The Once and Future King

Modern druids refer to the winter solstice as Alban Arthur, or Arthur’s Time. Several things point us in the direction of Arthur being a sun god or at least a solar hero in the manner of Herakles, whose twelve labours describe the sun’s journey through the twelve signs of the zodiac during the year. Like other sun gods, Arthur died and rests in a cave (or under a hill) until he shall return as the ‘once and future king’. He is associated with the Wild Hunt – as king of the dead he rides out during the winter months to collect souls. There was a battle between the forces of light and darkness, and Arthur died, though his return is promised. According to Nennius, he fought twelve battles against the Saxons, which may relate to the sun’s journey through the twelve signs of the zodiac. He was defeated in the final battle, wounded in the head, which may characterise the failing sun and dying old year before the winter solstice. [1] Arthur was taken away in a barge by three queens, or according to legend, was borne to the heavens on a celestial barge, alternately called Arthur’s Chariot and Arthur’s Wain (Wagon), corresponding to the Plough stars, or the barque of the sun as it sails into the underworld before returning with the dawn as the reborn sun.

Arthur’s name means ‘Bear-Man’ or ‘Great Bear’ or perhaps even ‘Wonderful Bear’. He was associated with the constellation of the Great Bear which was called Arthur’s Wain (wagon), or sometimes Arthur’s Plough. The constellation of the Great Bear circles around the unmoving Pole Star during the course of the year. To this day the Welsh refer to the circumpolar region of the stars as the Bwrdd Arthur (‘Arthur’s Table’), described as round. Following the Great Bear is the constellation of Boötes, the herdsman, with its brightest star Arcturus or ‘Bear Keeper’.  When it first rises over the eastern horizon, not long after the winter solstice each year, it means that spring is on its way as the sun gains strength. Arcturus is known as ‘The One who Comes’.  

The bear hibernates in the winter, entering a cave or some quiet, secluded place. It emerges in the spring with the female often having given birth in the meantime and appearing with cubs in tow. This led to the bear being associated with regeneration and rebirth, adopted as a solar symbol.

The pattern of the night sky changes hour by hour and season by season as it whirls around the still hub, Polaris, the Pole Star. [2] This was readily taken by many cultures to mean that the polar region of the stars was the centre of the Cosmos, the point in the heavens where the central pole – the cosmic axis – connected. It was called the Nowl in Norse lore, which means the ‘navel’ or the ‘nail’ which holds the sky in position.

The circumpolar stars never sink below the horizon and were called the undying or imperishable ones, the eternal ones which never enter the underworld as all other constellations do. This gave them a special role in stellar mythology, making them the place of eternity and the everlasting. For the Greeks, the three stars in the tail of the Bear were the three apples of immortality which Herakles, for his eleventh labour, stole from the garden of the Hesperides (identified with the stars of Ursa Minor) which contained the World Tree. [3] For these reasons, the North is the most sacred direction in modern Paganism. In Celtic tradition, the Spiral Castle of Arianrhod (the Corona Borealis) surrounds the North Star, and this is the place that souls travel to at death or for initiation.

Circling the Pole Star are the two bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (which actually contains the Pole Star), which also never set. [4] The constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, can be seen from nearly everywhere in the world, but is most prominent in the northern hemisphere. In ancient Greece, Babylon, India, China and in North America, it was imagined as a she-bear. Some have even suggested that its identification as a bear could date back to the Ice Age 50,000 years ago when a Palaeolithic bear cult existed. [5]

The Great Bear is probably the most widely recognized because of its distinctive asterism (a group of stars within a constellation) which forms the Plough.  The shape of the asterism resembles an old-fashioned plough, which gives it its English name, or some say a ladle or saucepan, which gives the constellation its American name, the Big Dipper. The right-hand side of the Plough has two stars that point to the Pole Star, the last star in the tail of the Little Bear, and these are called ‘the Pointers’. The stars were used as an aid to navigation by travellers on both sea and land as they indicate the way north.

The orientation of the bear figures changes dramatically through the course of the night. The movement of the Plough around the Pole Star, and its changing position, charts the passage of time. As the seasons turn, it moves around the sky, rotating a quarter of a circle each season. After a year, it is back at the same point in the sky. Many cultures used it to pinpoint the calendar, or as a marker for various ceremonies. [6] Its continual circling of the axis stands for eternity, cosmic order, ordered change, cyclical change, and in some cultures, the authority of the king. [7]

Some have suggested that the four seasonal points of the Plough is the origin of the swastika, an ancient symbol of movement and change. For the Egyptians the constellation was Meskhetiu, which represented immortality because it never went into the underworld.

A common name for the seven major stars of the Great Bear is ‘the Wise Men’. In Hindu tradition they are sapta-riksha, or Seven Sages or Seven Poets.  In China, the seven stars correspond to the Seven Rulers. In Siberia the seven stars are the Seven Blacksmiths or Seven Watchmen. It may be that this is the origin of the wise men who greet the newborn Son of Light (the Bible mentions a visit by wise men, not kings, and does not number them as three).

The most common name for the constellation is the wagon. Homer and Hesiod both give the Great Bear the secondary appellation of the wagon. As far back as the seventh century BCE, the Mesopotamians called it Ma-Gid-Da or ‘wagon’. For the Anglo-Saxons it was Irmin’s Wagon, for the Norse Odin’s Wagon and for the Teutons it was Woden’s Wagon, or Karl’s Wagon, which later became Charles’ Wagon in England. The Italians called it Carro (wagon). In Britain it was known as Arthur’s Wagon.

Following the Great Bear is the constellation of Boötes, the herdsman who rules the spring and summer skies, with its brightest star Arcturus (‘Bear Keeper’). When it first rises over the eastern horizon in January, it is a sign that spring is on its way. Arcturus is known as ‘The One who Comes’, rising not long after the winter solstice each year, just as Arthur is known as the ‘Once and Future King’ who sleeps until the day of his promised return.[8] In Ancient Egypt Arcturus was Smat ‘The One Who Rules’ and Bau, ‘The Coming One’. The Celtic goddess Brighid was styled ‘daughter of the bear’, because her spring festival of Imbolc follows the rebirth of the sun and the rising of Arcturus. 

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History Lore and Celebration, Lear Books 2010


[1] Owen Morgan, The Light of Britannia, 1892

[2] This is the current Pole Star, though previously it was Draco and in 14,000 years time it will be Vega

[3] The three stars in the tail of Ursa Major are called ‘pointer stars’ as they point the way to the Pole Star.

[4] The bears now set except in high latitudes, but in Homer’s day and before, these stars did not sink below the horizon.

[5] http://www.aavso.org/myths-uma

[6] It may be that the Greeks saw the Plough as the wheel of Ixion spinning around the North Star, Polaris. Ixion (possibly ‘Axle’), King of Lapiths, was the first man to murder a kinsman. Hermes chained him by hands and feet to a wheel which constantly revolves around the sky.

[7] Dr E.C.Krupp, Beyond the Blue Horizon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991

[8] Madeleine Johnson, Arcturus Rising, http://www.yewgrove.demon.co.uk/starsong/arcturus.htm, ©1997

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: