Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/June 1888/The Island of Nias and its People


By H. SUNDERMANN, Missionary.

THE island of Nias is situated in the first degree of north latitude, and between the ninety-seventh and ninety-eighth degrees of east longitude, and is the largest of the chain of islands that stretch along the west coast of Sumatra. It is about seventy miles from Sumatra, and is about seventy-five miles long and from eighteen to twenty-five wide. It consists almost entirely of hill-land, through which road-making is difficult, and this, with the thick, tall grass rendering the narrow native paths invisible except almost at the traveler's very feet, makes communication difficult. Animal and vegetable life are sparsely represented. There are no dangerous animals except crocodiles and wild swine, which last are very destructive to the cultivated fields. The only domestic animals are swine, hunting-dogs, cats, hens, and a few goats. The timber-trees, in considerable variety, furnish good building-woods; the cocoa and durian are the principal foods. Sago and sugar palms, rice, yams, caladima, pisang, a sort of spinach, and a small bean, are the principal cultivated plants.

The people call themselves "Niha," which signifies "men," and their island "Taño Niha," the land of men. No definite accounts exist of their origin. Some say that their ancestors came down from the sky. Another account traces their descent from the daughter of a Batta chief of Sumatra, who, having been expelled from her home for unchastity, was set adrift in a canoe, landed in Nias, and had children by a son who was born to her there. They themselves believe that they are descended from several ancestors who settled at different places on the island, and originated the various tribes into which the people are divided. They may be supposed to number about three hundred thousand. They are of medium stature, are easily tired out, and are not unlike the Malays in physiognomy. Their costume is primitive, and consists, for the men, of a strip of cloth wound around the loins and between the thighs, and so girt as to leave the ends hanging low down in front; for the women, of a square cloth, ornamented on the lower border, wrapped around the hips so as to constitute a short petticoat open at one side. In addition, the men sometimes wear a kerchief, jacket, and belt of cloth or leather, and, on festive occasions, a sarong thrown over their shoulders. The women, when they would be more fully dressed, wear a jacket and a slendang, or long cloth thrown over the shoulders, and carry a brass-mounted staff with a leaden head; while their hair is done up with brass, silver, or golden pins, and encircled with a brass or pearl-embroidered fillet. The most conspicuous of the golden ornaments is the crown, a conical framework structure fitted to the head, and adorned with golden leaves stamped with a human face, miniature palm-trees, and other curious decorations. The weapons consist of a lance, a knife or sword, and a shield; armor of overlying thick jackets or coats of buffalo-hide, and helmets woven out of palm-leaf or cocoanut fibers. A few possess old rusty guns or small cannon for festive occasions, but the introduction of fire-arms is forbidden by the Dutch Government. Their beds are mats, their pillows blocks; and for dishes they have porcelain-ware or pisang leaves, which do not have to be washed. The housekeeping outfit also includes pork-trays, scales for weighing pork, and a smaller balance for gold, a cupboard made of hollowed logs, the rice-stamping apparatus, earthen cooking-pots and wooden troughs, and, for tools, knives, a primitive hatchet, a chisel, a file for the teeth, and a smith's stand. The houses stand about six feet above the ground, on posts which are set upon stones, a style of building which prevails without respect to situation; for it serves a good turn for defensive purposes, and affords room for the pig-pens beneath. The shape is oval, and the palm thatched roof is very steep, and ridged instead of pointed. The entrance opens into the principal apartment, which occupies a middle position, with rooms at either end; and all the rooms contain fireplaces—boxes filled with earth—and secret exits for escape in case of attack.

The language is difficult, but I have not found it poor in conceptions, and have met no formidable difficulties in translating the Gospels into it. It has no literature, and has only recently been written. Myths, parables, proverbs, riddles, the wisdom of ancestors, and the recitations at the dances, are all transmitted orally, and are thereby current in many versions.

The people are of childlike simplicity, careless, often sportive, dreadfully given to falsehood, and unconquerably averse to saving or making any provision for the future. Not even the desire of getting a wife, who has to be paid for, will induce a young man to save; he would rather borrow of a chief, and so put himself under obligations which are almost sure to be equivalent to servitude. The chief occupation of the Niha appears to be idling away the time. What little work is done with any regularity is chiefly performed by the women, who have to take care of the swine and look after the food.

While the special time for contracting loans is a month after the harvest, borrowing goes on all the year round. If the debtor can not pay at the maturity of his loan, the creditor acquires the right of making himself at home in his house, and demanding and receiving the best until he is paid. A similar privilege is accorded to guests, who are entertained with great show of hospitality, and are very apt to make the most of it, in complete indifference to the comfort and feelings of the family.

While the island is nominally under the rule of the Dutch, it is in fact under the control of a set of Liliputian chiefs, who are quite independent of one another, but have the most exalted idea of their magnificent importance. Their title, baleozoe, which may also be acquired by any one who gives a grand feast, is often adorned by some supplementary epithet, like "the foundation of the earth," "higher than the comb" (of a cock), "who is nothing else than fire," "who is always above," or "who is higher than the Malays." No real connection exists between the different clans. Head-hunting is very much in vogue in the interior; but in the northern part of the island an occasional bleached skull, suspended from a post, is the only reminder that it once existed. Severed heads, where the custom still prevails, must be had on a variety of occasions, as on the burial of a chief or the foundation of a house. One of the peaceful tribes whom I visited in company with Controller Mansveld, in January, 1877, complained of the losses they had suffered from a more warlike neighboring tribe. One local chief had lost twelve of his people in six months, another eleven, and another ten, including women and children; and another exclaimed that the tribe was in danger of being exterminated. The murderers are hired, and put their own heads or those of their children in pledge when they go out on their expeditions, to be forfeited in case they bring in no strange head. The food of the departing head-hunter is set in the pig trough, as if to say that he is no better than swine or a dog if he comes back empty. If they return, bringing one or more heads, they are feasted in grand style; but if they have nothing, themselves or their children are slain.

The village chieflets nominally stand in a kind of patriarchal relation to their people, for they are all more or less directly or distantly related to one another. Hence they are usually spoken of as father by the older people, and grandfather by the younger. But the chief function of this patriarchal relation appears to be the exaction of exorbitant interest and hard terms for loans. The thoughts of the chiefs are turned to the accumulation of gold ornaments and to making a great name for themselves. With an eye to the latter object, they plant large stones in front of their houses—male stones, long and slim and set upright, and female stones, broad and flat, and laid at the feet of the former, either being sometimes hewn to the shape of the human figure. The institution of the stones, or the acquisition of a valuable ornament, is celebrated by a great feast, at which hecatombs of swine are slaughtered, the people, especially married persons, being expected to contribute portions of the pork. Every chief who desires to be of consequence must give such a feast once at least in his life; and then he gets a new name, corresponding with the additional luster with which he imagines his fame has been invested.

Women are in low estate, under the pressure of a kind of polygamy. Mourning for the loss of a wife is eclipsed by lamentations for the money she has cost the widowed husband. To the husband, the wife is "the one who does his work," or "who takes care of his food." If she does not suit him, instead of getting a divorce he takes another wife and makes the former one a slave, with a regret that he had paid so high a price for her. If the husband dies, his brother or father takes his wife; for it would be a pity to let the value she represents go out of the family, and a widow will not bring more than half as much in the outside matrimonial market as a young girl. The son takes the wife left by his father, provided she is not his own mother. Children grow up like the grass and weeds, without discipline. Parents love them too much to punish them, and limit their training to empty scoldings. The family feeling is very strong, and is hardly lessened after the members have grown up to maturity and married. Assaults upon women, even of the most trifling and indifferent character, are punished by fines. Illegitimate children are put into a sack, with an egg and a stick of sugar-cane, and hung on a limb to starve. Murders are avenged in blood by the friends of the victim, or the crime is brought before the chief and punished with a fine, of which the relatives receive a part. In case this is not acceptable to them, they proceed to exercise justice according to their own views.

Thefts are punished by death or fine. If the thief is not found, a curse is issued against him, by, for instance, burning a dog alive and invoking a similar fate upon the guilty man. Ordeals are employed for the detection of thefts—as the ordeal of water; or a hen's head is cut off, and notice is taken of the person toward whom the decapitated fowl flies. The resumption of friendly relations after disagreement is sealed by the imprecation of a terrible curse upon the party who shall renew the quarrel. The parties and their friends in succession take in hand a palm-leaf which is supposed to represent the person upon whom the curse is destined to fall, present it before the ancestral figures, and say, "If any malice is left in N. N.'s heart, if he seeks to do harm to the other, then twist his neck, O image of my father, image of my grandfather!"

