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An Excursion into Arthurian Legend
We have had previous blog posts on North African genetics in Britain, for instance "When Wales Was Jewish." The present post zeros in on Tintagel, the fabled home of King Arthur and Mark of Cornwall. It is inspired by the mention of Gormund, the Irish "King of the Africans" in Welsh bardic literature, who was, we submit, a Vandal of the fifth or sixth century.
In British myth and historical tradition, not only Ireland but also Cornwall is the stronghold of “Africans.” Mark, the king of Cornwall in Arthurian legend and jealous husband of Isoud or Isolt of Ireland, is portrayed in the Tristan romances as dark-complexioned, rich and of fiery southern temperament. Mark or Marcus is a favored name among Jews, particularly English Jews in memory perhaps of the soldier in Roman Britain who was proclaimed emperor by the army there sometime in 406, in the last death rattle of imperial rule. His sister is Elizabeth, and his royal residence is fixed in Tintagel on the north coast of the Cornish peninsula facing Ireland. This site’s chief fame in medieval literature was as the castle of King Mark in the immensely popular cycle devoted to Cornwall.
A series of excavations began in Tintagel in 1933, uncovering a forgotten chapter in southwest Britain’s prehistory. According to O. J. Padel, “the area of Tintagel headland teems with fragments of pottery of a type manufactured in the Mediterranean area (mainly in North Africa and Asia Minor); these fragments are dated between the mid fifth century and the late sixth).” This researcher at the department of Welsh history at University College of Wales, Aberstwyth, goes on to say:
The importance of Tintagel as a find-site for this pottery cannot be overemphasized. Since being identified there, it has been found to occur at other sites within Dark-Age western Britain and Ireland, including other sites in Cornwall and Devon, Cadbury-south-west Ireland, and as far north as the Scottish Highlands . . . . Being imported from so far away, this pottery represents expensive, luxury, goods.”[i]
Arthur's Name Arabic?
The origin of the name Arthur has been endlessly debated.[ii] It is almost certainly not “Celtic,” neither from a P or Q dialect, and cannot be traced further back than post-Roman times. The center of gravity for its appearance is the sixth century. In 1998, archeological excavations at sixth-century Tintagel brought to light a find subsequently dubbed the Arthur Stone, mentioning the name Artognou, claimed to be cognate. Although the reading is questionable perhaps this inscription and milieu are on the right track.
Arthur’s name has become something of a grail quest for modern researchers. Other theories derive the name from Artorius (Roman or Messapic), Arnthur (Etruscan), Arcturus (the “bear star”) or *Arto-uiros in Brittonic (“bear man”).
Perhaps the Gordian knot of the difficulty can be cut if we consider that many of the names in early Welsh history have Arabic and North African roots. Camlann, for instance, the site of Arthur’s final deadly battle with the usurper Mordred, has resisted all efforts to etymologize or locate it. This unidentified place in England has a name that is supposed to mean Crooked Glenn.[iii] We suspect it may be a corruption of the common Arabic place-name Khamilah, “area of dense trees, low or depressed area with good pasturage.”[iv] Camelot, the fabled capital city of the Round Table, appears to be little more than the plural of the same term.
Arthur’s father is Uthr Pendragon, the epithet following his name meaning Chief, or Head, of the Warriors, or Dragons.[v] Now Arthur’s son is Amr, a pre-Islamic tribal name that is meaningless in any Brythonic language. Ar- is a common prefix in Arabic and North African naming conventions, meaning “the.” Ar-Rumi, for example, the name of an early Arab poet means “the Greek.” Ar-Rahman is “the Most Gracious,” Ar-Rabi, “the Master, and Ar-Rashid “the Right-Minded.”[vi] Many of these are traditional names of God’s servants in pre-Islamic religion. If we take Arthur’s name as Semitic or Arabic or Kufic Arabic it may be a corruption of his father’s name: Ar-Uthr. As to what Uthr might have meant originally, however, we will not venture an opinion here.True Etymology of Tintagel
The word Tintagel is difficult to etymologize in Cornish. A better theory than Padel’s hypothetical “Cornish *din, ‘fort’ (variant *tin), plus *tagell, ‘constriction’: ‘the fort of the narrow neck’” (231) might be one based on the Semitic elements Thina “bend of headland” plus Ghayl “place with water,” a description which suits the natural topography (Tintagel Castle, aerial view, above). [vii]
Now how about Excalibur, Avalon and Morgan la Fay? Watch this space . . . .
O. J. Padel, “Some South-western Sites with Arthurian Associations,” in The Arthur of the Welsh, ed. Rachel Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman and Brynley F. Roberts (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1991) 229-30.
See Toby D. Griffen, “Arthur’s Name,” Celtic Studies Association of North America, April 8, 1993, Athens, Georgia, available at http://www.fanad.net/csana94.pdf.
Sims-Williams 54. Calise 259.
See, for instance, Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary, trans. B. Mac Guckin de Slane, IV (Paris: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, 1871). The prefix ar also appears in toponyms, e.g. ar-Ramla, ar-Rusafa and ar-Roha (=Edessa). It would be a worthwhile exercise to determine how many English and Welsh place-names have derivations still denoted by their beginning in Ar-; we would start with perhaps Arun (an alternative name for the Isle of Man) and Arundel in the south of England.
[vii] See Nigel Groom, A Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames (Beirut: Liban, 1983) 94, 291.