UNMASKING KING ARTHUR
Etymology Reveals the Origin of Arthurian Myth/ Legend is Inherent in its Name
by Steve Moxon, Sheffield, UK. stevemoxon3(at)talktalk.net
Creative Commons copyright Steve Moxon, April 2015 (with subsequent additions in January 2018, and ongoing)
Etymological investigation reveals that King Arthur is a purely mythological figure with no historical reality, whose name is derived from a Gaelic word, nathair, ‘serpent’, literally ‘snake’; more fully, nathair caltuinn, ‘snake of the hazel grove’, as the serpent of mythology is understood in Scottish Gaelic. This etymology is confirmed by mutually reinforcing mythological association embodied in placename evidence. With the serpent emblematic of regeneration — the life/death/rebirth endless cycle — which is the core of folk legend; then the figure of Arthur appears to be profoundly ancient, as anyway he must be given the etymology dating back to when Gaelic seems to have been spoken in at least a part of the western half of England, thousands of years ago. The origin parallels that of Robin Hood, in Robin likewise meaning ‘serpent’, ultmately; though in this being more indirect than it is for Arthur, then Arthurian legend looks to be the more archaic of the two. Their similarity surely extends to their sharing a confusion with the deity to which respectively they are human/supernatural ‘go-between’ figures, as it were; each functioning in a regeneration lore as the ‘sacred king’ protagonist whose blood supposedly is spilt in homage to a deity to ensure the fertility of the land — this being obviously the key facet of the King Arthur story in the centrality of the symbol of the grail. [The grail supposedly was the cup which caught the blood of Christ at the crucifixion, that generally in legend has magical powers concerning the regeneration of life, and hence its being sought after as the ultimate object of value. Mythologically, it’s a direct descendent of the ‘Celtic’ inexhaustible cauldron of rebirth.]
Following the successful etymological investigation into the origin of the Robin Hood name and mythology – see the major investigation on this website — the prospect of a similar resolution of the mystery of the roots of the other major English, nay British, legendary figure could not but beckon. As is universally agreed, there has been no satisfactory etymology in respect of Arthur thus far: not for King Arthur, nor for the common first name Arthur. Regarding Arthurian mythology, then, it’s even more obvious that etymology should be the starting point of any investigation into its nature than it was for that of Robin Hood. And it’s less complicated, in that with Robin Hood it was clear that the Robin element was not the common first name, diminutive of Robert, but instead some similar sounding but entirely different word, which in the context of the widespread adoption of the French-imported Robert ended up being confused with it. The etymological riddle of King Arthur seemed simpler in that all instances of the naming Arthur apparently are after the King, as it were. There is no latter-day lexical entanglement to deal with.
The problem was that there was no ‘way in’ as there had been with Robin Hood: a clue handed to me by elderly residents I had met at Hood Hill in South Yorkshire, who told me of the tradition of a mythical association and meaning of the name of the hill. That was what had triggered my interest in tackling Robin Hood rather than and before King Arthur. Mythology had been no more than a minor interest tied up with curiosity about place-names in the Pennine South Yorkshire area where I grew up and returned to live. Part of a roots-tracing exercise. I had no interest in King Arthur; there being no trace in the landscape as there is for Robin Hood, and Arthur being a seeming early-medieval fancy emblematic of knighthood — all that tedious chivalric romance. In the wake of the results re Robin Hood, it did occur to me to begin an examination; not least because just as the medieval outlaw aspect of Robin Hood turned out to be veneer, so too might well be the courtly trappings of Arthur. Even so, I put off delving for fear of drawing a blank and fruitlessly spending time better employed on more important projects. Only after some updating of the Robin Hood text in 2015 did I start a provisional dig, though more as a distraction than a concerted effort. It was quite a surprise, then, when a derivation cracking open the whole conundrum presented itself almost immediately, leaving only the albeit not un-tricky task of tying everything together into a coherent account without loose ends. I might have guessed, though, that the reason for the etymological impasse had been a myopic focus on a Welsh language root, on the generally held assumption that King Arthur was the leader / figurehead / deity of the ancient Britons; and that, as with Robin Hood, the solution lay in the earlier ‘Celtic’ language of ancient Britain — that is, Gaelic.
