Sideshow, Sword Swallowing

Sword Swallowing: The Deadliest Art

Approx. 2,000 B.C. – Sword swallowing was developed in India by fakirs and holy men as a display of their seemingly super human abilities and spiritual endowments. At this time, the Middle Kingdom was being established in Egypt, the elephant was being tamed in the Indus civilization, and horses, bronze, & alcohol arrived to Britain. In subsequent centuries, sword swallowing spread to other regions in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Today, this ancient art is performed all over the world by a small number of people.

Approximately 1 out of 61 million people are sword swallowers. The current world population is 7.7 billion as of February 13, 2019. The Sword Swallower’s Association International lists 126 active sword swallowers as of this date however, the SSAI’s list is not complete. I know of at least a few U.S. and European sword swallowers who are not accounted for on this list. I have on occassion seen video from sword swallowers in China and elsewhere in the world who are also not listed or otherwise included in community forums.

These numbers come from online sword swallower communities. Given that most of these platforms are in English and are based in the U.S. or Europe, it is easy to imagine that language barriers or impediments to internet access, for example, the Great Firewall, create obstacles to forming truly globalized sword swallower communities. As such, I assume there are quite a few unknown sword swallowers.

While the exact number of active sword swallowers world wide is incalculable, with a world population of 7.7 billion, even 100 unaccounted for sword swallowers does not greatly change the statistics or the rarity of the art. Of the approximate 126 listed sword swallowers, there are only about 50 female sword swallowers active world wide as of this date.

According to SSAI and general community standards, a sword swallower is a person who can swallow a non-retractable, solid steel blade that’s at least 16″ long and 0.20″ wide. Sword swallowing is not a trick or an illusion. Often times audience members suspect that the swords “roll up”. Retractable swords are not used by reputable professionals.

How does it work?

To become a sword swallower, one must train their body to accept a sword the same way that it accepts food and water. (There is a specific method for accomplishing this, but I will not post it publicly). Once this ability is achieved, it must be maintained through regular stimulation. If a sword swallower is lax on their training, their body may become too sensitive to perform the act with out gagging or encountering other issues. In short, sword swallowing is a lifestyle requiring consistency and dedication. It can take years to get one sword down.

On occasion an entertainer will bill themselves as a sword swallower only to be discovered to be using a retractable sword. This is an easily detectable gaph; the handles of retractable swords are all the same. Impersonating a sword swallower usually ends with the psuedo-sword swallower having their reputation shattered and being harangued off of social media by actual sword swallowers. The struggle to learn the art and the risks involved are too real to tolerate fraud.

People talk about “the gag reflex” in relation to sword swallowing as if there is a singular, magical vomit trigger that will make or break a person’s ability to perform the skill. Sure, there is the gag reflex at the back of the throat, but there are plenty of other opportunities for peril and vomit to overcome before success be yours. The sword travels on a treacherous trajectory down the esophagus into the thoracic chamber behind the heart and between the lungs. When I swallow a light weight sword and remain still for a few breaths, I can see the handle moving to the beat of my heart. If misguided, the sword could enter and puncture the lungs. If inserted correctly, the sword continues through the diaphragm, into the stomach, and all the way to the duodenum (provided the blade is long enough to bottom out there).

As a point of interest, a person’s height and weight do not seem to affect how long of a sword they can swallow in comparison to other sword swallowers. (Sword Swallowing and It’s Side Effects). It is also worth noting that the esophageal wall is somewhat thicker in males than in females with measurements averaging 5.26 mm vs. 4.34 mm respectively. Furthermore, neither age nor the build up of fatty tissue under the skin greatly impact the thickness of the esophageal wall. (Observation of normal appearance and wall thickness of esophagus on CT images).

Photo by Greg Bell

Occasionally people ask me to teach them sword swallowing. I don’t teach this skill; another person’s life is not a liability I am willing to accept. It would also be irresponsible of me to agree to such a request considering that most prospective pupils don’t grasp how dangerous sword swallowing is. Some of the statements prospects make when discussing their interests or why they think they would be good at sword swallowing are alarmingly flippant. It often sounds like the prospect thinks learning how to swallow swords is akin to learning yoga, picking up some cool dance moves, or being good at fellatio– just a chill, low risk activity you can do in your down time.

As it turns out, sword swallowing is a high risk activity. SSAI notes that 29 people have died from sword swallowing injuries including a death in Dallas in 1968. Other risks include, (but are not limited to): esophageal perforation, intestinal bleeding, acid reflux, chipped teeth, sore throats, infections, and perhaps worst of all, excessively expensive hospital bills. (Sword Swallowing and It’s Side Effects and Esophageal Perforation In A Sword Swallower).