23 February 2011

Weapon of the Giant Killer: The Sling

Weapon of the Giant-Killer:
The Sling

I am convinced that the story of David and Goliath is famous mostly because of the way little boys' brains work.

I speak from experience. There are a lot of lessons and stories I heard as a child. Since my parents are avid students of the Bible, many of those stories came from the pages of that book. Of course, there are certain ones that stood out to me: Jonah being swallowed by a huge fish, Christ walking on water, the flood of Noah's day, the parting of the Red Sea. But no story stuck in my memory and imagination like the one that took place in the Valley of Elah in the eleventh century B.C.E., when a young Israelite boy marched alone to do battle with a giant champion of the nation of Philistia. The account has everything a little boy could hope for in a gripping story: a fearless, skilled, child hero, a terrifying, cruel-hearted giant warrior, a home-made weapon, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, and the highest of stakes. If there is a little boy anywhere who, after hearing this story for the first time, did not go outside and pretend to slay giants--well, in my humble opinion, there is something wrong with him.

The sling itself is one of the most ancient weapons known to man--as old as spears, atlatls, and bows. It is represented is various ancient cave drawings and oral histories, but the earliest extant sling comes from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Probably originating as something similar to the Paleo-American bolas or the Asian surijin (in which the weight is permanently attached to the string), the sling is both simple and incredibly powerful. Modern slingers have achieved distances of more than 1500 feet at a velocity of nearly 300 feet per second. In Bible times, the projectiles used were stones from stream beds ranging from two to four inches in diameter and sometimes weighing as much as a pound. 

When I was fourteen, I made my first sling. I had never used one before, but--from pictures of David and Goliath--knew you were supposed to whirl it around your head and let go of one end. I did, and the one-inch diameter stone hurtled into a stand of nearby cedar trees with the satisfying sound of cracking branches. I was stunned to see a branch fall from one of the trees and swoop to the ground. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the stone had struck the branch--more than an inch in diameter--near the trunk and had severed it as cleanly as the blow of an axe.

The sling pictured below is a recreation of the one found in Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb. It could be similar to the one used by David; there are other designs that are just as likely. But when I finished this one, the first thing that I did was take it outside and launch a stone at the row of poplar trees across the street.

The rock hurtled through the trees with a satisfying cracking sound, and a branch swooped down to the ground at my feet.

Goliath--here I come.

Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age Middle Eastern Sling

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