26. This Myth Played an Oversized Rule in Medieval Politics
The Donation of Constantine is little known today, but it is hard to think of a myth that had a greater historic impact. It was encapsulated in a document that recorded a generous gift to the Church from the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. In it, he transferred authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314 – 315) and his successors. The donation of such vast territories to the Popes elevated them from mere priests and religious leaders. It made them independent princes and sovereign rulers. In reality, the Donation was forged in the eighth century by some unknown monks, hundreds of years after both Constantine and Sylvester were dead and buried.
The forged text describes how Pope Sylvester I miraculously cured Constantine from leprosy, which convinced the emperor to convert to Christianity. By way of gratitude, the emperor made the pope supreme over all other bishops, and “over all the churches of God in the whole earth“. Vast landed estates throughout the Roman Empire were also granted for the upkeep and maintenance of the churches of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. To top it off, the Holy Father and his successors were granted imperial regalia, a crown, the city of Rome, and all of the Western Roman Empire. The forgery had little impact when it was concocted. Centuries later, however, amidst a period of political upheavals that wracked medieval Europe, it played a huge role in the relationship of church and state.
25. The Exposure of a Forgery Exploited by Popes for Centuries
After it was forged, the Donation of Constantine was stashed away and forgotten for hundreds of years. Then in the eleventh century, Pope Leo IX dusted it off and cited the myth of the emperor’s great gift as evidence of his authority over secular rulers. Surprisingly, it was accepted as authentic, and almost nobody questioned the document’s legitimacy. For centuries thereafter, the Donation of Constantine carried significant weight whenever a Pope waved it before European rulers. It was not until the Renaissance and the spread of secular humanism that the Donation’s authenticity was finally challenged.
With the revival of classical scholarship and textual criticism, scholars took a fresh look at the document. It quickly became clear that the text could not possibly have dated to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I. For one, it contained language and terms that did not exist in the fourth century, but only came into use hundreds of years later. Additionally, it had date errors that a person writing at the time could not possibly have made. The Popes did not officially renounce the document, but from the mid-fifteenth century onwards they ceased to reference it in their Bulls and other pronouncements.
24. The Myth That Germany Could Have Conquered Britain in 1940
A common World War II myth is one that Britain was vulnerable to invasion by the Germans in 1940. To be sure, the blitzkrieg had dealt the Western Powers a stunning defeat in the Battle of France. Britain’s chief ally threw in the towel and surrendered, and the British were forced into a humiliating evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk. Britain was left to continue the war alone against the victorious Germans – alone, that is, except for the British Dominions, and the vast empire at Britain’s command. Still, things were grim, and the easy course would have been to negotiate a peace that left Hitler as Europe’s hegemon.
To their credit, the British, led by their indomitable Prime Minister Winston Churchill, soldiered on and fought the good fight. Propaganda painted Britain as a plucky underdog that gritted its teeth and girded its loins to repel an invasion that could come at any day. However, Churchill and Britain’s higher-ups knew that a German invasion, had it been attempted, would have stood no chance of success. As seen below, their main concern was not to repel an invasion but to maintain public morale to continue what they knew would be a long and costly war.
23. British Authorities Did Not Try to Dispel Fear of a German Invasion Because Fear Was Good for the War Effort
Churchill’s confidence that the Germans could not successfully invade Britain came down to one word: logistics. Hitler’s forces simply lacked the landing craft and transport capacity to ship and supply an invasion force large enough to subdue Britain. The main reason why the D-Day landings occurred in 1944, instead of 1943 as US commanders had originally wanted, was the lack of sufficient landing craft in 1943. That problem was even worse for the Germans in 1940-1941. Indeed, even as the aerial Battle of Britain raged in the summer of 1940, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering did not believe that a German victory would pave the way for an invasion.
