The Origins of Avalon
© 2005 - David Dom
Avalon, Avallon, Insula Avalonia, Avillion… All are different names for the same mythical place that has inspired us over the ages… the isle of Faerie, and the last resting place of King Arthur, shrouded in mist… But WHAT exactly is this "Avalon", and WHERE can we find it?
Many people make the mistake by listening to the stories of Glastonbury Tor being the true Avalon, but is it really there? To find the answers, we need to travel back in time and seek out where the name Avalon originates from: Afallach.
Afallach was the name of a Celtic king of North Wales, but the myths and legend tell us little about his deeds. Indeed, there may have been no deeds of significance in his name, he may never have fought or won an important battle. Yet, it seems that this man was important enough that his name was given to his kingdom: Ynys Afallach. The name Afallach is strikingly similar to the word "afal" which means apple, prompting the idea of "Isle of Apples", although there may not necessarily have been an actual link between "afal" and Afallach, which could have been a false assumption from the scribes that made the connection in the first place. Giraldus Cambrensis and William of Malmesbury both mention the link to apples, but give Afallach as a person and king, as alternative explanation. "Ynys" is a Welsh word that stands for "isle", giving claim to the idea that Ynys Afallach - Avalon - was in fact an island. However, the land over which king Afallach must have ruled - the ancient kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys in North Wales - were, and are, no islands on their own. The word "Ynys" can also be found back in the name "Ynys Prydain", literally translated "Isle of Britain".
It would be reasonable to assume that in those days, about 2000 years ago, ruling entire Great Britain, stretching from what we call today Cornwall and South England, to Wales and the Highlands in Scotland, was virtually impossible. Britain was not one nation, but merely an isle that was the home of various Celtic tribes, each ruled by a Chieftain. There was no union between all these tribes, and if they did not fight each other, at best they traded or else left each other alone. It was not until the coming of the Romans, that the tribes decided it was a better idea to fight their common enemy rather than each other, and united under the banners of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, in 61 A.D., around the same time that the Druids were slaughtered by Roman troops on Anglesey, the isle that belongs to North Wales. Britain became the Roman province Britannia, and it was Roman rule that linked the corners of the isle together. The name "Britannia" was translated in the Celtic tongue of Wales, as Prydain. The name Prydain, often spelled Prydein, was also the name of another Chieftain or King, who is said to have been the grandson of, and thus have lived two generations after King Afallach, during the Roman invasion of Britain. Most likely, he - again - gave his name to the kingdom he ruled: Ynys Prydain. So whoever King Prydain was, he could never have ruled over the vast isle, though he could have ruled over a considerable amount of land in North Wales - he is, after all, listed as a king of Gwynedd around 25 A.D. This theory strongly suggests that the word "Ynys" was originally, in Old Welsh, used to indicate the land a king or chieftain ruled, a "realm bordered by water" - and only later, the name Ynys Prydain became the name of the entire Isle of Britain, when it became the Roman province known as Britannia.
We will now return to King Afallach himself. Who was this man, important enough to give his name to his kingdom, while he yet did nothing significant enough that survived in myth or history through the ages? We know that he ruled over a large area in North Wales, more specifically Gwynedd and Powys, although in those days, these two kingdoms were likely still undivided, and did not yet bear those names. There is, in fact, a hillfort originally known as Caer Afallach (now known as Moel Y Gaer, but old maps referred to this location as Caerfallwch), in North Wales, close to the western slopes of the mound of the river Dee, providing an additional claim that he did indeed rule this land. Afallach may have lived around the time of 45 B.C. and, what we know from myth, he was the son of Lludd Llaw Ereint (of the Silver Hand), a Celtic god we also find back in Ireland, and who is also often identified as Nudd or Nodens. In Welsh mythology, Llud is the son of Beli Mawr (the Celtic sun god) and Dôn (the Celtic mother goddess, known in Ireland as Danu). Other legends, that were probably passed down on us over the ages by the oral Bardic traditions, tell us that Afallach had nine daughters, all of them wise in the arts of healing, and first among them Modron (another Celtic mother goddess, who was later Christianized into St. Madrun).
