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Ancestors in Borneo Societies. Death, Transformation and Social Immortality, Pascal Couderc & Kenneth Sillander, ed.

Copenhage: NIAS Press, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, “Studies in Asian Topics n° 50”, 2012, 390 p., index
Antonio Guerreiro
p. 166-170
Référence(s) :

Pascal Couderc & Kenneth Sillander, ed., Ancestors in Borneo Societies. Death, Transformation and Social Immortality, Copenhage: NIAS Press, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, “Studies in Asian Topics n° 50”, 2012, 390 p., index.

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  • 1 It contrast to unilineal descent, which is characteristic of the Chinese, Korean and African ancest (...)

1The volume Ancestors in Borneo Societies, edited by P. Couderc and K. Sillander assembles a series of ethnographically grounded studies. This book, stemming for a panel organized at the 8th Borneo Research Council Biennal Conference in Kuching, Sarawak (July 2006), adresses important questions relating to the ancestor cult and generally the conceptualization of ancestry on the island. As the subtitle to the book indicates (Death, Transformation and Social Immortality), the contributions explore the complex dimensions relating the mortuary rites, especially burial and eschatology, to the social life (status, authority, kinship, adat…) Noting that this important topic has been neglected in Borneo, in contrast to the classic West African and Eastern Asia cases of ancestor worship (China/Taiwan, Japan, Korea1), the editors present a challenging picture of Bornean ancestorship, its pervasive aspects being revealed in the frame of the Dayak societies’ ritual and belief.

  • 2 The Indonesian exemples (Gumai, Toraja and Tobaku of Central Sulawesi) were noticeable for the conf (...)

2Starting from this point, a dense introduction by the editors pinpoints a series of themes connecting the ritual construction of ancestry in Borneo (material objects, social values, beliefs…). It offers a general framework which is consistant with the cases presented. A useful section summarizes the ethnographic literature touching on the subject, such as
Mallinckrodt’s view (1928) linking community, adat authority and ancestor worship, especially in the Lawangan (Luangan) area. While the influence of the Leiden School of Anthropology, before and after WWII, could be felt from Rassers to Hans Schärer’s model of Ngaju religion, i.e. socio-cosmic complementarities and totality in social structure. It was advanced in connection to the Tiwah Feast and the role of hantuen masks and deities (in the shape of hornbills, snakes), relating them to totemic ancestors, and expressing wider cosmological aspects (Rassers 1925). Lately, the abuse of the term “ancestor” in the Dayak’s religious beliefs had led to various interpretations which have been critically assessed (e.g. Avé 1990, Sellato 2002). This timely volume brings stimulating perspectives on the question, and at the same time it provides new data and fresh analyses which are relevant to the topic. While defining the main components of the notion of ancestor in the hereafter and the roles assigned by society to the ancestors, it explains the general idea of transformation from dead to ancestor, and eventually into a deity. The originality of the book lies in the confrontation of the indigenous representations of ancestry with an analytical approach, based on Borneo-wide comparisons within the broader Austronesian horizon in Southeast Asia. It complements the works published in the frame of the Comparative Austronesian Project (e.g. Fox & Sather, ed., 1996; Guerreiro, review in Moussons 1999: 221-125), providing at the same time a paradigm of internal cultural variation in one single area. The broader essays published on the theme of “Founders’ Cults in Southeast Asia” (Kammerer & Tannebaum 2003), adressed parallel issues on Mainland and Insular areas2.

  • 3 See the review’ article of Wilder (2003) by Pascal Couderc in Moussons, 11, 2007, “Les rites de la (...)

3The editors are drawing on the French sociological school concepts (Durkheim, Hertz and Mauss), rather than on a Weberian model in order to define the differenciation of ancestors in categories matching sociological and ritual implications. Along Weberian lines of though, there would be an incompatibility between the notion of charism and the “ordinary dead”. Thus remembered ancestors would have been only charismatic figures, embodied in a sacred dimension, reformulating as well the Durkheimian opposition between the sacred and the profane. According to this worldview, there is no fundamental opposition between this world and the next. Ancestors are then characterized by a charismatic value, expressing their social quality. Generally Weber assumed that the same social and religious values integrated the politics, economics and private life in such small scale societies. The book could be considered as a follow up of the recent collection of essays edited by W. Wilder, focussing on the theme of “Journey of the Soul”.3 However, Ancestors in Borneo Societies offers a much broader picture in terms of the collective representations and the ritual practices tied to the idea of “origins”, in which ancestors do play a leading role. In terms of social integration, Sillander remarks on the Bentian cult groups that they are constituted from ritual activity centered on objects connecting them with origins (Sillander p. 95). The Dayak notions’ relating to origins express Austronesian patterns associated with place and identity, at the longhouse (multiple household building), House or community level. In the course of time ideas of “origin”, known as “source”, “truk”, “stem” and significantly, “ownership” (pu’un, pun, poon, puun…), derived from a plant metaphor, are merging with the community of the dead and ancestors or other spiritual agencies.

