Celtic Mythology Reexamined: Figures from Arthurian Legend

Camelot_Avalon_Empowerment

Sorry, but the figures you won’t find in this post are Sir Robin, the fighting obsessed Black Knight, the women of Castle Anthrax, the Knights of Ni, Brother Maynard, Prince Herbert, Tim the Enchanter, the Killer Rabbit and the Monster of Aaaargh. King Arthur: “On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It’s a silly place.”

While Celtic mythology is rather influential in itself though you may not realize it with many popular legends and figures. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to sort out since Celts were largely spread out in Western Europe, had no writing system, and a lot were conquered and assimilated rather early (like before Jesus) so much of their legends didn’t survive save maybe those coming from Ireland or the British Isles. Not to mention, the fact that most of what we know in Celtic mythology was written down during the Middle Ages when most of Europe was Christian, which can muddle a few things as well as lots of characters with names hard to pronounce. Don’t get me wrong but there’s a reason why I’m doing a post on Celtic gods or goddesses. Nevertheless, one of the more popular stories revolves around a man named King Arthur with his Knights of the Round Table in Camelot, the renown wizard Merlin, his wife Guinevere, and so many others. Though we’re not sure whether Arthur was a real historical figure (if so then a Romano-British general of some outpost who fought against the Saxons) or a mythological king, these legends (though Christianized) enjoyed a lot of popularity in Medieval Europe (as well as up to today in fact) particularly in England where he’s been seen as a national figure (though the earliest stories came from Wales and Cornwall in the 5th century. Also, these stories have been very popular in France.). Nevertheless, these legends aren’t known for their consistency. So without further adieu, here are an assortment of figures from the Arthurian Legends.

1. King Arthur

King Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake after the Sword in the Stone is broken. Known for glowing brightly as well as having an insanely sharp edge. Scabbard is said to stop the wearer from bleeding. It's said that who wielded Excalibur could never be defeated in battle, though this isn't set in stone.

King Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake after the Sword in the Stone is broken. Known for glowing brightly as well as having an insanely sharp edge. Scabbard is said to stop the wearer from bleeding. It’s said that who wielded Excalibur could never be defeated in battle, though this isn’t set in stone.

You know him as: The perfect warrior king who ruled Great Britain during a Golden Age with Merlin at his side but fell to treachery and now sleeps, waiting for his land’s hour of need (or else has succumbed to his wounds after the Battle of Camlann). He’s a legendary and somewhat tragic figure who tries to overcome the land’s chaos and the notion of “might makes right” through noble chivalry but is ultimately undone. Son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine who was married to Duke Gorlois of Cornwall at the time her famous son was conceived through a rape by deception (assisted by Merlin no less, though Uther and Igraine got married before he was born but poor Gorlois {who got killed}, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth). Raised by Merlin (or Sir Ector depending on the version). Became king when he pulled the Sword in the Stone (which may not have been Excalibur depending on version. If not, then he received it as a gift from the Lady of the Lake after the Sword in the Stone breaks). United Britain, set up a Round Table with his Knights, drives off the Saxons, and reigns as a beloved king in an age of chivalry. Should’ve paid more attention to Guinevere if you know what I mean.

What you don’t know about him: Though always a warrior hero, he wasn’t always the clean-cut king we all know and love. In earlier traditions he was quite lustful, jealous, prideful, and greedy. He could be seen quarreling with churchmen, trying to steal Tristan’s pigs, killing a rival over a woman, and fathering several sons, none of them by Guinevere. Oh, and in the earlier legends, he was more of a warrior than king doing his own grunt work half the time as well as becomes king only because he’s the only guy to stall the Saxon invasion. Oh, and when he has Guinevere burned at the stake, he’s not conflicted about it at all in the original rendition. Yet, at least the early legends didn’t have him trying drown all the Mayday babies after finding out he knocked up his sister.

Earliest Mention: First surviving reference from Welsh and Breton sources at around 600 A. D. In the earlier stories, he’s only an allied commander and war hero and commander of lower birth who won a lot of battles against the Saxons in the 7th century Historia Brittonum (which has the first description of Arthur’s career.) He’s also said to have a dog named Cabal and kill his own son Amr.

2. Merlin

Merlin is perhaps the inspiration of the old wizard archetype that has taken the form of Albus Dumbledore and Gandalf the Gray. Yet, this doesn't mean that Merlin is wholly good since his portrayal is rather dependent on the writer who could cast him as a hero, anti-hero, or villain.

Merlin is perhaps the inspiration of the old wizard archetype that has taken the form of Albus Dumbledore and Gandalf the Gray. Yet, this doesn’t mean that Merlin is wholly good since his portrayal is rather dependent on the writer who could cast him as a hero, anti-hero, or villain.

You know him as: King Arthur’s wizard mentor who may have raised him (except in the stories in which Sir Ector does then Merlin is just the honorary uncle who leaves him at Sir Ector’s doorstep). In most versions, he’s the son of mortal nun raped by a demon explaining why he has magic powers he could only use for good and was said to be one of the last shape-changers during his childhood. Through magic and intrigue he’s responsible for King Arthur’s existence and rise to glory as well as many other events in Arthurian legend. Had a tendency to teach magic to younger women and his relationship with Nimue led to her betraying him and binding him to a tree, rock, or cave (depending on version).

What you don’t know about him: Though his mom is almost always a mortal woman, his dad’s identity varies through legend. Sometimes he’s a demon and in others he could be a fairy, deity, Satan, or nobody. Still, his actions could be highly questionable such as helping Uther to disguise himself as Gorlois so he could father Arthur with Igraine, snatching Arthur away and having someone else raise him, as well arranging the Sword in the Stone test so events would happen as prophesied. Not telling Arthur who his parents were caused many rebellions during the latter’s early reign, as well as Arthur knocking up his sister, and the May Day massacre.

Earliest Mention: Merlin as we know him appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannae written around 1136 and was based on an amalgamation of previous historical and mythical figures. Geoffrey originally based his version on eccentric mystic Myrddin Wyllt and Romano-British war leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus. Referred as Merlin Ambrosius  by Geoffrey of Monmouth for this reason.

3. Queen Guinevere

Guinevere has been portrayed as everything from a weak and opportunistic traitor to a fatally flawed but noble and virtuous gentlewoman. She could be praised for her friendliness, intelligence, and gentility or depicted as a vindictive adultress disliked by well-bred knights. Sometimes she's portrayed inauspiciously or hardly at all.

Guinevere has been portrayed as everything from a weak and opportunistic traitor to a fatally flawed but noble and virtuous gentlewoman. She could be praised for her friendliness, intelligence, and gentility or depicted as a vindictive adultress disliked by well-bred knights. Sometimes she’s portrayed inauspiciously or hardly at all.

You know her as: King Arthur’s wife and consort as well as best known for dooming her husband’s kingdom by having an affair with Sir Lancelot (well, the later legends anyway). Daughter of King Leodegrance (in the non-Welsh medieval romance), she was known for her great beauty and intelligence. After her affair with Sir Lancelot was exposed, Arthur condemned her to burn at the stake though Lancelot eventually rescued her anyway which sent Arthur into a rage and pressure the king to confront the knight. While Arthur is in France, Mordred prepares to take over and marry her himself. Her fate after this depends according to version (either she assented, ran away to hide in the Tower of London, or spent the rest of her life in a convent.) After Camlann, she meets Lancelot one last time before returning to the convent to spend the rest of her life. She also had famous abduction story where she’s kidnapped by the king of the “Summer Country” and King Arthur had to spend a year to find her and are finally reunited by Saint Gildas (in one of the earlier renditions. In a later rendition, she’s rescued by Lancelot and their affair begins from here.)

What you don’t know about her: In the earlier Welsh legends, King Arthur is married to three Guineveres (or she just has 3 different dads) and her family composition varies by version. In early Welsh variants, she has a sister Gwenhwyfach and it’s their contention that led to the Battle of Camlann. In the stories where she’s the daughter of King Leodegrance, she has an evil identical half-sister with the same name who tries to get rid of her and ruin her life but was stopped thanks to the Pope. Though childless in most stories, one has her bearing two sons to Mordred and she sometimes takes up with him, too in some variants as well.  In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, she’s a beautiful educated Romano-British noblewoman in stories prior to the 13th century, she’s badass warrior and magic-user.

