Named Weapons and other Items


Excalibur In Welsh legend, King Arthur's sword...

Fascinating how even in our era, a named sword resonates: the magic of Excaliber or Glamdring calls to mind shining swords, great heroes, greater sacrifice. No surprise then that it has been a staple in fiction (see here for a list of fictional named swords). Similarly, no shock that King’s through the ages used named swords to add to their lineage’s mystique, especially once Arthurian “mania” swept Medieval courts. For instance, Szczerbiec‘s origin is after the Arthurian stories became popular and almost certainly a conscious creation of an Excaliber-esque weapon.

Naming of key items, especially military items, is well attested throughout human history, though. No doubt, some of this is probably as a convenient mnemonic for oral performers but where contemporary records exist, it is clear it was practiced at the time and is not just a figment of poets.

The Norse world provides many useful examples, partly because this was a late pagan culture that was recorded first by those they attacked and later by their own historians. Grasida, or Grayflank, is known from the story of Gisli Sursson. The sword broke in a fight and was reforged by a sorcerer as a spearhead on a short shaft. That fact that the sword broke seems not unusual: there are tales of famous swords being handed down and used for hundreds of years. No doubt they were used sparingly as they aged but it seems they were used and therefore would break eventually.

Warflags were often meant to intimidate foes. The Norse were apparently fond of fanged, winged monsters but also ravens due to their association with war gods and battlefields as carrion birds. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the capture of a standard named Raefan (Raven) as early as 878. From The Vikings by Chartrand, Durham, Harrison and Hearth:

According to the Annals of St Neot, if ‘Raefan’ fluttered it signified a Viking victory, but if it drooped it meant a defeat.

This standard was said to have been woven by the commander’s sisters and other famous standards were also woven by women, by implication sorceresses (and reminiscent of Arthur’s wound-staunching scabbard, also the work of his womenfolk). Harald Hardrada‘s famous banner also bore a raven and a very cool name (for a warlord, anyway): “Landwaster.”

Beyond banners and weapons, one can even find things like named hauberk’s: in addition to his standard, Harald Hardrada also wore a mail shirt named “Emma.”

For the writer, there’s enough named swords kicking about fantasy literature that there’s no need to emphasize this trope. Less common might be the use of other named implements of war like Harald’s hauberk or banner.


4 thoughts on “Named Weapons and other Items

  1. Interesting post! As regards named items in Fantasy, do not forget the battering ram in The Lord of the Rings, called Grond! This is another cool example. In actual History, early cannons were often given names also. In this case, historians interpret it as a sign of rarity.

  2. Well, seeing as males have been known to name certain body parts, it is no wonder they name their weapons. I’m sure the phenomena is alive in modern sports and we can’t forget modern military aircraft. I think they got the best names.

    Anyway, I’m sure it was done out of convenience and a sense of possession as well as an attempt to imbue certain qualities to an inanimate object. I guess. Very interesting…that has given me an idea…

  3. It may also be a matter of familiarity and the items you use most often. I usually name my cars, for instance.So much more exciting to drive “Firedrake” than “the Mazda!” But perhaps also it has to be something that moves in some way. I use my computer even more than my car, but I don’t name my computers.

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