Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus

Only by setting the Sun can rise, only by becoming dry, as if they were dead, the majority of seeds can germinate: death is a mill that grinds life; similarly, in archaic times, the children had to undergo a temporary initiatic death before being able to be reborn to a renewed and more mature form of existence.

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In this article I will focus on some themes and symbols that can be found within the so-called Arthurian cycle.

King Arthur (from Welsh arth, Celtic *arto-, Proto-Celtic arthos*, from the PIE root *rtko, always with the meaning of “bear”) is the “Bear King”, son of Uther Pendragon (from Celtic -penn, “mount” [a symbolic image always referring to the burial mound] and “dragon”, maybe with the meaning of “mount of the dragon”): both the bear and the serpent (in Greek “dràkon” means both “dragon” and “serpent”) are archaic symbols of initiation and eternal rebirth, the first in relation to its cyclical apparent death and rebirth during the period of hibernation inside the den, the second in relation to the cyclical renewal of its existence during the molt; in myths and folklore the gaze of the dragon has the power to petrify, immobilize or paralyse its victim, characteristic attributable to the etymology itself of the word “dragon” (stemming from Greek “dérkomai”, “to gaze intensely”) and comparable to the petrifying power of Medusa’s head: it’s the calcification process to which may incur both the placenta and the child inside the maternal womb.

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Arthur and Uther are therefore two initiates that have accomplished in their youth a ritual process of reincarnation within the ancestry, but their kinship suggests that they may actually be the same identical figure; the medieval sources at our disposal indicate the 26th of November as date of Uther’s death, fifteen days after the anniversary of Saint Martin: Uther dies in the period of the year when the bear begins its hibernation, and simbolically reincarnates in his son Arthur (“bear”), who, as his father, will come into possession of the sword Excalibur (forged in Avalon, the burial mound, and obtained by the legitimate descendant or by extracting it from a stone [i.e. the burial mound] or by taking it from the arm of the Lady of the Lake that comes out from the water wielding it [the symbolism of the water is substantially equivalent to that of the burial mound, it fulfills at the same time a function of grave and matrix and is, especially in reference to the amniotc liquid, a generator and life-giving element), the object with which was buried the divine ancestor and in which his identity is poured and materialized, solemn guarantee of a regal destiny: only the predestined descendant can take possession of it and make sure that his own immature and fragmented identity reintegrates with that of the deceased reborn in him.

It can be said that, by means of the initiatory process of reincarnation, our ancestors took the responsibility of altering the regular flow of time as well as the intrinsic nature and self-awareness of children; the reincarnation of the spirit, identity, memory and knowledge of a divine ancestor was accomplished in the short period of time in which the initiate resided in the telluric depths of the burial mound. The intuition, realisation and inner possession of the metaphysical truth that allows us to integrate our individual identity within the totality of time is the fundamental purpose of the initiatory process: the eternal flow of time consists in the eternal restoration and reintegration of the same identical living matter, for which reason we have always been and always we’ll be, we are made of the substance itself of eternity and immortality, yet yoked to a temporal and mortal perspective, being no longer able to attain and innerly possess this metaphysical truth.

In relation to sacred kingship is relevant the theme of the “painful blow”, which wounds and weakens the Sacred King, whose indecipherable infirmity is described in terms of a disability in the legs, more specifically in the thigh, with consequent lameness and difficulty of movement: this refers to the recurring symbolism of the femur as a synonymous of movement and life; therefore this enigmatic weakness and infirmity, from which the Sacred King awaits to heal (on the symbolic level “healing” always equals to “rebirth”) while residing in his castle (i.e. the burial mound, the place where the deceased reigns supreme) in a state of symbolic “sleep” (state of being that I will examine further down), consists precisely in a symbolic and temporary apparent death, which has as immediate consequence the sterility of both kingdom and nature, manifesting itself in the symbolism of the “Terre Gaste” (“Wasteland”) and the “Arbre Sec” (“Dry Tree”); the Sacred King is therefore arrived at the conclusion of his annual function, in correspondence of the temporary death of the Sun in winter, and exclusively the Graal will be able to heal him, the search of which, in this interpretative context, can be understood in terms of a selective competition aimed at restoring and pass down the sacred kingship.

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Note: archaically the states of sleep and death were placed in reciprocal equivalence (Hypnos [the personification of sleep] and Thanatos [the personification of death] are twin brothers in the Greek mythology), indeed a sleeping man and a dead man are outwardly very similar, and both the bed and the grave have always served as a place of rest; these associations led to believe that as well as sleep and night are inevitably followed by awakening and day, death would have been fatally followed by rebirth, that’s why our ancestors often placed the dead in fetal position (position that, curiously, we tend to assume, intentionally or not, during sleep) inside the burial mounds, so that they would become, simbolically, embryos waiting to be reborn from the womb of the earth, source of life.

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At the end of the Battle of Camlann (during which Arthur is mortally wounded by Mordred) occurs an ambiguous episode, when Arthur embraces Lucan, one of his last knights still alive, and by doing so suffocates him causing his death; it has been hypothesized that Lucan may be a figure equivalent to the god Lugh, which was christianized by the Church in Luke the Evangelist: their names would share the same etymological meaning, “bright, shining”, from the PIE root *leuk-, “light, brightness, shininess”, from which also come the Latin lux and the Greek leukos, both with the same meaning; one of the epithets of Lugh is indeed “lámfada”, “of the long arm”, in reference to the solar rays, which arrive everywhere despite coming from the immeasurable celestial heights. The legendary Battle of Camlann took place in coincidence with the festivity of Samhain – celebrated between October 31st and November 1st and today known as Halloween – which from the initiatory side marked the beginning of the ritual of rebirth, whereas from the merely seasonal side marked the beginning of winter: therefore Lucan, the Sun, must necessarily die, and Arthur, the bear that hibernates, renounces possession of Excalibur and allows himself to be taken to Avalon.

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Avalon (etymologically “isle of apples”, from Welsh afal [pronounced “aval”], Breton aval, Celtic *abal-, Proto-Celtic *aballo-, always with the meaning of “apple”; in the Vita Merlini of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arhtur is taken in the Insula Pomorum), is a legendary isle simbolically located in the west, where the Sun sets: it is the land of the dead, i.e. the burial mound.

Beetween Gavrinis (a small isle – situated in the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany – where there is a prehistoric burial mound) and Avalon there is no difference:
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Avalon is therefore related to the apples of immortality, as in the case of the red apple picked by Eve from the Tree of Life and given to Adam, promise of future rebirth, symbolism that refers to the placenta, which looks like a tree and nourishes the fetus with the nutrients present in the blood that flows in it. In certain versions of the legend Arthur goes to Avalon accompanied by three ladies (tripartite manifestation [past, present and future] of a single figure symbolizing the circularity of existence), and there nine fairy sisters (personifications of the nine months that make up the symbolic pregnancy) take care of him, so that he can “rest” and “heal”, waiting for the propitious time to return (i.e. to be reborn) and assume kingship.

“Some say, in many places of England, that king Arthur is not dead, but by will of Our Lord carried elsewhere. They also say that he will return…I don’t affirm this, but rather that somewhere in this world his life has undergone a transformation. But many say that in his grave is written this verse: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS”.

-Thomas Malory

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Sacred Kingship

“In my ancestry there is the majesty of kings, who excel in power among men, and the sacredness of the gods, who have the power of kings in their hands”.

-Julius Caesar

After the conclusion of the last glaciation (about 12.000 years ago) our ancestors gradually became sedentary and formed throughout Europe tribal societies based on the concept of blood and soil.

All these archaic societies were ruled by a Sacred King – a living symbol of the Sky, of the Sun and of the metaphysical principle defined with the term Being – and a Sacred Queen – a living symbol of the Earth, of the Moon and of the metaphysical principle defined with the term Becoming. Related examples can be found, at the level of folklore, in the traditional European fairy tales and celebrations where a sleeping virgin is awakened by the kiss of a prince, an act that symbolizes the awakening of Nature in Spring, when the rays of the Sun kisses and fecundate the Earth.

Sleeping Beauty:
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Sacred King and Sacred Queen, together, represented a complementary duality, and during their hierogamy (“sacred marriage”) occurred the symbolic union between the Sky God/Sun God and the Earth Goddess/Moon Goddess, i.e. the metaphysical conjunction of the opposites.

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The Sacred King was especially associated with the Sun and consequently he embodied the power of the celestial body that illuminates the world and gives life: an example of such archetypal figure can be found in the Arthurian cycle, where the strenght of the knight Gawain continues to increase from dawn to noon, to then gradually decrease until sunset: just like the strenght of the Sun during its various phases.

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That’s the reason why in the archaic societies was customary the prohibition to look the Sacred King in the face – in the same way as it isn’t possible to stare at the Sun without risking of becoming blind – and in his presence all had to kneel and stare at the ground.

The fact that the very existence of the Sacred King was identified with the annual path of the Sun in the Sky explains the reason why he was subject to a ritual killing at the end of his annual function, on the day of the Winter Solstice, when the Sun dies and is reborn at the same time: only then his successor, previously selected, was crowned, raised to royal dignity and celebrated.

The golden crown symbolized the Sun and the power of its rays:
Risultati immagini per king arthur charles ernest butler

Examples of ritual death of the Sacred King can be found in the myths concerning Achilles and Krishna: they both die after having been hit at the heel by an arrow (poisoned, in the actual ritual), in their only vulnerable point, the tendon of the foot, part of the body that had the same symbolic function of the femur, because the tendons allow the muscular movement of the body, i.e. they allow life. The death of Achilles and Krishna is concretely and symbolically associated with a part of the human body that was synonymous of life (but they will come back to life when their femur will be recovered by a divine child that will enter in their grave).

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Over the course of time every archaic society altered, for various reasons, the conclusion of the Sacred King’s annual function, and the ancestral tradition manifested itself in new forms. In some cases the Sacred King staged an apparent death, by isolating himself in a symbolic grave, whereas a substitute obtained his divine role during that last day of reign, to then be ritually killed: at that point the real Sacred King returned to life from his symbolic grave; in other cases a totemic animal took the place of the Sacred King on the sacrificial altar; in other cases was torn down a wood effigy that represented the Sacred King; in these three scenarios the Sacred King in charge could confirm his role or hand it down at the end of a selective competition. In the long run the Sacred King refused to be killed or replaced, and thanks to his authority, his power and the support of his faithful, managed to extend his divine mandate indefinitely, until his death, natural or not, and this particular deviation from the original procedure influenced and moulded considerably the institution of kingship during Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

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In the most archaic societies both the Sacred King and the Sacred Queen were annually selected (a tradition whose vestiges could still be found at the times of the Roman Republic, when two Consuls were elected together each year): these divine roles were assigned to those who proved their superiority in various annual competitions held to determine the strenght, beauty, health, wisdom, skills and, generally speaking, the male and female qualities and peculiarities of the candidates. In this context we can remember the ancient Olympic Games, that consisted originally in religious ceremonies (over time degenerated into simple sport events without any higher meaning and purpose) having the purpose to annually select – through a footrace between young women – the one who would have symbolically incarnated Hera (the Earth Goddess, i.e. the Sacred Queen) and – through a footrace between young men – the one who would have symbolically incarnated Zeus (the Sky God, i.e. the Sacred King, whose name preserves the Sanskrit root div- [“day, brightness”]): every year the Sacred Queen and the Sacred King had to confirm their role or bestow kingship to those who proved to be more worthy of it.

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Things changed with the subsequent distinction in matriarchal and patriarchal societies:

In the matriarchal societies the first daughter of the Queen was a Princess who inherited the title at birth, whereas her future husband (and future King, after spending some time as a Prince) was chosen/selected among men from other tribes or lands; in these societies the most ambitious sons of the King and Queen will go to other lands in order to marry a Princess or a Queen and thus become themselves Kings (a recurring pattern in myths [some examples: the chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus to win the hand of Hippodamia and the archery race between Odysseus and the Proci to win the hand of Penelope] and fairy tales).

Odysseus during the archery race against the Proci:
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In the patriarchal socities the first son of the King was a Prince who inherited the title at birth, whereas his future wife (and future Queen, after spending some time as a Princess) was chosen/selected among young girls from other tribes or lands (a recurring pattern in myths [an example: the judgement of Paris to decide which goddess was the most beautiful between Aphrodite, Hera and Athena] and fairy tales).

The Judgement of Paris:
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In both types of societies the King and Queen will seek to marry their daughters and sons with Princes and Princesses or Kings and Queens of other tribes or lands, in order to unify two royal bloodlines but often also to stipulate alliances and obtain advantages of other sort.

“The King is dead, long live the King!”