How does a sword end up in a lake or a river, and stay dredged in its bed for millennia until one day someone’s small hands or feet chance upon it when none had before? That it fell overboard, that it was offered ceremonially or amidst a sacrifice, that its weight helped drown the body that wore its scabbard – the possible stories of how it came to be there are myriad, limited only by the imagination. But its long and silent afterlife in those depths is sheer mystery. This week, 8-year old Saga Vanecek was playing in southern Sweden’s Lake Vidöstern, its waters in low season due to a drought, when she discovered a pre-Viking era sword, which archaeologists have since dated to around 1500 years old. The archaeologists are still wading in those waters. So far, they have found a fibula brooch, which dates to 3 or 4 CE. And a coin from as recently as 18CE, which seems almost mundane in comparison.
If anything can be mundane, that is. What if the actual history of that coin is stranger than that of the sword?
There are other stories of children finding ancient swords in water bodies. In 2014, 11-year old Yang Junxi found a 3000-year old bronze sword while washing his hands in China’s Laozhoulin river. Last year, when another little girl found another sword in a lake, the discovery was laughed off by the person who claimed he’d put it there. Legend has it that Dozmary Pool, England, was where the mystical Lady of the Lake bestowed on King Arthur the sword named Excalibur, and where it was returned to as he died. Legend also holds that only the rightful Queen of Britain would next be given the weapon. Imagine being Matilda Jones, then age 7, and pulling a huge sword out of this very lake. And then having a local man who said he bought a cinema prop in the ‘80s with which he would drunkenly “knight” people claim he had thrown it into the lake back then as a Celtic ritual. How disenchanting.
When Monty Python and the Holy Grail was written, the lines “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony” must have seemed both brilliant and accurate. And they were, and would be still – except that we’ve seen what both capitalism-driven democracy and “due process” enact in the world, and don’t do for us, and the alternates don’t seem so farcical at all. Would I rather put my trust in a thrilled child who chances on a relic than on a predator who moved up level after level of power through entitlement and intimidation? Yes, I would.
I’m reaching for these stories neither as metaphor nor as deflection. Though it’s true that some things must lie in wait for a long time, and that the fantastical is sometimes real. It’s just that some weeks need a story out of the ordinary, for they help us cope with what is staggeringly, unconscionably unjust – and common.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 11th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.