King Arthur in the sky


Completed 01 March 2003.
Last modified 10 July 2005.
Text Copyright 2005 Michael Wild

I can be reached at:- dagonet_uk 'at' yahoo.co,uk


Contents

Introduction

The earthbound King Arthur up in the sky? Preprosterous as this seems King Arthur did make it into the sky! In fact King Arthur has been identified with one specific star __ Arcturus. He has also been identified with the Sun and his Round Table has been described as being symbolised by the area of sky surrounding the Pole Star, or by the stars of the constellation of the Plough.

Arthur was also, in folklore, a leader of the Wild Hunt. The hunt that coursed the skies on thundery nights hunting the souls of the dead. Closely related to this theme is the notion of Arthur and his knights as ghostly haunters of the Somerset countryside. His association with the Wild Hunt was not the only association that Arthur had with death, for he was also said to have been transformed into a crow or a raven. These birds were regarded as foretelling the death of those warriors to whom they appeared. In addition tradition has identifed King Arthur with two other birds; the puffin and the chough.

To return to Arthur as a crow or raven. There was in England a taboo against killing crows or ravens, this custom was known to Cervantes in the early sixteenth century. While from a story told in the Perceval of Robert De Boron, it is possible to infer that King Arthur may have existed as a man in Avalon and was transformed into a raven during his forays into the mundane world.

Arthur and the star Arcturus

The notion that Arthur can be identified with the star Arcturus has a history that dates back till at least mediaeval times. For what Fiona Macleod called:__

'Arcturus, that lovely Lamp of the North. The glory of Botes.'

is mentioned in a work (John Lydgate's Troy Book) written between 1412 and 1420:__

'Arthouris Plowe', Lydg. Chron. Troy, I. 682; Arthur here represents Arcturus, regarded as the teamster or wagoner of the plough or wain.

Oxford English Dictionary

Arcturus, again according to the Oxford English Dictionary, would have been definitely associated with bears. An animal that Arthur has been identified with (see below):-

Latin: Arcturus from the Greek arktourus. Being a combination of arktos__the Bear, and ouros__guardian.

Not only was Arcturus identified with Arthur, but the constellation known as the 'Plough' has been identified as Arthur's wain (wagon). As Sir Walter Scott expressed it the early nineteenth century: -

Arthur's slow wain his course doth roll,
In utter darkness round the pole;
The Northern Bear lowers black and grim;
Orion's studded belt is dim;
Twinkling faint, and distant far,
Shimmers through mist each planet star,
Ill may I read their high decree!

Sir Walter Scott, 1805, 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel', Canto First, Verse XVII.

A modern mention appears in one of Vera Chapman's Arthurian novels.

King Arthur's Daughter
1 The Heiress and the Witch

The stars of the summer night, with the Great Bear, constellation of Arthur, conspicuous among them, shone down on the walls and battlements of Camelot, and into the great hall where King Arthur sat lonely upon his dais.

Chapman, V., THE THREE DAMOSELS, Vista: London, 1998, P. 247

The question is how did Arthur become to be associated with the Plough? If Toby D. Griffen (Names from the Dawn of British Legend: Taliesin, Aneirin, Myrddin/Merlin, Arthur, Llanerch: Felinfach, 1994) is to be believed this was an amazingly successful propaganda exercise. A propaganda feat that solved a problem that faced the historical Arthur. This problem was to invent a name and persona for himself that would unite the two major language groups among the British behind his campaign against the Saxon invaders of Britain. Both these groups were suffering in the Saxon invasion, but were separated from each other by language: one group being the romanized Latin speakers and the other those who spoke the native Celtic (Brythonic) language.

Arthur accomplished the feat of uniting these two groups by using the phonologically related words, Ar(c)turus and Arthur, to personify himself and his qualities. Arturus (the -c- having been lost from Latin) was the star that was the leader of the bear. While Arthur, the Brythonic variant, was composed of two words 'Arth' (bear) and 'ur' (man). If Griffen's view is accepted then both language groups would be be able to bury their mutual distrust and antagonism behind a common symbol, that of the bear, and unite in opposition to the Saxon invasion of their country.

Arthur as a solar divinity and the Round Table in the northern sky

Arthur has been described as a solar divinity in a book (The Light of Britannia by Owen Morgan __ "Morien") that claims to be based upon ancient Druidic traditions. He is both seen as the god of the Sun when its pathway across the sky rises in the spring and summer. His Round Table has been described as the circle in the sky marked by the rotatation of the constellation of the Plough around the Pole Star. The stars of the Plough were referred to as being 'Arthur's heifers'__that is cows that have never calved: in other words they were virgin cattle. Arthur has also been viewed as being the sun whose beneficient influence during the spring and summer fosters the flowering and fructification of vegetation. While at the time of the winter solstice he is the old decaying sun which is symbiolically killed and is then reborn. More details of Morien's theory are given on the page that details the solar aspects of Arthurian knights.

Arthur seems to have been associated in the minds of the Druids with the exercise of the sun's greatest force in dispelling darkness and its destructive agents in the physical world during his journey up the ecliptic. In the Welsh language the apparent circle traversed by the constellation Ursa Major around the polar star, is named the Round Table of Arthur in the heavens, and the Druidic name of Ursa Major is "Arthurs Plough," which conveys the notion of a farm or garden in the heavens. The stars are referred to by the Druids, as Arthur's heifers__the Lyre is called Arthur's Harp.

Morgan, O. (Morien), The Light of Britannia, P.23

To this day the Welsh refer to the northern heavens as the Bwrdd Arthur (Arthur's table), described as round.It is referred to also as Arthur's Garden, and the Great Bear is called Arthur's Plough (Arad'r Arthur). It is singular that Arth, the Welsh for bear, the constellation in question is also named Bear, whereas the name in the Druidic language, refers to Arthur, one of the Druidic titles of the sun as a husbandman or gardener.

Morgan, O. (Morien), The Light of Britannia, P.374

To return to theme of the Round Table being in the Northen sky. Fiona Macleod varied from Morien, who has the constellation of the Plough sweeping out the limits of Arthur's Round Table in the sky, in that she made this constellation represent the round Table and its seven knights. She described Arthur as having a vision in which the seven knights of the future Round Table are symbolised by the seven stars of the Plough. She also makes it plain that Arthur chose as his Round Table knights, seven who were 'flawless virgin knights': a clear parallel to the seven heifers (virgin cows) which were the stars of the Plough according to Morien (see above).

Arthur as leader of the Wild Hunt

Also in the sky, Arthur was a leader of the 'Wild Hunt'. This consisted of a pack of hounds, white with red ears in some versions, that coursed the skies chasing the souls of the dead to Annwn: characterised as the Celtic Hades where the souls of the dead congregated.

Gwyn is King of the Fairies and Lord of Annwn. Annwn appears to have been a kind of Hades, a marshalling-place of departed spirits related somehow to Avalon. Welsh tradition adds that Gwyn is the leader of the Wild Hunt, in which the souls of the dead are whisked out of their bodies and borne away through the thunderclouds. Its personnel includes quite a number of real and fabulous heroes, Arthur among them.

Ashe, G., King Arthur's Avalon, Collins: London, 1958 (1957), P. 26.

We see him (Arthur)__possibly__as a leader of the Wild Hunt, in the fellowship of Gwyn ap Nudd, whom we encountered on Glastonbury Tor. This "Arthur" rides through the thunderclouds mustering the souls of the dead, and penetrates into Annwn or Hades.

Ashe, G., King Arthur's Avalon, Collins: London, 1958 (1957), P. 98.

This association of the Wild Hunt with a hill, Glastonbury Tor, is given a rationale by Michael John Petry: in his exploration of the European ramifications of the legend of Herne the Hunter. In this account the idea that the souls of the dead congregate upon hills, because the wind is strongest in these places, is proposed. The author also notes that national heroes, among them King Arthur, are supposed to rest beneath hills awaiting a time of crisis when they will rise and save their nation.