When a child is born, the father and mother must refrain from doing anything that can possibly suggest evil, lest it fall upon the child. They must not slay any beast, they must not eat of a pig that has died (to which otherwise they are not averse), they must not pass by where a man or an animal has been killed, or make an idol or a water-trough, or blow a bellows, or burn a field, or heat iron, or take a knife in hand, etc. In any such cases, the child is supposed to acquire some of the unpleasant qualities associated with the obnoxious object or act, in a symbolical if not real sense.

In time the child is introduced to the ancestral gods, and a name is given him, which usually has some particular significance, and often relates to some fact in the family history. Daughters are not welcome, and are liable to be given such names as "The no use," or "It doesn't taste well." But many of the unpleasant names that are heard are such as are given as nicknames "for luck"; for, when a child is called by his true name, the evil spirits may learn it and bring harm to him. Circumcision is customary, in connection with which offerings are made for the child's health, and to inform the ancestral gods that the rite has been performed.

The price of brides varies according to their station, and is shared by the girl's relatives, the chief, and the people of the village; but the village people's share gets divided into too small sums to be reckoned in money, and is paid out in little dried fish, or in salt. Betrothals may take place at a very early age—sometimes before the girl is born, or even when there is no present prospect of a girl.

The bride-seeker, starting on his quest, pays great attention to his dreams. If they are of fire or flood, the matter has a dubious aspect, and he usually gives it up; but to dream of clear water or of receiving money is a good sign. The girl is not consulted, and all is arranged by intermediaries, without the parties seeing one another. A few days previous to the wedding the bride goes round and takes leave of her relatives, with lamentations that she is to be consigned to strangers—for marriages are always between persons of different clans—and receives their wedding-gifts. Then, just in time to be at the wedding, the people of the groom's village march to the bride's village with drum and song, and parade the streets, brandishing their drawn knives and shouting, till a wild dance is started, which passes into a long, serpentine movement with windings and inwindings, and the chanting of a recitative by one of the participants, and the repetition in chorus of the last strophe, or its final sound, which is always a vowel. There is nothing like singing in this, for musical song is not known in Nias. The women dance in pairs, deliberately and gracefully waving the ends of the scarfs which are hung upon their necks. A breakfast follows, and a more elaborate dinner in the evening.

The bride sits through these proceedings with downcast eyes, wearing an air of modest reserve. Previous to her leaving the house, she must be paid for; and then she will not go, and has to be taken out. When she has been successfully brought down the ladder, the groom is called and saunters out from the throng like one of the most indifferent persons in it. Then the heads of the pair are made to touch at the foot of an idol-post which has been planted in front of the house, usually against the resistance of the bride, and they are a married couple. The groom rubs the bride's lips with a certain leaf, telling her she must not be obstinate, and she is led away—for she will not go of herself—between two women.

On arriving at the groom's residence, a kerchief is thrown over the heads of the couple, and the chief gives them his blessing by waving his sword over them. The bride is taken into the house without her taking hold of the ladder—for the rafters are the first thing to be touched by her—and, when she is seated, a boy is placed upon her lap, in token of her becoming a servant, after which she gives betel to her husband.

The groom or his father gives a feast in his turn, at which a consultation of entrails is held after the old Roman fashion, to determine what the character of the bride's life will be. She is introduced to the ancestral gods, and is expected to take hold of the palm-leaves with which they are decorated.

The first thought when a person becomes critically ill is to prepare his coffin, a hollowed log closed with a plank. The nearest relatives prepare food for him, and receive his farewell. On the approach of the last moment, the dying man's eldest son lays his mouth against the father's, to receive his spirit, which is believed to come from the mouth in the shape of a pebble. If the man has no son, the spirit is received in the money-purse. It is afterward hung upon the ancestral image which is prepared to represent the deceased, and is supposed to enter it. When received by the son, it is thought to help make him a wise and valiant man. After death, mourning is begun with the beating of drums and the firing of guns, if powder can be got. The nose of the deceased is closed, his chin is bound, and his great toes and his forefingers and thumbs are tied together, to facilitate the escape of the immortal part. A dance, not unlike the marriage-dance, is accompanied by chants reciting that the deceased is not really dead, but is only gone away, although he will never return from beyond the seas to the present world. The funeral feast is marked by the number of swine that are slaughtered for it, and this appears to be the question that most occupies the minds of the public when a death is announced. While the coffin is being brought down into the throng of relatives, some may be inquiring whether there are any circumstances to indicate murder; others may be holding before the deceased articles that he highly prized, in order to outbid any persons hostile to the family who might try to entice his spirit away from them.

