Heroic Age Logo The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter 1999  

The Forum

This section is dedicated to essays that stimulate discussion among early medievalists by supporting or attacking prevailing theories on a variety of topics.

C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor's
From Scythia to Camelot


Victor H. Mair,
University of Pennsylvania

The story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is perhaps the best known legend in the world: witness the widespread infatuation with Camelot some thirty years ago. When I was a student at Dartmouth College about the same time, I was inducted into an old honor society called Casque and Gauntlet. In a most solemn ceremony, each member of the society was bestowed the name of one of the figures in the legend and thenceforth we steeped ourselves in the lore of that merry band of knights (we thought we were being very English). Casque and Gauntlet continues at Dartmouth and there are similar societies on other campuses. As another indication of how much alive the legend is in our own time, I recently saw reported in several major newspapers wire service accounts of the announcements by a lay religious order in Italy and an amateur historian in England that they each possessed the Holy Grail!

Given our intimate familiarity with this hoary tale, it is remarkable how mistaken is our understanding of its origins. Common wisdom considers the legend of King Arthur to be English to the core, while scholarly tomes analyze its presumed Celtic roots. To the average person, it would seem preposterous to assert that the Arthurian cycle is fundamentally Scythian. In the first place, only the tiniest fraction of the population will ever have heard of the Scyths. This only goes to show what a herculean task of reeducation is required in order to comprehend the true outlines of our own history. This splendid revisionist work by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor makes an excellent beginning in that compelling endeavor. One can only hope that its impact will be enormous.

Hundreds of books have been written about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table but, in my estimation, this is far and away the most important to date. Indeed, not only is this the most important book ever written about the legends surrounding King Arthur and his knights, it is also quite simply one of the most significant scholarly works on any subject in the humanities written during this century. My reasons for this glowing approbation will emerge in the following paragraphs.

As we have seen, the current passionate belief is that, to the public, nothing could be more quintessentially "English" (or, for the academic community, "Celtic") than the story of Camelot and the Holy Grail. Yet the authors of this magnificent book prove irrefutably that the very heart of this beloved cycle of legends, not to mention many of its telling details, derives from ancient Iranian peoples whose original home was the Eurasian steppes.

"Scythian" is a vague, catchall term for the Iranian-speaking peoples who ranged across the Eurasian steppes during the first millennium B.C.E. We do not know the specific names of all the tribes involved, but it is a scholarly convention to refer to them collectively and loosely as "Scythian." The best known among them were those who lived around the Pontic Steppes in Classical Antiquity. They were celebrated for their hoards of exquisitely carved golden art in the animal style, their superb horsemanship, their elaborate armor and excellent metal weaponry, their skill as archers, their bravery and strength, and their nomadism. The brethren of the Scyths of Classical Antiquity (who roamed over the steppes northeast of the Black Sea and southwest of the Urals) were stretched out all across Central Asia to the borders of China. The Pontic-Uralian Scyths were succeeded in late classical times by similar Iranian groups such as the Sarmatians and, somewhat later still, by the Alans.

In striving to locate the precise sources of the obviously Iranian components of the Arthurian legends, Littleton and Malcor rightly focus their attention on the lore of the Sarmatians, in particular the Iazyges tribe, and their kinsmen, the Alans. From archeological, artistic, historical, and linguistic evidence, we know that these northern Iranian peoples had a European appearance and that they were often blond-haired and blue-eyed. Temperamentally and culturally as well, they seem to have resembled Europeans in many respects. This is not entirely unexpected for Indo-European peoples who hailed from the western reaches of the Eurasian steppes. Certainly, they were very different from the Iranian peoples who moved south (the Persians and the Medes) and mixed with the indigenous peoples there. They had even fewer affinities with the later steppe nomads who came from the east and who spoke entirely different languages (the Huns, the Turks, and the Mongols).

The last surviving remnants of these ancient northern Iranian peoples are the Ossetians. The Ossetians are now living in the Caucasus Mountains, whence they were pushed by Mongols and other nomads from the east. Though threatened politically, militarily, and culturally from many directions, they still maintain their surprisingly archaic Iranian language and with it a body of oral narrative referred to as the Nart sagas. The Nart sagas constitute the best repository of the ancient western Scythian narratives that were transported to Britain and Gaul from the Pontic-Uralian steppes by peoples such as the Sarmatians and the Alans during the declining days of the Roman Empire. The Nart sagas contain parallels with Arthurian legend so numerous and so uncannily close that it is impossible they are unrelated.

The authors begin their argument with the archeological underpinnings that reach back into the second millennium B.C.E. They then move on to records of classical writers such as Herodotus and Ammianus Marcellinus. Through such sources, they follow the movements of various groups of northern Iranians as they spread out from the North Caucasus and the Pontic-Uralian Steppes. Moving outward, these groups impinged on surrounding areas, including the Mediterranean littoral and Europe. In the course of their wanderings, they came into contact, and eventually conflict, with the Romans. A key battle is that in which the Sarmatians were defeated by the forces of Marcus Aurelius. This was the so-called Marcomannian War of 175 C.E., after which 5,500 Iazyges were forcibly sent to Britain as armored auxiliary cavalry, primarily to bolster the defenses along Hadrian's Wall. It was this large infusion of Sarmatians that brought the first layers of the Arthurian cycle to Britain. The overwhelming majority of these fine warriors never returned to their homeland, but remained in veterans' settlements such as the one at Bremetennacum Veteranorum, a major Roman cavalry post near the modern town of Ribchester in Lancashire.

The next major northern Iranian inputs to Arthurian tradition arrive with the Alans. There is no doubt that the Alans were Iranians. Indeed, their name is probably a phonological transformation of the name "Iran" itself, which is in turn a variation of "Aryan". (It is worth noting that the major dialect of the Ossetians, Iron, is yet another permutation of the same word which means essentially "noble".) The authors provide an extremely detailed study of the historical sources concerning the Alans in Europe. This diligent spadework should convince all but the most obdurate xenophobe that not all of European history and culture was locally self-generated. It should also serve as a desperately needed model for practitioners of cultural history in other parts of the world.

In the course of their various chapters the authors are able to provide, in whole or in part, a Scythian (i.e., northern Iranian) basis for most of the prominent elements of the cycle, including:

  1. The figures of Arthur, Lancelot, Perceval, Galahad, Gawain, Kay, Tristan, Bedivere, Bors, Caradoc, King Ban de Benoich, the Maimed King, St. George, Elaine (Helaine), the Lady in the Lake, and others.
  2. The centrality of swords.
  3. The throwing of the hero's sword into a body of water which causes it to seethe.
  4. The Sword in the Stone episode.
  5. The magical cup/cauldron that never runs dry and appears at feasts before the bravest of the heroes. The authors' account of the history of the grail legend in east and west is a scholarly tour de force. In their minute investigations of this theme, they adroitly and felicitously examine a vast variety of source material.
  6. The frequent dragon/serpent imagery and themes.
  7. The connection between women and snakes (e.g., the Lady of the Lake who is euphemistically referred to as the White Serpent).
  8. Women as warriors and their association with water. Greek and Chinese legends about Amazons were undoubtedly inspired by hearsay about female warriors among the Scyths and later nomads who fought alongside their men.

Littleton and Malcor have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the underlying core of the Arthurian cycle is northern Iranian. They do not, however, claim that the Arthurian cycle is solely and exclusively Scythian. Several vital figures are transparently Celtic, such as Arthur's father Uther Pendragon (in Welsh, the name means "Glorious Head of the Troops") and, as we shall see below, his queen Guinevere (Irish Finnabair ["Born on the White," cf. Aphrodite = "Born on the Foam"]; Welsh Gwenhwyfar ["White Phantom"]). Thus, the main overlay to the tradition is Celtic, and there are also Christian, Germanic, and other ingredients. Since this convincing conclusion is so at odds with common wisdom concerning the tradition, it will not be easy either for the academic community or for the populace at large to come to terms with it. Yet we must accommodate ourselves to this new understanding, for to ignore the evidence would be to distort history, and the distortion of history is always a dangerous proposition.

By no means was the influence of Iranian myth and legend limited to Britain. Far away in East Asia, I have discovered clear evidence that some of the same unmistakably Iranian motifs found in the legend of King Arthur also turn up in old Chinese stories. For example, in an eighth-century popular tale about a sixth-fifth-century B.C.E. hero named Wu Tzu-hsü, we find the following passage:

Then he threw the sword into the river. It shot forth a spirit-like glow, sparkling brightly as it thrice sank and thrice came to the surface with a great gush and then hovered above the water. The god of the river far off heard the sword's roar and tremulously, he roiled the waters in a great and frothing frenzy. The fish and turtles were thrown into a panic and burrowed into the mud. Dragons raced along the waves and leaped out of the water. The river god held up the sword in his hand and, frightened, told Wu Tzu-hsü to take it back (Mair 1983:141 and 286 n. 699).1

Readers of Malory's Morte d'Arthur will instantly recognize the similarity of this extraordinary description with the last mention of King Arthur's Excalibur in that memorable romance.

