The myth and magic of the keris | Gods and Gangsters

Malay Art Gallery Keris

Originally written for Wowgetaways.com

Think you know all about these enchanted daggers? We give you the lowdown on the origins, legends, and symbolism of the supernatural weapon.

The keris: originally a stingray tail or spearhead?

Despite decades of archaeological research throughout Southeast Asia, the origins of the keris still remain a mystery. There are two prevailing theories regarding the creation of the keris.

The first says that keris blades were initially made from the venomous tails of large stingrays. When iron was discovered, the tails were replaced with iron blades and the venom, substituted with a wash of lime juice and arsenic.

Stingray's sting
A stinger from a stingray measuring approximately 9.5cm. According to this theory, prehistoric weapons were first made from the tailbones of fish or sting rays. Photo credit: Wikipedia

The second says that keris blades were originally spearheads. In the days when ancient Java was torn by war, warriors used to abandon their weapons, particularly the unwieldy spears, for speedier escape. They soon realised that it was a waste of perfectly usable iron and began to craft spears that had tips that could be easily dismantled. Coupled with a wooden sheath and small hilt, a new type of weapon that could fit comfortably under the belt of a fleeing warrior was born.

Even the place of origin of the keris remains a hotly debated topic today. While some scholars say that the keris was inspired by the ancient daggers found in Dong-Son (Vietnam) in 300 BC, others say it dates to the mid-14th century and originated from Java in Indonesia. The clearest and earliest depiction of a keris being forged, for example, is found in the bas relief of the Sukuh Temple in Central Java.

Sukuh Temple
The bas relief in the Sukuh Temple in Java, which archaeologists say was built in AD 1361. The three scenes depict the Hindu god Bhima (left) as a blacksmith forging the metal, while his brother Arjuna (right) pumps air into the furnace. The elephant god Ganesha watches over the process in the centre. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Either way, at least they now agree that the regional ubiquity of the keris was due to the expansion of the Javanese Majapahit empire (AD 1293-1527) which promoted the adoption of Javanese culture and associated cultural artifacts. Today, various versions of the keris can be found throughout Southeast Asia, even in the Philippines where the kalis, as it is known locally, has evolved into a sword-like version of the original dagger.

The keris in politics and (pop) culture

Kerises are a core component of Malay culture, featuring heavily as weapons, spiritual talismans and symbols of honour. In the epic text Tuhfat Al-Nafis (translated as “The Precious Gift”), kerises are brandished by various factions in the Bugis-Malay wars which were waged across the Riau and in Peninsula Malaysia.

The last sultan to reign in the Malay world, Sultan Mahmud Shah II, was famously stabbed by a keris by his admiral. Because the admiral’s pregnant wife ate his jackfruit. If you’re confused, don’t be. Malay legends are complicated and often trippy – you can read about the full incident at the bottom of this article or watch a 1961 film adaptation to see the fight in full glory. 

The point is, kerises have long been used as a symbol of honour and this tradition continues today. There’s even an entire TV series in Indonesia about a particularly powerful keris wielded by Ken Arok, a legendary ruler from East Java (Indonesia). Watch the trailer below.

In Malaysia, the keris has been appropriated as a political symbol by pro-Malay nationalist groups. The daggers were brandished by extremist agitators during the Malay-Chinese race riots in the aftermath of the 1969 Malaysian general election. And until 2009, kerises were regularly held, kissed, or wielded symbolically during speeches by various heads of the youth wing in Malaysia’s UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).

Hishammuddin Hussein 2005 keris
Former Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein brandishing a keris during an UMNO party meeting in 2005. Other famous keris-waving politicians include Najib Razak (recently deposed Malaysian Prime Minister) and Khairy Jamaluddin (former Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports). Photo credit: Bolehtalk.blogspot.com

In 2016, the keris was evoked once again in 2016 by Malaysia’s Islamist political party PAS (PAN Malaysian Islamic Party) during its annual party assembly. Ironically, whatever messaging the party intended to communicate was lost in the absurd theatrics of the event. Not only was the metre-long-plus keris oversized (the length putting it within the range of a rapier, and twice the length of even the Filipino kalis), but it was then used as a knife for a cake frosted to look like the PAS flag.

Hadi Awang keris
PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang holds the outsized keris at the party’s annual assembly. Photo credit: The Malay Mail Online

Keris and magic

Kerises, especially the older ones, are believed to be imbued with magic and can possess either a benevolent or malevolent nature. While better natured kerises can boost the powers of its keeper by bringing disaster or death upon his enemies, evil kerises are innately destructive and will seek out victims by flying around independently.

The best known of the “good” kerises is the Taming Sari, a magical dagger wielded by storied Malay warrior Hang Tuah. Said to grant the power of physical invincibility to its custodian, the Taming Sari also had the ability to hover in the air, or to leap out of its scabbard to defend its master during fights. Today the Taming Sari is said to be residing in the Perak Royal Museum in Malaysia as part of the Perak sultan’s regalia.

Bad kerises, in contrast, are unnamed and are usually destroyed once discovered. But it is rumoured that one nefarious keris resides in the Perak Museum in Taiping town, which is incidentally located along Jalan Taming Sari (Taming Sari Road), named after the famed lucky keris. Said to be possessed by a bloodthirsty spirit, locals claim that the keris is able to escape from its sheath at night, kill someone, and wipe itself clean before returning to its display case at dawn.

It is believed that the older the keris, the more powerful its spiritual energies. Until recently, it was also believed that kerises get more poisonous over the years due to the accumulation of acid-arsenic polish used to bring out the blades’ pamor.

Modern scholars however, have debunked this claim, as the herbal concoctions containing arsenic cease to be effective within days of its application. Victims of stab wounds from ancient kerises were thus far more likely to die from tetanus than arsenic poisoning!

A gift from heaven: the keris’ pamor

Malay Art Gallery Keris
The keris is characterised by the blade’s asymmetrical profile, distinctive damascene patterning and ornate hilt. There are three main components to the keris: the dapur (general shape of the blade, be it wavy or straight), the perabot (ornamentation at the bottom half of the blade), and the pamor (the damascene patterning). Photos taken at the Malay Art Gallery.

The most important component of the keris is its pamor, the damascene pattern visible in the keris blade. Said to be the soul of the keris, pamor is produced by first welding together iron and nickel, and then finishing the blade off with an acidic mixture to bring out its distinctive black-silver pattern. The complexity of the pamor demonstrates both the skills of the empu (the keris smith), and the spiritual power of the blade.

Pamor falls generally into two categories: that which is controlled by the empu (pamor rekan) and that which is uncontrolled (pamor tiban). Pamor rekan produces patterns that many would consider more intricate but it is pamor tiban that is revered and cherished for its spiritual energies.

But this was not always the case. Prior to the introduction of iron smelting in Java, kerises were mostly made from iron imported from the Luwu Kingdom in South Sulawesi. These contained trace amounts (about 1%) of nickel, which created a low level, indisdictive pamor in the keris blades. This metal was known as pamor luwu.

A second source of metal then arrived in 1749, from a meteorite that crashed near the ancient Prambanan Temple in Central Java. This meteoric iron contained more than 9% nickel, which produced dazzling pamor in the kerises subsequently forged from it.

The symbolism of a fiery projectile falling from the heavens before crashing near a holy ground was not missed. The Prambanan meteorite was regarded as a gift to the royal family from the gods and as such, the dazzling kerises forged from this holy metal, known as pamor prambanan, were believed to possess supernatural abilities.

Pamor prambanan thus became reserved exclusively for kraton (palace) kerises. And bit by bit, the meteorite was chipped away by the best empus in Java. Some believe that the keeper of a kraton keris could kill a person just by pointing the keris in his enemy’s direction.

Obviously due to the limited supply of meteoric iron, the majority of kerises today are forged not from the holy rock, but from scrap metal, including recycled bicycle parts.

