Thursday, 8 December 2011
The Sword and the Stone
One of the most enduring images from the Arthurian legends is that of the young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and thereby proving that he is the true king. Here's how the stone was described by Sir Thomas Malory in his fifteenth-century Le Morte d'Arthur:
And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in the midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:- Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.
You could search high and low for such a stone in England, and you wouldn't find it. The reason being that the stone in question does not really belong to any English tradition. That said, however, at the time when Sir Thomas Malory was writing, the stone in question had been in England for nearly two hundred years.
The tradition of the sacred stone of kingship actually belonged to the Scots. According to the mythic history of the Scots, or 'Gaels', the stone was brought out of Egypt by the legendary Gaedal Glas or Gathelus, the supposed ancestor of the Scots. Writing in 1527, the Scottish historian Hector Boece explained it thus:
Gathelus, an Athenian or Argive, travelled from Greece to Egypt, where he married Scota, daughter of Pharaoh. At the Exodus, Gathelus fled with Scota to Iberia, where he founded a kingdom at Brigantium, now Santiago de Compostella. There, Gathelus reigned in the marble chair, or fatal stone like a chair: wherever it was found would be the kingdom of the Scots. Simon Breck, a descendant of Gathelus, then took the chair from Spain to Ireland, and was crowned king of Ireland in it.
Tradition holds that the 'marble stone' followed the Scots to their original power base in Argyll, on the west coast of what is now Scotland. Andrew of Wyntoun, writing his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland in the fifteenth century, noted that it was the great-great-grandfather of Arthur who brought the stone to the sacred island of Iona in about the year 498:
Fergus son of Erc from him then
Did descend line by line
Unto the fifty-fifth generation,
As even man may reckon,
Brought this Stone into Scotland,
First when he can and won that land,
And set it first in Icolmkyll
And Scone thereafter was it brought unto.
The reference to the Isle of Iona (Icolmkyll - the 'Island of Columba of the Church) is especially intriguing. Iona was a seat of kingship - reputedly, 48 kings are buried there, including Macbeth and Duncan. What is more, one version of the story has Simon Brecc raising the marble stone from the sea off the coast of 'Ireland'. Iona has a natural band of marble which stretches out into the sea from its south-eastern shore. A block of this marble served as the altar of Columba's church on the island. It could be, then, that in one of its early guises, the 'great stone four square, like unto a marble stone' was actually a bloc of Iona marble.
John of Fordun, a Scottish chronicler who wrote more than a century before Sir Thomas Malory described the 'great stone four square, like unto a marble stone', revealed that the 'fatal' stone of Scottish kingship, commonly known as the Stone of Destiny, bore its own inscription:
Ni fallat fatum, Scoti quocumque locatum
Invenient lapidem, regnasse tenentur ibidem.
['If Destiny prove true, then Scots are known to have been kings wherever men find this Stone.']
The legends of the Stone argue that it was originally the very stone on which Jacob laid his head at Bethel (Beth-El - 'House of God' - shares a linguistic origin with the Greek Baetylus, a sacred stone or pillar) and dreamt of a stairway to heaven. As such, the Stone compares with various Middle Eastern sacred stones, the most famous of which is the 'Black Stone' or Ka'aba at Mecca. The Ka'aba - Islam's holiest of holies - was once thought to house an aspect of Al-Uzza, the Arabic version of Venus. In the Scottish tradition, the goddess housed in the Stone of Destiny was Scota, daughter of the Pharaoh and mother-goddess of the Scots.
The Stone of Destiny left the Isle of Iona and eventually found its way to Scone in Perthshire, taken there by Kenneth mac Alpin when he established himself as the King of Scotland in 842. It was from Scone that the Stone was taken by the English king, Edward I, in 1296. As anyone who has seen Braveheart will remember, Edward 'Longshanks' had convinced himself that Scotland belonged to him. His removal of the Stone of Destiny from Scone meant that he had laid claim to the Scottish stone of kingship. It has long been rumoured that the stone stolen by Edward I (see photo above) was actually just a random hunk of masonry, and that the genuine Stone of Destiny was safely hidden away. Given that the early accounts of the stone refer to it as 'marble', it is possible that there was some truth in the notion that the canny Scots tricked Edward I into stealing an irrelevant bloc of locally-quarried Old Devonian red sandstone.
Edward I installed the Stone of Destiny in the coronation chair at Westminster Abbey. Every English monarch, from Edward II in 1308 to Elizabeth II in 1953, was crowned whilst seated on the stone.
It is typical of the way in which the legends of Arthur were corrupted by English writers that the stone's inscription was altered from the original legend ('Wherever men find this Stone is the kingdom of the Scots') to 'Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England'.
But how does this stone relate to Arthur?
In the spring of 574, a comet appeared in the skies. This was almost certainly taken as an omen, a sign that a new king was about to be crowned (the Gaelic word for such a heavenly omen was dreag). That same year, the Irish annals record a brutal battle in Kintyre. The king of the Scots, Conall mac Comgaill, had died and a great battle was fought for the throne. The victor was Aedan mac Gabrain, the father of Artuir.
St Columba, who had taken the Isle of Iona as the headquarters for his mission to Scotland, was reluctant to ordain Aedan as king of the Scots. The saint had to be bullied into accepting Aedan's claim. Still suffering from his ordeal, Columba returned to the Isle of Iona where he ordained Aedan as King of the Scots in the year 574 (the prophetic comet had been right!). Present at this occasion - the first recorded instance of a king being ordained by a Christian in the whole of the British Isles - were Aedan's sons, including Arthur. St Columba made use of the occasion to prophesy that Arthur would fall in battle, slain by enemies, and would never follow his father onto the throne.
The ceremony would have involved the 'fatal chair, or marble stone like unto a chair', as described by Hector Boece. King Aedan would have knelt or stepped on the Stone of Destiny, which was expected to emit a shriek if Aedan was indeed the true king (in other words, the goddess Scota must have voiced her approval of his candidacy). Aedan would then have swung his sword over the stone to demonstrate that he intended to govern the land and uphold its laws with the power of his arm. The sword would not have been drawn out of the stone: rather, the stone represented the land (and the tutelary goddess who presided over the land) and the sword represented the authority of the king, whose rule was legitimised by a form of sacred marriage with the goddess of the land. The power of the sword was drawn from the stone of the land.
It is rather amusing to note that the comet which flared in the skies over Britain in April-May 574 was not seen again until 1994. Just two years later, the Stone of Destiny was finally returned, under military escort, to its proper home in Scotland, having spent a full seven centuries legitimising the rule of English monarchs.
Once again, though, we find that the 'English' Arthurian traditions were 'borrowed' from those of another culture - specifically, that of the Scots. The 'fatal' stone was their royal stone, stolen by Edward I in 1296 and finally returned in 1996. It was their Stone of Destiny which supposedly bore the inscription concerning kingship. It was also the stone on which Arthur's father was ordained by St Columba on the Isle of Iona in 574, when the fifteen-year old Arthur was told that he would never be king of the Scots.
Try finding any Arthur in England who ever had anything to do with a sacred stone of kingship, and you'll enjoy a long and fruitless search. There was no Arthur in England. It is high time that, like the Stone of Destiny itself, he was at last returned to his Scottish roots.