The origin of Iban Custom and Augury

The origin of Iban Adat – Mythical Past and Social Setting

“Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” —Albert Einstein

The Sky, Domain of God

Myth, by its nature, tells “how one state of affairs became another: how an unpeopled world became populated; how chaos became cosmos” Victor Turner.

Through acts of creation, and out of the dissolution and reconstitution of society, myths reveal a sacred cosmos that both transcends, and at the same time sanctions the established moral and social order. Thus, myths are not only a guide to culture; we see how nature and human spirit shape a society.

The traditional Iban view believed that this world (dunya tu) is separated from, and yet influenced by events and by actions of “beings” in a series of inter-connected unseen realms. The gods or Petara and other beings, like the Orang Panggau, spirits and antu, inhibit this unseen realm. Very generally, the gods are associated with the sky (langit). A small number, such as Raja Niram and Dara Rambai Garuda, make their domain in the world of the dead (menoa Sebayan) where they lead the spirits of the dead. The term Petara refers to all supernatural beings that have benevolent intentions toward humankind. They are considered anthropomorphic supernatural, having all the physical and psychological characteristics of human beings. Like humankind, they live in longhouse communities, farm and engage in migrations and warfare. Unlike human being, they possess supernatural powers that permit them to perform miraculous deeds and have the ability to metamorphose themselves into other forms at will.

Humankind (mensia) share “this world” with other “living things” (utai idup) – with plants (utai tumboh or “growing things”) and animals (jelu), but also with the spirits or antu, who, like the Petara, are ordinarily unseen and possess supernatural power. In contrast to the petara, the antu are generally, although not always, said to be hostile to human purposes. The most dreaded spirit feeds on human souls, causing sickness and death, or consume the material wealth of humankind (antu rua). The antu domains are believed to be in an unseen dimension, entered into by human beings chiefly through dreams (mimpi). Dream are said to be the direct experience of the human soul (samengat). In this dream world, the soul of human beings, physical object and other beings are similarly active giving this unseen world a waking reality.

Intermediate between humankind and the petara in the sky is a third major category of supernatural, the Orang Panggau. These are the heroes and heroines of the mythic Panggau-Gellong world. Their domain is said to lie between the visible world and the sky. Thus in myth and ritual liturgy, those who journey to visit the gods and goddesses frequently pass through the Panggau-Gellong world to make their way to the homes of the petara. Like the gods, these heroes and heroines possess supernatural powers and are believe to be capable of metamorphosis. Being great mythical heroes, they are credited with exemplary physical ability, beauty, creativity, skills in craftsmanship and other attributes of humankind. They are, for example, the patrons of women weavers and male warriors. Their prowess is the subject of vast oral epic literature among the Iban society. Like the gods and goddesses, the Orang Panggau are beneficent and acts in ways that further human purposes and this makes them the invisible intermediaries. During major Gawai festivals, they represent the gawai sponsor in inviting, welcoming and entertain the gods and goddesses whom the human bards have called down from the sky to bless and participate, unseen, in the ritual work of the Gawai.

Domain Of Bunsu Bintang Banyak

Professor Clifford Sather wrote in his introduction on Iban Adat and Augury, 1980:

The Iban or Sea Dayak of Sarawak are the single most populous indigenous group in Malaysia aside from the Malays. By tradition the Iban are a riverine people, dwelling in longhouse communities located along the main rivers and smaller streams of the interior of Sarawak. A vigorous, mobile people, the Iban have spread during the last two hundred years from the Batang Lupar and Saribas river systems of Sarawak, and from the adjoining Kapuas region of western Kalimantan, through the central Rejang valley, north and eastward, until today they are present in every district and division of Sarawak, in both urban areas and in the rural country side. In the course of their expansion the Iban evolved a highly successful social system that stressed individual resourcefulness, egalitarianism and personal mobility. Greatest honour accrued to those who pushed forward known frontiers by opening new land for settlement, through success in warfare, or by pioneering new economic ventures. Such persons were respected in their lifetime and were remembered after death in ritual invocations and their exploits commemorated in oral genealogies.

At the heart of the traditional social system was, and still remains, the longhouse community. Here the individualism so highly valued by the Iban is tempered by mutual economic and ritual interdependencies buttressed by a complex code of social rules, or adat. To the Iban the term adat covers all of the various customary norms, jural rules, ritual interdictions and injunctions that guide an individual’s conduct, and the sanctions and forms of redress by which these norms and rules are upheld. In the first part of the study that follows the main elements of traditional Iban adat are described as they apply to the individual in his dealings with others, to marriage and family life, economic undertakings, major life crises events, and significant ritual and ceremonial occasions.

Iban augury is essentially a system of divination in which divine guidance is sought in natural events, particularly the behaviour of birds and other natural species. As a rule, augury is of special importance to the Iban in those areas of life in which the outcome of an individual’s action is uncertain or cannot be fully foreseen. In traditional Iban society the practice of augury was closely related to a view of the social world as governed by the rules of adat. It is therefore useful to consider adat and augury together.

The longhouse community is essentially a microcosm of the total society. The prime function of adat is to assure harmonious relations among community members. At the same time, conduct in accordance with adat was traditionally believed to maintain a community in a state of ritual well-being with respect to the gods and spirits. Any serious breach of adat threatens this relationship and is dealt with accordingly, not only by secular means, but, as we shall see presently, often by supernatural sanctions or forms of ritual propitiation as well. Thus the correctness of adat, when properly adhered to, is demonstrated by a continuing state of spiritual well-being expressed outwardly in terms of health and material prosperity.

Augury, as practiced by the Iban is based on a belief in the interpretation of divine revelation in the behavior of birds, reptiles and animals. Its observance complements the certainties of adat. It provides the individual with a more immediate means of ascertaining spiritual favor or condemnation of particular lines of intended action. Within the normative framework of adat, choices have constantly to be made in which success or failure cannot be entirely foreknown (predetermined). In such circumstances, augury is significant to the Iban as a source of direct guidance through which, it is thought, the gods make known to the individual their personal support or disapproval of his conduct within the permissible perimeters defined by adat.

The Earth – Domain of Humankind, Spirits & Demons


The Iban concept of adat, like cognate notions in other Malayo-Indonesian societies (cf. Hooker 1972, Ter Haar 1948), refers very broadly to rules, canons and sanctions held to be binding by the members of a community. For the Iban, these rules apply to virtually all spheres of human life, social, economic, religious and political.

At the beginning of this study it is important to stress that the author in the following chapters applies the concept of adat broadly, to cover the entire normative framework of traditional Iban life, in accordance with ordinary Iban usage. In contrast to the Malays, the Iban do not distinguish between adat and religious rules and practices; much of Iban adat is believed to be of religious origin or is concerned with ritual observances and other facets of religious life. Also adat for the Iban is not restricted to what is commonly known as “customary law” (Ter Haar 1948: 5). Some elements of Iban adat are enforced by constituted legal means, are sanctioned by fines, for example, imposed by longhouse or regional authorities, or by other accepted forms of redress, but others are not, and both are given equal treatment here. In short, the present study treats the rules of adat that govern various areas of Iban social life, including religion, and is not specifically, or even predominantly, a study of adat law, although attention is given to community sanctions and to the judicial procedures by which adat is, and was traditionally, upheld.

An Iban generally means by adat roughly what an English-speaker means by custom in its broadest sense. Thus adat describes essentially the various things people customarily do and the ways in which they customarily do them. For the Iban virtually every area of human activity has its own particular adat consisting of concrete rules and interdictions. Thus there is marriage adat, adat of mourning, adat concerned with the construction of a new longhouse, farming adat, adat for making sacrifice or propitiating the spirits, and adat for dividing game taken in a communal hunt or fish taken by communal netting. Some account is given here of each of these different bodies of adat. Adat also regulates interpersonal relationships and defines the respective rights and responsibilities of individuals standing in different relationships to one another. It also stipulates the rights persons may enjoy in land and other tangible property and the manner in which these rights may be inherited or otherwise transferred from one person or group to another.

Like the English notion of custom, adat also covers personal habits. In this sense the Iban frequently speak of an individual as having either good or bad adat. To have good adat implies not only that a person’s behavior is in accordance with the specific rules of adat accepted in his community, but also that it exemplifies more abstract ideals, such, for example, as generosity or personal courage. Thus the notion of adat is seen by the Iban as embracing more general values, moral norms and standards. Besides innumerable rules governing social and ritual behaviour, adat in addition, therefore provides an essential measure, or gauge, against which the conduct of individuals can be judged. Although the Iban are relatively homogeneous culturally, there are, nonetheless, notable local differences in adat, and in the case of ritual prohibitions (pemali) variations exist even between families. Most Iban recognize that what is right in one community may be judged differently in another. A basic principle evoked when strangers have dealings with one another is that each party should, as far as possible, respect the adat of another person.

From this it follows that the Iban generally view adat as something rather more binding, and less tangential to the existence of orderly social life, than is generally implied by the English notion of custom. In this sense, the Iban concept differs. Large areas of adat have a strongly normative character. Thus rules of adat tend to stipulate, in a normative sense, what an individual should or should not do in varying circumstances.

Adat defines correct behaviour and is seen as essential to the maintenance of moral order and the continued existence of society itself. A violation of adat is described as penyalah, a “wrongful act”. While specific rules of adat vary, all Iban share basically similar notions of what constitute penyalah. The Iban frequently argue that the fact that a particular rule of conduct is adat is reason in itself why it should be followed. In describing Iban judicial process, Heppell (1957: 303) observes that a statement by a respected elder that a particular rule is adat is sufficient to clarify the provisions of the rule, and when this is done and accepted, there is little necessity to seek precedent to establish its correctness. “The fact that the rule is adat precludes any necessity for further enquiry” (1975: 303).

Wrongful acts contrary to adat evoke disapproval and in many instances are punished. The Iban concept of adat also refers to the ways in which people customarily deal with such acts. When the Iban discuss adat they very often use the term to describe, in any given situation, both the rules of behavior that apply and also the correct punishment to be meted out should these rules be transgressed. The term adat applies to both. For many transgressions, punishment takes the form of fines, or reparations of value. The notion of fines (tunggu) is closely associated with adat and written codifications of adat are characteristically described as tusun tunggu, or “fine lists” (cf. Richards 1963).

Traditionally tunggu is reparation payable to the injured party and mutually agreed to by both disputants. This is distinguished from the more recent ukum, an imposed fine or penalty, retained all or in part by the government or presiding authority. After the arrival of the Brookes in 1841, Iban fines were systematized and assigned monetary equivalents. In the first chapter of this study the author describes the major scale of fines used today by Iban judicial authorities in the Second Division of Sarawak. Later, in listing specific rules of adat, he stipulates in each case the appropriate class of fines levied in the event of its violation. Generally these fines are stated as maxima and may be reduced depending on circumstances.

Many wrongful acts have also spiritual implications (ngasoh samengat siga or Liar Samengat) and so require ritual propitiation. Some are thought to disturb relations with the spiritual world and unless repaired by ritual means are believed to provoke supernatural retaliation. For serious offences, such as incest, supernatural danger may extend to the whole community to which the transgressor belongs. In such cases, ritual redress is aimed at preserving the group’s collective well being.

In addition, violations of adat that cause personal injury, or result in damage or loss of possessions, are perceived by the Iban as an attack upon the victim’s soul, or spiritual personality. Such acts therefore require ritual redress aimed at reviving the victim’s soul, either by itself or in addition to fines. Thus wrongful acts often have spiritual consequences, or are thought to invite supernatural punishment, and these notions further reinforce the moral authority of adat, and the application of fines and more diffuse social sanctions in maintaining compliance.

Ultimately every person is thus the member of an adat community, the continued existence of which is believed to depend upon his behaving in accordance with its accepted norms and sanctions. When a person is the victim of a transgression, he is expected to minta adat, “to ask for adat”, meaning, specifically, that he is expected to insist upon compensation in accordance with the stipulations of adat (cf. Heppell 1975: 318). The responsibility of the longhouse headman and other community elders is to see to it that correct fines and ritual sanctions are applied and every act of redress is looked upon as a triumph of adat that restores the social harmony and spiritual health of the adat community.

Background to the study of adat

Prior to the arrival of the Brookes, the Iban present a picture of an exceedingly energetic people, warring among themselves and with others, and constantly expanding territorially, absorbing and displacing other groups of people in the process. This pattern of aggressive outward expansion continued into the 1850’s and, on a more peaceful basis, even later. Throughout this traditional period, social loyalties centered on major river systems. The watersheds dividing these rivers tended to delimit major regional groups, or “tribes”, and these groups, under the leadership of senior warriors and war leaders, the raja berani, tuai kayau or tuai serang, constituted the maximal units of traditional society organized for aggression and territorial defense. While regional leaders sought to minimize the dangers of fratricidal conflict among their followers, their formal powers were limited almost entirely to the context of warfare. Thus Iban society was traditionally “acephelous” and totally without a centralized, hierarchical political order. Political power was dispersed between basically sovereign local communities, longhouses and kindred. It was in this turbulent setting that traditional Iban adat evolved, as an intricate system of social rules and sanctions, in independent, highly egalitarian communities without centralized authority, which, yet, for reasons of survival, required effective means for resolving contention and preserving internal order.

A basic factor shaping traditional adat was thus the lack of a hierarchical political order and leaders having at their disposal the organized force to impose their decisions on others. Each regional group, or “tribe”, consisted of a set of autonomous longhouses linked to one another by cognatic kinship, as a generally endogamous collection of overlapping kindred. When disputes arose, they could only be settled by longhouse consensus, supported by the judgment of community elders, or through the workings of the kinship system.

When members of different longhouses within a region were in dispute, each side was represented by influential kinsmen, acting as arbiters and go-betweens. Both within and between longhouses the existence of an unwritten, but highly codified body of adat was of utmost importance in this regard, providing an established, locally accepted basis for composing differences. Moreover, the authority of adat was upheld by belief in its moral correctness and, in many instances, by forms of ritual redress and notions that supernatural punishment follows upon disturbance of the adat order. But ultimately settlements had to be accepted, and mutually acceded to. If differences could not be composed, either the parties involved had to accept the situation or one of them might resort to force, physical retaliation (bepalu) or forcible seizure of property (ngerampas). In such situations a grave danger always existed that internecine violence might result. Faced with this danger, longhouse and regional leaders sought to restrain the parties involved and press them to accept negotiation or submit to ritualized conventions such as diving ordeals (kelam ai) or contests with wooden clubs (batempoh). Between different tribes, no such mechanisms existed for settling disputes, and at this level a state of intermittent warfare prevailed.

The establishment of Brooke rule profoundly altered the structure of Iban society. Although the early policy of the Rajahs’ government was to interfere as little as possible with indigenous adat, the creation of a centralized government and the elimination of blood feud and the gradual suppression of intertribal warfare had far reaching effects on Iban political life and internal institutions of social control.

One of the first administrative acts of James Brooke was to accord official recognition to Malay written law, the Undang-Undang, shortly after establishing his government in 1842. For the other indigenous groups, including the Iban, both James Brooke and his successor, Charles Brooke, extended similar recognition to those areas of adat constituting an accepted body of customary law. The policy pursued was basically one of non-interference with adat, except in cases involving physical violence, capital offences, or where traditional punishments were considered to be too harsh. This policy was dictated by practical necessity. But it was also one to which the Rajahs were ideologically committed, as is well expressed by the Second Rajah, writing in the Sarawak Gazette of 1872 (quoted by Chater 1964: 225):

“A Government such as that of Sarawak may start from things as we find them, putting its veto on what is dangerous or unjust and supporting what is fair and equitable in the usages of the natives, and letting system and legislation wait upon occasion. When new wants are felt, it examines and provides for them by measures rather made on the spot than imported from abroad; and to ensure that these shall not be contrary to native customs, the consent of the people is gained for them before they are put in force.”

As Pringle (1970: 173-75) notes the first Rajahs as men of strongly conservative instinct, steadfastly resisted efforts to systematize adat. A comprehensive code of law, based on the Indian Penal Code and Indian Criminal Procedure Code, was instituted in Sarawak only in the time of the Third Rajah, and even then, its provisions were understood to apply only to offences not covered by customary rules of adat (Chater 1964:225).

Despite the cherished belief of the first two Rajahs that their government preserved indigenous adat very largely as they found it, the development of administrative institutions that took place during their rule inevitably brought in its train profound changes. Most importantly, the Brookes introduced courts to the Iban and elevated and ultimately backed the judicial role of indigenous leaders. At the level of the longhouse, the traditional longhouse forum (Baum) was restructed, as a court (bechara), as we shall see presently, and the longhouse headman was formally empowered through its use to settle disputes among his followers according to the principles of adat. In contrast to traditional society, the state, government magistrates and police thus sanctioned his legal authority, and the binding force of adat itself. Judicial decisions were enforceable and non-compliance or resort to force was strictly punishable. Indeed, many instances of such punishment occurred during the early years of Brooke rule. At the regional level, the status of regional leaders was similarly formalized in the creation of salaried Penghulus or native chiefs. These leaders assumed responsibility for their own bechara. Moreover, the Penghulu courts were not only granted special areas of jurisdiction, but were formally instituted as superior courts of appeal vis-Ã -vis the longhouse bechara. The basis on which adat operated as a mechanism of social control was thus profoundly altered.

In addition the Brookes moved gradually to eliminate some elements of adat that they considered bad, or in need of reform, and this process was continued by local officers through the years. Several aspects of Iban custom were ultimately proscribed, including the death penalty for incest; the right of an aggrieved husband to take the lives of an adulterous pair caught inflagrante delicto, rights of forcible seizure of property, and head hunting. In the case of adultery and forcible seizure, their proscription coincided with the efforts of Iban leaders themselves to avert recourse to these measures. Forced appropriation of property, called ngerampas, was an important element of traditional Iban law, and was only gradually suppressed through the substitution of effective means of judicial redress and the enforcement of monetary fines.

Head hunting was even more important and was the focus of a complex religious cult bearing importantly on political leadership. Its suppression was also gradual, and indeed, during the early days of the Raj its practice was sometimes fostered as a punitive measure in extending control over recalcitrant tribal groups (cf. Wagner 1972). Two other institutions, though officially disapproved, were only gradually eliminated: slavery and legal contests. Both are described in some detail later in this study. As Pringle (1970: 176) observes, the first two Rajahs liked to think of themselves as acting always within a traditional framework, even when they introduced changes in the customs of the country. But more than this, they often did, in fact, make use of traditional means in bringing about changes, one of the reasons why innovations made by the Brookes took such deep root in Sarawak. Resistance to the elimination of slavery came not so much from the Iban and other interior communities as from the Malay aristocracy. Although the Iban formerly kept slaves, whose status was theoretically heritable, slaves, in fact, usually enjoyed eventual emancipation. As a consequence, the Iban preserved their basic egalitarianism and there never developed a significant slave class in Iban society. The final elimination of slavery was brought about, as Mr. Sandin indicates here, by means of the traditional Iban procedure of manumission through adoption (batimbang) and the descendants of former slaves were protected from formal disability by Iban rules against personal defamation.

In suppressing slavery, the Brookes thus showed considerable insight, bringing it about largely through the inner workings of indigenous institutions. Similarly legal contests were only gradually eliminated, and not totally disallowed until alternative judicial procedures become generally accepted. Ordeals by fire and boiling water were disliked by the Iban themselves and were allowed to die a natural death. Legal contests involving the use of wooden weapons were seen as a dangerous convention by the Iban themselves and their suppression, again, coincided with the efforts of indigenous leaders to avert their use. For reasons that will become clear presently, diving contests proved to be more resilient and their gradual elimination took many years to achieve.

While the Brooke government and its court system recognized and enforced Iban adat, no attempt was made to embody it in a written code or to reduce, or eliminate, differences that existed from region to region until the reign of the Third Rajah. Partly this was due to a realistic fear that doing either of these things might destroy its flexible character (Pringle 1970: 174; Richards 1963: 5). However, the need for some systematic compilation of primary rules and for guidelines to be used in their application came increasingly to be felt by government magistrates and Iban Penghulu. In 1915 Mr. A.B. Ward, the Resident of the Second Division, compiled a list of Iban offences and fines intended as a guide for court use entitled “Notes on Fines and Customs Recognized in the Court at Simanggang.” This list was later published (Ward 1961). Subsequent government officers amended and annotated this original list and a heavily annotated version appeared in Richards (1963) Dayak Adat Law in the Second Division.

As the first step in arriving at an accepted codification of Iban adat, a major conference of Penghulus from the Third Division, together with the Tuan Muda, Bertram Brooke, was held in Sibu in 1932. A provisional list of offences and fines was compiled, issued the same year in Romanized Iban as the Tusun Tunggu Daya (Iban). A further conference was held in 1936, again at Sibu, and resulted in the first systematic code, Sea Dayak (Iban) Fines, Third Division (Sarawak, 1940). Both Sea Dayak Fines, and the earlier Tusun Tunggu, apply only to what was then the Third Division, which today includes, as well, the newly formed Sixth and Seventh Divisions. The Rejang area covered by these codes is not part of the Iban menoa lama, the original Sarawak heartland of Iban settlement, but was occupied in late historical times by Iban coming from a number of different adat traditions. Because of the differences in adat represented within the region, Sea Dayak Fines aimed at standardizing customary law so as to reduce the difficulties involved in settling disputes between persons adhering to different traditions. Although covering all major offences, it represents by no means a complete codification of Iban customary law (cf. Freeman 1970: 114fn). In 1952 a further conference of Penghulus was held at Sibu, as a result of which this fine list was again revised. More recently yet, a state council, the Majlis Adat Istiadat, has been created, under the direction of a prominent Iban leader, Tan Sri Dato Temenggong Jugah, as an advisory body to the government on matters relating to customary law.

Iban adat for the Second Division was not codified until 1961. In July a conference of Penghulus, bards and others, including the author of this study, was held at Simanggang. The results were published as Dayak Adat Law in the Second Division (Richards 1963). This work, in addition to its practical use as a legal guide, is also valuable for a more general understanding of traditional adat, since, unlike the earlier fine lists, it sought to go beyond providing a basic, abbreviated penal code, to giving a rather more comprehensive account of the various areas covered by adat and an explanation of some of its salient characteristics. It contains a brief, but insightful introductory discussion of the role of adat in traditional Iban society, the main Second Division fine list (tusun tunggu) in both Iban and English translation; a brief discussion of rules of inheritance, divorce and family custom; an annotated version of A.B. Ward’s “Notes on Fines and Customs”, and some discussion of land tenure taken from additional outside sources. Nevertheless, Dayak Adat Law suffers some of the same limitations as the Third Division fine lists. In its actual application, Iban adat represents a highly intricate, detailed body of rules and interdictions, showing considerable local variation, and is applied with due regard to the circumstances of each particular case. Although the participants were well aware of this, the main fine list inadequately reflects the actual intricacies of adat and is far from exhaustive.

Even before these efforts were made at codification, one of the first areas of adat to receive careful scrutiny, for pragmatic administrative reasons, was that concerned with the regulation of land use and tenure. The first Land Order in Sarawak was promulgated in 1863. A revised Land Order superseded it in 1920, and the provisions of this Order and later amendments were subsequently incorporated in the present Land Code enacted in 1958 (cf. Potter 1967, Richards 1961). J.D. Freeman began the first systematic study of Iban social structure in 1949 and part of its purpose was to investigate the traditional system of Iban land holding, particularly in relation to patterns of shifting cultivation and land pioneering.

