Fire, Swords & Magic

The Art of Sub-Saharan African Swordsmithing

A nobleman of Tigre
A 19th-century Ethiopian nobleman (T. Lefebvre and others, Voyage en Abyssinie. via Wikimedia Commons)

The art of smithing blades holds a position of unique reverence in African culture. The smithy, or workshop, is held as a place of magic, the blacksmiths as magicians who draw metal from stone and shape it with fire. Blacksmithing’s history in Africa, especially central Africa, dates to the third century BCE but was limited by a lack of iron ore. Despite this drawback, the forges of Africa produced some of the most unusual and effective blades on Earth. Demonstrating innate understanding of function, the smiths’ blades also contained symbolism to protect the souls of warriors in combat. The designs of the blades range from universal to intensely intricate patterns, resulting in diverse and unique designs.

One note that must be made about much of African history is the lack of written records as well as oral traditions that are mixed with myth and lore. While North Africa and Ethiopia have well-recorded histories and some sub-Saharan records were made by travelers such as Ibn Battuta, there are largely no written records by the African peoples themselves. This is both challenging and enticing.

Determining when and how many of these weapons evolved requires an immense amount of nuanced work, but there is an excitement in recording histories that have never before been committed to paper. Because of the paucity of written records, much of the following data comes from the physical objects themselves, accounts written mainly by European explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and from modern uses and production of these beautiful weapons. While this will make some of the history a bit blurry, I hope it inspires others to delve into the study of African history and culture.

Symbolism

Swords have played a crucial symbolic role in African cultures. Many believe swords were used by the gods to make Earth habitable for humanity. The line between symbolism, practical function, and religion is often hard to define. The shape of a weapon could be symbolic while still devastatingly effective. Those blurry lines between symbol and purpose also apply to blacksmiths. Where the art of forging begins and ends among the smiths of Africa is hard to tell. Smiths were often more healer or diviner than weapon maker, without distinctions being made between the two; such is the case among the Mandé people of West Africa to this day.

Before looking at symbolism and non-battlefield weapons, a quirk in African weapons must be addressed. Similar swords and knives, with similar origin legends, appear in unrelated peoples sometimes separated by hundreds of miles. How would this happen? The answer is distinct to Africa: itinerant blacksmiths. Unlike in Eurasia, where heavy, immobile tools were used for forging from before Roman times until the modern day, simplified tools gave African blacksmiths the possibility of a nomadic life. Likewise, vast spaces outside the control of adjacent kingdoms and empires allowed smiths to be free of commitments to family groups or guilds, such as the Benin guilds. Consequently, many smiths traveled, carried what they needed, and could set up a forge in an afternoon. This led to the spread of styles and stories as well as cross-pollination.

Ceremonial Swords

Non-battlefield swords and knives of Africa can be divided into three overlapping categories: ritualistic, currency, and ceremonial. All three types are frequently without a sharpened edge and have significant decoration and symbolic power. A distinguishing aspect of these three is that they were often decorated with copper, some made entirely of copper, the element and its alloys often used as status symbols. Copper, in much of Africa, was less common than gold and greatly valued, including as currency. The currency classification is used more by Western scholars organizing social systems. Among the Nzakara and Ngbandi peoples of the modern-day Central African Republic and South Sudan, who lived under Zande influence, copper throwing knives were made as luxury items to give as tribute within their social network well into the 19th century. That tribute system might be seen as currency to outsiders.

The shape currency and tribute objects frequently took was that of knives or other weapons. This was because the same smiths who forged knives and swords also crafted money, right up until the last 100 years. One example of weapon shapes used in currency is the giant spear blade of the Topoke people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which was common until the middle of the 20th century. The Topoke and neighboring Mbugbu people used a form of iron throwing knife currency called ngindza, a stylized form with blunt, bulbous blades. These currency blades were often adorned with copper.

An afenatene sword

Ceremonial swords and knives are, aside from throwing knives, Africa’s most unusually designed blades. As a general rule, ceremonial weapons lack battlefield functionality while retaining the basic shape of a practical sword. Another general rule is that ceremonial swords and knives are used frequently by settled, agricultural populations rather than pastoralists, such as the swords owned by the Asante king. The Asante king, called the Asantehene, would have a type of sword called the afenatene beside him in the Asante royal court at Kumase, in modern-day Ghana. The afenatene didn’t have any particular ritual role; rather, it was a status weapon that only the Asantehene owned. A similar role to the afenatene was held by status axes among the Nsapo people, who neighbored the Kuba of the Congo Basin. These axes would have small faces and heads forged or carved into their blade, symbolizing how many subordinates the bearer had.

An eben sword

The use of ceremonial swords by royalty was far from limited to the courts of the Asante or Nsapo. Nor are ceremonial swords exclusively ceremonial. An example of a sword that crosses from ceremonial to ritual is the eben from the kingdom of Benin. The eben of today is a wide, thin sword shaped almost like a fan, making it impractical for even ritual combat. In the bronze plaques of the Benin royal court (stolen by the British in 1897), weapons similar to the eben are depicted. Today, the eben is used only during ceremonies for chiefs or the oba (king). The ceremonial use of the eben today is during the rite of Ugie Erha Oba, where each chief dances with his eben before the oba himself dances with his eben to honor his ancestors. The oba also dances with his eben when he is first installed as king. A similar case can be made for another Benin sword, the ada, a broad, curved saber with a short grip and a disc-shaped guard and pommel. A formal sword bearer carrying an ada precedes the oba whenever he appears in public during state ceremonies.

Battlefield swords

When looking at battlefield weapons of any kind, the primary focus of the design will be on the weapon’s battlefield functionality. This is the same in Africa as anywhere else. All battlefield swords are defined by usage, generally falling into three categories: cutting swords, thrusting swords, and swords that do both acceptably. Examples of each would be the ilwoon from the Bushoong of the DRC, the kaskara of Sudan, and the shotel of Ethiopia.

A gubasa sword

The ilwoon has a rare design, having a flat end that lacks a point. This weapon is a pure cutting weapon. At the end of the blade, the corners of the flat end often taper to piercing points. These could act as war picks and easily pierce helmets and skulls. The blade itself is sturdy, heavy, and cleaver-like, easily able to remove limbs. It is an infantry close-quarters melee weapon, reflecting the 19th century Bushoong approach to warfare. This sword was often paired with a thick, rectangular shield, spears, and javelins.

An ilwoon sword

The kaskara is quite different. Resembling high medieval arming swords, it's geared more for thrusting than chopping. The earliest examples of this sword date to the 14th century, likely deriving from straight, medieval, double-edged Arabian swords. (Contrary to popular belief, the scimitar was introduced by the Turks in the 13th century, not earlier; prior to that, straight, double-edged swords were standard in Arabia.) Like the ilwoon, the kaskara was an infantry weapon, used by highly skilled Sudanic swordsmen. Its design indicates both how it was used and also the battlefield practices of the army fielding it. Sudanic forces in the 18th and 19th centuries combined blocks of heavy infantry with cavalry, much like 18th century European chess-piece tactics, where swords like the kaskara were also favored.

A kaskara sword

The shotel is a curved sword from Ethiopia. This sword was capable, as its curve suggests, of making deep, powerful cuts, but its properly aligned point also allowed for thrusts. The shotel’s popularity was also due to its reliable use on horseback, and it was carried by Ethiopian warriors right up into the 20th century. Like its Sudanic neighbors, Ethiopia had a large, powerful cavalry, with the shotel as its primary sword. The advantage the shotel gave to cavalry was in its curve, which guaranteed cuts made by the horsemen while galloping at full speed would not bury the point into a target, wrenching the sword from its wielder's hand.

These three swords, the ilwoon, the kaskara, and the shotel are only a few examples of weapons crafted by sub-Saharan blacksmiths. The simplified explanation of their use only touches upon the most basic techniques of how these weapons were used. Blades are not the whole story of the weapon smith’s art. Grips and pommels are often overlooked. Unlike in Eurasia, African smiths always included woodworking in their craft, producing grips for their swords as well as blades, right up to the modern day. This is also an area where the smith’s purported magical, divine skills were used. Supposedly magical powders or talismans were included in the grips or scabbards or on the swordsman’s baldrics (shoulder belts). An example of this is the Asante afena sword. The afena grip’s bulbous shape is not accidental; it was often hollow and filled with what were believed to be magic powders said to guide the sword’s edge. Talismans of good fortune or protection would often be added to the scabbards by the smith.

Battlefield swords served another purpose in line with ceremonial swords: personal prestige. An element of African warfare rarely taken into account is the personal glory individual warriors pursued in combat. Armor and arms were not only means of attacking enemies or defending against blows but also used for showing one’s status and power. Songs insulting opponents and boasting about themselves preceded many engagements and were recorded by many travelers from the 18th and 19th centuries. Bright colors added to the pageantry of the warriors and were used on clothes, armor, belts, baldrics, and scabbards of the weapons. For example, symbolic bangles decorated afena hilts, representing the warrior who owned it.

These symbolic elements also connected to cosmological beliefs. Blades in Africa are traditionally kept polished to a gleaming white, with hilts and guards made of black wood and grips wrapped in copper. This color pattern has great symbolic meaning. The white symbolizes the spirit world and the supernatural; black represents the transition from one world to another; and red copper stood for blood, life’s essence. In this way, single swords would symbolize common pan-African cosmology: Through human blood, life or death is determined, along with our transition from this world to the next. The whiteness of the blades, given this cosmology, becomes more striking.

Today, African weapons are rarely seen in museums for two reasons. First, the period of European collecting of African weapons coincided with the peak of Europeans’ racially stigmatized views; they saw African weapons as overly violent in design and unworthy of celebration. Second, European museums didn’t know how to classify many weapons they received from Africa. Eurasian classification systems for blades simply don’t work with many weapons found in Africa.

History and Beliefs

The production and forging of steel is one of the foundations of the modern world, crucial to our way of life. In Africa, the forging of iron took on a more socially dynamic role than in Eurasia, where it became perfunctory. The history of African iron smelting, specifically at Rwandan sites, dates back to 800 BCE, shortly after such technology developed in Greece. By 400 BCE, the technology spread as far as Tanzania and Sudan. While still hazy, the archology suggests that this technological leap came from local ingenuity, not the spreading of technology from North Africa.

A shotel sword

The difference in the status of smiths can be seen in the difference between gods of blacksmithing in Africa and Eurasia. Eurasian deities, like the Greek Hephaestus and Roman Vulcan, were secondary in their respective pantheons. In Africa, the blacksmithing gods were creator gods whose power forged the habitable earth. For example, Ogun is the Benin and Yoruba god of iron who cleared primordial forests with his cutlass. Another example is one of the chief gods among the Fon, Gu, who transformed into a sword called a gubasa to be used by the god Mawu-Lisa to clear primordial forests before humanity was taught to build houses and farm.

One element of African belief systems needed to better understand its sword smithing culture is its cults. Each cult represents a different path with separate beliefs and forms of devotion, including distinct alters, known as ikegobo in Benin. While there are many traditional cults, three were, and continue to be, especially popular. The first is the cult of the soul, or ehi in Benin, and it relates to the spirit world. The cult of the head relates to one’s knowledge and understanding. The cult of the hand relates to action, and it is within this cult that blacksmiths can be found. The worship of Ogun is largely in conjunction with the cult of the hand.

American bloomery furnace sketch
The direct reduction process using an American bloomery. The iron ore powder, mixed with charcoal, is regularly charged. A pasty bloom is produced every 3 hours, and slag is taped out of the furnace. Henry Marion Howe, The Metallurgy of Steel. via Wikimedia Commons

One recurring belief in Africa regarding the production of iron is that it mimics the creation of life. Iron ore is put into a beehive-shaped smelting oven called a bloomery (right) and melted down into a bloom. The ore, red from the iron oxide, symbolizes blood, life’s essence. The bloomery is symbolic of either primordial Earth or woman, the fire and bellows symbolic of man. Smelting has cosmological meaning because it unites all four elements: earth, fire, wind, and water. The product, an iron bloom, while in the furnace, becomes a symbolic pregnancy, with the bloomery decorated to look female and the bellows and pipes modeled into a phallic shape. Thus, the smelting of iron becomes the conception of life. The smiths in many sub-Saharan cultures refer to the bloom as a child. The slag, meanwhile, is treated as the placenta and is recycled.

An example of this, among the Kuba, is the belief that women gave birth to the world while blacksmiths gave birth to culture. They relate this to how forged tools increase the earth’s fertility. It is also believed that iron objects, under certain circumstances, can make a woman sterile. There is a complementary belief that using or carrying iron weapons during the new moon, a period related to menstrual cycles, renders weapons useless. These beliefs gave rise to the practice of occasionally carrying wooden weapons. At other times, depending on the object being forged, smiths had to refrain from sexual contact.

The symbolism of smelting and forging swords, combined with cosmological meanings, led to blacksmiths being given a special place in society. The nature of that distinction differs from one society to another and is hard for outsiders to interpret. Among the Maasai of East Africa, for example, smiths are disdained, despite the reverence for the weapons they make.

The ostracization of Maasai smiths fits a pattern wherein blacksmiths are revered among agricultural societies but feared among pastoralists. A reverence for blacksmiths can be found among settled peoples, such as the Kuba. The many small kingdoms that arose in this region were largely founded by itinerant blacksmiths. The modern country of Angola gets its name from the word ngola, meaning sword or knife, referencing the Kuba’s smith-kings. The Kuba tradition of blacksmith kings is also seen in the ndop, or kingly statue, of King Mbop Pelyeeng aNce sitting at his anvil. King Mbop was renowned for his iron work. While different cultures viewed blacksmiths differently, they were unifying elements of supernatural connections and cosmological significance as well as the symbolic power of iron swords.

