There’s a myth that’s fascinated me since I first watched Constantine as a kid- the legend of the Spear of Destiny. For a long time, I figured it was a literal spear in the sense that a lot of the stories about it describe as a physical historical artifact, but some recent developments (and the fact that myths are rarely factual in the “veritas” sense that science is factual) have led me to take a closer look at the myth. Today, we’re going deep into the symbol of the Spear and what it means to man as a whole. Along the way, we’re going to be exploring some famous heroes and gods know for wielding spears, the evolutionary origins of thrown weapons, and more.
Let’s get it.
Before we get into the actual exegesis and plausibly scientific stuff, we’re going to start with an abbreviated history of the Spear of Destiny. (I’ll add that, while I’m not into conspiracy theories or magical thinking, if there was ever a myth that would be awesome were it true, this is it.) The Spear of Destiny, also called the Holy Lance or the Lance of Longinus, is considered traditionally to be the spear that pierced the side of the crucified Jesus after his death on the cross at Golgotha (meaning “place of the skull,” more commonly called Calvary to English speakers). It was tradition to break the legs of the crucified to bring a more swift death, but when the Roman soldiers saw that he was already dead, one of the soldiers checked by piercing Jesus’s side with his lance, where, according to tradition, out flowed blood and water (signifying both his divine and human nature).
This soldier is commonly called Longinus, but that’s not a name given in the Bible. There’s a good chance the name comes as a Romanization of the Greek word λόγχη (lonche, meaning lance). The first legends to involve him had Longinus get a similar treatment to Prometheus– he was stuck in a cave where he was mauled each night by lions and healed each morning. However, as time went on, he became Saint Longinus, and about a century after the crucifixion, they added a bit where he was either blind or hard of sight and the blood from the wound of the lance actually healed his vision.
This is where things get interesting (and extremely unlikely/conspiratorial, but damn, it’s a compelling story).
Most of this next bit is going to be a summary of a fun but really poorly researched and factually incorrect book called (surprise) The Spear of Destiny by a man born with the greatest name for writing occult conspiracy theories, Trevor Ravenscroft. While I don’t normally engage with this kind of nonsense in regards to the site, this book is basically the origin of the modern version of the myth, so it’s important to understand it to see what the legend has evolved (or devolved?) into.
I’m not going all the way into that rabbit hole here, but effectively, this very pseudo-historical legend of the Spear (Ravenscroft was sued for copyright infringement by the author of a fictional book) claims that the rise of Nazism in Germany was in fact due to Adolf Hitler’s obsession with and acquisition of the Holy Lance itself. According to Ravenscroft, the Spear makes whoever wields it unconquerable in combat, with the caveat being that if you lose it, you are fated to die almost instantly. He paints a picture that twists and turns, tracing the Spear through the hands of a number of significant rulers, eventually ending up in the Hofburg Museum, where Hitler laid eyes on it (only one of the several claimants to the title of true spear, this version is called the Vienna Lance) as a youth, and later claimed it after the Anschluss (annexation of Austria into Germany in 1938).
Now, I’m going to start to speculate as to what the original Lance legend represents, and then I’m going to attempt to get some sense out of what Ravenscroft’s version implies. For context, we have to look at some of the many varied artifacts of early Christendom. One of the interesting things about the Catholic Church is that it loves to collect weird artifacts (look up the Vatican Archives, on that note)- sometimes this includes the heads or corpses of dead saints, or teeth, or all kinds of other nonsensical stuff.
Most importantly of all, though, are the artifacts related to Jesus and the Crucifixion. This includes the wood and nails of the “True Cross” (one of the nails is alleged to have been added under the gold sheath of the Vienna Lance), the burial shroud (Shroud of Turin), the crown of thorns, and so on. I’ve thought about this for some amount of time, and I’m convinced that the reasoning for this is to provide both some sort of proof of their mythic claims, as well as establishing themselves as the rightful inheritor of the legacy of Jesus himself.
This is likely the same reason most royal families have some collection of regal artifacts. There’s an interesting rock that is involved in the rightful claim to the throne of Scotland called the Stone of Destiny (unrelated to the Spear, also called the Stone of Scone or Coronation Stone) that was taken to England at some point, stolen back, and it’s debated whether the currently accepted Stone is real or a forgery. Japan has the Three Sacred Treasures in their imperial regalia, the Holy Roman Empire had the Imperial Crown, Sword, and none other than the Holy Lance, and lots of other cultures had similar things.
My theory as to why this is has a couple of elements. First, when you’re establishing a monarchy, it seems to be necessary to claim some form of divinity (hence the divine right of kings). As a result, you need some sort of magic artifacts to sell that notion to the laity. Second, if you’re claiming this authority from an established religion, you need that religion’s artifacts as a sign that their God is blessing you.
