Arthurian Legend

Sometime in the late fifth century CE, during the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire, a Romano–British nobleman in the abandoned province of Britannia organized a troop of cavalry and led them in a series of successful battles against the invading Saxons. His name was probably Artorius, the name of a distinguished Roman family. At a place later chroniclers called Mount Badon, probably in southwestern Britain, his army crushed a large Saxon force and won Celtic Britain a fifty-year reprieve from invasion. His victory had a massive impact on the future of the British Isles. Neither the division of Britain into a Celtic western and an English eastern half, nor the survival of Ireland as a beacon of classical culture during the Dark Ages, might have happened if the Saxons had won the day at Badon.

Over the centuries that followed, a rich oral tradition of stories and poems gathered around Artorius and his soldiers among the descendants of the people he defended, enriched further by scraps of old pagan myth. In legend’s gilded hindsight, the Romano-British nobleman and his band of horsemen turned into King Arthur, greatest of monarchs, and his Round Table of gallant knights. In this form, the stories came to the ears of French minstrels in the twelfth century CE, who recognized a gold mine when they saw it and spread the legends of King Arthur across the western world. As the Arthurian legend expanded, it drew other once-independent legends into orbit around it, so that the love affair of Tristram and Iseult and the quest for the Grail became part of the Arthurian world. See Grail.

While they waxed and waned in popularity, the legends of King Arthur and his knights remained part of most Europeans’ mental furniture through the Middle Ages and Renaissance into the modern world. Until the birth of modern historical scholarship in the late seventeenth century, most people throughout Europe believed that Arthur was what legend said he was – a great king who had ruled Britain and several other countries during the fading years of Roman power. The dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the dominance of its mythology of progress led scholars to dismiss Arthur as empty legend, but this only encouraged those who rejected the materialist worldview of industrial society to reinterpret and reinvent the Arthurian legends for their own purposes.

Arthurian legends and symbolism played a relatively small part in the secret societies of the eighteenth century, though the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, an important German Rosicrucian order, boasted that they had first arrived in Britain in the days of King Arthur. Degrees in some of the irregular Masonic rites of the nineteenth century used Arthurian symbolism, and fraternal secret societies in America and elsewhere used the image of the Round Table to surround themselves with a romantic aura. The Druid movement in Britain and America in the nineteenth century also drew heavily from Arthurian sources in creating a revived Druidry, and several occult secret societies affiliated with the Druid movement claimed direct descent from the knighthood of Arthur’s day. See Druid Revival; high degrees; Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross.

The twentieth century, for all its boasted modernity, saw more Arthurian literature produced than any other century in history, and it also witnessed an explosion in Arthurian scholarship. From the 1940s on, mainstream historians cautiously embraced the idea that the Arthur of legend was based on some kernel of solid historical fact. The two trends, literary and scholarly, fed off one another, and both helped drive an explosion of Arthurian themes among late twentieth-century secret societies. By 2000 more than a hundred newly minted secret societies, most of them linked to the late twentieth-century Pagan revival or the older occult traditions of the western world, claimed some level of connection – ranging from inspiration to direct lineal descent – from the knights, wizards, and sorceresses of Arthur’s day. Most of these societies will likely prove ephemeral, but some show signs of turning into major players in the secret-society scene of the twenty-first century.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006