The adoration of the sword: ‘Kusa-nagi’ grass-cutter conquering sword and dragon-slaying sacred swords

The Serpent With Eight Heads, French ed. 1897(Meiji 30) Photo: KUFS

The Serpent With Eight Heads, French ed. 1897(Meiji 30) Photo: KUFS

The sacred sword called the ‘kusanagi-no-tsurugi’ has been written about in both academic and popular literature a great deal (for eg., see The kusanagi sword by Nelly Nauman) because it is a part of the Imperial Regalia of Japanese royalty, and because as an emblem of mythical dragon-slaying heroes such as Susanoo who slew the Eight Headed Yamato-no-Orochi Serpent (see Protocol of the Gods: A Study of the Kasuga Cult in Japanese History by Allan G. Grapard, cf. p. 43) … such sacred swords with magical powers have captured the imagination of man through the ages.

Catalogue No. 113    資料ID:513368(書誌詳細画面へ接続) Photo: KUFS

Catalogue No. 113
   資料ID:513368(書誌詳細画面へ接続) Photo: KUFS

Ritual swords have been found in Japanese archaeological sites since much earlier times, and have been kept alive in the imagination of the Japanese through Shrine festivals that feature the tachifuri sword dance, kaguras such as Aramai or Furious Dance which involves the Setsurugi/Tetsurugi or Hand sword: 

This dance is also called “Three-men-passing-through Dance,” and is said to ward off evils by three gods and an enchantment dance to avoid disasters. But it is unknown what the dance shows because there is no verse of the dance. First, three dancers without masks perform furiously, and after taking off their masks, they pass through each other holding their swords and drawing a circle, which is a thrilling and interesting program.

Early ritual sword dance symbolism, is seen in the ritual swords and in the Taoist sword performances in China, Korea and Japan that retain Star constellation, particularly the Dipper associations. These Taoist influences from Tang dynasty China probably survived and gained momentum during the Achaemenid-Sasanian-Persian eras —  (for reference, see the Taiji sword dance of Wudang mountain and The Tang-Ki as Cosmic Actor by Margaret Chan, cf. p. 7):

“The tang-ki ritual sword has a double-edged blade engraved with the zig-zag pattern of the constellation and is believed to be imbued with the very spirit of the star group, so that the sword is worshipped as a deity in its own right. The zig-zag star motif is one of the twelve imperial insignias and can be seen printed on all sorts of talismans”

The Taoist associations with weather prayers and rain-dances seem borne out at least with the sword-waving dance offering of the Yasaka shrine during the Ine Festival, that are effectively prayers for abundant crops, as well fish-catches. Similar tachifuri sword dances such as the Tabayashi-juni-kagura handed down at Tabayashi Atago Shrine are held at the ruins of Marumori Castle in Marumori Town, Miyagi Prefecture, as well as at the  Kono Jinja Shrine during the Aoi Festival (source).  The annual festival held April 24 at Kono Shrine in Miyazu City, Kyoto Prefecture is also called the Aoi Matsuri. From the Encyclopedia of Shinto, on the Aoi Festival:
Known as the sword-waving rite (tachi-furi shinji), swords three shaku long (about 90.9 centimeters) are enclosed inside poles four shaku long. Tassels of paper are attached to both ends of the poles, which are then positioned on the backs and at the hips of the performers and waved about. They also join in an accompanying festive song known as the sasa-bayashi. The livestock market held during this Aoi Festival is called the Aoi ushiichi (“Aoi cow market”).
The Budo World blog has a well-written article on the Big Dipper associations of the Taoist sword, see The Sword of Ancient Taoism and the diffusion of the sword practice and meaning to Japan via Korea.

The most elaborate and ornate and famous swords of all, are the swords with ostensible Iranian (Achaemenid or Sasanian) styles have been found from the Kofun tumulus era of Japan.

We seek to explore the possible origins of the word ‘kusanagi’ and also the proto-types for the sword. It is our contention today that the idea and etymology of the word  kusanagi-no tsurugi’ sword (tsurugi means sword) has its roots in the Indo-Scythian spheres:

The Word “Kusa”

The word “kusa” is a word from the ancient Sanskrit language.  In ancient India the word became the name for a storied, ceremonial grass:  the sacred kusa grass.  The legend of a “sacred grass” rises out of the mists of time at the beginning of history in the ancient East.   At the root of the legendary kusa grass resides one of humanity’s great myths. Click on this link for more on Kusa “Sacred Grass.”