One legend across two countries: Bintan vs. Kota Tinggi

Adapted from the Tuhfat al-Nafis

Puteri Dang Anum was hungry. Pregnant with the child of the celebrated Laksamana, Megat Seri Rama, she chanced upon the palace steward carrying a platter of nangka (jackfruit) to be served to the sultan when he awoke.

Please, she pleaded. My child is famished. Could I just have one slice? The unsuspecting steward conceded, extracting just a piece of the fruit for the admiral’s wife.

After all, both the Laksamana and his wife had travelled far from their hometown in Bintan to serve the sultan in Kota Tinggi (Malaysia). The nangka was also at the peak of its ripeness, close to the edge of rotting. With plenty of the fruit remaining, surely the sultan wouldn’t miss a single aril.

Dang Anum Nangka
Dang Anum looking pleased with her nangka. Screengrab from “Sultan Mahmud Mangkat Dijulang”, produced in 1961 by Cathay-Keris Film Productions.

Nothing could have prepared the palace for the wrath of the notoriously sadistic sultan, who upon noticing that he was eating leftovers, demanded to know who had the first taste of the fruit.

On hearing that it was Megat Seri Rama’s wife, the sultan ordered her belly to be split open, pulled out the unborn child and effectively sentenced both mother and child to death.

Laksamana then returned to the palace, fresh from a victory over the pirates that terrorised maritime trade between the waters of the Riau (in present day Indonesia) all the way to Kota Tinggi. Struck with grief, he swore to avenge his family’s death.

He sought the blessings of the Bendahara (vizier or chief minister), the Temenggong (chief of public security), and Raja Indera Bungsu (a distant relative of the sultan), who collectively with the Laksamana effectively ran the Malay court due to the sheer ineptitude of the king. And in the middle of Friday prayers, the legendary admiral unsheathed his keris, stabbing the king as he sat aloft on the royal sedan chair.

In response, the sultan threw his poisoned keris at the Laksamana, fatally injuring his attacker in the foot. With his dying breath, the sultan cursed the hometown of the Laksamana, proclaiming that all visitors from Bintan should die from vomiting blood if they ever dared to set foot in Kota Tinggi.

Watch the 1961 film adaptation below to see the fight in full glory.

Play Video

Thus was the end of Sultan Mahmud Shah II, the last of the line of Malay kings descended from the legendary Sri Tri Buana (also known as Sang Nila Utama).

The Earth God: your friendly estate manager | Gods and Gangsters

No Chinese deity is more confusing than the earth god. He is the lowest ranked, but most popular deity within the celestial pantheon. Ethnically, he is Chinese, but is sometimes Malay. Visually he is mostly depicted as a respectable gentleman, sometimes a timid dwarf, and in other times, a formless spirit.

Let’s break it down.

What is an earth god?

The earth god is a position within the celestial bureaucracy. Imagine the Jade Emperor as the prime minister governing all aspects of heaven and earth. At the bottom of the food chain is the humble estate manager position.

Different deities or spirits can occupy the position of “earth god”. In some villages, the spirit of a deceased Malay elder may be worshipped by the Chinese population. In others, the position may be occupied by a Chinese ancestor or a Chinese wealth deity. 

As the earth gods migrated together with the populations that worshipped them, composites of the original deities began to form. When communities could not agree on the identity of their earth god, they ended up worshipping both deities instead.

TRUE STORY: THE CONVOLUTED IDENTITIES OF THE EARTH GOD

The village of Senggarang, a small Chinese fishing community in Bintan (Indonesia) worships both Tua Pek Kong and another deity named Fu De Peh Kong. There is no earth god in the village, although both aforementioned deities are eligible for the position. 

According to the temple steward, Fu De Peh Kong was once just an earth god serving alongside Tua Peh Kong, a higher ranking deity.

However, Fu De Peh Kong was promoted when he began to answer prayers for winning lottery numbers. He then received a dedicated temple built from donations amassed from grateful lottery winners, and is now regarded as a wealth god.

The 5 types of earth gods

Default mode: The responsible paper pusher

This is the most common deity in the earth god position. He has no name, but is immediately recognisable as the de-facto earth god. Kind, responsible, and polite to a fault, you can count on him to fix matters ranging from snakes in the neighbourhood, to a lousy harvest on your farm. For matters beyond his pay grade, such as earthquakes, he will be sure to file a report to the relevant department.

While usually depicted alone, he sometimes appears with his wife. Like her husband, she is a kind and and benevolent lady, but can sometimes be a nag. Some say that she was sent by the Jade Emperor to check that her husband did not distribute blessings to the undeserving.

As the lowest ranking employee of the celestial palace, this earth god is often bullied by more temperamental deities. Most versions of the tale Journey to the West, for example, show the Monkey God Sun Wukong making sport of his lack of power.

Other names: Tou Di Kong, Tu Di Gong, 土地公. His wife is known as Tou Di Po, Tu Di Po, or 土地婆.

“Senior” estate manager: The Divine Granduncle

The Divine Granduncle, more commonly known as Tua Peh Kong, is an honorific given to deified Chinese ancestors of townships in Southeast Asia.[1] 

Most of their identities been forgotten, in which case, a generic statue of an old man, or a plaque with the words “Tua Peh Kong” serves as the object of worship.

However, there are two pretty famous Tua Peh Kongs in Southeast Asia. The one in Penang (Malaysia) who used to be the patron deity of a triad,[2] and the one in Ancol (Jakarta, Indonesia) who arrived with General Cheng Ho’s armada but missed his ride home.[3] Scroll down to the footnotes for the whole story.

Today most Tua Peh Kongs are regarded as wealth gods, or powerful ancestors you wouldn’t want to mess with. Tua Peh Kong essentially serves the functions of earth god with two added bonuses. As a distant relative he is more likely to offer protection, and to answer your prayers compared to a common bureaucrat. He also has a non-specific job scope, and is thus more able to grant wealth compared to a deity only in charge of the soil.

Sometimes Tua Peh Kong is synonymous with earth god. But in most cases, he is ranked just a step higher – think of “Senior” Estate Manager.

Other names: Tua Pek Kong, Da Bo Gong, or 大伯公.

FUN FACT

Tua Peh Kong is synonymous with scapegoat in some parts of the underworld. A Tua Peh Kong’s one and only job is to take the rap for the boss when he is caught by the police. In exchange for that, the Tua Peh Kong is reimbursed with a monthly retainer for his services, plus a one-time fee for his family and himself when he is “activated”.

Straight from China: The Wealthy Benefactor

The Righteous God of Blessings, more commonly known as Fu De Zheng Shen, is an upgraded version of the default earth god. He represents wealth, prosperity and ethical business behaviour. Basically, he’s not going to be very useful if you are involved in gambling or any other vice-related activity.

Unlike Tua Peh Kong, which is a Southeast Asian creation, Fu De Zheng Shen comes straight from China. There are two versions of how he came about. Both involve a man named Mr Zhang who lived an upright life before becoming a supernatural phenomenon after he died.[4]

Fu De Zheng Shen is also known as the locality Tua Peh Kong in some places. That’s ok because both share a similar rank: a few rungs up from earth god. If you’re confused because he looks exactly like the default-mode earth god, or because he is also known as Tua Peh Kong, look out for his name tag: 福德正神.

Fu De Zheng Shen is specifically tasked with dispensing wealth to the good guys. Go to him if you need some luck in your business and remember to pass some of the profits to charity.

Other names: The Righteous God of Blessings, Fu De Zheng Shen, 福德正神

“Hire local”: The Malay Chief

Datuk Kong is an honorific given to Malay-muslim spirits that serve as earth gods. Like Tua Peh Kong, there are many Datuk Kongs around. Each has his own legend (if any), temperament and associated superstitions. Some are decreased Malay elders that were highly respected within the Chinese community. Others are spirits that appeared to the neighbourhood Chinese medium in a dream. Datuk Kong is believed to reside in old trees, caves, riverbanks or rock formations.

