Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Sword in the Stone

After the death of Uther Pendragon the realm stood in great jeopardy for a long while without an heir apparent; his son Arthur was just a boy who had been fostered by Sir Ector, as was the practice of the time. Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury and counselled him to gather all the lords of the realm at London at Christmas time for some miracle to occur which would indicate the rightful king of the realm.

The lords of the realm came to the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not, Malory says the French book he is using as his source does not say;

“when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.” 

After high mass the Lords attempted to remove the sword from the stone, but none could move it.

Upon New Year's Day all the knights gathered for a jousting tournament. Sir Ector arrived with his son Sir Kay and his foster-brother Arthur. Sir Kay had left his sword at his father's lodging so Arthur was sent to fetch it. Arthur found no one at home to give him Sir Kay's sword. When he came to the churchyard and saw the sword in the stone there he pulled the naked sword from the stone and then went back to Sir Kay and handed it to him. Sir Kay recognised the sword from the stone and took it to Sir Ector saying he must be rightful king of the land.

Arthur draws the sword from the stone
Sir Ector took the sword back to the churchyard and Sir Kay admitted he had not pulled it from the stone but his foster-brother Arthur had given it to him. The sword was placed back in the stone. Sir Ector tried to pull it out but failed. Arthur then pulled the sword out and Sir Ector stated that Arthur must be rightful king of the realm.1

Arthur later breaks this sword in a duel with Pallinore, then Merlin takes him to the Lady of the Lake who presents him with a new sword, the mythical Excalibur. At Arthur's death the sword is returned to the Lady of the Lake; after three attempts Bedivere finally throws Excalibur into the Lake where a hand reaches out the water and catches the sword and draws it under.2

The 'Sword in the Stone' is one of the most famous episodes of the Arthurian legend but its origins remain a mystery. Magical swords are common enough in Celtic mythology and many lakes and rivers in North Western Europe have been found to contain ironwork from the Bronze and Iron Ages, deposits interpreted as votive offerings, and as such may explain the Lady of the Lake element of the story. Yet the motif of extracting a sword from an anvil or stone is entirely absent from the Celtic tradition. Some historians have conjectured that the 'sword in the stone' originates from the casting of molten metal into a stone mould in the Bronze Age.3 The art of the blacksmith and the anvil are certainly significant in the origins of this legend as will shall see.

Origins of the Tale
The London Stone also known as the Stone of Brutus after the city's legendary Trojan founder, is often claimed to be the stone from whence Arthur pulled the sword, no doubt due to its close proximity to St Paul's, if that were indeed Malory's 'greatest church of London'.

The stone has been described as an outlier to a stone circle that once stood on Ludgate Hill, a sacred place from ancient times. Tradition claims a pagan temple once stood on the site and was destroyed around 597 AD to make way for the first Christian church to be built there in 604 AD, the precursor to St Paul's Cathedral. Another popular theory claims it was a Roman ‘milliarium’ the point from which all distances in Britain were measured. At one time London Stone stood at the centre of the street-grid laid out by King Alfred when he re-established Lundenwic in 886 AD, after the Vikings had destroyed much of the original Saxon town.4 Whatever the truth of the stone's origins, it from a source not native to London.

London Stone, a Grade II listed block of oolitic limestone, a material brought into the city by Romans and Saxons, stood encased behind an iron grill at WH Smith in  Cannon Street for many years having been moved from opposite St Swithin’s Church before its destruction during the Second World War. In a redevelopment of the area, the stone is now due to be mounted on a plinth as the centrepiece of the Square Mile. The stone currently resides at the Museum of London until the construction work is completed. Could this be the stone that inspired Malory's story?

The Sword in the Stone is entirely absent from the earliest Arthurian tales such as The Spoils of Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and the chronicles of Wace and Layamon. It does not enter Arthurian Romance until the work of Robert de Boron in his tale entitled 'Merlin', c.1200, and then appears in just about every account thereafter. In its origin de Boron has the stone drawn from an anvil atop a stone as shown in the last great Arthurian tale by Sir Thomas Malory.

In his Historia Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur as Uther's well known son and successor. Yet in later accounts Arthur's status as the rightful heir to the throne is less clear owing to his secret conception and fosterage. The Sword in the Stone is devised as a magical test by Merlin to prove Arthur as the rightful king. Robert de Boron has the sword as a symbol of justice and Arthur's ability to withdraw it from the anvil atop the stone a sign of God's approval.

