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What is this surprisingly beautiful weapon? How is it different from a tomahawk?

Posted July 22, 2019

Take a look at this axe. It is not an ordinary carpenter’s or forester’s axe – this is a weapon. Surprisingly, knowing its scary purpose, it has a very ornamental head and a fine club-like handle. But what is it actually? And where is it from?

Nzappa zap – a war axe of the Songye people from the Congo region. Image credit: Hiart via Wikimedia

This battle axe is called Nzappa zap and it originated in the Congo back in 18-19th century, probably even longer time ago. It was mostly used by an infamous Songye tribal group once active in the Congo Free State. Despite its ornamental appearance, it was actually a real weapon, a bit like a North American tomahawk, but not really.

Much like a tomahawk, a Nzappa zap could be used both in hand and as a throwing axe. However, its construction was completely different. While a tomahawk is rather simple and has a friction-fit head, which can be removed from the handle for storage or repairs, Nzappa zap is permanently affixed to its handle. The back of the head has two prongs, which are inserted through a hole in a club and then bent outwards to fix the head in place. Another obvious difference is the appearance.

You can be sure that back in the day Nzappa zap was less ornamental. With time its head became more and more artistic and eventually it had all kinds of shapes within. In fact, many Nzappa zap examples feature shapes of faces in the head, formed from metal. This was because Nzappa zap became a status symbol, usually displayed on the shield. Tribal people also started using these axes for their ceremonies and rituals. They were difficult to make, which is why in battles combatants rarely threw them – they were mostly used to fight hand in hand.

The head of the Nzappa zap is made from wrought iron – iron alloy with a very low carbon content. Meanwhile the handle is made from wood and is shaped like a club. Palm swell provides more grip far the hand and helps using it in close combat. Interestingly, purely for decorative reasons, handles of Nzappa zap were often clad in copper, bronze or brass. These pieces were also very ornamental.

Finally, Nzappa zap was so expensive and so posh, people used them as a form of currency for trading as well. A good, nicely crafted Nzappa zap could buy you farm animals or other sorts of weapons. They are still used as weapons today, but very rarely. More modern forms of weaponry pushed out most of unique African cold weapons, including the Nzappa zap. However, it can still be seen in some museums – it’s a nice-looking things and an interesting piece of history, definitely stop to look at it when you have a chance.

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