The home of the wild hunt is often said to be a hill. 'Hrselberg in Thuringia is supposed to be the home of the wild host, from which it spreads out over the whole country.'16 The wind blows strongest on the summit of a hill, and it may be because of this that the dead are supposed to congregate there. National heroes rest in a hill or in the bowls (sic) of the earth, waiting for the time of their country's need, when they will lead forth their ghostly armies to bring victory to their peoples __ Arthur in Britain, Redbeard in Germany, Holger Dansk in Denmark, Queen Jadwiga in Poland, Prince Marko in Serbia.17

16 J. A. E. Goeze (1731-1793) 'Nature, Menschenleben und Vorsehung' (7 vols.. Leipzig, 1789-1794) vol. III, p. 349.

17Hans Plischke 'Die Sage vom wilden Heere' (Diss., Leipzig, 1914) p. 57; Schweda, Valentin, 'Die Sagen vom wilden Jger' (Diss. Greifswald, 1915) p. 70.

Petry, M. J., HERNE the HUNTER: a Berkshire Legend, William Smith (Booksellers): Reading, 1972, pp. 45, 57.

A folklore rhyme that has survived to quite modern times associates Arthur with a rushing wind whose passage cannot be stopped. This is thought to be an allusion to Arthur as a leader of the unstoppable Wild Hunt coursing the skies in a hunt for the souls of the dead. This reference to Arthur has survived in a children's rhyme as Arthur O' Bower (Arthur of the Bower) and a version even occurs in Beatrix Potter's 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin'; page 49. It is also to be noted that the name Arthur's Bower has been given to a topographical feature in the United Kingdom.

Arthur O'Bower has broken his band,
He comes raging up the land.
The King of Scots, with all his power,
Cannot turn Arthur of the Bower.

This version can be found on The Bower Mother Goose site.

Closely related to the Arthur who was the leadw er of the Wild Hunt, is Arthur and his men as ghosts who haunt the countryside:-

On winter nights, when the moon is high, wait by the track at Camelot (South Cadbury hillfort). Though nothing catches your eye except shade and moon shadows, you may hear them ride by: Arthur and his men, hoofbeats clattering, with their horns and their hounds on their way to hunt.
At night, I hear you ask? Aye, at night, for Arthur is not only the king under the hill, but in this land he leads a different kind of hunt __ a wild, wild hunt. He calls to his red-eyed hounds as the moonlight silvers the sky, for tonight, my lads, the hunters ride. Bar your doors and shutters tight, for when the Wild Hunt rides all the world will freeze and you'll have no place left to run. . .
Ah child, whisper soft. Best not ask what Arthur's prey might be.
But Arthur does not always ride so wild from Camallate. I hear tell that on a certain night of the year, he and his horsemen ride over the hilltop from Arthur's palace, pass two by two through the ancient gate, and wend their way down their ancient road to drink from the spring by the new church (Sutton Montis Church). Some say this happens not every year, but every seven, or it may be on Midsummer Eve, or Midsummer Night, or Christmas Eve. If the night is full of mist, or the moon's face is wrong, then you will only hear their hoofbeats and the jingle of their harness.
I have neither seen nor heard them, though a friend of mine once knew someone who found a silver horseshoe on the track. Perhaps, my friends, you should go out on all these nights, and seek them for yourself!

Stobie, D., Exploring Arthur's Britain, Collins & Brown: London, 1999, pp. 45-46.

King Arthur as a bird

In connection with Arthur as the leader of the Wild Hunt may be mentioned the tradition, retold in the pages of Don Quixote, that Arthur did not die but was magically transformed into a raven, or crow, (Westwood, J., Albion, London 1985, P. 7). This was a bird that the Celts associated with warfare and death and was one of the forms into which the Morrigan __ the Irish Goddess of warfare __ transformed herself (MacKillop, J., Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford 1998, pp. 100, 297).

THE FIRST PART
Chapter XIII

'Have you not read , sirs,' replied Don Quixote, 'the annals and histories of England, treating of the famous deeds of King Arthur, whom in our Castilian tounge we commonly call King Artus. There is an ancient and widespread tradition concerning him throughout that kingdom of Great Britain, that he did not die, but by magic art was turned into a crow; and they say that in course of time he will come back to reign, and recover his kingdom and sceptre. For which reason no Englishman can be proved ever to have killed a crow, from that day to this.'

Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote, trans. Cohen, J. M., Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1972 (1950), P. 97

THE FIRST PART
Chapter XLIX

. . . King Arthur of England, who is still wandering about the world to this day transformed into a raven, and is hourly awaited in his kingdom.

Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote, trans. Cohen, J. M., Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1972 (1950), P. 437-8

This tradition that Arthur mainfested himself in this world as a raven continued to be held in Cornwall till the early nineteenth century. At this time a man who took a pot-shot at a raven at Marazion was berated, 'that he ought on no account to have shot at a raven, for that King Arthur was still alive in the form of that bird' (TINTAGEL and the ARTHURIAN Mythos, Broadbent, P., Pendragon Press: Launceston, 1999, P. 82). This tradition that was also known to John Rhys: -

Add to these instances of transformation the belief prevalent in Cornwall almost ot our own day, tha Arthur himself, instead of dying, was merely changed by magic into a raven, a form in which he still goes about; so that a Cornishman will not willingly fire at a raven.

Sir John Rhys, Celtic Folklore, Wildwood House: London, 1980 (1901), vol 2 P. 611.

In the Morrigan, a goddess of battle and death associated with ravens, some see a precursor of Morgan le Fay - King Arthur's sister. A lady who shared with the Morrigan a taste for the company of heroes. If this is so, it would be quite apt that Morgan le Fay, in a possible version of Arthur's end, might have transformed him into a raven, her own bird and a harbinger of death. Of course this is pure speculation, but it would provide an interesting variant on the aftermath of Camlann, when Morgan le Fay was one of the three queens who took Arthur across the water to the land of Avalon where his wounds would be healed. Bizarre though it may seem, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that King Arthur existed in Avalon as a man but manifested himself in this world as a raven.

This notion finds support in a fight that Perceval undertook against a knight, Urbain, son of the Queen of the Black Thorn at the Perilous Ford. After Urbain had been defeated by Perceval, the lady for whom he had been guarding the ford destroys her invisible castle and calls upon Urbain to follow her (to Avalon). When Perceval refuses to give Urbain permission to do this, the lady turns herself and her damsels into black birds that attack Perceval. Perceval wounds one, spilling it's entrails and bringing it to the ground, where it changes into a beautiful woman. The remaining birds stop attacking Perceval, fly to the corpse and bear it away through the air to Avalon, where it's owner will be cured. Perceval now gives Urbain permission to depart, and he is led away by a jubilant croud that disappears (Robert De Boron, trans by Bryant, N., Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Aramathea Merlin Perceval, D.S. Brewer: Woodbridge, 2001, pp.136-39).

Other birds that Arthur was said to have appeared as were a 'nath' (a Cornish name for a puffin) or a chough. These identifications were recorded as traditions current in Cornwall in the early twentieth century.

At Delabole , the centre of this district (between Camelford and Tintagel), we find our first witness, Henry Spragg, a retired slate-quarryman, seventy years old. Mr. Spragg has had excellent opportunities of hearing any folk-lore that might have been living during his lifetime; and what he offers first is about King Arthur:__
King Arthur.__'We always thought of King Arthur as a great warrior. and many a time I've heard old people say that he used to appear in this country in the form of a nath.'1

1I asked what a nath is, and Mr. Spragg explained:__'A nath is a bird with a beak like that of a parrot, and with black and grey feathers. The naths live on sea-islands in holes like rabbits, and before they start to fly they first run.' The nath, as Mr. Henry Jenner informs me is the same as the puffin (Fratercula arctica), called also in Cornwall a 'sea parrot'.

A retired rural policeman of the Tintagel country, where he was born and reared, and now keeper of the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery at Newlyn, offers this testimony....Of the Arthurian folk-legend at Tintagel he said:__'The spirit of King Arthur is supposed to be in the Cornish chough__a beautiful black bird with red legs and red beak.'

Evans-Wentz, W. Y.,The fairy-faith in Celtic countries, Dover: Mineola, 2002 (1911), P. 183, 185.

We have seen how Arthur's soul was considered to have transmigrated into various birds, but one bird remains: one of the smallest of British birds, the wren. This transmigration was described by that enigmatic character Owen Morgan, or Morien as he liked to be known. In his book "The Light of Britannia" he proposed that Arthur's physical body is destroyed at midwinter (at sunset on December the twentieth) in a battle with the forces of darkness personified by Avagddu. Arthur's divinity, symbolised by a wren flies to a refuge within Cd, the universal mother, and is reborn as a new sun at dawn on December the twenty-second, some forty hours after his death.

The numerous Druidic remains in the shape of circles of stones, &c., near St. David's Head, south-west of Wales, were places of solemn assemblies of Druids. On each December 20th, watching what they thought as being the struggle, on that afternoon, between Avagddu (Typhon) and Arthur, in the air, the Sun as Arthur, gelded Saturn__having lost Excalibur__under also the names of Saturnus, Osiris, Adonis, Taliesin, Arawn, Aaron, and called by as many names as there were nations who had adopted the solar rites of the Druids, sinking, physically defeated, into the South Western Ocean at four o' clock that awful afternoon (Dec. 20th), but the sun's divinity__symbolised, as already often stated by a wren, &c.,__being caught in the ocean by his mother Cd (Cetus of Der Ketos), and restored in a new glorified sun, regarded a new creation as to his body, after the lapse of forty hours.

Morgan, O. (Morien), The Light of Britannia, pp. 200-1

Owen Morgan cites several examples from the Celtic world of folk practices (pp. 92-9) where the wren was ceremonially killed at midwinter (on St. Stephen's Day__December the twenty-sixth). He also emphasises the associations of the wren with Druidry.

As stated in a former page, among the British Druids the wren was used in the same sense as the white dove was used in the East, viz.:__as symbol of the Divinity in the sun. In the Welsh language the wren to this day is called "Druid," as "Derw," "Drew," and "dryw." The reason of the Druids for selecting the wee bird for so sacred a purpose, was, no doubt, the fact that its nest is round, as they symbolised the belly of Cd to be, and with a hole in its centre (umbilicus), like one their own beddrods or tumuli. We seem to detect in the selection, a trace of the hope of the resurrection of the dead; for the Almighty, by the instrumentality of warmth, converts the chaotic eggs in the round beddrod (round grave) like nest into singing birds, and the same Almighty power can also restore dead humanity to corporeal existence form the round barows. The weakness of the wren symbolised the apparent feebleness of the sun in its operations upon the earth at the winter solstice. the wren, therefore, was sacred to the sun at the winter solstice.

The following is quoted from the Cambrian Journal (1857. p. 183):__ "A mode of levying contributions at Christmas was by means of the Cutty Wren"__"Cutty" seems to be derived from Cd, Ketos or Cetus__"Having procured a wren, and placed it in a small ornamented box or paper house, with a square of glass at either end, two or four men would carry it about, elevated on four poles fixed at the corners, singing the while a long ditty. The words, though rough and unpolished, serve to describe three divisions of humanity. (1) The fault-finding inquisitives; (2) The know-nothings; and (3) The know-alls. the four men would enter the doorway, groaning under the weight of their burden, and looking as if they had just relieved Atlas of his load."

dead wren hanging in a beribboned house

We have heard it said, the men would declare the occupier of the small box was now very poor. That he had once been wealthy, and would be so again, and the contribution asked would be applied to succour him in his need. In most European languages, according to Brand's Popular Antiquities, a wren is known by a name signifying king. Brand quotes the following popular doggerel:__

"Tom Tit and Jenny Wren,
Are God Almighty's cock and hen."

In the Welsh language there is a popular rhyme to the following effect:__

"He who robs a robin's nest shall surely taste the rope;
He who robs a wren's nest to see God's face he cannot hope."

Morgan, O. (Morien), The Light of Britannia, pp. 92-3.

Owen Morgan clearly identifies the wren as the soul of Arthur, as the personified sun, which flees to the refuge of his mother Cd after his physical body has been destroyed in his battle with Avagddu, to be reborn with a new body, under the influence of his father, Celi, some forty hours after the destruction of his previous body. This is connected to the folk traditions concerning the wren that took place on December the twenty-sixth, where the wren's supposed poverty at this time is parallel to the death of the physical body of the sun. While the past and future wealth of the wren refers to the glories of the sun's rising power and it's predominance during spring and summer.

