The Blade that Binds

The Blade that Binds www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
The Blade that Binds
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

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 C12th 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 C12th.

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…

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Mac an Luin. ‘Son of the Waves’, this was the sword belonging to legendary Irish hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall.
  • Ceard nan Gallan. This was the sword of Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhall, and its name means ‘Smith of the Branches’.
  • 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.
  • Cruadh Chosgarath. ‘The Hard Destroying One’. This weapon belonged to Caoilte mac Ronain, Fionn mac Cumhall’s right-hand man.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 utilizes 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 very 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 dualistic 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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61 thoughts on “The Blade that Binds

  1. The photograph of the sword in the stone utterly intrigues me. I had no idea of the possible connection between Excalibur and Irish mythology, but then I should not be surprised. The story behind this sword and the symbolic meanings you explore here is absolutely fascinating Ali. Wonderfully interesting post!

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  2. Wonderful post Ali ~ there is something very powerful a sword means even in society today ~ history (which you’ve covered so well here) and to where we are today. I like how you see it as a symbol of unity – and even today it can bring a level of community all around the globe for those who are away from their homeland. Also, I think it brings a deep respect to those who look and appreciate history and our evolution. Cheers to a great weekend Ali.

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    1. Thank you, Dalo! I think you are right, and it has been used as a symbol all around the world, not because of its brutality or through fear, but because it represents unity and sovereignty and balance and protection. I hope you had a fabulous weekend too… been travelling anywhere amazing recently? I think you should have a trip to sacred Ireland! 😤😄😉 I’d love to see it through your lense!

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      1. I’ve visited Ireland once so many years ago, and promised the Isle I would return ~ and have since long for the day when I keep the promise and there would be nothing better than walking on those sacred lands again 🙂 😄😉

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    1. Oh there were for sure! And interestingly, it was female warriors who trained the big heroes like Cuchullain and Fionn mac Cumhall. Don’t forget that these stories were written down by Christian monks, who didn’t agree with women having power and equality. They either deliberately left them out, or tried to play down their significance, or ignored the stories of women. We may never find out much about them. Sadly. But yes, a post on the lady warriors would be fun! 😀

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  3. That’s really cool, Ali – I didn’t realise there was a real sword in the stone! As for Arthur, I think he was Welsh, myself – The Keys to Avalon make a pretty convincing argument for it. However, there are stories across the UK and Ireland and France, so who knows – the Celts did spread themselves around a bit 🙂 Great post!

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  4. I never really thought about the literal meaning behind the expression “double-edged sword” before – how the sword can not only kill but can also preserve peace. And I love reading about the magical powers of swords in legends of the past. Great post, Ali!

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  5. another fascinating post Ali and yes your conclusions make sense regarding the similarities to Arthurian legend. I had an old book on Irish Celtic myth and I must go find it again. I truly love the idea of the ancient and great poet warriors and likewise astronomer priests! And I love the magic of symbols. You always weave magic and mystery together in these stories.

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  6. The notion of sword-making combining all four elements is something I’d never thought about before. Maybe the Gardaí should be expanding their weaponry to bring peace and harmony in a time of great political pontification. I also love anything about legend crossover between cultures. Did you once write about the legends which are common to Ireland and China, such as Labraid Loingsech and the horse’s ears?

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  7. I find it interesting that you note the similarities between Fionn and Arthur; there were things I noticed before like the knights of the round table and the Fianna. I will have to read your article on that next. I find it fascinating looking at the parallels between various mythologies.

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  8. Do you think these stories all stem from the same source that walked around the world post Rome, so the Italian sword story could be part of the English and Irish stories? Each new country then takes its own and embellishes it? Kind of how I understood Christianity subverted local cultures.

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    1. Yes quite possibly. I read an article recently where the roots of our fairy tales could be traced linguistically back to Bronze age times. I’m not convinced by that, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. Modern technology is uncovering amazing things about the past. But if mankind originates from one place, and it’s generally thought to be Africa, isn’t it, then perhaps our stories all originate from that source too, but were modified as cultures diversified.

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    1. Hi Finola. It certainly does seem to be the most significant one. It always raises an image of something like a light sabre, to me, and Lugh’s fiery Lance reminds me of a flame thrower. What with their arriving from the sky on storm clouds and Nuadas bionic arm, anything seems possible where the Denann are concerned! 😁

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  9. Cool post. Reminds me of a book I read Angelfall the series. It had a sword in that, and like you mention here, it was sort of alive in itself. It wielded power and drove the angel in battle, sort of doing the fighting for him. Yet it was bonded to him in a magical way in a type of relationship like no other, and if he lost his sword it was the ultimate defeat – he had his wings cut off and the sword rejected him (it was awful for him!) I think from memory they do end up back together once his wings are sewn back on!

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  10. Fantastic Ali, There wered a few swords in there I has not come accross before. You are quite right when you mention the five elements connection with swords. Not only on a physical level.Cultures around the world all shared similar beliefs.
    The Keris of Indonesia, a wavey shapped dagger is one that I have personally encountered. Many where made from meteorite ore and they do contain certain energies that you dont come accross all the time.
    The creators of these blades sure had an important job combining the elements to create something new, and contrary to popular belief, each sword would have been made for a certain individual, weight, balance, size all played an inportant factor in their creation.
    It reminds me a bit of the wands in the HArry Potter series. Each one possesing its own attributes to suit the user?
    One thing that always puzzled me was the smiths of the De Dannann. It is claimed that they were defeated by the Milesians due to their use of Iron. So what were these magnificent swords made from.???

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    1. I have read that they brought iron weapons with them, Ed, but I’ll need to check the source now, as I can’t think where. They went straight to the iron mountain when they arrived, where there is a long tradition of mining. At the time they were said to have arrived in Ireland most of the Western world were still in the Bronze age, so I think it’s quite likely that the reason for their success was due to the advanced metal working.

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        1. As usual, Irish mythology is full of contradiction! But yes they are equated with fairies, although they are not tiny, dont have wings or fly. They are also thought to be God’s. Make your minds up people!!! 😂

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            1. Nope. I never heard of that! But I have heard of it in relation to the Sidhe, yet also that their weapons were tipped with iron when everyone else was still using bronze, so it’s a bit of a conundrum.

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          1. I was always under the impression that as the mortals took over they pushed the sidhe aside and eventually our ideas about them morphed into this notion of the fairy, as we wrote over their status as gods. I don’t know where the wings came from. All I know is I’m confused!

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            1. Lol! Who isn’t? The Milestone, who were a race of Man, did force the Denann to retreat to the Otherworld, where they eventually became known as the Sidhe. Where the wings came from, who knows? Unless it was a shape-shifting thing.

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    1. Yeah, those sirens were a pain in the whatsit! Even so, the one story I was looking for I couldn’t find… so frustrating. It must be out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered and brought to light, in some dusty old tome. Or maybe it’s been lost. Guess those sirens ain’t all that! 😁

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  11. I’m a big fan of swords, Ali, and magic and the wavy line that defines what is real and legend. I’m half way through Conor Kelly (Book 1) and I totally, completely love it! I can barely put it down. It was fun reading the above with my mind all caught up in the rich Irish history.

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    1. You are? Wow, I am delighted, particularly that you’re enjoying it. Thank you. I think the sword plays an important role in your stories too, doesn’t it? There are always warriors and battles in fantasy. Strangely, it is death by other means which scare me more, drowning or fire, for example. The warrior in ancient Ireland had no fear of death, as they believed in reincarnation, and death by the sword was considered honourable.

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