— Counter-Currents —

Paganism Without Swords?


Detail from Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii,” 1784

3,600 words

“When swords ran every which way like red-stained snakes, our fathers warmed to life; the sun of all peace seemed limp and lackluster to them, but the long peace caused them shame. How they sighed, our fathers, when they saw gleaming bright, dried up swords on the wall! Like them, they thirsted for war. For a sword wants to drink blood and sparkles with desire.” — Friedrich Nietzsche [1]

In early June, a completely bourgeois decision almost forced me to skip Atlanta’s greatest annual event: the Blade Show and International Cutlery Fair (Blade). While I had no money with which to buy a new close-range killing machine, I also had no will power against spending money I don’t have on a new, shiny, razor-sharp, 11-inch embodiment of everything still right with Western culture.

While politically I am anti-bourgeois to the point of malice, I am a 40-something American product of divorce and a “shopping mall as palliative” middle class upbringing. My pouvoir (affected, disciplined, or territorialized essential energy), therefore, is, in a word, bourgeois. But this is the war I have been fighting since I began reading Nietzsche without professorial supervision.

While I had no money, I did have two good (that is, noble) reasons to pay a visit to Blade. One, I have friends that display their artisanal knives at the show, whom I only see at the event; and two, attendance has become a tradition for me and my father. In the end, the noble “why” defeated the bourgeois “how,” and so for a third straight year I attended the world’s largest gathering of artisan (and corporate) knife and sword makers.

Although I go to Blade to add to my armory, the true joy in attending is in being surrounded by so many people that have devoted their puissance (life’s essential energy) to perfecting a skill. (I wouldn’t even buy a steak knife from the industrial complex, so I completely ignore the shiny — or toughly matted — stabby and cutty things that the corporations, with their slick multimedia presentations and “hot chicks with hand grenades,” so seductively display.)

These artisans not only afford themselves the opportunity to “live off their passion” (in the vulgar American sense), but also to keep alive a tradition that played a significant role in the ascension of Western culture. For it is not only about making killing and cutting machines that these knife makers work, but also a “will to precision” that has, for practical purposes, been otherwise — Swiss watchmaking aside — extinguished in modern man. Athena’s respect for human precision is perfectly embodied in how this (perhaps last) generation of craftsmen suffers for mastery of eye, hand, and steel.[2]

My father first took me to Blade three years ago. He’s a knife collector, seeking out the finest etching, stag or desert ironwood scales, and general artistry that he can find. There is plenty of each of them at Blade. I am a military guy when it comes to arms, yet — Nietzschean that I am — I disdain utilitarianism. Thus I seek a balance between simplicity, functionality, and art. I seek neither utility nor art but instead pure quality — something made by hand, full of the “pride, . . . individual goodness, and faultiness” of the artisan, even if made with materials coveted by machines.[3] I love details, but want them more in skill, ingenuity, and durability than in aesthetics. My father is perfectly modern and quintessentially American, though, so the gulf between us is already apparent.

Unless I am inspired by something exceptional, I have narrowed my knife buying down to two artisans: Lucas Burnley of Burnley Knives [2] and James Harrison of Seamus Knives [3], both of whom make knives that are more badass than beautiful. Lucas and James are as seemingly removed from each other as two people could be. Yet they are united by their craft.

In fact, the contrasts between the two make knowable the spirit of the guild — the pre-capitalist European system of organizing economic and cultural participation by uniting all producers of a certain type into a collective body that protected its interests and passed on the knowledge, wisdom, and skills needed to maintain quality and production. For while Lucas is a 20-something with tattoos, piercings, and a will to spend his time heli-boarding, shooting automatic weapons, and exploring the Southwest desert on motorcycle, James is a kindly 50-something father of two who spends his time exploring the northern Midwest lakes and wilderness with his family.

The knives they make reflect these age and personality differences. Lucas uses a lot of acid washed D2 (tool grade) steel and synthetic handle materials like carbon fiber and Micarta. His knives are slightly urban and quite daring. James, on the other hand, uses super high quality non-corrosive steel like Stellite 6K and S30V. His handles are often titanium but also feature mammoth bone, ancient ivory, and ironwood. While his knives are more mature, they are no less aggressive and “thirsty.”

Yet, both knife makers have a passion for detail and thorough knowledge of their craft. Lucas began making knives in high school shop class; James by way of association with some established Midwestern knife makers. While neither had what was once called an apprenticeship, both immersed themselves in a community of knife makers and suffered to master the skills necessary to excel at the craft.

With James absent this year, my time at Blade was spent almost exclusively in conversation with Lucas. Although I only talk about knives in the context of Nietzsche and Athena, Lucas is always a gracious host. I hope he even slightly agrees with my assessment of what the bourgeois form of life would call his “hobby,” or, perhaps more seriously but no-less ghastly, his “calling.”

Last year I casually mentioned to him being a fascist. Given my shaved head and Greek ideal physique it must have made sense. This year, he greeted me proudly, saying, “I have something just for you.” He then handed me an 11-inch dagger with a pearl white antique Micarta handle and acid washed blade (that seems to indomitably reflect the light of a torchlight procession), explaining that he had been inspired to make it by Schutzstaffel dress daggers he had seen last summer in Germany. I suddenly forgot I had no money. After all, how often does the SS get referenced in a sales pitch?

While Blade is by no means a White Nationalist festival, at least not yet, there one can still find oneself in conversation about National Socialist Germany, Norsemen, Romans, and any number of virile subjects. These knife makers, for the most part, are not vulgar bourgeois Americans. There is no need to say white American, as knife making — based on those at Blade — is a Scandinavian, Western European, and Japanese thing.

It is a craft of precision and care, of fire and pressure. Those who cannot deal with these, evidently, do not apply. These are proud men, who, more often than not, are fully aware of the traditions they are carrying on and the cultural weight they have hoisted upon their shoulders. An editorial about the recent hypocritical political attacks on Ralph Lauren Corporation is unfortunately correct: 99% of Americans couldn’t care less where the Olympic team uniforms are made. Knife makers are not amongst that rabble mishmash, however. Instead they form an interesting aristocracy.

In Nietzsche’s middle period, he approaches the problem of modernity from the perspective of mechanical production and the impersonalization of economic man. Ultimately he defends the artisan as an example of the deep wisdom and personal responsibility that once made possible the greatest examples of nobility. As always, he explains how much more we are paying for bourgeois comfort and pursuit of happiness than we believe ourselves to be.

In earlier times all purchasing from artisans was a bestowing of a distinction on individuals, and the things with which we surrounded ourselves were the insignia of these distinctions: household furniture and clothing thus became symbols of mutual esteem and personal solidarity, whereas we now seem to live in the midst of nothing but an anonymous and impersonal slavery.[4]

Each and every knife maker with whom I have ever conversed understood his craft in these terms. The Americans among them hang their heads when talking politics — not because of Obama but because of our cultural aversion to quality, community, and duty. They know that when the 99% need a knife it will gladly go to Walmart and buy the cheapest Chinese-made knife available, without a thought for what it means to exist solely to consume. They know that the dignity of craftsmanship, to say nothing of art, means nothing in this country — a shocking development when so many of us are descendants of peoples with unique and extraordinary traditions of quality craftsmanship.

I’ve yet to meet a knife maker who talked to me about recreation and distraction, or about knife making in any way coarse and petty. I assume that that is because, while they often deal with machines (grinding steel by hand is Herculean), they have yet to be reduced to the mechanical.

The machine . . . sets in motion in those who serve it almost nothing but the lower, non-intellectual energies; . . . it provides no instigation to enhancement, to improvement, to becoming an artist. It makes men active and uniform — but in the long run this engenders a counter-effect, a despairing boredom of soul, which teaches them to long for idleness in all its varieties.[5]

The underlying beauty of buying from an artisan is that there is no anonymous work done to the sellable item. Instead it embodies the very person who made it, who explains it, and sells it. The quality of the item — that is to say, its true value — is not determined “in the eye of the beholder,” but in the eye of he who knows.

Unlike mass-produced items consumed by the unthinking mob, artisanal items, like handmade knives, are made to exemplify the traditions of their type and the values of their makers. They are not made simply to be bought. Knife makers, like other master craftsmen, do not dwell in the vulgar realm of opinion. Instead, they have wisdom about what they create — that Athenian wisdom gained by producing perfection under pressure.

The capitalist market, Nietzsche explains, must do away with the maker’s ability to determine the value of his product so that the buying public may do so. Unconcerned with any economic consequence of this change, Nietzsche instead explains that the market will only value that which is sellable. Great quality and exceptional craftsmanship mean no more than an advertisement — often far less. What, one should ask, are the cultural consequences of the devaluation of quality and skill (especially when this is read as a metaphor for people).

