Saturday, April 4, 2009
Rising to prominence during the Crusades, though they operated long before (and have survived in greatly altered form into the modern world), the Hashashin were a sect of deadly Muslim assassins-- the Nizari branch of the Ismaili Shia Muslim tradition.
The word "assassin" is generally thought to have derived from their name.
Covertly infiltrating enemy positions, either as sleeper agents who would remain close to their target for long periods of time, or as single-strike assassins, the Hashashin used only a blade or dagger, which they usually left with their target. Generally, it was understood that their mission was one of self-sacrifice, hence their refusal of any defensive weapons or plans for escape. Under no circumstances, however, would the hashashin take their own lives, preferring instead to be killed by their enemies once the target had been achieved.
Occasionally, rather than killing, the hashashin would merely leave a dagger on their target's pillow, a symbol to him that he was not safe anywhere, ever. They also tended to cultivate their terrifying reputation by carrying out assassinations in broad daylight and in full public view.
Contrary to popular belief, hashish and/or opium were not part of their belief systems, and in fact they abhorred the use of any intoxicants. For example, Farhad Daftary in The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis says: "...This propagandist concoction of a 'stoned' assassin fails to fit the complex reality of the discipline and training required for committing what was always an explicitly political act, (and) the popular notion of Nizaris as a community of killers also denies their rich, multivalent culture."
An interesting counterpart to the Hashashin existed in Christendom, particularly during the Crusades, where groups of ascetic warrior monks would accompany Christian armies. These warriors (whose name I forget--Josey, where are you?) were never affiliated with any knights or kings, but followed along the fringes of Christian armies, eating whatever food they could find, sleeping on the ground without blankets, and refusing the use of shoes.
Using whatever random weapons they could find on their journeys (axes, knives, pitchforks, scythes), they were a powerful weapon of terror, as they fought without regard for their own lives, and so were often sent as a first wave of attack. Generally, even the Christian armies they traveled with were somewhat afraid of them, and tended to avoid them outside of battle.
(adapted from Wikipedia, Robert Payne's "The Dream and the Tomb", and John Keegan's "A History of Warfare")
image from www.themiddleages.tripod.com