A knobstick is a wooden walking stick which has a knob for a handle. The stick is commonly the length of a walking stick (distance from the floor to one’s wrist with elbow slightly bent).
A knobstick can also be used as a club or a cudgel. The heavy knob can be used for striking as well as parrying and disarming an opponent. The use of knobsticks as weapons has a particularly long tradition in Ireland.
In Ireland, the knobstick is called “shillelagh”. There are two etymologies for this word.
First one is that it is an anglicization of the Gaelic “Sail Éille” which means a “heavy walking stick with a strap”. Many shillelaghs from last few centuries have a strap attached, similar to commercially made walking sticks, to place around the holder’s wrist. Hence the name.
The second one says that the word shillelagh comes from the name of the barony of Shillelagh which was famous for its oak forests. The quality of its oak cudgel was supposedly such that the word “shillelagh” by antonomasia became synonymous with the Irish stick, regardless of its material.
However the earliest names for these types of sticks were “Cleith ailpín“, which just means a stick with a knob, a knobstick, or “bata” which means any stick, club. As a matter of fact, the name “shillelagh” is by and large an Irish American word, never used by Irish country people.The most common words used in Ireland were a Blackthorn, an ash plant or in Irish camóg (crooked stick), buinneán (sapling).
Here you can see various types of the Irish shillelagh sticks. You can see that the ones on the left have straps attached to them and are specifically made as weapons, looking more like batons than walking sticks. The ones on the right are the traditional old style knobsticks.
Shillelaghs were traditionally made from blackthorn (sloe) wood (Prunus spinosa) or oak. Wood from the root was prized as it was less prone to cracking during use. The bark was peeled and the wood was smeared with butter or lard, and then placed up a chimney to cure, giving the shillelagh its typical black shiny appearance. Some shillelaghs were hollowed at the knob end and filled with molten lead to increase the weight beyond the typical two pounds; this sort of shillelagh is known as a ‘loaded stick’. In Ireland the stick fighting using shillelagh knobsticks was called “bataireacht” or “boiscín”. In Irish the word “bata” means stick so “bataireacht” literally means stick-fighting. The other name used for knobstick fighting, “boiscín”, is a bit more difficult to translate. The Irish phrase “babhta boiscín” means fencing bout, where the word “boiscín” means fencing and the word “babhta” means bout, a short period of intense activity. So the word “boiscín” means fencing, stick fighting, but ultimately carrying and using a knobstick. But we also have the Irish word “bóisc”, which means to boast, to show of. I believe that “boiscín”, carrying and using a knobstick, and “bóisc” to show off, to boast are related words with related meanings. The reason why I believe that this is the case will become obvious soon.
We have the written records that the Irish have used various sticks and cudgels as weapons of self-defence for centuries.
The earliest reference to shillelaghs can be found in the Ulster Cycle’s mythological tale “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel”. The owner of the hostel had a sword but his warriors were described as such:
“Thereafter Da Derga came to them, with thrice fifty warriors, each of them having a long head of hair to the hollow of his polls, and a short cloak to their buttocks. Speckled-green drawers they wore, and in their hands were thrice fifty great clubs of thorn with bands of iron.”
Gerald of Wales says in his “The Topography of Ireland” written in the 12th century, that the Irish: “carry axes, borrowed from Norwegians and Ostmen, as others carry walking sticks and that they grab these axes one handed”.
In the St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny, on the side of the tumb of James Shortals, are carved figures of St. Peter, Paul, James, Thomas, Bartholomew and John.
Each saint carries a book, presumably a Bible and a weapon. St James carries a knobstick.
By the 18th century “bataireacht”, the knobstick fighting became increasingly associated with Irish gangs called “factions”. Irish faction fights involved large groups of men (and sometimes women) who engaged in melees at county fairs, weddings, funerals, or any other convenient gathering. Historians such as Carolyn Conley, believe that this reflected a culture of recreational violence. Two or more groups assembled to fight using mostly rocks and sticks, very often resulting in the death of many participants. Interestingly even though it caused death, the practice of faction fighting was considered good fun and in fact people brought to justice for killing people in faction fights were often exonerated. But not all of these fights were done with playful intent; in fact many were done to settle feuds and political or religious tensions especially in the North. This is why James S. Donnelly, Jr argued in his “Irish Peasants: Violence & Political Unrest, 1780”, that “faction fighting had class and political overtones”.
By the early 19th century, faction gangs had organised into larger regional federations, which coalesced from the old Whiteboys, into the Caravat and Shanavest factions. Beginning in Munster the Caravat and Shanavest “war” erupted sporadically throughout the 19th century and caused some serious disturbances.
As the faction fights became increasingly repressed and other sports such as hurling were promoted, bataireacht as a sport (I love this), slowly faded away by the turn of the 20th century. Although still documented sporadically, it has become mostly an underground practice saved by a few families who still handed down their own styles.
You can read more about the shillelagh stick fighting in the excellent book Shillelagh: The Irish Fighting Stick by John W. Hurley and in the stick fighting martial arts blog written by Maxime Chouinard in the article What is Irish stick fighting? Pearson’s Magazine, 11 (January 1901) published a whole ilustrated tutorial on knobstick fighting.
At the end of this part about the Irish knobsticks, here is probably the most important bit of information:
Folklorist Padraic Colum says in “A Treasure of Irish Folklore” that the shillelagh stick was a badge of honor for those who carried it. When they were very young, Irish boys were exposed to the traditions of the bata, and when they came of age, to carry a stick was viewed as a passage into manhood.
Why this is so important will become clear when I start talking about Slavic knobsticks.
Now here is a question: was this type of stick ever used anywhere else or was this a specific Irish type weapon?
Well sticks, together with stones, were the earliest weapons used by people. Battle club is a common weapon found in every part of the world. A knob stick is just a stick with a knob at the top which makes it heavier and increases the power of the strike.
This is an Oceanic battle club:
This is an Australian Aborigine battle club called waddy.
A waddy is a heavy club constructed of carved timber. Waddies have been used in hand to hand combat, and were capable of splitting a shield, and killing or stunning prey. In addition to this they could be employed as a projectile as well as used to make fire and make ochre. They were also used for punishing those who broke Aboriginal law.
Then we have the Native American ball headed war club. No one knows when the ball headed war club first appeared. It was in common use in the early 16th century and was popular with the war-like tribes of the American eastern seaboard, eventually spreading to the Great Lakes region and northern Canada all the way to the Great Plains west of the Mississippi.
It has been speculated that the wide adoption of this weapon was the result of the fact that it was relatively easy to manufacture, in that it required little or no metal, and because it was unspeakably effective.
The better clubs were carved from a naturally curved hardwood root burl, sapling or tree branch. This insured that the wood grain would curve in parallel lines though the handle and into the ball itself, avoiding the pitfalls of cross grain which could weaken the club and cause it to break at an ill-timed moment. Hornbeam (Iron Wood), a hard dense timber that was strong and was resistant to impact forces, was the most preferred material, even over such stalwart choices as Ash, Maple, Oak and Hickory. In battle, a dedicated blow from the ball of the club could easily break a limb or crush a skull.
In Southeastern Africa we find a battle walking knobstick called “knobkierie”.
A Knobkierie, also spelled knobkerrie, knopkierie or knobkerry, is a form of club used mainly in Southern and Eastern Africa. Typically they have a large knob at one end and can be used for throwing at animals in hunting or for clubbing an enemy’s head. The knobkierie is carved from a branch thick enough for the knob, with the rest being whittled down to create the shaft.
The name derives from the Afrikaans word knop, meaning knot or ball and the Nama (one of the Khoekhoe languages) word kierie, meaning cane or walking stick. Knobkieries were an indispensable weapon of war, particularly among southern Nguni tribes such as the Zulu (as the iwisa) and the Xhosa. Knobkieries are still widely carried, especially in rural areas, while in times of peace it serves as a walking-stick. The head, or knob, is often ornately carved with faces or shapes that have symbolic meaning. Like this one from Tanzania.
Battle clubs later evolved into battle maces. A mace is a blunt weapon, a type of club or virge that uses a heavy head on the end of a handle to deliver powerful blows. A mace typically consists of a strong, heavy, wooden or metal shaft, often reinforced with metal, featuring a head made of stone, copper, bronze, iron, or steel.
These are two examples of Medieval European battle maces with iron heads:
The war mace, was started being used in the Roman army from the 3rd century AD. What is interesting is that at the same time when the battle maces start being used by the Roman army, a Roman villa was built in what is today a village of Nennig, in the Saarland, Germany. Its atrium contained beautiful floor mosaics. One of the mosaic panels depicts two people fighting each other using Irish style knowbsticks and whips.
These are not gladiators as gladiators did not use knobsticks and whips as weapons. These are normal gladiator weapons:
Arcus: Bow and Sagitta an arrow
Contus: (Pike or lance)
Acinaces: Single edged cavalry sword
Fascina: Tridents, harpoons
Gladius Graecus: Leaf shaped sword
Hasta: Spear for thrusting
Iaculum: Casting net
Lancea: short javelin, or spear
Parmula: Small, light shield
Pilum: Long, heavy throwing spear
Plumbatae or martiobarbuli (lead-weighted darts)
Pugnum: Small shield used for thrusting
Sica: Short, curved sword or scimitar
Spatha: Long broadsword
Verutum: Short, light throwing spear
The Roman Centurion carried the vitis or vine staff which was a swagger stick about three feet in length originally made of grape vine. The vitis stick was first introduced at about the time of the Punic Wars, and was a distinction, symbol, of rank. It is often prominently featured on sepulchral monuments for dead or missing centurions as a sign of their status. Such monuments show the cudgel in a variety of forms – sometimes straight with a rounded top, sometimes knotted, and sometimes sinuous.
