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Mittwoch, 23. September 2015

The black-handled knife from Crete as Apotropaion

 In my relatively...ummmm...vast? . ;-) collection one can find among many others these two knives. For the one below I can safely state that it is a knife from Crete. The one on top MAY come  from Crete, from as much as I know, but it might also come from Sheffield. The trader I bought it from s aid it was from Syria. The blade is made from crucible steel or even wootz, from the pattern in the blade. The small one is made from spring steel and buffalo horn.
It has this inscription on the blade, and ever since Olaf hinted a rather bloodthirsty background was related to this (I cannot read Greek), I was interested in the story behind it. And, what can I say? I plunged deep into a whole and fascinating world.

Readers of my blog know that I am fascinated by the cultural aspect of knives and knifemaking. And it seems that throughout the world there is one aspect of knives seldom mentioned in a world of know-it-alls and fairy tale busters: The apotropaeic aspect, meaning the property of knives (and iron tools in general) to "fend off Evil". Having done some research now on the topic of Cretan knives, I found out those might as well be THE apotropaion per se. It served as a part of the wedding ceremony, to carve crosses into the threshold to ward off Evil and was used in the ceremony as a gift. I found an article that is a bit biased, but I found the facts about the knife to be well researched and true:

For some nice videos look here:


Those knives are still made in the traditional way in Crete, albeit by just one serious manufacturer:

The handle is mostly made from ram´s, goat and buffalo horn, but also of Acrylic. The shape of the knife dates back to the 18th century and up until now it is part of traditional attires.

The knife with the black handle often is given to the bride in the orthodox wedding ceremony, to remind her to remain faithful, but also to defend her virgin countenance. It is used to carve sigils into the threshold of the new house and in ritual magic. Newborn childs were presented bread and salt (and sometimes earth) from the tip of the knife, which is a very similar practice to the custom in ancient Scandinavian culture to offer salt and earth from the tip of a sword´s blade in order to give the newborn child virility and fighting prowess.

It is obvious that this knife on one hand is a very practical design, with a good balance, a sharp blade and good cutting prowess, yet sturdy enough to take a beating, while on the other hand it serves as an apotropaion.

The apotropaic power in the knife results in the materials used: Iron and horn. Iron is smelted in a furnace, and it is said to become "furious" by the smelting and smithing process, but it also is a kind of giving birth, so much in fact that even today in Africa furnaces are built resembling female figures giving birth to the burning ore. Steel is "born" not made, born from the dark earth. Bog iron ore often is blood-red, haematite, another raw material for smelting iron and making steel, is dark, shining black and grey. The colours have a big importance in the creation of an apotropaion, Meteorite iron is said to be even more powerful, so much in fact that Muslims all over the world bow towards the Ka´aba in Mekka, where the meteorite of Al Uzza is kept in the shrine up until nowadays.

The meteorite, having traversed the universe, coming from the "realms above" in a "flash", is said to be the lightning rod, or the lightning spear of God or the Gods. The thunderbolt in many cultures is the very weapon of the Gods to smite chaos, as in the hammer Mjölnir of Thor just as much as in the lightning rod of Zeus, Dyaus, Perun, Perkunas, the sword of Týr, the tathlúm and the claimh sólais of Lugh, and even the spear of Odhinn. Etruscan Gods are depicted with a lightning rod symbol, and the vajra of Hinduistic and Tantric traditions, while not just a thunderbolt, also is the the "vessel of knowledge". Lightning is the father of enlightenment, and enlightenment is the very antagonist of darkness, read: chaos.

The knife or sword, in a more modern philosophical way, is an ana-lytical tool. Analysis is the art of separating the truth from the false, knowledge from ignorance. In that it is "xiphos", the penetrating light, a symbol for gaining knowledge. One could, in a symbolical line of thinking, postulate that the lightning rod of the Gods serves a similar function. Just as well as the iron pole or nail is used in Babylonian foundation myths to nail down the Tiamat chaos snake, the knife serves a similar function, in a very concrete at the same time as in an abstract way. It severes the worlds, and in ritual magic it often doubles as the iron peg, when it is used to mark the "circle".

The horns of the ram stand for power and virility, for the ability to defend, but also fertility in the mating ritual of the animal. The knife, for all those properties summed up in its morphology, sometimes made more potent by engraved sigils and inscriptions, thusly in apotropaic rites and folk customs serves as a powerful talisman against the forces of Evil.

This is a feature that makes me wonder; while it may be true today that not everyone in Crete knows of these cultural aspects, it still remains immanent in the knives and is reflected in the way they are made. The tradition is part of orthodox Christian belief, but presumeably goes back way farther than Christianity back to ancient ritual practice.

The apotropaic customs in Crete are a vast field of investigation and are said to date back to ancient Egyptian beliefs and to Minoan culture. I am currently doing some research on the Egytian use of "magical knives". One of the first iron knives ever made seems to be the one found in the grave of  Tutankhamun. This one was presumeably made from meteorite iron, and it was made exclusively for the Pharao. This fact alone could illustrate the magical character of the object, for the Pharao was the incarnation of God on earth. In Egyptian netherworld manuscripts magical knives often serve an apotropaic function, to ward off the forces of the underworld to guard the journey of the sungod through the darkness. Later on, when iron was more widely available, this function was preserved in the belief that iron, especially meteorite iron hat the power of warding off Evil and darkness. The flash of the meteorite when entering the atmosphere thusly is transferred into the symbolic enlightening of darkness. I want to do some more research on this topic.

In Cretan knives a tradition lives forth that might as well be as old as the history of iron processing on earth. It is a cultural treasure that in my opinion has to be evaluated for modernity and well deserves to be kept.

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