How Do Sword Swallowers Swallow Swords?

iStock/chrisjo
iStock/chrisjo

Swallowing food involves a series of muscle contractions, both voluntary and involuntary. Swallowing a sword requires no actual swallowing, but the complete opposite: the deliberate relaxation of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

First, the sword swallower tilts their head back and extends their neck to line up their mouth with their esophagus and straighten the pharynx. Relaxing their throat, they line the sword up with the path of their GI tract and move the blade into and through the mouth, pharynx and upper esophageal sphincter and into the esophagus. As the sword makes its way through the GI tract, it straightens out esophagus' curves and sometimes, if an especially long sword is used, passes through the gastroesophageal junction (lower esophageal sphincter) and into the stomach.

It sounds easy, but sword swallowing isn't something you can learn to do in an afternoon. Learning to relax the GI tract takes practice, and lots of it. Furthermore, a sword swallowing performance usually goes better if the swallower can make it look like it isn't the worst thing that ever happened to them. To see how difficult that can be, touch the back of your throat right now.

Not pleasant, is it? Now imagine cramming a long, cold and rigid sword down there, and even further, while keeping a straight face.

Beyond the physical process of relaxing the GI tract and carefully inserting the sword, the feat is accomplished by practice, attaining a mind-over-matter attitude and maintaining calm and focus during the performance.

Some sword swallowing facts:

"¢ During the development of endoscopy, the examination of the interior of the human body using a scope, researchers often worked with sword swallowers because their bodies were able to accommodate the rigid instruments.

"¢ The Coney Island Sideshow School offers organized sword swallowing classes.

"¢ Sword swallowing originated about 4000 years ago in India among fakirs and shamans who developed it as demonstration of their invulnerability, power and connection with the gods.

"¢ Sword swallowing came to America in the early 1800s and began gaining popularity after swallowers performed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

"¢ The Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) proclaimed February 28th, 2008 as International Sword Swallower's Day "to raise awareness of sword swallowers around the world." (February is National Swallowing Disorders Month)

"¢ Sword Swallowers refer to irritation of the throat due to performance as a "sword throat."

"¢ Red Stuart recently set the record for most swords swallowed simultaneously when he swallowed 34 at the 2008 Philadelphia Tattoo Convention on April 19, 2008.

"¢ In 2003, Matty "Blade" Henshaw set the record for most swords swallowed in a year: 3782.

"¢ "The Sword of Swords" has been swallowed by 33 different performers since 1994, when it was made by Thomas Blackthorne as an icon that could link the far-flung members of the sword-swallowing world.

"¢ In carny lingo, sword swallowers are called "blade glommers" or "steel slurpers."

This question was suggested my friend Paul Montgomery. If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER