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 of Fergus’ sword, Caladcholg or ‘Hard-sword’ (Early Irish cholg = ‘sword’), is thought to be a clerical alteration of the original.
As a mythological lightning weapon, Caladbolg /Caledbwlch, ‘Hard-lightning’, performed marvels in Fergus' hands. To quote from the Celt Electronic Text Edition of the Tain Bo Cuailnge:
“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. This is to be related 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.
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 Arthur’s 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 Monmouth’s Avalon, where the sword Caliburn or, rather, Caledbwlch had been forged.
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 came such a weapon to be in Arthur's hands? To begin, it is important to remember that the first author to tell of the ‘Sword in the Stone’ does not, in fact, place 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 atop a stone. But as any historian of ancient smithcraft knows, stones were often used as anvils. I first learned of this fact from a good friend of mine, Levi Keith, a maker of armor and weapons who is very well-versed in the development of metal-working. Since his imparting this invaluable information to me, I have confirmed his statement with additional research.
A possible Continental origin for the Arthurian ‘Sword in the Stone’ motif has been proposed by some scholars. 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. Galgano’s tomb.
If St. Galgano really dates to the 12th century, this would place a ‘Sword in the Stone’ story just prior to Robert de Boron’s Arthurian version, which is dated c. 1200 CE. 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 knight’s sword does not bear an inscription, which is true of the Arthurian ‘Sword in the Stone’.
I have a solution to this problem. 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 claims that the ‘Sword in the Stone’ is in a churchyard. Arthur’s grave was supposedly discovered in the yard of St. Dunstan’s church at Glastonbury. It is the inscribed lead cross of this grave that accounts for the inscription on the sword. 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”
“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 an inscribed sword thrust into the anvil-stone.
If we cannot rely on his having known the St. Galgano story, the fashioning of his own tale may have been facilitated by a more purely local or British example of this literary motif. I am referring to an incident referred to 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 Wulfstan’s staff from the stone, but all fail. Wulfstan himself them approaches and easily extracts his staff from the stone.
Does this mean that we must settle for the entire story of Arthur’s Sword in the Stone having been stolen or adapted from other tales exhibiting a similar motif?
Fortunately, no, we don’t. The true ‘Sword in the Stone’ did not belong in Britain or in Italy. It has its proper place, as does the name of the sword itself, in Ireland.
Going now to the LL text of the Irish Tain Bo Cuailnge or
‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, headed Do fhallsigud Tana Bo Cualnge (‘How the Tain Bo Cuailnge was Found Again’), we find the following pertinent 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 grave stone, 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 and bronze blunt sandals. Fergus recited him the whole Tain, how everything happened, from start to finish."
What seems 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. The stone in question, as made plain by reference to a ‘roof’, was a chambered tomb, an Otherworld castle like those mentioned in the Spoils of Annwn poem. 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 ends up being one of the Ladies of the Lake.
Enloch is a disguised version of Loch (na) nEn, which is now represented by Loughnaneane tl., p./b. Roscommon. Loch na nEn means ‘Lake of the Birds’. According to the megalithic survey there is no monument in or near Loughnaneane and no standing stones are recorded in or around there in the Roscommon Record of Monuments and Places of the Duchas (the Heritage Service). The likelihood is that, with the town so close, any such monument would have been dismantled and used as building stone.
The real ‘Sword in the Stone’, after which Arthur named his own weapon, was that of the legendary Iron Age Irish hero, Fergus ma Roich. And the ‘stone’ itself was the now vanished chambered tomb in which Fergus was buried.
Arthur’s actual historical sword would have been patterned after a late-period Roman spatha or cavalry sword.