4The book is discussing rather Kalimantan Dayak societies (with six contributions), while Sarawak societies are represented by three articles, respectively on Iban and Melanau. On the other hand, Sabah indigenous societies or ethnic Malay populations in Borneo are not included. Perhaps they would have provided complementary perspectives on the topic. Each article takes the form of a short monograph providing the ethnographical background to the beliefs and ritual practices used in tracing the ancestors and ancestor worship. It adresses the traditional and modern developments of the practices defining the status of ancestor and their influences on the living. The eight contributions consider the following peoples: Bentian (Sillander), Benuaq (Payne), Uut Danum of the upper Melawi (Couderc), Iban (Sather, Breguet articles’) Kanayatn (Oesterheld), Gerai (Heliwell) and Melanau (Appelton). The scope of the book covers generally the Barito culture area, “Bidayuhic”/Land Dayak of West Kalimantan at the boundary of Malayic Dayak (Kanayatn and Gerai), besides the neighouring Iban which are spread between Sarawak and Kalbar. The Melanau of Coastal Sarawak being representative of the Central Nord-East culture area. It would be beyond the scope of this review to go into each of the cases because of wealth of ethnographic details and the depth of the issues discussed by the contributors.

5As it is the case with ethnogenesis, Dayak ancestors’ beliefs show a great diversity in content and variability, according the scale of mortuary rites and cosmological ideas. This is reflected in the narratives and myths where ancestors do figure preminently. These sources are quoted and glossed as well in the articles (especially Couderc, Sather, Breguet). Material aspects relating to conceptions of ancestry are mentioned in the introduction (p. 37-43) and developped in each contribution. They comprise wooden effigies of the dead, bone repositories, jars and stones, as well as shrines composed of different elements or only a ritual hearth in the rumah rayo house among the Gerai (Heliwell p. 356ff). They are the focus of invocations according to rites of the life cycle and/or community scale ceremonies. Following iconic and metonymical processes these objects are associated with ancestral spiritual agencies of various status. This is exemplified in the body parts (bones) of which the skulls are the most significant because of their durability. They are invested with a special potency and used in ritual. They can be considered as pusaka along with material objects, at household or community levels (Sillander, p. 81). Bentian kelelungan soul spirits are represented in ritual by ancestral skulls, interestingly these could form also the residence of more potent spirits (naiyu) which have a protective character among the Bentian and Benuaq as well (they are known as nayuq among the latter). Some of these heterogenous spirits are said to be transformed ancestors souls which have attained the status of protectors of longhouses and villages, but the indigenous beliefs reveal divergent interpretations on this point (Sillander, p. 76-81, compare Payne p. 336-339). According to the ritual context, the ancestral skulls’ role differs from that of the trophy skulls, although among the Bentian the latter are as well the abode of naiyu, in order attract the spirits they receive a blood lustration, recalling their bloody procuring. The Kanayatn have other uses of trophy skulls, they constitute tokens to the ancestral spirits connected with war or other activities, especially in front of an ancestral pantak effigy at a padagi shrine (Oesterheld p. 288 ff).

6In the contributions, the mortuary rites and the eschatology provides a starting point for the classification of ancestral spirits and of the distinctions which are ritually elaborated in each society. Generally, as the editors note, ancestral spirits are divided into ancestral spirits of the House, community protective entities and spirits of the wilderness (some of the latter could be also spirits of the dead). They are considered as ambivalent and precautions are taken when travelling in faraway places, deep forests and the mountains. The continuum of ideas relating to ancestral spirits appears widespread in the Barito area, as indicated by the early Dutch sources and the results from contemporary fieldwork (Uut Danum, Ngaju, Ma anyan, Dusun, Luangan, Bentian, Benuaq). Although, ancestral spirits are known to a majority of Bornean societies from a variety of contexts, e.g. they feature in the rituals of the annual cycle of padi cultivation besides mortuary rites. Each contributor develops an analytical model in assessing the ancestral configurations in the beliefs and social practices, along the lines defined in the introduction. It gives the volume a strong coherence from one article to the other.

