Pre-Roman British Myths

Nov 2010
1,681
Londinium
Most people know of the Christian, Norman myths of Robin Hood and the Anglo-Saxon King Arthur. But what of the pre-Roman myths? I find it hard to believe there were none. So, have any survived?
 
Dec 2013
35
Chelmsford
The legend of King Arthur was actually a Celtic myth. The core myths of the Celtic peoples centre on the great cycle of stories based on the life and exploits of King Arthur. These legends link Arthur to a common poetic idea of Britain as a kind of paradise of the West, with a primeval unspoiled past. Together they add up to the greatest theme in the literature of the British Isles. The historic figure of Arthur as a victorious fifth-century warrior, leading Britons into battle against Saxon invaders, has so far proved impossible for historians to confirm. In fact the one contemporary source that we do have for the time, 'The Ruin and Conquest of Britain' by the British monk and historian Gildas (c.500-70) gives somebody else's name altogether as the leader of the Britons.
 
Dec 2013
7
UAE
The entire body of Welsh and Irish mythology, such as the Mabinogion and the Tain, would likely give you a good idea of pre-Roman mythology. There are elements of the stories that clearly are not Irish or Welsh - for example, no chariot fittings have been discovered in Ireland, yet Cu Chulainn and friends ride them into battle.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,330
The legend of King Arthur was actually a Celtic myth. The core myths of the Celtic peoples centre on the great cycle of stories based on the life and exploits of King Arthur.
No, they didn't. The Iron Age tales survived the Roman occupation by oral tradition and in the early medieval period some of these were retold with Arthur as the warrior-hero.. The strries are not too different to viking sagas, except a bit more esoteric, less dramatic, and more concerned with man's relationship to the mysterious world and any mystical regions connected to it, providing a rationale for describing how a man can develop and become great.

Arthur was not described as a king until Geoffery of Monmouth included elements of both history and myth into his highly dubious Historia Regum Britannae (History of the kings of Britain).

the literary Arthur was originally a warrior of great stature who went on mythical quests (the "Seven Cities", notably). Historical sources from the later Dark Age refer to him as Dux Bellum, or "Duke of War". Although Rome had long departed from Britain it wasn't unusual for the Dark Age Britons to retain latin titles and posts, arguably appointed as a mark of status and recognised between kingdoms.

These legends link Arthur to a common poetic idea of Britain as a kind of paradise of the West, with a primeval unspoiled past.
A medieval romantic tradition based on the glories of the Roman Empire and transposed to chivalric culture.

The historic figure of Arthur as a victorious fifth-century warrior, leading Britons into battle against Saxon invaders, has so far proved impossible for historians to confirm.
Historical sources suggest most of Arthurs battles were against Picts and Scots. His most famous victory, Mons Badonicus, was against the Saxons - and although Arthur is hard to pin down as a real person, there is a correlation in history although as we might expect it could well be "Arthur" given credit for an anonymous victory (Ambrosius Aurelianus is often given credit for that battle, but he would have a very old man if he was still alive back then. Arthur is said to have executed more than nine hundred saxon prisoners personally - which even allowing for the usual poor bookkeeping, gives us a hint of what kind of man he might have been)

In fact the one contemporary source that we do have for the time, 'The Ruin and Conquest of Britain' by the British monk and historian Gildas (c.500-70) gives somebody else's name altogether as the leader of the Britons.
No, he doesn't. he talks about the campaigns of Ambrosius and then the victory at Mons Badonicus, but doesn't actually link the too and does not give credit to any victorious general for the decades of peace that he enjoyed as a result.
 
Dec 2009
918
the skeleton, unearthed from the (once-sacred) center of the SH, in 1926, was plausibly the remains, of Arthur, Ambrosius Aurelianus, Uther Pendragon, or Constantine III
The other was excavated in 1926 from the centre of the circle and was possibly contemporary with the site, but has now been lost.



circles seem important, in British, "Atlantic", mythology, e.g. stone-age circular monuments & Arthur's circular round-table
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,330
Circles appear in religions all over the world from the beginning of spiritual activity. It's something to do with instinct and human social behaviour.
 
Dec 2009
918
In the Mesolithic (of Scandinavia), forager-gatherer-hunters consumed colossal quantities, of shellfish, piling the shells, into huge hills and massive middens. The mesolithic middens are thought to, also, represent some sort of assertion of ownership, demonstrating one groups' long-standing, continuous, past-and-so-future claim, to some stretch of shoreline.

Authors like Barry Cunliffe stress the sense of continuity, from the foraging Mesolithic era, through into the farming Neolithic era. In that Neolithic era, massive megalithic monuments seemingly substituted, for the prior massive middens. Massive burial "barrow" mounds, often heaped high over interior stone-slab-sided, cap-stone-roofed burial chambers (which, if exposed, look like Dolmens), represented the collection & concentration, of rocky rubble, strewn on the soil, into localized piles.

Large areas of land were "swept" of rocky rubble, presumably to improve plots & parcels for planting, pasturing, i.e. for farming. The swept-away stones were, subsequently, incorporated into stone fences (= "bank cairns"), seemingly similar to what European colonists did in North America from the 17th century AD. The swept-away stones were also gathered into megalithic monuments, which were then devoted to the memory of ancestors, i.e. burial barrows (hill = dirt) & burial cairns (hill = small stones). Like the Mesolithic middens, Neolithic burial mounds can be construed, to claim ownership over those surrounding lands, from which the debris & scree of stones & rocky rubble (and also forest cover) was removed.

Again, in the Mesolithic, shell middens seemingly suggest an assertion of ownership, over all lands, from which the shellfish were harvested (and their shells heaped into hill-high midden mounds). Plausibly similarly, Neolithic burial mounds may have meant, a claim, over all surrounding lands, which were "improved" and "put into production" (in modern terms), and from which all the rocky rubble was removed, collected, and constructed, into the burial mound monument.

Note, according to Francis Pryor's Making of the British Landscape, the super-sized stone slabs, set up as the interior burial chamber, may not have been moved very far. In Wales,

Some of these tombs were constructed over large filled-in pits, which may have been dug to extract the capstone. Thus the stone that once lay below the ground was now hovering in the air.
Thus, seemingly practically, Neolithic western European peoples "worked around" the biggest boulders, building those sizey slabs into tomb chambers, essentially on site; and then filling in gaps in between the big blocks with smaller stones, gathered from farther a-farm-field; and seemingly usually constructing a "curb" retaining wall around the edges, of the entire outer mound. Thus, the overall structure had straight sides, with the hump of a hill over the top, so looking at least a little, like the vertical faces, of a Neolithic (long- or round-)house, with its thatched roof.

On top of all of that, those burial mounds were often aligned to (say) Winter Solstice sun-rises, or other combinations of particularly prominent Solstice/Equinox sunrise/set solar alignments. Thus, the burial mounds also functioned, as (say) Winter Solstice sunrise "detectors". Every (say) Winter Solstice, their architecture would create visually dramatic juxtapositions of blindingly bright sunlight, and deep dark shadow, as thin shafts of sunlight penetrated straight up the tomb passage entrance hallway (say), all the way into the back of the burial chamber. The visual effect would have been as dramatic as something from an Indiana Jones movie, as it happens.

Thus, the burial mounds marked ancestral territories of painstakingly improved plots & parcels; and functioned as "calendar date detectors", unambiguously, and dramatically displaying, some special annual date (often the Winter Solstice). By counting days, from those specially "detected" days (2 x Equinoxes + 2 x Solstices), Neolithic northwest Europeans could have kept an accurate calendar, for purposes of planning planting & pasturing. The suggestion seems to be, that they reckoned time, by day of season (e.g. 1st day from the Winter Solstice, 2nd day from the Spring Equinox, 3rd day from the Summer Solstice, 4th day from the Fall Equinox).

So, ultimately, plausibly allot like Mesolithic middens, Neolithic monuments embodied land improvement, marked territorial claims, and "calibrated" some sort of solar calendar, for farming. Thus, they were, at root, built, for practical purposes, revolving around ("surprise") food production, calorie acquisition.

Speculatively, by about 2000 BC, in Britain (at least), (some) northwest Europeans were, plausibly, keeping a solar calendar, essentially similar, to the protoRoman calendar of Romulus, which was basically a Julian-like calendar, of 12 months x 30 days per month. If so, then the "modern" 12 month, 30-ish-day per month, current calendar, is essentially similar, to those of 4000 years ago, i.e. western European peoples have been keeping to a current kind of calendar, for many millennia.
 

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caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,330
The problem there is that whilst your information may well be correct, the original question was about pre-Roman oral tradition which is far more difficult to discern than hard evidence from archaeology or whatever.

I do think that there are hints of Iron Age stories still contained even in the acceopted late medieval Arthurian epic. For example, his sword. Excalbutr is the latinised form of Caliburn, a celtic name, and the naming of weapons, even giving them personalities of their own, was a feature of Iron Age British culture long before Gary Gygax used the idea in Dungeons & Dragons. Note also the "Lady In The Lake", a mythical entity with clear parallels to the importance of water in ancient British rituals, which did include that of sacrificing weaponry.

It's a bit speculative, but hidden in Arthurian mythos and sanitised for medieval christian expectations is perhaps the story of a man who falls upon hard times and sacrifices everything he has for good fortune. His prayers are answered and he's given the sword, which will make him King above all others, but beware - the sword is borriowed, and will one day be required to be handed back. But of course power corrupts and our hero refuises the summons, fearing his reign will end without it, or simply that he now regards the weapon as his own property - He is king, you know - which it does anyway because he's broken hos covenant with the water spirits that spurred his success.
 
Dec 2009
918
some scholars, such as Brian Sykes & Colin Renfrew & Barry Cunliffe in the documentary Celts - the Complete Series (ep.1), purport to perceive cultural "Celtic" continuity, back through the Iron Age, thru the Bronze Age, thru to the Neolithic & Mesolithics. In the documentary, Sykes analyzed only mtDNA, to reach those conclusions.

others seem to say, that PIE speaking "Celts" came wielding weapons of iron, causing the Iron Age. Vaguely about that time of transition (BA -> IA), the older megalithic monuments seemingly faded out of use, consistent with a cultural break, towards newer non-originally-native arrivals. If so, then BA / Neolithic myths plausibly faded out of parlance, with the "religiously" important monuments.

to borrow a phrase, assuming partial (matriarchal) continuity seems to "resolve, if not settle, the issue".

what about the Basques ? Tracing the Basques backwards through time, thru the Aquitani of Caesar's day... and then to the "Atlantic Bronze Age culture" (?)... and then to the Atlantic "Beaker" culture (?)...

would imply, that the oldest pre-Roman, even pre-IE myths, might be maintained, amongst the Basques (?).
 

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