Fig. 1 N. C. Wyeth, “Sword Excalibur Rises From the Lake” (c. early 20th c.)
Malory tells in his Morte d’Arthur epic (c. 1450) that just before the mortally-wounded Arthur passes from this world to Avalon, Arthur instructs Sir Bedivere (Bedwyr) to throw his sword Excalibur into the nearby water. Bedivere does not wish to lose such a precious sword, so he returns to Arthur twice having put the sword away out of sight. Each time Arthur asks what Bedivere saw when he threw the sword into the water. Bedivere lies twice and said the water merely moved. Nearly cursing him, the dying Arthur commands one last time. This time Bedivere obeys and throws the sword as far as he can over the water:
“and there came an arm and a hand above the water and met it and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished it, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.” (1)
Arthur is then taken away to Avalon through the mist by the beautiful women in black on the barges. Their mourning belies Arthur’s last words that he will go to Avalon to be healed and return if possible.
Fig. 2 Aubrey Beardsley, Bedivere casts Excalibur into the Water, 1894.
One aspect of this story in the Arthurian saga is singled out here because it seems to preserve a fairly well known Celtic custom of metal deposits in lakes and marshes if such interpretation of these finds is accurate. In the Celtic world, springs, lakes and marshes are liminal sacred places that are intermediary loci between, among others, the living and the dead. When Arthur’s legendary and to some extent magical sword Excalibur is returned to the Lady of the Lake, this is most likely an excerpted old echo of a longstanding Celtic votive ritual.
Examples abound in Europe and the British Isles of just such votive offerings. To name a few, the site that gives its name to the Celtic Iron II period (c. 450-50 BCE), is La Tène at the northeastern edge of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. Along with many other Celtic scholars, Miranda Green calls it a “type-site” for such Iron Age deposits. (2)
In 1857 Hans Kopp first excavated the La Tène lake site on the northeastern shore of Lake Neuchatel and fairly quickly found 40 swords, although an assemblage of over 2,500 objects from the La Tène Iron II Age (450-50 BCE) are now known from this site with at least 166 iron swords with very little use wear. Debates still vacillate whether this La Tène site is an offering site or an armory, but the frequency and prevalence of metal deposits in similar aqueous loci across Europe and the U.K. make the idea of solely an armory here very problematic. Majority opinion supports the hypothesis of these iron swords as votive offerings in such watery places. (3)
Fig. 3 La Tène Iron Age II Finds including Swords, circa 300 BCE
As represented here, Celtic ironworking of the La Tène period is often very sophisticated, and the metal objects are frequently decorated with care and deeply aesthetic patterning of traceries, triskelia and other features where “ the swords of the La Tène era have a highly developed sense of formal beauty and functionalism”. (4) Celtic swords are best studied – with Arthurian magical references noted – in Radomir Pleiner’s authoritative and definitive work, The Celtic Sword. (5) Polybius (History II.33) refers to the Celtic long sword (La Tène II circa 200 BCE) as a formidable weapon, averaging 70 cm but some of which blades exceeded lengths of 100 cm based on lake and other watery finds.
Fig. 4 Iron Age Celtic Swords from Britain, c. 300-50 BCE, British Museum
To name just a few, other watery (then or now marshy) U.K. sites with copious metal lake or river deposits include many swords and related weapons materials from the Witham and Thames Rivers like the Battersea and Wandsworth finds (London and Thames Valley Britain), (6) Llyn Cerrig Bach (Anglesey), Llyn Fawr (Mid Glamorgan, Wales), Flag Fen (Cambridgeshire), Blackburn Mill and Carlingwark (Scotland). (7)
Fig. 5 Witham Iron Age (Celtic) Shield, found in Witham River, Britain, circa 400-300 BCE, British Museum
Fig. 6 Iron Age (Celtic) Horned Helmet, found in Thames River at Waterloo Bridge, circa 150-50 BCE, Britain, British Museum
That swords and other precious metal weapon deposits are votive offerings is acceptable, although the symbolism and causes are not necessarily as easily determined. Some ritual metal weapon offerings were deliberately bent or made unusable before casting out into the water, however, many were in their newly-crafted state without being bent or “desecrated”. The Kirkburn sword in the below photo was not found in a watery context but buried in a grave; it is shown here to demonstrate Celtic workmanship in the sheath decoration.
