7. Entities of Life; Entities of Death


Entities of Life ; Entities of Death

In this article I describe the major varieties of “spiritual beings”, for want of a better term, that the people of the Rereiket believe inhabit their world/cosmos. The article can, thus, be mined for details regarding these beings. An understanding of this material will certainly render less opaque many of the practices that are carried on in this part of the world. Nevertheless the article, once again, is part of an overall argument aimed at clarifying the important role that the uma (House) plays in the lives of the locals. That should be kept in mind whilst sifting through it.

In articles 5 and 6 I looked in greater detail into the relationship between the suku, the uma, and the uma faction. The uma is the physical structure containing the ancestral heirlooms, whereas the uma faction is the social entity, a collectivity of people sharing common relationship to the collection of ancestral heirlooms stored within. Around half the suku in Madobag consist of just the one uma, and therefore have no uma factions. The other half are divided into two or more uma factions. I also dealt with how suku origins are tied to the origins of the ancestral heirlooms that are stored within an uma’s inner recesses, an identity expressed and reproduced within narratives outlining the movements of ancestors through a quasi-mythical landscape, investing that landscape with meaning and identity through socializing a formally unsocialized space, just as the various significant locations across that landscape in turn invest a suku with identity through providing identifiable origins.

In the present, the heirlooms can be seen to carry the burden of that identity. But much more than this, they are definitively essential in terms of the service they provide through the agency (activities) of their ‘caretaker’ the rimata. This is especially clear in those suku with multiple uma factions where uma faction origin ideologies take precedence over that of the suku, in so far as each uma faction within a suku espouses divergent origin ideologies, in the same way as suku that are parakrak do. On a general level people profess solidarity within a suku as opposed to the ‘Other’—that is, all the other suku. However they have their primary links with the particular uma with which they are affiliated, and thus the heirlooms stored within. This forms the primary focus of their lives. We are thus led to appreciate the need to understand the role the uma plays in all this.

In order to achieve this it is, firstly, necessary to carefully examine the ‘sacred’ aspects or, to put it in more appropriate terms, the sense in which the heirlooms are ‘powerful’. The item of particular interest in this regard is the bakkat katsaila. Having done this, we will be better equipped in the final article, article 8, to understand how the uma functions to create a habitable space for its inhabitants within the cosmos.

To this end, in this artlcle we will look at the forces that are harnessed and those that are repelled in making the world habitable, the most important function, I argue, performed by the uma together with the ancestral heirlooms. The goal is to explain how the primary space within the sociospatial cosmos , conceptualized through the concept of the pulagajat (suku land/community), is crafted from that inhospitable and unsocialized space of the cosmos, exemplified by (although not exclusively limited to) the leleu. This aspect of the cosmos has come to be labelled sabulungan or the (traditional) ‘religion’ of the ‘Mentawaians’.

Sabulungan is constructed as standing opposed to the mainstream religions such as Christianity and Islam. Thus outsiders or coastal indigenous people who are steeped in this discourse discuss to what extent the indigenous inhabitants (‘Mentawaians’) are Christian or Muslim, or to what extent they still adhere to their ‘own religion’, sabulungan. A research team from Jakarta conducting multi-disciplinary surveys in the Madobag Desa in 1993 demonstrated the important role the sabulungan concept plays in the administration’s attempts to come to terms with local practices. Sabulungan for them, far more than a mere religion, encapsulated all phenomena with which they came into contact—much as the colonial gaze did in regard to ‘Mentawai’(see History and ‘Mentawai’: Colonialism, Scholarship, and Identity in the Rereiket, West Indonesia.)—creating out of it a “total way of life”. Almost needless to say, people in the Rereiket did not see things this way.

In what follows I argue that if any categorical classification along “religious” lines (and in this context the term “religion” is not a helpful aid to understanding) is going to be made it is best done in terms of the existence of entities for the protection and enhancement of “life” (purimanua[ijat]) and those of “death” (simamatei), not so much in terms of whether practices or representations can be classified as belonging to ‘sabulungan’ (and therefore an example of kebudayaan asli: “authentic culture”) or not. I propose that intervention in and manipulation of the cosmos is carried out in order to promote and augment “life” at the expense of the entities of death. Within these activities are elements both of what popular understandings of these affairs might describe as sabulungan and non-sabulungan.