The attempt long ago at a faux genealogy of ancient British kings — the 1136 cobbling together by Geoffrey of Monmouth of history, traditional narratives (legends) and his own imagination — points up that King Arthur was no historical figure. As ever with mythology, Arthur — Arthurian mythology — turns out to be of far greater antiquity than expected. An origin recedes back from not just something over a thousand and maybe the best part of two thousand years, to several thousand years. For want of any alternative from the Welsh lexicon — the place to start a trawl of Brittonic possibilities for a derivation — Arthur is usually understood to mean ‘bear’ or ‘stone’, yet no sense whatsoever can be made of either of those meanings to pertain to the hero of Arthurian legend. Trying to find any place where there is significant mythology centred on the bear is a wild goose chase until you arrive in Switzerland. There is the ‘Celtic’ (Welsh) name for the winter solstice, Alban Arthan, but this was a late-18th century concoction by the Welsh antiquarian manuscript forger, Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), who devised the Arthan element from the incidental observation that the pole star was part of the ‘Little Bear’ constellation: Welsh arth + diminutive suffix.
Both the Welsh and Gaelic word for ‘bear’ is the single-syllable arth or art, which would leave the second syllable of Arthur unexplained, unless – it has been suggested – it is –(g)wr, ‘man’. This is dismissed in etymological investigation included in the Wikipaedia entry for King Arthur: “There are phonological difficulties with this theory — notably that a Brittonic compound name Arto-uiros should produce Old Welsh Artgur and Middle/Modern Welsh Arthwr and not Arthur (in Welsh poetry the name is always spelled Arthur and is exclusively rhymed with words ending in -ur – never words ending in -wr – which confirms that the second element cannot be (g)wr ‘man’)”.
To try to address the impasse, a more convoluted etymology still based in a root meaning ‘bear’ was tentatively proposed in 2009 by Stefan Zimmer (https://www.academia.edu/3255782/2010). His putative Brittonic construction Artu-rig-ios, from arto-rig, meaning ‘bear-king’, Zimmer admits is “nowhere attested in the Celtic world”, but he proffers it as a name given to a Roman commander in Britain; this being the figure he supposes somehow the source of Arthurian legend. A fanciful claim to say the least, it’s a usual sort of attempt at trying to identify an historical figure for one which all but screams its mythological nature. King Arthur is no more a one-time real personage than is Robin Hood. In any case, this bid is a non-parsimonious account in which Zimmer himself appears to lack confidence. It’s really a straw-clutching exercise to try to salvage a hopeless cause.
In some etymologies the origin in ‘Celtic’ re a meaning of ‘bear’ is taken back to proto-‘Celtic’ artos, which would take account of a second syllable, but no attempt is made to show etymologically how it could change to produce arthur. A root in artos is offered in a database of Scottish names (available at http://www.amethyst-night.com/names/scotmale.html): “Artair — (AHR-shtuhr), ‘eagle-like’ or ‘high, noble’; Gaelic form of Arthur, fr. Celtic artos ‘bear’, or poss. borrowed from Latin Artorius.” Is this a reference to Proto-Celtic? If there is Latin naming by Roman overlords, then it’s likely to be a Latinisation of a Gaelic name rather than the other way round.
An origin in a Latin or Latinised name was suggested by TV historian Michael Wood (citing The Annals of Wales and Adomnan’s Life of St Columba) in his In Search Of the Dark Ages series, first broadcast by the BBC in 1980: that Arthurian legend began with Prince Arturius of Dalriada. Supposedly a Scottish king killed in a battle at Camlann (thought to be a fort on Hadrian’s Wall) in 590CE, Arturius had a namesake elder son who became the Arthur, Welsh hero standard-bearer against the invading Anglo-Saxons, in the wake of Welsh monk, Nennius, writing in 829CE. Yet in the same TV documentary, Wood stressed that there was zero evidence that any King Arthur ever existed. It’s interesting, though, that Wood attempts to evade the dead-end of investigation into a Welsh origin by heading to Scotland for a possible Gaelic one.
The meaning of artair as ‘high / noble’ may look promising, but it’s entirely superficial, being merely derivative of the very construction at issue: it appears to be a generic extension from the specific figure of King Arthur, begging the same question as to origin it’s here held up in answer. That King Arthur self-evidently was himself ‘noble’ may then confer the notion of nobility on to his subsequent namesakes, but this is hardly informative as to whether the notion of nobility is in the etymology of the (Proto-Celtic?) artos. Artair apparently here is a mere Gaelicisation of a word/name from an earlier ‘Celtic’ language. So it just takes us back to the usual suggestion of a meaning of ‘bear’. In any case, a rendering into Gaelic would seem to have it backwards, in that Arthur was a name more common historically in Gaelic than in Welsh. A Gaelic origin looks the more likely; in which case the name underwent a transition from a Gaelic to a Welsh form and then to English, or more directly from Gaelic to English. In this, at least, Michael Wood’s educated hunch, from trawling ancient if unreliable and fanciful texts, seems to have been on promising lines.
Yet before turning our back on Welsh, I should include discussion of Arthur supposedly being Uthyr, from Welsh uthr, ‘terrible’. This, however, turns out to be continued confusion between an adjective and a proper name. Uthr is a proper name in Old Irish as well as in Welsh sources; suggesting, again, a ‘Common Celtic’ ancestry. In the Rachel Bromwich edited ‘Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain’ (2014), it is laboured that the famed scholar Alfred Jarman (Llen Cymru, II, p128) argued that not only is its use in the most oft-cited source ambiguous as to being either an adjective or a proper name (in the text, it is actually a deliberate pun on the ambiguity of uthr, indeed), but that there are several instances in which Uthyr is attested as a personal name in not only Welsh but also in Irish sources.
With the possibility of a Gaelic rather than a Welsh origin already having arisen in the Scottish regal ancestry alluded to by Michael Wood — and anyway with delving into Welsh drawing a blank, then what else is left? — it is surprising that thus far no-one has trawled Gaelic lexicons for (more) plausible candidates. The most immediately obvious candidates are easily dismissed. Even if sense could be made of (h)athair, in its meaning of ‘father’, as it might apply to the King Arthur figure, a pronunciation check seems to exclude this possibility, as it’s something like A-herd (with the ‘a’ as in ‘hat’). Cathaoir, ‘battle-man’ (cath, ‘battle’, + vir ‘man’) looks more promising meaning-wise, but Anglicisation is to cahir: neither the ‘t’ is sounded nor the initial ‘c’ lost. Using on-line pronunciation checkers to exclude such words, which would not easily undergo transition to arthur, further working through Gaelic lexicons throws up a word which is both pregnant in meaning and not encumbered with an initial consonant needing to be lost: athaid, athach: ‘monster’. Not only does a meaning ‘monster’ immediately arouse interest because of the clear possibility that it is an allusion to a former religion now eclipsed by one which necessarily portrays the religion it replaced as ‘devil worship’; but it is decidedly promising where this leads. Athaid / athach is fairly obviously a modification of Gaelic nathair, ‘snake’, used to denote ‘serpent’ or ‘dragon’ — taking a more specific form of a ‘monster’ and rendering it generic. [Nathair is from Old Irish nathir, in turn from Proto-Celtic natir, related to snath, ‘thread’ and snathad,’needle’: the conceptualisation here is of cloth weaving resembling the way that a serpentine creature would move.] This suspicion is confirmed: there is an altenative form of nathair in athair. This not only reveals a ready tendency in the language evolution to drop the initial consonant, but it gives us a Gaelic word that would appear to exactly, directly Anglicise to arthur.
A serpent/dragon parallels where the investigation into Robin Hood mythology led. What is more, it is congruent with an aspect of Arthurian legend. Arthur, in the Welsh tradition, supposedly is the son of Uther Pendragon (a compound of Welsh pen-, ‘chief’ and ‘dragon’), the Gaelic etymological equivalent of which would be righ-nathair; literally ‘king-serpent’.
The pronunciation by Gaelic speakers approximately is NAH-hur, which, with the initial ‘n’ dropped, is close to arthur, or would be, assuming that (as often but by no means always) in Anglicisation the ‘t’ would no longer remain silent. Evidence of such a change actually happening in transition to English is needed if this putative derivation is to hold water. [Note that the transition is less likely to be via the Brittonic (Welsh, Cumbric) form, with the related word in this language being neidr — the root of English adder. As this is moving further away, pronunciation-wise, then it seems to be more directly from the Gaelic.] There are place-names clearly deriving from nathair in Scotland, where there is a recent or current Gaelic-speaking context — such as Allt nan Nathair, Meall Nathrach, Cnapan Nathraichean — so a search needs to be made for extant place-names of this ilk in the western half of England, where Gaelic anciently was spoken, and, therefore, where Anglicisation will have occurred in the interim. This should provide the required evidence. [As I explained in the Robin Hood text, ‘Celtic’ and not least (if not especially) Gaelic roots of the stems of Pennine South Yorkshire (and more widely across the ‘Dark Peak’) place-names are commonplace – indeed, it’s the more usual derivation rather than from even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (actually, it would be from an archaic form of early English, because it’s now known that English arose in Eastern England long before the Anglo-Saxon invasion, which anyway was in numbers too small to make a great impression on language, certainly in an area as remote as the South Pennines).]
Just such seems to be provided in the English place-name, Hathersage. The derivation of the hather stem has long been considered a mystery, but, given the local mythological context, it’s clearly Scottish Gaelic athach (or athaid, athair), ‘monster, beast’ (such as a serpent), or ‘giant’. [The initial ‘h’ is prosthetic; this being common in Northern Middle English and Middle Scottish as merely a scribal device and not denoting any dialect tendency to place an aspirate before initial vowels. And the absence of the medial ‘th’ in the Domesday recording, Hereseige, is because there is no ‘th’ sound in French.]
A derivation in terms of a monster, specifically a giant, could not be more apposite for Hathersage, as its prime distinguishing feature is an association with what was taken to be a giant: Little John. This specific naming seems to be a latter-day elaboration. The generic giant appellation is (was) attached to an ancient causeway that runs along a ridge down to the centre of the village, from the gritstone edge above it. The giant supposedly is buried in the churchyard here. Of course, this is no giant’s grave in reality. It’s actually a medieval standard-measure local reference stone of some unit of measurement at one time in use, equivalent to about nine feet. Its function long ago entirely forgotten, it was later assumed to be a grave, and its exceptional length suggested a giant, that in turn led to its being appropriated for a mythological use. The causeway is nowadays named the Long Causeway, but on an old map it is as in the title of an 1893 etching by William Keeling,’ Stanage Pole and the Giant’s Causeway’. The etching was for the book published in the same year, The Hall of Waltheof, by Sheffield local historian Sidney Oldall Addy; who notes that the “Long Causey” section from Sheffield to Stanage Pole popularly was known in its continuation at first along and then beyond Stanage Edge towards Hathersage as “the Giant’s Causey”. The place-naming here surely harks from the old (or not so old) imagining of the huge flat stones atop the gritstone edge as being a path for a giant. With the trackway being at first along this line, or at least cutting through it, then naturally the track as it descends from the ridge down to the village would attract the Giant moniker to transfer from the edge itself.
More anciently, the long snaking gritstone edge would have been envisaged as a serpent turned to stone, just as was conceived (in her ‘hag’ form) the pan-’Celtic’ goddess Bridhe/Bridget; and hence, presumably, the Robin Hood naming of a cave on Stanage (see the Robin Hood page on this website for the explanation of why gritstone edges were liable to take Robin Hood appellations). [Note, though, that as recently as 1822 this was known as Sled House (probably from Gaelic sleasg, ‘split, crack’); though a Robin Hood vernacular naming may long have (also or formerly) applied without being officially recorded.] There is also, flowing down to and through Hathersage, Hood Brook, over which, it may have been locally imagined, was the mythological famed contest on the bridge between Robin Hood and Little John. This would explain the specific naming of the monster/giant as Little John. If the ancient meaning had been specifically ‘giant’ rather than ‘monster’, then the root would be expected to be famhair, the more specific word for a giant.
An original meaning in terms of a serpent may be betrayed in the derivation of the whole Gaelic construction of the hathersage moniker. Although at first it seems the second part of it is a far later added English possessive ‘s’ and OE suffix ecg, referring to the gritstone edge immediately above the village (which more recently has been named Stanage, simply, ‘stone-edge’), it may be an Anglicisation / rationalisation of nathair-sgiathach, literally ‘winged serpent’: a dragon, no less. The second element is pronounced in the original Gaelic-speaking context as SKEY-ak, but a weakly stressed second syllable ending in k is close to sounding like g, and rationalisation plus the language supercession then would account for the accommodation to a new meaning in terms of the edge. Alternatively or even as a co- / secondary root of the second element, is seóg, ‘swing to & fro’, which would be apposite for the snaking form of the gritstone edge, and the form of the serpent it suggested. Another — again, alternative or additional root — is séad, ‘path, way, course’, which neatly would give us ‘serpent’s — latterly giant’s — causeway’, of course.
Another case can be made for Athersley, a village near and swallowed up by Barnsley in South Yorkshire. [That this was first recorded as Hattirslay is not an issue because a prosthetic ‘h’ is common in Northern Middle English and Middle Scots, as a mere scribal device, and does not denote a dialect tendency to place an aspirate before an initial vowel — see May G. Williamson, The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties. PhD thesis , University of Edinburgh, 1942.] Corroborating evidence in related place-name clustering shows this particular place-name to be derived from nathair in a standard hybrid with the much later acquired common English suffix, -leah: nathair(‘s)-leah. What appears to have originated as nathair has undergone a transition through Anglicisation of a sounding of the ‘t’ as written but silent in the Gaelic. The dropping of the initial ‘n’ would already have occurred in the language evolution of Gaelic, as we have seen.
Athersley formerly was a name attached to a wood (on which site is now the modern village), immediately adjacent to an ancient holy well named St Helen’s (on early OS maps, now giving its name to an area right by Athersley village). This is a generic naming of holy wells, with Helen (here formerly Ellen, and likely still earlier as elsewhere, Elian or Eilian, pronounced ehl-ihn). This is a name/word that exists in a range of variants, such as Eilidh or Ailie in Scottish Gaelic, all of which can be traced back to Indo-European progenitors, always meaning ‘light’; that is, ‘of the sun’. It’s tied up with the Gaelic term aillen, generically denoting spirits (sprites), most specifically Aillen, a mythological fire-breathing water-monster; a dragon, or serpent, indeed, with affiliation to water.
Wells were thought of by ‘Celts’ as interfaces with the ‘otherworld’ or ‘underworld’, to which life disappears and then re-emerges; and as such were envisaged as being guarded by mythological creatures — serpents (the defensive belligerence so strikingly a quality of some snake species was a quality whereby snakes could be considered as guardians). So the general category nathair clearly would pertain to St Helen’s Well here.
[The universal centrality to mythology of the serpent most likely stems from a powerful combination of several striking features of nature. The ubiquitous main feature of soil, appearing to emerge spontaneously from within it, are the seemingly most elemental of species, most notably the earthworm; these being able to regenerate if cut into pieces. They would have been seen as contiguous with snakes, small and large, which add to the regenerative symbolism in their ability to completely shed their skin. The conceptualisation of being elemental and connected to the life-birth cycle could not be more concretely anchored in the umbilical cord – the connection between the mother and offspring – having the distinct appearance of entwined worm-like creatures. To complete the power of the worm-snake form as being emblematic of the life-cycle is their association with death, in being a principal predator throughout the evolution of mammals, primates and hominids (see Headland & Greene, 2011: Hunter–gatherers and other primates as prey, predators, and competitors of snakes); which, therefore, will have given rise to evolved highly-conserved deep-seated wariness, fear and respect — See Lynne Isbell’s hypothesis, ‘Snakes as agents of evolutionary change in primate brains’ (2006); as positively tested, for example by Jan Van Strien, Ingmar Franken & Jorg Huijding (2014): ‘Testing the snake-detection hypothesis: larger early posterior negativity in humans to pictures of snakes than to pictures of other reptiles, spiders and slugs’. The serpent is a mythological amalgam and distillation of all of this, with the predator facet presumably being the basis of the extension of the mythical concept to acquiring wings: the winged serpent combining snake and raptor; this to be embellished further in many cultures to incorporate also a mammalian carnivore, in the guise of the dragon (a winged-snake-beast hybrid of predator types). David E Jones fleshed out a comprehensive theory in his book, An Instinct For Dragons (2016), which received misguided reviews (by Paul Jordan-Smith and Daniel Ogden) from perspectives of ignorance of evolution theory: the universality of serpent / winged serpent / dragon mythology cannot be explained simply by cultural transmission, because acquisition would make no sense without the motivation of the evolved basis of the significance of the imagery; and that there is cultural variation as to the extent of hybridisation of predator forms would be expected, being in line with the cultural variation seen with all kinds of behavior and cognition with biological roots.]