As a result Freeman’s studies the principles of traditional Iban land tenure are exceptionally well described (cf. Freeman 1970: 130 ff). Formerly each longhouse was independent in matters of land ownership. The local community had ultimate control over rights of access to land within its immediate domain (menoa) as against other longhouses. By felling primary forest (kampong), an individual living in the community secures for his bilek family rights of use to the tract of land felled for as long as the family remained in the longhouse. The act of clearing farm land from forest is called berimba. The claim of the feller to the future use of newly cleared land (rimba) is thus recognized by Iban custom and accrues automatically to the feller’s family. Such claims, however, undergo a temporal development. When rimba reverts to secondary forest it is called temuda. A further stage in the development of tenure rights occurs when this land is reused, and through the subsequent re-farming of temuda, a family’s claims are strengthened and safeguarded. Once acquired and reaffirmed in this way, land becomes the general property of the bilik family and parcenary rights to its use are inherited by successive generations of family members as part of its joint estate. Should an individual give up membership of his bilik, he ordinarily relinquishes any further claim to these rights. In the event of family partition, both sections retain the right to use land acquired prior to their division. Thus, in contrast to a family’s moveable assets, such as jars and brass wares, there is no formal partition of land, although land acquired after partition is separately owned by one family or the other. Rights of use were formerly contingent on continued community membership. Land abandoned by a family moving from the longhouse reverted to the community, and together with unused land within the local domain, was available for re-apportionment among its separate families. The introduction of individual titles and the planting of permanent crops have altered this principle.

Exclusive family rights in land, it should be added, apply only to agricultural use. Families without customary claims based on initial felling are free to gather rattan, collect wild foodstuffs or hunt game on temuda land belonging to other families.

Although it has not been described in previous writings on the Iban, land may also be borrowed from a farming season. The practice of borrowing land is especially frequent in communities, as, for example, those of the Krian and Rimbas rivers, with which I am most familiar, where it is no longer possible for families to open new land for farming by traditional berimba. Here virtually all land has been felled and is subject to family ownership. Those who have insufficient land most borrow from others who have more land than they can immediately use. The farming of borrowed land is called nasih tanah, and is distinguished from the farming of family-owned land (bumai tanah), to emphasize its temporary nature. In ultimate terms, land is said by the Iban to belong to the gods. Therefore, if possible, no man should deny its use to others. Because of this view, and owing also to more immediate social obligations, most Iban are reluctant to refuse a request for the use of family land should a genuine need exist. However, such use requires the owner’s prior consent. When land is borrowed, the borrower is requested to make a payment to the owner in kind, or now possibly in cash, called tasih tanah. This is to compensate the owner of the land for the loss of its future use during subsequent fallowing, secure the user’s claim to the season’s yield, and most importantly acknowledge that such usage is temporary and in no way creates a future claim to the land by the borrower or his descendants.

The agricultural god, Simpulang Gana, is thought in particular to be the final owner of all farm land and ritual tasih tanah, in the form of offerings, is presented to Simpulang Gana at the beginning of every farming year. Occasionally additional offerings are also made to local spirits thought to be dwelling on particular parcels of land. In areas of land scarcity, the practice of nasih is often widespread and is frequently a highly important economic institution, allowing for the sharing out of land within communities where there exist marked inequalities in the distribution and size of holdings. Today, in such areas, land may also be hired out in return for rent (sua), reflecting new and very different economic values.

For the Iban, the most far-reaching effect of government legislation was restriction of the traditional system of acquiring rights to the use of land by jungle clearage. More fundamentally yet, the sovereignty of the local community in land matters, a basic feature of all indigenous tenure systems (Richards 1961: 20-21, 56), was replaced by a system in which land rights are ultimately maintained and administered by the state. Considerable litigation has resulted in adjusting indigenous adat to this principle, particularly where the land use patterns of shifting agriculturalists have not been fully understood. With the introduction of courts, the most frequent single area of litigation concerned land disputes, and at the present time, as well, land rights remain a major source of legal contention. Today Iban patterns of land holding are changing radically, with extensive, but as yet little studied social consequences.

Only one extended study has been made of indigenous Iban institutions of social control. This study, by Michael Heppell (1975), is of special importance because it is the first to give a systematic account of the various mechanisms and conventions by which disputes are resolved and the rules of adat enforced within Iban society itself. While some attention has been given to recording individual facets of adat, very little previous study has been made of the procedural side of Iban customary law. As an analysis of social control, the scope of Heppell’s study only partially coincides with that of adat proper, being both broader and narrower in focus. Social control is seen essentially in terms of primary rules of behaviour and conventions that sanction these rules in a way that tends to contain or minimize contention.

Clearly not all aspects of adat have directly to do with social control. On the other hand, one of the interesting features of Heppell’s study is that he includes, as social control mechanisms, more general patterns of socialization, parent-child relations and elements of child training aimed at developing self-control and personal ability to cope with conflict. However, his study also discusses the role of adat and more especially provides an extended treatment of the specific procedural mechanisms used to resolve contention, illustrated with extensive case material. It also considers the historical development of these mechanisms in terms of both the inner dynamics of Iban society and the influence of external forces. As such, Heppell’s work provides an excellent complement to the present study.

The Role of Adat in Traditional Iban Society

In order to understand the social role of adat it is necessary to describe some of the main features of traditional Iban society that bear on its workings as a body of primary rules, sanctions and judicial principles. The basic jural units of Iban society are the longhouse and the family. Essentially the longhouse consists of a series of family apartments, joined laterally, and connected by a communicating passageway, gallery and open-air verandah. Each apartment, or bilek, together with its section of gallery and verandah, is separately owned and maintained by a single family, much like a row of terraced apartments. Each family, whose members share a bilek, subsists as an independent domestic unit (cf. Freeman 1958). The family possesses its own fields and other lands on which its members cultivate their own rice, grow and collect a large variety of supplemental crops, and in general produce very nearly all of their other necessities. Although it may exchange labor (bedurok) with members of other families, the bilek family is responsible for its own affairs and prospers or fails largely on its own. In addition to its landholdings, fruit trees and standing crops, its bilek apartment and agricultural and domestic tools, every family also owns its own jars, brass wares and other heirloom valuables, possesses charms and other ritual paraphernalia, and is subject to its own ritual prohibitions, or pemali.

In composition, the Iban family is typically a small group, very similar to that of European and American society, except that it is organized as an enduring group. In each generation, one child, either a son or a daughter, real or adopted, remains after marriage in possession of the bilek to continue the family group and take over the temporary management of its economic and ritual estate. The Iban are highly concerned with the perpetuation of the bilek family. This is stressed through the use of important symbols of continuity, such as sacred strains of rice, ritual prohibitions and the inheritance of personal names, and it is the responsibility of each generation of family members to provide, as far as possible, for the future wealth and well-being of subsequent generations.

It can be seen from this that the Iban family is clearly a significant right-bearing unit in a jural sense. In addition to rights in tangible property, the family is also the focus of a complex of social rights and duties traditionally enjoined and upheld by adat. Some elements of family law are discussed here, particularly in connection with marriage, divorce and adoption, but a more detailed description of the jural nature of the family, provisions of membership, inheritance and division of its properties can be found in Freeman (1958, 1970: 1-60). In general terms, the family is a primary unit of jural rights and liabilities. The family head is responsible for defending its interests against encroachment and for representing its members should they be involved in litigation with the members of other families. When a family member is found guilty of a wrongful act, fines are usually paid out of family resources. Also owing to Iban notions that personal character is inherited, a family’s reputation suffers from the misdeeds of its past members.

Although each of its component families is largely autonomous, the longhouse as a whole also functions as an important legal unit. In former times, every longhouse was, as we have noted, a politically sovereign community. Even now, the longhouse headman is looked upon as the chief guardian of community adat. He and other longhouse elders are expected to be well-versed in adat and to make known to their followers what the rules of adat require of them. Through informal meetings and judicial hearings they are also expected to enforce compliance with these rules and, following their stipulations, resolve disputes and redress complaints that arise within the community.

In addition to this the longhouse as a whole is thought to possess a collective ritual status with regard to the spiritual world (Richards 1963: 1-2). Ritual is essential to preserve the spiritual well-being of the whole longhouse, as well as its families separately, and in the middle sections of this study Mr. Sandin outlines the major ritual festivals, or gawai, performed by the longhouse and describes the adat gawai, or rules of ritual procedure, that govern the performance of each of these festivals. More generally yet, observance of adat and ritual well being are closely interrelated, a point I shall return to presently. As the author stresses at the outset of this study, the longhouse is a religious congregation, whose members are bound together by ties of ritual interdependence. For this reason, adat is of special importance to the Iban, for not only does it preserve social harmony among longhouse members, but, in doing so, it makes possible ritual cooperation upon which their collective prosperity and well-being is thought to depend.

Legal Procedures

In the early chapters of Part One, the author describes specific rules of adat, the breach of which is met with by formal legal actions, including ritual expiation, fines or other forms of reparation. Here Mr. Sandin is concerned with adat generally, and in treating legal aspects of adat, his interest is primarily with the substantive side of customary law. However, some account of the legal procedures by which judicial decisions involving adat are made and enforced is useful here, given the social importance of adat in containing conflict and defining and upholding community norms.

Before the establishment of Brooke rule there were a number of offences in Iban society for which an individual might be killed: incest, arson, adultery when discovered in flagrante delicto, and homicide within the community (Heppell 1975: 146). In the latter two cases, Iban leaders traditionally intervened in an effort to forestall bloodshed. Well before the Brookes arrived, a system of blood compensation (pati nyawa) existed as a means of averting retaliation in the case of homicide. This system is described here, and elsewhere Mr. Sandin (1967: 87) has given an historical account of its use. Despite the presence of this convention, revenge killing was always a danger, as Iban leaders formerly lacked the power to compel their followers to make compensation.

In other situations when a person refuses to make reparation for a wrongful act, its victim may take recourse by forcibly seizing property belonging to the transgressor. The property seized is not necessarily kept, but part of it may be later returned after a settlement is negotiated. This institution is called ngerampas. Ordinarily the victim seeks to gain the backing of his kindred before proceeding and must pledge jars to compensate any supporters killed or injured in carrying out the seizure. Those who take part arm themselves and the appropriation is done openly and with force. Ngerampas is not necessarily a final settlement, but was often used in the past as a way of compelling the transgressor and his kindred to submit to negotiations. The procedure is dangerous, for it might meet with resistance, but this was generally discouraged by a convincing display of force and the knowledge that the attacking party is acting upon a legitimate grievance. Heppell (1975: 162-166) gives an excellent account of ngerampas for the Batang Ai region where, despite government suppression, it continued to be practised until recently. In the Saribas it was abandoned much earlier, falling into abeyance by the end of the last century, and instead reparations in value were imposed in face-to-face hearings (baum) backed by longhouse and regional leaders.

Another form of self-help traditionally permitted was resort to the use of wooden weapons in the conventions of batempoh and bepalu. These are described in the first chapter of this study. Heppell (1975: 177-88; 1976) also gives an account of bepalu from the Batang Ai, but there are significant local differences as noted in later textual notes. In Saribas, bepalu formerly occurred only in cases of adultery and was a form of private retaliation in which a cuckolded husband took direct action against an adversary, using a club or with the intent of administering a sound beating.

Again, the dangers of the procedure were recognized, as it occasionally resulted in fatalities or an outbreak of feud, and traditionally leaders sought to compel the parties involved to accept mediation by judicial hearing. In historical times, the practice in Saribas was for the longhouse headman to sacrifice a cockerel the moment a case of adultery was known. This constituted a public announcement that the matter was under judicial review. Once this was done the adversaries were not permitted to confront one another until a hearing was convened, and thus resort to self-help was treated as an affront to the headman’s authority and was fined accordingly. This practice also prevented killings in the event that the couple was found in flagrante delicto.

Batempoh was, in contrast, a public contest. It was resorted to in cases of boundary disputes between neighboring communities, in which neither side would voluntarily agree to withdraw its claim. The matter was settled by a fight in which the two sides were permitted to use only wooden clubs instead of spears and swords. The side that lost the fight was forced to withdraw its claim and the contested land was awarded to the victors. Leaders of the two sides were required, as a precondition, to pledge jars to compensate for deaths or injuries incurred by their followers, and the contest itself had first to be sanctioned, and was under the strict supervision of regional leaders. In the Saribas major leaders sought traditionally to avert batempoh because of the danger that people might be killed and actual fighting break out. The historical data that Mr. Sandin cites here suggests that their efforts were usually successful.

In particularly intractable cases, resort was sometimes made in the past to legal contests or ordeals in which the outcome was believed to be super-naturally determined. These ordeals are also described in the chapter that follows and consisted of diving contests (kelam ai), cockfights (nyelam), and the thrusting of hands into boiling water (bachelok belong) or into a fire (bachelok api). As a general rule, these procedures were used, as tests of innocence or ways of choosing between conflicting claims, particularly those of ownership, in situations where there exists no possible way to arrive at an infallible Human judgment. Like batempoh, ordeals were conducted according to strict rules, were judged by impartial witnesses, and were supervised, and compliance with their outcome upheld, by regional leaders. Ordeals had the advantage of giving a clear-cut verdict which other forms of legal action might not be able to achieve because of a lack of evidence or demonstrable proof. Partly as a result, elimination of ordeals proved difficult, despite government prohibitions at various times, as the author notes here in connection with diving contests.

Traditionally Iban leaders sought to settle disputes, as far as possible, through negotiation and attempted to avert recourse to self-help and other means that might potentially lead to open violence. In this, they were greatly aided by the highly comprehensive nature of traditional adat itself, which, although unwritten gave systematic definition of offences and correct punishments. Also important in this connection was the role formerly played by “go-betweens”. Within a longhouse, respected elders frequently intervened in disputes, restraining the two sides and acting with their consent as negotiating agents. Such intervention was strongly supported by Iban values, particularly by the notion that a breach of adat or unresolved contention posed a collective spiritual danger to the well being of all community members. Public-spirited elders, including the longhouse headman and friends of the disputants, might even agree to make token compensation themselves, called sa-uta iring manok. In doing so, a speedy settlement was often achieved that avoided acrimony and possible loss of face by the principals.

In disputes between the members of different longhouses, the role of the go-between was much more formalized. Ordinarily the go-betweens representing the aggrieved party traveled to the culprit’s longhouse and invited the elders of the settlement to a meeting. In the Saribas these go-betweens were called penunggu. Upon arriving at the culprit’s longhouse, they typically constructed a shelter (langkau penunggu) some distance away made of materials supplied by the culprit’s kinsmen. Here they received unarmed emissaries from the latter’s longhouse, and it was these third parties who negotiated a settlement on behalf of the principals. Except in the remote Ulu Layar, this practice died out in the Saribas in the 1880′s, but Heppell (1975: 221) reports that the use of go-betweens still persists in a modified form in Batang Ai. As a warring people, Iban culture traditionally placed high value on masculine aggressiveness and for this reason the use of go-betweens was traditionally an important judicial convention because it allowed the principals to submit to negotiation without direct confrontation and made it possible to make and accept reparation without suffering loss of face.

Of even greater importance was the face-to-face hearing, the baum or betunga. Heppell (1975: 8-9) sees the present day system of longhouse and Penghulu courts (bechara) as a “hybridization” of the traditional Iban baum and the introduced concept of the court. However, there appears to have been some difference here between major regional groups in the relative importance in the past of the baum as a judicial institution. In the Saribas, local and regional leaders appear to have exercised greater authority than was generally true among the Iban elsewhere. Consequently they seem to have enjoyed greater success in compelling disputants to accept negotiation in face-to-face hearings and the decisions made by the baum appear to have carried greater force traditionally than may have been the case elsewhere. Thus these hearings functioned as a nascent court system well before the arrival of the Brookes. However, Heppell is right when he points out (1975: 227) that their nature was profoundly altered when the formal authority of the state backed decisions. Even so, the present day bechara is thoroughly in-digenized and its workings are closely modeled on those of the traditional baum. More than this, the baum itself remains the chief means by which local conflicts are resolved.

The term baum, or aum, describes any meeting convened by a local leader. These meetings may be held for a number of reasons. In the Saribas, for example, a general distinction is made between baum mit and baum besai, “small baum” and “large baum”. The latter is typically a conference of headman and other leaders from neighboring communities who gather to discuss some matter of general concern. The baum mit, on the other hand, is convened by the longhouse headman, usually for the purpose of resolving a private matter between his followers. The matters dealt with are frequently disputes, or complaints brought by one longhouse member against another. Here the Tuai Rumah acts, not so much as a judge, as an arbiter, attempting sometimes with the help of kin and neighbors, to persuade the two parties to settle their differences amicably. Such baum usually make an informal settlement possible without the need for judgment (di bechara) otherwise, except in the case of serious wrong-doing, they represent the first stage in the process of adjudication and provide the Tuai Rumah with an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the issues involved in the dispute.

Another form of baum is the baum rumah. This is a meeting called by the Tuai Rumah to which representatives of each family are invited to discuss matters of common interest to the whole longhouse. Despite their individualism, the Iban frequently refer important decisions to the whole community, and once a decision is made through community discussion, individual longhouse members are expected to accept and follow the consensus arrived at. Such meetings may be called for a number of special purposes. The baum bumi, for example, is held just before the beginning of a new farming year to discuss farming matters, such as the location of padi fields, or to synchronize the time of clearing. The baum begawai is held to arrange for any kind of gawai festival, to determine the Tuai Gawai – or festival leader, the number of guests to be invited and so on. The baum ngaga jalai is held to discuss the clearing or maintenance of public paths and waterways. If, for example, a fallen tree blocks a river or stream to boat travel within the longhouse domain, such a meeting is called to organize a community work party to remove the obstruction. The baum berumah is held to plan the construction of a new longhouse, to pick a site, decide upon the order of bilik apartments and so on, and the baum rabat, to arrange vigils for the dead. Typically each of these meetings is held on the Tuai Rumah’s gallery in the evening after the main work of the day is done. Unlike the baum mit, they rarely have to do with legal disputes. Nevertheless, questions of adat regularly arise, and in the course of deliberations the responsibilities of each family are often stipulated and fines agreed to in the event that these responsibilities are not fulfilled.

If a complaint is serious or cannot be resolved informally, by a small baum, a public hearing, or bechara, is called by the Tuai Rumah, usually upon the request of one or both of the disputants. Ordinarily this is done in minor cases only after all possible channels of informal settlement have been exhausted. A basic principle of Iban judicial process is utai mit gaga nadai, “make small things nothing”, meaning that, in petty trouble cases, every effort should be made to erase a dispute by mutual conciliation before it reaches the level of formal litigation.

A public hearing is held on the gallery of the Tuai Rumah, and usually on neighboring ones as well, as longhouse bechara is typically well attended. Notice is given some days in advance, and, if necessary, messengers are sent out to call back those staying at their fields. Besides the disputants, witnesses and community elders, representatives from each family in the longhouse are notified and expected to be present. All are free to take part in the deliberations that are open to the whole community. Seated near the Tuai Rumah on the principal gallery are senior family heads and other elders known for their knowledge of adat or otherwise respected in the community for their success in practical affairs. The Tuai Rumah, or the Penghulu in the case of the Penghulu’s bechara, is expected to call for the public counsel of these men before he pronounces a final judgment. Their advice is usually concerned with identifying the appropriate rules of adat and of fitting their provisions to the specific circumstances of the case being heard. In doing so, they often cite precedent from judgments made in past cases of a similar nature. Their counsel is important and in the Saribas is formalized in the case of the Penghulu’s court in the requirement that the Penghulu take the advice of at least two elders before coming to a decision. Their combined knowledge of adat and of past judgments adds to the authoritativeness of the final decision arrived at, and helps to ensure its impartiality and faithfulness to the living tenets of adat thus established through judicial usage.

When everyone has assembled on the galleries, the Tuai Rumah opens the meeting by stating that its purpose is to-settle a dispute and that, while strong emotions may be involved, those taking part must act respectfully so as to restore goodwill between the litigants and their kin. In this manner the Tuai Rumah calls the attention of everyone present to the purpose of the bechara and impresses on them their overriding responsibility to preserve community order. Should the disputants, or their supporters interrupt the proceedings by talking out of turn or behaving abusively, this is dealt with at once, as disrespect toward the Tuai Rumah, and the culprits are fined and must pay up before the proceedings can continue. Such fines are called hukum tuai. Feelings often run high during a bechara, and maintaining respect for the proceedings is crucial to gaining acceptance of the decision finally arrived at.

Consistent with the further judicial ideal of utai basal gaga mit, “make large things small”, the basic purpose of the bechara is not so much punitive action, as conciliation. In handling more serious cases, “large things”, the task of the Tuai Rumah is essentially to find a solution that both parties can accept. Ideally such a solution should restore at least some degree of goodwill.

In order to achieve this it is necessary that the pertinent rules of adat be isolated and clearly stated and that the final judgment be linked to the opinions of the senior counselors and others present and be supported by the weight of former judgments. In the course of the hearing itself, each side is called upon to present its case and the evidence of witnesses is also heard. In this manner, by freely discussing the issues of contention, those who take part in the bechara are able to make an attribution of rights and wrongs, and the Tuai Rumah makes explicit use of the general consensus arrived at in this way in rendering his final judgment. As a result, it is difficult for the adversaries to reject the solution thus handed down by the bechara.

The presence of kinsmen and neighbors is also a strong restraining pressure and recognition of the fact that all must go on living together means that most settlements involve some degree of mutual concession. Also as Mr. Sandin stresses here, the Tuai Rumah and Penghulu take special pains in passing judgment to allow the adversaries, particularly those found at fault, to accept the decision with a minimal sense of personal defeat.

The basic objective of both the baum mit and the bechara is to extinguish a dispute (madam ka laya). As Heppell writes (1975: 299),

“The Iban judicial decision need not result in what a Westerner would regard as a just solution, but it does result in the adversaries openly agreeing to terms which extinguish a dispute and enables a modicum of harmony to be restored to the group.”

Thus a solution is sought to which both parties can accede. This may involve a consideration not only of justice, but of the determination and personal circumstances of those involved. Even so, the rules of adat are always important, and all decisions must be made within their framework. The headman and other elders must take care not to give advice that is contrary to adat, because any decision that they make may be used as precedent for settling similar disputes in the future. In offering counsel they are expected to cite the rules of adat that fit the case and, taking into account intent and possibly other factors bearing on the case, specify the fine or other sanction stipulated by these rules.

A common saying in the Saribas is that, “by using the staff of adat”, the tungkat adat, symbolized by the staff formerly sent out by the Penghulu to summons litigants to his court, “one is able to stay on the main path”, that is, in the path of right conduct. Thus every legal judgment should be faithful to the principles of adat. That these principles continue to work, despite the rapidly changing nature of Iban society, is itself evidence of the continuing respect in which adat is held by the Iban, the comprehensiveness of its principles and the considerable judicial skills possessed by contemporary Iban leaders in applying them to the varying conflicts that arise in everyday life.

Finally in reviewing Iban legal procedures, it must be remembered that these coexist today with a superimposed structure of state and national legal institutions. From the early decades of Brooke rule, the immediate link between the two has been the District Court. Ultimately all decisions made by local bechara may be reviewed by the District Court, while cases outside the jurisdiction of local bechara come directly under its purview. During the Brooke period down-river Iban made frequent use of the District Court, particularly in land disputes, and historically it represents a highly important legal institution to the Iban. An account of the District Court is beyond the scope of this study.

Heppell (1975: 286 and 336) presents a tabulation of cases heard in the Second and Third Division courts at different times between 1860 and 1930, based on court records, which gives a useful picture of the types of cases brought before it. However, the District Court itself is mentioned only in passing, and a systematic study of its impact on traditional mechanisms of social control remains to be made.

In the decades immediately before and after the turn of the century, the Iban came to be known as an extremely litigatious people owing to the frequent use they made of government courts (cf. Pringle 1970: 190-94; Ward 1966: 128-29). It is clear for the Saribas at least that courts were used, among other things, as an arena in which the authority of political rivals was challenged and inter community boundaries were contested in a time of rapid economic change and mounting population pressure. This is very much less true today, and it is interesting to note that the Saribas Iban now resort far less often to government courts than they did formerly. For example, in the Paku area of the Saribas, which has an Iban population of some four thousand persons, court hearings are extremely rare today, and even local bechara are infrequent; to my knowledge less than two dozen formal bechara, including longhouse bechara, have been held in the whole area since the Japanese occupation. This situation reflects, I believe, the continued resilience of adat and continuing effectiveness of the more informal process of longhouse conciliation described here. However, in the absence of a study of the District Court, it remains uncertain how wide spread these changes are among the Iban.

Adat and Ritual

In traditional Iban society ritual and spiritual belief played an important role in upholding adat. Large areas of adat are believed to have been revealed, or conferred upon mankind, by the gods. Thus the repudiation of adat invites divine displeasure and possible retaliation by the gods and spirits. Retaliation might befall the transgressor alone, but very often it threatens the entire community to which he belongs. Thus anyone who refuses to follow adat is thought to bring his community, his longhouse and possibly even the larger river area in which he lives, into spiritual danger, and in former times he might, in extreme cases, have been ostracized as a result, and left at the mercy of strangers.

In addition many of the primary rules of adat are best described as ritual observances (see Richard 1963). These include interdictions, or taboos (penti-pemali). Their infraction requires, in most instances, ritual expiation and the provision by the transgressor of ritual objects for sacrifice and to strengthen the soul or souls of those endangered by his actions. The nature of the objects provided varies with the taboo violated. For minor infractions, an egg might be sufficient, but for more serious cases, chickens or pigs are required for sacrifice and blood lustration. Unless ritual counteraction is taken supernatural punishment is thought to result. For the most serious offences, such as incest or mockery of animals, the result is universal wrath, or kudi, in the form of natural calamities, floods, earthquakes, destruction of crops, epidemics, famines and miraculous petrifaction.

On the other hand, faithful observance of pemali and other ritual injunctions prescribed by adat is thought to ensure spiritual favor and the continuing goodwill of the gods and spirits. Those who adhere to adat are thus rewarded and enjoy protection from spiritual harm. Some wrongful acts are thought to cause those who commit them to become spiritually cursed (busong). The consequences more specifically fall upon the transgressor, or members of his immediate family and those who are cursed are thought to suffer illness, accidents or other misfortunes as a result. An act of theft, for example, causes the thief to suffer misfortune, even if the theft itself goes undetected. In this way the notion of busong reinforces secular fines and moral norms as an important support of the Iban legal system (cf. Heppell 1975: 128-31). This is because many of the acts thought to cause busong are covert, like theft, adultery or other sexual delicts, and so are often undetected, or if suspected, are difficult to prove. Thus even though a wrongful act may remain unpunished, a sense of moral disapproval is reinforced by a belief that the culprit will eventually be visited with misfortune as a consequence of his actions.

The Iban believe that anyone who successfully cheats another, or escapes punishment for his crimes, even though he might appear to profit temporarily, ultimately suffers supernatural retribution (tulah). In addition, a person who refuses to accept a judicial settlement is similarly thought to suffer busong or unlucky. In traditional society the coercive effect of this notion was important because the settlement of disputes depended upon the mutual acceptance of a judicial decision by the contending parties, as there existed no external means of enforcement beyond the diffuse social pressure exerted by community elders, kindred and other longhouse members.

As a rule, busong is the automatic consequence of many kinds of wrongful acts and there is ordinarily no ritual defence against its occurrence. There are also a number of pemali, or taboos, the consequence of whose violation cannot be counteracted by ritual expiation, or by reparation to those who might otherwise suffer as a result. Thus there are a number of relatively minor pemali, for the breach of which there is no fine or prescribed ritual sanction, even though it causes possible spiritual harm to others. For example, in Saribas a person should not drag rattan or other jungle vines (randau) from the river landing to the longhouse, for doing so is believed to invite demonic spirits (antu gerasi) into the house. Similarly a person should not pound bark cloth from the late afternoon until dark for fear of attracting spirits to the settlement. Both these acts are prohibited (pemali), but neither is fineable nor met with by ritual sanctions. However, those who break them endanger themselves and others and are likely to be roundly condemned.

Formerly the Iban, by the use of charms and other supernatural means, protected their padi crops, fruit-trees and other property from theft, as well as from other forms of loss. Should an individual suffer loss from an unknown thief, he might curse the culprit. In other situations, however, the use of curses was strongly disapproved and anyone suffering illness or misfortune as a consequence of having been cursed by another person was entitled by adat to claim damages. In the case of a dispute, should one party curse the other, the former thereby forfeits any claim to reparation in connection with the original transgression.

Anything owned by an individual is thought of by the Iban as an extension of his person. As a result, any loss or damage done to an individual’s property also harms its owner, not in a direct physical sense, but spiritually, by causing injury to the owner’s spiritual personality, or soul (samengat). In the same way, a physical injury, or the loss of social esteem is likewise thought to harm an individual’s soul. Thus any act that causes another person bodily injury, loss of social respect, or does damage to his property is seen by the Iban, not only as a secular grievance, but also as an attack upon the victim’s soul, and in all such instances ritual compensation is required to repair the spiritual injury done, in addition to any secular damages, or indemnities, that might be claimed. The notion of the soul thus has a highly important legal dimension in Iban adat and secular forms of redress are reinforced in cases of personal loss caused by others by ritual reparation.

Injury to the soul is thought to impair its owner’s ability to withstand the attacks of malevolent spirits and other agents of supernatural danger. As a result, the victim is likely to suffer illness and possibly even death. To prevent this, remedial measures must be taken to restore the vitality of his soul. These measures vary with the loss he has suffered and are described later on in this study for different types of personal injury and property damage. However, the general remedy is a ritual strengthening of the soul (kering samengat). The party guilty of causing injury is required to produce the ritual objects needed for this rite, ordinarily a chicken for sacrifice; a metal object, usually a knife or adze blade, used to impart strength to the injured soul, and a small jar for spiritually containing it and so keeping it secure. At times an injurious act may constitute a collective danger to the inhabitants of an entire longhouse.

Heppell (1975: 133-134) gives a useful account of these ritual remedies as a social control mechanism and hypothesizes that the ritual strengthening of the soul was the earliest conventionalized means of making reparation in Iban society. Out of these measures developed later on the practice of making payment of value, in the form of fines and indemnities. Whether this is the case or not, there can be little question as to the importance of these ritual remedies. Until a trouble case is settled, and the possible injury done to the soul of the aggrieved party is mended, the victim is thought to live in spiritual danger.

Consequently strong disapproval is likely to be expressed towards a transgressor who refuses to make reparation, or is slow in doing so. Illness tends to be seen as the physical manifestation of an ailing soul. Thus if the injured party should subsequently fall ill or die, this is likely to be attributed to the fact that reparation was never made, and the original culprit may be held responsible and can expect to face additional damage claims, backed up in the past by possible threats or retaliation by the victim’s supporters.

The spiritual danger of unresolved contention may effect not only an individual through harm done to his soul, but may collectively endanger the whole longhouse to which he belongs. Dissension within a longhouse and failure to abide by the adat rumah, the “longhouse rules”, are believed to cause a state of angat, or spiritual “heat”. The community is described as “hot”, in a spiritual sense, and as a result its members are likely to suffer chronic illness, crop failures, famine and other misfortunes. In addition, the effectiveness of major rituals performed by the longhouse is thought to be lessened when a community is divided by internal quarrels.

Thus traditionally, for example, before the major farming rites that precede the initial clearing (manggol) of farms can be held, it is necessary first to clear away all outstanding litigation, particularly boundary disputes, so as to restore social cohesion within the community performing the rites, as a necessary pre-condition to their success. Thus longhouse members are compelled to settle their differences. In the case of major ritual festivals as well, all are opened by admonitions delivered by the community leaders present to all of those who have gathered enjoining them to put aside their past grievances, avoid quarrelling and breach of adat, for the success of the rituals they perform depend upon their preserving social harmony among themselves.

Finally large areas of adat are concerned directly with relations between mankind and the spiritual world and stipulate the correct form of ritual activity, the order and content of prayers and invocations and the nature of offerings to be made on different occasions. More generally yet, it is believed that the gods and spirits are themselves subject to adat. In this connection, Jensen (1974: 112) has argued that for the Iban, adat comprises a “divine cosmic order and harmony … designed to ensure a mutually satisfactory relation between men and other inhabitants of the universe”. Thus, man, to the Iban, he argues (1974:112),

“is part of a whole which encompasses other people and other levels of existence. He believes the universe to be inhabited by various groups, human, spirit, animal and vegetable, which have some interests in common but also some diverging and conflicting interests. Adat exists to ensure harmony in this universe and to promote the well-being of all its inhabitants, among them the Iban”.

Any offence against adat disturbs this universal order (1974:113). Thus a state of harmony or equilibrium is said to exist between mankind, nature and the spiritual world. Any infraction of adat disturbs this harmony and creates a state of disequilibrium in man’s relationships with the gods and spirits. Heppell (1975: 277) quite rightly disputes this view. The Iban tend to view these relationships in more highly personalized terms. While actions contrary to adat are thought likely, in many instances, to provoke the displeasure of the gods and spirits, or to lay individuals or whole communities open to spiritual attack, in virtually all cases it is particularly individuals and communities and specific gods and spirits that are involved, not abstract, notions of universal harmony. Moreover, it is specific instances of wrong doing that must be identified and corrected in order to preserve those affected from spiritual harm. On the other hand, it is felt that health and security depend upon the faithful observance of adat. Only by acting in accordance with its provisions are the members of a community able to live at peace with one another and in a state of ritual well-being with respect to the spiritual world.

“Each Iban,” as Heppell (1975: 303-304) observes, “belongs to an adat community, the harmony and continued existence of which is dependent on its members behaving as the adat requires.” Unresolved contention divides this community, and so is thought to jeopardize its spiritual and material well-being, while the resolution of contention and redress of breaches of adat represent a triumph of adat that restores the adat community. The health and prosperity of a community, as an expression of divine favor, is ultimately seen by the Iban as a continuing proof of the correctness of adat and a demonstration of its indispensable social and spiritual worth.


At the beginning of this introduction, I stressed the connection between adat and augury, a point I shall return to presently. Basically augury is a form of divination. In traditional society it was regarded as a channel of divine communication through which the will of the gods is made known to mankind by indications revealed in the natural world. Adat upheld a belief in the divine source of augury and enjoined upon every individual its careful observance. In the past, observances connected with augury permeated virtually every facet of Iban life.

As traditionally practiced by the Iban, augury is based on a belief that the gods reveal their favor, or issue warnings to mankind through the behavior of a class of augural birds, seven in number, that act as message-bearers on their behalf. Augury is the most important of several forms of divination practiced by the Iban, including also dream interpretation and hepatoscopy. In addition to the seven principal augural birds, auguries may also be taken, under special circumstances, from the behavior of other birds, reptiles, animals and insects, or from natural occurrences.

The term burong, which has the primary meaning of bird, is applied more abstractly to auguries generally, either bird auguries or, by extension, those conveyed by any of these other natural agencies. By far the greatest cultural significance attaches to bird omens however. The seven augural birds are thought to be the earthly manifestations of gods and they alone are made use of in taking deliberate, formal auguries (beburong) whenever divine sanction is sought in support of an important human undertaking.

Bird augury is most directly associated with Sengalang Burong, or Aki Lang Menaul Nyakai, the most puissant of all Iban deities. Sengalang Burong is the principal guardian of the Iban people, the god of war and a major source of Iban adat. He is also the god who dispatches the augural birds to the human world. While other deities may indicate their favor or intercede in human affairs, it is Sengalang Burong who, above all others, has primary responsibility for making known the will of the gods to the Iban through his augural messengers.

Sengalang Burong is believed to be the head of a longhouse in the sky. Here he lives with his wife, six daughters, their husbands and other followers (Sandin 1977: 2-4, 185). Living in this celestial longhouse are the seven augural birds. In this divine world the latter have the form of Sengalang Burong’s six sons-in-law, Ketupong, Bejampong, Beragai, Embuas, Pangkas and Papau or Kelabu, and a poor client, Nendak, who lives in a room without a gallery attached to Kelabu’s apartment at one end of Sengalang Burong’s longhouse (Sandin 1977:2-3; see also Freeman 1960:72fn for a somewhat different version).

Sengalang Burong has also a seventh son-in-law, Kunding “Burong Malam”, who is married to his youngest daughter, Endu Dara Chempaka Tempurong Alang. Despite his praise-name “Burong Malam” literally means “Night Bird” – (and actually means “night omen”) Kunding is represented in the earthly world, not by a bird, but by the burong malam cricket. Unlike the other augural birds, which are strictly day-light animals, the burong malam cricket is active at night. Among the Saribas Iban, immediately following the death of the head of a family, the burong malam cricket may be used in place of the augural birds in taking deliberate auguries. This is consistent with the symbolic association of death in Iban culture with a reversal of night and day. Otherwise, however, although an augural species, the cricket is treated separately from the major system of auguries associated with the principal augural birds. This is reflected spiritually in the belief that Kunding and his wife live separately from Sengalang Burong and the others in the divine longhouse of Kunding’s father, Bujang Sakunding Mupong.

In the celestial world, Sengalang Burong and the augural birds are conceived of as gods. Each has a separate ancestry and connections with other gods and spiritual beings (cf. Richards 1972: 61-69). Both Sengalang Burong and the other augural gods play an important part in Iban religious life not limited to divination alone. Their most important connection is with the great Gawai Burong, in the past the culminating ritual festival associated with the former Iban cult of head-hunting, which is described in an earlier monograph in this series (Sandin 1977). During the celebration of the Gawai Burong, Sengalang Burong and his followers are invoked by the bards and are believed to descend unseen from their home in the sky to the earthly longhouse of the festival sponsors. Here, through their spiritual attendance and symbolic identification with the principal celebrants, war honors and male leadership status are validated and by the blessings they are thought to bestow, the fighting strength of the sponsoring community is spiritually enhanced (Sandin 1977: 2-6; Sather 1977a: vii-viii). Sengalang Burong and his followers are also invoked and their spiritual assistance sought during rites of healing, such as Sandau Hari, and on other ritual occasions.

These gods are also central figures in Iban sacred traditions, particularly those concerned with augury. Chapter Seven of the second part of this study contains a major version of the principal myth relating to the origin of augury and its transmission to mankind through the Iban cultural hero, Sera Gunting. Other versions of this myth have been recorded (Freeman 1960: 76-78; Gomes 1904; Jensen 1974: 83-91; Perham 1978; Richards 1972: 66-67; and Sandin 1962: 27-65), but the present account, in its explicit connection with augury, is the most detailed of these. The gods, too, are thought to practice augury, and the mythic traditions that surround it attest to its divine origins. By connecting augury with Sera Gunting, an important ancestral figure in Iban genealogical lore, these traditions also serve to identify its practice with the separate ancestry of the Iban people themselves. Thus the system of augury followed today is considered by traditional Iban to be something divinely sanctioned and distinctively Iban, having been received from God Sengalang Burong himself and handed down to the present generation by their forefathers from the days of Sera Gunting, the early ancestors of the Iban people.

Sengalang Burong and the augural gods behave like men in their celestial home and are believed to live in a society very similar to that of the Iban themselves. But when they venture to the earthly world, each takes on the form of a particular bird. Thus Sengalang Burong always appears as the Brahminy kite, or Lang (Haliastur Indus intermedius). But being a paramount god, Sengalang Burong seldom presents himself directly to mankind (Sather 1977a: vii); instead, the seven augural gods act as messengers by his command. Each of these gods appears on earth as a bird bearing the same name as the god it represents. These birds are as follows (Freeman 1960: 79; Sandin 1977:3):


Each god always manifests itself as the same bird. Thus Ketupong always appears on earth as the Rufous Piculet and never in any other form, and similarly Embuas and each of the other augural gods appear only as the birds listed above.

The Iban believe that the augural birds never show themselves to mankind without reason. Their appearance and behavior are attributed a symbolic nature, constituting a system of signs in terms of which meaning is read into their calls, flight or other actions, as birds. The responsibility of every individual is to pay careful heed to these signs, correctly interpret their meaning and guide their own actions according to their indications.

Each of the augural gods is credited with a distinctive appearance and personality which are thought, in a general way, to be shared by the bird in whose form it appears. These attributes influence the meaning ascribed to the bird’s behavior.

Omen birds with their English name and their main characteristics:
1) Ketupong (Jaloh, Kikeh) – Rufuos Piculet – chief or first in command, Lazy bird, a man of few words, two voices i.e. slow tik, tik, tik or fast shriek as urgent or alarm call.
2) Beregai – Scarlet-rumped trogon – Sematai manang burong, Burong gaga tauka tampak
3) Pangkas (Kutok) – Maroon woodpecker –
4) Bejampong – Crested jay – second in command, swift and agile, crackling sound of fire
5) Embuas – Banded kingfisher – burong sinu
6) Kelabu papau (Nyenabong) – Diad’s trogon – burong rabun/buta
7) Nendak – White-rumped shama – burong celap
8) Kunding (Burong malam) – Cricket

Ketupong, for example, is Sengalang Burong’s senior son-in-law. He is a natural leader, a decisive man of few words whose voice must be heeded whenever it is heard on earth as the call of the Rufous Piculet (Sandin 1977; 3).

Bejampong is second in command and is known for his swiftness and agility, as is the bird in whose shape he appears. His voice is rapid and repetitive. It is often likened to that of a man speaking swiftly or to the crackling of a fire, hence, in the latter case, the favorable association of Bejampong with the burning stage of farming.

Beragai is known as Burong Gaga, the Happy Bird, because of the laughing quality of his call. As a bird, Beragai is brilliantly coloured. He is also known as Burong Tampak, the “Brilliant Bird”, and on this basis is commonly associated with fame and worldly success.

Kelabu is believed to possess a store of blinding charms. He is thus a bird of deception and his appearance is particularly welcomed when the observer wishes to make himself or his property invisible to malevolent spirits, wild animals or human enemies.

Consistent with his lowly status, Nendak is thought to be entrusted with messages of generally lesser significance than those of the other birds. He appears more frequently than the others and nearly always with messages of a benign nature, particularly in connection with farming and domestic affairs. He is known as Burong Chelap, the Cool Bird, and his call is likened to a comforting voice.

In Chapter Eight the author describes specific omens conveyed by each of these birds and discusses aspects of their flight, calls and other features of behavior which have significance to their interpretation as omens. In Chapter Nine he describes auguries associated with other natural species; the most important of these are animals identified with Sengalang Burong’s brother, the agricultural god Simpulang Gana.

Augury in Iban culture

For the Iban, their principal augural birds are thus gods and the observance of augury is divinely sanctioned by mythological traditions. More than this, augury is seen by its nature as fundamentally a source of positive, beneficent guidance. Thus for the Iban,

The augural birds … are benign creatures, favorably disposed towards men: their raison d’etre is to help and not hinder; to confirm men in enterprises that are likely to succeed, to forewarn them of actions and intentions likely to end hurtfully in failure or disaster. Iban augury is thus, in essence, a beneficent and beneficial commentary on human purposes, a system of divine guidance for the well-being of men (Freeman 1960:80).

Although the Iban sometimes speak of omens, in a short-hand way, as if they bring about the effects that they foretell, this is simply a metaphorical mode of expression. Omens are conceived of as a form of divine communication, and whether those who receive them suffer or prosper depends on their own personal conduct, whether they heed their guidance and are able to read their meaning correctly.

“If men fail to take heed of an augury, or, in their ignorance, misread its significance, it is then that undesirable results accrue…. In other words, it is not an augury by itself which produces results, either good or bad, but rather the behavior of men in respect of it” (Freeman 1960: 80-81).

This latter point is of utmost importance in understanding the nature of Iban augury. Auguries simply indicate that is condoned or condemned; they do not themselves bring about good or ill consequences. If a man suffers misfortune after encountering an inauspicious omen, blame is not with the augural gods, but with the man himself for not paying sufficient regard to its warning. From this follows the injunction that omens must never be ignored. The same is true also of favorable omens. The Iban recognize that no man succeeds, as a rice farmer, for example, or in his other undertakings, on the strength of omens alone, without the application of skill and diligent effort. Rather than causing him to relent, favorable omens for the Iban are an inducement to increased effort.

On the other hand, the Iban are aware that diligence alone is not sufficient to guarantee success. As Mr. Sandin stresses later in this study, the Iban believe that a man who receives the special bounty of divine favor can expect prior indication of his future good fortune through omens or in his dreams. Important to add, it is also thought that the gods, in their omniscience, bestow special favors, not indiscriminately, but on those who merit their blessings, who are equipped to receive them and possess the ability and knowledge, by both practical and ritual means, to secure their benefit for themselves and their families. Thus while no man prospers by augury alone, its observance is believed to be a necessary condition for success and avoidance of failure.

A second important point is that auguries, as a commentary on human purpose, take on meaning only in reference to human behavior or intentions. In connection with the interpretation of omens and their application to human affairs, the actual practice of augury thus emerges, despite the clarity of its underlying principles, as a highly variable art of great complexity. The total context in which omens are encountered must be taken into account. Furthermore, the meaning they assume is understood primarily in human terms.

The meaning or purport of particular omens is determined partially by what Freeman, in his classic study of Iban augury (1960: 82), has called “augural signs”, specific aspects of the appearance or behavior of the augural birds that are ascribed, by general agreement, a symbolic meaning. As we have noted, the augural birds are seen as gods (petara). Each is believed to possess a unique spiritual status, appearance and personality and these characteristics are the major source of meaning attributed to each bird’s actions. Thus each of the augural birds is thought to share a similar character, and its behavior is generally interpreted anthropomorphically as consistent with the nature and personality of the god it represents.

In the practice of augury, the most important signs are generally those associated with the calls uttered by the augural birds. These are often likened to human speech, indicative of their symbolic nature, as divine communication. As a general rule, the meaning assigned to a particular call depends not only on the bird that utters it, but also on the context in which it is heard; the direction from which the sound comes, whether from the left, right, front or back of the hearer, and whether it is heard alone or in a sequence, preceded or followed within a short time by the calls of other augural birds.

Three of the augural birds, Ketupong, Pangkas, and Papau Kalabu, have both an ordinary call and an alarm cry. Each carries a different meaning. The alarm cry of Ketupong is called Jaloh (or Kikeh), that of Pangkas is called Kutok, and that of Kalabu, Senabong (cf. Freeman 1960: 83). As a rule, alarm cries are considered to be more powerful than ordinary calls and are frequently associated with danger or a significant change in the personal fortunes of the hearer.

Thus, for example, if an elderly, experienced farmer hears the jaloh cry of Ketupong at the out set of the farming year, it is a calamitous omen that foretells an end of his farming success and indicates that his family will suffer want in the future. On the other hand, if the same omen is heard by a young man just beginning his farming career, it is a superb augury foretelling his likely success in the future as a farmer.

Of nearly equal importance is the movement of the augural birds from the vantage point of the person to whom they appear. The major distinction made is between flight across the observer’s path from left to right (raup) and from right to left (mimping). As a general rule, mimping auguries are more powerful, as part of a general association of right-handedness with strength (kering). In the latter part of Chapter Eight, Mr. Sandin discusses the contrasting omens conveyed by raup and pimping flight. Another important distinction is made between flight in the same direction as the observer is traveling, and in the opposite direction, and between whether the augural bird is seen in front of the observer or approaches him from behind. In the case of the augural animals described in Chapter Nine, their approach from behind is universally an inauspicious omen called nyubok. Other kinds of behavior may also be considered important, particularly if the bird’s action is unusual enough to suggest that it is making a special effort to attract human notice. Such behavior includes perching on the longhouse roof, nesting below the eaves, or flying into the building at a window or doorway.

Some of the augural birds are more frequently met with than others. The white-rumped Shama, or Nendak, for example, is the most common of the augural birds and often comes quite close to the longhouse or approaches fields where people are working. For this reason it is usually the first and is generally the most frequently met with when deliberate auguries are sought. However, the messages conveyed by the white-Rumped Shama are generally thought to be less compelling than those of the other augural birds, consistent with the lowly status of the augural god it represents. Thus Nendak seldom functions as a jeritan, an omen directly associated with an activity immediately at hand, and when its call is heard in a sequence with others, its voice only strengthens or diminishes the primary message borne by the calls of the other augural birds. There are important exceptions, however. Some writers (cf. Jensen 1974: 132) have argued that Nendak is far more important than his godly status suggests.

Conflicting views on this point derive, I think, from the fact that the call of Nendak functions somewhat differently than that of the other augural birds, to the extent, in fact, that some Iban augurs actually deny that Nendak is an augural bird at all, at least in the same sense as the others. To the Saribas Iban, the difference is commonly stated in terms of the idea that its voice serves chiefly as a panggal, meaning literally, “a pillow”, “a resting place” or “something placed underneath another”. Basically the voice of Nendak is thought “to cushion” (bepanggal) the voices of the other birds, meaning essentially that it modifies their meaning, generally in a favorable sense, softening inauspicious omens and confirming those that are favorable.

Calls that are heard directly, uncushioned by the voice of Nendak, are said to be sungkal, “harsh” omens. These omens have the strongest effect, particularly in a negative sense, in precluding a particular line of action. In contrast, because of its especially benign nature, and the “cool” or “comforting” virtue of its voice, Nendak holds a special place in Iban augury, different than that of the other augural birds. However, in this, and in other matters of interpretation, as Jensen (1974: 131) rightly stresses, personal differences enter and individuals may interpret similar omens differently in the light of previous experience – the concrete success or failure that has followed upon observation of particular omens in the past.

Much of the complexity involved in the interpretation of omens derives from the fact that auguries are seen as a form of divine revelation through which the gods are thought to give direct guidance in matters of immediate human concern. Thus, as Freeman writes (1960: 86):

“Each revelation has, as its purpose, specific comment on human intentions. In interpreting an augury it becomes important, therefore, to identify these intentions. To achieve this, the whole context in which an augury is encountered has to be taken into account: the time, the place, and the human activity being carried out or about to be initiated.”

While the behavior and calls of the augural birds form a system of augural signs, their interpretation thus depends upon the background of human concerns and involvements in connection with which the birds are seen or their calls are heard and upon the ability of the observer to apply their meaning to his own affairs. In this regard, the total context of such encounters is relevant. More than this, an individual need not passively await a fortuitous omen, but, as we shall see shortly, he may deliberately seek favorable signs in support of an undertaking he has planned, or he may manipulate the auguries he encounters to bring them into closer accord with his immediate purpose.

At times fortuitous omens are encountered when the observer is not immediately engaged in any particular undertaking. For the Iban, such omens are difficult to divine, as their bearing on human affairs is uncertain, and their meaning is often read, retrospectively, in the light of later events (cf. Freeman 1960: 79 fn). As Jensen notes, such experiences often influence personal interpretation of similar omens in the future. In such instances there may be no consensus as to the meaning of the omen even among expert augurs.

But at other times, omens coincide with the outset of a major activity, such, for example, as the clearing of a new farm site or the observer’s departure on a long journey, being encountered either just before the activity is started or during its early stages. Here interpretation is more certain. Such omens are ordinarily called jeritan and are of utmost importance to the Iban because there is generally no mistaking the particular activity to which they refer. Consequently, such omens are highly compelling and exercise probably the greatest influence over human affairs of all omens. Whether auspicious or inauspicious, they are rarely ignored.

For most undertaking there exist bodies of augural lore relating to the interpretation of jeritan omens. In Chapter Eight a large number of such interpretations are described as they relate to activities such as hunting, division of family property, collecting honey, cockfighting, travel and farming. Auspicious omens, as a general rule, confirm the correctness of the particular activity with which they are associated and tend, as I suggest earlier, lending confidence to its execution.

Inauspicious omens, on the other hand, should be respected by postponing the activity for a day, or, in the case of singularly unfavorable auguries, by putting it aside altogether, or recommencing it at another time or place. Inauspicious omens are highly specific, and as Freeman points out (1960: 87fn) they do not prevent persons, while postponing one activity, from taking up another, so that much less time is lost through ill-omens that might be imagined. Also there are means, to be mentioned presently, of avoiding inconvenient or particularly calamitous omens.

In this latter connection, it is important to note that an individual’s response to omens is strongly influenced by the strength of his determination to perform the particular activity to which the omens he encounters are thought to relate. Thus inauspicious omens frequently serve to confirm an individual’s reservations regarding what he may have viewed from the outset as a dubious venture. On the other hand, practical measures may be taken to avoid unfavorable omens in connection with activities that cannot be readily postponed or those in which the implications of ill-omens are particularly disastrous. This can be done, for example, by beating gongs in order to prevent the calls of the augural birds from being heard. This is done, for example, when a newly born infant receives its first ceremonial bath in the river. This is a momentous occasion for the future well-being of the infant and an ill-omen at this time would be a singularly calamitous occurrence. For this reason, gongs are beaten loudly, or possible a shotgun is fired into the air, at the moment the infant is dipped into the water. Another method is to plug the ears with grass or leaves or to commence an activity before the augural birds begin to stir in the early hours of the morning (cf. Sather, 1977b). Both these procedures are frequently resorted to during crucial stages of the farming year, such as planting, when working time is scarce, or after important rituals Which cannot be subsequently undone should ill-omens be encountered later on. What these procedures indicate is not a disregard of augury, but the fact that its practice by the Iban is flexible, reflecting the strength of individual intentions and the practical demands of the situation in which the observer finds himself.

Deliberate Auguries, the Community Augur and the Orang Tau Makai Burong

Adding a final element of complexity to Iban augury is the fact that omens are often deliberately sought and, whether sought or encountered by chance, may be purposefully manipulated and their prognosis reinforced or negated by ritual means. These practices require considerable expert knowledge and are counted by the Iban among the highest attainments of the augural arts.

The practice of seeking deliberate auguries is called beburong. Auguries may be taken before any undertaking is embarked upon, should the individual or group of persons involved wish to do so. The primary purpose in taking deliberate auguries are to determine whether an undertaking is likely to succeed or not. Some major occasions for beburong are just before a new farm is cleared, prior to the construction of a new longhouse, and, in the past, at the departure of a war party for enemy territory. For deliberate auguries the knowledge of an expert augur is usually sought.

If the undertaking involves the efforts of the whole community, as, for example, building new longhouse, responsibility for seeking omens generally falls on the tuai burong, or community augur. The latter is a man generally recognized for his experience and skill as an augur. In practice, beburong ordinarily precedes a great many lesser occasions, aside from the major ones mentioned, and responsibility for taking auguries normally rests with tuai burong or with the person who leads the undertaking. Because of the importance of augury, any man traditionally aspiring to leadership within the community, as a longhouse headman or senior family head, or within the wider region, as a war chief, emigrational leader, or the head of a trading venture, was expected to possess a proficient knowledge of augury. The position of the tuai burong was traditionally one of considerable influence in Iban society and knowledge of practical augury was an important requirement of leadership more generally.

Auguries may be sought by anyone with the necessary experience, ideally the tuai burong, a senior family head, or the leader of the particular activity for which auguries are sought. In taking deliberate omens, the augur ordinarily rises before dawn and retires to a predetermined site to listen for a particular sequence of omens that assures the success of the venture he has planned. The moment he hears a desired augury, the augur cuts a branch or pulls up a sapling nearby. This is taken from the right or left, depending on the direction from which the call is heard. The sapling or branch taken is called an “augural stick”, a tambak or kayu burong. It represents a tangible symbol of the augury and is a major ritual object, carefully kept and used in ritual observances connected with the particular activity to which the augury relates. The procedure is repeated on subsequent mornings until a suitable sequence of auguries is obtained. There is always a danger, in the course of beburong, that an inauspicious omen will be encountered. When this occurs, the augur may have to begin all over again. Because of this, and the uncertainty of encountering desired omens in a suitable sequence, the whole procedure is sometimes lengthy and occasionally requires a week or longer to complete. It should be added that tambak burong may also be taken when particularly auspicious omens are encountered by chance. These are also important ritual objects and are often preserved for many years for further use as charms.

There are considerable individual and regional variations in the practice of beburong and it is here in particular that the complexities of Iban augury are apparent. Freeman (1960: 90-91) has given a brief account of the auguries sought by the Baleh Iban in connection with warfare and jungle expeditions, Richards (1972: 70-74) those sought by Second Division Iban in connection with house-building and farming, and Jensen (1974: 135-38, 160ff) in rather greater detail those sought by the Lemanak Iban in connection with different stages of the agricultural year. From these accounts the complexities and variations in beburong can readily be seen. In taking deliberate auguries, the augur must choose specific permutations of omens that, on the basis of comparable experience in the past, he feels are most likely to ensure the success of the particular activity at hand. The precise nature of these permutations varies from situation to situation and is a matter of absorbing interest and considerable difference of opinion among experienced augurs. As Freeman observes (1960: 90):

“Despite a general acceptance of the meaning of augural signs it is not unusual……for the recommendations of one augur to differ from those of another. This, it may be noted, adds greatly to the fascination of augury for those who practice it.”

Differences arise from a constant testing of interpretations against experience and from the shading of meaning signs acquire when combined and when sought in connection with differing undertakings.

Through beburong, the Iban seek, not to impute meaning to signs which they inadvertently encounter, but to enlist the direct guidance of the augural gods in commencing an important activity and to gain their assurance of its success. Here the augur takes an active hand in establishing communication with the gods. Rather than wait for the augural birds to present themselves, he purposefully seeks them out. But more than this, he ordinarily continues to take auguries until an auspicious sequence is obtained, repeating his observations again and again, if necessary, and so, in this way, makes certain favorable indications and thus by implication the support of the gods.

In other ways, too, an experienced augur may purposefully manipulate omens to increase their potency, render them harmless, or alter their meaning in such a way as to make them better serve sought-after human ends. It is in this area of augury that Mr. Sandin adds importantly to our understanding of its practice. In Chapter Eight and in later sections of this study, he describes a number of specific ritual measures used to strengthen or neutralize omens encountered in different situations. Some auguries are open to opposing interpretation and it is believed that a skilled augur can manipulate them to assure a favorable outcome (cf. Freeman 1960: 89). This is done by making offerings and presenting prayers to the augural gods concerned. In a similar manner, the efficacy of auspicious omens may be enhanced by offerings and by prayers acknowledging gratitude for the blessings prophesized. Some potentially auspicious omens, such as the laba auguries associated with the animal slaves of Simpulang Gana, must be respected with offerings or otherwise, it is believed, the observer will suffer harm. Depending on the occasion, a highly favorable omen may require a mudas feast, a small celebration held in the observer’s farm. After the feast is over a pig or piglet is sacrificed and its liver is generally used for further divination. A mudas feast may also be held to influence the meaning of a dubious omen or, less often, to neutralize an unfavorable augury. In the event that an inauspicious omen is encountered, the observer may, depending on the circumstances, postpone or abandon the undertaking he is engaged in, or else he may consult experienced augurs, including the tuai burong, to determine the appropriate ritual measures he should take to forestall the ill consequences it foretells.

