The first weapons described as swords, having long blades attached to a hilt, were likely created around five thousand years ago.
Made from an arsenic-copper alloy and then bronze and iron, they became the standard weapon of armies by the Bronze age. They continued in use as late as 1945.
As happens with much of military history, the history of the sword is filled with famous examples, some of which are surrounded by as much mythology as reality.
The sword was a universal weapon from Japan to Spain, Iran to Greece, and the myths around them were filled with similarities. Here are ten of the most famous swords in history-
1. Honjo Masamune
In the late 13th century, as Kublai Khan was invading Japan, a swordsmith named Gorō Nyūdō Masamune began to hone his craft. Over about forty years, he produced hundreds of tachis (swords) and tantos (daggers), all of the superior strength and quality to other swordsmiths in the known world.
The Honjo Masamune has been called “the finest Japanese sword ever made.” Given to the Shogun of Tokugawa during the Mongol invasion, it would be passed on to Shoguans throughout history.
It was used many times in battle, and the last confirmed owner was Prince Tokugawa Iemasa during World War Two. When the United States required all swords to be handed over to them as part of the 1945 terms of surrender, the prince handed the Masamune over to the Mejiro police station. They recorded it was passed on to a “Sgt. Coldy Bimore.” Bimore does not exist. The Honjo Masamune has never been recovered.
Masamune would teach fifteen students his skills, ten of whom would become known as the “Juttetsu” or “Ten Great Disciples. While the Honjo has been lost, several other Masamune swords can be found today, including one that can be viewed at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.
2. Curved Saber of San Martin
José de San Martín was an Argentine general who led much of South America in a fight for independence from the Spanish empire. San Martin received his military training fighting for Spain in the late 18th century. Quitting the military, he moved to London and contacted exiled South American leaders, planning to return to his home to fight for independence.
While in England, San Martin found himself in possession of a unique curved saber. Its history before this time was unknown, but it quickly became a weapon synonymous with the general. An ideal sword for mounted soldiers, he also ordered his cavalry to wear similar weapons.
The Saber of San Martin was passed to Governor Juan Manuel de Rosas after San Martin’s death and then from de Rosas’ family to the National Historical Museum of Argentina. While it has been stolen twice by political rebels, it was recovered both times and is now owned by the Mounted Grenadiers Regiment. It resides within the barracks of the Regiment today.
This ceremonial sword was believed to have been given as a gift to the Japanese ruler of the Yamato Period by the king of Baekje (part of modern-day Korea). Mentioned in the 8th-century text, “The Chronicles of Japan,” it was a work of art rather than a tool of battle.
The sword is nearly 30 inches long and made of steel. It has six branches coming off it, with the tip being the seventh. This motif is seen in other Korean ceremonial objects and is often referred to as a “tree motif.” This motif is reflective of the pine tree, and may be related to the use of the tree “from cradle to coffin.”
The sword is inscribed on both sides. While rusted, researchers have recovered most of the original inscription.
On one side, it reads, “At noon on the sixteenth day of the eleventh month [May], fourth year of Tai, the sword was made of 100 times hardened steel. Using the sword repels 100 enemy soldiers [Appropriate for the polite duke lord] It is sent [bestowed] to the duke lord.”
On the other side, it read, “Never before has there been such a blade. The crown prince of the king of Baekje, who lives under august sounds, had this sword made for the King of Wa in the hope that it might be passed on to later generations.”
The sword still resides in the Isonokami Shrine in Japan, where it has been for over a thousand years.
Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, also known as “El Cid” or “El Campeador,” was a famous Castillian knight who is now one of Spain’s most well-known folk heroes.
From his beginning in the court of Ferdinand the Great to his final years as ruler of Valencia in the late 11th century, de Vivar was respected by both Muslim and Christian rulers during his time and became the source of great literary works such as the “Cantar de Mio Cid,” and “Las Mocedades del Cid.” Charleton Heston played him and even appears in today’s computer games.
“Tizona”, or “Tizon,” was El Cid’s first sword. According to the legends of El Cid, only the most powerful and worthy could wield it, and opponents would surrender at its sight. In the middle of the fifteenth century, a sword identified as “Tizona” was offered by Ferdinand the Second to the count of Santisteban de Lerín. That sword now lies on display at the Museum of Burgos.
Recently, controversy has surrounded this artifact, as it was claimed to be a possible fake. Whether the weapon on display is the object held by El Cid may be disputed, but the original story of the sword and its master will remain legendary either way.
5. The Wallace Sword
In the National Wallace Monument in Stirling, Scotland, a sword is displayed over five feet, four inches in length. This giant, two-handed sword was said to have been used by the Scottish rebel William Wallace during the 14th-century war of independence from the English.
The sword, which weighs just under six pounds, had been “restored” many times during its seven hundred years of life, with King James IV paying for it to be re-hilted and again repaired at the tower of London in 1825. The sword was kept at Dunbarton castle for some time before eventually being held at the Wallace Monument.