Yet the Arthurian tale of the Sword in the Sword has no clear parallels in legend, indeed there are only two other examples of the motif of a sword that can only be moved by the right person: the 'sword in the tree' from the Völsunga saga; and an oral tale from India.5

The Sword in the Branstock 
A Germanic variant of this legend can be found in “The Sword in the Branstock” in which the sword is embedded in a tree rather than in an anvil or a stone.6

The Branstock
At the wedding of Signy and Siggeir, a man with one eye and wearing a blue cloak thrusts a sword into the Branstock, an ancient oak tree in the centre of the hall. The man declares that the sword will belong to whichever warrior can pull it free - then he leaves. He is identified by the wedding guests as the great Norse god Odin. Several of the warriors, including Signy's father, Volsung, attempt to pull the sword from the oak, but all fail. However, Sigmund, the tenth and youngest son, manages to pull the sword free.

The “Sword in the Branstock” exists in the “Sigurdsaga” part of the 13th century Norse Völsunga saga which tells of the origin and decline of the Völsung family. The saga tells the story of the legendary hero of Norse mythology Sigurd, the posthumous son of Sigmund who dies in battle against Odin when his sword, Gram, shatters.

Sigurd is fostered by Reginn the smith who makes a sword for him. But every sword Reginn forged for him, Sigurd broke by striking it against the smith's anvil. Finally Sigurd collects the broken pieces of his father Sigmund's sword, Gram, and brings them to Reginn. The smith repairs the sword and when Sigurd tests the blade against the anvil, this time it is the anvil that splits in two, down to its base. Sigurd uses the sword to kill Fafnir the dragon and then beheads Reginn after he learns the smith is plotting to kill him.
Sigurd splits the anvil
The earliest known pictorial representation of this tradition can be found on “The Sigurd Stones” a group of seven runestones and one picture stone from Sweden that depict scenes from the legend of Sigurd the dragon slayer. The Sigurdsristning (Ramsund Stone) is a carving on a flat rock believed to have been carved around the year 1030 AD during the Viking Age, being the earliest known Norse representation of the matter of the Sigurd legends found in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda and the Völsunga saga.

As Siegfried he is the hero of the German version told in the Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs) based largely on the old stories of historic events and individuals of the 5th and 6th centuries echoing the Old Norse legends such as the Völsunga saga.

Transmission from the East
However, the origins of the material in these sagas is considerably older, reflecting, in part, real events in Central Europe during the Migration Period, particularly the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns in the 5th century. Yet, although the Huns must have had significant contact with the Germanic peoples prior to the recording of the tales in the Völsunga saga, the Alano-Sarmatian peoples must have experienced interaction with their Germanic neighbours long before the Huns swept westward. As the story in the Völsunga saga continues the Huns feature prominently; it follows, therefore, that they obtained their knowledge of the sword cult from the Alans.

The Alans were a Sarmatian tribe, a Scythian subgroup of Iranian nomadic pastoral people, whose homeland was in the North Caucasus. Having migrated westwards, by the 1st century AD they were reported by Roman sources as the dominant group among the Sarmatians inhabiting an area from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

By around 50 AD the bulk of the Sarmatians were located in the vicinity of the Tisa and the Danube putting them in close contact with several Germanic tribes. The Roman historian Tacitus (Germania 46) tells us that there were several tribes who were so intermingled that he could no longer tell which was German and which was Sarmatian.

However, in the 4th century the westward onslaught of the Huns destroyed the Alan kingdom, and they are reported joining the Vandals and the Suebi and crossing the Rhine in 406 AD and invading Roman Gaul. Some moved on to Iberia, many settled in Gaul; the Alans of Orléans played a major role in halting the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD. In the aftermath, the Roman general Flavius Aetius settled large numbers of Alans in and around Armorica, Brittany, as attested by placenames such as Allaines, Allainville and Les Allains.

In “From Scythia to Camelot7 Littleton and Malcor argue that folk tales (the Nart sagas) of the Alano-Sarmatians who settled in Western Europe formed the core of the Arthurian tradition including a variant of the Sword in the Stone legend which was brought to Europe by the Alans during the 5th century AD. For example, of Lancelot's family, famed for their swordplay and possible descent from the Alans, they write;“no family is a bigger practitioner of thrusting weapons of war into stone and withdrawing them to prove their right to something than the knights of Lancelot's clan.8

Malcor expanded the possibility that Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer who lived in the late 2nd century, was the inspiration for the figure of Arthur in medieval European literature, a concept first suggested by Kemp Malone in 1924.9

Sarmatian heavy cavalry
At the time Castus enlisted, c.158, into Legio III Gallica was posted to Syria. Around eight years later he transferred to Legio II Adiutrix stationed on the Danube at Aquincum, capital of Pannonia Inferior. It is here that he first became acquainted with the Iazyges, a tribe of Sarmatians.

