Sunday, August 24, 2014

On swords and beheadings

From Nikolai: "Those who claim that the sword has some kind of unique special place in Islamic and Islamicate culture are misleading at best - in many (most? maybe all?) cultures there have been trends to give special significance to swords and other weapons. This shouldn't be that surprising to anyone.

In Anglo-Saxon culture (as well as other European cultures) the word "sword" was closely tied to the phrase "God's word", a phrase found in Biblical translations. In fact, a popular folk etymology claims that the word "sword" is a contraction of the phrase "God's word" (this is not true - it comes from the Germanic word "swerdom"). Regardless, the sword - probably more so than other kinds of weapons - often invoked spiritual warfare in English culture. The Oxford English Dictionary (certainly the best English language dictionary) even gives as one definition of sword: "something figured as a weapon of attack in spiritual warfare". How's that for "religious and cultural symbolism"?

As for beheadings, they're no more - or less - part of Middle Eastern culture than they are of European or East Asian culture. Take, for example, the case of Sweden: "Some 644 people, including nearly 200 women, were beheaded in Sweden between 1800 and 1866.  From 1866 until manual beheading was replaced by the guillotine in 1903 only 14 more people were to suffer this fate. Capital punishment was abolished in Sweden in 1921.... This drawing is of the execution of 48 year old Anna Månsdotter in Kristianstad, southern Sweden on the 7th of August 1890. In Anna's case, the blade of the axe passed through her lower jaw which was left attached to her neck afterwards..." (In 1973, Sweden truly abolished the death penalty - they abolished it for crimes even committed during times of war.) So even as recently as the 1800's beheadings were popular in what is now one of the world's most progressive states. Things change."