Okay, so I’ve been meaning to do an update to that Camelot swords post for ever, because there’s a LOT of cool sword legends across the world and King Arthur doesn’t remotely have a monopoly on the things, but I’ve gotten distracted, so I haven’t had the chance. But now I’m caught up, and I’m going to go through some key sword legends
Klaadenets, the self-swinging sword (Russian)
So technically, klaadenets just means “magic sword” and is a generic term used to describe any magic sword in Russian folklore. However, the term is used almost interchangeably with samosek, or “self-swung sword.” I suppose it’s not impossible that “self-swung sword” actually just means “the sword that the hero is himself swinging”, particularly as most epic heroes are described as awesome specifically because of how good they are at swordfighting. There’s not the same sort of “average teenager falls into a magical world and finds a sword that teaches him to fight” like you see in the aforementioned The Strange Adventures of Alfred Kropp or the live-action Alice in Wonderland’s Vorpal Blade.
Still, the language is obscure, and it seems impossible that if you describe a magical sword as “self-swinging” that the magic wouldn’t have something to do with the way it swings. So this one is a stretch, but it’s a lot cooler than “yeah, trust us the sword is magic but not in any meaningful way.”
Side-note: It’s actually interesting the number of “magical” swords with no discernable magic to them whatsoever. Like the “giants blade” that Beowulf grabs in Grendel’s Mother’s lair actually seems to be magic only in how it dissolves away afterward–functionally, it just cuts things, like you’d expect a normal sword to do. Granted, it cuts an undersea monster which no other monster could touch. I’m not sure what the appeal of a magic sword that does no magic is, but it’s worth noting that sword-forging is a very chancey thing and especially back then, even a really expensively made sword could break apart under stress. That’s why old swords were more valuable–they were tested swords that could be expected to hold up under pressure. So perhaps a magic sword was just meant to emphasize how unbreakable the sword was, or just how really, really old it was.
Colada and Tizona
Anyone familiar with El Cid? He’s this legendary figure in Spanish history. When I was a kid we watched some terrible 70’s epic movie about his legend. It’s a bit goofy because the guy was essentially a mercenary who bounced from worked with the Spaniards to working with the Moors and back to the Spaniards. He had a multi-nationality band and took over the city of Valencia from the Moors, ruling it as an independent state before giving it to the Spanish crown.
There’s not much evidence that the most famous part of his legend, where his dead body was propped up in a horse and ridden around the city, actually has any basis in fact. But in any case, we’re only interested in his swords.
Colada (cast steel) and Tizona (firebrand) are the names. Tizona was won, according to the legend, from King Yusef of Valencia (a Moor), and Colada from the Count of Barcelona (a Spaniard). Both of the swords, oddly enough, have the exact same magical power–they terrify “unworthy” opponents, when wielded by a brave man. The braver the man, the more terror felt by opponents.
A sword named Colada is currently owned by the Spanish crown and used for coronations. The Museo de Burgos claims to have Tizona–and metallurgists agree it would be around the right age. No word as to whether it terrifies unworthy opponents when held by brave men, which I suppose doesn’t speak highly to the courage of the king or the museum curators.
So the Devas (Hindu lesser gods who I’m thinking of working into my Nephilim story concept) go to Brahma, the creator, one of the Hindu big three. They’re worried about the Asuras, their evil half-brothers, gigantic humans akin to demons (seriously, going to steal this for later parts of the series) who are going around destroying things and being dicks. They want Brahma’s help.
Brahma, being a creator, makes some sacrifices and gets a giant fire going. And lo and behold, out jumps a brightly shining blue monster, lean and mean. And Brahma explains that this is a spirit, Asi, which he has just created to be a weapon against the Asuras. It reforms itself into a brightly flaming sword.
So who do you give a spirit-of-vengeance sword to? The god of destruction, obviously. Shiva the Destroyer.
Beyond that there doesn’t seem much special about Asi. I mean, yeah, it’s the divine sword, the sword god, and it is kind of cool to think of the god of swords just literally being a sword, but there’s not much else to say about it’s abilities.
Still. Cool story, right?
Zulfiquiar: Two-bladed sword.
I like this sword, because it’s hugely iconic in Islamic legend, showing up in things from the janissaries emblem from the Ottoman Empire to present-day battle-tanks in Iran–and no one really knows what it looks like. I mean, no one knows what Excalibur looks like either, but this one is fun because the name means something like “splitter”–and no one knows what that is supposed to mean.
So it could look like this
or even this.
No one knows. It’s a sword given either by Muhammed or Gabriel to a Middle-Eastern prince, and all anyone knows is the name, not what it looks like or anything it does. It’s another magical sword with no particular magic associated with it. But it’s hugely important and iconic in Muslim culture–even though again, no one knows what the icon is supposed to look like.
The ubiquitousness of anime in Western culture means that you’ve probably heard of Kusanagi from somewhere. Maybe you saw the emo asshole Uchiha Sasuke use it in Naruto, or maybe you recognize it as the name of the Major from Ghost in the Shell.
