Samurai helmet (kabuko) shaped like an octopus. End of the 17th century, Japan
This kabuto is one of 200 displayed in the Japanese armory section of the Stibbert Museum in Florence, Italy. The bowl of the helmet is made of 28 steel plates, while the neck guard is made of five steel plates covered with lacquered leather and joined with silk threads.
The quality of materials—including imported leather and precious metals—beautiful workmanship, and decorative elements all point to the helmet belonging to a high-ranking samurai. Helmets were sometimes adorned with elaborate features, including horns, crab claws, or rabbit ears. While this particular example is perhaps more fantastical than fearsome, some helmets, especially those with face masks, could be quite terrifying.
Armor was also a way for a samurai to display his personality and status. The decorations, explains Till, were there for a little bit of intimidation but more for showing off. The samurai wanted to look cultured, he says, and hired special artisans to create these pieces. The samurai was trying to say, “I’m sophisticated, I can afford to have these nice little artworks on my head,” Till adds.
The work of art on this helmet is the gilded octopus, which is made of iron overlaid with papier mâché. Franci explains that the octopus is a popular motif in Japanese culture, the result of a deep connection to the sea and the creatures living in it.
Franci says warriors likely chose the octopus as a crest “because it represents vitality, but also because it was a common nightmare of every seaman to be drawn in[to] a deadly hug of this powerful creature.” He adds that because some octopuses can heal their cut tentacles, the Japanese probably believed that their effigies would protect against injury.
While it’s possible the ostentatious octopus crest indicates the helmet was created for show or ceremonial use, Franci points out that the octopus can be removed easily and the helmet is so solid and well-made that in battle it would have provided the best protection available at the time. (source)
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