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Swords

Morgan P. Stevens

Winter, 2021

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Tool, and Weapon


Since this study is not concerned with hoplology—our aim is to speak more broadly with respect to the sword—any discussion of military history, or, the otherwise tactical or martial application of weaponry has been omitted wherever possible. We turn our attention instead to the symbolic nature of those weapons which figure most prominently as metaphysical emblems; the club or hammer, the axe, and thereafter, the sword. 


The earliest incarnations of the sky-father god wielded blunted instruments and axes well before the spear, or lightning bolt. The latter came relatively late, being a creation of the artisan or smith-god, who was granted his place in the pantheon in exchange for so-arming the chief deity. That specific mytheme corresponds, as we will see, to the development of metallurgy. Both the axe and the hammer were conceived as tools; they were adapted for war. The hurricane-god archetype reflects this much, considering that they were sowers of the earth and craftsman in their own right; they wielded the tools of their trade. Because the craftsman’s tools served dual purpose as weapons, the axe was linked to tree-veneration, and just as the storm-deity smote the earth, so homo faber struck the anvil with his hammer in sublime imitation. Axe and club both exemplify the natural, reverberating boom and crack of thunder. Zeus Labraundos, Teshub, Tashun, and Zalmoxis all wield an axe and command the heavens. Indra’s clubs, Perun’s axe and Thor’s hammer are all descended from this ancient system of ideas. 


The sword, however, was manufactured specifically and exclusively for war. It serves no purpose as a tool; its function was only to wound. The word ‘sword’ in all Indo-European languages descends from a Proto-Indo-European root, which possessed a twofold meaning. The first being to ‘cut,’ or ‘fester,’ and the second being to ‘swear,’ or more broadly, to make an ‘oath’. The sword is therefore a literal extension of the self; a tool intended for the violent physical imposition of one’s will. It’s balanced at the guard—in the hand—in order to give the warrior perfect control over the point, like a lever and a fulcrum, in a manner that does not serve the axe or club at all. 


The axe and the club impose brutality. They are rigid, limited by both form and range. The sword however, calls into being the art of metalworking; its manufacture required the development and mastery of a unique esoteric craft. Through the mystery of the sword, man liberates the imposition of his will from all other concerns and actions, clarifying it as a singular focus. He gives dominance over to its own peculiar study—to an art form. Richard F. Burton explains: 

“For man, compelled by necessity of his nature to weapon himself, bears within the two great principles of Imitation and Progress. … His capacity of language together with secular development of letters and literature, enabled him to accumulate for himself, and to transmit to others a store of experience acquired through the medium of the senses…”

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Metallurgy, and Will


Compared to iron, copper is a humble material. Notoriously soft and brittle, copper is also prone to bending or outright breaking under heavy stress—making it hard to draw into forms larger than an elongated knife. These facts certainly don’t preclude it, however, as a workable material for fashioning craftsman’s tools. Copper’s delicate nature lends itself rather well to finer, more artisanal pursuits. Its malleability provided some measure of longevity as a tool, allowing it to be reformed and refurbished with relative ease. Pure copper, then, was hardly suitable for arms. For weaponry, it had to be fortified through alloying. By marriage to tin, copper produces bronze, and with zinc, brass. Pliny believed that the Scyths, or the Lydians, were the first to fuse, alloy, and temper copper in such a manner. Ostensibly the ancient Greeks believed that the art of metallurgy—of working and transmuting copper—originated in the Near East. It’s evident in the early histories, and common across mythological traditions that forging is associated with the realm of a fantastical other, secreted within not-too distant locales; of the Cyclopean or Giant craftsmen and the mountain-dwelling dwarves. As a matter of note, the diminished stature of smiths and smith-gods is likewise related to this rationale. 

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Historical analysis suggests that metallurgy most likely originated in the mineral-rich region of the Caucasus Mountains—the homeland of the Proto-Indo-European language—where it was mastered, and then disseminated by the nomadic peoples of that region. Access to materials and the gradual sophistication of technical knowledge gave birth to the ferrous sword, and with it, the consummate maturation of craft and symbol. 


Eliade recognized an ancient association between the ore and the embryo, which supplied grounds for an alchemical-linguistic conception of the sword, vis-à-vis copper and iron. Burton remarked that the “Venus of Alchemy [copper]” in Semitic languages, “is popularly derived from a triliteral root signifying a snake, the crooked reptile, the serpent that is in the sea… either because the metal is poisonous, like the Ophidae, or from its brightness of burnish.” This marks an early and clear connection between the divine feminine and the blade, and further, may suggest a line of development for these ideas into the medieval chivalric traditions. 


Only through first understanding the sword as an alchemical product, derived from the womb of the earth by smiths of distant antiquity, can we rightly approach the complex symbolism of legendary swords. Among them are the flaming sword of the Bhagavad Gita, and the myth of Uriel—who is said to guard the gates of paradise with a flaming sword in the Book of Enoch. There is Durandal, and Skofnung in the Nordic tradition; Excalibur in the Arthurian cycle—to list them all would dull the broader point. 

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Swords were related by nature to the aetheric ideal through language; to ‘cut,’ to ‘parse,’ to ‘swear,’ or to be oath-bound. It’s a natural conclusion that the sword stands for these ideas, and that those who were most familiar with the blade—kings, and judicial deities—would wield them. The oath is entirely intangible. The bond it creates is ethereal, and conceptual. It is an extension of the self and forms a spiritual linkage between the one and another; in saying what will, what must, or what is agreed to occur, the swearing-word is literally set into being through the medium of the spirit: The breath. In the tarot, this complex system supplies the raison d’être that swords represent the ratio, or intellect—and are assimilated elementally to air. The sword is, dualistically, a scientific instrument and the Holiest of Holies.

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The squire’s elevation to knighthood, at which point he would receive his swordbelt—his oath and accolade—was granted by way of a symbolic blow, that was only later ceremonialized to a dubbing by the sword. Similarly, the Nordic farmer long held the sword as a symbol of his autonomy. Through it he physically maintained his sovereignty. The gladiatorial rudis indicates a genealogy of similar associations. For centuries, it was a matter of law for the average Anglo-Saxon peasantry—who were held in fief on land, owned by a local lord—to be denied the ownership of a sword. Although practical, the fact also suggests the reflexive relationship between the symbol, and the state of affairs. By this rationale, the blade was taken to afford its owner the right to engage in communal, civil affairs. There is little reason to believe that pre-modern man, so cognizant of his spirit, and so practiced in the way of symbolic thinking, would not have been well-aware of these passing principles exemplified by the sword. 

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As the discovery of linear-perspective enabled the architect Brunelleschi, in one sense, to ‘see with the eyes of God,’ so did the smithing of ferrous blades constitute a similar achievement; a confluence between the mind of the smith, and the way of the cosmos. The successful merging of spirit and ratio enabled the smith to unlock the secret of iron. In doing so, he was rewarded with a weapon capable of far greater length, and which was far more robust than its copper-alloyed counterparts. Venus was finally replaced by Mars as the patron of the sword, and Aphrodite was to become the wife of the smith-god. 

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Sword, and Serpent

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Some of the earliest techniques for smithing were reliant upon a strenuous process called pattern welding. It involved a repetitious burning, turning, and hammering of twinned coils to produce the edged weapon. The technique often resulted in a characteristic patterning on the blade, which was reminiscent of the scales of the European adder. We’re reminded of the blade wielded by Egill in the Nordic sagas, which itself was named “Adder.” The Eddas contain dozens of kennings which attest to the widespread view of the sword’s serpentine affinity; “battle-serpent,” “of the serpent of carrion-channels,” “of the snake of wounds,” and with one even going so far as to refer to snakes themselves as the “sickle of the cairn.” But the root of the skaldic connection lay deeper still; both the sword and the snake are commonly said to bite; they sting; they slash, and they penetrate. Sue Brunning commented as much: 

“This image of synergy between weapon and warrior invites us to read these sword kennings in another way: the sword is a snake, which is part of the warrior - all three are one being with no clear boundary between them.” 

The sword pictorially emerging from the navel of the warrior is therefore assimilated to the umbilical cord—the living conduit—associated with both the feminine and the serpentine. It’s entirely reasonable that the Germanic tradition of making votive deposits by casting swords into lakes or rivers is connected to mythemes like the Lady in the Lake, of the Arthurian cycle. The feminine aspect, related as it is to the life-giving waters of the womb, also shares in broader traditions which saw serpents venerated for their oracular, purgative, and fertile powers. In this sense the sword indicates a willing, active mastery of life. 

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According to the chivalric tradition the serpent, wyrm, or dragon acts as a guardian of mystical places—and must be slain or dispatched by the errant hero. This heirophany descends, like most of the illustrious chivalric archetypes, from far older symbolic systems. Serpents are found most often in groves, deep in the mountains, or in sacred waters. In other words, places much like the mythical craftsmen, that have been saturated with a certain anima. The wyrm guards those occult places which express arcane, transformative understanding; armaments and arms, charms, or prophecies. To “slay” or usurp the celestial Draco, is not a heroic task solely in the sense that the warrior defeats his foe, and that his achievement is analogized in the form of a plain trinket. This materialistic perspective is—wherever suggested in passing—surely a fixture of the simplified modern mentality. Recall that Beowulf was cautioned against greed, and that Fafnir was transformed into a drake as punishment for the crime of filial avarice. Fafnir is marked by this shortcoming, doomed to die at the hands of the hero Sigurd whose fate is the inheritance of Fafnir’s neglected duty. 

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By the same token that the smith takes on the role of the Earth-Mother— performing her work in a superlative manner with the aid of fire, and cunning—so does the hero don the mantle of the deposed. Through slaying the serpent, he possesses the hoard as a rite of conquest; just as the invading lord or wandering prince unseats a ruling despot to inherit his claim. The king and the hero both assume the role of steward; the one, of the mundane realm of men, and the other, of the divine realm of knowing.

end.

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