Tribal Swords and Magic Talismans …

Swords from the island of Nias, Indonesia

Swords from the island of Nias, Indonesia

I have always been interested in tribal material cultures, whether it be from Africa, Southeast Asia, Oceania or Aboriginals … Indeed an unlimited source of inspiration for today’s aesthetic expression …. Many indigenous tribes in Indonesia have some wonderful forms of tribal weapons such as found on the island of Nias, located west of the Sumatra. Although the old traditions are no longer practiced, their material culture such as swords and ancestral statues has remain a legacy to be admired. Once again this is just a glimpse to my in-depth article I wrote a while ago about the collections in France and Holland. These swords are known as telogu or balatu sebua, and usually worn by chiefs and nobles, denoting their high rank status. It has a brass copper sheath with carved hilt in the form of a mythical dragon or lasara. Unlike the Javanese pamor (nickel iron lamination causing striations), most Nias swords have smooth surface and a single cutting edge with a protruding notch near the tip. The scabbard consists of two strips of wood held together by either brass rings or plaited rattan fibres, on which an amulet of fetish objects is attached to its upper part. In the southern part of the island an artistically woven rattan ball is topped either with fine carved ancestral figurines or with animal claws and teeth. Another interesting collection of Nias material culture, including swords, that was once kept at the former ethnographic museum in Paris Musée de l’Homme which was later moved to Musée du Quai Branly (see images above) are those brought back by Kleiweg de Zwaan the Dutch anthropologist in the nineteenth century. Like many tribal societies where the belief in the supernatural is deeply anchored in their culture and so it is clearly reflected on the swords of Nias. The sword is an original and curious object that blends magic and beauty into a fascinating work of art. Swords are always accompanied by amulets. In the north, a bundle of “magic pieces” such as wood, shells, fossils, stones, animal teeth and fetish figures are wrapped in cloth and tied around the sword sheath. The southern style has a more artistic approach using two kinds of representations. One is composed of tiger nails and animal figures; in the other, finely carved miniatures ancestor figures are bound together to form a circle. The figures are then attached to an intricately woven hollow rattan “basket” forming a ball (rago) A nice series of such objects are kept at the Leiden ethnographic museum (see image below). Unlike the popular Javanese Kris dagger which can be found in many specialized galleries and private collectors, tribal swords from the island of Nias could be a rarity and the most impressive are probably those found in museum collections.

Amulets of ancestor figures used as protection and magic

Amulets of ancestor figures used as protection and magic

Categories: Nias

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