A Datuk Kong altar is immediately recognisable by its design. Unlike Chinese shrines, it is usually decorated with Islamic imagery and a swath of yellow cloth. There is sometimes a figurine of a Malay man within the shrine; other times an inscribed tablet or a gravestone.

Think of Datuk Kong as a practical solution to a localisation problem. A Chinese guy would be pretty useless as an estate manager in a Chinese-minority community. It makes more sense to find a local guy who can speak both Chinese and the local language. Better still if the aforementioned guy has supernatural powers.

Datuk Kong is worshipped by both Malays and Chinese. Be sure not to eat pork or consume alcohol prior to praying.

Other names: Datuk Kong, Na Du Gong, 拿督公, Ben Tou Gong, 本頭公, Datuk Keramat

When nothing else is suitable: The Landlord God

Landlord God Plaque
A landlord god shrine at the corner of a shop in suburban Singapore.

The Landlord God is a nameless, formless spirit which protects property owners (you guessed it!). His altar is traditionally placed in the hall or doorway, or in an independent shrine on the ground outside. Each property has its own Landlord God. 

Landlord Gods have been around a long time.[5] Think of the Landlord God as a prototype of the default mode earth god, or Datuk Kong. He does the job of an earth god, only with a smaller jurisdiction. The Landlord God will only protect property that you own (rental also counts).

The Landlord God is technically not a “god” per se, and is not part of the celestial bureaucracy. Think of him as a spirit that does the job of a god. What the Landlord God is to the heavenly palace, is like a long-serving contract worker who’s never been offered a permanent position.

Which begs the question: why is he still around?

The answer is: exclusivity and accessibility. The Landlord God is responsible for a very small number of people and should, presumably, be pretty free to entertain all requests large or small. As a no-ranking spirit, he doesn’t have any ethical restrictions either.

Other names: Di Zhu Shen, the Landlord God, 地主神, The Dragon God of the Five Directions, 五方五土龍神, The Wealth-Bringing Landlord God Guarding the Front and Back, 前後地主財神

Notes:

[1] See this article for an account of who said what about Tua Peh Kong. After debating for half a century, there is still no conclusion to the question of who is Tua Peh Kong. Chia, Jack Meng-Tat (2017),Who is Tua Pek Kong? The Cult of Grand Uncle in Malaysia and Singapore in Archiv Orientální (Issue 85.3), pp 439-460).

[2.1] Zhang Li: the Penang Tua Peh Kong

There were three sworn Hakka brothers who were on their way to Sumatra (Indonesia) on a boat. Sailing with 50 other passengers, they departed from the Guangdong province of China. But their boat was swept off-course in a massive storm before they reached their destination.

The passengers washed up on an island at the north of Peninsula Malaysia. Stranded with no prospect of ever reaching Indonesia, they decided settle down. The three brothers took the lead in establishing the colony. Each had essential survival skills in agriculture, blacksmithing and coal-making.

The leader of the trio, Zhang Li (张理) passed away in a stone cave near his hut in 1749. He was buried by his brothers Qiu Zhao Jun (丘兆進) and Ma Fu Chun (馬福春), and venerated as the colony’s “granduncle” (Tua Peh Kong). The remaining brothers passed away at the turn of the century.

[2.2] Tua Peh Kong’s triad association

Sworn brotherhoods, the precursor to gangs and triads, were the default mode of governance for overseas Chinese prior to the 20th century. The society provided mutual assistance to its members and served as a liaison between the Chinese, the European colonial governments and the local chieftains in Southeast Asia.

The Tua Peh Kong Society of Penang, for example, governed the community of Chinese established by Zhang Li and his brothers. They existed alongside another brotherhood, the Ngee Heng Kongsi, and were constantly fighting for influence. All Chinese societies and brotherhoods were officially shut down by the European colonial governments in the early 20th century. Their associated temples and related properties (such as cemeteries) were then transformed into merely religious venues.

[3] Sam Poe Toei Soe: the Ancol Tua Peh Kong

Sam Poe Soei Soe (Chinese name unknown) was a Chinese sailor who served as a ship cook for General Cheng Ho. He arrived in Jakarta in the 17th century together with the general’s armada. The general was tasked with establishing trade ties between the Ming dynasty and the Majapahit Empire.

Legend has it that Sam Poe Soei Soe became stranded in Indonesia when he missed his ride home. The reason? He fell in love with a local girl, Sitiwati, while watching her dance. Sam Poe Soei Soe then married Sitiwati and built a family in Ancol. When he passed away as a respected elder of the community, he was venerated as Ancol’s Tua Peh Kong. A temple dedicated to him and Sitiwati still exists today.

[4.1] Version 1: Zhang Fu De

There was once a man named Zhang Fu De (张福德) who was born during the Zhou dynasty (BC 1046 – 256). He worked as a tax officer and was known as an honourable and honest man who sympathised with the poor, extending help whenever he could. While he led a relatively unremarkable life, miracles occurred when he passed away at a grand old age of 102.

According to the legend, his body refused to decompose even after three days of his demise. A poor neighbour then built a humble shrine for him with just four pieces of rock – three for the walls and one as a roof – as it was all they could afford at that time. When the family subsequently experienced a stroke of luck and became immensely wealthy, word spread that the shrine housed a god of prosperity. The shrine was then converted into a properly constructed temple and Zhang Fu De became venerated as Fu De Zheng Shen, an amalgamation of his given name Fu De, and the upright life (Zheng) that he led.

[4.2] Version 2: Zhang Ming De

Fu De Zheng Shen once lived as a man named Zhang Ming De (张明德) who was a servant of a rich man named Master Shang (上大夫). Master Shang was sent by the Zhou court to a remote location to serve as a government official. When he did not return after a long period of time, his daughter set off in search for him together with his servant.

On the way the pair met with a heavy snowstorm. Zhang Ming De took off all his clothing to cover the girl to prevent her from freezing to death but unfortunately froze to death himself.

Similar to the other legend, miracles occurred upon his death. Immediately upon his passing, the words “南天門大仙福德正神” which translates to “Deity of the Southern Heavenly Gate Fu De Zheng Shen” appeared in the skies. When Master Shang learnt of Zhang’s selfless deed, a shrine was built in his honour.

[5] Right around the time mankind began attributing living souls to plants and other natural phenomena. This guy has plenty of non-Chinese counterparts around the world. There are many legends that explain how the Landlord God came about, some more fantastic that the rest. But I prefer this more scholarly explanation.

For more, see Chamberlayne, John H (1966), The Chinese Earth-Shrine in Numen, Vol. 13, Fasc. 3 (Oct., 1966), pp. 164-182. 

A quick summary

The Chinese have been worshipping mythical gods representing heaven and earth since the mid-Zhou dynasty (BC 1122-225). The royal family made obeisance to the heavenly gods; the common folk, dependent on good harvests for survival and so worshipped the gods of the earth. 

Back then, 25 households usually congregated around a mound of soil built around a sacred tree, which represented the spirit of the soil. The term She (社) was originally used to refer to this spirit of the soil, but later evolved to refer to the “social group around the altar”. The concept subsequently developed to mean “society” (She Hui, or 社会). Worship of the “society god” or She Shen (社神) became more elaborate as small shrines and even idols were used in place of the simple mound beneath the tree.

The spirit of the soil is closely associated with the god of the grain, Hou Ji (后稷), who is credited with introducing millet to humanity.

Over time, both the spirit of the soil and the god of grain came to be worshipped together as a pair. They are now represented as husband (spirit of the soil) and wife (god of grain). The terms She Shen and Hou Ji were replaced by Tou Di Kong (Lord of the Earth), and his wife, Tou Di Po (Lady of the Earth).