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The Sword and Magic

European Martial Arts and the Hero's Journey


William Christy

2000 CE

East and West

The sword has been called the most noble of all weapons. This is not due the sword's superiority on the battle field, but its effect on the individual who wields it. It is this effect that is the magic of the sword. In the past swords were buried with kings and nobles, knights swore oaths by swords, and swords were named and revered almost as living souls. Today much of the magic, the spiritual heritage of the sword, is obscured in our Western martial tradition. It is this spiritual legacy we are rediscovering.

What is the spiritual nature of the sword and its use? Swordsmanship is a martial art and at the core of all martial arts is an internal discipline and a code of conduct which an individual follows. In Japan this code is known as Bushido: literally the way of the warrior. In the west it became known as Chivalry. The individual uses this internal discipline to master the ego. Mastery of the ego is the goal of all martial arts.

With the ego mastered, the trained individual can cultivate remarkable abilities. Many of these abilities now lost in the West have surviving counterparts in the East. One such ability in Japan is Yadome-jutsu. Yadome-jutsu is the technique used by the samurai to defend against arrows by cutting them from the air. This technique is still practiced today in the Maniwa Ne Ryu martial arts tradition. A similar technique was recorded by the Norse in The Havamal:

The fifth rune I know, if from foeman's hand
I see a spear sped into the throng
Never so fast it flies but its flight
I can stay, once my eye lights on it.

Another ability forgotten in the West but still practiced in China is the Chi Kung, Iron Flesh Technique, which render the practitioner invulnerable to cuts from a sword or thrusts from a spear. Again, a similar technique is mentioned in The Havamal:

That third (rune) I know, if
My need be great.
To fetter foemans fell (blow or cut):
I can dull the swords of deadly foes,
That nor wiles nor weapons avail.

These references are not Norse literary fantasy but a record of martial techniques. The Norse warrior and his counterparts throughout Europe were not merely sword swinging barbarians, but highly trained practitioners of the martial arts.

Clans of the Wolf and Bear

Who were these warriors? Our best records are from the Norse:

They...went without mailcoats, were frantic as dogs or wolves; they bit their shields and were as strong as bears or boars; they slew men, but neither fire nor iron could harm them. This is called "running berserk" (Ynglinga Saga).

They were a warrior elite with shamanic abilities who were the champions of kings and lords of the pre-Christian Western Europe. We call them collectively "Berserkers" but there were two major "clans" of this warrior tradition that had their origins in Neolithic hunting cults. Each "clan" drew power and inspiration from a totem animal: the Berserkers from the bear and the Ulfhednar from the wolf. This is similar to the Shaolin Kung Fu practitioner training in the traditional animal styles. Berserkers and Ulfhednar were also viewed as shape shifters, able to take on the form of their totem animal. This ability was not restricted to the Norse. The Wonders of Ireland, written in the thirteenth century, states, "There are certain men in the Celtic race who have a marvelous power which comes to them from their forebears: for by evil craft they can at will change themselves into the shape of wolves with sharp teeth."

There were a number of factors that lead to this perception. The most obvious of these is that in battle, instead of mail armor worn by the warriors of the period, Berserkers wore a mantle made of the head and skin of a bear or wolf. Their appearance, coupled with their animalistic behavior prior to and during battle, could easily be seen by an opponent under the psychological stress of war, as a warrior transformed from man to beast. As can be imagined:

The battle was not well for Lord Osric and his war band of Danes. They had entered the battle at dawn while the fog still hugged the ground. The sun was not yet high when he and his men were cut off from the rest of their war party and forced to regroup in the nearby forest. They were still scattered about the wood when it started. At first Osric thought it was the sounds of the nearby battle but he soon realized what he heard was the baying of wolves. The sounds were all around him and coming closer. An instant later there was howling and the clash of steel and a number of his men lay dead as man-shaped creatures returned to the forest. It was then that fear gripped Osric's soul and he knew that they had not been attacked by wolves but by Ulfhednar, the wolf warriors of his enemy. Their only hope was to run and as they ran the howls followed. Again and again the Ulfhednar attacked leaving death and fear behind them. All Lord Osric and his men saw were shadowy figures of men with the heads of wolves, armed with swords. (Fictitious account by author)

This phenomenon is known as altered states of perception and it still occurs today. John Brodie, former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, several times witnessed opposing running backs grow larger and more fierce during games. The Berserkers and Ulfednar turned this phenomenon of altered states of perception to their advantage; they turned a belief into a terrifying weapon of war.

We know little of the training of these warriors. There were no formal schools and little in the way of written records beyond the Norse sagas. The techniques and philosophies were probably passed from one generation to the next within a family or clan. Training in this manner would have been secret and highly individualistic. It is this spirit of the individual that distinguishes the warriors of Western Europe, and its influence is still felt today.

Magic Concealed

In time, the warriors of the West passed into the realm of legend and with them most of their martial techniques and philosophies. Why?

There are two interconnected reasons for the suppression of individual martial arts in Europe. First, the Roman invasion of Western Europe pitted the Celtic and Germanic warriors against the legions of Rome. Thought they fought tenaciously, the tribes could not defeat a well organized, professional army. The individual warrior can win the battle, but an army wins the war. Second, after 312 CE the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, it quickly spread throughout the empire. As the new religion grew, it assimilated old beliefs and practices. Those that could not be assimilated were denounced as old-fashioned, heretical, and evil. The old arts of battle were no different. By the twelfth century the individual warrior of Western Europe had been replaced by the feudal knight who fought for Crown and Church. Vestiges of earlier times remained, renamed to suit the period. Gone were the animal skin mantels of the Berserker, replaced by the heraldic devices of knighthood. Gone, too, were the sword inscriptions of protective runes, replaced by the names of saints and oaths to God and King.

The feudal period in Europe was a time of rigid social structure. The individual owed service to his lord who in turn owed service to his lord, and so on. It was a class system that was intolerant of the individual. Anyone, regardless of their abilities, was subject to sever punishment for nonconformity; this included those skilled in the arts of battle.

Thus, we have the case of a French peasant girl born in 1411 CE. Joan was raised in the village of Domremy during the Hundred Years War. Her life was unremarkable until her thirteenth year, when the "voices" came to her. She would later identify them as St. Catherine, St. Michael, and St. Margaret. At first they told her to be good and go church often, but that changed with time. About two years later Joan's saints began to tell her of her future. The course of her life changed; she had embarked on what Joseph Campbell would have called the Hero's Journey. The voices told her she would take up arms as a man and lead an army into battle, and raise the English siege of Orleans, and stand by the Dauphin, Charles, as he was crowned King of France. All this came to pass in the space of two short years.

In May of 1430 CE, a small force lead by Joan engaged the Burgundian allies of England at Compiegne. During a rearguard action, Joan was unhorsed and captured. The Duke of Burgundy ransomed Joan to the English, who, wishing to discredit her and the French cause, charged her with heresy. She was accused of seventy counts of heresy, including witchcraft and sorcery. At trial, the accusations of witchcraft could not be proven, but Joan was convicted of twelve counts of heresy, including wearing men's clothing and seeing false apparitions. On May 30th 1430 CE, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. She was only nineteen. Joan's true crime was that she was an individual warrior in a time that could not tolerate individuals.

Magic Reborn

In Europe the spirit that became the Renaissance arose as if from Joan's pyre. By the mid fifteenth century Europe was undergoing a revolution. The growth of cities and economic prosperity brought about a new urban middle class of powerful merchants and bankers like the Medici in Florence. These merchant princes had a humanistic philosophy that was more tolerant of individualism. They adopted the manners and dress of the aristocracy, including the wearing and use of the sword. It was in this climate that individual martial arts reemerged and gained respectability. The art of defense or "fence" as it was known in England, evolved quickly. By the beginning of the sixteenth century all major cities in Europe boasted at least one school of defense and most had several. The raid spread of these schools and the evolution of fencing was the result of one social phenomenon: the Duel.

Dueling in Europe had some peculiar features. It was generally illegal, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment and death. The skills needed in the duel, swordsmanship was expensive and time consuming to learn. And of course any gentleman who took part in a duel could be killed or wounded. With these difficulties why would anyone in their right mind wish to engage in such an activity? Why did the duel endure for more than five hundred years, from the Renaissance to the first half of the twentieth century?

The answers to these questions are to be found beyond the view of the duel as "dawn, swords for two, coffee for one." Aside from being a way of settling petty disputes, which were often invented to justify the combat that followed, the duel served a meaningful social function. The duel was a ritual, a rite of passage by ordeal that aided in the individuation process of the participants. All ritual is a reenactment of myth and all myths follow the pattern of the Hero's Journey. As with other rituals, the duel is a reenactment as well of the Hero's Journey. To the duelist the challenge was the call to adventure. His acceptance of the challenge was his separation from his fellow man. Combat was the trail and descent into the realm of death. His reconciliation was his return to the land of the living. Both combatants are the Hero, the sacrificial king in the ritual drama. This is the same pattern as the Eleusinian mysteries and had a similar effect on the minds of the participants.

As time passed, the techniques and weapons of fencing became more sophisticated and deadly. In response, the ritual of the duel became more complex and formalized, limiting the deadly effects of techniques and weapons. By the eighteenth century, conventions of first blood had gained acceptance, allowing a duel to be halted if a combatant was wounded even slightly. Death was no longer needed to maintain the transcendental nature of the duel, and with time this need also faded. The effects of such an ordeal on the conscious mind can be remarkable. From my own experience as a fencer and instructor of fence, the degree of mental focus required to gain touches against an opponent can induce altered states of perception. Time is telescoped; one becomes hyper-aware of the environment and one's opponent. Adrenaline and the stress of combat being about a feeling of separation of mind and body. It is as if you're piloting your body from someplace else. Your senses become almost predictive of your opponent's actions, as if you and your opponent are one. All about you is stillness.

There is a connection between the warriors of the past and the martial artist of the present. An unbroken lineage can be drawn from the time before the Berserkers through the feudal knights and the Renaissance duelist to the modern fencer. All follow the path of the warrior, a path of self-discipline and self knowledge. A warrior's greatest battle is always with his/her own ego. It is this battle of the ego that is the magic of the sword, the path to self-knowledge. To take up the sword is to embark on that path, to live the Hero's Journey.