Moel-Y-Gaer in North Wales, the stronghold of Afallach
If this "Sisterhood of Avalon" did exist, and Afallach's daughters were indeed as skilled as legends would have them, then suddenly much more starts to make sense. It would be reasonable to assume that their base of operation was close to Afallach's stronghold, if not at it. Rumour of their herbal skills must have spread throughout the region, and people must have flocked there from all different directions, bringing their ill or injured tribesmen, hoping that the Sisterhood would work their magical healing powers on them. Possibly in many cases, these wise women may have been able to cure the injury or disease, but just as often they may not have. When you journey to Avalon for healing, either you come back in good health, or not at all. Archaeology tells us that in a widely spread region on the western side of the mound of the River Dee, where also Afallach's hillfort can be found, excavation has uncovered many remains of people that were once buried there, and folk tradition adds to it, not inconveniently, that the ancient Celts saw this same widespread region of land as the Land of the Dead, the borders between our world and the Otherworld - the place where the souls of the Celts passed on to after their death. The people that were buried here, were those the ones that the daughters of Afallach were unable to save? It would make sense that these people would have their lost beloved ones buried as close as possible to the entrance of the Otherworld, to ensure a quick and safe passage. If we dare to take this theory even a step further, we will find that on the same virtual borderline, the Gop is located. The Gop is believed to be a burial mound, and though no archaeological proof yet exists, local tradition claims that this is the very same place where Queen Boudicca would be buried, while others claim it is the burial place of a Roman general called Aurelius. Either way, it cannot be denied that the stretched land along the riverbank of the Dee, must have been of great spiritual importance to the ancient Celts that lived in or near the region, a tradition that may have lived on there for a long time, until Christianity took deep root in Britain.
The magical land of Avalon is also known for its "Otherworldly" character. It was considered by the people to be a land nor of our world, neither of the Otherworld, but instead a place between the two worlds, a crossover land. This belief, or tradition if you will, may very well have sprung from the healing centre the Sisterhood of Avalon had come to set up there, a Celtic hospital with view on the graveyards. While this may sound sinister, for the Celts the aspect of death was not a mourning event, for it was firm in their belief that their souls would be reincarnated into another body.
When we look upon Avalon with its Otherworldly character, we also witness the transformation of Afallach and his growing importance in Celtic spirituality. While he very well may have lived and ruled as a Chieftain or King, he was also considered a God from the Otherworld-or Annwn, in the Welsh Celtic tongue. The physical man Afallach would have passed away at one point, and myth tells us that his kingdom, Ynys Afallach, was divided between his two sons. Owain became King of Gwynedd (as well as the father of Prydain), and Euddolen became King of Powys, from who the later usurper King Vortigern supposedly descended. Vortigern is better known in traditional Welsh history as Gwytherin, and likely, just as it had been the case with Prydain, Afallach and several others, his kingdom may have been called Ynys Gwytherin, from which the name Ynys Wydrin appears to originate, an alternative yet wrongly attributed name for Avalon. Vortigern was supposedly the ruler of Powys, not of Avalon, yet Ynys Wydrin was linked with Glastonbury, located in Somerset where Vortigern never ruled, and both names were unjustly translated to "Isle of Glass". Yet, we can find a site near the river Dee, bearing the name "Glaestingaburh", strikingly similar to "Glastonbury".
But where the mortal man Afallach had died, the mythical Afallach lived on, to my belief, with the name "Gwyn Ap Nudd". Gwyn is nowadays still very much linked with Avalon, and was, just like Afallach himself, the son of Nudd or Nodens ("ap" stands for "son of" in Welsh). Whether Afallach and Gwyn are one and the same character or not, is open for debate, but everything seems to indicate that both owned the same properties. Celtic tradition tells us how, at certain times of the year where the gates between our world and the Otherworld are opened (particularly at the Celtic feast of Samhain, better known to us as Halloween, on November 1st), Gwyn Ap Nudd leaves his dwelling place and goes to hunt the lands of our world, together with the Cwn Annwn (the Hounds of the Otherworld), to seek out those spirits of the dead, that are still wandering on the Earth and could not find the way to Annwn themselves. This is known to us as the "Wild Hunt". Gwyn Ap Nudd would then find them and return with them to the Otherworld.
