themselves as the people (from godi meaning “priestly”) of the god Odin. This explains why in a poem written circa 600 AD commemorating the Gododdin’s last stand against the rise of Northumbria in Dark Age Britain, we find the first written evidence of the name of Arthur. It appears as an impossible comparator for even the most brave and fearless warrior of this tribe. This comparator is Odin, of course, unrecognised so far except by me. Their god. The great rise we still call Arthur’s Seat takes pride of place overlooking the Gododdin’s fortress on Castle Hill where the military tattoo still plays. Again, the identity of Odin and Arthur is reaffirmed, in locality.

The people around Newcastle are still called Ge-ordi’s (Jordies)—the people of Ordi, an Odin fragment. Thus Saint Geordi (our St George), who has no easy provenance in Christianity, is in my view a Christianised Odin, for turning the gods of older cosmologies into new saints was not uncommon in the conversion era. This explains St George’s widespread popularity as a horseman saviour of Britain, plus his saving maidens facing Viking dragons, as found on the prow of Odin’s ships and in Pendragon (head dragon), Arthur’s putative father. St George in particular represents a pan-European protector figure rather like St Michael (he’s Santa Geordi in Italy). This is exactly what the best recent Arthurian scholar, Thomas (now Caitlin) Green, suspects Arthur must be, some sort of protector god, although, unlike me, Green has no clear idea of who this figure is. Odin fits the bill. As Arthur.

The same process applies to the name Arthur as to that of Odin. I have found a wide range of variants: Ardur, Arder, Ardi, Artor, Artorius, Artur, Artuir, Artho, Arta, Arda, Arty, Arfa, Arfur. There are also those names referencing the All-Father directly, as in as Elifer, Elidur, Eliatur, Aliafur, Alator, Venator, Alfada, Ollathair, Ollathir, Olifur, Olifar, Olafir, Ulifer and Oliver. I’ve also found the Arthur/All-Father identity as fragments such as Ardd, Ath and Arth. These are included in Gaelic words that relate to high places, life, graves and dying, including “death” and “breath”. Arth is also the Welsh word for bear; Arthur in Cornwall is associated with the Bear’s Wain constellation. Bruarder is a brew that induces dreams (a sign of Odin), and Uisce Breatha is the potent “water of the breath of life” (known now as whisky). Macbeth (Mac-beath) is the son of life (life and death reference Odin), and the clan MacArthur has a reputation as a very old and difficult clan, carrying the “dark mark” (a sign of Odin).

As with Odin, I have also found tribal names of Arthur not recognised as such. One is the Irish/Scots Dalriada tribe, the components of which are people (dial) of the king (ri/rix) Arthur (arda/artha), who kept the names of Artuir and Aiden alive for their sons well into the seventh century when such usage had collapsed elsewhere. The Irish Tuatha de Dana “invaders” were originally a similar tribe, Christianised into Ireland’s “little faerie people”. Irish and British cosmologies, unlike the Scandinavian, have no genesis myths. The people and their gods always arrive from elsewhere.

The forbidden father god

Although the remnant traces above show that Odin was Britain’s Arthur, it became clear to me that Odin became proscribed and forbidden as a named god early on. The Romans were wary of the barbarian father god to whom their captured legions were sacrificed. Recognising the spread of his powers, they paralleled him with Mercury, not their war god Mars, although some identifications still exist with Mars—notably Mars Alator (All Father) in France. A barbarian father god was recognised as Dis Pater (Deus Pater) by the Romans, and a heathen Rich Father or Rich Fisher was recorded occasionally in the later Christian period. But other father gods were in general not welcomed in either period. Rome’s father god was the deified emperor, embodying the Roman state, aligning with the Indo-European father gods Jupiter (dyus pitar) and Zeus (dyus). Rome faced early trouble in Britain over the First Sacrifice, due to Odin, now being necessary first to Rome. The Christian Father God was Trinitarian by the fourth century, where Christ, the Father and the Spirit were all declared One and inseparable. This meant that the father god Odin could not be transferred surreptitiously to the Christian Father, a two-way bet, as happened under the Arian (heretical) view that Christ was separate from the Father. Again, proscriptions were strongly imposed by Imperial Edict.

