Serpent in the Sword

The "serpent in the sword" is a topic that comes up in connection with pattern welded swords. In particular Stefan Maeder has devoted many pages of his (German) 330 page opus "Steels, Stones and Snakes" to the topic.
There are three reasons for this:
  1. A few old pattern welded swords with a wavy line pattern instead of the far more frequent herringbone or torsion pattern have been found. This wavy line might represent a serpent.
  2. Swords in old pictorial representations (typically illuminated manuscripts, wood carvings or stained glass windows) are occasionally shown with a wavy line running down the blade.
  3. In a few old writings references to a "serpent in the blade" can be found.
It is thus possible that the wavy line was not just another way to ornament a blade but that the "serpent" symbolized something or did some "magic" like an amulet or something. The guys with pattern welded swords were not necessarily Christians before 800 AD or so, after all.
Let's note right away that even the oldest of all the sources referring to serpents in the blade are not as old as most pattern welded swords. They typically appeared a few hundred years after the heydays of pattern welding.
Let's only look at point 2 and 3 of the evidence here, point 1 is covered here.
Here is a good "picture" to start with. The wood carving was part of a door of the Hylestad stave church in Setesdal, Norway; built in late 12th to early 13th century.
Sigurd killing Regin the Smith
Sigurd / Siegfried kills Regin / Mime the Smith, his Forster Father. His sword (Gram / Notung) shows a "serpent in the blade"
Source: "Hammer of the North - Magnus Magnusson, images by Werner Forman"; posted on a Bladesmith's Forum Board in the Net.
The "Stuttgarter Psalter" is kept in the Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, Germany. It is from 825 AD and contains nicely illustrated Bible stuff. It was made in Saint-Germain-des-Prés near to Paris, France. And no, we didn't have to invade France to get it. We had a common King around then: Charlemagne. The psalter contains a lot of pictures with plenty of swords, severed heads and so on. It does show swords with a wavy line = serpent (?) running down the blades, as Stefan Maeder pointed out:
Snake in the sword; Stuttgart psalter
Swords with serpents in the blade; Stuttgart Psalter
Source: Internet site of Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, Germany
However, as far as I scanned through the volume, there seem to be far more swords without a serpent than with one; below is an example. We do encounter serpents in other contexts, however, as shown further down:
A swords with no serpent in the blade; Stuttgart Psalter
A real serpent with a devil. Read the Bible to find out what,
exactly, Jesus is doing. Stuttgart Psalter
Then we have a sword with a pattern that is definitely not a snake but, maybe, symbolizes writing in those good (at least for dogs) old days?
Sword with writing on the blade, Stuttgarter Psalter
Sword with writing on the blade? Stuttgarter Psalter
There are plenty more examples. Some of the pictures in this link "show swords with snakes".
The stained glass window of the Freiburger Münster; Germany, from around 1330 show many swords with serpents. Here is one:
Serpent in the sword of St. Catherine
A serpent in the sword of St. Catherine
Source: Internet at large / S.Maeder
  Finally. he "Chronicle of Abindon" form ca. 1220 shows Ethelred the Unready (ca. 968 - 1016) with a prominent serpent sword:
Ethelred the Unready
A serpent in the sword of Ethelred the Unready
Source: Wiki commons. Scanned from the book: "The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England" by David Williamson
However! In my experience all that stuff from early times - and there is plenty - mostly shows swords with nothing on their blades. The pictures above with patterned blades are rather the exception, not the rule. I can't give you statistics but I'm rather sure about that.
It might well be that a wavy line was the way to illustrate that there is some pattern on the blade. If you look at the examples given, the artists, for lack of space, simply could not possibly have produced the normal torsion damask pattern in their works.
Now to the written evidence.
The best known snake tale comes from Norse sagas; it is recounted in Oakeshott's book. The famous (and, needless to say, somehow magic) sword Sköfnung is reported to do funny things: "Hold up the blade and blow on it; a small snake will creep from under the guard; incline the blade, and make it easy for the snake to creep back again". That may well be practical advice. Nearly invisible patterns on polished surfaces may come to light when you "blow" on them, i.e. making water from your breath condense on the cool surface.
In "Beowulf" we find a reference to a sword blade "variegated like a snake".
The famous sword Eckesachs from the Thidrekssaga might have contained a serpent, and so on and so forth. Just nothing really clear.
What does it mean? We simply don't know. It's a small way from the serpent to the dragon, and dragons and dragon slayers loom large in the mythology of the Europeans, not to mention the Chinese. Is there a connection? If you believe so, nobody can refute your claim. But you can't prove it either. So let's rest the matter right here.

With frame With frame as PDF

go to Books and Other Major Sources

go to Critical Museum Guide: Dresden

go to 11.3 Pattern Welding 11.3.1 Background to Pattern Welding

go to Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung"

go to Large Pictures 1

go to The Frankish Empire And Its Swords

go to Large Format Pictures

go to "Damascene" Patterns

go to 11.3.2 More to Pattern Welding

go to Large Pictures chapter 11.4

go to Large Pictures 2 - Chapter 11.3

go to 11.4. The Transition to All-Steel Swords / 11.4.1 Viking Swords

go to Sword Names

go to Old Sagas, Heroes and Swords

go to Theoderic's "Thank You" letter

go to Large Pictures 3

© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)