• Elizabeth Alexander

Dune and the double-edged dagger


It's been decades since I first read Frank Herbert’s Dune. Over the years, many of the finer details of Paul Atreides’ story have faded from memory. So I very much looked forward to watching Denis Villeneuve's film interpretation, with Timothée Chalamet in the leading role. (It's terrific, by the way!)


Watching the film in a Penang cinema was an interesting experience. In addition to the English-language dialogue there were Malay and Chinese sub-titles. I might have missed the reference to the Fremen’s weapon, the crysknife (spelled krys in the Malay sub-titles), had this not had some bearing on my novel, Lies That Blind.*


For those of you who've already read my book, the keris is mentioned many times—and plays a key role in the plot. Fascinated to learn more about this beautiful piece of artistry, I joined a Facebook group called KERIS Collectors ONLINE (Social Learning) in which enthusiasts worldwide share knowledge, post pictures, and ask questions of each other.


Photo 35772623 © Ahmad Hafiz Ismail | Dreamstime.com

I became particularly impressed by one Singaporean collector who posted frequently in the group. I asked him if he would be kind enough to answer some questions and he agreed to do so, albeit anonymously. Here is our exchange, together with some of the glorious pieces that he has collected—supplemented by pictures I found on Dreamstime.


What is a keris and what purpose did it serve, historically? How common are they today?


A keris is a dagger associated with the Malay Archipelago, both Muslim and Hindu. From what I have read or been told, it is more a status symbol and a weapon of last resort, given that to use it effectively you have to get really close to your enemy.


There is a revival in keris appreciation as part of culture, art, and craftsmanship. I guess you can say it is common in the sense that it would not be difficult to find a keris if you are looking for one. What would be rare, of course, are the antique pieces made before the early 20th century.


Photo 88685412 / Malay Keris © Ravindran John Smith | Dreamstime.com

In which Southeast Asian cultures does the keris feature most? What are the differences in shape or design that indicate whether they are Bugis or Melayu, for example?


The keris features in Java, Peninsular Malaysia (including the Southern Thai Malay states), and Balinese cultures. I guess that they would also feature in Sulawesi where the Bugis are dominant, but I am not too sure about that.


It is easier to tell apart a keris from its dress (sheath and handle) when you compare Malay/Bugis versus Javanese versus Balinese. It is harder to tell apart the Bugis and Melayu keris because of the penetration of the Bugis into the Malay Peninsula. There are unique Malay dress in the Tajong and Coteng of Kelantan, Patani, and Songkla, but many have Bugis blades in them.


Experts can tell from the quality, texture, and structure of the blade if it is Javanese, Bugis, Malay, or Balinese. There are noticeable and subtle differences.


How many keris do you have in your collection, what prompted you to collect them, and where do you find them?


I have less than a hundred. It started out because I was in the Scouts. We could carry small knives then, so that sparked my interest in knives. My school was near the National Museum and at that time they had a permanent display of keris. I always wanted to own one. It was also fuelled by the Malay movies of my youth. So, when I had the means to buy them, I did. In the early days I bought them at craft shops in Lucky Plaza and the Malay Art Gallery in North Bridge Road. I bought my first keris in 1986.


Photo courtesy of interviewee

Later on, it was the artistry, culture, history, and technical construction of the keris that fuelled my desire to collect them. They are individually crafted. Even “mass-produced” ones require the hand of an individual craftsman to get the keris finished, be it the blade, hilt, or dress.


What marks the keris as different from Western knives?


The main difference is that it is an asymmetrical double-edged dagger. Western double-edged daggers are bi-symmetrical, one side a mirror image of the other.


Another notable difference is in how the keris is used. It is designed to be “punched” into the body core at waist level because of the shape to the hilt and how you hold it. The blade when held correctly is flat, with the cutting edge horizontal to slip between the ribs. The inward curve of the blade will guide the force into the core of the body where the key organs are.


Balinese keris dance, with Hindu priest standing by to weave magic that will make them invulnerable. Photo 30624663 © Willy Setiadi | Dreamstime.com

What would be the difference, if any, between the keris of a chief compared to one owned by a fisherman, for example)?


I read somewhere that only warriors or nobility or a man of means would own a keris. If a fisherman owned a keris, he would start with the blade and as he progressed in life, he would dress it accordingly.


(Note by E.S.: On the Facebook group, I was intrigued by one exchange that talked about how a keris “selit” – a smaller version – would be presented to a boy as a mark of manhood, but only used for ceremonial dress.)


In my novel one character uses a very small yet lethal keris hidden in the hair. Do you own any of the smaller, highly decorative ones?


A keris is meant to be shown because it is a status symbol. I know of small daggers or kerambit hidden in folds of the sarong or shirt, but not in the hair. Hiding a dagger in the hair is associated with women.


(Note from E.S.: I got the idea of one of my characters hiding a tiny keris in their hair when I visited the Malaysian Prison Museum in Melaka. One of the information charts mentioned the keris majapahir: a small weapon hidden in the hair bun or woman’s palm that could slice open a person’s stomach. Normally, however, the keris is a puncturing or stabbing weapon, it is not used for slashing. The joys of writing a novel: up to a point, I can make things up!)


What can you tell me about the spiritual significance of these daggers? I understand they are not only weapons but have other purposes.


I think this is a universal practice in all cultures that a weapon that can take away life as a spiritual status of its own, be it a samurai sword, khukri, or keris. One just has to think of Excalibur.


But the keris has lots of Hindu symbolism that expresses the idea of power over life and death. The main one is the union between the tang (Peksi) of the keris and its cross piece (Ganja). They are associated with the Hindu Lingam and Yoni, the union of male and female which is powerful, as it creates life. And imbued with this power of life, it extends to the power of taking away life, I guess. There is a unique feature called the Belalai Gajah or Kembang Kacang. It is associated with Ganesa – the Elephant God – a God of strength and power, the remover of obstacles.

Which is your favourite keris in your collection?


All of them.

Photo courtesy of interviewee

Since each keris holds a unique beauty and amazing artistry all of its own, I can understand why you say that. Thank you.


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