Earliest Mention: Earliest mention of her as King Arthur’s queen is in the Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen written in the early 1100s, but little more is said about her. Also, her name has a lot of spelling variations.

4. Sir Lancelot

Sir Lancelot may have been a latecomer in the Arthurian mythos but he quickly became very popular afterwards. In the later romances he's a main focus.

Sir Lancelot may have been a latecomer in the Arthurian mythos but he quickly became very popular afterwards. In the later romances he’s a main focus. Also, Guinevere isn’t the only woman he’s linked with in the legends.

You know him as: He’s probably the Knight of the Round Table you’re most familiar with and is seen as King Arthur’s greatest champion whose affair with Queen Guinevere brings Camelot’s downfall. Seen as the bravest knight, sometimes uniquely perfect in every way save his relationships with women as well as buddies with almost all the knights. Son of King Ban and Queen Elaine by was raised by the Lady of the Lake. Father of Sir Galahad with Elaine of Corbenic who had him sleep with her by tricking him into thinking she was Guinevere (though it’s said they were married for ten years after that.) Went on the Holy Grail quest to atone for his sins but he forgot everything about purity and all that as well as resumes his affair with Guinevere. When found out, he escaped before King Arthur could confront him but he rescues Guinevere from the stake. They meet one last time after Arthur’s death before he spends the rest of his life as a priest by her death.

What you don’t know about him: While known to go on a homicidal rampage in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s worth remembering that he was mentally unstable prone to slaughtering innocents at no provocation, only to collapse in abject apologies afterward in the Sir Thomas Malory rendition (this is exactly how Monty Python depicted him though they depict him as rather sexually ambiguous.) Also had the habit of wandering into the other knights’ pavilions and making himself at home. Not to mention, he’s actually a relative latecomer as a Knight of the Round Table he joins long after it’s assembled.

Earliest Mention: Introduced in the 12th century by French writer Chretien de Troyes in Erec and Enide. First appearance as a main character was in Le Chevelier de la Charette (or “Lancelot, Knight of the Cart”). His patron was one of Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine’s daughters who may have ordered de Troyes to add Lancelot’s infamous affair with Guinevere. Thus, it’s possible the entire crux of a huge portion of the Arthurian Romances was the result of a lady wanting to turn an adventure story into a medieval equivalent of a Harlequin Romance novel.

5. Sir Gawain

Sir Gawain was King Arthur's nephew and original champion. He's known for his unparallelled courteousness and his way with women. His symbol is a gold pentangle on a red background (at least from the Green Knight legend).

Sir Gawain was King Arthur’s nephew and original champion. He’s known for his unparallelled courteousness and his way with women. His symbol is a gold pentangle on a red background (at least from the Green Knight legend).

You know him as: Knight of the Round Table and King Arthur’s nephew. Son of Morgause and King Lot of Lothain and Orkney, he is the best known of the Orkney brothers (depending on whether you accept Mordred as one of them.) Before Sir Lancelot, he was King Arthur’s greatest champion. He’s often seen as formidable, courteous, and compassionate warrior who’s loyal to his king and family. He’s a friend to young knights, defender of the poor, and defender of women as “The Maiden’s Knight.” Some legends have the sun as his source of strength and is said to be a great healer through his knowledge of herbs. Best known stories of him are his struggles with the Green Knight and his wedding to Dame Ragnell (an early prot0-feminist tale. Yet, he’s been romantically linked to other women in legends particularly Lady Bertilak from the Green Knight legend. He’s also credited with fathering at least 3 kids.)  Accompanied King Arthur on the quest for the Holy Grail yet, is buddies with Sir Percival, and  feuded with Sir Lancelot after the latter killed a few of his brothers (save Mordred.) Dies in an attempt to prevent Mordred’s usurpation.

What you don’t know about him: In the earlier legends, it’s implied that he’s King Arthur’s second-in-command as well as the true and rightful heir to his uncle’s throne. Of course, he was later struck down by Mordred’s forces. The French legends about him weren’t as glowing about him and depict him as a proud and worldly knight demonstrating through his failures the danger of neglecting the spirit for futile gifts of the material world. On the Post-Vulgate Grail Quest, he always has the purest intentions but can’t see God’s grace to notice the error in his ways.

Earliest Mention: He’s been mentioned in some of the earliest Welsh Arthurian sources under the name Gwalchmei who was seen as a traditional Welsh hero.

6. Sir Percival

There are many versions of Sir Percival's birth and family. His father may be Alain de Gros, King Pellinore, or another worthy knight. If Pellinore, then his brothers are Sir Agovale, Sir Lamorak, Sir Dornar, and Sir Tor. Guess there's a reason why his mom didn't want him to be a knight.

There are many versions of Sir Percival’s birth and family. His father may be Alain de Gros, King Pellinore, or another worthy knight. If Pellinore, then his brothers are Sir Agovale, Sir Lamorak, Sir Dornar, and Sir Tor. Guess there’s a reason why his mom didn’t want him to be a knight.

You know him as: Knight of the Round Table and known as “the Best Knight of the World.” Said to be the youngest of King Arthur’s knights as well as rather naive with few social skills since his mom raised him in the Welsh forests ignorant of the ways of men until he was 15 (then he went to join the Round Table through beating Sir Kay.) Still, in a lot of stories, he’s either a virgin or has very little experience with women, which is okay since he’s a teenager. Yet, don’t attack anyone unarmed in front of him or he will beat you up as Sir Kay learned the hard way. In some stories he has a sword that could cut through anything and would never break except in the toughest battle of his life. Best known for his involvement in the Holy Grail quest in which he meets the Fisher King but fails to answer a question to heal him, resists a beautiful enchantress, and was one of the two knights who accompanied Sir Galahad at the Grail castle.

What you don’t know about him: In earlier Grail narratives, he’s the hero while Galahad takes over in the later legends. Also, while he has a girlfriend in the earlier works, he’s certainly sexually inexperienced in the later versions and almost certainly stays that way since he becomes a monk. In some tales, he’s best friends with Sir Gawain (who’s sometimes his cousin) and in one legend even chooses to share a curse Gawain brought upon himself. His willingness to save his friend’s life by splitting the curse in half though they each get wounded badly.

Earliest Mention: He’s a difficult case. While he first appears under his regular name during the 1100s in Chrietien de Troyes’ le Conte du Graal (“Perceval, the Story of the Grail”), there is a similar character named Peredur in the Welsh legends but to what extent de Troyes adapted such stories into his work is a matter of debate.

7. Sir Galahad

Sir Galahad is one of the more familiar Knights of the Round Table but he's one of the most recent and least interesting. Rather he's seen as "the world's greatest knight." Then again, his character may have been inspired by the practices of the Cistercian Order founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Sir Galahad is one of the more familiar Knights of the Round Table but he’s one of the most recent and least interesting. Rather he’s seen as “the world’s greatest knight.” Then again, his character may have been inspired by the practices of the Cistercian Order founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

You know him as: Knight of the Round Table and hero of the Holy Grail legend. Though an illegitimate son (conceived through rape of deception) of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic, he is known for his gallantry and purity. Upon reaching adulthood, he’s knighted by his dad and joins the Round Table after being the only person to survive the Siege Perilous and pulling a sword out of a rock. During the Grail Quest, he smites his enemies, saves Sir Percival from 20 knights, rescues damsels in distress, and what not. After receiving the Grail, he is taken up to Heaven and never to be seen again.

What you don’t know about him: He was actually named after his dad Sir Lancelot (who’s name was originally Galahad before changing it). Also, despite being one of the best known Knights of the Round Table, he doesn’t really do much except go on a quest for the Holy Grail which was what he was pretty much chosen for.

Earliest Mention: He’s a latecomer in Arthurian legend with his first appearance being in the 13th century French Lancelot-Grail cycle. Most of what he does in the Holy Grail quest, Sir Percival does in earlier versions.

8. Sir Kay

Though known for his bad mouth as well as bullying and boorish behavior, Sir Kay appeared in some of the earliest Arthurian legends as one of King Arthur's premier knights. Later legends have him as a jerk to get the crap beat out of him.

Though known for his bad mouth as well as bullying and boorish behavior, Sir Kay appeared in some of the earliest Arthurian legends as one of King Arthur’s premier knights. Later legends have him as a jerk to get the crap beat out of him.

You know him as: As son of Sir Ector, he’s King Arthur’s foster brother, seneschal, as well as one of the first Knights of the Round Table. Though a loyal and capable knight, he tends to manipulate the king to get his way and prior to the Sword of the Stone story (the story he’s best known in), Arthur was his squire at a tournament who only pulled the sword out because he couldn’t get the new knight’s sword due to being locked out of the house. Sure he tries to claim he pulled the sword but later relents it was Arthur. He’s also kind of a hothead with a fiery temper and sometimes could be bit of a bully who mainly serves either as a foil or to get the crap beat out of him by the new knight.

What you don’t know about him: While he’s not seen in a great light in the best known Arthurian legends, the Welsh legends have him as a really badass knight capable of magical powers like growing giant size, generating so much body heat he could keep dry in the rain, holding his breath underwater for 9 days as well as going without sleep the same amount of time. Also, it’s said that if no wounds could be healed from his sword.

Earliest Mention: He’s one of the earliest characters in Arthurian legend from the original Welsh tales.

9. Sir Bedivere

Sir Bedivere returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. Though a prominent figure in the early Arthurian Mythos, this is what he's most remembered for. Well, that and trying women for witchcraft by weighing them against ducks.

Sir Bedivere returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. Though a prominent figure in the early Arthurian Mythos, this is what he’s most remembered for. Well, that and trying women for witchcraft by weighing them against ducks.

You know him as: Early Knight of the Round Table and King Arthur’s marshal (or cup-bearer in later versions.) In the Arthurian mythos, he’s best known for being the only Round Table Knight to survive the Battle of Camlann and throws Excalibur back to the Lady of the Lake at the mortally wounded King Arthur’s request.  In pop culture, he’s best known for condemning a woman to death for witchcraft by weighing her against against a duck since he believes she’s made out of wood in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What you don’t know about him: In older Welsh legends, he’s the handsome one handed knight with a four pronged spear and was known for using dark magic against his foes with great skill and aggression to the townspeople’s chagrin. He’s also said to be the best looking knight in Britain.

Earliest Mention: He’s one of the oldest characters in Arthurian legend from the original Welsh tales.

10. Sir Mordred

Sir Mordred once a capable knight only to become traitor when discovering he was a product of incest. In the Welsh sources, he's only King Arthur's nephew and in the earliest sources, they're not related at all.

Sir Mordred who was once a capable knight only to become traitor when discovering he was a product of incest. In the Welsh sources, he’s only King Arthur’s nephew and in the earliest sources, they’re not related at all.

You know him as: Knight of the Round Table and notorious traitor who fought King Arthur at the Battle of Camlann where that claimed both their lives (or at least his if you accept the King Arthur in sleep narrative). He’s popularly seen as King Arthur’s illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgause (if not, then Morgan Le Fay). At first, he’s a loyal and competent knight until he finds out about his real father. Let’s just say it’s goes downhill from there. Though two of his half-brothers expose Guinevere’s affair with Sir Lancelot, he nevertheless exploits it when King Arthur leaves him in charge of the kingdom so he could fight the guy who slept with his wife. Once his uncle dad is gone, he officially has himself declared king. Camlann is fought when King Arthur returns.

What you don’t know about him: In the Welsh legends, he’s only King Arthur’s nephew (if related at all) and foster son as well as was legitimately conceived between Morgause and her husband. In stories where he takes over the kingdom while King Arthur is away, he marries (or at least tries to marry) Guinevere though she didn’t have much choice in the matter. In stories he doesn’t, he’s married to Queen Guinevere’s sister Gwenhwyfach (making him King Arthur’s brother-in-law) and his inevitable confrontation with King Arthur at Camlann was due to a spat between their wives.

Earliest Mention: The first surviving mention of him is in the 10th century Annales Cambriae where he’s listed as Merdaut. All it says is that him and Arthur died at Camlann but it’s never certain whether they killed each other or were on opposite sides. He first plays role of traitor on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannae.