Morien's assertion that the wren was throughout Europe known by a name signifying king, leads one to the Celtic, specifically Irish, tradtion that the wren was chosen as king of the birds. A position that it attained by means of a stratagem. For the birds agreed that the bird that flew the highest should be their leader. The natural winner was the eagle, but the wren, who had hidden itself in the eagle's plumage, flew out when the eagle reached the highest point of its flight and fluttered above the eagle's head. By this trick, the wren came to be chosen the King of the Birds. It is tempting to extend Morien's interpretation of Arthur physically personifying the sun to the eagle, by seeing this high flying bird as being a symbol of the sun. While the wren is the eternal divinity of Arthur, as the sun, becomes the soul of the eagle.

Last words

It is here that I atttempt to gather together the material presented above. As to Arthur and the Round Table being identified a stellar objects, the insights offered by Julius Evola seem to point to a view of Arthur as a divine inspired king who naturally took his place in the sky when his time on Earth had finished. Evola gives a summary of his position in his book on the Holy Grail.

The name Arthur is susceptible to various interpretations, the most reliable of which attributes it to the Celtic words arthos (bear) and viros (man). Nennius had already explained: Arthur latine sonat ursem horribilem.1 This meaning of a dreadful virile force is connected with a symbolism of Hyperborean origin and at the same time points to the idea of a central or "polar" function. In fact, the bear is one of the sacred symbols of the ancient Nordic cult and simultaneously, in astronomic symbolism, corresponds to the "polar" concstellation Ursa Major. Moreover, in the corpus of traditional texts, symbols and names eventually establish a relation between this constellation (with the symbolism of the pole or center referred to it) and Thule, a name designating the Hyperborean "White Island," the traditional center. 2 Thus the polar, the Hyperborean, and the regal elements converge in the figure of Arthur. The unilaterally virile and warrior aspect that could be supposed in Arthur as an ursus horribilis is also modified in the legend by Arthur's being always accompanied, as some kind of complement or counterpart by Myrddin or Merlin, who holds a spiritual power and knowledge. This Merlin seems less a distinct person and more the personification of the transcendant and spiritual side of Arthur himself.

1. S. Singer, Die Arthur Sage (Bern Liepzig 1926), 17.
2. R. Guénon, Le Roi du monde, chapter 10.
3. After all the name Bear(Bjorn) was applied in Nordic traditions to Thor, who is one of the heavenly heroes or Aesir, struggling against elemental beings; in the Ynglingasaga, the bear and the wolf are forms taken be Odin, the supreme chief of Valhalla or Midgard, or "Central Seat."

Evola, J., The Mystery of the Grail: initiation and magic in the quest for the spirit, trans. Stucco, G., Inner Traditions: Rochester, Vermont, 1997, pp. 31-32.

The above quotation is slightly enigmatic. No doubt because Evola's Grail book first appeared as an appendix to his "Revolt Against the Modern World" and for a full understanding of the implications of the quotation this work needs to be read. However, the above quotation gives a summary of Evola's syncretistic logic. This logic connects Arthur to the legendary polar dwelling Hyperboreans. A people who had, according to Evola, an actual historical existence and who emigrated to Atlantis when the worsening climate forced them from their northern eyrie. Arthur was a divinely inspired king, as can be seen by his association with Merlin and was likewise fired with a god-given warrior ethos. While Arthur's connection with the bear associate him firmly with the circum-polar constellation of the Great Bear.

A secondary outcome of this examination of Arthur's associations with the sky is that he had a triple association with death. First as the leader of the Wild Hunt that accompanied the souls of the dead on their journey out of this world: so performing, in this case, the function of a psychopomp. Second as the raven, a bird of ill-omen: the harbinger of death. Third as the wren, a bird that was the soul of the sun: whose physical body had been destroyed by the forces of darkness at the winter solstice.

Apart from these insights, I realise that this section lacks any coherent theme and is rather a mishmash of different traditions concerning King Arthur. Unfortunately the above are the only sources I have been able to find on the topic of King Arthur as a stellar, otherworldly and avian entity. They have been cobbled together within this rather unnatural framework for convenience, rather than to make any specific point.


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