As the legend goes, sometime around the 5th century AD, King Arthur defended Britain from the Saxons. His legendary sword, Excalibur became a symbol of British sovereignty. However, it was only centuries later, that the legend became immortalized in several medieval manuscripts. Lacking the older sources, historians still argue whether King Arthur was a real, historical person or just a mythological hero.
Excalibur – the sword in the stone, or the sword in the lake?
To make things more complicated, medieval manuscripts often contradict each other. For example, the famous “sword in stone” motif dates to the 12-13th century. Immortalized in the modern media, this episode is probably the most common association with the Arthurian myth nowadays. But in reality, this element was foreign to most of the other sources of the legend. In the Middle Ages, the common agreement was that Arthur got his sword from the Lady of the lake.
In short, at the beginning of his reign, Arthur broke his sword. A nymph appeared from the lake, in the form of a young maiden, granting him Excalibur as a boon. Years later, fatally wounded Arthur asks one of his knights to throw the sword back to the enchanted lake.
Vietnamese legend of the sword in the lake
There are some striking parallels between the original Arthurian myth and some of the myths of South-East Asia. For example, one of the most popular Vietnamese legends is that of the sword Thuận Thiên (Heaven’s will).
Just like Excalibur, this sword is a symbol of Vietnamese sovereignty. It was proof of the legitimacy of the leader Lê Lợi, who fought against the Ming dynasty in the 15th century. But these are not the main similarities. In fact, the “Heaven’s will” sword also came from a lake. It was a fisherman who found its blade. Not knowing what to do with it, he threw it back in the lake, but the sword kept coming back in his net. When this happened for the third time, he took it as a sign and decided to take it home with him. The number three seems to be important here. In the Arthurian myth, the knights manage to throw Excalibur back in the lake only after three attempts.
Sometime later, general Lê Lợi visits the fisherman and the blade starts to shine in his presence. The fishermen allowed him to take the blade. But the blade was missing the hilt. Lê Lợi found it in the branches of a banyan tree. Putting the pieces together, he obtained a magical sword that granted many victories to the Vietnamese people.
Years later, Lê Lợi, now a king, took a boat ride on a lake in front of his palace. A golden turtle came out and asked for a sword in a human voice, claiming that it belongs to the dragon king, who wants it back. When the sword started to move on its own, Lê Lợi realized that it doesn’t belong to him. He was only allowed to have it to gain his victories. He then threw it back in the lake and the giant turtle took it underwater, never to be seen again.
For this reason, the name of the central lake in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, is Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (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 very 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“. Here too, it represents the power and legitimacy of a king. And once again, it was the fisherman who found it in his net. Its hilt is made of gold and decorated with diamonds and precious stones. Also, there is a carving of the god Vishnu riding an eagle Garuda.
But the main difference is that this magical sword was never returned to a lake. It still stands as a part of the royal regalia, and the people of Thailand can see it on special occasions. However, during the Oath of Allegiance ceremony, the king dips this sword in a cup of sacred water and drinks from it. The rest of the court then follows his example.
Slavic legends of the sword in the lake
At first glance, the cultures of South-east Asia and England may seem too far to have any significant influence on each other, especially in the remote past. However, it seems that similar legends once thrived all across the ancient world. In Slavic mythology, the name of the magical sword is Kladenets or Samosek (self-wielding sword). Often, this sword lies hidden behind an ancient wall, tree, or even grave, waiting to be discovered by a hero, as only the true hero can use it.
The etymology of the name Kladenets is not clear in the Russian language. But in the South-Slavic languages, kladenac (a diminutive of “klad”) means “well”. It refers to both men-made, and the natural well, where the water is deep. Interestingly, this word sounds quite similar to the original name of the Excalibur. The name “Excalibur” is a corruption of the Welsh “Caledfwlch”. Scholars still debate if there is a connection with the Irish magical sword, Caladbolg. The word Caladbolg could be a compound of Calad (as in “klad”) and Bolg, as in Fir Bolg. They were the mythical settlers of Ireland, sometimes connected to the continental Belgae.
Anyhow, Slavic legends are abundant in magical swords. They too, are often taken from water or returned to it. In 2011, Ukrainian archaeologists discovered a sword in the river Dnieper. Its handle was made out of four metals, including gold and silver. As this is the general area in which the 10th-century king Sviatoslav I of Kyiv lost his life fighting the Pechenegs, the sword is labeled as his. Knowing that the battle is lost, the king threw it in the river. The idea was that the enemy must not acquire an object that represents the royal power. The sword of Sviatoslav is now a part of a collection of an archaeological museum in Kyiv.
In one of the songs of Serbian medieval epics, the main hero, Prince Marko, feels that he is going to die. He goes to his faithful horse and cuts his head off so that the enemy (Turks) wouldn’t ride him. Marko then buries the horse with the utmost respect, or as the poem says “better than his brother”. After this, he breaks his sword and spear into pieces. And finally, he throws his main weapon, the mace, into the sea. He threw it saying: “When my mace comes out of the sea, only then can the same hero be”.
And finally, in 2019 archaeologists of the Republic of Srpska, Bosnian Federation discovered a medieval sword in the river Vrbas, dubbed “Bosnian Excalibur”. For hundreds of years, rocky sedimentation was formed around it. The archaeologists literally had to “take it out of the stone”.
These are just some of the examples of the magical swords in myths and legends. Surprisingly, all of them share common symbolism. When Beowulf slays Grendel’s mother, the sea turns red from her blood. We see the same idea in the myth of Perseus. When he slays the dragon, the sea also turns red, becoming the Red sea. Therefore, the myth of the Perseus could be older, as it explains the natural phenomena we still see today. Similarly, one of the episodes of the Slavic sword Kladenets, relates it to Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar. It is possible that all of these myths actually share the same origin, and that they were transmitted together with the advancement of metallurgy.
Indeed, the ancients saw the craft of the blacksmiths as something magical. And water is an important element in the process of smithing, as the metal needs to be cooled down constantly. Since the earliest days, the sword was a symbol of power, a living force, and in special cases even divine protection. It was one with his owner, containing some of his personal power. For this reason, many ancient cultures buried warriors with their swords. Often, they would ritually destroy them before the burial. One of the explanations for this practice was that they wanted to make sure that nobody else will be able to dig them out and use them. Another one states that in this way the power of the sword also left the earth, following its owner to the afterlife.
But there could be another reason for the popularity of this story. And as it is the case with most of the myths of the ancient world, this meaning is astronomical. Due to the limited space, this will be the topic of the second part of this article.