Archives For Arthurian Mythos

An archaeological dig at the Tintagel heritage site in Cornwall, South West England, has uncovered a complex of well-constructed buildings dating to the 5th or 6th century that could have been a royal palace – fuelling age-old speculation that the area was the seat of King Arthur.

Photograph by Emily Whitfield-Wicks. Tintagel Castle Archeology dig.

Tintagel Castle Archeology dig. [Photo Credit: Emily Whitfield-Wicks / Courtesy English Heritage]

In Britain’s first significant find from the Dark Ages, the team unearthed one structure with walls a metre-thick and artefacts that indicate a high and widespread level of trade. Analysis of artefacts shows the inhabitants enjoyed olive oil from the Greek Aegean and wine from Western Turkey. They ate off of plates and bowls that came from what is now Tunisia in North Africa. These details suggest that the inhabitants were of high status.

Whoever lived there is thought to have been the ruler of the Dunmonnia tribe, which occupied the entire South West region of England at the time, including Cornwall. Each area had tribal Kings, and continued to do so until the 9th century when King Ecgbert of Wessex became the King of “All-England.”

It must to be remembered that, although the Anglo-Saxons had arrived in England by the 5th century, the Western half of England, including Cornwall, was still very much under the control of the ancient Britons.

Historically, Cornwall has always been an important strategic point, due to its geographical location and its natural resources – particularly tin. The region was famous for its tin mines, which made the region very useful to the Roman Empire. The trade made the area rich, even after the Romans lost their footing in Britain in 410 CE.

Photograph by Emily Whitfield-Wicks. Tintagel Castle Archeology dig. Ryan Smith (Trench Supervisor) holding a phocaean red slip water from Western Turckey.

Ryan Smith (Trench Supervisor) holding a phocaean red slip water from Western Turkey [Photo Credit: Emily Whitfield-Wicks / Courtesy English Heritage

While dating to the 5th or 6th century, the complex is thought to have fallen into disuse by the 7th century. There is no evidence of military conquest, leading some experts to believe it was abandoned due to the bubonic plague, which ravaged the country around that time.

Win Scutt, English Heritage’s properties curator for the West of England, said, “The discovery of high-status buildings – potentially a royal palace complex – at Tintagel is transforming our understanding of the site. It is helping to reveal an intriguing picture of what life was like in a place of such importance in the historically little-known centuries following the collapse of Roman administration in Britain.”

This remains a landmark discovery regardless of any Arthurian connection. However, it has inevitably renewed debate on whether Tintagel was indeed the home of the legendary king, as told in the famous legend.

Many different regions lay claim to Arthur but most of those claims usually concern his final resting place. Glastonbury, in Somerset, has a historical claim in the grounds of its ruined Abbey, for example. A local legend at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, North-West England, claims that Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are currently sleeping under the rocky outcrop that gives the region its name. This local legend continues that when England is in dire need, they will awaken to defend the land once more.

There is also a persuasive theory from alternative historians Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett that much of Arthur’s story took place in South Wales. They argue that the legends about him represent a conflation of two historical kings, both called Arthur, separated by several centuries.

It cannot be denied that the Arthur legend is still very popular in Britain – and he is being given his latest cinematic outing by director Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is due out next spring.

Most of conventional Arthurian legends come from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). Geoffrey was a Welsh monk, although some think Breton, meaning from Brittany.  This area in France was settled by a branch of Britons toward the end of the 4th century CE, who gave the region its name.

Incidentally, this is why Britain is referred to as Great Britain. It is not, as is commonly thought, a hangover from the days of Empire, but rather a way of distinguishing it from Brittany. Historically, Great Britain meant the larger mainland where Britons lived, and Brittany was known as Little Britain. This partly explains the confusion about Geoffrey of Monmouth, as interaction between the Britons of France – Bretons – and the ancient British would have been much more frequent than today.

Geoffrey was writing in the 12th century and claims to have translated a little-known Welsh book into English at the behest of his immediate superior Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford.

Tintagel Castle. Prince Dafydd's tale. [Photo Credit: Emily Whitfield-Wicks / Courtesy English Heritage]

Tintagel Castle. Prince Dafydd’s tale. [Photo Credit: Emily Whitfield-Wicks / Courtesy English Heritage]

Many have claimed that Historia is merely an amalgamation of the writings of earlier clergymen such as the Venerable Bede, who wrote Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) and Gildas the Monk’s De Excidio et Conquestu Britannaie (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), as well as other sources, including material on the Bardic oral tradition.

Geoffrey’s work has long been dismissed as mythical and fantastical, but his claims that Arthur was conceived and raised at Tintagel Castle (giving rise to the legend of Merlin disguising Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, as the Duke of Cornwall in order to sleep with Igrainne, Arthur’s mother), have been strengthened by the recent find at Tintagel.

The Dark Ages complex is not the only ancient ruin on the Tintagel headland. There are also the remains of a much later medieval structure from the 13th century, which belonged to Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was the brother of Henry III.

The Kingdom of Cornwall has always been prized by British royalty, and Geoffrey notes that Brutus, the mythical Trojan founder of Britain, gave Corineus, his second in command, the region to preside over and settle. In more recent times, the position of Earl or Duke of Cornwall has been held by someone very close to the Monarch. At present Prince of Wales Charles, who will inherit the throne from his mother Elizabeth II, presides over the Duchy of Cornwall.

Like Arthurian lore, Tintagel offers layer upon layer of history and meaning, and is intricately woven into the fabric of the nation’s mythic life. The latest finds may be able to offer some more concrete pictures the Dark Ages. However, they may also offer a fresh chapter in King Arthur’s story.

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Meanwhile, Tintagel has also been in the news this year due to regeneration plans by site manager English Heritage intended to raise visitor numbers.

A series of artworks exploring the myths and legends of the area have been commissioned and, to date, two are in place. A sculpture called Gallos, which is Cornish for “power,” was installed near the castle ruins on the headland in April. It’s creator, Rubin Eynon, says the piece is a warrior king who represents Tintagel’s royal past in general, but it is commonly referred to as Arthur.

Photograph by Emily Whitfield-Wicks Tintagel Castle - Installation of King Arthur Sculpture. The Sculptor Rubin Eynon from South Wales, just after the sculpture has been landed.

Installation of King Arthur Sculpture by Rubin Eynon from South Wales. [Photo Credit: Emily Whitfield-Wicks / Courtesy English Heritage ]

In the cove below, a carving in the granite near the entrance to Merlin’s Cave represents his sleeping face emerging from the rock as he waits for Arthur to return. The piece, by artist Peter Graham, was unveiled in February.

But the works have proved divisive. Many visitors approve of them, but locals and supporters of the Tintagel heritage zone dismiss them as a cheapening or a desecration of the area or what has been referred to by some as “Disneyfication.”

The Merlin carving lost the end of its nose by May and, while English Heritage claimed it was due to storm damage, rumours abound of it being knocked off in protest.

Merlin carving [Courtesy English Heritage]

Merlin carving by Peter Graham [Photo Courtesy English Heritage]

This fall, Stevie Nicks released “In Your Dreams,” a personal documentary examining her life and career.  Announcing the release, Ultimate Classic Rock remarked that the documentary’s release is “the most exciting news for the year for Wiccan candle…enthusiasts.”  After all these years, the media still clings to the myth that Stevie Nicks is Pagan. In a 1998 online Yahoo interview, she was quoted as saying, “I’m not a witch. Get a life!”

Are there Pagan celebrities?  Madonna, Demi Moore and others reportedly have studied the Kabbalah.  Julia Roberts has openly converted to Hinduism.  Although not mainstream, those spiritual paths are not necessarily Pagan. Neither Amy Ray, who loosely uses the word Pagan as a descriptive, nor Dar Williams, whose interfaith song “The Christians and the Pagans” has captured many an imagination, has openly professed to being Pagan.

When it comes down to it, there are very few entertainment celebrities who openly practice a Pagan spiritual path.  There’s Sully Erma, Godsmack’s lead singer, and Teo Bishop, who revealed himself to be recording artist Matt Morris.  Truthfully, we could probably count them on one hand.   Fortunately, just this month, I had the opportunity to speak to one of these rare individuals – actor and writer, Mark Ryan.

