The Fisher King: Belenos in the Arthurian tales?

Panel from the 8thC Anglo-Saxon 'Franks' Casket' depicting the juxtaposition of pagan mythology and Christian. On the left - the injured smith-king Weyland receives a visit from three (Valkyrie) women. On the right, Mary and the baby Jesus receive the three male Magi. Note the items carries by the Magi and consider the court of the Fisher King...

Panel from the 8thC Anglo-Saxon 'Franks' Casket' (British Museum) depicting the juxtaposition of pagan mythology and Christian. On the left - the injured smith-king Weyland makes a cup for three ?Valkyrie-women. On the right, Mary and the baby Jesus receive the three male Magi. Note the items carries by the Magi: a ?weapon, a torch and a cup...

 

The Arthurian tales and fairy lays of the 12th-15thC centuries are curious amalgams of contemporary chivalric and courtly Christian culture with much older pagan themes, with which they seem to abound. Those that survive as an identifiable part of the medieval corpus (starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth) were written down between the 12th and 15th centuries, and formed a tradition that was added to, re-versified, modified and expanded. That they were based upon themes and characters from indigenous folk-traditions of the post-Roman, pre-Christian European world is certain, although they would form a very contemporary tradition in their time, and their allegories were equally at home in the fevered era of the crusades and chivalry as they would have been in the 1stC BC before Rome crashed militarily and culturally into the heady and otherworldly domains of the peoples who identified themselves with the term 'Belgae', and from among whom these legends appear to have grown in oral traditions. As in Ireland, the Christian imperative in Britain and northern Europe was to assail these potent bastions of bardic culture in which the spiritual and philosophical worldview of late Iron Age celts were encoded, and convert them to a literary or suitably contemporary oral-narrative form which suited Christian culture – especially in the warlike post-Roman, post-Carolingian world which had evolved from the 'Belgic' culture.

Although mentions of 'Arthur' (and his older variant names) exist before the 1100's, it is during the 12thC that a tradition of written tales begins to coalesce around him and a cast of recognisable supporting characters that takes shape as what we recognise as 'Arthurian' legends. The cultural crucible was stoked by the influence of Troubadour culture (possibly an extension or development of older celtic bardic traditions) from Occitania in the more Romanised south of France, and the militarised chivalric and pious culture in the north of France centred on Normandy, which had developed among settlements of lately-Christianised Danes (warlike post-Belgic pagans until the 10thC). The Troubadours' lyrical traditions of courtly love emphasised feminine power and mystery in an era in which this had long been suppressed, and although it probably did little to change womens' position in life it suited the era during which reformed monasticism was promoting increased veneration of Mary, mother of Jesus, and portraying her allegorically as a fountain of rejuvenation. The Lady of the Lake, the Lady of the Fountain and similar otherworldly females all appear in the Arthurian tales and fairy 'Lays' of this era, and seem to correspond to such contemporary 'Maryology' – a heady mix of pagan goddess veneration and Christian euhemerisation and appropriation of powerful indigenous narratives.

The authors and redactors of the medieval romances and lays in the Arthurian literary tradition wrote across a period spanning some 400 years, and almost wholly for a learned elite audience. Oral tradition would have been part of the cultural pillar supporting and uniting communities and reinforcing a sense of tribal identity and connection to traditional lands. In the Arthurian tales, this was invoked by the elites so as to reinforce their sense of shared-origin and common-purpose with their subjects. Such a connection was important in places like Britain which had seen successive waves of invasion and settlement by neighbouring peoples, most notably that of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Normans. As with all invading cultures, these appropriated and modified indigenous traditions to suit their claims to legitimacy, hence the style of Arthurian literature. As a result of this and active processes among the religious to 'euhemerise' and consign pagan ideas to a pseudo-historical or literary tradition, the old gods of Europe changed their faces and names as the traditions developed.


Timeline of significant 'Arthurian' literature (by no means complete!):

12thC: Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the Kings of Britain, Life of Merlin, Prophecies of Merlin), Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Béroul, Wace, Thomas of Britain, Robert de Boron, Eilhart von Oberge, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven.

13thC: (Wolfram von Eschenbach) 'Parzifal', (Anon.) 'Lancelot-Grail cycle' (or 'Vulgate Cycle'), (Anon.) Post-Vulgate cycle.