Techniques

The fundamental technique of iron production is smelting iron ore. The furnaces of Africa might have been smaller than those elsewhere, but their iron was of equal quality, and their furnace designs, the earliest dating back to 800 BCE, were ahead of their time. Bloomeries took on two distinct forms, open pit and domed, with domed being more efficient. Many of the domed furnaces used to smelt iron were upward of 10 feet tall, the height allowing for more ore and coke and focusing the heat toward the top of the furnace, where the ore was. Coke, the high-carbon fuel for the furnace, helped remove impurities. The higher quality the coke, the finer the grade of iron that would be produced. Some of the highest-grade coke in Africa came from the Congo Basin, where coke was made from hardwood charcoal. The temperature the iron was raised to was also crucial, iron’s melting point being 2,800 degrees F. To reach this temperature, bellows had clay tubes, called tuyeres, which were put through the fire itself, preheating the air and pushing the temperature higher. This technique could produce forms of mild steel, less likely to break than brittle imported steel. A similar technique of preheating air would not be used in Asia until the first century and not in Europe until the 14th century.

Once smelted, iron would be forged into large, easily stored blocks known as ingots until a need arose. Once the need arose, the iron would be reheated in open forges. The forge differed from the smelting furnace, being open to the air. The anvils used throughout sub-Saharan Africa were made of stone, giving an interesting advantage to African smiths. Stone absorbs less heat than steel, meaning iron being forged would remain at a malleable temperature for longer. This allowed the African smiths to forge with few reheatings. The hammers used differed between regions. Many used simple stone hand hammers, with assistants using larger stones when more powerful blows were needed. In regions where iron hammers were used there was a tradition of including pieces of a master smith’s hammers in the iron of their apprentice’s hammer, creating a lineage connecting modern smiths to ancient times.

There are some challenges in determining the techniques used by African blacksmiths. The first is that there has been little continuation of tradition since the introduction of foreign products. Smelting furnaces disappeared from the Congo when European steel was introduced in the 19th century. Smiths from other regions limited their production to save time and money.

The second challenge in determining the techniques comes from what was local competition in East Africa and northern parts of Sudan. The haddad, Islamic smiths, relied on scrap steel, and as a result out-produced the traditional smiths who smelted their own iron. Nonetheless, the indigenous smiths produced higher-quality metals, and the haddad frequently copied their forge marks to make pieces seem traditional. An example of this is the ngalio throwing knives of the Sara people of modern-day Chad. Knives produced by traditional smiths are smaller, smoother, and marked by a series of hammer strikes along the right side of the blade (with the knife’s spur facing forward). Knives made by the haddad are larger and have irregular curves and rough hammer marks on the left side of the blade. The combination of cheaper materials with large-scale competition ended some traditions and relegated others to only symbolic use. This was not the only instance of Islamic smiths imitating local styles. In Sudan, it was common practice to give to allied leaders after battles prestige knives with Koranic verses on the flat of the blade. Many prestige knives also had pagan symbolism included into the blade’s geometry.

Many traditional, and fascinating, techniques remain. Consider the use of forge welding in making the status axes among the Nsapo. The technique included heating the metal of two or more pieces of iron to near their melting point and hammering the pieces together. The challenge for this technique is that in the forging process exposed pieces of heated metal oxidize, producing flakes of iron-oxide called scale. When two pieces of metal are welded together, scale could form in between, weakening the bond. For this technique to work, smiths applied a material to seal out oxygen while not interfering with the metal bonding. The material commonly used was charcoal powder, which burns off or absorbs into the iron. Another distinctly African technique was using wooden forms to help forge hot iron; this was employed by the Mande blacksmiths, who hailed from west African countries, including Mali and Burkina Faso. Many of the hardwoods found in central Africa can sustain the impact of hammering largely unchanged and resist heat enough that only their surfaces char. The result is a forging form that can be carved to any shape.

The intricate decorations on ceremonial and battlefield swords required a set of techniques that demanded finesse. The two primary ways smiths would produce these patterns were cold chiseling and hot forging. The cold chiseling work is akin to carving: The cold metal of the blade is carefully cut to produce the pattern. Small steel punches of various forms would be used to hammer stipples or hatchwork into the sides of the blade. These hatch marks were unique to the sword being made and were sometimes zoomorphic, imitating animal skin. The hot forging involved more three-dimensional shaping of blade elements. Another rare technique was inlaying copper. This would be done by piercing a pinhole in the blade and pouring a small drop of molten copper into it, producing a copper spot on the blade.

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The story of blacksmithing in Africa, specifically the manufacture of weapons, is one that is not only deep but growing. Many traditions of the smiths of Central Africa are continued by dedicated families, while others have died out. Foreign steel and iron might be the standard in Africa today, but there are still blacksmiths smelting their own iron. Africa is complex, and it is no surprise that blacksmith culture mirrors that complexity. Different regions developed different mechanisms for understanding and integrating smiths, but elements of magic and the divine underlie all.

Sources

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