Iban Augury


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.

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.

Taken from: http://www.ikat.us/ikat_borneo.php



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