Project Canterbury

Borneo: The Land of River and Palm

By Eda Green

[no place:] Borneo Mission Association, no date [c. 1909]

Chapter IV. Superstitions and Beliefs and their Effects

FOR the Dyak the sense of the supernatural is extremely keen, and its influence pervades every action of his daily life. The spirit world surrounds him on every side; its voices speaking to him point out where he should build his house, warn him whether he should turn back from an expedition, tell him when to plant his paddy.

It is the inarticulate longing for some one greater than himself; the seeking after (if haply he may find) some Power above humanity, the dim sense of a Deity with whom he seeks to hold communion, and from whom to obtain guidance. "God made us for Himself, and our hearts can find rest only in Him," this is as true of the oriental as of the Western races, so in his darkness the Dyak follows what he knows, groping blindly among the spirits, till out of our light we point him to the Light of the world "which lighteth every man

As a child of Nature the Dyak knows no other than Nature worship, but that worship claims his very soul, and to it he renders full obedience. In us the voice of conscience is too often buried deep; our hearts are untrained to interpret its speaking, and if we do hear it feebly we are too prone to bury it again and not in simple faith to heed its behests. The Dyak hears what he believes to be the voice of leading and implicitly obeys. To him it is not the voice of conscience, for he has no sense of sin; it is the voice of guidance which shall lead him where he may escape danger, and obtain ease and prosperity.

There is no Dyak literature, therefore it is impossible to trace the growth of their superstitions which have been handed down by word of mouth. As one generation has passed them on to another, memories have failed or imagination has added to the story, and so various versions are found, but all through beliefs and superstitions there runs only the idea of propitiating or appeasing gods and spirits in order that they may avert danger or give good material gifts. Worship resolves itself into a species of bribery, so many meals of rice or fowls offered to the "antus" that they may cease to bring down sickness, or may give good crops of paddy. The native has no idea whatever of any influence on his own spirit; material good, what he can get is all, not what he can be. The growth of his own spirit, character, is an unknown vision, and all the unseen spirits around him have nothing to do with any moral development. He has only got so far as "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die"; his spirit may live on to wander in the realms of air and to be born in other forms, but the end is extinction or dissipation into Nature.

The Land-Dyaks believe, and we may surely call it a belief, in four chief spirits.

Tupa, the creator, the life-giver, creator of all living things, creator and preserver, for he not only creates but preserves life. Tenubi, the creator and sustainer of the earth and of all inanimate creation, the god who gives crops and harvests and provides food. Some tribes seem to hold these two as but one deity, who made and watches over all creation.

The third spirit is Iang, the god of healing, who gave knowledge to a certain Barich, a priestess who imparts her lore to the medicine men and women.

Fourthly, Jirong, the destroyer, the angel of birth and of death, at whose suggestion man's nature, created immortal by Tupa, was given over to him for destruction by sickness, accident or war.

It has been suggested that Tenubi, Iang and Jirong correspond to the powers of the Hindu religion, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, emanating from Tupa, the one god, as those do from Bram.

After these gods come the Umot, of whom there are five or six orders. Komang (whose ranks are joined by the spirits of brave men) and Triu are spirits who live on the hilltops and rejoice in death; they are present at head feasts, and their aid is asked to speed the success of snares set for animals. Other Umots, Sisé, Perusang and Pemback, are chiefly voracious, for their presence is made known by their coming to devour scraps of bread, paddy or cooked rice.

Thirdly, there are the Mino. Men who have died a natural death become simple Minos, but these, too, die, pass into Rubang Sabayan, the place of departed spirits, and become bejawi; after an other death they become begutur, and at the end of that life the essence of their being enters into the trunks of trees, but they have no further personal existence.

The spirits of men who have died accidentally, or of those killed in battle, whose heads have been taken, become Pajabun and Buan; they live in the jungle and their object is to injure mankind. The Buan appear as headless men, and delight to steal away souls.

The Land-Dyaks have some sense of praying and will invoke the aid of spirits. At their harvest feasts the chief man of the village stands at the house door and throws some yellow rice out of a cup to the winds, telling it to appeal for him to the Sultan, to the Rajah, to the rajahs of the sun, of the moon, of the stars, of the seven stars, and to Tupa, that he may approach acceptably, have good luck and blessing, and especially asking of Tupa that "he may behold our feast, may help us all, may give us good luck and abundance of paddy and rice; we ask for fish, we ask for wild pigs, we ask for many children, we ask for fruit, we ask for bees".

Roughly carved wooden figures are sometimes put up holding short spears, that they may drive away evil spirits from the village, but these idols do not seem to be worshipped, or to be held as of much importance.

Ideas as to a future life differ among the tribes. Some think that the spirits of men go to the mountain tops, while those of women remain where their bodies were burnt, but that re-incarnation goes on for ever.

The Milanaus picture another world like this with plenty of sago plantations (their special industry), but think that after a long life in that world they will become worms and caterpillars in the forest.

The Kayans believe in one Supreme Being, Laki Tenangong, who cares for all souls, and that the future state is one of many habitations, some for the good, some for the evil; those who die a natural death go to Apa Leggan, those killed by accident or in battle to Long Julan and so on; they also hold that after death the soul may enter into an animal or bird which haunts the grave of its former body.

The beliefs of the Sea-Dyaks are much wider and more complicated than those of the Land-Dyaks. Petara is the name of their deity, and far far back there would seem to have been a faith in one Almighty Power. Now, however, Petara denotes endless spirits: each man has his own Petara or guardian in the unseen world, and not only men, but the animal world and things in nature in all their forms, have each a special Petara. Archdeacon Perham thinks the word comes from the Hindu Avatara. One distinct trait is that these Petara are all benevolent beings, the preservers of men, and doing only good to mankind.

Among the Balaus children are committed to the care of the Petara by a ceremony called Besant. A sacrifice is offered by the manang, and then a very beautiful invocation is chanted, calling first on the king of all the gods to look, and then going through the names of Petara of various powers.

Seleledu, who has charge of the little hills, like top-knots of the bejampong bird.

Selingiling, who has charge of the twigs of the sega rotan.

Sengungong, who has charge of the full-grown knotted branches.

From the Pleiades, like the glistening patterns of the long-flowing turbans, looks Petara Guyah.

From the Milky Way, like golden rings of the nabau snake, Petara Radau is observing.

From the Rainbow, also beautiful in dying, like the feet of an opened box, Petara Menani is looking and bending.

From the Evening Star, as big as the bud of the red hibiscus, Petara Magu is looking.

These, with many others of the gods dwelling in the treetops and in the midst of the earth, are called upon.

A year after this first ceremony of asking the Petara to look on the child, a second invocation is made, when the gods are invited to come down to the house to partake of a feast.

Besides these all-pervading Petara, the Sea-Dyaks have three deities who may be considered as the gods of their race.

Salampandai is a female spirit who creates mankind. In obedience to Petara's command to make a man she fashioned first one of stone; this speechless being was rejected by Petara, as was an iron man, also speechless; then Salampandai brought one of clay who had the power of speaking and who was accepted, and ever since she has gone on making men of the same clay; she is represented on earth by a frog, an animal which, though seldom seen, is treated with great reverence, and to which sacrifice is offered if it should enter into a house.

Pulang Gaya is the god of the ground. He lives below the earth and is called up on special occasions, as at the beginning of the year's farm work, or when axes are to be sharpened, so that he may bless the whetstones. Dyaks have a great veneration for stones and rocks to which they ascribe special powers. The whetstones are ranged round the verandah of the house, and a procession walks round and round them chanting petitions to Pulang Gaya to bless them and to bring good luck. [Tradition says that Pulang Gaya, one of three brothers, was lost, sought for in vain, and duly mourned. When the next season came for paddy sowing all the land cleared in the day was each night covered again with jungle. A careful watch convicted Pulang Gaya of doing the mischief; he claimed to be the adopted son of the god of the earth, and demanded yearly sacrifices before farming began as his rent, failing which he would destroy the paddy.]

