Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

In the news, English archeologists have announced that a bone which has been tucked away in a box in Winchester Museum may be part of the pelvis of Alfred the Great, an important king of the 9th century.  I had been thinking of writing about Alfred, so what better opportunity. You might think this is going to be a dry read, but I suggest withholding judgement till you get to the end.

Alfred was an ‘Aetheling.’ The Aetheling clan (initially) ruled Wessex in the south of Britain during the late 9th, 10th and parts of the 11th centuries, a period during which Britain was besieged by Viking raids. Were it not for the leadership and determination of a couple of Aetheling kings, the history of England would have been radically different. Indeed, without one Aetheling king in particular, England might never have existed, at least not an England we would recognize, and most certainly the English language would have gone extinct in its infancy. I’m speaking of King Alfred of Wessex, better known as Alfred the Great.

When the last of Alfred’s elder brothers died and he inherited the crown, Wessex was the only kingdom in England that hadn’t been overrun by Vikings. This was the 9th century, and the Vikings weren’t content on just raiding and pillaging anymore, they were trying to colonize the whole island. Alfred fought to keep the Scandinavian invaders at bay, but the pressure became so great that he and his retainers were forced to retreat into the swampy bogs of Somerset.

This was the year 878, truly a low-point for Alfred. Wessex had ceased to exist, really, Alfred controlled no more than a few acres of Marshland. It’s hard to not be impressed then that within a mere decade the Vikings would be in retreat, many leaving the island altogether, that all of Wessex (and more) would be under Alfred’s firm control, that his former foe, Guthrum (a Dane who controlled much of Mercia and Northumbria at the time), after being soundly defeated by Alfred would have become both a baptized Christian and Alfred’s ally, and that London would be in Alfred’s hands and that the rebuilding of the city would already be underway.

As impressive as these accomplishments were, Alfred was just getting started. He created a standing army and defenses to ward off future Viking raids, he codified a legal system, and he reformed the monetary system in the southwestern half of England and revitalized trade. The fortified ‘burghs’ he created to defend against Viking attacks became towns, and the urbanization of England began in earnest. In an effort to promote literacy in his now-prosperous kingdom Alfred built monasteries, a school for the nobility, and he sponsored the translation of important Latin texts into English. He even penned some of the translations himself (!).

As his life was drawing to a close, Alfred penned the following words (translated into modern English):

“What I set out to do was to virtuously and justly administer the authority given to me. And I wanted to do it – so my talents and capacity might be remembered. But every natural gift in us soon withers if it is not ruled by wisdom. Without wisdom no talent can be fully realized: for to do something unwisely can hardly be accounted a skill. To be brief, I may say that it has always been my wish to live honorably, and after my death to leave to my descendents my memory in good works.”

There is an artifact from Alfred’s time sitting in a museum in Oxford, England, nicknamed the ‘Alfred Jewel.’ Made of gold and embedded with an image of the king rendered in quartz and enamel it is a handle for a pointer which Alfred allegedly used when instructing his officers and bishops or going over maps. It is inscribed in Latin, ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan,’ meaning “Alfred ordered me made.” But look at how Alfred is spelled in the original text inscribed on the jewel – AELFRED, with an extra ‘E’ after the ‘A.’ We’ll circle back around to this A-E linking in a moment.

Scotland was once called ‘Alba’, or ‘Albany.’ Where did this name come from? I can tell you that ‘alpus’ in Latin meant white, that the Alps are so named for their white peaks, and that both names, ‘Alba’ and the ‘Alpine’ range of mountains share the same Latin root. Alba was not named for any white-peaked mountains however, it was named for the Picts that lived there. (What was so “white” about these Scots of Pict ancestry will be discussed directly.)

Here we are rescued by the etymology of words and names which, fortuitously, are immune to the rewriting and editing of history by medieval bishops and monks.

Any good linguist will confirm that a number of letters in the writing systems of the world tend to fall somewhat universally together into several groupings. The letters C, S and K for example seem to be closely related, i.e. one migrates and replaces another repeatedly in words that mean the same thing in related languages. The Great Mother Goddess of Anatolia, Cybele, when spelled with a C, takes a soft ‘C’ or “S” sound. The name of the goddess can be found in literature spelled with a ‘K’ also however, in which case Kybele is pronounced with a hard C sound. Finally, when the cult of Cybele merged with that of the Greek Zeus, the result was the cult of Saba-zios, ‘Saba,’ spelled beginning in an ‘S’ being representative of Cybele/Kybele. A grouping which is most relevant to our topic is that which includes consonant sounds represented by letters F, B and P. In Japanese a written ‘Fu,’ when two little slashes are added becomes a ‘Bu,’ and when the slash-marks are exchanged for a small circle the ‘Bu’ becomes a ‘Pu.’

In exactly the same manner, the ‘Alb’ core of Alba (Scotland) has a sister and a brother, ‘Alp’ and ‘Alf.’ We can see this ‘Alb’ word-portion in action in various words and names; an Albino is a person or animal almost completely lacking in pigment, i.e. exceedingly fair skinned with snow-white hair. The name Albert, not uncommon among medieval royalty, would be another example, one conspicuous Germanic king called Albert ‘the Bear’ was the patriarch of several famous Houses that provided a number of Holy Roman Emperors during the middle ages. Another obvious ‘Alp/Alb/Alf’ name would be Alfred.

