Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Vortigern: Legendary Tyrant King of Early Britain


A British legend, first committed to writing by Nennius (9th century), tells how a tyrant king named Vortigern was responsible for the ruination of Britain after he invited a force of Saxon and Jute mercenaries into the country. The same Vortigern is said to have built a tower which was repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes. Inquiring as to the reason, he was informed by a druid that he should bury a spotless child under the foundations of the tower. The child Merlin was selected as victim, though in the event he was never sacrificed.

There is virtually nothing in this story that can be regarded as historical, though it is instructive in many ways.

To begin with, we note that the motif of a tyrant king who tries to build a tower reaching heaven is one that is common to almost all cultures and traditions, and occurs in both the Old World and the New. The British legend, for example, has an almost precise counterpart in the traditions of the Jews, where we hear that Nimrod, the tyrant who built the Tower of Babel, also made an attempt to sacrifice the child Abraham. He was however deceived by Abraham’s nursemaid, and another child was sacrificed in the patriarch’s stead. (Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews)

The motif of a sacrificed child buried in the foundations of a sacred structure originates in the earlier part of the Bronze Age, when child victims were in fact used in this way. This part of the legend therefore seems to be very ancient. Can we say the same about the other parts?

A few years ago I was reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In Chapter 26 of this wonderful opus I came across the story of how the Goths were invited into the Empire by the Emperor Valens, and how, a short time later, the barbarians revolted and destroyed the Imperial forces at the Battle of Adrianople. The leader of the Goths in this engagement was Fritigern, and I was immediately struck by the similarity of his name to that of Vortigern. The two are indeed identical; the only difference being that in one the vowel sound comes before the “r” and in another after. How could it be, I thought, that a British king bore a Gothic name? Aside from the name, however, there was little to connect the two characters. Both, it is true, were placed in the declining years of the Roman Empire, and both were involved in barbarian invasions of the Roman provinces. Yet in the case of Vortigern, it was he who invited in the barbarians, whereas the historical Fritigern was the barbarian chief invited in by Valens.

There was thus a vague parallel between the two; but beyond that, there seemed little to connect them. It took a tradition from the Americas, of all places, to make me understand the truth.

In Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, his wonderful compendium of lore and speculation, Ignatius Donnelly comments on a legend of the Apaches, which spoke of the world’s creation. “The first days of the world,” we are told, “were happy and peaceful days.” Then came a great flood, “from which Montezuma and the coyote alone escaped. Montezuma became then very wicked, and attempted to build a house that would reach to heaven, but the Great Spirit destroyed it with thunderbolts.” (Donnelly, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, pp. 117-118. From Bancroft, Native Races, Vol. 3, p. 76)

The “house” which Montezuma attempts to build “that would reach to heaven” is elsewhere encountered in Native American tradition where it is specifically identified as a tower, and it is clear that in this story the Apaches have pieced together elements of recent history – including recent history not directly theirs – and combined these with an extremely ancient tradition, one dating from shortly after the Deluge. In biblical tradition, the Tower of Babel (the account of which directly precedes the Abraham narrative) is built in the years after the Deluge.

It would appear that the Britons did the same thing. In the years following the catastrophic loss of their land to the invading Germanic Barbarians, the Britons took elements of the real history of the fourth and fifth centuries, including the name of an invading barbarian chief – Fritigern/Vortigern – and combined these with a primeval tradition about a tyrant king which, just after the Deluge, introduced the custom of human sacrifice and attempted to build a great tower to the heavens.

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