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Much in the past has been made of the fact that the early Welsh name for Arthur's sword, Caledfwlch, appears to be cognate with that of the famous sword of the Irish hero Fergus mac Roich, Caladbolg. Various etymologies have been proposed for both swords, but given the qualities ascribed to them, the most reasonable derives the name from calad/caled, "hard", and -bolg, "lightning", cognate with L. fulg-. Derivations which take -bolg to mean "gap/cleft" (cf. W. bwlch) create a sword name that is nonsensical, i.e. a gap or cleft cannot be hard, nor can a sword be a gap or cleft. A later form of the name, Caladcholg or "Hard-sword" (Early Irish cholg = "sword"), is thought to be a clerical alteration of the original name.
As a mythological lightning weapon, Caladbolg/Caledbwlch, "Hard-lightning (?)", performed marvels in Fergus's hands. To quote from the Celt Electronic Text Edition of the Tain Bo Cualnge (http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T301035/text040.html):
Then said Medb to Fergus: It were indeed fitting for you to give us your aid unstintingly in fighting today, for you were banished from your territory and your land and with us you got territory and land and estate and much kindness was shown to you. If I had my sword today said Fergus, I would cut them down so that the trunks of men would be piled high on the trunks of men and arms of men piled high on arms of men and the crowns of men's heads piled on the crowns of men's heads and men's heads piled on the edges of shields, and all the limbs of the Ulstermen scattered by me to the east and to the west would be as numerous as hailstones between two dry fields (?) along which a king's horses drive, if only I had my sword. Then said Ailill to his own charioteer, Fer Loga: Bring me quickly the sword that wounds men's flesh, O fellow. I pledge my word that if its condition and preservation be worse with you today than on the day when I gave it to you on the hillside at Crúachna Aí, even if the men of Ireland and of Alba are protecting you against me today, not all of them will save you. Fer Loga came forward and brought the sword in all the beauty of its fair preservation, shining bright as a torch, and the sword was given into Ailill's hand. And Ailill gave the sword to Fergus and Fergus welcomed the sword: Welcome to you, O Caladbolg, the sword of Leite said he. Weary are the champions of the war-goddess. On whom shall I ply this sword? asked Fergus. On the hosts that surround you on all sides said Medb. Let none receive mercy or quarter from you today except a true friend.
And Fergus grasped the Caladbolg in both hands and swung it back behind him so that its point touched the ground, and his intent was to strike three terrible and warlike blows on the Ulstermen so that their dead might outnumber their living. Cormac Cond Longas, the son of Conchobor, saw him and he rushed towards Fergus and clasped his two arms about him.Ready; yet not ready (?), my master Fergus. Hostile and not friendly is that, my master Fergus. Ungentle but not heedful (?) is that, my master Fergus. Do not slay and destroy the Ulsterman with your mighty blows, but take thought for their honour on this day of battle today. Begone from me, lad said Fregus for I shall not live if I strike not my three mighty, warlike blows upon the Ulstermen today so that their living outnumber their dead.
Turn your hand level said Cormac Cond Longas, and strike off the tops of the hills over the heads of the hosts and that will appease your anger. Tell Conchobor to come then into his battle-position. Conchobor came to his place in the battle.
Now that sword, the sword of Fergus, was the sword of Leite from the elf-mounds [sidib]. When one wished to strike with it, it was as big as a rainbow in the air.Then Fergus turned his hand level above the heads of the hosts and cut off the tops of the three hills which are still there in the marshy plain as evidence. Those are the three Máela of Meath.
Now as for Cú Chulainn, when he heard the Óchaín Conchobuir being struck by Fergus mac Róig, he said: Come now, my friend Láeg, who will dare thus to smite the Óchain of Conchobor my master while I am alive? This huge sword, as big as a rainbow, sheds blood, increase of slaughter said Láeg. It is the hero Fergus mac Róig. The chariot sword was hidden in the fairy mounds [assidib]. The horsemen (?) of my master Conchobor have reached the battlefield.
Cruachan is the diminuative of cruach, a rick, i.e. a stack or pile, as of turf, but is also applied to hills or mountains (see Deirdre and Laurence Flanagans Irish Place-Names). This is to be related (according to Rivet and Smith in their The Place-Names of Roman Britain) to British *croucio-, later *croco-, mount, tumulus, cf. Welsh crug, Irish cruach hill, hillock, mound, heap, stack, tumulus, barrow, cairn.
The Cruachan Ai or Little Tumulus of Ai was on Mag Ai, the great plain in County Roscommon that extends from Ballymore to Elphin, and from Bellanagare to Strokestown. The most important tumulus at Cruachan is now called Rathcroghan Mound, a site now firmly established as a ceremonial center associated with pre-Christian ritual. According to the Cruachan Ai Visitor Centre (http://www.cruachanai.com/frameset.html), Rathcroghan Mound is 88m in diameter on average at its base, and is about 4m in height on its northern side. There has been much speculation over the years as to its function, but recent research by NUI Galway indicates that it was used for ceremonial purposes, and possibly contains a passage tomb. Through techniques such as ground probing radar and magnetic susceptibility, the Archaeogeophysics Imaging Project of NUI Galway, under Professor John Waddell have discovered a massive enclosure surrounding the mound, approx. 380m in diameter, the largest of its type in the country. It also encloses a number of other archaeological features near the mound.
Uamh Cruachan or the Cave of the Little Tumulus was an Otherworld entrance in this same location. This is now called Oweynagat, Cave of the Cats, and is an ancient souterrain.
It is interesting that the Welsh Spoils of Annwn poem has the god Lugh (Llwch) raise Arthurs sword to a magical cauldron in Caer Siddi, the Fairy Fort, while Caladbolg in Irish tradition is said to come from the elf or fairy mounds. Caer Siddi is also called Caer Wydr or Glass Fort, a name later connected with Glastonbury. For this reason, Glastonbury came to be identified with Geoffrey of Monmouths Avalon, where the sword Caliburn or Caledbwlch had been forged.
While Geoffreys Caliburnus is usually said to derive from Latin chalybs, steel, this sword-names connection with Caledbwlch has not been satisfactorily explained.
W. caled means, as we have seen above, hard. In Latin, the word for hard is durus. Welsh has a cognate of durus, i.e. dur, but the latter means steel. It is possible that Geoffrey of Monmouth or his source wrongly interpreted caled as dur, steel, rather than durus, hard. This could have come about in a number of ways, perhaps most easily by the misinterpretation of a gloss on caled. Faced with a Welsh word thought to mean steel, L. chalybs was substituted and the sword-name Caliburnus created.
Or, if this seems implausible, there is Arthur and his "brave men" in the Geraint son of Erbin poem (see Chapter Eleven below) who "used to hew with steel", steel being dur in the Welsh text. If Geoffrey did not know of Caledfwlch, he could have converted the Welsh dur of a source like Geraint son of Erbin straight over into Latin Chalybs/Caliburnus.]
Anyone reading these Irish and Welsh accounts cannot possibly see Caladbolg/Caledbwlch as a mere mortal sword. Rather, it is a divine lightning weapon, used by a sacred hero.
So how is it that such a weapon came to be in Arthur's hands? We might attempt to trace this development with am aim to solving some Arthurian mysteries.
In the Welsh poem "The Spoils of Annwm", and again in "Culhwch and Olwen", Arthur's sword is wielded in Ireland by the god Lugh/Llwch, again proving that this sword is no mortal weapon, but is symbolic of the divine lightning. We do, therefore, have a precedent for looking to Ireland for Arthur's original procurement of Caledbwlch.
Going now to the LL text of the Tain Bo Cuailnge, headed "Do fhallsigud Tana Bo Cualnge" ("How the Tain Bo Cuailnge was Found Again"), we have the following interesting episode:
"Emine, Ninene's grandson, set out for the east with Senchan's son Muirgen. It happened that the grave of Fergus mac Roich was on their way. They came upon the gravestone at Enloch ['liic oc Enloch', see Oir leac, "gravestone") in Connacht. Muirgen sat down at Fergus's gravestone, and the others left him for a while and went looking for a house for the night.