Mark RyanYou might know Mark better as Nasir the Saracen from the popular British Television series Robin of Sherwood. However, that’s just one very small part of this his life’s journey.  Mark, a true Renaissance man, has been combining his theatrical and writing talents in a successful career spanning more than 30 years.  He has appeared in dozens of film, theater, and television productions both in the US and UK.  He’s an accomplished swordsman and action director.  As a writer, he has contributed to DC Comics and has produced two Tarot decks; the Greenwood Tarot and, the newly-released, Wildwood deck.  Currently, he is co-hosting Combat Radio on internet-based LA Talk Radio.

The hour long talk developed into more of a in-depth conversation than a traditional interview. Mark was very open about his childhood, his spiritual journey, his career, his beliefs, and the nature of Paganism in celebrity culture.  An edited version of that interview, with video sound bites, will be published here in two parts.

Part I: A Conversation with Mark Ryan, October 4, 2012

Heather: You are openly Pagan. What type of Pagan spirituality do you follow? 

Mark: I describe myself as an eclectic, philosophical Pagan because I don’t really know how else to describe it.  I’m not a follower of any organized religion. I don’t accept the structure of the main three organized religions.  So, [I asked] what structure is there?  And that led me to this philosophical approach – to take the pieces that make sense to me philosophically, psychologically and scientifically and apply that in my life.

I have been in many [Pagan] circles.  In San Francisco, there was a Golden Dawn-type group.  They’ve all got their rules – the way that they do it. That just didn’t feel natural [to me.] It still doesn’t feel natural. A human being [can say], “This is what I’ve been told; therefore, this is the way you must do it.”  I’ve always looked at these people and said, “Well, what about this?”  I don’t care whether you walk your path by looking at crystals or reading tarot cards or reading tea leaves. To me, it’s all the same stuff. It’s your journey and it’s your path. So go do it. I respect everyone’s belief systems. As long as they don’t want to burn me at the stake because of mine, then I’m happy.

H: Which one came first, your Pagan journey or the entertainment career?

Conisburgh CastleM: I was born in a place called Doncaster, South Yorkshire, which was part of the Brigantian Celtic culture long before the Romans arrived. South of me was Sherwood Forest, which I played in as a child. We played Robin Hood surrounded by Conisbrough Castle – the castle used in Ivanhoe. And, York was up the road, which was a major Roman capital. There’s a whole history there of spiritual beliefs.

As a child, I somehow absorbed the Arthurian, Robin Hood, nature-based stuff into my psyche. It just sunk in. The imagery and iconic ideas of the Arthurian Legend and Robin Hood stayed with me as a guide and a way of looking at the world. The Lady of the Lake, the Sword and the Stone and the King – this spoke to me on a deep emotional level.  The Church did not. I had questions about the Bible. I would embarrass myself in religious instruction classes by asking awkward questions for which the teachers had no answer.

H: So, when you started performing, were you formally following this alternative spiritual path?

M: No. It was a long, strange and twisted path. I grew up with a lot of tragedy in my family. But that pushes you to think, “Okay, you are going to die.” How are you going to deal with death? How are you going to deal with life? That really colored my attitude to both life and achieving things in life.
After I got to London, [along] came Robin of Sherwood. [It] was such a natural fit.

H: Tell us the story behind the creation of The Greenwood Tarot.

Greenwood Tarot World TreeM: The artist, Chesca Potter, [and I] were sitting around one night talking about why Robin of Sherwood had had such an impact on the magical world. We were talking about that nature of why those characters speak to people to this day. To this day!  Out of that discussion came the concept of the major 22 arcana and 22 types of personality.  It started almost like an experiment. Chesca wanted to know if I wanted to do a Robin of Sherwood tarot. I said, “No, we’re too close to it.” I thought it was too narrow a vision, to be honest.

