Perham’s Sea Dyak Gods – Part II
In the first paper some account was given of the deities believed in by the
Sea Dyaks of Sarawak ; of Petara innumerable, of Salampandai, Singalang
Burong and Pulang Gana. The two latter occupy, in the Dyak mind, a
distinct personality, possess a certain character, and exercise definite
functions over the Dyak world. Although theoretically inferior to Petara,
they may be regarded as the racial gods of the Sea Dyaks, for an amount of
story and legend, of rite and sacrifice, gathers round them which is not found
in connection with the more colourless PMara, which is yet regarded as the
better being. The word Petara is none other than the Hindoo ** Avatara ” —
the incarnations of Vishnnu — the difference of spelling being accounted for
by the fact that the Dyaks never sound the v, but use p or b instead. Again,
in an invocation to Pulang Gana there occurs the names Ini Inda and Raja
Jewata, which look Hke Indra and Dewata. And the function in which
these terms figure is called ** buja,” Malay **puja,” which is the word, I
believe, commonly used in India for worship in the present day. Now, do
these Indian words indicate an organic connection of religion and race with
those to whom they naturally belong, or have they been adopted by Dyaks
from later external sources ? It is not impossible that such words may have
been obtained through contact with Hindooism during the period of
ascendency of the Majapait kingdom, whose influence, it seems, extended to
Borneo ; but at present I know of no evidence for this theory, beyond the
fact of the appearance of the words in Dyak. The probable explanation is
that these terms have been brought into Dyak use from the Malay. Under
the word Indra, Marsden gives a quotation of Malay which, in form, is not
unlike the passage in the Dyak invocation. It begins, ** Maka sagala raja-
raja dan dewa-dewa dan indra-indra.” ** Jewata’* is evidently ** dewata”
from**dewa;” and ** Indra-indra,” might easily, with those unfamiliar with
the term, have become ” Ini-Inda.” That the terms are an accretion and not
an original possession, I conclude for two reasons. First, the Dyaks seem to
know nothing about them. Pulang Gana, with whom in the invocation they
are associated, is all their own. They have a theory of what he is, and why
invoked ; but of the others they can tell little beyond the fact that their names
have been handed down to them. Sometimes they say they are merely titles
lit i:hon came at night, and
astonished the community by swallowing one of their pigs. This bold attack
was thought to mean that they had been guilty of neglect of duty to his spirit-
ship ; so with all haste an offering was prepared, and laid out on the floor of
the house, the snake, gorged with the pig, being still underneath : some words
of submission and entreaty were said, and lo ! the beast vomited up the pig,
thereby affording indubitable proof that their view of the case was right !
They then managed to secure it in a bambu cage, and left it in honourable
captivity until the morning when I arrived and saw it. A company of them
afterwards took it into the jungle, where they offered it another sacrifice, and
then allowed it to slide out of the cage into the wood. It was believed to be
the tuah, the ** luck-bringer,’* of the head-man of the place, who was also chief
of the district.
In many regions of idolatry, the dread which animals inspired in man,
more or less defenceless against their attacks, may have led to their being
regarded as objects of worship. This has been urged of ophiolatry. ” If the
worship perpetuated itself,” says Mr. B. Gould,’* ‘* long after other forms of
idolatry had disappeared, it was because the serpent was that creature against
which weapons and precautions were of the least avail.” Whether this dread of
the beast be accepted as the true account of the origin of the cultus or not, all
trace of the idea of propitiating an angry deity in the snake worship of the
Dyak has long disappeared. One Dyak with whom I am acquainted keeps a
cobra in his house, and regards it as his tutelary spirit, and everywhere among
them these spirit-possessed reptiles are regarded as friendly visitors sent by
some higher power for good ; and the sacrifice becomes an acknowledgment
of obligation, and a gift to keep them in good humour, according to the
maxim — ** Presents win the gods as well as men.” But ophio-worship needs
« •• Origin and Development of Religious Belief.” (Vol. I., p. 138.)— J. P.
Perham’s Sea Dyak Gods. i8g
to have no special cause assigned for its existence. It is a natural outcome of
that primitive system of thought which has everywhere personified inanimate
nature, and attributed human intelligence to the animal creation, one of the
many fruits which has grown up from the wonder, the awe, and the dependent
feeling with which uncivilised races have looked upon the mysteries of the
great natura naturans ; one more element to complete the circle of nature-
worship which has had charms for many of the world’s primitive races.
To this account of spirit-worship, manifested in many forms, I may add,
that the extreme anxiety to obey the dictates of the spirits, especially when
made known in dreams, led, in one instance, to an act of anthropolatry. A
certain village-house was preparing a grand celebration in honour of Singalang
Burong, when a Dyak — not very respectable in character — gave out that an
antu had informed him in a dream that this house must offer a sacrifice to
himself (the man), or bear the brunt of the antu’s displeasure. This alterna-
tive, of course, could not be borne, and they fetched the man in a basket, put
him in a place of honour, presented to him an offering of food and drink as a
religious act and then carried him back again to his own abode. This fellow
was at the time committing a flagrant breach of social laws, and possibly
invented the message from the spirit, with the object of screening his
reputation by showing himself a favourite of the gods. But this view of the
matter did not present itself to the Dyak mind, which is capable of swallowing
any monstrosity, or absurd falsehood, if it only pretends to be a revelation
from the spirits. Such, too, is the implicit faith they put in dreams.
