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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > Arthurian Articles > August Hunt (15)

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August HuntVisit August Hunt's website: The Quest for Arthur's Grave

August Hunt, (1960), published his first short stories in his high school newspaper, THE WILDCAT WIRES. These were followed by stories and poems in THE PHOENIX literary magazine of Clark Community College, where he received a writing scholarship. Transferring to THE EVERGREEN STATE COLLEGE in Olympia, WA, he continued to publish pieces in local publications and was awarded the Edith K. Draham literary prize. A few years after graduating in 1985 with a degree in Celtic and Germanic Studies, he published "The Road of the Sun: Travels of the Zodiac Twins in Near Eastern and European Myth". Magazine contributions include a cover article on the ancient Sinaguan culture of the American Southwest for Arizona Highways. His first novel, "Doomstone", and the anthology "From Within the Mist" are being offered by Double Dragon (ebook and paperback). August, a member of the International Arthurian Society, North American Branch, has most recently had his book "Shadows in the Mist: The Life and Death of King Arthur" accepted for publication by Hayloft Publishing. Now being written are "The Cloak of Caswallon", the first in a series of Arthurian novels that will go under the general heading of "The Thirteen Treasures of Britain", and a work of Celtic Reconstructionism called "The Secrets of Avalon: A Dialogue with Merlin". 

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Gilfaethwy, Bedwyr and Excalibur:
The Deposition of King Arthur’s Sword

August Hunt

Dr. Linda Malcor, in her various publications (beginning, most prominently, with _From Scythia to Camelot_, written with C. Scott Littleton, New York, Garland Publishing, Inc, 2000), has sought to trace the story of the deposition of Arthur’s sword Excalibur in the lake to a Sarmatian model. She writes:

After slaughtering a vast number of his fellow Narts in revenge for their complicity in his father’s death and after resisting all the afflictions that God could throw at him, Batraz takes pity of the handful of survivors. He tells them that he has satisfied his need for vengeance and that he himself is ready for death, adding that “I cannot die until my sword has been thrown into the sea”. This latter stipulation causes great concern among the Narts, as the sword is so heavy that only Batraz can wield it with ease.  In desperation they decide to deceive him.  Hiding the sword, they report back that it has been disposed of in accordance with his instructions. But when Batraz asks, “What prodigious things did you see when my sword fell into the sea?,” they reply , “Nothing” – an answer that Batraz recognizes as a lie, since he alone know what will happen when his sword enters the water.  When the Narts finally manage to consign it to the water, the sea becomes turbulent, boils, and turns blood-red.  As soon as this is reported to Batraz, he dies, secure in his knowledge that his last wish has been fulfilled.”

To this account she compares the Arthurian story of the sword deposition as recorded in the late version of Malory, where Bedivere is substituted for the earlier figure of Girflet or Giflet son of Do or Doon, an Old French rendering of the Welsh Mabinogion hero Gilfaethwy son of Don. Bedivere is asked to toss the sword in the lake by the mortally wounded Arthur. He fails in his task twice because he is so entranced by the beauty of the weapon, before finally obeying the king on the third try. The “triple attempt” is echoed by the triple flourish of the sword by the hand which emerges from the lake to catch the weapon.  In a note to her discussion of Bedivere’s role in the sword deposition story (_From Scythia to Camelot_, p. 78, n. 60) she provides two false etymologies for Bedivere/Bedwyr, one taken from John Colarusso (who is not an expert in Welsh names) and the other of Iranian provenance. 

What is important to recognize is that Gilfaethwy’s appearance in the story of the sword deposition must be given precedence.  Bedwyr was substituted later, doubtless because Giflet/Girflet was an otherwise unknown figure who did not even appear in early Welsh Arthurian tales, while Bedwyr as Bedivere had obtained a fair degree of importance in those same tales as a constant companion of Arthur. This importance continued in the romances, where Bedivere is presented as the official cupbearer of the king.

So why was Giflet/Girflet/Gilfaethwy assigned the role of the hero who deposits Arthur’s sword in the lake? To understand why this was done by the story-teller, we must investigate the character’s name. This is necessary because there is nothing in the non-Arthurian portion of the Mabinogion, where Gilfaethwy’s story is told, which sheds any light on the matter. 

