The Sword

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Here beginneth the story of the sword, the anvil, and the marble stone, and of how that sword was first achieved by an unknown youth, until then of no renown, whether in arms or of estate.
 So hearken unto that which I have hereinafter written.

The Story of Arthur and His Knights

 When Sir Kay's sword broke on Sir Balamorgineas' helmet during the great tournament, he sent his younger brother, Arthur, to fetch another from their father's pavilion. Finding no sword there, Arthur's thoughts rushed to that which he had seen thrust into the anvil before the cathedral nearby. In his innocent youth he did not know the significance of this mighty weapon nor, surely, did he possess any clue which might have suggested that it was Merlin who, by his magic, caused it to be placed there. He approached the block of marble and laid his hands on the hilt. Bending his body over it, he drew upon the sword with all his strength and it came forth in his hands with marvellous ease. The brilliance of the mystic blade was so intense that he covered it with his cloak and hastened to his impatiently waiting brother. But when Sir Kay saw the sword, he was astounded. A cunning arose in his heart wherefrom he conceived the desire to take advantage of Arthur's simple innocence and claim the deed of having extricated the sword from the stone.

 Destiny, however, would not be denied its rightful king and the test posed by Merlin could not be met by the ambitious Sir Kay. When Arthur confessed to their noble father that it was he who had pulled forth the blade, the old knight told him how, eighteen years previously, Merlin had set a meeting with him at the postern gate of Uther-Pendragon's castle. He explained to him that when they had met at midnight, Merlin gave a swaddled infant into his care to raise as though he were his own son. "Nor have I until now ever known ought of who was thy father; but now I do suspect who he was and that thou hast in thy veins kingly blood. And I do have it in mind that perhaps thy father was Uther-Pendragon himself. For who but the son of Uther-Pendragon could have drawn forth that sword as thou hast done?" After repeated but vain attempts to draw the magic sword, the other knights gathered there came to see that only Arthur could draw forth and return it to the stone. Most of them bowed down and willingly accepted him as their new king, but there were those who persisted in questioning his credentials and would not join in support of him. Thus the drama of the struggle between knightly heroes and the forces of evil was set, at the centre of which the wondrous sword Excalibur was destined to play a decisive role.

 Perhaps the old Roman belief that the iron sword could ward off evil lingered in the British Isles and inspired some of the legendary powers attributed to Excalibur, but others in the world have held similar beliefs. In the Islamic tradition the sword is symbolic of holy war against the infidel and of man against his own evil. This belief was equally shared by the Christian knights who fought against them in the bloody crusades. For the Grail Knight it was seen as an instrument of good in overcoming evil. In myth the sword is believed to possess supernatural powers when found under the earth or submerged in water, where it bears a close association with mystical beings like the mysterious Lady of the Lake. In the hand of this Lady or embedded in earthly stone, the sword is masculine, asserting the power of protection, authority, justice and courage. Some traditions single out the western straight-bladed instrument as solar and masculine in distinction to the Oriental curved blade, which could be thought of as lunar and feminine, but the more widely recognized feminine attribute is the scabbard in which the sword is sheathed. The sword in itself is symbolic of psychic and spiritual decision as well as physical extermination, relating to lunar as well as to solar principles in its ability to cut through and penetrate. Its power to wound is also its power to liberate and manifest the superiority of strength and courage over prevarication and self-defense. The hard steel of its blade suggests the transcendental toughness of the all-conquering spirit and the inviolability of the sacred. Its fierce cutting edge speaks of discrimination, spiritual decision and the penetrating power of the intellect. As in the case of Excalibur, in the right hand the sword is capable of dividing good from evil and carving out in precise design the character of the hero's struggle for the Grail. What to earlier races had been a sword god to be sacrificed to became an instrument to be wielded as a mighty human power.

 Very famous swords have names and, like Excalibur, are addressed as 'he' as though they had a life and power of their own. Their origins are shrouded in mystical wonder, as in the case of the divine sword of Japanese Shintoism called Kusanagi. Being one of the three sacred objects of the imperial regalia, this mighty blade was discovered by Susanowo-no-mikoto, the storm god of the early Shinto pantheon. In the ancient Nihongi the account is given of how this god descended from heaven and proceeded to the headwaters of the River Hi. There he found an old man and woman weeping because all their daughters but one had been devoured year after year by an eight-forked serpent. This great heavenly serpent controlled the rainfall affecting the crops and had been exacting its gruesome payment from those on earth in this manner. The power to initiate the rain lay in a brilliant lightning sword hidden in its tail, and when Susanowo-no-mikoto slew the marauder and cut it into pieces, he discovered it lying there in all its potent splendour. Being profoundly awed by this precious and powerful instrument, he sent it up to heaven to become the property of the Shining Deity, who is Light herself.

 The Kusanagi sword (like the sacred mirror and jewel regalia) thus came to find its source in the possession of its prototype, which is this bright and overmastering heavenly light. It is fitting that Kusanagi became part of the royal regalia, as the Imperial Dynasty itself is considered to be Hitsugi (hi = light, sun, fire; tsugi = succession) or light succession'. Of these sacred objects, the sword is believed to be the dwelling-place and symbol of ara-mitama, or the 'rough spirit' of the goddess of light, whilst the mirror is the dwelling-place of nigi-mitama, her 'gentle spirit'. The former is lightning, the latter is the sun, whilst the third (the jewels) represents the moon. Together they form a triad of wisdom, benevolence and courage. The lightning fire of the sword symbolizes the activated human will and the desire for purification, which can result from the chastening force of the element of fire as well as the cold steel of the blade's decisive edge. Swords patterned after this great weapon were deemed capable of possession only by those who ardently sought after this purity. It has always been held that a suitable offering to the gods had to possess purity, rarity and value. Great swords have all three elements and were sometimes offered by samurai as a votive sacrifice on the altar of their own spiritual aspiration.

 The Kusanagi sword is called in full Kusanagi-no-tsurugi, or 'Grass-mowing sword', because it saved the life of the hero Yamato-Takeru-no-mikoto when his enemies set fire to the grass surrounding him in the battlefield. Many tales depict the desperate attempts made to steal it but, like other swords such as Doji-giri, the Monster-Cutter, or those made by Toshiro Yoshimitsu which brought good fortune to the Tokugawa clan, the sword exerted a life of its own and would not be separated from its rightful possessor. Great care went into the making of such swords. Masters, whose rank stood highest amongst the artisans, followed a ritually rigorous discipline whilst engaged in their manufacture. Those few who still exist continue to lead a semi-religious and abstemious life, beginning each day of work with cold ablutions, abstaining from sexual intercourse, liquor or animal food. Their food is cooked over a sacred fire and prayers are offered at each stage of the forging. Several pieces of metal are heated, stretched and folded lengthwise repeatedly. When malleable, the metal, derived from iron ore or sand, is pounded until tempered. Gradually the pieces are fashioned into a blade, involving a repetition of the entire process as many as thirty times. Each time a piece is folded, a smith must exercise great care to see that all air and dirt are excluded so as to ensure against weak spots which can lead to breakage upon use. The proper degree of hardness has to be ascertained in proportion to the exact grade of steel, and the blade is carefully baked with a covering of clay paste for the final tempering. For these final and most critical operations, the smith dons the court noble's ceremonial costume and the smithy becomes, for the time being, a sanctuary whose approach is hung with the Shinto straw rope to ward off evil influences. In this atmosphere the blade is, at last, quenched in water of a suitable temperature, after which it is polished for two weeks.

 Like the mediaeval swords of the Occident which were painstakingly categorized according to design, the Japanese sword has evolved minute variations on a central functional pattern. Points of blades can be divided into four types, but these in turn can be separated into ten classes according to their tempered lines as well as whether their ridge lines are raised or flat. On the blade itself many elements suggest identifiable categories: there are eight types of grooves, four types of groove ends, twenty-six types of tempered lines with names like frog-shaped or clover-tree flower. There are five types of back or top ridges, several classifications of curves, four types of tangs, five tips of tangs and twelve patterns of file marks on tangs. This is only the beginning of the categorizing process which then goes on to consider the hilt and all its parts and clearly captures the rapt attention of only the connoisseur.