Something must now be said about the sacrifices which have been so
frequently mentioned. The ordinary offering is made up of rice (generally
cooked in bambus), cakes, eggs, sweet potatoes, plantains, and any fruit that
may be at hand, and a fowl or small chicken. This piring, when offered in
the house, is put upon a tabak, or brass salver : if the occasion of the sacrifice
necessitates its being offered anywhere away from the house, a little platform
is constructed, fastened together with rotan, upon four sticks stuck in the
ground. This is para piring, altar of sacrifice. The offering of course is laid
upon it. But generally this is covered with a rough roof, and thatched with
nipah leaves, looking like a miniature native house ; but it is the most rude
and flimsy thing imaginable and soon tumbles to pieces. This is the langkau
piring, shed of sacrifice. The god or spirit is supposed to come and partake
of the good things spread there, and go away contented. I once remonstrated
with them on the futility of the whole proceedings, on the ground that the
food was clearly not eaten by any invisible being, but by fowls or pigs, or
perhaps by reckless boys full of mischief, who would brave the fear of the
spirits. But their answer was ready. The antu, whatever form it may take
in showing itself to human eyes, is, as a spirit, invisible, a thing of soul, not of
matter : now, they said, the soul spirit comes, and eats the soul (samangai) of
the food : what is left on the altar is only its husk, its accidents, not its true
essence. Now this answer, remarkable as coming from them, contains, as it
igo H. Ling Roth. — Natives of Sarawak and Brit. N, Borneo,
does, something similar to an old philosophic idea, which, in better than Dyak
society, is not altogether obsolete as a disputed matter in the present day.
An important element of many sacrifices is the sprinkling of the blood of
the slain victim, ginselan, or singkelan. The person on whose behalf the
sacrifice is offered, is sprinkled with the blood of the fowl, and not only
persons, but farms of growing paddy : the persons, I imagine, to atone for
some infringement of pemali, the paddy, to make it grow. Sacrificing on
behalf of farms is a vital part of their agricultural system, and no Dyak would
think his paddy could possibly come to maturity without continual application
of the fowl’s blood. The bird is killed and waved about over the farm, but on
some occasions, when the growing is supposed to need only a slight application
of sacrificial virtue, the comb of the fowl is just sHt to allow a little blood to
On most occasions when a victim is slain, it is afterwards eaten, be it pig
or fowl ; but in some cases, it is otherwise disposed of. If it be a sacrifice to
Pulang Gana at the commencement of th^ farming, the pig and other elements
of the offering are conveyed with. great pomp, the beating of gongs and
streamers flying in the breeze, to the land to be prepared for receiving the
seed ; the pig is then killed, its liver and gall examined for divination, and the
whole put into the ground with some tuak (native drink) poured upon it, and
dedicated with a long invocation to the great paddy producer. This is the
function which is called buja. If the sacrifice be for the crime of adultery, the
victims are thrown into the jungle, and on the occasion of a marriage, I
remember the offering was cast into the river. For all ordinary sacrifices, a
fowl suffices ; but a pig, being the largest animal which the Dyak domesticates,
is naturally selected as the highest victim : should pigs, however, not be
procurable at the time, two fowls can be substituted. And why? I asked.
Because the legs of two fowls are equal to those of a pig ! ®
These sacrifices are not bound up with any priestly order ; any one may
offer them ; but old men are generally selected in respect of the honour due to
their age. No priesthood, in the proper sense of the term, seems to exist
among these Sea Dyaks ; for the Manang or medicine man does not fulfil the
necessary conditions. Any man who is chief, or who has been fortunate in
life, or who is well up in ancient lore, and knows the form of address to the
deities, may perform the sacrificial function.
And the worship is purely external matter, unconnected with morality, a
simple opits operatum, a magical action which effects its object irrespective of
the condition of mind, or habits of life of the worshipper. A man of sober
conduct would be preferred to one of notoriously bad character, to offer a
sacrifice ; but I have not perceived that any good moral or spiritual
dispositions are required to secure the object of the function. This indeed
follows from the fact that no improvement of the moral being is sought for,
or even thought of, as the purpose o( sl piring. However good Petara may be
supposed to be, the spirits in general have not made known that they delight
** Among the Dyaks of whom I am spedally writing, I find no memory of human sacrifices :
but the Melanos were once addicted to the practice, and I question if, even yet, they have died out
amongst the Kayans of the interior. (J. P.)
Perham’s Sea Dyak Gods, 191
in virtue; and the Dyak does not offer sacrifices and repeat invocations to
promote personal righteousness and wisdom ; but to get good crops of paddy,
the heads of his enemies, skill* in craft, health and long life. Neither his
prayers nor aspirations reach higher than the realm of the visible and present.
And in cases where we can see that propitation for sin is the esoteric basis of
the institution, as for instance, in the slaying of sacrifice after an act of
adultery, yet the thoughts of the Dyak are not directed to the cleansing of the
offenders, but to the appeasing of the anger of the gods, in order to preserve
their land and their crops from blight and ravage. There is no confession of
sin, nor petition for the pardon of the offenders. It is a witness of a belief
that the offences of man provoke the displeasure of the gods, and that
satisfaction is demanded ; but there is nothing to show that the ultimatte
purity and improvement of the offender is contemplated as the thing desired.
It is compensation for wrong done, and a bargain to secure immunity for their
material interests. I am speaking of the sentiment consciously entertained by
the Dyak himself concerning his own piring ; not of the whole rationale which
we can give of it.
I must now pass on to a further element of Dyak religion, which is yet
only another phase of that nature worship which pervades all their institutions.
The Dyak, like other races, feels his ignorance of, and dependence upon, every
part of the world about him. He feels that nature, which has voices so many
and wondrous, must have something to say to him, something to tell him.
When is its voice to him to be heard ? He feels a need of some guidance from
the powers around and above him in his going out and coming in, in his
precarious farming, in his occupations in the sombre depths of the jungle, in
his boating ever the dangerous rapids, or the treacherous tides of the swift
rivers. He is aware that death and destruction may suddenly confront him in
many a hidden danger ; and he longs for something to hint to him when to
advance and when to recede. He is a ** questioning humanity; ” and he has
devised for himself an ** answering nature.*’
Like the ancient Celts, who adored the voice of birds ^ ; like the Romans
who took auguries from the flight or notes of the raven, the crow, the owl, the
cock, the magpie, the eagle and the vulture, the Dyak has his sacred birds,
whose flight or calls are supposed to bring him direction from the unseen
powers. The law and observance of omens occupy, probably, a greater share
of his thoughts than any other part of his religion or superstition ; and I
cannot imagine that any tribe in any age ever lived in more absolute
subservience to augury than do the Dyaks.
The system, as carried out by them, is most elaborate and complicated,
involving uncertainties innumerable to all who are not fully experienced in the
science, and the younger men have constantly to ask the older ones how to
act in unexpected coincidences of various and apparently contradictory omens.
To give a complete account of this intricate system would exceed my limits,
^ Maclbar’s •• Conversion of the Celts,” pp. 25, 26. (J. P.)
192 H. Ling Roth. — Natives of Sarawak and Brit. N. Borneo.
and severely tax the patience of the reader; but an attempt to give some
definite notion of it is necessary.
The birds thus ” used,” as Dyaks say, are not many. I can only give
their native names : — Katupong, Beragai, Kutok, Mbuas, Nendak, Papan,
Bejampong. Most are, I believe, beautiful in plumage ; all are small, and, like
most tropical birds, have nothing that can be called song ; but their calls are
sometimes shrill and piercing. The reason why these are the birds selected,
and only these, will appear in the end. But in practice, the system goes
beyond birds, and embraces the rusa (deer), pelandok (mouse-deer), the kijang
(gazelle), tenggiling (armadillo), rioh (insect), rejah (insect), burong malam
(insect), tuchok (lizard), sandah (bat), the python and cobra, and sometimes
even the rat : all these may be omens in various ways and circumstances, and
therefore, in this connection, they are designated burong (birds), and to augur
from any of them is beburong. But these other creatures are subordinate to
the birds, which are the foundation upon which the superstructure of good
luck is to be raised ; and from which alone augury is sought at the beginning
of any important undertaking.
The yearly rice-farming is a matter of much ceremony as well as of labour
with the Dyak, and must be inaugurated with proper omens. Some man who
is successful with his paddy will be the augur and undertake to obtain omens
for a certain area of land which others besides himself will farm. Some time
before the Pleiades are sufficiently high above the horizon to warrant the
clearing the grounds of jungle or grass, the man sets about his work. He will
have to hear the nendak on the left, the katupong on the left, the burong malam
and the beragai on the left, and in the order I have written them. As soon as
he has heard the nendak, he will break off a twig of anything growing near, and
take it home and put it in a safe place. But it may happen that some other
omen bird, or creature, is the first to make itself heard or seen; and in that case
the day’s proceeding is vitiated ; he must give the matter up, return and try
his chance another day ; and thus sometimes three or four days are gone before
he has obtained his first omen. When he has heard the nendak, he will then
go to listen for the katupong and the rest, but with the same liability to delays ;
and it may possibly require a month to obtain all those augural predictions
which are to give them confidence in the result of their labours. The augur
has now the same number of twigs or sticks, as birds he has heard, and he
takes these to the land selected for farming, and puts them in the ground,
says a short form of address to the birds and Pulang Gana, cuts a little grass
or jungle with his parang, and returns. The magic virtue of the birds has
been conveyed to the land.
For house-building, the same birds are to be obtained, and in the same
way. But for a war expedition, birds on the right hand are required, except
the nendak, which, if it make a certain peculiar call, can be admitted on the
These birds can be bad omens as well as good. If heard on the wrong
side, if in wrong order, if the note or call be of the wrong kind, the matter in
hand must be postponed, or abandoned altogether; unless a conjunction of
subsequent good omens occur, which, in the judgment of old experts, can
Perham’s Sea Dyak Gods. 193
overbear the preceding bad ones. Hence, in practice this birding becomes a
most involved matter, because the birds will not allow themselves to be heard
in a straightforward orthodox succession. After all it is only a balance of
probabilities ; for it is seldom that Dyak patience is equal to waiting till the
omens occur according to the standard theory ; but this just corresponds to
the general ebb and flow of good things in actual life.
There are certain substitutions for this tedious process, but I believe
they are not much in vogue. Thus for farming, it is said, that a bit of gold
in any shape may be taken and hidden in the ground ; and the result will be
as though the proper birds had been heard. This looks like a case of bribing
the spirits. Or the matter may be compounded for by sacrifice. A fowl may
be killed so that the blood shall drop into a hole in the earth, in which also
the fowl must be buried. Or the augural function may be shortened by using
an egg newly laid, which must be taken and broken on the ground. If it
should turn out to be rotten, it is a bad omen : if quite fresh, it is good. This
is to be recommended, for it would certainly always secure the desired result.
So on the occasion of a war expedition. If an offering be prepared and some
tuak (drink), and the sacrifice be offered with beating of gongs and drums on
starting from the house, no birds need be listened to on the way. But these
ceremonies are supposed to fall short of the real thing and are not much
These are the inaugurating omens sought in order to strike the line of
good luck, to render the commencement of an undertaking auspicious. The
continuance of good fortune must be carried on by omen influence to the
To take farming again, where the practice becomes most extensive and
conspicuous. When any of these omens, either of bird, beast, or insect, are
heard or seen by the Dyak on his way to the paddy lands, he supposes they
foretell either good or ill to himself or to the farm ; and in most cases he will
turn back, and wait for the following day before proceeding again. The
nendak is generally good, so is the katupong on right or left, but the papan is of
evil omen, and the man must beat a retreat. A beragai heard once or twice
matters not ; but if often a day’s rest is necessary. The tnbuas on the right is
wrong, and sometimes it portends so much blight and destruction that the
victim of it must rest five days. The ** shout ** of the kutok is evil, and that of
the katupon so bad that it requires three days* absence from the farm to allow
the evil to pass away ; and even then a beragai must be heard before
commencing work. The beragai is a doctor among birds. If the cry of a
deer, 3ipelandok, or a gazelle be heard, or if a rat crosses the path before you
on your way to the farm, a day’s rest is necessary ; or you will cut yourself,
get ill^ or suffer by failure of the crop. When a good omen is heard, one
which is supposed to foretell a plentiful harvest, you must go on to the farm,
and do some trifling work by way of ** leasing the works of your hands *’ there,
and then return ; in this way you clench the foreshadowed luck, and at the
same time reverence the spirit which promises it. And should deer, pelandok,
or gazelle come out of the jungle and on to the farm when you are working
there, it means that customers will come to buy the corn, and that, therefore,
194 H. Ling Roth. — Natives of Sarawak and Brit, N. Borneo.
there will be corn for them to buy. This is the best omen they can have ;
and they honour it by resting from work for three days.
But the worst of all omens is a dead beast of any kind, especially those
included in the omen list, found an3rwhere on the farm. It infuses a deadly
poison into the whole crop, and will kill some one or other of the owner’s
family within a year. When this terrible thing happens, they test the omen
by killing a pig, and divining from appearances of the liver immediately after
death. If the prediction of the omen be strengthened, all the rice grown on
that ground must be sold ; and, if necessary, other rice bought for their own
consumption. Other people may eat it, for the omen only affects those at
whom it is directly pointed. A swarm of bees lighting on the farm is an
equally dreadful matter.
And there is another way of escaping the effect of omens less vicious
than the foregoing. Some men, by a peculiar magic influence, or by gift of
the bird spirits, are credited with possessing in themselves, in their own
hearts and bodies, some occult power which can overcome bad omens
(penabar burong). These men are able, by eating something, however small,
of the produce of the farm, to turn off the evil prognostication. Anything
grown on it which can be eaten, a bit of Indian corn, a little mustard, or a
few cucumber shoots, is taken to the wise man ; and he quietly eats it raw
for a small consideration and thereby appropriates to himself the evil omen
which in him becomes innocuous and thus delivers the other from the ban of
the pemaliy or tabu.
The burong malam is an insect so called because it is generally heard at
night ; it is especially sought after on the war-path as the guide to safety and
victory. It is altogether a good genius, as the nendak is among the birds.
And in farming it is equally valued. A man heard it on one occasion in a
tree on his farm-land, late in the morning ; and dedicated an offering to it at
the foot of the tree, which was afterwards regarded as sacred, and was not
felled with the rest. And he had his reward in an abundant harvest.
These omen-creatures are the regular attendants of the Dyak, not only
in his farming, but in all his travels and works of every description. If he be
only going to visit a friend a few miles off, a bad bird will send him back.
If he be engaged in carrying timbers from the jungle for his house, and
hear a kutok or a bejampong or a mbuaSy the piece must be thrown down, and
left until a day or two after, or it may have to be abandoned altogether. A
man built a boat, and, when nearly finished, a kutok flew close across the
bows ; it was cast aside and allowed to rot. If at night they hear an owl
make a peculiar noise they call sabut they will hastily clear out the house in
the morning ; and remain away some weeks, it may be, in temporary sheds,
and then only return when they have heard a nendak, and a beragai on the
left. There are many omens which make a place unfit for habitation, and
among them are a beragai flying over a house and an armadillo crawling up
When visiting the sick, birds on the right are desired, as possessing more
power for health. And here I may mention another way of communicating
the virtue of the good omen to the object. When a Dyak hears a good bird
Perham’s Sea Dyak Gods, 195
on his way to see a sick friend, he will sit down, and chew some betel-nut,
sirih leaf, lime, tobacco and gambier for his own refreshment, and then chew
a little more and wrap it in a leaf and take it to his friend, and if the sick
man can only eat, it will materially help the cure ; for does it not contain the
voice of the bird, a mystic elixir of life from the unseen world ?
To kill one of these birds or insects is believed to bring certain disease, if
not death. I was told that a woman was once paddling her canoe along
near the bank of a stream, and saw a little beragai on a bough, and not
recognising it she caught it, and took it home for a child’s plaything. She
was soon made aware of her mistake, and offered the bird a little sacrifice
and let it go. That night she had a dream wherein she was told that, if
she had killed it, or omitted the offering, she would have died. But this idea
of sacredness of life does not apply to the deer, the gazelle, the pelandok, the
armadillo and iguanas which they freely kill for food, and rats as pests.
Physical wants are stronger than religious theory. Another inconsistency
appears when, in setting up the posts and frame-work of a house, they
beat gongs and make a deafening noise to prevent any birds from being
This is only the merest outline of the practice, the full treatment of
which would require a volume ; but it is sufficient to show that there never
was a people in more abject mental bondage to a superstition, than are the
Dyaks of Borneo to the custom of beburong,^^ In a race of considerable
energy of temperament, like the Sea Dyaks, one would have expected that
the tediousness of the system would have produced a remedy. To consult
omens at the commencement of important undertakings is one thing; to be
liable to obstruction and restraint at every step of Hfe, is quite another and
far heavier matter. The substitutions before-mentioned, no doubt, were
invented as a short cut through a troublesome matter, but they have
evidently failed in the object. And then the intricacies of the subject are so
endless. Old men, industrious and sensible in ordinary matters of life, will
sit for hours at a stretch discussing lawful or unlawful, lucky or unlucky,
combinations of these voices of nature, and their effect upon the work and
destiny of men. Only the older men are able to tell what is to be done in all
cases. The deaf who do not hear, and the children who do not understand,
are conveniently supposed to be exempt from obedience. And this involved
system of life is thoroughly believed in as the foundation of all success.
Stories upon stories are recounted of the failures, of the sicknesses and of the
deaths that have resulted from disregard of the omens. You may reason
with them against the system, but in the coincidences which they can
produce they think they have a proof positive of its truth ; and with them an
accidental coincidence is more convincing than the most cogent reasoning.
But it need hardly be said, that the citing of precedents is very one-sided.
All cases in which the event has apparently verified the prediction, are
carefully remembered, whilst those in which the omen has been falsified are
as quickly forgotten.
‘* This remark perhaps hardly applies now to Dyaks of the coast, who, being subject to other
influences, are gradually relinquishing the custom. (J. P.)
196 H. Ling Roth. — Natives of Sarawak and Brit. N. Borneo.
The object of the bird-cultus is like that of all other rites : to secure
good crops, freedom from accidents and falls and diseases, victory in war,
and profit in exchange and trade, skill in discourse, and cleverness in all
native craft. I say bird-CM//tts; for it rises from observance of omens into
invocation and worship of the birds, as the following extract from a ** Sampi
Umai ” will show : —
I call to ye, O Birds !
Which birds do you call, do you beckon ?
The false, the lying birds.
The mocking, the wicked ones.
The evil ones which in sideways,
Those which start in sleep.
Which flutter their wings as a sail : **
These I do not call, I do not beckon.
Which then do you call, do you beckon ?
Those which lay and hatch to perfection,
Which are clean of breast and heart,
Whose discourse compels assent.
Whose fame reaches afar.
Whose praise is heard and repeated,
Which are just and pure and simple.
The palms of whose hands are lucky,
Which sleep and have good dreams.
These I call, these I beckon.
That when they pass through the jungle,
They may keep their hands in order ;
When they pass other men’s things,
They may be on guard against stealing ;
When they talk they may also understand ;
When they quarrel they may rebuke them ;
When men strive they may cool the fiery spirit.
Katupong of the late Menggong.
Papon of the late Dunggan.
Kutoh of the late Manok.
Buntu of the late Puanku,
Pangkas of the late Lunas.
Kunding of the late Sumping.
Burong Malam of the late Awan.
Rich of the late Manoh,
Rejat of the late Lunchat.
Kasui of the late GaliJ^
These I call, these 1 beckon.
That they may never labour in vain nor return empty.
Never be fruitless, never be barren.
Never be disappointed, never be ashamed,
” This probably refers to locusts which eat the young paddy. (J. P.)
” These profess to be the names of ancestors who have been specially favoured by the birds
named : and the variation of the names of the birds is probably to be accounted for by the feet ;
that the same birds are called by different names. (J- ^’)
Perham’s Sea Dyak Gods. 197
Never be false, never tell lies,
These I call these I beckon.
That when I go on the war path.
They may be with me to obtain a head ;
When I farm.
They may be with me to fill the paddy bins ;
When I trade,
They may be with me to get a menaga jar.^
These I call, these I beckon,
These I shout to, these I look to.
These I send for, these I approach,
These I invoke, these I worship.
The birds are here contemplated as in company with the Dyak, ordering
his life, and giving effect to his labour ; and the invocation and offering are
to impetrate their favour. Another function in which the cultus of these
winged creatures comes out distinctly is the festival which is described as
mri burong makai, giving the birds to eat, that is, giving them an offering. It
may be said to be a minor festival in honour of Singalang Burong and his
sons-in-law, the omen spirit-birds. The sacrifice, which follows upon the
usual invocation, is divided into two portions ; one of which is suspended
over the roof-ridge of the house, and the other upon the edge of the tanju, or
drying platform, which fronts every Dyak village-house.
In answer to the question of the origin of this system of **birding,*’
some Dyaks have given the following. In early times the ancestor of the
Malays and the ancestor of the Dyak had, on a certain occasion, to swim
across a river. Both had books. The Malay tied his firmly in his turban,
kept his head well out of water, and reached the opposite bank with his book
intact and dry. The Dyak, less wise, fastened his to the end of his siraty
waist-cloth, and the current washed it away, for in swimming, the sirat was
of course in the water. But the fates intervened to supply the loss, and gave
the Dyak this system of omens as a substitute for the book.
Another story relates the following. Some Dyaks in the Batang Lupar
made a great feast, and invited many guests. When everything was ready
and arrivals expected, a tramp and hum, as of a great company of people,
was heard close to the village. The hosts, thinking it to be the invited
friends, went forth to meet them with meat and drink, but found with some
surprise they were all utter strangers. However, without any questioning,
they received them with due honour, and gave them all the hospitalities of
the occasion. When the time of departing came, they asked the strange
visitors who they were, and from whence, and received something like the
following reply from their chief: ** I am Singalang Burong ^ and these are my
sons-in-law, and other friends. When you hear the voices of the birds
(giving their names), know that you hear us, for they are our deputies in this
lower world.” Thereupon the Dyaks discovered they had been entertaining
^ Dyak property consists in, and is reckoned by, jars of certain recognised patterns. (J. P.)
ig8 H. Ling Roth. — Natives of Sarawak and Brit. N, Borneo.
spirits, and received, as reward of their hospitality, the knowledge of the
But the full Dyak explanation of the subject is contained in the legend of
Stu, which is perhaps worth epitomising. Siu lived in the very early ages of
the world, when men were still but few, and confined to a comparatively
small area, and with only such knowledge as raised them a little above the
brute creation. One day he goes out shooting with his blow-pipe; but loses
his way, wanders about, and at last emerges on the sea coast. Here he sees
a Dyak woman wondrously beautiful, who straightway recognises him, and
offers to marry him. He objects on the score that he has lost his way, and
knows not how to reach his home again ; but she overrules the objection by
informing him that she is well acquainted wdth the way both to his and her
own country, and, if he will only follow her, she will conduct him to his
friends. He consents, and in a short time they reach the village, and find
Siu’s parents wailing him for dead. In the sudden surprise of his arrival, they
hardly recognise his wife, but after the joy is somewhat sobered down, they
bethink themselves of the strange lady, and are lost in admiration of her
beautiful form and features. No questions are asked about her parentage.
