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Philip Gardiner


The Serpent Sword

By Philip Gardiner


In The Quest of the Holy Grail, a uniquely alchemical tale, the sword is seen as a fiery serpent. It is the sword of King David, made by the wise Solomon (Sol Om On) with a pommel stone of all the colors of the earth, with two rib hilts, one made from the fish of the Euphrates and the other the serpent.

It is said to resemble the sword of Arthur, which itself is said to be serpentine in the Dream of Rhonabwy. When Arthur’s sword is drawn it was said that two flames of fire burst out of the jaws of the two serpents, and so wonderful was the sword that it was hard for anyone to gaze at it. It is necessary for Arthur to maintain ownership of the sword, whether it is the sword from the stone or Excalibur, as it ensures his victory and his life. Malory indicates again the brightness of the sword and its fiery aspect, writing: “but it was so bright in his enemies eyes, that it gave light like thirty torches.” But the sword in the stone does not last long and the Lady of the Lake gives Arthur his Excalibur, and also a serpent scabbard, which ensures eternal life. Malory states quite clearly “for whiles ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keep well the scabbard always with you.” It is only when Arthur’s half sister Morgan le Fay steals the scabbard and replaces it that Arthur becomes susceptible to the deadly blows of Mordred. The once prized sword is then returned to the water, the home of the Lady of the Lake – the serpent spirit.

There is a remarkable resemblance between the tales of Arthur’s sword and an unsuspecting Chinese legend. A hero from the 6th century BC named Wu Tzu-hsu threw his sword into a river “It shot forth like a spirit-glow, sparkling brightly as it thrice sank and thrice came to the surface with a great gush and then hovered above the water. The god of the river . . . heard the swords roar . . . he rolled in the waters in a great and frothing frenzy . . . Dragons raced along the waves and leaped out of the water. The river god held the sword in his hand and, frightened, told Wu Tzu-hsu to take it back.” (Mair 1983, 141 and 286.) This story, related in the 8th century AD simply cannot differ from Malory’s tale of the sword. In China there were tales of great swords such as Dragon Spring and others still that leap into the waters surrounded by dragons, which churn up the water. Wu Tzu-hsu’s sword is also called Dragon Spring.

But is there any archaeological evidence for the existence of a real sword or swords, which, were seen as serpents? Well we just so happened to find such evidence in the Catalogue of The Fourteenth Park Lane Arms Fair. Lee A Jones authored a fascinating article entitled, “The Serpent in the Sword: Pattern-welding in Early Medieval Swords,” which immediately made the hairs on the back of our necks tingle. (see http://www.vikingsword.com/serpent.html)




The sword first appeared around 4000 years ago and immediately became the pre-eminent weapon, preferred by the warrior class. Recent metallurgical studies have shown how the complex piled structures or layers improved the sword from as early as 500 BC. Little wonder that the smithy was an important part of legend and folklore, as the skill implied in the making of these swords is substantial. Several rods are welded together down the length of the blade, joining the various levels of metal together. Heated and then pounded into shape, this sword making was an awesome task. Smaller rods that were carburized (improved carbon) were introduced to increase the hardness. This formed steel, an alloy of iron with small amounts of carbon, which was introduced into the edges of the blade as it was stronger and more effective.

Through the 5th to 10th centuries AD sword smiths actually managed to manipulate this piled structure to create wonderful designs within the blade. The method remained virtually unchanged even into the 20th century as can be seen with the daggers of the Nazi’s, who utilized it extensively.

The patterns (seen above) are seen from the varying degrees of trace elements within the different rods, showing alternating shades. The rods are invariably twisted down the shaft, forming a spiral effect. These “twisted” swords are seen as early as the 1st century BC in the La Tene period, although more effectively used from the 3rd and 5th centuries – the very early period of Arthur. Cassiodorus was a secretary of Theodoric and in 520 AD he wrote to a northern Germanic tribe regarding a gift of words praising their skills, especially the shadows and colors seen in the blades, which he likened to “tiny snakes.” In the 10th century Kormaks Saga says concerning the sword Skofnung: “a covering goes with it and thou shall leave it quiet; the sun must not shine on the upper guard, nor shall thou comest to the fighting place, sit alone, and there draw it. Hold up the blade and blow on it; then a small snake will creep from under the guard; incline the blade and make it easier for it to creep back under the guard.” It is the considered opinion of some scientists that this implies that the dew would reveal the pattern of the serpent upon the sword, giving the impression that a serpent is emerging from the sheath.

This inclusion of the serpent in the blade was eventually replaced with iron inlaid letters and symbols, and Christian phrases such as In Nomine Domini (In the name of the Lord). The remarkable archaeological fact of serpents appearing in the designs of 5th century swords links perfectly with the time of Arthur. As the Pendragon or Head/Chief Dragon Lord he would certainly have been seen with such a device and in the stories mentioned above there are textual links in the legend.

Copyright 2005 by Philip Gardiner
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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