Swords and Watery Tarts

 

 

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"Then Sir Bedivere departed, and went to the sword, and lightly took it up, and went to the water side;
and there he bound the girdle about the hilts, and then he threw the sword as far into the water as he
might; and there came an arm and an hand above the water and met it, and caught it, and so shook it
thrice and brandished, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water."
-Le Morte d'Arthur.
"Look, strange women lying on their backs in ponds handing out
swords ... that's no basis for a system of government. Supreme
executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from
some farcical aquatic ceremony.
You can't expect to wield supreme executive power
just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
I mean, if I went around saying I was an Emperor because some
moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, people would put me away!"
-"Dennis" Monte Python and the Holy Grail

Anyone familiar with the traditional tale of King Arthur should be familiar with the ending, and the
return of the sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake as Arthur lay dying. But I recently ran across a
paper relating the story to what seems to have been a common practice among Celtic peoples. 
-That of giving up swords as votive offerings to bodies of water.

The first La Tene lake site was excavated in 1857 by Henry Kopp at Lake Neuchatel where no fewer than
forty swords were found. Since that time a total of 166 swords have been found at the site. Scholars
have argued that the number of barely-used swords matches an the idea of an armory better than an
offering site, but the frequency of swords or metal object in various other bodies of water in Europe
seems to argue for the idea of a votive offerings just as well. Locations in the United Kingdom include
the Witham and Thames Rivers like the Battersea and Wandsworth finds (London and Thames Valley 
Britain), Llyn Cerrig Bach (Anglesey), Llyn Fawr (Mid Glamorgan, Wales), FlagFen
(Cambridgeshire), Blackburn Mill and Carlingwark (Scotland).

The Romans also gave offerings to bodies of water, although in the case of the thermal springs
at Bath it was for the purpose of curses which were written on pewter tablets and dropped in the
water. 130 of these have been discovered at Aqua Sulis, 

The author of the article also points out that the Lady of the Lake exists in amid a strong
background of Celtic water spirits or godesses. The Roman Minerva Sulis was originally just Sulis -a 
local Celtic deity. Coventina is suggested to be watery godess of memory and healing and another
example of a well near Hadrian's Wall that was adopted by the Romans and used for votive
offerings. Wells and springs are also a common location for the theme of supernatural encounters
in Celtic myth and legend. So against the background of such oral traditions as well as the offerings
made to the spirits of the waters it seems reasonable think that the story of Lady of the Lake and
Excalibur may have grown out of those traditions.

 

 

 

 

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