When the German effort shifted from attacks on the RAF to attacks against British cities, it was not a prelude to invasion. Hitler had already canceled that by the time the Blitz began. The bombing of cities was intended to break British morale and pressure Britain’s leaders into peace negotiations. While Britain’s leadership did not fear invasion, they wisely kept that to themselves. Public morale and a spirit of defiance were high in the face of an “imminent invasion”, and there was no reason to tamper with that myth and risk complacency. Also, the image of an endangered Britain played well across the Atlantic. It enhanced American sympathy for Britain, and solidified US willingness to support the British.
22. The Greatest Hoax in the History of Anthropology
1912 saw the start of one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated upon the world of science. It began when an amateur English archaeologist, Charles Dawson, announced the discovery of human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. Dawson had unearthed fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other parts, in a Pleistocene layer. Britain’s premier paleontologist declared the fossils were evidence of an unknown proto-human species. They were judged the “missing link”, and evidence that supported Charles Darwin’s then-still-controversial theory that man had descended from apes.
More excavations made nearby in 1913 and 1914 turned up stone tools. Two miles away, teeth and additional skull fragments were unearthed. So were animal remains, and a mysterious carved bone that looked like a cricket bat. Excitement mounted with each new find, and the fossils were accepted uncritically by many prominent British scientists. At the time, there was a growing, and as it ultimately turned out, correct, scientific belief that human evolution from ape to man had occurred in Africa. As seen below, misplaced faith in the myth of the Piltdown Man took anthropology down the wrong path – and kept it from the right one – for decades.
It was in Africa that fossils of Homo erectus, an early hominid, had been discovered. That however meant that the cradle of mankind was in Africa, and that all humans were of African origin. At the turn of the twentieth century, the idea that they were ultimately African was too jarring for many Europeans, including many British scholars. Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative, and thus a convenient out, from the challenge posed to the racist theories of the day by humanity’s African origins.
Also, if the “missing link” discovered in the English countryside was accurate, it would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. It would also buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately from Africans. Thus, the era’s racist assumptions and beliefs in the myth that Europeans were a distinct and superior branch of the human tree could continue unchallenged. All of that combined to fuel confirmation bias on the part of British scientists and made them interpret the “evidence” in the light most favorable to their preexisting prejudices.
The Piltdown discovery was a hoax. Not even a sophisticated one at that, but a basic and quite crude hoax that would have been easily exposed if anybody had bothered to closely examine it. Unfortunately, nobody did so at the time. Because of incompetence, ethno nationalism, and racism, the discovery was embraced and defended by much of Britain’s scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was finally debunked. That made it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. Throughout those long decades, few resources were directed at the study of human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered.
Despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-human fossils were unearthed there in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Still, the Piltdown myth had its powerful defenders, and it was not until 1953 that the fossils were subjected to rigorous scientific reexamination. They turned out to be fragments of a modern human skull, only 600-years-old, with the jaw and teeth of an orangutan, and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Chemical tests showed that the bones had been stained to make them look older, and that the ape teeth had been filed down to look more human-like. The perpetrator was a disgruntled museum employee who wanted to get back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, who had denied him a pay raise.
After France surrendered to the Germans in the summer of 1940, Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis-controlled territory. A major aim of the irredentist Nazis was to gather all ethnic Germans into a single country, and that included Switzerland’s German speakers. Hitler was appalled that the German-speaking Swiss felt closer to their French and Italian-speaking countrymen than they did to Germany. He opined that “Switzerland possessed the most disgusting and miserable people“, and that the Swiss were “a misbegotten branch of our Volk‘. He considered democratic Switzerland an anachronism and ordered plans drawn for its conquest and absorption into the Third Reich.
The result was Operation Tannenbaum. It envisioned a two-stage conquest with 21 German divisions – a force later deemed excessive and downsized to 11 – plus 15 Italian divisions. It would begin with conventional attacks from Austria, southern Germany, and occupied France, assisted by paratroops dropped behind Swiss lines. They would overrun the lower-lying parts of Switzerland where most of the population and economic activity was located. In the meantime, the Italians to the south would mount diversionary operations. As seen below, contra the myth that Switzerland was an impregnable mountainous fortress, its conquest by the Germans was quite feasible.
