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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



Before striking out in a final assault upon the summit, an aspect of King Arthur should be brought to the fore. And not the King Arthur who fought the Roman army in Geoffrey of Monmouth's account, but the far more widespread King Arthur who, as in the Old French pre-cyclic 'Lancelot', and much of Sir Thomas Malory's work, and many Middle English poems, and all of Chrétien de Troyes' work, serves largely as a passive figure for his active knights of the Round Table to revolve around, like a sun at the still point of a turbulent vortex. It is these knights, Lancelot, Gawain, Gareth and Kay, who ride out from King Arthur's court and return from their adventures in the world outside. Stories of marvels are brought to the King by knights such as Yvain, Palamedes and Perceval. King Arthur is sent prisoners also. Like Odin, he receives warriors defeated in battle.

'Tales of a British Chief named Arthur were probably taken to Brittany by Welsh exiles at about the sixth century,' wrote Thomas Rolleston, whose work of nearly a century ago remains in publication to this day. 'They must also have brought legends of the Celtic deity Artaius,' he continues, 'and those two personages ultimately blended into one.' In part a Celtic deity then; but perhaps Artaius was not so much a deity as a deified ancestor. As King Arthur himself has often shown signs of becoming. A once and future king. Many Anglo-Saxon royal lines traced their ancestry back to Woden; Odin, who presided over Valhalla. Perhaps the Celtic Artaius played a similar role.

A tale of Sir Thomas Malory's provokes some thought along these lines. While in London, King Arthur announces a tournament to be held at Camelot, which in Malory's Arthurian landscape is Winchester. Guinevere cannot go. Lancelot, too, at first pleads an unhealed wound, but Guinevere warns him not to stay with her whilst the King is away because tongues will wag.

On his way, then, to Camelot, Lancelot takes lodging in the town of Astolat, which Malory tells us is Guildford. His host has two sons, one of whom is injured and cannot attend the tournament. Lancelot asks if he can borrow the son's shield to use at the jousting, as 'I would ask you to lend me a shield that will not be widely recognised, for mine is well known.' His host, Sir Barnard of Astolat, happily assents. '"And therefore I praye you to telle me youre name," seyde sir Barnarde.'

'"As for that," seyd sir Launcelot, "ye muste holde me excused as at thys tyme."' Strange behaviour for one who might have wished to be conspicuously present at the tournament in order to dispel suspicions concerning himself and Queen Guinevere. However - the endemic Arthurian motif kicks in yet again. Lancelot rides off in disguise with Sir Barnard's other son, leaving behind Sir Barnard's daughter who has meanwhile become besotted with this unknown knight.

The girl loves Lancelot too much. And later, having nursed him through a grievous wound he received at the tournament, her hopes have soared too high. She tells Lancelot that he must become her husband or her lover or she will die. Lancelot cannot help her, beyond offering her a thousand pounds if she will find another man to love.

On her deathbed, she instructs her family to write a letter at her dictation and to clasp it in her hand when she is dead, then to put her in a boat and set her body floating on the Thames. So this is what they do. 'When she was dead, the body and the bed, and - all thynge as she had devised, was put in the Temmys.'

The bark arrives at Westminster, where it goes unnoticed for a while. Then King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are taken aboard. Guinevere finds the letter clasped in the dead girl's hand and has it read out. 'Most noble knight, my lord Sir Lancelot,' it says, 'now has death exposed our disagreement over your love. And I did love you, I, whom men called the Fair Maid of Astolat. Therefore, to all ladies I make my complaint; yet pray for my soul and bury me at least, and offer my mass-penny. This is my last request. I died a virgin, I call God to witness. Pray for my soul, Sir Lancelot, as you are without equal.'

A ship of the dead. A boat that takes the voyager to a distant land of the dead, just as it took the soul of the king commemorated in the Sutton Hoo ship burial in East Anglia. But also a Land of the Living, as Bran once found, and Sir Lancelot. The boat arrives not in heaven but at Westminster. Just as Lancelot himself once found the afterlife at Bath, in the county of Somerset.

In one small way, King Arthur's court takes on the same mantle as Odin's Valhalla. It is a place where the dead arrive; as Sir Gawain's brother Gareth once arrived, propped up like a corpse between two knights and then living as a kitchen boy for a year, subsisting on 'fat broth' and unrecognised by his brother.

