The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 15 (October 2012)

The Hittite Sword in the Stone: The Sword God and his Twelve Companions

Linda A. MalcorMailto: Icon

Independent Scholar

© 2012 by Linda A. Malcor. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2012 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract: Abstract: In 2160 BCE a celestial phenomenon was observed in the north Caucasus region. The tale of the Sword in the Stone that was created in response to this observation was transmitted—along with the knowledge of how to forge iron—as the Eurasian horse nomads left the steppes and rode in other areas of the ancient world. This paper considers the evidence for the Hittite variant of the Sword in the Stone tale as well as the significance of the Twelve Companions who are associated with the story and whose images are preserved along with that of the Hittite sword god in the mortuary chapel at Yazilikaya in modern Turkey.

§1.  The Sword in the Stone story is well known to students of the Arthurian tradition.1 According to Malory, who was following texts of the tale from Continental Europe, the twelve-year-old Arthur pulled 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). Another strand of Arthurian tradition tells of Arthur and his Twelve Knights. Most scholars have long assumed that Arthur inherited his Twelve Knights from stories of Charlemagne and his Twelve Companions, who, in turn, supposedly inherited them from Jesus and his Twelve Disciples (e.g., Jung and von Franz 1986, 163). Some writers, however, have seen an astronomical significance in the Twelve Arthurian Knights.2 Although the astronomical interpretation of the Twelve Companions has largely been seen as "out in left field" by mainstream scholarship, C. Scott Littleton and I have found a growing body of evidence that the twelve figures associated with Arthur did indeed come from a story in the stars. The tale that they derived from probably had nothing to do with either Charlemagne or Jesus but rather with that of the Sword in the Stone.

§2.  Over the past few years, Littleton and I have presented a series of articles discussing other variants of the Sword in the Stone tradition. We have developed the hypothesis that ca. 2160 BCE, triggered by the northshift caused by the precession of the celestial pole, a story about a sacred sword being plunged into a brush pile (or tree) emerged among the ancient steppe peoples. After 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. In this paper, I will take a look at the Hittite variant of Sword and Stone tradition.


§3.  The major evidence for the Hittite sword god comes from the sacred complex at Yazilikaya near the Hittite capitol of Hattusha in modern Turkey. The sanctuary was originally a Hattian site for the worship of underworld deities (Gurney 1976, 41), which was then redesigned by the Hittites after they had been heavily impacted by the Hurrians. The sculptures and Hurrian glosses were added during the reign of one of the last Hittite kings, Tudhaliya IV (r. 1237–1209 BCE), whose mortuary chapel forms part of the complex (Bryce 1998, 360).3

§4.  Although there are several structures in front of the adyton, or holiest part of the temple, the heart of the site consists of two crevices in natural rock that are open to the sky. While I will refer to these openings as "chambers" throughout this paper—the terminology the literature uses—the word "chamber" gives the false impression that these areas are caves. The ability to view the sky while in these crevices is absolutely critical to the understanding of this monument, a feature often ignored in discussions of this complex.

§5.  Chamber A is considerably larger than Chamber B. Upon entering Chamber A, the visitor stares directly across the open space at the images of seven deities who are associated with the heavens:4 Teshub, the two bulls Seri and Hurri (Day and Night, from the Hurrian pantheon), Teshub's wife Hebat, their son Sarruma, their daughter Alanzu and their granddaughter. On the right wall nineteen goddesses and the god Sarruma march to meet Hebat. On the left wall, twenty-eight gods, one goddess and twelve unarmed, divine runners process toward Teshub. The processions are mostly in the order of the Hurrian pantheon although they were created by Hittite artists.

§6.  This grouping of deities is a complete mish-mash of origins, caused by the Hittite habit of adopting divinities from other peoples into their own pantheon the way the Romans would later absorb the religious figures of virtually everyone with whom they came in contact. "Teshub" is only loosely analogous to the Hittite weather god, Tarhu (Gurney 1976, 10), yet it is probably Tarhu whom the main deity is intended to represent.5 While Teshub is the "Zeus" of the Hurrian pantheon, the Hittite weather god, Tarhu, was associated with underground sources of water rather than with water from the sky. As such, he was the god of the Underworld—and that is going to become important below. He was, however, the closest thing in the Hittite pantheon to another deity who would soon appear on the scene, and, as such, he became a gloss for that figure.6 Sarruma is from the Hattic pantheon. The bulls may be either the two bulls, Day and Night, associated with Hurrian Teshub, or may be symbols for the Hattic Sarruma. Alanzu and her daughter are from the Hattic pantheon.

