Around the 5th century AD, King Arthur is said to have protected Britain from the Saxons and his renowned sword, Excalibur became a symbol of British sovereignty. However, it wasn’t until many centuries later that this legend was documented in medieval texts. The absence of earlier sources has led historians to dispute whether King Arthur was a factual historical figure or a figure of myth and legend.
Excalibur – the sword in a stone, or the sword in a lake?
In the most well-known versions of the King Arthur legend, Arthur obtains the sword Excalibur from the Lady of the lake. According to the legend, Arthur receives the sword from the Lady of the Lake after his original sword, which he pulled from a stone to prove his rightful claim to the throne, was broken in a battle. The Lady of the Lake offers Arthur the enchanted sword Excalibur, which is often depicted as a powerful and magical weapon.
Vietnamese legend of the sword in the lake
There are some striking parallels between the original Arthurian myth and the myths of South-East Asia.
Similar to Excalibur, there is a sword in Vietnamese history that serves as a symbol of sovereignty. This sword, known as the Thuận Thiên – “Heaven’s will”, played a role in establishing the legitimacy of leader Lê Lợi during his resistance against the Ming dynasty in the 15th century.
Interestingly, the “Heaven’s will” sword also has a connection to a lake. The blade of the sword was discovered by a fisherman. After repeatedly throwing the sword back into the lake, it persistently returned to his net. Recognizing this as a significant sign, the fisherman decided to keep the sword after the third occurrence. The recurrence of the number three appears to be important. In the Arthurian myth where the knights succeeded in returning Excalibur to the lake after three attempts.
Sometime later, general Lê Lợi visits the fisherman and the blade starts to shine in his presence. The fisherman gives his consent for Lê Lợi to take possession of the blade. However, the sword is lacking its hilt. Fortunately, Lê Lợi locates the missing hilt in the branches of a banyan tree. By uniting the two components, he assembles a remarkable sword that bestows numerous triumphs upon the Vietnamese people.
In later years, Lê Lợi, now reigning as a king, embarked on a boat excursion upon a lake situated before his palace. Unexpectedly, a golden turtle emerged from the water and, astonishingly, spoke with a human voice. The turtle made a plea for the return of a sword, asserting that it rightfully belongs to the dragon king who desires its retrieval. As the sword initiated its own movement, Lê Lợi came to the realization that the sword was not truly his to possess; its purpose was fulfilled in securing his victories. Consequently, he cast the sword back into the lake, and the colossal turtle promptly carried it beneath the water’s surface, vanishing from sight, never to reappear again.
Hence, the central lake in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, bears the name Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, which translates to the “Lake of the Returned Sword.”
The parallels between these myths are obvious, and yet, I couldn’t find any other source connecting them. Both Excalibur and the “Heaven’s will” came out of a lake and were eventually returned there, once they served their purpose. Both swords were the symbols of sovereignty, legitimacy of a king, and a magical tool to overcome enemies. Also, the Vietnamese sword belonged to a dragon-king, while King Arthur’s father was Pendragon (chief-dragon).
The idea of the sword being assembled of two pieces – a blade and a hilt, is also interesting. King Arthur had the sword Excalibur, and a dagger Carnwennan (little white hilt). He used it to slay the witch Orddu, by slicing her in half. Similarly, the Gaetish hero Beowulf has two swords, Hrunting and Naegling. He tried to slay Grendel’s mother (a witch or a dragon) with Hrunting, but it was too small. He then saw the giant sword Naegling, a sword of immense power, and used it to finish the job.
Malaysia – the sword of the river (and the dragon slayer)
In Malaysian royal regalia, there is a sword “Cura Si Manjakini“. The name is Sanskrit and means “blade of the Mandakini river”. Tradition states that it belonged to a first king, a hero who used it to slay Saktimuna – a multi-headed dragon.
Thailand – the legend of the sword in the lake
An important part of the royal regalia of Thailand is a “sword of victory“. Similar to other instances, this sword also symbolizes the authority and rightful rule of a king. Once more, a fisherman played a pivotal role by discovering the sword within his net. Distinguished by a hilt crafted from gold and adorned with intricate diamonds and precious gemstones, the sword features a remarkable carving depicting the deity Vishnu astride the legendary eagle, Garuda.
