Keris have a long history, with some evidence that the first of these blades appeared around AD 800. The types known today originated in the 13th century. Most have twisted blades, the waves, called Luk, are supposed to imitate a snake – naga – in motion. This was initially rare, but when Chinese merchants appeared in the early 14th century they liked this waviness, and the master blade makers – empu – began forging keris for trade in this shape, which eventually became the most common, whether it be the Work by is a master craftsman or someone who has hammered a scrap metal blade into a cheap souvenir. I’ve seen a few made of aluminum.
A myth that the occasionally unscrupulous trader passes on to tourists in the hope of a higher price is that all keris leaves are forged from meteoritic iron with its high nickel content. This is seldom true. Some famous and exquisite meteoritic examples can be found in museums. Some were made from the meteorite displayed in the courtyard of the palace in Surakarta, Java. It came from space in 1750 and is still on display there in a shallow palace garden pool surrounded by mango trees. Several special blades have been made from this rock, all of which are in private collections or museums. So I decided on the name Meteor Blades for my small short-lived business. Since this was started on a Lark at the same time as Daily Kos, this also became my nickname here.
The oldest known iron dagger in the world was the one found wrapped with the mummy of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1925, three years after the opening of its almost intact tomb. For several decades, scientists were overwhelmed by the blade, since by that time it was believed that iron smelting was not fully developed until two or three centuries after the young pharaoh’s death. They assumed that it was meteoritic iron that had not been melted from ore but shaped with a hammer and anvil. When, in 2016, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy was used to ensure that the blade was made of meteoritic iron, there was a surprise. The iron came from more than one meteorite. According to the results published in the journal Meteorites and Planetary Science, this implied a “significant mastery of iron processing in Tutankhamun’s time”.
Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s gold dagger and iron dagger, the latter forged from meteoritic iron.
Although it is hardly as spectacular as Tutankhamun’s golden iron dagger, I am fortunate to have a real meteor blade in my Keris collection, which according to a professional chemical test contains 15% nickel and 0.2% cobalt.
My real Javanese meteor blade. The straight blade – called Wilah – is around 350 years old, the handle (Hulu) and the scabbard (Sarung) probably date from the middle of the 20th century.
All over Indonesia these days, you can find cheap keris in many shops, tourist blades that have been cut from tin and beaten and decorated with poorly carved handles. Or you can buy older keris from a time when that Empus, the makers, were as skilled as the ancient Japanese swordmakers. You can easily pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for these with their exquisite blade patterns, some with ornate, carved silver or gold handles and sheaths set with jewels or semi-precious stones. In all of Indonesia there are few that are true empus still at work make high-quality keris, maybe a few dozen in total. Almost all of the blades that I have bought and sold or kept in my own collection were acquired through negotiations with individual Indonesians, mostly Balinese, or taken out of service from museums.
Although they have always had ceremonial purposes and many were and are very delicate, not so long ago some keris were real weapons, especially those forged in Bali, which were practically short swords. Today they are almost entirely ceremonial, magical guardians and talismans of households, protective heirlooms passed down from generation to generation, some simple and even crude, some breathtakingly beautiful, artistic masterpieces.
You will see dozens of keris taped through sarong sashes on the back or sometimes over the shoulder by people attending weddings and funerals and other ritual events often held in the islands. Security guards at many public events wear them as a symbol of authority. Mostly it is men who wear them. However, in a typical event of a few hundred people, you might also see a dozen or so women wearing a keris in a sash.
The best of these blades are beautiful creations, each with a pattern known as a pamor. Hundreds of such patterns exist. They are traditionally designed to match the individual’s personality and other factors. This includes the number of waves in the blade, which is always an odd number and never more than 13. The best keris have handles and exotic wooden scabbards decorated with semi-precious stones, gold and intricate carvings.
In the typical Balinese homeland, even some of the poorest, a more humble keris is placed near the door to protect against demons and enemies. The blades are passed on to a child from a parent and it is quite common for them to be centuries old, although dating is an imprecise science. Handles and scabbards on the old blades were sometimes replaced more than once because the wood they are made of cannot survive long in the tropical heat and humidity. Keris are said to have magical abilities. The tradition about them is extensive. You can hunt an enemy on your own. Keep the point in the footprint of someone you argue with who you have wounded. At night, a trusty keris can slip out of its scabbard and float out into the dark to track down an enemy who is causing damage. So goes faith.
Each of the islands has its own style of keris, but it is impossible to be sure that a particular one is from a particular island as Sulawesian blades can be attached to Sumatran handles. Balinese keris are an exception. They are never confused with Javanese blades or with handles from Madura, Sumatra, Borneo or the other islands of the archipelago.
After dealing with hundreds of the highest quality keris to develop an eye for the best, speak to any English speaking speaker, and read everything I could find on the subject, I started selling to retail customers in the United States . The business lasted a few years. I found that there was a market for these, but not a very large one. Ultimately, I broke even. I have a personal collection of around a hundred representative keris.