… the cross – which is a wooden sword thrust into the Earth – opens the gates of Paradise, because it cleanses all mankind from original sin.
When reflecting on an object, I find it pleasant and sensible to begin with its name, the word that denotes it; and the ‘sword’ has a feminine name – whether in Italian, in Latin (spatha) or in ancient Greek (σπάϑη). Henceforth, there is no need to investigate the past to an obscure linguistic origin: we have a sharp she, three times throughout Western human history, clasped in the hands and at the service of the world’s masculine counterpart.
Of all the famous swords that appear in tales of great battles, be they real, mythological or religious, there is one that is the best known and most legendary: Excalibur, She who cuts steel. It was gifted to King Arthur of Camelot by the mysterious Lady of the Lake – and we do not know whether she created it or merely kept it for that fateful moment. What we do know, however, are many other things: it is She who raises the fatherless Sir Lancelot; it is She who seduces and imprisons the powerful wizard Merlin; and it is She who leads dying Arthur to Avalon, after The Battle of Camlann.
The exceptional brilliance of Caliburn (her Latinised name) is praised and its superiority to any other existing sword is told. Even its scabbard has a mysterious power: whoever possesses it does not bleed and is thus protected from death. Excalibur’s blade cuts and wounds like nothing else in battle and, in turn, its scabbard protects the wielder; the first symbolic analogies are already beginning to emerge. There is a sign of masculinity, in the form of a triangle with the vertex opposite the base pointing upwards, similar to an ancient spear; and there is a sign of femininity, its counterpart, a triangle with the same vertex pointing downwards, similar to the belly that envelops and protects. Turning to etymology and language, the word ‘vagina’, from Latin, literally means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’, i. e. that which guards and preserves. This could be a treasure trove of meanings to sift through; or it could be a mere simplification of the female genital organ, born of a blind and distrustful culture.
Having tasted a few symbols and outlined a few polemics, let us return to the Breton series in order to recall its appropriate conclusion. King Arthur, at the end of his epic and on the threshold of death, declares his intention to return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, from whom the precious blade had been granted but not given. A white forearm and hand emerge from the still waters, clasping the hilt, and the Lady and the sword disappear into those same waters forever.
Like the image of Excalibur, the meaning and broader sense of the object ‘sword’ have also disappeared from the minds of most people, owing to the fact that it is no longer something that belongs to our daily life. At a contemporary glance, there is little or nothing left of its importance in the chivalric sphere – apart from serving as a more or less historically reliable prop in films and TV series. And so, since we cannot directly access the cultural and symbolic aspects, let us start from the purely physical aspect.
When a sword is in an ‘active’ position, ready to strike with its tip or edge, it wounds and kills; when it is in a ‘passive’ position, i.e. flat, it tames. Like during rite of passage ceremonies conferring knighthood that still take place today, where the triple touch of the blade – shoulders and top of the head – is only a measure of honour and duty. The first level, the physical one, is in this case an abstract and concrete symbol of what is metaphysical: the point is aimed at the knight’s heart, to demonstrate and remind him how much passion his oath demands and entails. Once again, the sword makes a sort of ‘metaphysical cut’ between two realities: the individual as a common human being, and the individual as the one who embodies the endowment he receives. The symbol is also a warning, and the blade resembles a guillotine, or rather the proverbial sword of Damocles. It serves as a reminder of what we must never forget: the higher one soars over peaks and summits, the thinner the air and the more fatal any ill perceived flow of wind can be.
In order to safeguard life, the sword also becomes a compass and sextant; and as a result the ‘shining’ sword is the flaming one, which like a beacon stands at the gates of what has been abandoned or never reached: that same garden of delicacy which has, for each of us, a particular colour and flavour. The biblical texts tell us that it marks Eden’s borders, home of Adam and Eve, who through their disobedience made us humans physical and metaphysical exiles. The flaming sword is the key placed by God in the hands of the cherub Uriel, so that those who have been driven out cannot return – for God punishes children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation [Ex 20: 5].
But good tidings speak of a key that opens even this lock. It is the death on the cross of the son of God that manifests a new analogy and a new interpretation of the symbol: the cross – which is a wooden sword thrust into the Earth – opens the gates of Paradise, because it cleanses all mankind from original sin. As the guilt of the fathers falls on the children, so the sacrifice of God (father) through the person of a son, falls as a purifying rain on his children. The same act of the incarnation and death of the son of God is a cutting one that splits: time, determining a distinct before and after metaphysically; humanity, between those who have faith and shall be saved and those who have no faith, and shall be lost. I have not come to bring peace but a sword [Mt 10: 34].
Hence, the work of unveiling and discerning the Truth reveals a universe dissected into its subtle nuances, into those minor reverberations of what is so in greater orders of magnitude. In the same way that the ‘wooden sword’ on Earth recalls the flaming sword in Eden: after the Son’s death and resurrection, the key is removed and the exiles can finally return to their rightful fatherland.
And once again, we see this sword vanish.