MASTERS OF FIRE
When striking their anvils smiths imitate the primordial gesture
of the strong god; they are in effect his accessories. All the
mythology woven round agrarian fertility, metallurgy and work is,
moreover, of relatively recent origin. Of later date than pottery
and agriculture, metallurgy is set in the framework of a spiritual
universe where the heavenly god, who was still present in the
ethnological phases of food-gathering and small-game hunting, is
finally ousted by the strong God, the fertilizing Male, spouse of
the terrestrial Great Mother.
Mircea Eliade, “The Forge and the Crucible”
The archetype and the essence
When meteorites iron begun to be used by being shaped with silex,
thousands of years ago, it was related to a gift by the gods, due to
its celestial origin.
It was yet to be understood how long the Iron Age would last,
bridging millenniums of history until our days, probably in such a
taken-for-granted way, that most people are not consciously aware of
its time span.
The emergence of the manipulation of fire in the history of mankind
brought about a slow but steady understanding of it's
While the arts of fire flourished, namely early pottery, the
connection with fire grew more intense, as man discovered Mother
Earth’s womb and dared to extract ores and manipulate a non ferrous
alloy composed of copper and zinc, called bronze.
The sacred transmutation properties of fire were already known and
even worshipped in many cultures as iron ores were discovered.
The smiths, manipulators of the immaterial fire and iron, became
invested of sacred identities as those few who would dare to defy
the tremendous forces of Nature coming from the entrails of Mother
Earth and combine them with the transmutation powers of fire, learnt
from the potter’s kilns.
Two main branches emerged from iron work: the agricultural utensils
and edged weapons. If the agricultural utensils evolved in a rather
anonymous way, the main shape of the edged weapons, the sword,
turned into an historical archetype, common to all cultures.
However, few would know by then, how very near they were from the
essence of truth, when the smiths were conferred a special status –
some cultures requiring the smith to be outcast from the village and
uncircumcised, thus possessing both the feminine and the masculine –
that enable him to deal with those powerful forces. In fact, the
forging of iron is nothing but the re-enacting of the Earth’s core,
a gigantic furnace of molten iron full of magnetic properties that
ensures both gravity and the magnetic fields that protect the
These ancient cultures were indeed following a different language to
reach the same essence: the forces that keep life alive. In other
words, each time a smith forges a sword, he is recreating, with his
forge, the earth’s essence, well hidden under its crust.
The fire, the elements and steel
It is generally considered that iron begun to be used in China by
the 8th. Century BC, according to some excavations in Xingjian,
where numerous artefacts of iron were found in tombs, and radio
carbon dated. However evidence of forged meteoric iron were later
found as cast-in edges for bronze axes, in the Shang and Zhou
Nonetheless, let us bring forward, for a moment, the five elements
formulated by Chinese civilization: fire, wood, metal, water and
earth, while we bear in mind the main elements of the magnetic
force, the positive and the negative poles.
The discovery of steel embodies in it the essence of all the five
elements: fire as the transmutation power, wood as the supplier of
fire, metal as the element to be transformed, water as the final
alchemic agent for steel, and earth, the womb-source.
Only one who has seen steel being heated to a red hot state at
night, revealing its secrets to the knowledgeable eye can understand
the incredible transformation process that the red hot iron
undergoes when it is then immersed in water.
The entire molecular structure changes under the shock of the red
hot Yang into the receiving Yin water. Creation is, once more
recreated, by the fusion of the parts into the entirety that now is
called steel. Yang and Yin, or the positive and negative poles that
generate magnetic energy, are fused into a new-born metal whose
appearance, as it slowly cools down, can be compared to the multiple
organic adherences with which a new-born comes into the world.
Therefore the smith is both a procreator and a re-enactor, an
alchemist in his own way, and maybe only he, of all people, can
perceive the entire act of creation through the manipulation of
primeval forces, both the Masculine and the Feminine.
The sword, the symbol and prejudices
It is without doubt that the sword of steel was one of the most
enduring weapons of the history of mankind, a symbol of power, of
destruction, but also of the most fundamental values and dreaded
manifestations of mankind, such as honour, courage, loyalty and
justice on the one side, and cruelty, treachery and cowardice on the
From this inevitable duality however, the archetype that emerges are
swords that embody mythic empowerments such as the Celtic legend of
the Sword of Manaan, King Arthur’s Excalibur, Damocles’ Sword,
Archangel St. Gabriel’s Flaming Sword, the Taoist Demon Catcher
Sword, and last but not least, the Sword that the Statue of Justice
Today swords are regarded as ceremonial and anachronistic, part of a
distant past. No matter how intricate the technology with which it
is imbued, one should bear in mind that technology stems from the
Greek word Techne that refers not only the activities and
skills of the craftsman, but also the arts of the mind and fine arts
Therefore, as the world keeps changing, the traditional concept of
culture as being “unchangeable, nationalistic, superior or inferior,
and strictly defined”, gave place to a changing and ever broadening
perspective where the concept of Art is getting back to its original
open concept, and as always, under a new vision.
We are living in a time in the history of mankind where prejudices
cannot exist anymore, nor can the arts be divided into major and
Therefore, in present day, it is possible to view the sword as an
art and as a design object, for it often bore as much decoration as
jewellery, intricate steel patterns and techniques, and was
conceived for specific purposes that evolved through the centuries.
The contemporary smith and
It is therefore under the auspices of the sword’s anachronism, that
today’s blade smiths work, still repeating the same multi-thousand
years old fusion of the hot and the cold, freed from the obligation
to deliver instruments of destruction, are now able to concentrate
into the creative aspects involving new techniques of working the
ancient craft of steel, with the single purpose of
refining and renovating this way of expression.
It is most interesting to observe the diversity of paths, techniques
and styles chosen by the Contemporary Smiths for this exhibition.
These choices reflect cultural preferences that, very often are not
original to the smiths’ own culture, expressing multi-cultural
choices of East plus West, placing blade smiths works into the
forefront, as ambassadors of cultural miscegenation in their work.
I am not aware that other Museums dedicated their attention to
present day smiths, but it is my conviction that the Macao Museum of
Art is taking a pioneering path in bringing forth an exhibition of
international Contemporary Blade Smiths thus acknowledging the
existence of these Masters of Fire.
In doing so, the Macao Museum of Art is placing itself very much in
tune with the contemporary concept of Culture and Art, offering a
broader perspective on artistic expressions that some would not be
António Conceição Júnior
Contemporary Blade Smiths Exhibition Curator
Cultural and Art Consultant – Macao Museum of Art
1. Heidegger, in "The
Question Concerning Technology".