Dayak is a generic term that refers to a number of indigenous communities that live in the adjoining countries of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia on the island of Borneo. Whilst there are significant differences in the way these communities are stratified and organised most Dayak believe in a bifurcated soul. One soul is believed to expire once the corpse has vanished, the other remains in the area of the deceased until it can be coaxed into making the journey to the other world.
The architecture of the Dayak long-house not only serves to shelter its occupants but also to remind them of the cosmological order of things and protect them from unwanted spirits. Kenyah and Kayan architecture is generally more decorative and elaborate with living quarters separated and distributed according to rank. In this respect the chief who is the human embodiment of the community is located at the centre of the house where his presence will be most felt and where he is most protected. In addition, large sculptural figures, commonly known as ‘Hampatung’ ( see accession no. 197.2003 ) would have been positioned either directly in front of the house, at the entrance to the village or in the graveyard as protective guardians.
Straight-bladed swords with carved bone hilts like this one may have been used on a daily basis as a machete for cutting grass or bamboo but also might have been used on hunting heads raids. For Dayak people it is highly important to harness the power of benevolent ancestors in order to protect oneself from both marauding neighbours and malevolent spirits. For Dayak communities an unhappy ancestor may manifest themselves as a malevolent spirit and cause a cosmological imbalance by disrupting agricultural fertility and human reproduction. In order to satisfy such a spirit, raids of neighbouring villages were made and the victim’s heads, once preserved, were offered to the spirit. Blood from the sacrifices would also be used to sanctify the large sculptural ancestral figures and renew relationships with the dead ancestors. Similarly it was believed that the spirits of decapitated enemies would be obliged to serve their new masters and thereby take up residence in the village in order to protect it.
Asian Art Department, AGNSW, July 2015
19th century-20th century
bone, iron, wood and rattan
59.0 x 7.5 x 3.0 cm :
a - sword; 51.5 x 7.5 x 2.5 cm
b - scabbard; 46 x 5 x 3 cm
Christopher Worrall Wilson Bequest 2010
Shown in 1 exhibition
Glorious, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 May 2017–2019
Referenced in 1 publication
Unknown, Southeast Asian Tribal Art, Nov 1986, Plate 2 (colour illus.) unpaginated..