As ever, welcome, dear readers.
I imagine that you, like me, read something, then have a bit of it pop up in your mind when you least expect it. Here’s what recently popped up in mine:
“They shot well with the bow, for they were keen-eyed and sure at the mark. Not only with bows and arrows. If any Hobbit stooped for a stone, it was well to get quickly under cover, as all trespassing beasts knew very well.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, I, “Concerning Hobbits”)
When I thought further about this, it seemed like an odd detail: Hobbit archers turn up in the Prologue when it is said that: “To the last battle at Fornost with the Witch-lord of Angmar they sent some bowmen to the aid of the king, or so they maintained…” and, in “The Scouring of the Shire”, there are definitely bows at work: after Grima murders Saruman, “Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”). But does any Hobbit ever prove his prowess with a stone in the novel? I thought not—until I was reminded by a friend that, if not a stone, someone expertly used the missile to hand—
“Sam turned quickly. ‘And you, Ferny,’ he said, ‘put your ugly face out of sight, or it will get hurt.’ With a sudden flick, quick as lightning, an apple left his hand and hit Bill square on the nose. He ducked too late, and curses came from behind the hedge. ‘Waste of a good apple,’ said Sam regretfully, and strode on.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”)
This launching of missiles—other than arrows—at heads then brought back something from my last posting, which was about how to wear—or not to wear—helmets. Among my images was one of Goliath, in which he was (literally) being cut down to size by David.
(This is from the “Huntingfield Psalter”, dated to 1212-1220ad.)
I grew up with Judeo-Christian Bible stories and the story of Goliath’s defeat was always a favorite, but, when I was little, I was a little unclear as to how David actually did it: after all, did he have a slingshot like mine? (Or a catapult, as my English friends call it.)
And Goliath was huge and covered in armor—wouldn’t a stone from a slingshot just bounce off?
(This is an engraving by Robert Cruickshank, 1789-1856, which I include because, although Goliath looks like he’s dressed to play someone in an early-Victorian revival of a Greek tragedy, the artist had read his Bible carefully and included Goliath’s armiger, or armor-bearer, who is usually left out of other versions of the illustration.)
For a better understanding of just what happened, I turned to the late 4h-century AD Latin translation of the First Book of Samuel from the so-called “Vulgate” by St Jerome (c.342-420ad). I chose this because it was the translation from which the medieval artist of the scene in the Huntingfield Psalter would have learned the story (all translations are mine).
So let’s start with Goliath.
4 Et egressus est vir spurius de castris Philisthinorum nomine Goliath, de Geth, altitudinis sex cubitorum et palmi:
5 et cassis ærea super caput ejus, et lorica squamata induebatur. Porro pondus loricæ ejus, quinque millia siclorum æris erat:
6 et ocreas æreas habebat in cruribus: et clypeus æreus tegebat humeros ejus.
7 Hastile autem hastæ ejus erat quasi liciatorium texentium: ipsum autem ferrum hastæ ejus sexcentos siclos habebat ferri: et armiger ejus antecedebat eum.
(First Samuel, Chapter 17)
“4 And there came out of the camp of the Philistines a bastard, by name Goliath from Geth, in height six cubits and a palm. (Cubit is an ancient measurement with lots of possible variation, but, roughly, this makes him about 9 feet—about 2.75 metres—tall.)
5 And [there was) upon his head a bronze helmet and he was dressed in a breastplate of scale—moreover, the weight of his breastplate was 5000 bronze shekels. (Shekel is a Biblical weight—5000 would equal about 125 pounds—about 57 kilograms.)
6 And bronze greaves he had on his shins and a bronze shield was covering his shoulders.
7 As well, the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam—the iron [head] itself, moreover, of his spear weighed 600 shekels of iron and his armor-bearer used to march in front of him.” (A weaver’s beam was the top support of an upright loom, the sort used in the ancient world—here’s an illustration–
meaning that, like everything else about Goliath, it was much larger than normal. 600 shekels equals 15 pounds—that’s almost 7 kilograms—
and remember: this is just the head of his spear.)
With all of this in mind, what is Goliath supposed to look like? There is an immediate problem: words like “cassis” and “clypeus” are more generic than technical, although “cassis” usually means a metal helmet and “clypeus” a round bronze shield. There is a great deal of argument over the date—or dates—of the writing of Samuel, and armor and weapons change over time, so perhaps what we’re seeing here is a composite—or even a fantasy: after all, Goliath is supposed to be 9 feet tall!