In course of time, a child is born, who is named Seragunting, who grows big
in a miraculously short space of time. One day he cries and won’t be
pacified. All caress him but to no purpose. His face is as red as a capsicum
with weeping, and Siu asks his wife to take him again, and she refuses ;
whereupon he reproaches her with slight irritation of temper. She replies
nothing, but quietly packs up her things, marches out of the house, and
departs through the jungle to her unknown home. The boy continues to
cry, and persistently begs his father to take him after his mother. After
some demurring, Siu yields, and father and son depart to go they know not
where. Night comes on, and they rest under the shelter of the forest, and a
strange thing occurs. In a leaf on the ground they find some fresh milk,
which Seragunting drinks. They trudge on for three or four days, resting at
night, when they always find milk in a leaf for Seragunting. At length they
come to the coast, and see in the distance the mother’s hat floating on the
water ; and there is nothing to do, but to camp again for the night. Again
more milk is found in a leaf.
Next morning, a boat, and Seragunting^ who takes the lead of his father
in all things, hails it and asks the paddlers to take him and his father. The
boat veers towards the land, but some in the boat recognize the two
wanderers, and shout out : ** Oh, it is only Siu, and his boy ; let them alone
to die if they must.*’ The boat is shoved off again and disappears. This is
the boat of Katupong, son-in-law of Singalang Burong. Exactly the same
scene enacted six times more on the passing of the boats of Beragai, Kuto,
Mbuas, Nefuiak, Papan and Bejampong. Again the two are left alone on the
shore, and again the milk mysteriously appears on the leaf.
On the following morning, they behold a strange shape rise out of the
sea in the distance, and soon recognize it to be a gigantic spider, which
gradually approaches them and asks what they are doing. They reply that
they want to go across the sea. The spider affirms it can guide them, gives
^ Perham^s Sea Dyak Gods. 199
Seragunting some nee, and bids them follow, not turning to the right nor to
the left. They all walk on the water which becomes as hard as a sand bank
under their feet. After being a long time out of sight of land, they approach
an opposite shore, and finding a landing place with a large number of boats
betokening a place well inhabited. The spider directs them to the house of
the mother ; and they find themselves at last in the house of no less a
personage than Singalang Burong,
And thus it comes to light that this mysterious woman, who so strangely
and suddenly falls across Sius path, is in reality an inhabitant of the spirit-
world, who has condescended to become the wife of a mortal. She is Bunsu
Katupong, the youngest of the Katupong family, niece of Singalang Burong,
and one of that family of spirit-birds of whom he is chief.
But at first no one takes any notice of them, and Singalang Burofig is in
his panggah or seat of state, and the mother does not appear. Seragunting
with his usual precocity calls the sons-in-law of the great spirit his uncles,
but they will not acknowledge him, and threaten to kill him and his father.
They watch to mark whether the boy recognises his mother’s cup and plate,
her sirih box, and mosquito curtains, and behold he makes straight for them
without the slightest hesitation. They are not satisfied, and propose several
ordeals in all which Seragunting is miraculously successful. As a last trial
they all go hunting, Katupong, Beragai, and the rest all take their well-proved
dogs, and leave the boy and his father to get one where they can, yet they are
both to be killed if they are not more successful than the others. Seragunting
calls to him an old dog which is nothing but skin and bones, and can hardly
walk, and gently strikes him, whereupon the dog is in an instant fat, plump
and strong. Katupong and his friends return in the afternoon without
anything, and in the evening, Seragunting and his dog appear chasing up a
huge boar to the foot of the ladder of the house, where the pig makes a stand.
Katupong and his friends fling their spears at him, but they glide off, and they
themselves are within an ace of being caught in the tusks of the beast ; then
Seragunting goes to the room, gets a little knife of his mother’s and gently
throws it at the pig, and it instantly drops down dead.
After these miraculous feats, there is no longer any room for doubt, and
Seragunting is acknowledged and treated by all as a true grandson of Singalang
\ Burong. They now live happily together for some time, until one day when
Singalang Burong goes to bathe ; Seragunting in his absence plays about the
panggah, and turns up his grandfather’s pillow, and sees underneath, as in a
glass, the place of his birth and all his father’s relations, and calls his father
and they both see the mystic vision. From that time the father is sad and
home-sick, and cannot eat food, and soon asks to be allowed to return to his
own place. Singalang Burong discovers that they have looked under his
magic pillow, but is not angry, and gives his consent to their departure.
But before returning to the lower world, Siu and his son have several
things to learn. They are taken on a war-expedition, that they may know
how to fight an enemy with bravery and successful tactics ; they are taught
how to plant paddy, and wait until it is ripe in order to have a practical
knowledge of every stage of rice-growing; they are initiated into different
200 H. Ling Roth. — Natives of Sarawak and Brit. N, Borneo.
ways of catching fish and are shown how to set traps for pig and deer, and,
above all, the observance of all the omens good and bad is carefully explained
to them. ** These birds,’* says Singalang Burong, ” possess my mind and spirit,
and represent me in the lower world. When you hear them, remember it is
we who speak for encouragement or for warning.” Some paddy seed is
then given to them and a variety of other presents and they depart. No
sooner are they out of the house than they are suddenly transported through
the air to their own home.