Muirgen chanted a poem to the gravestone as though it were Fergus himself. He said to it:
If this your royal rock
Were your own self mac Roich
Halted here with sages
Searching for a roof
'Cuailnge' we'd recover
Plain and perfect Fergus.
A great mist suddenly formed around him - for the space of three days and nights he could not be found. And the figure of Fergus approached him in fierce majesty, with a head of brown hair, in a green cloak and a red-embroidered hooded tunic, WITH A GOLD-HILTED SWORD [emphasis mine] and bronze blunt sandals. Fergus recited him the whole Tain, how everything happened, from start to finish."
What seemed remarkable about this account is that a sword bearing the same name as that of King Arthur's is placed at a stone or rock at a lake. But even more startling, we find at this stone a personage bearing the name Muirgen, a name cognate with the Welsh Morgen or Morgan, as in Morgan le Fay. Morgan le Fay later turns up to be one of the Ladies of the Lake. Also, while he is not present when Fergus appears, Emine is the son of one Ninene. Ninene bears a striking resemblance to the name given to the Lady of the Lake, i.e. Niviene/Eviene/Viviane/Nimue. In a previous study, I demonstrated that the Lady of the Lake sites were situated in Scotland near the western end of Hadrians Wall. There we find Aballava/Avallana/Avalon with its surrounding Burgh Marsh, and both the stone of the god Mabon (Clochmabenstane) and the same gods lake (Lochmaben).
According to Professor O'Riain of University College, Cork, "The feeling here is that Enloch is a disguised version of Loch (na) nEn, which is now represented by Loughnaneane tl., p./b. Roscommon." Dr. Betty O'Brien adds that Loch na nEn means "Lake of the Birds" and that this lake is ""
According to Professor
John Waddell of the Department of Archaeology at the
National University of Ireland, Galway:
John Bradley adds:
The name Enloch could itself have become confused with the name Afallach. The latter is the name given to a legendary son of Beli Mawr in Welsh tradition. His name also appears as Ynys Afallach in Welsh. Ynys Afallach, as mentioned above, is the Welsh equivalent of the Irish Emhain Ablach. Afallach later appears as Evalac or "Evelake" in the L'ESTOIRE DEL SAINT GRAAL and I have shown elsewhere that this name was assimilated to the Biblical Amalek, eponym of the Amalekites. In the genealogies appended to Nennius, Aballac is duplicated as Amalech.
MS. Copyists frequently confused the letters n and u. An Enloch name could easily have been rendered at some point as Euloch and hence as Evloch. Evloch, wrongly identified with Afallach, a presumed eponym for Avalon, was connected with the Otherworld apple-island and utilized by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who has Caliburn (= Caledbwlch) forged in Avalon, a placed ruled by Morgan le Fay, who knows "the art of changing her shape, of flying through the air."
Could it be that Geoffreys Avalon or Ynys Afallach took on components borrowed from the story of the Irish Stone at Enloch? That Morgen (Geoffrey's spelling) as queen of Ynys Afallach can in part be traced to Muirgen of Enloch? That Niviene or Nemhain (see above) was further developed as a character by being associated with Emine's father, Ninene? That the tale of Arthurs Sword in the Stone has at least part of its origin in the presence of Ferguss Caladbolg at the Stone of Enloch?
Romantic as the above-mentioned notion is, there is a much less exciting, yet much more reasonable explanation for the motif of the Sword in the Stone.
First, it is important to remember that the first author who tells of the Sword in the Stone does not, in fact, have the weapon in the stone. Instead, in his romance Merlin, Robert de Boron states that the sword was in an anvil, and the anvil was on top of a stone. Furthermore, the sword, anvil and stone were in a churchyard.
It has long been recognized that the story of the sword in the anvil has its obvious parallel in the Norse tales featuring Sigmund the Volsung and his son, Sigurd the Dragonslayer.
I am quoting the relevant passages from the excellent recent translation of the _Volsungasaga_ by Jesse Byock:
He [Odin] brandished the sword and thrust it into the trunk [of Barnstokkr] so that it sank up to the hilt. Words of welcome failed everyone. Then the man began to speak: "He who draws this sword out of the trunk shall receive it from me as a gift, and he himself shall prove that he has never carries a better sword than this one."
