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The Legend of the Spear of Destiny, the Creator of Tyrants

Updated on July 6, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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In 1912, a failed painter came across a curious relic in a Vienna museum that exhibited the royal collection of the Hapsburg dynasty. The artifact owned by the rulers of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was a spearhead with a patch and a nail inserted within it that supposedly dated back to Roman antiquity.

This was no ordinary spearhead from that era. Much had been written about it, and it was no secret that it was the prized position in the exhibit. This was the reason the spellbound painter was immediately fixated by it.

The spearhead went by several names: Holy Lance, Spear of Jesus, Vienna Lance, and –later – Spear of Destiny. It was believed to be part of the lance used by the Roman centurion Longinus to pierce Jesus' side during the Crucifixion.

Most importantly to the man observing it, a legend had it that the spear possessed super powers. He was told by a colleague, Dr. Walter Stein, that anyone in possession of this spear was destined to rule the world.

He became obsessed with it. So much so that something sinister was born in his addled mind. Yet, that revelation wouldn’t come into fruition until 1938, when that young man – Adolf Hitler – would order that spear to be taken back to Germany after his Nazi government annexed Austria into his empire.

The account mentioned about Hitler is mere speculation. However, there was no doubt that the notorious dictator had a keen interest in it, as did other emperors and kings that came before him.

So where did this spear come from? For starters, it has a murky past. It was mentioned once in the Apostle John’s account of the Crucifixion. But, more details about it were revealed in the apocryphal collection of Christian Gnostic books, and from a book written in the 20th century. Since then, its legend has grown. And to make matters more confusing and mysterious, several spears - not just one - are purported to be genuine.

from Fra Angelico (1395-1455)
from Fra Angelico (1395-1455) | Source

Biblical Accounts

The story of the spear started with a passage from the “Gospel of John (19:31-37)”. It mentions that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. The Jews urged the Romans to remove Jesus and the two thieves crucified with him before the Sabbath (Saturday). Crucifixion was usually a slow death that could last for days. In order to speed up the process, the centurions broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus.

A soldier (unnamed in the Gospel of John) noticed that Jesus was already dead and there was no reason to break his leg. However, he had to prove it. So, he stabbed him in his side. After piercing Jesus’ body, blood and water seeped from the wound.

Another book, the “Gospel of Nicodemus,” written in the 4th century - and not included in the New Testaments- not only mentions the lance, it gives the centurion who stabbed Jesus a name. Longinus (or Logginus) was derived from the Latin word of Lancea Longini: a name that eventually became Lance in English.

A historical “Longinus” did exist and was credited with the authorship of the treatise On the Sublime, a book about rhetoric and writing written in the 3rd century. The name however, is a pseudonym and appears to have nothing to do with the origin of the spear. Anyone with that name who lived during the time of Jesus was never identified.

Peter Bartholomew, the man credited with finding it claimed he had a vision of St. Andrew guiding him to the its resting place in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Antioch.

The Other Spears

During the reign of Constantine and later the dawn of medieval Europe, reports of the spear started to surface. It soon became apparent that several spears were identified as the Holy Lance. The three major ones were called the Vatican Lance, Echmiadzin Lance, and the Vienna (Hapsburg) Lance. Also, there were other replicas that were passed down from one generation to another that were purported to be the genuine item. Many of them have been lost to time.

Vatican Lance was first reported by Antoninus of Piacenza in 570. In 615, Jerusalem was captured by the Persian forces of King Khosrau II. Among the items seized was supposedly the spear. Later, it was passed onto Nicetas who took it to Constantinople. It stayed there until 1244 when it was sold to Louis IX of France and enshrined in Sainte Chapelle in Paris. During the French Revolution, it was removed and taken to Bibliotheque Nationale. It disappeared, but was rumored to be in the Vatican.

The Echmiadzin Lance was discovered during the First Crusade in 1098. Peter Bartholomew, the man credited with finding it, claimed he had a vision of St. Andrew guiding him to its resting place in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Antioch (where it was found). Currently, it is in the city of Echmiadzin, Armenia.

The Vienna Lance is considered by some researchers on the matter to be "the real one." It is also considered to be the one with the power to make or break leaders. Its first owner was Otto 1 (912-973) of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1000 he gave a replica to Boleslaw I of Poland. In 1084 Henry IV had a silver band --with the inscription “Nail of Our Lord” --added to it (hence the patch as seen in the lead photo). The nail (another addition) was believed to have been used in the Crucifixion. Henry IV also believed, without question, that it was the lance originally enshrined by Constantine the Great after it was brought to Constantinople.

Finally, in the spring of 1796, when the French Revolutionary army was approaching Nuremberg—the home of the lance at the time – it was whisked away to Vienna where it was protected by Baron von Hugel, who promised to return the object as soon as peace had been restored. However, when the former owners, the Holy Roman Empire, was dissolved in 1806, the Baron decided to make some money off of it. Later, the Hapsburg were more than willing to pay and eventually gained possession of it.

from tworguidewikia.com -- what the spear of destiny may have looked like in full.
from tworguidewikia.com -- what the spear of destiny may have looked like in full.

The Spear's Power and Curse

In 1938, the Vienna Lance was relocated to Nuremburg, the heart of the Nazi movement. By this time, any relic considered to have supernatural or occult powers associated with it was being fetched by Hitler and his cohorts.

After the war, however, there was unverified speculation that another military leader, American General George S. Patton had gotten his hands on it. Patton had always believed he was the reincarnation of great leaders such as Julius Caesar, and would have been well versed in the spear's significance. However, the spear was not in his hands for long when he returned it to Vienna. Later, he’d die after succumbing to injuries caused in a car accident. The account of Patton's interest or brief ownership of the spear has never been proven.

Then again, the claim that the spear had magical powers to turn its owners into rulers is suspicious, at best. The first confirmed claim doesn't date 1000 years-ago or even 500 years. It's possible that it's less than 50 years-old.

In 1973, author Trevor Ravenscroft, made a bold claim in his book, The Spear of Destiny. He wrote that Adolf Hitler started World War II in order to capture the spear. Ravenscroft also reported that other great military leaders such as Theodosius, Alaric, Charles Martel, Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa had possessed the spear at one time. Later in the book, he claimed that Napoleon was trying to obtain the spear after the battle of Austerlitz.

It’s even suggested by one website that the spear was the influence for George Lucas’ Raiders of the Lost Ark.

To add to his account, Ravenscroft mentioned that the spear had a "Faust-like" quality. While great leaders used the powers of the spear to rule, they would eventually succumb to its curse; that being their downfall and/or violent death.

The problem with this accusation is that it is unfounded. Most of the power, Ravenscroft referred to is akin to New Age beliefs and magic. Still this account has influenced (or inspired) many. It’s even suggested by one website that the spear was the influence for George Lucas’ Raiders of the Lost Ark (While this is unverified, it should be noted that Indiana Jones' mentor was named Ravenscroft).

Today, the Vienna lance is back at the Hofburg Museum where it was reported that Hitler first saw it more than 100 years ago. There, it’s just a historical relic with some significance. Hopefully, that significance will not include the desire for someone like that failed painter that became a ruthless dictator.

Holy-lance-Echmiadzin: one of four purported spears of destiny.
Holy-lance-Echmiadzin: one of four purported spears of destiny. | Source

© 2016 Dean Traylor

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