What, exactly, are swords? I asked that question before and I gave first answers. I told you that a sword is first and foremost a tool for killing or wounding “the enemy”. The word actually means “to cut, pierce” in its proto-Indo-European root “swer”. In German a sword is a “Schwert” coming from the same root from old High German “sweran” = to hurt, and “swertha” = the cutting weapon.
I also told you that a sword can be much more. Swords are for example powerful symbols, objects of art and, most important to me, a sword embodies the status of the metal technology in any given culture.
It is now time to realize that swords were among the very first utensils people made only for fighting and warfare.
True, some cave-dwelling stone age guy might have used his stone knife for slashing away at his enemy, and an early hunter might have used his bow and arrow to shoot at his foe. But all these things, including knifes of stone or metal, were primarily made for everyday life, agriculture or hunting. They were dual-use or multi-use items, sure, but never for single use in fighting only.
A sword has many symbolic functions that do not demand to actually wield it. But you simply cannot use it “mechanically” to butter your bread, to cut your steak, to clean your fingernails or to cut a hiking staff from the next hazelnut bush. In many cultures just the attempt to do something like that would have been frowned upon if not punished. You can only use a sword for fighting, with the intent to hurt or kill humans. Even hunting animals with just a sword doesn’t make much sense.
People at some point in time might have used bows and arrows that were dedicated to warfare and not used for hunting. The famous composite bows of the Huns are an example. They allow power-shooting while riding a horse in full gallop. But you could use them for hunting without any problems and they are still very close relatives of the general bow. Swords, however, are not just knifes with an especially long blade, just as a knife tied to a sturdy pole is not a knife with an especially long hilt but a lance, something new. Your style of fighting with a lance or a sword is quite different from fighting with a knife. Fighting is the only thing you do with a sword (if we discount executions). A lance, while certainly also a fighting tool, has at least some use in hunting, especially if you go after boars.
OK – I felt it is necessary to make this kind of fundamentalist black-and-white differentiation between knifes and swords at the outset of this chapter. If you, like me, are fascinated by swords, you should consider your reasons for this on occasion.
Now let’s be reasonable and realize that in real life there is almost always some grey in between the black and white. There is, after all, a continuous path from your peaceful bread-and-butter knife to your deadly sword. In between is your large farm utility knife, your butchering knifes, your pointed hunting knife, your dagger, your long fighting knife with a sharp point.
Of course, swords developed out of knifes as soon as the technology was available, and there are manifestations that were neither here nor there – in metal and stone: