Interpretation of omen birds

The relative strength of the messages carried by each bird is thought to vary in terms of its relative seniority and the location of his family apartment relative to that of Sengalang Burong.

Should the calls of different augural birds be heard in sequence, one shortly after the other, the order of their calls also affects the message which the calls convey.

Thus the meaning of the initial call may be re-enforced, negated, or an altogether new message conveyed.

As a general rule, the sequential calls of birds whose family rooms are thought to be located at opposite sides of Singalang Burong’s bilek are interpreted as a warning of impending ill-luck (burung busong).

Interpretation of the messages conveyed by the augural birds varies with the particular activity engaged in by the person who receives them.

Omens for Iban’s Major activities:

1) Burung bumai
A major set of omens of utmost importance to the Iban are the burong kena manggol, those received during the initial clearing of rice fields. These omens are thought to foretell the course of the agricultural year and upon their correct observation is believed to depend on an individual’s farming success or failure for the coming year.

The omens for agriculture is also indicated by animals which are slaves of Raja Simpulang Gana.

2) Burong rama
Also described were the burong rama, the omens of everyday activities, such as fishing, hunting, traveling, cockfighting and honey collection.

3) Burung berumah
In the earlier sections of this monograph the principal omens connected with the construction of a new longhouse were also described. These, too, are of great importance because they are thought to give indication of the future health and collective well-being of those who make the longhouse their home.

4) Burong ngayau
Equally important are omens which were observed in the past during head hunting raids and warfare. Their significance is indicated by the association of augury with Sengalang Burong, the Iban god of warfare, and formerly there existed a complex code of bird augury observed by war parties in the field.

In addition, the flight and calls of each of the augural birds carries its own particular message. Interpretation of its message depends primarily on four major sets of variables:

1. The place at which the call is heard, the conditions under which it is heard and the direction of the call relative to the hearer;

2. The nature of the call itself and its possible occurrence in a sequence with the calls of other augural birds;

3. The direction from which an augural bird flies across a person’s path, the individual’s purpose of travel and the place at which the bird crosses his path relative to his place of departure or destination; and

4. The condition of the person who hears a call or sees the flight of a bird, his status and age, or that of the person to whom the omen bears reference.

Some omens indicate a change in fortune and their meaning depends upon the past success or accomplishments of the individual who hears or encounters the omen.

Others vary in meaning depending upon a person’s relative age or upon his status, as, for example, a curer or community leader.

Raup tauka pimpin
The terms raup and pimpin, meaning left to right and right to left, respectively, are used only to refer to the directions of flight of the augural birds, and not to the location of calls.

Burung laba vs burung nyubok
It is generally expected that augural birds or animals will be seen or heard in front or to the side, but sometimes they are heard directly behind the person or they are seen approaching from the rear. This condition, called nyubok, is almost always considered unlucky, regardless of any other meaning of the call or appearance.

Thus the appearance of an animal which is regarded as burong laba, a stroke of good luck, when seen in front or to the side, becomes an ill-portent when it is seen directly from behind. In general, it is said to “surprise” the person who sees it, and thus it shortens his life.


If the grave of an ancestor is covered by an anthill, this is a good sign that indicates that the deceased intends to safeguard the future well-being of his descendants and will confer favors on those who are especially capable. However, if the earth over the grave of an ancestor, parent, child, or other close family member sinks (lengkap), this is a bad omen that indicates future ill-luck, poverty, and lack of success. Those who see it should immediately fill the sinking ground with earth.

The appearance of fungi (kulat) on an heirloom jar (tajau) is a grave ill-omen.


An individual may seek auguries before embarking upon any important undertaking. Ordinarily he does so privately on behalf of his own family. However, there are occasions on which auguries are sought for a whole community, and this task is the responsibility of a community augur, or tuai burong.


Besides neutralizing omens with the blood of a pig or chicken and by making offerings, farmers and others who have observed bad omens or dreams often ask the orang tau makai burong to neutralize them, literally “to eat the omen” (makai burong).



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