Spirited Swords, Part 1: Five Possessed and Cursed Blades

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.

The curse may be legend, but Muramasa blades are very real! Image by Ihimutefu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Skofnung, Danish

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

Dáinsleif, Norse

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

Tyrfing, Norse

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!

Sources
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Yep, Laurence, Dragon Cauldron (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 267.
  4. “Muramasa,” Shibui Swords & Tsuba, accessed Aug. 19, 2021, https://www.shibuiswords.com/muramasa.htm.
  5. 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/.
  6. InuYasha the Movie 3: Swords of an Honorable Ruler, directed by Toshiya Shinohara, Tokyo: Sunrise, 2003.
  7. “11 Legendary Norse Mythology Weapons,” Symbolsage, accessed Aug. 18, 2021, https://symbolsage.com/norse-mythology-weapons/.
  8. “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/.
  9. Marriott, Zoë, The Name of the Blade (Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2013), 107. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/nameofblade0000marr/mode/2up.
  10. Kingfisher, T., Swordheart (Dallas, Argyll Productions, 2018),70. Accessed through Overdrive.
  11. “11 Legendary.”
  12. 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.
  13. “11 Legendary.”
  14. Watt-Evans, Lawrence, The Misenchanted Sword, (New York: Dorchester Publishing Co., 1985) 55. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/misenchantedswor00lawr.
  15. Watt-Evans, 85.
  16. “11 Legendary.”
  17. Hollander, Lee M., trans., “Hervararkviða – The Waking of Angantýr,” Völuspá, accessed Aug. 16, 2021, https://www.voluspa.org/hervararkvida26-30.htm.
  18. 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.
  19. Nix, Garth, and Sean Williams, Have Sword Will Travel (New York: Scholastic, 2017), 292. Accessed through Overdrive.

28 thoughts on “Spirited Swords, Part 1: Five Possessed and Cursed Blades

  1. I’m so glad you decided to post this!!! It was such a cool read, I love learning about the backgrounds of things like this especially when it’s an item that is so easy to pour intentions to and curse it! Also I love the snipers of in modern media it’s always so cool to see how it connects back.

    I think swords are super cool and I’d love to learn how to wield one too! But maybe one that is a better entry is what I’d choose. I don’t think i have the stomach to weird a blade like that 😅

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, thank you! 😊

      Yeah, there are so many cool swords out there. And I love how organic the forging process becomes in these stories. The idea of even seemingly inanimate objects possessing some sort of power or spirit just re-enchants the world for me!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, interesting! Especially with those possessed blades, that makes sense. And even if there isn’t an actual ghost attached to it, I do believe items can carry an imprint from former owners. Best to be safe!

      Like

  2. Great article once again and I really like the selection of magical swords you choose to catalog. To top it off you’re output is impressive, any suggestions for lazy stupids to get up and finish all the posts they’ve started? Uhhh asking for a lazy stupid friend…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’ve been wanting to write this post since I looked into the Soul-Devouring Sword. Having some of the research already done made things go a little faster. I was originally going to do both lists as one post, but it was kind of long, so I split it up. Which was great for output purposes! 😂

      Honestly, that’s been my best secret for getting more posts done lately, splitting them up. I think I also took some dragon’s blood (totally real and legal herbal supplement) in a desperate attempt to boost my energy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dragon’s blood? Do you like put it in your coffee like one does with yak butter? What sort of dragon are we talking about? Red, green, gold?

        Also so you like bats, wtf? Is your real name Bruce Wayne?

        Hey so my phone’s acting weird and I couldn’t reply to the Dinotopia thread, so had to post it in some other random article. Did you get it?
        Also what do the footprints say?!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hmm, never tried yak butter, though I have had goat yogurt and duck eggs. Actually, dragon’s blood is a sap from the Croton lechleri tree. It’s red, hence the name, and I just use a couple drops on my teeth now and then. I can’t tell whether claims that it’s good for teeth are accurate, but I often feel more energetic after taking it.

          Haha, nah, Bruce started out scared of bats. I’ve loved bats since I was a kid. Might have had something to do with Stellaluna by Janell Cannon. I’m also a big fan of snakes, as long as they’re not venomous. 😁 🐍🦇

          Yeah, I see your reply! Can’t wait to read it. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yum sounds scrumptious, I love duck eggs, a car mechanic I know is also a farmer and sells them.
            Nice find with the sap concoction, so is it sold as a dental hygiene product or an energy booster?
            Bats, snakes. You’ll say you love spiders next. Shudder.

            Oh good, I hope it’s funny!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Well, the bottle’s main label is “gastrointestinal,” but the powdered stuff is also sold as a pet dental supplement. That’s how I found it. I was looking for something to give my cat, but since I figured I wouldn’t survive regularly shoving sap into her mouth, I thought I might as well try it.

              Ok, I do draw the line at spiders, though I’m not as scared of them as I used to be. As long as they aren’t deadly, I’ll let them be or catch-and-release. And I’ve gotta admit, jumping spiders are kind of cute. 😁

              Liked by 1 person

            1. Ok, a second check did reveal it was “Maxnesq Trail,” but good gravy, the signs at the “bus” station are a disaster! I was starting to translate one that says “Waterfall City” in English below, but I gave up after the first five letters translated as “Pcjds.”

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Do you think “Maxnesq” is some kind of inside joke by the crew or did the props dept just randomly select footprints purely for aesthetics?

                It’s easy making Italian pasta from scratch, potsticker wrappers gotta be about the same. You should make some from scratch, If you will I will!

                Liked by 1 person

                1. No idea. I suspect some of those signs were created through totally random processes, though. Like downloading the Dinotopian font and then falling asleep on the keyboard.

                  I did see a recipe for potsticker wrappers on one of the blogs I follow. Maybe I’ll try it someday. 😊

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Lol maybe the whole problem lies in the filmmakers not getting enough sleep.
                    I just looked it up and found this recipe -> https://www.food.com/recipe/basic-pot-sticker-wrapper-245210

                    Looks the same as pasta and I’m great with pasta (I like taking one-off cooking classes at Sur La Table and discovered how simple it was there) so I think homemade potstickers are incoming. If I challenge you to a cook off, would you? I haven’t yet, I’m just asking…

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. Ok, thanks! I haven’t done handmade pasta either, though, so still a bit intimidating.

                      “a cook off” Nah, I’d probably just concede, honestly. I make no pretenses that I am a great chef. I mean, I put leftover cauliflower on nachos, so I’m not exactly winning any food trophies anytime soon. 😅

                      Liked by 1 person

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