Monster-Headed Axes
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval

Monster-Headed Axes

The weapon bearer from the relief of the North Staircase, Apadana, Persepolis courtesy of Jona Lendering of Livius.Org.

On the great central relief of the North Staircase at Persepolis, which was presented front and center to visitors approaching the palace for an audience, a weapon bearer stands in the background with the royal axe and bow. His axe has a long, narrow head like a pick. A clever craftsman has formed the socket into the head of a strange creature, and the blade into something which comes from its mouth, while the back-spike becomes its tail. Several iron or bronze axeheads of this type survive, but none is so beautifully formed.

Photo from

Almost two thousand years later, in the fourteenth century of our era, another smith used the same motif to make a warhammer. His hammer is easy to recognize as a dragon with wings, flames spouting from its mouth, and a spiked tail. It is best known through its publication in Lionello Boccia’s Armi Bianchi Italiani, one of those books which was published a bit too early and in the wrong country for it to reach the audience it deserved. Boccia gave it the number “CC M XIV.182” (I suspect that the first three letters stand for Museo Civico Correr, the institution in Venice which holds it today, but I can’t find it in their catalogue after a quick search).

I am not sure if any of the various Babylonian dragons breathed fire or venom. Much later, Ferdowsi’s dragons certainly did. We have too few traces of the myths of western Iran in the Achaemenid period to know what their dragons were like. But whatever the nature of the creature on the king’s axe, and whether it is breathing fire, spitting poison, or blasting a windstorm, it was not the last fierce beast to be captured in metal and placed on a haft to delight its wielder and terrify his enemies.

Further Reading: Photos of a warhammer inspired by the weapon in Venice made by Leo Todeschini of Tod’s Stuff are available on MyArmoury. MyArmoury hosts the B&W photo above, but I presume that it belongs to the museum or one of their photographers. The Encyclopaedia Iranica article on dragons is also worth reading; you can learn about medieval European dragons on For the Iranian tradition of bull-headed maces, see Manouchehr Khourasani’s Arms and Armour from Iran (Bookfinder link).

I thank Sophie Hay for inspiring me to write this blog post with one of her own in a week when I do not have many words left.

Object 14.25.465 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public-domain image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the license

Edit 2021-09-28: a pollaxe from around 1580 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has the same motif of a spike emerging from the head of a creature (object Nr. 14.25.465. Arms & Armor in Minnesota offers a replica

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5 thoughts on “Monster-Headed Axes

  1. Sophie Hay says:

    I am honoured to have played a small part in your brilliantly observant blog post. Fascinating and incredible what rich stories can be teased and unraveled from such a small but beautifully crafted detail. My compliments to you and I look forward to more of your insightful observations.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      And thank you for your point that the sculptors chose to bring out every detail of texture on some things, and make others exaggeratedly smooth! We have lost all the details which were painted on or applied, but the scabbard with its carving in relief would have looked very different from the tunics with their painted decoration.

  2. Aaron says:

    Interesting blog, Sean, indeed! I guess you are going to visit that place next week? I hope I see you before you fly to Iran. Liebe Grüße

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Thanks Aaron I will call you when I can find my cell phone again. It is in the National Museum in Tehran today I think.

  3. A Monster-Headed Luristan Axe | Book and Sword says:

    […] As my chapter on war in the ancient near east before the Achaemenid period takes shape, I am reading books like Oscar White Musarella’s study of bronze and iron artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I do so, it occurred to me that I have something to add to my earlier post about monster-headed axes. […]

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