ARTHUR’S OTHER BATTLES: MYTHOLOGICAL OR MISTAKEN
The Pa Gur Battle Sites
The Arthur presented to us in the early Welsh poem Pa Gur is a very different personage from the one we find in the battle list of Nennius' HB. In Pa Gur, Arthur numbers among his men the mythological Manawyd(an) son of Llyr. He and his men fight monsters and witches. We have clearly departed from history and have embraced the realm of the fantastic.
While the Pa Gur is, alas, a fragmentary poem, the following battles or locations are listed in the order in which they occur.
Dwellings of Dissethach
Shore of Tryfrwyd
Upland of Ystawingun
Elei is known to be the Ely River in southern Wales. I will treat more of this place in Chapter 6, where its relationship with Campus Elleti will be explored in detail.
I have proposed above that Traeth Tryfrwyd is the shore of the trajectus at Queensferry west of Edinburgh.
Din Eidyn, as is well known, is Edinburgh. Arthur’s opponents in this battle are the Cynbyn or ‘Dog-heads’, whom I believe to be an echo of the Venicones tribe.
Afarnach’s hall may be a reference to the Pictish capital of Abernethy. Watson discussed the etymology of Abernethy as follows:
"Thus Abur-nethige of the Pictish Chronicle, now Abernethy near Perth, has as its second part the Genitive of a nominative Nethech or Neitheach (fem.), which is Gaelicized either from Neithon directly, or from a British river name from the same root."
Witches Hole is a small cave in a rocky face on the north side of the Castle Law fort at Abernethy. It is supposed to have been the residence of some of the Witches of Abernethy (http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/27921/details/witches+hole+castle+law/).
I would add that Neithon comes from an original Nechtan or Neachtan, which appears to be cognate with L. Neptune.
Abernethy is on the border region between the Pictish kingdoms of Fortriu and Circenn. We have seen above that the Dalriadan Arthur is said to have fought in Circenn, and the Abernethy/Afarnach battle may well be a traditional memory of the Circenn conflict.
If Afarnach is Abernethy, we may presume that Celli, the ‘Grove’, was to be found somewhere in the region that stretched between Edinburgh and Abernethy. Unfortunately, there are many Gaelic grove place-names (coille and variants) as well as English place-name elements with similar meanings in this part of central Scotland, so it may well prove impossible to locate the Celli where Cai is said to have fought. As its being lost is emphasized in the poem (Pan colled kelli, ‘when lost was Celli’), we must assume it was a place of some importance.
I would very tentatively put forward a connection between Celli, ‘Grove’, and the Medionemeton or ‘Middle Sacred Grove’ mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography. The Ravenna Cosmography situates the Medionemeton between the entries for the ‘Camelon’ Roman fort and the Ardoch Roman fort, and this would accord well with a Celli between Edinburgh and Abernethy. To date, two proposed identifications for the nemeton have been offered: Cairnpapple in West Lothian and the Arthur's Oven shrine which once stood near Larbert, a town across the Carron River from Camelon. Arthur's Oven is almost certainly the structure mentioned in the HB of Nennius:
Chapter 23: "The Emperor Carausius rebuilt it [the Antonine Wall] later, and fortified it with seven forts, between the two estuaries, and a Round House of polished stone, on the banks of the river Carron..."
Dissethach, where Arthur’s opponent is Pen Palach, looks like Tig Scathach, ‘House of Scathach’, and Beinn na Caillich (allowing for the difference between P- and Q- Celtic), ‘Hill of the Witch’. Dunsgiath or Dun Scathach, the ‘Fort of Scathach’, and Beinn na Caillich, are both in the southeast of the Isle of Skye. From Beatrix Faerber, CELT project manager, we learn that there is a reference in Tochmarc Emire, which incorporates the story of Cu Chulainn’s training at arms with Scathach. In this case, Scathach’s house is tig Scathgi (= Schathaigi).
The upland of (Y)stawingun, where nine witches are slain by Cei, is quite possibly Stanton Moor in Derbyshire, where we find the stone circle called the Nine Ladies. The ‘lord of Emrys’ mentioned in the poem just prior to (Y)stawingun is a known periphrasis for Gwynedd, as Ambrosius/Emrys was the traditional lord of that land. Emrys in this context may actually be a reference to the Amber river, which lies just east of Stanton Moor.
The –gun, if from an earlier –cun, could have come about by mistaking in MS. an original t for c. The middle –w- may represent a u, such as is found in Staunton, a known variant of Stanton.
Much later story substitutes the hero Peredur and transplants the witches to Gloucester, presumably because of the presence in Gloucestershire of towns named Stanton and Staunton.
