King Arthur’s Swords: Ancient Water Rites


The previous article examined hoarding and the use of weapons and such as votive offerings in the Bronze Age. This practice continued for hundreds of years, one of the most common kinds being as part of water rites.

It was believed that offering things of wealth (metal, weapons, etc.) to bodies of water would increase the likelihood that a divine presence would smile on the people who made the offering. In many cases,especially as the years went by, daggers and swords were used in these rites. It was not uncommon for a hero to, say, throw an old sword into a nearby pool and ask for protection from above, whatever shape he considered above to have.

Now, these offerings were not designed to be retrieved. So it is startling in this context to examine the story of how King Arthur is said to have received a sword from the Lady of the Lake. (This was not Excalibur, remember. Legend tells us that Arthur drew that sword out of a stone–or, more accurately, an anvil mounted on a stone.)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: We are dealing in legend here, but the legend has become so much a part of the fabric of Britain that it can be examined as history.

So, onward. We do not have in the legendary lexicon a story of Arthur throwing a sword into a lake or a pond or any such body of water. (If you’re thinking of Bedivere throwing Excalibur into the Pool, read onward.) The first we hear of a sword and a body of water is the Lady of the Lake’s offering a sword to Arthur. This could be interpreted as a divine blessing in the form of a reverse votive offering. A sword comes out of the water and is placed into Arthur’s hands. This is a gift from a divine presence, or at the very least from a strong magical being.

Arthur is presented with a magical sword, endowed with the magic and protection of the Lady of the Lake. With this sword as a symbol of his blessedness, he reigns supreme.

Now, Excalibur came to Arthur from the anvil in the stone, or from Merlin himself, depending on which story you read. It is this sword–not the sword originally given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake–that is cast into the Pool at the end of the Arthurian story. So, Arthur is using the sword Excalibur as a votive offering in a water rite, in essence reciprocating the gesture put forth by the Lady of the Lake many years earlier.

It is probably not significant that this is not the same sword. The intent is the same.

What is the point of all this? These two stories, which in the legend that has become history bookend the career of Arthur, have their basis in fact. People in Arthur’s time did throw their swords into lakes and pools and rivers, as votive offerings during water rites. As with so many elements of the Matter of Britain, the essence is fact.