Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Caer Sidi - Arthur's Grave

This mound lies on the west side of an island off the coast of Britain. Somewhat disregarded now, it was at once one of the most sacred sites in Europe - perhaps even the world.
It shows up on the map as Sithean Mor - the Great Spirit-Mound - or Cnoc nam Aingeal, the 'Hill of the Angels'. The latter is a Christian designation and is slightly inaccurate. Properly, Cnoc nam Aingeal would translate as Hill of the Angel (singular) or Hill of the Light or Fire.
The historian E. Mairi MacArthur noted of the mound that, 'on the great quarterly festival of May Day, Latha Bealltuinn, fires were said to be kindled on its summit and the cattle driven through in an act of purification.' This was typical Beltane behaviour, and would suggest that long before the mound acquired a Christianised designation it was the scene of pagan rituals. On the eve of St Michael's feast day, the islanders ran their horses thrice round the mound in a sunwise direction.
In the 1770s, an Irish bishop informed a Welsh traveller that a cairn surmounted the grassy knoll, surrounded by a circle of stones. Local tradition also recorded that there were twelve of these stones, forming a Druidic temple, and that a human body was buried beneath each of the stones. The stones, however, have long since vanished.
The island on which the mound stands was long ago associated with the yew - a tree held sacred because of its great longevity (even today, most churchyards in Britain feature a yew or two). An early name for the Great Spirit-Mound would seem to have been the Cairn of Yews (Carnyw) or possibly the Corner or Retreat of Yews (Cernyw). And herein lies the solution to one of the mysteries surrounding the most famous inhabitant of the Great Spirit-Mound - Arthur.
Since the twelfth century it has been commonplace for writers to place Arthur, the fabled Once and Future King, in Cornwall, in the extreme south west of Britain. The identification of Cornwall as Arthur's legendary stamping-ground rests entirely on a mistranslation of the word Cernyw.
In Welsh, Cornwall is Cernow, so writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth happily translated 'Corner of Yews' as Cornwall. As a result, for hundreds of years scholars have been looking for Arthur at the wrong end of Britain.
A medieval list of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain (almost certainly grave goods) includes Llen Arthyr yng Nghernyw, to which the note was added:
'The mantle of Arthur in Cornwall; whoever wore it was invisible, though he could see everybody.'
Again, though, Cernyw did not mean Cornwall. This particular 'invisibility cloak' was worn by Arthur at the Cairn of Yews.
The sixth-century bard Taliesin would appear to have been present when Arthur was buried in the Great Spirit-Mound. He referred to it by a series of names, but most prominent of these was Caer Sidi or 'Fortress of the Sidhe'. The Sidhe were those ancestral spirits who eventually evolved into the fairies of Irish and Scottish lore. Hence, the name of the mound: Sithean Mor (pronounced: shee-un more), the Big Mound of the Sidhe.
Certain people claim to have heard 'sweet music' emanating from the mound - and no wonder, for, as Lady Gregory observed in Gods and Fighting Men, 'a house of peace is the hill of the Sidhe of Emhain'. There were two Emhains - one, Emhain Macha, was the seat of the kings of Ulster; the other, Emhain Abhlach, was the 'Yew-Plain of Apples', later to be known as Avalon.
The Christian story of the mound concerns that Irish saint, Columcille or Columba. Towards the end of his long life - i.e., at about the same time as the historical Arthur fell in battle in Perthshire - Columba told his monks one morning that he was crossing to the far side of the island and none of them was to follow him.
One monk disobeyed and spied on Columba from a nearby hill. As described by Columba's hagiographer, Adomnan, a hundred or so years later, the rogue monk witnessed a 'marvellous apparition':
For holy angels, the citizens of the heavenly kingdom, were flying down with amazing speed, dressed in white robes, and began to gather around the holy man as he prayed. After they had conversed a little with St Columba, the heavenly crowd - as though they could feel that they were being spied on - quickly returned to the heights of heaven.
This was not the saint's only encounter with angels who behaved in a rather unangelic way, but the legend sufficed to account for the mound's change of name, from Great Spirit-Mound or Hill of the [Beltane] Fires to the Angels' Knoll.
An entirely separate account has the monks present when Columba held a 'colloquy' with a 'youth at Carn Eolairg', at the end of which the gnomic youth mysteriously vanished (rather as if he was wearing Arthur's cloak of invisibility). Carn Eolairg woud signify a cairn on a plain of yews - much the same as Carnyw or Cernyw.
St Columba died in 597, so the date of his strange meeting with angels 'dressed in white robes' on the Great Spirit-Mound can be pinpointed with some confidence to around 595, the year in which Arthur died. Mortally wounded, Arthur was carried from the far-off battlefield and transported to the Yewy Isle for treatment at the hands of his half-sister, Muirgein, who led a sisterhood of priestesses. In all likelihood, Arthur died en route, and his body was buried in the hills of Brolass in the Isle of Mull, beside Sidhean Allt Mhic-Artair - the Spirit Stream of the Sons of Arthur. It was his head, the Celtic seat of the soul, which was carried on for burial on the sacred isle.
And so, to visit the grave of Arthur, one has only to go to the very end of the road, on the western side of the Isle of Apples, and stand by the Great Spirit-Mound, where for centuries the Beltane fires were lit and a Druidic temple was formed by a circle of stones.
Why this place was named after Afallach, the apple-god, will be explained in another post.

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