Operation Tannenbaum focused on the early conquest of the more important parts of Switzerland. Once that was done, follow-up attacks were to be made against Swiss army remnants in the “National Redoubt” – a fortified zone in Switzerland’s mountainous south. Much has been made of Switzerland’s mountainous terrain as a defensive feature, to the point that a myth grew that the Swiss are well-nigh invulnerable to attack. This, despite the numerous invaders who had conquered Switzerland, from the Romans to the Habsburgs to multiple French, Austrian, and even Russian armies that crisscrossed Switzerland during the French Revolutionary and Napoleon Wars. Against a potential German invasion in WWII, the Swiss army planned to take advantage of topography and retreat into the country’s mountainous parts.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the Swiss did not live high up in the mountains. They dwelt instead in the lower parts of the country, in valleys and foothills that were readily accessible to German invaders. Cutoff up in the mountains, one can only guess how long the Swiss forces in the National Redoubt might have been able to offer sustained resistance. Partisan and guerrilla warfare would have been an option. However, that would have required the Swiss to be markedly different from other Western Europeans whose countries had been occupied by the Nazis. They exhibited little willingness to risk the massive reprisals and atrocities Hitler’s Germans were ready to inflict on restive subjects.
17. The Nazis Didn’t Invade Switzerland Not Because They Couldn’t, but Because they Didn’t Need to
A common myth about Switzerland in WWII is that the Nazis feared a massive guerrilla war up in the Alps if they invaded. However, there is little reason to assume that such a war would have been waged. Bad as Nazi rule was in Western Europe, the Germans did not treat Western European – unless they were Jews – as atrociously as they did the Eastern European Slavs. Western Europeans thus never felt that their backs were to the wall and that they had nothing to lose. Not to the same extent as did, say, the Soviets or Yugoslavs, who responded with a fierce and widespread partisan resistance that had no equivalent in Western Europe. Despite Hitler’s dislike of the Swiss, he and the Nazis nonetheless saw them as Germans, to be incorporated into the Reich as fellow citizens.
It is thus unlikely that the Swiss would have been treated with the wanton cruelty that triggered widespread resistance in the East. Instead, the Nazis would probably have treated them better than they did other Western Europeans. Fortunately, the order to execute Operation Tannenbaum was never given. While it would have been emotionally gratifying for Hitler to invade, there was no need to do so. The Swiss had no aggressive designs and were surrounded on all sides by Axis territory, there was no security threat of occupation by the Allies to use it as a base for attacking Germany. Switzerland had no resources that were not readily available to the Germans via trade. Also, the Swiss banking system, combined with Swiss neutrality, made the country a convenient center for currency exchange and other international financial transactions that were useful to the Germans.
One of history’s most insidious hoaxes was kicked off in Russia in 1903. That year, a conservative Russian newspaper published what it claimed were the minutes of a late nineteenth-century secretive conference between Jewish leaders. In it, they discussed their goal of global Jewish hegemony. It would be brought about by the strategic infiltration of Jews into positions from which they could dominate the global media and economy. From such positions of influence and power, they would act as agents saboteur, and subvert the morals of the Gentiles in order to undermine the foundations of their societies.
That birthed a myth of an underhanded Jewish plot to rule the world, which is still bandied about to this day. In reality, the minutes, which came to be known as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, were crude forgeries that first made the rounds in Russian right-wing circles. A Russian Tsarist official, Sergei Nilus, edited several versions of the Protocols, each time with a different account of how he came by them. In 1911, for example, he claimed that his source had stolen them from a (nonexistent) Zionist headquarters in France. As seen below, the fact that they were fake, or that they were easily shown to be fake, mattered little to those who wanted to believe the myth.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion slowly spread out from Sergei Nilus and his conservative circles. Eventually, the forgery caught on, went viral, and gained traction throughout Russia and the world beyond. For years after their creation, the Protocols had languished in relative obscurity, confined to Russian right wingers. That changed with the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Bolshevik seizure of power later that year. The conservatives had plenty of anti-Semites, and they sought to discredit the Revolution with a myth that depicted it as part of a vast Jewish conspiracy for global dominance.
