ORIGIN OF ROBIN HOOD MYTHOLOGY
The Etymology of the ‘Robin Hood’ Name
[or, as previously titled]
The True Myth Behind the Unreal History
by Steve Moxon, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK. stevemoxon3(at)talktalk.net
Creative Commons copyright Steve Moxon, 2012 (with additions & re-writing, notably in 2015 and 2020; ongoing)
Etymological investigation reveals Robin Hood to be a purely mythological — in no way historical — figure whose name in both its elements is an Anglicisation of Gaelic: hud, ‘enchanted’, and likely co-roots of ruadhrí , ‘red king’, and rìbhinn, ‘maiden queen’, and also reubaim, ‘wounded’. The ‘red king’ is the generic ‘bleeding god’ of ‘regeneration’ mythologies, where the sympathetic magic ritual of the blood of a ‘sacred king’ is thought to be required to be spilled on the land to ensure its fertility. The ‘maiden queen’ is the goddess, the pan-Celtic Bríd(e)/ Bríg(id)/ Brigantia, to whom the blood sacrifice is made. The ‘red king’ figure as the ‘bridge’, as it were, between the human and the supernatural, unsurprisingly appears to have become confused with the deity.
To expand …..
There was never any real Robin Hood person. That he is a particular mythological and not an historical figure is clearly shown by the etymology:
Robin in this context is not the diminutive of Robert. Instead it would appear to be derived from a conflation of mutually reinforcing roots from a language anciently current across much or most of the British Isles: Gaelic; specifically (as it is now known) Scottish Gaelic. What likely is (or what became?) the main root is rodaidh, diminutive of ruadhrí, ‘red king‘, which is an epithet for the generic ‘bleeding’ figure of ‘regeneration’ mythologies, who sacrifices himself because his ‘regal’ blood supposedly is required to be shed on to the land to ensure its fertility (this being a very widespread notion of ‘sympathetic magic’); but which meaning and etymology is entwined with those of the deity to which sacrifice is made: the ‘Celtic’ deity Bríd(e)/ Bríg(hid). An epithet for this deity consequently is a prime candidate as a co-root: rìbhinn (rìgh-beann), literally ‘king-wife’, though meaning ‘maiden-queen‘. This distinction between a deity proper and a figure functioning as a supernatural / human ‘go-between’ is paralleled in the Christian Jesus / God duality; and just as in the present case they are somewhat confused in imagination. With this conceptual muddle it is only to be anticipated that correspondingly there would be conflation in the etymology, as we see with rodaidh and rìbhinn. Another co-root surely is reubaim or réabaim, stemming from reub, riab, ‘wound’, related to robhàs, ‘violent death’, appears to be one.
Hood is a qualification also in Gaelic: hud, ‘enchanted‘ — or, in Old Gaelic, ‘splendid one’ or ‘progeny of God’. It’s possible the qualification is in a later ‘Celtic’ language — Welsh, or (near enough the same) , Cumbric, in which hud means ‘magic, fairy’, in the sense of ‘devil, the old heathen’.
Little John was originally Jenkin, the diminutive of John (‘John-kin’); but this is an English-speaker’s rationalisation of the actual name / meaning, which, corresponding to the derivation of Robin (Hood), was also from (Scottish) Gaelic: sean-ceann, ‘old king‘. Presumably he’s conceptualised either as a defeated rival and/or ancestor of ‘the red king’ — or, as in some folksong, as his brother — by comparison supposedly insufficiently virulent to be effective as a blood-sacrifice to replenish the land. [This explains the story of the combat between Little John and Robin Hood, with the latter’s victory.]
Maid Marian is as her name: the maid (diminutive of maiden), referring to the ‘maiden-queen’ (the meaning of Robin in rìbhinn — rìgh-beann); and ‘of Mary’ — that is, she is herself the Christian figure, Mary. This mix-up between ‘Celtic’ and Christian (Catholic, ‘the old religion’) deities is a Christianisation only relatively recently introduced into Robin Hood mythology. Conceived of as the consort of ‘the red king’, though in origin the deity, Bríd(e)/ Bríg(id)/ Brigantia, to whom the ‘red king’ (self-)sacrifices, Maid Marian serves to point up the ‘red king’ identity of Robin Hood.
[The text is fully open-access: a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License was obtained on May 8, 2012, which grants full permission to reproduce, in part or whole, for all (including commercial) uses, on the condition of properly and fully attributing authorship to Steve Moxon.]
Preface: The first full investigation
1. Past and continuing failure of investigation
2: The outlaw red herring becomes a clue
3: The Hood last name is thousands of years old
4: As with Hood, playing detective with Robin
5: Robin the bird: a close relation?
6: The robin ‘hunting the wren’
7: Is Red Roger or Robin Hood ‘the red king’?
8: The code cracked: Robin Hood ancient crosses
9: Robin and maiden mixed up
10: The meaning ‘maiden’ consolidated: Maid Marian.
11: So where does Little John fit in?
12: The Robin Hood games: residual possibilities of derivation
14: From Robin Hood to dragons and hobby-horses
THE FIRST FULL INVESTIGATION
This is the first etymology-based concerted investigation into the origin of Robin Hood mythology, so the research herein is original. Little or no attempt hitherto has been made by anyone to employ etymology, yet a comprehensive use is necessary and absolutely key. In conjunction with comparative research in place-names as well as of parallel mythologies, this unlocks the whole mystery, revealing a clearly ancient origin in ‘regeneration’ mythologies and a specific deity, burying any notion of an historical (real) figure. Even so, very clear though the results may be, deciding on competing word roots is not a science, so there has to be some caution, notwithstanding the solid internal consistency. The findings are published as a web page to enable updating in the event of errors or rival possibilities coming to light. As of 2020 only modification by addition has proved appropriate, rather than any significant rethink. Readers are most welcome — and, indeed, encouraged — to submit any evidence and argument to challenge.
1. PAST AND CONTINUING FAILURE
Still today there are those quaintly if rather foolishly endeavouring to locate Robin Hood as (if he were) an historical personage, and in so doing ever more fully confirming the fruitlessness of such a search. Even some reputable academic investigators pointlessly try to sift through 13th and 14th century Robert Hodes, Robehods and Robin Hood aliases; most notably Professor Sir James Holt. His Robin Hood, first published back in 1982, is still the leading text of this ilk; and there is a trio of new books: Rupert Matthews’ On the Trail of the Real Robin Hood (2012), David Baldwin’s Robin Hood: The Outlaw Unmasked (2011), and Nigel Cawthorne’s A Brief History of Robin Hood: The True History Behind the Legend (2010).
It is, on the very contrary, the legend behind the merely imagined history that feasibly can be sought. To be a ‘real Robin Hooder’, as it were, is to suffer a tunnel-vision delusion that it is simply the failure thus far to unearth the very earliest-born of these that keeps Robin Hood a mystery. It’s never explained how a (supposedly) successful identification would be the end of the quest to understand the power of the Robin Hood name. It was long ago declared (by J.R. Walker in The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 141, 1944) that an original Mr Robin Hood had been identified (supposedly born at Wakefield between 1285 and 1295); yet, as it should have been anticipated, this has had not the slightest impact on the continued quest regarding origins. The claims keep coming, though. The latest is by the ‘real Robin Hooder’ with the most prominent internet presence: the endearingly enthusiastic albeit misguided Graham Kirkby (robinhoodloxley.net). He now claims that “a pardon for Robin Hood has been discovered” — dated 1382 for Robert Dore alias Robert Hode of Wadsley (the village next to Loxley) — thereby identifying this person as the original Robin Hood. But this is over a century after court records (in 1262) reveal that Robin Hood was already common currency as a nickname for a type of criminal. [All supposed ‘real’ Robin Hoods are too late in this regard. David Baldwin puts up Roger Godberg, who was outlawed more than a century before Robert Hode’s pardon, but this is in 1265.]
That he’s placing the cart before the horse is lost on Graham Kirkby, who regards as unreal not Robin Hood but Robin Hood mythology. This is a most elementary failure of logic, though surprisingly not uncommon — those who adhere with a passion to an idea seem to have no limit to how they are prepared to twist logic to maintain their belief; and therefore it bears an exposition. An initial diversion though it may seem, it’s important to nail this.
From a literal-minded perspective, as is Mr Kirkby’s, a system of thought handed down through the ages seems so completely intangible and dealing with the unreal, that it must have something concrete underlying it. A mythology, instead of being understood for what it is – a manifestation in accessible story form of universal and perennial evolved psychology – is seen as unbelievable fantasy explicable only as emanating from a specific history of human protagonists. In other words, the mythology is seen in a literal-minded fashion as drawing a general principle from a specific instance, whereas actually mythology is inherently a generality (arising from our common psychology) rendered more specific so as to be easily understandable. The quest to identify an underlying reality is a fallacy twice over: it entails asserting a mistaken locus of reality in what supposedly underpins a thought-system (here a ‘real’ Robin Hood), this then being used to denounce the thought-system (here Robin Hood mythology) as being supposedly the locus of unreality, even though this is the only basis of trying to identify any concrete underpinning in the first place.
Graham Kirkby and myself, living as we do in neighbouring parts of Sheffield, have had several friendly discussion sessions, but no amount of explanation using parallel examples has thus far persuaded him to see the wood for the trees. Kirkby charges that any other view than his literal-minded one is akin to belief in the ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’; yet, of course, such a belief parallels his own in Robin Hood. Contrary to his view is simply the acceptance that human belief in mythologies is a real phenomena, which hardly can be denied; except by Kirkby. He rather bizarrely insists that because a myth is non-real, that therefore any belief system and organised religion based on that myth is also non-real. Yet even spoof religions are real phenomena, self-evidently. To run with Graham Kirkby’s own example: recognising that ‘Pastafarianism’ may exist would in no way entail belief in the ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’. Such naive belief is reserved for the likes of ‘real’ Robin Hooders.
There is a parallel to the real/mythological duality of Robin Hood mythology and Robin Hood in the Christian God/Jesus. It should be obvious that Jesus was an invention so as to conceive of the Christian God in more tangible terms. Jesus in Christian imagination is literally a human version of ‘God’: a human offspring — ‘the son of God’ – of the entirely non-tangible supernatural. There is supposed evidence of hearsay and accounts long after his lifetime, but no reliable historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, whose acts bear all the hallmarks of being supernatural and not historical; though just as Jesus has a pedigree in being ‘the son of God’, so ‘God’ himself must have mythological progenitors. Likewise, although it has long been evident that Robin Hood is/was anything but ‘real’, this hardly puts an end to investigation. Not that this is likely to be easy. Even for minor mythological figures nowhere near as important as Robin Hood, the pedigree can be convoluted and the origin truly ancient. An illustration of this is the recent research [by Jamie Tehrani, presented at the 2011 British Science Festival] into the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ folk-tale, revealing a global trail going back several thousand years — not, please note, that there is any connection with Robin Hood in the shared Hood naming; it’s merely coincidental.
If it were possible that locating an original historical Robin Hood could reveal why the Robin Hood name is still so resonant to us today, then how could this individual have been so obscure even in his own day? Rather than escaping the historical record, surely he would have been celebrated – likely posthumously but still close in time to his life — as something like a popular saint.
Hence the search for someone from among the famous of the day (the period during which, or not long before, the various Robin Hood ballads first appeared in written form) whose exploits may have been allegorised in terms of a story ostensibly about Robin Hood, that takes advantage of the power of the Robin Hood name to use it as a euphemism for a then current political situation. Couching a politically explosive account within a generic, longstanding fiction would serve to protect authors and disseminators from charges of treason. Quite a few candidates have been touted — Hereward the Wake amongst them, but on no evidence; simply that he rebelled against the Normans. Most promising is Earl Waltheof, the last of the English barons, who became posthumously truly a popular saint. Not merely a (serial) rebel against William the Conqueror, Waltheof met a famous and dramatic demise full of intrigue that appears to match major elements of the ballad of Robin Hood’s death, with a telling naming of one of the protagonists as Roger of Doncaster (see below).
Such a search is of little help, though, in finding anything about Robin Hood; giving us a clearer picture only inasmuch as we are able to brush away the later detail of superimposition when we identify it as such. Earl Waltheof appears to be the nearest we have to an embodiment of Robin Hood, but all that stories eulogising Waltheof can indicate of Robin Hood are those qualities of Robin Hood that were apparent in Waltheof sufficient to connect the two in an allegory. In pointing up such qualities we do get a renewed window on to Robin Hood, albeit indirect and subject to clouding by how understanding of the mythology already had been filtered and adulterated by that time; but that is all. Yet some researchers seem to forget that any identification of an historical figure merely grafted on to Robin Hood mythology in no way provides a viable ‘famous man’ model of an origin. In any case, a ‘famous man’ understanding flies in the face of a prominent feature of the earliest Robin Hood literature: that the hero was anything but of high birth, being a simple yeoman. This paradox of an ‘everyman’ aspect simultaneous with exaltation is the hallmark of a deity — how people commonly conceive of a supernatural entity; which is but crudely rationalised in the story of a supposed bastard son of gentry in ‘Robin of Loxley’ (who is a quite recent — seventeenth century — concoction).
It is the mythological nature of Robin Hood that gives him his potency. But much of what little enquiry there has been gets no further than a lateral link with another mythological figure, ‘Robin Goodfellow’, which is to go no distance at all given that the earliest references actually are later than are those to Robin Hood. Deeper investigation, in not being focused on or not even including etymology of the Robin Hood name, has led to a cross-cultural smorgasbord of candidates along the mythic spectrum without any means of pinning one down. [See the on-line comprehensive overview by Hester NicEilidh: The Legend of Robin Hood: An Exploration of the Pagan Themes Within this Enduring Myth.] Simply looking at folklore and not also at etymology is a hopeless pursuit, that has led to anything but an accurate phylogeny of Robin Hood’s evolution.
As Ronald Hutton very briefly overviews in The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, it’s been variously concluded down the years that Robin Hood was originally: a ‘horned god’; some unspecified sun deity; a ‘spirit’ of vegetation — or more specifically of woodland; a god of pretty well everything; and the head of a witches coven. None of these forays, starting in the early nineteenth century right up to the present day, are well evidenced if evidenced at all; being highly speculative, if not mythologically semi-literate, and (as we can now see, from the present insights) either not remotely accurate or hopelessly vague in their conclusions. Somehow, for all the effort over the past two centuries, nobody hit on the truth, even by accident in a false analysis. That is quite some feat of failure there would be little value in reviewing here in any less dismissive way than does Ronald Hutton.
2: THE OUTLAW RED HERRING AS A CLUE
I won’t dwell long on what is apparently a relatively recent – not truly ancient – veneer of the characterisation of Robin Hood as an outlaw. With no shortage of outlaw folklore not associated with Robin Hood and of truly ancient and worldwide lineage [see Graham Seal’s 2011 book, Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History] then evidently there is a separate pedigree here, with Robin Hood and ‘outlaw’ lineages only later becoming conjoined. Furthermore, there is a mythological reason why outlawry would become attached to Robin Hood, as I will explain in due course.
We should strongly suspect that the Robin Hood name already existed long before its earliest reference in surviving historical record (1262); for the simple reason that historical record does not go back much further than the times when the earliest reference to Robin Hood occurs. In any case, vernacular concerns such as the mythological beliefs of common folk would not have been of interest to the very few officials charged with record-keeping; and likely most records from these very early times would have been lost.
After the Norman Conquest Robin Hood became the generic nickname for a class of criminal, as evident in the frequency of the use of the alias in early court records. The obvious assumption is that this came about through the introduction from the French of the new word into English, robber, which evoked the name Robin (Hood) as particularly apposite to label the many Englishmen the Normans dispossessed and outlawed (the context here being the draconian punishment for even mild breach of the ‘forest law’ that applied to the roughly one-third of England the Normans designated ‘forest’; this being the most notable and far-reaching manifestation of Norman overlordship, directly impacting on much if not most of the population). The similarity of a new word describing an activity forced on not a few by a foreign power to the name of what was long established as the emblem of Englishness, surely would suggest a co-opted association between them in popular parlance. This would be reinforced by the French familiar form of Robert being Robin, which name became popular in England after its importation by the Normans, presumably through the desire by many to associate with the new locus of power in aspiration of gaining some minor share of it. There is another, surely related French word, rabouin, ‘thieves’, seemingly still closer to robin, though this could have ended up in English via one of several language paths from a common Proto-Indo-European root *reub– / *reup-, ‘to snatch’. Its language evolution could have been within England long before the Norman invasion. The same French word (or one with the same spelling) has the meaning ‘devil’ — which would not be inappropriate for a Norman view of rebellious English outlaws — though this may have a separate etymology, with a completely different PIE root; and again may here be mistaken for a cognate in another language.
How, though, is sense to be made of the full name Robin Hood? Actually, we don’t know if prior to this co-option Robin Hood was fully of that name. Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood are usually thought to be one and the same, so there is a question as to ‘surname’. It may be that at one time Robin Hood was entirely without a ‘second name’. So it might be thought, naively, that Hood stems from an extension of the word robber to robberhood (as in the parallel construction brotherhood), on the assumption that robber would be apposite to denote an outlaw. The -hood suffix is not French, though, but from Old English raeden, meaning ‘with the quality of’ or ‘in the condition of’, which in context could indicate an habitual nature; and it seems also that it can have the sense of ‘collective’, as in a gang. Brotherhood has been in use as that spelling since the 14th or 15th century, and considerably earlier ending -hede or -hod; but there is no trace of the use of the suffix (in any spelling) with robber other than quite recently by the author Mark Twain, who appears, then, to be its inventor.
There are other rationales for a possible late addition of the Hood element, but other than highly parochial seeming non-starters [which may appear here in due course in an appendix, if at some time I am not working on more important projects] there is only one that looks promising. This is an idiom used across the British Isles until quite recent times: to have one’s hood on, meaning ‘to take offence, be angry’. This is clearly related to the still much used expression in Northern England (certainly in South Yorkshire) of he’s got t’monk on (more fully, allegedly, he’s got t’black monk on his shoulder) to refer to someone in a foul mood – a monk being, obviously, an indirect reference to a hood in that the chief identifying feature of a monk is his habit with its large hood. He’s got t’hood on seems apposite to explain the Robin Hood surname for Robin Hood outlaw given the anger an outlaw would feel at dispossession by alien overlords – though perhaps also regarding the need to disguise given the legal right of anyone to kill an outlaw on sight. What better name than a by then likely already highly mysterious emblem of Englishness? Note, though, that no explanation offers itself as to why ‘having one’s hood on’ denotes taking offence and anger. It would seem that the word hood in this context is not as it appears. It must come from a language now extinct across England, which strongly suggests that it is truly ancient, not post-Conquest.
3: THE HOOD LAST NAME IS THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD
An insight into the meaning of the word/name Hood is what initially sparked my interest in investigating the etymology of Robin Hood. Several years ago, walking in Pennine South Yorkshire on the road through the hamlet of Hood Hill, I met an elderly man who, spotting my interest in the landscape and history, invited me into the house of an even older woman, who earnestly explained to me that Hood meant “the devil”. Clearly they were very aware that the locally understood meaning or principal association of the place-name of where they lived was likely to die with them, and so were keen to pass it on to anyone whom they might interest.
It was easy to check their claim: just look for other instances of the same place-name to see if there is any ‘devil’ association. Sure enough, such comparative place-name evidence is available. Hood Hill near Kilburn, North Yorkshire, is known locally as Devil’s Leap or Stride. The devil is supposed to have dropped at the hill top the Devil’s Stone, alternatively named Hood’s Stone, which features a mark taken to be the devil’s footprint. It’s considered locally to be a ‘druidical’ altar, in a direct reference to a former ‘Celtic’ religion.
The Hood place-naming here looks like a classic case of when a religion was superseded, partly forgotten but not quite extinguished, and then demonised as the antithesis of what replaced it. Apparently confirming a religious derivation is a cluster of place-names in Somerset: Hodshill and Odd Down straddle the ancient ditch of Wansdyke (often thought to be from Woden, the Anglo-Saxon deity; though more likely from Welsh wyn, ‘holy’, wan, ‘sacred enclosure’ – the earlier form of what later became llan).
The devil was conceived of by Christians as a fallen angel cast out of heaven: a succinct formulation that effectively warned that any other religiosity was deceptively well-meaning, and really full of the evil that prevents entry to heaven. Given that the eclipse of ‘pagan’ religions by Christianity is many centuries before even the Norman Conquest, as is the context of ‘Celtic’ languages in England; then the origin of naming is in the realm of thousands rather than hundreds of years ago.
Clearly, ‘devil’ has nothing to do with the meaning of the English word hood. It must be an Anglicisation from another language of a word that means ‘devil’. This would explain the curiousness of the expression got t’hood on, which cannot be understood in terms of its surface meaning of ‘head covering’ to convey its actual meaning of ‘taking offence or anger’. With hood instead denoting ‘the devil’ – which indeed is what is meant by the ‘black monk’ (a ‘monk’ being distinguished by the hood of the habit) in the related expression got monk on, which fully is got t’black monk on ‘is shoulder — then the whole idiom becomes in effect ‘got the devil in the head’, which is a forceful expression to convey taking offence or anger. The allusion to hood in the substitution of monk is evident in the naming of the monk seal after the dark hood-like feature on its head.
So what is the word – from what language – that was thus Anglicised? There is nothing in Norse or with a more Germanic root that could Anglicise to hood with a meaning of ‘devil’. What may seem plausible is the name of a Norse God, Hodr (pronouced something like ‘hoh-der or ‘hother’), but the meaning is ‘warrior’ or ‘killer’, and the deity is but a minor figure within Norse mythology; and anyway Norse settlement was very thin indeed (as latest and more fine-scale genetic research shows: see below), even in the Danelaw; never mind in the large areas of Britain where the absence of any Norse left older culture completely undisturbed by any Norse influence. We therefore have to go still further back in time to languages that once were current in Britain (on this point, more below): the ‘Celtic’ tongues. Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Cumbric, Pictish and Welsh. It would be thought that Welsh, once widespread across England, and also the now completely extinct Cumbric would be best bets, but I combed all of the lexicons. The very word we are looking for soon pops up. It was so easy to find that I was left scratching my head as to why no-one had realised this.
There is indeed a Welsh word that fits: hud, ‘magic, enchantment, fairy’. [The pronunciation with Welsh long ‘u’ is somewhere nearer long ‘e’ in English — that is between long ‘u’ and long ‘e’; this being easily near enough the pronunciation of English hood, when account is taken of the expected sound changes in the transition from Welsh to English and over time.] ‘Fairy’ here is really ‘the devil’. The notion of a ‘fairy’ being a harmless, even charming creature is a recent view (think nursery rhyme vestiges of former blood-curdling tales). A more diligent search for instances of Hood Hill throws up Hod(d) Hill in Dorset, where the folklore of this locale describes the faeries of the hill (an ancient hill fort) ringing the bells of nearby Stourpaine Church. The sense here is clearly ‘devil’. At a time when Christianity was a new religion or still in contest for allegiance with pre-Christian mythology, it would have been important to pointedly contrast with the old. The most effective way of doing this is simply to polarise as much as possible, and deem the former deity ‘the devil’. Over time, as the purpose of this ruse faded, ‘the devil’ would give way in vernacular conception to something much more harmless.
As for the derivation of Hood Hill, this is confirmed: in later casting around for any references in local records to Hood Hill, South Yorkshire, I found that previously the name actually had (or alternatively had) been Hud Hill. This spelling occurs in the 1881 Census, in which one Emma Glassby was given as residing at Hud Hill, Tankersley. Then in the Census of 1851, there was listed Hud Hill Lodge, Wentworth, Rotherham; and the Wath baptismal register for 1786 listed a grandson of Ann, daughter of William & Ann Burgand of Hudhill.
Sense can now be made of the latter-day transformation of Robin Hood into an outlaw figure. To be latterly called ‘devil’, Robin must have represented – embodied – a deity that although officially vanquished nonetheless survived in a hidden form. Robin Hood then indeed would be an outlaw if his predicament were given concrete rather than supernatural expression. It’s a metaphor that would have resonated loudly in the wake of William the Conqueror. A supernatural figure thereby was rendered superficially into the ordinary, mortal, dispossessed yeoman of Robin Hood folktale. This answers the quandary as to how Robin Hood could be exalted without being of the nobility.
However, derivation is likely older than Welsh / Cumbric. Hud appears and has a similar meaning in Gaelic. In Old Gaelic it is variously translated as ‘splendid one’, ‘outshining of God’ or ‘progeny of God’; but more generically and (relatively speaking) most concretely appears in Old Irish legend, meaning ‘enchanted’. [A great part of Ireland was thought anciently to have been swallowed by the sea but with at times a portion of it rising back out of the sea as an enchanted island, Tir Hud (‘hud land’). This is the ancient understanding that a body of water is a liminal entrance to or portal between this and the ‘otherworld’.]
4: AS WITH HOOD, PLAYING DETECTIVE WITH ROBIN
What, then, is the supernatural figure who latterly, though nonetheless still anciently, came to be seen as ‘the devil’? With hood a qualification of robin, and even this qualification ancient in being ‘Celtic’; then the etymology of Robin likewise has to be ‘Celtic’ – at the latest. If the etymology of Hood is Gaelic, then so too must be that of Robin; that is, Gaelic must be the latest possible etymology. [‘Celtic’ language evolved to diverge from the original, known as Proto-Celtic, in two distinct but still related phases, which did not arise in parallel but the one before the other. First, there was a ‘Goidelic’ branch (Gaelic, in what became related but separate Irish, Scottish and Manx forms); then the original Proto-Celtic stem later evolved into ‘Brittonic’ Celtic (which became the related but separate Welsh, Pictish, Cumbric and Cornish).]
This leaves the Robin Hood literature, being late-medieval, unlikely to be a useful seam to mine, at least on its own, without major clues to unlock meaning – and I will come on to the ballad of the death of Robin Hood when a key to that ballad’s meaning emerges. With none of the literature dating back more than a few hundred years, it even post-dates the record we have of the legend being in popular parlance (as above-mentioned, surviving court records from 1262 reveal ‘Robin Hood’ already to be a nickname for criminals of certain kinds). The balladry is bound to be multiply overlaid with confounding story elements from elsewhere and conjectures by authors trying to make sense of what had become unfathomable. Luckily, an etymological enquiry is a focus on that aspect of Robin (Hood) that would be expected to have undergone the least change over time: the very name itself. My own research into local (Pennine South Yorkshire / ‘Dark Peak’) place-names reveals a plethora of ‘Celtic’ survivals and with a remarkable close resemblance to the original word(s) — see other papers on this website.
Having already found that we should not take a name at face-value, then there is no point in considering robin in the context of Robin Hood as if it were the common personal name Robin: as merely the French familiar form of Robert, and ultimately the German construction hrod-berht, meaning ‘fame, glory’ + ‘bright’. This is the accepted etymology of Robert/Robin when it is indeed this French-import personal name we’re dealing with; but we don’t know what we are dealing with in the case of a word that superficially seems to be the Robin variant of Robert but whose provenance may well be – and is surely here – anything but.
The meaning ‘fame, glory’ + ‘bright’ being manifest only in Old German, then it would not be known to either English-speakers or their Norman overlords. How then could there be the adoption, to attach to the most important English mythological figure, of a name which is foreign to English-speakers to the extent that it is amorphous as to meaning? In any case, even if the meaning had been known, no sense could have been made of ‘bright fame’. Famous as/for what? For a figure of the legendary stature of Robin Hood there must be some very powerful basis of his renown, which surely would be registered in his very name. Robin (Hood) must have a more intelligible etymology. That taking the name at face-value gets us nowhere is just as would be expected, though: how otherwise would Robin (Hood) have remained such a mystery? Because nobody has considered it could be from Gaelic. Returning to Robin Hood as an outlaw, Gaelic reubainn, ‘robbing, robbery, plundering, freebooting’ is the closest in sound to robin of all the cognates (all having the gist of ‘to take off by force’) in various languages, including Latin, from where it could have arisen, but it could be more directly from the afore-mentioned Proto-Indo-European *reub– / *reup-, ‘to snatch’. However, as has been noted, outlawry is a recent veneer on Robin Hood mythology, so why would a Gaelic word arise in an almost early-modern English context? A wider perspective on the robin name seems to be required.
5: ROBIN THE BIRD: A CLOSE RELATION?
Robin (Hood) is not the only robin in British mythology: there is the folklore of the robin (redbreast) and the wren. Given that we have more of a concrete handle on the bird robin than on Robin Hood, then this seems a good starting point to attack the mystery. The problem is that there isn’t an etymology even for the bird.
Just how intractable a problem for etymologists is the word for robin (redbreast) is shown by the long but entirely inconclusive exposition by Anatoly Liberman in a whole chapter on this specific topic in his 2008 book, An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction, and later, and just as inconclusively, in four consecutive expositions in early 2019 on his blog, The Oxford Etymologist. It is known (as Liberman points out) that the word emanates from Scotland and emerged late, which is inconsistent with a derivation (as might initially be expected) from the Latin ruber, ‘red’.
The bird robin has a mythological context in the traditional – genuinely ancient — year’s end (St Stephen’s Day – Boxing Day) ritual of ‘hunting the wren’, which is taken to be in reprisal for the wren supposedly having killed the robin. This would seem a clear instance of regeneration mythology: the use of sympathetic magic to ensure the resumption of life and fertility seemingly gone forever with the onset of winter, through affirming some essence of this in clearing away the dead wood, as it were, of the year now faded and gone. It’s a supposed battle between the robin, which represented the new year, as against the old one represented by the wren; the birds being known in this context as the ‘cock’ robin and the ‘jenny’ or ‘cutty’ wren. [In the practice of the custom, a group of men took up on behalf of the robin to seek and capture a wren, to secure it, live (albeit in some localities deliberately maimed), to a pole which is then paraded about the village.] The curious aspect of this is that although in contest the two birds were regarded as male regal antagonists – the wren being considered ‘the king of all birds’ — they were also imagined as husband and wife: the robin as being male, the wren female. A sexual union across species?! A whole species of but a single sex?! Well, the epithets ‘cock’ and ‘jenny’ are not at all what they seem, and appear to have led to a latter-day misinterpretation.
Contrary to what may be assumed, ‘cock’ as it denotes here the robin, is not to do with assigning male sex. Cock (cokk) was a common perversion of, or substitution for the word God. Such euphemisms were often used in what are dubbed ‘minced oaths’ so as to avoid potential offence by a word or phrase. This became very common in the 16th century, but specifically cokk (and gog) to substitute for God were current two hundred years earlier. The word originates in Scottish Gaelic coc, which signifies a containment: ‘case, husk, sheath’, and, indeed, ‘shrine’. The robin redbreast appears to have been viewed as enshrining the deity it represents. And sure enough, as the victorious ‘king’ in the battle of the birds, the robin redbreast surely does represent the deity; in its ascendant form.
Likewise, the epithet ‘jenny’ only superficially indicates female sex: it is a diminutive of an Anglicisation of a Scottish Gaelic compound word meaning ‘old king’ (which is precisely the role of the wren in the mythology, but the derivation of ‘jenny’ is for later when I come on to Little John). The ‘cock’ and ‘jenny’ epithets confirm that the robin and wren were envisaged as battling kings encapsulating deities or different aspects of a deity. However, they do not entirely explain the sexual ambiguity – for reasons I have to delay providing until later discussion.
The details of the conceptualisation behind the sympathetic magic are not too important. That this battle is at the winter equinox (bar a few days that can be accounted for by the historical calendrical shifts) seems, clearly enough, to try to ensure that the sun starts to wax as it reaches the extent of its waning, as in a usual ‘solar’ festive rite — though this is not to say that a pastoral calendar would not also fit. Everyone could then ascribe the arrival of spring to the forethought of celebrating the continuity of life beforehand. It may be that the custom’s position in the calendar has, like so many others, changed considerably; but, whichever are the details, what is at issue invariably is light; sun.
This fits with the understanding generally — but the reliability of this is another question, in that it’s likely some at least originated with Robert Graves, whose book, The White Goddess, is a scantily evidenced, fanciful, almost stream-of-consciousness idiosyncratic account — that in ‘Celtic’ mythology there was a deity, Beli(nus), a solar ‘light’ and ‘life’ figure, whose sacred bird was the robin; and a supposedly earlier deity, Bran, of the underworld, who was an ‘earth’ and ‘death’ figure, whose sacred bird was the wren. Bran was conceived of as female, with Beli, male; yet they had a fratricidal relationship. Bran slew his brother Beli. [The fashionable notion of male ‘sky’ gods having ‘overthrown’ female ‘earth’ goddesses is feminist invention derived from the false assumption that primordially societies were ‘matriarchal’. Actually, the notion of a distinction between ‘patriarchy’ / ‘matriachy’ is a deeply flawed one; but in any case, however categorised, the nature of the society bears no relation to the sex of any predominant deity. There have always been both male agentic ‘fertilising’ ‘sun’ and female passive ‘nurturing’ ‘earth’ deities, because humans have always understood the importance of both and their ‘symbiosis’, and naturally have envisaged deities as mirrors to human life. Thus, deities are often or usually considered to be husband-and-wife dyads; this conceptualisation often being subsequently ‘forced’ on what were different relationships, and even when the deities are not opposite-sex; thereby modifying the mythology to render it somewhat opaque and confused, just as we see in the case of the robin and the wren.]
What the robin encapsulates is apparent in a custom still widespread in the 19th century, variously called Robin’s Alight, Robin’s Alive or Jack’s Alive (Jack being a form of John, the significance of which will be apparent when I come on to discuss Little John). [See Francis Willoughby’s Book of Games (published originally in the 17th century, edited and updated by Cram, Forgeng and Johnson in 2003).] The verse of one version goes: “The bird is (or Robin’s) alive, and alive like to be; if it dies in my hand you may back-saddle me”. [The forfeit seems to be in effect to become a horse: a ‘hobby horse’ embodiment of a deity.] According to Folk-lore Journal (1886 IV p123), in Cornwall it was: “played around a fire. A piece of stick is set on fire, and whirled around rapidly in the hand of the first player, who says, ‘Robin’s alight, and if he go out I will saddle your back’. It is then passed to the next who says the same thing, and so on. The person who lets the spark die out has to pay a forfeit.”
Given that we know we have to be looking for a ‘Celtic’ etymology, and given also that the word seemingly originated in Scotland, then this should be specifically Scottish Gaelic – as we know to expect given that the ‘cock’ and ‘jenny’ epithets are both from Scottish Gaelic words (see below). Actually, the robin was known in Scotland originally as the ruddock. This appears to be from Scottish Gaelic ruaidhrí, ‘red king’ (Old Irish rúad, that in turn derives from Proto-Celtic rowdo, ‘red’; plus rí, ‘king’), which would Anglicise to ‘roderick’, to then truncate in popular speech over time to ‘ruddock’. ‘Red king’ is highly apposite in that, obviously, red is the colour of the robin’s highly distinctive breast; not to mention that it’s a likely reference to the blood often spilt in fights to the death in which the extremely belligerent male robins engage to defend territory around winter solstice time, just ahead of the species’ breeding season. Robins are highly visible within the landscape. It is this combination of appearance and behaviour presumably that led to the robin being chosen as a folkloric protagonist in the supposed changeover of kings at the year’s end. [The wren seems to have been chosen as the adversary / wife simply because it too is highly visible, in being the commonest bird, with a very loud song.]
The ‘red king’ attribution may be thought specifically to refer to having blood on one’s hands – though this being an allegory of the sun changing from waning to waxing, then perhaps ‘red’ may refer ultimately to the sun’s renewed brightness? ‘The red king’ in the mythological supposed history of Ireland is so named because he had on his hands the blood of Ireland’s only female monarch. However, the same epithet was applied to William Rufus, William the Conqueror’s successor, simply because of his red beard. It may be similarly that the robin was named solely after his red breast. But ‘the red king’ is an apparently generic mythological figure (though proper scholarship on this appears rare): the annual sacrificial victim, whose blood is spilt on the ground to ensure its fertility in an act of ‘sympathetic magic’ the like of which is to be found the world over. So does the epithet ‘red’ refer to the robin’s own blood? Well, in the Boxing Day rite, locals are surrogates of the robin, so here it’s the robin who has the wren’s blood on his hands — or chest. The red of the robin’s chest is envisaged as the blood of the wren. Actually, the issue of whose blood is spilt is a merry-go-round, with both the wren and the robin spilling blood, in that, in effect, last year’s wren is this year’s robin and vice-versa. Don’t both the robin and the wren self-sacrifice? So the confusion, really, is apparent only. The confusion is the point. It neatly reveals the essence of the regenerative cycle.
Anyway, how, then, did the ruddock become the robin? It would seem to be through ruaidhrí acquiring the diminutive form rodaidh, pronounced ‘roddy’; which differs from ‘robby’ by nothing more than a double medial consonant that could easily be mutually confused. A change from ‘dd’ to ‘bb’ would be a simple, standard word evolution that requires only a listener expectation of such a change; and if that was not there already, then it would be provided with the arrival in Britain of the Norman-French personal name Robin, to which the indigenous populace became rapidly familiarised. I will return later (in section 9) to the issue of whether a listener expectation was already in place.
A simpler, and surely at least contributary etymology here, though, is the Gaelic word robhàs, ‘violent death’, which appears to relate to the Irish word reubaim or réabaim, stemming from reub, riab, ‘wound’. Minor grammatical modification would produce a word denoting an individual who had died violently as a result of wounding, or was apparently mortally wounded. Might this have been the basis of a vernacular parallel appellation for the bird? There do seem to be many instances of very old (Gaelic) words not being first recorded until early modern times. Despite having long been current, a word may not be officially recognised, or considered archaic and ignored, then to resurface, either through much improved recording or under the influence of a new naming it resembles.
Was Anatoly Liberman foxed through not considering a Scottish Gaelic root even though he knew the word origin to be seemingly Scottish? Anyway, there is now a cogent explanation as to why this famously red-breasted bird was first called the ruddock and later the robin.
6: THE ROBIN ‘HUNTING THE WREN’
So what of the robin’s adversary / wife: the wren? Well, first there is a clear parallel with the Hood element in Robin Hood, in that the wren is identified with ‘the devil’ in one of the two alternative epithets (‘cutty’ as opposed to ‘jenny’) given to the wren in ‘hunting the wren’ folklore. Cluitie is a Scottish Gaelic word used as a euphemism for ‘the devil’, deriving from a word meaning ‘cloven hoof’; the devil from very ancient times and across cultures European and beyond having been depicted with one human foot and the other with a cleft hoof. This seems to be a way to very distinctively signal a half-man/half-beast quality so as to portray a former deity in a derogatory manner. Clootie wells are wells or springs where pilgrims leave strips of cloth or rags, usually as part of a healing ritual; these being known in Northern England as well as in Scotland. The ‘cutty’ epithet seems likely the result of the ‘l’ in cluitie being lost; perhaps through just a simplification in sound over time and/or a conflation with the word cwta, ‘short’ or ‘bob-tailed’, which may be apposite to describe the wren.
The wren is known in Scotland and Ireland (and previously in England) as the wran (ran, wrannie, rannie). The etymology is ‘unknown’ according to all authorities, bar a guess nearly a century ago by H Kirke Swan (in his Dictionary of English and Folk-names of British Birds) — Anglo-Saxon wroenyia , ‘lascivious’ (lustful). Swan acknowledges the above-cited sexual incongruity and betrays his absence of confidence in his own derivation in asking: “how it came to be popularly supposed more recently to be peculiarly feminine is not readily apparent”. Neither is it apparent beyond Swan’s mere assumption that this attribution was recent.
Interestingly, wran is a Breton word referring to an ‘elemental spirit’ (at least according to the 19th century occultist Helena Blavatsky; a suspect source admittedly); so, likely as not, the word will have a mythological significance in the related language of Scottish Gaelic, to match the etymological source of the word robin. We know this in any case, from the once popular expression: ‘the robin and the wren: God’s cock and hen’.
The word that leaps out from a Scottish Gaelic lexicon is rìghinn, being pronounced with the ‘gh’ pretty well silent and the ‘i’ elongated (as denoted in Gaelic by the grave accent) to sound like English long-‘e’. The overall sound is something like ‘ree-(y)in’, which is just a mild truncation (as would happen over time in speech) away from ‘wran’ or ‘wren’. The literal meaning of the original constituents of the compound word (rìgh + bhean) is ‘king-woman’ or ‘king-wife’. The wren apparently is conceived of as the wife – the queen – of ‘the red king’, which fits with the popular conception of the robin and the wren as husband and wife. Yet the wren as the opponent of ‘the red king’ surely is a king, not a queen? As above-mentioned, the wren was considered ‘the king of all birds’.
It had seemed (see above) that a latter-day interpretation of the ‘jenny’ epithet explains the sexual incongruity, but it looks now to be deeper. The meaning ‘king-wife’ may even be literally that the wren is incongruously both ‘king’ and ‘wife’.
It gets more confusing. Rìghinn more specifically means ‘maiden (nymph)’, and in particular ‘maiden-queen’ in direct reference to the pan-‘Celtic’ deity Bríd (Bríg, Brighid), Christianised as St Bríde, whose saint’s day of February 1st is a major festival of ‘regeneration’ magic immediately prior to spring. Quite obviously Rìghinn is the origin of Welsh rhiain(u) (Anglicised as Rhianna), which has the same meaning of ‘maiden’ and a similar reference to a fertility deity. So rather than an ‘old king’ we seem to have a ‘young queen’. However, it may be that the etymology of wran/wren in rìghinn as it appears in the closely related Brittonic languages flips the meaning from ‘maiden’ to ‘hag’: Welsh (g)wrach and Cornish wragh both mean ‘hag, old woman’. We know this is used in a mythological context, as in the legend of the Giant Bolster as St Agnes (a classic instance of maiden-to-hag ‘regeneration’ folklore).
Further evidence of a ‘hag’ rather than a ‘maiden’ reading, and this time in Scotland, comes from a practice anciently in Scotland surviving into the 17th century of hastening the end of old people ‘too long alive’, at the request of the old person her/himself. This was known as ‘ringing the Millen Bridle’, as part of which custom it was chanted through the bedroom keyhole: “cran’s flesh or wran’s flesh, come oot thy way”. This is outlined in a record of an incident in 1663, related by J M Mcpherson in Primitive Beliefs in the North-East Scotland (1929). Clearly, the hag and the wran are here associated. The ‘bridle’ is likely a reference to the name of the goddess; the millen referring to a ‘holy hammer’ kept in the local church. There was a very similar Breton practice, revealing it to be pan-‘Celtic’.
Now, though I don’t want to get into discussion of the supposed ‘triple-goddess’ (maiden-mother-hag) nature of Bríd(e)/ Bríg(id), because this is regarded by (some) scholars as an invention of Robert Graves; there is no escaping the transformation in folk imagination of the ‘maiden-queen’ Goddess into an ogre. This may be related to the conceptualisation of the wren as the murderer of the robin, as the basis of the Boxing Day ritual of taking the robin’s side to in turn murder the wren. But then, it may be more simply the regenerative cycle being reflected in the usual ageing process whereby young beauty inevitably in time turns into the hag: ‘the old woman’ so evident across folklore and in place-names. Either way, there is here confusion between the ‘sacred king’ figures and the deity to which they sacrifice. The maiden to hag transformation may be also concerning the superseding Christian religion casting the former religion of which the Goddess is emblematic as being ‘of the devil’.
Further confusion — and it would appear that confusion is what it is, thereby demonstrating that taking account of simple confusion is necessary in trying to decipher the mythology — is indicated by the alternative meaning in Scotland of ruddock, the former word used to denote the robin redbreast: ‘haggard old woman, hag, beldam, monster’. ‘The red king’ and his antagonist seem here to have swapped places.
Well, notwithstanding conflation and confusion, we do now have an etymologically evidenced solution in outline to the great mystery of the robin and the wren (‘hunting the wren’). Even so, inasmuch as this is and can ever be sorted, it’s only in respect of the one guise of robin: what about the other robin in mythology? Is Robin (Hood) also ‘the red king’ but similarly conflated as to meaning and in the etymology?
7: IS ROBIN HOOD OR RED ROGER ‘THE RED KING’?
The clue gleaned from the etymology of ‘the red king’s mythological role is just what is needed to potentially illuminate Robin Hood folklore, within which ‘the red king’ would appear to figure in the guise of Red Roger; a character who tries to kill Robin Hood in the ballad of Robin Hood’s death, but is himself killed by Robin Hood. Red Roger is alternatively – and with curious specificity — named Roger of Doncaster, which may be thought a reference to Roger de Buisli (whose seat was at Tickhill, Doncaster) if the conjecture I alluded to above is not awry: of the ballad of Robin Hood’s death possibly having been hijacked to propagate a legend of the circumstances surrounding the death of Earl Waltheof. Doncaster would appear to be an elaboration of Donn(e), given that the ballad of Robyn and Gandelyn (albeit not explicitly a Robin Hood ballad) features a character named Wrennok of Donne. ‘The House of Donn’ is the Otherworld in Irish mythology; and with Donn being the God of the dead, the Otherword is alternatively known as ‘the House of the Dead’.
Pretty obviously, the Roger element relates to ‘Old Roger’, a former nickname for the Devil; which appears in a traditional song beginning with the line ‘Old Roger is dead’, and the verses so beginning are reiterated substituting ‘Cock Robin’, indicating that the two characters may be synonymous.
Etymologically the common first name Rodger supposedly is from Old High German Hrodgar (or Old Norse Hróðgeirr), meaning ‘famous spear’. This would be apt for our Red Roger, but in Gaelic-speaking areas rodger is an Anglicisation of the very Gaelic word (ruaidhrí, ‘red king’) we have just been discussing in respect of the robin redbreast. The details of this transition seem to be, as before with Robin, a Scottish Anglicisation as the proper name Roderick and its diminutive offspring Roddy; but then in place of the advent of the Norman personal name Robin to drive an expectation to an English ear, there was the introduction of the personal name Rodger. This would have driven the assimilation of what was originally Gaelic to become the same word, and in doing so the two meanings ‘red king’ and ‘famous spear’ may have become intertwined. Both meanings fit the figure of ‘Red Roger’, according to either possible meaning of the ‘red’ epithet: of having blood on one’s hands or being a sacrificial victim.
That this is ‘regeneration’ mythology is plain to see, being fully in line with other such from the British Isles (eg; Christ, the Fisher King, Cu Chulainn, the martyrdom of Edmund, the Giant Bolster at St Agnes, Cornwall, etc, as well as the Robin and the wren). As Hester NicEilidh points out, [see her on-line essay, The Dying Hero: Washed, Bound, Pierced & Bled; A Recurring Mythic Pattern in British Legend. 2002] common to all is that the deity is bound or somehow incapacitated, then pierced in a key, often vulnerable spot, with a particular weapon, and in consequence bleeds to death, with the blood collected in some sacred vessel (this exalted blood being considered the encapsulation of a life force). This is an accurate description of the essentials in the encounter between Robin Hood and the prioress in the ballad. Moreover, Robin’s death is fully anticipated, featuring as it does a procession along a route lined with people lamenting his impending death. This mourning for someone still very much alive reveals that it’s a ritual killing.
It is somewhat unclear as to which protagonist is the ‘red king’ figure (but then, from what we already know, should this be any surprise?): both Robin Hood and Red Roger die. There is a third, highly interesting figure in the prioress, who bleeds Robin to death. Though this is by subterfuge, the death is in the classic mythological style Hester NicEilidh outlines. But how does she figure in the mythological framework? Surely she must be the deity to whom the sacrifice is made: a ‘maiden-queen’ figure. However, her role may better be understood as allegorising the usurpation of ‘the old religion’ by the new — Christianity being embodied quite literally by a prioress. Perhaps the prioress represents the resilience of a ‘maiden-queen’ mythology continued into Christianity? We know that there was such resilience given the cult of Mary. And what are we to make of the prioress being explicitly a close relative of Robin Hood’s: his cousin? Also, the inference from the text that ‘Red Roger’ and the prioress are lovers? It seems that here as across a range of related folklore, the female figure — the ‘heroine’, as it were, vis-a-vis the ‘hero’ — can be pretty well all things to all men. According to Bob Stewart, in his book, Where is St George? (p47), she can be maiden, lover, sister, mother, murderess, or a permutation of two or more of these, leaving it difficult to pin down which particular figure or role she represents.
If we focus on just the Red Roger and Robin Hood protagonists, do they represent ‘the red king’ and ‘the old king’ elements but confusedly: partially conflated?
The ballad of Robin Hood’s death is the oldest (or amongst the very oldest) Robin Hood folklore, so it is about the most reliable text from which to deduce the mythological framework. It would seem that Robin Hood represents in himself a progressive conflation of ‘the red king’ and ‘the old king’. So is the etymology of robin as in Robin Hood the Scottish Gaelic for ‘red king’? Or is it, perhaps, some mixture of ‘red king’ and ‘old king’? Robin Hood balladry is a mix-up of mythological strands, as we found after sorting the robin and the wren.
8: THE CODE CRACKED: ROBIN HOOD ANCIENT CROSSES
There is a window on all this in that luckily the Robin Hood name exists as more than just a mystery in records of folklore and cryptically in medieval ballads, but also more concretely as the major element in minor place-names of varying antiquity in various locales. These provide potentially very useful clues through the sort of features in the landscape to which the name is attached. Most strikingly, ‘Robin Hood’ is an appellation given to various notable natural features and, especially, to ancient wells (of which there are a large number), and wayside / boundary crosses. It’s the latter I want to focus upon. The number of actual Robin Hood crosses is relatively small, but their number is greatly expanded when you consider the crosses alternatively named the diminutive familiars of Robin: Hob and Dob. These names occur regularly attached to ancient crosses in Northern England, notably in Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The crosses have an all too obvious religious significance, indicating an homologous etymology with Robin, in that a cross though formally a Christian object may have been regarded and named in ‘pagan’ terms, as was evident in the cult of Mary. The function of these crosses was a dual, mutually reinforcing one, of indicating an important (major or religious) route (such as a burial road) and asserting the Christian faith in the face of the paganism that so strongly survived well into the Middle Ages. Our problem is how a meaning of ‘red king’ could be apposite in this context. It would seem it isn’t – as I will explain in due course.
The very earliest (extant) recording of a Robin (Hood) place-name is in 1319, of a boundary / wayside cross named at that time simply Robin Crosse, on Bradwell Edge near Hathersage in the Pennines near the border of the Peak District with South Yorkshire. Well, now that we are pegged down to a particular place, then it has to be established why we might expect a Gaelic naming in the locale.
Gaelic is not a tongue that would come to mind in any even pre-historical investigation within Northern England (being as it is very far away from the Gaeltachts of either Scotland or Ireland), but this is a mistaken neglect. It is now concluded (see Stephen Oppenheimer, The Origins of the British; and Bryan Sykes, The Blood of the Isles) that entirely contrary to previous thinking, the vast bulk of settlement in Britain was in Mesolithic (and Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic) times. This was from the Iberian peninsular up the Atlantic coast, and is the population that became what we recognise as ‘Celtic’, with the evolution of Proto-Celtic into Goidelic (Gaelic) and Brittonnic (Welsh, etc) languages occurring within Britain. Also truly ancient were the migrations to lowland eastern areas of England. The upshot is that there emerged several thousand years ago a profound east/west split right down Britain as far south as Wessex. This places the Pennine area of the Dark Peak within the western ambit. In the eastern lowlands a precursor of English, it is now realised, must have arisen far earlier than had been thought; with more recent influxes being relatively small even of Saxons, let alone Norse. Likely, then, at one time, anciently, Gaelic would have been spoken in the Dark Peak, before the later evolution of Brittonic forms (which, as I pointed out, emerged from Proto-Celtic after Gaelic had branched from it). The language of the present Scottish Gaeltecht seems, therefore, to be a remnant of what was once widespread, and would have hung on in more remote (hillier, and therefore less accessible) parts of Northern England. This analysis is bolstered by research from the University of Oxford’s ‘People of the British Isles’ project [Leslie et al (2015) The fine-scale genetic structure of the British Isles. Nature 519 309-314] showing that not only is there the distinct genetic survival today of Brittonic ancestry in what was the former West Riding of Yorkshire, but that this has genetic affinity with Scotland. A neat picture emerges, then, of a supercession of Goidelic speakers by Brittonic speakers in the South Pennines.
As for Gaelic at one time pertaining specifically to the Hathersage area where Robin Crosse is situated, there is overwhelming evidence in the naming of Hathersage itself. The derivation of the stem has long been considered a mystery, but it’s clearly Scottish Gaelic athach, ‘giant’ or ‘monster’, with the 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’). [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. 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 giant could not be more apposite, given that the prime distinguishing feature of Hathersage is its association with what was taken to be a giant; which appellation is given to an ancient causeway down to the village. And specifically named as Little John, the giant supposedly is buried in the churchyard there. Actually, this is not a grave but 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 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 the road descending from Stanage Edge atop a ridge ending in the village; nowadays named the Long Causeway. 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. [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. Supporting a more ancient meaning and root than merely ‘giant’, the ScG athach (or athaid, athair) more generally is employed to refer to a ‘monster’ — a beast, such as a serpent — whereas alternatively the word famhair often more specifically refers to a giant.
From Gaelic too is the stem of the place-name Bradwell (as in Bradwell Edge where Robin Crosse is more specifically located), given away by the local topography. Bradwell Dale specifically denotes a narrow gorge within the wider valley, and Gaelic brad (and variants), meaning literally ‘windpipe’ (or ‘gullet’), is known as a generic place-name to denote a narrow gorge.
Extensive research of my own into place-naming both minor and major across Pennine South Yorkshire and the area of North-East Derbyshire bordering this, reveals that most, indeed the overwhelming majority of naming is ‘Celtic’; specifically Gaelic, with little if any evidence of Brittonic (Welsh, or, as it would be in Northern England, Cumbric). So it is that close by Hathersage, the prominent features Higger Tor and Carl Wark are clearly Gaelic namings (tor is indisputable; higger and carl are from Gaelic words meaning respectively ‘priest’ and ‘champion warrior’. Ditto all nearby villages: Grindleford (from gleann dail, ‘valley with level fields by a river’), Bamford (recorded earlier as Banford, from either or both of beàrn, ‘breach’, ‘gap’, ‘pass’, ‘fissure’, given the notable position here between extremely steep-sided huge peaks, and beann, ‘peak’, in reference to Great Tor, the peak on the side and near the foot of which the village sits); Calver (from cabhsair, pronounced kav-sar, ’causeway’); and Eyam, which, being pronounced ‘eem’, clearly comes from uamh, pronounced ‘weem’, meaning ‘cave’, from the extensive cave network in the limestone under the village and all around it. Also, the Peak (District) itself: from púca, ‘spirit’, ‘ghost’, originally pertaining to the long-famous huge cavern in Castleton, Peak Hole.
Pennine South Yorkshire (Hallamshire) is the epicentre of a plot of all of the Robin Hood place-naming in England, so the location on the edge of this area of Robin Crosse shows that it is part of a wider picture and not some isolated anomaly. [It’s a simple exercise to assess an on-line index of Robin Hood place-names. This shows that they pretty well centre on Loxley: the place in Pennine South Yorkshire (and research by others confirms it is this Loxley) connected with Robin Hood in late-medieval / early-modern literature. I may in time include this in an appendix.]
Having established that a Gaelic root for a Robin (Hood) generic naming of ancient crosses is perfectly tenable; with a specific root in the Gaelic meaning ‘red king’, it might be expected that there are survivals of a parallel generic naming of ancient crosses in terms of the English meaning of the Gaelic, so that some crosses are named in translation of the Gaelic, as it were. Yet there are no instances of ‘Red King Cross’ anywhere; nor more simply ‘King Cross’ that have a mythological connection. The one or two instances of ‘King(‘s) Cross’ seem to refer either to a crossroads (of ‘the king’s highway’) or, as does King’s Cross in London, to a statue of a real king. Instead, we find that there is indeed a generic basis of an English naming of ancient crosses in terms of a regeneration mythology, but that this is ‘maiden’, which would seem to have the meaning of the Scottish Gaelic rìghinn discussed above (the ‘maiden-queen’ deity, Bríde). This makes sense when you consider that ‘the red king’ is in effect a go-between connecting the human world with the supernatural; the supernatural rather than the go-between being surely the recipient of veneration. ‘The red king’ is rather akin to Jesus; and Christians don’t worship Jesus: they worship ‘God’.
Examples of Maiden(‘s) Cross are at Coventry, Hexham, Alvanley near Frodsham in Cheshire, Mereclough near Burnley (serving as a guidestone on the Long Causeway), and Foulridge near Colne (known locally by the ‘maiden’ moniker, although officially named Tallers – after the Knights Hospitallers who reputedly built it — or Salter’s Cross). There is also a known lost instance in the parish of Morebattle, Roxburgh (Borders). Likewise in Scotland there is ‘Maiden Stone’: a Pictish standing stone with a cross inscribed (a ‘cross slab’) at Drumdurno near Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.
There are other occurrences that are not explicitly ‘maiden’ but refer to a Goddess of the maiden form: not least Lady, which of course is ‘Our Lady’ (Mary), the maiden-goddess of Christianity (Mary Magdalene or the virgin mother of Jesus), though, as has often been pointed out, this is really a continued survival ofBríd(e)/ Bríg(id)ighit. There is a Lady Cross at Saltersbook on the Woodhead moors (between Sheffield and Manchester), and instances of Lady’s Cross at Big Moor, Barbrook (between Sheffield and Chesterfield), and above Chapel-en-le-Frith (which is alternatively named Woman’s Cross). As well as the appellation Lady, there is also Queen’s, as in ‘maiden-queen’; and not least Bride, which is the very name Bríd — Bríd(e)/ Bríg(id)ighit.
9: ROBIN AND MAIDEN MIXED UP
Tellingly, there are instances where the generic namings of robin and maiden occur together: simultaneously applying to the very same ancient crosses. Officially the name ‘The Maiden Stones’ applied until the 17th century to a double-shafted boundary-marker cross from then on recorded as Robin Hood’s Pickling Rods (or Stumps). [See Neville T Sharpe’s book, Crosses of the Peak District (2002), page 12.] The remaining base with its double stumps is close by Cown Edge Rocks, near Chisworth, south of Glossop. The former, ‘maiden’ name is retained in the associated folklore of Robin Hood supposedly firing arrows here as a wager to win the freedom of a maid. [The story is confused, with Robin Hood in one version loosing arrows at the stones, and in another utilising the two shafts to brace his bow the more easily to draw the string.] That this cross likely even anciently also (alternatively) was named ‘Robin’ is suggested by the fairly early (17th century) record of the ‘Robin Hood’ naming, which would be prior to latter-day ‘antiquarian’ place-naming with this moniker. Either way, the co-occurrence of naming is telling.
A similar co-occurrence in naming applies to the above-cited Maiden’s Cross near Mereclough. Now located close to Robin’s Cross Hill a little further along the Long Causeway, it is known to have been moved – appropriated by a farmer as an anomalous-looking gatepost; whilst the Robin Cross after which the hill is named has long been lost, with even its former location unknown. [See ‘The Long Causeway and its Ancient Crosses’ by local man Jack Nadin, in Northern Life, Dec/Jan 2012.] The obvious conclusion is that the two crosses actually were one and the same.
There is also mutual confirmation of hob (the diminutive of robin) and maiden namings being of the same/ similar derivation in the co-occurrence near Chapel-en-le-Firth of Hob Tor and Lady Low: two high rocky outcrops immediately adjacent to each other. I came across this by accident out walking one day, so there are surely other instances that would be found through minor place-name research.
