King Arthur and the Comet

What Really Happened in the Sixth Century, AD?


We know the legendary King Arthur today as a renowned British king who rode out with the Knights of the Round Table to fight twelve epic battles. He was based in Camelot, the location of which is still debated today. And after receiving a deadly blow in his last battle, was taken to the mythical Isle of Avalon to be healed.

What is less well known is that much of Arthurian legend comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth and other writers from the twelfth century or later. Geoffrey incorporated Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon, his magician adviser Merlin, and the story of Arthur’s conception into Arthurian legend. His work has been described as “imaginative” and “fanciful.” How much did he really draw from earlier records, and how much was simply literary invention?

When the earlier records—or those that survive today—are looked at in more detail, there is very little of any substance about Arthur. In fact, journalist Adrian Berry asks a very pertinent question: “Why were events before the Arthurian time—the decline of the Roman Empire, with its wars, treaties and assassinations—so precisely measured, as were events after Arthur, while the century in between is filled with fantastic stories about princesses who lived at the bottom of lakes and knights whose severed heads talked from beneath their arms?”

In order to explain this apparent anomaly, Berry has suggested that, “parts of our history are periodically blotted out, with sometimes whole civilizations being eradicated, by impacts of debris from the sky.” Could something cataclysmic have happened in the age of Arthur that was not properly recorded at the time? Has this later been ‘mythologized’ to create the figure we today know as Arthur, and all the stories that come with him?

It is perhaps useful to start at the end of Arthur’s story, namely his supposed death in the middle of the sixth century. Although some researchers associate Arthur with the fifth century, both Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Welsh Annals record Arthur’s demise around AD 540. Geoffrey says that Arthur met his end at the battle of Camlann in AD 542. The possibly more trustworthy Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) say that Arthur and Mordred (his son or nephew) “fell” at the “strife of Camlann.” Although there is no certainty regarding the dating of the Welsh Annals, most agree that this entry relates to the years 537 or 539.

Interestingly, the earliest sources do not describe Arthur as a king but rather apply a term that has been translated as ‘leader in battle.’ This is backed up by ninth century Welsh cleric Nennius, who draws a distinction between Arthur and the kings of the British. He also states that at the earlier battle of Mount Badon, Arthur took out 960 men from a single charge, “and no one laid them low save he alone.” He was either superhuman, or there is more to Arthur than meets the eye.

Notwithstanding Arthur’s amazing feats, which could perhaps have been magnified by the bards over the centuries, a number of historical Arthurs have been proposed by various authors. David Hughes, for example, believes that there was a real Arthur that was born in AD 479, became king in 507, and died in 537, whilst Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett believe there were two King Arthurs. They provide good evidence of an ‘Arthur I’ figure from the fourth century, who they consider to have been some sort of British-based emperor of Western Europe. They then recount the evidence for a second, more local King Arthur who lived in South Wales from 503 to 579. Their conclusion is that the modern Arthur was a composite of the two.

Wilson and Blackett believe their second Arthur lived through a time during which Britain was devastated by a comet. Their story, taken up on their behalf by more than one author, ends up with the Welsh Arthur emigrating to America to later die in Kentucky and being brought back to Wales to be buried. Far-fetched, some may think, but there is ample evidence that at least a local ruler called Arthmael (‘Iron Bear’) or Arthwys (‘called to lead/instruct’) did exist.

However, a researcher into the sixth century who has rather more academic credentials is Professor Mike Baillie of Queen’s University, Belfast. Professor Baillie has helped to develop the science of dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating. This relatively accurate means to gauge the growth conditions of trees from many thousands of years ago shows that—to quote Baillie and his co-author—“from European oaks, through pine chronologies from Sweden, across to Mongolia, and from California to Chile, dramatic effects in trees have been observed across the years from 536 to 545 AD.”

David Keys has written one book on this very event, titled Catastrophe—An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World. Keys describes the evidence from historic sources, including a persistent dry fog across the Mediterranean, that lasted for 12 to 18 months and caused “a spring without mildness and a summer without heat,” to use the words of one Latin chronicler.

