6 - The Serpent Sword
When I was first invited to join a certain secret society - one that shall not
be found on the Internet - I was amazed at the imagery and symbolism that
On the night of initiation, one particular device set itself
apart from all else - the sword.
I was in a long hall that looked like an old chapel, with wooden beams and
high windows. The lower parts of the windows were now boarded with finely
painted oak - murals depicting the trials and tribulations of a medieval
warrior monk. At the end of the hall were large satin curtains of deep red.
On either side of me stood a line of men all dressed in white robes, holding
aloft gleaming silver swords, and at the end the Grand Master beckoned me
As I walked, the swords fell behind me and were placed zig-zag
fashion across the floor so that my path behind was no longer one I could
walk. This is a symbolic device, a truth we all must learn - attempting to
rewalk the path we have already trodden is pointless.
Eventually, I reached the Grand Master and we followed a ritual that can be
dated back many hundreds of years. I bowed low and accepted my pledge as the
Master’s sword symbolically killed my old self so that I might be born anew.
The sword here is used as a device to bring to life the symbolic aspects of
a hidden Gnostic truth and a psychology as relevant today as ever. It has
been this way for an awfully long time, and it is interesting, therefore, to
discover that King Arthur himself, a symbol of so many things, also held the
sword of truth, energy, and wisdom.
In The Quest of the Holy Grail, a uniquely alchemical tale created by secret
orders, the sword is seen as a fiery serpent, symbolic of energy. It is the
sword of King David or made by the wise Solomon with a pommel stone of all
the colors of the Earth and 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,
“but it was so bright in his enemies’ eyes, that it gave light like
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.
sword is then returned to the water, the home of the Lady of the Lake - the
There is a remarkable resemblance between the tales of Arthur’s sword and
A hero from the 6th century
B.C. 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 A.D., simply cannot differ from
Malory’s tale of the sword.
In China there were tales of great swords such
as Dragon Spring and others that leap into 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 that were seen as serpents? Well, I just so happened to find such
evidence in the Catalogue of The Fourteenth Park Lane Arms Fair.
Jones authored a fascinating article titled, “The
Serpent in the Sword - Pattern-Welding in Early Medieval Swords,”
which immediately made the hairs on the back of my neck tingle.
Medieval snake sword
The sword first appeared around 4,000 years ago and immediately became the
preeminent weapon, preferred by the warrior class.
studies have shown how complex piled structures or layers improved the sword
from as early as 500 B.C. in Celtic artifacts. 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.
was then heated and pounded into shape. 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, was introduced into the edges of the blade because it was
stronger and more effective.
Through the 5th to 10th centuries A.D. - the approximate period of King
Arthur - 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
Nazis, who utilized it extensively.
The patterns are seen via 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 B.C. in the La Tene period, although more
effectively used from the 3rd and 5th centuries - the exact early period of
Cassiodorus was a secretary of Theodoric, and in A.D. 520 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.”
The 10th century Kormaks Saga says this 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 previously,
there are textual links in the legend. Could it be that the tales of Arthur
and his serpentine or dragon swords were based upon reality?
And so, coming full circle, I am drawn back to that first initiation years
ago and the sword that was bestowed upon me and which is now back with the
order. It stood nearly 5 feet with a gold pommel of writhing dragons.
silver sheen of the blade when turned in the light would reveal a beautiful
pattern of two entwined serpents, heads coming closer together as they raced
toward the tip.
The sword, as a fighting tool, has been with man for more than 4,000 years,
and as such it has crept into the comradeship of the warrior elite that
could afford its luxury. Symbolism of wisdom, energy, and illumination has
been melded in with the steel structure in the same way that the sword has
been melded into the myths and tales that were themselves stories of inner
The shining sword is symbolically utilized throughout secret
societies today and has been so for hundreds of years - creating a bond
between man today and man yesterday.
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