We see Christian proscription lingering in the term Sinodin (the Sin of Odin), a name used in the Shetlands for the mid-summer solstice watch today (although without any sense of its origin), where Odin the sun god always magically returns at this time from the horizon after his chase of the day across the sky (as seen on Iceni coins), just as we may note Arthur too always returns. The great Welsh mountain called Snowdon (surely a condensed Sinodin rather than the usual “snow” derivation?) I suspect has a similar heritage of proscription. Mount Snowdon in particular, as well as the nearby Mount Idris, are redolent with Arthurian associations, which heathen worshippers would have been warned about as sinful. Avatars (constructed identities) too show how Odin was driven further underground, with Arthur (made human) as the main avatar form. Similarly, Merlin is an avatar, for completely overlooked so far (but no more now I have Odin’s name) is the fact that Merlin’s Brythonic (ancient Briton) name of Mwrddyn simply translates as Great (Mwr) Odin (O/ddyn). Merlin later developed a series of legends within the Arthurian corpus in his own right. The Welsh god called Bran, a name meaning raven, I claim also as an avatar of Odin: tales of this mythical one-eyed giant parallel very closely the tales that use the name of Arthur, as do those of the one-eyed Irish god Fionn/Fin.

John Darrah, in Paganism in Arthurian Romance, first gave me the idea of looking at how the names I sought changed. Darrah applied a linguistic technique called “scattering” to the name of Bran. His results show how linguistic erosion, distortion, corruption, collapse, contraction and substitution in the name of Bran create a cast of at least twenty further names (from Bron to a distant Ryons and Urien) that are all found in the Arthurian legends; each of them carrying what I term the “calling card” hint of the original name travelling an acceptable linguistic path. Yet no one identifies Bran with Odin, because Odin has remained hidden in Britain, even though ravens are linguistic and visual symbols of Odin; especially the image of Odin with a raven on his shoulder.

This raven-shoulder reference caused trouble even in early Roman times: the nemesis of tribes and their Druidic system before the Boudiccan rebellion in 60 AD was a hated Roman governor called Ostorius Scapula (“shoulder bone”, named corocoid by the Greeks, after a raven): his very name mocked the Druidic beliefs that found their time depth in Odin. We still speak of those feeling denigrated, which Odin became, as having “a chip on their shoulder” and an old tradition is to throw salt (once a precious commodity) over one’s shoulder “for luck”, for protection by or from Odin. The Queen dubs her knights on the shoulder. Pall-bearers uneasily “shoulder” a coffin.

Ravens identified Odin, as two were his eyes and ears on the world. Corben is the French word for raven. Corbenic (from corbenrix/rig/ric, meaning Raven King) was said to be the home of King Arthur, as is also the fortress peak called Dinas Bran, near Llangollen in Wales, which I climbed with my husband early in my search. Knowing that Bran is really Odin explains both the frequency and salience of these Bran scatters throughout the Arthurian corpus and landscape. Urien, a form of Bran, is killed by Morcant, in echoes of Arthur’s last battle. Bran names are common in Britain, and especially in Ireland, where the legend of a mythical explorer Branden (Bran-Odin) leads to many variant names popular in Ireland, including Brendan. A Valkyrie-raven plucks out the eyes of the mythical Irish culture hero known as Cuchulainn (the Odinic “hound” of Chulainn) in his death throes.

I argue that believers in Odin during post-Roman times were actually called “ravens” by Christians, which explains the many otherwise inexplicable deleterious references to these carrion birds in texts and legends, as well as why so many place names incorporate the term “raven”. Raven place names indicate that Odin’s believers once dwelt there, as in Cwmbran (the “edge” of Bran) in South Wales. Such names were also applied to areas where standing stone circles stood, or once stood, as in Cumbria’s Ravenstonedale, with its Parish of Bowderdale (Boden’s dale). A name prohibition also perfectly explains Gildas’s extreme penalty of “seven years penance” for feeding communion bread to “ravens”, containing as it did a sacred essence, thought to be sought by followers of Odin in their battle for supremacy in religion. It also explains why ravens in the Tower of London are seen as protective, with Bran/Arthur’s severed head buried there, for they inflect belief in the powers of the old god Odin and the associated head-hunting ritual practices common to the barbarian peoples of Europe.

It is mainly in the fifth and sixth centuries that we find Odin’s avatar Arthur emerging as a clear threat to Christians. One clue is in the sudden rise in the immediate post-Roman period of the name Ceretic (with variants like Cerdic and Corotic), which was applied to many “Saxon” and British leaders in a manner that has seemed puzzling until now. Not puzzling, however, if we consider that there were many heretics. In this period too we find that Christian saints were constantly trying, as recounted in their hagiographic Lives, to best Arthur by using their stronger Christian magic; meanwhile a personified Arthur is depicted as trying to steal Christian vestments and other insignia, such as Bibles, as well as desiring the secrets of communion bread and wine.