In northern Europe, the Irish Annals record “a failure of bread” in 536 and 539, while the Welsh Annals report that from 537 there were plagues in Britain and Ireland for nearly the next 20 years. This was referred to as the Yellow Pestilence. It could be linked to the Justinian Plague, named after Roman Emperor Justinian, which erupted in the eastern Mediterranean in the early 540s.

Other parts of the world were not spared from what was taking place. For example, in South America around this time, the Moche and Nasca cultures were devastated by drought, whilst in the lands of the Maya in Central America there was a lapse in construction and inscription activity. Over in China, there are contemporary records of yellow dust raining like snow, severe drought, unusual summer frosts, massive flooding, and deaths from famine.

In light of these events, David Keys suggests that mankind was hit by one of the greatest natural disasters ever to occur, which led to climate chaos, famine, migration, war, and massive political change on virtually every continent. It displayed all the hallmarks of a nuclear winter. Keys believed that a major volcanic event was probably to blame. Indeed, he favored Krakatoa, in modern day Indonesia, as the prime culprit and even suggested that a loud noise recorded in China in AD 535 might have been the volcano exploding.

Nonetheless, although recently ice core workers have found evidence of mid sixth century volcanic activity, there is also evidence of cometary phenomenon at the time. Astronomers believe that in the period between AD 400 and 600 there was an increased risk from bombardment. Two such astronomers, Victor Clube and Bill Napier, explain that, “the significant feature is not collision with comets themselves, but with their debris.” This means that on occasion the Earth would find itself in the wake of a large, active, disintegrating comet, and would experience firsthand the dust and rocks being left behind.

Various scientists have come out in support of cometary influence. Cardiff University researchers have concluded that the event of around AD 535 could have been caused by a comet fragment of around half a kilometer (1640 feet) in size exploding the upper atmosphere. Dallas Abbott of Columbia University has suggested that a similar-sized object broke up and impacted the earth off the coast of Australia around fifteen hundred years ago.

Another researcher, Leroy Ellenberger, has proposed that rather than one major comet-related event, the climatic chaos was caused by “periodic heavy fireball storms, punctuated by recurring Tunguska-class events.” Here he is referring to the strange event in 1908 that caused trees to be toppled like dominoes over a vast swathe of Siberia, while the skies in Europe and Asia were lit up for several nights in a row.

Whatever the theory, there is certainly historical evidence of what scientists call a ‘cosmic vector’—something more than terrestrial volcanic activity causing the climatic chaos. This evidence starts with shooting stars and meteor showers being recorded around AD 530 in China and the Mediterranean, which led one contemporary writer to comment that “something mysterious and unusual seems to be coming on us from the stars.” However, later on there was more specific cometary evidence.

In 538, a comet was sighted according to the historian Edward Gibbon. The comet “appeared to follow the Sagittary: the size was gradually increasing; the head was in the east, the tail in the west, and it remained visible above 40 days. The nations who gazed with astonishment, expected wars and calamities from their baleful influence; and these expectations were abundantly fulfilled.”

Zachariah of Mitylene recorded that in around 538/9, “a great and terrible comet appeared in the sky at evening-time for 100 days.” Similarly, medieval historian Roger of Wendover stated that, “in the year of grace AD 541, there appeared a comet in Gaul, so vast that the whole sky seemed on fire. In the same year, there dropped real blood from the clouds, and a dreadful mortality ensued.” Although historians often dismiss this as medieval fantasy, it does appear to tally with other evidence and points towards the heavens as the cause of the climate chaos.

The monk, Gildas, writing around AD 540, recorded that “the island of Britain was on fire from sea to sea … until it had burned almost the whole surface of the island and was licking the western ocean with its fierce red tongue.” This is one of the pieces of evidence used by Wilson and Blackett to support their theory that Britain was ravaged, and in part was rendered uninhabitable, by a comet. They and others think this is why the Saxons had such an easy time settling in Britain—there weren’t many surviving Britons to stop them.

There is also later evidence from John of Asia (554 AD), who described “the world shaking like a tree before the wind for 10 days.” The walls of Constantinople collapsed, areas of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa were inundated by the sea, while whole nations and cities are said to have been hit by a “rod,” which has been equated by one author to the tail of a comet.

Even Geoffrey of Monmouth gets in on the act, referring to the appearance of “a star of great magnitude and brilliance, with a single beam shining from it. At the end of this beam was a ball of fire, spread out in the shape of a dragon.” Rays of light from this ‘dragon’ stretched towards Gaul and the Irish Sea. This star is said to have appeared three times, and “all who saw it were struck with fear and wonder.” It is unclear when in the sixth century this event took place, but it certainly supports the influence of comets on sixth century life.

It may also provide a link between the Arthurian legend of Geoffrey and what actually may have taken place in the sixth century. Geoffrey is generally considered to have introduced the figure of Uther Pendragon, said to be the father of Arthur. Given that ‘Uther’ is translated as ‘terrible’ (or awful or wonderful), and ‘pen’ means ‘head’, there is good reason to believe Uther Pendragon itself meant, ‘Terrible Head of Dragons,’ with ‘dragons’ being in the plural.

Dragons may well refer to comets and/or fireballs—as can be seen from various graphic depictions of dragon-like comets over the ages. In addition, Chinese records note that when ‘dragons’ passed by, “all the trees were broken.” Leroy Ellenberger has therefore suggested that much of the sixth century ‘dragon’ lore associated with Arthur and Beowulf was inspired by cometary debris detonating in the upper atmosphere.

Given that comets and fireballs are bright objects in the sky, could ancient peoples have linked them to the other rather more stationary bright object in the sky: the Sun? Perhaps the Sun was seen as the terrible head (or leader) of the comets that were plaguing the earth. If so, and if Arthur was indeed the son of Uther, was Arthur actually a comet? Surprisingly, a case can be constructed in favor of this idea.

Professor Baillie, who wrote or co-authored the books Exodus to Arthur and The Celtic Gods—Comets in Irish Mythology, links Arthur and Merlin with the stories of Celtic gods. Baillie concludes that underlying all of these figures there is comet symbolism. For example, he notes that a fifteenth century author described Arthur’s sword ‘Excalibur’ as being “so bright in his enemies eyes that it gave light like 30 torches.” This ‘bright’ blade of Excalibur could potentially represent a comet’s tail.

Furthermore, Arthur was said to lead the Wild Hunt in the Sky. This consisted of a pack of white hounds, sometimes with red ears, that coursed through the skies on thundery nights. Arthur is also portrayed in folklore as a rushing wind whose passage cannot be stopped. This could all be seen as further symbolism of comets and cometary debris encountering the earth, and its links to Arthur are strengthened by the later appearance in Arthurian legend of a ‘wasteland’—the kind that might be produced following a close encounter with a ‘cosmic vector’.

Finally, the Welsh Annals stated that in the strife of Camlann in the late 530s “Arthur and Mordred fell, and there was mortalitas in Britain and Ireland.” If both Arthur and Mordred were disintegrating comets rather than human combatants in battle, might that explain the lack of reference to Camlann in Nennius’s list of earthly battles?

One of the flaws with this ‘Arthur-equals-comet’ theory is that Arthur, certainly in later legend, was considered to be a hero figure. In addition, although both Arthur and Mordred “fell” at Camlann, it is Mordred who is portrayed as a notorious villain. Indeed, the Welsh Triads say that in one of the three ‘unrestrained ravagings of Britain’, a figure called Medrawd (Mordred) came to Arthur’s court, consumed all the food and drink there, and dragged Guinevere from her throne and struck her.

A broad-minded interpretation of that event could be that Arthur was the earth, Mordred was the arriving comet, and Guinevere (Arthur’s consort) was the Moon, which was struck by cometary debris and briefly varied its orbit.  However, there is a final theory: that Arthur was the Sun and Arthur’s court was our solar system. This is supported by the fact that one ancient Celtic sun-god was called Artaois, and that Arthur was described in ancient Welsh tales as having flaming red hair but being clean shaven with hair cropped short. Given that comets were considered to be ‘hairy stars’ due to their tails trailing away from them, logically the sun would be seen as ‘clean shaven.’

Whatever the solution, there is good evidence that any volcanic eruptions that contributed to the mid-sixth-century climate catastrophe need to be viewed in light of cometary phenomenon that may have been the primary cause. And given that Arthur is supposed to have died at the very time that this event took place, there is also good reason to attempt to interpret Arthurian legend as a ‘mythologized’ version of events that happened in the sky.

By Mark Andrew