Then the old man walked out of the hall... They stood up now, and no one disputed whether or not to grasp the sword; each though the one who reached it first would be best off. The noblest men went up to it first, and then each of the others, No one who came forward succeeded in moving it, no matter which way he tried. Now Sigmund, the son of King Volsung, came forward. He grasped the sword, and drew it from the trunk. It was as if the sword lay loose for him
Regin now made a sword. He gave it to Sigurd, who took it and said: This is your smithying, Regin. Sigurd struck the anvil and the sword broke. He threw down the blade and told Regin to forge another, better one.
Regin made a second sword and brought it to Sigurd Sigurd tried the sword and be broke it like the first one
Now Regin made a sword [from the fragments of the sword Sigmund had previously drawn from the tree]. And when he brought it out of the forge, it seemed to the apprentices as if flames were leaping from its edges [cf. the Welsh Dream of Rhonabwys description of Caledfwlch: with a design of two serpents on the golden hilt; when the sword was unsheathed what was seen from the mouths of the serpents was like two flames of fire ]. He told Sigurd to take the sword and said he was no blacksmith if this one broke. Sigurd hewed at the anvil and split it to its base. The blade did not shatter or break.
In Roberts Merlin, the sword is not only drawn from the anvil, but several times re-inserted. This re-insertion of the blade into the anvil is quite likely a variant on Sigurds triple testing of the swords upon the anvil in the Volsungasaga.
More light has been shed on the existence of the Sigurd story in early Northern England by Shona E. McAndrews in her dissertation An Analysis of the Man and Dragon Combat from the Sigurd Legend in the North of England to the First Carvings of St. Michael and the Dragon (http://www.stbees.org.uk/publications/semdiss/). We even find Regin the Smith with his anvil on a cross-shaft in the Halton churchyard, Lancashire, and an allusion to the same character and scene on the cross-shaft at Kirkby Hill, Ripon, Yorkshire. A Sigurd grave slab was excavated at York Minster. York was the center of Danish rule in North England and, perhaps not coicidentally, it is to York that Arthur first goes to fight the Saxons after he becomes king by drawing the sword from the anvil.
As the Sigurd story had been preserved in northern England by the Northmen who settled there, and the real Arthur was of northern England, and as the motif of the drawing out of the sword by the rightful heir and ruler is, at least in Europe, found otherwise only in the Sigurd tale, it would seem reasonable to maintain that this Norse tale does preserve the prototype of the Arthurian sword in the anvil. Going from a sword in Barnstokkr to a sword in an anvil is not difficult to account for, as the Sigurd story has the same sword that was drawn from the tree cleave an anvil in two.
Lastly, let us imagine one of the cross-shafts bearing the Sigurd story, with an anvil and sword portrayed. Furthermore, let us see this cross-shaft with its surmounting circular cross broken off, leaving only a stone pillar or portion of stone pillar. This gives us a) the sword b) the anvil c) the stone and d) the churchyard, with the story of the drawing forth of the sword to go with it.
The Barnstokkr in the story of Sigmund's and Sigurd's tale is thought to be (and I agree with this assessment) the Ash Yggdrasill, the cosmic tree whose trunk is the axis upon which the sky turns. Barnstokkr means child-trunk, and this name is a reference to the two children, Lif and Lifthrasir, who hide in the cosmic tree of Hoddmimir during the Norse Ragnarock or Doom of the Powers. Yggdrasill, or Yggs Horse, was the tree upon which the god Odin as Ygg (Terrible One) hung. It may, therefore, be compared with the rood or cross of Christ, which was symbolized by the stone cross-shafts, some of which bore the Sigurd story.
It seems to me that the circle is pretty well complete concerning the relationship of the Norse and Arthurian sword in the tree/anvil motifs. While it is impossible to say what the actual line of transmission was from England to Robert de Boron, it is possible that some Arthurian version of the Sigmund-Sigurd sword story had reached him before or while he was writing his Merlin.