Ketsat and Simagere

In article 3 I argued that, as well as being implicated actively in the production of particular social spaces, the concepts ‘uma’, ‘sapou’, ‘suku’, ‘pulaggajat’, and ‘leleu’ both represented and described those spaces. These, however, are not the only concepts through which a sociable, and conversely, an anti-social space is thought about and lived in day-to-day affairs. ‘Ketsat’, ‘simagere’, ‘sanitu’, ‘bajou’, ‘saukkui’, ‘sabulungan’, and ‘gaud’ are other equally important representations employed in the production and reproduction of social space. We might say they are the content animating the form, the orienting context constituted by the uma, the pulaggajat, and the leleu. Each concept has been dealt with in various ways in previous ethnographic analyses giving rise to varying interpretations. Because these bring into relief the particular meanings that each has for people in Madobag, I will look at how each concept is interpreted by researchers/analysts in developing my own interpretation.

The most generic kind of being is the ketsat which, in the literature, enjoys an ambiguous relationship to its, in a sense, alter ego, the simagere. In a comparative context it is unclear from the literature whether the latter is subsumed within the former, or whether the former is a qualitatively different kind of being. It is also difficult to distinguish the way these concepts have been treated by different writers and the way they are actually constructed by their informants. Before we can settle on the status of either concept we need to look at how each has been used relative to the other.

Based on his research carried out on north Siberut and in the Katurei district on South Siberut, Kruyt uses ketsat and simagere interchangeably and a little inconsistently. On the one hand what he describes as the “life-spirit” (levensgeest) can be called the simagere or the ketsat (Kruyt 1923:20). The “life-spirit of the house” for example is called the “ketsat uma” (70). A young man’s “life-force/vital power” (levenskracht) or “life-spirit” otherwise known as his ketsat may be induced to leave him by a “ghost” (sabulungan), a sign that he is being called upon by the ghost to become a shaman (sikerei) (128). A ketsat, or a person’s “life-spirit”, observes Kruyt, can leave the body and freely wander around, and indeed may be taken by a “dead spirit” or sabulungan (180). That is, the ketsat is equated with “life” (purimanua)and may be endangered by encountering an entity of death, a sabulungan. On the other hand we learn that the body of a dead crocodile in the context of a punen (ceremonial event) is disposed of by being removed far from the village where it is covered with leaves and “herbs” (kruiden) in order that the animal’s ketsat (levensgeest) does not return to cause sickness to the living inhabitants in the village (105). On a similar line of thought the ketsat (levensgeest) of a murdered enemy is said to follow the killers back to their village. In order to prevent this measures are taken to send this ketsat back to its place of origin (117). The puzzle about Kruyt’s formulation is that the ketsat as “life-spirit” is presented as a being of life in opposition to the “geest”, the being of death. Yet a dead animal as well as a murdered enemy are both represented as possessing a “life-spirit”.

On a slightly different tack Loeb makes a clear distinction between ketsat and simagere in theory, in Mentawai, whilst violating this in practice. At first they are not differentiated—both are collapsed into a unitary concept of soul. Thus “Disease is commonly thought to be due to the temporary absence of the soul; death, to the permanent loss of soul”. Having said this he makes the qualification: “The soul which leaves the body in dreams and sickness is called the si-magere. The soul which leaves at death is called the ketsat.” This then becomes a sanitu (ghost) (Loeb 1929b:188-189). Elsewhere in this article, however, forest animals like deer and monkey are said to have a ketsat (206). We also learn that “the priest holds the souls (simagere) of the people of the uma in his possession …”. A few lines on, the “people” are characterized as possessing ketsat (“soul”). A little further on again the dead priest is said to have a ketsat (“soul”). Then “the souls (simagere) of the people…”, all in succession on the one page (Loeb1929b:219).