14thC: The 'Welsh Romances' (assoc. with the Mabinogion)

 


The Fisher King:

The 'Fisher King' or 'Wounded King' from the grail series of Arthurian tales is perhaps one of the more intriguing of the otherworldly regal male characters of the traditions. His first explicit appearance is in Chrétien de Troyes' 'Perceval, the Story of the Grail' from the late 12thC, where he is the 'Grail King' of the land of Logres, keeper of a mystical lance and a grail (plate or bowl), not then identified with any form of holy Christian relic from the biblical 'Last Supper': that would come later – after the Third Crusade tried to reconquer the 'holy lands' far away in the Middle East, as well as the introduction of the principle of transubstantiation of the communion wine and host. Chretien's 'Perceval' is fragmentary and incomplete, but was sufficiently popular and valuable to have been recopied and added to by a number of subsequent authors in an attempt to 'round off' the narrative and make sense of it.

In Chretien's version, the young and inexperienced Perceval is invited to stay at the castle of a wounded and indolent fisherman-king, whose aged father (also wounded) shares the castle with him. At a banquet a mysterious procession enters bearing a number of mystical objects which are paraded in front of Perceval: a graal/grail (dish or vessel), a bleeding lance, and a candelabra (see the Franks' Casket panel above!). The performance and the meaning of it is lost on Chrétien's Perceval, who returns to Arthur's court where a prophetic/fatalistic 'loathly lady' (ie – the narrative representation of the pagan Cailleach) appears and explains that had he solved the mystery he would have healed the wounded king and his lands.

As Chretien offers no satisfactory conclusion in his own surviving work to the tale of Perceval, others expanded upon his themes – either through reference to an original oral narrative tradition or using their own creative skills – we cannot be certain which. An analogy of the tale with similar themes (although not referring directly to a 'grail' or 'Fisher King') occurs in the Middle Welsh tale Peredur son of Efrawg – a romance appended to the 'Mabinogion' tales. Robert de Boron's 12thC 'Joseph d'Arimathie' introduces the Christianised version of the Grail, placing the 'Bron the Rich Fisher' (ie – the Fisher King) as last in a line of Grail guardians originating with Joseph of Arimithea – supposed to have come to Britain with the Grail in which he was supposed to have collected Jesus' blood: This fitted the Crusader theme entirely!

The Fisher King is Belenos?

In truth, we know very little about the Celtic solar deity Belenos, so equating him with the Fisher King has its problems. However, the theme of death and rebirth underlies the Grail mystery, just as it did the religion of the ancient Europeans, and the Sun is the most explicit exemplar of the principle. The wounds of the Fisher King, and/or his father are expressions of human mortality, just as his 'healing' from the 'dolorous stroke' represents reincarnation.

Interior panel from the late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron depicting a giant warrior rejuvenating soldiers in some kind of vessel, making them into mounted  knights.

Interior panel from the late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron depicting a giant warrior rejuvenating soldiers in some kind of vessel, making them into mounted knights.

 

Other clues lie in the names given to the King: The anonymous 13thC authors of the 'Lancelot-Grail' cycle expanded upon the 'Grail' stories and added a couple of interesting name-details: the 'Fisher King', they say, was named 'Pelles' and the 'Wounded King' was called 'Pellehan' or 'Pellam'. Like the Slavic god Veles, the Lithuanian Velinas and the Germanic Weland, these names seem to contain elements of the older 'Belenos' (in this case through the other common Celtic/Indo-European language consonantal switch of the 'B' and 'P' sounds.) The slightly later 'Post-Vulgate Cycle' versions of the Grail tale (also by an un-named author) and Sir Thomas Mallory's 15thC 'Morte D'Arthur' refer to a 'Sir Balin' who was responsible for causing the wound of the Fisher King (the 'Dolorous Stroke') and hence the sickness of his land, using a lance – perhaps unsurprisingly in the Christianised legends identified with the 'Spear of Longinus', supposed to have been the one that pierced the side of 'Christ'. In Robert de Boron's late 12thC Grail epic 'Joseph d'Arimathie', the Fisher King (here called the 'Rich Fisher') is called Bron – a name which has caused some scholars to comment on the similarity with the character Bendigeidfran ('Bran the Blessed') from the Welsh Mabinogion. Bran is a giant who possesses a healing cauldron, and who is mortally injured by decapitation yet whose head continues to talk. Bran means 'raven' – a bird strongly associated with the souls of the dead and reincarnation in Celtic and Norse (ie – late Belgic culture) mythology.