Their claims resonated, and it did not take long for the forgery to go from a Russian right wing curiosity to a global phenomenon. In Britain, The Morning Post published the Protocols, with an introduction that warned its readers of the Jewish plot: ” …the Jews are carrying it out with steadfast purpose, creating wars and revolutions…to destroy the white Gentile race, that the Jews may seize the power during the resulting chaos and rule with their claimed superior intelligence over the remaining races of the world, as kings over slaves.”
14. Henry Ford Popularized This Myth in the United States
In the United States, Henry Ford printed and distributed half a million copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, titled The International Jew: The World’s Problem. In Germany, the Nazis cited the Protocols for propaganda purposes, and made them assigned readings for schoolchildren after they came to power. As with many claims that reinforce preexisting prejudices and buttress longstanding beliefs, truth was immaterial. In 1921, The Times of London conclusively demonstrated that the Protocols were a forgery, and the evidence was widely reprinted around the world. It made no difference in right-wing circles.
The debunking of the Protocols was dismissed as self-serving “fake news” from the Jewish-controlled media. Convinced anti-Semites remained just as convinced of the Protocols‘ authenticity. Today, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are no longer acceptable fare in the Western mainstream. However, they continue to circulate within anti-Semitic circles, white nationalist groups, the alt-right, and the like. Since the 2016 elections, their circulation has seen an uptick in the US. Outside the West, the Protocols continue to be reprinted, recycled, and quoted, with little challenge to their authenticity.
In the Second World War, few weapons struck as much terror into the hearts of British, American, Soviet, and other Allied soldiers, as the prospect of an encounter with a German Panzer VI Tiger tank. Those big-armed behemoths intimidated their opponents to such an extent that it gave birth to the term “Tiger Fever”. It was coined to describe the panic that sometimes gripped Allied soldiers when they thought that a Tiger tank was nearby. However, in the grand scheme of things, Tigers were a bit of a flop.
A myth developed that Tigers were WWII’s best tanks. They were certainly the most scary, but far from the best. In reality, Tiger tanks were over-engineered – or more accurately poorly engineered. They were plagued with bugs, and often spent more time in the repair shop than on the front line. They were also expensive and hard to produce, and consumed resources that could have been better spent on more effective weapons. The Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E, or the Tiger I, entered service in 1942. It was a heavy tank whose main assets were thick armor that its common adversaries could not penetrate except from close range, and a powerful gun that could destroy enemy tanks from long distances.
The Tiger I combined heavy armor with a powerful 88mm gun that could wreck its foes from prodigious distances. That gave the Tigers an extensive safe standoff distance within which they were practically invulnerable. They exerted a powerful psychological hold on their enemies’ imagination: few if any Allied tankers relished the prospect of coming across Tigers. On the other hand, contra the myth of their invincibility, Tigers were heavy, slow, guzzled fuel at prodigious rates, had a limited range, and were difficult to transport.
Tiger tanks were also notorious for their mechanical unreliability and their tendency to breakdown. For example, they often became immobilized when their overlapping wheels got jammed with snow and mud. Snow and mud were a common condition in the Eastern Front, where the Germans were engaged in a life and death fight with the Soviets. Tigers were also expensive to produce and difficult to manufacture. Only 1300 were built throughout the entire war – a number lower than the typical monthly production figures of Soviet T-34 or American Sherman tanks.
When Tiger tanks worked, they were terrifyingly good. Fortunately for Germany’s enemies, the Tigers often did not work, and there were too few of them to make a difference in the war’s ultimate outcome. On the Western Front, the Allies lacked tanks as powerful as the Tigers, but they could nonetheless take them out with upgunned Sherman Fireflys – a British adaptation of the American Sherman tank, with a more powerful gun – and M10 tank destroyers. The Western Allies also had plenty of ground attack planes that could destroy Tigers from the air. On the Eastern Front, the Tigers’ superiority was increasingly challenged by T-34/85s, IS-2s, and IS-122s whose guns could destroy Tigers from various ranges.
In 1944, Tiger I production was discontinued in favor of the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B, more commonly known as the Royal Tiger or Tiger II. 492 were manufactured by war’s end. The Tiger II weighed 77 tons and replaced its predecessor’s thick flat armor with thicker sloped armor that was significantly more difficult to penetrate. Royal Tigers were exceptionally well protected. From January to April 1945, they were credited with the destruction of over 500 tanks on the Eastern Front, at a cost of only 45 Tiger II. Most of the latter were destroyed by their own crews to prevent their capture after they broke down or ran out of fuel. Royal Tigers suffered most of their predecessors’ mechanical problems plus a few more, were even slower, and could plod along at no more than 12 miles per hour cross country.
Italian-born gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1897 – 1962) was a visionary criminal and mafia boss who revolutionized organized crime in the United States. Among other things, he founded today’s Genovese crime family – one of New York City’s five mafia families. He is also credited with establishing The Commission – a committee that ran the Italian-American mafia and arbitrated its internal disputes to avert bloody struggles disruptive to business. Lucky Luciano is considered the founding father of the modern Italian-American mafia.
Contra the widespread myth that the mafia stayed away from narcotics, Lucky Luciano and the mob were America’s biggest drug traffickers. A criminal since childhood, Luciano had emigrated to America when he was nine years old. By age ten he was a shoplifter, a mugger, and an extortionist. When he was nineteen, Luciano was sentenced to six months for selling heroin. In 1920, he joined Joe “The Boss” Masseria’s crime family. He became his chief lieutenant and ran his bootlegging, prostitution, and narcotics operations.
9. The Mob Used to be America’s Biggest Drug Traffickers
Lucky Luciano became America’s biggest drugs trafficker and distributor. Contra the notion popularized by movies and works of fiction that the mob traditionally avoided narcotics, the drug trade was one of the Mafia’s biggest moneymakers since the earliest days of the mob. It is often asserted that the Mafia had a long-standing prohibition against dope – either because of morality or because of the public stigma attached to drugs. That is untrue. The notion that the mafia stayed away from drugs is just a myth, popularized by fiction and Hollywood hits such as The Godfather.
In reality, the mafia was heavily involved in the drug trade from the start. Long before the days of Pablo Escobar, Lucky Luciano was America’s – and one of the world’s – greatest narcotics kingpins. For decades, the mafia was the biggest importer of hard drugs into the US, particularly heroin. It was not until cocaine supplanted heroin as the hard drug of choice, and the rise of the Colombian cartels in the 1970s, that the mob lost its top spot as America’s biggest drug trafficker.
8. The Myth That Hitler’s Invasion of the Balkans in the Spring of 1941 Doomed the Invasion of the USSR Shortly Thereafter
Another WWII myth revolves around Operation Barbarossa, the surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union, which ground to a halt amidst the Russian winter a few miles short of Moscow. It holds that the invasion would have succeeded if it had only started a month or two earlier than its actual launch date of June 22nd, 1941. The reason it did not start earlier, goes this narrative, is because Hitler got entangled in the Balkans, and invaded Greece and Yugoslavia in April of 1941. As a result, the launch of Operation Barbarossa was delayed.
The first flaw with this account is that gives winter top billing for stopping the German advance. However, other factors such as fierce Soviet resistance, the overextension of German supply lines as the Wehrmacht plunged ever deeper into the USSR, and autumn rains, had already brought the German advance to a halt before the first snowstorms. The Germans had to regroup before they resumed their advance on Moscow, and that gave the Soviets a breather. To be fair, Hitler’s soldiers were unprepared for the terrible Russian winter when it arrived. However, that was only one factor, and not the main one, for the German advance’s halt.
7. The German Invasion of the USSR Would Have Fared Worse if it Had Been Launched Earlier
The main flaw with the myth that Operation Barbarossa would have succeeded if it had been launched two months earlier – in April 1941, instead of June – is that an earlier invasion would have been even worse for the Germans. It would have been even less successful and ground to a halt earlier, after it had advanced a shorter distance than the actual June invasion. The Germans advanced as rapidly and plunged as deeply into the USSR in the summer of 1941 because of the weather. The months-long dry summer stretch perfectly suited their Blitzkrieg style of maneuver warfare. Breakthroughs were followed by aggressive exploitation via deep armored thrusts, supplies hurried forward to maintain the advance, and infantry rapidly followed to consolidate the gains.
If the Germans had invaded in April 1941, their advance would have churned to a standstill after only a few weeks. That is because of the Rasputitsa, the Eastern European mud season when unpaved roads – nearly all Soviet roads at the time – became useless. Caused by rain in the fall and snow melt in the spring, the Rasputitsa would have brought an early Barbarossa to a stop or crawl. The attackers and their supply chain would have struggled to move through a sea of mud, while the Luftwaffe was grounded by the transformation of its dirt airfields into fields of mire. That would have given the Soviets time to regroup while they waited for the roads to dry and the German offense to resume. The need to account for the Rasputitsa dictated the invasion’s start date, not Hitler’s Balkans entanglement.
In pop culture, the word “ninja” conjures up images of masked warriors, all in black, who scaled walls and carried out assassinations all over feudal Japan. People often picture ninjas as covert killers who used exotic blades, throwing stars, and smoke bombs to kill their targets, all while locked in a feud with the more honorable samurai. That is plain myth. In reality, such super cool ninjas never existed. The ones who did exist did not fit modern popular perceptions of what ninjas are supposed to have acted and looked like.
Ninjas did not wear black outfits as part of a uniform getup. At least no more so than average Japanese people of the period wore black clothes. What we consider ninjas were simply scouts, spies, and mercenaries, hired by various armies in feudal Japan. To carry out their tasks, they blended into the local population. They did not use throwing stars, but did use thrown poisoned darts known as bo shurikens. They did not have a blood feud with samurai. Indeed, quite a few ninjas were actually samurai.
For years after WWII, a persistent myth circulated to the effect that Hitler had kept a diary and that it had survived his demise in 1945. Many quested for that diary like it was the Holy Grail. Then in April of 1983 Stern magazine, a popular German current affairs weekly, held a press conference to make an important announcement. Their star reporter Gerd Heidemann had managed to get his hands on the Fuhrer’s diaries. They had been recovered in 1945 from the wreckage of a plane crash, and languished in obscurity until Heidemann tracked them down. The documents abounded with juicy tidbits that ranged from Hitler’s sensitivity about his bad breath to his remarkable ignorance about what was done to the Jews.
Stern’s jubilant editors declared that their scoop, which shed light on the Nazi dictator’s innermost thoughts, would lead to a major rewrite of the war’s history. The magazine, which had paid $6 million for the documents, sent them to three handwriting experts, all of whom declared the diary authentic. Hugh-Trevor Roper, a prominent British historian reviewed the diary on behalf of the Sunday Times, Stern’s publication partner, and concurred. However, because Stern’s editors feared a leak, they refused to allow any German WWII experts to examine the diary. As seen below, that turned out to be a huge mistake.