Some historians argue that the sword preserved all this time could not be that of William Wallace, while other experts suggest that it has been “restored” so often that little of the original sword remains. Still, towering is only six inches shorter than your average male, the sword is an impressive sight that reminds viewers of the power of the man that may have held it.
6. Curtana – The Sword of Mercy
One of three swords used in the coronation of Kings and Queens of England, the Curtana has been used to welcome English monarchs since at least Richard I. It was first mentioned by name in 1236 in use for the marriage of Queen Eleanor of Provence and Henry III, but legend has it being a part of English history before the country ever existed.
According to the stories, Curtana was originally the sword of Tristan, the English folk hero written of by Marlowe and Wagner. With its broken tip, this sword would become a part of the treasures of England’s early kings, inherited by one of Charlemagne’s paladins, before making its way back to the throne.
Curtana wasn’t always “the sword of Mercy.” Henry IV referred to it as the “sword of justice.” The sword used today also isn’t the original Curtana, but a new hilt made for Charles I’s coronation in 1626. While the blade has remained the same since the 1580s, each new coronation includes a re-making of the sword.
The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi is one of the three imperial regalias of Japan, divine objects that protect the country and its inhabitants. The story of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (or “Grass-Cutting Sword”) goes back deep into the country’s mythology.
According to legend, the god Susanoo found the sword inside the body of an eight-headed serpent and gave it to his older sister, Amaterasu. It would eventually be given to the twelfth emperor, Keikō, by his aunt, who was a goddess.
In more historical accounts, the sword is treated as an important relic as far back as the 7th century CE and has been kept at the Atsuta Shrine ever since. During the Edo period, the shrine was repaired, and a priest saw the hidden sword, offering one of the few descriptions available: “The sword was about 32 inches long. Its blade resembled a calamus leaf. The middle of the sword had a thickness from the grip of about 7 inches with an appearance like a fish spine. The sword was fashioned in a white metallic color and well maintained.” It is said that the priest was banished for viewing the relic and later died of a mysterious disease.
While some believed the sword to be lost, during the coronation of Emperor Akihito in 1989, a box was handed to him that was treated as if it held the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. It remained closed through the entire ceremony.
Also spelled “Zu al-Faqar” or “Dhulfaqar,” this sword was purportedly given to the prophet Muhammed by God himself and then given to his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. A curved blade with a split tip, the image of the Zulfiqar quickly became a symbol of Islamic struggle and would appear on Ottoman and Chinese Muslim flags. Its name is used on the carvings of talismans and was a popular nickname for many Islamic military leaders.
Interpretations of the name appear in several Islamic writings, and possible answers include references to the stars, “the spine splitter,” and more literal definitions regarding the notch at the end of the blade.
While the original Zulfiqar may be a legend, swords following its design were popular in 19th-century Iran, and the modern country still uses the name and symbol for many of its military armaments and strategies.
Excalibur may be the most well-known sword in the English-speaking world. The legendary sword, with possibly magical powers; some myths state that any person who could hold it also held the right to the throne of England. At times it was “The Sword in the Stone” or “The Sword of the Lady of the Lake.” In Latin, it was known as “Caliburnus,” and in Welsh, “Caledfwlch.”
In the 12th-century epic poem “Merlin,” Arthur became king by pulling Excalibur from a stone on Christmas eve, and this version of the tale would be repeated for centuries. Malory, in “Le Morte d’Arthur” (perhaps the most important work about the legend), also records how the king, wounded, has the sword thrown into a lake, only for a lady to give it back to him.
It was said that Excalibur could shine so bright it would blind enemies and that its scabbard could protect wounds from bleeding. Some historians, as late as the twelfth-century, record the actual sword being given as a gift. References to it beyond legend fell away soon after, and today there is little indication that it survives.
The Greek writers Hesiod and Pseudo-Apollodoros referred to a magical “Harpe,” which may have been the first sword in all human history.
Cronus, the father of Zeus, removed the testicles of his own father, Uranus/Heaven, with the Harpe, and Zeus uses the same weapon to hobble Typhon. The sword is passed to Perseus, who cuts off the head of Medusa, and “this crooked faulchion” is used to slay Argus in Metamorphoses.
While the specific Harpe is only referred to in myth, the sword is an important symbol in human history. A double-bladed sword with a scythe-like wing on one side, the Harpe appears in images and literature that depict rebirth and growth. Out of Uranus came the Erinyes, Giants, and Nymphs, while from Medusa sprang the Pegasus.
While associated with Greek mythology, this “sword-scythe” may still be older. The ancient Hittite “Song of Ullikummi” tells of a “copper cutter” that split heaven and earth, and images from ancient Babylon show similar weapons being used to kill monsters.
While early famous swords may have been more fiction than fact, it has always been true that swords come with an element of magical power. While the famous swords of today may be for purely ceremonial use, this power is not forgotten – The Curtana was used in 2022 for the coronation of Charlies III, while the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi still sits, hidden in its shrine.
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