7The definition of what is an ancestor in the Borneo situation is highligthed by the inspiration of Robert Herzt’s classic study on the secondary burial rites (“double obsequies”, 1907). In fact the mortuary rites could include up to three phases as it is the case among the Uut Danum (Couderc, p. 158). The majority of the societies described in the book do follow this ritual pattern. In the Iban case, it has been argued that the Gawai Antu could have been adapted from it although it does not feature the secondary obsequies involving the treatment of the bones. The elaboration of the Saribas Iban death rites may suggest it (Introduction p. 27-28; Sather p. 124 ff, compare Breguet p. 263-269). Indeed the ideological and symbolic content of the secondary treatment of the bones point to the recomposing of relationships between the dead and the living which are not completly severed by death. The rites are establishing the dead’s and/or ancestors’positions in the next world in several stages. In order to strengthen health, prosperity and then “life” as such, the blessings of the ancestors are needed by their relatives and the whole community. A process which has been been well described in Madagascar and Insular Southeast Asia generally (Introduction p. 26-36; Bloch and Parry 1982; Huntington & Metcalf 1991). According to this scheme, after the bones have been cleaned and reburied in a jar or pole, the pollution resulting from death is expelled, conjointly the componants of the dead person (soul, spirit) are finally separated. The cremation of the corpse and reburial of the ashes form a variation on the theme. The spirits of the dead can also return to the world becoming wild plants of various species or even dissolves themselves in the environment (Couderc p. 176). The question of the loss of genealogical memory is raised by several contributors. On the other hand, the Saribas Iban’s tusut genealogies are exceptional by their depth (Sather p. 134-136). Appelton analyses a Melanau reference kinship vocabulary, and she points the distinctions between ancestors and other categories of spirits. Generally Appleton posits a relational attitude to the ancestors in Melanau social life and ritual. It distinguishes the individual role of genealogical ancestors, and the collective role of ancestors as a source of adet. Rank point also to flexibility in the kinship relationships and especially descent. Some ancient and famous ancestors are known to the Melanau by name, such as Tugau, while others are refered by the generic kinship term tipou (also meaning “grand-parent” of both sexes). The use of the term would point to a continuum between elders and ancestors (Sillander note 33, p. 106). In Melanau stories refering to ancient ancestors, it is rather an “ideal-type” which is signified than an actual personality (Appleton p. 212). It is worth noting that other central Bornean peoples do exhibit the same basic ideas (Kajang, Kenyanic, Kayanic). As the status and rank of the deceased was involved in defining ancestors among the Melanau, it was obviously reflected in the type of burial as Appleton notes (p. 218-220). Thus it is not surprising that the overall Melanau’s representation of ancestry differs from that of West/Southwest Borneo societies.

8In Dayak societies, it seems that authority and legitimacy rests on the support of benevolent and potent ancestors. However, the sanctions for transgression of custom (adat) are not applied by the ancestors themselves, but involve usually a category of guardian spirits of the ancestors or other spiritual agencies which are protecting the adat rules. Only the lack of attention and respect to the ancestors can be punished (Introduction p. 18, 44). It exemplifies the benevolent role of ancestors in Indonesia, protective, assisting and granting prosperity to their descendants. Payne, quoting Chamber Loir and Reid (2002), stresses also the non-moral dimension of this reciprocal relationship (Payne p. 319-320). Sociogically distinctions do appear in connection to the ancestors’ categories: generally recent dead vs. ancestors and/or potent dead vs. remote ancestors. Drawing on his Benuaq data Payne proposes another model (p. 345): Non-ancestor > > First-order ancestor (kelelungan) > Second-order ancestor (nayuq). While Couderc summarizes in a table the two facets of ancestry among the Uut Danum, taking in account the process of transformation: the house ancestors (genealogical forebears) and the the apical/transformed ancestors are ritually distinguished. These categories show as well value reversals, expressed by the relationships of the ancestors to kinship, descent and alliance. In the case of Ahe society, the common ancestors of community and village are distinguished from the individual ancestors of the household, perhaps resulting from a loss of genealogical memory (Oesterheld p. 294). The latter is probably the most stimulating contribution from an ethnographical point of view, rooted in a reflexive approach and integrating various materials from the literature produced by Dayak peoples in West and Central Kalimantan, at the time of the conflicts with the Madurese. It is demonstrated in the case of the famous ancestor Ne’ Rake associated to a category of kamang spirits (and those of the urakng barani, i.e. “brave bachelors”). Among the Ahe it is assumed that an ancestor would give directions to its relatives by way of omen birds or other means. Mythological ancestors are credited of the same role. The idea of spirit assistance, in this particular case involving war and headhunting, is linked to the acquisition of the tariu force, as a means of fostering comradship, between living warriors and potent ancestors (Oesterheld p. 298-302). While Iban beliefs on bird symbolism, omens and ancestry, are considered by Breguet in connection to the petara concept (p. 260-263). Then, as the subtitle of the book suggests, “Social Immortality” would constitute a salient aspect of ancestorship in Borneo, it fits well with the positive, benevolent aspect of ancestors as opposed to the ambivalent nature of spirits or deities. At a higher level of inclusion, founding ancestors would have a double function: on one hand connoting “society”, by integrating families and community in ritual, and on the other hand differenciating individual statuses’ along a genealogical axis. Conversly, an anthropomorphic aspect would be at the core of Dayak ancestors’ representation, encompassing in some cases animality by transformation. According to the Dayak’s eschatology, spirits of the dead can be attracted by animal bodies, plants or inanimate objects reflecting their personal character, status and the conditions of their death (Sillander note 15 p. 101, Couderc p. 170-172, Breguet p. 267 ff).