Here is a picture of two Roman plebeians fighting with what looks like vitis sticks (from Roman cloaks and other outwear collection):
So the sticks on this Roman fresco could have been Roman vitis sticks. However the shape of the sticks on the fresco is not the same as the shape of the vitis sticks. So I am not sure if this is the same weapon or not. In any case there are still question to be answered: Who are these two people depicted on a third century Roman mosaic from Germania who were fighting each other using shillelaghs and why are they fighting? Was this “settling a dispute” in a traditional way or some kind of ceremony or sport? But the main question is why were vitis sticks introduced int the Roman army around the time of the Punic wars? Is the introduction of these sticks a result of the increased number of non Latin soldiers in the Roman army, who brought with them the knobstick as the status symbol? And if so who were these soldiers? Celts?
We know that Slavs used these knobsticks as weapons. But we also know that they used them as ceremonial sticks, as symbols of power. How do we know this? Because of this 9th century fresco from the Balkans:
This is a fresco entitled “Bogumils expel St Naum” from the monastery of St Naum from Ohrid Makedonija. Saint Naum (Bulgarian and Macedonian:Свети Наум, Sveti Naum), also known as Naum of Ohrid or Naum of Preslav (c. 830 – December 23, 910) was a medieval Bulgarian writer, enlightener, one of the seven Apostles of the First Bulgarian Empire and missionary among the Slavs. He was among the disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius and is associated with the creation of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic scripts. Naum was among the founders of the Pliska Literary School and is venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church. But on this fresco he is not venerated. He is being chased away by the Slavic elders wielding knobsticks. This is a drawing based on the fresco on which it is much easier to see what is going on:
I love the bandannas worn by the Slavic elders. Early Slavic Ninjas…:) The Slavic elders were known as “starac” or “djed” both words simply meaning the elder, the grandfather, the ancestor. They were the carriers of the power in the old Slavic social structure organized around the family, extended family (zadruga), clan (rod) and tribe (pleme), all linked through direct paternal descent and relation. Bogumil priests were also called “djed” meaning elder. Who were Bogumils, and were they even Christians is still a mystery. Bogumils are believed to have been the early Slavic Christians. But it is much more likely that they were, what was known in Medieval Serbia as “poluverci”, meaning “half believers”. What this means is that their faith was basically a mixture of old Slavic faith with a thin veneer of Christianity applied on it. What we do know about Bogumils is that they fought against East Roman Hellenization of the Balkans. They also fought against the destruction of the old tribal social order which was based on kinship and respect of the elders, and which was forcefully being replaced by the new feudal social order based on power.
You can see that the elders are all wearing the same clothes and all carrying the same stick. And that the stick is exactly the same type of the knobstick that we can see St James carrying in the St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny. Are these knobsticks just weapons or are they ceremonial sticks? I believe that they are both weapons and ceremonial sticks. Do we have any proof that knobsticks were used as ceremonial sticks. Well we do. The proof for this lies in the Irish and Serbian languages.
In Serbian we have these two words:
budžiti – to stick something stick like into something tight, like a penis into vagina
In Brittany we find “Penn Bazh” which is exactly the same as the Irish knobstick:
Penn Bazh was and still is used as a weapon. Pen Bazh literally means head stick where the word “bazh” means stick, basically Celtic “budz” or Serbian “budža”. Interestingly the English word “bash” meaning “to strike violently,” and which was first attested in the 1640s, could come from the same root as Breton “bazh”. The etymological dictionary says that this word is perhaps of Scandinavian origin, from Old Norse *basca meaning to strike. Cognates are Swedish basa “to baste, whip, flog, lash,” Danish baske “to beat, strike, cudgel”. Or the whole group might be independently derived and echoic. Well considering that none of the Norse words have further etymology, I would suggest that they are borrowing form Celtic and that all of them come from the same root “budža” meaning stick, knobstick, baton…
Middle Irish bot (“tail; membrum virile”), from Proto-Celtic *buzdos (“tail, penis”), perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *gwosdʰos (“piece of wood”).
Interestingly Serbian word “buzdovan” means a knobstick, battle club exactly like the word “budža”. So we have two old Irish words found in Serbian both meaning the same thing: penis (knob), knobstick.
In English the phrases “to be a knob” or “to be a dick” both mean that the person in question is showing off, is full of himself, is unpleasant, offensive or even abusive, and is showing disregard for other people’s feelings. Like someone who has or thinks he has absolute power, superior worth and right over others. In Serbian when someone is important and has power over others, he is called a “budža” meaning a penis, a knob, a knobstick. This is not a derogatory term, but an expression of respect. Knobstick is here directly linked to importance and power over others. The knobstick is a symbol of power. But when someone is important and has power over others, when someone is a “budža”, he is also “neki kurac” meaning a penis, a knob. Like in the expression “on misli da je neki kurac” meaning he thinks that he is important, that he has power over others. This directly links a knobstick and knob, the power over others and reproductive power. This is completely natural and logical, because in clan based societies, where all the members of the clan are blood relatives, the oldest male member of the clan, the ancestor, the “Starac”, “Djed”, the actual oldest living ancestor of the clan is the one who holds the position of power over others. And not surprisingly he holds the knobstick as a symbol of this power. How old is this link between the knob (penis), knobstick and power? I believe that this is ancient. It is the simplest the most direct expression of the patriarchal power that you can get. I made you, you came from my penis, therefore I have power over you. Originally the elders probably held their penises as symbols of powers. In Serbian when someone is behaving like he has power we say “kurči se”, meaning “he is showing off, he is being a dick” but literally “he is sticking his dick out” and “he is wielding his knob or his knobstick”. Do you remember that I said that I believe that “boiscín”, carrying and using a knobstick, and “bóisc” to show off, to boast are related words with related meanings. Do you see now how these two words are linked?
In Serbian the expression “ponaša se kao da je uhvatio boga za kurac” means “he is behaving like he has absolut power”, but literally means “he behaves like he is holding God’s dick”. Serbs believed that they descend from god Dabog. That they were children of Dabog. Is the knobstick the symbol of the Dabog’s dick? Is the person holding the knobstick symbolically holding “god’s dick”? I believe so, but I will talk more about this in one of my next posts.
So Slavs used these knobsticks both as weapons and as symbol of power that the ancestors have over their progeny. I believe that only “djed”, “starac”, the elder was allowed to carry the knobstick. I believe that this is the case because of these stećak standing stones from Bosnia:
They are all adorned with the relief depicting the knobstick. I believe that this can only mean that knobsticks were a powerful religious symbols, and not just weapons because all the symbols so far found on stećak standing stones have religious meaning. So these stones could either be marking graves of the elders or could in some other way be linked to the ancestral religion in which the knobstick wielding elders played the main role.
And here is another proof that the knobstick was used as a ceremonial stick. This is the wall relief from Bayazid fortress (Armenian Դարոյնք, Դարենից (Daroynk, Darenits’)). It depicts two Parthian priests, wearing Phrigian hats, of which one is carrying a knobstick. Obviously the knobstick is carried as a ceremonial stick and not a weapon.
The fortress dates to the time of the kingdom or Urartu. This is very interesting because several other things link Serbian and Ireland to this ancient kingdom. During the 4th century ad the fortress was the royal treasury of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom.
In Serbian the word “dar” means gift. This comes from the old Arian “da” meaning yes, to give, to allow, to approve. Darovnik, Darenica (pronounced Darenitsa) would in Serbian mean the place where gifts, treasure is kept, treasury… Interesting.
Now remember the Centurion’s vitis stick? It is interesting that the Centurion’s knobstick was linked to the rank, privilege and power…It wasn’t just a weapon but a symbol. Even more interestingly the material from which the vitis stick was made was a grapevine root. Grapevine is an ancient symbol of kinship. This is because grapevine can propagate through cuttings making all the grape plants descendants of the same ancient grape root. This makes the grapevine root stick not just the symbol of power, but also the symbol of power based on ancient patriarchal clan hierarchy. The grapevine root is the symbol of the ancestor of “djed”. Did Romans know this meaning of their vitis sticks? And is it a coincidence that the priest hierarchy in the medieval Bosnian church, the Bosnian equivalent of the Makedonian Bogumils, consisted of “djed” which means elder and “strojnik” which can mean any of these things: the commander, the controller, the organizer, the leader of the line of soldiers, the leader of the clan soldiers in the tribe army, the leader of the faithful? Is this a coincidence?
I also believe that knobsticks were the original scepters, the symbols of power. A sceptre or scepter is a symbolic ornamental staff or wand held in the hand by a ruling monarch as an item of royal or imperial insignia. Sometimes, it could be used for showing a sense of divinity. What can be more of a simbol of power and divinity in a society which is based on patriarchal kinship and ancestor worship, than the knobstick?
So that is my story about the knobsticks. I hope you enjoyed it. I also hope you have some additional information about the subject that you can send me to improve my article. I believe that this is an incredibly important subject which deserves a serious study.