I can’t honestly say my Cumbrian grandparents ever mentioned faeries. And yet, when I look into Cumbrian History & Folklore, I find them all the time. Normally they’re a clue to a history that has faded from popular memory; faery processions at crossroads and over mountains, treading routes to ancient burial grounds, and Bronze Age barrows that turn into faery halls.
The coastal village of Ravenglass is pre-eminent amongst these with its claim to be home of Eveling, King of the Faeries. He lives in the ruins of the Roman castle of Glanoventa (Walls Castle) – complete with luxurious indoor plumbing – with his daughter, Modron. His rath or fort is at Mediobogdum, the ruins of a Roman fort located on the hair-raising Hardknott Pass between Eskdale and the central Lake District.
We know these ideas were well-formed as far back at the 16th century when the visiting antiquarian William Camden said, ‘they speak there much of King Eveling’, although he carelessly neglects to mention exactly what they said about him. That, you might think, would be the end of it, only ‘Eveling’ – which is pronounced ‘ever-ling’– is an anglicisation of the Brythonic (an old form of Welsh) ‘Afallach’, and he and his daughter are both well known in Welsh mythology.
Afallach the god is so old that we’re a bit hazy about his role; he’s normally mentioned in context of his daughter. His name has the Brythonic word for ‘apple’ in it, and it’s thought that he is something like a ruler of a perfect Celtic afterlife, set in a fruitful orchard, where the rewards of a life well lived are reaped in death.
Afallach is also mentioned in old Welsh genealogies as the ultimate ancestor of many kings of Rheged, including Coel Hen (‘Old King Cole’) and hence Cumbria’s own Urien, Owain map Urien, Owain and Dunmail. It’s not known whether this Afallach was a real man named after the Celtic deity of the same name, or whether the genealogies are making a fanciful claim that their kings are descended from gods.
Arthurian legend also claims Afallach. The Isle of Avalon is Ynys Afallon, the ‘isle of apples’ or ‘isle of Afallach’, where he lives with his daughter Modron and nine ‘sisters’. Here we run straight into King Arthur’s sorceress sister, Morgan le Fay, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, also lived in Avalon with nine sisters1. Morgan2would appear to be Modron in disguise.
In Welsh mythology, Modron is a river goddess. The river at Ravenglass, the Esk, has been a key route from the Irish Sea to the mountains of the central Lakes for millennia. The Eskdale Valley is surely one of the most impressive in the country, extending seven miles from Ravenglass at sea level up to Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England.
Modron also turns up in the Welsh triads3, where she is said to have spent her days washing in a river. She was condemned by prophecy to work there until a christian fathered a child with her; this christian was Urien of Rheged, and the twin children she delivered were Owain and his sister, Morfydd. In this guise, Modron is again closely linked with Morgan le Fay who was said in high medieval literature1 to be Urien’s wife and Owain’s mother.
Modron’s roots go back to Matrona, a Gaulish-Celtic mother goddess worshipped particularly in Celtic France but also across northern Europe. She is often see as a triple goddess of the maiden, mother and crone variety, associated with fertility and harvests.
Modron usually appears in Welsh mythology as the mother of Mabon, another deity. Mabon, or Maponos, was very popular in Cumbria and southwest Scotland. There are dedications made to him by Roman soldiers working at Hadrian’s Wall, and there are theories that Lochmaben and Clockmabenstaen, just over the border, are named after him. Taliesin, Urien’s bard, often mentions Mabon in a Rheged context.
So, Eveling is not so much a faery king as the head of a dynasty of Celtic deities who were worshipped right here for hundreds of years. Not bad for little old Ravenglass.
1. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written c. 1136CE
2. Note that ‘Morgan’ is Welsh for ‘sea-born’. Like the Modron of Welsh myth, she is a supernatural character with water connections. ‘Le Fay’, of course, simply means ‘faery’.
3. Triad 70.