Twilight of the Gods – “Sword of Damocles”

The Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Cicero includes in his Tusculan Disputations an anecdote borrowed from earlier Greek historians about Dionysius II, tyrant of the Sicilian city of Syracuse (r. 367-344 BCE). Earlier in Greek history, the term tyrant simply denoted an autocratic ruler who took power unconstitutionally, but by the fourth century the political theories of Plato and Aristotle, plus real historical events, saw the term evolve into its modern definition of a vicious, iron-fisted ruler who governs through terror and paranoia for the sake of his own insatiable and perverse appetites. Inheriting his position from his father rather than through his own merits, Dionysius more or less fit this mould.

Cicero’s anecdote, however, suggests that Dionysius had some degree of self-awareness about the nature of his position. One day at a symposium, one of Dionysius’ many flatterers, a man named Damocles, was remarking how blessed a state one must be in to command such great power and wealth as Dionysius. In response, Dionysius asked if Damocles would like to switch places with him for a day to experience just how “fortunate” his tyranny was. Agreeing to this, Damocles was dressed in royal attire, seated on a splendid throne, and had an extravagant feast and exquisite treasures arrayed before him. However, there was one additional item in this ensemble, a sharpened sword suspended above his throne, its menacing blade pointed downwards, held aloft by a tenuous thread of horsehair, seeming surely to break at any moment. So long as this weapon threatened, Damocles’ fear of death did not allow him to enjoy any of the wealth and power that he could have exercised that day. It was then that he understood the true nature of tyranny, that its blessings are outweighed by the curse of living in fear of assassination, of not being able to trust anyone. The moral of the story, to a political philosopher, is that it is to one’s advantage to rule as a just king rather than an unjust tyrant.

The phrase “sword of Damocles” has since come to mean the peril incumbent on anyone who exercises great power. The international heavy metal supergroup Twilight of the Gods, in this song from their 2013 album Fire on the Mountain, give the term a definition for our own age. The tyrant is not any one individual, but the tyrants of the world, while the sword is not a single blade, but the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons (the “neutron hammer”) poised to annihilate our race. Should this sword of Damocles fall, not only the tyrants but all humanity will perish with them. Missiles figuratively hang down from the sky by a thin thread, representing how close we are to the possibility of mutually assured destruction. What brought us to this extreme is a cult of masculinity gone too far, which threatens to violate mother nature irreparably: “Metal phallus rape the sky / Mutually assured nuclear winter.”

This is not the first metal band to apply this classical phrase to the threat of nuclear war. The Sodom song “Nuclear Winter,” written in the final years of the Cold War, refers to a “nuclear sword of Damocles” Yet Twilight of the Gods uses this interpretation in full awareness of the origin of the phrase, with an explicit nod to Dionysius in the song: “Draw your bow and train your sites / We wield mercy at Dionysius’ hand.” Drawing from their direct reading of classics and ancient history, Alan Averill and company remind us that amid the rise of modern tyrants, the Sword of Damocles is hanging over all our heads

This sword it hangs down from heaven
Man, woman and child so below
Above impious heads cast their judgement
Damocles’ sword will seal our fate

We set our borders in razor wire
Metal phallus to the sky
Mutually assured nuclear perdition
A tyrant’s fear is complete fear

We are the sons of the hammer
Of the neutron hammer

Sons who wield the neutron hammer
Lightning bolts to tame the east
Draw your bow and train your sites
We wield mercy at Dionysus hand

We set our borders in razor wire
Metal phallus to the sky
Mutually assured nuclear perdition
A tyrant’s fear is complete fear

We are the sons of the hammer
Of the neutron hammer

This sword it hangs down from heaven
Man, woman as above so below
We are the sons of the hammer
And we cast judgement on you

Our fate is bound in razor wire
Metal phallus rape the sky
Mutually assured nuclear winter
And we are the tyrants

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