From Scythia to Camelot with Thud and Blunder

I am not sure when or where I first encountered it, but the theory that the Arthurian cycle of legends might be rooted in the mythology of Scythia and the Sarmathians instantly struck me as not only plausible but almost certainly correct. The Sarmatians (and the closely-related or identical tribe of Alans) introduced armored heavy cavalry using the shock charge with lance to Europe: the Sarmatian hypothesis would neatly explain several otherwise very peculiar features of the Arthurian material, including the fact that even very early versions insistently describe a style of war gear and knightly combat with slashing swords on horseback that would not become actually typical in Europe until the later Middle Ages.

The Sarmatian Hypothesis reads, in outline, like this: The Arthurian material developed around a large unit of Sarmatian heavy cavalry (about 5500) known to have been deployed to Britain as military colonists in the early second century CE, attached to the Legion VI Victrix. The Arthur legends are largely a composite of Sarmatian mythology with a distorted version of VI Victrix’s actual history, also with some later inclusions from Celtic mythology. King Arthur himself is a three-layer composite: the oldest layer was the Sarmatian/Alan/Ossetian folk hero Batraz, the intermediate one a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus who became conflated with Batraz, and the most recent was an attested historical King of the Britons remembered as “Riothamus” of the late 5th century (the period of the Saxon invasions) who became conflated with Castus.

Having picked up this outline from other sources, I eagerly anticipated the most in-depth treatment of the Sarmatian Hypothesis yet: From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, by C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor. I opened this book expecting to like it and predisposed by my own, independent reading of the evidence to agree with the authors’ conclusions.

The book, alas, proved a severe disappointment. It is probably the worst-argued case for a strong and attractive idea I have ever seen. I would be unsurprised if it throws the Sarmatian Hypothesis into disrepute for decades, which I would consider very unfortunate because (despite the authors) I still believe the hypothesis to be essentially true.

The problem is not that the authors fail to present good evidence. There is plenty of that: once the basic Sarmatian Hypothesis is in the mind, lots of otherwise peculiar facts fall into a simple and compelling pattern. I mentioned one such group of facts earlier that weighs heavily with me because I know a lot about the development of war-gear and tactics in period. When the authors observe that European elite warriors enter the Middle Ages c. 500 looking like Roman manipular infantry and exit them c.1500 looking like Sarmatian shock cavalry – and that the Arthurian legends anticipate this development rather than following on it – they are powerfully correct. The case that the Arthurian legends served as a sort of dye marker for the Sarmatianization of the European feudal elite is not just strong, but seems to me about as incontrovertible as an argument of this sort ever gets.

Another area where the authors do good work is in exhibiting structural and symbolic parallels between the Arthurian material and Alano-Sarmatian mythology, as preserved in the Nart sagas of Ossetia in the Caucasus. Their clarity on the difference between parallels at the general Indo-European level (e.g. with the Rig-Veda) and at the specific Arthurian/Sarmatian level is very welcome. Their arguments based on specifics of iconography are often telling; for example, once the similarities have been pointed out, it is indeed difficult not to connect the peculiar uses of dragon motifs in the Arthurian cycle with the dragon standards used by the Sarmatians and adopted from them by late Roman cavalry alae.

Where the authors go wrong is in severely overplaying their hand. The sinews of a sound case are surrounded by what to all appearances is a load of shoddy, meretricious junk. Good arguments are barely given a moment on stage before being drowned in pages and pages of muddled, vaporous speculation. The best fifth of this book is wonderful, groundbreaking, thought-provoking stuff; the rest of it is a sorry mess in which a first-rate idea is dreadfully abused by third-rate minds.

The worst of it is the pages upon pages upon pages of unconvincing speculative etymology. I cringed when the authors glossed “Lancelot” as “Alanus á Lot” to connect him to the tribe of Alans; the book is stuffed full with even more embarrassing examples of this sort of thing. The authors should be deeply ashamed of themselves for leaning on this sort of garbage-in-garbage-out so heavily, especially when they often have better lines of evidence available for the conclusions they want to support.

A closely related flaw is that, having pointed out good evidence of Alano-Sarmatian cultural diffusion into early post-Roman Europe, the authors don’t know when to stop. They seek out Alans under every medieval leaf and bush with a dogged persistence that resembles a bad grade of political conspiracy theory.

Then there are all the babies being thrown out with the bathwater. The authors believe that a great many elements of the Arthurian legends previously attributed solely to Celtic influence are Alano-Sarmatian, and that general case seems valid. The trouble is that in their eagerness they throw away many connections to Celtic mythology that I strongly suspect are genuine and important. A good example is their attempt to sever the Grail from Celtic traditions about magic cauldrons of plenty; I find it unconvincing. A more syncretic account, in which native Celtic and imported Alano-Sarmatian elements both derived from a common Indo-European base and blended together at the edges between 200-1200CE, would probably be closer to what actually happened.

There is a good, incisive, small book struggling to get out from inside this overdone, over-argued, over-speculative mess. Someday I’d love to read it.

26 thoughts on “From Scythia to Camelot with Thud and Blunder

  1. Too bad you didn’t like the book, but the Sarmatian Hypothesis sounds interesting. What other books would you recommend to explore this idea?

  2. As far as I know there aren’t any other nonfiction book-length treatments.

    I originally ran across the Sarmatian Hypothesis when it was deployed as the premise for an Arthurian historical fantasy; I’ve been trying to relocate that but haven’t been able to. It was one of those cases where you can tell the fantasy author is cribbing intelligently from actual scholarship. I think the author may have been Diana Paxson, she has a habit of doing that sort of thing and is pretty good at it.

    I’d learned years before that the chivalric mode of heavy armored cavalry combat was probably a Sarmatian import to Europe, without specific reference to the Arthurian legends or Roman military colonists. That general thesis is pretty commonplace among people who have studied the purely military history involved — it’s hard to avoid once you notice how closely Sassanid-era Iranian cavalry gear resembles what Europeans would be smithing nine hundred years later.

    Later, my wife Cathy turned up some of Littleton’s short-form papers on the Sarmatian Hypothesis while she was doing research on late-Iron-Age costume history. These got us interested enough to order the book.

  3. This hypothesis sounds like it helped form the basis for the most recent Arthur movie, as well. Asian Roman mercenaries, armored and mounted. Thanks very much for the introduction to the hypothesis, sorry to hear there aren’t any good books about it.

  4. >This hypothesis sounds like it helped form the basis for the most recent Arthur movie,

    The 2004 one by the Bruckheimers? Yes, very consciously and very much so.

    Though, insofar as you can pin down a date for it, the movie would have to be set somewhen around the final Roman withdrawal around 410CE rather in than the late second century. The movie analogue of Artorius Castus stays in Britain instead of continuing a quite distinguished career as a Roman military officer, it’s about 300 years too early for Vikings to be the bad guys, Guinevere runs around in Boadicea-style facepaint that the Romano-Britons had probably largely abandoned even before Castus’s time, etc. etc.

    It’s a Bruckheimer movie. Which means it’s good fun, but historically, a mess.

    The combat gear and tactics are pretty authentic, though. I give them props for getting that bit right. The knights actually are armed and armored as a pretty faithful reconstruction of what we know about Alano-Sarmation shock cavalry.

  5. The Eastern Roman Empire was using heavy cavalry, called cataphracts at about the right time for the Arthurian material. Any Roman military leader could have brought that technology with him and implemented it with a local ala. It does seem to have been the secret to breaking the Old English shield-wall, allowing Roman-style infantry in to reke havoc among the very differently trained Angles.

    The earliest Arthurian material doesn’t resemble the later except in the name. That tends to blow the hypothesis about Sarmatian -mythology- being involved.

    We do know that a retired Roman general turned bishop of the Church, named Germanicus led the famous “Alleluia Victory” later attributed to Arthur. Germanicus makes a good prototype for Merlin, with the name stolen from one of Old King Cole (Dux Coelstius of the Wall) fiddler’s three (harpists). We know that Aurelius Ambrosius led the Romano-British resistance. We know that a generation after Arthur, local Romanized magistrates and kinglets were naming their sons such things as Artorius, Arthwys, etc. Presumably naming them for -somebody-. Riothamus simply means ‘high king’. It is a title, not a name. It means exactly the same thing as Vortigern. (wyrtgeorn)

    So there may have been someone named Arthur as one of his names (Romans had three names, plus a baptismal name, and then there were nicknames). He may be identical with Ambrosius – the relative of St. Ambrose in Italy, or he may have been a son or protege. We don’t know yet.

    The grail material is -much- later and has to do with late medieval Catholic and heretical beliefs (Cathar?), not with Roman Britain, nor does it have anything to do with the cauldron of plenty.

  6. “I’d learned years before that the chivalric mode of heavy armored cavalry combat was probably a Sarmatian import to Europe”

    Are you sure? AFAIK heavy armored cavalry combat was a Persian, imported first by the kataphraktoi of the Byzantian Empire. I’m fairly sure that the kataphraktoi were the first models of what later was known as knights.

  7. @Shenpen: The Persian Heavy Cavalry were directly related to the Sarmations (essentially descendants of the ones that remained in Persia sintead of leaving). The Kataphraktoi were a later development.

  8. >I’m fairly sure that the kataphraktoi were the first models of what later was known as knights.

    There are lots of disputes about all of this, but here’s how I read the evidence:

    Cataphractoi, over most of the Byzantine period, were as much horse archers as they were lancers; there’s controversy over whether they even used stirrups, and if they did how late they were adopted. They often fought dismounted. Sarmatians and later European knights, by contrast, trained specifically for the couched lance used with stirrups and a war kak (high-cantled saddle), and fought with long slashing swords from horseback by preference; they de-emphasized archery.

    You’re certainly correct that Byzantine heavy cavalry was influenced by Persian models. But the Sarmatians were themselves a main source of the Persian heavy-cavalry style, especially in its earliest phases. Later, the Persians and Byzantines were influenced by Turks and Mongols and to some extent moved away from the Sarmatian model.

    Another significant difference is that a cataphract was just a soldier, while among both Sarmatians and the Europeans the station of “knight” or shock-lancer was effectively synonymous with nobility.

  9. Slightly off-topic, but: may I wholeheartedly recommend Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur Trilogy? The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur. Cornwell is generally known for lightweight action adventure novels set in the Napoleonic Wars – the Sharpe series – and some Mediaeval stuff. Good fun, with what appears to my non-expert eye to be well researched period tactical detail. The Arthur books are in a different league entirely – equally well researched period detail, but writing and plots somehow in a whole other league than Cornwell’s usual stuff. Definitely among the best novels I’ve read in the last few years (aka since Patrick O’Brian’s death)

  10. 1. Well, it was true all over the map from the Picts in later Scotland through Rome all the way to the later Mongols, that because warriors generally purchased their own equipment, the ones who had the heavier armour were the nobles. And, the other way around too, nobles rarely rode into battle in any culture without some tin on the back. So the equation that heavy cavalry = nobles isn’t an exceptional one, the reason they weren’t generally nobles in the case of Byzantium was rather an exception: they were professional armies, with the armour paid from the imperial treasury.

    2. OTOH it does make sense that because the number one prerequisite of a heavyweight lance charge is a stirrup, those steppe peoples who invented might have been the ones to put it into efficient use i.e. knight-style armies, this does make sense, therefore I would not rule out the Sarmatian connection.

    3. But what bothers me is that the whole Arthurian mythology seems to be totally different to the Sarmatian one. I have to admit I don’t know the Sarmatians very well, but if I may assume that they were similar to other Turkic (such as Cumans, Kyrgyzs etc.) and Turkic-influenced (Hungarians) steppe people, which I do know fairly well, if I may assume their mythology was similar, that’s not a good fit to the Arthurian mythology.

    The Arthurian mythology is a very democratic, egalitarian one. Round Table, the kings as first knight among equals etc.

    Not so amongst the steppe people (at least not amongst the Turkic and Turk-influenced ones, and, therefore, I assume, not amongst the Sarmatians either).

    They had a different mythology: the power of the head of the extended family, and one level higher, of the chieftain, and one level higher, of the king, is magical and in that sense absolute. The boss deals with the spirits of the ancestors, and everything, good or bad is the result of those dealings. He is the priest of the ancestor spirits (who live in the fireplace of the tent). Example: on meals, the head of the extended family distributes the food, because the food is assumed to gain its nutritious power from the touch of the boss. Same stuff on higher levels, on that of the chieftain and the king. Every misfortune is the failure of the boss, every good fortune is his blessing, or rather of the spirits of the ancestors coming through him. Everything is highly hierarchical, the places in cementeries where the archeologists find them is strictly hierarchical, so is the placing of tents and the sitting at meals. This isn’t a good fit to the generally egalitarian Arthurian mythology.

    Similary, Merlin isn’t quite a typical shaman in the steppe sense. As the priest of the ancestor spirits is generally the boss himself, the role of the shaman is generally to travel up to the realms of heaven and get divination. This trip is usually symbolized by climbing some sort of a pole or ladder with seven steps, symbolizing the climbing of the world tree. Merlin doesn’t seem to do anything like that.

    There are few similarities, I admit. The role of a divine or magical sword is the similar for Arthur and Attila the Hun. Merlin wears some sort of a crown, whihc may be related to the shamanic crown.

