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by C. Scott Littleton

This volume boldly proposes that the core of the Arthurian and Holy Grail traditions derived not from Celtic mythology, but rather from the folklore of the peoples of ancient Scythia (what are now the South Russian and Ukrainian steppes). Also includes 19 maps.
Download 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) epub
ISBN: 0815335660
ISBN13: 978-0815335665
Category: Literature
Subcategory: History & Criticism
Author: C. Scott Littleton
Language: English
Publisher: Routledge; 2 edition (April 30, 2000)
Pages: 424 pages
ePUB size: 1639 kb
FB2 size: 1668 kb
Rating: 4.9
Votes: 811
Other Formats: mobi docx lit rtf

The notion of an Iranic superstrate informing aspects of the Arthurian cycle of legends is fascinating and, as a read of some of the other reviews here suggests, is the conceptual equivalent of ramming a Sarmatian lance lengthwise through one of the sacred cows of western literature. The mental discomfort and squirming Littleton and Malcor's theory causes various subconciously xenophobic readers is probably justification enough for the book.

Sadly, while their theory is fascinating, I am not convinced after reading the book, even if the idea is fascinating.

Malcor and Littleton point out a number of parallels to Arthurian legends found in the Nart sagas among the Ossetians in the Caucasus mountains. The modern day Ossetians are the descendants of the steppe nomads, beginning with the Scythians, who spoke languages from the North-Eastern branch of the Iranian language family (of which Ossetian is the sole surviving example) and whose complicated history with more settled European populations in the Balkans and western Europe is attested as far back as Herodotus. The parallels between the Narts and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are pervasive enough that they suggest a relationship rather than independent evolution or random use of common folkloric motifs resulting in similar outcomes.

Arguing that the Arthurian legends are based, at least in part, on legends from the Eurasian steppes, Malcor and Littleton then set about putting forward a model to explain this development. There are largely two components to their theory. The first is that British legends pertaining to King Arthur are influenced both by the individual figure of a Roman officer, Lucius Artorius Castus, and the auxiliary force of 5500 Iazyge cavalry imported to Britain from the steppes he may have commanded in northern Roman Britain on or near Hadrian's Wall. The second avenue for introducing steppe elements into the Arthurian romances are the Alans, another Iranic steppe tribe (likely related to the Iazyges enough that they would share religious and mythical beliefs) who overran parts of Roman Gaul (including Brittany) and northern Spain in the closing days of the western Roman empire.

The first element, the potential contribution of the Iazyges to the mythology of the British Isles seems to be the higher profile half of the story (i.e. Antoine Fuqua's 2004 film _King Arthur_), the part that gets fans of Arthurian legends most bent out of shape, and, from reading this book, the less tenable of the two possible routes of introducing a steppe/Iranic substrate into the stories. The problem is that, while Littleton and Malcor present evidence suggesting a prolonged presence of the Iazyges in northern Britain after their arrival ca. 175 AD, written records in Britain become minimal to non-existent after the Romans abandoned the province and by the time the situation improves the Iazyges are no longer on the scene as an identifiable group. Proof for (or against) the Iazyges playing a role in formulating early versions of what would become some portion of the Arthurian legends seems scarce, and reading _From Scythia to Camelot_ did not convince me that A) Lucius Artorius Castus did anything we can document which would result in him being locally famous for centuries, whether in northern Britain in general or among the Iazyges auxilaries or B) that there is evidence that the Iazyges either directly had a significant cultural impact in northern Britain or left a lasting impression on the native population. Given the paucity of good records, there is not evidence *disproving* this idea, but obviously the burden of proof is on the theorist to prove their case, rather than to point out that nothing rules out their hypothesis.

The potential cultural influence of the Alans in France seems like a stronger argument. The Alans, like the various Germanic tribes they mingled with (modern "Catalonia" is possibly derived from "Goth-Alania," for instance), had a complicated relationship with the late Roman Empire -- sometimes fighting as mercenaries for the Empire, sometimes fighting against it, and sometimes being unofficial states within the state in uneasy equilibrium with the Roman government. One of the regions they settled was northwestern France, in Armorica and Brittany (where many of the itinerant bards and poets who most likely circulated the oral traditions that were the kernel of the Arthurian romances originated from -- and where British/Welsh speaking immigrants from Britain who gave the province its modern name would have mingled with Iranic-speaking Alans after the collapse of Roman authority).

