5% WELCOME DISCOUNT ON ALL PRODUCTS

Check our Sword Shop

Maasai Sword: The East African Lion Blade

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: May 16, 2023
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

African swords can look exotic but terrifying, with several parts that can inspire fictional stories. Some African blades are simple but effective for fighting and survival. The Maasai sword, also called Ol Alem and Seme, was an African sword used frequently and with great success while featuring an elemental design.

The Ol Alem Maasai Sword has a blade that works like a Machete for everyday tasks but performs as a Greek Xiphos on the battlefield. In this article, we’ll discuss the Maasai Sword, its most popular types, and its characteristics. We will then examine how the Maasai sword is used and how it came to be.

Types of Maasai Sword

The blade design largely categorizes Maasai swords into two categories that function similarly but look different. The widespread adoption of European steel blade styles among African swordsmiths is largely responsible for this classification. These are the most often seen Maasai swords.

Flat Blade

Flat Maasai Sword
The flat blade type of a Maasai Sword that has its blade imported and brought in from Europe – Credits: Africa Imports

Maasai Swords can feature flat blades made of iron or steel. These blades are imported from Europe, sometimes as a steel block that has been melted down or directly placed onto a locally made hilt. Flat European blades feature no type of fuller and are mostly used for slashing with their sharp edges.

Mid-Rib Blade

Mid Rib Maasai Sword
The traditional African Maasai Sword that features a mid-rib section throughout its blade – Credits: WJM Antiques

The traditional Maasai Sword features a mid-rib section on its blade, which is seen as a historical Ol Alem sword that followed a design commonly seen in North, West, and East Africa. While the other type is seen as a slashing weapon, some sword enthusiasts assume the mid-rib blade to be more of a thrusting-like tool, resembling a dagger.

Characteristics of the Maasai Sword

Maasai Sword with Details
The African Maasai Sword with details – Credits: Antique Swords International

Maasai Swords are one of the most basic weapons in the arsenal of African blades. Being a hybrid between a dagger and a short sword gives them everyday tool-like functions. They also work well as primary war instruments combined with a large shield and smaller secondary weapons. 

Blade

The blade of the Maasai Swords is straight and double-edged, meaning sharpened on each side. These Ol Alem blades are typically leaf-shaped and broaden toward the mid-section of the blade and taper to a very sharp tip at the end. Although this is the most common case, Maasai Swords made with imported European steel are straight without this leaf-shaped design.

Guard

Maasai Swords do not feature any type of guard because this African weapon was used with a large shield for protection. Another possibility is that it was used daily in agriculture, cooking, and bush clearing, where a guard would hinder its effectiveness.

Handle

Maasai Sword Handle
The two main types of handles for the Maasai or Ol Alem Swords – Credits: Very Important Lot

The handle of a Maasai sword is straight and open and, depending on the size of the blade, can be many different lengths. The most common type of handle is a piece of wood wrapped in leather that holds the blade’s tang, or the leather alone wrapped around the full-tang blade, growing with the width of the blade.

Some Maasai Sword’s handles are made strictly for use with only one hand, while others allow the user to hold it with both, using it as a two-handed slashing weapon. The most usual handle length for the Maasai or Ol Alem Sword is around six inches (15 cm).

Pommel

The pommel is the ending of the Maasai Sword’s handle, which acts as a counterweight of the blade while holding the full-tang blade together. Some ceremonial and newer Maasai Swords feature a metal cap pommel, while traditional ones do not.

It is a simple design with a broadening piece of wood added on the end of the handle or just leather wrapped harder and stronger. 

Scabbard

Maasai Scabbard
The Maasai next to its scabbard with scuff marks in the center – Credits: Lew Waldman

The scabbard of the Maasai Sword is straight and follows the same design as the blade. It is usually much broader than the neck of the blade due to the broadening of the blade’s leaf-shaped tip. If the blade is without the leaf shape, the scabbard will be the exact width of the blade. 

The Ol Alem blade usually has a leather scabbard with wraps and a belt tightened to its wielder. There are usually scuff marks in the center of the blade, which are to hold the mid-rib section.

Weight

The African Maasai Seme Ol Alem Sword is light due to its simple yet effective design. It can be comfortably worn around the waist of the user while being a terrifying weapon of destruction. A common weight for the Maasai Sword is around 1.5 lbs (700 grams), depending on its size and length.

Size and Length

Some Maasai Ol Alem tools are referred to as daggers, knives, machetes, or swords. This results from the blade’s various lengths, with the most common between 15 to 31 inches (40 to 80 cm), making it primarily a one-handed weapon.

Uses for the Maasai Sword

Maasai people themselves are using the Maasai Sword – Credits: Joel V Bushcraft

The Maasai Sword is used as a one-handed tool, although there were cases where larger blades allowed it to be used with both hands. The primary use of the Maasai sword was slashing, although many would argue that thrusting was its main trait. It is a weapon of self-defense but primarily an everyday tool that can be used by men, women, and children. 

Warfare and Combat

The Maasai Sword is a traditional weapon of war for the Maasai people of Africa. It saw frequent use in combat dating back to antiquity because this weapon is an extended version of a dagger or knife used in the past. It is important to note that the Maasai was a secondary, not a primary, weapon. 

Throwable spears used in melees were primary weapons, and the Maasai was used more in close combat with a sizable shield or against unarmored thieves.

Ceremonial and Prestige

The Ol Alem or Maasai Sword is part of the regalia for the Maasai people. There are ceremonial types of Maasai Swords that could be ornamented, and owning them was an achievement. European travelers often brought them back from their travels.

Everyday Instrument

The creation of many Maasai Swords still widely in use today across the Maasai peoples of Africa – Credits: Narok TV

Maasai Sword or Mese sword is part of the 14 most important tools used in history and modern times for the Maasai people. It is ranked highly due to its versatility in agriculture and cooking. The Massai sword is an excellent tool for cutting meat, fruits, and vegetables, clearing through thick forests, and for hunting.

History and Origins of the Maasai Sword

Massai Sword History
Modern Maasai Warriors with the Maasai Sword on their waists and the Lion Spear in their hands – Credits: World History

The Maasai Sword is a weapon and everyday tool used primarily by the Maasai people of East Africa, known as Kenya and Northern Tanzania. Today the Maasai people are split into 12 different groups, each using the Maasai, Ol Alem, or Mese sword as their main sidearm. 

The exact origin and date of the Maasai Sword are difficult to trace because this type of blade is an evolution of the smaller dagger or knife used in antiquity. There are some instances of this similar sword being used in different regions of Africa that resemble the Ida Sword.  

African Leaf Shaped Swords
Variations of the African leaf-shaped Spear – Credits: UKG

The Maasai Sword is sometimes called “the Lion Sword,” as it could have resulted from a spear called the Maasai Lion Spear used for hunting lions or other game animals. During the last few centuries, the Maasai people were primarily shepherds, and their main food source was farming. The leaf-shaped Lion Spear point could have been worn on the waist of the Maasai people for self-protection, resulting in the Maasai Sword we know today.

Today the Maasai Sword still plays a large role in the culture of the Maasai. The swords were always carried by Maasai warriors and were a rite of passage for boys reaching manhood between the ages of 15 to 21. When the status of manhood was reached, a Maasai Sword was given, and from that day, the young man was allowed to carry a sword.

Sources Cited
  1. Needham, D. E., Mashingaidze, E. K., & Bhebe, N. (1984, October 1). From Iron Age to Independence: A History of Central Africa
  2. Spring, C. (2003, February 1). African Arms and Armour.
  3. Bastide, T. A. (2019, December 31). Traditional Weapons
    of Africa (Billhooks Sickles and Scythes): A Regional Approach and Technical, Morphological, and Aesthetic Classification.
  4. African Weapons: Sling, Bow, Sjambok, Assegai, Knobkierrie, Rungu, Hunga Munga, Nzappa Zap, Kaskara, Seme. (2010, May 1).
  5. Anthony C. Tirri (2007). Islamic and Native Weapons of Colonial Africa, 1800-1960. Indigo Pub.
  6. Shillington, K. (1995, June 1). History of Africa.
  7. Craats, R. (2012, January 1). Maasai.
  8. S. Withers, H. J., & Capwell, T. (2015, December 14). The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Knives, Swords, Spears and Daggers: Through History in over 1500 Photographs. Lorenz Books.
Get Weekly Insights on Everything Swords