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Where in known fiction entailing magic—including written and oral forms predating the novel—did the concept of a magical sword first appear? Answers should clearly distinguish between any magic of the wielder and the magic of the sword itself.

Clarification: In response to a point made in chat by @Axelrod, I am using the "history-of" tag because I am interested in the history of the idea or trope of the magic sword, not in any history of actual magic swords.

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    If you hadn't specifically asked for a sword, I would've suggested Sharur, the talking mace of the ancient Sumerian god-hero Ninurta. Although, looking at the original Sumerian (which, yes, I can read a little), the various words for weapons used in it are so vague and poorly understood that it's hard to be sure what specific kind of weapons they refer to. So for all I know, it could've been a sword (or something like one). – Ilmari Karonen May 5 '16 at 23:51
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    Gilgamesh beheaded Humbaba with a single stroke of his sword. Using bronze-age technology this is nothing short of magical, but I don't know that the text supports it being the sword that was special rather than Gilgamesh or narrative convenience. Also, an answer below has just been deleted on the basis that religious texts apparently are strictly forbidden to be considered fiction on this site. This would presumably rule out Ninurta's story from consideration, and perhaps also that of Gilgamesh. – Steve Jessop May 6 '16 at 10:13
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    I'm honestly tempted to flag this, because it's virtually impossible to "answer" this "question" - I'm with Scott's reasoning on this one: the first swords created were most probably considered "magical" by the savages, the very same way ordinary fire was considered "magical" when first people learned how to make it. As such, you're basically asking about such ancient fiction that it's almost impossible to say if that 1st actual sword text still exists - probably not, as 3000 BC is, IMO not by coincidence, the rough date when both bronze swords and a proper written language appeared. – vaxquis May 6 '16 at 10:35
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    I'm actually kind of inclined to agree with @vaxquis: as written, this question is basically unanswerable. On one hand, the fiction/religion dichotomy really isn't well defined in ancient mythology. Take Thor and his hammer Mjöllnir, for example: which of their myriad depictions, from the ancient sagas to modern-day Marvel Comics, should we consider properly fictional? [...] – Ilmari Karonen May 7 '16 at 10:09
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    [...] Also, on the other hand, the first story to mention a magic sword was almost certainly some ancient oral legend that has not survived to modern day. The Ninurta legends I mentioned above, for example, might well be the oldest known surviving written stories featuring a magic weapon (even if it might not be a sword), but they're pretty clearly based on a much older oral tradition that we know nothing about, except through the few surviving written records. – Ilmari Karonen May 7 '16 at 10:11
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The earliest magical sword I could find was Asi, from the Mahabharata

The sword Asi, the first sword ever created, was supposedly made by Brahma (the creator of the universe in the Mahabharata) in a fire sacrifice ritual next to the Himalaya, as a tool for the Devas to fight back against the Asuras. It was a sentient weapon, derived from a being described in section CLXVI:

His complexion was dark like that of the petals of the blue lotus. His teeth were keen. His stomach was lean. His stature was tall. He seemed to be irresistible and possessed of exceeding energy. Upon the appearance of that being, the earth trembled.

That (clearly magical) being then turned into a sword:

That being then, abandoning the form he had first assumed, took the shape of a sword of great splendour, highly polished, sharp-edged, risen like the all-destructive Being at the end of the Yuga.

The Mahabharata itself dates from 400 BC, but the epic form it was based on appears to have an origin around the 9th century BC. That places it at roughly 1800 years older than Beowulf.

Mahabharata

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    I'd take the written date as the more definitive date, as we have no clue when in the preceding 8 centuries the magic sword was added to the oral tradition, or if it was original (it could well be original. The Aryan/Vedic people were likely the people who introduced iron working to the subcontinent. That strongly implies sword use.) – T.E.D. May 5 '16 at 20:31
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    @Matt Yep. And thus it fits under Legend. – Slacklord the Terrible May 5 '16 at 21:03
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    IF the original question was about the first instance PERIOD, then it didn't belong on this site, and shouldn't be answered on this site. HOWEVER I'm fairly certain that the OP knows what they wanted to ask, and has successfully (after an attempt or two) asked it. Consequently, the OP is only asking about fictional references. Regardless this answer is neither appropriate for this site (regarding the original form of the question), nor is it an answer to the current form of this question. – Matt May 5 '16 at 21:27
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    @Matt Until there's a Literature.SE, no. That can't be the case with any questions about depiction of fantastic elements in literature or it disqualifies all of them. – Slacklord the Terrible May 5 '16 at 21:29
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    Mahabharata has been mentioned multiple times on this site and has never been considered inappropriate. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/117891/… scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/75839/… – Ghostship May 5 '16 at 21:33
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There are almost certainly much older examples, but this was the one I first thought of- slightly older than the stories of Excalibur:

The sword Beowulf uses to kill Grendel's mother.

According to wikipedia:

c. 700–1000 CE (date of poem), c. 975–1010 CE (date of manuscript)

As readable on Project Gutenburg (chapters XXIII - XXIV), Beowulf goes to slay Grendel's mother, but discovers that his (normal) sword was not powerful enough to harm the monster.

(XXIII 48-54)

The stranger perceived then
The sword will not bite.
The sword would not bite, her life would not injure,
But the falchion failed the folk-prince when straitened:
Erst had it often onsets encountered,
Oft cloven the helmet, the fated one’s armor:
’Twas the first time that ever the excellent jewel
Had failed of its fame.

Beowulf despairs and tries to fight her without his sword, and is protected from her dagger by his armour, and would have died "had God most holy not awarded the victory"

(XXIII 75-82)

Ecgtheow’s son there
Had fatally journeyed, champion of Geatmen,
In the arms of the ocean, had the armor not given,
Close-woven corslet, comfort and succor,
God arranged for his escape.
And had God most holy not awarded the victory,
All-knowing Lord; easily did heaven’s
Ruler most righteous arrange it with justice;
Uprose he erect ready for battle. (End of Chapter)

He then sees (delivered through divine intervention/deus ex machina?) a giant and magical (?) sword, more powerful than his own (very high quality yet not magical) sword and successfully uses it to penetrate the monster's skin and kill her.

(XXIV 1-6)

Then he saw mid the war-gems a weapon of victory,
An ancient giant-sword, of edges a-doughty,
Glory of warriors: of weapons ’twas choicest,
Only ’twas larger than any man else was
Able to bear to the battle-encounter,
The good and splendid work of the giants.

Extra, fun note: her blood was so hot and poisonous that it dissolves the blade of the giant sword, and Beowulf can only bring the hilt back.

(XIV 57-59)

The brand early melted, burnt was the weapon:
So hot was the blood, the strange-spirit poisonous
The hero swims back to the realms of day.
That in it did perish

It is debatable whether the giant sword is actually "magical" or just giant, but on later inspection later in the book, it is definitely supernatural-not made by normal humans and possessing a greater power than normal humans could have infused it with.

(XXV 26-47)

To the age-hoary man then,
The famous sword is presented to Hrothgar.
The gray-haired chieftain, the gold-fashioned sword-hilt,
Old-work of giants, was thereupon given;
Since the fall of the fiends, it fell to the keeping
Of the wielder of Danemen, the wonder-smith’s labor,
And the bad-mooded being abandoned this world then,
Opponent of God, victim of murder,
And also his mother; it went to the keeping
Of the best of the world-kings, where waters encircle,
Who the scot divided in Scylding dominion.
Hrothgar discoursed, the hilt he regarded,
The ancient heirloom where an old-time contention’s
Beginning was graven: the gurgling currents,
The flood slew thereafter the race of the giants,
They had proved themselves daring: that people was loth to
The Lord everlasting, through lash of the billows
The Father gave them final requital.
So in letters of rune on the clasp of the handle
Gleaming and golden, ’twas graven exactly,
Set forth and said, whom that sword had been made for,
Finest of irons, who first it was wrought for,
Wreathed at its handle and gleaming with serpents.

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    It's a sword crafted by giants. – Slacklord the Terrible May 5 '16 at 16:45
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    It is also a giant sword- made by giants to be used by giants- as in the 3rd quotation "Only ’twas larger than any man else was Able to bear to the battle-encounter, The good and splendid work of the giants." – Tyrannosaur May 5 '16 at 16:47
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    I think the concept of magic has changed since the writing. It was clearly a superior weapon with intrinsic value higher than just being a large sword. – Slacklord the Terrible May 5 '16 at 16:49
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    Hrunting, the sword Beowulf used first, was also magical. It was just weaker than the giant sword. – Slacklord the Terrible May 5 '16 at 17:08
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    None of the quotes give the sword more power than a high quality smith could bestow. The sword was exceptionally large and well crafted. – Trisped May 5 '16 at 19:42
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I can beat Asi by 2599 years with a fairly boring answer.

Wikipedia states (without citation) that "It is probable that the roots of the sentient weapon myths stem from ancient peoples belief that sword making and metallurgy was in fact a magical process."

This is reinforced by claims made in this paper (top of page 9), which seems to know what it is talking about and states that people of the time thought that metallurgy was magic - that is, any sword made of metal, is magic.

That means, that we are looking for the first story, written or oral, that contains a metal sword, which likely dates from several months or years after the invention of the sword, in roughly 3100 BC. That is to say, in the minds of the author and reader (or speaker and listener), the swords they describe are magical, even if you and I wouldn't think of them as magical in the sense of glowing when Orcs are present.

Unfortunately, that means that almost certainly, the first story of a magical sword is no longer remembered or recorded, same for the 2nd oldest, hundredth oldest and so on. This question is unanswerable.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword#Ancient_history

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    Actually, most famous real-world swords (that still exist today) were considered magical. Not that people believed that they could shoot lasers or anything but that such famous swords can either not be defeated or are always victorious (there's a subtle difference). Such swords seem to exist in almost every culture I know. – slebetman May 6 '16 at 4:32
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    I imagine the first iron swords encountered by enemies who only held bronze/copper weapons, struck fear into people and quickly entered into legends as unbeatable weapons, associated with powers granted by pagan gods and magical spirits of the time. Very possibly, such stories were told way before written word, and some of them entered the written legends (after being embellished and transformed by maybe 100 generations). – orion May 6 '16 at 9:03
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    The question asked for a first "work", which - at least to me - implies an actual defined work (specific legend), not general vague concepts and ideas. – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 6 '16 at 13:06
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    @DVK-in-exile agreed, it implies that - yet it still makes the question itself that of a little sense; discussing ca. 3000 BC works makes no sense in scifi/fantasy context - it is a completely valid question for an archaeologist, a linguist or a historian, but here on scifi it will only bring either unsourced, arguable, context-dependent answers, or just plainly original research on the matter - bringing it down to being, again, either unsourced, arguable or context-dependent. Asking about "first work" in such ancient context won't work well on scifi IMO. – vaxquis May 6 '16 at 20:15
  • @ DVK - sorry, I did forget to add my conclusion, editing now – Scott May 8 '16 at 6:40
0

Earliest I know of is Genesis 3.24 - God places an angel with a flaming sword at the gates to the Garden of Eden. The Mahabarata example seems like a better bet.

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