The Ikul Knife
The Ikul or 'Ikula' consists of a generally leaf-shaped blade of iron or copper, and a handle timber with a round knob and any metal deposits. Just as other weapons that come from the same source, the Ikul replicas are made of wood. The Ikuls may vary in detail and in length, but they keep an average of 35 cm long blade.
After the abolition of slavery, in the 18th century, a army of female solders known as ‘ahosi’, ‘the kings wives’ was put to task. Europeans referred to them as ‘Amazons.’ By the 19th century the Amazons formed the elite of the army and they were carring these weapons.
The Kuba with a seemingly unabated proclivity for war devised a series of sabres, swords, clubs, axes and knives that were unparalleled by any other African nation. They functioned primarily as offensive weapons of attack, secondarily as highly decorated ceremonial paraphernalia and ensuingly as objects of great personal pride that indicated social position. The mere shape of the blade would convey the bearers distinctive status.
The knives, fitted with strong metal blades and wooden hilts often carried mythological symbolism within their design. The fine selection that we offer was crafted in a style known as “ikul’, one reserved exclusively for the Bushong, the ruling class of the Kuba. The blade is bulbous and secure. The hilt, smooth and patinated.
Later on, all adult Kuba men carried an ikul. The ikul was symbolic of their masculinity, class, warriorhood and kingship. The Kuba people were well known for their blacksmithing skills, which were considered a royal art with royal patronage. Knives, axes and currency blades were made from forged iron, the forms of which often exhibit inventiveness and workmanship beyond what was functionally necessary.
Ikul can be seen in the Ndop, the carved wooden portraits that commemorate each Kuba king. Ikul knives that bear a conical pommel appeared in the early seventeenth century under the patronage of King Shyaam aMbul aNgoong (his Ndop currently is displayed in the British Museum).
They were carried exclusively by the ruling Bushoong clan as a symbol of peace. A weapon symbolising peace might seem counterintuitive, but the Kuba believed that peace could only be assured by possessing powerful weaponry, which could act as a deterrent.
- Sidenote: The Kuba Kingdom (1625-1900) was a pre-colonial central African state within Zaire (known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It began as a loose conglomerate of several tribes with no central authority. Around 1625, Shyaam a-Mbul Ngoong-Shyaam united all the tribes under his leadership. According to folklore, Shyaam a-Mbul was the adopted son of a Kuba queen.
Photo source: Brooklyn Museum