Ancient Celtic Mythology and Legends
Most of the Arthurian poems below were written in a brief flurry after I had
spent a good deal of time reading and studying the ancient Celtic myths that
eventually crystallized―or, more properly, "Christianized"―into the Arthurian
legends. I've long felt that I owe much of my success as a poet and editor to
Merlyn & Co., because my career didn't really take off until I became inspired
to write about the "real" Arthur, who may (or may not) have been historical, but
almost certainly was not a Christian "knight in shining armor." His original
name was probably Artur or Artos, both of which mean "bear." The ancient Celts
were renowned for their ferociousness in battle, but they were also known for
their mysticism, gregariousness and love of art: poetry, music, bright colors,
golden torques, etc. The Celts of Britain fought against powerful invaders such
as the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, and were slowly assimilated
into what we now call the English. They remain with us in many ways, including
their tales of the "otherworld" and supernatural events such as a "once and
future king" who pulled a magical sword from a stone with the help of the
wildest and wiliest of mages. And their names have become the stuff of legend in
their Christianized forms: Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad,
Percival, Bedivere, Kay, Gawain, Geraint, Gaheris, Gareth, Lionel, Lucan, Bors,
Lamorak, Palamedes, Agravain, Owain, Igraine, Tristram/Tristan, Isolde,
Morgause, Mordred, Uther Pendragon, Ambrosius, Vortigern, Ector, Pellinore, et
all poems by Michael R. Burch
The legend of what happened, as Snoopy might say, "on a dark and stormy" night at Tintagel is endlessly
intriguing. Supposedly, Merlin transformed Uther Pendragon to look like Gorlois so that Uther could sleep with Ygraine, the lovely wife of the
unlucky duke. While Uther was enjoying Ygraine’s lovemaking, Gorlois was off getting himself killed. Did Igraine suspect that her lover
was not her husband? In any case, Artur/Artos/Arthur was the child conceived out of this supernatural (?) encounter.
there was darkness such as man had never seen ...
darkness and treachery,
and the unholy thundering of the sea ...
In his arms,
who is to say how much she knew?
And if he whispered her name ...
could she tell above the howling wind and rain?
Could she tell, or did she care,
by the length of his hair
or the heat of his flesh, ...
that her faceless companion
was Uther, the dragon,
and Gorlois lay dead?
Originally published by Songs of Innocence, then subsequently by Celtic Twilight, Fables, Fickle
Muses and Poetry Life & Times
According to legend, Isolde and Tristram/Tristan were lovers who died, were buried close to each other, then reunited in the form of plants
growing out of their graves. A rose emerged from Isolde's grave, a vine from Tristram's, then the two became one. Tristram was the Celtic
Orpheus, a minstrel whose songs set women and even nature a-flutter.
Through our long years of dreaming to be one
we grew toward an enigmatic light
that gently warmed our tendrils. Was it sun?
We had no eyes to tell; we loved despite
the lack of all sensation—all but one:
we felt the night’s deep chill, the air so bright
at dawn we quivered limply, overcome.
To touch was all we knew, and how to bask.
We knew to touch; we grew to touch; we felt
spring’s urgency, midsummer’s heat, fall’s lash,
wild winter’s ice and thaw and fervent melt.
We felt returning light and could not ask
its meaning, or if something was withheld
more glorious. To touch seemed life’s great task.
At last the petal of me learned: unfold
and you were there, surrounding me. We touched.
The curious golden pollens! Ah, we touched,
and learned to cling and, finally, to hold.
Originally published by The Raintown Review
The Wild Hunt
Our Halloween, my wife Beth's favorite holiday along with Christmas, is an
inheritance from the ancient Celts. The Celts believed that the "otherworld" can
sometimes merge with the "real world," so that elves, fairies, witches, warlocks
and other fantastical entities are able to either help or harm human beings.
Bedwyr was later Christianized as Bedivere.
Near Devon, the hunters appear in the sky
with Artur and Bedwyr sounding the call;
and the others, laughing, go dashing by.
They only appear when the moon is full:
Valerin, the King of the Tangled Wood,
and Valynt, the goodly King of Wales,
Gawain and Owain and the hearty men
who live on in many minstrels’ tales.
They seek the white stag on a moonlit moor,
or Torc Triath, the fabled boar,
or Ysgithyrwyn, or Twrch Trwyth,
the other mighty boars of myth.
They appear, sometimes, on Halloween
to chase the moon across the green,
then fade into the shadowed hills
where memory alone prevails.
Originally published by Celtic Twilight, then by Celtic Lifestyles and Auldwicce
According to legend, Morgause was Arthur's half-sister. She seduced him and their son Mordred grew up to bring about the division of
Arthur's kingdom, and his death.
Before he was my brother,
he was my lover,
though certainly not the best.
I found no joy
in that addled boy,
nor he at my breast.
Why him? Why him?
The years grow dim.
Now it’s harder and harder to say ...
Perhaps girls and boys
are the god’s toys
when the skies are gray.
Originally published by Celtic Twilight as "The First Time"
King Pellinore spent most of his time hunting an elusive "questing beast" ...
or was it just an excuse not to go home to the nagging missus?
What do you do when your wife is a nag
and has sworn you to hunt neither fish, fowl, nor stag?
When the land is at peace, but at home you have none,
Is that, perchance, when ... the Questing Beasts run?
The Last Enchantment
This poem imagines Arthur speaking to his best friend, Lancelot, in some hazy underworld about Merlin's last enchantment, which was
supposed to restore him to power ...
Oh, Lancelot, my truest friend,
how time has thinned your ragged mane
and pinched your features; still you seem
though, much, much changed—somehow unchanged.
Your sword hand is, as ever, ready,
although the time for swords has passed.
Your eyes are fierce, and yet so steady
meeting mine ... you must not ask.
The time is not, nor ever shall be.
Merlyn’s words were only words;
and now his last enchantment wanes,
and we must put aside our swords ...
We must sometimes wonder if all the fighting related to King
Arthur and his knights was really necessary. In particular, it seems that
Lancelot fought and either captured or killed a fairly large percentage of the
population of England. Could it be that Arthur preferred to fight than stay at
home and do domestic chores? And, honestly now, if he and his knights were such
incredible warriors, who would have been silly enough to do battle with them?
Wygar was the name of Arthur’s hauberk, or armored tunic, which was supposedly
fashioned by one Witege or Widia, quite possibly the son of Wayland Smith.
The legends suggest that Excalibur was forged upon the anvil of the
smith-god Wayland, who was also known as Volund, which sounds suspiciously like
Artur took Cabal, his hound,
and Carwennan, his knife,
and his sword forged by Wayland
and Merlyn, his falcon,
and, saying goodbye to his sons and his wife,
he strode to the Table Rounde.
“Here is my spear, Rhongomyniad,
and here is Wygar that I wear,
and ready for war,
an oath I foreswore
to fight for all that is righteous and fair
from Wales to the towers of Gilead.”
But none could be found to contest him,
for Lancelot had slewn them, forsooth,
so he hastened back home, for to rest him,
till his wife bade him, “Thatch up the roof!”
Originally published by Neovictorian/Cochlea, then by Celtic Twilight
What happened to the mysterious Tuatha De Danann, to the Ban
Shee (from which we get the term “banshee”) and, eventually, to the druids? One
might assume that with the passing of Merlyn, Morgause and their ilk, the time
of myths and magic ended. This poem is an epitaph of sorts.
In the ruins
of the dreams
and the schemes
when the moon
begets the tide
and the wide
when a star
appears in heaven
and the raven
we will dance
and we will revel
in the devil’s
if nevermore again.
Originally published by Penny Dreadful
Merlyn, on His Birth
Legend has it that Zephyr was an ancestor of Merlin. In this
poem, I suggest that Merlin may have been an albino, which might have led to
seemingly outlandish claims that he had no father, due to radical physical
differences between father and son. This would have also added to his appearance
as a mystical figure. The reference to Ursa Major, the bear, ties the birth of
Merlin to the future birth of Arthur, whose Welsh name (“Artos” or “Artur”)
means “bear.” Morydd is a another possible ancestor of Merlin’s. The "dd" in
Welsh is pronounced "th."
I was born in Gwynedd,
or not born, as men may claim,
and the Zephyr of Caer Myrrdin
gave me my name.
My father was Madog Morfeyn
but our eyes were never the same,
nor our skin, nor our hair;
for his were dark, dark
—as our people’s are—
and mine were fairer than fair.
The night of my birth, the Zephyr
carved of white stone a rune;
and the ringed stars of Ursa Major
outshone the cool pale moon;
and my grandfather, Morydd, the seer
saw wheeling, a-gyre in the sky,
a falcon with terrible yellow-gold eyes
when falcons never fly.
Originally published by Songs of Innocence
Merlyn’s First Prophecy
Child sacrifice was a terrible but supposedly potent form of magic. The
blood of an albino child might have been thought to be particularly potent. This
poem suggests how the ability to "prophesy" might have saved the young Merlyn
from death. Ambrosius Pendragon defeated Vortigern and so established a new
dynasty ... did Merlyn predict his ascendency, and so earn undying fame?
Vortigern commanded a tower to be built upon Snowden,
but the earth would churn and within an hour its walls would cave in.
Then his druid said only the virginal blood of a fatherless son,
recently shed, would ever hold the foundation.
“There is, in Caer Myrrdin, a faery lad, a son with no father;
his name is Merlyn, and with his blood you would have your tower.”
So Vortigern had them bring the boy, the child of the demon,
and, taciturn and without joy, looked out over Snowden.
“To kill a child brings little praise, but many tears.”
Then the mountain slopes rang with the brays of Merlyn’s jeers.
“Pure poppycock! You fumble and bumble and heed a fool.
At the base of the rock the foundations crumble into a pool!”
When they drained the pool, two dragons arose, one white and one red,
and since the old druid was blowing his nose, young Merlyn said:
“Vortigern is the white, Ambrosius the red; now, watch, indeed.”
Then the former died as the latter fed and Vortigern peed.
Originally published by Celtic Twilight
Uther’s Last Battle
Uther Pendragon was the father of Arthur, but he had given his son to the
wily Merlyn and knew nothing of his whereabouts. Did Uther meet his son just
before his death, as one of the legends suggests?
When Uther, the High King,
unable to walk, borne upon a litter
went to fight Colgrim, the Saxon King,
his legs were weak, and his visage bitter.
“Where is Merlyn, the sage?
For today I truly feel my age.”
All day long the battle raged
and the dragon banner was sorely pressed,
but the courage of Uther never waned
till the sun hung low upon the west.
“Oh, where is Merlyn to speak my doom,
for truly I feel the chill of the tomb.”
Then, with the battle almost lost
and the king besieged on every side,
a prince appeared, clad all in white,
and threw himself against the tide.
“Oh, where is Merlyn, who stole my son?
For, truly, now my life is done.”
Then Merlyn came unto the king
as the Saxons fled before a sword
that flashed like lightning in the hand
of a prince that day become a lord.
“Oh, Merlyn, speak not, for I see
my son has truly come to me.
And today I need no prophecy
to see how bright his days will be.”
So Uther, then, the valiant king
met his son, and kissed him twice—
the one, the first, the one, the last—
and smiled, and then his time was past.
Originally published by Songs of Innocence
It Is Not the Sword
This poem illustrates the strong correlation between the names
that appear in Welsh and Irish mythology. Much of this lore predates the
Arthurian legends, and was assimilated as Arthur’s fame (and hyperbole)
grew. Caladbolg is the name of a mythical Irish sword, while Caladvwlch is its
Welsh equivalent. Caliburn and Excalibur are later variants.
“It is not the sword,
but the man,”
But the people demanded a sign—
the sword of Macsen Wledig,
Caladbolg, the “lightning-shard.”
“It is not the sword,
but the words men follow.”
Still, he set it in the stone
—Caladvwlch, the sword of kings—
and many a man did strive, and swore,
and many a man did moan.
But none could budge it from the stone.
“It is not the sword
or the strength,”
“that makes a man a king,
but the truth and the conviction
that ring in his iron word.”
“It is not the sword,”
as Arthur drew forth Caliburn
with never a gasp,
with never a word,
and so became their king.
Originally published by Songs of Innocence, then by Romantics Quarterly and Celtic Twilight
At Cędmon’s Grave
“Cędmon’s Hymn,” composed at the Monastery of Whitby (a North
Yorkshire fishing village), is one of the oldest known poems written in the
English language, dating back to around 680 A.D. According to legend, Cędmon, an
illiterate Anglo-Saxon cowherd, received the gift of poetic composition from an
angel; he subsequently founded a school of Christian poets. Unfortunately, only
nine lines of Cędmon’s verse survive, in the writings of the Venerable Bede.
Whitby, tiny as it is, reappears later in the history of English literature,
having been visited, in diametric contrast, by Lewis Carroll and Bram Stoker’s
ghoulish yet evocative Dracula.
At the monastery of Whitby,
on a day when the sun sank through the sea,
and the gulls shrieked wildly, jubilant, free,
while the wind and time blew all around,
I paced those dusk-enamored grounds
and thought I heard the steps resound
of Carroll, Stoker and of Bede
who walked there, too, their spirits freed
—perhaps by God, perhaps by need—
to write, and with each line, remember
the glorious light of Cędmon’s ember,
scorched tongues of flame words still engender.
Here, as darkness falls, at last we meet.
I lay this pale garland of words at his feet.
Originally published by The Lyric