An eight year old girl raised a fifteen hundred year-old sword from a lake recently.
Cue the memes of “Strange women, lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government!” (My favourite scene from that movie.)
Unfortunately, it wasn’t in Britain and it wasn’t Excalibur. It was in a lake in Sweden. It was, however, from about the same timeframe as The Arthurian Age, and is in remarkably good condition, considering where it’s been. The silt at the bottom of the lake has preserved it, including its wooden and leather scabbard, which is an extreme rarity. Archaeologists are now examining the area and finding other artefacts.
How did the sword end up in the lake? It could be anything. Perhaps a boat tipped over and the contents fell in. Though the current study suggests it isn’t likely, perhaps it is a burial place. But there is a likely explanation, and it may be one related to the legend of Excalibur.
The fifth or sixth century, from which this sword appears to belong, predates the Viking Age, and its owner would have had a culture more similar to the Saxons invading Britain at this time. As I’ve discussed in earlier articles, there was a great deal of cultural similarity between the early Germanic and Celtic tribes, owing to a shared prehistoric cultural root.
One of these similarities is the ritual depositing of weapons and other treasures in bodies of water. Rivers and lakes were seen as boundaries between the human world and the otherworld. These votive offerings reach as far back as the Neolithic era, reaching a peak in the Bronze Age.
Sometimes the weapons were purposefully bent or otherwise destroyed, perhaps as a ritualized “killing” of the weapon. This has been commented on by Orosius, a third century Roman historian, who described the actions of Germanic warriors after battle:
“The enemy … destroyed everything that had fallen into their hands in an outrageous and unprecedented ritual of curses; clothes torn and thrown away … the men’s breastplates chopped into pieces … people hanged from trees with a cable around their neck, so that nothing fell into the hands of neither victor nor the fallen, nothing exchanged and no mercy.”
The first mention of Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake came in the mid-Thirteenth Century. It may have been a complete fabrication, but it may also have been based on an ancient memory of past rituals. It’s not inconceivable that writers of the time might have wished to include folklore and history, as they knew it, into their writings. Historical fiction writers, like me, do that today.
Thanks for stopping by, and please comment. I’d love to chat with you about this stuff!
If you’re interested, here are some much more detailed posts about these subjects: