• British Origins


    Single Issue III

    British Origins Challenges unfold with any examination of ancient sources, and those that concern the origination myths of the British Isles are no exception. These problems stem from an inconvenient truth: little, if anything, survives from the era before Roman conquest. What was written or known from this time period has been lost to history. This is not to say that all myths are lost, however. The question is whether these myths resemble the original myths, and that is difficult to ascertain. The myths have undoubtedly been influenced by the different eras in history, as well as the inevitable influence of the rise of Christianity and its effect on the telling of mythological history. What historians have to utilize for primary sources on the topic stem mostly from the post-Roman through the medieval eras, from the Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures that developed as a result of several invasions. With the disappearance came a loss of unique identity, as well as a scramble by the new British peoples to develop their own origin stories. With the decline of the native peoples in the British Isles, the unique mythologies of the native Britons and other cultures slowly disappeared, and have been reintegrated into British “history”, while the original myths have been either completely absorbed and modified by Christian writers, or lost.


    One of the most well-known myths concerning Britain is the myth of the giants. The giants, according to the legends, were the original inhabitants of the island before the arrival of humans, the first Britons. The giants have their own origin, supposedly out of the region of Syria. The giants did not originate in Syria, however; rather, their mothers did. One of the legends explains that there was once a group of about thirty or so sisters who were each wed to a king. However, unhappy with being controlled, the sisters planned the death of their husbands, so that no one could rule them but themselves. Their plot was discovered, however, and they were punished by their kingly father and husbands by being sent out to sea, to die or to find a new land to live in. The ship eventually landed on the shores of Britain, where they found themselves alone in a foreign land. Overcome with hunger, and especially lust, the women were tricked by multiple demons into procreation, the result of which bore the first giants in the British Isles. The sibling that was essentially the leader of this group of women was called Albina. It is clear that from this name comes the word Albion, one of several names used to describe Britain. These giants and their descendants are considered to be the legendary first inhabitants of the British Isles, and would be the only beings that would stand in the way of any sort of human colonization. Their leader would come to be called Gogmagog, the name of which has been referenced throughout history in a variety of cultures, mostly as Gog and Magog, the name of Magog notably belonging to a son of Japheth, himself a son of Noah.Another version of the myth comes from Raphael Holinshed, who states that the giants pre-date the arrival of the women from Syria. It is these giants, and not any sort of magical demons, that would impregnate the women, continuing the line of giants. The reign of the giants would only last for two hundred and sixty years, however, and would come to an end shortly after the arrival of the supposed descendants of the city of Troy, destroyed at the hands of the Greeks.


    The story of Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain, also forms part of the mythology in the origins Britain. Brutus first appears in the Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century historical compilation attributed to Nennius, a Welsh monk. However, Nennius’ work is somewhat contradictory to itself. Nennius describes Brutus as the descendant of the Trojans by way of Aeneas, but goes further to describe him as a descendant also of Ham, son of Noah. However, later on, Nennius also offers another explanation. In the alternative version, Nennius describes Brutus, or Britto, as still the descendant of Aeneas, but instead traces the ancestry to Japheth, another son of Noah. While the ancestry appears not to matter as long as Brutus can still trace his genealogy to Troy, the contradictions do not end there. Further compounding this problem is yet another Brutus, also descendant of Japheth, but fathered by someone else, and changing the ancestry slightly again farther back in his genealogy. Nennius states that the island of Britain is named due to being founded by one of these Brutus’, yet earlier he states that the island is named because of another Brutus, who was a Roman consul. There is little importance of the specific genealogy of this figure, but the contradicting statements over which Brutus the island is named after is something to consider when discussing the origination of Britain; are its people the descendants of Troy and named after their leader, or are they named after an otherwise unknown Roman consul.


    Geoffrey of Monmouth expands on the character of Brutus, giving him a greater backstory as well as providing more information on his exploits on landing in Britain. In Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Brutus is given a more concrete and consistent heritage, becoming the grandson rather than the son of Ascanius; his father is Ascanius' son Silvius. A magician who predicts great things for the unborn Brutus also foretells he will kill both his parents. He does so and is banished. Traveling to Greece, he discovers a group of Trojans, his own people, enslaved there. After freeing them, Brutus and his followers find an island, which contained a temple to Diana. Diana appeared to Brutus, and guided him to the island of Britain:

    “Brutus! there lies beyond the Gallic bounds, an island which the western sea surrounds, by giants once possessed, now few remain, to bar thy entrance, or obstruct thy reign, to reach that happy shore thy sails employ, there fate decrees to raise a second Troy and found an empire in thy royal line, Which time shall ne'er destroy, nor bounds confine”.

    Geoffrey’s interpretation is certainly poetic. It describes the island of Britain becoming home to a line of kings and eventually an empire. Of course, Geoffrey’s history is about the line of kings, so this historical invention by Geoffrey was likely to support his narrative of the kings of Britain.


    It is here that the two myths collide, on the shores of Britain. According to the legend, as Brutus and his people came ashore and began to establish a foothold in the new land, they came into contact with the giants, rather violently. Through a series of battles, Brutus and his people came out ahead and killed nearly all the giants, saving Gogmagog for last. Instead of killing him outright, Brutus wished to see his man Corineus fight the giant, and Corineus promptly threw the giant to his death in the sea. After this, Corineus and Brutus went their separate ways, Corineus founding the city of Cornwall, while Brutus would eventually found his own city and call it New Troy, but would later come to be known as Trinovantium. When Brutus died, the island of Britain was divided between his sons Locrinus, Albanactus, and Camber, who would rule roughly the modern day portions of England, Scotland, and Wales, respectively. And it is this way that the island of Britain was founded and claimed by the original Britons, at least according to the legends.


    From both aspects of the British origination myth, several facts can be deduced. For one, it is clear that the original author of the expanded myth of the giants had a low opinion of women. The creation of the giants is one that involves treacherous women being tricked by treacherous demons into procreating, which leads further into incest as for the first few generations all of the giants had to mate among each other, and their mothers, to continue the species. The original author may view this as sort of a punishment for the women for their treachery in attempting to kill their husbands. The reluctant mercy towards them by their father and husbands led to them creating an unnatural bond and unnatural offspring. Though described as large and powerful, these giants are apparently easily defeated by the first of the Britons, led by Brutus and Corineus. Corineus himself was able to easily defeat one giant in single combat, suggesting that the giants of the legends were not particularly powerful themselves, or perhaps they were weakened by generations of incest. Also from this myth comes the Britons emerging strong and hardy from this trial; after all, being led by the apparent descendant of not only Troy but also Noah and therefore Adam and Eve would likely mark someone as incredibly powerful, if not in practical terms in spiritual terms. It is however interesting that the creators of these myths attempt to connect the Abrahamic religions with the classical mythology by having Brutus and his people guided by Diana, a goddess in the Roman religion. Based on the evidence, it is very likely that this was an attempt to link the irrefutably Roman past of Britain with then-current Christianity. It also undeniably links the flood mythology with British mythology. Another aspect that is noteworthy is how Brutus is the father of two sons that would rule what is now Scotland and Wales; certainly this was a method to show that England is the “father” of these two nations, and to establish a sort of supremacy over them, while the eldest son is of course given the prize, what is now modern England.


    However, one thing that emerges from an examination of this text is the name of New Troy, Trinovantium. This name has been seen before in history, or at least something very similar, in the form of Trinovantes, a British tribe that appears in the Annals of Tacitus. Unlikely a coincidence, this tribe lived in the approximate region where London, claimed as the location where New Troy was built, now stands. It is highly likely that Geoffrey in particular used the unique name Trinovantes as an attempt to link actual Britain and its past as recorded by the Romans with its legendary founder and his supposed heritage, undoubtedly to add more credibility to his own history. The similarities between the two names cannot be mere coincidence, and Geoffrey would have likely been well aware of the attempts by Roman historians like Tacitus to keep track of the Roman-era British tribes while the Roman legions were stationed in Britain.


    The Scottish, compared to the more English version of the British origin, have an entirely different story. Their own legends involve the banishment of a Greek prince named Gaythelos to Egypt, where he met and married Scota, the only daughter of the Pharaoh mentioned in Exodus. After the death of the Pharaoh, Gaythelos and Scota took their followers and sailed west, eventually finding the Atlantic coast of what is now Spain. Eventually Gaythelos would die, but not before the islands of Britain and Ireland would be discovered by him and his family, and settled by his sons, particularly his son Hiber. It is from the three members of the family that modern terms can be derived: Gaels for Gaythelos, Scotland for Scota, and Hibernia for Hiber. Gaythelo’s family and people would fight for these islands, fighting against the Picts and other Britons who were already on Britain, but found Ireland to be deserted. In this origin, there is little if any supernatural activities on the island, so there are no original inhabitants to fight, only humans that have been on the island before the Scots.


    Another variant of the myth appears in Lebor Gabála Érenn, or Book of Invasions, which states that there was another version of the woman named Scota who was the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. She married Nel, a Babylonian, instead of a Greek. Nel was a scholar of languages, and was invited by the pharaoh to Egypt and given Scota's hand in marriage. They had a son, Goídel Glas, who created the Gaelic language by combining the best features of the seventy two languages that existed at that time. After the events of Exodus, Nel and Scota fled Egypt with their followers and children, making their way to Ceylon and ending up in Scythia, where their descendants would fight amongst each other for centuries. Eventually the descendants would find their way back to Egypt and then again back to Scythia, a descendant named Mil taking an Egyptian bride named Scota, apparently named as she is married to a Scot, before finally reaching Spain, in the same location as Gaythelo’s people in the Scottish myth, where Ireland is later spotted from the top of a great tower built. The legend surrounding Ireland becomes further convoluted as there were several successive waves of people who invaded Ireland prior to Nel’s descendants landing in Spain and supposedly seeing Ireland, many of them supposedly led by descendants of Noah. Over hundreds of years these waves of invaders die out, either due to plague or battle. Included in this mythology is two groups of supernatural beings, the Fomorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Fomorians were defeated by one of the waves of earlier invaders, but the Tuatha survived through the final invasion of the Gael people under the descendants of Nel and Scota, which left them in control of Ireland.


    What emerges from this brief and simplified examination of Scottish and Irish origin myths is really rather interesting. The Irish myth roughly parallels the English version in that there was already a race of supernatural beings before the landing in the isles, and that the leaders of the expeditions were descendants of Noah, however the obvious similarities end there. Both the Scottish and Irish groups identify an Egyptian princess in the past that can be identified as their ancestor. Though the means, time, and other details differ, the descendants of this woman, Scota, eventually reach the same location in Spain, which is used as a base for a later invasion of the British Isles. In both stories the island of Ireland is taken by these people, although how and from whom differ as well. These primary differences serve much more than just literary purposes; the supposed origin of the Scottish and Irish, through either a Babylonian or Greek man and an Egyptian woman, serve as a method to separate themselves entirely from the English. Instead of being descendants of Troy, they are the descendants of Egypt. This separation can be seen as a sign of resistance against the primarily English dominance over the islands, and therefore the Scottish and Irish. It is also interesting to note that in the Scottish and Irish myths, women play an important role; Scotland is named after a woman, and one of the Irish invasions was led by a woman descended from Noah. This is in contrast to Brutus and the English myth, as in that the colonization of the island is led by a male descendant of Noah, while wicked women are considered the mothers of the giants that Brutus and his supporters would exterminate. Another interesting thing to consider is the sudden naming of the second Scota, who was named thus because she married a Scot. There was no one in this history yet that could be called a Scot, so it begs the question as to why she would be named Scota. There is possible evidence in the Historia Brittonum, which contains a much simpler version of the Irish origin myth, that perhaps this was a mistranslation or confusion of Scythian, the race of the man who married Scota, and the word evolved into Scot. Yet at the same time, Nennius states that the origin of the Irish is difficult to determine. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as well as the account of Bede also mentions Scythia as a possible origin for the people of Britain. However, unlike the account of Nennius, Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relate the Scythians to the tribe of Picts, not the Scots. This only confuses the matter, but it is a safe assumption that for the purposes of this study, the legend would more likely mean for the Scots to have originated somewhere from Scythia. Regardless, it is clear that like the English, the Scottish and Irish believe very much so that their origination myth by this time is related in some way to the Abrahamic religions.


