Arthur sees hand and sword in lakeExcalibur is the mythical sword

belonging to King Arthur.  It is associated with Arthur’s sovereignty of Britain and features in different ways in the legend.

In one version, Arthur pulls it from a stone, a feat which no one else had been able to achieve and which proves his rightful kingship.  In the second, later version, Arthur receives the sword from the waters of a lake, from the outstretched hand of the Lady of the Lake, who receives it back again into the water as Arthur lies dying.

Sometimes the Sword in the Stone is a different one from Excalibur, sometimes it is the same, but in whatever form the sword occurs in the tales, it is rich in symbolism.




The Sword in the Stone

Excalibur in the rock
King Uther Pendragon of Britain dies without a known heir and the barons are fighting over who is to be the next king.  The lords and knights of the realm come together – in some versions for Christmastide, in others for a tournament – and  a young squire, Arthur, come across a sword that has been set into a large four-square stone, which he pulls out and  gives to his master, who has lost or broken his own.  Great confusion follows, as the inscription round the stone states that whoever releases the sword from its place becomes the rightful King of England and no-one but Arthur is able to perform this feat.  He therefore becomes the ruler of the kingdom.

The sword can be seen as a symbol of the Spiritual Intuition, its sharpness penetrating to the essence of things, its brightness illuminating all, its swiftness of penetration revealing the transcendent “moments” beyond time, when there is true knowledge or gnosis, of reality. The four-square nature of the stone is symbolic of concrete manifestation, its intransigence blocking the swiftness of spiritual insight, and one way of reading the myth is that until the spirit rules over the flesh rather than being immersed in it, there can be no true rulership of a kingdom, whether it be the kingdom of the human body, or the body of a state or country.

In some versions the sword is withdrawn from an anvil, which has associations with the tempering of steel by fire, itself a creative element out of which forms are brought into manifestation  –  a principle  illustrated by the Greek God Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith, who is an  aspect of Zeus, the Creative Mind Itself, and who faithfully perfects the forms of the cosmos on his anvil.

Excalibur has been described as having a gold hilt with twin dragons whose eyes shoot out fire or, depending on the source, whose eyes have the power to calm. The light from the dragon’s eyes illumines all things, but it also causes deep peace to the Soul, as it brings with it a certitude that nothing can shake.  It is supposed to be studded with jewels such as Jacinth, Topaz and Diamonds.  The Spiritual Intuition is a precious possession to those who are able to exercise it; it leads to the highest kind of knowledge that man can attain to – that of Nous or Gnosis, which is a union with Divine Intellect Itself.

In one version of the Excalibur story the sword blinds Arthur’s enemies, this happens in the first battle he enters as a test of his sovereignty. Those who are striving for enlightenment are blinded rather than illumined in the attempt to seize it undeservedly.  The dazzling light flashing from the blade of Excalibur not only casts light but also darkens the vision in those not ready.

There is sense in which spirit must be withdrawn  from all material limitation and come to know itself before its reality and power can be exercised; until that time it is hidden by the denseness of the material world – the blade of Excalibur bound fast in the stone or metal.  Once the Reason and the Spiritual Intuition become the overseers of life, everything that is hostile to enlightenment (giants, bad knights, evil enchantresses etc…) can be overcome.

In a general sense then, the withdrawal of the sword can denote the triumph of spirit over matter.

The releasing of the sword brings about order in the realm through a realisation of the perfect interrelationships between all things.  Arthur appoints 12 knights to keep watch over the kingdom – the number twelve having associations with the universe as a wholeness – and each knight has his own place or siege at the Round Table, i.e. his own purpose and relationship within the order,  moving out on a quest to perform his purpose and returning once it is completed.  It is as if this radiating procession from, and return to, a centre are what hold the realm in its stable existence and support its every activity.   In the same way the entire cosmos could be seen as ruled and supported by spiritual principles radiating from a divine centre.


The Sword and the Lake

lady of the lakeIn many versions Arthur receives Excalibur from the deep waters of a lake, rowing out to its centre and taking the sword from the outstretched hand that rises from the water; the hand of the Lady of the Lake, sometimes called Viviane, sometimes Nimue.  The sword is returned there as Arthur lies dying after his final battle.

A characteristic of the mind is its capacity to move, it is continuously flowing on; absorbing, sorting sieving, following associated images or thoughts arriving at conclusions.   In the story, the waters of the lake are deep and the sword seems to arise precisely from its depths.  Here we have a good image of the surface mind and its wanderings; the choppy, constantly moving surface of the lake, and the stillness and calm of the deep mind, represented by Excalibur, which cuts through the surface and rises from the depths into the light.

For the mind to see clearly it must be cleansed of ignorance and of everything that obscures its vision; thus spiritualised it can then see “face to face”.  The arm reaching up out of the lake is said to be “clothed in white samite”, denoting the purity of the highest intellectual vision.

The Lady of the Lake could be seen as some aspect of deity, a guardian of the spiritual mind, who only entrusts its power and purity to those who are worthy, in this case, Arthur.   One of the meanings of the name Nimue is “she who lives”.  The name also has connections with the moon and with the Greek goddess Diana, who is the life of nature itself.  Water and life are strongly associated and suggest that the spiritual mind, residing deep within the Mother of life, is  replete with her dynamism and vitality. The drawing power of the moon pulls the mind back into the deeps of the Mother, returning it to its home. In his poem The Passing of Arthur Tennyson catches something of the moon’s association with the sword when he describes Sir Bedevere taking it back to the lake as Arthur lies dying:

There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,
And o’er him, drawing it, the winter moon,
Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth
And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt.

And later, as Sir Bedevere hurls it into the lake …

The great brand
Made lightenings in the splendour of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whirl’d in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern moon…

The name Excalibur has associations with the Irish word Caladbolg, another legendary sword, meaning “hard belly”, and hence, “voracious”.  The mind is ever hungry for knowledge at every level, and hungry to assimilate what it  knows as its own


These are some suggestions as to the symbolic interpretations that can be given of  the Excalibur myth, and further exploration will no doubt lead to more, for the interested reader.

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