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The Sling, “Outrageous Fortune,” & Common Wealth?


The sling depicted here is from the Andes. John Barker and Ines Doujak asked me to comment on it as part of their Loomshuttles/Warpaths archive whose next appearance is at the MACBA in Barcelona in the “Beast and Sovereign” exhibit starting 18 March.

Is the sling a tool or a weapon? Is it both? What is the difference? Is the tool-making animal also a killing animal in which both creation and destruction are outcomes by some psychological subconscious process? I wonder whether this one was actually used to propel a stone? I don’t know how to use one. I have respect for the centrifugal force of the arm which the sling only magnifies. I would not know at which point to release the stone. Or rather, since the stone is not in one’s hand which holds instead the two ends of the sling, the release of the stone is accomplished by the release of one of these ends.

The sling was a herder’s inexpensive weapon against predators. The stones were not slung to hit the llamas but to make a noise on the ground nearby, catching the animal’s attention and persuading it to move away from the point of the stone’s impact.

The llama is a friendly and curious animal. The llama hums but it also spits. Its wool is lanolin free. It is a herding animal, 40 million years old. At birth all females gather round to protect it from males and predators.

Llamas were essential beasts of burden. They made possible the metallic money of the first centuries of capitalism because three hundred thousand of the animals carried the silver ore down from Cerro Rico, the famed mountain of Potosí in the Andes. Their dung made possible the transition from pastoral to agricultural life.

The sling remains a weapon of the weak, to employ a term of James Scott, for the stone throwers of the Palestinian intifada. Slings were used during the Spanish Civil War to throw grenades. The sling throwers of the Balearic Islands were famed for their excellence, capable of slinging a stone four hundred meters. The sling had a longer range than the bow. It was the first projectile weapon, part of paleo-technics or stone age ballistics. Incas used them as weapons used against the conquistadors. In Peru the sling is called the huaracas. Perhaps in street fighting they are useful in returning tear-gas canisters. What has been the role of the sling, if any, with recent revolts in the Andes? David used a sling against Goliath.

“And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. And he had a helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass. And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders. And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron….”

Little youthful David instead of looking after the sheep accepted Goliath’s challenge to fight. He convinced Saul that he could be victorious because he had smote a bear and bearded a lion while protecting his herd of sheep. Saul, first king of Israel, fitted him out in a helmet, a coat of mail, and a sword. David rejected these and instead put five smooth stones into his shepherd’s bag and drew near the Philistines with a sling in hand. Goliath taunted David and promised to feed him to the birds and beasts.

These events took place sometime between 1050 and 1010 B.C. This was the beginning of the Iron Age when the technologies of mining, smelting, and casting were transmitted from the Hittites into the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. The Bronze Age had commenced two thousand years earlier. Goliath is thus showing off both classic (brass) and the latest (iron) materials of warfare while David sticks to the old ways, the ways of his trade, the ways of his ancestors.

“And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk
stopthiefinto his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.” This is the part of the story that is often told because it shows the valor of the little, the weak, the marginal. A shepherd boy defeats a giant. Skill is superior to brute force, and lightness of being superior to the heavy laden. The story is told in holy scriptures as a lesson of the power of monotheism of a god named Jahweh.

The story continues, and becomes less palatable. David had no sword so he took Goliath’s and chopped off his head. With severed head dripping in hand David returned. The women heaped praise upon him singing “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands.” Saul grew jealous. He tried to hide it by offering his daughter Michal to David as a wife. The King did not demand a dowry “but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines.…” David went to battle and brought back two hundred foreskins, and they “gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king’s son-in-law.”

It is a tale of mutilation and the exchange of body parts for women. It pertains to the barbarian stage of patriarchal history. The mutilation of body parts and their triumphalist display was a form of warfare that corresponded to the territorialization of land, the formation of nations, the violence of boundaries, and the purchase of women.

The sling was thus a “backwards” technology during the “progressive” Neolithic Revolution which in addition to metals, iron especially, was characterized by urbanization, agriculture, centralized government, and the separation of people into different economic classes, masters and slaves. David’s victory with the sling can thus be interpreted as a victory from an earlier social formation, pastoralism, in which private property, the state, war, and class oppression did not prevail. This is certainly the suggestion of the prophet, Samuel, who anointed Saul, king of Israel.