§7.  Chamber B is accessed through a crevice that was widened to allow passage. Like Chamber A, Chamber B is open to the sky. Unlike Chamber A, Chamber B was a private space and served as Tudhaliya IV's mortuary chapel. The chapel contains a depiction of the king with his patron deity, the Hattic Sarruma. There is evidence that birds were sacrificed at the site, and there is also evidence of burials (Bittel 1970, 109), making this chamber both a chapel and a graveyard.

§8.  On the same wall as the image of Sarruma and Tudhaliya IV is a sword god. His head forms the pommel of a sword. Two lions form the hilt. The rest of his body is a sword, which is shown as embedded in the rock. Thus the image is a king in conjunction with a sword god who is shown as embedded in stone.7 The sword god, however, is not included in the official Hittite state pantheon, which is depicted in Chamber A. He also appears to be one of the last additions to the site, since the figure to his left is unfinished.

§9.  Across from the sword god, the twelve running deities from Chamber A are repeated, but this time they all carry sickle-shaped swords.


§10.  Chamber A is thought to have been used for the Hittite New Year's celebration, which occurred in spring, most likely at or near the equinox on March 21 (Bittel 1970, 108). During this festival, the Hittite gods were said to gather at the house of the weather god, and it is this event that most scholars think is represented by the processions in Chamber A.

§11.  The smaller chamber may have been the site of a spring ritual that differed from the New Year's celebration. There is a Hittite festival that was held at roughly this same time. The Hittite war god, Zababa, was worshiped under the signs of Aries and Taurus, signs which rule the sky of the Northern Hemisphere from March 21st through May 21st. During this festival, a ram and a bull were sacrificed to the war god at a tree known as the eya. We know of the eya-tree from the "Edict of Tudhaliya IV", who was the king featured in Chamber B with the sword god at Yazilikaya. The eya-tree was the Hittite version of the World Tree, which represents the celestial pole in the context of celestial deities. Wood of the eya-tree was used by the Hittites to fashion spears, so it is odd to find a deity associated with a sword rather than with a tree in this image. A clue to a possible explanation may lie in the detail that, although wood of the eya-tree was usually placed on the altars of various deities as part of their worship service, the sacrifice of the ram and bull to the war god took place on an altar above the eya-tree (Puhvel 1984, 2:253–254). This is the same configuration that Herodotus (Histories Bk. 4) reported among the Scythians in their worship of Ares, as Herodotus names their war god: an altar above a pile of wood. What Herodotus preserved about the Scythian service and that we do not have in the Hittite material is that a sword was embedded in the altar above the pile of wood.

§12.  The weather god in Hittite tradition was associated with holes in the rocks and underground sources of water (Deighton 1982, 1). He was, as Deighton proved, worshiped underground.8 That is not what is happening at Yazilikaya, however, where Chamber B, like Chamber A, is open to the sky and where the emphasis is on celestial deities. In this context "weather god" is probably a gloss for a war god who was connected with the Underworld, who was worshiped by the sacrifice of bulls and sheep.9

§13.  The Hittites came to Anatolia from the southern Russian steppes and established their kingdom ca. 1650 BCE, but they had already moved out of the steppes by 2230 BCE (Macqueen 1986, 29, 36).10 In 2160 BCE the celestial pole shifted from Taurus into Aries, the two signs presided over by the Hittite war god. The Scythian war god, however, was only associated with the sign of Aries. He was the Divine Warrior who took the World Tree, stabbed it across the circle of the zodiac, and embedded his weapon in the opposite sign.11 For the Hittites, the opposite sign would have been a stone throne.12 So when the story traveled south from the steppes, the sword that had been planted in an altar became planted in stone. Barber and Barber (2004, 100) have referred to the image of the sword god at Yazilikaya as "the divine spirit of this Sword in the Stone."


