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Issue 974

SWORD SWALLOWERS

February 23 has been set aside as International Sword Swallowers Day to honor this particular group of people. Tidbits has the particulars on this unusual skill.

• The art of sword swallowing has its origins in India around 2000 B.C. when fakirs and shaman priests who had taken vows of poverty and worship developed it. Similar practices, such as walking on hot coals, handling snakes, and lying on beds of nails, demonstrated their power and connections with their gods.

• The custom spread to Greece and Rome during the first century A.D., and was frequently performed at ancient Roman festivals. Around 750 A.D., the art travelled north into China. In Japan, sword swallowing was included in their acrobatic theater, which incorporated fire eating, tightrope walking, and juggling.

• Sword swallowing isn’t really swallowing at all, but rather passing a sword through the mouth and down the esophagus to the stomach, involving a relaxation of the upper gastrointestinal tract. The first step is for the performer to lean the head back, hyper-extending the neck to line up the mouth with esophagus. The throat is then relaxed, with the blade moved through the mouth and pharynx, that part of the throat behind the mouth and nasal cavity. The sword then moves into the flexible esophagus, straightening out the curves, making its way into the stomach.

• Sword swallowing takes a lot of practice, particularly in the areas of overcoming the gag reflex and learning to relax the GI tract. It requires strong concentration, as the sword passes within millimeters of several vital body parts – the aorta, the heart, and lungs.

• Some swallowers say that eating a big meal or drinking lots of water before a performance gives the stomach a more vertical orientation, making the process easier.

• Sword swallowing was introduced to the United States in the early 1800s, but it didn’t gain widespread recognition until the art was performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Ironically, this was the same year that the practice was outlawed in Scandinavia.

• The name Red Stuart is a famous one in this skill. Red has set numerous records, with his greatest of swallowing 52 swords at once, breaking his own previous record of 50. Natasha Veruschka is the record-holder for swallowing the longest sword, accomplished on International Sword Swallowers Day in 2009. The blade measured 22.83 inches long. Matty Henshaw was busy in 2003 when he set a record for 3,782 swords swallowed that year. And how about Chris Steele who was the first person to swallow a sword underwater, a feat accomplished in a tank of live sharks!

• Sword swallowing isn’t just about entertainment. Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville has studied the techniques involved in sword swallowing in an effort to help patients suffering from swallowing disorders. In the early days of endoscopy, where the body’s interiors are examined using a scope, doctors worked with sword swallowers because their bodies could adapt to the medical instruments.

• If you’re interested in a career as a sword swallower, classes are offered by the Coney Island Sideshow School.in Brooklyn, New York.