Trinitarian Christians in the fifth century also turned to proselytising the new Father King as well as discounting the old one. Much confusion about an historical St Patrick is solved if we postulate a group of missionaries in Ireland using the Patrick name to introduce in Roman Latin the new Trinitarian Father King of Christ, for Patrick decodes well as Pater-Rix (Father King). Legend tells us that one missionary now called St Patrick saw off the “snakes” (unbelievers) from Ireland and threw his shoes at ravens (human or avian) on the sacred mountain in western Ireland now called Croagh Patrick. The Christian Father King was fighting hard against Odin the All Father of the tribes.

Sources of the Grail legends

From this ideological contest emerges the main tenet of the Grail legends: the legendary memory of a struggle over the validity of a forbidden name and lineage, that of Odin, the Auld King, the Fisher King who is called Bron (or Bran, or “raven”). The Fisher King is wounded in “the thigh”, emasculated, and can only be cured by restoration of his name which will also make the Waste Land flourish. There are hints in this of the tradition of killing real underperforming kings (as Jessie Weston speculated), but that is hardly the main game of the “Holy” Grail. For this Grail refers to the search for godhead, pitting a chalice containing priestly access to religious truths (transubstantiation) and the awe of Romanitas against the old varieties of gnosis.

There is good evidence that in Roman times early British Christianity was gnostic in its approach, increasingly villa-centred and elitist. We know too that by the fifth century post-Roman Britain was alive with the Pelagian heresy, also rather gnostic. This heresy allowed an unmediated relationship between believers and the Grace of the Christ, with no need for priests. Individual Britons could thus self-seek the numinous in Christ’s written word; in the glories of nature as Pelagius allowed (turning, as one wag has suggested, the British into the inveterate gardeners they are to this day); in the skies and stone monuments of an ancient celestial father god (as seen in the English Art Deco sunrise); in the extra-sensory realm called the music of the spheres; or even as medieval stargazers did, in the predictive Zodiac. Religious flux opened the door to a variety of interpretations of the Grail, symbols of the search.

Variously, the Grail alludes to a book (the bejewelled Bible; written incantations, the “magic” of writing held solely by Christians), a secret musical notation, a gradale, a rise and fall (as seen in a series of unexplained blocks on the walls of the engrailed Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland); or a ritual circular “table” encompassing a cosmological court of seekers (recalling, I claim, those circled standing stones the Romans called “tabula”). The Grail legends always feature a memorialised procession, a graduation or gradale (likely age-old memories, as steps up to a ritual platform, or along a cursus connecting stone circles into a wider ritual landscape). This processional entails carrying sacrificial food on a plate called a gradale (a series of food courses) or in a drinking cup or basin called a grael. When the cup is a chalice the contents are Christianised into the wine (or wafer) of Holy Communion. In his shining light, a man (Belinus, a “kenning” of Odin) processes with his spear dripping blood, accompanied by young warrior males and beautiful women, Valholl’s cup-bearers bringing “the honey mead of inspiration”. The Grail provides magically in food and spirit for onlookers via the Indo-European cauldron of plenty, a bowl of reincarnation, or a drinking horn cornucopia; doing as Christ did with some loaves and fishes.

To me, the Grail also carries an ancient alchemical meaning, the mystery of metallurgy that turned base metals into gold, an allusion back to the ancient smith priests who drew hot golden bronze swords from a stone mould (as did the young Arthur), swords that were then broken and thrown into lakes to appease spirits there. Later, the Grail concept alluded to wizards, stargazers like Merlin, who were seekers of alchemical knowledge, pondering a meteorite “stone” sent from heaven; Merlin, Odin’s avatar, who was destroyed in the end as a raven or eagle in a moulting cage (an esplumoir). For the Grail is about transformations, of people as well as metals, enshrined in memories of legendary shape-shifters who left human form. The Grail is also the Christian “magic” of turning bread into spirit, and wine into blood (that substance on which Odinic rituals were based), a grasp at the numinous, turning self into something other, spiritually “richer”, as promised in the recorded name of a “Rich Father”.

Admitted into the French Grail legends as a central focus, the British figure of Peridur becomes Percival, the “perfect fool” who does not know his own lineage name, yet who is unable to ask the forbidden question about who the Grail procession is for, or he will die. And here we have it: Peridur is Odin in the idon/idur variant. The prefix per is a Brythonic word for a ritual container or basin, long associated with ancient king-making sites. Peridur appears in folklore as a wholly non-evidenced “ruler” across northern Britain, known for his legendary army. “Eliafer of the Great Host in the North” is similarly placed, and is also Odin. Neither ever existed. They reference Odin and Arthur. Odin’s lineage becomes shaded into Bron (the raven Bran), named as the Fisher King (or “sinner” king via the French word pecheur), or the (spiritually) Rich King, just as Christ is a spiritual king. In this way, Arthur attained his “kingship”, in the memories of a struggle between rivals, both powerful spiritual kings and king-makers, a struggle which Odin lost, becoming a king whose kingdom had collapsed and who no longer had even his name. Until I found it. As perhaps did the Knights Templar (but that is another story).

“Fake news” and the genesis of “the Age of Arthur”

Why is it that the fifth and sixth centuries are seen as “the Age of Arthur”, a period when a post-Roman warlord, possibly with a Roman heritage, revived the enfeebled Britons who were unused to fighting, and fought off an invasion by “Saxon” peoples and for a time stopped it? This sits poorly with recent genetic and archaeological work that suggests the generic “Saxon invasion” now looks more like a slow North Germanic cultural revival in an east coastal population Stephen Oppenheimer suggests were possibly already speaking a Germanic language, which explains the paucity of Brythonic (broadly “Celtic”) terms in early English. The suggestion is of an elite takeover rather than an invasion following the departure of Roman authority, involving skirmishes but no major confrontations. The answer to “the Age of Arthur” lies in misinterpretations made about a curious text we can now analyse as referring to Odin.

Titled On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (De Excidio et Conquistu Britanniae), this long text has a loose floruit between the mid-fifth and mid-sixth centuries and offers few checkable facts or dates. Apart from the limited writings of St Patrick, De Excidio is the only textual material available to us for the entire period, so it is quite famous. Written by a literate but unknown Trinitarian Christian “cleric” (we think) called Gildas, De Excidio is mainly a complaint about spiritual ruin (excidio can imply that) and the degradation of the post-Roman Christian church in Britain, a sermon that has been taken too readily as instructive about general social and historical conditions. These are mentioned only incidentally. They are constructed from a mish-mash of mainly oral sources to serve the main thesis, which is about the need for redemptive salvation due to past and current “sins” in order to stop the decline in the Church. To provoke a Christian awakening, Gildas creates a florid Jeremiad about how the Britons have been punished by God in the past for cowardice during Rome’s initial invasion, and for straying from Rome’s later gift of Christianity. He gives a bad press to the Welsh that lives with them to this day.

Gildas wants a revival of Trinitarian Christianity in a country he sees as both heretic, with the Arian and Pelagian heresies rife, and turning heathen again. In De Excidio, Gildas refers with great approval to the Battle of Baden Hill (Mons Badonicus) which was won at some dissembled time after Rome departed. The date, I suspect, was deliberately made vague as Gildas had no certainty about the timing. What he wrote was deemed later to refer to a great historical battle, a win for the Britons against a massive “Saxon invasion”; a later invention gleaned from Gildas’s obvious anxiety as heathen Saxon warlords replaced Roman Christians as leaders. Gildas also mentions a “last of the Romans” figure called Ambrosius Aurelianus, and a deceiver, a Proud Tyrant (Superbus Tyrannus) who let in the “Saxons”. Both of these actors seem to antedate Baden. There is no mention of a “hero” of Baden.

Baden is a clear reference to Odin in the Boden form. Gildas actually calls Baden “a siege” rather than a battle. I claim that Gildas presents a memory of a historic confrontational religious debate that we know took place in 429 AD between “heretics” and Trinitarian Christians. I think it was actually very much about belief in Boden/Badon as All Father versus the Trinitarian Father, reflected too in the choice of place for the debate. Bath and Badbury have been suggested, but because Odin/Woden has not been on the agenda as the cause as well as the place of this struggle, no one has so far suggested the most likely place: the only dominant hill in southern England that had a suitable socio-religious heritage relating to Odin/Woden. It is Waden (Woden) Hill, still called that today, a massive mound next to the sacred constructed tumulus of Silbury Hill, and part of the extensive Stonehenge ritual landscape archaeologists are now revealing. Waden Hill is a true Mons Badonicus. We do know from archaeology and other sources that a new god called Nodens (possibly Nova Odin, a revised Odin, later Nudd/Nuada) was popular in this period; so I see Waden Hill as a telling “home ground” for this contested debate.

The historical background is that by 381 AD all forms of heresy and heathenism/paganism were being suppressed by the Emperor Theodosius, spurred on by a theologian from Milan known now as St Ambrose. It may be that such suppression caused Britain to break away from Rome around 400 AD. Zosimus, a Greek writer of the period, in a rare mention of Britain, says the Britons “abandoned Roman laws” by 410 AD. They had done this before, joining the breakaway Gallic empire of Carausius in the third century and assisting the Barbarian Conspiracy against Rome in the fourth. Roman military Restitutors had been required. By 429 AD British churchmen had asked Rome to send a revivalist preacher to help return their flocks to Christianity. The Pope sent Bishop Germanus from Gaul, an aristocrat displaying a cultured Romanitas, who for a while halted the drift. It is uncertain if Germanus revisited circa 447 AD; most historians see it as a duplication, perhaps a form of wish fulfilment.

