The Batak people of North Sumatra inhabit the mountainous interior region centring round Lake Toba. Aside from the Toba Batak, the Batak identify themselves as belonging to five other distinct communities. The Pakpak live west of the lake, the Karo are north-west and the Simalungun are east of the lake. The Angkola and Mandailing Batak who do not share their borders with the lake are further south and in closer proximity to the Indian Ocean. Whilst the Batak have long maintained trading links with coastal communities, especially along the Strait of Malacca,their relative isolation meant that they did not experience direct contact with Europeans until the mid 19th century when they were introduced to Christianity by Dutch missionaries. Whilst most Batak villagers converted to the new monotheistic religion they never entirely abandoned their pre-Christian animist cosmologies and as a result some interesting and syncretic religious practises were established.
The shamanic priests of the Pakpak- like all practitioners of Batak supernatural magic – relied on an arsenal of powerful objects to mediate between the human, upper and lower worlds comprising the Batak cosmos. Made by the priest, these items included talismanic figures and devices, divination books and calendars, containers for storing potent medicines and potions (‘pupuk’), intricate staffs, and ceremonial weapons for
sacrificial undertakings and the preparation of magical substances. This fine example demonstrates many of the distinguishing characteristics of a Pakpak priest’s short sword (piso sanalenngam). Carved from buffalo horn, the hilt depicts a kneeling male figure with intricately embellished facial features, headdress, adornments and textiles. The figure’s hands are shown placed at the abdomen with thumbs pointing upwards and
fingers down, a common hand gesture in Batak figurative sculpture. The sheath is ornamented with a standard design of elongated triangles
terminating in a foliate motif, which have been etched into the wood and rubbed with symbolic black and red pigments.
late 19th century-early 20th century
buffalo horn, iron, brass and wood
62.1 x 10.0 x 2.6 cm :
a - sword; 56.3 x 8.6 x 2.6 cm
b - scabbard; 48.5 x 7.5 x 2.3 cm
Christopher Worrall Wilson Bequest 2010
Shown in 1 exhibition
Glorious, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 May 2017–06 Jan 2019