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Similar to this question asking for magic sword examples, I was curious as to the first depiction of a sentient (independent feelings/thoughts) weapon? It doesn't need to necessarily be able to speak, but at the least exhibit independent feelings/impulses and make that known to the user/wielder.

Some known examples (of many)

  • Anglachel from The Silmarillion (1977)
  • Khazid'hea - The Legend of Drizzt (1988)
  • Stormbringer - Multiple works featuring Elric of Melnibone by Moorcock (1961)

(Note: These are all swords, as I feel that the earliest example would be a primitive weapon. If there are other examples, that would be excellent).

I am uncertain as to whether or not classify Excalibur as a sentient weapon, as I am not aware of any passages in the works attributing anything other than regular magical powers to the blade itself. You could make the argument that it had to determine the worthiness of the attempted drawer, but even that is in question if you accept the Post-Vulgate cycle of the Arthurian legends (In which the sword is given directly by the Lady of the Lake). If you want to tender Excalibur, please present supporting prose indicating sentience.

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    Gilgamesh - "I dreamed a second dream. In the streets of strong-walled Uruk there lay an axe; the shape of it was strange and the people thronged round. I saw it and was glad. I bent down, deeply drawn towards it; I loved it like a woman and wore it at my side.' Ninsun answered, ‘That axe, which you saw, which drew you so powerfully like love of a woman, that is the comrade whom I give you, and he will come in his strength like one of the host of heaven. He is the brave companion who rescues his friend in necessity.'" – Valorum Feb 22 '18 at 20:49
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    @Valorum - Not sure that really qualifies (Which is probably why you commented it). Nothing indicates that it is the weapon doing the drawing. The rest could just be hyperbole, but doesn't indicate sentience on the part of the weapon. – JohnP Feb 22 '18 at 20:56
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    @Valorum: Regardless of whether it really qualifies, I think that should be an answer, not a comment. – R.. Feb 22 '18 at 21:52
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    I gather that we are excluding things that are not already sentient, like, a steed or dragon or a really scary chihuahua. – Xplodotron Feb 22 '18 at 21:56
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    If you want a sentient weapon that isn't a sword, watch Dark Star. I know that it came after, BTW. – ShadoCat Feb 22 '18 at 22:09
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The Ruyi Jingu Bang

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the Ruyi Jingu Bang is featured in the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West. It is a staff wielded by one of the main characters, Sun Wukong, who protects and supports the protagonist on his journey.

Ao Guang, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea gifted the staff to Sun Wukong on his wife's advice, to get rid of their intimidating and chaotic guest who came to the palace in search of a fitting weapon:

"That piece of miraculous iron is one of the nails that Yu the Great used to fix the depths of rivers and seas when he brought the waters under control," said the Dragon King. "What use could it be?" "Never mind whether it's useful or not," his wife replied. "Just give it to him and let him do with it as he pleases. At least you'll get him out of the palace." ~ (The Journey to the West, vol.1,Chapter 3, Adapted from the WJF Jenner translation (Beijing, 1955) by Collinson Fair

The staff is made of iron and is capable of self-adjusting its size according to his owner's wishes:

Sun Wukong hitched up his clothes and went to give it a feel. He found that it was an iron pillar about as thick as a measure for a peck of grain and some twenty feet long. Seizing it with both hands he said, "It's too thick and too long. If it were a bit shorter and thinner it would do." As soon as these words were out of his mouth this precious piece of iron became several feet shorter and a few inches thinner. ~(ibid)

the weapon was even capable to shrink to the size of a needle, to be hidden behind one of the ears of Sun Wukong. It could also multiply itself and fight without the Monkey King wielding it.

  • This answer... doesn't actually mention how exactly the weapon is sentient. A magic item doing magical things does not make it sentient. This answer just describes it as "a magic item that resizes if you tell it to". My phone will call my mom if I tell it to, but it isn't sentient. – Theik Sep 13 '18 at 8:27
  • @Theik ah, but would the phone fight your enemies on twitter in its own volition? – user68762 Sep 13 '18 at 8:31
  • It would not, however, you haven't quoted any of the relevant passages where the staff does so. You've only quoted its ability to shrink, and how sun wukong got it. – Theik Sep 13 '18 at 8:50
  • @Theik it's a good idea to add those parts, i agree. I'd be great if someone with a reliable translation & free time or a sapient phone would do it... – user68762 Sep 13 '18 at 9:11
3

In Poul Anderson's "The Broken Sword" (1954), the titular weapon must draw blood before it is sheathed. If the wielder fails to do that, it will strike out of its own, killing somebody nearby (often with tragic results). Elric's Stormbringer is based on this sword, and Moorcock has often stated his love for Anderson's book.

The sword is named for and based on the sword Tyrfing from Norse mythology. "The dwarves made the sword, and it shone and gleamed like fire. However, in revenge they cursed it so that it would kill a man every time it was drawn and that it would be the cause of three great evils. They finally cursed it so that it would also kill Svafrlami himself." (Wikipedia)

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    Is your answer "The Broken Sword" or Tyrfing? If it's the former, it certainly is not the first given the top answer is several hundreds of years older, and if it's the latter, can you provide a date? – Edlothiad Feb 23 '18 at 9:28
  • As @Edlothiad says, it depends on which sword is your answer, but I would discount Tyrfing, as it was not the sword itself, but the curse laid upon it. Once the curse ceases, the sword loses its malignancy. The other examples the sentience is part and parcel of the weapon. – JohnP Feb 23 '18 at 14:28
  • Whether it is because of a curse or not, the sword can know if it hasn't killed, can sense the surroundings, and direct itself to kill somebody nearby. That implies sentience. If the sentience is in the sword itself or in the curse inhabiting the sword is just semantics. That the sentience leaves the sword once the curse is lifted doesn't change that it was sentient until then. – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Feb 26 '18 at 14:56
1

A possible contender for the oldest is found in Russian folklore, where there is the Samosek Sword. The Encyclopedia of Russian & Slavic Myth and Legend (accessed 9/12/2018) mentions it under three different entry headings: Ivan the Guard (p.126-128), Nemal Chelovek (p.203-204), Samosek Sword (p.248-249).

The Nemal Chelovek entry contains relevant information (somewhat paralleled in both the other entries) as to the sentience of the sword (bold and italics added):

Just then Nemal Chelovek returned to his mansion and stormed into the great hall where Ivan was standing with the princess. When the sorcerer saw Ivan, he cast a spell that made him grow until his head brushed the ceiling, and then he rushed at Ivan. Ivan simply lifted the Samosek Sword, which flew through the air of its own volition and neatly decapitated the oncoming giant. Then the sword went through the mansion and killed all of Nemal Chelovek’s servants before returning neatly to Ivan’s hand. Ivan and the princess then went home, and no one in the world was ever troubled again by Nemal Chelovek.

So the sword has its own volition, and enough sentience to go "through the mansion" itself and slay all the servants.

A variation of the story is found in the Wikipedia article for "Dragon," under the "Eastern Europe" heading as well (accessed 9/12/2018; bold added):

In Russian and Ukrainian folklore, Zmey Gorynych is a dragon with three heads, each one bearing twin goat-like horns. He is said to have breathed fire and smelled of sulfur. It was believed that eclipses were caused by Gorynych temporarily swallowing the sun. According to one legend, Gorynych's uncle was the evil sorcerer Nemal Chelovek, who abducted the daughter of the tsar and imprisoned her in his castle in the Ural Mountains. Many knights tried to free her, but all of them were killed by Gorynych's fire. Then a palace guard in Moscow named Ivan Tsarevich overheard two crows talking about the princess. He went to the tsar, who gave him a magic sword, and snuck into the castle. When Chelovek attacked Ivan in the form of a giant, the sword flew from Ivan's hand unbidden and killed him. Then the sword cut off all three of Gorynych's heads at once. Ivan brought the princess back to the tsar, who declared Ivan a nobleman and allowed him to marry the princess.

For more information, though not as clear on sentience, see: Wikipedia Sword Kladenets (Samosek subentry, the term mech-samosek meaning "the self-swung sword").

But what I have not yet been able to find definitively is a date for the earliest known telling of this sword's story. So at present, I cannot verify it is older than the 16th c. The Ruyi Jingu Bang answer. However, it is noted to be part of Russian mythology, which redirects on Wikipedia to Slavic paganism, which begins:

Slavic paganism or Slavic religion define the religious beliefs, godlores and ritual practices of the Slavs before the formal Christianisation of their ruling elites. The latter occurred at various stages between the 8th and the 13th century.

So if this story is indeed pre-Christian, and the latter occurred in stages from 8th-13th centuries, then it seems possible the story is pre. 8th c. (and at least likely prior to the 12th c. of the other answer). But until I can find verification of earliest known date of the story, I cannot verify.*

*If anyone can find a source for the dating of this story, I would greatly appreciate it.

-1

One example I can think of is "The Mis-Enchanted Sword", by Lawrence Watt-Evans. It has been a very long time since I read this book, so my memory is fuzzy, but as I recall the sword in the book definitely had a mind of its own, and I believe it spoke to its owner on one or two occasions.

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    That was published in 1985, which postdates the Elric example I gave by 24 years. – JohnP Feb 22 '18 at 21:00
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    @JohnP - If you know the dates of the various examples you posted - why didn't you put them in the question? Is this answerer supposed to have looked all those things up himself before providing an answer? – davidbak Feb 23 '18 at 3:00
  • @davidbak It would have increased the quality of the answer if they had, and the purpose of moderation is to encourage and promote quality answers, right? – user54952 Feb 23 '18 at 8:04
  • @davidbak, it also postdates.. pretty much every other answer. – Gnemlock Feb 23 '18 at 14:23
  • @davidbak - Honestly, I thought I had. Obviously not. – JohnP Feb 23 '18 at 14:26

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