Myth Monday: The Most Powerful Swords in Mythology (World Mythology)

Myth Monday: The Most Powerful Swords in Mythology

By Kara Newcastle

Ever seen Disney’s Hercules? At one point, Herc comes up against the evil centaur Nessus, loses his sword in the river and starts to panic. As Hercules thrashes around searching for his sword, he tries to refocus himself by repeating what he’s learned in hero-training.

“Right. Rule number 15 … A hero is only as good as his weapon!!”

Here, Hercules grabs a hold of something and brandishes it triumphantly … only to realize it’s a fish. That aside, Hercules wasn’t entirely wrong; for some mythological characters, the weapon makes the hero. And some of their swords are pretty damn cool (there were so many to chose from, I might do another list in the future!)

  1. Excalibur (England): Of course, this one’s a gimme, but no mystical weapons list would be complete without it. To begin, Excalibur was not the sword that King Arthur pulled from the stone (that’s a literary shortcut authors and Hollywood like to use); after Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, he used it on several campaigns, eventually shattering. Deciding it was time for Arthur to have a sword worthy of a king of all England, the wizard Merlin took the young king to meet the Lady of the Lake (one of many), where the water spirit gifted Arthur the magical sword Excalibur and its scabbard. The scabbard was enchanted so that whoever wore it would not bleed to death in battle. However, the sorceress Morgan Le Fey stole it and threw it back into the lake, so after Arthur fought his evil son Mordred he died from his wounds. In most versions of the story, Arthur orders his knight Sir Bedivere to throw Excalibur back into the lake, where it is caught by the Lady of the Lake.
Katana_blade_1505_Osofune_school by Rama

2. Kusanagi The Grasscutter (Japan): After slaying the multi-headed Orochi Serpent, the storm god Susanoo proceeded to chop up the dragon’s body. Upon cutting off the dragon’s fourth tail Susanoo was surprised to find a sword inside. Calling it Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, Susanoo presented it to his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu as a sort of peace offering after all their feuding. Amaterasu passed the sword down to her descendants, and eventually it came into the possession of the hero Yamato Takeru. One day Takeru was trapped in a field by his enemies, who set the grass on fire in the hopes of killing him. Depserate to escape, Takeru drew the divine sword to cut back the grass, but when he did he found that the sword had the power to control the wind. Takeru used the sword to turn the fire back onto his enemies, and afterwards gave it the name that it is known by today: Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the Grasscutter. The sword continues to be bestowed upon different family members and is featured in a number of stories. Today, it’s alleged that the Kusanagi no Tsurugi is kept at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, Japan. Said to be too divine to be view by mortal eyes, its kept locked away. The last time it was seen was in 2019 at Emperor Naruhito’s ascension ceremony. It symbolizes the virtue of valor and is one of the Imperial Treasures.

3. Fragarach (Ireland): Forged by the gods, the sword was first owned by Manannan Mac Lir, the god of the sea. Also known as the Retaliator, the Whisperer and the Answerer, it was bestowed upon Nuada, the first high king of Ireland. Kings of Ireland had to be physically perfect, so when Nuada lost his arm in battle, he abdicated in favor of Lugh, the future god of the sun, and gave him Fragarach as the symbol of his kingship. Fragarach was incredibly powerful; it could easily cleave through a shield or wall, delivered wounds that were always fatal, made its opponents weak, and, when held against a person’s throat, had the ability to force the person to tell the truth (which is why it was also called the Answerer.)

