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Artistic representation of a shotel sword (PetriBot / CC BY-SA 4.0) on a fractal background. (Pixabay License)

The Shotel Sword: Ancient African Weapon Was Worn To Impress the Ladies

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One thing that every culture has in common is weaponry, and that weaponry is often unique and distinctive in its appearance. Swords are a particularly prevalent example of this – from the Scandinavian Ulfbehrt swords to Japanese Samurai swords they are often representative of the pinnacle of ancient technology and would have been a way of displaying wealth and status.

One sword which is not as well-known as some others is the shotel – a blade which was used in what is now Ethiopia as long ago as 980 BC and as recently as the 19th Century.

What Makes the Shotel Unique?

The shotel is one of a number of swords with curved blades, such as the sabers wielded by Hussars and the Persian shamshir sword . It is a particularly striking looking blade, which appears fearsome and looks like it would inflict major damage.

It has a more extreme shape than most other curved blades and it is almost semi-circular. At around 40 inches (1 meter) in length, it is extremely intimidating, and it is double edged, making it especially deadly. Unlike many swords, most surviving examples of shotels do not have much decoration – the handles are simple and plain and constructed of either wood or rhino horn .

Dejazmach Hailu, governor of Hamasien, armed with a shotel curved sword. Source: Avron / Public Domain

Dejazmach Hailu, governor of Hamasien, armed with a shotel curved sword. Source: Avron / Public Domain

Who Used Shotel Swords?

The earliest evidence for the use of the shotel is the Damotian civilization. Not much is known about the Damotians, but we know their kingdom was called D’mt and that their culture existed from around 980 BC to 400 BC. The sword was wielded by both mounted and infantry units. As time went on, some warriors began to specialize in the use of the shotel and those who chose to train with it were given the name ‘meshenitai’.

Amda Seyon I was a member of the Solomonic dynasty and the emperor of Ethiopia between 1314 and 1344 AD. Under his rule the empire conquered a lot of extra territory and played a major role in spreading Christianity throughout the region. At that time, the Ethiopian forces used both short and long swords, but there were a special class of warriors called the Shotelai who used shotel swords. They formed the Axurarat Shotelai, which was one of Amda Seyon I’s most elite forces, and they played an important role in the military successes of his reign.

A special class of warriors call the Shotelai used the shotel swords. (PetriBot / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A special class of warriors call the Shotelai used the shotel swords. (PetriBot / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

How Were the Shotel Swords Used?

The curved blade of the shotel is very similar to that of a sickle and it is almost impossible to block with another sword of shield. The Shotelai and meshentai were able to reach behind the shields of their opponents and do serious damage to vital areas. Another method was to swing the sword, so the blade came down perpendicularly on the head of the adversary.

However, despite what seems to be a huge tactical advantage , the design of the shotel was widely considered unwieldy. The hilt of the shotel was too small in proportion with the large curved blade , which made it difficult to use and hard to aim. Even removing the sickle-like blade from its scabbard was awkward, and the scabbards themselves were around a foot longer than the actual sword.

European accounts of the sword describe it as highly impractical, with one particularly disparaging description even going as far as stating “such a sword never belonged to a race of Swordsmen”, but it was not only foreigners who failed to take the shotel seriously. Many Ethiopians considered their shotels to be nothing more than ornamental, and they were often worn not to strike fear into the hearts of enemies, but as a way to impress potential lovers.

It cannot be denied that the shotel looks vicious and it certainly has some advantages in combat. But the universal opinion seems to point to a weapon that was unwieldy to use and difficult to gain any skill with. However, no matter how difficult it is to do damage with the shotel, it remained popular for hundreds of years and with so many accounts of it being useless in battle, perhaps its longevity is a testament to its success in impressing the ladies.

A nobleman of Tigre, an impressive figure with the shotel sword. (Andro96~commonswiki / Public Domain)

A nobleman of Tigre, an impressive figure with the shotel sword. (Andro96~commonswiki / Public Domain )

Top Image: Artistic representation of a shotel sword (PetriBot / CC BY-SA 4.0 ) on a fractal background. ( Pixabay License )

By Sarah P Young

References

Burton, R. 1884. The Book of the Sword: With 293 Illustrations . Chatto and Windus.

Burton, R. 1987. The Book of the Sword: With 293 Illustrations . Dover Publications Inc. [Online] Available at: https://books.google.co.jp/books?id=GJmrEX63LZUC&pg=PA163&dq=shotel+sword+richard+burton&hl=en&sa=X&ei=YwqjU92JFOPY7Aayy4GgDQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
Huntingford, G. 1965. The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia. Oxford University Press.
Royal United Service Institution. 1869. Journal of the Royal United Service Institutio n, Volume 12. W. Mitchell and Co. [Online] Available at: https://books.google.co.jp/books?id=nXVDAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA515&dq=shotel+sword&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ihuVU4mOI8GEkQXI_IDIAw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=shotel%20sword&f=false

Shaw, T. 1995. The Archaeology of Africa: Foods, Metals, and Towns . Routledge.

Stone, C, and LaRocca, D. 1999. A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times. Dover Publications Inc.

Taddasse, T. 1972. Church and State in Ethiopia (1270-1527) . Oxford Clarendon Press.

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