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The historical background to the Arthur Myth

During the first millennium labour began to move from the countryside to a more urban
environment. The main driver which began this move towards more leisure, more wealth and
better nutrition was the change from a two-field to a three-field agricultural system together
with assarting (turning copses and woodland into agricultural land)1 in the latter part of the first
millennium. This meant that the number of cultivated fields increased from 2 out of 4, to 3 out
of 4. The resultant increase in food production led to more people being able to move from the
country to the towns (being supported by an abundance of food grown in the countryside) , to be
their own master, to have more individual power and to practice a trade involving creating high
value goods and services to satisfy the additional wealth being produced and the entrepreneurial
skills that a more complex society demanded2. For example there was a demand for more heavy
ploughs, oxen, draught horses (for whom a new collar was developed which did not strangle the
animal under heavy pulling), increased iron production for a greater range of implements which
were necessary to cultivate the extra land. The wealth also fostered a new merchant class who
took advantage of the extra money in the economy. The contemporary proverb (at odds with
what happened in the much later Industrial Revolution) was “Stadtluft macht uns frei” or,
“Town air makes us free”.

In the rural society, from which many escaped, the powerful had many names. They were
known collectively as lords. But within their ranks there were many rungs of the social ladder.
Starting at the bottom and moving up these were:
● Knights – or Chevalier, Ritter, Caballero – those who used horses for fighting
● Barons – or Castellans – those who owned their own castle, or had control of a
castle delegated to them by a superior lord
● Earls – or Counts, Dukes, Marcher Lords – they were the real power in the land,
their power often exceeding that of their king3. They were the ones who could
assemble armies, not the king – William, Duke of Normandy, brought his troops to
England in 1066, not the French king.
● Kings were sovereigns of large regions to whom the lords offered homage (literally
to become his man) often in return for land or property which would enable the lord
to give military support to his overlord.

It is against this background of social evolution that the first written versions of the Arthur
stories were composed. The Arthur Fellowship has no nobleman level between Knight and
King. Geoffrey of Monmouth completed “The History of the Kings of Britain” in around 1136;
Crétien de Troyes wrote “Arthurian Romances” in the latter half of the same century. Both
looked back to a nostalgic earlier time, but could not easily avoid contexts with which readers
would be familiar.

“Europe in the High Middle Ages” William Chester Jordan
see also Renfrew “Archaeology and Language” Chapter 6 on processual models for social change
Jordan as above
2 The origins of Morgan le Fay

Morgan was, so far as we can ascertain, never a real person. Her existence began as a goddess,
evolved into the healer sister of one of the most long-lasting of English myth characters, and
then changed again to become one of the most reviled medieval (and beyond) anti-Christian
sorcererous personalities. This essay is meant to put the Morgan mythos into a historical
context, not a diatribe against anti-feminists, so one quotation may redress some of the balance.
“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”4

Brythonic Mythology

In the Welsh myth, Mabinogion (of pre-Christian oral origin, but not written down until the 14th
Century), Morgan was identified with the goddess Modron, the daughter of Welsh god Avallach,
and the mother of Mabon. In the Welsh Triads, Modron was married to Urien, king of Rheged
and mother of Owain (Yvain) and a daughter named Morfudd. In Arthurian legend, Modron and
Morgan le Fay transmogrified into one and the same person, because they both were married to
King Urien, and both were mother of the hero Owain (Yvain).

When the Arthur legends arrived in Brittany it is probable that Modron was changed into
Morgan. Morgan was also identified with another Breton goddess, Dahut or Ahes, the princess,
who had caused the destruction of her city Ys. Dahut/Ahes was originally a Breton sea goddess,
though later accounts say that she had died when the sea had flooded Ys, or that she had been
transformed into a mermaid. In early legend, Morgan's role was benevolent, her power being
used for healing.

In many European languages Fata Morgana is a mirage that lures men to their deaths on the sea or
in the desert. In Greek mythology the Fates were called the Moerae and the leader of the Fates was
known as the Moeragetes, or the Fata Moeragetes. To the Welsh, Fata Morgana refers
specifically to a mirage of a palace in the air often seen across the Straits of Messina to Anglesey.
This is a possible derivation from the Welsh for sea which is "mor." Similarly, sea nymphs are
"mor-forwynm" and mermaids are "morgans." Was the “original” Morgan at one time a sea
nymph who led sailors to their cruel fate at the bottom of the sea ? Certainly there is an aspect of
cruel fate to Morgan, and the name Fata Morgana strongly suggests this.

From Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
(The title of this essay is a deliberate misquote from the 1960s film “Morgan, a suitable case for
treatment”, which starred David Warner who rides a motorcycle whilst dressed in a gorilla suit. To
make the circle almost complete he also appeared as the evil mastermind in “The Time Bandits”,
another Pythonesque film.)
Gaelic Mythology

Much of what we know about Arthurian stories from the Irish tradition (and Scottish as they are
inextricably linked up to the 17th Century) comes from works written in the 14th and 15th
Centuries5. There is thus no early indigenous Irish tradition.

There are similarities in the convention we have of Morgan being associated with or being
substituted for another goddess, this time the great Irish goddess, Morrigan, or Babd. Morrigan
had the ability to shape-shift (or skin-change as Tolkien called it) between young and old,
beautiful and ugly. “Now when they were there they saw coming towards the hostel a big-
mouthed black swift sooty woman, lame and squinting with her left eye. She wore a threadbare
dingy cloak. Dark as the back of a stag beetle was every joint of her, from the top of her head to
the ground. Her filleted grey hair fell back over her shoulder. She leant her shoulder against
the door post and began prophesying evil to the host, and to utter ill words….then the Babd
went from them.”6 Note the closeness to the form and colour of a crow. Most of the time
Morgan appeared as a beautiful young woman, sometimes as an old hag (as in Gawain and the
Green Knight written in the North Midlands by an unknown author contemporaneous with
Chaucer). Like Morrigan, she was able to transform herself to look like any animal or inanimate
object. Morgan’s assocation with the Irish Morrigan, suggests that she was seen as the goddess
of death or of the Underworld (Avalon in Arthurian stories).

According to Celtic tradition, as soldiers entered into battle, the Morrigan

flew in shrieking overhead in the form of a raven or crow. When Cu
Chulainn was killed (as was foretold by Babd who appeared in the form
of a crow) a crow swept down over the body uttering three cries, then
settled in a nearby hawthorn. Once any battle had ended the soldiers
would leave the remaining dead on the field until dawn, in order for the
Morrigan to claim her trophies, their heads.
Over his head is shrieking
A lean hag, quickly hopping
Over the points of the weapons and the shields;
She is the grey-haired Morrigu.7

In Irish mythology there was a “dualism between the male tribal god and the female deity of the
land”8. The male was Dagda, the female Morrigan. The coming together of the two at Samain
A 1387 praise-poem by Gofraidh Fionn O Dálaigh, and Lorgaireacht an tSoidhigh Naomhtha. (Quest of
the Holy Grail) an incomplete poem composed in the 15th Century
The tale of Da Choca’s Hostel, quoted in A. Ross “Pagan Celtic Britain” c 1992
From the “Táin Bó Chuailagné”, The Cattle Raid at Cooley
Cunliffe at page 185 et seq.
(1st November, hijacked by Christians to become All Hallows Eve, or Halloween) transformed
and revitalised Morrigan from an old hag into a young and beautiful woman, ensuring the well
being of the tribe and the fertility of their enterprises. The Dagda was seen as a protector,
having control of warfare and the provision of wisdom. Are these precursors of the relationship
attributed later to Arthur/Morgan le Fay ?

Other Celtic tradition provides another clue to Morgan's origins, linking her name with the
universal mysticality of the number three (The Trice Asked Question [for example when
Excalibur is returned to the Lady of the Lake], the Three Kisses given to Gawain, Three Wishes,
the Three Temptations of Christ, the Three Denials of Peter before the Crucifixion). In classical
mythology there are the three Fates - Birth, Life and Death.

In traditional European folklore, the Three Fates appear on the last day of a person's life
acting as an escort from this world to the next. Morgan was one of the three queens who
appeared to the dying Arthur on the battlefield at Camlann. The figure of Morgan is also seen in
the Celtic Triple goddess whose three faces - Morrigan, Macha and Babd - signify Birth, Life
and Death.

3 The evolution of Morgan

Early confusions

When Morgan first makes her entrance in the Avalon, the Isle of Apples9, she is benign and
attractive. She was said by early sources to be the daughter of King Gorlois (Hoel) of Cornwall
and Igraine. Geoffrey of Monmouth (Vita Merlini) mentions Morgan as one of the nine sisters,
living in Avalon. This is the first time she is referred to as “Morgan”. She was a healer, and
had the ability to fly and transform herself to resemble anyone or anything else. Arthur was
brought to Avalon by the legendary bard Taliesin, and was healed by Morgan. Here, there is no
indication of any relationship between Arthur and Morgan as siblings, except that she was his

Morgan le Fay is, in Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Arthur's half sister, the daughter of Arthur's
mother Igraine and her first husband, the Duke of Cornwall. Malory also makes Morgan the
wife of King Urien Rheged, an historical mid to late 6th Century King of what is now
Cumberland and Westmorland. Though technically this may have been just about possible it
does stretch credibility a little far. Morgan was Arthur’s elder half-sister. Arthur fought at

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Life of Merlin”
Mount Badon around 495-500 traditionally dying in 537. Urien was assassinated during a
military campaign around 590, so she would, in the time in which she lived, have been a very
elderly woman. The earlier Vulgate Cycle, however, makes Morgan a generation younger,
being the daughter of King Lot of Lothian (Gododdin). On the other hand, Welsh Tradition tells
us that Urien's wife was Modron ferch Afallach, apparently a sister-in-law of King Maelgwn
Gwynedd, and it may be that two have become confused.

Chretien de Troyes and others refer to her as sister of Arthur. By the time of the Vulgate Cycle
(1215-1235), Morgan had become Arthur's half-sister, and the sister of Morgawse and Elaine.
According to some writers, Morgan had a son named Mordred, by her own half-brother, Arthur.
Others say that the Mordred's mother was Arthur's other half-sister, named Morgawse, Morgan's
eldest sister. It was possible that Gawain was also her son, according to L'Âtre Périlleux (The
Perilous Cemetery). The tale tells us that Gawain's mother was a fairy. Morgan was usually
said to be a fairy, or of faery, as she was known as Morgan le Fay (or Fae) with a benevolent
fairy-godmother quality. However, other texts say that Gawain's mother was Morgawse,
Morgan's elder sister. In Chretien de Troyes' Erec and Enide, Morgan le Fay was a friend of
Guingamar, lord of Avalon as one of the guests at the wedding of Erec and Enide. Later in the
story, Morgan is mentioned again as sister of Arthur and a great healer. In the Knight of the
Lion, her ointment is said to heal the madness from Yvain.

Then there is “confusion” about Morgan’s part in Arthur’s death journey to Avalon. Geoffrey of
Monmouth and Wace mention Arthur going to Avalon to be healed, but there is no mention of
Morgan or a ship. Layamon wrote of Arthur going to a boat, but no Morgan. However, he does
say that Argante, the fairy queen of Avalon, would heal the dying king's wounds. Layamon
described Argante as a very radiant elf. Whether Morgan and Argante were one and the same
person, is unclear. The Vulgate Mort Artu only mentions Morgan and unspecific number of
ladies on the ship. According to Malory, when Arthur was dying, Morgan and three other ladies,
Queen of the Northgales and Queen of the Wasteland and Nimue (Niniane) arrive in a black
ship. Morgan intends to take Arthur to Avalon, where she could heal her brother's wounds.

Why her Character Modifies

The change in the character of Morgan was due to a shift in religious attitudes. Celtic Christians
had generally less animosity to pre-Christian holy symbols – they were closer to them in time
and inclination. (See the crow incident in the “Life of St. Gregory” written between AD 680 –
An early clash of ideologies between Christian and pre-Christian beliefs over the meaning of the death
of a crow. Christians said the crow could not foretell its own death, only God could do that; others
In the early days of Saxon England, menn (people) were divided into wæponedmenn

(weaponedmen) and wifmenn (Wifmen). We still have the remnants of the word in
Fishwife, Alewife, as well as in Housewife. They were titles or signifiers of someone who held
a particular job which required a special skill.

King Alfred distinguished lines of descent by the “spear side” and “the spindle side”. A
Bishop of Worcester wrote about a piece of land leased for three generations that “Elfweard was
the first man, and now it (the land) is in the hands of his daughter and she is the second man”.
Women were thus seen as equal in law and were able to own and dispose of property.

Character Assassination Begins

Medieval Christianity hardened, taking a much more black and white view of pre-Christian
practices and of the role of women in general. Most religious writing compared women with the
Virgin or Eve; most secular writing saw women as an pretext for fighting over, rescuing or being
the subject of courtly love. Also any practitioner of non-Christian “magic” (as opposed to those
effecting Christian miracles, of course) could not be good or even neutral. Merlin was far too
great a symbol to be blackened, so he was given some redemption via his mother’s alleged
virtue. The Lady of the Lake similarly escaped serious defamation. Morgan did not. “Her
treatment foreshadows the delusion underlying the witch-mania of a later period”11. Anything
savouring of female magic, even wise-women’s herbal charms, must be satanic because they
were not sanctioned by the Church. “We priests tell folk that all power comes from God, and if
it doesn’t come from God then it must be evil, see ? So when folk are ill the Church wants them
to pray and give the priests money. Priests don’t like it when they don’t understand things, and
they don’t like folk going to women to be healed.”12 “Not only was it blasphemous to attribute
healing to any non-Christian, it was even worse if that person was female !”13

According to David Day14 “it was the Cistercian monks who composed the Prose Lancelot who
forever blackened Morgan's name..Written between about 1230 and 1250, the Prose Lancelot
(also called the Vulgate Cycle) was constructed around the adventures of Lancelot du Lac and
the Quest for the Holy Grail.

“knew” it was a spirit-messenger, so death in the material world was unimportant to it and was
Geoffrey Ashe “Mythology of the British Isles
Priestly character in “The Pale Horseman” by Bernard Cornwell
“The Quest for King Arthur” by David Day
As above
“The Cistercians were not a brotherhood to be taken lightly. Many of these zealots were
not "monkish" in appearance, nor did they restrict their behaviour to prayer and study.
The Templar Knights - the most feared order in the Crusades - were Cistercian warrior monks
who were sworn to the holy task of exterminating infidels and heretics. Although the bookish
Cistercian scribes were more subtle in their approach to semi-pagan literature than were
their iron-fisted brothers in their approach to heretic cities, they were nonetheless determined
to convert the Arthurian Romances into religious allegories in order to convey the superiority
of the spirit over all earthly concerns. Above all, matters of the flesh were despised.
Unfortunately, this included anything female – women were seen as the original and
continuing source of sin.

“There were Cistercians who argued that the female soul did not exist. So Morgan’s powers
were twisted out of all recognition to be evil and a result of demonic possession – then added
adultery and incest for good measure.”

Some Hope for women

There were, however some proto-feminists during this time who were not taken in by this
approach. Christine de Pisan (1364 - ?) after reading the “Lamentations” of Matheolus wrote
“And, finally, I decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman and I wondered
how such a worthy Artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from
what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. As I was
thinking this, a great unhappiness welled up in my heart, for I detested myself and the entire
feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature.”15

Her thoughts were interrupted by a vision of three ladies, Reason, Uprightness and Justice ( a
good literary device rather than admitting she thought it was male wrong-headedness). The
ensuing work is the first in defence of women. The traditional view of the role and purpose of
womankind remained in the background for a very long time and became embedded in the
psyche of certain Christians. I was told over 50 years ago when studying the Book of Genesis
for “A” Levels, “A woman is so called because Eve brought woe to man.” (Mrs H E Brash –
Head of RE, Halesowen Grammar School, circa 1959.)
Dame Alice, the Wife of Bath, is also a feminist, albeit created by Chaucer, a man. She re-
glosses the works of St Paul and St Jerome to suit herself; she shows us how her actions are
inspired to counteract male institutional power.16 She shows us that Jankyn’s book is similar to

Alison Adam’s translation of “La Cité des Dames”
“The Lady in Medieval England 1000 – 1500” Peter Coss
that which Geoffrey de la Tour Landry17 read to his daughters, a large section of which dealt
with Eve and other perpetrators of supposed enormity drawn from misogynistic tradition. Dame
Alice is “the embodiment and living exponent of all that male clerical writers most feared”18.
Even if forced to live within misogynistic doctrines most people had to make accommodation
within institutional and ideological parameters in order to live normal lives.

When Malory wrote his tales in 1469 to 1470 there was a probable harking back to Henry V as
the ideal warrior king, wearing around his helmet a circlet of gold containing such jewels as the
Black Prince Ruby, the size of a hen’s egg, into battle at Agincourt in 1415. (See also Chrétien
de Troyes’ Érec and Enide, where the knights are said to be dealing each other fearful blows and
knocking the jewels out of their helmets.) Malory was a man of action, imprisoned eight times,
escaping twice, once by swimming a moat, once by using swords, daggers and a Langue de
Boeuf - a particularly wicked looking halberd designed to pierce then cut deeply19.

Whence came Morgan’s Magic/Satanic powers ? She was said on the one hand to have learned
her magic from Merlin. Malory says that Morgan learned magic when she was in a nunnery20.
This may have been a device to heap even more opprobrium on her by “demonstrating” that she
had subverted good Christian teaching to her own ends. Malory does not, however explain how
a nunnery could have furnished her with either oral or written instruction on satanic knowledge.
But that was not his aim – the acquisition was the damning issue.

Morgan is also presented as Arthur's adversary. She gives Excalibur to her lover Accolon so he
can use it against Arthur and when that plot fails, she steals the scabbard of Excalibur which
protects Arthur and throws it into a lake.

Her enmity towards Guinevere has its origin in the Vulgate Lancelot, where Morgan is having
an affair with Guiomar, Guinevere's cousin, and Guinevere puts an end to it. In Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight she is presented as the instigator of the Green Knight's visit to Arthur's court,
partly motivated by her desire to frighten Guinevere.

We are still left with the dichotomy of Morgan's enmity towards Arthur and Guinevere, and her
also being one of the women who takes Arthur in a barge to Avalon to be healed. In the Vita
“Livre du Chevalier de la Tour” written 1371/2 by a French noble as a book of “advice” to his three
daughters, Marie, Jeanne and Anne
“The Age of Saturn: Literature and History in the Canterbury Tales”, Brown and Butcher at p26.
Vinaver at the end of the first paragraph of his Introduction to “Malory, Works”
Le Morte d’Arthur, Book 1
Merlini Morgan is said to be the first of nine (3x3) sisters who rule The Fortunate Isle or the Isle
of Apples, or Avalon and is presented as a healer as well as a shape-changer. It is to this island
that Arthur is brought and Morgan proclaims that she can heal Arthur if he stays with her for a
long time.

Morgan rarely appears in post-medieval literary works – until the twentieth century when there
is a renewed interest in her character (deliberately ignoring the later artistic representations of
the Arthur myth). Sometimes she is conflated with Morgause and made to be the mother of
Mordred, as is the case in John Boorman's film Excalibur . There are a number of modern
novels, including a trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Mists of
Avalon”. In this book, Morgaine is fighting for her matriarchal Celtic culture whilst patriarchal
Christianity is destroying the druidic way of life. Gwynyfar having failed to produce a child
becomes convinced she is being punished for her forbidden love affair with Lancelot. She
becomes a religious fanatic and precipitates the Camelot/Avalon hostilities. Roger Zelazny has
written "The Last Defender of Camelot", where totally against tradition, and her assumed
nature, Morgan becomes the Last Defender.

4 Summation

Today the word “myth” has become devalued and disempowered to mean an untruth, rather than
a system of beliefs about the origins, deities and heroes of a particular culture. The mythology
of a people is at one and the same time the root of its power and the image of its individual
aspirations. A mythology is also the guiding force behind each culture, the dynamic core of its
life. Examples include the old civilisations of Egypt, Greeks, Romans, Vikings and the Celts.
The Arthur myth has a timeless appeal. So Arthur’s, and Morgan’s, stories continue, with each
generation taking its own view and assessment of the collision between two cultures and placing
the myth in a landscape of its own imagination. We may one day see a retelling where Arthur is
an indolent dissolute king who refuses to act to save his kingdom (a Théoden figure) whilst
Morgan takes on a Gandalf/Éowyn role saving the kingdom and the culture. “The old order
changeth, yielding place to new”21

Idylls of the King Alfred, Lord Tennyson