The popular notion that Gilfaethwy is merely “Servant of Maethwy”, Maethwy himself being perhaps of corruption of Math son of Mathonwy, the master of Gilfaethwy in the Mabinogion, is not tenable. Gil- cannot be a word similar to the Middle Irish name component Gilla, as this is simply not found in Welsh. When I asked Dr. Isaac Graham of The National University of Ireland, Galway, one of the world’s foremost Welsh language scholars, where the first component of Gilfaethwy could actually be Welsh gylf (or gylyf), cognate with Irish gilb, etc., meaning “sharp pointed instrument, knife”, plus something like the Aethwy place-name (viz. Porthaethwy) found in Anglesey, he replied:

Well, if you have come up with this yourself, well done! It is, however, not original. This suggestion was first made by Ifor Williams in the notes to his edition of Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi (1934, p. 252). This could well be the correct explanation of the name."

I note in R. J. Thomas's study of river-names in -WY (Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 7 (1933-5), p. 119), that Porthaethwy is actually to be considered as deriving from *Porth-Ddaethwy: Daethwy is a name that exists (there is also Dindaethwy).  If we are happy to accept that the author is deliberately using archaic orthography, then we might indeed take the first element as gylf: *Gylf-Ddaethwy 'Knife of Daethwy'. This would certainly be simplified to *Gylfaethwy, which might appear as Gilfaethwy, with archaic orthography in the first syllable."

As for Daethwy, I am not aware of the name having ever been discussed for its origin. On purely formal grounds, I can offer the following. The element daeth- can be formally traced to a Proto-Indo-European formation *dhgwh-to-, which would mean 'burnt'. A similar formation is extant in Old Irish, decht < *dhegwh-to-. The Irish word means 'pure, sure, well-worked' applied to precious metals, the connection obviously being through the role of fire in the working of the metals and in their purification. There is a place-name in Celtic Spain extant in an ancient Greek soucre, Daktonion, which looks as though it could contain the same element PIE *dhgwh-to- > Celtic *daxt-, written Dakt- in the Greek spelling of the source (Ptolemy's Geography). Celtic *daxt- would give daeth in Welsh."
The suffix -wy is used in Welsh to forms the names of regions based on some place or feature in that region, so Daeth-wy could be 'the region of the burnt place'.”

Gilf-Daethwy would then mean, quite literally, the “Knife of the Burnt Place”, i.e. the Knife of the place where metal was worked, i.e. where there was a forge that produced prized weapons. 

The Daethwy place-names are restricted to Anglesey, and are centered about Tyndaethwy or Din Daethwy, the Fort of Daethwy:

TYNDAETHWY, a hundred, county Anglesey, contains the parishes of Beaumaris, Llanbedr-Goch, Llanddyfnan, Llandysilio, Llanfair Mathafarn-Eithaf, Llanfair-Pwllgwyngyll, Llangoed, Llansadwrn, Penmynydd, Pentreath, and parts of Llanddona, Llandegfan, Llanfaes, Llanfihangel-Tyn Sylwy, Llaniestyn, and Pemnon." [From The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868) - Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003, GENUKI]

Anglesey is renowned not only as a druidic isle, but as the location of Llyn Cerrig Bach, a lake known for its amazing array of votive deposits.  To quote extensively from Dr. Miranda Green’s _The Religious Symbolism of Llyn Cerrig Bach and Other Early Sacred Water Sites_, 1994:

The site of Llyn Cerrig consisted of a pool or lake (now boggy ground), edged by a cliff some 11 feet (3.3 metres) high, which would have been a good vantage-point both for gazing at the water and for throwing in offerings. The immediate area is one characterized by rocky outcrops, and forms a relatively dramatic landscape, which may well have evoked numinosity and have therefore inspired veneration in antiquity. The items deposited in the lake include chariot-fittings (presumably once entire vehicles), cauldrons, weapons, shields, tools and two slave gang-chains, showing the excellent craftsmanship of Celtic blacksmiths. Bronzes, such as the crescentic plaque decorated with a triskele/bird motif, represent early Celtic art at its finest, and the majority of the metal objects must have belonged to individuals who enjoyed a high rank within their communities. Some of the metalwork may have been brought to the site from as far away as Somerset, or even further afield, implying that Llyn Cerrig enjoyed more than local status as a holy site."

