Gnomon: Named Swords

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Fantasy novels and legends often feature swords with names. Most of us will have heard of Excalibur, for example. Are named swords simply something that just exists in myth or were there real named swords?

This entry looks at famous named swords in fiction, myth and real history.

An Claidheamh Soluis

The Word Claidheamh

Dinneen's Dictionary, which was compiled before spelling reform, translates Claidheamh as Sword. It gives the genitive form as Claidhimh, and gives four possible plural forms: Claidhmhe, Claidhmhteacha, Claidhmhte, Claidhmhthe. These don't look quite as cumbersome in the old style using dots instead of h's.

The Claidheamh Soluis (or Claíomh Solais in reformed spelling) is a glowing sword. The name means the Sword of Light. This sword was a common symbol in many Irish folktales. When depicted, the sword is normally shown with a hand holding it, but nothing above the wrist is shown. You can see it on the old ½, 5d, 6d, 8d and 1 shilling stamps which were part of the definitive series from 1922 until 1968. I've also found a stone plaque which appears to be it on Burke's Bar, Amiens St, Dublin. This former pub is closed down but is up for sale (March 2018).

In the typical story, a hero on a quest is given three tasks, one of which is to retrieve the Claidheamh Soluis from a big, hairy giant. He generally has to steal the sword, then kill the giant with the sword in order to get away with the theft. Often he needs to know the giant's weak spot before he can do this. The weak spot is revealed by a woman, or a talking animal, or a woman in the form of a talking animal. He ends up marrying the woman.

In some versions of the story, he is grabbed by an arm and has to cut off the hand to escape.

Other Possible References to the C.S.

Cúchulainn had a shining sword called Cruaidín Catutchenn.

Fergus mac Róich had a sword called Caladbolg which is clearly the same name as the Welsh sword Caledfwlch. While Fergus's sword is never described as glowing, the Welsh sword appeared in many stories and its name eventually became corrupted to Excalibur in the stories about King Arthur. In some of these, Excalibur glows brightly. At the end of its history it was thrown into a lake and a hand came up from the water and caught it, taking it down into the lake - this image is very much the same as the standard image of the C.S.

An Claidheamh Soluis was also the name of the weekly magazine of Conradh na Gaeilge, a society for the promotion of the Irish language. It was produced from about 1900 to 1930 and for some years it was edited by Padraig Pearse, the poet and revolutionary. Strangely, it did not feature a picture of the C.S. on the front page.

The Four Treasures

The Book of Invasions lists the Four Treasures of Ireland, which were brought to Ireland by the Tuatha Dé Danann. One of the treasures was the Sword of Nuada, an invincible sword. This is sometimes equated to the Claidheamh Soluis, but this does not seem to be the case in the original sources.

[The four treasures of Ireland correspond almost exactly with the original four suits of the European deck of playing cards, still seen in Spain, Portugal and Italy. The cards, however, appear to have come from China via Mamluk Egypt, so it is unlikely that they have anything to do with the Celtic mythology. This is almost definitely just a coincidence.]

Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone

As mentioned above, it's possible that Excalibur is in fact the Claidheamh Solais.

The story of King Arthur is a British fable, many times retold. The story has a famous sword, or possibly two swords. Arthur was a young boy who became king by pulling a sword out of a stone, or an anvil sitting on top of a stone. In some versions of the story this sword was called Excalibur. In other versions of the story, Arthur was given a second sword, Excalibur, after he became king by the Lady in the Lake. When he was finished with it, one of his knights threw the sword back into the lake and a hand came up out of the water and caught it by the hilt - this image of the disembodied hand holding the sword is once again the Claidheamh Solais.

Hrunting and Nægling

Beowulf is a long poem which is the first major work written down in the Old English language (also known as Anglo-Saxon). It tells of a hero, Beowulf, who fought and defeated both a monster and the monster's mother. Man years later as an old man, Beowulf rid the country of a dragon but was killed himself in the encounter.

There are two named swords in the poem: Hrunting and Nægling. Unlike most of the swords of legend, neither of them is much use to the hero. Hrunting was a 'rare and ancient sword' which had never failed in battle. But Beowulf brought it with him underwater in his attack on Grendel's mother. The sword failed him and he had to abandon it. Naegling is described in the poem as an excellent sword, but it snaps in two when Beowulf attacks the dragon with it.


When the Iberian peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal) was controlled by Muslims (the Moors), legends tell of a Roland who defended Christian France from the Muslim invaders. He had a black sword called Durandal. The town of Rocamadour in the Dordogne Valley has a chapel with a sword still hanging over the door and this is supposed to be Durandal.

Swords in Tolkien

Orcrist and Glamdring

These were swords made by the ancient High Elves of Gondolin in the First Age. Glamdring was the sword of Turgon, king of Gondolin, while Orcrist was also a famous sword, although we're not told which Elf owned it. They had jewelled hilts and elaborately decorated scabbards. After the destruction of Gondolin the swords were taken by the forces of darkness. About six thousand years later, they were discovered by Thorin Oakenshield's party of travellers in a Troll's hoard in the wild land between Bree and Rivendell. Thorin himself took Orcrist and the wizard Gandalf took Glamdring. Soon after this they visited Rivendell, where Elrond identified the swords from their runic inscriptions.

Both swords had an unusual feature, sharing it with the Elf-knife known as 'Sting' - they glowed with a blue light when orcs were nearby.

Orcrist means 'Orc cleaver' in the Common Tongue but was known to the orcs simply as Biter. The meaning of Glamdring in the Common Tongue is 'Foe-hammer'. It was known as Beater to the orcs. It's interesting that the orcs of the Misty Mountains recognised the swords although they hadn't been used to fight orcs for more than 6,000 years.

Thorin's sword was taken from him when he was captured by the Elves of Mirkwood. After his death at the Battle of Five Armies, the Elves returned the sword and it was laid on top of his tomb. Gandalf continued to wear his sword throughout the events of the War of the Ring, although he rarely used it.


'Sting' was a knife made by the High Elves of the First Age. Since it was found with Glamdring and Orcrist, the two swords from Gondolin, it presumably came from the same place. Like Glamdring and Orcrist, it glowed in the dark when orcs were nearby. Bilbo decided to adopt the knife as a sword - because he was very small, it was just the right size for him. He never used it against any orcs, but did injure some of the giant spiders of Mirkwood with it, as well as cutting through their webs. He named it 'Sting' as a result of this, likening himself to a stinging fly. Years later, he gave it to Frodo, who rarely used it. In the mountain pass above Mordor, Sam used it to fight the biggest spider of all - Shelob.

Gurthang / Anglachel

This sword was originally called Anglachel, which means 'Iron of the Flaming Star' in the Sindarin language. It was made by the Elf Eol, an oddball who didn't like company and kept apart from other Elves. He made this black sword from a lump of iron that fell from the sky. If this was a meteor, then this may have been pure iron, a rare commodity in Middle-earth at the time.

Eol gave the sword to King Thingol of Doriath as payment for the right to live in the forest of Nan Elmoth. Thingol gave it to Beleg Cuthalion, an Elf who guarded the northern borders of Doriath. Beleg's friend, the World's Unluckiest Man, Turin Turambar, had gone missing and Beleg went in search of him. He found him asleep. When he tried to wake him, Turin thought he was being attacked: he grabbed Beleg's sword and killed him with it.

The sword's edge became blunt and could not be sharpened so the Elves reforged it and it was renamed Gurthang, meaning 'Iron of Death'. It was given to Turin and he used it in the on-going war against the orcs. Turin himself became known as Mormegil, 'The Black Sword', because of this weapon. Turin's greatest feat was the killing of the dragon Glaurung with the sword. The dragon's final words revealed the awful truth that Turin had married his own sister and he was so horrified by this that he decided to kill himself. He spoke to the sword, asking it to take his life quickly - the sword replied, saying that it would do so gladly. Then he threw himself on the sword and died - the blade broke and that was the end of Anglachel/Gurthang.

The Sword of Elendil: Narsil / Anduril

Elendil was the Numenorian noble who survived the destruction of his island by fleeing to Middle-earth with his family in three ships. They set up the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. Elendil had a sword called Narsil which glowed with red and white light - red like the son and white like the moon. The name Narsil is Elvish and is a combination of the words naru'red' and síla 'shine with white light'.

It's very fitting that Elendil's sword resembled the sun and the moon as he had a thing for these particular celestial bodies. The capital of his southern kingdom Gondor was on the river Anduin. Everything east of the river he named Ithilien, the land of the moon, while the land to the west was called Anorien, the land of the sun. He named his sons Isildur and Anarion, after the moon and the sun, and there were two smaller cities built on either side of the river, the Tower of the Moon and the Tower of the Sun.

Elendil and his people teamed up with the High Elves of Eriador and Lindon to fight against Sauron at the end of the Second Age. Elendil was overcome by Sauron and as he fell his sword Narsil broke beneath him.

The hilt of the sword still had about a foot of blade attached to it. Elendil's son Isildur used this to cut the finger bearing the One Ring from the Dark Lord Sauron's hand. Sauron effectively died by this action, although being a Maia, his spirit survived and took bodily form again nearly a thousand years later.

The shards of the sword were brought back to Rivendell and guarded as precious heirlooms. About 3,000 years later, Aragorn, a direct descendant father to son of Elendil, was brought up in Rivendell. He was the heir to the lost kingdom of Arnor and also arguably the heir to the Kingdom of Gondor which had not had a king for many years (1,000?). He became a 'Ranger', walking the length and breadth of Eriador, the former Kingdom of Arnor, and fighting against evil. He took to carrying the broken sword around with him. When Frodo brought the Ring to Rivendell, Aragorn decided to travel south and lay claim to his kingdom in Gondor, travelling south with Frodo for some of the way. The Elves of Rivendell reforged the sword Narsil into a new sword and Aragorn named it Anduril, the 'Flame of the West'. He had it with him throughout the rest of the events in The Lord of the Rings.

At one point, Aragorn had to leave his sword outside the hall of King Theoden of Rohan. He ordered that no one was to touch the sword while he was gone. He said it was made by Telchar of Nogrod. If this is true, then the sword was already very old when Elendil owned it, as Telchar was a dwarf who lived during the First Age. He is most famous for making the Dragon-helm of Dor Lomin, a decorated helmet worn by Turin Turambar. That was at least 3,000 years before the time of Elendil.

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