• Ali Isaac

The Blade that Binds

Updated: May 19, 2020

There really is a sword in the stone, but it’s not Arthur’s Excalibur, or Caliburn, as it’s sometimes known. This weapon once belonged to a ruthless and violent Italian warrior of the twelfth century called Galgano.

The story goes that he repented his vicious ways after receiving two visions of the Archangel Michael. In one version, he planted his sword in the ground as a sign of the cross. The sword immediately became one with the ground and could not be removed.

Another version claims he was told to renounce material things. He said that would be as hard as splitting rocks, illustrating his point by attempting to do just that. The stone, however, is said to have yielded like butter.

It can still be seen in the stone today, at the Rotonda of Montesiepi, near the ruins of San Galgano Abbey. And according to Ancient Origins, recent research shows that, based on the style of the sword and its metallurgical composition, it really is genuine to the twelfth century.

The real sword in the stone? By Alexmar983 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Interestingly, it seems that Arthur’s sword could have been based on an ancient Irish weapon. Excalibur is known as Caladfwlch in Welsh, and Caladcholg in Irish. And Caladcholg was a famous sword belonging to Fergus mac Róich, a hero from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology.

It’s not the first similarity between Arthurian legend and Irish mythology; you can read why I think Arthur was based on the Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhall, in my post, In Single Combat – The Bear King V The Fenian King.

But back to the sword. Fergus mac Róich was the King of Ulster. His predecessor’s daughter, Ness, only agreed to marry him if he allowed her son, Conchobar, to rule as king for a year, so that her grandsons would be born the sons of a King. The things a man will do for love! He was duped, and never regained his throne.

When Naoise and his brothers run off with Deirdre, Conchobar’s intended bride, the King is at first furious, but eventually agrees to allow them to return. However, he secretly orders the three brothers to be killed, and this betrayal is the catalyst which sends Fergus to join Queen Medb of Connacht in her famous Cattle Raid of Cooley. He soon becomes Medb’s lover.

When Fergus and Conchobar come face to face in the battle, Fergus in his fury is ready to strike him down with three swings of his magical sword, but Conchobar’s son, Cormac, persuades him not to kill the King in anger:

Fergus grasped the Caladcholg 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…
“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. 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.

from  the Táin Bó Cúalnge, Book of Leinster, Author unknown.

The mention of the elf-mounds indicate that the sword Caldcholg has magical origins and may have been made by the Sidhe. Another Fergus, son of Leite, is said to have brought it from the country of the Sidhe. Despite much searching, I am unable to bring you that story, which is very frustrating for me. But that’s research for you; it’s very elusive, and I know I’ll come across the story some day when I’m looking for something else entirely.

One of my favourite stories from Irish mythology centres on Fergus mac Leite. He was a king of Ulster, and he fought a sea-dragon called Muirdris. You can read about it in my post, The Serpent in Irish Mythology.

There are many named swords in Irish mythology. By that, I mean there are many swords which were believed to have held specific magical powers. Here are just a few, in no particular order:

  1. Claoimh Solais. Without a doubt the most famous of Irish mythological weapons, the Sword of Light was said to have been brought to Ireland by King Nuada, who led the invasion of the Tuatha de Danann against the Fir Bolg. It is said that no one ever escaped from it once it was drawn from its sheath, and no one could resist it. You can read more about it in my post, The Sword of Light.

  2. Orna. This sword belonged to the Fomori king, Tethra, but was taken in battle by Ogma, a warrior of the Danann said to have invented Ogham. This sword, when unsheathed, had the power to recount all the dread deeds done with it.

  3. Mac an Luin. ‘Son of the Waves’, this was the sword belonging to legendary Irish hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall.

  4. Ceard nan Gallan. This was the sword of Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhall, and its name means ‘Smith of the Branches’.

  5. Cosgarach Mhor. Means ‘Great Triumphant One’. This sword belonged to Oscar, who was Oisin’s son. Oscar was said to be a fine and mighty warrior who lived for the battle.

  6. Cruadh Chosgarath. ‘The Hard Destroying One’. This weapon belonged to Caoilte mac Ronain, Fionn mac Cumhall’s right-hand man.

  7. Fragarach. ‘The Answerer/ Retaliater’. This was the Sea-God Manannán mac Lir’s sword. It was said that no man’s armour could withstand it, and that it gave it’s wielder the power to command the winds. When Manannán became Lugh’s foster father, he gave it into Lugh’s care.

