For hundreds of years, a mysterious sword had been embedded in the cliffs above the Notre Dame chapel in Rocamadour, France. The monks say it is Durandal, sword of the paladin Roland. According to legend, Roland hurled the holy blade into the side of the cliff to keep it from being captured by his enemies. Since the 12th century, the chapel has been a destination for sacred pilgrimages. In 2011, the sword was removed by the local municipality and given to the Cluny Museum in Paris for an exhibit.
According to legend, the “sword in the snake,” Kusanagi, was found in the body of an eight-headed serpent killed by the god of storms and seas. It’s part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, icons of the ancient imperial family’s descent from the sun goddess––the symbols of their divine right to rule.
The Kusanagi is said to be housed in the Atsuta shrine in Nagano Prefecture, though it isn’t on public display and hasn’t been seen in centuries. The sword is occasionally brought out for imperial coronation ceremonies, but it’s always kept shrouded in wrappings. Even though it has never been seen, and is only recorded in collections of oral history and pseudohistorical documents, authorities have nevertheless succeeded in keeping the world guessing about the Kusanagi by never officially confirming and denying its existence.
The only official mention of the sword came after World War II—even though the late Emperor Hirohito disavowed any claim to his divinity, he was also recorded as having ordered the divine regalia’s keepers to “defend them at all costs.”
The Sword In The Stone
While the Arthurian legend is mostly a product of folklore and myth, there is evidence that its sword in the stone tale might be very real. In a chapel in Monte Siepi, Italy lies an ancient sword embedded in stone that could be the key to deciphering the origin of the legend.
It’s believed that Saint Galgano was a 12th-century Tuscan knight whom Archangel Michael commanded to give up his sinful ways. Arguing that the task would be as difficult as cleaving stone, Galgano attempted to prove his point by breaking his sword on a nearby rock. Legend says his blade cut into the stone as if it were butter. The sword in the stone still rests where Galgano left it behind, along with his worldly ways.
After Saint Galgano was canonized, word of his holy sword spread quickly. The legend of Excalibur predates Galgano, but the addition of the sword in the stone arose shortly after Galgano’s time. It’s theorized that his sword was the true-life inspiration for Author’s sword in the stone.
King Charlemagne’s legendary sword, was said to change colors 30 times every day, and was so bright it outshone the sun. Since as early as 1271, two swords called Joyeuse have been part of French coronation ceremonies. But since both swords can’t be the famed Joyeuse, the mystery of which one is the true sword of the Holy Roman Emperor has lingered for centuries.
The Joyeuse residing in the Louvre has suffered heavy modification over its considerable lifetime. The oldest section is the pommel, which recent tests place sometime between the 10th and 11th centuries. Since Charlemagne died in 813, this puts it just outside the Holy Roman Emperor’s lifetime.
The other contender is the “saber of Charlemagne” housed in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna. It is unknown how the sword became part of the French Imperial Regalia, but the saber is dated to the early 10th century—closer than the Joyeuse, but still just after the time of Charlemagne’s legendary sword. The saber was probably fashioned by Hungarian swordsmiths, which opened the door for additional legends of it being the famed “sword of Attila,” which was said to have been given to Attila the Hun by Mars, the god of war. Sadly, this isn’t really historically plausible either.
St. Peter’s Sword
There are several legends about the sword used by Saint Peter when he cut off the ear of the servant to the high priest in the garden of Gethsemane. English lore has it brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea along with the Holy Grail. In 968, however, a sword was brought to Poland by Bishop Jordan—a sword which he claimed was the actual sword of St. Peter. The Bishop’s sword, considered the true relic, remained in Poland and was eventually moved to the Archdiocese Museum in Poznan.
Did the mysterious sword belong to Saint Peter? There are claims that the sword could have been made in the Eastern borderlands of the Roman Empire in the first century, but there is little evidence to substantiate them except the (perhaps misplaced) faith of those who want to believe the sword is a genuine relic. The sword in Poland is a falchion—a type of sword likely not in use during Saint Peter’s time. Metallurgy tests have also dated it to long after the saint’s death.
The Wallace Sword
Legend has it that William Wallace––the titular character of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart––used human skin for his sword’s scabbard, hilt, and belt. The flesh’s donor was said to have been Hugh de Cressingham, treasurer of Scotland, whom Wallace had flayed after defeating him in the battle of Stirling Bridge.
One version of the legend speaks of Wallace using one strip of Cressingham for his sword belt. Other accounts say Wallace and his men used Cressingham’s skin for saddle girths. The legend spread even further when King James IV sent the Wallace sword to have its scabbard, belt, and pommel replaced with something more befitting a sword of such stature. The sword as it is now, in the National Wallace Monument, bears the replacement parts.
Did Wallace have a Frankensword? While Cressingham was most definitely flayed, accounts have Wallace using the unfortunate tax collector’s skin only for his sword belt, not the actual sword. The story also came from the English side, and was likely embellished to make the Scottish hero look like a barbarian. Still, we can certainly understand Wallace’s grudge against tax collectors. It might not be a stretch to say he used the skin from one to decorate his sword. As with many legends, the truth has been lost to time.
The Seven-Branched Sword
In 1945, a mysterious sword was found in Japan’s Isonokami shrine. The sword was of exceedingly unusual make, with six protrusions branching out from its sides (the tip is considered its seventh). The sword was in poor condition, but a faded inscription could be made out along the blade. The exact translation has been questioned numerous times, but what is clear is that the sword was a gift from a Korean king to a Japanese monarch.
This matched a sword found in the Nihon Shoki, a folklore-infused historical document cataloging the early history of Japan. If this was the same seven-branched sword given to a semi-mythical shaman empress, Jingu, it would serve as an important keystone marking where legend became fact.
The dating on the blade matched reliable sources in China, Korea, and Japan. The Isonokami shrine itself was also mentioned in other documents dating from the time of the Nihon Shoki, so the sword could well have been left there since ancient times. Scholars now believe the seven-branched sword is the actual sword from the legend, giving the shaman empress Jingu an authentic place in history.
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