What did King Arthur have for Christmas Dinner?

by michaelharvey, December 28, 2019 in Folktales, General, King Arthur, Mabinogi, Mythology

Asking what King Arthur had for Christmas Dinner is not as stupid as it seems. To answer it we need to know which one of  the many Arthurs we are talking about. The one that most interests me is the Arthur of the long Welsh epic, the Mabinogi. This is Arthur the warrior, statesman, hunter, freer of prisoners. A man of action and a man of nature. In fact, the Arthur of Pig Boy.

This King Arthur would definitely have feasted as there is a lot of feasting in Pig Boy. Feasting is a great way to demonstrate wealth and generosity. It is also an opportunity to broker deals with other leaders and arrange treaties and do some business deals. In fact we still do this. Whenever an important politician visits a foreign country they are formally and ritually welcomed with a banquet.

What kind of Christmas would it have been?

The scribes who wrote the surviving manuscripts and those who heard them read were educated, medieval and Catholic. So it is strange that in the stories of the Mabinogion (the source for Pig Boy) there is almost no religion. They only use the word ‘God’  when swearing an oath or greeting another person. Nobody ever prays to or praises a higher being. There is one moment, in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, when a character disguises himself as a priest and then a bishop. But that does not really count as he is only dressing-up in order to fool someone else. There is a complete absence of any religious authority in these stories, which is really unusual and very interesting.

Bute Park in the snow

Unusually snowy day in Cardiff

Does this mean that the people in the story were unspiritual and only interested in worldly posessions and ambition? Not at all, although status and stuff were both important for the main characters. Patrick Thomas, the former rector of the Welsh country parish of Brechfa, is well placed to talk about Welsh spirituality. He calls it ‘incarnational’. It is in the bodies of those who worship and the the body of the community. You may be familiar with the Bible verse ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 21:8). In Welsh, the phrase that means ‘within you’ in English is as ‘yn eich plith’ which means amongst you. If you translate the Welsh phrase literally you get ‘folded amongst you‘. This phrase feels so poetic that it is certainly pointing beyond itself. So, a deeply incarnational aspect of being in the world ends up being transcendent, after all!

The Annual Battle of Winter and Summer

The people in the story are very much in the world and feel the turning of the year. The sacred nature of the Earth is never far away. There is not enough space to go into it in proper detail here, but one of my favourite bits in Pig Boy ties in intimately with the seasons, and it goes like this…

A young nobleman is betrothed to a young woman and they are both very much in love. Gwyn ap Nudd, the Lord of Annwfn, the Welsh Otherworld, sees her and kidnaps her. The broken-hearted nobleman is sent away to do one of the most unheroic of all the tasks. Collecting seeds that have lain in a field for many years. He searches for months without finding a single seed. And then, one day, he is helped by ants who he has saved from a fire.

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Ice in the Brecon Beacons

After this success, he goes back to Arthur’s court but, when he gets there, he sees Gwyn, his mortal enemy. Gwyn is sitting in a seat of honour beside the king. This is the man who kidnapped his wife! Straight away, the young nobleman attacked Gwyn and the two began to fight. The problem was that  Arthur needed these two men to work together on an even greater task.

This was Arthur’s solution. They were both to marry her. From Halloween to Mayday Eve she lived as Queen of the Otherworld and from May Day Eve to the following Halloween she lived on the earth with her human husband. When she goes to the world under ours, the Earth mourns and becomes cold and unfruitful. When she comes back the flowers open, the insects return and the birds sing for joy.

Everything in these stories is connected and everyone and everything is engaged in the World and the landscape we inhabit. This is done with commitment, honour, skill, poetry and talent. In the excerpt we have just looked at, we have the return of light and life to the world. So perhaps there is religion in the stories after all, but it is embedded in the landscape and embodied in us.

Wild Orchids on Ynys Llanddwyn, off Anglesey/Sir Fôn

That said, there are still a number of  ‘religious’ elements that are completely absent. There is no lengthy interpretation of text, scripture, morality police or commentary and no feeling of superiority towards others.

The Holly King and the Oak King – and Cider!

