Jan 7, 2014

Weapons & Warriors: The Keris of the Javanese

Art by TL Jeffcoat

This wavy dagger is one of the strangest weapons I’ve ever seen. I first saw in it a video game called Diablo II, and I had to find out if it was a real thing and why it was used as a magical conduit in the game when it looked like a knife. The game titled the dagger with the popular American and European name of Kris, but back in the Indonesia Islands where it originated it is called a Keris. The Keris has three parts, the blade, the hilt, and the sheath

The Keris was a ceremonial decoration, a weapon, and the tool of an executioner. In the ancient kingdom of Java, it was common for every man and woman to strap a Keris on their belt and behind their back when traveling outside of their home. The Javanese believed the dagger housed a magic power of its own that was fueled by the spirit within it, and they annually brought them to specifically trained bladesmiths for maintenance as part of a ritual for the spirit. The relationship between the owner and the Keris was important, and to test a blade the owner would sleep with the Keris under his pillow. Depending on whether his dream was good or bad that night he would then know if the blade was right for him. If it was not, the person got rid of it, because a bad blade could bring misfortune.

The blades were forged in layers of various irons and nickel that were folded together repeatedly. The stronger the smith wanted the blade, the longer he would fold the metal. Some blades were folded hundreds of times and took years to finish. Keris blades came in all sizes, but were never long enough to be considered a short sword.

Not all Keris have the wavy blade, but by the 1600’s that was the most popular style. The blades were decorated with drawings or engravings that eventually faded after years of ritual maintenance and left many Keris with very thin blades. The number of waves on the steel blade is always an odd number. The wavy blade increased the length and number of edges when striking and could cut wider gashes, as well as ripping open more veins, speeding up the blood loss of the victim.

The hilts were a variety of materials including rhino horns, gold, etc. No two Keris were identical but they did have some similar features. The base of the thin blade was always wide, the sheath was always a hard material, and the hilts were carved with some form of imagery and often decorated with gems and carved into the likeness of dragons, demons or deities.

Ceremonial Keris were handed down from generation to generation. These ornamented versions were worn on special occasions, like weddings. When used in an execution, there are two methods that were described. One was publicly humiliating, where the executed had his hands tied behind his back and would be walked around before someone stuck the Keris between his ribs in his back a couple of times, killing him very quickly. The other method that was recorded was more ceremonial. The executed would kneel before the executioner, who placed a wad of cloth on the shoulder of the kneeling person and then would thrust the Keris down at an angle through the cloth to severe the major artery in the shoulder and puncture the heart. Swift and precise and as the blade was pulled free, the cloth would clean away the blood.

Sometimes a man would carry two to three Keris at the same time, his own, the gift from his father-in-law, and the family heirloom. The longest one would be used as a primary weapon while the smaller ones would be used to parry. If there was only the one Keris on hand, the sheath served well as a parrying tool. 

The Keris was not the main weapon of a soldier in Java, but was still strapped to his belt like any other person. When their spear was no longer usable, the warrior would then draw the Keris. The spirit in the Keris was believed to give the warrior confidence so that he would not be afraid to face whatever he has to. 

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.

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