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The Death Myth in Celtic Literature

The Celts believed that the dead were transported to the Otherworld by the
God Belenus, a psychopompous god such as Charon from the Greek mythology. Life
continued in this location much as it had before death. The ancient Druids believed
that the soul was immortal and that after the person died in the Otherworld, their soul
reincarnated into another living entity -- a plant, another human or an animal. There
are many stories in Celtic literature that describe the Celts’ views on death and the
afterlife. These stories are either tales of heroic deaths on the battlefield (mostly
because of betrayals), either stories of mortals traveling to an otherworldly location,
such as a cave or a remote island. These stories are not grim, nor sad, instead they
emphasize the glory of death on the battlefield or they point to the fact that the
Otherworld is nothing but a place of wonders, which every mortal could reach if
invited by a creature already living there. We can find these tales in every cycle of
Celtic literature and some of them are not comprised in a cycle, they are separate
stories called echtrai (adventures in the Otherworld) or imrama (sea voyages to an
otherworldly island).
The Ulster Cycle is abundant with tales of revenge and treachery followed by
the death of an enemy. Perhaps the most spectacular of these stories is the one
concerning the Death of Cúchulainn, the hero of Ulster. We have followed
Cúchulainn’s adventures and seen that his strength and superhuman abilities had
brought him many enemies. His most feared enemy was queen Medb, who hated the
hero for humiliating her in the battle for the Brown Bull of Cúalnge. Long after her
humiliation on The Táin, Queen Medb plotted her revenge, assembling a huge host of
orphans and aggrieved relatives of Cúchulainn’s numerous victims, including the son
of Cú Roi, the son of Cairpre and six evil wizards (three male, three female: the last
six offspring of Calatin (a Fomorian druid), whom Cúchulainn had slain on The Táin
along with his previous 27 sons and one nephew). The six children of Calatine were
sent to Scotland and Babylon to learn the magical arts and Medb was very pleased
with what they had learned there. She waited again until the Curse of Macha fell upon
the men of Ulster so that Cúchulainn would have to face the forces of magic and her
army alone once again. As the forces of Queen Medb marched on Ulster, King
Conchobar Mac Nessa called a council of war. His warriors and druids were too
incapacitated to fight, however the King did not want Cúchulainn to fight alone for it
was known that if the Champion fell, then the land would be luckless forever. To keep
Cúchulainn unaware of what was transpiring around him, King Conchobar ordered
the women, the bards and the poets to divert his attention in every way possible, but
the three daughters of Calatin created an illusory army out of grass, thistles and
withered leaves, and caused the sound of trumpets and the roar of battle to be heard
all about Emain Macha. Cúchulainn had to be convinced it was all an illusion by King
Conchobar's druids to stop him from running into battle. King Conchobar had

Cúchulainn moved to the magical valley of Glean-na-Bodhar (Valley of the Deaf);
once inside the valley nothing from the outside world could be heard. The daughters
of Calatin created the illusion that a vast army surrounded the valley with fires
burning and women shrieking and crying. This illusion was so powerful that the
noise of it even reached into the valley and Cúchulainn heard it and again wanted to
rush out into battle and once more Cathbad1 the druid managed to calm him down.
However the last trick to be played on Cúchulainn succeeded. One daughter of
Calatin took on the form of a previous lover of Cúchulainn's and cried and begged
with him saying Ulster was being ravaged while he was sitting and playing.
Cúchulainn was stung into action and neither the women nor the druids could restrain
him this time.
There were many bad omens preceding this last battle. The Gray of Macha
his horse refused to be bridled and wept tears of blood; Dechtire his mother brought
him wine three times and each time it turned to blood when he tried to drink it. When
he crossed the first ford in the river he saw a woman of the Sidhe who was washing
clothes and amour, she turned to him and said she was washing the amour of
Cúchulainn, who rides to his death. The champion then came across three old crones
roasting a hound on rowan spits. They asked him to partake in their humble meal, but
there was a geas on Cúchulainn forbidding him to eat the flesh of the hound. Still,
there was another geas forbidding him to refuse any meal that was offered to him, so
the hero ate some of the meat and the left side of his body paralyzed.
It had been predicted that the three spears that Cúchulainn carried into battle
would each kill a king, so three druids from the opposing army were sent to ask for
the three spears as it was considered highly unlucky and dishonorable to refuse a
request from a druid. Cúchulainn flung the first spear at the druid who had asked for it
and killed him, but the son of Cú Roi took the spear from the druid's body and slew
Laeg the charioteer of Cúchulainn. In the same manner, Cúchulainn killed the second
druid and the third druid when they asked for the remaining spears. With the spears,
the King of Leinster killed Cúchulainn's horse and Lugaid son of Cú Roi wounding
Cúchulainn fatally. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled, as Laeg was king of the
charioteers, the Gray of Macha was king of the horses, and Cúchulainn was king of
the champions.
In his moments Cúchulainn asked that he be allowed to go to the lake to get a
drink and then return to the battle. His request was granted and he went to the lake
where he bound himself to a standing stone by the lakeside so that he might die
standing up like a warrior for he was losing all power in his legs. The hero light was
fading from Cúchulainn and his face became as white as snow, finally a crow (the
totem of Morrigan) came and perched on his shoulder. His enemies still slightly
afraid to approach the great champion knew for certain he was now dead and cut off
his head as a trophy. With the death of Cúchulainn the power and prosperity of Emain

Cathbad was the druid in the court of Emain Macha in Ulster. He was father of King Conchobar Mac Nessa.

Macha failed as did the fortunes of the army of the Red Branch of Ulster, as predicted
centuries before. (
The story of Cúchulainn builds a picture of the Celtic warrior society, as well
as the connection with nature (the main story of the Uster Cycle is the story of a cattle
raid). The way Cúchulainn dies and the fact that, as a boy, he chooses to become a
warrior, knowing that would cause his premature death, shows that the Celts praised
their warriors and death on the battlefield was considered honorable. Perhaps
Cúchulainn is not afraid of death because he knows he has achieved enough fame so
that his name would be immortal. Besides, if we consider the fact that heroes and
gods were in most cases related and that heroes often received the help of gods, we
can also believe that a warrior’s death in the Celtic society was seen as a journey to
the homes of the gods. We already know that the Celts had an optimistic view on
afterlife, considering that the land of the dead was similar to the land of the living and
that it was a place of eternal youth and happiness that any mortal could reach before
or after physical death. Thus, we can not conclude that Cúchulainn’s death was
completely tragic, except maybe for the fact that it brought about the decay of
Conchobar’s kingdom.
Within the Fianna Cycle, we can discuss the story of Oisín’s journey to Tír
na nÓg. Oisín was the son of Fionn and his mother was Sadb, who came to Finn's
territory in the form of an enchanted fawn (she was under the spell of the Black
Druid). Fionn’s hounds recognized her as being human and Fionn spared her. In
return she turned into a beautiful woman and became his lover. Later, Sadb was
turned back into a deer and Fionn never saw her again. He found Oisín abandoned in
the wilderness and took him into care. Oisín was brought up among the Fianna and
became a great champion.
It happened that on a misty summer morning as Finn and Oisín with many
companions were hunting on the shores of Loch Lena they saw coming towards them
a maiden, exceedingly beautiful, riding on a snow-white steed. She told Oisín she was
Niamh of the Golden Hair, daughter of the king of the Land of Youth, and that she
was brought there by her love for him. Then, the maiden invited him to her father’s
land. Then the maiden spoke of the Land Oversea to which she had summoned her
lover, and as she spoke a dreamy stillness fell on all things, and what she said seemed
sweeter and more wonderful as she spoke it, turning into a magic song. She sang of a
place where the trees would always bear fruit and blossom, the honey and wine
supplies would never end, there would be no sickness, nor sorrow, only feasts and
hunts, and Oisín would become king and have her as wife. After he left with her, the
Fianna never saw him again for he forgot everything about his home when he reached
Tír na nÓg. Oisín met with various adventures in the Land of Youth, including the
rescue of an imprisoned princess from a Fomorian giant. But at last, after what
seemed to him a period of three weeks in the Land of Youth, he was satiated with
delights of every kind, and longed to visit his native land again and to see his old
comrades, promising to return. As Oisín went away on the white fairy steed that had
brought him to Tír na nÓg, Niamh warned him thrice not to lay his foot on the
ground, and she told him that the Fenians were all gone and Ireland was quite
changed. Oisín had to find that out for himself and finally realized that had been away
for a very long time. One day, as he tried to help some men lift a stone, he set foot on
the ground and rapidly turned into an old man, after which he died.
The story of Oisín is in many aspects similar to the story of Connla and the
Fairy Maiden, from the Kings Cycle. Connla was the son of king Conn of the
Hundred Fights, one of the High Kings of Tara. Connla also meets a beautiful maiden
whom only he can see and who tell him she comes from the Plains of the Ever Living
(Moy Mell). She asks him to follow her back to her kingdom and promises him a royal
crown. Conn asks Coran the Druid to stop his son from leaving with the maiden, and
the druid makes her disappear for a while, leaving Connla with an apple and a
promise of her return. After a month the maiden returns and takes Connla into her
curragh (boat), to her island, which was supposedly inhabited only by wives and
maidens. (Celtic Fairy Tales: 1995, pp. 1-4)
The story of Connla ends with his leaving to Moy Mell and gives no account
of what he experiences there. It is only stated that the two are never to be seen again
by Conn and his people. We can speculate that the apple is one of the symbols of the
Otherworld, as in some legends the otherworldly island is called Avalon (Island of
Apples). It can also be seen as a sign of prosperity and fertility, since the island is
inhabited only by women and fruit are generally symbols of fertility. The druid plays
an important role here because he is a male wizard and his task is to defeat the magic
of a woman, still his powers become insignificant in the face of the fairy maiden, who
is not a mortal. She appears only to Connla, and his father understands that she is only
in Connla’s mind, that is, his imagination. Her immateriality suggests she comes from
a world of spirits, although it is not clearly stated that she would take Connla to a
Land of the Dead (in fact, the terms Land of the Ever Living are preferred). The
departure to the Otherworld is not a sad one; Connla would rather go there than
remain with his father and rule the kingdom, so the attraction of the promised place is
great, just as in Oisín’s case.
Another interesting tale, which does not belong to any of the main cycles, is
the Voyage of Bran (Imram Brain). An immram is a story about a mortal’s voyage to
the Otherworld; what distinguishes immrama from echtrae, another type of tales that
describe trips to the Otherworld, is the fact that in the former the accent is on the
voyage and in the latter the accent is on the otherworldly destination. The Voyage of
Bran is the story of a mortal who makes a journey to the Otherworld. It is one of the
oldest tales in Irish literature. It is believed that the narrative was first compiled in the
7th century. However, the present work is preserved in two extant works: the Book of
the Dun Cow (early 11th century) and the Book of Leinster (mid-12th century).
Bran Fendigaid (the Blessed) was the son of the Sea God, Llyr and,
maternally, the grandson of Belenos, the Sun God. One Irish tale tells how Bran fell
asleep one day, while listening to the beautiful song of a goddess with whom he fell
deeply in love. She sang of a mystical Otherworld far away on a Westerly Island.
When he woke up, all he found was a silver apple branch with white blossoms. The
following day, Bran and his three foster-brothers and twenty-seven warrior followers
set off in their ships to find Emaim Ablach (the Isle of Women). In the woman’s
description, the island was so beautiful and magnificent that everybody on it
experienced eternal happiness; on that island there was only one season and the
weather was always sunny, and still there was enough water and an endless supply of
food. The people who reached the island would never grow old, nor die, they would
not know grief, nor sorrow. On their way to Emaim Ablach, Bran and his men met a
man in a chariot drawn by a golden horse, and he told them he was Manannán mac
Lir, the sea god. He also spoke of Emaim Ablach and told Bran that he should reach
there by sunset. During their voyage, Bran and his men encountered the Isle of Joy.
One of the crew members went on the island to see why all its inhabitants were
laughing in delight, but he begun to laugh just like the islanders and was unable to
return to the ship (Kernbach: 1995, p. 92).
After Bran and his men finally reached the island, they lived happily together
with the women of Emaim Ablach for a number of years. One day one of the crew
members felt homesick and Bran told the Queen that he and his men wanted to leave.
The Queen warned them that if they went back to Ireland, they were not to set foot on
dry land. On their return, Bran and his men stayed aboard the ships. When Bran told a
local who he was, the man said that he only heard of a man called Bran from an
ancient legend. One of Bran’s men ignored the Queen’s warning but when he stepped
out of the boat he was immediately reduced to ashes. Bran spoke of their adventures
and the locals recorded the story. Then they sailed away never to be heard of again
(Kernbach: 1995, p. 92). This story has almost the same pattern as the tails about
Oisín and Connla. The same invitation to an otherworldly island is made by the same
beautiful woman, a queen or princess on that island. The woman leaves behind this
time a blossomed apple branch, another token of fertility and richness. The island has
every characteristic of a paradise (equivalent to the Christian Heaven, or the Greek
Elysium Fields), its immateriality and magic suggests it is not a real place, although
Bran reaches it quite easily, by sailing. It can also be compared to the utopist islands
described in the Odyssey (the Island of the Lotus Eaters can be compared to the Isle
of Joy, which no man can leave after setting foot on it; the Isle of Calypso is similar
to Emaim Ablach).
One of the earliest known Celtic travel myth and the basis for many others,
such as the Voyage of Saint Brendan, is the Voyage of Mael Duin. Mael Duin, the son
of a nun and a famous warrior named Ailill, swore to avenge his father’s death when
he would become a warrior himself. A druid told him that the land where the killers
lived could be reached only by sea, and that he should take with him no more than
seventeen men; however, as Mael Duin set sail, his three foster brothers jumped into
the waves lapping around the boat and begged to be allowed to accompany him. To
save them from drowning, Mael Duin pulled them from the water and dragged them
on board. They reached the islands of Mel Duin’s father’s murderers after a day and a
night, but because the druid’s warning had been neglected, a storm carried the boat
towards the islands of the Otherworld. One was inhabited by giant ants; another by
giant horses and a third by a beast that alternately revolved within its skin or had the
skin revolve around its body. From the high cliffs of one island, Mael Duin seized a
twig that bore three magic apples, each of which fed the entire crew for forty days. On
yet another, they gathered fruit in orchards tended by red, fiery pigs whose
underground sites provided heat for the whole island. When all the fruit had gone,
they found another island on which stood a white tower with rooms full of food and
treasures being well-guarded by a cat. Beneath its watchful gaze, they ate their fill,
but as they were leaving, one of Mael Duin's foster brothers snatched a necklace from
the wall. At once, the cat leapt right through him, reducing his body to cinders. On the
next island, there lived two flocks of sheep, one white and one black. They were
divided by a wall and watched over by a giant who would occasionally pick up a
sheep and put it on the other side of the wall, whereupon it would change color. After
this, came an island full of people with dusky skins who were weeping piteously.
When the second of Mael Duin's foster brothers landed on this island, his skin too
darkened and he began to weep. Despite all efforts to rescue him, the crew was
obliged to leave him there and continue without him.
Going further, they encountered a fortress with bronze doors, accessible only
by a glass bridge, an island which had started as a sod of Irish soil, but which each
year grew a foot in breadth and sprouted a new tree; the Isle of Prophecy, whose
inhabitants pelted them with nuts, a gigantic silver column, from the top of which a
giant trawled a silver net, and, finally, the Isle of Women, where Mael Duin and his
men found wives and were promised eternal youth. Mael Duin married the queen of
this island. After three months, the crew grew homesick and demanded to leave. As
they sailed away, the queen threw Mael Duin a ball of thread which stuck to his hand
and allowed her to draw them back. Three months later, they tried again, but the same
thing happened. At the third attempt, realizing that their leader secretly desired to
stay, a crewman severed Mael Duin's hand as he caught the rope and the ship finally
made its escape. They voyaged past more strange islands, until they came to the Isle
of the Laughing Folk, where everyone lived in perpetual joy. The men drew lots to
determine who should be the first to land. Mael Duin's third foster brother won. He set
foot on the island and immediately began laughing and singing along with the rest of
the inhabitants. He could not be persuaded to leave, so there he remained as the ship
sailed away. With no illicit crew members on board, Mael Duin could now return
home. A falcon led him southeastward, back to Ireland, where the ship landed on the
isle of Ailill's murderers. Mael Duin confronted the men he sought, but they greeted
him like a hero after his long journey into the Otherworld. With no heart left for
vengeance, Mael Duin pardoned his former enemies and proceeded to give an account
of his most extraordinary adventures.
The story of Mael Duin is probably the basis of Oisín’s story, and the queen
seems to be almost the same in both stories. In any case, the Voyage of Mael Duin is
far more complex, as there is more than one otherworldly island and there are many
elements which will become the starting point of later myths. We can even consider
this legend another Odyssey, as it has corresponding parts for almost all the elements
of Homer’s story, including the hero’s return to his origin lands. What seems to be the
main characteristic of the islands Mael Duin and his crew encounter is the abundance
with food. Of course, not all of the islands are rich and hospitable, but in most cases,
the travelers get to gather new provisions from the next island they come across. The
symbolism of the apple is again explored, as are the magical numbers three and forty
and the colours red, black and white.
A very interesting echtrai from the Mabinogion (the collection of Welsh
myths) is the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyved. Pwyll Prince of Dyved was lord of the
seven Cantrevs of Dyved; once upon a time he went hunting at Glyn Cuch, one of his
domains. As he followed his hounds into the forest, he strained from his companions.
After a while, he heard the cry of another pack of hounds, a cry different from his
own, and coming in the opposite direction. He saw some hounds following a wounded
stag and he sent his dogs to chase them away, so that he would get the stag. As he
looked at the other hounds, he saw that their hair was of a brilliant shining white, and
their ears were red. Soon, their owner appeared, riding a large light-grey steed, with a
hunting horn round his neck, dressed in grey woolen clothes in the fashion of a
hunting garb. He presented himself as Arawn, Lord of Annwyn and told Pwyll that
he had an enemy, Havgan (Hafgan), which he wanted to defeat. In order to repair his
mistake of having tried to steal another hunter’s pray, Pwyll offered to defeat Hafgan
within a year. The two switched places and appearance for a year in the course of
which none was allowed to touch the other’s wife. At the end of the year, Pwyll killed
Hafgan with a single blow of his sword and the dying enemy trusted him with all his
army. In the mean while, Arawn had also done well in Pwyll’s kingdom and the
people were even more pleased of their ruler. On his return, Pwyll told his people the
truth about their switching places and he received the name of Pwyll Chief of
Annwyn. (Pons: 2004, pp. 54-58)
This story is somewhat similar to the voyages described above, but it is also
different, because in this case the Otherworld is not an island, but an underworld
domain, its ruler is not a beautiful woman, but a wise and feared king, and the hero is
not invited to the Otherworld only to enjoy its riches, in stead he has a precise
mission, that of disposing of Arawn’s greatest enemy. After accomplishing his duty,
the hero is not forced to remain in the Otherworld, he returns to his former
attributions. Although he is god of the dead, Arawn is described as a wise and fair
god, not as an evil ruler of the underworld like in other mythological stories. He also
has the characteristics of a patron of hunting.

I have considered that the myth of Pwyll is to some extent comparable to the
myth of Demeter and Persephone1 from Greek mythology, although I can not clearly
prove that Pwyll’s stay in Arawn can also be considered a symbol of a cycle of nature.