The pattern of a king of summer and light fighting against a king of winter and darkness appears in the folklore of Wales and other temperate parts of the world. For example, there is the Holly King who rules the winter until he is defeated by Oak King as summer begins. Six months later they fight again and the Holly King wins. In the Mabinogion a woman who is magically made from flowers plots against her husband in order to marry another man. Husband number two throws a spear at his rival but, instead of dying, the first husband turns into an eagle and flies away. The eagle is traditionally associated with the sky and the sun.

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In the apple-growing parts of the world the orchards are wassailed on Twelfth Night. They pour cider onto the roots of the trees and all those present have a good slurp of the cider as well. This could be seen as an inducement for the plants to wake up but is is actually more subtle than than. Fruit trees in temperate countries need a prolonged cold snap in order for the plants to produce flowers and fruit. Each tree needs to go through enough ‘chill hours’ in a process known as ‘vernalisation’ or it won’t bear fruit.

Wassailing in Chepstow

All are welcome at the Chepstow Wassail. Yes that is toast in the tree.

The cold is an essential part of the process of fertility and growth. So we have to be careful about seeing the dark winter as the ‘baddy’ and the warm summer as the ‘goody’. They might fight each other twice a year but there is a gentleman’s agreement about who is going to win. Which is just as well for us humans

The Ghost of Christmas Past

For it to be Christmas as we know it, it would have to be Christian. But, as we have seen there is no overt or recognisable religion in the story. So how did they celebrate Christmas? I don’t know where in the world you are reading this, but if you are in a country like Wales, where I live, this time of year means something very special. The Christian Christmas has settled very close to the Winter Solstice. This is the moment when the shortening days suddenly pause and start lengthening. Out of the darkness comes light.

In Pig Boy and Culhwch and Olwen (the story that inspired the book), the turning year is of central importance. The time between the Winter Solstice and Twelfth Night was a time to slaughter animals because there would not be enough fodder for them. At around the same time beer, wine and cider would all be finishing their fermentation process. How could you not have a party?

The Llanmaes Feasting Site

Just a few miles South-West from where I live is the village of Llanmaes in the Vale of Glamorgan. It is a rural, coastal, sleepy and beautiful. But things were different in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age. Then it was a feasting site for the local people and visiting communities.

Archeologists are good at finding bones.

In 2003 a couple of metal detectorists found some interesting bronze artefacts in a field in Llanmaes. As conscientious detectorists they went straight to the National Museum of Wales and soon the place was crawling with archeologists. They uncovered a site with over 73, 000 bones with over 70% of them coming from pigs. This puzzled the archeologists because sites from a similar period had much fewer pig bones. So what was going on?

Soon it became clear that this was a site specifically for feasting. The amount of bones left found was far more than you would expect from the population of a site of that size. So people must have been coming from away in order to join in the feast. Analysis of the bones shows that many of the pigs were not local and that people brought them there and killed them for the feast.

Archeology is Rubbish

The archeologist found postholes that indicated where buildings had been as well as more bronze artefacts. But by far the biggest featrure of Llanmaes is the midden – the rubbish tip. You can tell a lot about people by going through their rubbish. That is as true for our ancestors as it is for contemporary celebreties.

The first big surprise was the sheer amount of pig bones. The second was which bones they were. The vast majority of bones came from the front right quarter of the animal. After a bit of head-scratching the archeologists worked out what was probably going on.

In the great Irish epic the heroes arrive at the feast and after a bit of boasting and shouting a huge fight breaks out. The winner gets to eat the hero’s portion to show that he is top dog. But that is not what happened in Llanmaes.

The sheer amount of front-right quarters indicates that everyone was obliged to bring the same portion of meat to the feast. It also means that each group had to kill one pig so that everyone made the same investment in the group feast. Nobody could turn up with the equivalent of an out of date tub of humus and then dive into boeuf bourgingnon.

This was not just to make sure that everyone had a decent portion. It  was a canny way of making sure that there was equality in the feast. The feast was a business and dynastic event as well. The equality of investment in the feast meant that the trading and marriage and other contracts would be more likely to be honoured and stability ensured amongst people of equal status. You can read about the Llanmaes dig in more detail here.

Cauldrons of Rebirth

The Llyn Fawr Cauldron

It wasn’t just pig bones the archeologists dug up. They also found fragments of cauldrons. The cauldrons were in the  Llyn Fawr style, named after a cauldron found in the lake of that name at the top of the Rhondda Valley in South Wales. Cauldrons are the archetypal Celtic artefact. The poet Taliesin receives his three drops of inspiration from a magic cauldron. The Pair Dadeni (cauldron of rebirth) is an essential part of the Mabinogion stories. You put dead soldiers inside, heat the cauldron and the dead come out alive! The illustration below is by the illustrator Margaret Jones.

The Pair Dadeni/Cauldron of Rebirth by the great Margaret Jones

The most extravagant and bonkers of all the cauldrons is the Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark. It contains all sorts of Celtic imagery – torcs, the horned god Curnunnos and several carnyces (war trumpets). Just as you are about to pop it into the ‘Celtic’ box you’ll notice that there is also an elephant! It’s always good to bump into a big, chunky anomaly to keep the Celtic mist at bay. The archeologists in Llanmaes also found a Great White Shark tooth in one of the fence post holes! Nobody has a clue what that was for!

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Crazy and inspiring – the Gundestrup Cauldron

All about Pigs

They dug up a lot of pig bones in Llanmaes.  A much higher percentage than in other villages of comparable age and size. So why did they eat many more pigs Llanmaes?

Or putting it another way – why did people eat fewer pigs in other places compared to  Llanmaes? This could be because pigs were totem animals to some or all of the community. In many traditional cultures you can’t eat your totem animal. However, in exceptional circumstances, doing something that is normally forbidden has a strong symbolic and ritual power.

Pig boy and Totem Pigs

It seems clear that pigs are Pig Boy‘s totem animal. He was born in a pig run. His mother gave birth to him when she saw pigs. His biggest task of all in the story was to hunt the Great Wild Boar – a big hairy pig. In many traditional societies people often have a totem animal as part of a clan system This system often links people from different communities who have the same totem animal. Each group you are a part of would have separate practices and knowledge to the others. So, you would have multiple identities as a member of different groups according to your village, age, gender, totem animal and so on.

Pigs eating a dog. Role reversal on a miserichord in St. David’s Cathedral, Ty Ddewi

In normal Celtic communities of the same period as Llanmaes they did not eat much pork. Possibly because the pig was their totem animal and you don’t to eat your totem animal. However when there is a public breaking of clan rules everyone remembers the event. So the ritual eating of a prohibited animal would be something that you would remember in vivid detail. Including all the details of dowries, treaties and trade details. This would have been particularly important for oral societies who did not have writing.

Apart from the Great Wild Boar there are other important folkloric and mythological pigs. The sow Henwen swam over to Wales from Gwlad yr Haf/the summer country/Somerset and gave birth to all sorts of good things. In north Wales there is a Halloween rhyme that includes the Hwch Ddu Gwta (short black pig) who will try and catch you once the Halloween fires have burnt out.

Digging up the past

The rigour of archeology is what allows us to say important and interesting things about the past. That rigour is often about context and relationship. There is nothing that archeologists hate more than people moving stuff. In the early days it was all about the biggest and shiniest booty but now things are different. Archeologists know how human and animal remains as well as objects and buildings lie together in the soil. Sometimes they can use sophisticated dating systems to give a rough date for something. Then they can work out the age of other things in the soil and compare with other similar sites to get more data. Slowly guesswork, rigour and co-operation reveal the past, our ancestors and, of course, us.

Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey/Sir Fôn. Site of a great Iron Age treasure find.


So What did Arthur have for Christmas dinner?

King Arthur may well have presided at a feast like the one at Llanmaes. In which case, he would definitely have tucked into cauldron-stewed pork. He would also have a choice of beer, cider, mead made from honey and imported wine. Although he would no doubt have sat in a special seat of honour the emphasis was on business not pomp. Everyone present had paid their entry fee – one pig! They were eating together in the biggest bring and share lunch you can imagine. King Arthur would have looked on as his subjects and foreign visitors ate, sang, bargained, bought, sold, arranged marriages and treaties. Then they would wrap themselves into their cloaks, sing a song of farewell, wish health and happiness to all present and leave the warmth of the fires for the cold journey home.


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