Greetings on this morning after Guǐ Jie /the Ghost Festival! Contemplating the roaming spirits of this thin time led me to thinking of the Soul-Devouring Sword (噬神劍) from Ice Fantasy. The energy-eating sword spirits possessing it give the sword great power but in their hunger they may strike even when the sword’s wielder would rather show mercy. Searching for a mythological model for the Soul-Devouring Sword turned up several interesting possibilities that I could only cover briefly. It seemed a shame to just leave those blades in my unposted notes, so I’d like to expand on them now. I’ll pair each one with at least one update, where the exact sword reappears in modern media, and at least one echo, original fictional weapons that bear some resemblance to the mythical. In keeping with tone of the Ghost Festival, I’ll start with possessed and cursed blades.
Possessed or Cursed Swords
I’m listing these together because it can difficult to separate them at times. Is a cursed sword driven by a spirit, by some fragment of the one who cursed it, or is it simply bound by a magical rule? Is a possessed sword cursed? It all depends on interpretation, but the one thing these swords have in common is that their spirited side comes initially from outside of the blade.
Gān Jiàng and Mò Yé swords, Chinese
Also written as Gānjiàng (干將) and Mòyé (莫邪), these swords bear the names of the couple who forged them during the Spring and Autumn Period of China (approximately 771 to 476 BCE). King Helü (闔閭)of Wu, a region that influenced the modern wuxia genre through their renowned swords and associated legends, commissioned the blades from Gān Jiàng.1 Gān Jiàng used all his smithing and Taoist alchemical skill, yet the furnace failed to smelt the metal. His wife Mò Yé suggested human qi (energy) was needed to complete the process.2 Depending on the version, the couple either each tossed in hair clippings or Mò Yé leaped into the furnace herself. Gān Jiàng successfully forged two swords, giving the Gān Jiàng sword to the king while keeping the Mò Yé one. Angered at only receiving one sword, King Helü killed Gān Jiàng. The female sword then “turned into a beautiful dragon” and flew away. Later, the male sword, “which possessed its own intelligence,” flew to join the dragon, transforming into one itself. Both then returned to their human forms and their life together.
Updates: The story of Gān Jiàng and Mò Yé has enjoyed a long popularity in China. Considering the connection between Wu and wuxia, it’s fitting that the story was remade into the 2020 wuxia film Spirit of Two Swords (干将莫邪).
Echoes: In Laurence Yep’s children’s novel Dragon Cauldron, a boy named Thorn leaps into a forge to mend not a sword but a magical cauldron that requires “a human soul.”3 The process is overseen by a smithing couple, a bit like Gān Jiàng and Mò Yé
Muramasa blades, Japanese
These are among the most famous cursed swords. Rather than one specific blade, the reputation clings to all the swords forged by Sengo Muramasa (千子 村正) during the early 1500s.4 His work was once highly valued, but after several incidents said to involve Muramasa blades, the Tokugawa Shōgunate banned them. Rumors grew into legends supported by depictions in popular theater. Muramasa, they claimed, was a skilled but temperamental man who had transmitted his violent insanity into blades that now hungered for blood. They would drive their owners to kill, and if drawn they must taste blood even if it meant taking the wielder’s own life.
Updates: Muramasa blades show up all over the place in media. The sword Yoto in the game Ayakashi: Ghost Guild is based on the legend of Muramasa blades, and Wolverine in Marvel comics had a Muramasa blade forged from his soul and anger.5 There’s even a video game called Muramasa: The Demon Blade originally made to play via Wii.
Echoes: In InuYasha the Movie 3: Swords of an Honorable Ruler, the Higurashi shrine guards a sword said to be linked to the Shinto god Susano’o and forged by Murakumo.6 Read correctly, however, its name is So’unga, a yokai sword with a spirit that literally roots into those who wield the blade and forces them to kill.
Instead of just one spirit, this sword boasts a full dozen! Forged for King Hrólf Kraki, the blade was “imbued” with 12 souls who were once the king’s most trusted berserker warriors and bodyguards.7 Hopefully this was done with some level of consent, but it’s not clear. At any rate, that soul-infusion gave the sword formidable powers. It never needed sharpening and those wounded by it could not heal unless treated with a special stone. Yet it also could not be drawn near women or exposed to direct sunlight. After Hrólf Kraki’s death, it was buried with him before being stolen.8 Perhaps the king’s soul was added to the mix, or maybe the grave robber just got a nasty surprise.
Updates: In Rick Riordan’s middle grade novel The Hammer of Thor, Skofnung and its stone are involved in breaking Loki out of his ancient prison. Despite traditionally hosting male spirits, it is identified as female in the book. It also appears as a weapon in several RPGs, including Final Fantasy and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
Echoes: Both Zoë Marriott’s The Name of the Blade and T. Kingfisher’s Swordheart include swords that contain a single warrior spirit, Shinobu and Sarkis respectively. Shinobu doesn’t know how or why he was sealed in a katana, only remembering “a green blade” slashing toward him.9 Sarkis, by contrast, seems to have known a little of what he was getting into before the sorcerer-smith “stabbed [him] through the heart” to bind him to a sword.10 I’ve yet to find another sword with multiple warriors attached to it, though if you know of one, please share!
The spirits inside Skofnung belonged to berserker warriors like this one.- RICpaint, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
This blade also compels killing, but in a slightly different way. Dáinsleif was forged by the dwarf Dáin (its name means “Dáin’s Legacy”) and was famously used by King Högni.11 It was not to be drawn lightly. Like Skofnung, it inflicted wounds that never healed,12 and in this case, no special antidote existed. It could never miss its target, and even small wounds from it could kill. Oh, and it could not be returned to its scabbard unless it killed at least once.13 As far as I can tell, these qualities were made into the sword, not created through the presence of a spirit or several. Whether this counts as a curse or not is uncertain, but since it doesn’t seem to arise from an independent intelligence, I decided to sort it into this category rather than count it as a live blade.
Updates: The RPG Genshin Impact has a playable character named Dáinsleif, also known as Twilight Sword. If you prefer a less animate Dáinsleif, you can add it to your arsenal as a sword in Eternal Return or a magitek armor in Final Fantasy Type-0.
Echoes: Probably the closest parallel to Dáinsleif I’ve seen is Wirikidor in Lawrence watt-Evans’ The Misenchanted Sword. Once drawn, Valder’s overly enchanted sword refuses to sheath, stays in contact with “some part of his body” at all times,14 and moves semi-independently until it kills a warrior. It’s very specific about warriors, so it’s no help with dragons or “unarmed women.”15 The unhealing wounds Dáinsleif inflicts also remind me of the razor with similar powers used by Texan mercenary Billy-Ray Sanguine in the Skullduggery Pleasant books.
King Högni with his son. Image by Jenny Nyström (1854 – 1946), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s a little ambiguous whether Dáinsleif is truly cursed or just very strong, but there’s no question about Tyrfing! It had very similar powers: it never dulled nor rusted, it never missed, and once drawn it had to take a life before being sheathed.16 It could cut even through metal and stone, and its bright blade was matched to a golden hilt. Yet because King Svafrlami forced the dwarf smiths Dvalinn and Durinn to make it, they wove in a curse that fated it to kill Svafrlami when stolen by 12 berserker brothers and then cause “three great evils.” Those evils seem to be killing certain heroes: Swedish warrior Hjalmar dying after killing the berserker brothers, Norse prince Heidrek/ Heiðrekr’s accidental slaying of his brother Angantyr, and Heidrek’s own death by the sword. Hervor, Angantyr’s daughter, later demands the sword from her father’s ghost, despite his warnings that the blade will be “the slayer of all thy sib and kin.”17 Finally he relents, advising her to avoid the poisoned edges of the sword.
Updates: The 2015 short film Tyrfing briefly touches on the sword’s lore, and Pol Anderson’s novel The Broken Sword features Tyrfing. You can also find it in many RPGs, like Final Fantasy and Fire Emblem, and in the Castlevania video game series.
Echoes: Plenty of cursed swords in media may take cues from Tyrfing. Stormbringer, from Michael Moorcock’s novels, “has a habit of killing more than its master chooses.”18 It’s far worse than Tyrfing, able to move independently and absorbing the souls of its victims. Garth Nix and Sean Williams play with the cursed sword trope in Have Sword Will Travel by having the enchanted sword Reynfrida Sharp-point Flamecutter (Runnel for short) believe she is cursed. “All who wield me will die,” she declares,19 based on the fact that so far all her knights have died somewhat odd deaths.
If you want an awesome dwarf-forged sword, please ask nicely! Svafrlami and the Dwarves. Artwork by Jenny Nyström(1854–1946), 1895. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I really love swords, and I’d someday like to learn to wield one. However, I think I’d prefer a blade not cursed to kill every time it’s drawn. What about you? Would you brave holding one of these blades? Which would you choose? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Also, if you know of any other swords that fit the cursed/possessed model, please tell us about them!
- Milburn, Olivia, “The Weapons of Kings: A New Perspective on Southern Sword Legends in Early China,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 128, no. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 2008): 423-437. JSTOR (25608404). 423.
- Kwan, Bernard, “The Legend of Gan Jiang and Mo Ye 干將莫邪,” Be not Defeated by the Rain, posted Oct. 25, 2012, accessed Aug. 18, 2021, https://benotdefeatedbytherain.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-legend-of-gan-jiang-and-mo-ye.html.
- Yep, Laurence, Dragon Cauldron (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 267.
- “Muramasa,” Shibui Swords & Tsuba, accessed Aug. 19, 2021, https://www.shibuiswords.com/muramasa.htm.
- thecomicvault, “4 Formidable Comic Swords That Are Sharper Than The Rest,” The Comic Vault, posted Apr. 20, 2018, accessed Aug. 19, 2021, https://thecomicvault.wordpress.com/2018/04/20/4-formidable-comic-swords-that-are-sharper-than-the-rest/.
- InuYasha the Movie 3: Swords of an Honorable Ruler, directed by Toshiya Shinohara, Tokyo: Sunrise, 2003.
- “11 Legendary Norse Mythology Weapons,” Symbolsage, accessed Aug. 18, 2021, https://symbolsage.com/norse-mythology-weapons/.
- “Top 10 Most Famous Swords of the Middle Ages,” The Medievalists.net, accessed Dec. 31, 2020, https://www.medievalists.net/2014/10/top-10-famous-swords-middle-ages/.
- Marriott, Zoë, The Name of the Blade (Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2013), 107. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/nameofblade0000marr/mode/2up.
- Kingfisher, T., Swordheart (Dallas, Argyll Productions, 2018),70. Accessed through Overdrive.
- “11 Legendary.”
- Sturluson, Snorri, The Prose Edda, trans. Jesse L Byock (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 80, https://is.cuni.cz/studium/eng/predmety/index.php?do=download&did=62028&kod=ARL100252.
- “11 Legendary.”
- Watt-Evans, Lawrence, The Misenchanted Sword, (New York: Dorchester Publishing Co., 1985) 55. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/misenchantedswor00lawr.
- Watt-Evans, 85.
- “11 Legendary.”
- Hollander, Lee M., trans., “Hervararkviða – The Waking of Angantýr,” Völuspá, accessed Aug. 16, 2021, https://www.voluspa.org/hervararkvida26-30.htm.
- Moorcock, Michael, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (London: Quartet Books, 1976), 136. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/sailoronseasoffa0000moor/mode/2up.
- Nix, Garth, and Sean Williams, Have Sword Will Travel (New York: Scholastic, 2017), 292. Accessed through Overdrive.