The article below is a book review of C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor’s From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes) by the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Victor H. Mair.
The below article first appeared in The Heroic Age website.
The story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is perhaps the best known legend in the world: witness the widespread infatuation with Camelot some thirty years ago. When I was a student at Dartmouth College about the same time, I was inducted into an old honor society called Casque and Gauntlet. In a most solemn ceremony, each member of the society was bestowed the name of one of the figures in the legend and thenceforth we steeped ourselves in the lore of that merry band of knights (we thought we were being very English). Casque and Gauntlet continues at Dartmouth and there are similar societies on other campuses. As another indication of how much alive the legend is in our own time, I recently saw reported in several major newspapers wire service accounts of the announcements by a lay religious order in Italy and an amateur historian in England that they each possessed the Holy Grail!
Given our intimate familiarity with this hoary tale, it is remarkable how mistaken is our understanding of its origins. Common wisdom considers the legend of King Arthur to be English to the core, while scholarly tomes analyze its presumed Celtic roots. To the average person, it would seem preposterous to assert that the Arthurian cycle is fundamentally Scythian. In the first place, only the tiniest fraction of the population will ever have heard of the Scyths. This only goes to show what a herculean task of reeducation is required in order to comprehend the true outlines of our own history. This splendid revisionist work by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor makes an excellent beginning in that compelling endeavor. One can only hope that its impact will be enormous.
Hundreds of books have been written about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table but, in my estimation, this is far and away the most important to date. Indeed, not only is this the most important book ever written about the legends surrounding King Arthur and his knights, it is also quite simply one of the most significant scholarly works on any subject in the humanities written during this century. My reasons for this glowing approbation will emerge in the following paragraphs.
As we have seen, the current passionate belief is that, to the public, nothing could be more quintessentially “English” (or, for the academic community, “Celtic”) than the story of Camelot and the Holy Grail. Yet the authors of this magnificent book prove irrefutably that the very heart of this beloved cycle of legends, not to mention many of its telling details, derives from ancient Iranian peoples whose original home was the Eurasian steppes.
“Scythian” is a vague, catchall term for the Iranian-speaking peoples who ranged across the Eurasian steppes during the first millennium B.C.E. We do not know the specific names of all the tribes involved, but it is a scholarly convention to refer to them collectively and loosely as “Scythian.” The best known among them were those who lived around the Pontic Steppes in Classical Antiquity. They were celebrated for their hoards of exquisitely carved golden art in the animal style, their superb horsemanship, their elaborate armor and excellent metal weaponry, their skill as archers, their bravery and strength, and their nomadism. The brethren of the Scyths of Classical Antiquity (who roamed over the steppes northeast of the Black Sea and southwest of the Urals) were stretched out all across Central Asia to the borders of China. The Pontic-Uralian Scyths were succeeded in late classical times by similar Iranian groups such as the Sarmatians and, somewhat later still, by the Alans.
In striving to locate the precise sources of the obviously Iranian components of the Arthurian legends, Littleton and Malcor rightly focus their attention on the lore of the Sarmatians, in particular the Iazyges tribe, and their kinsmen, the Alans. From archeological, artistic, historical, and linguistic evidence, we know that these northern Iranian peoples had a European appearance and that they were often blond-haired and blue-eyed. Temperamentally and culturally as well, they seem to have resembled Europeans in many respects. This is not entirely unexpected for Indo-European peoples who hailed from the western reaches of the Eurasian steppes. Certainly, they were very different from the Iranian peoples who moved south (the Persians and the Medes) and mixed with the indigenous peoples there. They had even fewer affinities with the later steppe nomads who came from the east and who spoke entirely different languages (the Huns, the Turks, and the Mongols).
The last surviving remnants of these ancient northern Iranian peoples are the Ossetians. The Ossetians are now living in the Caucasus Mountains, whence they were pushed by Mongols and other nomads from the east. Though threatened politically, militarily, and culturally from many directions, they still maintain their surprisingly archaic Iranian language and with it a body of oral narrative referred to as the Nart sagas. The Nart sagas constitute the best repository of the ancient western Scythian narratives that were transported to Britain and Gaul from the Pontic-Uralian steppes by peoples such as the Sarmatians and the Alans during the declining days of the Roman Empire. The Nart sagas contain parallels with Arthurian legend so numerous and so uncannily close that it is impossible they are unrelated.
The authors begin their argument with the archeological underpinnings that reach back into the second millennium B.C.E. They then move on to records of classical writers such as Herodotus and Ammianus Marcellinus. Through such sources, they follow the movements of various groups of northern Iranians as they spread out from the North Caucasus and the Pontic-Uralian Steppes. Moving outward, these groups impinged on surrounding areas, including the Mediterranean littoral and Europe. In the course of their wanderings, they came into contact, and eventually conflict, with the Romans. A key battle is that in which the Sarmatians were defeated by the forces of Marcus Aurelius. This was the so-called Marcomannian War of 175 C.E., after which 5,500 Iazyges were forcibly sent to Britain as armored auxiliary cavalry, primarily to bolster the defenses along Hadrian’s Wall. It was this large infusion of Sarmatians that brought the first layers of the Arthurian cycle to Britain. The overwhelming majority of these fine warriors never returned to their homeland, but remained in veterans’ settlements such as the one at Bremetennacum Veteranorum, a major Roman cavalry post near the modern town of Ribchester in Lancashire.
The next major northern Iranian inputs to Arthurian tradition arrive with the Alans. There is no doubt that the Alans were Iranians. Indeed, their name is probably a phonological transformation of the name “Iran” itself, which is in turn a variation of “Aryan”. (It is worth noting that the major dialect of the Ossetians, Iron, is yet another permutation of the same word which means essentially “noble”.) The authors provide an extremely detailed study of the historical sources concerning the Alans in Europe. This diligent spadework should convince all but the most obdurate xenophobe that not all of European history and culture was locally self-generated. It should also serve as a desperately needed model for practitioners of cultural history in other parts of the world.
In the course of their various chapters the authors are able to provide, in whole or in part, a Scythian (i.e., northern Iranian) basis for most of the prominent elements of the cycle, including:
- The figures of Arthur, Lancelot, Perceval, Galahad, Gawain, Kay, Tristan, Bedivere, Bors, Caradoc, King Ban de Benoich, the Maimed King, St. George, Elaine (Helaine), the Lady in the Lake, and others.
- The centrality of swords.
- The throwing of the hero’s sword into a body of water which causes it to seethe.
- The Sword in the Stone episode.
- The magical cup/cauldron that never runs dry and appears at feasts before the bravest of the heroes. The authors’ account of the history of the grail legend in east and west is a scholarly tour de force. In their minute investigations of this theme, they adroitly and felicitously examine a vast variety of source material.
- The frequent dragon/serpent imagery and themes.
- The connection between women and snakes (e.g., the Lady of the Lake who is euphemistically referred to as the White Serpent).
- Women as warriors and their association with water. Greek and Chinese legends about Amazons were undoubtedly inspired by hearsay about female warriors among the Scyths and later nomads who fought alongside their men.
Littleton and Malcor have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the underlying core of the Arthurian cycle is northern Iranian. They do not, however, claim that the Arthurian cycle is solely and exclusively Scythian. Several vital figures are transparently Celtic, such as Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon (in Welsh, the name means “Glorious Head of the Troops”) and, as we shall see below, his queen Guinevere (Irish Finnabair