At times, particularly disastrous omens may be counteracted by a rite of neutralization called makai burong, literally, “eating an augury”. In Mr. Sandin’s home area of the Saribas makai burong is performed, not by the tuai burong, but by men known as orang tau makai burong, who are usually either herbalist curers (dukun) or shamans (manang). These men possess special stone charms for neutralizing omens, known as batu penabar burong, as well as necessary spiritual inspiration and knowledge of the ritual procedures that accompany their use. The term penabar derives from the word tabar, meaning “without taste”, and the purpose of these charms is to render an ill omen “tasteless”, that is to say, ineffective. In Chapter Nine Mr. Sandin describes the principal charms used by the orang tau makai burong. When an omen is neutralized, these charms are placed inside a bowl that is filled with water. If the augury relates to the personal health or well being of the person who met with the ill omen, his fingernail pairings or bits of his hair may be added to the water. If, instead, the omen relates to farming, bits of leaves taken from food plants in his farm are often used instead. The orang tau makai burong “eats the augury” by drinking a few drops of liquid from the bowl. In addition he sprinkles a small amount of water over his client and perhaps over other persons potentially affected by the augury. The remainder is taken by the client to use in purifying his family bilik, his farm, or the place at which the omen was encountered. Today there are no curers in the whole of the upper Paku, Saribas, who are able to perform the rite of makai burong, reflecting a general decline in the observance of augury. In the preceding generation the area boasted a number of well-known orang tau makai burong, including Mr. Sandin’s maternal grandfather named Nyanggau ak. Uja of Kerangan Pinggai longhouse. The last of these men, Temenggong Ngelambong died in 1970, and a person who wishes to neutralize a serious ill-omen by the rite of makai burong, must now travel to the Skrang or Rimbas to engage a curer capable of performing the rite.

In addition to the rite of makai burong and other rites of neutralization prescribed by the tuai burong and other experienced augurs, the rituals that accompany many of the most important activities of Iban life incorporate subsidiary rites for the neutralization of dreams and omens. In Chapter Ten Mr. Sandin gives an example of this in the ritual associated with nyumba padi performed before the beginning of the main rice harvest at the end of the farming year. During this ritual the accumulated ill effects of inauspicious omens encountered earlier in the farming cycle are transferred to a small amount of prematurely harvested rice (padi sumba), lifting the burden of potential harm from the main harvest that follows and from the family that performs the ritual (cf. Sather 1977b: 154).

Many other examples could be cited. When a shaman treats a patient, he customarily first calls upon the person he treats, his family and others who have gathered to relate their dreams and omens. These may enter into his diagnosis of the patient’s condition. The ill portents revealed in this way are frequently dealt with after the main curing rite is concluded in a secondary rite of neutralization so as to eliminate possible further hindrance to the patient’s recovery.

Similarly when guests arrive at a longhouse in which a major ritual festival (gawai) is being held, they are customarily met at the foot of the entrance ladder to the longhouse. Here they are asked whether or not they encountered omens on their way and, if any met with an inauspicious omen, it is neutralized on the spot in order to prevent it from undoing the effects of the ritual being performed. Through hundreds of instances of this sort, the significance of augury is recognized and continually Paid heed to in virtually every area of traditional Iban life.

Interpretation of augury

Over the last century an extensive literature has accumulated dealing with Iban augury. Although much of it is purely descriptive in nature, several attempts have been made to place augury in a more general explanatory context. The earliest of these attempts is contained in the chapter on “ animistic beliefs connected with animals and plants” in Hose and McDougall’s classic ethnographic monograph, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo (1912, II: 51ff). In this chapter Hose and McDougall seek, in particular, to answer the question of why it is that the behavior of birds, reptiles and animals should be attributed special significance and associated with the designs of anthropomorphic supernatural. In considering this question, they draw upon the ethnography not only of the Iban, but of other indigenous peoples as well, particularly the Kenyah and Kayan of northern Sarawak.

The answer they offer derives partially from the now unfashionable instinct psychology of Hose’s collaborator, William McDougall. To McDougall instincts were conceived of in terms of adaptive, inherited predispositions to take notice of, and selectively respond to, particular stimuli present in the external environment. So far as the attribution of special significance to the behavior of animals was concerned, McDougall offered for this what he called a “natural explanation”. Essentially, he and Hose argued that, living in a tropical rainforest habitat, the attentions of the indigenous people of Borneo were “naturally” drawn to the birds and animals present in the forest whose behavior they had ample opportunity to observe. Because of the varied, often quite clearly purposeful nature of this behavior, they tended to impute to these creatures human motives and mental processes (Hose and McDougall 1912, II: 100). Thus the tendency to read into the actions of birds and animals the designs of humanly conceived supernatural was “a direct and logical reaction of the mind to the impression made upon it by the behaviour of the(se) animal(s)” (Hose and McDougall 1912, II: 100). Hose and McDougall went on to add that since the most powerful of these supernaturals were thought to dwell in the sky, it was similarly “natural” that the birds, because of their power of flight and connection with the sky, should be conceived of as their principal representatives and messengers (1912, II:

While posing the question of interpretation, these conclusions scarcely do credit to the complexities of augural belief that we have discussed here. Worst still, they obscure the problem by confusing augury with “animism”, the doctrine that natural species are animated by an immaterial spiritual essence. This confusion makes it impossible for the authors to grasp the distinctive nature of Iban concern with bird and animal behavior (cf. Freeman 1960: 74). The problem might better have been seen had they drawn for interpretation, not on the supposed doctrines of “primitive” people, but on the close parallels that exist between Iban augury and divination in the classical Greek and Roman worlds. As later writers have stressed, including the classicist Fowler (Fowler 1920; Freeman 1960:74; Jensen 1974:127; Richards 1959:9), these parallels are especially close and revealing.

It remained for Derek Freeman, in his classic study of Iban augury (1960), to clarify the problem of interpretation by providing a systematic account of the underlying principles and significance of augury in Iban society. As he stresses at the outset of his account, augury is perceived of fundamentally as a system of divination, of divine communication between the gods and mankind in which spiritual guidance is revealed through the actions of specific birds and animals. The crucial point here is that the interest of the Iban is not with the behavior of birds and animals as such, as Hose and Mc-Dcugall supposed, but with human conduct, or, more precisely, with the implications of this behavior to concrete human plans and undertakings. As Freeman succinctly expresses it, Iban augury is essentially a commentary on human purposes (1960: 80), and its complexities, and the flexibility with which it is interpreted, follow from this crucial point.

It is, perhaps, understandable, as Freeman observes (1960: 97), that the Iban paramount god, Sengalang Burong, is associated with the Brahminy kite, as this is a large, spectacular bird. However, it figures hardly at all in practical augury. On the other hand, the situation of the seven principal augural birds is more puzzling and cannot be readily reduced to a “natural” explanation, as none of these birds is particularly conspicuous or impressive. Freeman (1960: 97) suggests that their selection is, in fact, in this regard arbitrary, but that when taken together these seven birds possess a range of characteristics which, when symbolically interpreted, encompass most major facets of human behavior. Their actions are read as a code of augural signs in which meaning derives largely from an analogy with human personality. Although individually inconspicuous, together these birds display varying natures that accord closely with differing human attributes. This is indicated by their descriptive names, e.g. “happy bird” or “cool bird”, and by the distinctive personality with which each bird is associated, e.g. excitable, taciturn, assertive, or comforting (cf. Richards 1972: 66). Consistent with the nature of augury as a commentary on human purposes, the actions of the augural birds are interpreted in human terms, and, more generally, Freeman argues (1960:97), they are treated as an extension of man’s experience with his fellow man, as a member of human society. Thus the Iban read into their actions human motives and character.

More recently, Eric Jensen (1974: 127) has offered an alternative explanation which is particularly relevant here because it attempts to relate augury to notions of Iban adat. As noted earlier, Jensen sees adat as a divine cosmic order and harmony. The normal, expected behavior of every natural creature is thus stipulated by adat and any departure from what is expected is thought to pose a threat to the basic harmony of the entire adat order. Omens, for Jensen, represent just such departures and because of the supposed concern of the Iban with cosmic harmony, such events assume special significance. Thus Jensen writes (1974:127):

“Although almost all occurrences can be considered significant in certain circumstances, generally speaking the meaningful is that which does not conform to a “normal” behavior pattern or lacks an obvious (natural) explanation. Since all aspects of life have their adat or code of normal behavior, special meaning is attributed to departures from adat.”

In this view, omens are essentially violations of an expected natural order encompassed by adat. Anything out of the ordinary is thus likely to be seen as an omen. Unfortunately, this view bears little relation to Iban ideas either of adat or of augury. This is not to say that some omens are not natural anomalies. Thus the appearance of an ant hill on a grave or of fungi on an heirloom jar is unexpected occurrences and is given meaning, as omens. However, these are minor auguries and are highly atypical of Iban omens generally. Most often auguries are taken from fully expected behavior, the normal sounds and movement of birds, animals and other natural species, and deliberate auguries, in particular, are highly predictable and are sought, on the basis of past experience, according to pre-determined interpretations. In short, none of the occurrences most commonly interpreted as omens are in anyway out of the ordinary.

Contrary to Jensen’s view, the Iban, like most people, recognize the unpredictability of nature. For this reason, by deliberate auguries as well as by other means, they seek to influence events by gaining the direct, personal intervention of the supernatural, including the augural gods, on their behalf. This concern with uncertainty can be seen in the mythic account of the origin of augury. After Sengalang Burong explained to Sera Gunting the significance of omens, the latter asks on what occasions he should heed the calls of the augural birds. The god answers that he must do so before beginning any task; “only when you go to the river to draw water may you ignore the birds (burong), for the rivers will never run dry”. Otherwise, by implication, uncertainty is clearly the rule. Augury is essentially concerned with human purposes. It is also upheld and enjoined by adat. It is not so much the unpredictability of natural events that concerns the Iban, as Jensen would seem to believe, as it is the effects of this uncertainty on the outcome of purposeful human undertakings. Adat reduces uncertainty in human affairs, but, as I stressed at the beginning of this introduction, within its normative framework decisions must still be made in which the outcome is never wholly foreseeable. Thus in rice planting, for example adat stipulates the procedures to be followed, and local farming lore indicates in general terms the optimal time and other conditions for their performance. Still the individual farmer must set the precise day to begin work and must decide upon the specific location of the farm he plants. In making personal decisions of this sort, where the bearing of his choice on the ultimate success or failure of the undertaking cannot be fully anticipated, he is likely to pay special heed to the indications revealed in his dreams and by omens, or attempt to assure divine favor through ritual manipulation of auguries. It is thus at the interstices of adat that the Iban most often resort to augury and through augury seek external guidance and a degree of confidence in those areas of life which they recognize to be particularly beset with uncertainties.

Gregory Nyanggau Mawar – Uchu Sengalang Burong

Compiled by: G.N. Mawar
Extracted from articles by Professor Clifford Sather and Benedict Sandin, published on The Sarawak Museum Journal Vol.XLVI No.67, Dec 1994 and Iban Adat and Augury, published in 1980.

Copyright: This is an open-access article which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited as Gregory Nyanggau Mawar, Iban Cultural Heritage website at The author has declared that no competing interests exist.


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