The Origins of Arthur
The legend of Arthur emerged at a time when Christianity had the most tenuous hold in Celtic lands. During the period in which Arthur's real-life existence was said to have taken place, Britain was a rough place. The Romans had largely given up and left the country at the mercy of squabbling warlords and Saxon invaders. The new religion of Christianity had limited influence outside of its monasteries, and the Church of Rome struggled to keep the local churches in line and away from then-powerful pagan influences. In a very real sense, the character of Arthur perfectly represents this period, a melding of Christian and Celtic spirituality that most beautifully preserves the ancient heroic ideal and merges it with the idealistic hopes of the new faith.
The Name Arthur
There is much speculation about the origin of the Arthurian legend. The name Arthur may be Gallic in origin, from artios viros, “bear man,” or it may be of Roman origin. (In Welsh, the word for bear would be “Art” or “Arth.”) One theory that seeks to explain Arthurian symbolism claims that Arthur is a personification of the constellation Ursa Major, The Bear, whose Latinized Brythonic name was Arturus. Curiously, the folk name for the constellation was “Arthur's Plow.” This symbolism may have been understood by later Arthurian chroniclers, and underscored by symbolism such as the Round Table, which may have originally been intended to symbolize the zodiac.
One of the earliest mentions of Arthur is related in the Welsh The Mabinogion, in the story of the hero Culwhch. The name Culwhch means “Son of Pig,” due to the hero's birth in a pigsty. Culwhch seems to have some relation to an ancient Gallic boar god. This is worth mentioning because there is evidence from this period of another Gallic god, an anthropomorphic bear called Artios. Perhaps the story of Culwhch and Arthur is derived from a long lost Gallic myth.
Historical records of the sixth century mention the heroic battle victories of an unnamed chieftain; these battles were soon afterward attributed to Arthur. In the ninth century, Welsh monasteries recorded a number of battle victories, and the deaths of Arthur and Mordred, and compiled lists of his heroic company, but they give little else in the way of details of his life or identity. In any case, it is generally assumed that Arthur was a chieftain or even a sort of mercenary soldier employed by British kings. Later Welsh legends identified Arthur as a cousin of the hero Culwhch, and it is through these tales that Arthur began to evolve as a mythological hero.
Welsh Origins of Arthur: Culwhch and Olwen
Culwhch is the penultimate Welsh god hero, who is best-known from The Mabinogion romance “Culwhch and Olwen.” Culwhch's legends are filled with ancient Celtic religious imagery and certainly date from a much earlier era. Culwhch's story contains many parallels to the tales of Cuchulainn and other divine heroes. Many of the companions of Culwhch, such as the river deity Cei or the one-armed Bedwyr, reappear in the Arthurian corpus as companions of the Round Table.
Culwhch is clearly a prototype of the mythological Arthur, and Arthur makes an appearance in the tales of Culwhch as a cousin or companion, alongside many other characters who later emerge as central figures in the Arthurian tales. Culwhch himself may be related to an ancient Welsh god and is closely associated with boar symbolism; Arthur as the bear seems to round out the woodland gods hypothesis.
Before Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was perceived as a warrior but not a terribly romantic hero. In many tales he is portrayed as a hothead, even a murderer, and is the victim of trickery on a number of occasions. Arthur is himself placed into the trickster role himself in a number of folk legends and is even sometimes identified as the leader of the raucous and violent Wild Hunt.