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The Legend of Sword Lake

 
 

The Legend of Sword Lake

The rarest freshwater turtle in the world – the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) – known from Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. That there might be only three of its species left in the world was remarkable. But what made the Hoàn Kiếm turtle especially unique was that this very turtle was purported to be over 600 years old. According to legend, in ages past this legendary turtle was once the messenger of the Dragon King, who bade the turtle deliver a sword to a farmer to help the Vietnamese people vanquish their Chinese invaders.

“In the six-hundred years since the Dragon King first guided the farmer king to victory, the legend of the Sword Lake Turtle has evolved in the telling. The heart of this legend roughly holds true to the historical record. Between 1418 and 1426, after enduring years of violent occupation under an invading force of the Chinese Ming, the farmer Lê Lợi raised an army of 500 volunteer soldiers – the Lam Son army – to free their country.  Although Lê Lợi’s guerilla tactics demoralized and chipped away at the invader’s forces, the Ming occupation persisted (Trang 2006). It is here that the lines between legend and history blur.

Ho Guom turtle

Softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) in Hoan Kiem lake

As retold by Minh Trang in “Sự Tích Hồ Gươm (The Legend of Sword Lake)” (Trang 2006; see also Asian Turtle Conservation Network 2008), legend has it the Dragon King – witnessing from his underwater palace the Lam Son army’s struggle – sent forth the Golden Turtle (referred to as the “Golden Tortoise” in Trang 2006) to deliver a magical sword blade to Lê Lợi. Whether by design or by accident (here the legend is unclear on all counts), this blade was delivered, not to Lê Lợi, but to a fisherman, Lê Thận. Lê Thận cast his net three times, each time entangling it in the sword blade. It wasn’t until the third cast that Lê Thận, beguiled by the reappearing blade, tucked it in his belt and returned home. Soon thereafter, Lê Thận joined Lê Lợi’s resistance army.

One night, after stopping by Lê Thận’s quarters to visit, Lê Lợi noticed the blade on the wall, which began to glow in his presence. Inspecting the blade, Lê Lợi saw the radiance emanated from two words etched on the blade: “Thuận Thiên” (“Heaven Approves” or “The Will of Heaven”). Several days later, during a retreat of Lê Lợi’s guerilla army before an anticipated Ming attack, the farmer king again saw a strange glow – this time from the canopy of an ancient banyan tree. Upon closer inspection, Lê Lợi saw that it was a sword hilt decorated in gems and etched with the same divine words: “Thuận Thiên.”

When Lê Lợi and Lê Thận next crossed paths, Lê Lợi asked to see the blade; the blade and hilt were a perfect fit. Seeing this as a sign from heaven, Lê Thận knelt before Lê Lợi, bestowed him the sword, and swore his allegiance to the farmer king that he might save their people and their homeland (Trang 2006).

Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in Hoan Kiem Lake
Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) in Hoan Kiem Lake

As word of Lê Lợi’s magical sword spread, his Lam Son army grew (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). Backed by a growing resistance some 350,000 soldiers strong, reinforced with horses and elephants, and – by legend’s score – armed with the magical sword that made Lê Lợi grow tall and gave him the strength of many men (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008), Lê Lợi destroyed the Ming forces and led his people to victory. After years of oppression, in 1427 the Chinese recognized the Vietnamese people’s independence. One year later, Lê Lợi was declared king under the title Lê Thái Tổ, founder of the Lê Dynasty (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008).

Not long after Lê Lợi became king, he was touring Lục Thuy (“Green Water”) Lake when the Golden Turtle emerged from the waters to retrieve the divine sword. By some accounts, the Golden Turtle asked for the sword’s return and Lê Lợi respectfully complied (Trang 2006); by others the messenger instead plucked it from Lê Lợi’s belt, inciting the king to retrieve it (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). In the end, however, Lê Lợi acknowledged the sword’s return to the Dragon King and in tribute, renamed the waters Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, “The Lake of the Returned Sword” (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008)” (Bettelheim 2012).


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