Book Reviews

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Keris and Other Malay Weapons

Gerald B. Gardner

1936, 2009. 144 pp., 91 b & w plates of photos and drawings, illustrating several hundred weapons, glossary, bibliography, 23 x 15 cm., softcover.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-29-9 $30.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-29-8

Book review by Gerald B. Gardner

(Bali Advertiser ‘Toko Buku’ column, 19 November, 2010)

This book describes and classifies all manner of weaponry used throughout the Greater Malay World. Although the emphasis is on weapons of the Malay peninsula and northern Borneo, there are also numerous photos and allusions to Javanese, Bugis, Riau, Minangkabau and Acehnese weapons derived from Portuguese, English, Japanese and Chinese weapons.
   This classic on Malay weaponry and war was originally published in 1936 in two extremely limited printings. Orchid Press, which retyped and re-laid out the entire original edition in house, republished the book because of its enduring value as a unique source of information and fascinating minutiae on Malay warfare in general, including such arcane topics as war dress, fortifications and invulnerability.
   The book’s weird and vicious weapons include knuckle dusters, fire rockets, war quoits, whirling clubs, throwing axes, spiked tridents, barbed spears, metal balls used as missiles, syringes squirting poisonous sap to blind an enemy, lethal cutting weapons doubling as canes or agricultural implements.
   One gruesome weapon called kuku ayam (chicken spur) is a small hooked knife used for ripping the bowels. A tiny variety of this same weapon was carried by Javanese women in their hair as protection against rape. They at first yielded to a man, then would gouge his genitals.
   Specially designed spears (tujuh) were used to stab downwards through a lath floor at a man spying under a stilted house while other spears (radak) were used to stab upwards through the floorboards at a man sleeping. Cannon were forged in the form of a bull and fired through the rear orifice, a symbol of humorous contempt for an enemy. I learned that the Malay word for cannon, meriem, is derived from “Mary” probably because an early gun was so named, and that the reason that swords are curved is that it gives the blade greater cutting power.
   Special attention is paid to the kris, the storied Malay short dagger, similar to the European rapier. The Malay is quick and agile, so this style weapon is ideal for him. The kris’s wavy blade is designed to “saw” flesh for a deeper, wider stab than a straight knife, also rendering the wound difficult to heal. A wavy blade will also work its way in and out among bones where a wider blade would stick.
   A high mystic value is attached to this instrument of death. The number of times a kris has drawn blood or people it had slain only added to its power. Some kris are capable of sorcery: they can talk, fly, swim, turn into snakes, even father human children. If pointed at someone or if stabbed into the shadow or footprint of an intended victim, the kris’s invisible venom can kill a man. When danger is near, powerful kris have been known to rattle in their sheaths.
   The book also delves into the fascinating methods of Malay executions by kris. The victim was made to squat and the executioner drove the execution rapier into his heart from a point inside the collar bone, either quickly or slowly according to the sentence.
   What is perhaps unexpected is that the book was written by the founder of modern witchery, Gerald B. Gardner (1884-1964), who spent the years 1923 to 1936 working in the British Civil Service as a customs official and inspector of rubber and opium production in Borneo and Malaya.
   Gardner’s time in the Far East facilitated his pursuit of his keen fascinations with archaeology, native Malay religion and magic, and in particular Malay occult spiritual beliefs, an interest which was to have a huge effect on him later in life. During this period Gardner amassed a collection of more than 400 Malay weapons that ultimately led after 13 years of research to the publication of this authoritative volume.
   Following his retirement from government service, not long after the publication of Kris and Other Malay Weapons, Gardner returned to the England where he began to focus on the study of modern European witchcraft. His subsequent books on witchcraft remain seminal texts on the subject. Gardner is remembered today among many occultists as the “Father of the Wicca Movement.”
   Allowance must be made for the poor quality of the book’s illustrations which were taken of objects in the author’s extensive private collection which has long since been broken up and widely dispersed, so it was not possible to track down the objects and photograph them again. The present edition’s photos were copied from the original black and white photos in the 1936 edition.
   It was felt by the publisher, however, that the illustrations, substandard as they are, nevertheless record an important collection of artefacts. The details of motifs, the weapon’s deadliness and even damascening on the blades can still be appreciated. The full color photo on the cover is of an exquisite hilt of an ancient kris from the now vanished Malay kingdom of Champa in south Vietnam.
   The back matter includes an 11-page glossary of every imaginable Malay term used in the field of weaponry, including many Javanese and Dayak words, as well as a two-page biography of the author’s remarkable life.
   Keris and Other Malay Weapons is a long overdue and valuable addition to Asian military history and martial literature in general. The original edition, now much in demand both by military buffs and Wicca enthusiasts, is virtually impossible to find. If copies do turn up, they are usually in a dilapidated state and cost many hundreds of dollars.

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