Singalang Burong is the Sea-Dyaks' god of war, and a feast is made to him after head-taking; he is also the guardian of brave men, and the god of bird-omens, the ancestor of the Dyaks who communicates with them through his sons-in-law, the birds.

Inferior to these Petara and to the three gods is a whole realm of antus, spirits good and evil, dream beings some of them, who reveal themselves, bring medicines to work magic charms, and give directions as to conduct in visions of the night. To obtain some special wish a custom, called "nampok" is followed out to invoke the spirits. A man will go to the top of some hill and spend the night in solitary vigil, with the hope that a good antu will come and endow him with the gift of strength or bravery which he needs. This custom is used, too, to secure relief from illness. So the time since a man from the Rejang having tried several hills went to Lingga; on the mountain there he offered his sacrifice; he lay down beside his little offering to spend the night, was visited by an antu and came down quite cured.

The antus whose influence is most felt, however, are the evil ones who roam the jungle in various forms and keep the people in a state of abject terror. Girgasi is the chief of these demons, and to meet him is to be sure of death. Some of these spirits dwell in trees, and to cut down such a tree is to incur their vengeance. Illness is often attributed to the man having unknowingly done this. To find out if a tree is so possessed the test is made of striking an axe into it at sunset; if it remains in the tree in the morning there is no fear, but if it has fallen out the tree must be shunned as the abode of an antu.

Nearly every illness is put down to the action of these evil beings. Small-pox is the chief antu, and cholera one of the next most powerful ones. These spirits of sickness are hungry spirits, and will come quickly up the rivers from the sea to devour their human prey unless sacrifice of food is offered to stop them and a white flag of truce set up.

These sacrifices are generally of rice, eggs, plantains, bananas, fruit and fowls; they are put either on a brass salver, or, if away from the house, an altar of sacrifice is put up, made of sticks fastened together with rattan, with a pent-roof of nipa leaves over it. The antu is supposed to come and partake of the offering; if not visible as a spirit the natives say that it comes in the form of a pig or a fowl; but even if the food remains apparently untouched, they say that only the husk is there and the invisible essence has been consumed by the in visible spirit.

Sacrifice to secure successful farming is an important act, and blood must be an essential element. As there are no larger animals, a fowl or a pig is killed and the blood sprinkled over the ground, or the dead bird waved in the air over the paddy field. Sacrifice for a person needs also the shedding of blood.

There is no priesthood. In illness sacrifice is offered by the medicine men, who are called priests, but in other cases the chief of the tribe, or some old man, is chosen to perform the rite.

The superstition of omens is one which keeps the Dyak in hourly fear. Animals, birds or insects may bring him the warning he dreads, but birds give the most important omens, and they have become an object of worship. The origin of this special veneration for birds is differently described! One legend says that long ago a Malay and a Dyak were swimming across a river. Each had a book with him; the Malay tied his in his turban, and, his head being kept out of the water, he carried the book dry and safe to the farther side. The Dyak fastened his book in his chawat, where it was washed by the river and swept away. In place of this lost book bird-omens were given to the Dyaks as a guide.

Another story tells how some Batang Lupar Dyaks made a feast and invited many guests. When they arrived they all proved to be strangers. Still the Dyaks received them and entertained them as friends. When the guests were departing they were asked whence they came, when they declared themselves to be Singalang Burong and his sons-in-law. Birds were their deputies here, and in recognition of the Dyaks' hospitality they were told to watch over and guide them.