There is no mystery regarding Mon, as this is the common Welsh name for the Isle of Anglesey in northwest Wales. Welsh tradition insists that Cath Palug or Cath Palug, which Cai battles on Mon, is the cat of a person called Palug. Modern scholars prefer to view palug as perhaps meaning ‘scratching’ or ‘clawing’, hence Cath Palug as the Clawing Cat.
Cath Palug is linked in line 82 of the poem to ‘lleuon’, i.e. lions. The association of lions with Arfon (where the cat is born) and Mon may have to do with the simple confusion of llew, ‘lion’, for lleu, the god who is the Lord of Gwynedd in Welsh tradition. The letters u and w readily substitute for each other.
Two Additional Poetic References
Much has been made of early references to Arthur in three important poems: The Gododdin, Marwnad Cynddylan and Geraint son of Erbin. As I have discussed The Gododdin reference already above (Chapter 3) in the context of Arthur’s battle at Mount Agned, here I will restrict myself to a brief treatment of the other two poems.
Scholar Jenny Rowland has done a very nice job of disposing of the difficulty posed by Line 46 of Marwnad Cynddylan. The line in question reads:
Canawon artir wras dinas degyn
This has in the past been amended to read:
Canawon Arthur wras dinas degyn: "whelps of Arthur, a resolute protection"
Jenny Rowland, wisely, opts instead for:
Canawon artir[n]wras dinas degyn, i.e.: Canawon arddyrnfras dinas degyn: "strong-handed whelps…"
This nicely eliminates our having to associate Arthur with the Powys kingdom in east-central Wales.
GERAINT SON OF ERBIN
A harder thing to dispose of is the presence of Arthur’s name in the poem Geraint son of Erbin. While different versions of the poem exist, all are in agreement in including the name Arthur in one of their stanzas. This would not be a problem, were it not for the fact that, in Jenny Rowland’s words, "Despite the Arthurian link in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work there can be no question that ‘Geraint fab Erbin’ is older than the Historia Regum Britanniae." In other words, someone, for some reason, seems to have placed Arthur in Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall) prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s doing so.
If, as is genuinely agreed, Geraint son of Erbin is to be dated between the ninth and eleventh centuries, how do we account for Arthur being in Dumnonia? This is a critical question, for Geraint son of Erbin would seem to be our earliest source seeking to situate Arthur in extreme southwest England.
Using Rowland’s composite text, I can make the following observations: Geraint’s name occurs in 18 out of 27 stanzas. To these we may add a 19th stanza containing ‘the son of Erbin’. Other than the names of Geraint and Erbin, and the single occurrence of the name of Arthur, there are no other personal names in the poem.
Also, it is suspicious that Arthur’s name is used in exactly the same way as is that of Geraint. The variants of the ‘Arthurian’ line are as follows:
“En Llogporth y gueleise Arthur… En llogporth y gueleise y Arthur… Yn llongborth llas y Arthur…”
Professor Patrick Sims-Williams has suggested that to solve the problem posed by the ‘syntactically and semantically ambiguous’ y before Arthur’s name that this line be considered ‘a poetic inversion’ for ‘men to (i.e. vassals of) Arthur’, the ‘men’ in question being the warriors of the following line:
Gwyr dewr kymynynt a/o dur; "brave men, they hewed with steel"
The Red Book of Hergest has instead: "In Llongborth Arthur lost brave men, they hewed with steel"
Of course, the y is in front of Arthur’s name even in the Red Book version. The odd thing about the poem is that Geraint’s name is used in exactly the same context. We have the Black Book of Carmarthen’s:
En Llogporth y llas y Gereint…
Which is, however, rendered in the Red Book of Hergest as
En Llogporth y llas Gereint…
The cumulative effect of the panegyric, with its formulaic repetition of Geraint’s name, and the sudden intrusion of Arthur’s within the same cymeriad, is designed to enable us to see Arthur in this context not as a separate individual, but as an honorific being applied to Geraint.
In other words, just as we find a warrior in The Gododdin compared unfavorably to Arthur, who is there decidedly a famous figure of the past, in the Geraint fab Erbin elegy the heroic nature of Geraint is so great during the Llongporth battle that he symbolically is Arthur, the ‘emperor’ and ‘ruler of battle’.
Those who attempt to account for Arthur’s presence in the poem have in the past resorted to two explanations. First, that Arthur really was there, which would put this particular Geraint back in Arthur’s time, or that a warrior troop whose predecessors had served under Arthur was still, in Geraint’s day, referred to as ‘Arthur’s men’.
There are two problems with these explanations. In the first case, it seems fairly certain that the Llongporth battle is to be identified with the battle fought at Langport by the Wessex chieftains Ine and Nunna against a Dumnonian Geraint in c. 710. This event is memorialized in the ASC, where it is described as a Saxon victory. Needless to say, the 8th century is well outside the time period of Arthur.
That the men fighting with Geraint are composed of a troop whose members originally flocked to Arthur’s standard makes little sense, given that the same ‘brave men’ (gwyr dewr) are ascribed to Geraint:
“In Llongborth Geraint lost [or ‘I saw to’] Brave men from the region of Dyfnaint. And before they were killed, they killed.”
In following Geraint, these warriors were fighting for a chieftain who in the praise language of the poem was an incarnation of Arthur. While it could be argued that Geraint’s fighting alongside Arthur or the latter’s men might be considered praise enough, from the perspective of the panegyrist, whose sole goal was to glorify Geraint, to use Arthur or his men in this fashion would actually have diminished Geraint’s stature. Why would a poet seeking to praise Geraint distract his audience by calling attention to the presence of another, greater hero?
We need only ask this final question: who is greater, a Geraint who by virtue of his martial prowess is literally an Arthur, or a Geraint who needs the help of Arthur and/or Arthur’s men in battle?
The Three Prisons of Arthur
Triad 52 of the Triads of the Island of Britain concerns itself with the ‘Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain’. After listing the three prisoners, the Triad continues as follows:
"And one [prisoner], who was more exalted than the three of them, was three nights in prison in CAER OETH AND ANOETH, and three nights imprisoned by GWEN PENDRAGON, and three nights in an enchanted prison under the STONE OF ECHYMEINT [Llech Echemeint]. This exalted prisoner was Arthur."
Can we identify these prisons and Gwen Pendragon with known places or personages? Might they have had something to do with the Arthurian battle sites?
Gwen Pendragon has not been identified in the past. Gwen is the feminine form of Gwyn and means ‘the white or fair one’ (later, the ‘blessed one’). It is possible that here Gwen is being used as an eponym for the Guinnion of Castellum Guinnion, an Arthurian battle site in Nennius. However, given that one of the famous dragons of Dinas Emrys was white we should perhaps interpret Gwen as the genius of the Saxons. This white dragon was found by Emrys (or Ambrosius, later identified wrongly by Geoffrey of Monmouth with Myrddin/Merlin) in a subterranean context. This monster’s companion in the ‘Otherworld’ below Dinas Emrys was the red dragon, the genius of the British people. It is my guess that here Arthur is being identified with the red dragon, buried in the prison of the white ‘chief dragon’, a comparable leader of the Saxons.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, both Ambrosius, uncle of Arthur, and Uther, Arthur’s father, were buried at Stonehenge next to Amesbury, ancient Ambresbyrig, a site confused in the tradition with Dinas Emrys. Arthur placed in a typical ‘death-prison’ at Stonehenge with his father and uncle may preserve an otherwise lost Welsh tradition which runs counter to the more popular one situating him at Avalon on the western end of Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria.
The Llech or Stone of Echemeint would appear to be a reference to Bath, which the Welsh identified with Arthur’s Mount Badon. According to the ASC (year entry 973 CE), Bath was also known by the name Acemannes-ceaster. This alternate name for Bath appears to be a development from the ancient Romano-British names for the town, Aquae Sulis and Aquae Calidae
And what about Caer Oeth and Anoeth? Oeth means ‘something difficult to obtain or achieve, a difficulty, a wonder; something strange or wonderful’. Anoeth has essentially the same meaning, as the prefix an- is merely an intensifier: ‘a wonder, something difficult to acquire; something strange or difficult’. The Stanzas of the Graves used anoeth, where it is said of Arthur that his final resting place in this world is a ‘wonder’ ("anoeth bid bet y Arthur"). The implied sense may be that his grave was considered ‘difficult’ to locate, precisely because its location was a mystery. Or, perhaps, the grave was imposible to find because it was in Avalon and Avalon was manifestly an Otherworld.
The Caer Oeth and Anoeth placename is also mentioned in the Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen, where it is one of the castles Arthur boasts of gaining entrance to. Once again, in the Stanzas of the Graves we are told that the burial ground of the host of Caer Oeth and Anoeth can be found in Gwanas near Cadair Idris in Ceredigion.
Gwanas is very near the Camlans of Merionethshire. In fact it is exactly between the Afon Gamlan to the northwest and the other two Camlans to the east and southeast. This can hardly be coincidence and probably indicates the “wonderful” grave for Arthur near the fatal battle site, which Welsh tradition (see Appendix III) relocates to NW Wales.