I suppose the warrior needn’t know who made his arms as long as he knows they will function in the moment of truth. Weapons, after all, don’t kill people — as conservative liberals love to remind us — people do. But, being counter-modern, I don’t hear a word liberals have to say about anything. Thus, I know that weapons “seek blood,” as Nietzsche said; tell us about the character of man, as the Romans believed; and define human worthiness of life, as Homer intimated.

A handmade knife connects the man who carries it to the man who made it. It connects the one with Achilles and the other with Hephaestus. It connects both of these men with those of our people that have used similar tools to protect and expand our culture’s conditions of possibility. No weapon I own proves this more than the Mainz gladius I bought from Albion Swords at Blade in 2011. Nothing I’ve ever held craves human blood like the gladius.

Albion Swords [4] is a collaboration between Swedish swordsmith, author, and researcher Peter Johnsson, and a select team of American master swordsmiths. Johnsson meticulously studies and documents swords held in European museums and private collections. The most representative of these are then recreated to exacting standards by the team at Albion.

Each completely handmade sword they produce blends the aesthetics, blade and handle designs, and properties of the originals, with the finest steel and natural materials available in today’s world. From the geometry of the edge to the fittings of the handle,

Albion seeks to perfectly recreate ancient and medieval weapons, giving one not only a sense of how seriously our ancestors took this type of weaponry but also the promise of causing truly gruesome deaths to one’s enemies. Albion swords are meant not only to look and feel like the originals but to perform like them as well. In other words, these are weapons made for the purpose of combat.

Perhaps Albion’s swordsmiths feel the same yearning to reestablish order as we do. Perhaps their website is meant to speak to all as it does to me. For it certainly seems that Albion intends to put swords in purposeful hands — and nothing about the company or its representatives screams cultural relativism.

Do you want to feel what a Norseman felt in his hands as he disembarked before a monastery? Check out the single-edged Peterson type “Berserkr” Viking sword. Want to know what it feels like to be one of Titus’s legionaries sacking the temple of Jerusalem? Check out the Pompeii style “Tiberius” gladius. I wanted to know what it feels like to be Caesar, so I went with the Mainz style “Augustus” gladius.

When I bought it, I had my wife and son in tow. The salesman, one of the swordsmiths, in fact, said to, “Imagine [myself] standing in a hallway with them behind and the enemy in front.” “In a tight space like that,” he said, “there’s no limit to the damage you can do.” This sales tactic was only slightly different from Lucas’ use of the SS. While the SS pitch appealed to idealized nobility, the stab and slice your enemy pitch appealed to an innate sense of courage and bloodlust that each of us possesses.

Evola said that we are descendants of the “battle-ax people,” and when I hold my gladius I believe him.[6] Sparta, Rome, and the Nordic peoples line up behind me, demanding that I honor my forefathers. For those less philosophically inclined, the bloodlust will do. And that is something one can feel in the air at Blade. Everyone in the conference center, whether maker or buyer, wants to know what it feels like (if they don’t already) to smite his enemies with a blade.

It is heartwarming to watch the facial and body language of every man that picks up a bladed weapon. They are instantly transformed, not in thinking, “boy, it would be nice to slice some cheese with this,” but instead, “this would look great buried in someone’s ribs.” Something primordial is reawakened, if only for an instant, but it is there. At the swordsmiths’ tables you can practically hear the words of Steven Pressfield’s Polynikes being whispered in your ear:

You experience the ecstasy of penetration as your warhead enters the enemy’s belly and the shaft follows. You see the whites of his eyes roll inside the sockets of his helmet. You feel his knees give way beneath him and the weight of his faltering flesh drawn down the point of your spear. Are you picturing this? Is your dick hard yet?[7]

The inferior killing power of a sword or knife compared to a gun, always thought but unsaid at Blade, is, after all, ultimately a question of will, skill, and scale. The blade is a weapon with no room for cowardice — even Roman infantrymen dismissed Apollonian archers as effeminate. There must be something horrible and magical about killing someone into whose eyes we may stare. This immediacy, just as with those who make our material goods, has been lost.

It was bad enough with guns, but now computer nerds are winning wars. To see how this has impacted man’s relationship with war, just read The Iliad and Ernst Jünger’s On Pain. In the one, war is the origin of virtue, calling forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. In the other, it is a value-destroying source of pain for invisible and mechanized laborers. Instincts for war are no longer even served by war!