The earliest Life of Germanus outlines the success of this debate. We can interpret Gildas as longing for what he only knows as the successful struggle against heathens at Baden to occur again. Eager to stress the importance of his visit, I suspect that in his debate Germanus used ammunition garnered from a neglected edict known as a Rescript (an imperial response to a query) that I have recently come across: the Rescript Against Paganism, made to the Prefect Aurelianus by the Emperor Arcadius in 395 AD, which strongly repeated the anti-heretic and anti-pagan position of St Ambrose. In heavy terms, it denounced all heathen, pagan and non-Trinitarian beliefs. Gildas, writing as he says without books, has in my reading of his work personified the debating terms of this visit of Germanus via bowdlerised accounts of it, given that his likely access is only through oral tales.

So it was all “fake news”, a tissue of invention and a later texture of misinterpretation. There was no “Battle” of Baden against a Saxon “invasion”, nor was there an Ambrosius Aurelianus, although some serious historians still refer to both as factual. The life details offered by Gildas for his Ambrosius are exactly those of St Ambrose of Milan, creator of the plainsong that Gildas extols, whose father was a Roman prefect and of the gens Aurelius; the Aurelianus name refers to the Aurelianus Rescript. The two memories are conflated into a fabricated person. There was no Proud Tyrant either, personified three centuries later by folkloric memory into the human figure of Vortigern (meaning Great Leader) who sold Britain out to the heathen “Saxons”. The Superbus Tyrannus of Gildas was Odin, the old All-Father. The earliest Life of Germanus mentions that the debate was led by a “man of Tribunican rank”, later tellingly termed Eliafer (All-Father, Arthur) who ends up defeated, begging Germanus for help.

To further my case, the fact that neither Gildas nor Bede mentions Arthur has always worried scholars, but I am not concerned. No Christian writer would mention him. Gildas, however, if one reads deeply into his detailing of Britain’s heretical woes, does mention a “devil father”, a fact missed so far. For aficionados of Gildas (and there are many) I also have a new view of the “Kings” sequence in Gildas. I think he refers in this not to real kings but to ciphers constructed out of local gossip, ciphers given many attributes of Odin in their kingly titles, and his Constantine is simply Constantine III (who died in 411 AD), who like Gildas’s fake Constantine, killed two royal children (nephews of the Emperor Honorius) in a church and dragged his own son Constans from life as a holy monk. Thus reading Gildas for history is a mistake. He uses historical memory with unashamed creativity to further the impact of his message and to appear wise. Bede, like me, seems to doubt the chronology of Gildas (used by later annals) and places great emphasis on the visit of Germanus as a defining feature of the early post-Roman period.

Three centuries after Gildas though, Baden is pulled again into “history”. The Historia Brittonum, a text from the Welsh area of Gwynedd (including old Druidic Anglesey), nominates Arthur as the hero of Baden. As the historian Nicholas Higham analyses it, Gwynedd seeks a new Welsh hero, a Joshua to counter the unflattering vision of the Welsh perpetrated by Gildas and then Bede. The role falls to Arthur. An old battle poem agglomerating many diverse battles, including one at Baden, is used to create “the twelve battles of Arthur”. Arthur is Christianised in this list via some clunky “shoulder” insignia (in place of Odin’s raven) although his battle feats as “Dux” goading real kings onward are still beyond human. This shoulder reference, because contextually it seems implausible to carry a giant cross or a painted image on a shoulder, has been explained away by modern scholars as a clerical error in transcription, shield and shoulder being similar Brythonic words. But it is definitely no error; the identifying seeing-eye raven on Arthur’s shoulder has simply been Christianised and remains as Odin’s “calling card”.