  11. >but if I may assume that they were similar to other Turkic (such as Cumans, Kyrgyzs etc.) and Turkic-influenced (Hungarians) steppe people, which I do know fairly well, if I may assume their mythology was similar, that’s not a good fit to the Arthurian mythology.

    That’s where your assumptions go wrong. The Sarmatians were Indo-Europeans with a mythology from the same root as the Rig-Veda, very different from the traditions of the Turks and Cumans. There was a bit of cross-borrowing, of course. The authors of this book don’t remark on it, but I think I can see some influence from Altaic shamanism in the excerpts from the Nart sagas; conversely, the Turks may have gotten some of their ideas about magic swords from the Sarmatians, to whom that motif was much more central.

  12. >Cornwell is generally known for lightweight action adventure novels set in the Napoleonic Wars

    I tried getting into these once, but found the viewpoint character so sour and unattractive that I gave up on them.

  13. The Wikipedia entry on “Historical Basis for King Arthur” cites the articles I found on the Web, as well as some other sources I have not checked. Take a look around if the subject interests you.

  14. I have mixed feelings about Bernard Cornwell. Some of his books are kind of fun. Others strike me as artificial and contrived, and some, as ESR said, have some nasty main characters. I haven’t tried his version of the Arthurian legends, and I doubt I will; I seldom read those anymore unless I have reason to think one in particular will be especially good.

  15. hmm.
    i have for along time been of the belief that the bulk of “white” culture in europe derives from the sarmatians. (the alans seem to me as just another spin-out from the mutated core (self-mutated/self-selected, i believe: note the VERY strong high-status ur-memes among the (cauc)asian and hindu cultures even today).) skin-colour aside, the core cultural features relative to their surround/predecessors are quite remarkable and overlay startlingly closely on today’s “western” features.

    but i have problems with the idea of a neat point-for-point overlay with the Arthurian legends. ignoring the post-Reformation reconstructions, the Cornish legends of arthur are as generic to the genome as harry potter. they strongly seem themselves merely an instance of deeper ur-memes. a la harry potter, a la star wars. add to that that the sarmatians were present 1,000 years before or more (their first “shocktroops” as you put it were driving north-west towards goth-country recordedly half a millenia before christ), and you can’t take this idea seriously.

  16. (bear in mind re this book’s (implied) language that “celtic” is actually just a type of pottery and includes the entirety of modern europe and most of eastern europe. even in its 19C re-construction, the north-west spanish are today more celtic than the irish and britons.)

  17. “the Cornish legends of arthur are as generic to the genome as harry potter. they strongly seem themselves merely an instance of deeper ur-memes. a la harry potter, a la star wars.”

    Could you elaborate on that? It sounds interesting. I always wondered what the hell makes Star Wars so charming (even for me, I kinda like to see myself as a serious guy and yet I can spend whole nights playing lightsaber battles in Jedi Academy… it’s just… irresistible…), and I figure the same question could be asked for Harry Potter for the younger generation.

  18. Shenpen:
    > I always wondered what the hell makes Star Wars so charming
    Star Wars was (very consciously) constructed using the anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and thus its basic structure is a distillation of hundreds of myths from all over the world.

  19. Interesting, At least two-thirds of the topics at http://www.moongadget.com/origins/myth.html are familar to me from old Hungarian folk tales, so I figure this Campbell guy was right, this is really a ubiquitous recipe.

    Personally, I tend to think at least half of the popularity of SW comes from really good sound effects (try to watch it with the sound muted, it will be surprisingly silly). But that of course does not explain the popularity of HP books so the Campbell theory may be right. I remember ESR has quoted this fellow on how the remnaints of religious belief affect your worldview – it seems it may be a good idea to look deeper into the works of Campbell, as he is getting quoted about the most interesting topics. I will.

  20. >Personally, I tend to think at least half of the popularity of SW comes from really good sound effects (try to watch it with the sound muted, it will be surprisingly silly)

    saw a rather amusing interview with the guys responsible for the fx a while back. they made the same point. and they showed a LOVELY example:
    • darth vader exiting his spaceship on ramp. cloak swirling, powerful relaxed strides. dramatic music. dramatic lighting. dramatic impact.
    • same scene, but now to gaudy ’20s swing tune. hilarious. seemed suddenly like he was mincing. if you hadn’t just seen exactly the same scene a second before, you’d’ve sworn it was an OTT spoof re-enactment by another actor.

  21. I know this is an old post but …..

    You don’t know the half of it.

    Folk etymology is one of the most annoying things in the world and I am constantly hearing otherwise intelligent people reciting examples as fact because they heard it from someone who acted confident.

    Of course, there is just as much of a problem with the idiotic archaeologists who claim that if there isn’t an overwhelmingly clear and airtight archeological evidence for something then it means it didn’t happen. They dig up 5 settlements and say “we have no evidence of invasion and therefore there was no invasion” as though (1) they had sampled more than a tiny fraction of settlements -and- (b) the lack of evidence for sieges implies a lack of evidence for any invasion at all.

  22. it’s fascinating watching short-memoried folk myths reconstructing the world (in parts).

    for example, our current typesetting of books (and the web, via html’s display Standards) has regressed to the 15th Century experiments that were resoundingly rejected as unreadable. all in the last 15-20 years or so. due to a deliberately manufactured folk myth. created by kneejerk statusseeking-via-differentiation.

    if you have 10mins (and respect Donald Knuth/TeX), you may find this article I wrote deceptively fascinating for the surreality of human behaviour it documents. Knuth’s efforts have been steamrollered by a recent meme. bear with it. after some apparently boring trivia and technical bumf, it suddenly expands into human-nature and becomes fascinating (as one commenter said).

    French Spacing

    you may never look at a book (or the web) the same way again.

  23. I have to agree with the contributor who recommened Bernard Cornwells arthur series.

    The winter king and Enemy of God stand out as awesome books and probabaly my favourite read of all time. I can take or leave much of his other stuff but recommend those books as the an essential read for anyone vaguely interested in the period.

  24. The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur. Cornwell is generally known for lightweight action adventure novels set in the Napoleonic Wars – the Sharpe series – and some Mediaeval stuff. Good fun, with what appears to my non-expert eye to be well researched period tactical detail. The Arthur books are in a different league entirely – equally well researched period detail, but writing and plots somehow in a whole other league than Cornwell’s usual stuff. Definitely among the best novels I’ve read in the last few years.

  25. At the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451, General Flavius Aëtius placed the Alans in front centre, purposing that the Huns would annihilate them. However, from the hilltop the Armorican archers, who were famed for their accuracy and rate of fire, protected the Alans and brought down many Hun riders. At night, Attila attempted a sneak attack on the Roman camp, but was thwarted by a hail of Armorican arrows.

    Once the battle was won, Aëtius’s response was to send the Alans to Armorica and Galicia. Western Armorica had become a British enclave in 383 under Magnus Maximus, a usurping western emperor born on the estates of Count Theodosius in Galicia. Armorica had subsequently declared independence from Rome in 407.

    According to Jordanes, around 470, Riothamus, as an ally of the Romans, rode to Burgundy to meet up with the army of the emperor Anthemius, passing through Avallon in Burgundy. However, Arvandus, the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, betrayed him by writing a letter to Euric the King of the Visigoths advising him to ambush Riothamus. Arvandus was consequently tried for treason, but his friend Sidonius Apollinaris (who also wrote of these events) persuaded the court to reduce the sentence to exile.

    Count Alan Rufus, leader of the many Bretons in “Norman” England, was renowned as a chivalrous and formidable knight (he was the commander of King William’s household cavalry and led the rearguard at Hastings).

    Sometime after 1093, Archbishop Anselm wrote two letters to Gunnhild, daughter of King Harold, berating her for taking up with him. There’s a strange Lancelot-Guinevere resonance there, which continued with Gospatric’s son Waltheof of Allerdale naming his heir Alan and a daughter Gunhildr (of Dunbar). Gunhildr’s son was Lachlan Oliver and his son was Alan of Galloway. A later lady of Dunbar was Agnes Randolph, “Black Agnes”: she bore the given name of Alan Rufus’s mother and a surname borne by descendants of one of Alan’s brothers.

    Alan Rufus, like many Bretons of the time, was also very rich (he personally paid for all expenses of William’s army at the siege of Sainte-Suzanne in 1083-1086), deftly promoting trade in strategic locations: Boston in Lincolnshire benefitted greatly from this, and the surrounding area became England’s leading port.

    Alan was described by Abbot Stephen of Whitby as being of surpassingly good character, and a record of the trial of the Bishop of Durham reveals Alan’s belief in the rule of law in harmony with individual conscience and his courage in confronting the king in court to defend the rights of the man Alan had brought to trial.

    Alan and his brothers were active in all the areas popularly associated with King Arthur. Moreover, the writers of the medieval romances were Bretons by descent and all connected with his family. There are also strong links to the Robin Hood legend, through St Mary’s Abbey (whom Alan founded in 1088), Fountains Abbey, Duke Arthur of Brittany (murdered by King John), and the Earls of Huntingdon. Alan of Galloway advised King John to sign the Magna Carta.

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