§14.  What we see at Yazilikaya is typical of the process by which a foreign god replaces an existing local deity: the new deity synchronizes with the closest deity in the existing pantheon. The grand champion of this practice was probably the Christian church, whose saints replaced any number of local deities. However, the church learned this practice from the Romans, and long before the Romans established their city in Italy, the Hittites and Hurrians were playing at this game.

§15.  There are a couple of supportive texts that may give an indication of how the Hittites thought of this war god. One states that the weather god chased at least three gods to the Underworld and limited them to sacrifices of birds, reserving for himself the sacrifice of the ram and the bull ("ox and sheep").13

§16.  Another text tells how Underworld gods are shaped from clay into the form of swords and implanted in the ground (Otten 1961, 122 f.; Güterbock 1965, 198). In a later text, though, the swords are bronze. Bronze swords were associated with the Babylonian solar deity Nergal, who was contemporary with the Hittite war god and who was connected with the planet Mars and with lions. A bronze sword similar to that at Yazilikaya was found in Diyarbakir. This sword was an offering to Nergal at his temple (Bittel 1970, 109). Here, then, is a situation where Nergal absorbed a story about embedded bronze swords and a war god who was associated with the Underworld. These swords are mentioned in conjunction with the "twelve gods of the crossroads" (Güterbock 1964, 72, 1965, 198), so there was a sense that somehow the war god and the Twelve Companions went together.14

Forging Iron

§17.  Where did this interloping war god come from and why? Although the Hittites have traditionally been known for their use of iron, they were not the people who invented the practice of forging iron into swords. The creators of the practice were the Kalybes, the renowned smiths of the Caucasus region, where both the Hurrians and Hittites had their origins. Laroche (1973, XIX) suggested that the Hittite words for iron—kiklu and hapalki (steel)—were connected to the Kalybes of the Pontus (Muhly, et al. 1985, 76).15 The Kalybian smiths used "local deposits of iron ore" to produce weapons "on a scale that had never been possible with bronze" (Muhly, et al. 1985, 69). The Kalybes also had access to black sands, rich in magnetite, which could be smelted.16 The Hittites most likely got their knowledge of forging iron from the Caucasian Kalybes (Macqueen 1986, 18).17 While they were at it, they seem to have picked up something else as well: the steppe variant of this war god also presides over the forging of iron. As such, the war god's tale was probably part of the process of the transmission of the knowledge of how to forge iron. This happened toward the end of the Hittite Kingdom, which explains why the image is a late addition to the chapel and absent from the official pantheon. The war god may have assimilated to the Hittite weather god because of their shared connection with the Underworld and similar rituals.18

The Twelve Companions

§18.  As Macqueen (1986, 58) pointed out, "The principle weapon employed [from Hittite chariots] was the stabbing spear," but the Hittite soldiers of the Anatolian hills wielded a slashing-sword, which was replaced by "a long cutting-weapon with a straight blade by "the end of the second millennium" (Macqueen 1986, 59–60). The swords carried by the twelve runners in Chamber B resemble the short, crescent-shaped sword, decorated with animal heads which was carried by Hittite warriors in ceremonies rather than in battle (Macqueen 1986, 59–60). The Hittite axe born by Sarruma has "ribbing round the shaft-hole [that] is a feature" from, among other places, the northern Caucasus area (Macqueen 1986, 61), while the axe's blade "is of a type which can be paralleled only in the Caucasus region" (Macqueen 1986, 61).19 Although the gods carry the swords in this image, recall that in the texts the swords are embedded.

§19.  The steppe war god himself was not the celestial Ram, but he was represented by the story of the ram, just as Jason can be represented by a reference to the Golden Fleece. This raises the possibility that he was not the sign of Aries but another sign that appeared in the sky along with—or at the same time as—Aries. The twelve figures associated with the sword god, then, may have nothing at all to do with Underworld deities. Instead, they may represent the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the crossroads the Hittites associated with them might not be underground at all, but rather in the sky.


§20.  The Hittite version of the Sword in the Stone story has several elements in common with the Arthurian variant. Both feature a sword in a graveyard. Both swords are associated with a king. The twelve runners in the Hittite variant parallel the Twelve Knights of the Round Table in Arthurian tradition. Also, the anvil of the Arthurian variant preserves the connection between the forging of iron and the story of the god who planted a sword in a stone. The tales are clearly part of the same tradition, yet, by placing the image of the sword god in conjunction with celestial deities at Yazilikaya, the Hittites retained an association that the Arthurian variant has lost: the tale of the Sword in the Stone had something to do with the stars.


