The Symbolism of Sword & Shield
Within the panoply of Western mythic imagery, perhaps few things excite the imagination like that picture of a brave knight, armed with sword and shield, fighting and defeating a scaled dragon while rescuing a damsel in distress or liberating a town terrorized by serpentine flame. It comes to us in varied forms, St. Michael defeating Satan at the Apocalypse, Sigurd slaying Fafnir, or St. George liberating the village of Silene from the venomous scourge of human sacrifice. The symbolism present in these appearances of dragons is particularly rich, but will not be the primary focus of this short piece. Rather, we would draw the attention of the reader to those instruments of warfare and protection that are typically used by these warriors in their defeat of the monsters from below and outside: Shield and Sword. The symbolism which can be found embedded within their use in history and myth is a profound expression of two of the most basic operative principles guiding the manner in which Man acts and reacts to the forces of Heaven and Hell. It is worth noting that the use of swords and spears within these stories is somewhat interchangeable. While the physical particularities obviously differ, their meaning is usually the same. This is especially apparent within the iconography, hymnography, and liturgical language of the Orthodox Church, which will at times use the imagery of a sword to describe something, and at other times a spear. The distinction between these two instruments will be symbolically inconsequential within the context of this discussion. Everything here said of a sword will equally apply to a spear. Also, there is no shortage of martial systems where a sword is used as a solo weapon, without a shield. In these systems, the sword is forced to play the double role of offense and defense. While the compression of the symbols of sword and shield into the single longsword (for example) is an obvious fact, here we will focus on their roles as separate instruments.
In order to discuss the symbolism of sword and shield it is perhaps best to review what is meant by a symbol here. The word in English arrives to us from the Greek σύμβολον (symbolon), where it is a combination of the two words σύν (together) and βάλλω (I throw, or put). Σύμβολον then, and subsequently our word in English, refers to a thing or idea that connects with other things or ideas via imparted or inherent meaning. Within the context of the cosmic hierarchy that this site is heavily concerned with, a symbol is something that connects multiple levels of the hierarchy together within a particular ontological scheme. Symbols, like Man himself, fuse matter from below and meaning from above. A symbol unites Heaven and Earth. This discussion of the sword and shield’s symbolism will therefore take such an approach, and while homage will be given to their practical use within the historical context, their meaning as symbols will be the focus of this exercise.
One of the earlier records of the detailed use of sword and shield together is the fechtbuch found in the Royal Armouries Museum, Ms. I.33 from around 1270-1320 A.D. In lovely ink and watercolor illustrations, and with detailed Latin and German text, the manuscript outlines a system of fighting with arming sword (a medieval single-handed sword) and buckler (a small shield used in the off-hand). The two figures that do battle within its vellum pages are called sacerdos (priest) and scolaris (student). If the system is studied, and the collected wards and techniques reconstructed, the manner of use for these objects, at least within a particular time and place, becomes quite clear. De Re Militari, an earlier work by Vegetius from around the late 4th century A.D., gives far less detail on actual technique, but contains a few valuable nuggets on the way in which the Roman scutum (shield) and gladius (short sword) were used by the Legion, and particularly emphasizes that the gladii were very much thrust-centric weapons, with cuts even being discouraged. The use of the shield, be it the buckler from the late 13th century in Western Europe, or the more vague earlier references to a legionary’s use of his large oval or square shield, trickles down to us today primarily through actors in film and on stage. Their frequently inaccurate portrayals of the use of shields and swords aside, what emerges in their performance and remains in our imagination is accurate enough. Shields and swords, when used together, are broken up into primarily (though not exclusively) defensive and offensive roles respectively.
Shields and Veils
Throughout history and across cultures, the most common material used in shield construction has been wood, frequently covered with leather or canvas of some sort. This technology served as an obvious extension of clothing more generally, as a covering of dead wood and dead animal skins which protects the wearer from the dangers of the outer world. Much has been said of the symbolism of veils, and it should not be especially difficult to see the parallels present here. Fabric, hide, or some other lower material is fashioned and given an expressed purpose by the mind and will of humans for defensive partition between different categories or ontological levels. Where veils act as an intermediary barrier between those different levels of ontological reality, so too we see shields serving the same function. The winged serpent, who deigns not to remain in his proper abode at the bottom of the Earth, but endeavors to ascend the hierarchy, is hopefully warded off by the shield of the knight who defends the established kingdom of the higher order of Heaven. This is not unlike the role of the veiling of women in some cultures, who seek to ward off the lustful gaze of men given to mere carnal urges. Shields, like veils, protect against the subversive influences of the lower levels of the world, and our own base inclinations. This is the use described by St. Paul in Ephesians when he describes the “..shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.” 1. We see it yet again in the Pilgrim’s Progress when Christian fights off the monster Apollyon. Such a role is vital because the inversion, which occurs when meaning ascends from below instead of descending from above, results in a world tyrannized by dragons.
As an object of defense, the veil acts as an example of an aspect of the feminine principle. That is to say, it acts as something which wards off unwanted incursions from outside. Receptivity, or the capacity to receive, is an inherently feminine quality present within all levels of the cosmic hierarchy. Every level can be entered or invaded from below, or from above. Invasions from above may not lead to an inverted tyranny of dragons but can be no less destructive as they overwhelm our capacity to integrate their power. The veil in the Tabernacle shielded not only the Holy of Holies from the eyes and presence of the unclean masses, it also shielded the unclean masses from the power which is higher up in the cosmic hierarchy that would otherwise consume them. When the time is right, the shield can be put down, and the veil pulled back or even rent to allow for the proper entrance of the higher things into the lower realms.
The proper use of a sword is in the subduing of dragons. The manifestation of this higher purpose, however, begins long before the sword exists as such. In a sword, the lower materials that lie buried in the Earth are raised up and collected. They are first given to the fire, and by the heat of the kiln they are purged of all impurities (at least in theory) and the base elements of iron and carbon (steel) or copper and tin (bronze) are fused together into a usable substance. Under the hammer of the smith and by the pain of countless blows, this material is broken and remade into a new image, and sharpened to a point. Left alone, the finished product is nothing more than a sharp and shiny object among all the other objects in the world. Once it is taken up by a human, however, its purpose as an instrument of war and a means for the imposition of higher meaning is made manifest.
Where a shield wards off, a sword strikes down. Shields, like veils, protect what is covered by them. A sword, however, can be seen as the opposite of a shield. If the shield deflects the fiery darts of the dragon, then the sword descends and enters into the belly of the beast in an act of invasion and in a little harrowing of Hell. Those fiery darts from the beastly enemy, however, represent the potential for the perversion of the sword. The moment the sword is turned upward and used to barge through the veil and shield that partitions off the higher things of the world and protect the Holy of Holies from the lower things, its wielder becomes like a raging dragon who leaves his proper abode and ascends to the heavens like a bandit.
Swords, like shields, are found at the edge of categories. In the Genesis account, the expulsion of Man from the mountain of paradise is punctuated by the stationing of a “cherubim and the fiery sword which turns every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” 2 Here the cherubim and flaming sword stand ready to push back against the possibility of the encroaching lower order of things upon the boundary of Eden. In the Epistle of Hebrews, the Logos is compared to a sword in its ability to penetrate to the “dividing of soul and spirit”. Here again, we see the obvious descent of meaning into a lower level of reality. The masculine aspect of the sword symbolism is apparent any time we see the forms of higher meaning incarnating into the bodies of lower matter.
Unity of Symbol
Symbols are polyvalent. That is to say, their meaning is dependent upon the context in which we find them and the scale of perspective from which we engage with them. The sword and shield are no different here. The shield is an example of an aspect of the feminine principle in that it either wards off or lets in that which originates from outside, while the sword is an obvious example of an aspect of the masculine principle which goes out and enters the other. Feminine and masculine here are not references to male and female, though both categories partake of the feminine and masculine principles described. The symbolism of the sword and shield then, as used in conjunction, is that of a balance between preserving an established space within the hierarchy from unwanted incursion from below, and the descending into those same lower levels to “raise matter and lower meaning”. 3 This is the first and primary role of mankind in the cosmos, to mediate the interaction between that which is above and that which is below. We raise matter as our own matter was raised, and we give meaning as our own existence was made meaningful. We “name the animals”. 4 By the image of the sword and shield, we can see the dynamic interplay between the various levels of reality, and the importance of category and place within the cosmic hierarchy. While it can help to see swords and shields as separate things, ultimately, the encoding of meaning that occurs within symbols shows us it is the action itself that is made manifest in those different objects. There is a fluidity present within the symbols of sword and shield, and one can often morph into the other. In a fascinating Old English poem called The Descent into Hell, 5 we find the expected descent of the crucified Christ into Hades. The unity of the sword and shield symbolism is here beautifully articulated and made even more evident by the translation choice of Dr. Eleanor Parker:
Fysde hine þa to fore frea moncynnes;
wolde heofona helm helle weallas
forbrecan ond forbygan, þære burge þrym
onginnan reafian, reþust ealra cyninga.
Then the Lord of mankind hastened to his journey.
The shield of the heavens wanted to destroy and demolish
the walls of hell, to carry off the people of the city,
most righteous of all kings.
Here we see the imagery of an expanding shield or veil, which has reached down into the lower hellish regions in order to expand its dominion. In other words, the protective intermediary “Shield of Heaven” has taken up the masculine role of sword and entered Hell in order to conquer it and reclaim its captives. Interestingly enough, the poem describes the “frea moncynnes” (Lord of Mankind) with the epithet “heofona helm” (Shield of Heaven). This suggests that the sword and shield symbolism is present within the very identity of Christ. Man then, being an icon of God, obviously finds the same symbolism present within his own identity, albeit at perhaps a lesser scale. The symbolism at work within the very action of the sword and shield show us the essential way we interact within the cosmos.
The further one descends within the hierarchy, the more the means of symbolic expression becomes diffused throughout a variety of symbols. Higher up in the hierarchy however, all things coalesce into one thing, as the hallmark of The Greater is its ability to encompass The Lesser. Here in Middle-Earth, the instruments of sword and shield, through their use among the children of men across the millennia, stand as remarkable symbols of those essential posturings of the masculine and feminine which make up the whole of Mankind and affect our interactions between all that is above and all that is below.
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- St. Paul. The Orthodox Study Bible, at Ephesians 6:16. Thomas Nelson, 2008.
- The Genesis Author. The Orthodox Study Bible, at Genesis 3:24. Thomas Nelson, 2008.
- Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation, at pages 59-61. 2018.
- Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation, at pages 51-61. 2018.
- Parker, Eleanor . “’Open wæs þæt eorðærn’: the Harrowing of Hell”, A Clerk of Oxford, April, 2015.