Thursday, 19 April 2012

An Iranian Green Wood?

In anticipation of tonights show with Caroline Casey on Robin Hood (10:00pm UK time, 14:00 west coast U.S.), i am including some wild ideas about possible - and i do say possible- roots or instigators for two of the greatest streams of Western story - the Arthurian and the Greenwood cycles. I'm not waving a bible around saying 'this is IT!', but it's fun to entertain. If you would like to listen in live or later on archive, just go to:

A Scythian Camelot
Before we get too sentimental about some numinous, pure, original breed of Englander, it is worth addressing a very controversial idea, one that goes to the very centre of English mythology – the Arthurian cycle.

C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor (2000), two scholars of folklore and anthropology, have made the case that the core of this tradition is not Celtic, but Iranian.

Scythia was the western segment of the vast “sea of grass” that extended all the way from the Altai Mountains to the Hungarian Steppes. Everyone in this region spoke a variant of north-eastern Iranian. The academic view is that the changes in dialect were minimal, and that tribal groups were bound in a common culture. They were fierce; unlike the Celts, who were still utilising horse-drawn chariots, they were on horse back, fighting with bow, lance and sword. In a show of equality, women fought alongside. In fact, it was said that there was a marriage law that forbade a girl to marry until she had killed an enemy in battle.
This was the nomad culture of the ancient steppes: the Scythians, the Sarmatians, and then the Alans of later classical times. They adored art engraved with animals, often with great curling manes of gold, and interestingly were often blue-eyed and blond-haired. These steppe Iranians were visually different from how a typical Persian may look.

Part of the idea of Littleton and Malcor is that, as this culture, now almost forgotten, followed migrational patterns to France and England, they carried a kernel of stories with them – their myths.

In the year 175, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurealius sent a contingent of 5,500 Sarmartian cavalry to Britain. They were posted in groups of five hundred along Hadrian’s wall. When their fighting time was done, instead of returning overseas, they settled in a vicus, or veteran’s colony. The post was very near the modern day village of Ribchester, up in Lancashire. Their commander – practically hero worshipped by some of them – was named Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of the VI legion Victrix, who was charged with the defence of northern Britain. There were numerous occasions for the Steppe Iranians to have contact with Europeans during late antiquity, and to permeate the stories that eventually became the fuller, medieval picture.

The theory is that certain key motifs and characters in Scythian mythology fit unusually well with the Arthurian canon. There is a magical cup called the Nartamongae, a grail-like vessel that never runs out of food and drink, and appears at feasts to the most worthy. It is not in the running as the chalice of the last supper (a later add on), but certainly fits with earlier Welsh and wider Celtic images of a cauldron or stone.

There is also Arthur having Excalibur thrown back into a lake by faithful Sir Bedivere; the great Scythian mythical hero Batraz, when stricken with guilt over much destruction, orders his sword also to be thrown into water – this time, the sea. Both henchmen fail to accomplish the task several times, and both heroes know that they are lying because they are aware of magical occurrences that will take place when they do.

For Arthur, it is the hand of the lady of the lake reaching out, for Batraz, it is the waters turning wild and blood red.
Even the beginning of Arthur’s work life – the drawing of the sword from the stone – bears resemblance to the old Scythian motif of a great warrior drawing a sword from the soil. Even the name Lancelot – never perceived as British in the first place - is suggested to be a derivative of Alan of Lot – the Alans being another well travelled Scythian group. It’s intriguing.

Nomads Breed Nomads
The Alans arrive several hundred years later, in the fifth century, and marry into families in France. The Alans are serious business, they carry quite a reputation with them. They love fighting, adore their wagons, and regard it as an embarrassment to ever be caught on foot. Not a good look. Although they carry their heritage proudly, they assimilate well. Ageing was not encouraged, and killing your parents was seen as quite reasonable behaviour if you needed to spread your wings a little. It was a probable Alan, Judikael, who reigned as a West Country king of the Dumnonii in the mid-7th Century. So a Scythian ruled Devon for a time. As consummate horsemen and warriors, the Alans enjoyed all sorts of privileges, continually intermarrying into the next invading force to the point where, when William the Conqueror takes over England, many of the French afforded English estates were in fact Alans – feudal and deadly lords over the conquered English. It is partially these very knights who commissioned the medieval Arthurian romances that then fed back into France, and had such an impact on Troubadour culture and the courtly love ideal. Could it be such a stretch of the imagination that these lordly enthusiasms of the stories were partially a recognition of ancient images surfacing again in their new home?