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented on Friday, April 11, 2008, to the Annual Meeting of the Western States Folklore Society in Davis, CA. [Back]

2. E.g.,, Accessed 1/8/08. [Back]

3. Laroche (1973) renders this king's name as "Tuthaliya" and gives his reign as 1250–1220 BCE. [Back]

4. It is perhaps important to note that both the Scythians and the Alans worshiped seven major deities. The Scythian gods, according to Herodotus, were Tabiti (the Hearth goddess), Papaeus (Zeus), Apia (the Earth goddess), Oetosyrus (the sun god), Artimpasa ("Celestial Venus"), and Thamimasadas (Neptune). [Back]

5. Teshub replace Kumbari in the "Kingship in Heaven" story (Macqueen 1986, 149–150). For more on the "Kingship in Heaven", see Littleton 1970. [Back]

6. As far as Hebat is concerned, the Hittite Sun Goddess's Hittite name is still unknown, yet she was probably the head of the pantheon. [Back]

7. Yazilikaya was once the site of a fresh water spring (Macqueen 1986, 123), which designated it as a holy spot, so the site was certainly sacred. Among the Hittites, a local deity was often represented by "a weapon, an animal or a huwasi-stone, an upright stela set on a carved base" (Macqueen 1986, 111). In a temple, "Occasionally a deity . . . would be represented by his sacred animal, . . . or by a weapon such as a sword or spear" (Macqueen 1986, 119). [Back]

8. Offerings to the deities were thrown into holes (Deighton 1982, 21, 25), and stories of gods refer to them disappearing into holes (Deighton 1982, 25). [Back]

9. The fact that the war god had bulls sacrificed to him may have led to the confusion between the war god and the Hurrian Teshub. [Back]

10. Influence from the steppes can be seen in the weaponry depicted at Yazilikaya. [Back]

11. It is possible that a variant existed where the Divine Warrior stabbed the World Tree itself. [Back]

12. In a parallel tradition, Mithris takes his weapon and stabs the sign next to him, the bull. Someone from Purušhanda gave an iron throne to Anitta of Kaneš (Muhly, et al. 1985, 73–74, Anitta Text). [Back]

13. Bittel 1970, 108 f.; 1975, 53, 61 ff.; Otten (1961, 130 ff.) gives the number of banished gods as eight. [Back]

14. The twelve runners with the swords are on the western wall, and "west" is the traditional direction of the Otherworld, the Land of the Dead, in many Indo-European traditions. [Back]

15. The Hittite word for steel, hapalki has a shared meaning with the Greek χάλʊω (Laroche 1973, xix; Muhly, et al. 1985, 74, 76). [Back]

16. Muhly, et al. 1985, 74. Although there is a lot of folklore about the forging of swords from meteorites, as well as the presence of nickel "taken to indicate the meteoric origin of iron" (Muhly, et al. 1985, 74), the iron smelted from these other sources could be nickel-bearing as well. [Back]

17. Cypress produced steel regularly by the eleventh century BCE, and Palestine followed by the tenth century BCE (Stech-Wheeler, et al. 1981; Muhly, et al. 1985, 81). Unlike the Kalybes, the Hittites could not make good iron on a regular schedule (Muhly, et al. 1985, 76). Folklore to the contrary, there is no evidence that "the Hittites owed their dominant position to their monopoly of the production of a secret weapon called iron" (Macqueen 1986, 52). [Back]

18. "There is no chance of culture [in Cilicia] until about 2000 BC, when an intrusive style of painted pottery, often linked with the arrival of the Hurrians, makes its appearance from northern Syria. An unexpected echo of the Indo-European incursions is perhaps to be found in the legends of the Mesopotamian Dynasty of Akkad. . . . The barbarous hordes of the later attacks could then be identified with the spread of Indo-European-speakers from the north-west reaching the Konya Plain by about 2230" (Macqueen 1986, 28–29). [Back]

19. The shape of the sword of the god at Yazilikaya shows eastward influence from the Aegean and Europe (Macqueen 1986, 61). [Back]

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