As you can see, from spelling Morgan le Fay as Morgan the Fae, we immediately know who she is. She is Morrigan, the Celtic Dark Queen of the Fae. And the presence of this Faery Queen as a key character in stories about Arthur tells us that when they were compiled by Geoffrey of Monmouth for his History of the Kings of Britain, they were not historical records but magical texts.
At the time of the Druids, the ballads, folklore and faery stories recited and sung by wandering bards and storytellers contained subliminal keys which opened up new understanding and wisdom in the subconscious mind of the listener. Their aim and purpose was ~ and is ~ not to record history, but to act as a teaching aid to reawaken the dreaming seed within the sleepers.
The Morrigan appeared in the magical texts as the terrifying Queen of the Fae, often spied on battlefields and, sometimes, in the form of crow. She often gets referred to as a goddess because scholars don’t understand that the Fae are Earth spirits. She isn’t a goddess. Scholars do better over the etymology of her name. They think that Mor may derive from an Indo-European root connoting terror or monstrousness, and that it is cognate with the Old English maere of ‘nightmare’. Nightmare on Elf Street, you might say.
But it is not just the presence of The Morrigan in the old Welsh and Irish tales that signals Arthur’s mythological and not historical reality. King Arthur’s raid on the Underworld, as told by the Welsh bard Taleisin, in his Preiddeu Annwfyn, sits very comfortably alongside the stories of Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld to rescue Euridyce, Persephone’s capture and imprisonment by Hades in the Underworld, Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld through the seven gates and the Deceased in the Egyptian Coming Forth by Day texts who meets with Osiris in the Judgement Hall of Maat, in the Underworld.
We never consider for one moment that Osiris, Persephone, Ishtar or Orpheus may have been real people. So I wonder why we have to insist on the historocity of Arthur? And if he really was an ancient British king, then where is this Underworld he also conquered?
The story of Arthur’s raid on the Underworld, Preiddeu Annwyfyn, is one about the theft of wisdom. To me, this is a classic initiation story in which the adept has to undergo trials to win wisdom, just as Jason overcomes the dragon to win the Golden Fleece and Theseus overcomes the Minotaur. Arthur journeys through a number of Underworld fortresses arranged in circular fashion, and throughout we hear about the endless cycling of the seasons and the elements, the primal song that originates in the cauldron of inspiration and the mystery of the Nine Maidens. These are all classic initiatory themes.
I am renowned in fame: the song was heard
In Caer Pedryfan, four times revolving.
My original song stems from the cauldron,
By the breath of nine maidens was it kindled. …
The root word Arth translates as Bear, Pen meant Head and the highest ranked Druids were known as serpents or dragons. Therefore, Arthur Pen Dragon makes more sense as a Druid teacher than a military hero. However, I doubt he was even that. Because if we add to the mix the fact that there was an enormously popular Cult of the Bear, whose activities were aligned to the movements of Ursa Major and Minor, throughout the whole of northern Europe in the late BCEs, another piece of the jigsaw falls into place. Arthur must have been a central character in a mythological story based on stellar magic.
The late, great sacred geometrist John Michell’s interesting discovery in the environs around Glastonbury confirms this. He found a group of hills or mounds which all had churches dedicated to St Michael on their summits. When there’s a St Michael church on a mound, it usually indicates that there was originally a pagan shrine there. These hills would have been ‘islands’ when the land was underwater, before the Levels were drained by the monks in medieval times. John Michel found that these churches formed the shape of the Little Bear constellation (also known as Arthur’s Wain or Arthur’s Chariot by the Celts) and here is a diagram showing this arrangement in his own hand.
As you can see, the geometry across the hills and mounds is a little wobbly. But that’s because there was a big earthquake in the 12th century, the same one that toppled the Michael church on top of Glastonbury Tor and also skewed the shape of the labyrinthine path that encircles it.
Perhaps I can give you a further example of how this sort of astronomical metaphor works with an example of another Celtic text used by Geoffrey of Monmouth for his ‘history’, the Welsh Mabinogian. I say, astronomical … but it is not astronomy as the cold science as it is practised today. To our ancestors, there was no difference between astronomy and astrology. They believed that the position of the stars and planets when a Being was born did not dictate the nature of that Being, as we may understand astrology today. It was almost the opposite. Only a certain type of Being could be born during certain conjunctions because, in a holographic, microcosmic/macrocosmic pattern, the Being was of the exact same nature as the conjunction.