 Perhaps one of the reasons why the classification of swords has absorbed some is because of the special status ascribed to the owner of the weapon as well as its own symbolic power. To carry a sword in mediaeval Europe was the prerogative of knights and high dignitaries. In China the founders of ancient cities wore them, and they were called 'the living soul of the samurai' in Japan. An emblem of his virtue, valour and strength, the sword was believed to have the power to 'stiffen' his resolution and guard him from any temptation to unworthy deeds. The icy purity and self-restraint of its metal, as well as the energy and the zest of the fire that helped to forge it, were transposed as characteristics attributable to its owner.

 In Europe the sword was the emblem of higher forms of knighthood, leaving the lance to represent the lower classes. It was "a most noble weapon which once had high significance in the minds of men, and fulfilled the most vital and personal service in their hands". The average weight of the mediaeval sword was two to three pounds, and it was balanced carefully according to its length. The knightly sword was derived, via those of the Vikings, from the long iron ones of the prehistoric Celts which were used before and during the Roman period. These evolved (around A.D. 900) to be about thirty inches long and two inches wide at the hilt. The old Norse swords, which were very beautiful and wonderfully made, were used for a lifetime and passed down for often over a century in duration. Excellent swords of later centuries continued to be made at famous weapon-making firms like those in Milan, Passau, Augsburg, Cologne or Bordeaux. Aside from museum and private collections, the appearance of these can be verified in the wonderfully accurate sculpture that graces such edifices as the cathedrals of Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, Freiburg, Naumburg, Canterbury and St. Mary's Church at Warwick. Short and long swords, sabres, rapiers and cutlasses are all depicted, including the double-edged sword whose dual powers symbolized the inverse currents of creation and destruction in manifestation. A treatise on the "Ordinances of Chivalry" in the Hasting's manuscript (c. 1450) explains "how a man schal be armyd at his ese when he schal fighte on foote". . . i.e.: "He daggere upon hys righte syde. And then hys shorte swerde [from the Old Norse sverth] upon hys lyfte syde in a rounde rynge all nakid to pulle it out lightli . . . and then hys long swerde in his hande."

 The sword and the tree symbols have been entwined as long as their parallel theme of war and peace. Whereas the sword represents spiritual evolution, the tree has to do with involution and proliferation instead of physical extermination. The Word of God, the appearance of lightning and the implacable justice of universal law are all capable of being symbolized by the sword. Indeed, the sword of Damocles, which represents danger in the midst of seeming prosperity, seems to relate to the impersonal and awesome justice capable of cutting to shreds the delusions harboured by those ignorant of the mysterious causes and effects of karma. Such swords are like the penetration of spirit into the world, and initially play the part of gods or their attributes. In the book of Genesis a flaming sword was placed in Paradise to keep man out.

 And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.... Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden . . . and placed Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Genesis 3:22-24

Here the involution of the spirit of God into the world has taken place, but self-conscious intelligence has been 'stolen'. To use this intelligence to achieve immortality requires coming to terms with the flaming sword that protects the tree, not a task easily contemplated. Here again the sword is in the hands, as it were, of God and seems remote from the human grasp. It is like the ancient Hittite sword god struck into the stone as a portent of the earth's fertility and of rebirth through death. Only under very special ritual circumstances may the king alone draw it from its stony scabbard so as to represent and uphold the Law of God to His people in the world. Thus did the fertility of divine power enter into the mortal realm, but individual men had no right to try to touch it or to do ought but make humble sacrifices to its worldly form. Conscious 'immortality was not for unregenerate men, and even kings merely passed down their borrowed power through the sword god to their successor when they died.

 The death and resurrection of kingship was linked with the annual cycles of winter and spring. The rebirth through death which vitalized a people was ritualized in ancient sacrificial practices wherein the sword slowly shifted from its implacable station in the stone into the hands of dancers and mummers, who dramatized the death and resurrection of a central character through the highly stylized use of their swords. Thus, in the sword dances of Northern England, the morris dance of the Midlands and the South, and the mummer's drama of England and Scotland, which are ancient rites preserved until fairly recent times, the focus was upon this theme of death and resurrection by sword. Such sword dances (which were also practised elsewhere in Europe) provide a link between the ancient worship of divinity manifested through the sword and the enactment of this cyclic rite by ordinary villagers who temporarily wield the sword in their own hands. The next shift which places the sword more firmly in the grasp of man marks the beginning of the Heroic Age. Instead of the latter-day collective dilution of the most ancient mysteries taking the form of country drama and dance, the Heroic Age was marked by the extraordinary courage and effrontery (in the eyes of the gods) of individual heroes engaging in the quest for their own immortality. From the sword of involution linked up with the protection of the tree and all the edicts that form the cornerstone of Brihaspati's power, the process of self-conscious evolution emerged.

 The heroes of evolution step out from the fearfully worshipping mass of humanity and begin to acquire their own flame-tempered swords. Typically they are raised in secrecy, unknown by the world, and like Theseus, they must extract a sword from the stone before becoming a true king. The drawing of the sword can be seen as emblematic of the extrication of the hero out of the impersonal ritual of cyclic recurrence. To initiate this, a god like Odin may plunge a sword into a tree-pillar to be drawn only by his mortal heir, Sigmund. In the case of Galahad, the unknown youth saw a sword fixed in stone floating down a river. Only he could draw it forth and set it in his empty scabbard. Of the four knights gathered at Camelot who later achieved the Grail in varying degrees of reality, he alone received the coronation "amongst the spiritualities", repeating at the end of the Arthurian era the king's experience at its beginning. When such an age wanes, the sword is no longer to be found placed in the stone by a god or a Master Magician, but it is sometimes handed down broken. In mediaeval legends the broken or buried sword, which marks a state of destruction and decay, often appeared as the inheritance which had to be reconquered by personal valour. Thus, as a youth, Siegfried discovered the pieces of the sword Balmunga, which Odin had stuck into the pillar to be drawn by Siegfried's father, Sigmund. Mime, the blacksmith, was unable to reforge it, but Siegfried succeeded in doing so. In the Arthurian legend Gawaine was likewise given a broken sword, but he was unable to repair it completely, symbolizing his inability to penetrate to the core of his undertaking.

 The Quest is brought powerfully to life in the great epics of The Ramayana, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid and the Holy Grail. Knights dedicated to the discovery of the Grail, or even to the salvation of Jerusalem, carried their swords like a cross of righteousness. Where the blade and the guard conjoined, the vertical and horizontal symbols of life and death were linked in the form of a cross. Indeed, the guard was called the Cross, and inscriptions on them and on the blade were so placed that they could only be read if the hilt was held uppermost. Inscriptions such as "Cristus Vincit" and "Cristus Imperat" assert the presumed sanctity of their fervently sought-for victory. But the quest for the Grail involved a more inward struggle leading to an uncharted condition in a land only known by the name of Truth. The hero of this quest assumes a stance which can be portrayed as one of active spiritual aggression. To paraphrase William Blake, he will not cease from mental fight, nor will his sword sleep in his hand. All becomes the highest embodiment of a chivalrous code from which there is no relaxation.

 At this point the powers of discrimination and decisiveness become paramount. The Buddhist tradition stresses that they cut ignorance at its roots. "As the sword cuts knots, so should the intellect pierce the deepest recesses of Buddhist thought." Manjusri, as the embodiment of wisdom, is shown carrying the sword of discernment in his right hand. Its point emits the light of the indestructible vajra which destroys the heterodox mind and drives away the enemies of Dharma. The hero cannot simply reach out and grasp the sword that stands in the garden of paradise. He must reach within the stone, within the sevenfold anvil of his own being, in order to draw forth a weapon which is capable of cutting through to the goal. Like the swordsmith, he must heat, stretch and fold the substance of his nature over and over again so that its layers merge and melt into perfectly tempered pieces, to be gradually fashioned into a blade. Each time the heating and stretching and folding takes place, he must be very careful to make sure that all the tiny air pockets and bits of dirt are excluded. Even one small inclusion of such impurities can ruin the forging of an otherwise well-made sword. It may be capable of cutting a fine line of discrimination, but when the pressure of piercing decisiveness is called for, it will break. All of the care and reverence shown by the Japanese master sword-maker are analogous to the inner preparation the hero must make in order to draw forth his sword. He is unknown to the world because he does this within himself in silence. It is only when he has drawn the sword and begins to exercise the faculty of his higher Divine Will that men are surprised and suddenly sense the presence of a higher intelligence acting in the world.

 Excalibur takes its name from ex, meaning 'out of', and calibre, which means 'the weight of character, standing or importance of something'. It signifies being out of or beyond all calibration or ability to gauge the excellence of. There are no empirical or worldly indices that can be used to describe or compare this sword. When Merlin took Arthur to the Lake of Enchantment, he saw rising from the waters a woman's arm "exceedingly beautiful and clad in white samite, and the hand of this arm holdeth a sword of such exceeding excellence and beauty that no eye hath ever beheld its like". The raven-haired Lady of the Lake tells Arthur that no man may win the sword unless he be without fear and beyond reproach. She calls forth a boat whose brass prow is fashioned in the shape of a woman's head and whose sides bear the wings of a swan. Thus, through the agency of Buddhi, which bears him up over the waters of chaos, Arthur reaches his sword. He learns that its sheath is Faith, which possesses the power to protect its owner's life, whilst the sword is Truth, only to be used in serious battle. Through the grace of his Buddhic nature, the pure-minded Arthur won his sword, but his greatest trials lay before him, including the treachery of the evil Morgana le Fay, who, deluding his trusting mind, succeeded in obscuring his higher intuition, causing him to lose his sword's protective sheath of faith.

 In stealing the sheath and throwing it into the lake, Morgana demonstrated the danger of the lower psychic mind which continually measures things in terms of the fragmented world and cleaves to likes and dislikes even in the presence of universally recognizable goodness. Arthur's goodness needed to be alloyed to the cool steel of discrimination and the impersonal probes necessary to expose the convolutions of the lower mind in oneself and in others. To do this the Higher Will must be activated and used without hesitation or timidity. In the words of the Lady of the Lake, the wielder of this sword must be without fear and beyond reproach. He must be pure and selfless in motive and, grasping the laser sword, he must let its blade thrust home. There is a great distinction made in fencing between the parry (defence) and the attack. "A fencer, even though he possesses a perfect mechanism, will never be developed except through the execution of scientific or reasoned movements, based principally upon the theory of attack." The parry is nothing more than a corrective measure, remaining only a passive factor. The attack involves the imagination, whilst the parry is merely instinctive.

 The hero who would reach the Holy Grail must sharpen his sword with the powers of discrimination and decisiveness and be prepared to venture if he would strike to the core of Truth. He does not sit back and soak in Arthurian legends, waiting for someone else to win the fight. He does not wait for someone else to prove to him that good can triumph over evil, that faith and love can vanquish despair and hatred. He does not participate in anxious vicarious contests, sweated through by mere observers who stand on the sidelines, laying bets and waiting for the outcome. Instead, the true hero has sized up the contenders. He has recognized them for what they are and fully grasped that they are within himself and not out there on the tournament field or the battleground. He has quietly cherished his quest throughout the ages, and, arriving at this time in human history, he knows that the world can no longer expect to be uplifted in its dead weight and carried along by the Christs or Gandhis. He is showing the way for each individual to cut away ignorance and impurities of mind, to cleanse the heart of every power to wound by piercing to its diamond core. He parries only out of compassion, never out of self-protectiveness, and is always prepared to dare, to grasp the sword of Truth and attack the muddle of rationalizations and obscurations that cloud men's minds and hearts. With his brilliant and nobly drawn sword he points out the way across the lake to the outstretched arm, to the marble stone and anvil, to the sacred smithy's shop where the secret forging will be done. He is our Grail Knight, our Odysseus and Galahad, our Manjusri. He is our heroic and eternal Higher Self.

The dancers moved encircling
Round the body of the Fool.
But the young lad on the edge
Of the wildly laughing throng
Slipped away to the river's edge,
Where before his wondering gaze
A beauteous Lady rose
And presented him a sword.