I bought my first Tarot deck in 1979. It was the Morgan Greer or Voyager Tarot. But it didn’t speak to me, because I don’t understand Kabbalah. It just does not resonate with me. As I was learning about the Wheel of the Year, [Chesca and I] started to lay out these archetypes around the Wheel. That made instantaneous visual, emotional, and practical sense.

I called John Matthews. I said, “John, we just laid out the tarot arcana in this wheel on the floor. Does this make any sense to you? Does it have validity?” He said, “I wish I had done that! It actually makes total sense. I don’t think anybody’s done that before. There have been other [decks] that have been based on the Wheel of the Year. But the way you’ve done it makes instantaneous, visual sense to me.”

H: Greenwood was very popular but it is now out of print, correct?

M: Yes. It is out of print. I have one copy, the original proof. I get asked if it’s me selling the Greenwood Tarot online for $2-3,000 a deck. No. I don’t get any money from those sales. I only have the original proof.

To Be Continued: Tomorrow, I’ll pick up the conversation with Mark as he takes us from the mysteries of the Greenwood into the depths of the Wildwood and beyond!

Mark Ryan

Like many modern Pagans I’ve been long fascinated with Arthurian myth and its ties to pre-Christian religion. So little is actually known about the historical reality of Britain’s King Arthur that both Christians and Pagans alike have claimed him for their own. In the early 1980s, a mini cultural movement of sorts began that either gave greater emphasis to “pagan” elements in the story or imagined the entire mythos through a lens of Celtic pre-Christian religion. A precursor was Mary Stewart’s “Merlin Trilogy,” which saw an omnibus edition released in 1980, then came John Boorman’s 1981 film “Excalibur,” which explicitly counted Merlin and Morgan Le Fay as followers of the “old ways,” followed by Marion Zimmer Bradley in 1982 with her revisionist (and highly influential) novel “The Mists of Avalon”. In 1984, the first novel of The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy by Guy Gavriel Kay, which explicitly tied Arthur to Welsh and Celtic myth in a fantasy setting, was published.

This movement utterly changed the way the Arthurian story was told in modern times. While King Arthur was considered a Christian story for hundreds of years, it was now accepted that pre-Christian themes be included in any modern retelling of the legend. From Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles to 2004’s big-budget film “King Arthur.” Some tellings were good, and some were not-so-good, but few can deny that the tension between pagan religion and Christianity has now become a fairly integrated trope in the story. Much like the modern introduction of a Muslim character into the Robin Hood cycle, which also underwent a process of “paganization” in the 1980s, but that’s a different story.

This Christian-pagan trope in the Arthurian cycles sees its latest expression in Starz new series “Camelot.” Yesterday, I briefly mentioned an Assignment X interview with actor Joseph Fiennes, who plays Merlin in the series. In it, Fiennes talks about the pagan nature of his character.

“…we wanted the magic to be something very organic, elemental, true to [Merlin as] a pagan character. He’s not of this newfangled Christian age. He has a very different belief system…”

This theme is repeated in an interview with actress Eva Green who plays Morgan.

“She’s not the image that we first have in mind: a sorceress. She wants to restore pagan ways — celebrate sexuality, love.”

And again, in an interview with Executive Producer/Showrunner Chris Chibnall.

“He says his focus is on credible, relatable characters built off of the struggles of the time, the conflict between emerging Christianity and fading paganism, which is personified in the characters of Arthur and Merlin. But, according to Chibnall, there are other characters, like Morgan, who have a much more complex relationship with those traditions.”

So whether it’s bad or good, pagan themes in the Arthurian cycle are further solidified in “Camelot.”

I don’t have Starz at home, so I’ll have to wait 90 days before I can watch it on Netflix streaming, but if you’ve seen the first episode, do let us know what you thought. Were the pre-Christian elements handled well? How was Merlin? Morgan?

A few quick news notes for you on this Wednesday.

Cracking the Plato Code: Science historian Dr Jay Kennedy of the University of Manchester claims to have cracked “The Plato Code”, the long-disputed messages that the great Greek philosopher Plato was supposed to have encoded in his writings.