A longer legend says that in the early ages a man called Siu wandering one day near the coast meets a beautiful Dyak woman, who offers to marry him. He demurs as he has lost his way, but she tells him she can conduct him home. Arrived there they find his people mourning him as lost, and in their rejoicing at his return no questions are asked about the bride. A son named Seraguntung is born and grows wonderfully; one day he has a violent fit of crying, and his mother, refusing to take him from his father, packs up her things and departs. Presently Siu and the boy set out to find her; night after night they shelter in the forest, and always a leaf is found close by holding milk for the child. Passing boats refuse to take them, but one morning, as they gaze at the sea, a huge spider rises out of it and leads them across it to a farther shore. There they find themselves in the house of Singalarig Burong, and discover that Siu's wife was Singalang's niece, and one of his spirit birds. One day the whole party go out hunting with their dogs, no dog having been, provided for Siu and his boy, though they are told that they will be killed if they do 'not bring home some prey. Seraguntung calls to him a thin, starved dog, which at once becomes fat and strong; they alone succeed in the chase and bring home a wild boar; the others try to kill it, but their spears glance off, and Seraguntung, with a knife of his mother's, strikes the pig, which instantly drops down dead. These and other wonderful feats cause him to be acknowledged as a true grandson of Singalang Burong's. One day when his grandfather is away the boy looks under his magic pillow and sees his father's home. After this the two want to return, but first they are taught how to fight, how to plant paddy, and watch and care for its growth; they learn how to catch fish and deer, and more than all they are initiated into the meaning of omens. Birds, they are told, represent Singalang Burong in this world, and through them he will speak to en courage and to warn them.

Yet another legend tells that a Dyak marrying a spirit (for in those days spirits were visible to mortals, and men and spirits were equal) their children were birds, who having been cared for by the Dyaks have ever since repaid them by their guidance.

But whatever the origin of the superstition the present bondage is only too certain. The Sea-Dyaks have seven omen-birds, bearing the names and possessing the spirits of the seven sons of Singalang Burong. Before any jungle land can be cleared for paddy-planting these omens must be consulted. The man watches till the Pleiades are high enough above the horizon and then he goes out to listen. He wants to hear the nendak, the katupong, the burong malam (an insect) and the beragai, one after the other in the above order and all on his left. When he has heard the first he breaks off some twig and takes it back to his house, and so with the others, but if in between he hears some other bird he must begin all over again, and weeks may go by before the right succession is heard. Then the little twigs are taken to the ground and laid upon it, a prayer is offered to Pulang Gaya, and so the virtue of the birds is conveyed to the land.

Before a house can be built the same ceremony must be gone through and. the birds must be heard on the left. Before a war expedition they must be heard on the right.

When a house is almost finished the chief and his head-man go out early one morning to listen for the nendak on the left. If they hear it they light a fire, which must be kept burning; the chief stays by it while his aide-de-camp goes back to tell the people to pack up and bring their possessions. When they join the chief their goods are set down; after some betel-chewing they all go on, and when near the house they stop again. One of the men goes on to listen for the nendak, this time on the right side; he brings back a stick which he drives into the ground; on it he hangs a circlet of green creeper (the protector of his soul) and on this a hook, to prevent the soul from wandering. Such a stick, circlet and hook are set up for each family, with small pieces of bamboo for each member of it.

When they come to the house and take possession of their rooms no one may go out after six o'clock. The medicine men pass their charms over every one to render them invisible to the evil spirits, and the framework of the house is covered with foliage lest spirits should rest on it. After this an old woman, carrying a basket, marches three times up and down the verandah simulating the action of paddy reaping. She then empties on to the fire the imaginary contents of her empty basket, the mosquitoes she has been reaping. Before the verandah may be used as a court of justice a ceremony called mandi rumah takes place. A sacrifice is made, a new ladder as entrance raised up, and then offerings are made to Pulang Gaya. One of the posts is struck with a bamboo holding rice, and the gods are implored to send down the seed of the engkuni tree to be used as a charm.

If a man on his way to his paddy farm hears a papau he must at once turn back, if he hears a mbuas on his right he must not venture out for five days. The call of a kutok bodes evil and that of a katupong means so much harm that he must stay away from the farm for three days and even longer unless he hears a beragai.

Should a Dyak set out to visit a friend and on his way hear a bad omen-bird he will at once go back. If he is building a boat and an unlucky bird flies over it the boat is forsaken. Should he be carrying timber for his house and hear a kutok, a bejampong or a mbuas he must drop the wood and leave it for some days or altogether.

A house will be deserted because a beragai has flown over it, or an armadillo crawled into it, or if an owl is heard making a particular noise; after the last, however, it is possible to return when some weeks have been passed in rough shelters, provided the mbuas and the beragai have been heard on the left.

