Biting Off More Than You Can Chew? The Dangerous History Of Sword Swallowing

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Biting Off More Than You Can Chew? The Dangerous History Of Sword Swallowing

Throughout human history we seem to have done almost anything to entertain ourselves, and some forms of entertainment have been pretty weird. Some of

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Throughout human history we seem to have done almost anything to entertain ourselves, and some forms of entertainment have been pretty weird. Some of these have even teetered on the edge of the downright dangerous.

When it comes to the practice of sword swallowing, this would certainly count as one of the more dangerous activities. The fact that even today, people do it for entertainment is testament to its enduring, if eccentric, appeal. 

Sword swallowing, of course, does not involve swallowing a sword literally. It is a performance art in which the performer passes a sword through their mouth, through the opening of the esophagus and into the stomach.

The act can only be performed safely after years of practice by a professional. Even then, there is always a chance of injury for anyone who practices the method of sword swallowing, and great care must be taken. 

An Ancient And Sacred Art

The practice of sword swallowing has developed over thousands of years. It may be because of these long drawn roots that the practice has endured, disseminated to different cultures over human history.

Many historical records claim that the practice of sword swallowing started in India millennia ago. In fact, many believe that the practice originated as early as 2,000 BC. Sword swallowing, then as now, needs a high level of discipline, physical and mental control.

In its earliest form, sword swallowing was practiced and perfected by Indian ascetics known as fakirs and sadhus. These holy people performed different types of Yoga and practiced sword swallowing as a form of penance.

The ease with which a sadhu could swallow a sword showed his closeness to the Divine Power and proved his mystical credentials. This was only one of various dangerous acts performed for this purpose by Indian sadhus and their disciples. Others included snake charming, walking on a bed of nails, and fire walking. 

A Popular Attraction

But sword swallowing did not stay limited to the Indian subcontinent. Because India had trade routes with China and Japan, the art form spread to those cultures. Trade from those regions also spread sword swallowing to Greece and Rome, until all the ancient civilizations had some form of sword swallowing practice. 

Chinese sword swallower (Unknown Author / CC BY 4.0 )

Interestingly, around the same time that sword swallowing was spreading from India to other parts of the world, North American native tribes also independently developed their own form of sword swallowing.

However, these civilizations practiced arrow or stick swallowing instead of swords. Native American Shamans and warriors practiced this to show their superior physical and mental capabilities. 

While the Middle East and Asia embraced and celebrated sword swallowing as a spiritual and physical activity, the Catholic Church saw it as a dangerous threat. The church expelled all sword swallowers during the Middle Ages, as they tended to do with things they did not understand. 

However, sword swallowing never went away, and made a global comeback in the late 1800s as entertainment. Sword swallowers performed at the Chicago World Fair and entertained an American audience. By the 20th century, sword swallowing had spread anew in the world.  

Don’t Try This At Home

Swallowing a sword is an incredible feat, and seems so unlikely that people often think of it as an illusion, or magic trick. Contrary to this, successful sword swallowing is all about mental and physical control.

It takes minute consciousness and control of the body so that the sword enters your body with minimal damage. Even professionals practicing the form for many years are aware that there is always a danger looming with sword-swallowing.

Circus sword swallower, Maryland, 1970 (RV1864 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Circus sword swallower, Maryland, 1970 (RV1864 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

In fact, when the form started out at first, there were no professional trainers. The practice has been perfected with trial and error, and there were doubtless many accidents along the way. Today, of course, there are professional performers and trainers who train in well-established methods.

For the sword to easily pass through your esophagus, the first thing you need is a lot of lubrication. The performer prepares their buccal cavity (mouth and throat) and esophagus by leaning back and opening their mouth wide.

The performer then suppresses their tongue and epiglottis to open up the pharyngeal and esophageal opening. Once the opening is clear of soft tissue that could be damaged by the blade, the performer should have a straight line down into the gastrointestinal tract. The blade should then glide down the track without a problem. 

If the performer gets it right, the sword blade passes smoothly between the lungs and (alarmingly) nudges the heart to the left slightly. The sword then passes smoothly through into the stomach.

Sounds grim, doesn’t it? And the idea that this action happens without any damage to the vital organs seems unbelievable. 

Risky Business

There are multiple physical risks to sword swallowing that swallowers experience with time. The swallowers typically end up with highly sore throats and painfully bruised vocal cords. This can cause them to take up a liquid diet, and to not speak for weeks while the throat rests to recover. Sometimes, sword swallowing can also lead to a loss of voice. 

Specially designed swords are used to minimize injury, but the risks remain (Nathan Rupert / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Specially designed swords are used to minimize injury, but the risks remain (Nathan Rupert / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

If performed too frequently, sword swallowing can often lead to dysphagia or difficulty in swallowing. Thus, the side effects of sword swallowing can lead to drastic ill impacts on health.

And this is if the performer gets everything right, but this is not always the case. Even a slight cut to blood vessels or tissues can lead to internal bleeding and infection. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the worst-case scenario swallowing a sword the wrong way can result in the immediate death of the performer. 

Regardless (or perhaps because of) of the dangers, sword swallowing still continues to be a popular street entertainment act. The daring practice still instills a sense of awe and disbelief in people. There are many circus performers and martial art practitioners who specialize in sword-swallowing, and it is a regular feature in modern circus acts.

Top Image: Sword swallowing can be dangerous, which is perhaps part of the appeal. Source: Wanderlustwoman195 / CC BY-SA 4.0 .

By Bipin Dimri

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