The last death myth I considered worthy of analyzing was the Death of King
Arthur. Due to the fact that the legend of Arthur is probably the most famous and
important Celtic myth, I have decided to deal with it separately.

The Legend of King Arthur

The name of Arthurian Legends was given to a group of tales written in several
languages, all built around the legendary figure of a certain King Arthur of the Britons,
and also around his kingdom and his knights. The story of Arthur is one of the most
enduring in recorded history. It first appeared in the 5th or 6th century AD and took its
basic form between the 12th and 15th centuries. It continues as a popular subject in
modern times.
There are many versions of the Arthur legend. The following is a brief overview
of some of the common elements of the legend.
King Uther Pendragon of England falls in love with Ygraine, but she is already
married to the Duke of Cornwall. Uther arranges for her husband to die in battle and
takes his shape with the help of Merlin the magician. He then goes to Ygraine looking
exactly like her husband. Unaware of the treachery, Ygraine allowes him into her bed
and becomes pregnant. Uther and Ygraine eventually marry, but Uther has to respect a
promise and give Merlin his first born son. Arthur is raised by Hector and is unaware of
his heritage until the death of King Uther. In order to become the new leader, any man is
allowed to try to get Uther’s sword out of a stone, but no one is capable to do so. When
Arthur tries, he succeeds immediately and becomes the new king.
With Merlin as his adviser, Arthur begins his reign. He first fights Britain's
enemies, and early texts describe him defeating the Saxons, Picts, and Scots and
overrunning Ireland and Iceland. His conquests are successful because of his marvelous
sword, first called Caliburn and later known as Excalibur (he received this sword from
a hand that emerged from a lake; in some versions of the story, Excalibur is the Sword
in the Stone.) His reign has a flourishing period, during which he marries Guinevere and
founds the institution of the Round Table, a fellowship of knights.
Apart from the story of Arthur, there are several side stories about his knights
and the quest for the Grail. The Holy Grail was believed to be the chalice that Jesus
Christ used at the Last Supper. All the finest knights at the court swear to seek the Grail,
Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was kidnapped and taken to the Underworld by Hades, the Greek god of death.
Persephone became Hades’ wife and was allowed to return to the land of the living only for six months of the year,
while she would stay in the Underworld for the other six. Demeter was the goddess of fertility and prosperity, so the
myth was translated as a succession of two seasons: a cold season, when Persephone was in the Underworld, and
Demeter would no longer let the soil be fertile, and a warm season, when the joy of seeing her daughter made Demeter
fill the earth with fruit. (Mitru: 2004, pp. 202-204)

however long the search might take. Arthur is displeased by these events, because he
knows that the quest meant the end of Camelot. Indeed, many of his best knights die,
some of them even killing one another. Finally, the Grail is revealed only to Sir
Galahad, Lancelot’s pure and good-natured son, and the quest ended.
But perfection is shattered again by the love affair between Guinevere, Arthur’s
queen, and Lancelot, his bravest knight. Things get even worse when Arthur is attacked
by his illegitimate son, Mordred, born from Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his
own sister, Morgause (or Morgan). Mordred is the one who tells Arthur about the affair
between Lancelot and Guinevere. Condemned to death, Guinevere is saved by Lancelot
at the last moment and both are forced to flee to France in order to escape Arthur’s
wrath. Mordred claims Arthur’s throne and fights him at Camlann. In the end of the
battle, only Arthur, Mordred and Sir Bedivere remain. Arthur kills Mordred, but is
seriously wounded.
After the battle, Arthur asks Sir Bedivere to throw Excalibur into a lake, but his
knight is blinded by greed and at first tries to keep the sword. Arthur realizes he was
betrayed and orders him to throw the sword in the lake, in order for the spirit of the lake
to appear. She comes in a boat filled with women and takes him to Avalon, where his
wounds were to be healed. The legends say that he would return in the hour of Britain's
greatest need. Arthur’s ultimate fate remained uncertain. Although the legends say that
Arthur was taken by women to Avalon, to be healed, and it was believed he will return,
we know that Avalon was actually some kind of otherworld, like our Heaven, where the
souls of the brave would go after death.
Arthur’s kingdom died not because of the evil from outside, but because of
Arthur and the knights’ own sins. Lust, greed, envy eventually led to the fall of a world
which seemed perfect.

Literary Versions of Arthur’s Death

Between the 6th and 12th centuries, a number of documents appeared that mention
Arthur briefly or alluded to some events that would later be associated with him. They
do not prove that a historical Arthur existed, but they do provide evidence of a legend
forming around the idea of a great king who saved the Britons from their Saxon
enemies. These texts include the poem Y Gododdin by 6th century Welsh bard Aneirin,
the mid-9th century Historia Britonum by Welsh historian Nennius, and the
Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales that first started appearing in the 11th century.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain we merely find out
that the wounded Arthur was taken to Avalon to be healed, but in another one of his
works, Life of Merlin, Arthur is taken in a boat captained by Barinthus, who was
accompanied by Taliesin, and reaches the Isle of Apples (a name generally equated with
the Isle of Avalon) to be nursed by Morgan. The Isle of Apples is described as a
paradise island under the reign of nine sisters, with Morgan at their head. When they
reached the Isle of Apples, Morgan placed Arthur on golden coverlets in her
bedchamber. She checked his wound and promised him that he would heal if he would
remain long enough on her island.
In another version that was based upon that of Geoffrey of Monmouth (The Brut
of Layamon), we find out that there were some ladies on the boat that came to take
Arthur to the Isle of Avalun. The boat is described as being magical as it moved with no
means of propulsion.
Robert the Boron’s version says that Arthur was taken to Avalon to be cured by
his sister Morgan and to return to his followers. Though he does not return, the account
says he was seen hunting in forests (maybe as a reference to Arthur as a leader of the
Wild Hunt).
The Vulgate Cycle account leaves no doubt over Arthur’s death. Girflet is the
one who discovers his grave at the Black Chapel. This version was probably influenced
by the Cistercian monks who tried to avoid the blasphemous comparison of Arthur with
Jesus Christ, who was expected to come back from the grave. Still, some echoes of the
old story remain. When asked by Girflet where he will be going, Arthur answers that he
doesn’t know (he may have originally said he was going to Avalon, but his words were
modified). Also, the hermit of the Black Chapel denies knowing who the ladies who
brought Arthur’s body for burial were, probably for avoiding the name of Morgan and
her otherworldly companions.
Sir Thomas Mallory continues the Vulgate Cycle’s assertion that Arthur died
but acknowledges the belief that he will rise again to lead his people. He mentions the
identity of four of the women in the boat: Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s half-sister, an
enchantress skilled in necromancy); the Queen of Northgalis (an associate of Morgan le
Fay); the Queen of the Wasteland (Sir Perceval’s aunt, who gave up her domains to
become a hermit), and Nimue, the chief Lady of the Lake (she was the one who
imprisoned Merlin beneath a stone). Mallory also says that the women in the boat are
wailing for Arthur (this image may have a Celtic antecedent in the wailing of the
Banshees, who in Celtic mythology foretold a death).
John Rhys accounts in his book (Celtic Folklore) that Arthur does die in a
skirmish, but his body is buried under a cairn to become a warning to invaders that he
will come back to life and resurrect his men, who are sleeping in a nearby cave.
After considering all these versions, we can draw the conclusion that the
tradition of Arthur’s healing on the Isle of Apples (Avalon/Avalun) has its origins in the
magical lore about the Celtic Otherworld. This magical island has all the features of the
Celtic paradise: it is a place of eternal happiness, where the wounded find healing and
live forever; its inhabitants are women. Also, the Layamon description of the boat in
which Arthur was carried to Avalun seems to be influenced by Celtic legends, since it
would move by itself, as if enchanted.