A pot of chicken and rice is pushed into the coffin for the use of the deceased in the other world. The coffin having been laid in the grave, the stem of a certain plant is inserted so as to stick up through the surface of the ground and form a way of exit for the mŏkŏmŏkŏ or relic of the heart, which is expected to rise from the grave in the shape of a little spider—this only in case the deceased has left posterity. While the dead are usually buried as soon after death as possible, if the family have not at hand the swine required for a suitable feast the body may be kept in the house, in a tightly-closed coffin, for a year.

Food is set at the foot of the house-thatch twice a day for a few days after the funeral. The idols which the deceased had had made on the occasion of his sickness, and the articles he had used, are placed by the grave, so that the ghost shall not return to the house for them. A wooden image of the deceased is made, and his immortal part is invited by the priest to take its abode in it.

An amusing ceremony is that of the recovery of the mŏkŏmŏkŏ, a little spider which is looked for on the grave, and is regarded as the relic of the heart. Sometimes the ceremony is delayed for several years; and if sickness occurs in the family in the mean time, it is considered an infliction on account of the neglect. The grave having been cleared up, rice is scattered over it, and clothing and jewelry are laid upon it. The family then squat around it, stretch out their hands, and invite the mŏkŏmŏkŏ to come, and delay not; all the relatives are there waiting for it. A piece of clothing is lifted up, and a spider is discovered under it—they are running all around, for that matter, by the dozen. It is not caught at once, but is invited to come upon the outstretched hand. Now it is discovered that it has six legs, and can not be the mŏkŏmŏkŏ spider, for that should have only four legs; no, it is the right one, after all, for two of the supposed legs are only hairs. When the genuine mŏkŏmŏkŏ is found and identified, it is put into a bamboo cane and brought to the dela (bridge), a kind of gathering-place of the dead, where a stone is planted for each deceased person, before which potsherds are set to represent a plate and a flask. A kind of festival is held here, after which the mŏkŏmŏkŏ spider is set free close to the ancestral image, which it is supposed to enter. An egg is offered by each person present, and the family are counted over before the image, and prosperity is invoked for each one, as well as for their herds and fields. If a crack appears in the image, which is of wood, they say that the mŏkŏmŏkŏ has escaped from it, and a new image must be made and instituted with a repetition of the ceremonies.

The religion of the Nihas consists really of the worship of demons and of ancestors, while there are two beings who are neither, to one of whom the highest power is ascribed, and whoso name is invoked in oaths; but they are worshiped only in an indefinite sort of a way.

Their psychology is very peculiar. Besides the spirit sheha, whose transmission to posterity in noble families has been described, they speak of the breath or soul, noso, which has a kind of pre-existence—not in a personal form, but as a part of the general soul-stock, from which each person's portion is weighed out or cut off from a line—each one being asked at birth how much of it he will have. Upon his answer, and his consequent allotment, will depend the length of life that he will enjoy. The immortal part, bechoe zïmata—a spirit distinct from the sheha—is regarded as a mere shadow, having a hypothetical continued existence.

A peculiar central position, and a multitude of functions, are ascribed to the heart. It is the seat of thought, understanding, and feeling; and a remnant of it comes out from the grave after death in the form of a spider, seeking lodgment in the ancestral image, as has been already described.

The Niha conceptions of the condition after death are confused. The bechoe go below into the city of the dead, where they have to die nine times, or, according to some, as many times as the man has lived years on the earth, and are supposed to lead lives like the earthly lives. They take with them their earthly utensils and possessions in the form of shadows, and can not expect to attain a higher state of wealth than they did on the earth; therefore living men accumulate as much wealth as possible, in order that they may take the shadow of it with them. The bechoe of wicked men return to the corpse in the grave, and are crushed by the earth. Men who have no male issue are turned after their manifold deaths into night-moths; those who are murdered, into locusts. The bechoe of murdered men and suicides are assigned separate abodes from the other bechoe. At last, it is said, the earth will die, or sink into the sea, and there will be a new earth. Then the bechoe of the cats will let the bechoe of the men go over the gulf into the new earth, the edge of a sword serving as a bridge. Any one who, in life, has causelessly tormented or killed a cat, will be thrown by them into the abyss. Therefore every person is afraid to go near cats to annoy them. Only those also who have had issue can go over, while others become butterflies or something of the kind. The bechoe of children are carried over by their mothers, and go to God.