  8. Moraltach and Beagaltach. ‘The Great and Little Fury’. Two swords given to Diarmuid ua Duibhne by his foster father, Óengus of the Denann, god of love, youth and poetic inspiration. Moraltach was given to Óengus by Manannán mac Lir.

  9. The Singing Sword of Conaire Mór. Conaire Mór was a high king of Ireland. His sword was reputed to have sung as it was taken into battle.

Looking at this list, I am struck by how the swords of these men have taken on the powers of their owners. All of these men were renowned for being great warriors, and it seems their weapons have assumed the essence of what made them so mighty in battle. So whereas one could assume that it is the weapon’s magic made the warrior so unbeatable, in fact, the reverse is true.

But what is so special about the sword, anyway? Well, apart from the fact that it was an effective means of defence as well as attack, there was a mystical quality too.

You have to remember that in ancient times, the art of the smith was held in great esteem. It was considered a powerful magic indeed to wield and master the element of fire, which was representative of the great Sun-God himself; to take the bones of the earth (said to be the very bones of the mother Goddess Eriu, remember) and transform them through the application of fire, strength, skill, secret knowledge and magic into the much revered and coveted bright shining metallic objects of tools, weapons and jewellery.

Also, how one got one’s sword was quite significant. Manannán, the Sea-God seems to have been quite generous in this regard. Receiving such a noble gift from a God must have been quite an honour. And Sidhe-made swords, particularly those forged by master smith Goibniu, were highly coveted.

This is how the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall’s renowned war-band, received their swords according to Lady Gregory, in her book on Irish mythology, Of Gods and Fighting Men:

The Fianna had swords that had names to them, Mac an Luin, Son of the Waves, that belonged to Finn; and Ceard-nan Gallan, the Smith of the Branches, that was Oisin’s; and Caoilte’s Cruadh-Chosgarach, the Hard Destroying One; and Diarmuid’s Liomhadoir, the Burnisher; and Osgar’s Cosgarach Mhor, the Great Triumphant One.
And it is the way they got those swords: there came one time to where Finn and Caoilte and some others of the Fianna were, a young man, very big and ugly, having but one foot and one eye; a cloak of black skins he had over his shoulders, and in his hand a blunt ploughshare that was turning to red. And he told them he was Lon, son of Liobhan, one of the three smiths of the Kings of Lochlann. And whether he thought to go away from the Fianna, or to bring them to his smithy, he started running, and they followed after him all through Ireland, to Slieve-na-Righ, and to Luimnech, and to Ath Luain, and by the right side of the Cruachan of Connacht, and to Ess Ruadh and to Beinn Edair, and so to the sea.
And wherever it was they found the smithy, they went into it, and there they found four smiths working, and every one of them having seven hands. And Finn and Caoilte and the rest stopped there watching them till the swords were made, and they brought them away with them then, and it is good use they made of them afterwards.

Sword making is an ancient and honourable craft which utilises all the elements of the universe; Fire, Water, Air, and Earth are all brought together in the forging of a sword, thus representing unity, balance, totality and creativity.

The sword is seen as a highly symbolic tool. At a base level, the sword can be seen as phallic, with the sheath being yonic. Personally, I don’t believe that our ancient ancestors were as primitive and unsophisticated as this. We do seem to like to pigeon-hole every ancient find as phallic or ritualistic, for some reason, perhaps because it lends us a veneer of seeming more powerful, civilised and superior.

Nuada’s sword, as an example, represents the embodiment of justice by dealing the ultimate punishment to Ireland’s enemies; it cuts straight to the heart of a matter, thus symbolising the wielder’s power to dispense justice, truth and law. The aspect of light suggests illumination, in other words, wise and sacred knowledge. All qualities of a wise and noble king. If Nuada’s qualities are seen in his sword, then the handing down of his sword to his successor could be seen as bestowing those self-same qualities onto the next king. In such a way, the sword could come to represent the sovereignty of a tribe.

Although we no longer think of it in a literal sense, ‘the double-edged sword’ is a common saying still in use today; it describes the dual nature of the weapon. Not only is it a symbol of war and aggression, but also of resolution, liberation, and in fact, a guardian of peace.

But why the ‘blade which binds’?

Rather than being a tool which severs heads from shoulders, limbs from trunks, I see it as a symbol of unity. It binds the clan together, whether in times of war, when warriors mass together to defend their liberty, their homeland, their loved ones; but also in times of peace, when it represents justice, fair-mindedness, knowledge and enlightenment.

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