About The Word “Kusa

The word “kusa” is a word from the ancient Sanskrit language.  In the fullness of time, the word came to be used in India as a name for a storied, ceremonial sacred grass:  the kusa grass.  Behind the legendary kusa grass lies one of humanity’s great myths.  The legend of a “sacred grass” rises out of the mists of time at the beginning of history in the ancient East.Just as a human mother nourishes her offspring, humanity at the beginning of history perceived a “great vegetal mother” whose green plants made human life possible through nourishment.

Humanity’s ancient legend of a special “sacred grass” (the kusa grass), pays tribute at its root to this concept of a great vegetal mother whose botanic bounty sustains all life on earth.

The cereal grains are humanity’s most important, renewable, human food resource.  As such, they have rightly been called “culture elements” (pillars of civilization).  Because of their life-or-death importance, the cereal grasses have been from time immemorial respected as “sacred grasses” by many peoples around the world.

We thus believe from the origins of the word ‘kusa-nagi’ that the origins of Japanese royal mythology lie in the Hindu Kush region in the area where the Rgveda was written (RV, Pāli, Prakrit; Gypsy – Dardic (Kalasha, Shina, etc.) – Sindhi – Lahnda Panjabi – W. Pahari- Kumaoni – Nepali – Assamese – Bengali – Bihari – Maithili – Hindi – O. Marwari – Gujarati – Marathi – Sinhala) …and in the culture of the Indo-Saka Iranian Scythian tribes, a small elite tribe who likely made their way to Japan and who likely made significant contributions to the tumulus culture of the Kofun era.

The legendary hero Susanoo is specifically noted as having saved the ashinanuchi i.e., the deity of the Ashina clan (descendants of the Xiongu clan and royal elites of the ancient Turks). The Ashina clan is known to have formed the royal elites of the Indo-Saka tribes (the word ‘Ashina’ is said to have come from one of the Saka languages of central Asia and means “blue”, gök in Turkic) as well as the Khazaria state. Indo-Sakas are Central Asian Scythians, thought to be hybrids of Indo-Aryan Scythians (attested by Vedic sources) and Eastern Hunnish races such as the Xiongnu and Ashina. Indo-Sakas and the Ashina have close and interchanging relations. Ashina survives as geographical locations (e.g. Ashina-gun county, Hiroshima and Ashina-Hayama, Kanagawa) and a clan family name in Japan, see feudal lord Ashina Yoshiro of Aizu (芦名義広/蘆名義広) . ‘Kusa’ is sacred grass in Indo-European language Sanskrit and its usage is most prominently seen among the Indo-sakkas to the later Kushan and Khotanese-Saka tribes.  Read more at Kusa and Kusanagi: A word about grass and the grasscutter sword for a fuller exposition of the etymology and origins of the ‘kusanagi’.  A lot more is written about The Search for Kusanagi, the Lost Imperial Sword here as well as at the Wikipedia article Tsurugi.

Ritual swords

On the matter of ritual swords, the most famous among which, is probably the seven-branched sword ‘Nanatsusaya no Tachi’ mentioned in Nihon Shoki and given by the King of Baekje (though whether in tribute vassalage is a matter of huge historical controversy), see The Art of Swords and the Seven-Branched Sword. The original sword is kept by the Isonokami Shrine (see video clip) in Nara Prefecture of Japan and is not shown to the public, but a replica is on display at the War Memorial in SeoulSouth Korea, called chiljido. According to Isonokami Shrine, “this sword was presented by the King of Paekche in the 52nd year of the regency of the Empress Jingu (372)”. The Shrine further informs the visitors that:

The god Futsu-no-mitama-no-ookami, enshrined in Isonokami Jingu Shrine, is the deification of the sword said to be owned by the god Takemikazuchi-no-kami. Futsu-no-mitama-no-ookami has been known from ancient times as the god who protects the state and keeps peace among the people, as well as being the patron god of the accomplishment of all things.