Holy Wounds and Healing Vessels:

The 'Holy Wound' apparently suffered by the Fisher King characters in Grail mythology is used as an allegory for the poor state of their lands: why else would the King catch his own food? The 'bleeding lance' theme introduced into literature by Chretien represents an injured virility, something akin to the bleeding stag with a broken antler who had lost the season's rutting combat, but will endure with hope that the next year promises dominance of the herd. The mystery of the image invoked by Chretien revolves around the question of whether the lance runs with the blood of its adversary, or if it is the lance itself that bleeds? In a solar sense, the 'wounding' of the land comes with the onset of winter, during which the sun – like the Fisher King – seems enfeebled. This invokes the necessity of death to encourage life. Interestingly, the 12th/13thC Norse Prose Edda myth of Volundr (Weyland/Weland) claims that he is wounded and cannot walk – this is confirmed by the imagery of Weyland on the earlier 8thC Franks' Casket…

 

However, it was the grail itself which took greater precedence in the later tales: the receiver of the 'sacrificial' blood of the Christian narratives, for which the 'wounded king' was to become an important allegory. The 'ladies of the fountains' of earlier tales – explicit references to the pagan goddesses we see depicted upon ancient Celtic stelae – were to merge with the 'Marian' goddess-philosophies of the more pious Christian eras. This process was reaching its height in the 12thC when the Arthurian tales were being written down.

 

However, the Arthurian 'Fisher King' is portrayed as a king down on his luck and wounded who requires redemption and healing through questing knights who seek the Grail. This means that he is never a direct analogy for Jesus, who was generally portrayed as a triumphal and all-powerful redeemer during the medieval period. In fact, the 'Fisher King' seems more akin to Shakespeare's version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'King Leir/Lear' or perhaps the wild Merddyn (Merlin) or his Irish equivalent Suibhne: slightly unhinged, somehow wounded, and a bit less than divine. The famous late-classical British/Irish Christian leader Pelagius (4th-5thC CE) seems to have shared the same opinion about Christ and rejected the idea of 'original sin', but was rebutted by his continental colleagues who expunged his doctrine that Jesus himself was somehow human! Even the name Pelagius is itself evocative of Pel- or Bel-: Celtic Christians were arch employers of the mythology of their own indigenous religious background.

Triadic nature of the Fisher King:

The Fisher King (who lives with his aged father – also wounded) is actually part of a 'triad' if one includes the redeeming young knights such as Perceval, Lancelot or Galahad who unlock the secret of Grail and the Lance, and who heal the King's wounds. These themselves are reflexes of the character who wounds the Fisher King: another knight of Arthur's court called Sir Balin, whose name is a more explicit invocation of Belenos. Galahad is the grandson of the Wounded King in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, where Pelles (the younger Fisher King) contrives to have Lancelot bed his daughter Elaine. This technically ensures his eventual healing, again demonstrating the complex themes of continuity and reincarnation. The triadic divinities of the Atlantic Europeans often incorporate a 'father-son-virgin youth' or 'crone-mother-virgin youth' type of schema, and this is witnessed with the Fisher King.

Triadic divinites: The 'Corleck Head' (National Museum of Ireland) has three faces - you can only ever see two when looking at it side-on! This is an expression of the mystery hinted at in the character of the Fisher King.

Triadic divinites: The 'Corleck Head' (National Museum of Ireland) has three faces - you can only ever see two when looking at it side-on! This is an expression of the mystery hinted at in the character of the Fisher King.

The character's important mystical nature, his association with death and renewal, his various names and triadic nature are all clues to his identity with the great solar god of the Otherworld. Manannan (son of Leir) is the same.

 

 

 

Fountains, maidens, vessels, crusty wizard-kings, knight-errants and horses

Romano-British stela of the triple-goddess 'Coventina'. Note the vases and the bunch of corn...

Romano-British stela of the triple-goddess ‘Coventina’. Note the vases and the bunch of corn…

The ‘romance’ story traditions, poetry and literature of northern Europe between the 12th and 15th centuries represented a renaissance of interest in the mythology of the pagan era among the secular elites of the English, Normans, French and Germans. This itself seems to have paralleled the renaissance in classical literature and learning during the same period, propelled from the Islamic world, and perhaps by the formal schism of the eastern and western christian patriarchies in the 11th century.