Gilfaethwy, Bedwyr and Excalibur: The Deposition of King Arthur’s Sword
Dr. Linda Malcor, in her various publications (beginning, most prominently, with _From Scythia to Camelot_, written with C. Scott Littleton, New York, Garland Publishing, Inc, 2000), has sought to trace the story of the deposition of Arthur’s sword Excalibur in the lake to a Sarmatian model. She writes:
“After slaughtering a vast number of his fellow Narts in revenge for their complicity in his father’s death and after resisting all the afflictions that God could throw at him, Batraz takes pity of the handful of survivors. He tells them that he has satisfied his need for vengeance and that he himself is ready for death, adding that “I cannot die until my sword has been thrown into the sea”. This latter stipulation causes great concern among the Narts, as the sword is so heavy that only Batraz can wield it with ease. In desperation they decide to deceive him. Hiding the sword, they report back that it has been disposed of in accordance with his instructions. But when Batraz asks, “What prodigious things did you see when my sword fell into the sea?,” they reply , “Nothing” – an answer that Batraz recognizes as a lie, since he alone know what will happen when his sword enters the water. When the Narts finally manage to consign it to the water, the sea becomes turbulent, boils, and turns blood-red. As soon as this is reported to Batraz, he dies, secure in his knowledge that his last wish has been fulfilled.”
To this account she compares the Arthurian story of the sword deposition as recorded in the late version of Malory, where Bedivere is substituted for the earlier figure of Girflet or Giflet son of Do or Doon, an Old French rendering of the Welsh Mabinogion hero Gilfaethwy son of Don. Bedivere is asked to toss the sword in the lake by the mortally wounded Arthur. He fails in his task twice because he is so entranced by the beauty of the weapon, before finally obeying the king on the third try. The “triple attempt” is echoed by the triple flourish of the sword by the hand which emerges from the lake to catch the weapon. In a note to her discussion of Bedivere’s role in the sword deposition story (_From Scythia to Camelot_, p. 78, n. 60) she provides two false etymologies for Bedivere/Bedwyr, one taken from John Colarusso (who is not an expert in Welsh names) and the other of Iranian provenance.
What is important to recognize is 1) the first appearance of this motif in Arthurian literature is in the 13th century Vulgate romance and 2) that Gilfaethwy’s appearance in the story of the sword deposition must be given precedence.
We are not talking here about a motif found embedded in early Welsh heroic poetry. Nothing of the sort is found in any of the early Arthurian poems or stories. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that the story of the deposition of the sword was an invention of the French author or authors of the Vulgate. I will have more on the origin of the deposition tale below.
Secondly, Bedwyr was substituted only later by Sir Thomas Malory - IN THE 15TH CENTURY! - doubtless because Giflet/Girflet was an otherwise unknown figure who did not even appear in early Welsh Arthurian tales, while Bedwyr as Bedivere had obtained a fair degree of importance in those same tales as a constant companion of Arthur. This importance continued in the romances, where Bedivere is presented as the official cupbearer of the king.
So why was Giflet/Girflet/Gilfaethwy assigned the role of the hero who deposits Arthur’s sword in the lake? To understand why this was done by the story-teller, we must investigate the character’s name. This is necessary because there is nothing in the non-Arthurian portion of the Mabinogion, where Gilfaethwy’s story is told, which sheds any light on the matter.
The popular notion that Gilfaethwy is merely “Servant of Maethwy”, Maethwy himself being perhaps of corruption of Math son of Mathonwy, the master of Gilfaethwy in the Mabinogion, is not tenable. Gil- cannot be a word similar to the Middle Irish name component Gilla, as this is simply not found in Welsh. When I asked Dr. Isaac Graham of The National University of Ireland, Galway, one of the world’s foremost Welsh language scholars, where the first component of Gilfaethwy could actually be Welsh gylf (or gylyf), cognate with Irish gilb, etc., meaning “sharp pointed instrument, knife”, plus something like the Aethwy place-name (viz. Porthaethwy) found in Anglesey, he replied:
“Well, if you have come up with this yourself, well done! It is, however, not original. This suggestion was first made by Ifor Williams in the notes to his edition of Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi (1934, p. 252). This could well be the correct explanation of the name."
