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Statue of King Arthur on the tomb of Emperor Maximilian I in the Innsbruck Court Church , ( Peter Vischer , 1512 )

King Arthur ( Welsh Arthur [ 'arθir ]) is a legendary figure who appears in many literary works of the European Middle Ages in different contexts and different meanings. His territory is located in Britain . Since the late 9th century, British chronicles have recorded the king's leading and successful participation in the battles against the Angles , Jutes and Saxons ( Anglo-Saxons ) who invaded there around 500 AD . Since the 12th century, this story has been embellished in court literature and brought into its classical form. It is uncertain whether Arthur had a real historical role model and is now rather doubted in historical studies.

Myth and History

Arthur is an important figure in the mythology of Britain ( Matière de Bretagne ). In his inspirational effect on literature he is comparable to Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood . Arthur is also associated with other myths such as the legends about Merlin , the Holy Grail and the wild hunt .

The historical core of the Arthurian story can be found in the Migration Period , when the Roman-British remaining population had to defend itself against rebellious Anglo-Saxons after the withdrawal of the Roman legions . However, no source is known from such an early period that would prove a King Arthur; with Gildas in the 6th century the leader of the British bears the Roman name Ambrosius Aurelianus . In the earliest historical sources that mention Arthur, such as the Historia Brittonum ("History of the British") from the later 9th century, he then appears as a British military leader from around 500 AD. More detailed representations are only known from the High Middle Ages. The oldest surviving Arthurian history is the Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain") by Geoffrey of Monmouth (around 1135). In the following period the Arthurian story was the subject of numerous French-courtly epic poems and prose novels . This Franco-English Arthurian epic fertilized the vernacular literatures of almost all of Europe from the 12th to the 14th centuries. Numerous motifs were added later, such as the famous round table for the first time in Wace's Roman de Brut (novel about Brutus ) around 1190. Many medieval ideas of knightly virtues were introduced by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes around 1170.

The linguist Wolfgang Meid wrote about the origins and the gradual growth of the legend :

"The Arthurian legend itself is a remarkable example of the underground growth and swelling of a literary tradition from infinitesimally small beginnings - the historically not authenticated Arthur is said to have fought twelve victorious battles in the British wars against the Anglo-Saxons as a dux bellorum - to gigantic proportions which, as a fairy-tale product of fantasy, find their way into continental European literatures and, detached from their mythical Celtic origins, develop a life of their own. "

The Arthurian legend

The saga takes place against the background of real events in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, but it adapts this late antique scenario to medieval thinking: Britain's rulers (the saga is about kings) are at odds with one another, the country is threatened of Saxons and Picts . The former patrons, the Romans , have withdrawn, leaving the defense of the island to the Romanized inhabitants. Their "Hochkönig" is Ambrosius Aurelianus , his advisor and friend of the (fabulously surrounded by an aura of mystery) druid Merlin , whose father is a ghost. It was also Merlin who set up the stone circle in Stonehenge . A heavenly sign in the form of a dragon means that Ambrose will soon die and that Uther Pendragon (head of the dragon) will succeed him. Merlin announces this event to Uther and promises him a son of supreme power.

At Uther's coronation he met Igraine (Igerne), the wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall , and fell in love with her. The Duke then leaves the court with his wife and his people without the consent of the new king. Furious, Uther follows him and invades Cornwall with his army. Gorlois brings Igraine to Tintagel , his impregnable castle, has her guarded there and moves against Uther. He asks Merlin for his advice. Merlin then transforms Uther into the outer likeness of the Duke of Cornwall. Thus the king succeeds in entering Tintagel unchallenged and lying with Igraine, who takes him for her husband. That same night the duke fell in battle, and shortly afterwards Uther married Igraine, who was expecting his child. After the birth, Merlin takes the boy into his care and brings him to Ector, a trustworthy knight, with whom the child, who is named Arthur (Arthur), grows up. The following years of Uther's reign are filled with constant wars against the Saxons, Scots and Irish , and when he dies the old hostilities among the British petty kings break out again.

In the meantime Merlin forges a wonderful sword, the blade of which he drives into a huge stone with the aid of his magic powers. The name of the sword is either Excalibur or Caliburn , depending on the legend , and on its hilt is written in gold letters: "Whoever can pull this sword out of the stone is the rightful King of Britain." From near and far all nobles now stream together, to test their strength, but nobody succeeds. During a tournament in which Sir Ector, his son Keie and Arthur take part as his squire, Keie goes missing his sword and tells Arthur to get it for him. Arthur doesn't find it, instead discovers the sword in the stone, pulls it out with no effort and brings it to his stepbrother. When this deed becomes known, Merlin appears and announces Arthur's true parentage. He is then crowned High King of Britain. Against Merlin's advice, Arthur marries Guinevere (Ginevra), the daughter of King Leodegrance . As a wedding present from her father, Guinevere brought a huge round table, which became the centerpiece of the new Camelot Castle that Arthur had built for himself.

But the young couple is not allowed to rest. Arthur feels compelled - like Uther once - to fight the Saxons invading the country. He defeats them in many bloody battles; the last, at Mount Badon , brings ultimate victory. Arthur is finally allowed to devote himself to peaceful tasks. He calls noble knights to his court, organizes glamorous tournaments and gathers the best men of the whole empire around him. They regularly gather around the round table, and soon they are called the "Knights of the Round Table ". King Arthur's reputation rises, he exercises justice against everyone and sends his knights to fight injustice and arbitrariness. They endure many adventures, their names include: Lancelot , Gawain , Keie, Gaheris, Balin, Parzival , Bors, Iwein , Erec and others. v. a. They are characterized by bravery and courtly demeanor, and the round table makes everyone equal without any gradation.

After long years of peace, the end is near. An envoy from Rome appears and demands that Arthur pay tribute. The king refuses. He appoints his nephew Mordred as administrator of the kingdom and protector of the queen and marches with his army against Rome. In Gaul he receives news of Mordred's betrayal, who incited the remaining vassal kings against Arthur and captured the queen. Arthur returns. Arthur's fate is decided in the Battle of Camlann , in which the best and most famous of his knights are killed. Although he succeeds in killing Mordred in a duel, he himself is seriously wounded and raptured to the mysterious island of Avalon . Legend has it that he will return from there one day because he did not die. In another version, Mordred reveals Guinevere's adultery with Lancelot to the king. The lovers flee and Arthur is forced to wage war against his former friend.

Origin, history and content of the Arthurian legend

The first Arthurian legends are likely to have originated as follows: In the late 5th century, many British fled from the Anglo-Saxons to the mainland, to what is now Brittany (then Aremorica ), exerted an influence on the culture of the local inhabitants and certainly brought legends and oral traditions from them the island with itself. From 1066, Bretons and Breton culture came back to England together with the Norman conquerors, reviving the Celtic-British tradition that had already been preserved and developed independently in Wales and Cornwall. Several island and mainland Celtic traditions then condensed into a single legendary figure called Arthur in the late 11th century , which Geoffrey of Monmouth further developed.

The Anglo-Norman poet Wace wrote a rhyming chronicle ( Roman de Brut ) about the "history of Britain" in Old French, which is based on the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth , and expanded it to include a few motifs, such as the round table or the rapture of Arthur Avalon . Traveling by living people to another world was a fixed topos of Celtic mythology , and the late ancient Greek historian Prokopios of Caesarea had already reported in the 6th century that the Celts believed that the souls of the dead were brought to a mysterious island at night ( Histories 8,20,47-57).

In Wace's version, Arthur is the son of Uther and Igraine and becomes King of England and Wales at the age of 15. He gathers his knights at a round table to avoid disputes of rank. He waged numerous successful defensive battles against the Saxons and wars of conquest against Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Gaul. In Gaul he defeated the Roman tribune Frollo and held court in Paris. He marries Guinevere , a daughter of a noble Roman family. In the “City of Legions” he holds a court day for all of Europe. Because of his attacks on the Roman Empire, he is challenged by the Roman Emperor and kills the giant from Mont St. Michel on the way to Rome . He wins the decisive battle against the Romans, commanded by the procurator Lucius Tiberius , at Saussy . On the march to Rome, however, he receives the news that his nephew Mordred has taken over the rule at home and brought the queen into his possession. Arthur returns and wins two battles against Mordred, Mordred falls in the third, but Arthur is critically wounded. He is taken to Avalon Island for recovery.

As for Arthur's death, Wace stuck to the mythology of Merlin the magician: he himself doubts the death of the king who will one day return.

Later, the legends about King Arthur were linked with other Celtic legends (including the legend of the Holy Grail) and finally developed from a life story of a possibly essentially historical figure to a collection of heroic deeds and the description of an ideal medieval king, as many think wish.

Some versions differ from one another in the description of moral behavior. While Arthur is the legitimate child of Uthers and his wife in the elegant version, while Mordred is the nephew of Arthur and Lancelot Guinevere simply worships (Hohe Minne ), in the popular version Uther visits the wife of a duke in his guise, Lancelot and Guinevere commit adultery and Mordred (and sometimes Lancelot) is the son of an incestuous relationship between Arthur and his sister Morgan le Fay . And in the Welsh legend Ymddiddan Arthur a'r Eryr ("Arthur's Conversation with the Eagle"), Arthur is, in contrast to the usual Christian background, even portrayed as a pagan who first had an eagle - his deceased nephew Eliwlad, who was transformed into an eagle - brings Christianity closer.