The occurrence of this sword-rising-out-of-the-roiling-water motif in an eighth-century Chinese tale cannot be viewed as a chance coincidence since the same motif is recounted in the biography of the scholar-official Chang Hua, who lived in the third century. Here I present a brief sketch from the History of the Chin, compiled in the first half of the seventh century from earlier records: Dragon (N.B.!) Spring and another sword, T'ai O, were located in the foundation of a jail by an astrologer named Lei Huan who had fathomed the significance of a strange purple light sighted in the heavens. When he died, the sword which he kept for himself (the other he gave to Chang Hua) was passed on to his son. Once, as he was crossing a river, the sword, of its own power, leapt into the water and was surrounded by two dragons that churned up the water furiously. This was the last it was ever seen. Wu Tzu-hsü's sword is also named "Dragon Spring," so it is obvious that the author of the story about him is ultimately drawing on the same sources as the author of the biography of Chang Hua. Hence, this distinctly Iranian device had taken deep root in Chinese literature and was accepted as part of the native tradition.

Many further examples of the occurrence of Iranian motifs in Chinese literature could be noted. To cite only one, above (item number 7), the White Snake was mentioned among the elements in the Arthurian cycle that had a northern Iranian background. In China, this enchanting feminine image enters into one of the most powerful late-medieval tales, a tale that is still very much alive in the Chinese popular imagination today. Scholars have long been aware of the massive impact of Indian language, lore, and literature in China (primarily, but not exclusively, through the importation of Buddhism). Now, we are slowly coming to realize that India's sister culture, Iran, must have had a similarly large effect there by at least the time of the Middle Ages.

There is also a great deal of evidence that indicates that, much earlier, Iranians were active in China and that they influenced the local culture in significant ways. For example, hard archeological and epigraphical data show that the magi were present at the court of the Zhou dynasty during the eighth century BCE and played a key role in its rituals(Mair 1990:27-47).2 Recent excavations in Central Asia are filling in the gaps between China and the Indo-European civilizations to the west; they reveal clearly that China and the West have been in contact since at least the Bronze Age (Mair 1995:28-35).3

This Eurasian cultural interconnectedness did not stop with China. Littleton and Malcor (2000:193, n. 49) themselves suggest that the traditional Japanese reverence for swords and swordsmanship may derive from the same origins as those which underlay the key role of the sword in the Arthurian cycle. Elsewhere, Littleton has studied the reflections of Indo-European mythology in the founding legends of Japan (Littleton 1981:269-280 and 1983:67-82),4 and the Japanese scholars Taryo Obayashi and Atsuhiko Yoshida have successfully applied Dumézilian analysis to ancient Japanese legends and social structures. This is not the place to go into a discussion of the theories of Namio Egami and Gari Ledyard concerning the steppe horseriders who may have established the Japanese state, but the time would seem ripe for a serious reconsideration of them.

Once one is intrepid and industrious enough to follow up the threads that beckon, one begins to grasp the interrelatedness of all cultures. The logical conclusion to this approach is that we need to adopt a genuinely global view of history, otherwise our history will be false. If we continue to view the development of cultures as though they arose in utter independence and isolation, we not only falsify history, we deny the bonds that join all humanity.

When I first read through From Scythia to Camelot, I found it to be absolutely riveting. Seldom have I encountered a work that is so well balanced in its presentation of stimulating ideas and substantial data. Perhaps because they were fully aware of its controversial nature and the fact that it would be strongly resisted by those who take a more narrow approach to cultural history, they carefully weigh counterarguments to each step of their own argument. Furthermore, in another refreshing display of scholarly honesty, what is speculation they label as such. For example, even though they have excellent grounds for their assertion that the prototype of King Arthur may have been Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman commander to whom the Iazyges were assigned in their task of guarding Hadrian's Wall in the late second century, they do not claim this as an established fact. (The paperback, however, puts forth Castus's case more forcefully than the hardcover version did.) They are more confident that the "real" Arthur was one Riothamus, a shadowy fifth-century "High King" of the Britons who engaged in military adventures in Gaul.

Similarly, the authors reject seductive hypotheses that would be useful for their purposes when they feel that the evidence is inadequate. For example, the love affair between Arthur and his queen, Guinevere, resembles in certain respects the relationship between Batraz and Satana in the Nart sagas. Failing to find this episode in the earliest legends of Lancelot, they drop it as irrelevant for the formation of the Arthurian cycle. Instead, they write that

The most famous woman of the Round Table, Guinevere, emerges as probably the only major female figure of the Arthurian tradition who is an almost completely Celtic intrusion into what otherwise appears to be a cycle of largely Alano-Sarmatian origin with a Celtic overlay. At base Arthur's queen is Finnabair, the daughter of Medb of the Táin Bó Cuailgne of Ireland, a fertility-goddess in her original form and the goddess with whom the king must mate to receive sovereignty over the land (Littleton and Malcor 2000:153). and leave the matter at that.