Another story about Gwyn Ap Nudd tells us how he fought Gwythr Ap Greidawl, for the maiden named Creiddylad, and King Arthur himself intervened with the intention to stop the bloodshed, and only allowed them to fight each other on May Day (Beltane, May 1st) of every year. Thereafter Arthur assigned Gwyn Ap Nudd as the Lord of the Underworld (a part of the Otherworld), where he was to guard the evil spirits and demons that dwelled there, from escaping and ravaging the normal world.
Yet, another argument contradicts the previous one, claiming that Afallach and Gwyn Ap Nudd are one and the same person. Also in Gwynedd, North Wales, is another hillfort named after Gwyn Ap Nudd, known as Caer Drewyn (Gwyn's Fort), also at the banks of the river Dee near the town Corwen, though far more inwards and several miles away from Afallach's hill. Near Caer Drewyn we also find the Berwyn Mountains (Berwyn originates from Bre-wyn aka Gwyn's Hill) and Nant Gwyn (Gwyn's Valley). There is an account of how St. Collen was determined to drive the "pagan evil" away from Britain, and had decided to banish Gwyn Ap Nudd to the Underworld forever. He went to Gwyn's hillfort (usually identified with Glastonbury Tor in Somerset), who invited the Christian Saint to come to his Faerie palace for dinner. The Saint refused, but the King of Faerie kept urging him, until St. Collen sprinkled the palace with Holy Water. As a result Gwyn and his entire palace instantly disappeared, and thus God displayed his triumph over the pagan Gods.
Caer Drewyn, the hillfort of Gwyn Ap Nudd
But where Gwyn Ap Nudd was demonised and said to be defeated, in the character of Afallach he surprisingly more than survived. When Christianity had taken over from the Old Religion of the Druids in Britain, Afallach became better known as Avalloc, Evelake or the Fisher King in the Grail Romances. Here we are not speaking of traditional Celtic myth, but of the Medieval additions of the Quest of the Holy Grail, supposedly the cup of Jesus from which he drunk at his Last Supper. The title Fisher King may have been derived from earlier Christian sources, as the original Christian symbol was, after all, the fish and not the cross. Another title would be the Maimed King, a king who had been wounded by the sword that had killed his brother, and the Grail King. All of these personalities play a prominent role in the Grail Quest stories, where Avalloc is the guardian of the Grail itself, in his Grail Castle in Avalon.
The Holy Grail, according to Christian tradition, was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, who had been present at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Medieval legend then tells us that he arrived on the shores of Britain with his followers, and from this long journey they were weary all (from which the name Wearyall Hill near Glastonbury is supposed to be derived), and brought with them the Holy Grail, starting the bloodline of Grail Kings, including Pelles and Pellam, and eventually Evelake. Did Joseph of Arimathea indeed bring the Holy Grail all the way to Britain? Historicists such as Geoffrey Ashe would argue the impossibility of the option, and that this legend was only a much later addition. Yet, the eastern part of the mound of the river Dee, where at its western banks, the Land of the Dead is located as we have established above, is known as "Wirral", strangely similar to "Wearyall". Was this the original place where Joseph of Arimathea's boat stranded on British soil, be it in myth or history?
While the Grail legends are typical Christian and medieval in nature, yet they may have been based on pagan and Celtic traditions. Celtic myths are full with stories of magical cauldrons, among which Ceridwen's Cauldron of Inspiration in the legend of Taliesin, and the Cauldron of Dagda in the Irish legends of the Tuatha De Danann. The Cauldron is also considered to be one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, and plays a prominent role in one of the Branches of the Welsh Mabinogion, a compilation of Celtic legends from Wales, where King Bran is the owner of the Cauldron of Rebirth. Legend tells that if the body of one who is dead for less than a day is put in this cauldron, he would resurrect but without the ability to speak. Did this mythical Bran really exist? That question is as much up to debate as the very existence of Afallach himself, and most likely Bran was considered as much of a Celtic God as Afallach, but interesting enough, his links with Avalon are easy enough to find in the Welsh landscape. In North Wales near the town of Llangollen, again at the river bank of the river Dee, somewhere between the hill of Gwyn Ap Nudd and Caerafallach, we find Dinas Bran. This was originally a Celtic hillfort, and later a medieval castle was built on top of it, of which the ruins can still be visited now. Dinas Bran is sometimes identified as King Arthur's Camelot, but also with the legend of Bran, as the hillfort's name strongly suggests. Was this considered the Grail Castle of medieval legends, and does it hold the pagan origins of the Grail or Cauldron?