However, in contrast to the previous tales, this magical sword was never returned to a lake. It is exhibited on noteworthy occasions for public viewing. Notably, during the Oath of Allegiance ceremony, a distinctive ritual unfolds. The king dips this sword in a cup of sacred water and then drinks from it. The rest of the court follows his example.
Slavic legends of the sword in the lake
In Slavic mythology, the name of the magical sword is Kladenets or Samosek (self-wielding sword). Frequently, this extraordinary sword remains concealed behind an aged wall, within the trunk of a tree, or even within a grave, biding its time for a hero’s discovery. Only the rightful hero possesses the capability to wield it, as the sword recognizes and responds solely to the touch of a true champion.
The origin of the name “Kladenets” remains enigmatic within the Russian language. Yet, in the realm of South-Slavic languages, the term kladenac a diminutive form of “klad, signifies a “well.” This term pertains to both artificially constructed wells and naturally occurring deep water sources.
Intriguingly, this name bears resemblance to the initial designation of Excalibur. “Excalibur,” a distortion of the Welsh term “Caledfwlch,” has sparked scholarly discussions concerning its potential correlation with the Irish magical sword, Caladbolg. The term “Caladbolg” could potentially be a fusion of “Calad” (akin to “klad”) and “Bolg,” associated with the Fir Bolg. The Fir Bolg were the mythical settlers of Ireland, occasionally linked to the continental Belgae.
Within the realm of Slavic legends, the narratives of mystical swords are plentiful, often intertwined with aquatic origins or destinies. A captivating occurrence took place in 2011 when Ukrainian archaeologists unearthed a sword from the depths of the Dnieper River. This extraordinary weapon boasted a handle intricately crafted from a quartet of metals, including the gleam of gold and silver. Given its proximity to the site where Sviatoslav I of Kyiv, a monarch of the 10th century, met his fate battling the Pechenegs, this sword is ascribed to his legacy. Poignantly, foreseeing an impending defeat, the king relinquished the sword to the river’s embrace, a symbolic act of preventing his adversaries from seizing an icon emblematic of royal authority. Today, this relic of Sviatoslav’s valorous epoch stands as a cherished artifact within the collection of an archaeological museum in Kyiv.
Similarly, in a Serbian medieval epic song, Prince Marko senses his impending death. To prevent his enemies, the Turks, from using his loyal horse, he beheads it. He buries the horse with great honor, “even more than a brother”. Marko then breaks his sword and spear, and casts his main weapon, a mace, into the sea. He declares that only when the mace emerges from the sea will a hero like him appear again.
In 2019, archaeologists from the Republic of Srpska in the Bosnian Federation made a fascinating discovery – a medieval sword was found in the Vrbas River, earning it the moniker “Bosnian Excalibur.” The sword had been encased in rocky sediment for centuries, akin to a modern-day version of “pulling it from the stone.” The dedicated archaeologists had to meticulously extract the sword from its stony cocoon.
These instances represent just a few examples of the captivating magical swords within various myths and legends. Remarkably, a common symbolism intertwines them. A striking parallel emerges when Beowulf vanquishes Grendel’s mother, causing the sea to be dyed red with her blood. This recurring notion finds resonance in the myth of Perseus, where the defeat of a dragon results in the transformation of the sea into the iconic Red Sea. Interestingly, the Perseus myth could potentially predate others, as it offers an explanation for a natural phenomenon that persists today. In a comparable vein, an episode from the Slavic tale of the sword Kladenets connects it to Babylon and the ruler Nebuchadnezzar.
Intriguingly, these shared motifs may hint at a common origin, potentially linked to the progression of metallurgy. This interconnectedness suggests a remarkable possibility: that these myths traversed through time together, conveying their symbolism alongside the advancements of ancient craftsmanship.
In ancient times, blacksmithing was seen as magical, especially with water playing a crucial role in the metalwork process. The sword, from early on, symbolized power and even divine protection, becoming an extension of its owner. This bond was so strong that many cultures buried warriors with their swords, often breaking or destroying them before burial. One reason was to prevent unauthorized use, while another belief was that this act allowed the sword’s power to join its owner in the afterlife, completing their journey together.
Yet, there’s another possible reason for the story’s popularity, often seen in ancient myths – an astronomical connection. However, exploring this intriguing angle will be saved for the upcoming part of this article, due to limited space.