In Japanese mythology it is said that this god (the sword god) contributed to the subjugation of the country, and also defeated false gods and rebels on the eastern campaign of Emperor Jimmu (the mythological first emperor, said to have been enthroned in the 7th century B.C.) . Thereafter, Emperor Jimmu commanded Umashimaji-no-mikoto, the ancestor of the Mononobe clan said to be the head of the warriors, to enshrine this sword eternally within the imperial court. Later, during the reign of Emperor Suijin (around the 1st century B.C.) the sword was transferred from the court to Takaniwa of Isonokami-furu, the present site, and this was said to be the origination of Isonokami Jingu Shrine.

Since then the emperors worshipped this shrine, donated many weapons in preparation for any emergeney in the state and prayed for harmony in especially during times of war. The shrine also received the worship of famous generals and warriors. Many clans offered sacred treasures to the storehouse called Hokura and prayed for the safety of the imperial family and for the peace of the state.

Analysis shows that the sword’s origins lie in Jin Dynasty China in 369, although Korea claims the sword was originally made in Paekche (or Baekje), the Korean kingdom.

Seven blades of the sword likely correspond to the astral symbolism of seven stars (or seven rishis) of the Big Dipper in Taoism, that may have been adopted from other Central Asian religions of the time. From The Art of Swords:

“The link between belief in seishin (the stars and constellations) and the sword dates back a very long time. For instance, in the text “Kokon Token-roku” (a record of ancient and modern swords), during the Xia Dynasty (approx. 2100 –1600 BCE), there is a description of a person named Kei (said to be the child of the Yu, creator of Xia Dynasty) who scribed the shape of the stars into the swords that he cast. Just as Yu, Kei also had legends told about him, and although the historical credibility of this text is weak, it is perceivable that the connection between faith in astrology and swords is very old.

Furthermore, in the text used towards the end of the Spring and Autumn era (approx. 770–403 BCE) to deal with various matters, the “Go Etsu Shunjū”, it is said that the great commander Goshisho of the state of Go had seven stars (possibly the Great Dipper) engraved on his sword.

This association between astrological beliefs and the sword are rich within Taoist concepts, particularly in the developments resulting from its links to the magic arts and warding off evil spirits. In ancient China also, the sword was revered in accordance with the stars. However, it is also interesting that although the stars did not descend from heaven, they were still carved directly onto the sword.

Other possible interpretations of the symbolism of seven stars or branch-levels or blades may be found in the Essene Tree of Life (which “represented …seven of them heavenly or cosmic forces and seven earthly or terrestrial forces. The Tree was pictured as having … seven branches extending up toward the heavens, thus symbolizing man’s relationship to both earth and heaven”; seven levels of the Shamanic Seven-branched Tree and the latter explains the cosmic symbolism of Seven as follows:

“We see these stars within being the same as the stars of the Seven Sisters or the Pleiades group of stars. We know that those stars in the sky are the same stars that are within us… Over one or more lifetimes a person might climb this tree of life, spiritually developing as he goes ever higher… Upon the seventh branch resides Eagle with his head extending into the realm of the eighth. Because the realm of the eighth resides beyond us, it is not for all people to be able to make the journey there. The “Keeper of the Starry Heavens” resides within the realm of the eighth, preventing those who attempt to enter his realm from doing so. It is said that only those who have undergone shamanic initiation of intentful death and return and blessings that may then journey to the ninth level of awareness. … The use of the number seven is an integral part of the Essene tradition which has been transmitted to Western cultures in various outer ways, such as the seven days of the week. Each root and branch of the tree represented a different force or power. The roots represented earthly forces and powers, the Earthly Mother, the Angel of Earth, the Angel of Life, the Angel of joy, the Angel of the Sun, the Angel of Water and the Angel of Air. The seven branches represented cosmic powers, The Heavenly Father, and his Angels of Eternal Life, Creative Work, Peace, Power, Love and Wisdom. These were the Essene angels of the visible and invisible worlds. In ancient Hebrew and Medieval literature these heavenly and earthly forces or angels were given names, Michael, Gabriel and so on. Man, in the center of the Tree, was seen to be surrounded as in a magnetic field, by all the forces, or angels, of heaven and earth. He was pictured as in the meditation posture, the upper half of his body above the ground and the lower half in the earth. This indicated that part of man is allied to the forces of heaven and part to the forces of earth. This concept closely parallels that of Zoroaster who represented the universe as a framework of realms with man in its center and the various forces above and below him. It also corresponds to the Toltec ritual performed on the steps of their pyramids with man in the midst of all the forces“).

Other sources and writings on sacred swords to explore:

The Search for Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi and the Lost Imperial Sword 

Naga and Nagi (see Sanskrit and Pali forms of Naga). A Nagi is female snake in India and in Southeast Asia. Naga serpents also have totemic and symbolic significance as well as among the Khmer-Cambodians who are also known as the Naga peoples:

The Khmer dragon, or neak is derived from the Indian nāga. Like its Indian counterpart, the neak is often depicted with cobra like characteristics such as a hood. The number of heads can be as high as nine, the higher the number the higher the rank. Odd-headed dragons are symbolic of male energy while even headed dragons symbolize female energy. Traditionally, a neak is distinguished from the often serpentine Makar and Tao, the former possessing crocodilian traits and the latter possessing feline traits. A dragon princess is the heroine of the creation myth of Cambodia. See the entwined neak at the base of a temple at the Angkor Neak Pean temple.

Naga peoples have been described as the Scythic race — in Naga from the “Cyclopedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia” by Edward Balfour (1885):

NAGA, a Scythic race who appear to have occupied part of India prior to the appearance of the Aryans. In the mythology of India they are described as true snakes. In the Persepolitan inscription, Xerxes calls himself Nagua or Nuka, the Greek Auax, and some writers have surmised that this may be the true meaning of the Naga dynasties of Kashmir and Magadha. A Naga race ‘seem to have ruled in Magadha until dispossessed by the Aryan Pandava. Whether they came from the N.E., whilst the Aryan race advanced from the N.W., is not known. But the races seem to have come in contact in the lands where the Jumna joins the Ganges, at a time when the Aryans were divided as to the object of their worship between Indra, Siva, and Vishnu. Oue of the opening scenes of the Mahabharata de scribes the destruction of the forest of Khanduva, and a great sacrifice of serpents ; and though the application of the term Nag or Naga has come to be taken literally, there can be no doubt that the descriptions in the Mahabharata, and as to Krishna’s exploits against snakes, relate to the opposing Naga race. In India the term Nag or Naga is applied to the cobra serpent, and the race who were so designated are believed to have paid their devotions to that reptile, or took it as their emblem. They are mentioned in the Mahabharata (n.c. 1200) as causing the death of Parikshit, which led to their great slaughter by Janemajaya. But a Naga dynasty’ was still dominant n.c. 691, like wise when (s.c. 623) Sakya, a prince of the Solar race, was born, and it was this race who placed Buddhism on a secure basis in India, and led to its adoption by Asoka as the state religion.

A Naga dynasty ruled over Magadha at the date of Alexander’s invasion; and the reigning prince bore the name of Nanda. His minister Chandragupta, the Sandracottus of the Greeks, assassinated the Naga prince, and seized upon the throne for himself ; and a Naga dynasty, tributary to the Gupta, were ruling to the south of the Jumna during the first three centuries of the Christian era. A Naga race are said also to have ‘occupied Ceylon, on the northern and western coasts, before the Christian era: Colonel Tod shows, in the annals of Marwar, that the Rahtor race conquered Nagore, or Naga drug (the Serpent’s Castle), from the Mohil, who held 1440 villages so late as the fifteenth century.

So many of the colonies of Agnicula bestowed the name of serpent on their settlements, that he was convinced all were of the Tak, Takshak, or Nagvansa race from Sakadwipa, who, six centuries anterior to Vikramaditya, under their leader Sehesnaga, conquered India, and whose era must, he thinks, be the limit of Agnicula antiquity.

The Nagbansi chieftains of Ramgarh Sirguja have the lunettes of their serpent ancestor en graved on their signets in token of their lineage. The Manipur rulers were also Scythic, and most of the Manipur people continued to worship snakes till the beginning of the 19th century, as indeed is still the custom amongst all Aryan and non Aryan tribes throughout the Peninsula of India.

Naga and Takshak* are Sanskrit names for a snake or serpent, the emblem of Buddha or Mercury. The races who dwelt in India prior to the advent of the Aryans are alluded to in ancient books as Naga, Rakshasa, Dasya, Asura. The whole of the Scythian race’ are mythically descended from a being half snake and half-woman, who bore three sons to Hetacles [a typo variant of Heracles] (Herod. iv. 9, 10), the meaning of which probably is that the ancestral pair were of two races, and the offspring took the snake as their emblem, similarly to the Numri or Lumri Baluch of the present day, who are foxes, and the Cuch’hwaha Rajputs, who are tortoises. The snake race seem to have spread into North America. Abbe Domenech mentions an Indian race there who traced their origin from the snakes of Scythia. The serpents who invaded the kingdom of the Lydians just before the down fall of Creesus, were probably the Scythian Naga (Herod.) race.