Another possible origin for the Arthurian Sword in the Stone motif was brought to my attention by Dr. Linda Malcor. In 1180, the medieval Italian knight Galgano Guidotti plunged his sword into a rock when he renounced war and worldly goods to become a hermit. The abbey at Montesiepi near Siena preserves the sword in its chapel. There the hilt and some of the blade protrude from the rock in the shape of a cross. For many years the sword was thought to be a fake, but recent metal testing has determined that the alloys and style of the sword are consistent with a genuine 12th century weapon. In addition, ground penetrating radar has shown that beneath the sword is a six and a half foot by three foot room, which is quite possibly St. Galganos tomb.
If St. Galgano really dates to the 12th century, this would place a Sword in the Stone story just prior to Robert de Borons Arthurian version, which is dated c. 1200 A.D. What remains to be determined is what may have influenced Robert to import such a tale into his Merlin romance. And an important detail is missing from the St. Galgano legend: the Italian knights sword does not bear an inscription, which is true of the Arthurian Sword in the Stone.
I think I may have the answer to this riddle. As I have already mentioned, Geoffrey of Monmouth said Caliburnus was forged on the Isle of Avalon. Medieval tradition identified Avalon with Glastonbury. Robert de Boron places the Sword in the Stone in a churchyard, and Arthurs grave was supposedly discovered in the yard of St. Dunstans church. It is the inscribed lead cross of this grave that holds the clue to unraveling the mystery of the Sword in the Stone. From the account of the exhumation of Arthur at Glastonbury, by Gerald of Wales, c. 1193 (144):
Unde et crux plumbea lapide supposito, non superius ut [nostris] solet diebus, [sed] inferiori potius ex parte infixa, quam nos quoque vidimus, namque tractavimus litteras has insculptas et non eminentes et exstantes, sed magis interius ad lapidem versas, continebat
As this passage has frequented been mistranslated, I enlisted the help of Dr. David Howlett, MA, DPhil, editor of the Medieval Latin Dictionary and author of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, Fasicule 5, University of Oxford:
Whence also a lead cross with a stone placed beneath, not further above, as is customary in [our] days, [but] rather infixed [the antecedent is feminine, so 'cross', not 'stone'] from the lower part, which we also have seen, for we have passed hands over these letters, ensculpted and not raised and outstanding, but rather turned inward toward the stone, it contained ...
There is no way one could construe this as implying that the cross was under the stone. Instead, we are to envisage an inscribed lead cross whose lower portion is infixed, i.e. thrust into, a stone.
We thus have, in St. Dunstan's churchyard at Glastonbury/"Avalon", where according to Geoffrey of Monmouth the sword Caliburnus was forged, an inscribed cross driven into/piercing a stone - a stone which was found above the supposed tomb of King Arthur. To this we may compare the Italian St. Galgano cruciform hilted sword, driven into the rock above an interior chamber which may well be the grave of the knight-turned-saint.
Robert de Boron, perhaps utilizing the St. Galgano example, merely transformed the inscribed cross thrust into the stone at Glastonbury into the "Sword in the Stone."
His doing do may have been facilitated by a more purely local or British example of a literary motif that may, ultimately, have been the prototype for Arthurs Sword in the Stone. This is found in the Vita Sancti Edwardi, where Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester, in order to prove his legitimacy, thrusts his staff into the gravestone of the late King Edward. This action was in response to the claim by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, that Wulfstan was not worthy of his position. Other holy men try to pull Wulfstans staff from the stone, but all fail. Wulfstan himself them approaches and easily extracts his staff from the stone. The episode in the saints life has recently been discussed in detail by Marsha L. Dutton in her The Staff in the Stone: Finding Arthurs Sword in the Vita Sancti Edwardi of Aelred of Rievaulx, ARTHURIANA Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2007.
I have not found evidence of influence from the Alanic practice of thrusting the war-god's sword into the earth or into heaps of brushwood, an idea put forward by Dr. Linda Malcor.
The Stone of Enloch and Arthur's Sword is Copyright © 2008, August Hunt. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: August Hunt
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