At the end of the decorations, the legend was something like this: Arthur was taken away from his parents by Merlin and brought up by Merlin's friend Hector together with his son Keie . Arthur thinks he is Hector's son. In Roberts de Boron Merlin , later followed by Thomas Malory , Arthur took the throne after drawing a sword out of a stone. In this account, this act can only be performed by the "true king," which means the predicted king and true heir of Uther Pendragon . This sword is believed to be the famous Excalibur (or Caliburn ) sword ; his identity is later described in the so-called Vulgate Merlin . In the post-Vulgate Merlin's Continuation it is then written that Excalibur is given by a hand that came out of a lake and that it was given to Arthur's father Uther by a virgin sorceress, the mistress of the lake , shortly after the start of his reign. When Uther sees his death approaching, he thrusts the sword into a stone with the words that only the rightful king can pull the sword out of the stone again. In this post-Vulgate version, the blade can cut through any material, and its scabbard makes the wearer invisible, invulnerable according to other tradition. Against Merlin's advice, who foresaw misfortune, Arthur marries Guinevere, who is sometimes the daughter of the king of a neighboring empire.

King Arthur's Round Table in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle

In the courtly versions of the legend associated with the beginning of the 12th century were popular, Arthur calls the Knights of the Round Table (English: Round Table) together ( Iwein , Erec , Lancelot , Gawain , Galahad , and others). The magician Merlin and the knight Parzival can also be found at his court, most commonly held in Camelot . The knights deal with fabulous searches, such as the Holy Grail , or the hunt for the "quest animal" Glatisant and the boar Twrch Trwyth . Other stories from the Celtic world of legends were later associated with Arthur, such as the legend of Tristan and Isolde . Merlin protects him in all his endeavors until he is held back forever by his lover. After that, almost no further exploits of King Arthur are reported.

The romance between Arthur's best knight Lancelot and Queen Guinevere is the central reason for the fall of the world Arthur: Guinevere is said to have committed an adultery with Lancelot (according to other sources, because she allegedly gave one of the knights a poisoned apple) on the Pyre to be executed. Lancelot frees them and kills two brothers of Gawain , who was until then a good friend of Lancelot. This swears vengeance. Although Arthur later reconciled himself with Guinevere, his army pursued Lancelot , who was expelled from the Round Table, at Gawain's insistence . Gawain forgives Lancelot when he defeats him in a duel and still does not kill him. Nevertheless, the crisis is not over yet. Arthur receives the news that Mordred has taken Guinevere as his wife under the pretext that Arthur is dead and now calls himself "King of Britain". Arthur returns home. Eventually he kills Mordred in the bloody battle of Camlann , but is mortally wounded himself. He asks one of the last knights who are still alive to return his sword, which he received from the "Lady of the Lake", which the knight, after trying several times to lie to Arthur and to keep the sword, also does. Then Arthur is picked up by three priestesses from the Otherworld island of Avalon. Most of the legends do not explain in detail whether he dies or survives there.

Persistence of the myth

For a long time, the British - and not only they - believed in Arthur's return (compare Friedrich Barbarossa ). Arthur was an idol for the Welsh people who rebelled against the English.

And in the 12th century the scholar Alanus asked:

“Where is a place within the borders of the Christian empire
to which the winged praise of the British Arthur
has not yet reached?
Go and announce that Arthur is dead. You will hardly
get away unscathed without being
shattered by the stones of your audience . "

King Arthur and the Holy Grail

King Arthur is repeatedly associated with the Holy Grail . In one version of the legend, the "round table" is said to have always stood at the royal court whose knights were looking for the Grail. It was Uther Pendragon first, then Guinevere's father Leodagan and finally Arthur.

In the anonymously transmitted poetry Quête du saint Graal , which is part of the prose-novel cycle Lancelot-Graal (written around 1215/30), three of Arthur’s knights, namely Perceval , Bors de Ganis and Galahad , the son of Lancelot the Grail and put it in its place in a church in the Middle East.

Literary history of the Arthurian legend

Earliest records of Arthur

If Arthur goes back to a historical person, this person would have to have lived in the late 5th or early 6th century, i.e. in late antiquity . However, neither the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Church history of the people of the Angles") by Beda Venerabilis , which was written around 731, nor the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from the late 9th century knows a King Arthur, although both of them give detailed information about events in the 5th century. and 6th century reports. The work De Excidio Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Fall of Britain ”), which was written by the British monk Gildas around the middle of the 6th century , does not mention him, nor any other texts from such an early period. However, Gildas mentions the Battle of Badon , which also appears in later sources in connection with Arthur.

Historia Brittonum

The earliest source for Arthur is the Historia Brittonum ("History of the British"), which was traditionally attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius and was written around the year 830. In it Arthur is referred to as dux bellorum ("leader in battles"), so as a military leader, not as a king. According to Chapter 56 ( Arthuriana ) of the Historia Brittonum, he is said to have fought victoriously against the Saxons in 12 battles:

  • the first battle was at the mouth of the river mirror held
  • the next four battles were fought on a river called Dubglas by the Britons in the Linnuis region ; the latter area was later identified with Lincolnshire by Geoffrey of Monmouth , who first reported on Arthur in detail , but his account of early British history is historically extremely unreliable
  • the sixth battle took place according to the Harleian manuscript of the Historia Brittonum on the river Bassas , while a Vatican manuscript from the same historical source calls this river Lusas
  • the seventh battle was fought by Arthur in the Caledonian Forest (which was in Scotland ), and this forest was called Cat Coit Celidon by the British
  • the battlefield of the eighth battle was the Guinnion Castle ; Arthur carried the image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders and, with God's help, drove the Saxons to flight and killed many of them
  • the ninth battle occurred at the City of the Legion , which Geoffrey identified with Caerleon . As well as Chester considered
  • the place of the tenth battle was the bank of the river Tribruit , which is also mentioned under the name Trywruid in an early Welsh poem as the battleground of Arthur and his men
  • Arthur had won the eleventh battle on Mount Agned ; this collection is in many manuscripts of Historia Brittonum but Bregion or Breguoin called; after a marginal note, the battle was in Somersetshire happened
  • The twelfth and final armed conflict is described as the battle of Mons Badonicus ( Badon Hill ), already mentioned by Gildas - albeit without reference to Arthur - in which Arthur had killed 960 opponents by the grace of God alone. In research, Mount Badon was equated with Bannesdon Hill near Bath , based on the representation by Geoffrey von Monmouth , but the British medievalist Oliver James Padel considers this to be unlikely. According to a comment on Gildas, Mount Badon was on the Severn . Padel calls for Badon to be identified with one of the Badbury mountain festivals in southern England.

Some researchers suggest that this list of 12 battles could be traced back to an ancient Welsh poem that glorified the victories attributed to Arthur. Some of the battles listed here could in fact have been fought by another military leader and were only later attributed to Arthur. The number twelve as the number of battles won by Arthur appears suspicious to several historians; Perhaps Arthur should have fought four battles in a single place in order to achieve this amount. There have been numerous efforts to locate the cited battle sites, which have ultimately been located across the UK without leading to generally accepted results. Some of the suggestions made here are in the list above; some names like Bassas, Dubglas, Guinion and Agned are otherwise either not known at all or at least not known as battle sites; and only the tenth and twelfth battles are also associated with Arthur in other early sources. The fact that Gildas, who wrote shortly after the Battle of Badon, did not mention Arthur and instead seemed to regard Ambrosius Aurelianus as the general of the Britons in this warlike event, found no satisfactory explanation for the assumption of a historically real Arthur . The third version of the Historia Brittonum , as it is in Codex Harleianus 3859 and a Vatican manuscript, also lists wonders of Britain, two of which refer to Arthur based on Welsh legends.

Annales Cambriae

The Annales Cambriae ("Annals of Wales"), which was completed around 950 but only survived in copies from the early 12th century, mention Arthur as the victor of the Battle of Badon, which, according to this source, took place in 516. The claim made here that Arthur carried the cross of Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights before the battle, echoes the description of the eighth battle in the Historia Brittonum , according to which Arthur carried the image of the Blessed Virgin on his shoulders. This led to the assumption that the Annales Cambriae are at least indirectly partially derived from the Historia Brittonum , and thus cannot be considered as independent early evidence of the historical existence of Arthur. According to the Annales Cambriae , Arthur is said to have died in the year 537 together with Medraut (later Mordred ) in the Battle of Camlann - not mentioned in the Historia Brittonum . This does not seem to have been part of Arthur's struggle against the Anglo-Saxons. Geoffrey of Monmouth identified Camlann with Camelford in Cornwall , but it could also be Camboglanna , a Roman military camp in Cumbria on Hadrian's Wall . Essentially, the remarks in the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae are the only usable information for Arthur, if he was a real historical figure of the 6th century.

Other sources

Shortly before Geoffrey von Monmouth , who wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae in Oxford in the 12th century , in which Arthur is treated in detail for the first time, William of Malmesbury , who, unlike Geoffrey, is considered a relatively reliable historian , tells in his Gesta Regum Anglorum that Arthur supported the warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus in the fight against the fishing rods.