9The volume published by NIAS Press is nicely designed, with a pleasant lay-out and illustrated by B/W photographs reproduced with a very good quality. A useful thematic index lists vernacular words (rituals, notions, artifacts, personal names, ethnonyms…) and anthropological concepts. Perhaps a glossary of the most important terms recurring in the articles would have been helpful to the non-Borneanist reader. The bibliography follows each contribution, making it easier for cross-checking the references in the main text and footnotes. In short, this intellectually fascinating book will become a landmark in Borneo studies and, more generally a major reference in the anthropology of ritual and religion in Southeast Asia and the Austronesian World.

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Bloch, Maurice & Jonathan Parry, ed., 1982, Death and the Regeneration of Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chambert-Loir, Henri & Anthony Reid, 2002, The Potent Dead: Ancestors, Saints and Heroes in Contemporary Indonesia, Sydney: Allen & Undwin/Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press (ASAA publications).

Fox, James J. & Clifford Sather, ed., 1996, Origins, Ancestry and Alliance. Exploration in Austronesian Ethnography, Canberra: National Australian University, Department of Anthropology of the RSAPS.

Kammerer, C. A. & N. Tannebaum, ed., 2003, Founders’ Cults in Southeast Asia, Yale: Yale University Press.

Metcalf, Peter & Richard Huttington, 1991, Death. The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2nd edition).

Nagashima, Nobuhiro & Hiroyasu Tomoeda, ed., 1984, Regional Differences in Japanese Rural Culture. Results of a Questionnaire, Ôsaka: National Museum of Ethnology, Senri Ethnological Series n°14.

Wilder, William, ed., 2003, The Journey of the Soul: Anthropological Studies of Death, Burial and Reburial in Borneo, Williamsburg VA: Borneo Research Council Monographs series n° 7.

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1 It contrast to unilineal descent, which is characteristic of the Chinese, Korean and African ancestorship, Japanese bilateral kinship encompasses, at the house level, patrilineal descent and ancestor worship in an integrated system (Nagashima & Tomoeda 1984: 18-25; Sillander, note 35, p. 107).

2 The Indonesian exemples (Gumai, Toraja and Tobaku of Central Sulawesi) were noticeable for the conflation of ancestors, polity and identity in line with the Austronesian’s “founder-ideology”. Among the Gumai in Sumatra, after the ancestors have cleared the land, “consequently descent, founding, territory and control of blessing and prosperity are merged” (Introduction, p. 4, and Sakai, p. 163ff). Besides founding ancestors, various guardians deities are associated to forebears and places in the territory. The closing contribution to the volume by R. O’Connor considers region wide issues from the Neolithic to the contemporary period (“Founders’ Cult in Comparative and Historical Perspective”, p. 270 ff.). The book, centered on the the cults praticed by ethnic minorities in relation to the Nation-States’ role in the region, included also two contributions on Lao-Tai and Thai societies.

3 See the review’ article of Wilder (2003) by Pascal Couderc in Moussons, 11, 2007, “Les rites de la mort à Borneo : séparation ou renaissance”: 211-225.

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Antonio Guerreiro, « Ancestors in Borneo Societies. Death, Transformation and Social Immortality, Pascal Couderc & Kenneth Sillander, ed. », Moussons, 21 | 2013, 166-170.

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Antonio Guerreiro, « Ancestors in Borneo Societies. Death, Transformation and Social Immortality, Pascal Couderc & Kenneth Sillander, ed. », Moussons [En ligne], 21 | 2013, mis en ligne le 17 juin 2013, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Antonio Guerreiro

Anthropologist specialist of Borneo.

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