“I note in R. J. Thomas's study of river-names in -WY (Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 7 (1933-5), p. 119), that Porthaethwy is actually to be considered as deriving from *Porth-Ddaethwy: Daethwy is a name that exists (there is also Dindaethwy). If we are happy to accept that the author is deliberately using archaic orthography, then we might indeed take the first element as gylf: *Gylf-Ddaethwy 'Knife of Daethwy'. This would certainly be simplified to *Gylfaethwy, which might appear as Gilfaethwy, with archaic orthography in the first syllable."
I would associate Daethwy with the Caer Dathal said to be the home of some of Arthur’s relatives. Dathal is an Irish name, from dath, ‘swift, nimble, quick’, and is also found in another form, Dathi, or Daithi in the genitive. If Dathi/Daithi could in some cases be a shortened form of Dathal, then Caer Dathyl would be but another name for Din Daethwy, the ‘Fort of the Territory/Center of the Tribe of Dathi/Daith’. In Welsh, the -wy suffix denotes a region belonging to a tribe named after their founder or progenitor.
As it happens, the region of Dindaethwy has within it a significant hill-fort called Din Sylwy or BWRDD ARTHUR, the Table of Arthur. The etymology for Sylwy of Din Sylwy is not difficult, as we have the early forms Dinsillu (1254) and Dinsylow (1291/2) in the Melville Richards Place-Names Archives. These spellings show the –wy to be a late development, the originally meaning of the name being ‘Fort with a View’. Such a purely descriptive name allows us to opt for Din Daethwy/Caer Dathal as its earlier designation, especially as there is no other fort in the hundred of Din Daethwy.
Although said to be in Arfon, Din Silwy just across the Menai Strait from Arfon is the best candidate for Caer Dathal, and the probable home of Gilfaethwy.
Anglesey is renowned not only as a druidic isle, but as the location of Llyn Cerrig Bach, a lake known for its amazing array of votive deposits. To quote extensively from Dr. Miranda Green’s _ The Religious Symbolism of Llyn Cerrig Bach and Other Early Sacred Water Sites_, 1994:
“The site of Llyn Cerrig consisted of a pool or lake (now boggy ground), edged by a cliff some 11 feet (3.3 metres) high, which would have been a good vantage-point both for gazing at the water and for throwing in offerings. The immediate area is one characterized by rocky outcrops, and forms a relatively dramatic landscape, which may well have evoked numinosity and have therefore inspired veneration in antiquity. The items deposited in the lake include chariot-fittings (presumably once entire vehicles), cauldrons, weapons, shields, tools and two slave gang-chains, showing the excellent craftsmanship of Celtic blacksmiths. Bronzes, such as the crescentic plaque decorated with a triskele/bird motif, represent early Celtic art at its finest, and the majority of the metal objects must have belonged to individuals who enjoyed a high rank within their communities. Some of the metalwork may have been brought to the site from as far away as Somerset, or even further afield, implying that Llyn Cerrig enjoyed more than local status as a holy site."
“Some of the objects from the water display signs of pre-depositional damage, which appears to have been deliberate and is probably best interpreted as ritual breakage. This practice of destroying or, at any rate, rendering unusable, material destined as offerings to the supernatural world, is well-known in prehistoric and Romano-Celtic Europe as a kind of rite of passage, a means of severing the gift's associations with the earthly world and of making it acceptable as a spirit-gift or sacrifice."
“Llyn Cerrig Bach is significant in a number of respects. The deposition of so many prestigious objects in a watery context argues for the presence, at this site, of an exceptionally important centre of religious activity in later Iron Age Wales. There is also the question of whether the choice of an island for a sanctuary is perhaps significant. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the later first century BC and early first century AD, comments on a holy island near the mouth of the Loire, inhabited by priestesses; there are many references to sacred islands in the western ocean contained in the early Irish mythic texts, where they are particularly linked with the Otherworld. Of course, several early Celtic Christian saints are associated with islands: the Welsh female saint Dwynwen, who allegedly died in AD 465, is an example. She was a virgin-hermit who built a church on the tiny Llanddwyn Island, off the Anglesey coast."