Confirming that a Gaelic derivation is right, at St Helen’s Well the adjacent place-naming likewise originally was Gaelic. Close by the well on early OS maps is Smithy Hill, which cannot be any reference to a blacksmiths, being in open country. It is instead a generic naming of small knolls (as, for example, also in South Yorkshire, at Stocksbridge; in Harrogate and many places), at first consideration an Anglicisation of Gaelic smidean, ‘very small (bit)’ (from whence we acquired English smidgen). However, context shows that actually it’s a rationalisation as well as an Anglicisation: from Gaelic sithein, ‘fairy hill / mound’; with the meaning ‘fairy residence / palace’, in that knolls / mounds are where such mythological creatures were envisaged as residing. Here ‘fairy’ is as formerly denoting generically a mythological being of some potency, and not the innocuous creature it became as its power was forgotten and lost, and it was consigned to children’s stories. [At Stocksbridge, where there is also a context of Gaelic place-naming, Smithy Hill is an unofficial naming of a short road at the foot of a steep hill, but the route continues up the hill as anciently a path to Knoll Top, which appears to be the hill denoted smithy. This hill is also named, as is the road of that name now leading up to it and parallel to the Smithy Hill route, Bocking Hill; from Gaelic bhocaidh, pronounced ‘bockie’: a ‘hobgoblin’, ‘spectre’ — there is no basis of its being named after the local Bocking family, so it’s the other way round. ‘Fairy’ rather than ‘smidgean’, then, is the derivation here of smithy as elsewhere. The rationalisation that there was a blacksmiths on the hill is just that. Smithies formerly were everywhere, and not only would there have been no reason to thus name the road, but the format of hill would be a coincidence too far.] This instance by St Helen’s Well evidently was of some significance judging by its duplication in attachment to the nearby village, Smithies, and attendant names — Smithy Green, Bridge and Lane.
To the north of the Well, Athersley Wood stretched along and between Carlton Road and Carlton Lane to Carlton Hill and village, which last was rendered as Carleton or Carlenton in Domesday; and therefore, as with nearby Cawthorne (recorded in Domesday as Caltorn), most likely derived from Gaelic caltuin, ‘hazel grove’ (as is the famous Carlton Hill in Edinburgh), which is a generic feature of ancient religious significance. Serpents were envisaged as living within hazel groves, and the full term for ‘serpent’ in Scottish Gaelic is nathair caltuinn, ‘snake of the hazel grove’. At Cawthorne there is Serpent’s Well, together with records of local folklore of a dragon flying between here and Cawthorne Park (likely by the river, where whatever named associated feature had existed would have been lost in the 18th century landscaping for Cannon Hall). The alternative name for Serpent’s Well of Butt Well appears (from comparative place-name research) to be derived from Gaelic bior-bhuasach; ‘water serpent’ (and/or bheithir, ‘serpent’, beithis — the largest and most poisonous form of the creature), reinforced by one of the meanings of bior being ‘well’. This compound word naturally would tend to be contracted over time, and under its influence would come to resemble butt in an English-speaking milieu because the meaning of ‘water receptacle’ fits the function of a well and the supposed residence of an aquaphilic beast. The same cross-naming of a serpent/dragon occurs at Conisbrough, where again there is record of folklore about a serpent/dragon residing there and flying across to another point, together with a Serpent’s Well naming (this is on the bank of the River Don beneath the limestone cliffs, though now apparently lost, being last referred to in a local newspaper report of 1881: https://sites.google.com/site/conisbroughlocalhistory/times-gone-by-1/from-the-1880-s/1881/quarter-2—april-to-june/drowning-2). The mythical beast’s other residence is indicated by placename evidence on or above the cliffs. Drake Head and Snake Lanes are crystal clear references, and there are the associated Butterbusk and (until the name was changed) Butt Hole Road. The ‘hole’ refers to the supposed beast’s cave, which would have been real enough but now lost through the extensive limestone quarrying there, though also remembered in the name of the adjacent village, Warmsworth (in Domesday as Wemesford, from Gaelic uiamh, ‘cave’, pronounced ‘weem’, as in Wemyss, Fife: the name of a set of coastal cliff caves, pronounced ‘weems’). The Cawthorne case (and ditto re a Butt Well at Stirling) has long been assumed to be a reference to the targets in archery practice, merely on the grounds that a field was named Butt Ing; when this is the field in which is located the well, and from which, naturally, the field would take its name. The Conisbrough mythological associations, as at Deepcar, are through dramatic topography and prehistoric (mesolithic and neolithic) human habitation.
It would appear, then, that just as is also evidenced in place-names at Cawthorne, there is in St Helen’s Well, Carlton (Road, Hill and village) and Athersley likewise a cluster of an ancient holy well and concrete allusions to a serpent and to a hazel grove. With this replicated cluster being a standard mythological mutual association in Gaelic folklore, then all of the evidence here is internally and externally consistent, and thus is fully explained the occurrence of a place-name for the locale with a derivation from nathair: Athersley.
This threesome is further extant in the Yorkshire Dales, near Leyburn in Coverdale: Nathwaite Bridge by Carlton Flats (near Carlton village) is immediately adjacent to a water feature named Ellers (the riverbank by the bridge). In several places a juxtaposition still survives of ‘St Helen’ and nathair. A preliminary look at a gazetteer linked to online mapping threw up very likely instances. Immediately adjacent to St Helens Well at Eshton in North Yorkshire is the otherwise highly peculiarly named Nappa Bridge; next to St Helena Island, Dumfries & Galloway, is Nathan’s Corner; and right by St Helens on the Isle of Wight is Nettleston. None of these are provable as derived from nathair, but in that this derivation looks likely or not unlikely adds to the internal consistency of the overall line of argument here. A more diligent search for instances of these mutual associations surely would bear further fruit.
To fully consider possible rival candidates for the ather- stem, and thereby to eliminate them from being serious contenders, it’s necessary to look etymologically more widely beyond place-naming to surnames. Long ago, Henry Harrison, in his Surnames of the United Kingdom: A Concise Etymological Dictionary, took ather- to be OE oedre, ‘spring’. Actually, the meaning is merely ‘water course’, ‘stream’; or ‘vein’, ‘artery’, ‘sinew’. The Old English for a spring is wielle or (a loan word from Latin) funta. So oedre would not be apposite re St Helen’s Well; but anyway questions are begged regarding the sound transitions that would be needed for oedre to become ather-. In later English oedre becomes edder, via Middle English edre. The ultimate root is in Proto-Indo-European eter, meaning ‘intestine’, ‘entrails’. The sense throughout the word’s evolution is nothing to do with a source of water but a containment for the conduit of fluid over distance. Harrison’s compilation was published back in 1918, when ‘Celtic’ generally, never mind Gaelic roots of English names, normally would not have been considered, leading to ‘forced’ derivations from a restricted lexicon (and of this, still today the English Place Name Society is all too frequently guilty). In any case, etymology was at that time lacking rigour, being far more like mere guesswork even than it is today. As for other attempts at derivation — back this time to the placename stem: they have been poor even by the low standards of placename research in England. Regarding also the possibly related Hattersley (Cheshire) and some of the various Atherstones, there is the usual feeble recourse to a supposition that the stem is from some ‘Anglo-Saxon’ first name. [Note, though, that the Warwickshire town instance of Atherstone is not a possibility, because it derives from Welsh aber-, ‘confluence’: the rivers Sense and Anker meet here. The place-name ‘experts’ seem not even to have twigged this blindingly obvious derivation, notwithstanding the Domesday entry being Aderestone.] The dire state of the specific etymology re Hattersley is starkly admitted by John McNeal Dogson: ‘The -er- in Hattersley Cheshire and Hothersall Lancashire’. Leeds Studies in English 18 (1987) http://digital.library.leeds.ac.uk/256/1/LSE1987_pp135-39_Dodgson_article.pdf
Looking across ‘Celtic’ language / mythology, there is decisive support for the argument that nathair indeed is the derivation of (King) Arthur in that — as explained above — the Gaelic compound word righ-nathair, literally ‘king-serpent’, is the term for ‘dragon’; exactly corresponding to the meaning of Arthur’s supposed surname, as that of his father in the Welsh tradition: Uther Pendragon (a compound with Welsh pen-, ‘chief’).
It’s hard to believe that no-one hitherto had come up with this analysis to account for the origin of King Arthur’s name. It must be, just as in the case of Robin Hood, that with a failure to fully appreciate the antiquity of much mythology, then there has been no consideration that quintessentially English figures would have even the remotest connection to Gaelic — especially as any cursory look would be dissuasive in the absence of an appreciation of the sometimes marked sound changes across the language transition to English. Yet none of these factors should apply to scholars, so where have they been? Apparently, the same place they often are: in ‘groupthink’ misplaced deference to ‘authority’, protecting their own position by avoiding the risk of stepping out of line, instead of thinking laterally, making some effort and doing their job.
Of course, notwithstanding the hitherto complete failure of etymological investigation, with this new foray the only coherent etymology ever put forward for (King) Arthur, there is the possibility that the derivation here is false. That would be an amazing constellation of misleading coincidence, but such is the susceptibility of human cognition to ‘confirmation bias’ and spotting patterns which aren’t there, that this cannot be dismissed as an insignificant likelihood. There will never be a science of etymology, and just as experts in etymology have made repeated howlers, then this is commonplace for non-experts like me. I can only give assurance that every effort has been made to be thorough, and to always test all alternatives. [Readers are invited to email corrections of any inaccuracies and faults with reasoning, which will be incorporated into the text, with attribution if appropriate. As of early 2018, none have come to light.]
From the research into the etymology of the Robin Hood name (see the parallel investigation on this site), we know that ‘serpent’ is an epithet of the pan-‘Celtic’ primary deity, Brid(h)e / Brigid. [Rather than reproduce all of the research into this here, it is perhaps best left in the context of the far more extensive etymological excavation that is the Robin Hood paper.] Arthur, then, is not merely akin to Robin Hood in being of Gaelic origin, but appears to be a manifestation of the very same major ‘earth’ goddess of regeneration — that is, he is the ‘sacred king’ figure who self-sacrifices to the ‘earth’ goddess; so that he takes her name whilst being dubbed ‘king’. This is hardly unexpected given the centrality in Arthurian legend of the ‘grail’ – another name for the mythical inexhaustible cauldron of regeneration lore; the receptacle of the sacred king’s self-sacrificial blood, spilled in homage to the deity with the supposed function of bringing renewed life to the land so as to continue the life/death/rebirth regenerative cycle. [The Arthurian stories in outline are familiar to everyone, and there is much writing on them without requiring any from me.] Still, it may be that the goddesses are not one and the same: one may be an earlier version or they may be of different mythological strands despite being of a similar gist given the same sort of ‘sacred king’-‘earth’ goddess relationship.
That they appear to us as entirely separate mythologies indicates that the two traditions originated from different cultures. It may well be that both pre-date Gaelic speaking, but are traceable back only thus far because they were mostly obliterated in being subsumed by a later, Gaelic-speaking culture; just as the ‘Celtic’-speaking cultures within the Western half of England were eclipsed and English became ubiquitous. As likely the most important and powerful aspects of cultures long expired, these two mythologies may be their only remaining traces. Alternatively, their power and persistence may indicate continuity rather than discontunity, so that they are better understood as earlier forms of more modern religion, with which they are essentially contiguous. We know in a very real sense that indeed they are, in that Christianity pragmatically took on the trappings of the religions they superseded. Of Robin Hood and Arthurian mythologies, then; one may be a precursor of the other.
King Arthur being still more obscure than Robin Hood suggests that Arthur may be the more ancestral figure of the two. On the other hand, whereas Robin Hood seems to be ambiguous as to whether he is the ‘red king’ self-sacrificial ‘sacred king’ or the deity to which this self-sacrifice is made; King Arthur is clearly distinguished as the former. It’s not clear if this clarity indicates a more recent origin for Arthurian than for Robin Hood mythology. Either way, the profundity of the notion of the life/death/rebirth never-ending cycle of regeneration as being the core of mythological imagination of old is pointed up by this surprising convergence of these two key English legendary personages.
Such a time immemorial seminally powerful basis of popular imagination must tell us something important about the foundations of what makes people and society tick; something which cannot but be important to people still today, whether or not they may be aware of it more explicitly than its gnawing away at their sense of identity and belongingness implicitly. As for what understanding may be entailed: understanding is for science, whereas mythology is how people deal with the impossibility or at least the unlikelihood that the really big questions will ever have answers. Quite apart from why religiosity may be adaptive — group cohesion, demonstrating reliability as a prospective pair-bond partner, status-seeking through group-elitism, or whatever — it does have a function that cannot be addressed by showing that any and every religion is counter-factual. This is the crucial point Richard Dawkins seems unable to see, and is why inasmuch as religion has been supplanted it is only by political philosophy that amounts to religion disguised. ‘Identity politics’ / ‘political correctness’ — see my paper on the origins of this new ideological totalitarianism here at this website — is a quasi-religion based on counter-factual nonsense in the extreme. Adherents are every bit as fanatical and irrational as those with fervent deistic faiths in the past, or more recently thought Stalin’s, Mao’s or Pol Pot’s and anybody else’s attempts to implement Marxism actually was a good or at least a reasonable idea. By comparison, ‘belief’ in the deities to which Robin Hood or King Arthur were ‘sacred kings’ would be benign, intelligent good sense.