The informative “debate” between Collin Cleary and Alain de Benoist hinges on man’s ability to re-establish a connection with the pre-Christian gods. While de Benoist is content enough to have modern men reconnect with pre-Christian morality and ethics, thereby becoming able to battle Judeo-Christian modernity, Cleary demands that man revives his openness to the gods, thereby recovering the “way of being that gave rise to them.”[8]

Neither argument, however, addresses the role of ancient warfare in shaping the contours of paganism. Thus, they both call for paganism without swords. Yet, everything that we have been taught to emulate and value of paganism — ethical codes, brotherhood, courage — is associated with ancient warfare. Asking for a polysemic postmodern paganism is heretical, for it ignores the basic reality of the pre-Christian forms of life that “gave rise” to pagans.

For an ancient there was no personhood, no universal status as a human. There was the polis, which was the basic organizing principle of human life. Without a polis, a human was just an easily killable animal. And the only way to have a polis was to protect it by warfare. For obvious reasons, individual greatness was often attributed to the greatness of one’s people. And, the most celebrated individuals were those whose glory enhanced the fierce reputation of the polis.

How applicable this model is to modern American men is debatable, but the Greeks believed that they had understood the nature of man and created a form of life in perfect conformity with that nature. In other words, they believed that man is courageous and inclined to protect his polis and people. By the time of the Roman Empire, man’s courageous nature was rewarded with a weapon no coward could even contemplate using. How it shames us that we are in a country that kills with unmanned drones.

One thing is certain: no one that we respect, no one whose words demand that we stand up and re-establish the order established by our ancestors, has ever led us to believe that our people are not heroic — are not men in the strongest, meanest, most carnal sense of the word. The fear and cowardice that so many of us live with is by now habitual (cue Fight Club: how many of us have ever even been in a fight?).

But I’ve never learned anything about our past that led me to believe that this is anything more than a product of bourgeois modernity. Even Titus Livy, historian in the pay of Augustus, understood the link between type of man and type of weapon. In History of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita) he explains the effect of the gladius:

Fear struck their hearts. Being accustomed to fighting Greeks and Illyrians, the Macedonians had seen wounds caused by spears, arrows, or occasionally lances. But now they saw how the gladius cut arms off with the shoulder attached, severed heads from bodies cleanly at the neck, and bared internal organs through ghastly wounds — panic followed the realization of what kind of men and weapons they were up against.[9]

I’d go so far as to say that it is impossible to think a single bourgeois, puerile, ignoble, mediocre, feminine, or debasing thought when holding one of these weapons. Philosophy and epistemology are all well and good, the bases of truth and war, in fact; but Faye’s coincidentia oppositorum seems far less conceptual with a gladius or Viking sword in hand.[10] You realize that creeds and brotherhoods of steel — often the very content of the myths we use to inure ourselves against modernity — were not only based on glory, heroism, duty, and love of comrades-in-arms, but also on steel. One must have the will to use these weapons, but the will without the weapon is a paper tiger.

We were once the most terrible, the most terrifying, people on the planet; we were promised Valhalla! But that promise will likely go unfulfilled. Tyr understands that killing from a distance, which makes killing and dying anonymous and cowardly, does not a hero make. Nietzsche saw distinctions between forms of life based on systems of morality. He could have made similar distinctions based on weaponry. Come to Blade next year (May 31–June 2, 2013) and get a sense of what we must embrace to become heroic and to defeat the Last Man and his form of life.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ed. Adrian Del Caro and Robert B. Pippin. Trans. Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 200.

[2] Walter F. Otto, The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion, Trans. Moses Hadas. Reprint Edition (North Stratford, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, 2001).

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 383.

[4] Nietzsche, Human, 383

[5] Nietzsche, Human, 366-367

[6] Julius Evola, Men Among the Ruins: Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist, ed. Michael Moynihan. Trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vt: Inner Traditions, 2002), 254.

[7] Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 135.

[8] Collin Cleary, “Paganism Without Gods,” in Summoning The Gods, ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2011), 75.

[9] Titus Livy, History of Rome, Volume VI, trans. Frank G. Moore (Cambridge, Ma: Loeb Classical Library, 1922), 457.

[10] Guillaume Faye, “Mars and Hephaestus: The Return of History,” in North American New Right, volume 1, trans. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012), 242.