The Naga race were so numerous in Ceylon that it was called Nagadwipo, as Rhodes and Cyprus received the designation of Ophiusa, from their being the residence of the Ophites, who introduced snake-worship into Greece. According to Byrant, Eubeea is from Oubaia, and means serpent island. Strabo calls the people of Phrygia and the Hellespont the Ophio or serpent races.—Tod’s Rajasthan.

[*Note: The two Persian clans entombed at Persepolis were called Taḵt-e Jamšīd, and Naqš-e Rostam (cf. Strabo 15.3.3: “There the Persians had their tombs, on ancestral sites” … i.e. possible cognates for the Sanskrit Naga and Takshak*)

Ophiuchus, the snake holder, is the adjoining constellation that holds this serpent, and his name means serpent-holder (ophis, serpent + okhos, holder). The Greeks knew Serpens as Ophis which comes from the Indo-European root *angwhi-, ‘Snake, eel’. Derivatives: ophidianophioliteophite (a green rock), ophicleide (‘serpent-keys’, a musical instrument of the bugle family), ophiologyOphiuchus (the adjoining constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent-Holder), ophiuroid, (these words from Greek ophis, snake, serpent). 2. Taboo deformation or separate root *eghi-; echino-,echinus, from Greek ekhinos, hedgehog (< ‘snake-eater’), echidna (from Gk. ekhidna ‘snake, viper,’ from ekhis‘snake’). [Pokorny angw(h)i– 43. Watkins] The term ophiasis means a winding bald patch on the head, or a form of leprosy in which the patient sheds his skin like a snake. Source: Serpens (Constellationsofwords.com)

There might be a connection between the two words sophia and ophis:

The image of the serpent as the embodiment of the wisdom transmitted by Sophia (from sophos, meaning  ‘wisdom’) was an emblem used by gnosticism, especially those sects that the more orthodox characterized as ‘Ophites‘ (‘Serpent People’)” — Wikipedia article Serpent symbolism

 “.. sophos, the Greek for wisdom, and Sophia, the Virgin of Light, may be traced to is ophis, the ‘light of ophis,’ the Serpent” [The Lost Language of Symbolism, Harold Bayley, p.219.]

“…the Greeks call the Marsians ‘Oscians,’ as if it were ophskoi, because they had many serpents, and ophis means ‘serpent.’ They are also said to be invulnerable to the sorcery of spells. Like the Umbrians they inhabit the region of the Apennine mountains”

— Source: The Etymologies of Isidore Seville

Naga-serpent symbolism is also significant amongst the Druids Naddreds as well as among the Hebrews and Christians and Gnostics of the Middle and Near East, see the Hebrew and Biblical forms of serpent – ‘m’opheph

The Biblical Texts Reviewed

“The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent,” (Isaiah 30:6).

In this verse the Bible mentions an intriguing creature, the fiery flying serpent.  The Hebrew words are m’opheph [translated flying] and saraph [translated fiery snake].   It is here distinguished from the viper.  Moreover, Isaiah 14:29 states: “Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.” Here the same animal is listed as distinct from all serpents in general.  What exactly is this ancient flying creature referenced by the prophet Isaiah?

The scriptural word “flying” in the original Hebrew is of interest. About it, Goertzen writes:

That Hebrew word, m’opheph Jpvfm, is a polal participle; a form used only by Isaiah when describing the reptilian saraph (14:29 and 30:6). 

The Greek word used by Josephus for “snake” is the same one employed by Christ in John 3 (and also by Paul in I Corinthians 10:9) to describe the attacking serpents in the wilderness (ophis, or ophesi in its masculine, dative, plural form). It is also the same as the Septuagint version of the wilderness account.

— Source: The fiery flying serpent

  1. URULÓKI: This is the name of a sub-species of wingless fire-breathing dragon, also known as the fire-drake. They appear in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and were probably sired by Glaurung. A single Urulóki is called an Urulokë.