King Arthur's court took on a characteristic of Odin's hall in Chrétien de Troyes' Conte du Graal. Perceval vowed to avenge the slap that Sir Kay had given to one of the damsels during his first visit there, but it seemed never to occur to him to go back in order to face up to Sir Kay, which seems wholly contrary to Perceval's youthful and impetuous nature. Having received training in the martial arts by a gentleman who went on to knight him, Perceval chose to send knights that he had defeated in battle to the King's court bearing the message that the damsel's hurt would be avenged. But why did he not go with them? Was something preventing him? Is there more to a journey to King Arthur's court than meets the eye? We are told by Chrétien that in those days, it was customary that a knight who had been defeated in battle had to travel to the King's court in the clothes that he had been wearing at the moment he was defeated, '...without removing or putting on anything.' Thus, King Arthur received the knight Clamadeu, 'still in his arms, as the custom required', Clamadeu having made a journey of many days duration in his bloodstained battle armour, following the tracks of his seneschal Anguingueron, whom Perceval had defeated earlier. Do they seem a little like ghosts trudging to Hades?

A knight arrived at King Arthur's court in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, wearing the battered coat of a man who had been killed in battle. Is it his own? King Arthur gives him the name La Cote Male Tayle. Malory does not tell us that it is the knight's own coat, but in the light of what Chrétien has told us, it seems very likely that it is. So we are left with an impression that knights who have been killed in battle have to journey to King Arthur's court. Perhaps this is why, for a little while at least, it seems to be impossible for Perceval to return to King Arthur's court. And when he does, of course, there is a most bizarre scene of non-recognition, as though Chrétien wished to alert us to the fact that something strange was going on.

Riding with Perceval on his final journey we learn that during the five years that have elapsed since his sojourn at King Arthur's court and his encounter with the loathly lady, he has sent sixty knights as prisoners to the King's court while searching for the Graal Castle. All these warriors have been defeated in battle and have all subsequently appeared, one assumes, at King Arthur's court wearing the clothes in which they have been defeated; just as if their dead bodies had been plucked from the battlefield by Valkyries and taken to Valhalla, where an endless round of battle, death, and resurrection was promised to Scandinavian warriors.

Another tale in which prisoners are sent to King Arthur is that of 'The Fair Unknown'. Written in the mid-to-late fourteenth century, at the time that Geoffrey Chaucer was beginning his Canterbury Tales and perhaps composed by a man named Thomas Chestre, it tells of another young man who arrives at King Arthur's court not knowing his own name. When a damsel comes looking for a knight to champion a lady who has been unjustly imprisoned, he volunteers to take on this quest. So the Fair Unknown goes off to rescue the lady who is held prisoner and encounters a series of tests of courage and prowess in which prisoners and trophies are sent back to King Arthur, the spoils of his succession of victories.

In the first of his encounters, the Fair Unknown defeats a knight, wounding him badly in the face, and instructs him to travel immediately to King Arthur's court and to give himself up as the King's prisoner. So off the knight trudges. Soon, his three nephews are following in his wake, having been defeated by the Fair Unknown while attempting to avenge their uncle. Then this young unknown knight sends the heads of two giants that he has defeated to the King; and then he kills a knight who has insisted upon parading his girlfriend around the market as though she was a prize heifer. The Fair Unknown parades his own entry in the competition and then, following the inevitable jousting contest, sends a falcon back to King Arthur. Are we in a world of animals now? Certainly, the Fair Unknown has been travelling 'ever westwards' when such a sustained direction might seem inappropriate, given that his travels take him from Glastonbury to Carlisle! Westwards is the direction of the Celtic Otherworld in Breton tales, just as the Otherworld always lies far to the east in Scandinavian romance. So it seems that the Fair Unknown is travelling towards the Otherworld, or through the Otherworld. And as if in confirmation, he encounters an enchanted forest where ghostly greyhounds chase deer and he catches one of these dogs to give to the damsel who is guiding him: '...He was of all colours, that men may se of flours be-twene Mydsomer and May. - his [the dog's] coat was of every colour, like a garden on Midsummer's Eve!' And there is something else that is curious. The Fair Unknown set out on his journey from King Arthur's court with 'a shield whose emblem was a griffin.' But when he finally arrives in the city where the lady of Segontium is held prisoner, in the company of another knight, the gatekeeper rushes off to tell his lord that: 'Two knights of the Round Table have arrived. They are clad in red armour with three gold lions on their shields.'

When the knight who was given the name La Cote Male Tayle left King Arthur's court again, he was given a shield by a damsel that had been lost by a man who 'saw no other way but that he must die'. It carried a binding obligation to continue the pursuit of a quest. Here in the tale of the Fair Unknown, we have another young man who arrives nameless at King Arthur's court, and another quest that perhaps requires more than one lifetime to complete. It is started by a knight whose emblem is a griffin, and completed by a knight whose heraldic identity consists of three gold lions and whose intermediate incarnations have perhaps included a spell as a hawk.

