Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sharp magic

While visiting San Francisco, I had the opportunity to wander the Museum of Asian Arts, one of the largest museums in the Western world devoted exclusively to the art and history of Asia. I was struck by a small exhibit of objects from Southeast Asia.

The placard was simply inscribed:
Daggers, approx 1850-1950 Indonesia, Sulawesi
steel, iron, wood, whale bone, copper

These knives, while at first glance menacing, were also compelling and beautifully wrought. My curiosity piqued, I explored the geography, meaning and history to understand the nuance of the objects and their creators.

Indonesia encompasses more than 17,000 islands, only two-thirds of which are inhabited and much of the archipelago’s territory remains unexplored. The distinctive daggers are indigenous to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the southern Philippines and the keris or krises, as it is called, is both weapon and spiritual object.

The blades can take years or even a lifetime to complete -- the metal has been folded dozens or even hundreds of times and handled with the utmost precision. There are keris blades that purportedly carry the mark of the metalsmith’s thumbs and even lips, impressed upon the blade during the forging process.

Knives were considered to almost be alive, or at the very least, vessels of special powers. The kerises could be tested - if the owner slept with the blade under their pillow and had a bad dream, the blade was unlucky and had to be discarded. It was said that some kerises helped prevent fires, death, agricultural failure, and myriads of other problems. Alternately, they could also bring fortune, such as bountiful harvests.

Kerises were worn everyday, slipped in the traditional sarong folds, the hilt accessible from the right hand. For special ceremonies, heirloom blades handed down through successive generations were worn. Women sometimes wore kerises, but of a smaller size than a man’s. In battle, a warrior carried three kerises: his own, one from his father-in-law, and one a family heirloom.

The daggers celebrate craftsmanship and heritage, reveal savagery and humanity. We can view them through the process of their creators or as appreciators of art -- the perfect incarnation of practical and magical.

For more images from the Museum of Asian Arts:

Special thank you to Nick O’Neill at for expanding upon historical data

1 comment:

Sue Choppers-Wife / said...

oooh, how very interesting! That would have caught my eye immediately too :)

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