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.

Szczerbiec: A sword begging for a story

English: Graphical documentation of the Polish...
English: Graphical documentation of the Polish coronation sword, Szczerbiec (edited) Polski: Dokumentacja graficzna polskiego miecza koronacyjnego, Szczerbca (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The feature article today on The Free Dictionary is Szczerbiec: sword of kings, said to be the gift of an angel, stolen for centuries. Talk about something you could wrap a story around, be it a historical novel or fantasy. And what an exotic name!

What I was really looking for was a term for chamois cloth that wasn’t so French. Guess I’ll have to use goat-skin for now. And Szczerbiec will have to wait for another story…