And the quest itself? The Fair Unknown has been charged by King Arthur to release the Lady of Segontium from captivity. But when he arrives at Segontium, and asks who is the knight who holds the lady a prisoner, he is told: 'Be Seint John! Knyght, sir, is ther none that durste hir away lede. Twoo clerkys ben hir foone...' - By Saint John! There is no knight who would dare to incarcerate her but two clergymen; these are the false miscreants who have done this deed and are her foes. Churchmen. Ministers of the black arts. Believers in magic and miracles. The one brother is call Iraine, and the other Mabon.

'Iraine and Mabon have constructed a remarkable palace that no man of chivalry can find a way of getting into; a cathedral, constructed out of parables supported by falsehoods, and this makes it so impregnable that the Lady of Segontium herself is held prisoner within it. Often we hear her cry, but we cannot see her for all the stonework, so we cannot help her. These brothers do her every sort of villainy. They torture her with tedium night and day. And they have sworn binding oaths to bring her to her death, unless she concedes everything to Mabon.

'This noble lady is heir to all this fine country. But she will not defend herself and therefore we are all in despair. They will surely destroy her.'

'I shall release this lady as my own!' cries the Fair Unknown. And in the climax to the tale, he rides into the cathedral in which the lady is held prisoner, trying to determine with whom he should fight. As he sits on the high altar, the stonework begins to crumble to pieces all around him and the two churchmen appear, armed on horseback in a field. Relieved to find these clergymen playing to his own strengths, the Fair Unknown defeats them both, killing one and injuring the other. But then a weird thing happens. The Fair Unknown returns to the cathedral - 'And he sate and be-helde. A worme ther ganne oute-pas with a womanes face - and as he sat, a window appeared magically in a stone wall, the young knight's heart filled with wonder and awe as he watched a snake emerging, a snake with a woman's face. 'Yonge Y am and nothinge olde.' - I am not old, but very young,' she says, enigmatically; then she wraps herself around the Fair Unknown, kisses him on the mouth, and turns into a beautiful lady. It is the Lady of Segontium. The spell has been broken.

In a Medieval land of cathedrals, perhaps it is not difficult to imagine that King Arthur's court must now lie in a world beyond; an Otherworld. The Fair Unknown has released a lady who has been incarcerated by 'twoo clerkys'. Two clergymen. Their names have been given as Mabon and Iraine. Pagan-sounding names. Purposely so. But do not be fooled. Mabon, a pagan Welsh god, derived his name from the Celtic Maponos, 'Great Son'. His full name was Mabon son of Modron: Great son, son of Mother, and in a poem in The Book of Taliesin, contained in the Old Welsh 'Red Book of Hergest' which we have encountered before, he is equated with Christ and as a child, receives the Magi at Bethlehem. Iraine, although sounding a little Persian, suggests also, perhaps, the name Irenaeus. Irenaeus was a Church Father of early Christianity in the second century AD and was author of a huge work called 'Against Heresies'. Their 'palace' has 'windowes all of glasse, wrought with imagerye', stained-glass windows, and is filled with the music of many instruments, 'and orgone noyse of note,' the noise of a magnificent organ. So the Fair Unknown battles with two high churchmen who are dressed in purple, on one poetic level perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, and on a higher level perhaps even Christ and Irenaeus, for the release of the fair Lady whom they have incarcerated and intend to kill. The long and perilous journey of the Fair Unknown, 'ever westwards' through the Celtic Otherworld, where ghostly greyhounds chase deer and the land is plagued by giants, has been to release a lady from the clutches of the Church. A lady who is 'heir to all this land'.

A number of Arthurian tales involve a journey to recover something that has been lost. This applies as much to the Lady of Segontium as it does to the Grail. And the tale of the Fair Unknown gives vent to what seems to have been a deep-seated anger towards the Church. The image of the Fair Unknown riding fully armed into a cathedral trying to find someone to fight with is a powerful one indeed.

Perhaps it mirrors the intrusion into the old Saint Paul's cathedral by John of Gaunt, the son of King Edward III, in 1377, to rescue a heretic from the grasp of the Bishop of London. It was John of Gaunt, almost ten years before, to whom Geoffrey Chaucer had addressed The Book of the Duchesse, a work intended to console this prince in his grief over the death of his wife Blanche - a poem that reminds its reader of Ovid's tale of Ceyx and Alcyone, who died and became birds, and then follows a deer into a forest filled with animals and reminds a grieving knight again of Ovid. At around the time of Blanche's death, the 'collar of esses' makes its first appearance in English fashion; a badge of allegiance and of preferment worn and distributed by John of Gaunt at a time when collars were not otherwise fashionable. Hung around the neck a little like a modern ribbon and medallion, or a priest's crucifix, the material of the 'ribbon' could be any cloth or metal, but always depicted prominently the shapes of the letter 'S'. We have already speculated that the ring of this collar, the 'crucifix', may have been the same ring upon which oaths were sworn in pagan Scandinavia. But what of the 'esses', the unexplained symbols shaped like an 'S' that decorated the rest of the collar.