The Historia also contains a section on miracles (Mirabilia or folk tales), where Vortigern (Odin) is depicted as becoming a lonely and thin (O-thin) old man wandering in Wales, unable to build a new castle, and thus fading away in misery. Like Arthur in the battle poem, Odin’s avatar Merlin is Christianised in the Mirabilia, made Christ-like, becoming Merlin Ambrosius, a “fatherless boy” with precocious wisdom, who can do what Vortigern cannot. We are told here too that Merlin provides notable help to build Stonehenge with the right sort of stones, a structure which has now become Christianised, hence the Ambrosius name of Amesbury appears in the wider Stonehenge ritual landscape. Only later does Merlin suffer defeat at the Battle of Arthuret in 575 AD, reverting to a wild man of the Celydon (Odin) woods, to be rescued by a kindly St Ken/tigern (knowledge leader), founder of Glasgow. Merlin finally met his end by the Bronze Age triple death of stabbing, hanging and drowning. Arthur too was killed off. Annalists introduced a line item for Arthur’s death in 536 AD, a time of a volcanic winter across the world, when many cultures thought the sun god had died. The Mirabilia also refers to Arthur’s “unmeasurable” grave, a Neolithic dolmen. Arthur’s death and grave (the hoax at Glastonbury) probably became part of folklore to counter the idea of Arthur’s return, expressed by Malory’s Rex quondum, rexque futurus, best translated by T.H. White’s “the once and future King”.

Conclusion: Some enduring avatars of Odin All-Father

Odin lives on still in memory as Old King Cole, named after Coelestius (meaning “of the sky”), the perhaps apocryphal sidekick of Pelagius the British heretic, and recalled still in the name of Colchester (Coel Caester), once Camuloddin, near Sutton Hoo barrows field where I started thinking about things Swedish. We have come full circle. Arthur also lives on as Britain’s Father Christmas, the old Yule Father in his red cloak (the ancestral Padernus Redraut of the Gododdin), now Christianised as St Nicholas (famed for punching the heretic Arius on the nose), a name slowly eroded into Santa Claus, riding Odin’s Wild Hunt across the skies bringing presents in a reindeer sleigh. He lives too in the old forest god, the Green Man, the Green Knight of the legends, who has become Robin Hood, around whom further legends accrete. For Robin (Oddin) Red Breast, the Christmas bird, gives his name to a monk-hooded outlaw, Oddin Hood, beyond the Christian pale, found in the ancient greenwood (and also in Robin Hood’s Bay near Scarborough and other northern sites as well as in Sherwood Forest). He has his own Virgin Mary, called Maid Marian, he sends up monks (Friar Tuck), and his followers are the common people who remembered in a nursery rhyme a time when “good King Arthur ruled the land”, and provides his people, believers still, with stolen food.

Odin is the one-eyed Hooded One known as Grey Cloak, the wise Gandalf wanderer with his staff, Odin in the fading shadow of his primary avatars Arthur, Bran, Vortigern and Merlin; Odin who still found a home in the greenwood, although Christians now called him the Devil, a Grim Reaper playing chess for lives, as Arthur played a form of chess over his warriors in Welsh legend. Odin as King Idein/Eiddyn, a Neptune Devil with his sea-god Fisher King trident. Odin of many names. Hints remain in Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five” as a shipwrecked royal father has a sea-change that is “rich and strange” on a magical island where airy sprites imprisoned in Druidic oak trees answer to a Merlin figure called Prospero.

There is sufficient evidence to declare that Odin existed in Britain as a much proscribed but secretly remembered god, and that the Norse term Arthur, meaning All-Father, became an avatar form for Odin. My theories as outlined here break new ground regarding the origin of King Arthur and the history and pseudo-history and false floruit (allocated time period) that surrounds this name. I have summarised how Alfoor, the All-Father, became euheumised, personalised into a man, although still traceable as originating from Odin.

I conclude by offering two incontrovertible examples of the alignment of Odin with Arthur. The first is in the Battle of Arthuret (a real battle bearing the name of Arthur), in 575 AD, a textually recorded major and bloody conflict, implied as over religious beliefs, which it is known took place two miles from Scotland’s Longtown just above Carlisle. Arthuret is now deserted. I sat in the lonely church there thinking of how James I taxed all of England to rescue this very church, as it was at that time in disrepair, reputed to be still “heathen” with its sacred well, in this land of Reivers (cattle thieves). I felt a certain kinship. My own maternal grandfather came from a Reivers clan.

This Battle of Arthuret is strongly associated with Peridur (Basin Odin) and Merlin (Mwrddyn, the Great Odin). It was once known in Welsh as the Battle of Arderedd, so we are moving back along a name-scatter here. It leads to an original Brythonic form I have found, which calls Arthuret the Battle of Alfdereiddyn (All-Father Odin). It couldn’t be clearer than that, unremarked for well over a millennium. Additionally, Layamon (a traditional Saxon Law Man), the translator of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fabricated “History of the Kings of Britain” from Latin into English, actually writes of Arthur initially as Alfaderoder, another direct clarification that Arthur is Odin, but missed for nearly a millennium. Much else has been missed, for so long, which I write here to point out and correct.

Elizabeth Beare lives in Sydney.


* * *

Short annotated bibliography

NB. Areas not discrete, there is much overlap, but divided here for heuristic ease.

The Process of Conversion

Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, Henry Holt, NY 1997 (a huge scholarly work; deals with north-western and eastern European conversions as well as Mediterranean)

Charles Freeman, AD 381, Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State, Pimlico, Random House, 2008 (mentions Aurelianus Rescript p142, Theodosius’ Edict in AD381 decrees heretics ‘foolish madmen’.)

Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, Routledge 1997 (a scholarly illustrated ethnic survey covering Greeks, Romans, Celts, Germans, Baltic, Russian and German traditions)

Rome and its Collapse

Ken Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800, 1994, Leicester (historian argues ‘wave’ theory of migrations ignores that the Southern tribal formations regrouped into kingdoms)

David Mattingly, An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54bc-409ad, Penguin, 2006 (scholarly; ‘Germanisation’ of western empire; religious practices ‘elusive’; slow decline of ‘Romanitas’; ‘ethnogenesis’ vs ‘interpretatio’; includes competing interpretations of decline; British perspectives)

Brian Ward Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford University Press, 2005 (an historian’s overview of Roman tax failures, production decline and market collapse; a real ‘Dark Age’)

Constructing Ethnicities

Nicholas J. Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History, Routledge 2002 (historian on C9th Historia Brittonum; a Welsh ‘salvation’ history; Arthur derives from Welsh folklore; a culture hero made Joshua.)

Lloyd Laing and Jennifer Laing, Celtic Britain and Ireland, Herbert Press, 1995 (375 named Gallic gods, 305 appear only once, 69 deities coupled with Mars; ‘hero’s portion’ an IE tradition; ‘Celtics’ not unitary)

James Mackillop, Myths and Legends of the Celts, Penguin 2006 (the best scholarly retrieval of remnant Celtic beliefs; account of key features of religious themes and practices; Irish and Welsh mythic cycles) Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British: A genetic Detective Story, Constable, London, 2006 (2/3 pre farming; 1/3 later from NW Europe, only 5% of these due to Roman, Saxon, Norman inputs)

The Lost Gods of Europe

John Darrah, Paganism in Arthurian Romance, Boydell Press, 1994 (cult practices, e.g. Grail, Nemeton and challenge knights; locates ‘geography’ in the legends, uses name scatters for characters, eg. Bran)

H.R. Ellis Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Newnes Books, 1983 (Illustrated, includes Bronze Age rock art; hunter-gatherer amulets; sky gods, cults of Odin and Thor; deities and sources; landscape features)

Anne Ross, Pagan Celts, Ruthin, 1998 (dated now re claims of >400 separate gods; notes a strong Druidic religious belief in a Dis Pater; seer class; Gallo-Roman circular temples; 4 stage year; powerful Raven god; head cult; Nodens associated with dogs; phallic and solar symbols; Cuchulainn ‘one-eyed’; Denmark has Celtic influence, dated re her claim of >400 gods, now just ‘locality’ versions of a wider cosmology)


Daphne Nash Briggs, ‘An emphatic statement: the Undley-A gold brachteate and its message in fifth century AD East Anglia, in Sekunda (ed.), Wonders Lost and Found, Festschrift for Professor Michael Vickers, forthcoming, also ’Reading the Images on Iron-Age Coins”, both available on Academia.com

Francis Pryor, Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before The Romans, Harper Perennial, 2003, (an archaeological chronology of Britain from Neolithic to the Romans; theories of stone monuments)

Francis Pryor, Britain AD: The Age of Arthur, Penguin 2005 (Bronze Age Arthur? lack of Saxon invasion)

Arthurian Sources and Discussions

David Dumville, ‘Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend’ History 62 (1977) (led the field against the ‘real Arthur’ reconstructionists, strong critique re relying on early texts and chronologies drawn from them)

Gildas the Wise, De Exidio et Conquistu Britanniae – an essential early post-Roman sermon; numerous translations and considerable debate regarding elements of this, especially paragraphing; see, M.Lapidge and D.N. Dumville (eds) Gildas: New Approaches, Woodbridge 1984, two examples are: www.ccel.org/pearse/morefathers/files/gildas_on_ruin_of_britain_htm www.votigernstudies.org.uk/arthist/vortigernquotesgil.htm

Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus Publishing, NPI Media Group, 2007 (5 stars; speculates on Celtic god; Mars Alator in Ch 7, but no etymology suggested, Alator god of a ‘clan’; a fine review of earliest stratum, nature, historicizing; a comprehensive account, by editor of www.arthuriana.co.uk

O.J. Padel, The Nature of Arthur, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 27, 1994 (new approach in its time; Arthur as an unknown mythic ‘culture hero’ named in high and wild places and in Neolithic monuments)

The Grail

Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend, Penguin, 2004 (C9th Cult of the Holy Blood, Church hostility to the Grail; Glastonbury tales an invention; theorized by ‘innuendo’; Nazi views.)

Richard Cavendish, King Arthur and The Grail: The Arthurian Legends and Their Meaning, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1978 (readable explication of the legendary content and characters; not ‘New Age’)

Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail; From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, Constable 1963 (Irish/Welsh, episodic; euhemerized myths; shoulder, King Pelle/Beli, River Edein all occur; priestless, heathen)

The Human Mind in Myth and Ritual

David Crystal, By Hook or by Crook: A Journey in Search of English, HarperCollins, 2007 (A travelogue in Britain by famed linguist, notes English written in accent, dialect; etymologies obscure, can be multiple)

David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, Inside the Neolithic Mind, Thames & Hudson, 2009 (suggests a cosmological break in religious thought during Neolithic; neurology of mystic states seen in iconic art)

Linda Malcor, “The Icelandic Sword In The Stone: Bears In The Sky”, in The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, 11, 2008.(Myths in disparate places due to ‘precession’ in the planets)




5 thoughts on “Decoding King Arthur and the Grail

  • ChrisPer says:

    Brilliant and novel insight Lizzie Beare. THanks for a great article, and especially for your bibliography at the end.
    The sacrificial sword thing – were they really sacrificing directly from the mold into the ‘tumbling river, bright with swords’? I think I read a major article on this practice in regard to excavations, in Scientific American, about 1989, but the suggestion was .not that the swords were any less than fully worked, proper fighting swords – as far as I can remember.
    I was particularly charmed by the news that it was a secret custom in certain parts for young girls to throw a bent pin into a well while making a wish, likely a practice direct descended from the sacrifice of swords to the old gods.

  • Alistair says:

    Gee, I like this Elizabeth! Lots of meaty stuff to get teeth into.
    I always annoys me when I hear folk say we (us anglo-celts) have no culture or that our mythology is nonsense – as if other cultures are somehow more valid and their mythology more deep and meaningful. There is so much interesting information buried in even a place name for those who care to actually look.

  • whitelaughter says:

    ChrisPer – the whole swords thing comes from the Samartians; the Romans posted a unit of Samartian heavy calvary to Britain in the 3rdC and many of their customs seem to have made it into the Arthurian mythos….centuries before the cult of Odin made it to the British Isles.

  • Michael says:

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s wife, responds.

    Chris, the bent pin analogy sounds like one of those odd long-term memes that have kept their traction. I have pointed to ‘shoulder imagery’ as a similar ‘hangover’, and there are many others.

    whitelaughter – The Samartian connection is developed by Littleton and Malcor; most cultural historians critique their thesis, claiming it does not more than reflect remnant Indo-European shared mythologies and cultures (as are the swords, widely spread in the Bronze Age). I think the L and M thesis is more than that, but nothing to do with their favored ‘Arthur’ (Lucius Artorius Castus, simply a Roman of the ancient Artorius clan). The definite Samartian presence in the north of England, where the very ancient religion held sway for longer, probably added Sarmartian elements to much older base myths, perhaps reinforcing them. My view on the ‘cult of Odin’ is that as Eidynn, this god had a very ‘longue duree’ presence in Britain as in much of north-western Europe, probably from the Neolithic, certainly since the Bronze Age. Two source modes for Odin – one up the Atlantic coast from the Mediterranean and the other across the North Sea and other continental contacts. So, hardly a recent cult. Reinforced though by the later Danish and Norse adventurers and settlers.

    Alistair – I like this stuff too! I have concentrated in this article on the Nordic name derivation for Arthur, but I note too in it that there is another source of the name – along a name scatter of Ator/Atorius/Atar/Akkar – a very ancient form of the word for ‘Father’, possibly proto-Indo-European, but as I found it in the Basque language area, possibly anterior even to that. Ator translated to ancient Britain with a ‘th’, becoming Athor. The Arkkus ‘kings’ of Mesopotamia, as Gardiner’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book notes, have a name that relates to the Bear star constellation Acturius, aligning this Ator father god with things celestial. The ‘bear’s wain (chariot)’ is a name allocated to King Arthur in Cornwall and the Cornish/Welsh word for bear is ‘arth’. Some of Britain’s highest mountains are named in Britain after Arthur.

  • talldad says:

    What a fascinating read! Thanks Lizzie.

    As a reader of Tolkien, can I ask how and/or where these links might connect with his theory of Norse legends feeding into British history via the legend/s of Beowulf (which path I have not followed)?

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