The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 11 (May 2008)  |   Issue Editors: Larry Swain & Linda Malcor

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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The Germanic Sword In The Tree: Parallel Development Or Diffusion?1

C. Scott Littleton
Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA
Linda A. Malcor
Independent Researcher, Lake Forest, CA

© 2008 by C. Scott Littleon and Linda A. Malcor. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2008 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  In this paper we consider whether the Norse story of the "Sword in the Branstock" and the Arthurian tale of the "Sword in the Stone" may represent two variants of a tale about a celestial event that occurred 2160 B.C.E.


§1.  Scholars have long pointed to the Arthurian tale of the "Sword in the Stone" and the Norse story of the "Sword in the Branstock" as examples of the parallel development of an Indo-European myth that became part of an epic tradition in the Celtic and Germanic cultures (e.g., Bruce 1958, 1:145). In this paper we reexamine these two tales and consider whether they may represent two variants of a story that was born as the result of a celestial event that was viewed from somewhere near the northern shore of the Black Sea in 2160 B.C.E. (Barber and Barber 2004, 210).2

The Sword in the Stone

§2.  The legend of the Sword in the Stone is well known today through the numerous retellings of the Arthurian tale in stories, plays and film (Plate 1). The basic story, as it took its mature form in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (Malory 1:15-20), relates how the twelve-year-old Arthur accompanies his foster brother, Sir Kay, to a tournament in London.3 Arthur forgets Kay's sword and runs to retrieve it. On the way, he passes a churchyard where he spies a sword embedded in an anvil atop a stone. Arthur pulls the Sword from the Stone and takes it to Kay, who claims to be the one who drew the blade. A series of tests prove that no one except Arthur can draw the sword, so the young boy is crowned "King of all England" as the golden words on the sword prophesy.

§3.  In From Scythia to Camelot (Littleton and Malcor 2000, 181-194), we argued that this variant of the Sword in the Stone legend was transmitted to Europe by the Alans during the fifth century C.E. In the Nart sagas, folk narratives told by the Ossetians, who are the descendents of the Alans, there are many elements of the Sword in the Stone story, but not the explicit motif of the weapon being drawn from a stone or anvil (Littleton and Malcor 2000, 184, 186). The ancient Alans were, however, observed practicing a religion associated with their war god, and, as part of this ritual, they embedded a sword in the ground (presumably removing it at some later point in time; Ammianus Marcellinus 31.4.22; Littleton 1982; Littleton and Malcor 2000, xxvvii, 186). This ritual is clearly a survival of the ritual the Scythians performed in honor of their war god, as that ceremony was described by Herodotus (4.59-62). What is intriguing for the purposes of this paper, however, is that in the ritual as described by Herodotus, the iron sword is planted neither in an anvil nor in the ground but rather in an altar atop a pile of wood. With this in mind, let us take a look at the Germanic variant of the tale.

The Sword in the Branstock

§4.  The main reason that scholars have assumed that the Germanic variant of this legend is the product of parallel development instead of diffusion is that the Germanic sword is very clearly embedded in a tree rather than in an anvil or a stone. When the Germanic tale is viewed, however, through its proper lens, it quickly becomes apparent that this difference is a matter of perspective rather than a material difference.

§5.  The Norsemen told of the "Sword in the Branstock" in the "Sigurdsaga" portion of the Volsungasaga (Guerber 1985, 253-258) (Plate 2). At the wedding of Signy and Siggeir, a blue-cloaked man with one eye plunges a sword in the Branstock, an ancient oak. The man declares that the sword will belong to the warrior who can pull it free, then he leaves. The wedding guests identify him as Odin.4 Several warriors, including Signy's father, Volsung, try to draw the weapon and fail. Sigmund, the tenth and youngest son, however, succeeds. Through Siggeir's treachery, Sigmund and his brothers are condemned to death and the sword is taken from Sigmund. The brothers are chained to an oak in the forest and each night one is killed by a she-wolf.5 Finally, only Sigmund is left. Signy helps Sigmund escape. Siggeir eventually recaptures Sigmund along with Sinfiolti, Signy's youngest son by Sigmund, and orders that the two heroes be buried alive. The gravegoods that Signy throws into Sinfiolti's portion of the grave (which is covered by a stone roof) contain Sigmund's sword. Sinfiotli plunges the sword through the stone that separates him from Sigmund, cuts an opening through stone and iron, and father and son escape. Sigmund then burns Siggeir to death and becomes king.

The Historical Context

§6.  Tacitus's Germania is our main source for ethnographic data regarding the early Germanic peoples (Puhvel 1987, 189). Cassius Dio, Ammianus Marcellinus and a few other Greco-Roman authors round out the very short list of written texts we have about this culture (Puhvel 1987, 189) prior to their Christianization by missionaries in the late eighth century (Puhvel 1987, 190).6 The Embedded Sword story most likely spread to Iceland via Viking settlement in 874 C.E., but Iceland was officially Christianized by 1000 C.E. (Puhvel 1987, 190). Snorri Sturluson, who composed the Prose Edda, the main source for this tale, didn't live until two centuries later (1178–1241 C.E.; Puhvel 1987, 190).7 In other words, the Germanic sources are recorded late, and, as Jaan Puhvel puts it, are of an "antiquarian (rather than primary) nature" and show "diffusionary influences from classical cultures" (1987, 191). Puhevl adds that Snorri's material as well as the Poetic Edda also show "diffusionary influences from the general direction of the Near East" (Puhvel 1987, 219) (see Map 1).

§7.  Herodotus (4.21, 4.46-50) put the Scythians as neighbors to the Celts and the Sarmatians as neighbors to the Scythians. Caesar places the Germans between the Celts and the Scythians, with the Danube as an arbitrary dividing line that was probably chosen more as a result of his political ambitions than of any careful ethnographic observation (Wells 2001, 115-116). Strabo thought of the Germans as Celts (Wells 2001, 116), and Cassius Dio called Roman Germania "Keltica", reserving "Germania" for the area "between the Rhine and Elbe Rivers" (Wells 2001, 117).8 So, the divisions in ancient texts were not made on the basis of languages spoken or perceived similarities of cultures but rather on geographic location (Wells 2001, 117).

The Basic Comparison

§8.  The basic elements of the embedded weapon being a sword and of the younger brother withdrawing the blade and becoming the future king are about as far as most comparisons go before turning from the similarities to the differences between the tales. Several key parallels, however, are contained in the material between the withdrawal of the sword and Sigmund's ascension to the kingship. Among them are that Arthur's sword in the anvil atop a stone is in a graveyard and that Sinfiotli and Sigmund use the sword from the Branstock to cut through stone and iron as they escape from a grave.9

§9.  Bruce (1958, 145) argued that the legend of the Sword and the Stone derived from the Greek story of Theseus and the Germanic Volsungasaga. The story's pattern, however, was more widespread than those variants and parts of it appear in Herodotus's ancient account of the religion of the Scythians.


§10.  The spread of the tale that developed, as we consider all of these variants, strongly suggests that transmission occurred via the steppe nomads. As these horse-riding warriors came into contact with other cultures and transmitted their knowledge of cavalry warfare and of forging iron, they also transmitted stories about the deity who oversaw both war and smithing, a combination that only occurred among the steppe nomads (see Map 2).

§11.  The knowledge of iron working first appeared in the "second half of the third millennium B.C. in Anatolia" (Milisauskas 1978, 253).10 Milisauskas (1978, 254) noted that the Scythian influence in La Téne art could have come in with iron technology,11 and this agrees with what we find in the patterns of transmission for the tale of the Sword in the Stone. Knowledge of iron-working first showed up ca. 600–300 B.C.E. among Germanic peoples in the area of the Jastorf culture (Schutz 1983, 309), south of the Elbe and north of the Weser. This was not, however, forging swords. 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).

§12.  The identity of the horse-riding elite warrior emerged in Europe in the first century B.C.E. (Wells 2001, 120). Ca. 50–1 B.C.E., warrior graves with spurs, horse equipment, and long swords show up on both sides of the Rhine as far north as central Sweden (Wells 2001, 121). This style of grave seems to be influenced by Sarmatian burials, as these nomads tended to substitute horse equipment and/or pieces of horses for the full horse interments that we find in the burials of other cultures. The style of cavalry equipment also seems to have been transmitted from the Sarmatians.

§13.  Caesar considered the "German" cavalry to be his best mercenaries (Gallic War 8.10). It is no accident that shortly after the German cavalry units start showing up in the Roman army (48–36 B.C.E.; Wells 2001, 121), Sarmatian units also start service as Roman allies. For instance, Tiberius stationed the Iazyges between the Danube and the Tisa as Roman allies ca. 20 C.E. (Millar 1966, 276). We know that during the Marcomannic Wars of 166/7–175 and 177–180, the Iazyges, a tribe of Sarmatians, were allied with the Marcomanni and the Quadi, two tribes of the Suebi (Millar 1966, 115). In 175, when 5,500 Iazyges were set to Britain, "cavalry from the Marcomanni, Quadi and Nuristae were sent . . . [to] Syria" (Millar 1966, 115).12

§14.  While the Huns had had significant contact with the Germanic peoples prior to the recording of the stories in the Volsungasaga, Alano-Sarmatian peoples had had heavy interaction with their Germanic neighbors long before the Huns appeared on the scene. After the Huns defeated the Massagetae in 175 B.C.E., a tribe of Sarmatians founded a kingdom and became known as the Royal Sarmatians (Millar 1966, 284). This group is thought by several scholars to have been the Iazyges in particular (Millar 1966, 289), and they may have earned their title by defeating and absorbing the Royal Scythians, who were previously settled in the area where the Romans report the Iazyges. By 50 C.E. the bulk of the Sarmatians were located in the vicinity of the Tisa and the Danube (Millar 1966, 289). This put them in close contact with several Germanic peoples. Tacitus (Germania 46) tells that there were several tribes who were so intermingled that he could no long tell which was German and which was Sarmatian.13 At least one of those tribes, the Bastarrae, were in contact with the Sarmatians by the third century B.C.E. (Todd 1992, 24).14

The Story in the Stars

§15.  Anyone who attempted to navigate by the stars, whether on an actual sea or a sea of grass, would notice that something terrifying happens over the course of centuries: North moves. (Plate 3) For instance, ca. 2500 B.C.E. Thuban in the constellation Draco was the pole star (Barber and Barber 2004, 198-199).15 In 2140 B.C.E., Polaris, which is in the Little Dipper, became the pole star, and about 13,000 years from now Vega, in the constellation Lyra, will become the pole star (Barber and Barber 2004, 198).16 The pole takes roughly 2160 years to pass through each sign of the Zodiac (Barber and Barber 2004, 199).17 Accordingly, the spring equinox shifted from Taurus into Aries in 2160 B.C.E. (Barber and Barber 2004, 208)

§16.  There were two ways of telling stories about this event. One was to focus on the precession of the pole through the various signs of the Zodiac (Plate 4), which, as we know it, was created roughly 5,000 years ago (Krupp 1978, 262-263), ca. 3,000 B.C.E.18 This is what happened in the case of narratives about Mithras. "The precession out of Taurus into Aries occurred nearly two thousand years before Mithraism became popular" (Barber and Barber 2004, 206), yet it is quite clear from the imagery of the warrior slaying the bull, with a scorpion and serpent attacking from below and a dog lapping up the bull's blood, that the myths celebrated by the cult carried information taken from the sky. The artists were not subtle about the connection: Most Mithraic images include the sun, moon and stars. (Plate 5) In the worship of Mithras, we have the warrior stabbing the bull, Aries attacking the adjacent sign of Taurus (Barber and Barber 2004, 206). The hero of the story of the Ram (e.g., the Golden Fleece) can replace the Ram in such tales, and this is how some cultures told the tale of the celestial precession.

§17.  The second way to tell the story was to focus on the pole itself and "northshift".19 While Mithras attacks the zodiacal sign that the celestial pole is leaving, the hero in the Sword in the Stone story wields the pole itself, in this case a sword that is sticking into the opposite sign. In 2160 B.C.E. that sign was Libra, but Libra did not become a scale until the Romans decided to reinstate the old Babylonian system.20 For the Hittites, Libra was a throne and for the Chaldeans, Libra was an altar.21

§18.  The pole itself is depicted as many different things, from a spindle to a churn. In the nomadic cultures of Eurasia, the pole was sometimes a tent pole (Sullivan 1996, 80; Barber and Barber 2004, 200), but we think it could also be a sword. In the Germanic cultures, the pole was the World Tree, Yggdrasil, which is represented in the Volsungasaga by the Branstock. (Plate 6) A tree turns up in some retellings of the northshift story because the celestial pole is the World Tree in addition to being the sword, which is why the sword is in the tree in the Germanic tradition.22

§19.  Either the Hittites or the Chalybes were responsible for the addition of the anvil and other ironworking pieces of the tale. In the case of the steppe cultures, the war god was also associated with the forging of iron, and when these cultures transmitted the knowledge of how to forge iron, they transmitted the stories of their war god as well.23 The overall distribution of the tale matches the pattern of the steppe cultures spreading south, west and east out of the steppes. Since the Alans were in the Caucasus region and had more contact with the Hittites and Chalybes than the Iazyges did, they developed a form of the sword ritual that dropped out the wood and embedded the sword in the ground. The Iazyges, however, absorbed the Royal Scythians, who practiced the Sword in the Altar atop a Pile of Wood variant and then had close contact with the Germanic peoples who saw the celestial pole as a tree rather than a sword. When idea of the cavalry warrior transmitted from the Iazyges to the Germanic peoples, the practice of forging iron transmitted with it. Images merged, and the resulting tale became that of the Sword in the Tree instead of the Sword in the Stone.24


Arthur pulling Excalibur from the anvil

Plate 1: Arthur pulling Excalibur from the anvil  [Back]

Odin thrusts the sword into the Branstock

Plate 2: Odin thrusts the sword into the Branstock  [Back]

The World according to Herodotus

Map 1: The world according to Herodotus, ca. 450 BCE  [Back]

Modern Europe

Map 2: Modern Europe  [Back]


Plate 3: Northshift  [Back]

The Zodiac

Plate 4: The Zodiac, showing the precession of the equinox  [Back]

Mithras slaying a bull

Plate 5: Mithras slaying a bull  [Back]


Plate 6: Yggrasil, the World Tree  [Back]


1.   An earlier version of this paper was presented on Friday, April 21, 2006, at the Annual Meeting of the Western States Folklore Society, Berkeley, CA.  [Back]

2.   By this date, Near Eastern cultures were squarely in the middle of the Bronze Age.  [Back]

3.   Twelve seems to be a typical age for the hero to begin his career. For instance, in the Icelandic Saga of Hrolf Kraki Bothvar and his brothers are all twelve when they start to show their prowess and begin pulling weapons from a stone.  [Back]

4.   In the Hrolf Kraki, Bothvar, the hero who pulled the sword from the stone, senses that Odin is about appear just before he dies. Although Thor appears to be the chief diety in many areas, Odin "dominated in . . . Viking society" (Puhvel 1987, 192), and it is the Viking variant that we have preserved in the Prose Edda. Despite Odin's deceptively small role in Tacitus as well as in later sources, he was the actual head of the Germanic pantheon (Puhvel 1987, 193). Although Odin has magical and priestly proclivities, as Puhvel puts it, he "holds down much of [the warrior-god] . . . slot" (1987, 204).  [Back]