“Dr Kennedy, whose findings are published in the leading US journal Apeiron, reveals that Plato used a regular pattern of symbols, inherited from the ancient followers of Pythagoras, to give his books a musical structure. A century earlier, Pythagoras had declared that the planets and stars made an inaudible music, a ‘harmony of the spheres’. Plato imitated this hidden music in his books.

The hidden codes show that Plato anticipated the Scientific Revolution 2,000 years before Isaac Newton, discovering its most important idea – the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. The decoded messages also open up a surprising way to unite science and religion. The awe and beauty we feel in nature, Plato says, shows that it is divine; discovering the scientific order of nature is getting closer to God. This could transform today’s culture wars between science and religion.”

Kennedy calls his discoveries “amazing”, and that it was “like opening a tomb and finding new set of gospels written by Jesus Christ himself”. You can read a quick introduction to his work and findings, here. You can find downloads of his drafts, here. I’m almost certain a book is being written as we speak. I’m also sure that Dan Brown is furiously scribbling notes somewhere and finding a way to work the Catholic Church into the story.

The Endurance of Arthur: Oxford University Press features a short essay by Helen Cooper, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, on the literary history, and enduring popularity of the Arthurian mythos. Cooper discusses how the  “most successful commercial brand in the history of English literature” has changed with the times to include feminist and “New Age” themes.

“The first wave of Arthurian novels tended to follow Malory’s version of the story but filled in the omissions, supplying in particular details of the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. Others recounted sections of Arthur’s life that Malory had passed over, not least his childhood. Current fashions tend to be for feminist and New Age versions, with Morgan le Fay as the most powerful character, or the Grail as the key to all pagan mythologies. (The Grail, for the record, was never regarded in the Middle Ages as anything but a fiction: its elevation towards Dan Brown status began only a century or so ago.) Malory’s genius is to have produced a work that sets the gold standard for Arthurian writing – for all its spareness of style, its phrases stay in your mind, and it can still make you cry – but it does so by inviting the infinite play of the imagination.”

The shifting role of Morgan le Fay is in my mind perhaps the most significant change in the modern adaptations, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” (originally published in 1980)  may be just as ground-breaking and influential within modern Paganism as Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance” and Margot Adler’s “Drawing Down the Moon”. Morgan’s shift from villain to antiheroine or protagonist continues in modern adaptations like the “Merlin” television series. There are currently two Arthurian films in development (one a remake of Boorman’s “Excalibur”), so the legend continues.

Can You Join My Club? SCOTUS Says Yes: A recent SCOTUS decision in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, where the US Supreme Court ruled that colleges could make rules concerning open membership in religious clubs that accept college resources, is making waves.

“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s cautious opinion, roundly condemned by the dissenters as an exercise in “political correctness,” did not make much new law.  The bottom line: state college leaders may reserve official status on campus to groups that admit all comers, provided that the policy genuinely seeks and promotes that aim and does not single out any group because of what it believes.”

While that decision pleased Americans United, others, notably Ed Brayton of Dispatches From the Culture Wars and Mark D. Roberts at Beliefnet, saw some troubling ramifications (more reactions here). An interview with Dean Leo Martinez makes it clear that the policy, as it stands, would force groups to (in theory) admit their sworn enemies as members.

O’BRIEN: A black group would have to admit white supremacists?

MARTINEZ: It would.

O’BRIEN: Even if it means a black student organization is going to have to admit members of the Ku Klux Klan?


O’BRIEN: You can see where that might cause some consternation?

MARTINEZ: Well, there’s a Spanish saying to the effect that “the thinnest of tortillas still has two sides,” and the other side of that is that with any other regime we would be forced, using public money, to subsidize the discriminatory practices of a particular group.

This issue is far from over, and this decision was actually quite narrow, which means that new court cases will happen to determine if the policy is truly being applied fairly to all college groups. One wonders if there is an official Pagan group at Hastings, and how they would feel about admitting certain Christians for membership. Will this have a chilling effect on faith-based groups? How will it affect religious minorities who don’t have the resources of the larger faiths? What do you think? A good decision, or one that may have a lot of unintended consequences?