As R J Stewart says in his The Underworld Initiation:
In ancient, magical workings, specific planetary or stellar patterns were used to aid incarnation. This was not that certain conjunctions caused certain Beings to appear in the physical world. Rather, the conjunction was identical to the nature of the Being, enabling it to manifest in the womb at a harmoniously related place.
Spiritual initiations are rebirths. So they would only be carried out on astronomically auspicious occasions — that is, auspicious to the individual but also to the tribe, and the place. In other words, megalithic temples would be astronomically aligned to facilitate the rebirth initiations carried out within them.
The Welsh Mabinogian, where Arthur’s Underworld story comes from, is obviously a text intended to aid such initiations, littered as it with stories about the Fae and the Underworld, along with magical beasts such as the hart and the hound and the pig. I don’t think there is one story in the Mabinogian which doesn’t feature the Underworld or other magical worlds. But Geoffrey of Monmouth wasn’t the first propagandist to transliterate magical or shamanical texts as if they were literal and historic, and I doubt he’ll be the last.
The dual at Beltane
The Mabinogion story of Culhwch and Olwen contains the earliest mention of Arthur and it is full of astronomical metaphors. The hero Culhwch (Hercules) enlists the help of Arthur (Ursa Major or the Great Bear) in winning the hand of Olwen (Ursa Minor or Little Bear) daughter of Ysbaddaden the Giant (Draco the Serpent) who is coiled around her.
The battles both take place because of a destiny directed straight from the actions of Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel, who lived in Caer Sidi, the glass revolving castle, which is thought to represent the Corona Borealis.
The stories are all set within the night skies of the British Isles around 5,000 years ago, when the star lore showed that Gwyn ap Nudd, the Lord of the Underworld, dominated the heavens between November and May. This constellation is the one known as Orion today (or Osiris to the Egyptians).
Each May Day, Gwyn ap Nudd would fight a duel and lose with the Summer King, Gwythyr. Gwythyr represented Scorpius/Ophiuchus, the constellation that would take over the night skies during the summer months.
In another branch of the Mabinogian, Gwythyr appears as Havgan, the Summer King, and Pwyll has to fight with him while disguised as Arawn, the Winter King. And later on, we have King Arthur (Ursa Major) fighting King Melwas over Guinevere. It’s the same story told time and time again, to illustrate not historical events but astronomical events.
So if the two protagonists are represented by Orion on one side and on the other, by Scorpius/Ophiuchus, what of the fair damsel? Which constellation was she? This puzzled mythologists and archaeoastromers for some time until modern computer technology allowed them to reproduce the night skies over one of the main star observatories for the Celts in the south-west of England around 5,000 years ago, which was Glastonbury Tor.
Southern Cross as Vesica Piscis
Over the Chalice Well Hill around 5,000 years ago could be espied the Southern Cross, now only visible in the southern hemisphere. But how is the Southern Cross like a beautiful woman? As Nicholas Mann and Philippa Glasser explain in The Star Temple of Avalon:
In the star temple of Avalon … the recurring drama unfolding in the night sky during the fourth millennium BCE would have had at its heart a particular jewel: the Southern Cross, whose central importance would have been indicated by its relationship to the earthy feminine contours of the Chalice Hill. When, in 1501, Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci became one of the first Europeans to see the Southern Cross for several thousand years, he did not identify it as a cross; rather he described its pattern as a ‘mandorla’, that is, almond-shaped. As a mandorla or a vesica, the constellation can now be recognised as an ancient symbol of the divine feminine [at the centre of the vesica piscis.] Did early British astronomers also see it in this manner, identifying its four stars with Creiddylad, perhaps envisaging the horizontal band of the Milky Way as her star skirt, or her golden or silver hair, or possibly even seeing the star-vesica as forming the goddess’ vulva, in the manner of the Celtic Sheela-na-gig?
The Celtic Underworld initiation stories came through the Druid Serpents and bards, who recited them in verse and song. But even they were drawing on a very long oral tradition, going back into the mists of time, of stories which contained allegorical teachings reflecting a far deeper and far more long lasting truth than that of a mere historical event.
This is as it should be. Historical events come and go, and the posturings and posings of men on the world stage don’t amount to much. But the stars are always with us. And every man and woman is a star.