The Icelandic Sword In The Stone: Bears In The Sky

The Icelandic Sword In The Stone: Bears In The Sky

Malcor, Linda A.

The Heroic Age, Issue 11 (May 2008)


This paper examines the Icelandic saga of Hrolf Kraki, compares it to the Greek stories of Theseus and Kallisto, and argues that both traditions of the Sword in the Stone stemmed from a celestial event that occurred in 2160 B.C.E.

The most famous variant of the Sword in the Stone narrative is from the Arthurian tradition: a twelve-year-old Arthur pulls a sword from an anvil atop a stone in a churchyard, thereby proving his right to become king (Malory, Morte d’Arthur 1:15-20).1 Over the past few years C. Scott Littleton and I have presented a series of articles discussing other variants of the Sword in the Stone tradition, developing the hypothesis that ca. 2160 Before the Common Era (B.C.E.), triggered by the northshift caused by the precession of the celestial pole, a story about a sacred sword being plunged into a tree (or brush pile) emerged among the ancient steppe peoples (Littleton and Malcor, 2006). With the development of forging iron, the sword became iron instead of bronze, and when the story transmitted to the Near East, a stone throne or altar was added to the tale. The knowledge of how to forge iron into swords traveled with the story of a war god who, accompanied by twelve companions, either pulled a sword from or plunged it into a stone.2 The Iron Age came to Greece, the setting for the stories of Theseus and Kallisto, ca. 1100–800 B.C.E., and to Denmark, the setting for Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, ca. 500 B.C.E. The Germanic peoples did not start forging iron into longer swords intended for use by cavalry until the Late Roman Iron Age, ca. 180–400 C.E. (Hedeager 1992, 13). Although the tales in question were recorded at much later dates, they contain internal evidence that points to their early—and common—origin as well as details that suggest they were transmitted by diffusion—along with the knowledge of how to forge iron—rather than as part of the general transmission of Indo-European culture across Eurasia. Some of these Sword in the Stone tales are paired with the “Bear’s Son Tale” (motif B635.1 “The Bear’s Son”), while in other cultures these two traditions are separated from each other.

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