In my previous article, I explained some of the basics of steel. I talked about different types of steel and how it was made. I also explained where some of the mythology comes from, and that it mostly boils down to marketing ploys. Wunderstahl, supersteel, unobtainium, … they’re all indicative of the fact that bladesmiths understand how to sell their stuff. I did however fail to explain about magic steel. I’m talking about the stuff used for making magic swords. True Magic. Or at least magic as it was perceived by people several hundred or thousand years ago. Those magic blades would not be tarnished by the sands of time. They might have been unbreakable. They might never have dulled. Craig Johnson of the Oakshotte Institute in the US has lectured on the Frankish steels from Europe being highly sought after for their ability to survive a Russian winter. We’ve all heard variations of legends where the hero gets a magic sword from a God or angel. Or swords made from ore that was a stolen from a holy place, or which was infused by magic in some arcane ritual or other. Human history has magic swords galore. As with most legends, there is a core of facts at the origin. Aside from the qualities of the swords themselves, their provenance might have been embellished in translation and retelling. For example, the stories say that Excalibur was magically drawn from a stone. Jake Keen, an archeo-metallurgist from Devonshire UK, suggests that ‘drawing the sword from the stone’ may be a reference to the smelting talents of the king rather than evidence of God*given physical prowess or special selection. This article will not deal with the poetic embellishments that slipped into these stories, but with the metal itself and of course the magic as it was perceived to exist at the time.Like my previous article, this one was reviewed by master smith Mike Blue. Any and all errors that might still be contained in this article are purely my own. The magic iron Long before mankind had a working knowledge of smelting iron ore, people had access to iron in the form of meteorites. About 6% of all meteorites to hit earth are metallic, not stony. The metallic ones are more durable and recognizable than the stone ones. As a result, even though they are less common, most of the global collection (about 90%) is metallic in nature. Back in the day when mankind had zero understanding about astrophysics, there was no better explanation than that the deity of choice had sent a magic lump of metal from heaven for some unfathomable reason. A big hot metallic lump would be found at the bottom of a crater in the epicenter of a big explosion with smoke effects as a bonus. All these things are sufficiently mysterious that the only reasonable explanation at the time was magic or divine intervention. Arthur Clarke has said this succinctly: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ Even after mankind got around to smelting iron, metallic meteorite was vastly superior to manmade iron. The chemical composition of meteorites can vary, but invariably it contains several percents of Nickel, as well as Cobalt. These alloys add significant strength and toughness to iron. When mankind learned to turn iron into steel, even then the meteoritic iron could be turned into meteoritic steel and in effect be as good as or better than modern professional grade tool steel. Without understanding of chemistry that would not come until quite recently, people could just compare them, and see that iron smelted from ores was inferior to iron that was gifted from the gods. This is also where the term ‘cold iron’ or ‘cold steel’ comes from. Contrary to manmade iron, the meteoritic iron was never smelted. Hence the reference to its ‘cold’ origin; It came as a ready-to-use lump of iron. The magician In the olden days, smiths were placed at the same level as a priest. Priests in any society were the ones in charge of communing with the God(s) and as such they usually held positions of authority, or at the very least respect. From where we sit today, it might be strange to put a smith on the same pedestal. In those days however, there was not much difference in how they were regarded. Since the beginning, metal working was always shrouded in secrets. In any craft, people kept their secrets to themselves because those were the things that earned your money. This is the reason craftsmen organized themselves in guilds later in history. Smiths knew the secrets of transmuting one thing into another. In a time when there was zero understanding of chemistry or how the world worked, no one knew as much as a smith. They could extract metal from ores, melt it, work it, and even heat treat it. Proper heat treatment is easily seen as magic. After all, you take something, perform certain rituals, and afterwards the same thing is harder and tougher. Songs and prayer might be involved. Even though the words themselves would not matter, songs and prayers would impose a rhythm and timing into a process that ultimately depends a lot on timing and time intervals. At the time, no one would understand the difference between the words and the timing they imposed, certainly not the lay people who had no clue what was going on. To them they were secret magic spells. If you remember from my previous article, some smiths could work their magic on plain, non-meteoritic steel. Wootz steel got phenomental strength and cutting properties from the dendritic structures made to grow inside the ingot. Noone would understand the process but through the working of magic and secret recipes (for example, blood is one source of carbon) ended up with steel that had near magical properties, even when starting with plain raw materials from which other smiths could only make normal steel. So all in all, for all intents and purposes, a smith was a magician. Who else was better suited to handle magic metals that were a gift from a God, stolen from the underworld or cast down in fire and thunder from the heavens? If such a man used magic steel and performed his own magic on it, any blade made that would could not be anything but magical itself. The magic sword Now that we’ve established the origins of the magic steel and the magician himself, where do the magic swords fit in? At a time when such lumps of iron were the only source of iron in the world, only very wealthy people could usually afford it. People like a king or earl or other type of warlord in control of a sizable piece of land. A hunk of meteorite would literally be worth a king’s ransom. And what better use for it than to have a dagger or sword (or axe possibly) made from it and own a superior weapon? There was a time when the quality of a weapon made a difference in life and death. If you could afford it, you’d want a weapon that would not break, would not get dull, and which would –with a bit of luck- get a reputation of its own; anything to gain an edge. If for no other reason, a weapon would add to a warrior's reputation for prowess on the battlefield simply because his confidence and belief in his abilities were increased from holding a magical legendary weapon. And of course, vanity has been of all times and a mighty hero would want a heroic sword. A hunk of meteoritic steel would have made for perfect chisels or pliers. But no craftsman would have been able to afford the materials and a king would hardly look kingly with a pair of magic scissors for cutting his beard. Tutankhamun has buried with a dagger made from meteoritic iron. The man would have had precious little need to fight man to man battles, but a Pharaoh would prefer a weapon gifted by the Gods to a plain dagger for peeling fruit. After thousands of years and thousands of telling, the stories evolved and the origins got lost. Yet in one way or other, every story involving a sword of magical origins carries within it a nugget of truth about its origins, which set it apart from the average sword at the time.