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Myths & Legends

KING ARTHUR’S FRENCH ODYSSEY - pArt 3
Marilyn Floyde 2007

“We come here to listen to the wind which carries us away into the world of Legend” (i)

AVALLON – THE HEALING SANCTUARY

The Retreat from Bourges

Arthur Riothamus, and what was left of his battle-weary troops, made their escape from Bourges (Avaricum), after their defeat by the invading Visigoths. They went east towards the Burgundians who were known to be allied to the Romans. There were still Roman strongholds in Avallon and Autun. The Romans had promised him reinforcements, but they had never materialised in Bourges, and Arthur Riothamus had been left to fight the Visigoths with his army alone, with disastrous consequences. The Burgundians would have offered him a safe haven. Along the Roman road to Avallon he would have passed through some of the most beautiful landscape in France. He would have reached the ‘Avallonnais’ region, surrounding Avallon itself, and the famous and sacred phenomenon for which Avallon was known throughout Gaul at that time, Les Fontaines Salées – literally, ‘the salt springs’.

Map Avallonnais, Burgundy, France
Map of Avallonnais

The Site of Les Fontaines Salées

If we go now from fact, to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictionalised History, he tells us that King Arthur spent two periods of time in Gaul. The first one lasted nine years. The second and final campaign was shorter, but after a brief foray to Mont-St-Michel where he killed a rapacious giant, the rest of his time was spent in what is now Burgundy. First he fought and defeated the Romans in a battle near Autun with massed armies from Britain and France under his command. Then he stayed in Burgundy for about a year ‘subduing’ the towns and cities.

So, if there is any grain of truth in Geoffrey’s account, then Arthur Riothamus already knew the area well. The main north-south Roman road, the Via Agrippa, follows the route from Sens (Agerdincum), Auxerre (Autessiodurum) and straight through Avallon and on to Autun (Augustodunum). Avallon was also an intersection for a web of more minor roads reaching throughout Burgundy to important Gallo Roman towns. If he had been to Gaul before, then Arthur Riothamus would have already known Avallon. If he knew Avallon then he would have known Les Fontaines Salées, and if he knew Les Fontaines Salées, after his retreat from Bourges, he would have taken his stricken men there. He would have gone there himself to be cured of his wounds.

Roman Site Les Fontaines Salées, Burgundy, France
Les Fontaines Salées

On the banks of the River Cure, Les Fontaines Salées had been an important Roman spa since the first century AD, and as the name suggests, the source of mineral deposits. But before the Romans – even before the Celts - going back to Neolithic times - the miraculous springs were also a source of great wonder. They were an ancient place of worship, and one of the most important healing sanctuaries in Gaul.

By the 5thC, it is thought that the Roman baths and buildings themselves had been destroyed by barbarians – or fallen into disuse with the collapse of the Empire. But there are finds of coins and ex-votos which suggest that the healing wells and salt springs continued to be used for religious and commercial purposes long after. In addition to sodium, the wells contain, amongst other things, chlorine, sulphur, chalk, magnesium, iron, potassium, lithium and copper. According to an article in Horizon 1990 this cocktail of elements and minerals would have been particularly soothing when used as a poultice for burns(i) and flesh wounds. But perhaps what has always given the wells their mystery and 'magical' edge, is that the water is slightly radioactive, and the springs bubble from deep underground, with the gas helium.

Depuis des temps immémoriaux les sources ont été sacralisées. Les Gaulois croyaient que les divinités qui les fréquentaient avaient le pouvoir de guérir les malades(ii)

[Translation: Since time immemorial the springs have been sacred. The Gauls knew that the divinities that frequented them had the power to heal the sick.]

In the first century BCE the site contained two open-air temples, a necropolis, and wells of salt water connected by large oak ‘pipes’ made from tree trunks which had been hollowed out by fire. These have been carbon-dated to around 3000 BCE. Since the dawn of time the whole site has been used for a variety of purposes. It was a cemetery dating from about 900 BCE containing ceramic funerary urns. It was a healing sanctuary and a sacred place of Celtic worship. It provided water with a high concentration of salt which was collected and processed by evaporation. As well as being used to preserve foodstuffs, salt was used in large quantities in tanning animal hides.

Venus, Aphrodite, Marble Head, Burgundy, France
Marble Head of Aphrodite / Venus

One temple was demarcated by a vast circular wall some three meters high with a diameter of about 30m and circumference of 94m. It is thought that this structure represented a giant wheel – in itself a symbol of the sun or moon. The Romans would have immediately recognised Dispater – Caesar wrote, “All Gauls assert they are descended from Dispater, their progenitor.” (The Celtic Religion) The Celts called him Taranis – the ‘thunderer’ – the god of the dead – the ancestor deity. Local place-names would seem to back this up. There is a “Crot de Tarnasse” or ‘Taranis’ hole’ a few kilometres away near Pierre Perthuis. (iii) Small wheel-shaped fibulae or brooches were found in the confines of the temple. Diana, the Romanised consort of Taranis, was a goddess closely associated with the moon and was the protector of women, especially in childbirth. She was also a goddess of fertility and is often depicted wearing crescent amulets. A marble head of a female goddess (thought to be Aphrodite/Venus) was also found in the confines of the temple.

