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Or ancient weapons as status symbols in fiction and mythology. The short answer is that Asskicking equals Authority but there is a bit more to it, of course. I’ll talk about a few of these weapons, their history and how they can apply to your next work of speculative fiction.
From Excalibur to Lightsabers, swords rule supreme in fantasy and science fiction. Part of it comes from the strange mixing of anime, D&D and Star Wars, but these sources simply borrow from earlier mythology. Almost every mythic arc known to man has at least one sword of legend, Roland had Durandal, Japanese Hero Emperor’s had Kusanagi, the Persians had Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegar and so on.
Swords appeared in the bronze age as the first true weapons. It has always been associated with elite warriors for multiple reasons. The first is cost. Other weapons do not require as much metal, time or expertise to craft. The second is skill. While other weapons cost less swords are wasted on anyone not properly trained to use them.
Their status grew (ironically enough) as firearms made them obsolete on the battlefield. Calvary men (successors to the mounted knight) still used them until the onset of WW1 as did the Samurai (who traded their mounts and composite bows for katanas) until the Meiji/Restoration period. Swords also became linked to dueling in Europe and Japan as well as symbols of authority. Only noblemen/gentlemen could afford to carry and train in the use of the rapier family of swords and in Japan only Samurais could carry the two blades as a symbol of their authority. Which such a rich history connecting swords to power is no wonder that they remain the number one weapon of choice in speculative fiction.
While the sword goes hand in hand with nobility and authority, the spear predates it by several thousand years and it reaffirmed itself over on the battlefield even as guns broke the back of the sword. Spears were popular for a variety of reasons. Made mostly of wood they were cheap to make. Almost anyone could wield one (pointy end toward enemy) and it served as a melee weapon as well as a projectile. Plus it doubled (and it some cases) tripled the reach of the wielder. As an added bonus they could be set against a mounted charge. Horses maybe animals but they don’t like to rush into obstacles (thanks to their I’m-not-that-stupid gene), they must be trained to do so.
Several mythic figures favored the spear above the mighty sword, among them the Celtic hero Cú Cuchulain (the foot launched gut wrenching Gaé Bulg), Odin (Gungnir), and the Spear of Destiny (or Holy Lance/Spear of Longinus).
War being the ultimate social Darwinian experiment (with ever predictable results) that while the spear started as an adaptation of a primitive hunting tool it dominated the battlefield in the hands of elite warriors such as the Spartans (of 300/Thermopylae fame) and the Swiss mercenaries (who still survive as the famed Swiss Guard of Rome). The sword may be the weapon of nobility but the humble spear was the weapon of choice for the hardened combat veteran.
3. Axes, Clubs, Daggers and Hammers:
I put these three distinct weapons together because they have one thing in common,weapons that double as tools. Stone axes and clubs separated the hairless apes from their ancestors. Not only could they wield multipurpose tools but manufacture them as well.
Axes were the first tool created to shape the landscape which also served as a handy weapon in case of an emergency. Downing trees gave man a source of fuel, arable land and building materials. Didn’t take much to time or energy to master an axe and it’s combination of weight and broad blade meant that while not as precise as sword where ever it hits it would hurt. Minoan priest’s used the double headed axe (labrys) as a religious symbol. You can thank the Vikings and the Saxons for the image of the axe wielding barbarian.
Clubs maybe have being the first improvised weapon, but gave way to a wide variety of blunt instruments from the basic polished bone to the modern police baton. Heracles was famed for carrying a club which he used to slay the Nemean Lion. Smaller clubs were easy to use and packed quiet a punch due to the relative speed of impact. They also ignored armor, as the concussive force transmitted directly from the armor surface to the body within (with perhaps the added bonus of metal plate armor breaking and slashing the skin beneath, ouch).
Daggers are the direct ancestors of the sword and are still in use. A good all around tool for skinning, eating and killing. Although seen as the preferred choice of the assassin due to it’s small size, it has also served as a back up weapon for soldiers since the dawn of time. Knights would pummel their opponents with swords and then deliver the killing blow with a swift knife thrust to the eye or neck. The lowly dagger did what the gun could not by putting the spear out of business as a practical weapon of war and turning the musket into the Swiss army knife of the battlefield (short spear with the bayonet, plus firearm and club).
Hammers are close cousins of both the club and the axe. Another entrenching tool that served as a weapon on the battlefield. Thor swore by mighty Mjolnir. Although not as glamorous as the sword or feared as the dagger or axe it still proved a potent weapon in its own right. Due to their construction they could deliver even more force than a club/mace and with a pick in the back drag an armored opponent to the ground and serve as a dagger to attack weak points.
As you can see there more to weapons than just the slash and hack of a blade. Next time you’re thinking about arming fantasy army think beyond the sword.