Kusanagi is one of the official items of the Imperial regalia, and depending on who you believe, is either located at Atsuta shrine in Japan or at the bottom of the sea. (It was reportedly thrown overboard during a coup, but the Shinto priests claim to have found it and stored it in the shrine)
Kusanagi isn’t it’s original name, though. It originally was called Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi, or “Heavenly Sword of Gathering Clouds,” and was given to the god Ameterasu by Susanoo (two names you probably also know from Naruto). How did Susanoo get it, you ask? He found it in the tail of an eight-headed snake. Obviously. How did it get there? Stop asking questions.
Anyway. Kusanagi (full name Kusanagi no Tsurugi) got it’s much shorter name from Yamato Takeru, a Japanese hero who got it from his family who owned a shrine to Ameterasu. He was betrayed by a warlord who set a field of grass on fire while Yamato was in the middle of it. Yamato cut away the grass around him to keep the fire from reaching him–and then realized the sword sent huge gusts of wind.
Why didn’t he know this before? I don’t know? Apparently he was the first person to use it. Anyway, he uses that to kill the warlord and the sword goes on to become an imperial emblem and a icon in countless pop culture shows, just like Excalibur.
Okay, so I had to do some deep-digging on Wikipedia for this, but don’t be too impressed. Mmaagha Kamalu is the sword of the Igbo god of war Kamalu. Google is being singularly unhelpful about what Mmaagha means, so if you have any idea, please tell me in the comments. Kamalu, more commonly known as Amadioha, is the god of justice, the sun, and love. He does a lot. The Wikipedia list of mythological objects calls him a god of war, but I can’t find any support for that in the page on Amidioha. Again, if you know, please tell me in the comments.
So this sword, like several others we’ve seen, glows in the presence of those with evil intentions. It’s interesting, the way swords are often paired with virtue. Tizonia made evildoers afraid, Durendal glowed in the hand of a purehearted warrior, Mmaagha glows when evil men are nearby.
It also creates earthquakes when you hit the ground with it, which honestly to me sounds more useful, especially since everyones intentions are evil, on some level (I am a Calvinist, for reference).
Thuan Thien: Heaven’s Will
This is the sword of Le Loi, a sort of George Washington figure to the Vietnamese, who fought back the Ming Empire in 1418. He was a real historical figure, but as often happens with such historical figures, a lot of legends built up around him, most famously concerning his sword.
Thuan Thien means “Heaven’s Will”. I’m not sure, but this may be related to the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven–i.e. “it’s perfectly fine for me to revolt against the gods-chosen emperor, because the gods ordered me to do it.” Le Loi was a rebel leader and guerrilla fighter, who reportedly received this sword from the Dragon King. Or well, “received” is a bit of an exaggeration; it was broken in two pieces and Le Loi needed to find the pieces.
Well, the blade was found in the net of a fisherman, who gave it to Le Loi when he came through. The hilt was found in the branches of a tree. When joined together, they became the true sword of power. According to legend, this sword would make Le Loi grow very tall and gain the strength of a thousand men.
When Le Loi drove out the Ming and became king, the story goes that he was approached by a giant turtle while fishing and told to return the sword, as heaven’s will had been accomplished. Le Loi tossed the sword to the turtle and caught it in his beak, and then disappeared into the lake.
Again, weird how this meshes with the Arthurian legend of finding a sword in a lake and returning it to a lake. I suppose if you look at enough stories you’ll start to find similarities somewhere. But historians are apparently also suspicious that this whole story was less “folk legend” and more “invented propaganda” specifically to echo the “Mandate of Heaven” mantra of the Ming dynasty. And this was in the 1400’s, and while legends of King Arthur weren’t ubiquitous, it still could be
Orna: the Talking Sword
So lets go deep into water-based myths and talk about the Fomor.
If you’ve spent any time in mythology at all, you probably already know that fairies were pretty terrifying creatures to begin with–that leprechauns were not people you wanted to cross, for example. But the really terrifying thing is that the fairies weren’t even the bad guys–the Fomori were.
The Fomori were an undersea/underground race of fairies who were opposed to the Tuatha De, the Irish fairy-folk. They were gods of chaos, destruction, sickness, pestilence. They were basically Cthulu before Lovecraft was a thing.
King of the Fomorians, Tethra, has a sword, Orna, which he wields in battle when the Tuatha De Danaan revolt against them (their former king intermarried with Fomorian leading to a takeover etc.) The Fomorians lose and Tethra dies, going down to rule Mag Meil, land of death and glory. One of the Tuatha De Danaan, Ogma (sort of a god of writing who is also a battle champion), finds Tethra’s sword on the battlefield and picks it up.
What does Orna, the sword, do? It talks. Specifically, it recounts all the deeds that it has done since it was forged. What those deeds are, sadly, Google is very unhelpful on. Apparently it didn’t do a lot else, though, because it’s never mentioned again. I guess it’d be a fun thing to whip out at parties, but after some time all the stories would get old.
Well, that’s all I got. To be clear, this is by no means an exhaustive list of legendary/magical swords, just what I considered to be the highlights. It’s really interesting, the appeal that swords still have–magic spears, for example, are less of a thing than magic swords are–and doubly interesting that it seems to apply across many cultures. They are, of course, fully practical weapons, and perhaps there’s nothing unusual about attaching particular importance to a special weapon–or, for that matter, attaching particular importance toward anything that’s been in the radius of a famous celebrity. But certainly I find swords, even just as a mythological trope, to be profoundly interesting.