The legend implies the belief that the primitive Dyak lived in the lowest
state of barbarism, subsisting on the fruits of the jungle, and plantains, and
yams, ignorant of fishing or trapping, and of the great industrj’ of rice-
farming ; that the knowledge of these things with the omen system was
brought from the higher world by Seragunting, the offspring of the spirits
above, and, therefore, able to obtain the knowledge ; and that the working of
all is to be carried out with the continual direction and assistance of the
supernatural author of the whole. The sacredness of the omen birds is thus
explained : they are forms of animal life possessed with the spirit of certain
invisible beings above, and bearing their names ; so that, when a Dyak hears
a Beragai, for instance, it is in reality the voice of Beragai, the son-in-law of
Singalang Burong ; nay, more, the assenting nod or dissenting frown of the
great spirit himself.
We may now conclude with a summary reference to those elements of
worship to which the Dyak clings for the support and satisfaction of the
religious side of his life ; and if we can see with his eyes, we shall probably be
able to understand what shadows of truth it embodies ; and how much or
how little it supplies the place of a better knowledge. If the strength of
worship be in proportion to the number of objects venerated, the Dyak is
most emphatically a ‘* worshipping animal,” but the fact is, that the Dyak
character contains the smallest amount of real veneration. His adoration is
brought down to the mere external work of making a sacrifice and repeating
an invocation, which is done in an off-hand manner, without any posture of
humility or reverence, and without any idea that it involves the offering of a
life in a course of good conduct. But in the number of his deities, such as
they are, he is certainly rich. He has not risen to the idea of an omnipresent
deity, but he imagines the world, especially the heavens, to be everywhere
inhabited by separate Petaras, whose function it is to care for men. Yet in
this manifold personal providence there is room for a spirit of fatalism. He
will cry out to Petara, and talk of the relentless march of fate. To Pulang
Gana he applies for good crops ; and to Singalang Burong for general luck and
success in everything. His idea evidently is that good gifts are from the gods.
But while he has this appreciation of a secret power behind the realm of
the visible, the world of nature is to him a great, wide, terrible and wonderful
combination of phenomena, whose influence he feels as that of a living
presence, which elicits his sense of awe and regard. There is no separate
worship offered to the heavenly bodies ; but in a prayer at farming, the sun is
invoked together with Pulang Gana, Petaras and Birds ; and is addressed as
Datu Patinggi Mata-ari. The idea of its personification is suggested by its
Perham’s Sea Dyak Gods. 201
name, “the eye of the day.” The moon and stars are not invoked, but,
according to him, they have an ‘* invisible belonging,’* a Petara, just as all
parts of the earth have. It is probable that no inanimate objects themselves,
not even the sun, though treated as before mentioned, are supposed to be
divinities ; it is an underlying spirit in them which is adored, a hidden living
influence in them which effects their operations. Thus the sea has its Antu
Ribai ; and the wind is the mysterious effluence of Antu Ribut who resides in
human form in aerial regions ; and when a violent storm sweeps the jungles,
Dyaks will beat a gong for a few minutes to apprise the Wind Spirit of the
locality of the house ; lest he should lay it level with the ground, as he does
sometimes the most majestic of forest trees. Veneration for natural
phenomena then determines the direction of his religious instincts ; and we
find ourselves in a region of belief which reminds one, to some extent, of the
primitive religion of the Vedic age. This nature worship soon runs into
practical polytheism ; for the human spirit ever seeks a personality as the
receiver of its homage, and the repository of its wants. To this, the best
side of Dyak religion, is added a less poetical element, a cultus, which, though
occasional and spasmodic, is yet degrading in character ; one inspired by a
mixture of fear, anxiety and self-interest, and consisting in demonolatry,
zoolatry and aviolatry, in the practice of which there are found the same
religious acts as are offered to other beings — invocation, petition and sacrifice.
The Dyak*s religious belief is thus the offspring of the earthly as well as the
higher side of his nature ; and together forms a compound of law, religion
and superstition in inextricable confusion.
And in the omen system, the Dyak advances still further into the great field
of human religion, and touches other faiths higher than his own. The form
in which he manifests this is sure to be material and crude ; but nevertheless
it may contain the germs of thought more fruitful of results elsewhere. What
is the essential thought or principle which underlies these dreams, omens and
divinations ? A morbid anxiety to foreknow the secrets of the future no
doubt is there ; but surely there is also a hidden conviction, that the supernal
power and wisdom has a way of revealing its will to man, wherein he is told
what to do, and what to refrain from. Looking at the matter from his point
of view, the Dyak has a continual direction from that power, a living guide
book for life’s work and journey. The statement of the legend that bird-
omens were given instead of the book, exactly hits the point. And he
implicitly obeys, though he knows not of the why ; but the gods see further
than he can, and he is content, though the odedience involves a present
To sum up then, the Dyak has gods for worship, spirits for helpers,
omens for guides, sacrifices for propitiation, and the traditions of his
ancestors for authority. And with submission to every stronger power, good
or evil, he lives and works. His look beyond into a future sphere is another
matter, and reserved for separate consideration.
202 H. Ling Roth. — Natives of Sarawak and Brit, N. Borneo.