Some of the objects from the water display signs of pre-depositional damage, which appears to have been deliberate and is probably best interpreted as ritual breakage. This practice of destroying or, at any rate, rendering unusable, material destined as offerings to the supernatural world, is well-known in prehistoric and Romano-Celtic Europe as a kind of rite of passage, a means of severing the gift's associations with the earthly world and of making it acceptable as a spirit-gift or sacrifice."

Llyn Cerrig Bach is significant in a number of respects. The deposition of so many prestigious objects in a watery context argues for the presence, at this site, of an exceptionally important centre of religious activity in later Iron Age Wales. There is also the question of whether the choice of an island for a sanctuary is perhaps significant. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the later first century BC and early first century AD, comments on a holy island near the mouth of the Loire, inhabited by priestesses; there are many references to sacred islands in the western ocean contained in the early Irish mythic texts, where they are particularly linked with the Otherworld. Of course, several early Celtic Christian saints are associated with islands: the Welsh female saint Dwynwen, who allegedly died in AD 465, is an example. She was a virgin-hermit who built a church on the tiny Llanddwyn Island, off the Anglesey coast."

The site of Llyn Cerrig Bach is of especial interest in its possible association with the Druids. Tacitus chronicles the infamous confrontation between the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus and the Druids of Anglesey in the mid first century AD. Tacitus presents a graphic description of the druidic grove, grisly with the remains of human sacrifices, and the shores of the island guarded by black-clad women who screamed curses at the Romans about to destroy their sanctuary. It is difficult not to speculate as to whether Llyn Cerrig Bach might have been associated with this druidic shrine. A major offering of precious metalwork would be completely comprehensible as a response to the crisis of Roman desecration.

Given the presence of Gilfaethwy or Gilf-Daethwy on Anglesey, an island with a notable sacred lake where votive deposits of weapons were made, there is no need to postulate, as does Dr. Linda Malcor, some connection with Ossetic legend, even if merely as a migratory folklore motif. Indeed, as Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Arthur’s sword was forged on the isle of Avalon, it is probably not a coincidence that 1) Anglesey itself is an island and 2) Daethwy on Anglesey was a place apparently marked as special for its metal-working. I would add that the Glastonbury “Avalon” is in Somerset, and objects from Somerset were deposited in Llyn Cerrig Bach.

Dr. Malcor seeks to strengthen her argument for Ossetic influence on the story of the deposition of Arthur’s sword by associating the Arthurian hero Bedwyr, the later Bedivere, with the Nart saga hero Batraz. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no etymological connection between the two names.

For the name Bedwyr (or Bedguir), there are two possible etymologies, and both are utterly Celtic.  The first would be to derive the name from *Betuo-riks, with meaning of Birch-king. The other is supplied by Dr. Isaac, again via personal correspondence:

There is an alternative to *Betuo-riks which would remove the somewhat irrelevant-looking inclusion of the ‘birch’.  Old Irish bath ‘death’ and W bad ‘plague, pestilence, death’ reflect Celtic *bato-/*bata- < Proto-Indo-European *gwh2-to-/-teh2 (root *gweh2- ‘stamp on’).  A nomen actionis derivative of this would be PIE *gwh2-tu > Celt. *batu-.  The existence of the latter is confirmed by Gallo-Latin battuere (> French batter, Eng. Battle) ‘fight’.  In composition *batu- could be extended by the thematic composition vowel, giving *batuo-: so *Batuo-riks ‘King of Fighting’ > Welsh Bedwyr.”

But whatever the origin of the name Bedwyr, it is solidly Celtic and does not, in reality, bear even a superficial resemblance to the Ossetic name Batraz, whom Dr. Linda Malcor has put forward as the prototypical figure in the Lake Deposition story. 

Gilfaethwy, Bedwyr and Excalibur, The Deposition of King Arthur’s Sword is Copyright © 2007, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: August Hunt


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