More than all that, though, I think this is an application of what I called “ritualization” in an earlier article. On the micro level of individuals, if I’m a baseball player and I happen to always win games when I wear a specific hat, then eventually I elevate that hat to mythic status and call it my lucky hat- I stop washing it, and I only wear it when I play. Take that phenomena up to the level of culture, and you’ll see that we do the same thing with these imperial items.
This produces an interesting effect in both directions. If you’re the person who inherits the artifacts, you’re pretty well inclined to believe that you’ve gained some sort of power. On the other hand, if you’re attempting to claim the divine right for yourself, it’s important to claim the relics to prove that you’re the rightful figure of power. This, I think, is the more obvious explanation of Hitler’s interest in it, though he did have some occult leanings.
It seems that the Spear (and the various versions that all claim to be the True Spear) represents the central locus of imperial Christianity (but more importantly to the Nazis, the empire itself) throughout Europe. In claiming the Spear, Hitler was attempting to establish the Third Reich as a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire (he moved the Lance with all the rest of the Imperial Regalia to Nuremberg), which was considered by the Nazis to be the First Reich.
I would probably write off Ravenscroft’s extreme mythologizing of this all as a combination of two things. First, because the Nazi propaganda departments spent enormous amounts of time constructing narratives based on the deliberate manipulation of history and myth, there is a relatively coherent (though extremely incorrect) story painted that a fanatic like Ravenscroft could run wild with and fill in the blanks. Secondly, I’d defer to the notion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” in the sense that Ravenscroft’s lack of understanding of political manipulations and propaganda, coupled with his tendency for magical thinking, leads to a spectacular story of good at war with evil magic and demons.
All of this, however, does not explain sufficiently why the spear (not the Holy Lance in this instance, but the general concept of spears) is such a powerful human symbol. For this, we have to go back to the very things that make us human.
One of the most fascinating things I learned this year (via Christopher McDougall’s phenomenal and highly recommended book, Natural Born Heroes) is that humans are the only animal capable of throwing things both accurately and with any significant sort of force. It was this ability (combined with the disappearance of body hair and the ability to sweat, and from that, running long distances, as well as working together in groups) that allowed us to transition to a carnivorous, high fat diet that was responsible for the extreme growth of the human brain (which is primarily made of fat). Basically, all you had to do was throw enough spears at something to wound it, then chase it until it died of blood loss or overheating. Very few animals are capable of sweating enough to cool down while running, and instead must stop to pant like a dog on a hot day.
There’s some evidence to suggest that, since chimpanzees are known to use sharp sticks to hunt bush babies, we’ve likely been using spears for five million years. However, chimps cannot throw anything with even a fraction of the speed and power we do, despite being incredibly strong in their own right. This is because we had a lot of changes to the arms, torso, and shoulder that first appeared roughly two million years ago in Homo Erectus. The really interesting bit of all this is that the first stone spear points only emerged around 500,000 years ago, which means that spear throwing was done solely with sharp sticks until then.
There’s another element of the spear that I was not familiar with until I started looking into all this a bit more. While medieval and fantasy stories like to show everyone as having a sword, in reality, swords were actually pretty expensive, due to the amount of metal involved. What’s more- spears actually beat swords in most fights, due to the fact that they’re far easier and more intuitive to use, combined with the extreme range advantage. Consider the fact that most military structures involved a phalanx or shield wall (including Vikings, who used spears more than axes and swords- thanks History Channel), and that while the specifics of this varied from era to era, this was pretty standard until gunpowder showed up.
The spear is central to our humanity.
Now, let’s look at some of the other places that spears show up in other cultures and in (real) mythology. The first that springs to mind for most would be Zeus’ lightning bolts, which is effectively the spear elevated to the level of the divine- spears of pure light and energy, cast down from the heavens. In the Japanese creation myth, the spear Amenonuhoko (meaning heavenly jeweled spear) was used to churn the waters of creation, and the drops that fell from the tip created the first land, bridging heaven and earth- interesting parallel here to the blood of Jesus, but I don’t know that there’s any significance beyond the dripping.
One of the coolest and most bizarre spear legends is the spear of Irish hero Cúchulainn, called the Gáe Bulg. This spear had a strange ritual associated with its use, needing to be dipped in a stream beforehand, and thrown from the skin between the toes. Once thrown, it was fatal, as it split into many shards upon piercing the victim, and could only be removed by cutting it out of the target. There’s another notable Irish spear myth, the spear of Lugh, which was inherently so bloodthirsty that it could only be contained by keeping the head immersed in a drink made of poppy seeds. When it was time for battle, the spear was withdrawn, and it burst into flame and went flying about, slaughtering the enemy forces.
This bit is a great way to transition into what I think the true meaning of the spear as a mythological symbol is- the central masculine symbol and the mark of the Will. Riane Eisler described the two primordial gendered symbols, the downward and upward facing triangles, as “The Chalice and The Blade” (respectively) in her book of the same name, and I tend to agree. In the most basic sense, the point of the triangle represents the point of the stick that would have formed Man’s first weapons, as well as the eventual stone and metal points of all sorts that became later weapons. The edge of the blade is even one of the six simple machines- the wedge.
In Rome, there was a practice enacted with conquered soldiers where two spears were crossed with a third hung between them. The former soldiers were forced to walk beneath the “yoke” and to crouch to go under the hanging spear, in a process called subjugation (literally under a yoke). In the most basic sense, the spear is phallic, so this ritual conjures the idea of crawling under a man’s legs, and I can’t imagine it’s much more complex than that, though there’s alleged to be something about trapping evil spirits involved.. The spear is vitality, strength, and the killing force that made Man the apex predator he is today (or, perhaps, was yesterday, but that’s another discussion entirely).
There’s another god I’ve written about on the site before associated with a spear, Indra, the Hindu equivalent of Zeus. He wields the Vajra, which has both the properties of a diamond (being indestructible) and, you guessed it, a thunderbolt. This is also where the name of the Vajrayana (lit. thunderbolt/diamond way, esoteric) school of Buddhism comes from, in which the Vajra symbolizes the thunderbolt experience of enlightenment and the indestructible nature of the diamond, often also a symbol for the True Self. Indra is often shown as a slayer of dragons/serpents, which is a recurring theme of the spear-wielding hero god.
Speaking of slaying serpents, that brings us to Norse mythology, although it’s Thor fighting Jormungandr (the World-Serpent) with his hammer Mjolnir, and Odin is the one with the spear here. In what I consider to be among the greatest of all myths, simply due to the extreme symbolic density, we have the story of how Odin discovered the runes. For nine long nights, Odin hung himself from the World-Tree (the axis mundi, also perhaps a parallel to Buddha under the Bodhi tree) Yggdrasil, pierced through the side (a much better parallel to the Spear of Destiny myth), sacrificed by himself to himself, until he received the runes in a vision.
I love this particular myth for a few reasons. First, Odin as a figure is always pursuing more knowledge and information, and he’s willing to go to great lengths to achieve it, including hanging himself to do it. That’s rare in mythology. Beyond that, this effectively symbolizes something like a shamanic journey, and his discovery of the runes is similar to bringing some prize back from the underworld. The runes are fascinating because they’re not just letters like most other languages have, they’re also magical in their own right and could be used to create spells and the sort- it’s the understanding that language itself has power and was rendered sacred as a result.
There’s another layer that brings in the myth of the Wounded Healer- Jung mentioned that the Greek figure Chiron’s wounding by a poison arrow was a qualification for becoming a healer, with “wounding by one’s own arrow means, first of all, the state of introversion.” With this in mind, Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself, wounded by his own spear, becomes a metaphor for the deep introspective state that produces gifts to the world, like the runes. The spear, then, symbolizes not just the masculine phallic element, but the mental component of the Will as well.
Why is the experience of the Will mirrored in the symbol of the spear? Will is singular, it is piercing focus and force applied to a solitary point, not unlike the slogan that many special forces units use to describe their role as the “tip of the spear.” I’d even go so far as to argue that Football is so popular because of the combination of throwing (much like throwing spears) and the tactical penetration of the enemy’s line are very much expressions of this element of the Will. It’s the application of pressure at the weakest point, much as consciousness is centered on the immediacy of the present moment.
There’s a really phenomenal example of this archetypal Will/Spear charge forward in the climax sequence of the Tom Cruise film Oblivion. (Note: Much of the plot is similar to the Sam Rockwell movie Moon, which is a better plot movie, where Oblivion is more fun/action packed.) Spoilers, obviously, but in the final charge, Cruise’s character takes a single ship and flies it to the central component of a big alien spaceship (definitely some Independence Day vibes here, but much more subdued), where, having broken through the enemy’s line, he detonates explosives and destroys the ship. There are a lot of strange symbolic allusions/design choices that mirror the reproductive process, so depending on how Freudian you care to get, there’s probably an extra article’s worth of unpacking to do there- if you feel so inclined.
To close this out, I’ll suggest that you pay attention to the usage and context of traditionally masculine words and symbols, and consider how they relate to both the symbol of the Spear, and the notion of Will. We have many, many more myths related to either than I care to cover here, but both those subjects and the overarching narrative of masculine-hero journeys tend to circle around the same few themes. Be wary of how those with something to gain may manipulate these themes to achieve something, as we saw in the instance of the Nazi propagandists, but sometimes they can be closer to home.
May your spear be strong, and may your Will be as iron.
“And for all I can tell, the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream. But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water-spouts of Truth from the very depth of Truth.”C.S. Lewis