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ARTHUR REX BRITANICUS

A STUDY BY THE PECONIC STREET LITERARY SOCIETY





Round Table Discussion of King Arthur & Arthurian Literature

CHRISTIAN AND PAGAN ELEMENTS
  • Arthur's Britain at the Crossroads;
  • Christian and Pagan traditions merge;
  • Christian form of pagan symbols

Christianity came to the Celts according to them shortly after Christ's execution. The bearer of the cross was Joseph of Aramathea who planted his staff at Glastionburry Abbey and there grew a great tree.

The road to prominence and acceptance by the pagans in Rome was long and painful. There is no evidence in Celtic lands of any of the purges that Rome undertook. At the close of the Roman period Christianity was the official religion of the Empire and was in Briton well rooted in Joseph's tree. Yet according to the legend, the people particularly in rural Briton outside of direct Roman control clung to the old ways.

If we posit a reign for Arturo (La Arturus, Eng Arthur) at around 500AD, Arthur stands at the crossroads between Christian medieval Europe and its pagan predecessors. The legend as retold in the epic form curious expresses Celtic dualism at its height. Arthur though a Christian Knight permits, engages in, sanctions and protects the Old Ways.

The Celtic religion was pantheisistic. As in the natural religion of the Greeks, Gods stood for the forces of nature or the seasons of life. Consistent with the pagan view that the national Gods were interchangeable, Caeser in analyzing the Celtic religion used the corresponding names of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Yet among the Celts the two principal Gods were the God of light and the God of darkness who did battle at the Samheid (Holloween) and the Solestice, with the God of darkness prevailing.

It would be wrong to think of the Celts as practising an entirely peaceful religion in harmony with nature. Celts would offer spectacular human sacrafices by ensconcing victims in a tower of wood and lighting them ablaze. However, by the time of the fall of Rome these Celtic amusements had been taken over by their enemies the Saxon.

In the general view of the epic Mhwrlyn (La Merlinicus, Eng Merlin) symbolizes the permanence of the old natural religion, its symbiosis with the land and the seasons of life, its pragmatism, romanticism and its values. But of course there is an important contradiction. Merlin is not completely one with 'the old ones' or the Celts. He is the Roman Gaius Caius Merlinicus Britanicus, high advisor to king and council filling a role Romans occupied in the contemporaneous upstart courts of the Franks and Goths. In the children's versions of the legend, Merlin gets younger over time, emblematic of the endurance of the Old Ways in face of invasion by Christians and the Barbarians.

Merlin is said by many accounts to be a Druid, a keeper of the letters and of the secrets (Runai). Fearing nationalistic tendencies, the Romans had persecuted the Druids in Gaul, but the Roman hold on the Brythonic countryside was by no means as firm as on the continent. Druids served as the priest-scholar-advisors of the petty Celtic kingdoms.

Gawain is often taken as the representative of the Christians. His shield symbolizes the new Christian 'mythology' in the form of the pagan Pentagram.

Christianity introduced a new element into Celtic Society. Its unitary rationalistic God challenged the Celtics in their magic world of seasonal paganism. The original Christians who started the Celtic Church softpeddled the changes, but as Christianity grew in strength toward the end of the Imperium, a new stricter form of Christianity which would have divorced the entire pagan past began its onslaught into the Islands.

In many accounts of the legend Gwainahara (Fr Angl-Fr Guinevere, Eng Gwenavive) is pictured as a virtuous Christian lady adhering to a stricter version of the new religion which is invading the islands. Her love for Lochanbar (Eng Lancelot), also a Christian, is part of the conflict within herself. The tragedy in triumph would not be complete without this important sub-element in the myth.

Lancelot's name tells it all. It's probably a transliteration of Lochanbar or loose sword. The legend teaches that in every virtue inheres a vice. Courage mutates into aggression; recognition into jealousy; love into hatred.

In the adventure stories spun off the epic legend, the Knights when not battling the barbarians seek the grail. What the grail is varies from author to author. In some it is a cup, either the wine cup from the Last Supper, a cup of Christ's blood or the cup of vinegar used to quench Christ's thirst on the cross.

The grail itself was long a pagan symbol. As a cup, the grail may represent replenishment of the ever-abundant earth. Joseph Campbell teaches that symbols recycle over time. Could it be that the horn of plenty in the American Thanksgiving myth is the grail in disguise?

Not all accounts of the legend make the grail a cup. In some versions the grail is the veil of St Veronica who according to Christian legend wiped Christ's face with her veil on the way to Calvary. Some Masonic writers use this facet of the legend to claim an ancient connection of Freemasonry both to the roots of Christianity and to the pre-Christian pagan Celts, no doubt with quite a bit of the mental magic of Celtic duality at work.


OTHER ARTHURIAN LINKS



Arthurian Index
Introduction to the Legend
Life and Times of Arthur
Masons in The Arthurian Legend
Legacy of The Legend
And for a few chuckles visit the
SocWebb:
Rockaway Park Philosophical Society Home Pages
Cherio
Fullosia Press


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