By 175 Castus was primus pilus of one of the three Danubian legions in the Roman victory when they conquered the Iazyges among the 8,000 Sarmatian cavalry that Marcus Aurelius conscripted into the Roman army. According to the historian Cassius Dio (72.16) 5,500 of these recruits were sent to Britain, with Castus later becoming their commanding officer in 181.

The bulk of the Iazyges detachment to Britain were stationed at Bremetennacum (Ribchester in Lancashire) under the command of Castus with Legio VI Victrix who manned Hadrian's Wall including the western forts at Camboglanna (Castlesteads) and Avallana (Burgh-By-Sands); two sites identified with Camlann and Avalon of Arthurian legend.

The Romans of the north suffered heavy losses through repeated Pict invasions of 180-185, killing the governor of Britain (probably Caerellius Priscus). But the defences of the western end of the Wall held and Castus was promoted to dux and despatched to Armorica to deal with an uprising c.185 AD. The military expedition to Armorica has been suggested as the inspiration for King Arthur's legendary invasion of Gaul as detailed by Geoffrey of Monmouth and often used in the argument to equate Arthur with Riothamus, the British king who crossed to Gaul with 12,000 men 'by way of ocean'.

A Sword Cult in the West?
Littleton and Malcor argue then for the existence of a sword cult among the Alans and that they had a significant impact on Germanic groups in the 4th and 5th centuries as they moved westward through Europe. The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (31.4.22) observed the ancient Alans practising a form of religion associated with their war god which included a ritual in which they embedded a sword in the ground. Clearly, this ritual is a survival of an earlier ceremonial ritual of the Scythians, who displayed a spiritual-like affection for their swords, performed in honour of their war god, as recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus (4.59-62) in the 5th century BC in which the sword is placed in neither an anvil nor in the ground but in a pile of wood placed upon an altar.

Littleton and Malcor conclude that the veneration of swords as divine symbols seems to have its origin in the peoples of the steppes with the cult taken westward by the Alans; the legend may have survived in regions of France they settled and later taken into Arthurian Romance by French writers. Littleton and Malcor suggest that the motif of the Sword in the Stone, seen for the first time in Robert de Boron's 'Merlin' may reflect an Alano-Sarmatian sword cult.

They further speculate that the extraction of swords plunged into the earth or wood atop altars could have existed as, an as yet unattested, initiation rite for youths seeking acceptance into the warband. As romantic and attractive as this concept may sound they reluctantly admit there is no evidence for such a rite among the tribes of the steppes.10

To this lack of evidence for an initiation ritual involving the withdrawal of a sword, we must add that the folk tales (the Nart sagas) told by the Ossetians, the descendants of the Alans, include many elements of the Arthurian Sword in the Stone legend, but are entirely deficient of the weapon being drawn from a stone or anvil.

Furthermore, research from Sarmatian occupied sites in Britain, such as Roman Ribchester, has as yet failed to provide evidence of a sword cult. Coupled with the deficiency of the act in Celtic mythology, clearly we need to look elsewhere for the origins of the the Arthurian tale of the Sword in the Stone.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Book I, Chapter V. How Arthur Was Chosen King, And Of Wonders And Marvels Of A Sword Taken Out Of A Stone By The Said Arthur.
2. Malory, Book I, Chapter XXV. How Arthur By The Mean Of Merlin Gat Excalibur His Sword Of The Lady Of The Lake.
3. Michael Wood, Arthur: The Once and Future King, in In Search of Myths & Heroes, BBC, 2005.
4. John Clark, Curator Emeritus Museum of London, London Stone in seven strange myths.
5. C.Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Garland, Revised edition 2000, pp.181-193.
6. C.Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, The Germanic Sword In The Tree: Parallel Development Or Diffusion? The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 11, 2008.
7. Littleton and Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, op.cit.
8. Littleton and Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, p.181.
9. Linda A. Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus, The Heroic Age, Issue 1, 1999. See also Appendix 3 to From Scythia to Camelot.
10. Littleton and Malcor,  From Scythia to Camelot, op.cit.

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