The night-time Sun/Sky God - as an enemy of Arthur's world.


Completed 14 November 2002.
Last modified 23 July 2005
© Text Copyright 2005 Michael Wild

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


Contents

Sources


Introduction

I have already dealt with Arthurian knights who show solar characterisics. Now I am going to make a radical re-interpretation of the Sun/Sky God. Already I have shown examples where Arthurian knights took on the characteristics of the day-time Sun/Sky God. Yet what happened to the day-time Sun/Sky God at night. Obviously he cannot just vanish during the night. In my opinion he enters a night-time kingdom where he is totally the reverse of the benevolent day-time Sun/Sky God. In this persona he is always opposed to those who happen upon his night-time kingdom and hence, in Arthurian literature, becomes the opponent of Arthur and his knights.

Consider, dear reader, that you lived in the primaeval forest that covered much of Europe during the days of the ancient Celts. You worshipped the Sun, the all powerful benevolent Sun: bringer of warmth and light, harbringer of the earth's summer bounty. You observe his path across the sky. From the redness of the chill dawn in the East, through his bright golden passage across the sky when his heat was apparent, and back down to redness and coolness of the evening in the West. At dawn he seems to come out of the forest in the East and at evening seems to disappear into the same forest in the West.

Could he perhaps, recruit his fiery energies from a fire in the forest? Or maybe he renews his energies from the fires under the earth? Fires, that you know from travellers tales, do exist and are associated with fiery mountains. As for his daytime aspect, it could be seen as the glorious Sun being drawn in a crystal chariot. Crystal because it would not shade his rays from the earth. A chariot that could be drawn by white horses, to symbolise the scudding clouds of a summer day.

Of course the Sun in his crystal chariot would be a benign and benevolent being: one who 'had your best interests at heart'. But the night-time Sun would be a different matter. He was master of storm and thunder as he approaches the earth at evening in a sound of rushing wind and thunder that seems likely to flatten the forest. He would descend into the fire in the forest in the West and then could become a horrible giant who, among other anti-human habits, was given to devouring humankind. Besides his association with fire, he is also connected with a woman, who occupies a variety of roles. She can ameliorate his anti-social tendencies. For instance when humans (knights in our case) from the everyday world encounter him they often first meet the woman, who gives them advice on dealing with the giant.

Another way of looking at the Sun's night-time activities is to view it as a descent into the fires beneath the earth in the evening. This is followed by an overnight journey to his rising point: where he emerges from the fires beneath the earth. Of course the night-time journey would be through a region of chaos: the Annwn of Welsh myth, whose Christian equivalent would be the horrors of Hell.

The remainder of this account is concerned with examples drawn from Arthurian literature where, I believe, this pattern can be discerned. Starting with the firmest identification and moving to more speculative interpretations. To reiterate the basic characteristics of the Sun/Sky god at night:-

  1. He is associated with a fire in a forest
  2. He is associated with the night.
  3. He is a giant
  4. He devours humans, or acts towards them with barbarity.
  5. When he approaches the earth a thunderous rushing sound that seems to herald the flattening of the forest is heard.
  6. He has a female attendant who provides interlopers to his realm with valuable information concerning him.

The above list of charcteristics is derived from a Breton folk-tale 'the Crystal Palace'.


Monstrous Knights of the night

This episode from Perlesvaus has some elements that relate it to the basic theme of the monstrous night-time Sun. Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain are lost in a forest at night and see a fire in the distance. When they come to it, they find that it is in a waste manor with a horrible secret: a room full of dead bodies.

Then a woman arrives from the forest carrying the remains of a dead knight that she puts in the room with the other bodies. She tells them that, as Lancelot is there her penance of collecting the dead remains of knights killed in the forest is now over. What is more, she tells them how to protect themselves from the black and hideous knights who will soon appear. That is by drawing around themselves a circle on the ground using a sword.

Here we already have some motifs associated with the night-time Sun/Sky god. The fire seen at a distance in a forest at night and the woman who assists the knights with advice. Here Lancelot takes her advice and draws a circle around the manor with his sword. This sword clearly represents the power of the daytime Sun and the circle inscribed in the soil is a circle of solar protection, indicating that Lancelot is acting directly as the agent of the daytime Sun.

Now black and hideous knights enter with a rushing sound that leads Arthur and his companions to expect that the forest is being torn up by the roots. This seems to be a reference to the approach of the Sun/Sky God in his aspect of the storm-god. A reference that is amplified by the black colour of the hideous knights.

The black knights snatch up firebrands and fling them at each other. Though Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain are protected from their attack by the magic circle, the black knights hurl firebrands at them. Despite the damsel's warning, Lancelot leaves the magic circle to attack the black knights, and Arthur and Gawain follow to assist. Then, on the defeat of the black knights: 'And when they fell to the ground, they may no longer endure, but become fiends and ashes, and their bodies and their horses become devils all black in the shape of ravens that come forth from their bodies.' Here the flung firebrands could be associated with the lightning wielded by the Sun/Sky God in his storm aspect or with the red-hot rocks and lava spewed out by volcanoes: the Sun/Sky God's home beneath the earth. The fiery solar nature of these knights may be inferred from the fact that their bodies turn to ashes when they have been killed. The ravens, that the black knights and their horses turn into, are birds of death in Celtic mythology with otherworldly associations. Clearly we have here an attack upon knights by otherworldly beings who are the night-time aspect of the Sun.

Later the three knights are atacked by a group of even blacker knights. These bore spears that burnt. This group also carry dead knights who they have slain in the forest and demand that the damsel set them with the other dead knights. She is able to refuse because Lancelot has freed her from her penance. Now these knights attack Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain who are hard pressed by them, but who are saved when the 'knight fiends' hurry away quickly at the sounding of a bell.

This second group of black knights clearly possess the brutality associated with the night-time aspect of the Sun/Sky God and their connection with this deity is emphasised by their carrying fiery (lightning) spears. The bell is interpreted in Perlesvaus in Christian terms but might, I feel, have been associated with the daytime aspect of Sun/Sky God. For instance, the solar Green Knight in 'Gawain and the Green Knight' bore gold bells on his horses caparison.

To summarise the points made that connect the black knights with the night-time aspect of the Sun/Sky God:-

  1. Their association with a fire in a forest. In addition they use flaming brands from a fire as weapons, or carry flaming spears. Also as their bodies become ashes when they are killed, this could also be a sign that they are solar beings.
  2. They appear at night. An association with night is emphasised by their black colour and by their souls emerging as ravens (coloured black) when they are killed.
  3. Their brutality is implied by the room of dead bodies and by the bodies of dead knights that the second group of black knights carry.
  4. The rushing noise that heralds their approach is that the Sun/Sky god makes when he approaches the earth at night.
  5. The prescence of a maiden who is enslaved to them, but who offers the knights advice.
  6. In addition they are restrained by the use of a circle of protection drawn by a sword: the weapon of the daytime Sun.

The Giant of Mont Saint Michel

This brings us to a true monster, one whose tale is recogniseable from the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in those of Sir Thomas Malory. That is the giant of St. Michael's Mount: a creature whom Wace tells us was called Dinabuc. Can anyone doubt that a giant who lives on two mountains with fires and who fends off invaders by hurling giant rocks at them is not the personification of a volcano? The volcano where the Sun god rests in his negative aspect. An aspect also seen in the giant's man eating habits and in his propensity to commit rape. Also we have the old woman who advises the humans who enter the domain of the night-time Sun/Sky God: here transmuted into the attendant of the captured and murdered noblewoman. What is more, the giant, in Malory, owns untold treasure, just what one would expect of the Sun god.

The giant's propensity for abductions and his barbaric cruelty connect him with a figure from Welsh myth: Gwynn ap Nudd, the abductor of the maiden Creiddylat, in whom had been set the dark forces of the Celtic otherworld (Annwn).

To summarise the points connecting the Giant of Mont Saint Michel with archetype of night-time Sun/Sky God:-

  1. He is associated with fire.
  2. He is a giant.
  3. He is inhumanly brutal and devours humans.
  4. he is associated with an elderly woman who advises interlopers to his world.

The Knight with the dragon in Perlesvaus.

This knight is somewhat removed from the pattern set out at the start of this section, but has certain characteristics that lead me to believe that he was a manifestation of the negative aspects of the Sun. He exhibited a barbarity in maiming those he killed, by cutting off their feet and arms. Then there is his sword, that is 'long and red as a burning brand' - a possible Solar weapon. Furthermore he kills his opponents by blasting them with fire from the dragon's head that is a feature of his midnight black shield, so that their corpses appear to have been blasted by lightning. This appearance of having been blasted by lightning, shown by corpses, leads one to make a connection between the Knight of the Dragon and the Sun/Sky God in the aspect of the Storm-god. Add to this the fact that the Knight of the Dragon is larger than any other men (coming from the Giants castle) and you have another resemblance between him and the night-time Sun/Sky God. One that is further emphasised by the shield of black that he bears.

Like the giant of Mont Saint Michel (see above) the Knight of the Dragon occupies an island: called the Island of Elephants. Clearly a mention of a gigantic bizarre-looking animal that would only have been known from travellers tales makes the Knight of the Dragon resemble an otherworldly being. Finally, when Perceval finally succeeds in defeating the Knight of the Dragon, the dragons head upon his shield turns upon its former owner, burns him to dust, then vanishes into the sky like lightning. This burning to death does seem an appropriate fate for a defeated being who acted as the night-time Sun, and the disappearing of the dragon into the sky like lightning is an apt way of returning a feature of the Sun/Sky God to its proper sphere.

Although there is no woman who has an overt relationship to the Knight of the Dragon, he is opposed to the Queen of the Golden Circlet. The Golden Circlet is a possible symbol of the daytime Sun-god, hence there is the possiblity that the Knight, if he is a manifestation of the night-time Sun, regards her as his opponent. As to the provision of advice to the knight (Perceval) who fights the Knight of the Dragon, the damsel who followed the knight in the bier (Alein of Escavalon) tells that he must be killed in some special way that she cannot specify.

Perceval, on the other hand has aspects that make him resemble the god of the daytime Sun. His shield is able to deflect the flames that the dragon's head on the the black shield of the Knight of the Dragon emits. Second his sword takes on the same flaming redness of the Kinght's when it has been breathed upon by the dragon's head. Third, the Queen of the Golden Circlet's repeats a prediction that the Golden Circlet will be won by a knight with golden hair, when referring to Perceval: giving us another indication that he is a Solar Knight.

To summarise, the Knight of the Dragon seems to have the following features that conform to the archetype:-

  1. The dragon in his shield provides an association with fire. Which is emphasised by his flaming red sword
  2. Although he has no direct association with night-time activities, the black colour of his shield suggests an association with the night.
  3. His larger than human size and the fact that he comes from the Giants castle both suggest that he was originally a giant.
  4. His brutality to those he has killed: by cutting off their hands and feet or by dismembering them.
  5. The damsel who follows the bier of Alein of Escavalon gives Perceval advice.

The Knight with the Sword

This is stretching the solar knight hypothesis a bit, but I think this story provides a valid example of a transformation of the malevolent night-time Sun outlined above. True, the knight who Gawain spends the night with, beside a fire in a forest, does not attempt to devour him! Yet he shows a malevolent streak in other ways when Gawain stays at his castle. He kills all those who contradict him. He allows Gawain to sleep in his own bed, with his daughter, but her virtue is guarded by a magical sword that kills all men who try to make love to her. As this sword has a golden hilt and pommel, it is natural to assume that it is the weapon of the Sun god. Furthermore the bed is surrounded by twelve candles that are clearly symbolic of the twelve solar months. There is a close connection between the host and these twelve candles for the host will become very angry if they are extinguished. Furthermore the daughter ameliorates her father's malevolence by advising Gawain of the dangers facing him (the fate of all who contradict her father and the danger posed by the sword). Finally the knight marries Gawain and his daughter. Thereby dispensing with the Christian cleric in a way that is appropriate for a pagan Sun god.

To summarise, the un-named knight in the 'Knight with the Sword' conformed to the archetype in the following ways:-

  1. He is associated with a fire in a forest.
  2. Gawain first meets him at night.
  3. He always finds some pretext for unjustly killing his guests.
  4. His daughter advises Gawain on how to outwit him.

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