“The site of Llyn Cerrig Bach is of especial interest in its possible association with the Druids. Tacitus chronicles the infamous confrontation between the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus and the Druids of Anglesey in the mid first century AD. Tacitus presents a graphic description of the druidic grove, grisly with the remains of human sacrifices, and the shores of the island guarded by black-clad women who screamed curses at the Romans about to destroy their sanctuary. It is difficult not to speculate as to whether Llyn Cerrig Bach might have been associated with this druidic shrine. A major offering of precious metalwork would be completely comprehensible as a response to the crisis of Roman desecration.”
Given the presence of Gilfaethwy or Gilf-Daethwy on Anglesey, an island with a notable sacred lake where votive deposits of weapons were made, there is no need to postulate, as does Dr. Linda Malcor, some connection with Ossetic legend, even if merely as a migratory folklore motif. Indeed, as Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Arthur’s sword was forged on the isle of Avalon, it is probably not a coincidence that 1) Anglesey itself is an island and 2) Daethwy on Anglesey was a place apparently marked as special for its metal-working. I would add that the Glastonbury “Avalon” is in Somerset, and objects from Somerset were deposited in Llyn Cerrig Bach.
But even more damage is done to Malcor’s supposed folklore comparison of the tossing of Arthur’s sword into the lake with the Sarmatian story by more thoroughly investigating the former.
In the Vulgate, the last fatal battle of Arthur and Mordred occurs on Salisbury Plain (scene of Stonehenge). The wounded king rides towards the sea, stopping for a bit at the Black Chapel. Then he continues to the sea with Girflet. Upon reaching the sea, he tells the knight to go to a neighboring hill, where he would find a lake. The Post-Vulgate is, essentially, the same, only the Black Chapel is referred to as the Ancient Chapel.
As Girflet is Gilfaethwy, and I have just shown that this name derives in part from the Daethwy place-name, it is surely not a coincidence that a straight-line course from Salisbury Plain to Brent Knoll and Brent Marsh on the sea would have taken Arthur to Glastonbury’s chapel. Brent as a place-name has been traced to *Brigantia, the goddess of high-places, although in this context it may simply mean ‘high hill’. [Although, William of Malmesbury connected the name of both hill and marsh with one Bregden, whose name he claims to have found written on a memorial stone at Glastonbury] In any event, the primary river running through the region of Daethwy in Anglesey is the Afon Braint. Braint is also known to represent the ancient *Brigantia. So it is appropriate that Gilfaethwy/Girflet be the one to take the sword to the marsh of Brigantia, i.e. Brent Marsh.
But things get even better. William of Malmesbury, in the later years of the 12th century, told a story of Yder son of Nuth (= Nudd; cf. Gwynn son of Nudd at Glastonbury’s Tor). Upon this man’s knighting, he was sent to the mountain of renarum or ‘frogs’ in Somerset where THREE giants lived. The new knight battles the three giants and slays them, but himself dies after Arthur comes upon the scene. Arthur then established a community at monks at Glastonbury to pray for the poor young knight's soul. John of Glastonbury retold the story in the 14th century, renaming the mountain arenarum or ‘spiders’ and placing it in North Wales.
It is obvious to me that the triple tossing of Arthur’s sword into Brent Marsh is a reflection of Yder’s triple slaying BY SWORD of the three giants. It is possible these three giants are a dim memory of Bregans, the name of the male consort of the goddess Brigantia in Romano-British times. However, we know that Brigantia's Irish counterpart Brighid is found in triple form, so it may be that the three giants were Brigantia herself, and this may have suggested to whoever was ultimately behind the concocting of the sword-deposition story the idea of having Arthur's sword given three times to the Lady of the Lake. After all, the marsh was named *Brigantia as well.
Another, perhaps stronger possibility is that the original storyteller, either through error of language transmission or through intentional device, associated the name of the hill and marsh - oth of which have the same derivation as Braint on Anglesey and, incidentally, the Brent River of Middlesex (Braegente, Braegentia, Brainte) - with the Middle English name for a sword, 'brand' (cf. OE brand, brond, ON brandr, OHG brant, MHG brant). As a supposed 'Sword Marsh' and 'Sword Hill', a place already earlier connected with a triplicated giant/goddess of the same water, it is not difficult to account for the sword deposition story being localized here.
This is a matter of adaptive creative genius on the part of the storyteller. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Narts.
Dr. Malcor seeks to strengthen her argument for Ossetic influence on the story of the deposition of Arthur’s sword by associating the Arthurian hero Bedwyr, the later Bedivere, with the Nart saga hero Batraz. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no etymological connection between the two names.
For the name Bedwyr (or Bedguir), there are two possible etymologies, and both are utterly Celtic. The first would be to derive the name from *Betuo-riks, with meaning of Birch-king. The other is supplied by Dr. Isaac, again via personal correspondence:
“There is an alternative to *Betuo-riks which would remove the somewhat irrelevant-looking inclusion of the ‘birch’. Old Irish bath ‘death’ and W bad ‘plague, pestilence, death’ reflect Celtic *bato-/*bata- < Proto-Indo-European *gwh2-to-/-teh2 (root *gweh2- ‘stamp on’). A nomen actionis derivative of this would be PIE *gwh2-tu > Celt. *batu-. The existence of the latter is confirmed by Gallo-Latin battuere (> French batter, Eng. Battle) ‘fight’. In composition *batu- could be extended by the thematic composition vowel, giving *batuo-: so *Batuo-riks ‘King of Fighting’ > Welsh Bedwyr.”
But whatever the origin of the name Bedwyr, it is solidly Celtic and does not, in reality, bear even a superficial resemblance to the Ossetic name Batraz, whom Dr. Linda Malcor has put forward as the prototypical figure in the Lake Deposition story.
The story of the deposition of Arthur’s sword is in none of the early Welsh sources. It is in none of the extant later insular Latin annals or chronicles, etc. It is found first in a LATE FRENCH text. The sword of Arthur, as found in the Welsh sources, which must be given precedence here, is a direct borrowing from the famous Caladbolg of the Irish stories. It has nothing to do with the Narts.
We are dealing here with a major problem of transmission that even Malcor as a folklorist will not address. Even if you could show that the French author picked up the motif of the sword deposition from his own region or some other Continental tradition, we would be dealing with a motif originally foreign to the Arthur material that was introduced into that material. The route of transmission of these things - even folklore motifs - is critical when examining the origin of Arthurian stories.
The Arthurian romances are principally ADAPTATIONS and as well as major ELABORATIONS of insular Celtic stories. Even if we accept the possibility that Continental influences stemming from ancient Alanic culture (something very nebulous, but nonetheless made very much of by Malcor) may have contributed such motifs to the Arthurian story, we cannot say that the presumed importation of such motifs are in any way an indication that Arthur, whether the Roman one or sub-Roman British one, had anything to do with the Sarmatians.
If the sword in the lake story were present ANYWHERE in ANY earlier Welsh source, or even in a Latin Chronicle somewhere in Britain, and could be related to or traced back to a prototype there, then I might be disposed to considered a Sarmatian story having found its way into British folk tradition and being transferred to the story of the 5th-6th century Arthur (Lucius Artorius Castus or ‘LAC’ died in Dalmatia and was buried there - the story of Camlann and all the rest is solely the province of the British Dark Age Arthur). But I would then want to know WHY this story was transferred to Arthur, even if this is supposed to have come via LAC. LAC wasn't Sarmatian. There is no evidence WHATSOEVER that he had ANYTHING to do with the Sarmatians. Why would the Sarmatians have substituted for their ancient Nart hero a Roman ruler of the legion at York? The name Lucius Artorius Castus does not accord with any of the names of the heroes of the Nart Sagas. ALL OTHER IMPORTANT ROMANS WHO APPEAR IN WELSH TRADITION ARE ACKNOWLEDGED AS ROMANS, EVEN IF THEY HAVE BECOME SORT OF 'BRITISH' ROMANS. They are not identified with the semi-divine kings or gods or whatever of a band of Roman auxilaries of foreign origin who may have served under them.
The principle of Occam's razor applies: you can opt for an Insular story roughly contemporary with a French romance writer's work that he could easily have known and adapted, or you can opt for the Nart Saga, which is no where in evidence in any of the early, native Insular tradition. Malcor relies on some kind of tenuous supposed oral transmission which somehow skips from the time of LAC to the writing of the fictional romances of the 13th century in France. This is not the way folklore development works, and as a professional folklorist, Malcor should know this.
Malcor would not even allow for the possibility of independent parallel development in the sword deposition story. It has long been the tendency of ‘fringe’ scholars to see some kind of direct contact between different peoples in order to explain similar folk beliefs. But all too often additional study has shown that while folk beliefs may seem identical, they are actually developments that occurred within one culture without the influence of another. We need not invoke Jung’s notion of archetypes here, but the principle of independent parallel development is a well known one.
Despite Malcor’s imaginative reconstruction of LAC’s career involving the Sarmatians, there is, in fact, not a shred of evidence that LAC had any interaction with the Sarmatians (see my article AN ARGUMENT AGAINST DR. LINDA MALCOR’S ARTHURIAN THEORY). LAC was in charge of the Sixth Legion at York; he was not in charge of the Sarmatian garrison at Ribchester. Nowhere is it mentioned that he had Sarmatians serving under him.
If we must have Arthur associated with cavalry, the Stanwix control center on Hadrian's Wall between the Avalon and Camlann forts works quite nicely. This large fort held the only 1000 strong cavalry force in all of Britain. We now have evidence that parts of Stanwix and Carlisle had sub-Roman timber buildings and portions of the Wall were refortified at the same time. Or you can opt for an unknown and probably nonexistent connection of the Roman LAC with the Sarmatians.
From Caledfwlch to Excalibur
Most of us know Arthur's sword as Excalibur, the name given to it in the Morte D'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory. A few more of us know that Excalibur comes from the French, Escalibor (and near variants), which minus its standard es- prefix represents a romance attempt at Geoffrey of Monmouth's Caliburnus.
And this is where many go astray. Instead of recognizing Geoffrey's name for what it is - a typically clumsy attempt to Latinize the original Welsh name of Arthur's sword, Caledvwlch, a modern scholar has sought the name in the ancient Chalybes people of Anatolia. This is done so that the Sarmatian theory can be brought into play. Unfortunately, any connection with the Chalybes is not only unnecessary, but quite absurd.
Caliburnus has been thought to be from medieval Latin calibs (cf. Classical Latin chalybs), 'steel', plus the Latin adjectival suffix -urnus. The sword's name thus rendered means 'the Steely One' or, perhaps, '[that which is] of or from steel'.
Winthrop Wetherbee III, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, of Cornell University, kindly supplied me with the following on the spellings and usage of chalybs in the medieval period:
"On the basis of what I have at home (Latham's dictionary of Medieval Latin from British and Irish sources) I can report the spellings "calibs" (apparently fairly general), "calabs" (1314), "celebs" (c. 1270), "calaba" (c. 1489), and the ablative form "calive" (c. 1250). Arthur's sword was called "Caliburnus" by an author in the 1130s, probably Geoffrey of Monmouth."
In J.F. Niermeyer's and C. Van de Kieft's "Mediae latinitas lexicon minus" (Leiden, 1954-76, revised 1993), I found the words chalibinam (Ruodlieb Fragment 1, Line 25) and chalibinus (R. Fragment V, Line 80), both meaning 'of steel'. Ruodlieb is a German heroic poem written c. 1030 in Latin.
The “Glossarium mediae et Infimae Latinatis” of Domino Du Cange et al contains the following forms: calibs, calibe, caliba, calybs, calibis, chalybis, chalyba, chalybs, calibosus, calibeus, calippes. In addition, this volume makes mention of ‘Caliburne’, drawing on an early and very fanciful etymology proposed by Spelmannus of Chalybs + Cornish houarn, ‘iron’ (cf. Welsh haearn, Breton houarn). The Arthurian sword name is also compared to Roland’s Durandal, the first component of which has often been linked to Old French dur (cf. Latin durus, ‘hard’) or French durer “to endure’ (cf. Latin durante, 'harden, make hard; become hard/stern; bear, last, remain, continue; endure', Middle English duren).
On the –urnus suffix of Caliburnus, I cite from p. 46 of John Tahourdin White’s “Latin Suffixes” (1858):
“XIII. – A. Adjectives.
1. nus, na, num.
2. a-nus, a-na, a-num.
3. e-nus, e-na, e-num.
4. i-nus, i-na, i-num.
5. i-nus, i-na, i-num. [short i]
6. e-r-nus, e-r-na, e-r-num.
7. U-R-NUS, U-R-NA, U-R-NUM. [emphasis mine]
9. a-neus, a-nea, a-neum.
Adjectives in nus, etc., etymologically, signify “gifted” or “provided with,” etc.; and hence, a “belonging to,” their primitive. When, however, used in a derived force, those formed from the names of Animals especially denote the flesh of such Animals; those from the names of Trees and some few other substances point out the material of which any thing is made; and other words, principally, some quality possessed by their primitive. They are formed by adding the Suffix to the Theme of their primitives.”
But if this is so, how did Geoffrey arrive at this reading from Caledvwlch? [I should note that the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest versions of "Culhwch and Olwen" have the sword-name spelled variously Chaletuwlch, Kaletvwlch and Kaletuwlch. The Middle Cornish play on the life of St. Kea has Calesvol, cales being the normal Cornish cognate of Welsh caled.] There would appear to be nothing that would allow for a translation into 'calib(s)'/steel. We might begin to think – erroneously - that Caliburnus does not come from Caledvwlch at all, but must have a different origin.
Fortunately, we do not have to resort to such an extreme conclusion. To begin, it is not always necessary to rationalize Geoffrey's spellings. He routinely slaughters British and Welsh names in his Latin history. Eigr becomes Ygerna, Myrddin becomes Merlin, etc. In the case of Arthur’s shield and spear, first introduced at the Battle of Bath/Badon, he makes the following errors:
1) He calls Arthur’s shield Prydwen. Prydwen, as the Welsh sources make clear, is the name of Arthur’s ship. His shield is named in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ as Wynebgwrthucher.
2) His name for Arthur’s spear is Ron. This is a mutilated truncation of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’s’ Rhongomiant.
Prydwen does occur in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, but not in the context in which Arthur names his weapons. Instead, it is found in Arthur’s voyage to Ireland to steal the cauldron of Diwrnach. This episode is a retelling of the ‘Spoils of Annwn’ poem. Caledvwlch is, however, wielded during the cauldron-stealing by Llenlleawg the Irishman.
I think too much has been made of the Caledvwlch > Caliburnus problem. Caled, as we have seen, means ‘hard’. When we look up the Welsh word dur in the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, we find
steel, steel weapons
[first attestation 13th century]
of steel; fig, HARD [my emphasis]; cruel
[first attestation 9th century]
Now, here we see the very early figurative meaning “hard” for dur – a meaning which matches that of caled. Why is this significant? Well, not only does the Latin cognate of Welsh dur, viz. durus, mean “hard”, but we have dur/’steel’ ASSOCIATED DIRECTLY WITH ARTHUR in the ancient Welsh poem ‘Geraint fab Erbin”. In this poem we are told that Arthur’s ‘brave men hewed with dur (steel/steel weapons)’.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, being a good Latinist, needed only know Welsh caled and dur to make this kind of connection. Caliburnus from the medieval form of Latin chalybs + the adjectival suffix –urnus for a supposed steel sword makes perfect sense. Thus we do not have to strive for a direct etymological development from the Welsh sword name to that of Geoffrey’s.