  1. The Harpe (Greece): A harpe is a sword that is either sickle-shaped, or has a straight blade with a sickle-like point protruding out towards the tip. Sometimes the myths say that Cronus used a harpe made of flint or adamantine to castrated his father Uranus, but the harpe was most famously used by the hero Perseus. A son of Zeus (big surprise), Perseus was determined to protect his mother Danae from King Polydectes of Seriphos, who wanted to marry her. Wanting to get the boy out of the way, Polydectes manipulated Perseus into going on a quest to slay the monster Medusa and bring back her head. Perseus found the way to Medusa’s cave, but was at a loss as to how to kill her without being turned into stone by her stare. The answer of course came from the gods: Athena gave Perseus a highly reflective shield, Hades gave him his helmet of invisibility, Hermes gave him his winged sandals, and Zeus gave Perseus a harpe made of adamantine (sorry, I can’t help but look at Zeus at this point as an absentee father trying to make good with his son.) Not only as Perseus able to use the harpe and the other gifts to kill Medusa, he also used the sword to destroy a sea monster summoned by the god Poseidon. (Side note: it was not known as a kraken. The kraken is a Norwegian sea monster. All the same, that still stands as a really cool quote to yell.)

5. Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār (Persian): This emerald-encrusted sword once owned by King Solomon was featured in the world’s longest epic poem, Amir Arsalan-e Namadar, and was wielded by the eponymous hero (Amir Arsalan, if that helps) on his many quests. One of his quests was to face the giant, horned demon Fulad-zereh, who had been terrorizing the world by flying through the air and kidnapping beautiful women, and now had usurped the throne of the fairy king and turned many of his courtiers to stone. Fulad-zereh’s mother was a powerful witch, and she had enchanted Fulad-zereh so that nothing could harm him … except for the sword Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār (she might as well have been designing the first Death Star.) Knowing this, Fulad-zereh guarded the sword carefully, but Amir Arsalan was able to outwit him and kill both Fulad-zereh and his mother with Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār. The sword was so powerful that any wound that it inflicted would not heal unless treated with a special potion—an ingredient of which was Fulad-zereh’s brain, but Amir Arsalan had no problem making it.

6. Beowulf’s swords Hrunting and Næġling (Danish): Two swords are noted in the epic poem Beowulf, and interestingly, despite their unique abilities neither one of them help him. Beowulf was a warrior from Geatland, and he and his men were summoned by King Hrothgar of the Danes to help them kill the monster Grendel, who had been raiding Hrothgar’s drinking hall. Not long after arriving at the great hall, Beowulf proceeded to boast about his many adventures, irritating the king’s retainer Unferth. Unferth accused Beowulf of lying, to which Beowulf mocked him back. After witnessing Beowulf disarm Grendel—literally—Unferth falls quiet. The Geats and Danes don’t have long to celebrate Beowulf’s victory, as Grendel’s even more monstrous mother comes for revenge. They pursue her to a lake, where she plunges to the depths. There, Unferth hands Beowulf his sword Hrunting, telling Beowulf that the sword would never fail the one who held it. Happy for the gift, Beowulf leapt into the lake after Grendel’s mother and drew Hrunting … only to find that it was useless against the creature. This has led some scholars to wonder if Unferth had lied about the sword’s power in the hopes that Beowulf would lose (don’t worry, he didn’t.) Many years later, Beowulf’s kingdom is attacked by a dragon, and Beowulf, now an old man, goes out to confront it. He takes with him the sword Næġling, a very ancient weapon that had been passed down to him through his family and was said to contain immense power. Unfortunately, by now Beowulf is too old to wield it properly, and he is killed by the dragon’s venom.

7. Gram (Norse): Once upon a time, the Norse warrior Sigmund was enjoying himself mightily at the wedding feast of his sister Signy. As he parties with the other Vikings, a stranger in a black cloak enters the hall and walks straight up to the Barnstokker tree growing in the middle of it. The man draws out a sword, lifts it up, and plunges it straight into the trunk of the tree. The man says to all in the stunned hall, “He who pulls out this sword will keep it as a gift from me, and he will know that he never carried a better sword than this.” The man was Odin, the king of the gods in disguise, and as soon as he walked out of the hall every man there lunged for the sword. Only Sigmund was able to pull it free. King Siggeir becomes envious and tries to buy the sword Gram, but when Sigmund won’t part with it, the king begins a campaign of murder and torture against Sigmund and his family. Sigmund manages to keep the sword until it is broken in battle by Odin himself. Sigmund’s wife Hjordis keeps both pieces for their future son, Sigurd. Years later a dwarf named Regin tells Sigurd about an amazing hoard of gold guarded by the dragon Fafnir, and Sigurd promises to slay the dragon if Regin can forge him a sword. Regin repairs Gram, and Sigurd uses it on several quests. The last time Gram is seen is when it is placed between the bodies of Sigurd and the Valkyrie Brunhilde on their funeral pyre.

8. Kladenets/Mech-samosek (Russia): The actual translation of “kladenets” is a little tricky, but most stories that feature the Kladenets describe it as a “self-swinging sword”—in other words, a sword that fights on its own. Also known as a mech-samosek, the sword cannot be forged, it has to be retrieved by a hero from a burial mound (the root word of the name means “treasure”,) and will do the fighting for the hero itself. Some versions state that the sword must be held, that it can kill anyone with a single blow, but if you hit the dead body a second time the sword will bounce back and cut your own head off. The Kladenets is most frequently listed as the weapon of the folk hero Ivan Tsarevich.

9. Thuận Thiên (Vietnam): In 1418, seeing that the land we now know as Vietnam was suffering under Ming control, Long Voung, the Dragon King, decided that it was time he helped the humans out. The best way to do that was to bestow his own sword upon them, but there was one problem: the sword came in two pieces. Long Voung sent the blade of the sword down river, where it was dredged up by a local fisherman three times. Realizing that this was something significant, the fisherman brought the blade home and kept it in a corner for several years. After some time Le Loi, a general at this time, visited the fisherman’s home. Almost immediately, the sword blade began to glow brightly. Holding it up, Le Loi saw the words Thuận Thiên, “Heaven’s Will,” etched on the blade. Seeing this as another sign, the fisherman insisted that General Le Loi take the blade. Some time later, Le Loi was fleeing his enemies through the woods, when a sparkle caught his eye. Looking up, he saw a jewel-studded empty sword hilt dangling in the branches of a banyan tree. Bewildered, Le Loi climbed up, pulled down the hilt, and fitted it into the blade he found at the fisherman’s house. Seeing that the pieces fit together perfectly, Le Loi realized this was a sign from heaven, showing him that he had the gods’ approval. The sword caused Le Loi to grow extremely tall, and have the strength of a thousand men, and seeing him with the divine weapon help rally the people of Vietnam to his side. Within ten years, the Vietnamese had driven out the Ming Chinese, and Vietnam was now an independent country with Le Loi as its king. A year later, Le Loi was on a pleasure cruise on Ho Luc Thuy (Green Lake), when a giant turtle with a golden shell emerged from the water and swam towards him. In a human voice, the turtle told Le Loi that his task was complete, and that he needed to return Thuận Thiên before its divine power corrupted him. Le Loi looked down at the sword at his side (which was twitching towards the turtle, as if wanting to go to it) and realized that the turtle was right. He tossed Thuận Thiên to the turtle, who caught it in its beak, and then sank beneath the water. Since then the lake has been known as the Lake of the Returned Sword, or Sword Lake.

10. Skofnung (Norse):I was trying to focus on as many different swords without repeating myself, but I came across this one. I don’t remember ever reading about it before, and there’s not a whole lot I found right now, but it’s just too cool not to mention.

The origins of Skofnung are a little murky, but early writings of the sword say that it was stolen from a burial mound by the Icelandic Viking Skeggi of Midfirth, who was chosen by lot to go in and get it. Eventually, it comes into the possession of Danish king Hrolf Kraki, who declared it to be the greatest sword of any in the Northlands. Not only was it supernaturally sharp and incredibly strong, it was also possessed by the souls of twelve of Hrolf’s most faithful warriors (and HOW did that happen? I’m not totally sure I want to know.) The sword passes hands several times and is even the lone survivor of a shipwreck. At one point one of the owners warns a friend that any cut made by Skofnung will not heal unless it is rubbed with the Skofnung Stone, which I don’t know exactly what that is. Mostly I’m just hung up on the ghosts of twelve dead berserkers bound to the sword right now.