A quick inventory shows Goliath with:
1. a bronze helmet
2. bronze scale (lamellar) armor (in fact, the text uses the word lorica, which usually means a breastplate, but seems to be used here to mean a coat of scales)
3. bronze greaves
4. a bronze shield
5. an immense, iron-tipped spear
We’ll come back to that helmet, but lamellar armor is made up of layers of small, overlapping plates (lamellae) of leather, bronze, or, eventually, iron,sewn to a leather or cloth backing. Here’s an Egyptian example from the 14th century BC, the lamellae being made of leather,
and here’s a section of Neo-Assyrian lamellae (900-600bc) from Nimrud.
As far as I can currently tell, greaves—metal shin guards—only appear with the Greeks, making them later perhaps than some other parts of this kit. Here’s a pair from the 6th-2nd century BC (note the holes at the top of the left-hand one: like helmets, greaves were lined to provide both an extra layer of protection and to prevent chafing of bronze on skin).
(From my experience in museums, by the way, it appears that, at least early Greek greaves were simply flexed to fit around the legs—no straps or buckles—and some of those I’ve seen show severe stress along the front, as if, with use, they began to wear out.)
We’re not told anything more about the clypeus, except that it’s bronze and covers the shoulders. I’m presuming, by this, that the author/s mean that it was commonly carried on the back when out of combat—or not being lugged by Goliath’s armiger.
(This image comes from Hurstwic, which is a living-history group devoted to the Vikings. There’s always something of interest to be found there at: http://www.hurstwic.com/history/text/history.htm )
If we go by Greek examples, such shields weren’t just bronze, but were actually made of layers of wood, then covered with a sheet of bronze on the outer surface. We are fortunate to have a late 5th-century BC example, from the Athenian Agora (a combination market/state buildings site)—
As for the spear, we are given nothing more than it’s large and has an iron head, but I want to return now to the helmet. We know that it’s bronze, but a further detail gives us a little more. In 17.49, it is said that David’s sling stone:
“percussit Philistheum in fronte et infixus est lapis in fronte eius et cecidit in faciem suam super terram”
“struck the Philistine in the forehead and the stone was stuck in his forehead and he fell onto his face on the ground”
From this, we can see that, although Goliath was wearing a bronze helmet, it was of an open-faced variety, which provided no protection for his forehead.
As I’ve said, taking all of this together, we may have only a fantasy figure, or a composite, but, to me, the closest I can imagine is perhaps an Assyrian, like this, reconstructed by Angus McBride—
Here, in both the left-hand and central figures, we see the open-faced helmet, the lamellar armor, the bronze-faced shield—there’s even a spear, if not a gigantic one. The only items missing are the greaves.
Reconstructing David is a much easier matter: although King Saul attempts to arm him in somewhat of the same style as Goliath (17.38-39), after trying it on, David declines, saying that he’s a shepherd and most comfortable wearing his normal working clothes. Thus, he takes with him to meet the giant Philistine only his staff (baculus—or baculum, since the noun seems to have both masculine and neuter genders) and his sling (funda—17.40)—and here was my childhood confusion. A sling looks like this—
and is thus very different from my slingshot—
It’s not just the obvious difference in look. What propelled the stone from my slingshot was a very large rubber band (“elastic”, if you’re in the UK) and such things didn’t come into being until the 19th century (AD). What propelled the stone from David’s sling was the effect of his swinging the sling in several different possible ways (this is only one of them).
Although it looks like such a simple thing, a sling can be really deadly, the stones (or cast lead bullets, which both Greeks and Romans used) moving at anywhere from 60 to 100 miles per hour (97-160kmh). Here’s a somewhat lurid but useful article from The Daily Mail on the subject: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4541318/Roman-sling-bullets-deadly-44-Magnum.html
And here’s a very convincing demonstration of what a sling and its stone can do: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0a_IHHcw6do
It’s no wonder that David’s stone stuck in Goliath’s forehead.
In Samuel, Goliath doesn’t seem to notice David’s sling, only his staff, shouting sarcastically: “numquid ego canis sum quod tu venis ad me cum baculo?!” (17.43)
“You don’t think that I’m a dog that you come at me with a staff?”
But, rather than attempting to mock his (to him) diminutive opponent, Goliath should, as in the case of trespassing beasts and Hobbits, have headed for cover when he saw that David “elegit sibi quinque limpidissimos lapides de torrente et misit eos in peram pastoralem quam habebat secum et fundam manu tulit et processit adversum Philistheum” (17.40)—
“[David] picked out for himself five of the smoothest stones from the stream and put them into the shepherd’s pouch which he used to have with him and took [his] sling in hand and made his way towards the Philistine…”
Thanks for reading, as always,
And remember that, as ever, there’s