The pastoralist lives in the high lands. I have only read about them in the Andes though I have seen them at work in the mountains of north Wales where they worked with dogs, by whistling, a sound which carried well in the silences of narrow valleys.   I thought again of pastoralism because thinking about ‘the commons’ brings these examples quickly to the researcher’s attention. The pastoralist does not own the high places but uses them in common as the animals roam the grasses. That’s the story among the Kurds, in the Alps, and perhaps too in the California Sierras when the Basque people settled high up. The high places of Ireland likewise were pastoral country.

I imagine that this particular sling is neither a weapon nor a working tool. It’s design is intricate, its workmanship skillful. Its beauty of color and material and its beautiful workmanship suggest to me symbolic purposes. What could these be? It may be a work of art. Certainly it is pretty, from afar it looks like jewelry. I learn from the internet that they are objects of interest to collectors. This sling perhaps was ornamental or ceremonial. They were used as accessories in dances and mock battles.

We must be cautious with symbols. The axe is part of the fasces, that tied bundle of sticks, used by the ancient Romans as the symbol of force, power, and the sovereignty of taking life by war or capital punishment. You see the fasces in the chambers of power. The warden of Attica prison interviewed me prior to taking up my duties as a teacher in the maximum security prison of New York. He showed me a stick. The stick was used, he said, in the days of the electric chair, by a prison guard to prod or poke the condemned person to make them move smartly from their prison cell to the death chamber with the electric chair. The diameter of the stick may have been two inches. It consisted of some kind of hard wood, and it was carved with the initials of those who had been electrocuted. By the time the warden displayed it to me capital punishment had been abolished in New York state, it was used merely as a fetish of power.   The club, the stick, too, had once been both a weapon and a tool.

When contemplating ending his life (“To be or not to be”) Hamlet referred to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Here “fortune” comes from the sky arriving as unpredictable destructive projectiles far from the person projecting them. It is this distance between cause and effect that characterizes the drones that are commanded in Utah and do their damage on the other side of the earth, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Only in this case it is not “fortune” but the US Pentagon on behalf of the strategic requirements of empire.

Samuel provided a favorite text for democrats in the 17th century (Levellers, Diggers), the 18th century (radical Jacobins), and the 19th century (Chartists), because he warned against monarchy. The Jews, not content with spiritual favor, wished to be like other nations and have a king. Samuel speaks full of particularity to primitive pastoral society which yet can easily be brought forward down the centuries of war, taxation, and slavery.

“He will take your sons and make them serve in his chariots and with his cavalry, and will make them run before his chariot. Some he will appoint officers over units of a thousand and units of fifty. Others will plough his fields and reap his harvest; others again will make weapons of war and equipment for mounted troops. He will take your daughters for perfumers, cooks, and confectioners, and will seize the best of your cornfields, vineyards, and olive-yards, and give them to his lackeys. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage to give to his eunuchs and lackeys. Your slaves, both men and women, and the best of your cattle and your asses he will seize and put to his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out against the king whom you have chosen; but it will be too late, the Lord will not answer you.” 1 Samuel 8:10-20.

Gerrard Winstanley wrote The Law of Freedom in 1651 after Oliver Cromwell had overthrown monarchy in England. His goal was to describe the difference between Kingly government and commonwealth government. Winstanley compared Cromwell to the Biblical David. Cromwell’s weapon was not the sling, he was a horseman and his cavalry was called “Ironsides.” They knew why they fought and loved what they knew.

The liberty of a free common wealth is what Winstanley aims at. The earth is a common treasury for all. Winstanley believed in and advocated what we would call economic equality. He himself had once been a cowherd. “There is no pricking briar in all this holy mountain.” Nations, he says, are governed by buying and selling. Covetousness and pride brought in the state; war, oppression, and slavery followed. That is his interpretation of history. His evidence was the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), first book of Samuel, chapter eight, verses ten through nineteen. It could belong to the anarchist’s credo.

The free people of the common wealth of Israel chose to have a centralized monarchy with powers to tax and tithe, conscript soldiers, make war, render judgment, and take land. Theologically-speaking, we could, with Samuel, call it a blasphemous choice. Historically-speaking, it was a counter-revolutionary victory of the master class installing monotheism, trade, and war. Certainly it was not inevitable, nor was it what Hamlet called “fortune” which is actually human history. Those who know history know it to be many-sided and far from finished.

I doubt the day of the sling is over.


Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. His books included: The London Hanged,(with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic and Magna Carta Manifesto. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance.  He can be reached at:plineba@yahoo.com