Monday, August 1, 2022

King Arthur and the Caucasus

There is a credible argument that some of the lore of King Arthur drew upon material from the Nart saga of the Northern Caucasus mountains peoples, and that other parts of those sagas were important sources of Greek mythology. Specifically:

Some motifs in the Nart sagas are shared by Greek mythology. The story of Prometheus chained to Mount Kazbek or to Mount Elbrus in particular is similar to an element in the Nart sagas. These shared motifs are seen by some as indicative of an earlier proximity of the Caucasian peoples to the ancient Greeks, also shown in the myth of the Golden Fleece, in which Colchis is generally accepted to have been part of modern-day Georgia.

In the book From Scythia to Camelot, authors C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor speculate that many aspects of the Arthurian legends are derived from the Nart sagas. The proposed vector of transmission is the Alans, some of whom migrated into northern France at around the time the Arthurian legends were forming. As expected, these parallels are most evident in the Ossetian versions, according to researcher John Colarusso. For more details, see "Historicity of King Arthur – Lucius Artorius Castus and the Sarmatian connection."

The discussion at final link of this blockquote explains that:

One theory suggests that Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman military commander who served in Britain in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century, was a prototype of Arthur. Artorius is known from two inscriptions that give details about his service. After a long career as a centurion in the Roman army, he was promoted to prefect of Legio VI Victrix, a legion headquartered in Eboracum (present-day York, England). He later commanded two British legions on an expedition against either the Armoricans (in present-day Brittany) or the Armenians. He subsequently became civilian governor of Liburnia in modern Croatia, where he died.

Kemp Malone first made the connection between Artorius and King Arthur in 1924. Noting that the Welsh name Arthur plausibly derives from the Latin Artorius, Malone suggested that certain details of Castus' biography, in particular his possible campaign in Brittany and the fact that he was obliged to retire from the military (perhaps because of an injury), may have inspired elements of Geoffrey of Monmouth's depiction of King Arthur. Later scholars have challenged the idea, based on the fact that Artorius lived two to three centuries before the period typically associated with Arthur, and the fact that the parts of the inscriptions ostensibly similar to Arthur's story are open to interpretation.

Malone's idea attracted little attention for decades, but it was revived in the 1970s as part of a theory known as the "Sarmatian connection". In a 1975 essay, Helmut Nickel suggested that Artorius was the original Arthur, and that a group of Sarmatian cavalry serving under him in Britain inspired the Knights of the Round Table. Nickel wrote that Castus' Sarmatian unit fought under a red dragon banner and that their descendants were still in Britain in the 5th century; he also identified similarities between the Arthurian legend and traditions associated with the Sarmatians and other peoples of the Caucasus region. He suggested that the Sarmatians' descendants kept Castus' legacy alive over the centuries and mixed it with their ancestral myths involving magical cauldrons and swords.

Independently of Nickel, C. Scott Littleton developed a more elaborate version of the Sarmatian connection. Littleton first wrote about the theory with Anne C. Thomas in 1978, and expanded on it in a 1994 book co-authored by Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot. Littleton and Malcor argued that Artorius and the Sarmatian cavalry were the inspiration for King Arthur and his knights, but that many elements of Arthur's story derive from Caucasian mythology, ostensibly brought to Britain in the 2nd century by Sarmatians and Alans. They find parallels for key features of the Arthurian legend, including the Sword in the Stone, the Holy Grail, and the return of Arthur's sword to a lake, in the traditions of the Caucasus, and connect Arthur and his knights to Batraz and his Narts, the heroes of the legends of the North Caucasus.

Some Arthurian scholars have given credence to the Sarmatian connection, but others have found it based on conjecture and weak evidence. Few of the Caucasian traditions cited to support the theory can be traced specifically with the Sarmatians; many are known only from orally transmitted tales that are not datable before they were first recorded in the 19th century. Additionally, many of the strongest parallels to the Arthurian legend are not found in the earliest Brittonic materials, but only appear in the later Continental romances of the 12th century or later. As such, the traditions would have had to survive in Britain for at least a thousand years between the arrival of the Sarmatians in the 2nd century and the Arthurian romances of the 12th century. Nonetheless, the Sarmatian connection continues to have popular appeal; it is the basis of the 2004 film King Arthur.

The connection to the Ossetian version is expected because the Alans spoke an Indo-Iranian language closely related to Ossetian, an Indo-European language spoken in the North Caucasus region, even though most of the Caucasian languages, whose peoples share this body of legends, are not Indo-European languages. 

Despite the fact that the Nart sagas were oral traditions until the mid-19th century (around the same era that Grimm's fairytales were committed to writing), they are seen as a window into the early days of Indo-Iranian civilization:

The origin of this body of oral literature is likewise Iranian, tracing back to the medieval Alans and in some cases to the ancient Sarmatians and Scythians before them, although in their modern forms—which differ considerably from one cultural community to the next—the tales and their characters have been embellished and re-shaped by the various Caucasian groups just mentioned, each of whom claim them as their own. The Nart stories, which modern Ossetian scholars have organized into an “epic,” were until quite recently a loose and flexible collection of tales about a vanished race of men who lived for “feasting and fighting,” reflecting a clan-based raiding culture of which one can still perceive echoes in the Caucasus today. The ideal Nart is both fearless and cunning, unafraid to face giants, descend into the underworld, or even to kidnap the daughter of God himself, yet willing to resort to ruse when confronted with a stronger enemy. In the highly patriarchal Nart society women play supporting roles—mainly preparing week-long feasts for their victorious menfolk—although some female characters stand out for their intelligence and initiative.

Insofar as the Nart legends are built upon an Iranian core, they exhibit many commonalities with other bodies of Iranian oral literature including Ferdowsi’s heroic Book of Kings and Gorgani’s romance Vis and Ramin, both of which were redacted into verse during the eleventh century. One may note that while the latter two works were written down in Persian, the mythical world they portray is not that of civilized Persia but rather the wild, nomadic one of the Central Asian steppes. Today’s Ossetes, who are the only surviving linguistic and cultural descendants of the warlike Iranophone pastoralists who dominated the Eurasian plains from the Balkans to Mongolia throughout the first millennium BCE, largely avoided the cultural disruptions brought by Zoroastrianism and later Islam to other Iranian peoples, so that the Ossetian Nart legends—which remained oral and thus fluid up until they were finally written down only as late as the nineteenth century—may in some ways provide our most direct window into the earliest forms of identifiably Iranian culture, and by extension that of their proto-Indo- European ancestors. They thus hold unique value for the student of comparative mythology.

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