Should a katupong fly through a house from end to end all the inhabitants must leave instantly, and huge demons will be seen and heard at night in possession.

In one district three birds are consulted during the day and two others at night; if one of the day-birds, the keriak, is heard on the right in an expedition it is well, if on the left success is doubtful; if its voice is in front danger lies ahead, and if behind the hearer must return at once, for serious evil threatens his home.

If an omen-bird is killed illness or death is sure to follow, unless the killing was accidental and a sacrifice is offered, but if a dead beast be found on a farm terrible consequences will ensue. A pig is killed and auguries deduced from the state of the body; if these are unfavourable the whole of the rice crop must be sold, for it is poisoned, and if the owner's family touch it some of them will die within the year, though strangers may eat it with impunity.

The burden of these omens comes into every part of the daily life, and can never be got away from. Certain men are supposed to have the gift of over coming evil omens, and if they eat something off the farm they, through that, take away the curse. A piece of gold buried on the land, or the sacrifice of a fowl, buried, too, on the land, and its blood allowed to drop into a hole prepared for it, may neutralise the warnings of evil birds, but the result is very doubtful and so the haunting terrorism remains.

Disputes are often decided by an ordeal, generally that of diving, the man who can remain longest under water winning.

The night before the ordeal is to take place each party brings out, before witnesses, on to the verandah of his house, a certain amount of property as the stakes to go to his opponent if he wins the contest. Early the next morning this property. is carried down to the river; the friends of each man assemble and get ready a fire by which to resuscitate their almost drowned champion. Two gratings are sunk in the river a few yards apart for the men to stand on, and a pole is given to each. Holding on to these poles, in water reaching to their waists, they plunge their heads under water at the same moment. All the people repeat wildly the word lobön lobön, their vigour and excitement increasing as either man shows sign of defeat. Anxious for the success of their own side some will hold down the head of their man under water if he seems to be giving in. So the contest goes on, a sickening spectacle, until one or other drops down and sinks below the water; then he is promptly rescued, carried off to the fire, and his face plastered over with mud by way of helping him to recover. Meanwhile the stakes have been triumphantly carried off by the victor's party.

Charms are greatly treasured; they may consist of an extraordinarily heterogeneous collection of things such as twigs, beads, small bones, deers' horns, Indian stones, bits of coral, but they are handed down for generations and their loss is believed to portend the extinction of the tribe. They are used for many purposes, from exorcising the evil antu which is causing a sickness, to enlisting the spirit of a mountain on behalf of travellers. Mountain-tops are supposed to be specially haunted by evil as well as good spirits, and trees, which nothing will induce the ordinary native to cut down, are left for their shelter. They look on with horror at Christian natives who venture to fell these groves and are much surprised when no evil happens to them.

A curious superstitious value is set upon the sacred jars owned by the Dyaks. They are probably of Chinese manufacture, brought to Borneo nobody knows when. They are of coarse brown, glazed ware, and no tribe will part with them to strangers. The most valuable kind is the Gusi, green in colour, and about eighteen inches high; one of these is valued at £400. If a tribe by exchange or purchase can add to its stock a new jar it is received with a sacrifice, a chicken is waved over it to invoke a blessing, then the bird is killed and some of the blood sprinkled on the jar.

So daily, hourly, does this burden of superstitious observance press into the native life. We who stand in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, can in no wise picture the life of perpetual dread which such a system brings and which the Gospel light alone can dispel. And yet in this vivid realisation of the supernatural we have something to which we can appeal and on which to build.


1. Has the Dyak any sense of the supernatural?

2. What is the main idea beneath all their beliefs and superstitions?

3. Has the Dyak any conception of sin, any idea of moral improvement affecting his character?

4. What is the belief of the Land-Dyaks?

5. What do they think happens after death?

6. Do they recognise any need for prayer?

7. Is the belief of the Land-and Sea-Dyaks the same?

8. Who are the antus, and what place do they hold in the people's lives?

9. In what way is the Dyaks' daily life affected by superstition?

10. How do they try to ward off the evils threatened by bad omens?

11. Does all this suggest any responsibility resting on ourselves?

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