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.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images
Antoninapotapenko/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25 and ends on January 5. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images
Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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