“Steel slurper,” “blade glommer”…or just plain old “crazy”…the circus sword swallower has been called many different names throughout the years. Just don’t call him a magician, because although swallowing may appear to be an illusion, it is in fact a very real act. There’s no smoke, no mirrors, and no slight of hand. The sword actually does go into the mouth, through the esophagus, and into the stomach…none if it is fake. And here’s where it all started.

Way back in ancient India around 2000 BC, shaman priests and holy men known as fakirs began the practice of swallowing blades, in combination with many other acts such as snake handling and walking on hot coals, as a way of showing their divine union with their deities, and the power and indestructibility they bestowed upon them. By the 1st century AD, the act had spread throughout Greece, Rome, and Europe, as well as eastwards to China, becoming a part of theater, festivals, and street performance. By the 8th century sword swallowing had also grown popular in Japan, playing a key role in Japanese acrobatic theater known as Sangaku, which also featured juggling, contortion, and tightrope walking.

As the power of the church grew in Europe, sword swallowing quickly began to fade. During the convictions of heretics of the 12th century inquisition, the act of sword swallowing was labeled as a dark art and a form of witchcraft. Swallowers were condemned as witches completing the devil’s work, eventually being arrested, tortured into false confession, convicted, and finally killed. It’s not until the growth of the circus in the 1800s, both in America and in Europe, that sword swallowing made its resurgence.

In America one point in particular sparked the rebirth, when sword swallowing was featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s fair. This time around however, sword swallowing was not connected to religion. Throughout its run in the circus, sword swallowing was seen as only another stunt, with performers from competing circuses trying to top one another with bigger swords, more swords, and sometimes even hot swords. Of course with the death of the circus by the mid 1900s, the art of sword swallowing faded away once again. But today there are still a handful of performers around the world using this ancient trick to marvel modern audiences. But just how do they do it?

Contrary to its name, sword swallowing doesn’t actually involve “swallowing,” but in fact suppressing swallowing so that the throat stays open. Since the mechanisms behind swallowing are both voluntary and involuntary, swallowers undergo much physical and psychological preparation in order to suppress the natural urge. The human body’s upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract consists of the throat, pharynx, esophagus, and stomach, made up of both skeletal (voluntary) and smooth (involuntary) muscles, as well as a mucosa lining that provides lubrication. The mouth, pharynx, and upper part of the esophagus are composed of skeletal muscles, meaning we maintain control of their actions. When we swallow, we use our tongue to move food to the pharynx. Simultaneously the larynx moves up and the esophageal sphincter (door to the esophagus) relaxes, allowing our food to move into the esophagus. A little flap of tissue known as the epiglottis seals off the trachea to keep food from going down into the lungs. The remaining part of the esophagus is smooth muscle, in which the involuntary contraction of peristalsis takes over and pushes the food down into the stomach, where the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes allowing food to enter the stomach.

In a way the entire tract bodes similar to a living sheath, sliding the sword into it. Learning to sword swallow takes a lot of practice however, especially to subdue the gag reflex. In a reflex, the receptor is connected to a nerve that goes directly to the brain stem, bypassing the brain, allowing for the quickest motor response. The motor neuron tells the appropriate muscles of the body to contract immediately when the receptor is activated. Some people have a very strong gag reflex, others more minimal. Regardless, since a reflex is involuntary, sword swallowers must train their bodies to ignore it. This is done by acclimatizing the pharynx to being touched, beginning first with objects such as fingers, spoons, plastic tubes, and knitting needles. Eventually performers graduate to wire coat-hangers and other sharper objects, until they are finally ready for the swords themselves. The trick takes plenty of body relaxation, concentration, and mind-control, with many performers requiring years to master the art.

Swallowers begin the act by hyper-extending the neck back to align the mouth with the esophagus and straighten the pharynx. Then while moving the tongue out of the way, relaxing the esophageal sphincter, and resisting the urge to vomit (gag reflex), they insert the sword. Usually saliva is sufficient lubricant for the sword, but some performers prefer to use oils or jellies as additional help. Once the pharynx is cleared, the sword passes easily through the esophagus with the help of gravity. It straightens the curves of the esophagus which is normally flexible, heading towards the stomach. Sometimes swallowers eat a big meal or drink lots of water prior to performing to add more weight to the stomach and make it more vertical. Depending on the length of the sword, it may or may not enter the stomach. The distance from the teeth to the stomach is about 40 centimeters, with swords swallowed typically 38 to 61 centimeters. The Sword Swallowers Association International does not recognize swallowers unless they can swallow down swords at least 38 centimeters long and 2 centimeters wide. For some people the esophagus curves slightly when it hits the stomach adding a little more difficulty, whereas for others it connects at a straighter angle.

Swords are usually only held down for a few seconds, seeing as it is extremely difficult to suppress gagging for long periods of time. Although performers must try to prevent internal squeezing against the sword to prevent internal injuries, the swords themselves are not normal swords in that their edges are dulled. Even so, the esophagus passes very closely by the trachea, lungs, heart, aorta, vena cava, and diaphragm, all essential organs that could easily be punctured or damaged by the slightest deviation of the sword.

Learning to relax muscles that are typically involuntary seems difficult enough. But a great swallower will not only learn how to suppress their body’s natural urges, but appear to do so with incredible ease. Part of the allure of the trick is the lack of difficulty with which the swallower appears to perform the act. In their efforts to show themselves as superhuman beings capable of unordinary feats, swallowers do not want to make it seem as uncomfortable as it actually is. When in reality, most swallowers are in a great deal of discomfort which they have trained their body to grow accustomed to with years of practice.

Sword swallowing has accounted for at least 29 recorded deaths in the past 150 years, with countless more injuries, making it one of the most dangerous circus arts of all. Injuries can range from mild irritations to severe internal hemorrhaging. Minor effects include sore throat, which carnies jokingly like to refer to as “sword throat,” chest pain, and enlargement of the esophagus. Weakened tooth enamel and dry throat are also common side effects, due to acid erosion caused by frequent bouts of ascending stomach acid from repetitive activations of the gag reflex. Most of these minor effects can be rectified by simply stopping sword swallowing for a period of time.

More serious effects include perforations of the esophagus, stomach, lungs, or other organs, causing internal bleeding and usually requiring medical operations to repair and restore. Severe chest pains and vomiting of blood can be signs of an esophageal perforation or other internal puncture. Cases of internal bleeding caused by sword swallowing, although rare, have been documented. One of the most bizarre injuries occurred when multiple blades (known in carnie lingo as a “sword sandwich”) swallowed by a belly dancer scissor-ed internally when an audience member tried to put money in her belt, causing her to flinch and lose her concentration.

Indeed many swallowers up the ante with advanced tricks like swallowing on a unicycle, on a bed of nails, or while dancing. One very popular and dangerous trick called “the drop,” involves swallowing the sword without using the hands, allowing the pharynx to push it down. Some swallowers try to get the audience involved by allowing a member to pull the sword out. Others increase difficulty by swallowing curved blades or wavy blades (called a kris). Yet others add fire to the mix for added dramatic effect, lighting the handle of the sword on fire while it is in the swallowed position.

Aside from its inherent risks, the act of sword swallowing has actually helped many advances in the medical field. The medical examination known as endoscopy owes its founding to sword swallowing. Early endoscopy was practiced on sword swallowers since they were able to accommodate the rigid instruments without gagging, allowing medical science to learn a lot about the human body and GI system.

Additionally, some believe sword swallowing is therapeutic. Seeing as it requires incorporating body relaxation techniques and a clearing of the mind, some say sword swallowing is akin to a form of meditation. Since any stressful or sudden thoughts can cause jerking or contracting of the muscles and result in injury, swallowers must maintain a constant concentrated, calm, and serene state. Swallowers often claim the act helps calm their nerves as well as de-stress and decompress.

Many records have been set in the art of sword swallowing, some of the most notable by Matty “Blade” Henshaw, who regularly swallows 14 swords or more at a time. In 2003, Matty set the record of most swords swallowed in one year, at 3782 (averaging 14 per show, with 270 shows in 365 days). Matty also holds the record for heaviest sword swallowed at 44 lbs. 4.96 oz. (equivalent to 20.1 kg). Other record-holders include Red Stuart, who in February of 2009 set the record for most blades swallowed at once, a total of 50 18” long and ½” wide blades, at Ripley’s Believe it or Not in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Additionally, a man by the name of Brad Byers set the record for most swords swallowed with a twist, inserting 10 28” swords at one time and twisting them 180 degrees. For even more record holders and notable swallowers head over to the Sword Swallowers Association International’s Hall of Fame list.

Whether its for breaking records, therapeutic relief, or the simple thrill of seeing that shocked look on people’s faces, sword swallowers have been around for thousands of years and will most likely continue to be around for thousands more.