Irish: rí; Welsh: brenin or rhiau; Gaulish: rix
The Celts have gifted us with arguably the most famous king in Western culture, namely King Arthur. Countless versions of his story exist, and the fascination with monarchy is as strong in America--perhaps stronger--as it is in the UK.
Kingship Among the Celts
The simplest evidence is found in Classical texts which refer to Celtic kings. The Greek texts refer to basileus and basiliskos, while the Romans refered to reges (sing. rex). The evidence that these are not necessarily outside concepts applied to lowly chieftains may be found in the names of some of these kings: Vercingetorix, Dumnorix, and Orgetorix each have the Gaulish rix--"king"--as part of their names. There is also mention of two seperate figures named Brennus, whose name may be related to the Welsh word brenin, "king," while there is a third named Brinno, who dates from the time of Caligula. All of these men were leaders of various Celtic tribes on the continent.
The second evidence is the numerous literary references to kings in both Ireland and Britain; while many of these kings are legendary, and the concept of the High King is quesitonable, there does seem to be a monarchic system in place in both islands. Most of these kings were "petty"--rulers of small kingdoms, such as the five kings of the five provinces of Ireland, or the various kings in the many districts in Wales.
In the case of Ireland, there was supposedly a High King above all the petty kings, but there is little evidence that this High King had much power. There seems to have been two seperate systems, one much older than the other. The first was the division of Ireland into two kingdoms, the north and the south, with the northern kings descended of Erimon, and the southern kingdoms descended of his brother Eber. Only later does there seem to be an emphasis on one of the two kings being a High King over all Ireland.
The later tradition is the division of Ireland into five kingdoms. There are two versions: in each version, three of the kingdoms are Connacht, Ulster, and Leinster. The other two kingdoms are in some versions the two Munsters, while in another tradition are Munster and Meath. Each version emphasizes the meeting of power in the center of Ireland, the Two Munsters version with the center at Uisnech, and the Meath version with the center at Temhair.
In Britain, the concept of a single High King over all the other kings mainly appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regnum Britanniae, a late work which doesn't seem to reflect the reality of Britain until the union of England under the Saxon king Edwin.
Mythic Elements of Kingship
Leaving aside the realities of warlords and dynasties, there were certain characteristics which are attributed to kingship in Irish literature. The first qualitification is that the king must be without blemish; when Nuada loses his hand in battle, his kingship is forfit to the Fomorian Bres, lest the land of Ireland come to destruction. There are traces of this idea in the figure of the Fisher King, whose wounding (here a symbolic castration) has left his kingdom become the Waste Land.
The second important element is that the king submit himself to the sovereignty of the land. The typical narrative is as follows: the sons of the king go out adventuring. They look for water, and each comes up on a well guarded by a hag. The hag offers them water in exchange for a kiss. All the brothers refuse except one, who then sees the hag turn into a beautiful maiden. The lady tells the brother that she is the sovereignty of Ireland, and because he was willing to take on ugliness, he was fit to rule the land.
This concept of the king as married to the goddess of the land is seen in two more examples, one relatively concrete, one theoretical. The first is the example given in Giraldus Cambriensis' Topography of Ireland, wherein the new king of Ulster is married to and mates with a horse, which is then killed. The king then bathes in a stew made of the horse, and eats the stew. Much of this story may be exaggeration, but there is at least some truth--the Celts did signify the goddess of the land with the horse (as seen in figures such as Rhiannon and Macha), and the king is ritually married to this goddess.
The second example is more theoretical. One of the words for king in Welsh is brenin. The origin of this word is not from the proto-Celtic *rig-, but from *brig- "hill". John Koch theorizes that brenin then derives from the goddess Brigantia, specifically the word *brigantinos, identifying the king as consort to the tutulary goddess of the Brigantes confederation, which covered a large swath of northern England. Whether this is true, or whether the word comes directly from *brig- and thus signifies simply one who is exhalted above the rest is still a question without a clear answer.
One support for this theory is offered by Anne Ross in Pagan Celtic Britain, where she surmizes that "Cartimandua's powerful role in Roman times may suggest that society recognized the power of the goddess by mirroring her authority in its own temporal ruler... This particular goddess may have been as much concerned with the actual tribal hegemony as with the territory" (Ross, 456). Ross also points out that Cartimandua means "sleek pony", an appropriate name.
Another possible support for this theory is found in The Second Battle of Magh Turedh. Here we learn that when Bres becomes king of Ireland, his wife is Bríg--that is, Brigit, a reflex of the goddess Brigantia. It is possible that an episode not recounted is that Bres marries Bríg in order to seal the kingship after his popular election by the women of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Certainly other Irish examples exist--MacCumhaill, MacGreine, and MacCecht, the three grandsons of the Dagda who marry the three sisters who are Ireland--Eriu, Fotla, and Banba--thus becoming kings; Amergin's seeking permission from the three sisters in order for the Milesians to invade and gain the sovereignty of Ireland. The only British example that has been brought forward, however, is the figure of Gwenhyfar, who passes from Arthur to Mordred when Arthur is in danger of losing his kingdom to his son. That Mordred abducted the queen and forces her to marry in order to gain control of the kingdom might indicate that the concept of sovereignty rested not with the king, but with the queen--Gwenhyfar, whose name likely means "White Fantom."
Giraldus Cambriensis. The History and Topography of Ireland. ed. and trans. John O'Meara. NY: Penguin, 1983.
Koch, John. The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales. 1995. Malden, Mass.: Celtic Studies Publications, 2003.
Maier, Berhard. Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture. trans. Cyril Edwards. Rochester, NY: Boydell, 1997.
Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage. New York: Grove Press, 1961.
Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. 1967. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishing. Reprint: 1996.
Ziegler, Michelle. "Brigantia, Cartimandua and Gwenhwyfar." The Heroic Age. Issue 1, Spring/Summer 1999. URL: http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/1/habcg.htm. Accessed: 01/18/06.
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Mary Jones © 2006