This co-occurrence in naming of robin and maiden suggests that robin as in Robin Hood has an alternative derivation — in addition to — one meaning ‘red king’; one with the meaning ‘maiden’. This perhaps should not be unexpected given the above-mentioned point that the ‘red king’ figure in effect functions as a go-between regarding the human world and the supernatural; being not the deity itself. Therefore, associated objects, such as crosses, likely will be named after the deity (the ‘maiden-queen’) rather than the mere go-between figure. But this begs the question as to why, then, are there instances of Robin Hood Cross? By reason of a conflation in the etymology; so that Robin derives also from rìghinn.
As I outlined, this is the derivation of wran/wren; so how can the robin and hob naming of crosses also thus derive? From where would the medial consonant arise? Well, there would be an influence of a complementary root in rodaidh; but more importantly there was an alternative form of Scottish Gaelic rìghinn in rìbhinn, which does possess a medial consonant – and a ‘b’ (well, it’s a ‘v’ sound before Anglicisation) rather than a ‘d’. According to Professor Colm O’Boyle (of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Language and Literature, and editor of the journal Scottish Gaelic Studies), this is a later word, but as rìghinn is itself a contraction of the compound word rìgh-bhean; is it not that the medial ‘b’ arose early rather than late?
Sound-wise, rìbhinn fits the bill. We know that rìbhinn Anglicises to robin because a similar transition in reverse occurred with the Norman name Robert having been ‘Gaelicised’, as it were, in Ireland to Roibhilin, which is pronounced, albeit with a medial ‘v’ sound, as is rìbhinn. A transition in the opposite direction – Anglicisation of rìbhinn – would render the medial ‘v’ sound as ‘b’ because of the confusion between the two sounds and – just as we saw with what otherwise would have Anglicised to ‘roddy’ – an expectation to an English-speaking ear, reinforced by the additional expectation to resemble ‘Robin’ in the wake of widespread familiarity with that name after the Norman Conquest (Robin being a common version of Robert). The model of the Norman-French Robin would also help to account for the vowel-sound change from Gaelic long-‘i’, denoted by the grave accent and resembling English long-‘e’, to English short-‘o’; where articulation has to shift from the front to the back of the mouth. This, though, is quite a shift; but again the complementary root assists: in rodaidh the short-‘o’ vowel is already there. But we’re forgetting the other contributary root here: the afore-mentioned and discuseed reubaim, ‘wounded’. So what may seem etymological problems with Gaelic rìghinn / rìbhinn evaporate when all these interactions are taken into consideration.
This same word turns up across Wales in a composite word naming a fearsome ‘hag’ creature, Gwrach-y-Rhybyn. The (g)wrach element is a modifier with the meaning ‘hag’, so Rhybyn would denote the ‘maiden-queen’ generically (as a goddess of regeneration mythology who can be either of the maiden or hag form according to the point reached in the transition between the two and back again). And we know this word does not originate in Welsh – that it must be an importation into Welsh from the Scottish Gaelic – because the Rhybyn element has completely foxed etymologists regarding Welsh.
With the confusion regarding the rìghinn and rìbhinn forms, then we have to revisit the issue of the root of robin in rodaidh. I had proffered that this word, pronounced ‘roddy’, became ‘robby’ through a listener expectation with the arrival in Britain of the Norman-French personal name Robin, to which the indigenous populace became rapidly familiarised. However, I pointed out that such a listener expectation might already be there. The rìbhinn form and reubaim would provide this. Although the medial consonant in rìbhinn would sound ‘v’ rather than ‘b’, this, along with reubaim, would be a driver to change the medial ‘d’ in rodaidh / ‘roddy’ to ‘b’, even without the advent of the Norman-French personal name Robin – nor, come to that, an English listener expectation of a ‘b’ rather than a ‘v’.
The etymological interactions are a chicken-and-egg dynamic system, with what came first as against what was subsequently facilitated a merry-go-round not easy to tease out. The meanings of ‘red king’ and ‘maiden-queen’ (and ‘wounded’) are bound up with each other. That is not to say that the ‘red king’ meaning is not the primary one; but, then again, it may have been usurped by ‘maiden-queen’, or, conversely, ‘maiden-queen’ may have been the principal original meaning.
10: THE MEANING ‘MAIDEN’ CONSOLIDATED: MAID MARIAN
To ensure I’m on the right lines here – not a little confusing though they may be – I need to backtrack to consider if there is any flaw in the argument that a range of generic namings of ancient crosses all stem from ‘maiden’ and, ultimately, Bríd (Bríg, Brighid). To support the analysis, this does not need to be the root of all namings of ancient wayside crosses, of course. Many crosses are named specifically after saints, but it is not disconfirmatory evidence that some crosses are named other than in respect of ‘maiden’; it’s perfectly sufficient for there just to be a large cluster of ‘maiden’-named crosses.
A possible fly in the ointment would be a rival etymology of ‘maiden’ based on an instance of the ‘maiden’ naming itself being an Anglicisation of a Gaelic word that makes sense in context. This had been suggested long ago [see Sculptured Stones of Scotland by John Stuart, 1813] in respect of the above-cited Maiden Stone in Aberdeenshire (given the recent Gaelic-speaking context in Northern Scotland). Stuart merely relays idle speculation by one late individual of the local gentry, Patrick Chalmers, who suggests meadhon, ‘middle’, which hardly would be apposite with the crosses typically being far from the centre of anywhere and instead near or at boundaries, and in any case is pronounced ‘mooaun’, and therefore clearly would be very unlikely to Anglicise to anything resembling ‘maiden’. Furthermore, it’s a borrowing from Latin, which would make the word too late for the context of Gaelic naming in western England (unless brought in by Norse Gaels). Chalmers also proffers maoid-hean, which he translates as ‘prayer’, entreaty’, ‘supplication’, (though in McBain’s Gaelic dictionary it is defined as ‘personal influence, interest’). This not only has issues re pronunciation not dissimilar to those for meadhon, but it appears only superficially plausible. There seems no good reason why the naming would relate to a possible associated spiritual activity rather than to the deity itself. Sure enough, there is not only no UK minor place-name Prayer Stone or Praying Stone, but neither is there a UK place-name of that derivation. This can hardly be a surprise: the conception of a standing stone as a ‘praying stone’ is foreign to ancient Britain and ‘Celtic’ lands generally, being a Buddhist, oriental notion. As I’ve noted above, wayside/ boundary crosses are just that: markers of important routes at the point where they intersect with a significant boundary, functioning both to guide and to assert the Christian faith in the face of surviving paganism. They were not objects of or to facilitate worship. Of course, this does not exclude that through their religious naming some may have regarded this association as rendering them akin to altars at which it might be appropriate to stop to pray. The point is that it is unlikely that this would become a supplanting basis of naming.
There are of course the several places named Maiden Castle, notably in Dorset and at Durham; but all of these very clearly are references to a fort; there do not appear to be any instances attached to a cross. Robert Chambers wrote (in The Gazeteer of Scotland, 1836) regarding Edinburgh Castle: “The oldest name that can now be discovered as applicable to this fort is maydyn or mai-dun in British, magh-dun in Gaelic, which may either signify the fortified mount in the plain, or the good fort; …” The first element indeed appears to be Gaelic magh, ‘plain’, and the second element is clearly Gaelic (or Welsh) dùn. This can alternatively mean ‘pile’, which seems to be the sense of the ascription of maiden to a small rock stack left after weathering of a coastal cliff near Ross Point, Burnmouth, in the Scottish Borders. It may be that the flat sea here substitutes for a plain, as it were. On the other hand, the naming may be a more recent, English one, after the conceptualisation of the small rock split off from a larger rock mass as being akin to a mother/daughter relationship. This seems to be evident in the case of a huge stone slab naturally split from an outcrop near East Linton in East Lothian: the larger rock is known as the Mother Stone. But the two stones lie within an iron-age hill-fort, so an Anglicisation to ‘maiden’ follows from the Gaelic magh-dun, ‘fort’.
The derivations here hardly would befit a small stone cross, nor to any of the topography relating to any of the crosses, so far as I’m aware. The crosses, if they are on a hill, are on hills that are not of the character of a stack.
There is an overriding consideration in respect of all of the crosses in England: that they all long post-date Gaelic being spoken here, and therefore a naming attached to a cross in Gaelic language cannot be according to anything concerning the cross per se — such as it’s being a boundary marker or wayside direction finder, etc. Any naming in such terms would be contemporary with the erection of the cross, and therefore would be in English. It’s only if there were some long prior generic association with crosses from Gaelic-speaking prehistory that there could have been a transference to the cross — as with the Gaelic basis of Robin. For this to apply to maiden, then here maiden must be the Anglicisation of a Gaelic name for the deity to which the cross was dedicated, and there is no record of such so far as I can find.
There seem to be no flies in the ointment, then. No ‘Celtic’ derivation of maiden passes muster to be applicable to the naming of a boundary or wayside cross.
The ‘maiden’ derivation is further supported in an etymological consideration of the name of the character who suddenly emerged, alongside Robin Hood, seemingly from nowhere in the 16th century: Maid Marian. A maid is ‘a young, sexually inexperienced woman’: in other words a maiden – maiden is merely the diminutive of maid. Marian means ‘of Mary’, or a variant of Marion, a medieval diminutive of Mary; Mary being ‘the Virgin Mary’, the Christianised maiden-goddess.
It has been supposed, on no evidence, that (Maid) Marian was an import from France, where indeed there was an older folkloric pairing of a Robin and Marian. More likely, this particular French folklore was a merely reinforcing influence after the Norman Conquest. What we do know is that Maid Marian surfaced in the context of the ‘Robin Hood games’ of May Day / Whitsun; the assumption having been that only latterly did she come to be regarded as Robin Hood’s romantic attachment; that originally she was part of a performance tradition separate from that re Robin Hood. This may have been Alexander Barclay’s understanding back in 1500, when he wrote in his book, Ship of Fools: “some merry fytte of Maid Marian or else of Robin Hood”. But this could be interpreted alternatively as alluding to the very same sort of performances but merely under different names, indicating a common origin. The etymology of Marian re the Christianised ‘maiden-goddess’ fits with either interpretation. Inasmuch as both names have the meaning of ‘maiden-queen’ – Robin (Hood) having this meaning in part – Maid Marian and Robin Hood seem one and the same; but to the extent that they are indeed two distinct figures, they are respectively ‘maiden-queen’ and ‘red king’.
With the Gaelic meaning of rìbhinn forgotten, then any ambiguity as to the sex of Robin would be removed in Anglicisation as Robin mistakenly would be taken to be the personal name diminutive of Robert. At the same time, with the spirit and original meaning ‘maiden-queen’ having faded only partly, then a resurrection of some sort was needed. This would seem to be the basis of the invention of Maid Marian as Robin Hood’s consort, though really she is the Goddess to which the ‘red king’ is sacrificed. In a sense, Maid Marian is her own consort in the context of the May games.
This throws light on the curious folklore surrounding hob and dob ancient crosses. Though both have a surface meaning of (slightly different) diminutive familiars of the male personal name Robin; nevertheless they were regarded as being male-female (hob–dob) pairs. [See ‘The Ancient Crosses of Lancashire’ by Henry Taylor in Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 1900.] Inasmuch as hob (Robin) became unambiguously male, then a female counterpart begged itself into existence. A simple folk rationalisation of this, retaining the context of fertility mythology, was for people to mirror their own lives to envisage a husband-and-wife pair of male and female deities – goblins, as they were denuded.
11: SO WHERE DOES LITTLE JOHN FIT IN?
Having ‘cracked’ (as far as conflation and confusion will allow) Robin Hood (and Maid Marian), it remains only to do the same for Little John. Does the etymology of this name fit with and bolster what has been uncovered? If Little John also turns out to be of (Scottish) Gaelic origin, then the investigation would be neatly complete. From the outset of any investigation just such an origin looks a good bet, because although Little John appears English to the core, it seems to be in a (Scottish) Gaelic context where this mythological figure first appears. It is particularly in Scotland that Little John featured in the Robin Hood plays or games, when they were current during the 15th to 17th centuries; the 15th century being also when the very earliest documentary references to Little John occur – by Andrew of Wyntoun in about 1420, and Walter Bower in about 1440. This does not mean that Little John is of Scottish origin, of course; simply that with Gaelic survival being long restricted to Scotland, then mythology rooted in Gaelic is likely to have better survived here than in the rest of Britain.
‘Little Johns’ (plural) was a moniker used well before this time, in the 12th century, to label the Cornish (and later Welsh) people; and the explanations proffered for this in the past were fanciful at best. They were the usual sort of naïve rationalisations: that it alluded to the relatively short height of Cornishmen; or that Cornishmen metaphorically were the offspring of King John, given that formerly he was the Earl of Cornwall. If these look unworthy or barely worthy of serious consideration, then how did the moniker come to be?
‘Little John’ can be expressed alternatively as a single-word name, a standard diminutive of ‘John’ using the -kin suffix: ‘John-kin’, which is Jenkin. Jenkin is recorded in connection with the Robin Hood games, and is a surname originating in Cornwall and Wales. The standard explanation for the surname is not that the name is from Cornish/Welsh, even though it is, indirectly, from such a word: Siencyn (pronounced ‘shen kin’). Siencyn is assumed to be merely the Welsh form of Jenkin; that is, a Cymricisation, as it were. [Sien is a Welsh form of John (sometimes also spelled Zhahn or Sion), and the -cyn suffix is thought to be a reading of -kin (even though cyn is a known standalone Welsh word).] The surname, it is thought, then arose through Anglicisation.
The problem with this derivation is that the -kin suffix was unknown before the 12th century, yet Jenkin is recorded in the Domesday book and thought to pre-date the Norman Conquest. And the problem for the literal interpretation of the ‘Little Johns’ moniker for Cornishmen is that the proper name John has no meaning in English: it’s a Hebrew word meaning ‘God is gracious’, which must have come to the British Isles with the Christian church. With Hebrew being not a language ever current here, then no meaning of ‘God is gracious’ could have been retained even anciently. So no sense can be made in terms of this derivation for the use of ‘Little John’ to denote Cornishmen – any more than it’s use to denote a mythological accomplice of Robin Hood.
Sense is made when, again, we turn to Gaelic. In Ireland Jenkins was Gaelicised to Sincín or Seincín, and with the languages so similar, then correspondingly a very similar Gaelicisation would have occurred in Scottish Gaelic; and this must resemble the Gaelic word that was Anglicised in the first place if a Gaelic word indeed was the original root of Jenkin. The stem of Seincín looks to be Gaelic (both Irish and Scottish) sean (pronounced ‘shan’, which easily can be taken to be ‘jan’), meaning ‘old’; and as for the suffix, we know that Gaelic ceann, ‘head’, Anglicises to kin. The two words compound in the place-name Seancheann, known to mean ‘old head’.
In Scottish Gaelic, ceann means ‘head’ in two senses: one of which is ‘the end of something’. This would explain why ‘Little John’ is used in reference to the Cornish. Cornwall is a distinct peninsula, and therefore in relation to England clearly ‘the end of something’. The meaning would have been lost as Goidelic ‘Celtic’ language was supplanted by Brittonic (specifically Cornish), and hence the wild vernacular rationalisations in terms of diminutive men or metaphorical offspring of King John.
It may be that the compound word sean-ceann having been Anglicised and misinterpreted to jenkin then was adopted and mangled by Welsh and Cornish tongues into siencyn before re-emerging back into English as the Jenkins surname; but that’s a convoluted evolution. More parsimoniously and therefore more likely, the surname as recorded in Welsh (Siencyn) may be just a slightly mangled survival of Gaelic sean-ceann (from the earlier time when a Goidelic language would have been spoken, before Brittonic forms emerged). [Actually, it looks like another Gaelic/Welsh hybrid. The second element may be just as it seems; the Welsh word cyn, ‘chief”, with the first element a distortion of sean that never went the whole way to Welsh hen.] The meaning of ceann, ‘end of something’, is apposite for Wales as well as for Cornwall.
So what about ‘Little John’ in relation to Robin Hood? I mentioned that ceann has two meanings in Scottish Gaelic: as well as ‘the end of something’ it can also mean ‘the head of a body or group of people’ (corresponding to the just-now-mentioned Welsh word cyn). Clearly, therefore, sean-ceann in some contexts would have the meaning ‘old chief’ or ….. ‘old king’. [Of the cognate construction in Welsh, hen-cyn, I can find no instance, and a hen stem does not seem to yield the sound of ‘jan’ in Anglicisation; so a Welsh origin does not look right.]
The last piece of the jigsaw is now in place. We are back with ‘the old king’ protagonist usurped by ‘the red king’ as in ‘hunting the wren’; this being clearly evident in the most well-known Robin Hood tale of Little John commanding a narrow bridge, staff in hand, facing Robin Hood wishing to cross. Here Little John is the incumbent and Robin Hood the challenger, and the challenger wins. It’s more a contest than a duel, though, with Robin Hood praising Little John’s skills with a staff and inviting him to join his band. This seems less akin to the story of the robin and the wren and more in line with the notion of ‘the red king’ as in myths of the self-sacrificial figure. Here there is often an ‘old king’ who through somehow losing his virility or being ‘wounded’ is unable to bring about the re-fertilisation of the land, necessitating another figure to step in as ‘the red king’. Instead of a ‘kill or be killed’ scenario, there is male-bonded friendship as Little John ends up as Robin’s lieutenant.
In the context of the May Games, the character of Jack-in-the-Green (Jack is a form of John, of course), sometimes referred to as Jenkin, is Little John by other name; though the ‘old king’ and ‘red king’ roles are somewhat confused as to ‘the Lord of the May’, and further complicated by the presence of the May Queen. To the extent that Robin embodied the ‘maiden-queen’ as well as ‘the red king’, Little John would be the regal male consort; but with the anchoring of Robin in Robin Hood, and the sense of ‘red king’ further strengthened through the advent of Maid Marian, then Little John’s position would be usurped. Is this how best to understand the rationalisation into male-bonding?
As to Little John being popularly envisaged as a giant, this is easy to fathom. Albeit now a side-kick but in a sense nevertheless ‘the old king’; being a king is of such high status that by standard crude metaphor such a figure is held to possess great physical stature. The ‘Little’ epithet is so completely at odds with this as paradoxically to point it up. So it is that Little John came to be considered as a notable giant honoured as such at Hathersage (as outlined above).
Now I can revisit the epithet ‘jenny’ as applied to the wren in the ‘hunting the wren’ folklore. Earlier I gave away that ‘jenny’ meant ‘old king’. As well as ‘cutty’ (referring to ‘the devil’, and hence ‘maiden’), the wren can take an alternative qualifying name in ‘jenny’; jenny being a variant of jenkin, akin to familiar forms in personal names, which indeed is how it would have been considered. So a Scottish Gaelic meaning of ‘the old king’ is here also found in the robin & wren regeneration mythology. So just as with the derivation of hood gaining further evidential support with the ‘cutty’ epithet, there seems to be further confirmation here of an ‘old king’ derivation with the ‘jenny’ epithet.
In the etymology of Little John we seem to have a close parallel to what we see with Robin and rodaidh + rìbhinn: a rationalisation of what is a Scottish Gaelic word. A mutual confirmation of the ‘Little John’ moniker is explained in both its allusion to Cornishmen (Welshmen) and in the context of Robin Hood. In this extension of the internal consistency of the analysis that a neat convergence on Scottish Gaelic origin provides, there is further support for the present theory regarding the origin of Robin Hood.
12: THE ROBIN HOOD GAMES: RESIDUAL POSSIBILITIES OF DERIVATION
For completeness, I need to consider residual possibilities of contexts for the derivation of Robin; notably the ‘Robin Hood games’. These were May Day and Whitsun activities, in some cases just a procession; and, in particular, plays in which Robin Hood may himself feature as one of the characters. This is a relatively recent development in the wake of the identification of Robin Hood with the May King/Queen having been forgotten, and it throws up a couple of possibilities. According to Gaelic-English dictionaries, reabhairt means ‘the time of spring-tide’ or ‘the height of spring’ (from ré, ‘time, season’, or ‘the moon’), as befits May Day / Whitsun; though they don’t look very applicable to a personage (let alone to ancient wayside crosses). Even so, the word may be what suggested an association of May Day and Robin (Hood) given the origin in terms of the transition from the old year to the new. This might be a case of the superimposition of a pastoral cycle on that of a sun wheel of the year in terms of solstices and equinoxes.
Moving away from Gaelic, there is an Old German word that would seem very much to relate to the spirit of May Day: riban, ‘to be wanton’, ‘amorous, in heat, or to copulate’. This gave rise to the English word ribald, and to Old French ribaud. Note, though, that as the word evolved in English the vowel sounds are still unchanged, showing no sign of any evolution as part of a transition to resemble robin. Promising though it looks, there is no evident connection of the word to May Day or Whitsuntide. Furthermore, again, this suggestion (and likewise reabhairt) does not get round the problem of a failure to explain the late emergence of Robin as in the ‘Robin Hood games’. But we may have here another basis of what suggested a co-option of Robin (Hood).
Finally, descending almost literally to the gutter, Scottish Gaelic roibean (roibeach, roibeanach) meaning ‘filth, slovenliness’, particularly ‘filth around the mouth’ (as in an unkempt beard) has been taken to be the derivation of Robin’s (Robie’s) Well in Midlothian [John Milne, Gaelic Place Names of the Lothians(1912)], in the sense of overgrown vegetation around a spring. It may be, then, that some of the very many occurrences of the name Robin Hood’s Well have a non-mythological origin; but more likely the sense here has become entwined with disdain for ‘the old religion’ as denoted by rìbhinn. In other words rìbhinn in denoting the ‘maiden-queen’ aspect of Bríd(h)e, through a collapse in veneration owing to a usurpation by Christianity, might have suggested roibean, which thereby would have become an additional, latter-day root.
If we go back to Robin’s Crosse though, a derivation other than a primary one of rìbhinn still fails to present itself. In the case of a boundary / wayside cross, unlike with a well, there is no sense of ‘mouth’, unless in the mythological sense that a venerated cross could be envisaged as of old as being somehow an ‘otherworld’ portal. But in ‘Celtic’ mythology this is usually a water feature, associated with which there may be a water-specific mythological figure (such as the dobhar-chú). If a stone cross was ever conceived of as an ‘otherworld’ entrance, instead it would be associated with the generic ‘queen of the otherworld’, who is none other than Bríd(h)e; so we are straight back to rìbhinn in any case. Furthermore, an ancient cross in being made of stone is very likely to have been envisaged as Bríd(e)/ Bríg(id), not least because in the mythology the transition to the hag form entails the goddess being turned to stone. In the contradictory way as has been seen, this implies the maiden form, given the perpetual cycle of maiden-to-hag-(then back)-to-maiden, etc; so that yet again all resolves to rìbhinn.
Robin Hood is of ‘Celtic’ derivation: specifically (Scottish) Gaelic, though there is the possibility that the second, qualifying element possibly is later, from Welsh (a mixed etymology is far from unusual, given that even compound words often are hybríds of elements from both original and superseding languages). As the meaning is very similar, whether its the Gaelic or the Welsh, and as this is the qualifying, not the primary element, then it’s of little consequence anyway. The best sense overall that can be made of the difficulties teasing out the Scottish Gaelic roots of robin is that there are likely complementary derivations reubaim, ‘wounded’, ruaidhrí, ‘red king’, in its diminutive, rodaidh; and rìbhinn, ‘maiden-queen’, referring to Bríd (Bríg, Brighit). The primary root would appear to be ruaidhrí, given that the main sense is ‘the red king’; but with this figure being not a deity per se but a self-sacrificial victim to the deity, then the name denoting the deity seems to have become a secondary root. This would explain the contradictions in the sex of protagonists. Perhaps the simplest way of looking at the confused picture is that people naturally conceive of the mythological world as being a mirror to their own; and as such they conceive of both male and female deities, with the males in mutual conflict, the females being the source of fertility, and the sexes together in marriage.
A parallel is evident in the case of Christian mythology. Standing alongside the male deity conceptualised in human form as Jesus, the female deity, represented by Mary, proved irrepressible – at least in the minds of the common-folk believers; and this was to varying extents at different times taken up by the church institutionally. The relationship between Mary and Jesus was at least as confused as is the cross-sex aspects of Robin Hood mythology. Mary is variously a parallel deific figure to Jesus (as at his crucifixion and resurrection), ‘the’ virgin (maiden), seeming wife of God, mother without husband (given her ‘immaculate conception’ of Jesus), and disciple.
The Hood qualification seems, as is so often in naming, to be rather tautological in that the meaning ‘devil’ is in any case latterly the meaning of ‘maiden-queen’ as it became ‘the old religion’. Robin “is so common a term for the ‘Devil’ as to be almost a generic name for him”, claimed Margaret Alice Murray in her 1931 book, The God of the Witches; citing a saying: “some Robin the Divell, or I wot not what spirit of the Ayre”. [This is taken from page 23 of Angel Day’s The English Secretary; or, Methods of Writing Epistles and Letters (1625).]
The absence of any other plausible substantial root removes the worry that there might be an entirely different derivation of Robin in Robin Hood place-names, through the addition of Hood to what were formerly simply Robin appellations, merely on a popular assumption that the occurrence of the robin name in any context always alludes to Robin Hood.
The parallel etymology regarding Little John and Maid Marian, plus that of the related robin / wren mythology, provides a solid internal consistency if it is not fully confirmatory evidence.
It may be that there is some fault with the logic in what is a somewhat convoluted analysis: possibly that Robin Hood is more completely the ‘red king’ than in my assessment here. I’m sure this will be a point of discussion. I don’t have much doubt, though, that the analysis is very much on the right mythological lines, that at worst need only some straightening out.
This does not simplify derivation to completely exclude any further subsidiary roots, however; even assuming that rodaidh + rìbhinn indeed is the etymology in all contexts of Robin Hood naming. This takes us back to where we came in, with Robin Hood reinterpreted as ‘outlaw’ through the similarity between the French word rober, ‘robber’, and Robin; but other than this there do not seem to be other possibilities. Also to reconsider in this lesser light are the other possibilities of subsidiary derivation regarding Robin Hood pre-outlaw: more anciently. One or more of these might have contributed to strengthening the main derivation, though there is no evidence of this, so far as I’m aware.
Hitherto regarded as core English, this truly ancient mythology we now have to reconsider as being deeper and wider than that: not so much English as British and Gaelic. Robin Hood turns out to belong to a Britain greater than England, though not necessarily, in origin, to all of England. The North of Britain can lay claim to Robin Hood as anciently its own. He turns out to have nothing to do with Nottingham. Albeit a claim too far to boast that Robin Hood was a Yorkshireman, if we had to assign a heartland then it would be in Pennine South Yorkshire and over the border into the neighbouring part of the Derbyshire Peaks.
Does the mystery now go away? Well, every question answered begs another, and getting to the bottom of strange cultural phenomena such as mythology regresses back on underlying biology to threaten to unlock still deeper quandaries. So I’m not sure that revealing Robin Hood to be inextricably bound up with regeneration mythologies does not in some respects make him at least as much of an enigma as when he was almost completely opaque.
It might be thought that the unfathomable identity of Robin Hood is the reason why there is an undying fascination with him. After all, the customs have long died. Even as children’s play, Robin’s Alight did not outlast the 19th century, and the Robin Hood games of May Day / Whitsun were extinct several centuries ago – though are within living memory in another guise. A solution to the mystery may seem to some the last thing needed. Many will be content that in popular re-tellings and the maintenance and mining of the folklore record Robin remains very much alive: a modern version of Robin’s Alight, you could say. Yet, it seems to me, it’s useful – important even – for a sense of who we are, where we came from, and even to know better the deep roots of the human mind; that, more than just sitting on the folklore record, we analyse it, so that at long last Robin is un-Hooded, as it were.
The mythology shows us that essentially the human mindset is unchanging in its appreciation of cyclical flux; that – contrary to our contemporary pretentious delusions – there is no ‘promised land’ through some supposed inevitable progress. [See the philosopher John Gray’s most recent book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia.] Instead, as Robin Hood mythology points up, the human mindset is that there is always, through death, never-ending replenishing life … and that this is in no sense somehow not enough.
14: FROM ROBIN HOOD TO DRAGONS AND HOBBY-HORSES
It remains only to introduce the major ramifications of the present findings. From the insight that the namings of crosses are all of a piece from Robin to Hob, we can see that much else folkloric / mythological stems from the ‘maiden-goddess’ cum ‘red king’. On his own, Robin Hood seems a more powerful mythological being than is King Arthur, though this may be because Arthur is still more distant to us. [Not that King Arthur is more mysterious as to origin: ubiquitous across Europe, there must be an Indo-European source, coming to us in English translation via a Brittonic (Welsh or Cumbric) and /or a Goidelic route. This is just what research reveals — as I will be outlining in due course.] With the veil of ignorance lifted, Robin Hood is now revealed to be an even more central figure than has been supposed, in that he exists in other guises hitherto not understood as such.
The diminutive Hob was prefixed to goblin to make the compound word Hobgoblin, which then could be shortened back to Hob. The Hobgoblin for centuries has been noted as being synonymous with Robin Goodfellow. In other words, Robin Goodfellow essentially is Hob; that is, Robin; the very same ‘maiden-queen’ pan-‘Celtic’ goddess cum ‘red king’ figure that is Robin Hood. There are many instances of features in the landscape named after Hob, notably in the Dark Peak – the Pennine South Yorkshire / North-East Derbyshire Robin Hood heartland. Sometimes the name is extended to hobhurst or hobthrust, which usually is mistakenly presumed to be a compound with hurst, and therefore to refer to woodland. The derivation is instead surely from Old English thyrs, ‘giant, demon’, which not only makes much more sense but often is confirmed by the locally associated folklore. Yes, there is also folklore of a hobhurst / hobthrust being a friendly and fairly inconsequential sort of spirit, but this is the usual progression in popular conception of mythological figures from respected if not feared mighty deity to nursery rhyme character.
Hob is also the root of the curious hobby-horse in May Day pageants of various kinds, which even today survive in several places, most famously at Padstow where it is known as ‘Obby Oss’, and features more than one hobby-horse. The name of one of these, ‘Old Oss’, is the very name of the same custom as it survived until about a century ago around Sheffield and neighbouring parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire (and in North Yorkshire, notably at Richmond), though here it was enacted at Christmas-time, and therefore would seem to function as did ‘hunting the wren’ (robin/wren mythology). [The actual text of the play, revealing the regeneration theme, was recorded in 1888 in Sheffield by the historian Sidney Oldall Addy: in ‘A Glossary of Words used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield Including a Selection of Local Names, and Some Notices of Folk-lore, Games and Customs’; English Dialect Society, 1888, volume 57, pp.163-164.]
In English Pageantry: An Historical Outline, Volume 2 (1918), Robert Withington writes: “Mr Frank Stevens, in his paper on The Giant and Hob-Nob and their Story, says: ‘The Hob-Nob, Hobby Horse, ‘Hooden’, or ‘Old Snap’, as he is variously called, describes something more than passing notice since origin is even more remote than that of the Giant. He was always regarded as essentially part of the Morris Dance and was, therefore, to be found taking part in the May Day celebrations, with Robin Hood’.” Other sources confirm that Hob-nob was also known as Old Snap.
Hobby-horses and the figures at Salisbury and elsewhere called Snap are often referred to as dragons, just as the large snapping jaws of what is a pretty monstrous form suggest. The connection here with the serpent/dragon is very clear: the Scottish Gaelic word rìbhinn that is found to be the root of Robin, as well as denoting ‘maiden-queen’ also denotes ‘serpent’. This is shown in dictionaries, and there is the evidence from texts on folklore. For example, an 1898 edition of the journal published by the Folk-lore Society: Folk-lore — A Quarterly Review (volume 9, 1898). On page 85, ‘Folklore from the Hebrides IV – Charm against a Serpent’s Bite’, it is stated:
“The charm consisted in remembering to repeat on St. Bride’s day: ‘La Fhèill Brighde thig an rìbhinn (serpent) as an toll; na beanamsa ris an rìbhinn agus na beanadh an rìbhinti rium.’ (‘On St. Bride’s day the nymph (serpent) comes out of the hole; let me not touch the nymph, and let not the nymph touch me.’) In olden times it was believed that if one repeated the words of the above rhyme on St. Bride’s day, it would act as a charm against serpents’ bites till next St. Bride’s day. Rìbhinn signifies a nymph or princess-like young female. It was an ancient custom, on special occasions, to employ a euphemism of this sort, as an olive-branch, to get into the good graces of the object desired to be conciliated and to charm the Genii who presided over places and shrines.”
Given that the transformation of the goddess from maiden into hag form was (as above-mentioned) envisaged as a turning to stone; then sense can be made of the place-name Hobb Stones on Wharncliffe Crags in Pennine South Yorkshire. The Hobb Stones are located at the fairly abrupt end of the snaking line of the grit-stone edge cliff-face that is Wharncliffe, as if it were the head of the imagined serpent guise of Bríd(h)e / Brígit / Brigantia. The serpent in folklore was generally updated to a wyvern and thence a dragon, and in this form often turns up in folklore as having been turned to stone; which is just what is revealed in the legendary occupant of this particular spot. The Dragon of Wantley (an alternative or more specific name re Wharncliffe) is the dragon legend that of all those in England is the most famous, or was so when interest was near ubiquitous in such things.
There is much other evidence regarding the Dragon of Wantley to show that it is at root ancient localised mythology. [This is contrary to the conclusion of the South Yorkshire / Hallamshire local historian David Hey that the earliest trace of the dragon is an allegory of a local dispute published as the ballad The Dragon of Wantley in 1685.] Perched on the Wharncliffe grit-stone edge by Hobb Stones and, at one time, a large oak tree named after Robin Hood, as well as opposing the hilltop of Loxley Chase and Robin Hood’s Bower; this famed monster rather cries out a strong connection to Robin Hood. I have tackled this as a separate study, and now placed on this website is a fully referenced account — see the adjacent ‘mythology’ button on the page-top menu on the home page.
In signing off I refer the reader to some contemporary magic to help see the greenwood for the trees: the internet takes from the information-rich to give to the information-poor, so it is very easy to verify through internet search any of the above regarding which there may be doubt. This is why I have avoided cluttering the text with references other than when obscure or particularly salient. I’ve nevertheless left in (if you also include the appendix — if and when finally I get around to sorting and uploading one) sufficient details of all the possible alternative derivations so that the reader can retrace my steps.
Free as the exposition is of etymological jargon, I would hope readers find it insightful and understandable, albeit fairly precise in the manner of an academic text because it is a presentation of a novel analysis and therefore has to be able to pass muster in scholarly circles. This can go against the text being easily comprehensible for the ordinary reader; I realise that. I daresay I’ve fallen between two stools, so I may well re-write to produce a more user-friendly version for the general reader when the argument has received some acceptance.
I particularly encourage drawing attention to anything that may be in error; that if found to be so will be removed, with the text amended accordingly — including an attribution if appropriate. This subject is not in an area of my expertise – I’m not an etymologist, nor do I investigate mythology more than as a side interest to evolutionary psychology / biological anthropology — so I’m obliged to be open to correction.
Acknowledgement is already due to Raymond Greenoaken (editor of Stirrings magazine) for his knowledgeable and constructive comments about wider mythological context and some details, in a fruitful dialogue regarding an earlier draft; this prompting more reflection and an improvement in the analysis as it is now presented here.
[An appendix may be sorted and uploaded at some point if I get time away from other important projects! However, with all important references included in full within the main text, and the main text being a detailed exposition, then an appendix is more a completist exercise than being strictly necessary. Any queries can be answered quite easily by internet search. For example, and notably, collations of Robin Hood place-names are openly available on-line, and from these my contention that Pennine South Yorkshire is the epicentre of such naming readily can be seen.]
Steve Moxon, Broomhill, Sheffield. May 2012