An arial view of the hillfort of Dinas Bran
This brings us to the inspirational legends of King Arthur and Camelot, from where most of us know the concept of Avalon. Whether or not Arthur ever existed or not, can likely never be proven, and there are as many arguments claiming that he did exist, as there are claiming that he didn't. But if he did live, it was likely around 500 A.D. where he must have been a chief warrior in the army of one Ambrosius in the battle against the invading Anglo-Saxons, after the withdrawal of the Romans. The earliest writings come down to us from St. Gildas, dating around 540 A.D. and thus very close to the time where Arthur may have lived. Although he wrote about the Battle of Mount Badon (of which the location still remains uncertain), he did not mention Arthur himself. This is not enough of an argument to assume that therefore Arthur did not exist. Around the same time, it appears that the name "Arthur" suddenly became very popular to be given to newborns, and merely a few centuries later, another monk gives Arthur full credit for the victory at his famous 12 battles, the Battle of Mount Badon included. Arthur himself may possibly have been a pagan, and thus not have been very popular among the Christians of his own time, including St. Gildas, who therefore refused to give him any credit for his victories.
The obvious link between Arthur and Avalon, is the legend of the "once and future king", that tells us how Arthur Pendragon, High King of Britain, received a mortal wound at the Battle of Camlann, while fighting the army of his traitor son Mordred (also known as Medrod). He asked that his legendary sword, Excalibur, was thrown into a lake, and thereafter a boat had taken him to Avalon, where his wounds would be treated, and where he would rest and wait until the day comes that his people would have need of him again. The important aspect here, is the belief of the Celtic people from Wales, that their King never truly died, giving sufficient grounds for a continuing hope that one day they would expel the English from Britain, and rule the Isle themselves once more.
If Arthur did exist, and was indeed brought to Avalon after having received a mortal wound, then the Battle of Camlann, where he received this injury, had to be reasonably close to Avalon rather than somewhere on the other side of Britain, to be credible. The most reasonable claim is likely the Afon Gamlan ("Afon" is the Welsh word for "river"), near the west coast of Wales. While the river is still considerably far from the previously established location of Avalon, it is merely about 5 miles away from the Sacred River Dee, which forms the southern borderline of Avalon. Did Arthur sail away on the river to Avalon? Maybe the sword Excalibur was thrown in Lake Bala, otherwise known as Llyn Tegid (Tegid was the husband of the Goddess Ceridwen, who supposedly lived in the middle of this lake), along the way?
Arthur's connection with Avalon as his final resting place, is not the only link. Arthurian legends tell us of the sword Excalibur, that was presented to Arthur by Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. Viviane (also called Niniane or Nimue) certainly had a strong connection with Avalon, and according to the medieval work Vita Merlini (the "Life of Merlin"), by Geoffrey of Monmouth, she was identified with Morgan Le Fay, the half sister of Arthur, who was said to be the chief wise woman among her sisters-the Sisterhood that dwelled on Avalon. This could be a medieval retelling of an earlier Celtic tradition, where the mother goddess Modron was replaced by Morgan Le Fay or Viviane. The sword, Excalibur (also known as Caliburn or Caledfwlch), was also considered to be one of the 13 Treasures of Britain, to which the magical cauldron of Bran belonged as well. This sword is not to be confused with the "Sword in the Stone" that Merlin had arranged for Arthur, the sword that was broken during a fight, where after Merlin arranged for the Lady of the Lake to offer Excalibur to Arthur instead. Merlin himself holds a connection with Avalon as well: he fell in love with the Lady of the Lake (in this story better known as Nimue) and agreed to teach her all his wisdom and knowledge about magic, in return for her affection. When she had learned all she could from him, she grew tired of the old man and used his own magic against him by imprisoning him. This imprisonment was most commonly inside an oak tree, but sometimes also in a cave or other locations. The most famous Welsh mythical locations of Merlin's imprisonment - where he is said to be sleeping still - are Bryn Myrddin (Merlin's Hill) near Carmarthen (originally Caer Myrddin, Merlin's town) in South Wales, and Bardsey Island, a very small isle on the west coast of North Wales, where he is said to dwell in a magical glass castle, guarding the 13 Treasures of Britain. Bardsey Island is by some assumed to be the location of Avalon, but apart from Merlin's connection, little points in that direction, and there is no traditional legend that claims Merlin was imprisoned on Avalon itself. All these legends and traditions, however, originate from medieval sources and likely sprung from the fantasy of those who wrote the manuscripts, such as Sir Thomas Mallory. Exactly these writings are responsible for turning history into legend, making it very difficult for us today to distinguish truth from fantasy. In most cases, this was likely the result of a medieval novel, without any intention of spreading a false truth about certain history, but in some cases, false evidence was forged on purpose, altering the view on history for many centuries.
