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The story of Uther's defeat of Gorlois of Cornwall and
the former's taking of the latter's queen, Ygerna, tells
us that Ygerna is here, in typically Celtic fashion,
being considered the Goddess of Sovereignty, whom the
king must possess if he is to have the land. The Ygerna
episode informs us that the Terrible Chief-warrior (the
usual translation of Uther Pendragon's name, but see
below) had conquered the
Is Arthur's association with
Only in the past few years, excavations carried out at
Tintagel by Kevin Brady of
If Arthur was placed at Tintagel because an Artognov ruled from there (although see an alternative possibility below), can we now do anything with the other characters of the play: Uther Pendragon, Ygerna and Gorlois?
Ample evidence exists (see P.C. Bartrums A
Classical Welsh Dictionary) for Uther Pendragon, the
Terrible Chief-Warrior, in early Welsh
tradition antecedant to Geoffrey of Monmouths Historia
Regum Britanniae. I have shown in my book
Shadows in the Mist that he was a brother of
Meirchaiun father of Cynfarch (= March,
cousin of Arthur) of the North. Cynfarch is
remembered at the Mote of Mark in
Only recently I have identified Uthers grandson
Eliwlod, who assumes the form of a Lleu-eagle, as a
slight corruption of the liwelydd portion of the early
Welsh city-name Caer Liwelydd. Liwelydd comes from
the ancient British name for
Gwrwst Ledlwm is intruded into the genealogy of Merchiaun as the latters father, with the usual Ceneu and Coel (of Kyle in Strathclyde) preceding Gwrwst. Because this Gwrwst is given a son Dyfnarth, he is almost certainly Fergus father of Domangart of Irish Dalriada. Fergus or, as the Dalriadans called him Fergus Mor, died c. 501 A.D.
Fergus is also made the father of Eleutherius (later
Eliffer) of the Great Warband who, as Ive elsewhere
suggested, belongs at
The Roman period Artorius was prefect of the VI Legion
Another version of Eleutheriuss pedigree
continues after Fergus of Dalriada with Arthwys (spelled
Athrwys in later MSS., which is probably correct; cf. the
other known Athrwys princes in Bartrum) son of Mar (or
Mor) son of Ceneu son of Coel. Ive written
about this family at length in my Shadows in the
Mist, as well as about the family of Pabo with
which it is wrongly brought into connection due to
territorial proximity. Both families ruled over
kingdoms stretching from York and the Ribble to the
border region of
It is probable that Uther Pendragon, whose epithet is actually a Welsh version of the late Roman military rank of magister draconum, had an Irish wife. Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that when Gorlois is threatened by Uther, he waits for the Irish to come to his assistance. This hints at an alliance of some sort between Gorlois and the Irish, and one naturally thinks of one cemented by marriage. It would not be surprising if Igerna were Irish, as Arthur himself was given as wife Gwenhwyfar, the Welsh form of the Irish sovereignty goddess, Findabair.
Having an Irish queen would account for the fact that the Irish-descended dynasties of Dalriada and Dyfed named some of their royal sons after him.
There may be an additional cause for the continuation of Arthurs name among these Irish-descended dynasties. Both the Dyfed royal family and that of Dalriada traced their lines to ancestors named Eochaid, Horseman. The Dalriadans, furthermore, occupied the Kintyre peninsula, which had been the home of the Roman period Epidii, the People of the Horse, and several of the Dalriadan kings or princes are named Eochaid or Eochu. As Arthur was named for a famous Roman cavalryman and doubtless utilized horse himself in warfare, both factors would have further endeared him to the Dyfed and Dalriadan royal families.
Despite our being justified in viewing Uther as a genuine, historical personage, it is also demonstrable that Geoffrey of Monmouth fleshed out the life of Uther, primarily by making use of episodes in the life of a 10th century Viking.
While this claim may seem outlandish, we need only go
to the year entry 915 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There
we are told of the Jarls Ohtor and Hroald or Hraold, who
We have, then, the following startling correspondences:
This Viking jarl is found in the Welsh
Annals under the year 913, where the concise entry reads
"Otter came". This reference to Ottar is also
found in the Welsh Brut t tywysogion, "Chronicle of
the Princes" (information courtesy Huw Pryce,
Geoffrey got his Gorlois from Taliesins poem XLVIII, The Death-Song of Uther Ben. In this poem Uther is referred to as Gorlassar. John Koch in his Celtic Culture recently pointed out the similarity between Geoffrey's Gorlois and Gorlasar. Hence it appears that Geoffrey of Monmouth took the title gorlassar and converted it into a separate person whose form Uther assumes.
The full stanza containing the name Gorlasar (from
"Death Song of Uther Pendragon", translation
courtesy Dr. Graham Thomas, Senior Assistant Archivist,
Department of Manuscripts and Records, The National
I was called
Gorlasar ['bright blue'],
According to the Geiriadur Prifsygol Cymru (cited by Dafydd Price Jones and Andrew Hawke), gorlasar is from gor + glassar, in Old Irish forlas(s)ar, "fire, conflagration" or, as an adjective, "shining, fiery". In Welsh the meaning is "bright blue, having glinting weapons". Gorlas (gor + glas), in OI forglas, means "with a blue face, very blue" or, as an adjective in Welsh, "bright or deep blue, verdant".
Gorlasar may actually be a name the poet Taliesin gave himself. I say this only because of line 4 of the quoted strophe, which has Gorlasar placed in a basket. This sounds suspiciously like what was done to Taliesin, who was placed in a "coracle or hide-covered basket" by the goddess Ceridwen.
And what about Ygerna, the wife first of Gorlois and later of Uther? Ive suggested above that a real mother of Arthur would probably have been an Irish woman.
The best MSS. (information courtesy Julia Crick of the
We can no more pin any etymological speculation on this one product of Geoffrey's imagination [Igerna] than we can on his change of Myrddin to Merlinus. If we want to know the origin of Merlinus, we have to look at the Welsh original Myrddin. If we want to know the origin of Igerna, we have to look at the Welsh original Eigr: Igerna is irrelevant 'noise'.
Welsh tradition gives Eigr a father named Anblaud (the
Very Swift or Very Fierce)who, through his sons Gwrfoddw
and Llygadrudd Emys (this last being a corruption of the
name of the grave of Arthurs son at Llygad Amr
according to the Marvels of Nennius; see P.C.
Bartrum), has been shown to be a king of Ercing.
Ercing as a regional name evolved from the Roman name of
the town of
then, do we find Igerna/Eigr at Tintagel? To begin
with, we know that Geoffreys placement of
Arthurs birth at the site was done for political
reasons. The man who planned and built the
His story of Igerna at Tintagel is unconcerned with history. Indeed, he does not even bother to use period proper names when listing the main characters of the drama!
to his account, in order to gain secret access to
Tintagel and thus to Igerna Merlin
transforms himself into Britaelis, Uther into Gorlois and
Ulfin of Rhydcaradoc into
is a known Norman period name. It means, literally,
the Breton, and its earliest attestation is
that of Godwine Brytael, referred to as a minister in
is for Alwin, and the Rhyddcaradoc or Charford in
Hampshire (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Ceredicesford)
is an error for Crantock in
So if Arthurs birth at Tintagel was a fabrication on Geoffreys part, is there still reason to place Eigr there? Before we can answer this question, we should take a look at the story of the birth of Arthur.
The Conception of Arthur
It is well known that the story of Arthurs conception has a clear parallel in that of the Irish Mongan, a 7th century king of the Dal nAraide in Co. Antrim. Instead of Merlin transforming Uther into a semblance of Gorlais so that the king may sleep with Igerna, in the Mongan tale it is the sea god Mannanan mac Lir who transforms himself into Fiachna, the husband of Mongans mother Caintigern.
There are two versions of the story, and I will supply both here:
Fiachna Lurga, the father of Mongan, was sole king of
the province. He had a friend in
3. Then Fiachna assembled the nobles of
The most important detail to notice is in the first account of Mongans conception. This is the mention of the terrible warrior or terrible man sent against Fiachna and Aedan (variously father or grandather of an Arthur) in battle. The word used in the Gaelic text is h-uathmar. The uath is the root of this word, and is cognate with the Welsh root of Uther. However, as the whole tale is a heroic version of the Battle of Degasastan, we know from the historical sources that it was Hering son of Hussa who led the English forces against Aedan and his Irish fian.
The name of Fiachnas wife, Caintigern, is given in The Voyage of Bran (Imram Brain):
49. 'This shape, he on whom thou lookest,
We have seen above that there was a terrible warrior/terrible man present in the conception of Mongan story. But just as good, we have Mongan himself referred to as a dragon (Gaelic drauc) and being killed by a dragon stone (ail dracoin).
On the nature of the dragon stone, I have this from Christopher Gwinn (private communication):
"Dragon stone" was a name for a precious
stone in Irish - it is derived from Latin dracontia
(also called draconite, dentrites draconius, or obsianus
- it is girn-rodor in Old English), a mystical black gem
with special powers that was believed in the middle ages
to have been found in the heads of dragons. In the Middle
Ages, ammonites (a type of horn-shaped fossil) were
frequently called draconites, but the name obsianus seems
to imply that it is the volcanic glass obsidian (there
were allegedly nine different types of dragon stones, so
maybe both of these stones could be dragon stones). It
was a jewel that adorned a cup in Fled Bricrend -
Cu Chulainn is given a cup of red-gold by Ailill and Medb
which had embedded on its bottom a decoration of a bird
made out of "dragon stone, the size of his two
eyes". The stone must have had some sort of
special significance to the Irish, because its presence
on Cu Chulainn's cup helps mark him as the champion
deserving of the Champion's Portion - if the dragon stone
was obsidian, it was a very hard stone that, when it
fractured, had extremely sharp edges, thus making a
deadly weapon when used as a sling-stone (obsidian was
used for arrow and spear tips in the Stone Age). Dragon-stones
(dracoin) are mentioned elsewhere in Imram Brain (sect.
12), where they are paired with glain "crystals":
*a kenning for the spray of a wave
Even more important than the presence of the terrible
warrior, the dragon and the dragon-stones in the story of
Mongans conception for showing its relationship to
Geoffreys story of Arthurs conception is the
identity of the slayer of Mongan, i.e. the warrior who
uses the dragon-stone to slay the king. His name is
revealed in the Irish Annals of Tigernach (Year
Mongan son of Fiachna Lurgan was
struck with a stone by Artuir son of
in gáeth dar Ile,
(Irish text from http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G100002/index.html, English translation from Richard Barbers The Figure of Arthur, 1972)
There are thus several reasons why a storyteller such as Geoffrey of Monmouth (or his ultimate source) would have borrowed the Mongan conception story and grafted it onto that of Arthur:
1) A terrible warrior is present, which reminds us of Uther Pendragon
2) Dragons are present, in the form of Mongan and dragon-stones
3) Mongan is slain by an Arthur with a dragon-stone
I have suggested in my book that this Bicoir is none
other than Arthur son of Petuir/Retheoir,
Petrus of Dyfed. B and P easily
substitute for each other and in some MSS., c looks
identical to t. Bicoir in Kintyre or
The real question is still how Igerna fits into this picture. Technically, her role is the same as that as Caintigern. And, indeed, Arthurian scholar John Matthews has very cleverly proposed (private communication) that Igerna may be a truncated form of the name Caintigern. But Caintigern is from Cain, beautiful, plus tigern, lady. While it would not be difficult to allow for the dropping of Cain- and the retention of Tigern, it is all but impossible to account for the subsequent loss of the t- of tigern. And, as we have already seen, we cannot go by Geoffreys form of the name of Arthurs mother, but must rely on the Welsh form, Eigr.
Once again, Dr. Isaac comes to our rescue. According to him, Eigrs name is a perfectly regular reflex of *akri (with a LONG i), feminine derivative of the familiar *akro- sharp, pointed; point, promontory.
Just a little NNE of Igernas
Tintagel is Hartland Point, which is one of the
candidates for the Herakleous
Meanwhile, Zeus, taking advantage of Amphitryons absence [in battle], impersonated him and, assuring Alcmene [Amphitryons wife] that her brothers were now avenged since Amphitryon had indeed gained the required victory that very morning lay with her all one night, to which he gave the length of three Alcmene, wholly deceived, listened delightedly to Zeuss account of the crushing defeat inflicted on Pteralaus at Oechalia, and sported innocently with her supposed husband for the whole thirty-six hours. One the next day, when Amphitryon returned, eloquent of victory and of his passion for her, Alcmene did not welcome him to the marriage couch so rapturously as he had hoped. Amphitryon consulted the seer Teiresias, who told him that he had been cuckolded by Zeus
Arthurs 12 battles have often been compared to the 12 labors of Hercules.
Rivet and Smith (in their The Place-Names of Roman Britain, p. 135) remark that
The promontory of Heracles should probably be Hartland Point, as the most notable feature on the coast, but any of the headlands between Porlock and Braunton (Foreland Point, Highveer Point, Bull Point, Morte Point, Baggy Point) is a possibility: unless the cape was simply christened by sailors from the sea, the discovery of a shrine might settle the question.
I would propose,
therefore, that Tintagels promontory is theancient
The Story of Uther and Igerna is Copyright © 2000 and 2009, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: August Hunt
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