The authors rely on the best manuscripts and are thoroughly conversant with the relevant primary and secondary sources for the Arthurian cycle throughout the course of its development. The book is scrupulously documented without being pretentious and pedantic. Mercifully, Littleton and Malcor eschew all jargon from whatever discipline.

In a dazzling display of classical erudition and oriental learning, the authors patiently provide mountains of pertinent information. Above all, what makes this book convincing is the massive marshalling of data and the explicitness of the methodology adopted.

Among the hallmarks of their work is the keen attention Littleton and Malcor pay to the etymology of names. One of the most crucial and daring that they propose is *(A)lan(u)s--Lot for Lancelot. Although not entirely convincing at first glance, given the overall argument and the mass of data (geographical, historical, and literary) that supports it, this etymological explanation of the name actually turns out to be rather persuasive.

Littleton and Malcor provide three substantive appendices. The first is a note on sources. The second is a series of stunning genealogies, including The House of Charlemagne (a relative of Goeric [clearly an Alan name, Goar, with an Old Germanic ending for "king"] of Albi), The Historical and Legendary Houses of Cornwall and Brittany, The House of Constantine, The House of Orkney, and The House of Joseph of Arimathea, all of which show Alan blood. The third is a discussion of Lucius Artorius Castus's career in Britain compared to Nennius's list of Arthur's twelve battles.

The authors do not pretend that they have created this new interpretation entirely on their own. To be sure, they recognize that they are building on the earlier research of scholars such as Joël Grisward, Georges Dumézil, Bernard S. Bachrach, Helmut Nickel, Jean Markale, Jehangir Cooverjee Coyajee, and J. P. Mallory. What Littleton and Malcor have uniquely done is bring together a huge amount of relevant information from a mind-boggling array of sources and forged it into an irrefutable argument concerning the fundamentally Iranian nature of the Arthurian cycle. This is an extremely impressive accomplishment, one that deserves our highest accolades.

From Scythia to Camelot opens with a masterful Foreword by John Colarusso, the eminent authority on the languages and lore of the Caucusus. In the Foreword, Colarusso offers a sensitive, informed appreciation of the repercussions that this book will likely have on the scholarship of the Arthurian cycle and on the history of Western civilization in general. He also expertly places the work of Littleton and Malcor in the context of Indo-Aryan and Indo-European studies in general. The book closes with an extensive bibliography and helpful index. The value of the book is greatly enhanced by the addition of 19 photographic plates of early manuscripts and works of art, 8 figures (charts and drawings), and 19 computer-generated maps. I was personally deeply moved by the choice of the Golden Man of Issyk as the frontispiece, since I recently visited the site in Kazakhstan where his burial was located and part of my archeological work is devoted to fathoming the significance of this resplendently attired Scythian prince (or princess, according to some) for Eurasian history.

The innocent errors that I found in From Scythia to Camelot are so few and so minor as not to be worthy of mention. The paperback has even fewer of these than the original did, since the authors have corrected or addressed the problems that were brought to their attention.

From Scythia to Camelot will surely not be the last word said on the origins and history of the Arthurian cycle. It is far too revolutionary and pioneering to have made a final accounting of all the multifarious strands that have been woven together into the fabric of this marvelous tapestry. Yet I dare say that From Scythia to Camelot will be the unavoidable benchmark for all future discussions of King Arthur and his band of warriors. The consequences of this book, however, go far beyond Arthurian studies. Because of its unusual amplitude, I believe that From Scythia to Camelot should be required reading for all students and scholars of British/Celtic/Iranian archeology, anthropology, mythology, legend and folklore, religion, and history. Furthermore, because it points the way to a more open-minded approach to all history and culture, it would be well for virtually every other field in the humanities to become acquainted with this book.

We should celebrate the appearance of this monumentally important book with a conference (nay, a whole series of conferences) on the oneness of humanity. After enduring decades of dogmatic insistence on the separateness and isolation of cultures, let the superb scholarship of Littleton and Malcor point the way to a more open and accepting view of the mutual interactions of all peoples. Surely this book deserves a prize, both for its meticulousness and for its bravery in bucking half a century of academic rhetoric that has sought to keep all cultures closed up in their own little boxes.

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