Now it gets good. Alfred could be, and I am certain should be, read as Alf-red, and I am prepared to take this exercise one step further. I have used the term ‘Aetheling’ numerous times thus far, without commenting on its meaning. The simple straight-forward definition would be ‘royal family’ – but it was more than that. It was an extended family, making up what was known as the ‘Aetheling pool,’ and in ancient and forgotten times each English monarch was chosen from this royal pool by the Witan (council of the realm). It wasn’t necessarily the eldest male son of the outgoing king who was chosen to rule, but the most exemplary candidate, devoid of flaws, who warranted confidence that he would rule justly, wisely, and effectively. (Sounds like a pretty smart set-up to me; this system was abandoned and subsequently forgotten in England when William of Normandy conquered England in 1066.)

Unfortunately my laptop doesn’t seem to be able to jam the beginning ‘A’ and ‘E’ of the term Aetheling into a single ‘AE’ letter, which is the correct way to spell it. This ‘AE’ linking, bolstered by the ‘Aelfred’ spelling on the Alfred Jewel described above, prods me to suspect that we should, just out of curiousity, exchange the A in ‘Alf’ for an E and see what it yields … ‘Elf’!!! So, maybe Alfred the Great would be, upon the lifting of centuries of fog, ‘Elf-red, the Great,’ i.e. the “Great Red Elf”???

Exactly. And the former name of Scotland, Alba/Albany, would have been, quite literally, “Land of the Elves.”

This leap of etymological faith is not as spurious as it might seem. An ‘elf’ in Norway or Sweden is in fact an ‘alv,’ and in Denmark the word is ‘alf.’ An elf dance in Scandinavia is an ‘alvdanser.’ In Swedish myth the ‘alvor’ were beautiful faery-girls who lived in the forest with their ‘alven’ king, and Germanic mythology tells of a nightmare-conjuring elfish creature called an ‘alp.’

A mythical literary cousin of the elves who appear regularly in fairy tales are the ‘pixies.’ Let’s see if we can’t wring some insight from this term as well.

Scotland in pre-Medieval times was occupied by a people the Romans called Picts, for their fondness of covering their bodies with tattoos. (Our word ‘picture’ derives from the same Latin root.) Meanwhile, the Gaelic term for “fairy folk” was ‘Sidhe’; the ‘dhe’ ending is typically silent and the word is pronounced “see” or “shee”. A Leanan Sidhe (pronounced “liannan-shee”) was a beautiful fairy girl who took a human for a lover. A ‘Bean Sidhe’ (pronounced “ban-shee”), literally female-fairy, was one who “keened” (wailed) to announce or foretell a death – a ‘screaming banshee.’

In like manner, a ‘fairy Pict’ would have been a ‘Pict Sidhe’, pronounced “Pict-see” … a pixie!

The Picts were fearsome warriors and the Romans were never able to subjugate them. In the early 2nd century the entire Roman 9th Legion famously marched from York into ‘Pictland,’ or ‘Calydonia’ (as Alba/Scotland was alternately called at the time) to do battle with the Picts – and were never heard from again. The 9th Legion was completely annihilated. Almost certainly it was this military disaster that convinced the Romans to abandon any further attempts to conquer the rest of the island, for soon after the destruction of the 9th Legion the Romans built Hadrian’s wall from coast to coast across northern England, marking the northernmost boundary of the empire. How ironic that the invincible Picts are remembered as tiny woodland creatures, most famously a girl the size of a hummingbird who flies around Cinderella’s Castle at the beginning of every Disney feature.

The myths and legends of supernatural beings like the elves, fairies and pixies are indigenous not only to Britain and Scandinavia. Similar myths abound throughout Europe and other parts of the world, in locals as disparate as the Baltics, Romania, France and Siberia, and the correlations between attributes of “elves” and their counterparts in myths emanating from these far flung places are striking. Nearly always the “fairy folk” are described as fair skinned, usually with red or golden hair. Uniformly, magical or supernatural powers are attributed to the beings. Invariably they live in the forests or wooded areas, and are often associated with burial mounds, semi-underground structures topped by a mound of earth. Though known by different names in different lands, the ruins of tens of thousands of such mounds dot the landscape from Ireland to Asia. Superstitions warned locals to stay clear of these mounds, and even to keep away from where the fairies walked … you were asking for trouble if you crossed a “fairy path.”

Fairies, elves and their counterparts in the countless legends are generally described as stand-offish, but are often benevolent. In Ireland an ‘Aos sidhe’ (pronounced “ees shee”) might leave a coin as reward to a townswoman for keeping a tidy house, or a ‘huldra’ (a fairy of Scandinavian mythology said to be strikingly beautiful with long flowing hair) might tend the charcoal kiln of a sleeping villager, receiving provisions in return. Other times the fairy folk are mischievous, and sometimes downright nasty. But without exception, they exist on the fringes of society, interacting with humans only on a limited basis. In the rare case where a mortal manages to seduce, or allows himself to be seduced by, a “fairy” in any of these myths, the mortal nearly always meets a tragic end.

These legends, found in the mythologies of peoples living as far as half a world apart read like minor variations on a single myth. Does logic not suggest that they might constitute evidence of a people, human like ourselves but in some ways different, who actually lived among us (or, more accurately, alongside us) at some time in the distant past?

I contend that they do, and there’s more evidence to support this seemingly ridiculous notion – that the “Elves” and “Fairies” were real. Alfred, like the rest of the Aethelings, was one of them. Stay tuned…

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