Looking at this knife hilt from the front, a large human face wearing an immense headdress dominates the composition. From the side, the figure’s thin and disproportionally small arms and legs that are arched to the back are seen. This particular depiction of the human body indicates that a priest or magician (datu) is represented. The datu were quite feared in pre-Christian times. For example, the fear of their magic powers was so great that their bodies were buried in a squatting position away from regular cemeteries. Bodies were placed to ensure that under no circumstances could the datu see in the direction of their villages. Moreover, their hands and feet were bound to prevent any possibility of physical return to their villages.
Looking at this object from its side makes it clear that the long headdress of the datu represents the stylized head and beak of a hornbill. Comparable double views can be found in bullet cases among the Karo and Toba Batak. Knife hilts depicting a bird’s head, its beak, or the point of the beak rolled inward were common in many regions of Indonesia. Among the Batak, the idea existed that the soul of a newly deceased person began its journey to the kingdom of the dead on the back of a bird. Birds also had an important function during the creation of the Earth in Batak legends, according to which divine messengers, in the shape of birds, brought soil down into the primeval waters. Si Deak Parujar, a goddess who fled from the sky, was able to use this soil to create a habitable world for mankind.
In the Dallas Museum of Art knife hilt, the figure of a datu arching backward squats on a base depicting a woven ornament, which is defined at each end by a band of flat balls. Such “pedestals” are seen chiefly on the long swords, piso halasan, made by the Toba. The body displays a central pattern of horizontal lines in front, flanked by a narrow woven band on each side. Batak rules of proportion are also recognizable in this object, according to which the head—the most important part of the body—is oversized, while the torso and extremities recede in contrast.
The face of the datu is characterized primarily by his prominent mouth and strong chin. The lips are formed in a slightly raised straight line, while the pupils are clearly delineated in their oval sockets. Zygomatic arches emphasize the face’s rigid gaze, which is focused upward in an otherworldly direction.
A pendant earring in the form of the Karo Batak ear spirals can be seen on each side. This is quite unusual for the work of a Toba Batak brass caster. It is possibly an indication that the object was created in the border area adjacent to the Karo or was produced for a datu of the Karo people. Purely functional considerations certainly did not lead to this design for a knife hilt. The most likely explanation is that the depiction of a datu was intended to transfer some of his personal magic powers to the knife. The piece’s surface polish and wear are the result of long use and considerable age.
The Toba were renowned for their skill in brass casting. Through casts made by using the lost wax technique, they produced pieces of jewelry, metal fittings for bags, brass necklaces, and tobacco pipes and boxes, as well as containers and equipment for betel consumption. In addition to figurative knife and sword hilts, they also produced human figures, standing or riding on horses, as top pieces for a simpler form of magic staff (tongkat malehat). Tobanese objects cast in brass frequently stand out for their richly varied floral decorations, which were either predefined in wax or subsequently embossed or carved out after their initial casting.
Achim Sibeth, "Knife hilt," 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), 71.