Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Sarmatian Dragon Rearing His Terrible Head Again?

Readers of my blog (or books) will know that I proposed an etymology for the name Eliwlad, a grandson of Uther.  A good article on this subject may be found here:

While this idea seemed great at the time, I had neglected to check on one very important thing, viz. whether such a name-form was supported by the corpus of early and medieval Welsh names.  As it turns out, such is not the case.

Eliwlad as 'Prince of [the region] Eli' or, more literally, Eli-prince, does not yield any corollaries in Welsh personal names.  Simply put, I could not find even one additional example of a place-name as an initial component, followed by a descriptor such as gwlad.  This means the proposed etymology is fatally flawed.  We would have to assume that the name was a false name, a sort of manufactured name, or that someone had accidentally joined a phrase reading "Eli (g)wlad" together.  

Technically, there is nothing wrong with Eli Gwlad as a combined personal name and epithet, of course.  We could say that Eli the Prince were the son of Madog son of Uther.  BUT...gwlad is not usually found in this context in the early Welsh sources.  We find instead the very well-attested gwledig.  Gwlad in isolation pretty much always means 'land' or 'kingdom.'  [For some exceptions, see Thomas Charles-Edwards in ‘The Date of Culhwch ac Olwen’ in Bile ós Chrannaib: A Festschrift for William Gillies, edited by Wilson McLeod, Abigail Burnyeat, Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, Thomas Owen Clancy and Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh (Ceann Drochaid, 2010), pp. 45-56.).

All once again seemed lost.  Eliwlad remained unparsable.

But then two facts became known to me which I had not possessed before.  First, I discovered in early Irish sources variant spellings for Ailithir, "pilgrim, foreigner" (literally, aile + tir, 'other land'), an epithet for St. Madog son of Sawyl Penisel (or Penuchel).   One of these spellings was Elithir.  This last example satisfied the requirement of Eliwlad, the first element of which could not directly be derived from the Welsh cognate of Irish aile/eile, i.e. 'all' (although see below under  SCHOLARLY SUPPORT FOR ELIWLAD = AILITHIR/ELITHIR).  Welsh has alltud, 'other people/country', allfro, 'other land', and the late occurring allwlad, 'other country', for "foreigner."   In Welsh, ail/eil is "second."

Here are some of the books providing the spelling Elithir:

Etc. - including the actual texts alluded to in these sources, some of which are available online.

In other words, I could make an argument again for Eliwlad being 'other land', an exact equivalent of the Irish Ailithir epithet given to Madog son of Sawyl.


“Barry Lewis has pointed out that a sixteenth-century dialogue between a creiriwr [crair + -iwr in the GPC] (‘pilgrim’) and Mary Magdalene of Brynbuga (the town of Usk) is remarkably similar in both form and content to the dialogue with the Eagle…”

As this comparative treatment of the two poems appears to be accurate, and if I am right about Eliwlad being an interpretation or attempted translation of Ailithir, then we have two nearly identical poems featuring characters named ‘Pilgrim’.

This alone, however, was not sufficient for me to justify suggesting that Eliwlad was not the son of Madog, but his sobriquet, and that Uther was, as a result, Sawyl.  Yes, he latter made for an attractive Pendragon, as his kingdom was that of the ancient Setantii.  This region included Ribchester and, indeed, Samlesbury near the Roman fort at Ribchester is named for Sawyl.  The Sarmatians with their draco standard settled as veterans in the area of Ribchester, and so a 'Terrible Chief-dragon' made sense in this location.  My old idea that Pendragon translated the late Roman rank of Magister Draconum then seemed to have some currency.  But all of this was useless unless I could find some other reason for believing Uther might be Sawyl.

The Welsh material is silent regarding Madog son of Sawyl.  We only find him in the Irish sources.  Obviously, no help from that direction.  

So how could I further pursue the notion that Uther = Sawyl?

