Excalibur was the sword given to King Arthur by the Lady of the Lake.
The sword's miraculous scabbard prevented the wearer from losing blood. It became a symbol of the Kingdom, and brought glory to King Arthur.
And yet, its return to the Lake from whence it came is also is an emblem of his passing.
The Welsh name for Excalibur was Caladvwlch, equating linguistically with Irish Caladbolg, the name of a sword borne by heroes in Irish legend, derived from calad (hard) and bolg (lightning).
The name 'Excalibur' was first used for King Arthur's sword by the French writers of medieval Romances. It is not King Arthur's other famous sword, known as The Sword in the Stone (which was broken in battle), but a second sword acquired by the king through the intercession of Merlin or Myrddin.
Fearful that King Arthur might die in battle, and thus the Kingdom would fall and all would be lost, Merlin took King Arthur to a Lake where the mysterious hand of a Lady thrust itself up from the water, holding aloft a magnificently wrought sword.
It was the Lady of the Lake offering King Arthur a unbreakable blade forged by an elf smith on the Isle of Avalon, in the Underworld, along with a scabbard which would protect him from shedding blood for as long as he wore it.
But towards the end of his reign, during the insurrection led by Mordred, Excalibur was stolen by King Arthur's possessed half-sister, Morgan le Fay.
Though it was recovered, the scabbard was not returned to the king. It was lost forever. Thus King Arthur knew that one day he would be wounded, that one day he would bleed, and that one day would be his last.
While this story is based upon older legends, such as Mort Artu of the Vulgate Cycle, we find the most popular version in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
Finally, while King Arthur lay on his deathbed after the Battle of Camlann, we read in Malory, that he gave the sword to Sir Bedivere to return it to the Lake.
Sir Bedivere took the sword, but hesitated throwing it back into the waters, then his it behind a nearby tree. He returned to King Arthur's bedside.
King Arthur asked the knight what he had witnessed. Sir Bedivere knew not what to say, so he said he saw nothing. King Arthur knew that he had the sword still. King Arthur bade him cast the sword as he had commanded.
Sir Bedivere confessed his reluctance, then returned to the Lake. But this time he threw in his own sword, then returned to the King. King Arthur asked him what had happened. Sir Bedivere said nothing. So once more King Arthur bade him do it. On 'The Day of Destiny' the knight threw King Arthur's sword into the Lake. And there came an arm and a hand out of the water, which took the sword, shook it thrice, and then vanished with the sword into the water.
Sir Bedivere returns to his king's side. When King Arthur is told of what has happened, he knows his own time is nigh. With attendant fair ladies in black hoods, the dying King Arthur is placed upon a barge, and then borne across the misty waters on to the Isle of Avalon.
This fascinating story poses many questions to us today. Why is the sword called Excalibur? What might help to explain the original meaning of the stories about this wonderful sword?
The earliest Arthurian legends give the name of King Arthur's sword as 'Caladfwlch', a Welsh word probably derived from calad-bolg meaning 'hard lightning'.
By the 11th Century, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's book Histories of the King's of Britain, we see that this word had become 'Caliburn'.
Finally, the French medieval writers, such as Chrétien de Troyes, gave us the word 'Excalibur' that we know today.
Great men of legend often are noted for possessing a marvellous sword. These swords are almost always symbols of the balance between life and death. Excalibur is a symbol of King Arthur's life-giving power, and yet as the blade cuts so it is emblematic of death itself. In legend, it is power, at the blade of a sword, that determines if one lives or dies. Justice is administered by the blade.
Today we are still familiar with the idea of a blade as a judge of what is true: Hence the phrases 'cutting to the truth', 'cutting through lies', 'cutting to the chase' and 'the sword of truth.'
The sword is also a symbol of power and kingship. In the coronation service of the British monarch, the sword used upon the person soon to be made monarch is known as Curtana.
This sword, which is still used at the British Coronation to this day, is in fact a 17th Century successor of the original sword of Ogier the Dane.
It is also with a sword that the monarch makes men knights and ladies dames. The making of the sword was a magical process that only a few men understood, and they tended to keep the knowledge secret. The sword was a symbol of power and magic in many cultures of the ancient world.
The sword in King Arthur's tale has some similarities to the Norse Legend of Sigurd. But even closer parallels can be drawn with the Irish hero, Cúchulain who also bore a sword named Caladbolg, forged also in a magic kingdom by an elfan smith.
The ancient British often called him Gofannon.
The Saxons knew him as Wayland the Smith.
This mythic figure can also to be identified with the Roman god Vulcan and the Greek demi-god Hephaestus who made magical weapons for the Muses to give to Perseus, and for Thetis to give to Achilles. The sword, and the power the sword bestowed, was therefore seen as a gift from the dieties living in the water or the Underworld.
As swords were thought to be gifts from the gods, it was only right and proper that they should sometimes be returned to their creators.
The deposition of swords, weaponry and other valuables in sacred lakes and rivers was a widespread practice in ancient Britain and amongst the Celtic peoples or Europe.
The Roman writer Strabo records such rituals as taking place near Toulouse, in south-west France, and notes that other sacred lakes existed throughout Europe.
Gregory of Tours mentions a three-day festival of deposition at Lake Gévaudan in the Cevennes. Ancient British Iron Age weapons have been found deposited in rivers are too numerous to count. Especially well known gifts are the splendid Battersea Shield and Waterloo Helmet from the Thames.
While going back into the mists of time, such practises flourished long after the peoples of our the British islands became Christian. The way these people must have interpreted their actions changed, as did the stories they told about what they were doing.
Today, we are the lucky inheritors of stories that go right back to our ancient past, and yet have lived on, with their meanings changing somewhat, as time went by.