An Axe to Grind

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

Kalinga warrior with headhunter axeTalk about your single-purpose tool. You will not find this axe at your local hardware store, nor at your neighborhood kitchen wares emporium. Our Kalinga hand axe from the Philippine Islands was made for one purpose, and one purpose only: to separate a man’s head from his body.

The Philippines have a long history of producing some of the most elegant and ruthless bladed weapons on earth, as diverse as the peoples scattered across its more than 7100 islands. Contact through the centuries with Chinese and Arabic Muslim traders, with Spanish planters, with explorers from Borneo and even India, all laid their mark on the “sandata,” edged weapons of Philippine craftsmen.

The wave-edged kris, leaf-shaped barung, the panabas chopper, kampilan, bangkung, the Mandaya knife... impressive weapons all, brandished with relish by the ethnic groups that honed them to a razor sharp lethal edge. Most blades were a source of pride and identity to the men who carried them as an essential part of their daily costume, tucked into a sash or belt like the gentlemen in the picture below.

Moro datu warriors with their hand-held weaponsBut none was more menacing than the headhunter’s axe.

Head-taking was an integral part of village life on the mountainous northern island of Luzon. Kalinga and Bontoc warriors broadcast their prowess in battle with intricate tattoos displaying their conquests, and every village had a dedicated tattoo artist like the woman pictured below. Kalingas tattooed their hands and wrists after the first kill, and the designs and placement got more extensive with every head they took.

Not only did head-taking proclaim an individual warrior’s bravery and power in battle, it had the A female Kalinga traditional tattoo artistfollowing benefits:
• increased harvests
• abundant wild game and fish
• respect from the warrior’s descendants
• great wealth
• good health
In addition to these could be added the bonus of making the headhunter irresistible to the ladies. When a man went courting he might as well leave the flowers, candy and tennis bracelets at home. His bride-to-be was likely to be unimpressed with anything less than a human head, her “bride’s prize.” It would even be effective in starting a family, since it was known to increase fertility.

The inaccessibility of the area and the disruption of several international conflicts allowed the headhunters of Luzon to practice their lifestyles with little outside interference until halfway into the 20th century. After World War II, efforts were made by the central government to reign the Kalinga in... with only limited success. The recent attempt to build a dam that would have destroyed several of their villages and fields had to be scotched due to the resistance of this proud and independent people.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

• See beautiful examples of the bladed weapons from the Philippines
Buy shrunken heads made of goatskin in two sizes
• Full description of the headhunters’ practices back in the day

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