Jedi and the Symbolism of the Sword
In the history of the Star Wars galaxy there were a few things that really stood out to me about the Jedi’s behavior once you stripped them of their mysticism and rhetoric.
Even back when we first meet them as Je’daii, twenty five thousand years before the events of A New Hope, they had sequestered an entire planet for their cult, and as a result of their power any non-Force-sensitive beings living there were forced to relocate to neighboring planets. At this point they were already quarreling among themselves, and it doesn’t take long before they begin to splinter into factions and break out into war.
Skip ahead twenty thousand years of miscellaneous war and violence, give or take. In the Tales of the Jedi comic series, we are greeted with this renowned religious order in the middle of fighting a war for their political benefactors. The “Unification Wars” were instigated by Empress Teta and her Jedi advisers acting as warriors and commanding her armies. The purpose behind the fight? Teta’s goal was to gain control of all the planets in that system. The Jedi blatantly and enthusiastically were the force of arms behind a person seeking to establish her own personal empire.
And then there’s the Mandalorian Excision. Mandalorian Space refused to join the Old Republic, and their worlds were known for being technologically advanced and holding strong warrior beliefs and traditions. Cue the Jedi Order, who with the blessing of the Old Republic organized a pre-preemptive strike (unprovoked attack) against many of their worlds, utilizing planetary bombardment that rendered several of them uninhabitable. The death toll was so high and the damage so extensive, that even the renowned fighting spirit of the Mandalorians was broken, and they surrendered. The Old Republic got what they wanted, and they set up a puppet government to control their new conquest.
So when the Jedi claim they are “keepers of the peace, not soldiers”, the precedent has already proven them liars. No matter what rhetoric they may spout, no matter how much they deny it with words, the Jedi are soldiers, the Jedi are warriors. They always have been, and always will be. Their Order is one that is sourced in violence and warfare. It is part and parcel of who they are, and I would argue that this is their defining trait, not whatever mystic dogma or enlightening “wisdom” they tack onto it in an attempt to cover it up.
Their primary symbol of power is a sword. That is not coincidence or happenstance.
I wrote that bit above as part of a different meta essay, but I’d like to add a little more to it, specifically about swords and symbolism, and how it relates to the Jedi’s warrior-cult.
The Jedi behave less like enlightened ascetic monks and scholars, and more like anointed destiny-bound royalty. They act as though they believe it is their divine right (or natural right, or Force-inspired right, it doesn’t matter) to rule. And by “rule”, I mean – they maintain largely-unregulated and frequently violent methods of enforcing law and custom on other people. They wage unrestricted holy wars against other Force-using factions, and insist that their internal politics and policies are immune to outside critique or accountability. Essentially, much of their behavior is similar to medieval houses of nobility and royalty.
What does this have to do with swords?
In much of archetypal mythology, the sword is the symbol of the virility, masculinity, and potency of the king: to receive a sword is to be given authority, and personifies the right to rule. Swords are the establishers of law and order, of social hierarchy and the enforcement of kingly will.
And as such, swords are also very often a birthright. (In-universe, while we don’t see much of this within the Jedi Order itself in the prequels, we can see this with the bestowing of Darth Vader’s old lightsaber onto Luke from Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV. It highlights his Jedi Knighthood as an inheritance). And even if that birthright is not inherited, it is often still a biological destiny. A Jedi is born with sensitivity to the Force, and that sensitivity is interpreted as a divine right.
The sword is a weapon – it holds no functional purpose other than as an implement of violence. This is not a symbol of peace, of love, or of tranquility and serenity. It is a symbol of active and intentional warfare. The sword symbolizes power and strength. It represents Authority, at its most fundamental. Very much on the yang side of things, it is an active, not passive, principle – representing a driving force to conquer and gain victory. It is overtly masculine-coded, phallic, and represents both the literal and figurative penetrating power of both the blade itself and its wielder.
Swords have long been associated with cutting through to the heart of the matter, as symbols of truth and purity – in essence, ultimate worthiness. A flaming sword represents this symbolism to the extreme – both cutting and burning away impurities through instantaneous vastation. It is the most blatant symbol of judgment to be found in monotheistic mythology, and assumes similar roles in several others. It combines the role of both blade and flame as righteous symbols of warfare: The sword is the punishment for falsity, impurity, and defiance, and fire the punishment of evil.
It’s logical then, that the Jedi Order’s primary symbol of power and claim to influence would be a scifi-ed up version of the flaming sword: the lightsaber.
Particularly in regards to their most frequent adversaries. The Sith originated as the development of a splinter group from the original Je'daii warrior-monks. As with many schisms, their secession and differences of belief made them, in the Je'daii’s mind, entirely and irredeemably Evil. With a capital E. Small wonder the Jedi took it upon themselves to wage holy war crusades against them, wielding the symbol of their divine right to inflict punishment upon those who dare raise themselves up against their Order. The Jedi, like most quasi-religious warrior-cult factions, dole out judgment in the form of violence, death, purges, and genocide. In this they are not unique. Their splintered sub-groups act so similar to them there is barely telling the two apart outside of philosophical differences and the degree with which they publicly show the extent of their supranatural powers. And both have taken up the same flaming sword. Both claim the right to rule, the right to authority and power and sovereign might.
But the Jedi were the first, and in their eyes that makes them the rightful heirs of that power. Anyone who would defy the Jedi Order, who would question their right to rule, who would challenge their divine and/or Force-blessed authority, would earn the burning ire of the Jedi. They would earn their righteous judgment, by the symbol of that flaming sword.
There is no hiding that warrior heritage. No amount of finger-pointing at other violent factions obfuscates the blood that stains their own hands as well. The Jedi Order may attempt to mask it, they may hide behind eloquent words and brain-bending philosophies, but at the heart of all that they are, there lies violence.
The Jedi’s primary symbol of power is a sword. And it is a symbol ideally suited to the core of who they are. They are not keepers of the peace. They are dogs of war.