By utilizing Marged Haycock's translation of the MARWNAT VTHYR PEN, the 'Death-Song of Uther Pen[dragon].'  This is what she has in her notes to Line 7 of this elegy:

 7 eil kawyl yn ardu G emends kawyl > Sawyl, the personal name (from Samuelis
via *Safwyl). Sawyl Ben Uchel is named with Pasgen and Rhun as one of the
Three Arrogant Men, Triad 23, as a combative tyrant in Vita Cadoci (VSB 58);
and in CO 344-5. Samuil Pennissel in genealogies, EWGT 12 (later Benuchel),
Irish sources, and in Geoffrey of Monmouth. Other Sawyls include a son of
Llywarch, and the saint commemorated in Llansawel: see further TYP3 496,
WCD 581 and CO 104. Ardu ‘darkness, gloom; dark, dreadful (GPC), sometimes
collocated with afyrdwl ‘sad; sadness’ (see G, GPC).

Initially, I refused to get too excited about Uther calling himself a 'second Samuel' (the first, presumably, being the Biblical prophet of that name).  I mean, this was, after all, an emendation.  However, I asked Welsh language expert Dr. Simon Rodway of The University of Wales about the authority who made this emendation - one that was accepted by Haycock herself.  Our discussion on this matter ran as follows:

"Geirfa Barddoniaeth Gynnar Gymraeg, by John Lloyd-Jones

Cited several times by Marged Haycock in her edition of the Uther poem, and  she adopts many of his emendations.

A trustworthy, well-respected source, in your opinion?  Or is his work somewhat outdated or even obsolete?"

"It’s a very good piece of work, which I often use. It’s much more comprehensive than GPC [Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, 'Dictionary of the Welsh Language']."

Such an unqualified, professional academic opinion of Lloyd-Jones changed everything!

As for how the error could have occurred, Dr. Rodway suggested the following scenario:

"It can’t be a case of miscopying a letter, but it could be eye-skip - when a copyist’s eye skips inadvertently to another nearby word resulting in an error.  In this case, he would have eye-skipped to the preceding line's 'kawell' to get the /k-/ fronting what should have been 'sawyl'.  Was not an uncommon error, so quite plausible.  Also, kawell and kawyl are unlikely to be the same word.  The poets avoided repeating words in consecutive lines. In cases where this does occur (v rare) it could be scribal error."

I realized that what I had was this:

1) Eliwlad, a name I could analyze only as 'other land', one equivalent to Irish Ailithir/Elithir and

2) Uther calling himself Sawyl

Granted, as far as 2) is concerned, Sawyl in the Uther poem may denote a metaphorical meaning only.  He was "like the Biblical Samuel" in this or that respect.  The line prior to that in which Sawyl occurs reads (most likely) "May God, the chief luminary, transform me." The transformation hinted at here may have provided Geoffrey of Monmouth or his source with the idea to have Merlin transform Uther into Gorlois - Gorlois being from the gorlassar, 'very blue', Uther uses to describe himself in Line 3 of the MARWNAT VTHYR PEN.  In truth, he seems to instead be transformed into a 'second Samuel.'

If Uther = Sawyl, then all the battle sites I identified in the North for Arthur in THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY could be retained.  My later attempt in THE BEAR KING to identify Arthur with Ceredig son of Cunedda/Cerdic of Wessex would have to be abandoned.


Sawyl is variously called Penuchel or Penisel.  Most authorities seem to opt for Penisel, as it appears in a slightly earlier context, but Penuchel cannot be ruled out as the original sobriquet.  The waters are muddied by the presence in southern Wales of another Sawyl who was wrongly given the same epithet.  

Patrick Ford, in dealing with the Penuchel title given to an Arthur in a corrupt TRIAD, has preferred to render this "Overlord."  Others prefer 'high head' or 'arrogant' or the like (with Penisel being 'low head' or 'humble').  A literal translation of Penuchel would be "High Chief".  Uchel, 'high', has the same meaning as that which originally belonged to Uthr (cf. Irish uachtar).  Professor John Koch says this latter name once would have meant 'high, lofty.'  Thus at some point in their development, uchel and uthr would have been, essentially, interchangeable.

Sawyl or “Samuel” seems to have another byname in the Irish sources.  This was Cantoin or Canton (see, for example,  However, it seems fairly obvious that Canton merely preserves an attempt at the Q-Celtic cenn or cend (also cenda), cognate with the pen of Penisel/Penuchel, Sawyl’s epithet in British.  We find the latter in the Irish as Chendisil.


To quote P.C. Bartram in his "A Classical Welsh Dictionary", "He [Sawyl] is evidently the same as Samuel Chendisil the father of Matóc Ailithir and Sanctan by Deichter daughter of Muredach Muinderg, king of Ulster (MIS §1 in EWGT p.32)."

Deichter is an interesting name.  A much earlier Deichter was the mother of the famous Irish hero Cuchulainn, who was first called Sétanta. Scholars are still debating whether Sétanta should be related to the name of the Setantii tribe in Britain.  We have seen that Sawyl ruled what was once the Setantii tribal region.

If this Deichter were also Arthur's real mother, then we could once again account for why subsequent Arthurs all belonged to Irish-founded dynasties in Britain.


From A.L.F Rivet & Colin Smith’s The Place-names of Roman Britain, p 456-457:


DERIVATION. This ethnic name is mysterious; there seem to be no British roots visible, and very few analogues anywhere of names in Set-. It is tempting, in view of Ptolemy's variants which show Seg- (Seg-) both for the port-name and the river-name, to suspect some confusion with the Seg- of Segontium, a possibility that occurred to Rhys (1904) 315 with regard to the river, though eventually he wish to main tain Setantii as a proper form. The strongest argument for so doing is provided by Watson CPNS 25, who points out that the first name of the Irish hero Cuchulainn was Setanta (from an earlier *Setant(os) : 'the Setantii were an ancient British tribe near Liverpool. . . the inference is that Setanta means "a Setantian" and that Cuchulainn was of British origin'. But the relation between these two names has been questioned. There is a full exposition of the problem by Guyonvarc'h in Ogam, XIII, (1961), 587-98, with discussion of views of Mac Neill, Osborne, and others, including Brittonic-Goidelic transferences in both historical and phonetic aspects. The essence of the matter is that it is tempting to see in this name Irish sét ('path'; = British *sento-, for which see CLAUSENTUM), but *-ant- suffix (as in DECANTAE) is Brittonic only, for -nt- does not exist in Goidelic. The name might be based on a divine name *Setantios, not otherwise known, and he in turn might be related etymologically and by sense to the goddess Sentona, perhaps 'wayfarer' (see further TRISANTONA). Clearly there is an additional problem in reconciling the a/e vowels in these forms (Trisantona, Gaulish Santones) if they are indeed connected. There, for the présent, the matter rests; but it is as well to reiterate that one cannot base too much speculation on forms recorded by Ptolemy alone, particularly when, in numbers, the MSS of his work record attractive variants.

IDENTIFICATION. Presumably a minor tribe, but since they appear only as part of a 'descriptive' name in the coastal list (next entry) and not in their own right in the full list of tribes, they probably formed part of the Brigantian confederacy. If the river name seteia is directly connected with them, they should have stretched along the Lancashire coast from the Mersey to Fleetwood.”



"Your proposal to understand Eliwlad as a W 'translation' of Ir Ailithir looks quite attactive. Eli- might well stand for Ir ail(e), and tir is correctly translated as 'gwlad'. The respective range of meaning of both words is, of course, not identical.

If  'pilgrim' really is the "primary meaning" of ailithir, then this word is beyond any doubt a bahuvrîhi compound, designing somebody 'who is characterized by another [foreign] land', obviously in the sense that (s)he has visited a [remarkably] foreign land, is acquainted with it, etc.

We have to remind an alternative, however, viz. that the 'other land' referred to might be the 'Otherworld' , so that the bearer of the epithet may have been named so for assumed / desired magical qualities. Note that Rachel Bromwich, in her invaluable Trioedd Ynys Prydein (3rd ed., p. 428) has a Madawc m. Run y Kynnedvau. By the way, I trust that you have made already ample use of that magnificent book and the references found therein.

The whole story of the red Welsh Dragon (and its mischievous counterpart), including the epithed 'Uther Pendragon', may well be based on post-Roman misunderstandings of reminiscences of the Roman, originally perhaps Sarmatian, standard. But one should not overstress the Sarmatian-Alanian theory in discussing Arthurian matters. In case you read German, you may have seen what I wrote about in 'Die keltischen Wurzeln der Arthussage' (Winter: Heidelberg 2000)."

Professor Stefan Zimmer

"Irish aili- does not have a diphthong ai in the first syllable but a fronted low simple vowel [ae] (approximately as in Engl. back) followed by a palatalized -l´-. I find it quite plausible that this would have been borrowed immediately as W eli-."

Professor Doctor Peter Schrijver

“I don’t disagree with anything Zimmer or Schrijver say.”

Dr. Simon Rodway

“I think that -wlad cannot be anything else but gwlad 'country', and your idea that Eliwlad is a reinterpretation of Ailithir seems plausible to me.  If Eliwlad developed directly from the British, we would expect *Eilwlad."

Professor Ranko Matasovic

“It looks perfectly possible to me that Eliwlad represents British *Aljowlatos 'other land'.  Eliwlad/t is a plausible rendering of Eilwlad. One certainly finds occasional <e> for <ei> in MW, and metathesis is always possible. If it’s not from *aljo-, I have no idea.”

Professor Richard Coates

“First it appears to me that you you must be right in identifying gwlad as the second element. This is indeed the regular cognate of flaith in Irish, but the latter, a feminine i-stem, originally also had an abstract meaning ‘lordship, sovereignty’, and its application to a person is a secondary process in Irish (retaining the feminine gender!) for which there are several parallels, such as techt meaning not only ‘going’ but also ‘messenger’, cerd both ‘craft’ and ‘craftsman’, etc.

Your proposed adaptation of aili- to eli-, on the other hand, would have to have been purely formal, since Irish and British continue two different variants of the same word ‘other’, Ir. aile (also 'second') < *aljo- and e.g. Middle Welsh. all < *allo-. British ail, 'second', is from *aljo-.

But apart from this formal misgiving, I do admit that your derivation would make for a nice contextual fit!“

Professor Jurgen Uhlich


Madawc, a rampart of joy(?);
Madawc, before he was in the grave,
was a fortress of abundance,
of exploits and jests.
Son of Uthyr; before he was slain

he gave a pledge (?) from his hand.


It cannot be denied that Arthur and Eliwlad are situated in Cornwall.  But, it was common practice in Welsh tradition to associate Arthur and his family members with the ancient tribal territory of Dumnonia (which included, roughly, Cornwall, Devon and Somerset). As Sims-Williams indicates, the ‘glyncoet Kernyw’ of the “Dialogue” poem is likely the large, wooded Glynn valley near Bodmin.  I note here on maps a Cutmadoc Farm and Cutmadoc Newton. Cutmadoc gets a mention in Craig Weatherhill’s “Place Names in Cornwall and Scilly” as Madoc’s Wood (the prefix cut or cos appears all the time in Cornish place names and means small woodland). He also mentions an early 1320 form Coysmadok, but unfortunately doesn’t give the source.

Gover’s unpublished 1948 work on Cornish place names gives the following early forms:  Codmadok and Cudmadek in 1302, Coysmadoc in 1314, Coysmadok in 1320, Cutmadok in 1327, Cosmadeck in 1547, and also says ‘Cuit’ is a Cornish language word for wood while ‘Madoc’ is a personal name cognate with Welsh Madog.


For a nice history of Samlesbury, see

My own extensive treatment of the place-name’s etymology is as follows:

Sawyl (Samuel) Benisel ("Low-head"), another son of Pabo,  is dated c. 480.  On the Ribble, not far south of “regio Dunutinga”, is a town called Samlesbury. The place-name expert Ekwall has Samlesbury as “Etymology obscure”, but then proposes OE sceamol, “bench”, as its first element, possibly in the topographical sense of “ledge”. Mills follows Ekwall by saying that this place-name is probably derived from scamol plus burh (dative byrig). However, sceamol/scamol is not found in other place-names where a “ledge” is being designated. Instead, the word scelf/scielf/scylfe, “shelf of level or gently sloping ground, ledge” is used.

The complete history of this place-name has been kindly supplied by Mr. Bruce Jackson, Lancashire County Archivist:

A D Mills:  'A Dictionary of English Place-Names'; Oxford University Press, 1991, page 284

'Samlesbury Lancs.  Samelesbure 1188.  Probably "stronghold near a shelf or ledge of land".  Old English scamol + burh (dative byrig).'

David Mills:  'The Place Names of Lancashire';  Batsford, 1976 (reprinted
1986), page 130

'? burh on a shelf of land (OE sceamol + -es (possessive) + burh, in the
form byrig (dative)
Samerisberia 1179 (Latin)
Samelesbure 1188
Samlesbiry 1246

The original settlement was probably around the church which stands by the
R. Ribble, at the foot of the 168 foot ridge to which the first element may refer.  The derivation from OE sceamol, however, involves taking as base later forms of the name in 'sh-', such as Shamplesbiry 1246, which, though not uncommon, are far less frequent than forms in 's-'.  If the 's-' forms are original, the etymology is less certain.  There is much variation in the representation of the first element in early records - e.g. Sambisbury c.1300, Sammysburi 1524, Samsbury 1577.  There is today no village around the church; the main settlement moved to the south, to SAMLESBURY BOTTOMS, (Old English botm, 'valley bottom', here referring to the valley of the R. Darwen in which the hamlet stands), where a community grew up around the cotton mill which was built there c1784.'

Eilert Ekwall:  'The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names';
Oxford University Press, 1960, page 403

'Samlesbury La [Samerisberia 1179, Samelesbure 1188, -bur 1212,
Schamelesbiry 1246, Scamelsbyry 1277.  Etymology obscure.  If the name originally began in Sh-, the first element may be Old English sceamol 'bench' &c. in some topographical sense such as "ledge".'

Eilert Ekwall:  'The Place-Names of Lancashire'; Manchester University
Press, 1922, page 69

'Samlesbury (on the Ribble, E. of Preston):  Samerisberia 1179, Samelesbure
1188, 1194, Samelesbur', Samelisbur' 1212, Samelesbiri 1238.  Samelesbiry,
Samelesbiri, (de Samlebir, Samlesbiry, Samplesbiry) 1246, de Samelesburi
1252, Samlisbyri 1258, Samlesbury 1267, 1311 etc., Samlisbury, Sampnelbiry,
Sampnesbiry 1278, Samesbury 1276, 1278, Samlesbur' 1332, Samsbury 1577;
Shamplesbiry, de Schamelesbiry, -byr 1246, Scamelesbyry, Shampelesbyri,
Shapnesbyri 1277.

The old chapel of Samlesbury stands on the S. bank of the Ribble, with
Samlesbury Lower Hall some way off on the river.  I take this to be the site of the original Samlesbury.  The etymology is much complicated by the variety of the early spellings.  The forms with S- are in the majority, but there are a good many with Sh-, and it is not easy to see why S- should have been replaced by Sh-, whereas S- for Sh- is easily explained by Norman influence.  If the original form had Sh-, I would compare the following names:  Shamele (hundred Kent) 1275; Shalmsford (Kent); Shamelesford 1285, Sahameleford 1275, perhaps Shamblehurst (Hants):  Samelherst, Scamelherst' 1176, Schameleshurste 1316.  All these may contain Old English sceamol "bench, stool," or some derivative of it.....The meaning of this word in topographical use is not clear, but very likely it may have been something like "ledge, shelf".....In this case the word might refer to a ledge on the bank of the Ribble.  In reality, Samlesbury Lower Hall stands on a slight ledge (c 50 ft above sea level), which stretches as far as the church.

If the spellings in Sh- are to be disregarded the etymology is much more difficult.  The first element is hardly the personal noun Samuel .  It it is a personal noun, as the early forms rather suggest, it may be a derivative of the stem Sam- found in German names.  This stem is not found in English names, but the related stem Som occurs in Old English Soemel and perhaps in the first element of Semington, Semley, Wilts.  Burh in this name, as in Salesbury, may mean "fortified house, fort" or "manor"...’

Henry Cecil Wyld and T Oakes Hirst:  'The Place Names of Lancashire';
Constable, 1911, page 226


1178-79     in Samesberia
1187-88     de Samelesbure
1189-94     Samlisburi
1227          Samlesbiri
1228          Samlesbyr
1246          Samelesbiri
1259          Samelebir

The first element is undoubtedly the Hebrew personal noun Samuel.  This does not appear to have been popular amongst the English in early times.....It is not recorded by Bjorkman [Erik Bjorkman:  'Nordische Personennamen in England'; Halle, 1910] as having been adopted by any Norseman in this country, but Rygh mentions a Norwegian place name Samuelrud ["Norske Gaardnavne Kristiana", 1897, volume ii, page 201].  In volume i the same writer records Samerud (pp 7 and 9), but says that this is possibly a Modern name.'

John Sephton:  'A Handbook of Lancashire Place-Names':  Henry Young, 1913, page 23

'A parish 4 miles east of Preston.  Early forms are Samerisberia,
Samelesbure.  First theme is the scriptural name Samuel .  Ancient Teutonic names are also found from the root Sama.....' .

I would suggest as a better etymology for Samlesbuy  “Sawyl’s fort”. There are, for example, Sawyl place-names in Wales (Llansawel, Pistyll Sawyl, now Ffynnon Sawyl).  Richard Coates, of the Department of Linguistics and English Language at The University of Sussex, says of Samlesbury as “Samuel’s Burg”:

“After a bit of extra research, it seems that all the spellings in <Sh-> and the like are from just 2 years in Lancashire assize roll entries (1246 and 1277). That makes them look more like the odd ones out and <S-> more like the norm. I'm coming round to preferring your interpretation, even though Ekwall in PN La (p. 69) simply rejects the idea it might come from "Samuel". Brittonic *_Sam(w)e:l_ (<m> here is vee with a tilde - nasalized [v]) is a good etymon for the majority of the forms, including the modern one, of course.”

Dr. Andrew Breeze of Pamplona, another noted expert on British place-names, agrees with Dr. Coates:

“I finally looked up _Samlesbury_ last night and feel sure you are right. The form surely contains the Cumbric equivalent of Welsh _Sawyl_<_Samuel_. Your explanation of this toponym in north Lancashire is thus new evidence for Celtic survival in Anglo-Saxon times.”


An excavation project within the Roman fort at Ribchester has only recently been undertaken by the archaeology department of the University of Central Lancaster:

When I wrote to Dr. Duncan Sayer, one of the directors of the dig, and asked if they had yet found any evidence for sub-Roman use of Bremetennacum Veteranorum, he replied with this exciting news:

“Yes, I believe we have identified some evidence of sub-Roman occupation within the fort at Ribchester. Certainly the abandonment date of AD370 is no longer really tenable and at this early state in the project we are reasonably convinced they have structures and workshops that relate to a later-Roman and sub Roman phase of activity.”

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