The Sword.


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Think for a second about the ubiquity of the sword in iconography and art  and government. The sword is the only weapon that appears in national symbols throughout the world from the dawn of written history.


Excaliber, The sword of King Arthur, Colada, the sword of El Cid, The Wallace Sword, the Scottish Claymore used by William Wallace of Scotland, Zulfigar, the Sword of Mohammed, Joueuse, the sword of Charlemagne, the Jewelled Sword of Offering, the symbol of monarchical power in the United Kingdom, the sword of St. Peter, the Sword of Damocles. Saints carry swords. Angels carry swords. Justice carries scales in one hand and a sword in the other.


The sword is a weapon that is embedded into the archetypes that define the various expressions of human culture and governance. It is the only weapon that continues to appear in symbology, on flags, in government logos, military iconography and in modern science fiction and fantasy. Thetis, the mother of Achilles of Greece in antiquity, had Haphaestus forge a sword to give to the child. Captured swords from the Greeks to Imperial Japanese Empires have become universal symbols of surrender. Atilla the Hun’s mythology was a story of a hidden sword he found that granted him right to conquer everything. Just the possession of certain swords was the same as being elected to leadership. Odin, Norse god, put a sword in a tree that could only be removed by the best warriors. Sigmund pulled the sword out and became King.


The Celts buried swords with their owners but only they were bent so no mortal could use it. The Vikings bequeathed their swords to their children, and like many warrior people, the Vikings believed that swords were imbued with spirits. Vikings named their swords, like King Magnus Barelegs called his sows Leg-biter. Swords have been examples of the notion of Essentialism, the idea that inanimate objects can hold characteristics, like people. Would you wear Jeffrey Dahmer’s sweater? The inherent characteristics inundated a serial killer’s sweater are imagined. Or are they? That’s for you to answer, but the Dahmer example explains an innate human notion that things are good or bad or otherwise, just like we are.


Swords play a salient role in the symbolism of competing empires diametrically opposite of each other. The Crusader’s sword, the Arming Sword, was a cruciform straight sword with a prominent hilt and a double sided blade, many as long as three feet. This hand held cross was the very archetype of Christian iconography, the symbol of Jesus himself dispensing the justice of heaven decisively. On the other side was the scimitar of Islam. The scimitar or kilij was the result of design birthed by contact between soldiers and craftsmen from the Turkic people, the Mughals, from the Moroccans all the way to Asian traders on the silk road. The Saif Al-Islam is literally the Sword of Submission to Allah. This elegant curved blade brings to its bearers the imperial power of the theocratic Islamic Caliphates, and the  grace and favor of Allah. For two hundred years these weapons clashed in the desserts from the levant to Gibraltar, from Tunis to Anatolia.


In some ways the wide use of the sword in Central Asia started an arms race with the bow and arrow. As swords went from copper to bronze to steel bows went from simple designs to compound bows that increased velocity. Armor grew thicker and heavier and arrow tips became sharper.


Perhaps no nation is defined by a single sword design like Japan is defined by the Katana. The middle sized sword of choice of the Samurai was actually the secondary weapon for centuries. Before they were knob as sword carrying warriors the Samurai were primarily archers. Kyudo, samurai archery was a distinguished sport, considered a higher class of weapon than a sword. This never actually changed until the Portuguese brought firearms onto the Japanese battlefield. That all said, the Japanese sword masters were themselves quite celebrated in medieval Japan, and many kept their forging methods both secret and sacred. The Japanese believed each sword was a living being that could actually thirst for blood, as if the man wielding the sword were only channeling the other warrior spirit. A katana was a path to enlightenment, fully imbued with a holy purpose.


Little notice has been made of the fact that while the Japanese Imperials and warrior class worshipped their katanas, the Europeans also began a love affair with fencing. In England, Scotland, France, Alsace, Belgium, Bohemia, Germany and Hanover, rapier fencing was all the rage. Rage itself was a defining characteristic of the social morays of the times. Men were expected to have some sword skills. Often members of the higher classes were armed, and men drunk with pride challenged each other to duels. In a year in central Europe in the 1300s, 300 men might die at the business end of a rapier. When Louis XIV came to power, new fashions required a shorter rapier that more closely resembles today’s foils and epee. Sword masters made a lot of money teacher aristocrats to fight. Of course Louis XIV wore Charlemagne’s sword, Joyeuse. Kings and Queens were crowned at the safe end of this sword.


Perhaps the biggest changes came to the sword at the hand of cavalrymen. The very size of the horse required a much longer sword that used the kinetic energy of a charging horse behind a thrust or slashing attack. For many cavalry around the world, a slashing attack was de rigeur and armor was design primarily to prevent the edge of the sword from penetrating and hitting the body. It was Napoleon who trained his troops to use a thrust primarily. That said, the 1796 Pattern Light cavalry sword became the western world’s template for cavalry sword. The 1908 Pattern cavalry sword would be the last cavalry sword design by the United Kingdom.




Today a sword would be an odd weapon to default to, because firearms are available readily all over the world. Yet it reappears in signage and logos. The SS used a sword to symbolize loyalty to Hitler. The Justice symbol in the United States is a woman who holds scales and a sword.


One need look no further than Star Wars to see the sword transformed into a modern weapon without losing it’s historic shape.


Even the Oscar bears a sword.



1 thought on “The Sword.”

  1. Part of the reason it has such an appeal is probably that is is primeraly a weapon. With an ax, a flail, or a hammer, you can do other stuff (before they became optimised for killing people, that is). A sword screams: Fight me! like no other hand implement. Even a spear can be used for hunting, but with a sword you basically want to either kill a man, or defend yourself against a killer.

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