Who Is The Real Gwenevere In Arthurian Lore?

Hey there. This is your Knights of Caerleon lore keeper, Jesikah Sundin. And . . . whew! This was a doozy of a book to write, and for so many twisty-turny reasons. But for the sake of historical notes, I’m mainly going to focus on two topics: the Grail Quest and who Gwenevere was in Arthurian Legend mythos. And, because it’s me, I might wander about to get there. So, hold tight.

First, if you missed the Historical Notes from book one, you can read all about the origins of Arthur Pendragon and Arthurian Celtic pagan lore on my blog.

Now to book two . . .

The Grail Quest. There are hundreds and hundreds of stories that make up the larger bulk of Arthurian Cycle stories. Tales that have inspired spin-off literature for centuries (just type “grail” into Amazon and you’ll see what I mean). And tales that have given story fodder to Hollywood since the dawn of the silver screen. I just want you to know that it is REALLY hard to not spam this feature with Monty Python and Indiana Jones memes. Heh. I said spam. If you’re not sure of why that’s funny, then I suggest you look up Grail Quest inspired Broadway musicals.

And with the Grail Quest comes the equally as legendary “tests”—ones I certainly felt as I rifled through odd—mostly humorous in cringy “Go home, you’re drunk Middle Ages”—story after story after story. My lore keeper’s eagle eye was hunting for very specific tales, though. Ones as old as the Arthurian Legend itself. And I found three suitable candidates.

  1. The Great Boar Hunt

A Celtic mythology staple. I encourage you to read this short Cliff’s Notes version of the Twrch Trwyth story because it’s hilarious (linked above). The Middle Ages are ripe with beard stories. No, seriously. But this beard story takes the hipster micro-craft beer . . . er, I mean cake. Alas, while I contemplated magical razor kits for Galahad, our gentle giant, both Claire and I kept our tale basic: faerie boar does bad things. Kill the boar!

The Bone Carver is my faerytale twist to this cornerstone Celtic mythological story. Though Bone Carvers do exist in folktales, as far as I could tell, they’re not present in Arthurian lore. Boo. Well, now one certainly is *winks*.

  1. The Afanc of Betws-y-Coed

Also known as the Addanc, this legend is another strange Celtic myth origin story that has actually shaped the history and tourist appeal of a real town nestled in the Snowdonia region of northwest Wales. Though this isn’t a beard story, it is a monster beaver story. Yes. A giant, flood-inducing, people-killing beaver. *side-eyes the Middles Ages* Click on the link above for a quick pre-Arthurian Mabinogion read about this monstrous beaver and the lullaby-singing maiden. But, when Arthurian adventures rolled around, the original folktale was dressed up in Peredur son of Efrawg, a romance found within the Mabinogion (Peredur is Welsh for Percival). This Welsh folktale, blinged out by The Crusades, introduced a maiden who gives Peredur a “stone of invisibility” to aid in his slay-the-monster hero’s feat. A monster that was no longer a giant killer beaver, but more reptilian and demonic in nature. Turns out, to Peredur’s delight, that this maiden is none other than the Queen of Constantinople who is accompanied by two female mystics—sexy maidens who can raise the dead.

And, yes, in case you’re curious, cannabis was really what most of the ancient world smoked until tobacco was introduced in the late Medieval period and early Renaissance. (Probably explains all the beard and monster beaver stories).

  1. Castle of the Maidens

Ahhh, where do I even begin with this one? Perhaps the most famous of all the Grail Quest “tests” and present in every Grail cycle story. So much so, even Monty Python and the Holy Grail had to mock this trope with desperate young women trying to take Galahad’s virginity.

Oh, I am afraid our life must seem very dull and quiet compared to yours. We are but eight score young blondes and brunettes, all between sixteen and nineteen and a half, cut off in this castle with no one to protect us! Oh, it is a lonely life — bathing, dressing, undressing, making exciting underwear…. We are just not used to handsome knights. Nay, nay, come, come, you may lie here
(Read the rest of the Castle Anthrax scene here)

As a side note, Galahad the Chaste and Percival the Chaste are oscillating tropes as well. We chose Percival for our tale, as he seemed to have the most “holy virgin” stories of all the knights.

Soooo, originally  . . . the Castle of the Maidens is the Celtic tale about The Nine Sorceresses, which is also from Peredur son of Efrawg in the Mabinogion. In this tale, these sorceresses are the armed witches of Caer Lyow. By-the-way, “The Nine Maidens” is a reoccurring trope in British/Celtic mythology. Which is how this Welsh tale ended up in Scotland. And, interestingly enough, the “Castel of the Maidens” in Scotland influenced the Welsh tale of The Nine Sorceresses. Savvy? Good. So, what was the actual Castle of the Maidens?

Edinburgh Castle. Until the 1500’s, this castle was known throughout as the Maidens’ Castle (Latin: Castellum Puellarum). Castle Rock, where the present-day castle dwells, was a site often mentioned throughout ancient texts. The problem? No one can confirm, absolutely, the historical origins of why “maidens” are truly associated with this place. Though, they do believe that young women of Picti royal heritage were kept in a structure of sorts atop Castle Rock at some point (When? The details are murky and, thus, chronicled as “the old time”—for reals, “the old times”). But this castle is most famous for St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. This is a stone structure built by King David I of Scotland in the 12th century for his mother, Princess Margaret, who was eventually canonized by the Catholic church.

Did they make exciting underwear there, though? Well, the verdict is still out . . . BUT, it is interesting to note that a hill near Edinburgh Castle is named Arthur’s Seat.

And Glastonbury Tor? Steeped in Arthurian Legend. This location in Wessex, England is considered the origins for the Isle of Avalon. The Tor was originally surrounded by marshlands, making this sacred hill an island. Tor is an Old English word for “hill.” But the Celts referred to the Tor as Ynys Wydryn, aka the Isle of Glass. And the famous mists of Avalon? A fog bank rolls in often and cloaks the marshlands and surrounding areas until only the peek of Glastonbury Tor can be seen. In the 12th century, Gerald of Wales, a writer, alleged that he had discovered the tombs of Arthur and Gwenevere in 1191 atop the Tor. But the Tor is famous for something else: the Red Spring. And the descriptions of looking and feeling like blood? All true. This spring is a geological wonder and tied to Grail lore and Celtic mythology.

And, lastly, the Spear of Lleu that weeps blood is a must in Grail lore. But more on this in book three’s Historical Notes.

Well, now for the part I know you’re all really waiting for.

Gwenevere.

Who was she really? As our story hints at, she’s not some simpering fair maiden who is sold off for political alliances. My progressive, feminist sensibilities won’t endlessly wax poetic the Gwenevere (or Guinevere) stuffed down our post-Victorian throats. Why? This barren, damsel-in-distress Queen isn’t historical anyway, just part of the late Medieval, Victorian, and post-Victorian romance glamour that perfectly mirrored their ideal “Lady”: gentle, fair, blonde, submissive to men, but who is easily led astray by her feeble, romantic heart. An “Eve” archetype character. So, ladies take note, do not end up like Gwenevere and become a homewrecker. Be a happy kept woman, instead.

Ick.

The *real* Gwenevere of legends is more powerful than Arthur and doesn’t need a man. Rather, a man needs her to become king—which is Celtic pagan beliefs at its core. The woman is the life giver, the spring from which all creation and power stems. But first, we need to break down a few words.

“Gwen” is an old Cymry (Welsh) word for a young woman who was so profoundly beautiful that you would die if you gazed upon her for too long. It was a sacred or holy form of beauty tied to being a sun or moon demi-goddess, or perhaps even a goddess of light. When I look at the beauty of the sun directly, I want to die. I get it. *shrugs* Gwenevere (Welsh: Gwenhwyfar) is a direct cognate of the Irish name Findabair (or Fionnabhair). Yup, the idea of a “Gwenevere” first came from 1st century Ireland and mentioned in The Ulster Cycle as the daughter of Queen Medb of Connacht, who later inspired Shakespeare’s Queen Mab—a faerie queen. Findabair / Gwenhwyfar came from a line of earth- and-sovereignty goddesses—sídhe faeries who married a king to his land either through matrimony, sex, or the offering of sacred relics. A Celtic king was not truly king unless he was “sovereign blessed.”

The first mention of a Gwenevere in Arthurian lore is Arthur’s faerie bride. And, sadly, they weren’t in love. In fact, Gwenhwyfar runs away and Arthur hunts her down and brings her back to his land, not because of love, but because he couldn’t be King without her. The Celts believed that the land reflected the health of their King. If he were maimed, injured, or terminally ill, the people would demand a new king to ensure their land remained bountiful as his injury would demonstrate that he was clearly out of favor with the earth goddess who married him to the land.

Not a very romantic origin story for one of the most romanticized female characters and relationships in the history of literature. The irony is sadly delightful.

Historical inaccuracies: Medieval Inns weren’t a thing until the 14th century. But, since this is also fantasy, we bent the timeline a bit to suit our storytelling needs.

Well, that’s it for this segment. Stay tuned for book three, THE FIRST GWENEVERE, where I’ll discuss the mythological origins of Morgana, Merlin, Galahad, Percival, and Lancelot, as well as share about the Four Ancient Artifacts of Ireland and how they inspired the Welsh Arthurian Legend tales.

All errors that may exist while trying to represent Celtic and Welsh culture, mythology, geography, and Arthurian Legend elements are entirely mine. I am a storyteller, weaving together information that builds and forms worlds in our imaginations. In the famous words of Nennius, a 9th century Celtic monk, “I have made a heap of all that I could find.”

Your Knights of Caerleon lore keeper,

Jesikah Sundin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.