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The Sign Of The White Foal

Sign of the White Foal
by Chris Thorndycroft

Publication Date: July 1, 2019
eBook & Paperback; 327 Pages

Series: Arthur of the Cymry Trilogy (Book 1)
Genre: Historical Fiction

A generation after Hengest and Horsa carved out a kingdom in the east, a hero of the Britons rises in the west…

480 A.D. The sons of Cunedag have ruled Venedotia for fifty years but the chief of them – the Pendraig – is now dying. His sons Cadwallon and Owain must fight to retain their birthright from their envious cousins. As civil war consumes Venedotia, Arthur – a young warrior and bastard son of the Pendraig – is sent on a perilous quest that will determine the fate of the kingdom.

The Morgens; nine priestesses of the Mother Goddess have found the cauldron of rebirth – a symbol of otherworldly power – and have allied themselves with the enemy. Arthur and six companions are dispatched to the mysterious island of Ynys Mon to steal the cauldron and break the power of the Morgens. Along the way they run into the formidable Guenhuifar whose family have been stewards of Ynys Mon for generations. They need her help. The trouble is, Guenhuifar despises Arthur’s family and all they stand for…

Based on the earliest Arthurian legends, Sign of the White Foal is a rip-roaring adventure of Celtic myth and real history set in the ruins of post-Roman Britain.

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our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name…

 

The 12th century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth devotes a sizable chunk of his highly fictional History of the Kings of Britain to the life and reign of King Arthur. This book, along with its companion piece The Life of Merlin, is responsible for much of the modern Arthurian tradition. Morgan le Fay makes her debut in the Life of Merlin as ‘Morgen’; a healer and shapeshifter. She has developed over time into the wicked half-sister of King Arthur and the antithesis to all that was good and honourable at Camelot. It comes as a surprise to encounter her in her original incarnation where she has no familial connection to Arthur and is merely a healer who rules Avalon where Arthur is taken to after his final battle. But what was Monmouth getting at with his nine sisters and their Island of Apples? 

The motif of nine priestesses ruling an island appears with interesting frequency in the history and literature of the Celtic peoples. The 1st century Roman Geographer Pomponius Mela in his Description of the World says that the isle of Sena (Île de Sein) belonged to a ‘Gallic divinity and is famous for its oracle, whose priestesses, sanctified by their perpetual virginity, are reportedly nine in number.’ 

The number nine is significant in world mythology. The Greek Hydra had nine heads. Nine deities were worshiped at the Ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis and the ancient Norse believed in nine worlds connected by the world tree, Yggdrasil, from which Odin hung himself for nine days in order to learn the secrets of the runes. 

More relevant to us are the appearances of groups of mythological women who are nine in number. The Romans believed in nine muses and the Norse had nine waves who were the daughters of the god Aegir and the goddess Ran. Medieval Welsh poetry and literature also contain tantalising references to nine magical sisters. The cryptic poem The Spoils of Annwn mentions a voyage to a mysterious island to steal an otherworldly cauldron that is kindled by ‘the breath of nine maidens’ while nine witches or sorceresses are mentioned inthe Arthurian story Peredur son of Efrawg as well as the poem What man is the gatekeeper?

The mention of witches is interesting as our modern preconception of three witches standing around a bubbling cauldron owes much to ancient mythology by way of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The ‘weird sisters’ (‘wyrd’ being the Old English word for fate) are never referred to as witches in the play and they weren’t just an invention of Shakespeare’s. A likely identification is the three fates who appear in Greek, Roman and Norse mythology as spinners and weavers of destiny. And let’s not forget the cauldron which is usually connected with rebirth and fertility in medieval Welsh tales. Not only did this magical vessel and the various quests to obtain it influence the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail in later tradition, the cauldron has also become intrinsically linked with trios of witches in popular culture. 

It wasn’t just the weavers of fate who were three in number. The triple deity appears the world over, popping up in Hinduism, Ancient Egyptian religion and most prominently in the Greek goddess Hecate who also forms part of the Roman triple goddess Diana/Luna/Hecate. In the Celtic world the three Matronae or ‘mothers’ motif is found on altars and inscriptions from the 1st to the 5th century. Usually depicting three women carrying bushels of wheat, fruit or flowers, these triple goddesses are often seen as three faces of local deities. Early Irish literature continues this motif with triple goddesses such as the Morrigan; a shapeshifting goddess associated with war and fate. 

The idea of the triple goddess representing the maiden/mother/crone pattern was popularised by Robert Graves in his essay The White Goddess which has been largely discredited as pseudohistory although it continues to be a big influence on neo-paganism. The main problem is that most triple goddesses do not conform to this pattern. Usually all three facets of the Matronae are of a similar age and merely depict different characteristics or abilities rather than stages in life.   

There is nothing that explicitly connects triple goddesses with nine priestesses but it is hard to ignore the fact that nine is three, threefold. We don’t know if the goddess on the Île de Sein was worshipped in three forms but if she was, we could imagine (purely conjecturally) that she required three priestesses to attend each facet. But really, the rites and ceremonies of Celtic paganism are a mystery to us. 

Besides Pomponius Mela’s account, there are other historical references to what may have been Celtic priestesses. The Roman geographer Strabo mentions a group of women on an island near where the River Loire flows into the sea who are ‘possessed by Dionysus and make this god propitious by appeasing him with mystic initiations as well as other sacred performances’ while the historian Tacitus speaks of women ‘in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands’ at the Roman army as they tried to invade Anglesey (yet another island). 

It is highly probable that Monmouth based his nine sisters of Avalon on the priestesshood mentioned by Pomponius Mela. ‘Avalon’ seems to come from the Welsh word for fruit tree. Monmouth conflated Avalon with the Fortunate Isles from Classical Mythology and described it as abundant with fruit (particularly apples). The later writer Gerald of Wales identified Avalon as Glastonbury Tor (which used to be an island surrounded by marsh) and called it Ynys Afallach; ‘the Island of Apples’. In European mythology, apples are often associated with life-giving nourishment and immortality. 

As for Morgen, the name means ‘sea-born’ and, interestingly, there are creatures in Welsh and Breton folklore known as ‘morgens’ who are reportedly water spirits responsible for drowning men. As with the three fates, Morgen took on a darker aspect over the centuries and went from being a healer to a wicked sorceress and the villain of many an Arthurian tale. This, along with nine witches in Peredur and What man is the gatekeeper? suggest that we could be looking at a folk memory of a Celtic priestesshood connected with water and islands who were relegated over time to the status of witches and evil spirits in later literature.

 

Chris Thorndycroft is a British writer of historical fiction, horror and fantasy. His early short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Dark Moon Digest and American Nightmare. His first novel under his own name was A Brother’s Oath; the first book in the Hengest and Horsa Trilogy. He also writes under the pseudonym P. J. Thorndyke.

For more information, please visit Chris Thorndycroft’s website. You can also find him on Twitter and Goodreads.

Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, July 22
Review at Gwendalyn’s Books

Tuesday, July 23
Review at Passages to the Past

Wednesday, July 24
Review & Interview at Jorie Loves a Story

Thursday, July 25
Review at My Reading Chronicles

Friday, July 26
Guest Post at Gwendalyn’s Books

Monday, July 29
Review at Coffee and Ink
Review at Faery Tales Are Real

Tuesday, July 30
Interview at Gwendalyn’s Books
Review at Locks, Hooks and Books

Wednesday, July 31
Review at Hoover Book Reviews

Friday, August 2
Review at Stephanie’s Novel Fiction

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour, one winner will receive an eBook of Sign of the White Foal by Chris Thorndycroft! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

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