Spirited Swords, Part 2: Five Living Blades

Welcome back! Ready for more swords? In Part 1, I listed blades that, like the Soul-Devouring Sword in Ice Fantasy, were possessed and/or cursed. These swords were animated or driven by forces that initially existed outside of their steel or bronze. Now I’d like to cover swords in a slightly different category: Living blades. Unlike cursed swords, these weapons have a little bit more ambiguity because they have their own intelligence and therefore their own agenda. Just like with people, whether you get along with a living sword is a matter of personal compatibility rather than because the sword itself is good versus evil. So here are another five blade displaying a different kind of spirit! Again, I will include at least one update of the exact sword in modern media along with one echo, a similar media sword possibly inspired by the myth.

Living Swords

These blades seem to have a mind of their own. They may fly, speak, or simply make “choices” that can’t be explained by coincidence or by some outside force. The main thing that ties them together is that whatever drives them seems to be an innate part of them rather than a spirit with a life before the sword or a curse applied by some magic-worker.

Zhàn Lú, Chinese

Zhàn Lú (湛盧) is very much the “silently judging you” type. Named for its color, this black blade was once wielded by King Helü (闔閭)of Wu.1 However, when he attempted to attack the state of Chu, the sword abandoned him, flying off in the night to set itself down on the pillow of King Zhāo (楚昭王) of Chu. Though a strong weapon said to contain “the essence of fire,” Zhàn Lú was also fundamentally “a sword of kindness.”2 The legendary swordsmith Ōu Yězǐ (歐冶子) is said to have cried at accomplishing his goal of forging a mighty but ultimately benevolent blade. It would fight for kings who had “moral integrity” without hesitation, but it was always watching, and if its wielder strayed, off it went. Considering Helü’s behavior regarding the Gān Jiàng and Mò Yé swords (see Part 1), it’s surprising he ever got to hold Zhàn Lú.

Updates: Zhàn Lú shows up on weapons lists for a few RPGs, such as Titan Quest, and it also appears in The World Online (网游之全球在线), a web novel by Sheng Xiao (笙箫).

Echoes: The Chinese Taoist screwball comedy Once Upon a Time in LingJian Mountain also has a judgmental sword. Technically, it’s not the Kūnshān sword (literally “earth mountain sword” 坤山劍) itself but the sword spirit Liáng Qiū who makes her opinions known. Since she is driven more by ego than ideals, she often ends up bickering with Wáng Lù (王陸). Their scenes frequently include Wáng Lù threatening to use the sword to file his nails or other undignified tasks while Liáng Qiū shrinks or grows the sword to spite him.3 Liáng Qiū also has a crush on Ōuyáng Shāng (歐陽商), her original wielder.  

The energetic opening to Once Upon a Time in LingJian Mountain. You can see Liáng Qiū wielding Kūnshān at 1:07 while Wáng Lù (the smirky guy) uses it in several others.

Masamune blades, Japanese

These blades are often mentioned as a counterpoint to Muramasa’s cursed ones. Masamune (正宗), also known as Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, was active around the early 1300s.4 His innovative forging methods earned him a lasting reputation; in 1714, at least 41 of his swords were still in use. Remembered as calm and peaceful, he was believed to have imparted similar qualities to his blades. One legend, which paints Muramasa as Masamune’s student, tells of a contest where the two smiths dip their blades into a stream, cutting edges facing the current. Muramasa’s sword slices any leaf or fish it encounters, while Masamune’s allows both to pass by unharmed. Masamune’s sword was therefore seen as one that, by nature, “doesn’t needlessly cut that which is innocent and undeserving.” Since the two smiths were separated by at least a century, I doubt the scenario played out in real life. However, it captures the belief that Masamune blades had morals and will within their sharp steel.

Updates: Swords that refuse to cut the innocent aren’t super popular in media, but you can fight with a Masamune blade in Final Fantasy.

Echoes: The legend about Muramasa and Masamune reminds me of the yokai swordsmiths Kaijinbo and Totosai in the Inuyasha anime series. Kaijinbo actively imbues his blades with evil, eventually forging the possessed blade Tōkijin that drives him to kill and even reanimates him after he dies in its service.5 Tōtōsai, who expelled Kaijinbo as his student due to his hateful heart, is relatively peaceful and forged the healing sword Tenseiga, which will not harm even when slashed through a person and instead revives the dead. Both are wielded by the cold-hearted dog yokai Sesshōmaru.

Woodblock print of Goro Masamune forging a sword with an assistant, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Asi, Hindu

This sword is actually a mystical being who manifests as a sword. In the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, the god Brahma created Asi (meaning “sword or scimitar”) to fight the Dānavas Asuras (similar to demons) when they “began to cause the destruction of righteousness.”6 Asi springs forth from a “sacrificial fire” as a tall, blue-skinned being brimming with energy and baring “keen” teeth. The universe trembles before his demon-like figure until Brahma declares Asi was made “[f]or the protection of the world and the destruction of the enemies of the gods.” Asi then transforms into a shining sword to be wielded by the Rishi (sage) Rudra.  

Updates: Asi turns up as a weapon in the Roblox game Medieval Warfare: Reforged. He probably also makes appearances in adaptations of The Mahabharata, but I haven’t found any specific mention of him. And I couldn’t help smiling to see articles about ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) making discoveries about the age of The Mahabharata.

Echoes: The basic story of Asi taking on sword form to fight “demons” for the deities and sages reminds me of the shinki in the Noragami manga and anime series. Shinki are human ghosts who serve deities as tools in their fight against demon-like ayakashi. When their instrument name is called, they transform, often into weapons. Yukiné, the shinki of the god Yato, transforms into first one and then two katana.

The Dānavas, Asi’s first prey, were a type of Asura like this one. “Ten-headed Asura Ravana goes into battle” by Nagarjun is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mech-Kladenets, Russian

Also called Sword Kladenets, Self-Swinging Sword, Samosek Sword or Mech-Samosek. In one tale a hero bearing the common name of Ivan quietly slips off with “the self-cutting Samosek Sword” while two leshii (forest gods) squabble over it.78 Its main claim to fame is being able to fly off and kill people on its own. I debated whether or not to group this sword with Dáinsleif and Tyrfing under “Cursed” since it doesn’t display a strong individual will. However, its autonomous attacks are treated as desirable rather than ominous, so I decided this one goes under “Living.”

Updates: Under the name Samosek Sword, it’s an Artifact in the card game Mythgard, and a weapon in the Tap Titans 2 game.

Echoes: The “Magical Sword” in the Legends of Zelda games is first found in a graveyard, a bit like the Mech-Kladenets. Dungeons & Dragons has a couple self-swinging blades, with the Flying Sword listed under Monsters and the Dancing Sword under Magic Items.

A Leshii or Leshy, a Slavic forest god like the ones fighting over the Samosek Sword. Not that he looks like he really needs a sword! Н. Н. Брут, Magazine «Leshy», Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ukko/Kullervo’s sword, Finnish

The youth Kullervo wields several weapons over the course of the Finnish epic The Kalevala, but this sword is his last. After various misdeeds take him from being called a hero to a “wicked wizard,”9 Kullervo asks the god Ukko to grant him the god’s “sword of battle” while he wages war, seemingly to forget his troubles. When he returns home to find only his dog still alive, he asks the sword if it wants to “drink [his] life-blood.” It then speaks to say it would happily drink his “guilty” blood since it has already gorged on “the life-blood of the righteous.” Beyond this scene there’s little information about the sword other than it being a broadsword, so we don’t know if its speech is really Kullervo’s guilty conscience or an ability that was always there.

Updates: Since the sword has no name, it’s difficult to trace a direct update. However, there is a statue of Kullervo talking to his sword in Taka-Töölö, Helsinki, Finland.

Echoes: Tolkien modeled the tragic figure of Túrin Turambar on Kullervo. Túrin wields Anglachel, a sentient black-bladed sword forged from meteoric ore by “Ëol the Dark Elf.”10 Like Kullervo, Túrin ends his life asking his sword if it will drink his blood and Anglachel speaks to accept his offer. Though less focused on drinking blood, the enchanted sword Biter (aka Hildebrand Shining Foebiter) is awakened by blood in Have Sword Will Travel by Garth Nix and Sean Williams. After contact with this “blood of a true knight,”11 he leaps up to claim the startled boy Odo as his wielder. Biter certainly talks (a lot) and he can also fly, dragging poor Odo around in his zeal for glorious deeds.

Kullervo puhuu miekalleen (Kullervo Speaks to his Sword) statue in Helsinki by Carl Eneas Sjöstrand. Matti Mattila, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are plenty more living swords out there, as well as more possessed and cursed blades. If you know of any you’d like to share, please tell me about them in comments. I’m particularly curious about the Singing Sword of Conaire Mór, since I wasn’t able to find much information on it. Also, what do you think of these living blades? Are there any you’d like on your side? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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). 435.
  2. Yang, Ping, “Ten Famous Swords in China’s Ancient Times,” China Daily USA, Feb. 16, 2011, accessed Dec. 30, 2020, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2011-02/16/content_12025392_2.htm.
  3. Once Upon a Time in LingJian Mountain, episode 16, directed by Yong Yi and Jong-jong Yu, written by Kan Fan, Qiangqiang Fang, and Feifei Li, iQIYI and Tencent Pictures, Nov. 22, 2019.
  4. “Nihonto Mythology – The Legend of Masamune & Muramasa,” The Way of Bushido, posted Apr. 1, 2020, accessed Aug. 19, 2021, https://wayofbushido.com/bushido-blog/f/nihonto-myths—the-legend-of-masamune-muramasa.
  5. Inuyasha, “Kaijinbo’s Evil Sword,” episode 44, season 2, directed by Masakazu Amiya and Shin’ichi Sakuma, created by Rumiko Takahashi, Sunrise, Sep. 17, 2001.
  6. The Mahabharata, Book 12: Section CLXVI, accessed Aug. 18, 2021, https://www.ibiblio.org/sripedia/ebooks/mb/m12/m12a165.htm.
  7. Dixon-Kennedy, Mike, Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1998),126. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/pdfy-hJCUau7KTHC-pnd2/mode/2up.
  8. “Sword-Kladenets – the Magic Weapon of the Heroes,” Srimathumitha, accessed Aug. 18, 2021, https://srimathumitha.com/iskusstvo-i-razvlecheniya/51957-mech-kladenec-magicheskoe-oruzhie-bogatyrey.html.
  9. Lönnrot, Elias, The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland, trans. John Martin Crawford (2004, Project Gutenberg, 2010), Rune XXXVI.
  10. Tolkien, J.R.R., The Children of Hurin (London: HarperCollins, 2008), [40]. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/TheChildrenOfHurinJ.R.R.Tolkien/mode/2up.
  11. Nix, Garth, and Sean Williams, Have Sword Will Travel (New York: Scholastic, 2017), 21. Accessed through Overdrive.   

13 thoughts on “Spirited Swords, Part 2: Five Living Blades

      1. You’re welcome! The most obvious meaning would be “great lion,” from the French, but as far as I know there aren’t any real-life or mythical swords called that. I’ve seen some speculation that it could be related to the Persian symbol of a lion holding a sword.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. The idea of sentient weapons in particular is a fun topic. It certainly seems to have fired the imaginations of people all over the world. Various Native American tribes professed a certain brotherhood with their weapons, the Finnish hero Kullervo had a living sword, and of course there are few instances of similar swords and spears with “devils” housed within, and could speak and move on their own. Thanks for the fascinating rundown on this sort of arsenal!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ps. Not sure about the Singing Sword… Ogma had a sword which spoke/sung, and Máelodran, Celtchar and Lugh had living spears that moved on their own. Finn had a land decimating spear that is never said to be intelligent, but it’s background is exceedingly similar to that of Máelodran’s devil-housed spear.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I saw one brief mention of the mythical one (as opposed to a singing sword from Prince Valiant). It supposedly sang during battles. I’m sure it was a rousing battle tune, but of course my brain automatically pictured it singing all sorts of silly songs like “Little Teapot” and “Where’s Me Jumper?”, which is why I wanted to know more details. 😂

        Ok, now I’m going to have to look up that devil-spear of Máelodran. That sounds cool!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I can certainly understand why it’s popular! Even objects can seem to take on personalities when we use them frequently or depend on them. For many ancient people, a weapon could be the difference between life or death, and they were also often treasured family possessions.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.