After Lowalangi, with whom men have little to do except to make an occasional offering, the most important of the divinities is Latoere. He tried to make men from the tora-fruit, and, not succeeding, called upon Lowalangi to help him, and received the creatures as a gift of swine. Hence he is called Latoere of the thousand swine. He occasionally eats a man—that is, his shadow—as one would slaughter and eat a pig, when the fact is manifested by the illness of the victim. In this case an offering is made to induce him to choose another, fatter man, from a different part of the country. If this petition fails, the man will have to die. There are other demons, who feed upon the shadows of men, stalking like hunters through the land, using the rainbow for their net, and assisted by air-dogs, whose heads are turned round so as to look backward, and which are occasionally heard to bark. It is possible, however, by means of special offerings, to make one's self unfailingly sound, unless Lowalangi has decreed that there shall be an end of the person in question. The shadows that fall victims to these divine appetites are special shadows, and not those which are cast in the sun.

The people also imagine underground ghosts, or bechoe, which live in caves or holes, and trouble men or eat their shadows, The bechoe of women who have died in childbed are supposed. to seize men's arms and. try to twist them around and set them wrong side foremost. A kind, of angelic being is appointed to convey the souls of the dead back to the soul-stock or string from which they were cut off and allotted to their personages at the time of their birth. Next in order are those ancestors who are honored on special occasions, and after them the near ancestors, of whom images are made, which the mŏkŏmŏkŏ accepts as its abode. Offerings are made most usually in a propitiatory shape, as when Latoere is asked to choose another man instead of the one he has made ill, or the shadow of a pig or of a hen is offered to the bechoe instead of the shadow of a man.

The priests form a separate class. The sign of the calling to the office is a fit of insanity or some illness. After a spell of wandering, the candidate qualifies himself for his functions by means of a short course of instruction from an active priest.

The minor divinities, or adoes (idols), are very numerous; and in order to make sure of accosting the right one for a particular occasion, the priest institutes a kind of ordeal. One of the test-forms is to name the list of the divinities while trying to make an egg, rest on a bottle: the one at whose name the egg stands is the right one. A new adoe or idol has to be carved for every case of illness; and the offering is made while the patient is holding the image in his hand, with drumming and prayers. In invocations of Latoere, three mediators are employed between the priest and the god; the adoe, which is asked to transmit the matter; Salio, who was formerly a man on the earth, but has been translated to the sky, who intercedes with the third mediator, a being whose part in the affair is not very clear.

If the prayers find a hearing, Saho reveals the. sign, which is manifested in a great wave or cloud floating above, but can be received only by sunlight. The priest intercepts it with a cloth, upon which it is reflected, in a shape like that of a glow-worm, and puts it upon the patient's brow, whereupon he is made well. This sign, called soemange, is also received in answer to many other offerings which are not made to Latoere, but it always comes from him, upon whom life or death ultimately depends. Offerings to the ancestral gods are seldom made in cases of illness, but usually to ask a blessing or avert misfortunes, or on special occasions, as the birth of a child or a marriage, in the way of announcement. These divinities are held in very high honor, and all manner of evil is predicted against any one who renounces them and goes over to Christianity.

A sin-offering is made for a chief who in any affair or case of offense has not done right, and is afraid that he will be made ill on account of it. The adoe of some former (deceased) magistrate is then called upon to turn away the evil; and when any-one is cursed, he endeavors to ward off the effect of the imprecation by an offering. Adoes are also made and offered to drive off evil spirits or to warn off the spirits of pestilence that may be approaching the village. The occasions for offering are, in fact, innumerable, and persons who suffer much from illness are made poor on account of them.

The adoes are supposed to have originated from above; and the kinds of wood out of which the idols are made are the children, turned into wood, of the divinities which, according to one version of the legends, sprang from chips of wood, and were sent down to heal the diseases of the earth.

Diseases which are supposed to have been produced by curses and enchantments are also met by offerings; but a certain list of disorders, which are caused by a tree that is supposed to have arisen from the spirit of a curse which was uttered by a certain chief against his townsmen—including fevers, disorders of the stomach, and contagious skin-diseases—have to be treated with medicine. The field of superstition is much better tilled by the Niha people than are their rice-fields.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Allgemeine Missions-Zeitschrift.