It is ironic that those very Lords of William helped create a new nomadic culture – not of the steppes, but of the Greenwood – as a reaction against the brutality of their own regime change. As we will see in a later chapter, the image of these particular invaders forged a strong, marginal consciousness in the relegated, on-the-run lords, minstrels and wolfs-heads, who took to the forest to form wild retaliatory strikes against the “Norman yoke” Funny how it all comes around. Up sprung Eadric the Wild, Brumannus, and brave Hereward the Wake, to combat the most recent set of invaders and ignite the oppressed imaginations.

In their lairs in the woods and waste places...they laid a thousand secret ambushes and traps for the Normans.
Flowers of History, thirteenth century chronicle

The arrival of William was a great class leveller – everyone was in trouble. Even twenty years after his arrival, there was a trail of decimated villages and homesteads in the line marking his march to London. Soon there were only two English names in the Domesday survey as tenants- in-chief of the King. There was Ailric of Marsh Gibbon, gripping his land ‘at rent, heavily and wretchedly’, and Warwickshire Hereward, now in service to the charming sounding Ogier the Breton. It was an unbelievably brutal period, the land and its occupants had trauma reign down again and again.

So we have this bizarre notion of the roots of the Arthurian story, a story seen as the embodiment of the best of English mythology, as being the national stories of the alien conquerors, from way back when.

The Greenwood rebellion it invokes, although never a revolution, instates what I later call a ‘leaf bowed morality’, something that I believe that Arthur and the whole courtly system would be greatly sympathetic to; that the margins hold a clarity of ethics that call account to the indulgences and atrophies of the centre. Where else is it that the Knights of the Round Table ride again and again, for spiritual and ethical refreshment? The two strands of Arthurian and Hood are in no way opposed, but mystically entwined in western mythology. So, it could be argued, that Scythian culture is behind the two most vibrant threads of English story!

Scythia holds some of the most powerful myths that we in the west have encountered. It is right and probable that research should be done to investigate the mythic migratory routes, and that this canon of Arthurian stories and the Iranian images be amongst them.

This is an exciting development. Or at least it will be, until they figure out that the Scythian stories originate in Africa, or North Korea, and then it all begins again.

A story's origins is not its end. It rolls around like a sow in mud, and picks up fragrant lumps of cultured soil and toddles on, drunk and frisky. We find Russian fairy tales in New Mexico, or is it the other way around? The Arthurian romances, Nart sagas, Peublo love stories, keep unfolding, every time we gather round a fire and the mythteller begins.

This healthy tugging at what we presume is established facts has a tricksterish goodness to it – this emerging Scythian Camelot illustrates the collective commons of story perfectly. Who owns the story? The people of the Caucasus mountains? The medieval scholar? The dreamy child in love with the romances? Such it is with empire thinking.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012


Unknown said...

This is fascinating stuff, Martin. Your line, 'the margins hold a clarity of ethics that call account to the indulgences and atrophies of the centre,' makes me think of one of the essays in the marvellous Dark Mountain collection (issue 2), 'The Return of the Barbarian' by Venkatesh Rao. Do have a gander if you get the chance.

School of Myth said...

Will do, thanks Tom. They have asked me to speak at their next summer festival, and i met up with Paul Kingsnorth in Cornwall last month, so getting a sense of what they are about. Hey, great story in Earthlines! Bravo.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Martin - glad you liked the tale. We'll be doing some bits and pieces at the festival too (storytelling on the Friday night, amongst other things), so we'll see you there, for sure.

roselle said...

Interesting, Martin. What's also relevant is the Grail cycle, which almost certainly was influenced by Arabic culture. Remember the 'pied', half-black, half-white half-brother of Parsifal, Feirefitz? Symbolically very important. Came directly out of encounters with the Moors and their civilised culture during the Crusades, and then came over here with the Trouveres/Minnesingers/Troubadours - out of all this came our Courts of Love (via Spain and France), and our whole cultural notion of Romantic Love, which prior to the C12th/C13th simply didn't exist in Northern Europe (see C S Lewis and errr some of my books)! Easy to think all these cycles are our own, here in Northern Europe...