For several centuries, it has been assumed by most people familiar with Avalon, that the true location was Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, England. Indeed, there are indications that this has been a place of pilgrimage over the ages, and that it holds certain energies (the crossing of Ley Lines, or Dragon Lines). This, however, is not enough of an argument to assume it to be Avalon, and none of the arguments of the theory explained above, point to this location. Yet, it is firmly believed that Glastonbury Tor and Avalon are one and the same. Where does this idea come from?
The Tor is a hill in the west of England, not too far off from the Bristol Channel, and it is said that when there had been much rain (and Britain usually get its share of that), the surrounding marchland would be flooded, virtually turning the hill into an island. The place was likely also occupied by Christians from early times, and has become a thriving monastery since. Until May 25, 1184 A.D. A great fire ravaged the church and abbey, and the monks desperately needed funds to rebuild their community. Funds that they could no longer gain from pilgrims, for there was nothing left to see now, and the monks needed to create a new source of income to cover the expenses of the abbey's reconstruction. In this, they were aided by King Henry II, who-according to medieval tradition-was informed by a Welsh Bard of the exact location of King Arthur's grave, and offered this information to the abbey monks. Henry II died in 1189 A.D., his successor was not interested in funding the abbey's reconstruction, and it was not until 1191 A.D. that this supposed grave of Arthur was indeed discovered at the designated spot! The monks discovered the bones of two bodies, along with a cross that carried the inscription: "Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon". The riddle was solved, Glastonbury Tor had to be Avalon! When this discovery became known everywhere, new pilgrims flocked to the site, and money flowed in to fund the construction of the new abbey.
Unfortunately for the truth, it was an entire hoax - a deal that had likely been struck between the monks of Glastonbury and King Henry II. A forgery of the grave of King Arthur would be financially very convenient to attract new pilgrims, and the English King Henry II saw this as an opportunity to discourage the Welsh people by proclaiming that their "once and future king" was indeed truly dead, rather than resting in some magical place, because his grave and bones had been found, and he would never return to come and save them once more. The deal was clearly beneficial for both the Glastonbury monks and Henry II (had he lived long enough to exploit his advantages). The hoax had worked, at least in the benefit of the monks, and in 1278 A.D. King Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castille, visited Glastonbury to oversee how the bodies of Arthur and his wife Guinevere (Gwenhwyvar) were reburied in the new abbey church, and "King Arthur's Cross" was placed on top of the tomb. With this, Edward even proclaimed himself as rightful successor of King Arthur, and made his son, Edward of Caernarfon, prince of Wales. The bones have disappeared some centuries later, and the Cross was last known to be in the possession of William Hughes of the Wells Cathedral in the 18th century, where after that artefact too vanished.
What did not vanish, was the misconception of Avalon, Arthur's final resting place, and even today the belief that Avalon is Glastonbury, still holds despite the several arguments that contradict this. I believe it will yet take a long time before the alternatives are finally considered by the majority of people involved with the subject, and the compelling evidence of Ynys Afallach will be subject to further study at last.
The hill of Dinas Bran surrounded by mist
One thing remains certain, however: Avalon does indeed exist, not only as a physical place in Britain, but also in our hearts. The concepts of Avalon as a paradise with apple trees, may be different for everyone, but the belief in Avalon and the One and Future King never died. It still continues to inspire young and old people today, over 1500 years later, and maybe one day someone will be inspired enough to uncover the complete truth about Avalon…
Sources: "The Keys to Avalon" - Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd
© 2005 - David Dom, The New Order of Druids