  2. OPHIUCHUS (Ὀφιοῦχος): Greek name meaning “serpent bearer.” This is the name of one of the constellations listed by Ptolemy, depicted as a man supporting a serpent. The man depicted in the constellation is thought by some to actually be the demigod Asclepius.

  3. ORMARR: Old Norse name composed of the elements orm “serpent” and herr“army,” hence “serpent army.”

  4. ORMR: Old Norse byname derived from the word ormr, meaning “dragon, serpent, snake.”

  5. OROCHI (大蛇): Japanese name meaning “big snake.” In mythology, this is the name of an eight-forked serpent who demanded virgin sacrifices. He was killed by the god-hero Susanoo.

Source: Dragon names

Conclusion

‘Uruti’ in the Tamil language, a word that approximates the closest to the Japanese form ‘orochi’ means ‘promise’… source: Language in India, indicating a possible existence of the word in ancient Dravidian times, or more likely, a borrowing from the Greek?   ‘Orochi’ seems to be a blend of European Norse and Indian forms ‘Uruti’ and ‘Uruloki’ and ‘Orphiuchius’.

***

Having posited the Indo-Sakka-Ashina provenance and possible Indo-European etymology of the words, ‘kusa-nagi’ and Uruti-Uruloki-Orphiuchius-Orochi origins, we look next at the typology of sacred swords and the symbolism sacred swords to their owners. The most famous swords of the Scythians were the akinakes swords which were regarded as the sacred swords of the day…coveted as Greek booty and offered in the Acropolis, this was likely to have been the prototype of the sword retrieved from the Orochi tale by Susanoo. Thus, as we look to the Iranians as sources and forgers of the akinakes, we look also to them for the symbolism of the akinakes as explicated by Michael Shenkar as follows:

“The most famous manifestation of “material aniconism” among the Iranians is the worship of a warrior-god in the form of a sword thrust into the ground. Herodotus, writing about Scythian rituals, tells us that:”…their sacrifices to Ares are of this sort. Every district in each of the governments has a structure sacred to Ares; namely, a pile of bundles of sticks … On this sacred pile an ancient akinakes (short sword) of iron is set for each people: their image of Ares. They bring yearly sacrifice of goats and horses to this akinakes, offering to these symbols even more than they do to other gods.”

Adoration of the sword among Scythians is also mentioned by other Classical authors. Speaking about the Alans who were the successors of the Scythians and the Sarmatians in the Pontic steppes, … according to a Barbarian custom, a naked sword is fixed in the ground and they respectfully worship it as god of war and protector of the regions through which they travel.” … 

An akinakes dated to the fifth century B.C.E. found thrust into the artificial fill between two kurgans at Nosaki in modern-day Ukraine has been interpreted as the sanctuary and the idol of Ares described by Herodotus. Finds of weapons (spears, axes, daggers, and swords) thrust into the ground and walls are also attested in a number of Scythian burial sites. …” p. 249, Shenkar, M., “Aniconism in the Religious Art of Pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia Bulletin of the Asia Institute, 2008, Central_Asia_Bulletin of the Asia Institute, Vol. 22

"Amano Sakahoko" and the "Saka" trident staked atop of a rock cairn on top of Mt. Takachiho-no Mine, Miyazaki prefecture

“Amano Sakahoko”
and the “Saka” trident staked atop of a rock cairn on top of Mt. Takachiho-no Mine, Miyazaki prefecture — where the Heavenly Descendent Ninigi no Mikoto is believed to have descended from the Heavenly Takamagahara Field. Photo source: Yokoso! Japan

which is believed to be where the Heavenly Descendant Ninigi no Mikoto descended from Takamagahara Field (Heavenly Hill Field).

The Japanese practice of sword adoration or sword worship and the worship of some god of war, akin to Ares (though they are equated with deities of various names in Japan) is clearest from the Isonokami Shrine, as a warehouse of conquering swords, although their ritual and magical powers became applied through Taoist priests to the control of rain and weather, and their adoration was believed to produce bountiful blessings both land and sea.

A description of the akinakes is found at the Akinakes Blog:

The acinaces is typically 35–45 cm. (14-18 in.) in length and double-edged, and although there is no universal design, the guard may be lobed with the hilt resembling that of a bollock dagger, or the pommel may be split or of the “antenna” type. Interestingly, the scabbard as much as anything else defines the acinaces and usually has a large decorative mount near the opening allowing it to be suspended from a belt on the wearer’s right side.

