Death, protection, wisdom, prestige, peace, war, and beauty; throughout the world the blade has taken many shapes and has had many uses and meanings. From the elegant beauty of a samurai’s sword to the unique serpentine kris blades of Southeast Asia, come take a closer look at these seven blades from the Asian Art Museum’s collection representing different cultures, ideals, and uses.
DEATH – Punch Dagger – Gallery 5
This wicked fang, called a kattari, comes from South Asia. The parallel bars of the unique H-shaped grip could be used to block attacks while the perpendicular handle gives leverage for punching attacks. This weapon was known as “the tooth of Yama”. Yama is the god of death. It was used to make quick stabbing attacks that packed an armor-piercing punch. This weapon was even said to be capable of piercing the skull of an elephant! A chilling name and a reputation for pachydermatic carnage is indeed a striking feature of this weapon.
Consider the names given our modern weapons, such as the Hellfire missile or the Reaper unmanned aircraft. How might a weapon’s name and reputation come about and what could be some of its effects?
PROTECTION – Dagger – Gallery 10
This bladed weapon from Southeast Asia is called a kris. The wavy serpentine shaped blade is a distinctive characteristic. The handle which is often shaped like a pistol-grip shows that the kris was designed for stabbing attacks. Kris were often carried for self-defense while traveling. They were seen as possessing an essence or presence, some being good luck and some bringing misfortune. Some blades are said to have the power to turn away flames, control floods, or even to fly to their master’s defense!
Compare the different kris blades in this gallery case. What kinds of animals and figures adorn the weapons? What kinds of protective powers do you imagine these various blades might be thought to possess?
WISDOM – Ritual Dagger – Gallery 12
The blade can also have a religious and symbolic use. This instrument for subjugating demons is called a phurba. A closer look at this dagger will reveal that the blade itself issues from the jaws of a fearsome reptile and that there are three heads encircling the handle. This triple-bladed ritual dagger symbolically cuts away the bonds of desire, ignorance, and hatred.
How might a blade help people to overcome desire, ignorance, and hatred? What are ways people might use weapons during rituals?
PRESTIGE – Sword for Red Scarf Officer – Gallery 12
Bestowed only to those who are knighted by the king of Bhutan, the wearer of the raven crown, this sword with its fine silver filigree and animal-shaped buckles is a serious symbol of rank and prestige. Swords have long had this purpose. Recall that officers of the U.S. Marine Corps also wear sabers as prestigious symbols of rank.
What are some qualities that make an object prestigious? Why?
PEACE – Dagger and Scabbard – Gallery 12
Covered in Buddhist symbols and intricately detailed designs this dagger from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan is a work of beauty. Yet many Buddhist art objects in this gallery remind us that Buddhism in the Himalayas so often espouses compassion as a supreme virtue.
What might be the relationship between weapons and compassion? Is there such a thing as a weapon of compassion and peace?
WARFARE - Bronze Sword – Gallery 14
Superior weapon technology is as important as military skill during warfare. During their time these bronze weapons represented cutting-edge technology. The straight sturdy blade and simple unadorned shape tell us that this is a no-nonsense weapon that gets straight to the point! Also check out the dagger-ax (ge) in the same case. This versatile weapon could hook, stab, and slash opponents on foot or horseback.
Think about the relationship between warfare and technology. How do imagine they affect each other?
BEAUTY – Long sword – Gallery 27
The exquisite lines of the beautiful gleaming blade of this sword is sheathed in a flawless black lacquered scabbard. The long sword, called a katana, is said to be the soul of the samurai. The short sword is called a wakizashi. Together as a pair they are called daisho, or the “long and short”. The sword is idealized as the perfect expression of an important part of the samurai code: the sublime integration of beauty and power. Today, as in the past, these swords are seen as art objects of great beauty.
Do you think modern weapons of our own time hold an artful beauty? How so? For example, would you consider the graceful soaring jets of the U.S. Navy flight exhibition team, the Blue Angels, art, weapons, or something else?