Once Hitler’s diaries were published and German WWII experts finally got the chance to take a look, it did not take them long to spot signs of obvious forgery. The paper used was modern, and so was the ink. Moreover, the diaries were riddled with major historical inaccuracies about events and dates that Hitler could not have possibly gotten wrong. There were even dated entries in which the Fuhrer described events before they had actually happened in real life – an impossibility unless Hitler had access to a time machine. An investigation revealed that the diary had been created by a notorious German forger named Konrad Kujau.
A conman with a track record of petty crimes, Kujau had made money in the 1970s from the sale of Nazi memorabilia smuggled from East Germany. Then he realized that he could charge even more if he forged authentication details to link the items to important Nazi figures. He eventually teamed up with Stern’s reporter Gerd Heidemann to rip off the magazine. In the fallout, historian Hugh-Trevor Roper’s reputation was ruined, and editors at Stern, the Sunday Times, and Newsweek, were fired. As to Kujau and Heidemann, they were tried and convicted of forgery and embezzlement, and sentenced to 42 months in prison.
The Japanese katana, thanks to Hollywood and assorted works of history, fiction, and historic fiction, is probably the world’s most recognizable sword. It is also one surrounded by many a myth. The katana is a single-edged curved sword, with a long handle for two-handed use. It features a square or circular guard, and a slender blade of around two and a half feet in length. Katanas are among the finest cutting weapons in history, and were used by Japanese samurai since feudal times. Their earliest recorded mention in the historic record dates to the twelfth century.
Katanas are the product of natural evolution. They started off as hefty “great swords” that grew thinner, lighter, and more agile over time in order to meet the demands of emergent combat styles that relied upon speed. They became popular with samurai because the ease and swiftness with which they could be drawn was a decided asset for the newer and faster techniques. The new combat styles were collectively dubbed kenjutsu, the art of sword fighting. The issue was often settled within seconds, and reaction time spelled the difference between life and death.
Katanas inspired many legends. They were reportedly forged by master sword smiths who hammered and folded the blade over a thousand times. They were also rumored to be so sharp that they cut through machine guns in WWII. Unfortunately, that is a pure myth. In real life, back in their heyday, katanas, coupled with a smaller sword, were thrust, sharp edge facing upwards, through the bearer’s obi – a sash wrapped tightly around the samurai’s waist. The configuration was known as daisho, and it identified the wearer as a samurai – the only people authorized to tote paired swords.
Katanas worn in the daisho style facilitated a speedy draw, ideally allowing samurai to draw and cut down opponents in a single fluid motion. An entire martial art, Iaido, was dedicated to the speedy retrieval of katanas from their scabbards. Katanas are made from tamahagane steel. It is produced by traditional Japanese smelting processes that result in layered steels with varied carbon concentrations that are welded, folded, and hammered out to reduce impurities. A katana needs a sharp and hard edge. However, steel that is hard enough for a sharp edge is brittle, while softer steel that is not brittle will not take and retain a sharp edge. That posed a problem for sword smiths.
1. The Folding of Katana Blades Thousands of Times is a Myth
Katana makers solved the dilemma of a sword that had to be both sharp and hard-edged via the use of four metal bars. A soft iron bar to guard against breakage, sandwiched by two hard iron bars to prevent bending, and rounded off with a steel bar to take the cutting edge. The result was a sword that had a hard enough blade, and a sharp cutting edge. However, contra many a WWII tall tale, no katana was ever hard enough, or sharp enough, to cut through machine gun barrels. The four metal bars of which katanas were made were heated at high temperatures, then hammered into a long bar that would become the blade.
Contrary to myth, katana blades were not folded thousands of times. So many folds would be counterproductive, and render the steel useless for a sword. Instead, katana blades were folded between eight to sixteen times. When the sword was sharpened, the steel took a razor-sharp edge, while the softer iron kept the blade from breaking. Well-crafted katanas became prized heirlooms, passed down generations of samurai families for centuries. Magnificent specimens of centuries-old katanas can be seen in the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, Japan.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading