Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/November 1901/The Omen Animals of Sarawak

1410966Popular Science Monthly Volume 60 November 1901 — The Omen Animals of Sarawak1901Alfred Cort Haddon


By A. C. HADDON, F.R.S.,


THE cult of the omen animals is of such importance in the daily life of most of the tribes of Borneo that it is desirable that more attention should be paid to it by those who have the opportunity of studying it at first hand.

The Venerable Archdeacon J. Perham has given a full account of the Iban or Sea Dayak religion in the 'Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society' (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8), which has been reprinted by Ling Roth in his book, 'The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo.' Mr. Ling Roth has also compiled some other scattered references on omens (Vol. I., pp.231-231). Although the following notes are very imperfect, they contain some new facts derived from Dr. C. Hose, and also, thanks to information derived from Dr. Hose, I am able for the first time to give a fairly complete list of the omen animals of Sarawak, with their scientific names. I have taken the liberty of abstracting the following account of the way in which birds are 'used,' as the Ibans say, from Archdeacon Perham's most valuable papers, as it is the best description known to me of what is of daily occurrence in Borneo:

The yearly rice farming is a matter of much ceremony as well as of labor with the Dayaks, and must be inaugurated with proper omens. Some man who is successful with his padi will be the augur and undertake to obtain omens for a certain area of land, which others besides himself will farm. Some time before the Pleiades are sufficiently high above the horizon to warrant the clearing the grounds of jungle or grass, the man sets about his work. He will have to hear the nendak (Cittocincla suavis) on the left, the katupong (Sasia abnormis) on the left, the burong malam (a locust) and the beragai (Harpactes duvauceli) on the left, and in the order I have written them. As soon as he has heard the nendak, he will break off a twig of anything growing near and take it home and put it in a safe place. But it may happen that some other omen bird, or creature, is the first to make itself heard or seen, and in that case the day's proceeding is vitiated; he must give the matter up, return and try his chance another day; and thus sometimes three or four days are gone before he has obtained his first omen. When he has heard the nendak, he will then go to listen for the katupong and the rest, but with the same liability to delays; and it may possibly require a month to obtain all those augural predictions, which are to give them confidence in the result of their labors. The augur has now the same number of twigs and sticks as birds he has heard, and he takes these to the land selected for farming and puts them in the ground, says a short form of address to the birds and Pulang Gana (the tutelary deity of the soil, and the spirit presiding over the whole work of rice farming), cuts a little pass or jungle with his parang and returns. The magic virtue of the birds has been conveyed to the land.

For house-building the same birds are to be obtained and in the same way. But for a war expedition, birds on the right hand are required, except the nendak, which, if it make a certain peculiar call, can be admitted on the left.

These birds can be bad omens as well as good. If heard on the wrong side, if in the wrong order, if the note or call be of the wrong kind, the matter in hand must be postponed, or abandoned altogether; unless a conjunction of subsequent good omens occur, which, in the judgment of old experts, can overbear the preceding bad ones. Hence, in practice, this birding becomes a most involved matter, because the birds will not allow themselves to be heard in straightforward orthodox succession. After all, it is only a balance of probabilities; for it is seldom that Dayak patience is equal to waiting till the omens occur, according to the standard theory.

These are the inaugurating omens sought in order to strike a line of good luck, to render the commencement of an undertaking auspicious. The continuance of good fortune must be carried on by omen influence to the end.

When any of these omens, either of bird, beast or insect, are heard, or seen by the Dayak on his way to the padi lands, he supposes they foretell either good or ill to himself or to the farm; and in some cases he will turn back and wait for the following day before proceeding again. The nendak is generally good, so is the katupong, on the right or left, but the papau (Harpactes diardi) is of evil omen, and the man must beat a retreat. A beragai heard once or twice matters not; but if often, a day's rest is necessary. The mbuas (Carcineutes melanops) on the right is wrong, and sometimes it portends so much blight and destruction that the victim must rest five days. The 'shout' of the kutok (Lepocestes porphyomelas) is evil, and that of the katupong so bad that it requires three days' absence from the farm to allow the evil to pass away; and even then a beragai must be heard before commencing work. The beragai is a doctor among birds. If the cry of a deer, a pelandok (Tragulus), be heard, or if a rat crosses the path before you on your way to the farm, a day's rest is necessary; or you will cut yourself, get ill or suffer by failure of the crops. When a good omen is heard, one which is supposed to foretell a plentiful harvest, you must go on the farm and do some trifling work by way of 'leasing the work of your hands' there, and then return; in this way you clench the foreshadowed luck, and at the same time reverence the spirit which promises it. And should a deer, or pelandok come out of the jungle and on to the farm when you are working there, it means that customers will come to buy the corn and that therefore there will be corn for them to buy. This is the best omen they can have, and they honor it by resting from work for three days.

But the worst of all omens is a dead beast of any kind, especially those included in the omen list, found anywhere on the farm. It infuses a deadly poison into the whole crop and will kill some one or other of the owner's family within a year. When this terrible thing happens they test the omen by killing a pig and divining from the appearance of the liver immediately after death. If the prediction of the omen be strengthened, all the rice grown on that ground must be sold; and, if necessary, other rice bought for their own consumption. Other people may eat it, for the omen only affects those at whom it is directly pointed. A swarm of bees lighting on the farm is an equally dreadful matter.

The 'barking' deer (Cervulus muntjac) is very important as an omen to all peoples, but least so to the Ibans. The bark of this deer prevents people from continuing their journey, and even divorces people who are newly married.

The little chevrotains, 'planok' or 'plandok' (Tragulus napu and T. javanicus), have the same function as the muntjac, so far as a journey is concerned, but otherwise they are not very important.

The Rev. W. Chalmers says: "If the cries of any of the three kinds of deer found in Sarawak be heard when starting on a journey, or when going to consult the birds by day or by night, it is a sign that if the matter in hand be followed up sickness will be the result. Also, if a newly married couple hear them at night, they must be divorced, as, if this be not done, the death of the bride or bridegroom will ensue. I myself have known instances of this omen causing a divorce, and I must say the separation has always been borne most philosophically by the parties most concerned; in fact, the morning of one of these divorces I remember seeing an ex-bridegroom working hard at shaping some ornamental brass-work, which Dayak women are in the habit of wearing round their waists, and he said that he intended to bestow it on a certain damsel whom he had in his eye for a new wife."

Sir Spencer St. John writes: "To hear the cry of a deer is at all times unlucky, and to prevent the sound reaching their ears during a marriage procession, gong and drums are loudly beaten. On the way to their farms, should the unlucky omen be heard, they will return home and do no more work for a day."

A Malay told me: If a Sarawak Malay was striking a light in the evening in his house and a plandok made a noise at the same time, the whole family would have to leave the house for three days. Should they not do so, the house would catch fire and be burned down or sickness or other calamity would overtake them.

On the second day of one of Dr. Hose's journeys through the jungle, the chief who was with him saw a plandok rush across the path. Hose being behind, did not observe it, but he saw all his party sitting on a log, and the chief informed Hose that he could not proceed that day, as his 'legs were tied up.' This was most inconvenient, as Hose was in a hurry, but the men would not go on. Hose freely took upon himself all the responsibility and said he would go first and would explain to the plandok that he was the person in fault. The chief would not agree even to this, and did not budge, but said he would follow the next day. Hose went on with some of the men as far as he could get and camped. Next day the chief caught Hose up at noon and appeared very much surprised that no harm had befallen him. Hose chaffed him about his legs and was 'pleased to see that they had become untied!'

The small viverrine carnivore (Arctogale leucotis) is one of the most important omens for Kenyahs and Kayans, who, however, have a particular dread of coming into contact with it. Lest it should produce sickness, they will never even touch a piece of its dried skin. It is not an omen for the Ibans, nor for the Punans, who even kill and eat it. After having obtained other omens, the Kayans are glad to see the munin, as it is useful in conjunction with other omens, but they do not like to hear it squealing.

The screeching of the large hawk (Haliastur intermedius), which is closely allied to or a sub-species of the Brahminy kite (H. Indus), is a cautionary sign with the Kayans, and though it is not in itself a bad sign, they will generally return home from any enterprise on hearing it, if they were still taking omens, or, at all events, they will remain where they are for a day. What the Kayans and Kenyahs most desire when 'owning' a hawk is to see it skim silently, without moving its wings, either to the right or to the left. Any other action than this, such as a swoop down or continued flapping of the wings, is considered unfavorable. Something bad is going to take place; they do not know what it may be or to whom it will happen, and one who sees the hawk do this turns away his face or retires to some place out of the sight of the hawk, lest, on being observed, he should be the one on whom the misfortune will fall. On such an occasion no one speaks a word, and all return into the house and wait from ten minutes to half an hour. If they are very anxious to go on again that day, they slip quietly out of the house, so that the hawk may not see them, get into their boats and start on their journey.

If the hawk appears on the wrong side when men are paddling, a few days away from home and nearing another village, they immediately turn the boat right round, pull to the bank and light a fire. By turning round they put the hawk on the right side, and, being satisfied in their own minds, they proceed on their journey as before.

The hawk, or, as the Ibans call it, Sengalong Burong, is a very important being. The little woodpecker (Sasia abnormis), 'Katupong' is his son-in-law, being married to Dara Inchin Temaga Indu Monkok Chilebok China, a poetical hantu, who mentions in her songs the names of all the mouths of the rivers in their order from Sarawak River to some distance up the coast. (This is probably the remnant of a migration saga.) The smallest of the trogons, Harpactes duvauceli, 'Beragi,' also married another daughter of Sengalong Burong.

Although this is the most important of any Iban omen bird, it is his sons-in-law that are most used. Food is offered to Sengalong Burong.

I believe that other large hawk-like birds are used as omens. The Brahminy Kite is popularly supposed in India to be the sacred Garuda, the mythical bird, half eagle and half man, which, in Hindu mythology, is the Vahana, or vehicle of Vishnu. Whenever Bengali children see one of these birds they cry out:

Let drinking vessels and cups be given to the Shankar Chil (Brahminy Kite),
But let the Common Kite get a kick on its face.

There is a kingfisher that lives in the jungle (Carcineutes melanops) which is not a particularly lucky bird. If, when they are making a trap, the Ibans hear the long, mournful whistle of the 'Membuas,' they know that, although the trap will catch things, it will only be after an interval of ten to fourteen days that they will have any luck. On other occasions it is not unusual for them to catch little partridges, such as Rollulus rouloul, directly they have set up the trap, but often, under ordinary circumstances, it will be a day before they catch anything.

The Kenyahs apparently dislike this bird, which they call 'asi,' as it is not very favorable; in fact, they would rather not see it.

The white-crested hornbill (Berenicornis comatus), which has a moderate-sized black-keeled casque on its beak and bare blue orbits and throat, is an omen that is sought for by Kenyahs and Kayans, particularly by the latter, when felling jungle for planting and when going on the war-path. The Kenyahs use it slightly, and the Ibans not at all; it is, in any case, an omen bird of secondary importance.

The trogon, called by the Ibans 'Papau' (Harpactes diardi), is particularly useful to these people when hunting in the jungle for deer, pigs, etc., as it is a sure sign that they will obtain something that day; the bird's note of 'Pau, pau, pau,' infuses fresh energy into them. Supposing some Ibans were making a spring-trap (panjok), the moment one of them heard the cry of the 'Paupau' or 'Beragai' (H. duvauceli), he would at once snap off or cut off a small twig with a parang; the small piece of wood then cut or broken off is used for the release of the trap; the man would at the same time remark to the bird, 'Here we are.'

Other tribes such as the Kenyahs and Punans use Harpactes diardi as an omen, but it is not an important one. H. duvauceli, on the contrary, is of very considerable importance to the Kenyahs when going on the war-path, it being one of the omens of which it is imperative to obtain a sight or hearing. H. kasumba is employed indifferently with H. diardi.

Lepocestes porphyromelas is one of the most important of the omen birds, as it makes two perfectly distinct notes, one of which is favorable and the other unfavorable. On a rainy day it calls 'tok, tok, tok,' but when the sun comes out it bursts into long 'kieng, kieng'; 'tok' is bad, but 'kieng' is good.

When a Kenyah hears the 'tok' cry, he immediately stops, lights a fire and takes the usual precautions in talking to it. He knows perfectly well that the same bird makes the two notes, and he waits for the 'kieng.' His explanation is that when the bird calls 'tok' it is angry, and that it is in a good temper when it sings 'kieng,' and therefore it is well not to go contrariwise to the omen. The Ibans behave in a similar manner. The Kenyahs regard it as a bird of warning, but not one that assists in getting anything. If a man was doing anything with a parang, knife or other sharp-edged tool and heard even a 'kieng,' he would probably desist from further use of it for that day.

The little woodpecker (Sasia abnormis) is in high favor among the Ibans; in fact, they consider it most important, as he represents his father-in-law, 'Sengalong Burong.' The 'Katupong' appears to produce whatever result they require. It is of less importance with other peoples of Sarawak.

Mr. Crossland informs us if a katupong enters a house at one end and flies out the other, men and women snatch up a few necessaries, such as mats and rice, and stampede, leaving everything unsecured and the doors unfastened. If any one approaches the house at night, he will see large and shadowy demons chasing each other through it, and hear their unintelligible talk. After awhile the people return and erect the ladder they have overthrown, and the women sprinkle the house with water 'to cool it.'

A kind of thrush (Cittocincla suavis) is particularly useful to the Ibans when looking for gutta or other jungle produce. 'Nendak' is a good bird too for them to own, as it is a Burong chelap, and, on hearing it, they would not be afraid of any sickness.

Before starting on a gutta expedition, they would require to see something before 'beragai' (Harpactes duvauceli), as this is a 'burong tampak,' that is, an omen animal that is potent for hunting. What they like is: First, to get 'nendak,' then wait three days while they are owning it, finally to get 'beragai' on the right. This combination signifies certain success; not only would they find gutta, but would obtain plenty of it, and no harm or sickness would befall them. If, however, they went for gutta on 'beragai' alone, and that, perhaps, appeared on the left, they would obtain a fair amount of gutta, but they would stand a good chance of some misfortune happening to them, and one of their party might fall sick, or even die.

The Tailor bird (Orthotomus cineraceus), although employed by Ibans only, is of very little use, as it is only a secondary burong. It may be employed as an additional argument when deciding for 'Selam,' or trial by the water ordeal. This consists in the two disputants putting their heads under water, and the one who has the most staying power having right on his side.

The Bomean shrike (Platylophus coronatus), which has an erectile crest of long and broad feathers on its head, is used by the Ibans as a weather prophet on account of its unerring faculty of foretelling a storm, for whenever its whistle is heard, rain is always to be expected. It is very important for Kenyahs and Kayans in connection with tilling farms. When Kayans are clearing any undergrowth for a farm, after having offered to 'Niho' (Haliastur intermedius) and other omen animals, it is desirable that they should hear 'pajan,' the shrike, for then they know they will get plenty of padi of good quality, but there will be a good deal of hard work, and possibly a considerable amount of sickness and cuts and wounds. If they procure this omen, they take the precaution of building very substantial granaries.

Three species of Sun birds (Arachnothera longirostris, A. modesta and A. chrysogenys) are very important to Kayans, Kenyahs and Punans. Any of these species is used impartially, and they bear the name of 'Sit' or 'Isit.'

The 'Sit' is always the first bird to look for when undertaking anything—fortunately, an individual of one of the three species is almost always to be seen crossing the river. It is one of the least important omen birds with the Ibans. When Kayans, Punas and Melanaus go in search of camphor, it is first necessary to see a 'Sit' fly from right to left, and then from left to right. A Melanau, who is intending to start on such an expedition, sits in the bow of his boat and chants:

"O Sit, Sit, ta-au, Kripan murip, Sit,
Ano senigo akau, ano napan akau.
Oh! Sit, Sit, on the right, give me long life. Sit,
Help me to obtain what I require, make me plenty of that for which I am looking."

An allied bird, Anthreptes malaccensis, is commonly mistaken by Kayans, but by them only, for Arachnothera longirostris. They use it as an omen bird, but it is not so used by the Kenyahs, by whom it is called 'Manok Obah.'

All the omen snakes are bad omens, and in the case of a Kayan seeing 'batang lima' (Simotes octolineatus), he will endeavor to kill it and, if successful, no evil will follow; should he fail to kill it, then 'look out.'

I believe that the Ibans pay some regard to 'Sawa,' a large python (Python reticulatus) and to 'Tuchok,' a kind of Gecko (Ptychozoon homalocephalum), and to 'Brinkian,' another kind of Gecko; but I do not know whether these are, strictly speaking, omen animals.

The omen padi-bug, 'turok parai' (Chrysocoris eques) is only of importance, and that to Kenyahs alone, because it injures the crops.

The bee 'Manyi' (Melipona vidua) is an Iban omen only. If a swarm of bees settled underneath a house that had recently been built, it would be considered a bad sign, and probably it would be necessary to destroy that particular section of the house or to leave the house altogether.

Many Land Dayaks, on the contrary, keep bees in their houses, and among most of the peoples of Borneo, including the Ibans, it is most lucky in planting time to dream of an abundance of bees.

There are other creatures whose appearance, cry or movements may signify good or bad luck which are not omen animals (i. e., 'burong' or 'aman'), in the strict sense of the term. For example, the hawk owl (Ninox scutulata) makes a melancholy cry at night, on account of which it is very much disliked by the natives, who regard it as a foreteller of death. Its native name is Tongok.' If the Malay bear (Heliarctos Malayanus) climbs into an Iban's house, it is a bad sign, and the house would have to be pulled down.

According to Perham: "In answer to the questions of the origin of this system of 'birding' some Dayaks have given the following: In early times the ancestors of the Malays and the ancestors of the Dayak had, on a certain occasion, to swim across a river. Both had books. The Malay tied his firmly in his turban, kept his head well out of water, and reached the opposite bank with his book intact and dry. The Dayak, less wise, fastened his to the end of his waist-cloth, and the current washed it away. But the fates intervened to supply the loss and gave the Dayak this system of omens as a substitute for the book."

Another story relates the following:

Some Dayaks in the Batang Lupar made a great feast and invited many guests. When everything was ready and arrivals expected, a tramp and hum, as of a great company of people, was heard close to the village. The hosts, thinking it to be the invited friends, went forth to meet them with meat and drink, but found, with some surprise, they were all utter strangers. However, without any questioning, they received them with due honor and gave them all the hospitalities of the occasion. When the time of departing came, they asked the strange visitors who they were and from whence, and received something like the following reply from the chief: I am Sengalong Burong, and these are my sons-in-law and other friends. When you hear the voices of the birds (giving their names), know that you hear us, for they are our deputies in this lower world.' Thereupon the Dayaks discovered they had been entertaining spirits unawares, and received as reward of their hospitality the knowledge of the omen system.

Archdeacon Perham is perfectly right in his statement that:

"The sacredness of the omen birds is thus explained: They are forms of animal life possessed with the spirit of certain invisible beings above, and bearing their names; so that when a Dayak hears a 'Beragai,' for instance, it is really the voice of 'Beragai,' the son-in-law of Sengalong Burong; nay, more, the assenting nod or dissenting frown of the great spirit himself. … 'These birds,' says Sengalong Burong, 'possess my mind and spirit, and represent me in the lower world. When you hear them, remember it is I who speak for encouragement or for warning.' … The object of the bird-culters is like that of all other rites: to secure good crops, freedom from accidents and falls and disease, victory in war, profit in exchange and trade, skill in discourse and cleverness in all native craft."

We know that such very distinct peoples in Sarawak alone, as the Ibans (Sea Dayaks), Land Dayaks, Muruts, Punans, Kayans and Kenyahs, pay attention to omen animals and, in most cases, to the same animals. This points to a common origin of the cult, for in some cases there is no specially obvious reason why that particular species of animal should have been selected. In the three last mentioned peoples the names of the omen animals are practically similar, but many of the Iban names are different.

There can be little doubt that this cult is indigenous to Borneo; it is probable that a cult of omen animals formed part of the fundamental religious equipment of the Ibans before they migrated to Borneo, but it is also probable that the Ibans have borrowed somewhat from neighboring indigenous tribes. Much more information must be obtained before a satisfactory history of this cult can be written.