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King Arthur’s Wain: Constellations of the British Celts

Updated on April 11, 2017
Chris Pinard profile image

My primary interests center around the folklore, customs, history, and mythology of the Celts, the Germanic speaking peoples, and the Slavs.

King Arthur
King Arthur

Stellar Associations With King Arthur

Most, if not all societies within the ancient world had star lore in one form or another. Generally, the tales of these stellar bodies happened to revolve around mythological figures. This is no different within Celtic culture. However, it is essential to note that the lore of Brythonic Celts is fragmented, enabling us to know little compared to the Greeks or Romans. Due to the oral nature of early Celtic society, no holy books or sacred texts were created and subsequently preserved that mention the constellations of the Celts. However, one can glean information from passages in later folklore and myth that may relate to these constellations.

One can begin by looking at the figure of King Arthur. While many scholars believe that he was a historical figure, it is also possible to see him as a mythic and stellar one. Both points of view are not mutually exclusive, as it is possible that the Celts may have deified historical figures, or viewed their leaders as emissaries or children of the gods. Reference to a constellation associated with King Arthur can be noted in several historical works. It would seem that by Sir Walter Scott’s day, King Arthur had become firmly associated with the polar star. In his 1805 work “Lay of the Last Minstrel” he stated

Arthur's slow wain his course doth roll,

In utter darkness round the pole;

The Northern Bear lowers black and grim;

Orion's studded belt is dim;

Twinkling faint, and distant far,

Shimmers through mist each planet star,

Ill may I read their high decree!

Ursa Major
Ursa Major

In this passage, one can easily recognize the constellation of Orion. Similarly, the northern bear is but an epithet for the constellation of the Big Dipper. Further, the association with the pole and wain (wagon), leaves little to the imagination. Arthur was therefore associated with the North Star and local constellations. Yet, Sir Walter Scott was not the first to mention King Arthur’s relationship to the stars, and nor would it be the last. Most notably, William Sharp writing under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod stated “Arcturus, that lovely Lamp of the North. The glory of Boötes” Again, the imagery here is relatively self-explanatory. Arcturus (Arthur) was identified with the North Star. It is noteworthy that these quotes are relatively recent in composition. Are there any older references to Arthur and these stellar associations?

In Troy Book (a work authored by John Lydgate in the early 1400’s), Arthur is associated with the plow “Arthouris Plowe” possibly being derived from the Latin Arktos (Bear), and (Ouros) guardian. Plowe here would be a possible reference to the aforementioned wain (wagon) in the northern sky. However, this is not conclusive. If one were to discover further passages from an earlier period showing stellar associations between figures of the Mabinogi and Arthurian legends, these later passages might be given greater credibility.

Ursa Minor and Wain
Ursa Minor and Wain

Welsh Folk Traditions

Looking again to a more modern period, we can see that Victorian folklorist Marie Tevelyan gathered together many indigenous references to constellation names. She noted that “The Via Lactea, or Milky Way, is known to the Welsh as Caer Gwydion or Gwydion’s Circle, and the other constellations are as follows: the Northern Crown is the Circle of Arianrod; the Lyre is Arthur’s Harp; the Great Bear is Arthur’s Plough-tail; Orion is Arthur’s Yard; the Pleiades is the group of Theodosius; Cassiopeia’s Chair is the Circle of Don; the Ecliptic is the circle of Sidi; the Twins is the Large Horned Oxen. The rest are named thus: the Smaller Plough-handle, the Great Ship, the Bald Ship, the Triangle, the Grove of Blodenwedd, the Chair of Teyrnon, the Chair of Eiddionydd, the Conjunction of a Hundred Circles, the Camp of Elmer, the Soldier’s Bow, the Hill of Dinan, the Eagle’s Nest, Bleiddyd’s Lever, the Wind’s Wing, the Trefoil, the Cauldron of Ceridwen, the Bend of Teivi, the Great Limb, the Small Limb, the Great Plain, the White Fork, the Woodland Boar, the Muscle, the Hawk, the Horse of Llyr, Elffyn’s Chair, and Olwen’s Hall.” This is quite a comprehensive list, one that evidences connections between constellations and the figures mentioned in the Mabinogi. Marie would later note, “The Milky Way was supposed to be peopled by the souls of heroes, kings, princes, and honorable persons, who thronged the Circle of Gwydion.”

King Arthur
King Arthur

Stars and the Mabinogion

It should be noted that Marie Trevalyan was working in the late 1800 to early 1900’s, and it is theoretically possible that many of these associations could have come at a late date. However, one must consider that she collected much of this information from rural Wales during a time that was pre-industrial. These were communities that tended to be isolated. Hence, much of the material may indeed preserve authentic indigenous references to star lore. Further, it is noteworthy that in Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogi she wrote the following: “Gwydion ... He was...a great astronomer, and as such was classed with Gwynn ab Nudd, and Idris. The Milky Way is after him termed Caer Gwydion: similar honours indeed appear to have been paid to the whole family of Don. Himself (sic), gave his name to the constellation of Cassiopeia, in Welsh, Llys Don, the Court of Don; and Caer Arianrod, Corona Borealis, is so called after his daughter Arianrod, one of the heroines of the present Tale.”

Many may be quick to dismiss the previous quote due to Guest’s association with Taliesin Williams (Son of Iolo Morgannwg). Iolo having been accused of forging Triads and other documents might render this previous note suspect. Specifically Iolo’s 89th Triad states “The Three Renowned Astronomers of the Isle of Britain: Idris the Giant; Gwydion son of Dôn; And Gwyn son of Nudd. Such was their knowledge of the stars, their natures and qualities, that they could prognosticate whatever was wished” Certainly this information fits in line with what is known from the later sources. However, it is possible that both passages have their origins in a document of far older extraction.

Milky way , Earth, and Moon
Milky way , Earth, and Moon

It must then be asked, are there any other sources prior to Iolo Morgannwg that mention the stellar associations of the gods? The answer is yes. Nearly 50 years earlier Lewis Morris wrote the following in his book titled Celtic Remains “Gwydion or Gwdion, Son of Don, Lord or Prince of Arvon. This Gwdion was a great philosopher and astronomer, and from the Via Lactea, or Milky Way, or Galaxy, in the heavens is called Caer Gwdion. His great learning made the vulgar call him a conjuror and necromancer; and there was a story feigned that when he travelled through the heavens in search of... wife that eloped, he left this tract of stars behind him.”

A full 150 years prior to Iolo, John Jones of Gelli Lyvdy mentioned “The wife of Huan ap Gwydion was one in a plot to kill her husband, and said that he had gone away hunting, and his father Gwydion, King of Gwynedd, travelled every country to seek him and at last he made Caergwydion, (that is, via lactua ), which is in the sky, to find him: and in heaven, he had news of him, where his soul was. Therefore he changed the young woman into a bird, and she fled from her father-in-law, and she is called from that day to this Huan's Deceiving” This passage is easily recognizable from the Red Book of Hergest (Math Fab Mathonwy), where Lleu Llaw Gyffes is killed by a romantic adversary. It is therefore relatively easy to conclude that Iolo did not simply forge this material. It indeed derived from an older source. Therefore, it is likely much of the other star lore preserved by Marie Trevelyan can be located within sources that extend much further back in time.

Gwydion and Cerridwen
Gwydion and Cerridwen

Concluding Thoughts

The prior quotes are in keeping with the picture that the classical historians drew of the Celts. Julius Caesar noted in his Gallic Wars that “The Druids were possessed of "... much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy... and in reckoning birthdays and the new moon and new year their unit of reckoning is the night followed by the day..." Pliny the Elder mentioned that “The Druids measured time using a lunar calendar” It would seem odd then if a society that paid such close attention to the heavens would not map it out in great detail, and subsequently preserve such lore in the stories of the gods. While we know precious little of the nature of the Brythonic Celts, in the stories of the Mabinogi it is possible to see faded reflections of how heroes and gods came to be placed in the sky.

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