February 25th is International Sword Swallower’s Awareness Day
February 25th is International Sword Swallower’s Awareness Day
I have always considered sword swallowers to be magicians or illusionists. I just assumed that the sword slowly collapsed in on itself like a telescope. But it appears that I have been mistaken. Sword swallowing is truly a dangerous art form that takes many years of practice and discipline to perfect.
I considered making a joke about the holiday of International Sword Swallowers Awareness Day … you know, something along the lines of, “If I had a sword down my throat, I wouldn’t need a special day to make me aware of it. I’m pretty darn sure I would know!” But sword swallowing is very serious business. So we will just pretend that I didn’t say that.
In 2008, February 28th was proclaimed to be International Sword Swallower’s Day by the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI). Interestingly enough, the month of February is also National Swallowing Disorders Month.
What Kind of Sword is Used?
Most swords used by sword swallowers do not have sharp edges. Despite this fact, these blades can puncture and scrape the gastrointestinal tract. Multiple swords being swallowed at once can be particularly dangerous as they can slide against each other and act as a scissors to any flesh caught between them.
The SSAI states that a sword swallower is anyone who can swallow a 15” (38 cm) sword. The SSAI also has a recommendation on the maximum length that should be attempted, 24 inches (61 cm). This longer length would easily place the tip of the sword into the swallower’s stomach. Swords must also be at least .8 inches (2 cm) wide.
Both straight and curved blades are used.
How to Swallow a Sword ~ The Taste of Metal
Swallowing a sword and swallowing food are not even close to requiring the same actions of your body. In fact, they are exact opposites of each other. Swallowing food requires muscles to “contract”, therefore “forcing” the food down. Swallowing a sword requires muscles to “relax”, therefore “allowing” the sword to be inserted.
Let’s look at a general overview of how someone would go about swallowing a sword. The first thing a sword swallower has to do is to get into the proper position. This means having to tilt their head back at just the right angle and then extending their neck to align their mouth, esophagus and pharynx. Before inserting the sword, they have to deliberately relax their throat and upper gastrointestinal tract to prevent the gag reflex and allow the sword to pass. Then aligning the sword with the path created by their mouth and esophagus they begin inserting the sword.
As the sword is inserted, it straightens out the curves that are in the esophagus. A longer sword will even pass into the stomach! Saliva acts as a lubricant, although some sword swallowers use other lubricants such as vegetable oil as well.
The sword also has to nudge some organs, such as the heart, out of its way in order to be fully swallowed. The basic idea is to completely relax the throat turning it into a “living scabbard.”
If by some chance you think this sounds easy, use your finger to touch the back of your throat. Imagine if your finger had been a sharp blade as the muscles go into spasms because of your gag reflex. As difficult as it sounds, a sword swallower must be able to overcome this “reflex” for the full length of the sword both in and out.
As you can well imagine, learning to control your body to this extent takes even more than lots of practice. It requires a tremendous amount of physical and psychological preparation to enable the sword swallower to remain totally calm and focused during their performance.
Mastering the gag reflex in order to be able to swallow swords involves purposefully triggering the gag reflex repeatedly which can cause vomiting and severe discomfort. Do this often enough, and the gag reflex becomes dulled enabling the sword swallower to take in the sword.
An Alternate Method
Several sources, including famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, have stated that most performers actually swallow a metal tube that can act as an internal scabbard prior to their performance. The sword is then inserted into this tube during the “magic” act.
Either of these methods can sound deceptively easy, but for someone untrained and inexperienced, sword swallowing is extremely dangerous. Sword swallowing should never be attempted unless under the tutelage of an experienced professional.
Dangers of Sword Swallowing
Although the swords used are typically not sharp, injuries do occur.
- The irritation (throat pain) that sword swallowers get which is a hazard of doing their job is referred to as “sword throat”.
- Lower chest pain likely from injury to the diaphragm and/or esophagus. Can be persistent, but after several days of refraining from swallowing swords the pain usually subsides.
- Internal bleeding caused from cuts, scrapes and perforations – some may require surgery.
- Inflammation of the lungs
- Inflammation of the sac that surrounds the heart.
History of Sword Swallowing
Sword swallowing originated in India before 2000 BC. It was practiced by various shamans and fakirs (a Muslim or Hindu religious ascetic or mendicant monk commonly considered a wonder-worker) to demonstrate their power and union with the gods.
In the 8th century, sword swallowing spread to China and then into Japan. It also moved into Greece and Italy, and then into Europe during the early Middle Ages. It struggled during the Inquisition and then eventually died out.
Although coming to America in the early 1800’s, sword swallowing did not become popular in the states until after a performance at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Heather Holliday Swallows 2 Swords at Once
Sword Swallowers have Made Many Contributions to the Medical Community
In the 19th century sword swallowers were used to study the human digestive system. A sword swallower was given small hollow metal tubes with holes in them to “swallow.” The tubes were filled with raw meat. After specified periods of time, the tubes were brought back up. The meat was studied to determine how much was digested over given time periods.
As early as 1868, it was suggested that sword swallowers would be great subjects for esophagoscopy. During an endoscopic procedure, rigid instruments are inserted down a patient’s throat. Researchers have since worked with sword swallowers during the development of these instruments because of their bodies ability to accommodate the instruments.
Sword Swallower X-Rayed While Swallowing Sword
I apologize in advice for the soundtrack with this video - it contains static - but the video is so good that I just had to include it. You do want to hear what they are saying however.
Other Interesting Tidbits about Sword Swallowing
- In carny lingo, sword swallowers are referred to as “blade glommers” or “steel slurpers.”
- In 2008, at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention, a sword swallower, Red Stuart, set a record for most swords swallowed by swallowing 34 swords simultaneously!
- In 2003, Matty “Blade” Henshaw swallowed 3782 swords during the course of that year!
- Not being able to break either of these records, Thomas Blackthorne decided to create a record for himself – the Most Swallowed Sword! He has been lugging his sword, affectionately called the “Sword of Swords” around the world; and it has been swallowed by more than 33 different performers.
7 Swords at Once!
Learning to Swallow Swords
Although it is extremely dangerous, many sword swallowers instruct themselves in the art. Others are instructed by experienced professional sword swallowers. And still others take classes such as those offered at the Coney Island Sideshow School.
CAUTION: Sword swallowing is extremely dangerous! Do NOT try this at home.
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Copyright © 2012 Cindy Murdoch (homesteadbound)
Sword Swallowing Resource Sites:
- How to swallow a sword
Sword swallowers are often thought of as magicians or illusionists. Although there are plenty of arcane skills they have to learn, there's no real 'trick' to their work. They don't use blades that collapse down, or insert them down the collar of thei
- The Secrets (and Perils) of Sword Swallowing Revealed | LiveScience
Definitely don't try this at home. Scientists have documented the dangers, from "sword throat" to a scissored esophagus.
- Sword swallowing and its side effects