11. Sir Palomides

Sir Palomides may be the most famous Non-European Knight of the Round Table, but he has such rotten luck. Not only did he fall in love with a girl who had the hots for his best friend, but in some stories, he's killed after the Grail Quest for killing that woman's husband.

Sir Palomides may be the most famous Non-European Knight of the Round Table, but he has such rotten luck. Not only did he fall in love with a girl who had the hots for his best friend, but in some stories, he’s killed after the Grail Quest for killing that woman’s husband.

You know him as: Knight of the Round Table from the Middle East along with his brothers Segwarides and Safir. Originally a pagan prince of Esclabor before converting to Christianity (in some versions during the Grail Quest). While best friends with Sir Tristan, he sort of resents him when they both fall in love with Iseult the Fair, though he doesn’t want that to t ruin their relationship (also, because he lost a joust with Sir Tristan that determined which one called dibs). Best known for taking over King Pellinore’s hunt for the Questing Beast which proved to be just as fruitless as the hope of having a relationship with Iseult the Fair (though Sir Thomas Malory has him finally slay the beast after his conversion to Christianity which releases him from worldly entanglements).

What you don’t know about him: His fate differs according to version. In Sir Thomas Malory’s tale, he sides with Sir Lancelot after the latter’s affair with Queen Guinevere is exposed and is made a Duke of Provence. In the Post-Vulgate version, Sir Gawain kills him after the Holy Grail Quest since he killed King Mark of Cornwall for slaying Sir Tristan.

Earliest Mention: First appears in the 13th century Prose Tristan an expansion of the Tristan and Isolde story.

12. Sir Ywain

Sure Sir Ywain may have killed a supernatural fountain guardian who beat up his cousin and later married the guy's widow. But he at least has a cool lion despite that he's the Round Table Knight you probably never heard of.

Sure Sir Ywain may have killed a supernatural fountain guardian who beat up his cousin and later married the guy’s widow. But he at least has a cool lion despite that he’s the Round Table Knight you probably never heard of.

You know him as: Knight of the Round Table and son of King Urien (sometimes with Morgan Le Fay, which makes him King Arthur’s nephew). Best known for rescuing a lion from a serpent who proves to be a loyal companion and symbol of knightly virtue. As for him, not so much since he ended up killing a guardian of a supernatural storm-causing fountain because the guy beat up his cousin. Not to mention, he also marries the guy’s widow Laudine who later dumps him after Sir Gawain tempts him into another adventure (they make up thanks to the lion helping him to shape up after he’s basically devastated by the whole thing).

What you don’t know about him: He was a very popular character in the Arthurian legends during the Middle Ages though he’s not a well known knight nowadays though he’s more or less seen as “the one with the lion” if he is. Also, there’s a Welsh legend of him playing chess with King Arthur as the Saxons prepare to fight the Battle of Badon.

Earliest Mention: He’s one of the earliest characters associated with King Arthur from the Welsh legends. Also, he’s based on the historical figure Owain mab Urien, King of Reghed in Great Britain.

13. Sir Tristan

I don't know about Sir Tristan here, but I'm sure that sharing a love potion with your uncle's fiancee is never a good idea. Really not a good idea, on a positive note, he's not in the Harry Potter universe where love potions are date rape drugs.

I don’t know about Sir Tristan here, but I’m sure that sharing a love potion with your uncle’s fiancee is never a good idea. Really not a good idea, on a positive note, he’s not in the Harry Potter universe where love potions are date rape drugs.

You know him as: Knight of the Roundtable who was sent by his Uncle King Mark of Cornwall to fetch the Irish princess Iseult the Fair for the Cornish king’s wedding. Yet, on the way, they accidentally consume a love potion and fall helplessly in love. Though she marries King Mark as promised, the pair undergo a lot of trials and tribulations that test their secret affair. Of course, this goes on until their tragic deaths by despair (his by poison out of thinking she abandoned him) but they’re buried side by side as two star crossed lovers should be with a honeysuckle springing from her grave around a hazel tree growing from his (that or a briar twirling around a rose or just pain dead).

What you don’t know about him: Since he couldn’t marry his beloved Iseult the Fair, he married another woman named Iseult of the White Handsand is only attracted to her because she shared his beloved’s name. It goes as worse as you’d expect since this Iseult ended up indirectly killing him by saying his beloved was never coming back just as the girl arrives to cure him.

Earliest Mention: He makes his early appearance in the early 12th century in Celtic mythology and/or folklore though his affair with Iseult the Fair is incorporated into the Arthurian Mythos later.

14. Morgause

Though Queen of Lothain and Orkney and mother of five sons and a number of daughters, Morgause still has a heft sexual appetite. Yet, this is what did her in at the end when her son Gaheris lopped her head off.

Though Queen of Lothain and Orkney and mother of five sons and a number of daughters, Morgause still has a heft sexual appetite. Yet, this is what did her in at the end when her son Gaheris lopped her head off.

You know her as: King Arthur’s half-sister, wife of King Lot of Lothain and Orkney, and mother of the Orkney brothers: Sir Gawain, Sir Agavain, Sir Gareth, Sir Gaheris, and Sir Mordred. May have conceived Mordred with King Arthur in an act of inadvertent incest, but they’re estranged upon realization for good reason. Yet, despite five boys and a number of daughters, she manages to be some sort of cougar being very friendly with younger men (King Arthur included). After King Lot’s death, she has an affair with Sir Lamorak (son of the guy who killed her husband), which leads to her son Sir Gaheris beheading her in bed though tries to frame her lover leading Agavain, Gawain, and Mordred to get rid of him.

What you don’t know about her: In her earlier stories, she does nothing but be the mother of the Orkney brothers. She doesn’t become a fully formed character until Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Also tends to be combined with Morgan Le Fay and some scholars think she was created due to a translation error.

Earliest Mention: She’s a later addition appearing in Chretien de Troyes Perceval as Orcades. Yet, she did have a few earlier counterparts before then.

15. Morgan Le Fay

Morgan Le Fay is perhaps one of the best known characters in Arthurian legend as well as one of the most popular. Somehow there's something hard to resist with such a complex scheming witch who feels that Queen Guinevere's a hypocrite for banishing her lover and taking up with Sir Lancelot. Of course, she also had the hots for him as well.

Morgan Le Fay is perhaps one of the best known characters in Arthurian legend as well as one of the most popular. Somehow there’s something hard to resist with such a complex scheming witch who feels that Queen Guinevere’s a hypocrite for banishing her lover and taking up with Sir Lancelot. Of course, she also had the hots for him as well.

You know her as: King Arthur’s half-sister, a powerful sorceress, and in later traditions, wife of King Uriens and mother of Sir Ywain. Though some modern renditions make her Mordred’s mother, she is not but like her sister Morgause, she has a string of lovers nevertheless (though Uriens doesn’t seem to mind when she’s married to him). Yet, while she sometimes has a adversarial relationship with King Arthur (to the point when she tries to arrange his downfall but fails), she’s more of a an arch-enemy toward Guinevere (who exposed her having an affair with her cousin). Also, part of her hatred for Guinevere stems from the fact she herself wanted to sleep with Sir Lancelot. She devotes a lot of her time in the legend to exposing Guinevere’s affair with Sir Lancelot though King Arthur didn’t believe her no matter how hard she tried to convince him. Yet, somehow she mellows, she and Arthur reconcile, and soon takes him up to Avalon after Camlann.

What you don’t know about her: She may have started out in Arthurian legend as a supernatural being possibly a goddess. Also, she didn’t start out as King Arthur’s half-sister and actually had nine in her early appearances. Not only that, but her early appearances have her as a benevolent sorceress who might’ve saved King Arthur’s life. She also plays a role assisting Sir Ywain in one story, too as a healer but the story doesn’t imply that they are mother and son. Oh, and she appears in stories that are unconnected with the Arthurian Mythos as well.

Earliest Mention: It’s hard to say whether she started out as a French character or as a Welsh one. She’s first mentioned by name in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini while the later French tales feature her with all her familiar traits.

16. Nyneve

She may not have given King Arthur Excalibur but Nyneve's a magical being who's closely identified as being the Lady of the Lake. Also, has many names like Nimue, Niniane, and Vivian.

She may not have given King Arthur Excalibur but Nyneve’s a magical being who’s closely identified as being the Lady of the Lake. Also, has many names like Nimue, Niniane, and Vivian.

You know her as: She’s best known as the Lady of the Lake (though she’s not the one who gave King Arthur Excalibur, though she was a servant of hers in some versions who’s later beheaded in the Sir Thomas Malory stories).  Learned magic from Merlin who fell for her yet she ends up betraying him and using her powers to lock him in a tree, (rock, or cave). Afterwards, she replaces Merlin as King Arthur’s adviser. Still, her love is Sir Pelleas who she used her magic to hate a girl who was thoroughly uninterested in him (yet, she ended up dying in despair). Nevertheless, the guy lived mostly because of her. Associated with Avalon and may have raised Sir Lancelot.

What you don’t know about her: Though one of the more familiar characters in Arthurian legend, there’s not a lot of stories about her and her character.

Earliest Mention: Either in the works by Chretian de Troyes or the Lancelot Grail cycle. About as early as the 1100s maybe even before that.

17. Iseult the Fair

Iseult's affair with Sir Tristan is one of the more enduring medieval love stories that has stood the test of time. Yet, this was originally a separate story before being part of the Arthur Mythos.

Iseult’s affair with Sir Tristan is one of the more enduring medieval love stories that has stood the test of time. Yet, this was originally a separate story before being part of the Arthur Mythos.

You know her as: An Irish princess who heals Sir Tristan and is arranged to marry his Uncle King Mark of Cornwall. Yet, when she and Tristan accidentally drink a love potion en route, they fall hopelessly in love. Once she’s married, they embark on a tragic love affair consisting of secret meetings until King Mark banishes Tristan from Cornwall. They meet again when Tristan is poisoned (or stabbed in the back by King Mark once he catches him playing a harp from a tree).

What you don’t know about her: In verse tradition, she and Tristan don’t meet again after he’s banished until he’s on his deathbed. Some versions have their affair go much longer and in some stories they even have kids. Also, she has a lot of guys attracted to her mostly so they could have a conflict with Tristan.

Earliest Mention: Like Sir Tristan, she makes her first appearance in the 12th century in Celtic mythology and/or folklore, though her affair was treated as a separate story and incorporated in the the King Arthur Mythos later.

18. King Pellinore

King Pellinore on the endless hunt of the legendary Questing Beast whose appearance can't be articulated in this post. Still, this guy probably should've been making less war and spend more time with his family or families.

King Pellinore on the endless hunt of the legendary Questing Beast whose appearance can’t be articulated in this post. Still, this guy probably should’ve been making less war and spend more time with his family or families.

You know him as: Best known for his endless hunt of the Questing Beast and beating King Arthur in three jousts which breaks the Sword in the Stone, which leads to the latter to fetch Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake (if the sword is Excalibur, Merlin just enchants Arthur to save his life. Both become friends afterwards and he’s invited to join the Round Table afterwards. Also, he’s known to have a lot of kids to different women and at least has three sons join the Round Table, too (though he’s sometimes referred to as Sir Percival’s father). Not to mention, he helps King Arthur put down a lot of rebellions of other kings including his brother-in-law Lot of Lothian. Kills King Lot of Orkney during a battle that results in a blood feud with the Orkney brothers and many other deaths including his own son Lamorak.

What you don’t know about him: When trying to rescue Nyneve, he refused to provide aid to a wounded knight and his ailing lady. Lady later killed herself with her dead lover’s sword before he would eventually find out she was his own daughter.

Earliest Mention: He’s at least in Arthurian legend as early as the Post-Vulgate cycle.

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One response to “Celtic Mythology Reexamined: Figures from Arthurian Legend

  1. Once again you have enlightened me. I have been to Devon and Cornwall, and Wales, and love English ancient tales. Merlin and Arthur have been depicted often and as you point out in many variations. But it is interesting to learn of the others in the case of Iseult and Tristan, their story reminds me of the famous story of Oisin and his love Niamh and Tir na nOg.
    What I often find interesting is how the ancient war goddesses and witches names begin with the letter M, The Morrigan, Morrigu, Macha, makes me wonder about my own name.
    Enjoyed your post, have a great weekend
    Maria

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