E is for Excalibur

Who knew the story of Arthur’s famous sword was so complicated? (And this is just a short summary!)

Contradictory accounts have been written over the years, but Excalibur is usually not one in the same with the Sword in the Stone. The sword Arthur drew from the stone was broken in battle. In searching for its replacement, Arthur received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. According to John Matthews, the story of the sword in the stone may have come from the Sarmatian custom of worshiping a sword stuck in a stone. (Apparently there was a large Sarmatian contingent in Britain. Matthews states that after they lost a long-standing battle with Rome, 3,000 Sarmatians were banished to Britain by Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd century.) And if you like a little conspiracy to your legend, check out the story of Galgano Guidotti (later canonized a saint), whose act many believe is the actual origin of the Sword in the Stone stories.

Even though today we automatically think of Excalibur as linked with Avalon and the Lady of the Lake, the earliest Celtic Arthurian legends don’t include that part. Although they could have. It was common in Celtic myth for a young would-be warrior to be given his weaponry by a goddess-like woman.

In the earliest tales, Arthur’s sword is called Caliburn (or Caledfwich in Welsh). According to David Day and Ronan Coghlan, both come from the Irish Caladblog, which means either “flashing sword” (Day) or “hard lightning” (Colghlan). However, John Matthews argues that the name comes from Sarmatian smiths called Kalybes who lived in the Caucasus. He says that Caliburn derives from the words “chalybus” which means “steel” and “eburnus” or “white,” translating as “white steel.”

It is generally believed that the name Excalibur is the Norman French translation of the Celtic Caliburn, and that’s fitting seeing since the French are the ones who give us the story of the Lady of the Lake (and/or the arm that reaches up out of the lake, which might belong to the Lady or not, depending on the tale).  This sword was very powerful, forged by an elf smith of Avalon. It’s blade could not be broken, yet it could cut through steel and stone without being dulled. It’s jeweled scabbard was magic and protected the person who wore it from wounds involving blood loss. In many traditions, Morgan steals both the sword and the scabbard, replacing them with fakes. Excalibur is eventually recovered, but the scabbard is not, leaving Arthur vulnerable for the fateful battle of Camlann.

John Duncan – The Taking Of Excalibur

Interestingly, the Sword in the Stone and the idea of magical swords is common across the world. In the Norse Volsunga stories, the hero Sigmund pulls a sword from a tree. It is broken in battle. His son Sigurd gets a replacement called Gram, given to him by the mother of the god Odin. The hero Charlemagne had his sword Joyeuse. El Cid had Tizona. And according to Day, all were made by the mythic Wayland the Smith, who in turn traces his origin to the Roman god Vulcan and the Greek god Hephaestus.

What about the end of the story? Bedivere’s role of returning Excalibur to the lake comes into the myth at the 13th century, but it was probably based on the ancient Celtic custom of throwing offerings into sacred pools of water as part of a ritual honoring the deity of the lake or spring.

And if all this isn’t complicated enough, Excalibur isn’t necessarily Arthur’s alone. In some versions Accalon (also spelled Accolon) holds the sword for a time, while in Chretien de Troyes’s Perceval, Gawain is its owner.

What have you heard about the famous Excalibur? What part of the myth do you believe? What other famous swords do you know about? What other “E” topics do you want to read about when I do the A to Z Challenge again?

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Sources: The Quest for King Arthur by David Day, King Arthur: Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero by John Matthews, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legend by Ronan Coghlan, and King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land by Caitlin Matthews.

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5 thoughts on “E is for Excalibur

  1. Great post, Nicole. Wow, there’s so much about Excalibur I didn’t know. I’m surprised there isn’t a link to the Greeks or Trojans with the sword. Roland’s famous sword Durandal has multiple legends, including having belonged to Hector of Troy as well as forged by Wayland the Smith. In Sword of Avalon by Diane Paxson, Excalibur is forged in ancient Greece and brought to England. Obviously swords were treasured and either truly passed on for centuries or at least storytellers knew how to make a good story by connecting one legend to another.

    • Hi Tyler! Thanks for your comment. There very well may be a connection to the Greeks/Trojans that my sources didn’t get into.It wouldn’t surprise me at all. Since the sword isn’t a focus of my books, I haven’t done too terribly much detailed research in that area.

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