Their heady imagery of bold beautiful knights, mysterious and equally beautiful otherworldly maidens, and complex coded allusions to what christianity disapproved of – sex, violence and paganism – made them a sure-fire hit among the courtly elites. In spite of their apparently un-christian themes, the weavers of these tales were acutely aware of when not to overstep the mark, lest they face accusations of the capital crime of heresy! By investing their main and supporting characters with strong christian values of love, piety, chastity and truth, they were able to send them deep into story realms with mysterious pagan themes underpinning the narrative. Christianity was always triumphant in the end, and moral virtue came out on top: It is important to realise that these authors were often writing for a world where paganism was not such a distant memory (the Normans, for example and their Scandinavian cousins) so reading a pagan rather than a christian bias into their tales would be ill-advised. After all, christianisation had already followed a syncretic path in much of Europe since the Theodosian edicts of the 5thC. That the heartland of this revival in poetry, prose and song tradition was the Aquitanian courts of the Languedoc in southern France (home of the Troubadours) is interesting, since these soon became the heart of a strange dualistic/duotheistic interpretation of christianity known as Catharism, later destroyed in the Albigensian Crusade.

So what are the themes and in which stories in particular are they found?

Meeting a fairy woman at a fountain:

The ‘Lai de Graelent’, the Lai de Lanval (Marie de France 12thC), Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion’ (Chretien de Troyes 12thC), the Irish tale ‘Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedón (Yellow Book of Lecan – late 14thC) and the Fenian lay known as Toraíocht Sliabh Cuilinn or Laoi Na Seilge,as well as
Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (Yellow Book of Lecan) and others
 all tackle this popular theme. In them, the hero follows a magical white stag or boar (part of the ‘fairy herd’) into a far-off place where he meets a mysterious and fatal woman at a spring, lake or river. She promises him the gifts of the otherworld but imposes a geas upon him which ties him ultimately to the otherworld.

   The otherworld is explicitly reached through water in all of these, as is the Isle of Avalon in the seminal Arthurian works of Geoffrey of Monmouth who, with his literary companions-at-arms Jocelyn of FurnessWalter Map and Gerald of Wales, really got the ball rolling of the ‘second stage’ of trying to put ancient Atlantic legends into a christian ‘historical’ narrative – the first being the Irish and continental hagiographies of the 6th-10th centuries, whose traditions were badly damaged in the Viking raids of the 8th-9th centuries.

The ‘Wizard-King’:

Perhaps the most mysterious otherworldly rulers of medieval story traditions are those we identify with the ‘wizard-king’ archetype. In Ireland, Manannan is the arch-example of this, but in the ‘Lancelot-Grail Cycle’ legends of Britain and France, the Fisher King (Perceval) and Merlin represent the same. Another aspect of the otherworld-lord is the ‘Old King’ of which Gradlon, Arthur, Geoffrey’s King Leir and even Fionn mac Cumhall (Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Grainne) function as examples – a projection of the otherworld wizard-king upon the decaying mundane existence. Geoffrey’s Merlin and Jocelyn’s Melinus (his version of Mannannan who Patrick supposedly defeats on the Isle of Man) both provide an attempt at ‘bookending’ the role of the otherworld master of pagan tradition in a (pseudo) historical context, much in the same way that the Arthurian legends’ handling of the Lady of the Lake and the ‘sorceress’ Morgane do.

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of 'Minerva Aquae Sulis' at Bath displayed this magnificent head of 'Manannan'. Note the 'solar' rays of the hair and the 'watery' appearance of the beard...

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of ‘Minerva Aquae Sulis’ at Bath displayed this magnificent head of ‘Manannan’. Note the ‘solar’ rays of the hair and the ‘watery’ appearance of the beard… Minerva was a female god 😉

The ‘Grail’:

Tales such as Yvain and Perceval, Ireland’s Tochmarc Étaíne, the Dagda’s magic cauldron in the story Cath Maige Tuired as well as the continental legends of the bath-loving Melusine, and the middle-Welsh tales of the  Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the legend of Cerridwen and the Birth of Taliesin all feature a magical cauldron, dish or cup.  This always seems to represent the powers of regeneration – a metaphor for the womb in many ways.

A 'Sheela na Gig' - compare her to the images of 'Coventina' from the Romano-British stelae...

A ‘Sheela na Gig’ – compare her to the images of ‘Coventina’ from the Romano-British stelae…

The vision of the bleeding lance from Perceval is the flipside of this ‘genital’ imagery, perhaps demoted in the Christian context due to its phallic nature, but of no lesser importance than the grail in the original telling by Chretien de Troyes. This represents the piercing aspect of new life, coming through from the otherworld – an allusion made concrete in the character of ‘Sir Bors’ whose name contains the Gaelic rootword for both ‘piercing’ things and springs of water.

The 'Ballafreer phallus', Braddan, Isle of Man - known locally as the 'White Lady'!

The ‘Ballafreer phallus’, Braddan, Isle of Man – known locally as the ‘White Lady’!

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.