A Brythonic / Cymric hero and demigod: Great Bear
As a figure, Arthur is know from a number of early Cymric (Welsh) sources, the oldest of which is the tale of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogi and the poems in the Black Book. Arthur is a compound figure, a mix of historical figure, literary hero and sky god.
Arthur is, undoubtedly, the most well-known of all Celtic figures — due, for the most part, to the mediaeval romances. The figure does, however, occur in native Celtic myths of Cymru, Kernow, Brittany and Scotland as well as in the Cymric romance of Culhwch ac Olwen, in the poem Preiddeu Annwfn (the Spoils of Annwfn) and in the poem fragment Pa Gur yw y Porthawr (What Man is the Gatekeeper), also known as Ymddiddan Arthur a Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr.
The Arthur of the romances depict a warrior-king and may be based on the exploits of a 5th century leader in the Northumbria and Strathclyde areas (the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia). However, the mythological sources point to the confabulation of this historic figure with an older Celtic deity.
Arthur’s marriage to Gwenhwyfar, herself a triple goddess and the embodiment of the spirit of Britain makes it likely that Arthur originally represented a sky deity who symbolically marries an earth goddess. He also emerges as a father deity, a leader of other gods who eventually become represented as the knights of the round table. As such he may originally have had similar attributes to the ancient god Nwyfre.
In the Cymric legends Arthur’s greatest exploits are the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth in the Mabinogi of Culhwch ac Olwen and the raid on Annwfn to capture its spoils, an unmitigated disaster, as recorded in the Preiddeu Annwfn.
In addition, the figure of Arthur is mentioned in a number of the early triads Trioedd Ynys Prydain. These are effectively bardic aide memoirs; fragments hinting at Arthurian tales that have been lost to us. He is mentioned in triads 1, 2, 12, 20, 26, 37, 51, 52, 53, 54, 56, 57, 59, 93 and appendix III. Here Arthur is mentioned directly in an active role. He also figures in ten other poems but these refer to other members of Arthur’s Llys (court). Amongst these triads Arthur is described as: the most generous man in Britain; one of the three most scurrilous bards in the island of Britain; one of the three red ravagers of Britain, one of the thirteen treasures of Britain was Arthur’s mantle which would hide any man from sight.
In triad 26 we have a lost story of Arthur attempting to steal a magical sow from March mab Meirchion which is re-told in Drystan ac Esyllt. Triad 37 blames Arthur for removing the protective skull of Bendigeidfran from its internment on the White Hill in London and thus permitting the Saxon invasion. Triad 52 describes Arthur as one of the exalted prisoners of Britain, captured three times and released on each occasion by his cousin Goreu mab Custennin.
Triad 56 tells of Arthur’s three great queens: each named Gwenhwyfar. This shows that Gwenhwyfar was perceived as a triple-goddess in her own right. The very next triad, triad 57 tells of Arthur’s three mistresses: Indeg daughter of Garwy Hir (the tall), Garwen daughter of Henin Hen (ancient, the old) and Gŵyl (modest) daughter of Gendawd (big chin). Taken together these triads reveal a lost corpus of native Arthurian mythos. They also reveal a quite different figure to that portrayed in the mediaeval romances. The Brythonic Arthur is a heroic figure, but he is a hero in the ancient Celtic mould; effectively a human being writ large rather than the chivalric knight of later romances. This original Cymric nature of Arthur is best exemplified by the poem Pa gur yw y porthawr, which though a list of Arthur’s heroes and their exploits paints Arthur himself as the leader of a war band of heroes, a figure more akin to the Irish hero CúChulainn than to a king or prince; though it could be argued that he represents a chieftain represented in the traditional heroic mould (a warrior and a raider).
There is an interesting feature in the early folklore of Arthur that’s common to the Cymric, Scottish, Cornish and Breton mythos in that Arthur is depicted as a beneficent giant, who with his men rids the land of other giants, of witches and monsters. As is the description of Arthur in the tale found in the Red book of Hergest, Breuddwyd Rhonabwy (the Dream of Rhonabwy). As such it can be postulated that Arthur is a member of the godly race of giants, the Plant Llŷr, the Cymric equivalent of the Irish Fomorians.
Indeed, in the poem fragment Pa Gur Arthur counts as one of his men the sea god Manawyddan fab Llŷr. This belief in Arthur’s descent from the race of giants was held to the middle ages, as evidenced by his genealogy, given in the late thirteenth century manuscript Mostyn 177 Arthur m. Uthyr m Custennin m Cynfawr m Caradog m Brâ m Llŷr. This also represents one of the few instances where Arthur’s father is given as Uthyr in Cymric tradition. Indeed, he is never referred to by his patronymic in the triads. One of the few other instances of Arthur’s patronymic occurs in the poem Ymddiddan Arthur a’r Eryr (The Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle) where Arthur converses with the departed spirit of his nephew, Eliwlod mab Madog mab Uthyr. This genealogy would also suggest that Arthur’s descent is attached to the Dumnonian line, placing him securely as on of the ‘men of the north’. Triad 4 of the Trioedd Ynys Prydain gives Arthur’s son as Llacheu though nothing of his mythos survives.
Arthur’s magical sword, caledfwlch (hard dinter), which later became Normanized to Caliburn and Anglicized to Excalibur, in its Cymric form, is the name given to the sword of Celtic battle-leaders.
Indeed, in the Mabinogi of Culhwch and Olwen Arthur’s arms are described as: his sword Caledfwlch, spear Rhongomyniad, shield Wynebgwrthucher, dagger Carnwennan. These would be the arms of a war-leader (in the ancient heroic mode).