Solar aspects of Arthurian knights

Completed 25 October 2002.
Last modified 10 July 2005
© Text Copyright 2004 Michael Wild

I can be reached at:- dagonet_uk 'at',uk



There are scattered incidents that suggest that certain of Arthur's knights inherited some of the characteristics of pagan sun gods. It may seem preposterous to say this, but both Gawain and Lancelot have characteristics that suggest some of their adventures had their origins in the lore of pagan Sun - or sky - Gods. I say sun or sky gods because these gods were not just embodiments of the sun's power, but were gods of storm and of lightning too.

There were three aspects of solar power that are most readily seen in Arthurian knights: the daily aspect, the annual aspect and the attack by the sun god. In the daily aspect a knight's stength increases during the morning and reaches a peak at noon (as in Gawain and Ironside). In the annual aspect the knight usually beheads another and gives a promise to submit to be beheaded in a years time (Lancelot and Gawain), or he may promise to rule a city for a year and then voluntarily sacrifice himself on a fire (Lancelot). There is the defeat of a night-time attack by the sun god (such as Lancelot accomplished). While comparisons can be made between one of Arthur's knights (Lancelot) and an Irish hero, Cuchulain, who showed some solar characteristics. One aspect that does not fit easily into these categories, but has been included in 'daily aspects' is that where the knight has the ability, as did Alardin du Lac, of being surrounded by light and of banishing rain from his immediate surroundings

The Daily Cycle

Gawain shows both the daily and the annual aspects. The daily aspect is described by Sir Thomas Malory, who tells us that the increase in Gawain's strength, to three times his normal strength, from 9 a.m. till noon was the gift of an un-named 'holy man'. Do I detect a pagan divinity hiding behind this giver of this unusual gift? This increase in strength is mentioned twice.

Firstly, there is a fight against Marhaus, where Gawain's waning in strength towards evensong is noted by Marhaus, who gallantly stops their fight (Book IV, Chap. 18). Secondly, in a fight against Launcelot who, unlike Marhaus, fights defensively until he parceives that Gawain's strength is waning in the afternoon and then launches a devastating attack (Book XX, Chap. 21). Clearly, Launcelot was not so chivalrous as Marhaus. However the quarrel between Launcelot and Gawain was a blood feud.

One other knight had the characteristic of his strength increasing during the morning. This was the Sir Ironside, otherwise called the Red Knight of the Red Laundes. The damosel Linet tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Gareth (Gawain's brother) from fighting him before noon because Sir Ironside's strength has increased through the morning until he has seven men's strength (Book VII, Chap.15).

Finally, mention must be made of Aalardin du Lac, a character in the story of Caradoc. This story is part of the first continuation of Chrétien de Troyes poem Perceval and has been translated by Ross G Arthur in 'Three Arthurian Romances' published by Dent in 1996. In this poem, drenched by a storm, Caradoc follows Aalardin, but cannot reduce the distance that separates him from Aalardin. Aalardin rides along unaffected by the rain, surrounded by a brilliant light and by singing birds. Only at midnight, when Aalardin reaches his house where there is a great fire, does Caradoc succeed in catching up. Clearly Aalardin, by being surrounded with light and singing birds in the midst of a storm and by living in a house with a great fire, which he reaches at midnight, has his origins in a magical otherworldly sun god. This identification with a god is strengthened as Caradoc is unable to catch up with Aalardin until the latter reaches his home.

Aalardin also has two possessions that further indicate that he possesses characteristics inherited from a solar or a sky god. These are, first, his shield of gold; the solar metal. This has a golden, sun-like, boss that will mould itself to the shape of severed body parts and will replace them: surely a quality associated with a benign solar deity. Second comes magical pavilion he owns, which is coloured both gold and silver and which is guarded by a golden and a silver figure. Gold and silver being the solar and lunar colours. The pavilion is occupied by Aalardin's sister who is able to cure wounded knights.

It is worth noting that Alaardin is not the only person with solar characteristics that Caradoc meets, for he takes part in a beheading game where he beheads a knight (Eliavrés) and has to return to receive a like blow in a years time: as did Lancelot and Gawain (see below).

The Annual Cycle

With the annual cycle, we come across more mentions of solar characteristics. One has already mentioned in the section dealing with the abduction of Gwenyvere. Here the abduction is considered as being developed from pagan myths where the queen, as the bringer of fertility to the earth, was abducted by the underworld god. He withdrew her from the earth at the onset of winter and she was restored to the earth after the killing of this god of the underworld in the following spring. In Arthurian myth this cycle has become confused and the queen is abducted at springtime and the resolution of her abduction can take a whole year.

With Arthur we have to look to the annual scheme described in by Owen "Morien" Morgan in his book 'The Light of Britannia'. In this it is proposed that Arthur is the personification of the Sun. Each winter solstice (at sunset on December the twentieth) his soul flees to the womb of his mother, the goddess Cêd. From here he is reborn physically, fathered by the God Celi, at dawn on December the twenty-second. Thereafter, as the pathway of the sun across the sky rises and falls throughout the year he is envisaged as fighting, with varying success, against the powers of darkness, personified as Avagddu. During the period from the winter solstice to the summer solstice he is seen as increasing in strength and facilitating the growth and flowering of vegetation. From the summer solstice to the next winter solstice he is seen first as fostering the ripening of fruits and seeds. Then as winter takes hold the powers of darkness prevail over Arthur until his physical body is killed by Avagddu at sunset on December the twentieth. I have given more details of "Morien's" description of Arthur as a solar god elsewhere. A brief description and consideration of Morien's theories is given in a chapter copied from a book by Lewis Spence. While those interested in what is known of the life of Morien should look at the web site of the Morien Institute.

With Gawain there is the famous poem known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here Gawain is the only knight who takes up the Green Knight's challenge, given at Arthur's court at New Year, to behead him and receive a like blow from the Green Knight the following New Year. Very well, green is hardly a solar colour but it is intimately connected with solar gold in the Green Knight's costume: doubtless symbolising the association of the growth of vegetation with the increasing strength of the sun in the springtime. It also is probable that the Green Knight was originally a shape changing divinity one of whose aspects was of a green fertility god. This aspect of his behaviour survives in the poem. Here he is both the grim Green Knight and the bounteous and expansive host __ Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert.

With Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert we come upon a connection that has been made between Gawain and the Green Knight and a more ancient Irish myth by the seminal Roger Sherman Loomis (Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance pp. 59-61). He derived the name Bertilack from an Irish word 'bachlach' (meaning herdsman). Now 'bachlach' was used to describe an aspect of the divine hero Curoi, who also had solar aspects. Now Curoi took part in a beheading game somewhat like that in Gawain and the Green Knight; one where the hero Cu Chulainn beheaded Curoi in the story of Bricriu's Feast.

With Launcelot we have to depart from Malory to find his solar characteristics. These are described in the book commonly that is commonly known as 'Perlesvaus. Here Lancelot participates in two incidents that are clearly related to an annual solar kingship ritual.

One incident sees Launcelot coming to a huge city where he is greeted by a procession of joyous people that sweeps him along with it to the principal hall of the town. Here he is praised as a noble knight and is told that he is to save the town, a part of which has been burning since the death of the last king. What he must do is accept the crown for a year then fling himself into the fire at the end of this period. This will extinguish the flames and save the city. Lancelot refuses to accept the crown, despite being told that he cannot do this.

Now a dwarf, accompanied by one of the most beautiful women of the land enters and he tells the assembled multitude that he is willing to accept the challenge that Lancelot has refused. He is crowned and Lancelot departs. Could the dwarf have originally been the only participant in this drama and Lancelot only a late interloper? The fact that the dwarf is accompanied by one of the most beautiful women of the land suggests that he is intimately connected with the country and may have even originally been a personification of the sun god, who would be the only one who could control the rampaging solar flame that was threatening the existence of the city.

The second incident has some resemblances to the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here Lancelot visits a Waste City and agrees to behead a handsome young knight with an axe. This knight's golden hat indicates that he may have originally had solar characteristics. Lancelot also promises to return in a year and receive a like blow. When Lancelot does return he hears voices in the city lamenting that he, like twenty previous knights has renaged upon his bargain. This lamentation recalls the Irish story of 'Bricriu's Feast', where three warriors, apart from Cu Chulainn, refuse to take the return blow. A young knight now appears whetting the axe with which Lancelot had beheaded the handsome young knight (this whetting of the axe is parallel with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Lancelot dodges the first blow from the axe and is reprimanded for this (again a resemblance to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). However he is spared having to submit his neck to the axe a second time by the intervention of a maiden. The incident ends with the Waste City filling up with it's former inhabitants.

Finally may be mentioned the story of Caradoc who, like Gawain, takes up the challenge of beheading a knight at King Arthur's court and of putting his own head at a like risk in a years time. As with Gawain, the return blow is merely symbolic: in Caradoc's case he is merely given a blow across his neck with the flat of the sword by the man who he had beheaded a year previously (Eliavrés the sorcerer). This story has been translated by Ross G Arthur in 'Three Arthurian Romances', which was published by Dent in 1996.

The defeat of the Sky God

In Chrétien de Troyes poem the 'Knight of the Cart', Lancelot is attacked by a blazing lance (the weapon of the sky or sun god). This happens when he has arrogantly slept in a bed which he has been forbidden to occupy. The bed has a yellow silk cover and a coverlet that is decorated with stars: both the colour and the ornamentation of the coverlet indicate that this is the bed of the sky or sun god. By putting out the blaze the lance has caused upon the bed and flinging the lance into the middle of the hall, he defeats this attack by the sky or sun god and proves himself to be a worthy solar hero. The blazing lance could symbolise the lightning that this god wields in his guise of the god of storm.

Lancelot and Cuchulain

There exists a parallel between Lancelot and Cuchulain which reinforces the notion of Lancelot as a solar hero; an idea that was suggested in the previous paragraph. For Cuchulain was a solar hero as exemplified by his putative father being named as Lug, an Irish god with a solar aspect. One who was also given the soubriquet 'Láfhada': which means long-armed1. This refers to his ability to fling a weapon a long distance or to use a sling; both being the characteristics of a solar divinity. Besides having a sun god as his putative father, Cuchulain went into a battle rage in which one of his eyes protruded from his head. This made him rather like the one-eyed Formorian divinity Balor, whose basilisk eyes paralysed those who looked at it and has to him being seen as a solar divinity2. Also in his battle rage, Cuchulain's body developed a tremendous heat, like that of the sun, that could only be overcome by him being immersed in a succession of three vats of water: __

1MacKillop, J., Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, 1998, P. 270.
2MacKillop, J., Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, 1998, P. 29.

The Labraid entreated Cu Chulainn to stay his hand from the slaying. 'I fear now', said Loeg, 'that the man will turn his wrath upon us, for he has not found a combat to suffice him. Go now,' said Loeg, 'and let there be brought three vats of cold water to cool his heat. The first vat into which he goes will boil over; after he has gone into the second vat, none will be able to bear the heat of of it; after he has gone into the third vat, its water will have but a moderate heat.'

Stewart, R. J., Celtic Myths, Celtic Legends, Blandford, 1994, P. 68.

The parallels come with the descriptions of Cuchulain's battle rage compared with that which has been described as afflicting Lancelot. Though the description of Lancelot's battle rage may well have been modified for the audience that would have rejected the the more bizarre Celtic elements found in the description of Cuchulain's battle rage, there are clearly some resemblances between the two descriptions of the two heroes battle rage. Cuchulain's heart beats become like the roar of a lion, while Lancelot snorts like a horse. Cuchulain's internal heat is is echoed by Lancelot 'looking like a burning coal'. While the column of blood that emerges from Cuchulain's head has an echo in the drops of red blood that appear to start from Lancelot's cheekbones and in his breath seeming to come 'red from his mouth'.

Cuchulain's battle rage

Before going into battle Cúchulain undergoes a transformation known as his ríastrad [battle fury, battle frenzy, warp spasm, etc.; gen. rístarthae]. When this overtakes him, he becomes a fearsome figure such as never been seen before. Every part of him quivers like a bulrush in a running stream. His calves, hams and heels shift to the front, and his feet and knees to the back, while the muscles stand out like the head of a baby. One eye is engulfed deep within his head, the other protrudes. His mouth meets his ears, foam pours from his jaws like the fleece of a three-year-old whether. The beats of his heart sound like the roar of a lion as he rushes to his prey. A column of dark blood spurts forth from his scalp and scatters in four directions, forming a mist of gloom. Then a projection emerges from Cúchlain's head like a horn but the size of a man's fist; it is the *lón láith/laíth [light of the hero(?)], which signals that he ready to fight.

*lón láith (laoich) [Ir. champions light]. Light beam projecting from Cúchlain's forehead as he goes into battle.

MacKillop, J., Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, 1998, pp. 103, 268.

Lancelot's battle rage

. . . but when he was truly angry, he looked like a burning coal, and it was as if drops of red blood started from his cheek-bones, and in his fury he snorted like a horse, and gnashed his teeth together, so that they grated terribly, and it was as if his breath came red from his mouth, and he spake so fiercely that it sounded like a trumpet, and he shattered anything he had in his hands or between his teeth. Finally, in his fury, he forgot everything except that which had made him angry, as was later apparent in many affairs.

Corley, C., trans., Lancelot of the Lake, Oxford, 1989, P. 28.

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