According to Caradoc by Llancarfans Vita Gildae (“The Life of Gildas”), Gwenhwyfar / Guinevere is captured, kidnapped, raped and taken to his fortress by Melwas (Meleagant), the King of Somerset , as a prize in a duel against Cei fab Cynyr (Sir Keie) Glastonbury held captive. Arthur besieges Melwas' fortress for a year with an army until Saint Gildas mediates a peaceful solution and gives Melwas Guinevere back to Arthur.

Arthur is mentioned several times in early Welsh literature, which is often interpreted as the original lore of the subject. However, none of the surviving editions of these works is older than the medieval Arthurian novels of the 12th century. In the oldest surviving Welsh poem, the Y Gododdin , the poet Aneirin (around 600) writes about one of his characters that she “led black ravens over walls, although she was not Arthur” . But this poem as it exists today is made up of many interpolations , and it is impossible to decide whether this passage is really original or an inset from a later period. The oldest surviving Welsh manuscript that Arthur mentions is the Black Book of Carmarthen ( Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ), which was written around 1250 (see Pa ŵr yw'r porthor? - “Who is the gatekeeper?”). Other early manuscripts are the Book of Taliesin ( Llyfr Taliesin ) from around 1300 (with the story Preiddeu Annwfn , "The Robbery of Annwfn") and the Red Book of Hergest ( Llyfr Coch Hergest ) around 1400. The latter includes the History of Culhwch and Olwen ( Culhwch ac Olwen ), which, according to linguistic analyzes, originated in the 10th century. Arthur also appears in the Mabinogion and in parts of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein ( Welsh Triads ). A late prose fragment from the 14th / 15th centuries. Century is of Arthur's birth and how he became king .

Spread of Arthurian legend and Arthurian romance

Geoffrey von Monmouth 's Historia Regum Britanniae , which was written in Oxford in 1136 , had the character of a "bestseller" and provided other writers such as Wace and Layamon with the template for their part to add Arthur to the stories. Geoffrey Monmouth's story also made Merlin and Guinevere , the Excalibur sword and the town of Avalon famous. Geoffrey himself claimed that he had sole access to a Celtic source on which his story was based.

While many scholars believe that Arthur's medieval meaning goes back to Geoffrey, at least Roger S. Loomis argues that many of the legends about Arthur stem from oral Breton tradition, which was written about the royal and aristocratic courts of northern France and Britain by professional storytellers (jongleurs ) had been spread. The French poet Chrétien de Troyes reworked stories from myth into a literary (novel) form after the middle of the 12th century, as did Marie de France in her shorter narrative poems ( Lais ). In any event, the stories of these two authors appear to be in part independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The Arthurian myth spread - initially with the Normans - far across the continent. An image of Arthur and his knights attacking a fortress was carved in an archivolt over the northern passage of the Cathedral of Modena , Italy between 1099 and 1120 . A mosaic pavement in the cathedral of Otranto near Bari , also Italy, was created in 1165 with the enigmatic description of Arturus Rex holding a scepter and riding a goat . It was not until the end of the 12th century that a specific literary reception began after the French one in other parts of Europe, first on the Lower Rhine, then in Upper Germany ( Hartmann von Aue , Ulrich von Zatzikhoven , Wolfram von Eschenbach , Wigalois des Wirnt von Grafenberg ). At the same time, the substance is already being used in Scandinavia. First, motifs that Geoffrey must have referred to appear in Saxo Grammaticus ' Gesta Danorum , where the Arthurian figure is still called Hotherus . Hotherus takes a double development, on the one hand he becomes the Germanized Hether , on the other hand he also becomes Arthur, who slays the Saxon King Hilderich. In Scandinavia, the classic Arthurian legends are later also found in translated Riddarasögur , such as Ívens saga , Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar , or Erex Saga .

The late medieval Hanseatic League seems to have been a stronghold of Arthurian worship. 15th century traders built the Artus Court in Gdansk , (today Poland ) in honor of Arthur . The stories about Arthur were also spread in medieval Tyrol and are mainly documented there through wall paintings. Artus can be found between 1388 and 1410 in Runkelstein Castle , and there is also an excellent preserved representation of his round table (around 1393).

At the latest in the baroque period, the “knowledge” about King Arthur then seems to have been part of the general education of socially superior people.

"Then Olivier wiped the leather with his emergency sword, which hair sheared (and probably would like to be compared to the King Arturi of England Caliburn) [...]"

for example, writes Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen in his Simplicissimus at the end of the 17th century, placing Arthur in a row with ancient personalities just as casually mentioned, such as Julius Caesar.

The myths about King Arthur were also used by other rulers to make themselves more popular. Examples of this are the Order of the Golden Fleece , which is said to be modeled on Arthur's round table , and King Richard the Lionheart , who is said to have owned Excalibur.

Retellings also include work by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur .

King Arthur is sometimes referred to as the leader of the wild hunt (instead of the hunter Herne ), not only in the British Isles , but also in Brittany , France and Germany .

In Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival , the young knight of the same name is associated with Arthur.

Modern use and transformation of the material

Even in our time, the legends about King Arthur are fascinating and have inspired some authors to work on their own. While some, like Rosemary Sutcliff , limit themselves to retelling the saga, others deal with it very confidently and incorporate motifs from sagas into their own works. The best known at the moment are The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley , John Boorman's film Excalibur and Jerry Bruckheimer's film King Arthur , which tries to investigate the historical background, but in a controversial way.

See also: Arthurian epic in art, literature, music, film and computer games

Interpretation of the science of history

Artus - identification attempts

Many researchers now doubt that Arthur ever existed. The sources for the history of Britain between the early 5th century and the late 7th century are so poor that any assumption is ultimately speculative. Even if one accepts the existence of a historical Arthurian figure of whatever kind, it will hardly ever be possible to set up more than hypotheses (provided that no substantial, previously unknown sources such as inscriptions are added). But there are several approaches to integrate the character of Arthur or at least individual aspects of his story into the real story. It is likely that several legendary and perhaps also historical figures were condensed into the figure of "Arthur".

According to this interpretation, the following historical persons in particular could have contributed to the creation of the legendary figure "Arthur":

Other explanations work without a real historical model for Arthur. One theory sees Arthur as a half-forgotten Celtic deity who transformed himself into a human person in Christian times (here the change of the sea god Lir into King Lear is cited as a presumed parallel ) or a fictional figure like Beowulf . The real historical military successes ascribed to Arthur must therefore have been transferred to Arthur from another person.

A single “piece of evidence” seemed to prove Arthur's existence under this name. It is a grave of Arthur and Guinea, the discovery of which the monks of Glastonbury Abbey (South West England) announced in 1191. The grave was destroyed during the Reformation; According to the contemporary scholar John Leland , a cross was found among the remains, the translated inscription of which reads Hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avalonia ( Latin : "Here lies the famous King Arthur on the island of Avalon")

However, it is unclear whether the cross really existed; if so, it should have been a medieval forgery.

Lucius Artorius Castus

The motif of the sword drawn from the stone as a divine judgment for attaining royal dignity can be associated with the Sarmatian people , whose peculiar rites included the worship of a sword stuck in the ground (see below). 5500 Sarmatian lancers were stationed in Britain during Roman times . Around 180 they were apparently commanded by a Roman knight named Lucius Artorius Castus , who, according to a popular theory, is one of the oldest models for Arthur (see " The Sword from the Stone "). Artorius' military career is best known for the epitaph found in Dalmatia. Accordingly, after his military service in Syria and Pannonia in 175, Marcus Aurelius transferred him to Britain, where under his command the (Sarmatian) auxiliary troops around 183 stood out in repelling severe Scotic attacks. Shortly afterwards Artorius was recalled and finally ended his career in Dalmatia. It is conceivable that the Roman-Sarmatian troops remaining in Britain, which are still occupied there around 400, preserved and transfigured his memory. It is possible that even the motive of the legend, according to which Arthur leaves Britain and disappears after a great victory, can be explained in this way, but this remains speculation.

Since Artorius lived in the 2nd century, this hypothesis does not explain the location of the Arthurian legend in the so-called Dark Ages , the British Migration Period , approx. 300 years later. The entire historical context changes: Britain was a province of the Roman Empire in the second century, on whose behalf Lucius Artorius Castus acted; It was not until the withdrawal of the Roman troops around 410 that a power vacuum was created in which different ethnic groups and warlords vied for supremacy. During this time, the Anglo-Saxon immigration or rebellion took place, in the context of which Arthur belongs in the legendary world and in later written tradition. It is conceivable, however, that Artorius was remembered in Britain as the name of a successful military leader and defender and that his name, now legendary (or honorary title?) Was therefore transferred to the figure of another hero, who is no longer opposed in these legends the Skoten but fought against the Angles and Saxons.

The Riothamus and Flavius ​​Aëtius

A British “high kingship” is well documented for the middle of the 5th century: After the final withdrawal of the Roman troops in 410, the Romans and Romanized Celts who remained in the country had to organize their own defense. Several local rulers emerged, but there are indications of the existence of an overlord. According to several researchers, the “name” Vortigern , mentioned by Beda Venerabilis, actually hides the Celtic title “Supreme Lord”. The late antique historian Jordanes , who wrote a “History of the Goths” ( Getica ) in 551 , then reports of a Riothamus (that is, “highest leader”) - some scholars, above all Geoffrey Ashe and Léon Fleuriot , equate him with Arthur - who rushed to the aid of the Western Roman Emperor Anthemius with 12,000 men and is referred to elsewhere as the “King of the Brettons”. Unfortunately, this "Riothamus" is a shadow figure of which very little is known. It is not even clear whether the “Brettons” he is alleged to have led were British or Bretons . Riothamus was, according to one hypothesis, perhaps the last commander of Roman-style troops in Britain and / or Brittany. In the year 471 Riothamus and his troops went into battle against the Visigoth king Eurich . Riothamus was defeated together with the other Roman units and their allies and was seriously wounded himself. According to some sources, Riothamus died during the retreat of his Breton army in the Burgundian town of Avallon . It is believed that the place of death Avallon was reinterpreted as the island of Avalon in the Breton-British tradition.

A historical figure is the Roman general and consul Flavius ​​Aëtius , who defended Gaul against ever new attacks. His reputation as an important military leader and the relative similarity also make this another possible model for Arthur, although he was active in Gaul, not Britain. Riothamus and Aetius could have been fused into one figure in tradition.

Enniaun Girt, Owain Ddantgwyn and Ambrosius Aurelianus

Some historians now assume that the name "Arthur" did not even exist as a proper name, but that it is a combination of Latin and Celtic honorary names. In the case of Celtic tribal leaders or famous warriors, it was quite common to use one or more epithets that referred to special characteristics or abilities of the person referred to. This tradition still existed in the Middle Ages and even into the late Baroque , throughout Europe. Some researchers believe that the name "Arthur" is made up of the Celtic species ( bear ) and the Latin Ursus , which also means bear. Accordingly, the name was originally Art-Uursus and at some point was shortened to the now known Artus. This double designation was necessary to satisfy both the adherents of the ancient Celtic traditions and the Latinized British. This interpretation would point to the thesis that Arthur was one of the last Roman governors or a Celtic prince who referred to the Roman tradition. The bear was considered the "king of the animals" in the island celts, comparable to the lion as the "king of animals" in the fable. One of the arguments against the hypothesis is that no comparable examples of a Celtic-Latin double title are known - it would rather be expected that the leader in question was called both Art and Ursus , but not both at the same time. The linguist Stefan Zimmer assumes a Celtic surname or honorary title called Arto-rīg-ios (from arto-rig , "bear man"), which was latinized to Artorius .

A title of "king" in the sense of a general head of all British people was apparently not yet known in post-Roman Britain. Each tribal chief was his own master in his own field. Only in times of war, when it was a matter of placing several tribal associations under one command, was one of them evidently proclaimed general (Latin: imperator ) according to Roman tradition , who was then often given a mythological title or battle name.

In fact, there are written references to a British general in the 5th century who was known as the "Bear". His real name was believed to be Enniaun Girt , and he was from Northern Britain. It is said that he managed to get enough British warriors together to defeat the Saxon prince Hengest (whose existence is, however, often doubted) and his warriors. Enniaun Girt did not have the title of king. In high medieval Welsh sources he is referred to as Amerauder (from Latin imperator ). A kingship is not recorded at this time; Instead, Britain was apparently ruled jointly by the Council of the Tribes and the Comes Britanniarum (Governor of Britain), whose name has also been passed down: Ambrosius Aurelianus , a Romanized Briton of high rank, whose "deeds" handed down in the Historia Britonum in later retellings partly on Merlin, partly transferred to Arthur. According to some sources, Enniaun's son Owain Ddantgwyn could also be described as a "historical Arthur".

Camelot - identification attempts

Camelot is King Arthur's court. There is speculation where Camelot was, some suspect the farm in Tintagel in Cornwall (there are indeed archaeological finds from late antiquity , but the castle ruins visible today only date from the 12th century) or in Caerleon (today: Gwent in Wales, the Roman Isca Silurum ). A. Jackson said in 1959 that he could identify Cadbury Castle in Somerset as Camelot using linguistic methods . The remains of the Celtic fortress from the 5th century on Glastonbury Tor are also associated with King Arthur.

Today's remains of Tintagel Castle.

The sword from the stone

The motif of the sword rammed into the ground and then later pulled out of the stone as a divine judgment for attaining royal dignity is possibly connected with the use of heavy Sarmatian lancers in Roman services (see above). In the late fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus not only reports that the Sarmatians were famous for their blacksmithing, but also describes the religious customs of these Iranian horsemen using the example of the Alans, who are related to the Sarmatians :

“With them one sees no temples and no sanctuary; Not even a hut covered with reeds can be seen anywhere near them; rather, a bared sword is thrust into the ground, and through this they worship the god of war and protector of the areas in which they inhabit. (Amm. 31,2). "

Some researchers have also suggested linking the Sarmatian sub-tribe of the calybes, whose blacksmithing was considered unique, with the name Caliburn or Excalibur , but this is etymologically problematic. What is certain is that the Sarmatians and Alans in Roman service were traditionally settled in a veterans' settlement near today's Ribchester ( Bremetennacum Veteranorum ) after their release ; Sarmatian veterans are recorded in Ribchester as late as the fourth century.

The legend of the sword from the stone, which is often equated with Excalibur (i.e. the sword with which Arthur, according to legend, killed his nephew in his last fight, and according to another version his own son Mordred ), is perhaps due to a translation error attributed to: Early medieval scribes often left out nasals , which were instead indicated with a slash above the vowel. It is therefore possible that this sword does not come from "a stone" ( ex Saxo ), but from a Saxon ( ex Saxone ). Perhaps there is also a Jutish legend, according to which a Saxon warrior lost the blacksmith Wieland's miracle sword , which was forged from star iron, to a great British king. Said sword may have consisted of meteor iron , which was regarded by both Celtic and Germanic blacksmiths as a miraculous metal - because it fell from the sky - that should make the bearer of a sword made of this material invincible.

Incidentally, if there ever really was an Excalibur, at least the popular idea of ​​this weapon as a kind of high medieval crusader sword is certainly wrong, as there was no such thing either with the Romans and Celts or during the Migration Period. Much more likely it was the type of sword that the Roman legionaries brought with them to Germania and Britain, the gladius , or more likely the late Roman sword form common at the time of Arthur, the spathe (75–110 cm long and 5 cm wide).

On the Celtic "historiography"

Establishing a clear and verifiable historical context is difficult or even impossible (not least because of the Celts' aversion to the written word). Instead of written records, the bards or druids responsible for keeping tradition and history learned during their "training period" (according to Caesar and Strabo about 20 years) all the traditional knowledge by heart without written support and then passed it on - telling from memory was also in later ones A respected art for centuries. They always used to interweave history with mythology and vice versa. What was important was not the precise historical sequence of events, but their historical, ethical and, last but not least, mythological significance.

This explains how, in Celtic legends, figures of gods act as people, while historical figures can become demigods. It was also not uncommon to group several people and current events in one and the same dramaturgical person ( protagonist ). The bard and magician Merlin - who plays a central role in the Arthurian legend, but also appears in independent and other legend circles - is a good example of this.

See also


There are many films that have King Arthur, Excalibur or Camelot as their theme; the overview can be found in the article Arthurian Epic in Art, Literature, Music, Film and Computer Games . The main outer belt asteroid (2597) Arthur was named after him.


  • Geoffrey Ashe: King Arthur, The Discovery of Avalon. Econ, Düsseldorf 1986, ISBN 3-430-11081-5 .
  • Stephanie L. Barczewski: Myth and national identity in nineteenth-century Britain: the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000, ISBN 0-19-820728-X .
  • Helmut Birkhan : Celtic stories from the emperor Arthur. Part 1, Lit-Verlag, Vienna 2004, ISBN 3-8258-7562-8 .
  • Helmut Birkhan : Celtic stories from the emperor Arthur. Part 2, Lit-Verlag, Vienna 2004, ISBN 3-8258-7563-6 .
  • David Day : The search for King Arthur . De Agostini, New York City 1995, ISBN 0-8160-3370-6 .
  • Norma Lorre Goodrich: The Knights of Camelot - King Arthur, the Grail and the deciphering of a legend. Beck, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-406-38171-5 .
  • Guy Halsall: Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013.
  • Nicholas J. Higham: King Arthur. Myth-Making and History . Routledge, New York 2002
  • Edmund Jacoby : Who was King Arthur? Publishing house Jacoby & Stuart, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-941087-09-5 .
  • Graham Phillips, Martin Keatman: Arthur, the truth about the legendary King of the Celts. (Original title: King Asthur ). Heyne, Munich 1992, ISBN 3-453-14775-8 .
  • Jürgen Wolf: In search of King Arthur. Myth and Truth. Primus Verlag, Darmstadt 2009, ISBN 978-3-89678-657-9 .
  • C. Scott Littleton, Linda A. Malcor: From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes) , Routledge, 2nd edition, 2000 , ISBN 978-0815335665

Web links

Commons : Artus  - collection of images, videos and audio files


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