Magical swords in myths and legends part 2 – an astronomical perspective

In the first part of this article, we saw a common thread, shared by many “magical sword” legends around the world. One of the obvious explanations would be that these myths share the same root, at least to some extent. In this case, the root must be really ancient, dating perhaps all the way back to the Iron age.

Indeed, there was a time when iron swords were a rare commodity. In Anatolia, Hittites were the first masters of iron, but these objects were reserved only for royalty. Homer claims that iron is more valuable than gold. This is easy to understand. The bronze age swords did not have a long life-span. They would bend and break easily. Therefore, the hard, iron still would really represent an object of magical power – the stuff of legends.

But even if this explains why so many cultures share the same myth, it still doesn’t tell us anything of the myth’s original meaning. To understand this, we will have to use some basic astronomy.

The legend of King Arthur – an ancient astronomical allegory

The knights of the round table

Besides Excalibur, the “round table” is one of the most famous elements of the Arthurian saga. Originally, there were twelve knights, although in later versions this number could go as high as 150 (that would be a really large table). Apparently, the round table meant that everyone is equal, as normally the most important person would sit on the head of the table. However, the number twelve and the idea of a circle could also be a clear reference to the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Further support for this theory comes from the Winchester Round Table.

This table dates to the early 13th century. In 1522 Henry VII depicted himself in the place of King Arthur. Besides this, there are twelve green and twelve white fields. They could represent a 24-hour day, or in other words, the twelve hours of daylight, and the twelve hours of the night – the passage of Sun and Moon through the twelve constellations of the zodiac.

King Arthur and the Bootes constellation

The etymology of the name Arthur is not clear. For example, Wikipedia lists several different opinions. Most of them relate to the variation of the root that meant “bear” (Celtic “arto”, Welsh “arth”). In the end, the article mentions an alternative theory according to which the name is a borrowing from Latin Arcturus. Arcturus is the brightest star of the Bootes constellation. As this constellation stands very near to Ursa Major, the “big bear” constellation, the ancients called it “guardian of the bear”. In another article, I spoke of this in more detail, but here is an illustration. Note that Bootes also holds a spear, one of the three weapons of Arthur.

bootes-ursar-ursa-major-astronomy-ancient-history
bootes-ursar-ursa-major-astronomy-ancient-history

But there is more. King Arthur’s father was Pendragon (chief dragon), and above the Bootes constellation, there is a constellation Draco – dragon. Underneath Bootes, we see the constellation Crater – a cup, or a grail. This is another important element of the Arthurian myth, but its origin is much older – we can trace it from Christianity, all the way back to some of the oldest Greek myths. I wrote extensively about it in some of the previous articles.

Lady of the lake and the white swan – Cygnus constellation

It was the Lady of the lake, who according to the legend granted Excalibur to Arthur. Unfortunately, medieval legends are full of contradictions when it comes to this character. One story claims that she was the daughter of Pendragon, and as such, Arthur’s sister. According to the other, she was the daughter of Dionas (Dyonas). This name sounds like the name of the Thracian god Dionysus, or in other words, constellation Orion – perhaps hinting to the possible source of the myth.

In artwork, Lady of the lake often has a white swan in proximity, just like the constellation Virgo has Cygnus, the swan. The reason that the ancients saw this star cluster as a swan is that it stands in the middle of the Milky Way, a celestial river that flows down towards the constellation of Scorpius (not too clear on the above image).

Lady of the lake – Virgo constellation

The contradictions are many even when it comes to her real name. Various sources spell it as Nimuë, Ninianne/Viviane, Nimanne, Niviene/ Vivienne, Nimiane/Niniame, Nymenche, Niniane, Niviana, Nymanne, Nynyane, Niniane, Ninieve, Nynyve/Nenyve

Interestingly, many of these variations sound similar to the names of the river Neman, an important river flowing from Belarus to Lithuania. The variants of its name include Nioman, Nyoman, Nemunas, Neman, Niemen… Another popular version, Nymenche, actually sounds like a Slavic diminutive, ending in “che”, often used as an endearment form of the name.

On the other hand, the forms Ninieve and Nynyve sound like the ancient Assyrian city Nineveh. I know that many readers will frown on this idea, and I could have easily taken it out of the article to make it easier to read and more “credible”. However, I find these connections very interesting, especially if we follow the idea that all of this myth share the same ancient root. Also, there is no other etymology for these names. The ancient city of Nineveh, whose origins go back to 3,000 BC, was dedicated to goddess Ishtar, its patron goddess. The cuneiform for the name of the city was Ninâ – a fish within a house, an obvious allusion to water.

And finally, some of the versions of the myth equate Lady of the lake with Morgan le Fay. The name Morgan comes from the Brittonic “Mori-gena” and means “sea-born”. She is an enchantress, but also the weaving goddess, just like Circe of the Odyssey. Her name is similar to the Christian Mary, which also comes from the word “sea”. Aphrodite, the Greek version of Ishtar also came out of the sea. These symbols are clear hints that we are dealing with the Virgo constellation, “house” of the planet Venus.

virgo-spinning-mokosh-slavic
virgo-spinning-mokosh-slavic

Carnwennan – the Pleiades

Arthur’s small dagger, Carnwennan, meant “little white hilt”. It is quite possible that it relates to the cluster of the Pleiades, which certain cultures saw as a little white dagger.