5.   Odin is associated with wolves, particularly werewolves, the ūlfheðnar ("wolf-skinned"), who were analogous to the berserker ("bear-skinned"; Puhvel 1987, 196). That there are two types of frenzied warriors associated with Odin may indicate that we have a doublet caused by impact from the Alano-Sarmatian—or Scythian—tradition. Essentially on top of where Caesar says the German peoples were a few centuries later, the Neuri may have had a significant impact on the development of Germanic lore, since these were the "Scythians" that Herodotus singled out as "werewolves", creatures that are specifically associated with Odin in Germanic tradition. Two of Odin's companions, Geri and Freki, are also wolves (Puhvel 1987, 197), so when we have a she-wolf figuring in a story that began with Odin plunging a sword into the World Tree, it's very likely that the she-wolf is acting as Odin's agent.  [Back]

6.   There is a little information from "Frankish and Langobard laws" and from Anglo-Saxon literature (Puhvel 1987, 190), but none of these contain the story of the Sword in the Branstock.  [Back]

7.   "Germanic materials from the High Middle Ages . . . show heavy contamination by Continental literary convention" (Puhvel 1987, 190) and are of little importance to the discussion of Germanic mythic tradition.  [Back]

8.   For Greek writers, the Celts generally "occupied the lands to the west [and] the Scythians to the east" (Wells 2001, 115).  [Back]

9.   This pattern can be seen in seemingly unrelated tales. For instance, while Thor is having a piece of whetstone removed from where it is embedded in his head, he tells of making the Morning Star out of the frozen toe of the husband of the woman who is using magic to remove the stone. The woman, Grōa, became so upset that the stone "remained embedded in Thor's skull" (Puhvel 1987, 202). Here there is clearly an astral connection with a warrior and a stone associated with a sword.  [Back]

10.   By 1270 the knowledge of iron working had spread to Greece (Milisauskas 1978, 253).  [Back]

11.   The Halstatt culture shows evidence of iron working ca. 1000–500 B.C.E., and the La Téne culture shows similar evidence ca. 500 B.C.E.–1 C.E. (Phillips 1980, 228).  [Back]

12.   The Nuristae may be the same people that Herodotus calls the "Neuri."  [Back]

13.   These were the Peucini (Bastarnae), Venedi and Fenni.  [Back]

14.   Although the sword cult has not been recorded among Sarmatians specifically, we do know that the cult was among the Alans and that the Alans had a heavy impact on Germanic groups in the fourth and fifth centuries.

In one German legend recorded by the Brothers Grimm (Grimm and Grimm 1981, 2:16, no. 381), a herdsman finds a sword, sacred to the Scythians, after a cow steps on it. He removes the sword from the ground (it doesn't seem to be embedded in any particular fashion) and gives it to Attila, who recognizes it and is thrilled to possess it. Priscus mentioned the sword cult and made the connection between the cult and the story of the shepherd who followed a trail of blood from his heifer to an ancient iron sword that was buried in the ground, which he dug up and gave to Attila, who identified it as the Sword of Mars (Jordanes 35.183). Ward says "Cf. Altdeutsche Wälder, I, 212, Note 10 and p. 319. Cr. Also Lamb. Schafnab., p. 348: The Legend of Leopold von Mersburg who suffered great misfortune, including the account of the sword." Attila also figures in the Icelandic Saga of Hrolf Kraki, albeit as an opponent of rather than a wielder of Bothvar's sword (Mills 1933, 60 ff.).

All of these stories refer to a sword cult where the sword was embedded in the ground rather than in a tree or an anvil or a stone. This cult was observed among the Alans by Ammianus Marcellinus (31.4.22), who noted that the Alans worshiped a god of war by plunging a sword into the ground. The Scythian sword cult referred to here was recorded by Herodotus (4:59-62). The Huns, who feature prominently in the Volsungasaga, as the story continues, probably acquired their knowledge of the sword cult from the Alans (Bachrach 1973, 111). The sword cult also spread to Japan (Littleton 1995).

In the Icelandic Saga of Hrolf Kraki, the short sword that Frothi drives into a wooden beam was one that he originally pulled from a stone (Mills 1933, 45). Frothi's brother, Bothvar, wields a long sword which he pulled from the same stone and which he carries in a bark scabbard (Mills 1933, 49).  [Back]

15.   In other words, the "sword" used to be in Draco's tail. The Delphic story of Python the Dragon, "presumably the constellation traditionally named Draco . . . is told from a Camera Angle focused specifically on 'Northshift' rather than on 'Precession,' suggesting a local tradition that developed before diffusion of the Near Eastern model [i.e., the Kingship in Heaven]" (Barber and Barber 2004, 208, n. 15). For the Japanese variant, see Littleton 1981.  [Back]

16.   In between times, when there is an observable pole star, the position of the celestial pole can be determined by noting the positions of the various constellations.  [Back]

17.   The world pillars are the constellations in which the sun rises at the solstices and equinoxes (Barber and Barber 2004, 201).  [Back]

18.   We know, however, that people were creating pictures of their myths in the stars, constellations, long before that time. As Barber and Barber (2004, 211) point out, the "Kingship in Heaven" stories, which also reflect the northshift, "were told by Babylonians, Hittites, . . . Phoenicians. . . . , Germanic and Finnic tribes . . . across Eurasia to Iran, India and China [and] . . . all [of them] must have diffused ultimately from the Near East." They (Barber and Barber 2004, 210-211) have shown that these tales encode data regarding the celestial precession that dates back to 6480 B.C.E., well before we have a record of the Zodiac. The "Kingship in Heaven" theme characterized the movement of the equinox from Gemini to Taurus ca. 4300 B.C.E. (Barber and Barber 2004, 208).  [Back]

19.   "Northshift . . . The slow circuit of the extension of Earth's rotational pole through the stars takes almost 26,000 years, swinging the apparent North Celestial Pole from one part of the northern sky to another and causing the sun to appear against a shifting background of Zodiac stars" (Barber and Barber 2004, 198, fig. 35).  [Back]

20.   Absolutely none of the stories or images is found prior to 2160 B.C.E. Libra is also known as a dragon, a stone altar or the Claw, depending on which culture is telling the tale.  [Back]

21.   For Mithraism as a celestial cult, see Barber and Barber 2004, 205-206 and Ulansey 1989. The twelve signs of the zodiac show up as the twelve rebel kings in the Arthur tale, the twelve Apostles in San Galgano's tale, the animal-shaped hilt of the Hititte sword god in Yazilikaya, Turkey (ca. 1250 B.C.E.) and so forth. For the Chinese, Libra was a dragon, which explains why in Asia the sword is in a dragon's tail instead of in the stone (Littleton 1981, 272).  [Back]

22.   The seven layers of earth that figures in some of the tales are the celestial spheres, through which the Divine Sword cuts.  [Back]

23.   Dates for precession of the spring equinox: ca. 6480 B.C.E. (Cancer to Gemini), ca. 4320 B.C.E. (Gemini to Taurus), ca 2160 B.C.E. (Taurus to Aries) (Barber and Barber 2004, 210), and 6 B.C. (Aries into Pices) (Barber and Barber 2004, 209). The precession from Pices into Aquarius will occur ca. 2154 C.E.  [Back]

24.   The Christians clearly had no idea that the tale was originally a mnemonic for remembering the "new" order of the Heavens, yet the monks and authors like Robert who record the tale do an admirable job of keeping the important details that the ancients were trying to transmit to the next generation intact.  [Back]

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