Littleton and Malcor provide a range of evidence that suggests an Alan component to the Arthurian legends -- etymology of various names (including Lancelot) suggest either Alanic language roots or point to association with known areas of Alanic settlement. The pagan Sarmatian/Alan religion included worship of the god of war in the form of a sword struck into the soil, and assumption of leadership was ritualized by being the one to draw the sword back out of the earth at the end of religious rituals, as well as the Alans' military strength being based on lance-armed heavy cavalry when western European and Roman cavalry traditions were rather more minimal. The Nart Sagas show a mythological motif of magical cups suggestive of a Holy Grail myth before a Christian context was grafted onto it.

Even this portion of the book, however, presents more of a fascinating hypothesis than what I would consider definitive proof -- rather like the Iazyges, record keeping in the centuries after Roman authority collapsed in Gaul is lacking and all we know for certain is that once good records start back up, we don't have a population anywhere in Gaul speaking an Iranic language or identifying as Alans or anything else we can trace back to the steppes.

One underlying problem with both _From Scythia to Camelot_ and the critique against it is that both sides of the argument seem to want to approach the issue in an all or nothing manner. Littleton and Malcor argue that the steppe influence is the primary source for the Arthurian legends, their detractors argue that there is no steppe influence. It seems most likely to me that the situation is much more complicated, particularly with regards to the portion of the Arthurian legends coming out of northwestern France, where there was a mixture of Germanic, Alanic, Romano-Gallic, and British populations in the centuries after Rome fell. It seems entirely plausible that the syncretic culture deriving from all of the above to yield French and Breton speaking populations in the later Middle Ages would incorporate stories and cultural motifs from the various component populations.

In any case, the book is an interesting read, though the price for a printed copy is a bit high for anyone who is not avidly interested. I opted for the Kindle rental option when I read it, and think it was entirely worth the cost of rental, however.
A reexamination of the sources of this legend and tracing it to the Narts of the Caucasus. I heard a lecture sometime in the 1970's along these lines but could never find the documentation for it. This fills that gap.
Although I personally find the idea of the "Sarmatian Connection," as it has come to be known, very interesting, I don't find the evidence really all that convincing. For one thing, the Caucasian oral traditions of the Narts are recorded only from the late NINETEENTH century - why does no one ever seem to ask whether the direction of influence was the other way around? That is, perhaps the Nart traditions were derived from the Arthurian stories, which were popular all over Europe, rather than the Arthurian stories having derived from the Nart cycles. It seems to me that would explain the parallels without assuming hundreds of years of "crypto-transmission" from pagan Sarmatian cataphracti to medieval Christian bards.
It has confirmed a lot of the suspicions that I had that the most ancient peoples of the Caucasus (Adyge, Abkhaz, and Alanian) had a significant impact on early history and culture in Europe.
To laypersons with a passing interest in history and archaeology this book will seem both puzzling and difficult to swallow. The authors Littleton and Malcor don't claim to have all of the answers, but put forward an interesting and plausible theory regarding the origins of Arthurian legends. I heard about their work from an issue of Archaeology magazine and managed to purchase their book at one-third the price from a friend at a bookstore. The Roman occupation of Britain is a well known bit of history because without the Roman conquests there the world as we know it would have been a radically different place. What is not well known is that the Romans used Scythian horsemen as their primary occupation force (while stationing British conscripts in other lands). From the Scythians and their stories of Batraz (a hero king of the Caucasian people whose primary descendents today are the Ossetians) Arthurian legends came to be. Also worthy of mention is the daring theory about Lancelot being of Alannic extraction. What is presented is the impact of Iranian-speaking peoples (whose better known cousins established themselves in the Near East from Kurdistan to western Pakistan) upon European culture as part of Roman armies and "barbarian" hordes. These people are a fascinating and little known Indo-European peoples who were assimilated into the general populations of Europe, but live again thanks to the work of scholars like Littleton and Malcor. An interesting work that deserves far more recognition from people interested in Arthurian legends, the various peoples of the Eurasian steppes, or radical theories made plausible.