|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:
|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.|
|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:|
|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:|
|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?|
|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:|
|Finally. he "Chronicle of Abindon" form ca. 1220 shows Ethelred the Unready (ca. 968 - 1016) with a prominent serpent sword:|
|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.|
Books and Other Major Sources
Critical Museum Guide: Dresden
11.3 Pattern Welding 11.3.1 Background to Pattern Welding
Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung"
Large Pictures 1
The Frankish Empire And Its Swords
Large Format Pictures
11.3.2 More to Pattern Welding
Large Pictures chapter 11.4
Large Pictures 2 - Chapter 11.3
11.4. The Transition to All-Steel Swords / 11.4.1 Viking Swords
Old Sagas, Heroes and Swords
Theoderic's "Thank You" letter
Large Pictures 3
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)