As the Pleiades are on the opposite side of the sky, this would also be in accordance with the Vietnamese myth where the main hero needs to assemble his sword out of two different pieces.

So where is the Excalibur?

By now, you may wonder why would this particular part of the sky be so important for the Arthurian myth. The answer is very simple. During the past two millennia BC, in other words during an Iron age, this was the night sky of the spring equinox. And the spring equinox was the most important event of the ancient calendar, marking the end of the winter and the cycle of New Year.

To be more precise, during the Iron age, the Sun rose on the background of Aries during the spring months. The constellation of Libra opened the night sky. In autumn, Sun was in Libra, on the other side of the zodiac. The scales of Libra symbolize the equinox when day and night are equal. Or perhaps, one of the scales is slightly tipped, to symbolize the change of pattern after the equinox.

But it is the spring equinox that is important for our story. Libra would appear on the eastern horizon just after sunset. From there, it would proceed to go up, followed by Scorpius, the next constellation in line. Both of the constellations would be visible around 9 PM, as you can see in the below image (a screenshot from Stellarium, a free astronomical software).

From here, these two constellations would proceed their travel across the night sky, until they reach the western horizon, just before the sunrise, around 5 AM.

Did you see it already? The constellation Scorpius actually looks like an arm. During sunset, it appears on the horizon right after the blue sky of the day. During sunrise, it looks as if it is going to dive towards it. In another article, I already compared Scorpius constellation with the arm of Thor, and found similar parallels even in the Mayan mythology. It is only logical that those cultures that did not have scorpions in their habitat had different ideas of what this constellation represents. I believe that an arm is a good guess.

In this case, the Excalibur could be nothing else than the Libra constellation. Indeed, the modern idea of how the stars connect does not even look like the scales. But if we imagine different lines, those that made the ancients see the scales of Libra, the idea of a giant sword is not that far. (see the illustration of Libra above). In this case, we get the following parallel:

Do you see it? And during sunrise, these constellations will tilt on the western horizon. It will look as if a hand is throwing away the sword. Right after that, the sky will turn blue, just as the surface of water that swallowed the Excalibur.

Indeed, Beowulf fights Grendel’s mother in a cave. He manages to slay her just as the light of the day enters the cave. The sea then turns red, which could be another representation of the red sky during sunrise.

From Camael to Camelot

The court of King Arthur was in Camelot. There is no etymology for this toponym. However, in the Old Testament, there is an angel holding the flaming sword, guarding the gates of heaven. His name is Camael. Camel holds a flaming sword in one hand, and in the other, he has a holy grail. Does the name Camelot actually relate to him?

In the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome we see the following image. Enthroned Christ sits in the middle. On the left, there is an archangel Uriel (bright), holding a Sun-like shield – spring in Aries. On the right, we see Zophiel (from zophos, darkness) holding a Moon-like shield. Under him there is a Camael, holding the grail and staff instead of the usual flaming sword.

It is obvious that this image represents an astronomical allegory. And it is the Old Testament one – it made sense only for the two millennia BC. Eastern Orthodox tradition claims that after the resurrection of Jesus, the flaming sword was removed from the Garden of Eden, making it possible for humanity to re-enter Paradise. In fact, Christianity marks the shift of the equinox from Libra to Virgo. This is how Virgin Mary became an important character of the narrative, while the flaming sword was really removed from heaven’s gate.

Conclusions

Interestingly, Arthurian myth stayed faithful to the older Pre-Christian narrative. As we saw, King Arthur apparently lived during the 5th century AD, but in reality, the myth is probably even older than that. As some authors already noticed, it could have been brought to Brittain via Sarmatian mercenaries, which Romans brought on the island. Or perhaps its origins are even older and relate to some of the first settlers of the Iron age.

In any case, it seems that the Arthurian myth is an echo of a much older tradition.

Officially, the European Iron age started in Aegean and Balkans, around the twelfth century BC. Scholars are undecided whether it came there from Anatolia or Caucasus. Iron was known in Assyrian Niniveh already around 3,000 BC. But if we add the similarities between the Asian myths and those of Europe, my two cents would go on the Caucasus. In this case, the Scythians and Sarmatians are truly the only people capable of spreading this influence.

However, it is possible that the iron age arrived in Balkans first, and from there reached Aegean with the Dorian invasion. On the Serbian archaeological site of Hisar Hill, two needles were discovered, dated to 14th century BC. The fascinating thing about these needles is their structure. They are made from 98,86% pure iron, which cannot rust. This is an impossible feat, even for modern standards. The only similar structure on earth is the famous Iron pillar of Delhi – another strange connection between Europe and Asia.

A needle and a pilar, symbolically marking the borders of the world’s first Iron age culture.

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