    Attempting to unravel the origin myths of the British Isles is a challenging task. Through the various historians and other authors, along with their sources, there are several myths as well as several variations of each myth that make it incredibly difficult to pinpoint what would be the definitive myth that defines the British Isles. The absence of the original myths from the original inhabitants of the isles also complicates matters, and limits to potential for such a study. But through the tangled web of myths and variations, a clear theme emerges. The influence of people from the European continent along with the influence of Christianity irrevocably changed the myths, or simply eliminated them, to an unrecognizable state. It is clear that the myths such as Brutus were influenced by Christianity; what is much less clear is what the origination myths would be without the influence of Christianity.

    Bibliography

    Barber, Richard W. Myths and Legends of the British Isles. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 1999.

    Bede, Leo Sherley-Price, R. E. Latham, and David Hugh. Farmer. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. London: Penguin, 1990.

    Holinshed, Raphael, and Johnathan Ingram. "Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland." The History of England. August 09, 2005. Accessed April 25, 2014. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16496...-h/16496-h.htm.

    Jumieges, William, Ordericus Vitalis, and Robert Torigni. The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni. Edited by Elisabeth Maria Cornelia Van. Houts. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

    Monmouth, Geoffrey. History of the Kings of Britain. New York: Dutton, 1958.

    Morris, John, and Nennius. Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals. London: Phillimore, 1980.

    Tacitus, Cornelius, and John Jackson. The Annals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937.

    Whitelock, Dorothy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1962.



    Author:
    ​Gen. Chris
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. MasterOfNone's Avatar
      MasterOfNone -
      Very interesting. Looked into these sort of things myself in years past (have a whole shelf of books on the Irish myths). I don't think we'll ever know - in this life! - the truth of the matter, but it is fascinating nonetheless. You might find a book called "After the Flood" (by Bill Cooper), written from a Biblical perspective, interesting...

      More recently I looked into the immediate post-Roman era in Britain - and even that is much-debated!
    1. mad orc's Avatar
      mad orc -
      great i love this particular subject much.since the original britons were all killed or outbred
    1. Aneirin's Avatar
      Aneirin -
      Nicely done, sir!
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      I finally found the time to read it; while the argument is not exactly my bread and butter, I found it very interesting; it seems that almost any civilization has in common the need to create myths about his creation, I practically found it everywhere and even with limited cases (such as very small populations or short history, so to say that apparently it happens at the very beginning, that without a common "birth" to share "values" societies cannot survive long).
    1. Ybbon's Avatar
      Ybbon -
      City of Cornwall? Cornwall is a county, old name - or at least one that gets used is Kernow. Weird how none of the myths use Stonehenge or Avebury or at least tie in to them, as these predate Roman and Gaelic settlement by hundreds of years or more.
    1. Carl Jung was right's Avatar
      Carl Jung was right -
      The first story is very close to the ancient Semitic and Jewish myth. The commonality of these narratives was that Lilith, the first woman created by God, defied Adam and went to the desert where she mated with demonic beings.

      Another thing to note is that ancient Phoenician traders had a significant presence in the British Isles. It isn't outside the bounds of possibility that some kind of Mesopotamian ethnic drift occurred which would go on to influence the ancient traditions of the Briton people.

      Remnants of ancient memories concerning giants can be observed universally across the globe, ranging from the American continent to Polynesia, from Scandinavia down to sub-saharan Africa... I believe this is not a coincidence.
    1. Wulfgardt's Avatar
      Wulfgardt -
      I thoroughly enjoyed that read although as i am living in Cornwall at the moment i feel i must point out that Cornwall is a county and not a city.Good stuff.