Fig. 7 Kirkburn Sword, East Yorkshire, buried circa 300-200 BCE, Britain, British Museum (note Celtic patterned imagery on decorated sheath
Fig. 8 Battersea Shield, found in Thames River at Battersea Bridge, Iron Age (Celtic), 350-50 BCE, Britain, British Museum
Since weapons like swords are death-dealing, it should not be surprising to find such weapons so closely associated with the Otherworld (not at all necessarily the same place where the dead go). Time is also ambiguous and may telescope in the Otherworld; being there a short time may turn out to be 300 years in many myths. Swords deliver so many warriors to the threshold of departed spirits as well as to the Otherworld whose boundary is often watery. Journeys to the Otherworld, where weapons can also be useless or must be left behind, are not uncommon as in Ireland where “the echtrai tell of the hero’s incursion into the world of the supernatural, whether this is thought of as being beyond the sea, under the earth or a lake…or simply within the confines of a magic mist.” (8)
The “Lady of the Lake” is not just an Arthurian invention. Celtic water goddesses abound. To name only a few instances, many European rivers, known Celtic springs and places of healing water have been associated with feminine deities, such as the local Celtic goddess Sulis and her sacred waters at Aquae Sulis in Bath, Britain (where she was transformed to Sulis Minerva for the Roman Britains, thus Sulis must have been associated with wisdom and decisions), or at Buxton in Derbyshire – called Aquae Arnemetiae – sacred to the goddess Arnemetia with two different water sources. In France, the headwater springs of the Seine (Sequanus), the Fontes Sequanae, not far from Dijon (also see “La Source” at Châtillon-sur-Seine) were sacred to the goddess Sequana. Another healing spring sanctuary in France is at Chamalières and the river Marne in France is named from Matrona, the mother goddess. Dea Senua is another Romano-British (Celtic) goddess, attested in recent finds – especially a votive silver figurine – from Baldock (Hertfordshire) that Ralph Jackson at the British Museum has identified as an otherwise unknown female deity separate from Minerva. (9) Another Celtic water goddess was Coventina, celebrated in many places including in Roman Britain at Carrawburgh (ancient Brocolitia) adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall and possibly a goddess of memory (from the Celtic “cof”) and of healing. (10)
The mists and fogs still so common at La Tène in Switzerland are probably symbolic of some netherworld boundaries. In Europe as a whole, mists and fogs were part of the landscape the Romans found eerie. Even Tacitus remarks on the prevalent mists of Britain so alien to him, (11) but very much part of the Celtic world of ambiguous numinous thresholds.
Wells and springs are famous in Celtic tradition for just such supernatural encounters as this Arthurian tale coalesces. To name a few, in Ireland the Well of Knowledge, the Well of Segais or Connla’s Well, connected to the Rivers Boyne and Shannon, are similar loci where some sacrality is likewise associated. (12) The River Boyne in Ireland (also An Bhóinn or the Boand) was also a boundary for the Otherworld or a place where the Otherworld resided (13) and the goddess of this sacred river was Boann (Boand), after whom it was named. (14)
Near Voreppe above Grenoble, France, the Isere River bends into the “Gateway to the Alps” where a Celtic oppidum hill-fort has just been identified on the limestone massif above the river. (15) This researcher has explored the Voreppe oppidum with French historian Geoffroy de Galbert and a student team while directing the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project in 2007. (16) The Celtic control of the Isere narrows and nearby Isere flood plain as well as the local springs will also be likely to turn up similar Celtic metal votive offerings in and around the water contexts between the Pre-Alps massifs.
As Miranda Green has long pointed out:
“Bogs have the added dimension of ambiguity, seemingly harmless but treacherous to the unwary…water as a numinous force: it is easy to envisage a divine presence in the flow of rivers or the welling of spring water…. This notion of water as a gateway between the worlds is linked with liminality, or boundary-symbolism.” (17)
The feminine persona of the Lady of the Lake may be associated in some traditions with the Lady of the Fountain of Barenton in Brittany, France. Other probably later traditions even name the Lady of the Lake as Nimue, Merlin’s female apprentice and consort, although this is not a common association. Both Nimue and the Lady of the Lake have also been separately connected to Coventina, the above-mentioned Celtic water deity who had a Romano-British shrine on Hadrian’s Wall at Carrawburgh (ancient Brocolitia) with a pool. In yet another legend, the fairy woman named Niamh of the Golden Hair also lured the warrior poet Oisin, who was the son of Finn MacCool, into the misty Lough Lane, a Killarney lake. Lough Lane was thought to be a gateway into one locus in the Otherworld known as Tír na nÓg, a land of eternal youth. (18)
That the Lady of the Lake – a protective persona – raises her arm to receive just such a sword from the dying Arthur will preserve the sacred sword Excalibur’s properties from “profane” use, taking it back again to the Otherworld from where its numinous power comes and belongs. Thus, this story is hardly even syncretically Christian – a veneer in much of the Arthurian literature from varied sources in post-Roman Britain- but more likely masks a fairly pure Celtic origin in form and substance. Pleiner also emphasizes the Celtic origin of this tale, calling Excalibur by its older name Caliburnus (19) and others cite Excalibur by its Welsh name (Caledfwlch) in some Arthurian variants and see it as following the precedent of the earlier magical Irish sword Caladbolg, the lightning sword of the hero Fergus mac Róich that could cleave mountains. In Irish calad meant “hard”, which property Bernard Cornwell cleverly describes (and may be alluding to) in his modern darkly brilliant Arthurian sagas, where he has Excalibur derive from a deliberately sought meteoric iron-nickel metal source fallen from the sky, a hauntingly poetic peripety of water. (20) Some have even called this meteoric material “heavenstone” from its manner of entry as a source falling from the sky. Meteoric material made into swords in myth may recall such Celtic stories of legendary or magical swordsmiths like Goibniu in Irish myths or Gofannon in Welsh myths who made several magical swords in repeated lore. At least three other swords are recounted in European legend with long ethnographies of such possible origin, nonetheless mostly mythological for this association even if such swords actually existed: Charlemagne’s sword Joyeuse, Roland’s sword Durendal and Holger Danske’s (Ogier the Dane) sword Curtana or Cortana. Legend says that Holger Danske’s sword was inscribed with this script: “My name is Cortana, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durendal.” That meteoric material was even actually intermittently used historically in antiquity, however, is evidenced from Egypt, (21) although it is uncertain whether it was known to be meteoric in origin at the time.
N.C. Wyeth’s early 20th c. painting (Fig. 1) Excalibur Rising from the Lake is not the same end part of this story – Beardsley’s image fits Malory’s tale better here with the dying Arthur – but is instead from the beginning of Arthur’s connection to Excalibur with the presentation of the sword to Arthur, so the story has a cyclical water context. As in Wyeth’s painting, there are ample traditions that the sword Excalibur may have come from some sacred watery locus in the first place, to which it would ultimately return full circle.
Serving as backdrop for this story, it is possible that in addition to the many possible oral bardic literary referents, Celtic material artifacts could have also been known to the early medieval world. Otherwise unrecorded votive Celtic swords may have been sometimes found in medieval lake or marshy contexts. Thus, different cultural and archaeological antecedents could have given rise to this particular myth memory: an Excalibur tale of a legendary great iron sword returned to a watery Celtic semi-divine Lady of the Lake.
(1) Sir Thomas Malory. Morte d’Arthur. Columbia University Literature: Medieval Song and Story. New York: Columbia University Press 1929, 97-98.
(2) Miranda Green. “The Religious Symbolism of Llyn Cerrif Bach and Other Early Sacred Water Sites”. Source: The Holy Wells Journal. Vol. 1 (1994); also see Miranda Green. Celtic Goddesses. British Museum Press, 1998, 9-10; Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 31-33; Daíthí Ó hÓgáin. The Celts: A History. Wilton, Cork: Collins Press (Boydell, U.K.), 2002, 6-9ff.
(3) Gerhard Herm. The Celts. New York: St. Martins Press, 1977, 126-27; Barry Cunliffe. Ancient Celts. 1997, 194-195ff; Simon James. The Atlantic Celts. London: British Museum Press, 1999, 56-57.
(4) T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995 repr., 176ff; La Tene Exhibition of the Musée Schwab, Bienne, Switzerland, 2007.
(5) Radomir Pleiner. The Celtic Sword. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, esp. 36 on Excalibur and the role of Merlin, also 65-67, and esp. 108-10 on La Tène swords. Also see Peter Wells’ great review of this book in American Journal of Archaeology 98.2 (1994) 370, “a standard reference work on the Iron Age sword.”
(6) Barry Cunliffe, ed. The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, 367 ff.
(7) Green, 1994, ibid.
(8) Proinsias Mac Cana. The Learned Tales of Medieval Ireland. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1980, 75-76; J. MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, 1998, 317-18.
(9) Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses, 1995, 65, 90-99; Daíthí Ó hÓgáin, The Celts: A History, 2002, 25-26; Ralph Jackson. “A new goddess for Roman Britain.” [Senua] British Museum Friends Magazine 43 (Summer, 2003) 7; Benet Salway. “Dea Senua: A newly discovered Romano-British Goddess”. British Epigraphy Society Newsletter 10 (Autumn 2003) 9.
(10) L. Allason-Jones and B. MacKay. Coventina’s Well. Oxbow Books and Trustees of the Clayton Collection, Chester Museum, Oxford, 1985, esp. 3-4, 10; Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses, 1995, 99-102.
(11) Tacitus, Agricola 12.
(12) Alwyn and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1978 repr., 161; Marcus Tanner. The Last of the Celts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, 33, 82, 129, 132, 165, 226, 253, 258, 280
(13) Daíthí Ó hÓgáin. Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Tradition. New York: Ryan Publishing, Prentice Hall Press, 1991, 162.
(14) James MacKillop. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 45; Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses, 1995, 82-3; G. A. Trevarthen and A. Minard, “Celtic and Irish Mythology” in Alice Mills, ed. Mythology. Willoughby, Australia: Global Book Publishing, 2003, 221.
(15) Geoffroy de Galbert. Hannibal en Gaule. Editions de Belledonne, 2006, 11-13, 137 ff., 173-76.
(16) Patrick Hunt. Alpine Archaeology. New York: Ariel Books/ San Diego: University Readers, 2007, 114 ff.
(17) Green, 1994, ibid.
(18) Trevarthen and Minard, 231.
(19) Radomir Pleiner, The Celtic Sword, 1993, 36.
(20) J. MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, 1998, 64-65; Bernard Cornwell. Excalibur. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
(21) Paul Nicholson and Ian Shaw. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2000, 166-67.
Note: Figure 1 of N.C. Wyeth’s painting is courtesy of and by permission of www.podgallery.com; Figures 2 of Aubrey Beardsley’s image & 3 of Celtic swords and finds are in the public domain, wikipedia and www.freewebs.com respectively. Figures 4 -8 are photos taken by this author at the British Museum.
Copyright © 2008 Dr. Patrick Hunt