Eveling, Cumbria’s faery king and Celtic god

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.

Walls Castle,Ravenglass Copyright Mick Knapton
Walls Castle,Ravenglass Copyright Mick Knapton

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’s tragedy was that when she called up the sea wind to hasten her lover’s return, the sea rose too high and submerged much of the land. Her story is also told in Cornwall – another part of England which was late in dropping its old Brythonic language – and here, it’s linked to the collapse of the land bridge between the Scilly Isles and Cornwall, although this event took place thousands of years ago. The Cumbrian coast has seen land slips, too, so perhaps it’s not surprising that she was closely identified with Ravenglass.

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.

© Diane McIlmoyle 30.03.11 Revised version 11.01.12

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.

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10 thoughts on “Eveling, Cumbria’s faery king and Celtic god

  1. Could it be that Modron/Matrona traces back to IndoEuropean roots from which we get mother, matrix, etc.? Your fascinating explorations always lead to intriguing questions and further explorations. Keep up the good work!

  2. Steve is absolutely right about Modron/Matrona –> mother/mater, etc. The root figure is the universal Mother Goddess. Likewise her son Mabon (Old Welsh ‘mab’ = son) represents the ubiquitous youthful male god whose Roman equivalent was Apollo, hence the veneration of ‘Apollo-Maponus’ by Roman soldiers serving in North Britain.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of Hardknott being a fairy fort. Its dramatic setting does give it a certain special aura. Seems an appropriate place for the Good Folk to inhabit.

    • Quite, Tim! Fabulous location, and still quite tricky to access – makes me think of all those folklore/mythology stories where the protagonist has to prove himself brave and noble before being allowed to see something – you have to be brave and *something* to drive over Hardknott Pass!

      I’d add that ‘Morgan’ is ‘sea-born’ in old Welsh. Perhaps our mother goddesses and water goddesses have combined.

      There’s a good, and very large, altar to Maponos in Tullie House’s Roman Gallery at the moment.

      (Tullie House is in Carlisle. http://www.tulliehouse.co.uk )

  3. Pingback: Loki: Cumbria’s man in chains | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  4. My maternal ancestors are Cumbrian (the Mockerkin-Lamplugh Fletchers) and a few year back I found this snippet that tickled my funny bone.

    ***In a list of Deaths claiming to come from the Register of the Parish of Lamplugh from 1 January 1656 to 1st January 1663, a surprising number of these were ascribed to most peculiar occurrences. Some of these are as follows:

    ‘Crossed in love’;

    ‘took cold sleeping at Church’ (eleven people);

    ‘frightened to death by fairies’ (four people);

    ‘bewitched’(seven);

    ‘led into a horse pond by a “will of the w(h)isp”’ (a phosphorescent light seen hovering or floating at night on marshy ground, thought to result from the combustion of marsh gases.)

    The records also show rather more unusual deaths, such as: ‘knocked on the head at a cockfight’, ‘climbing a crow’s nest’, ‘choked with eating barley’, ‘broke his neck robbing a hen roost’ (one man), one man ‘knocked on ye head with a quart bottle’.

    And a sign of the cruel times in which these people lived: ‘seven persons hanged for clipping and coyning’ (paring and counterfeiting currency), ‘three old women drowned after trial for witchcraft’ – presumably they suffered the usual fate of a ducking stool. ***

    I have just discovered your website. It is like coming across a fairy’s bower.

    • Hello Violet – glad you like the site! I blogged on the Lamplugh document here :

      I’m sorry to say that the documents experts up in Carlisle are confident it’s any 18th-century fake! Well, I say I’m sorry: I suppose I’m quite glad that they didn’t actually drown anyone for witchcraft. There’s actually very little sign of witch trials full stop in old Cumberland/Westmorland; I’ve come across just one reference to a ducking in 17th-century Carlisle. I suspect after a long period battling off Scottish marauders that they were just plain pragmatic and not given to hysterics.

      My own maternal ancestors come from the area just to the north of Lamplugh, so, you never know, perhaps we’re related somewhere along the line :)

      Hopefully I’ll see you here again :)

  5. Pingback: Happy Midsummer! | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

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