In Focus

Sword with Janus-faced hilt in an undecorated sheath

This rare type of sword with its unusual hilt is a Toba Batak sword known as a piso halasan. The sword hilt was cut from water-buffalo horn and features three small, curved pins of differing lengths made of iron. Above five simply engraved rings are two identical carved faces, which are facing in opposite directions. Unfortunately, it has not come down to us what the Batak traditionally saw in this configuration.

The two projecting points on the lower corners of the hilt can be viewed as the oversized chins of the two Janus faces; they also repeatedly occur as a stylistic feature in the large helmet masks of the Batak mask cult. The three iron pins are inserted into the opened lower edge and can be interpreted as furled lips with tongues protruding—a motif to which the Batak assigned the power of fending off disaster. The pins can also be interpreted as a flower with leaves and pistils.

The sheath gleams with an extraordi­nary patina reflecting black, brown, and red hues. While the sheath is not carved with any ornamentation, on the upper part are three cleverly placed knobs. In functional terms, these projections helped to hold the sword’s carrying cord or sash firmly in place.

This type of sword was more likely to have been a status symbol than a combat weapon, because the Batak preferred to fight with weapons made for distance, such as spears and guns, as opposed to engaging in hand–to–hand combat.

Adapted from

Achim Sibeth, "Sword with Janus-faced hilt in an undecorated sheath," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 72.