Inside the circular enclosure, and obviously of central importance, was a square basin built into the ground, with walls of approx. 1.5m, and of a similar depth. It was thought originally to have had a roof over it, supported by four pillars. It was the most sacred of the wells, almost certainly presided over by women, and contained the helium.

The Celts would have believed that the gentle bubbles rising to the surface of the water were the numinous essence of the deities. Helium has no specific medicinal purpose. The unique quality which most people know about, is that if inhaled, it increases the pitch of the breather’s voice, giving it the ‘chipmunk’ effect for a few seconds. People do it as a fun sideshow when inflating party balloons. It’s impossible to know whether this effect could ever have been produced by using the water from this basin in some way – or what the Celts would have thought about it, if it had. But as ever, Les Fontaines Salées provoke wild flights of fancy about vast underground caverns being filled with the stuff, and Celtic druids conducting their most secret offices in limestone caverns – speaking in weird voices – dumbfounding their constituency with the sheer strangeness of it all...

This was the sanctuary that was partially built on by the Romans when constructing their baths. It became the thermal baths for women out of respect for its ancient use. There were coins dating from the 4th century found within the basin. Was this another echo of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Avalon’ and what he calls in Vita Merlinithe court of maidens”? Is it the ancient sanctuary where “nine sisters give pleasant laws to those who come from our parts to them”?

The other temple was another large area, shaped like an inverted T. It also contained a sacred basin. But this one was bigger – some 13m square – which, according to the discovery of ex votos, was concerned specifically with healing. There, as well as bathing, healing rituals would have taken place with the help of the little effigies, brought to the well by the afflicted. The ex voto would represent the ailing body part. It could be made of stone, metal or wood. From Les Fontaines Salées the finds include heads, hands, feet - and a pierced phallus - which could have been suspended above the basin. (See also Source of the Seine)

Is this the healing sanctuary described by Geoffrey of Monmouth presided over by Morgen le Fay of whom he says, “and of those sisters, she who is higher becomes a doctor in the art of healing and exceeds her sisters in excellent form. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what usefulness all the herbs bear so that she may cure sick bodies……men say that she has taught mathematics to her sisters, Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither”? Were Morgen and the ‘sisters’ taught medicine, music and mathematics at the famous school in Avallon? (see Avallon – The Beginning and the End)

Certainly, on the subject of Morgen le Fay, Chrétien de Troyes writing in French during the second part of the twelfth century, associates Morgen with Avalon. At the wedding of Eric and Enide, in his first Arthurian Romance, he describes the ‘lord’ of Avalon, Guingamar, as “the friend of Morgen le Fay, and it was the proven truth.” It is also a matter of fact that within the likely timespan that Arthur Riothamus could have been in Burgundy, there was a succession of important Burgundian kings and lords called, ‘Gundahar’ ‘Gundioc’ ‘Gundobad’ ‘Godomar’ and ‘Godegisel’. Chrétien also mentions that Morgen le Fay was King Arthur’s sister, and that she was well-known for her healing powers.

King Arthur was taken to Morgen’s ‘rooms’. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Morgen “did honor to us, and in her rooms she placed the king upon a golden couch and with her own honorable hand she uncovered his wound and inspected it for a long time, and at last she said that health could return to him, if he were with her for a long time and wished to undergo her treatment.”

This description is strongly authentic as a medical examination. The hands-on, systematic examination, taking a long while, leading to the carefully considered diagnosis, is almost a text book procedure. This kind of detail could have come back to Geoffrey of Monmouth as another echo of a contemporary account. The report perhaps of one of Arthur Riothamus’ soldiers who got back to Britain, and whose story passed into folklore?

As a final word about Morgen for the moment, Giraldus Cambrensis (eye-witness to the discovery of the ‘tomb of King Arthur & Guinevere’ at Glastonbury) gives us a sober account of the ‘real’ Morgen, “ … after Arthur had been mortally wounded there, his body was taken to the Isle of Avalon, [which is now called Glastonbury (v)], by a noble matron and kinswoman named Morgan; afterwards the remains were buried, according to her direction, in the holy burial ground.” Giraldus is no more likely to know whether Morgen was a ‘noble matron’ or a fully-qualified Herbalist, as he was writing contemporaneously with Geoffrey of Monmouth – and, of course, they were both writing about events that had taken place seven hundred years previously. But he does seem to be convinced that she was ‘real’.

Returning to the story of Les Fontaines Salées, after the Conquest, the Romans built on to the site incorporating some elements of the existing walls and buildings. Essentially from 2 AD, and in its Roman heyday, by all accounts Les Fontaines Salées became a most magnificent and luxurious example of a Roman spa, with hot and cold baths, gymnasium, wrestling arena, and beauty parlour. So the site played host to yet another function - another layer – the cleansing and pampering of the body.

In the 4th or 5thC as the Empire was collapsing, an extraordinarily optimistic addition to the site was built. At about the time Arthur Riothamus was in Burgundy, the Christian Chapel of St. Jean-Baptiste was built on the site of the Temple. It was optimistic because the ever-present power-struggle between the colonising Germanic tribes made nonsense of any long-term building projects. Marauding armies were filling the vacuum left by the Romans and ransacking their way through Gaul, leaving smouldering buildings and bodies in their wake. Or were they? How affected was Les Fontaines Salées by the atrocities? Were the Christians confident that their new chapel would survive? Had there ever been any marauding barbarians in that neck of the woods? What happened to the pagan community of women presiding over the sanctuaries? Did they embrace the new religion before or after the time that Arthur Riothamus was in Burgundy? We shall probably never find out.

Entering the Dark Ages is like going into a 400 year tunnel. We have a scanty grasp of how things were at the beginning once the Romans had gone, and emerging out into the light again, things are really little better. It took a long while before information became reliable, recorded and made available. There is really only legend and archaeology which can be of much help. Arthur Riothamus is exactly at the mouth of that tunnel – in the middle of the 5th century.

As a post script to the story of the wells, the extraction of salt continued intermittently until the 14thC, when monks chose to bury the site, so that the townspeople had to use the Church’s Grenier de Sel (salt store), and pay them the prohibitive salt tax rather than help themselves to what had always been available to them at Les Fontaines Salées. The wells drifted into distant memory, and then finally they were forgotten altogether. In effect, that is how they remained until Les Fontaines Salées were rediscovered in the twentieth century, within living memory.

The nearest place to Les Fontaines Salées was called Vezeliacum thought to be named after a wealthy Roman who had a villa built a few kilometres away from the wells. The small, but prosperous village which grew up around Vezeliacum was in the shadow of a hill which was destined to become one of the most important places in medieval Christendom. By the Middle Ages the walled town, and Romanesque churches, built up the sides of the steep hill and crowned with the Abbey and basilica dedicated to Mary Magdalene, was known as Vézelay. But in Arthur Riothamus’ time it was a wooded hill, with some grazing land and grapevines scattering the south east slope. That first settlement at the bottom of the hill is now called St. Père-sous-Vézelay, and Vézelay itself is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The story of Les Fontaines Salées and the earliest legends about the beginnings of Vézelay, are central to our research about King Arthur.

If Arthur Riothamus was in Avallon around 470 AD, beside the River Cure tending his wounds at Les Fontaines Salées, then he was on land that was highly charged with history, magic and mysticism, dedicated to bodily health, well-being and fertility. He may have been there with his sister, Morgen le Fay - perhaps herself the consort of a king of Avallon or Burgundy - who was treating him with herbal medicines. What was certainly true, was that the site was an ancient cemetery in sacred surroundings beside a sacred river. There had been a community of women there following a Romano/Celtic religion. There may have been a Christian chapel there – or that could have been built later. There was a healing basin with waters rich in minerals – still in use. There was a shrine dedicated to Diana – still in use. There were the ruins of a Roman spa. There were wells rich in salt water for washing clean the wounds of bloody battle. But above all, there was the intense spiritual power concentrated on a site which had been used since Neolithic times for healing and worship. For Arthur Riothamus it would have been the ultimate, ancestral Celtic experience. So let’s leave him there, at Les Fontaines Salées, for the time being, and look at another legend.

© Marilyn Floyde 2007

Next - The Chanson de Geste of Girart de Roussillon

(i) VEZELAY – A sentimental Guide 1995 L’Or des Etoiles, Jules ROY Trans. Georges Michel, Nicole and Larry Mallet

(ii) Histoire de Vézelay, Bernard PUJO, 2000 Librarie Academique Perrin

(iii) ‘Les Fontaines Salées Vézelay gallo-romain’ Francois VOGARDE 1980 Magasin St-Bernard VEZELAY

(iv) Ibid Pierre-Perthuis

(v) See Avallon – What’s in a Name?

2016: King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy by Marilyn Floyde, has now been republished with fresh findings. Your can order it from www.islandofavallon.co.uk. Now also translated into French.