Since the acinaces seems to have been a thrusting weapon, and since it was typically worn on the right, it was likely intended to be suddenly drawn with the blade facing down for surprise stabbing attacks.

For more info see Wikipedia article: Akinaka and the Weapon blade list

Comparing the Typology of Japanese, Central Asian swords with Greek and Persian akinakes finds, we look at:

  • Akinakes of Athens and Persia, E. Europe and northern Caucasus:  There were many Dnieper and northern Caucasus finds of daggers and akinakes. Akinakes were standard military equipment of Xerxes, Persians, booty of Greeks, and royal gift of Darius. Akinakes could have their scabbards and hilts ornately decorated with gold. eg the Persepolis South Treasury Relief’s “the King’s Weapon-Bearer”. And the akinakes was a standard gift (according to Herodotus)  – a gold akinakes was given to Hellespont by Xerxes along with a gold phiale and bowl. Large numbers were dedicated on the Akropolis according to inventories, most noted around the date 385/4, such as this description: “an iron akinakes with a gold handle, a sheath of gilded ivory and gold pommel”. They were mostly finished with costly materials, despite their functionality.  Source: Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity, Margaret C. Mille
  • Iranian akinakes – “The originals which I handled in Iranian museums weigh between 450-800 grams. Some have handles cast from bronze or pure gold. Some had inlays” – Manouchehr M. See The Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran by Mostagh Khorasani
  • Ukrainian Scythian akinakes — The original of the reproduction featured here one dates to the 6th century B.C., and was excavated from a kurhan near the village of Kam’ianka, Cherkas’ka Oblast, Ukraine. It’s 36cm in length, and weighs 500gs
  • Scythian iron short sword akinakes
    • Central Bessarabia: A possible proto-type of the akinakes, may be found in the pre-Scythian dagger of Central Bessarabia (the Sabaens?), see Some Finds of Weaponry of Early Nomads from Orhei District (Republic of Moldova) by . This paper publishes two finds of Early nomadic weaponry in Central Bessarabia — iron pre-Scythian dagger from Braneshti and Scythian akinakes of Kelermes type from Vatich. The analysis of technical features and distribution of types is given. The chronological conclusion is: the dagger is from 8th BC and the Scythian akinakes could be dated by 650—500 BC. More Info at: Co-authored with I. Bruyako. Published in ‘Stratum plus’, 2012, Nr.3. Source: Publication Name: Находки клинкового оружия ранних кочевников из Оргеевского района (Республика Молдова)
  • Some famous swords of Japan include:

– The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi is currently housed at the Atsuta Shrine in Aichi (click here to see a photo of the sword)

– The Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi (the lost and recovered) currently housed and worshipped as a deity of the Kashima Shrine, regarded as owned by the fire deity Takemikazuchi, he was originally venerated as the kami of war, tōken (swords), and thunder

– Sugari no Ontachi another sword that represents the regalia of Japan. Empress Jitō was handed the sword as part of the regalia. According to legend, the blade was created after Susanoo slew the serpent that ate maidens. Housed at the Ise Shrine, Mie Prefecture and only taken out for ceremonial purposes when a new emperor ascends to the throne.

Sugari-no-Ontachi
Sugari-no-Ontachi  Photo: Legendary Sword

– Yohoken and Inhoken, two sacred swords (ca. 760A.D.) found under the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple (now at the Shosoin Repository) see photo below. (Note: Todaiji has 100 sacred swords on its weapons list)

– Seven-Branched Sword, which Wa Japan received from Paekche (or Baekje). Already touched upon above.

Seven-branched sword
Seven-branched sword Photo: Legendary Sword

– Famous swords from Japanese temples and shrines, an exhibition of the Kyoto National Museum From the museum webpage: “The act of offering swords to the gods and buddhas as prayers has been a custom in Japan since ancient times. This practice derives from ideas that swords possess a spirit, symbolize esoteric Buddhist deities such as Fudo Myoo (Skt., Acala), or represent sacred ancient offerings to the gods who use them as divine tools. This tradition of sword offering continues even today in Japan, where temples and shrines own a considerable number of swords. 