To suggest an answer to this, we may ask in return why the lady of Segontium is a snake, or half a snake, when the Fair Unknown releases her from the stonework of the cathedral in which she has been imprisoned.

When Saint Patrick first arrived in Ireland, he was forced to clear the land of snakes, so we are told by the South English Legendary. 'Saint Patrick came, through God's grace, to preach in Ireland and to teach men the right faith and to understand Jesus. And he found the land to be so full of snakes that no one could move for them without being bitten. Saint Patrick prayed to our Lord Jesus Christ that the land be delivered from these 'foule wormes', and our Lord heard his prayer...'.

In the much earlier Greek legends the snake again gets a raw deal; and not only in the image of the Gorgon Medusa, whom ancient Greek tradition depicts with a headful of writhing snakes in place of hair, and whom the Greek poet Hesiod, writing in the eighth century BC, places in the land of the Hesperides; a land beyond the Ocean Stream where trees of golden apples grow. Avalon? The goddess Echidna, a sister of Medusa, is described by Hesiod as half a girl and half a terrifying snake; she consumes raw meat in a dark hole in the ground; she is immortal and ageless. 'Yonge Y (I) am and nothinge olde,' says the Lady of Segontium who is 'a worme' with a woman's face.

From the Greek snake-woman Echidna came a whole litter of monsters, including Cerberus, a dog with fifty heads, the Chimaera, with three heads, and the multi-headed Hydra. A deity of Tibetan Buddhism, Avalokitesvara, is depicted as an eleven-headed and multi-armed figure.

Aeneas encountered a snake at the tomb of his father Anchises, in Virgil's epic poem of the first century BC. He had made an offering of sacrifice to the ghost of his father when this huge snake unexpectedly emerged from the tomb to receive the offering. Aeneas, as we saw, later visited his dead father in the Underworld and looked with him towards the legions of Trojan souls crossing the waters of the river Lethe, in readiness for rebirth in the glorious city of Rome.

But we do not have to rely upon ancient myths to learn the significance of the snake. And perhaps it should be borne in mind that one of the most curious attributes of the snake, one that distinguishes it clearly from other creatures, is its ability to shed its skin and give the impression of being reborn without having gone through the inconvenience of dying first.

In East Africa, and in southern and central Africa, the snake is often cast as the villain of the piece. In many myths from this region, God originally intends mankind to be immortal. He sends a chameleon, or a white-bellied bird, to convey this happy news; such as the messenger must tell everybody that when they feel themselves getting old, they must shed their skins and be young again. But a snake often intercepts this message and delivers a false one before the truth arrives, thereby keeping the secret of reincarnation all to itself.

In an Australian aboriginal tale of the Boomerang Girls, these girls are killed and they climb a rope into the sky. But one of the girls falls off and becomes scaly; however, a man splits her scaly skin which she casts off and becomes his wife.

A North American Indian myth relates how a boy named Little Star is sleeping on the prairie when a snake gets inside his skull. For a number of days the boy is reduced to a skeleton, but the dry heat forces the snake to emerge again, the boy grabs it and pulls, and finds his health once more.

In the ancient Mesopotamian 'Epic of Gilgamesh', dating perhaps to the second millennium BC, the hero, Gilgamesh, ties a stone to his feet in order to gather a plant from the bottom of the sea. It is a plant that will confer immortality. But having obtained it, the treasure is stolen by a serpent which sheds its skin as it makes its escape.

Robert Graves has suggested in his popular work, 'The Greek Myths,' that the name Sisyphus is onomatopoeic - it denotes, he suggests, the hissing of a snake. Sisyphus was fated to roll a ball up a slope, only for it to fall back again to the bottom and for the labour to have to begin anew, in an eternal cycle of ending and beginning. Asclepius was a god of healing in the ancient Greek pantheon, a son of Apollo, and now a patron of the medical profession. He was reputed to have brought the dead back to life and he is often depicted holding a snake. In Ovid's tale, describing the capture of this deity for the city of Rome, he chooses to take on a serpent form for his journey to Rome.

Perhaps now we have a clue to the meaning of the collar of esses first worn by John of Gaunt and made fashionable at a time when Geoffrey Chaucer was writing tales in verse and when the Arthurian legends and romances were so popular. The ring that the collar supported has always been a potent pagan symbol. Perhaps the 'esses' on the collar were stylised snakes.


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