Brocaded and Jeweled Scabbard Edo Period Yasaka Shrin3
Brocaded and Jeweled Scabbard
Edo Period, Yasaka Shrine

This exhibition introduces several historically renowned swords originally belonging to famous temples and shrines. Among these, the oldest known example is an early Heian (794-1185) sword with black-lacquered scabbard (Important Cultural Property, Kurama-dera Temple) that is said to have belonged to the warrior Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758-811). Other famed swords include a Kamakura-period (1185-1333) tachi (slung sword) that has been historically associated with the Genji clan (Important Cultural Property, Daikaku-ji Temple), a katana (sword) that has belonged alternately over the generations to the Ashikaga shoguns and the powerful Otomo clan in Bungo Province (Important Cultural Property, Toyokuni Shrine), and another katanathat the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) purportedly took from the warrior Imagawa Yoshimoto (1519-60) in the Battle of Okehazama (Important Cultural Property, Kenkun Shrine). Other objects include a tachi with a black lacquered scabbard named Sasamaru that is said to have been offered by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98) (Important Cultural Property, Atago Shrine), a golden tachi from Tonomine Shrine in Nara Prefecture (Important Cultural Property), as well as a tachi and jeweled dagger offered by the Tokugawa government to the Three Pillar Deities of Gion-sha, also known as Yasaka Shrine (the former is designated an Important Cultural Property, Yasaka Shrine). Also on exhibit will be swords that originally belonged to shrines, such as Nyakuoji Shrine in Kyoto, Kasuga Shrine in Nara, and Sanage Shrine in Aichi Prefecture, that are now in private collections. Explore the deep connections that swords have had with temples and shrines through this New Year exhibition.”

Sword repaired Long Spear Toyokuni Shrine
Sword repaired Long Spear
Toyokuni Shrine

– Other famous swords such as Honjo Masamune (see photo of the sword here) and the sword of Nitta Yoshisada are not covered here.

– Swords recovered from the early Tumulus Age (Kofun Period) in Japan are:

Kofun period swords (view of hilts) from Metropolitan Museum Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Kofun period swords (view of hilts) from Metropolitan Museum Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • the 2nd c. (and the oldest inscribed sword of Japan) Tōdaijiyama Sword discovered in Nara, forged in China;
  • the 5th c. Eta-Funayama sword, found locally in Kumamoto;
  • the Inariyama Sword dated to 471 (or 531 according to others) made from copper originating in Jiangnan, China, but forged in Japan;
  • 5th c. Inaridai Sword discovered in Chiba prefecture, forged in Kinai

Finally, a comparison of the tumulus swords might be made by way of a roundup of some of the world’s oldest bronze swords:

1. Gojoseon’s Liaoning or Bipa bronze sword ca. 194 B.C.
2. Ordos’s Inner Mongolian bronze sword ca. 6th-2nd century BC
3. Zhou dynasty bronze sword (West Zhou & East Zhou) c. 1046–256 B.C. see photos here[Chinese bronzes do not go further back than 1,300 B.C. and are said to have influences from northern regions in Siberia]
4. Akinakes’s Persian Bronze sword (mainly in the first millennium B.C.)
5. Scythian Ana’nino & Karasuk Bronze sword (ca. 8th-3rd c. B.C. and ca. 1500–800 B.C. respectively) The latter bronze knives are similar to those from northeastern China.

The listed swords are indicative of the three major bronze civilizations existed in East Asia. An important map for comparing the Ordos-Xiongnu, Korean bipa and Zhou dynasty bronze swords is this useful map.

Three major sword-smithing and bronze centers of the Bronze Age

Three major bronze centers of  East Asia

Further reading:

History and characteristics of Korean Swords  by Parl Je Gwang

A Study of Chinese Weapons Cast During Pre-Qin and Han Periods in the Central Plains of China by Cao Hangang

Ordos Daggers and Knives. New Material, Classification and Chronology. First part: Daggers by Max Loehr, Artibus Asiae Vol. 12, No. 1/2 (1949), pp. 23-83

Ordos Daggers by S.C. Tang.

Ancient Bronzes of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes by Emma C. Bunker

Arms of Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the 1st Millenium B.C. 

Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age by Jeannine Davis-Kimball et al.

3 responses to “The adoration of the sword: ‘Kusa-nagi’ grass-cutter conquering sword and dragon-slaying sacred swords

  1. What is your source for the Ashina-Ashinazuchi connection? Japanese Wikipedia doesn’t mention anything.

  2. Your style is unique compared to other folks I have read stuff from.
    Thank you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess
    I will just book mark this site.

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