Nooy-Palm encountered some differing interpretations amongst her informants in Mentawai. One of them claimed that ketsat referred to the souls of people living and dead. One other maintained that ketsat is used to refer to the souls of the living only (Nooy-Palm 1968:224). Nooy-Palm herself uses the term to refer to “soul”, elsewhere settling on an interpretation viewing the ketsat as that soul out of the two possessed by a human being, the other being the simagere, that remains after the human being’s death. In practice, though, the author is not very much concerned with either ketsat or simagere, reserving the usage simagere for the “souls of the game of the forest” (Nooy-Palm 1968:180).

Schefold records that once a person dies their “soul” is referred to as a ketsat, although he notes that “the souls of the living are also sometimes described as ketsat, pointing out also that in this context the term can be considered generic, as indicating simply ‘soul’ rather than ‘souls’ (Schefold 1973:17). Schefold’s general position on this issue is animist in the classic sense. Thus: “The people sense life everywhere, everything is animate, and therefore they suspect the presence of souls even where nothing is to be seen. Spirits are felt to be resident all over: under the earth, on the sea, on the beach, in the rivers, in the jungle, and in the sky” (Schefold 1973:17). However, neither this formulation nor those of Kruyt, Loeb and Nooy-Palm fit well into the Madobag conception of similar things, perhaps all for the same reason.

The relationship between life and death in Madobag, Mentawai, becomes clearer when we distinguish between entities of ‘life’ and those of ‘death’. To maintain that something has a ‘soul’ in the Madobag context does not necessarily mean that it is alive, that is possesses purimanua (“life”) For example, one of the puliaijat (ceremonial event) in the series, carried out to facilitate a marriage, involves the calling up of the “simagere” of all the bridetakers’ goods by the bridegivers in order to maximize the amount of goods they would receive. Invocations are directed towards the simagere of the wife takers’ cooking vats, the simagere of their mosquito nets and so forth. Informants unambiguously affirm that cooking vats and mosquito nets have simagere (although some younger and/or well educated people describe it away as merely a turn of phrase, a metaphor [gambar]). However they emphatically affirm that neither cooking vats or mosquito nets murimanua, “live”, ie. possess the property of purimanua in the way that a plant, animal, or human being can be said to. These beings all “grow” and “develop” (utuktuk), and, specifically for animals and humans, “move” (mageret). This is brought into relief through considering the apparent misinterpretation in the literature on the Pagai islands and Sipora of the kina concept.

Kruyt describes one of the various types of “spirits” as being the “kina lalep”, or house-spirit, which lives in the bakkat katsaila-like “katsaila” and “boeloeat” in the lalep (sapou in the Rereiket). He also notes that the punen (ceremonial event or puliaijat in the Rereiket) itself is addressed as “kina punen”. However, in settling on a definitive interpretation for kina, he follows Adriani(1) who views “kina” as related to the preposition “ka” meaning “to, at, on, in”. It therefore can be understood as an honorific prefix (Kruyt 1923:119). This contradicts the interpretation implied in his translation of kina lalep as “house spirit” where kina functions as not as a preposition but as a noun, a specific type of spirit entity.

Loeb takes a similar approach. As we have noted, Loeb depicts the person as possessing two souls, the simagere and the ketsat. The ketsat is the soul that leaves the body at death and becomes a ghost (sanitu). However, in Loeb’s opinion, there is “another vital factor in back of all things, both of the animate, and of those which to us are inanimate”, the “spirit, kina.” All objects possess kina. “Lifeless objects have merely kina to animate them, living things have both kina and souls. Kina is spoken of as the animating spirits of the souls, as kina-si-magere, spirits of the souls” (Loeb 1929b:189). For example “fetish sticks” (kera), which supposedly operate to prevent ghosts from entering a village, do not in themselves keep the ghosts out. It is rather the kina of these which achieve this (Loeb & Heine-Geldern 1935:194). Thus Loeb proceeds to translate other usages like “kina-buluat” as “Spirits of the altar”, or “kina-gaut” as ‘‘spirits of the talisman” (Loeb 1929a:68) in a general animist vein. Loeb rejects Kruyt’s acceptance of Adriani’s translation of kina as ‘master’. He follows Borger(2) instead stating in (unconvincing) justification that “My translation is acording [sic] to Herr Borger, and appears called for by my texts” (Loeb 1929c:127). Building on this general line of reasoning in his publication with Heine-Geldern (1935), Loeb develops Borger’s interpretation further, arguing that “the kina, or spirits, are more fundamental than the souls of living beings. For while souls are found only in living beings, spirits (kina) are found in all objects. Even souls, si-magere, must have spirits, kina, to animate them!” (Loeb & Heine-Geldern 1935:194).

Nooy-Palm is not so comfortable with this interpretation although she goes along with it in the end. Nooy-Palm points out that the word kina is never used independently, but solely in compounds, and then only if more or less sacred or particular notions are concerned. It serves to emphasize, to stress. Consequently, it can never be used substantively, in particular cases it may have the function of a demonstrative pronoun (Nooy-Palm 1968:224).

In the Siberut context Schefold has little time for the Borger-Loeb argument. He notes that the usage kina comes up only in situations where a sikerei (shaman) addresses objects within his invocations. In this case “a form of address called kina is used” and is best translated as ‘”Oh thou that possesseth a soul …”’ (Schefold 1973:16). That is, it functions as demonstrative, honorific pronoun confirming Nooy-Palm’s suspicions. This is indeed the function it has in my own data.

The interesting thing about this misinterpretation is that it is instructive in relation to the idea I am developing about the fundamental divide between “life” (purimanua) and “death”. Kina, in Loeb’s substantive conception of them, are analytically similar to Schefold’s ketsat or simagere. The difference here is that it allows Loeb to make a distinction between living and non-living beings which in the Rereiket makes all the difference. Everything has a simagere, or kina in Loeb’s terms, but not everything lives. The desire to convey this idea may have clouded Loeb’s assessment of the Adriani-Kruyt argument(3).

In my own data it would appear that every ‘thing’ possesses a being or spirit entity, its ketsat or simagere. Anything that can be named potentially possesses a ketsat/simagere, although ‘ketsat’ tends to be used in relation to entities that are no longer alive. Thus an uma can be considered to have a ketsat, along with the individual elements that make it up, the boards, the supporting posts (uggala), the cross beams as well as all the items inside it, cooking pots, fishing nets and so on. That these beings do have ketsat only becomes of concern to people in a ritual (puliaijat) situation where an object is addressed directly using the honorific prefix “kina”. Hence “kina uggala”, “kina ngong” (gong) and so on.

In the Rereiket context it is indeed tempting to characterize all beings as ‘alive’ and therefore the people who hold such views as ‘animists’. According to Schefold, everything the ‘Mentawaians’ “can visualize as an entity possesses a soul: living creatures, objects, and natural phenomena like floods and rainbows … For the Mentawaians, souls (simagere [and/or ketsat 1980:91]) are a kind of spiritual counterpart for everything in existence” (Schefold 1973:121). But it must be pointed out that beings possessing a ketsat are not necessarily “alive” (murimanua). They do not necessarily possess the property of “life” (purimanua). Beings categorized as plants, animals, or humans are represented as “alive” and therefore possess simagere rather than ketsat, although often the converse occurs: beings that are not defined as “living” are in ritual contexts often summoned through summoning their simagere. The word itself has close connections with the word meaning “to move”, mageret. In determining whether or not an animal or a human is alive the question asked is “mageret peilek ia?”, which might be answered in the negative as “Tak mageret (peilek) ia, matei ia” or “No, it/he/she no longer moves, he’s dead”.

‘Ketsat’ is hardly used at all in any context. In ritual invocations and addresses, simagere are referred to as simagere, sanitu (ghosts) as sanitu. The only occasion ‘ketsat’ is used is in relation to the animals taken for meat in the leleu. These are referred to in the ritual context as “(si)matei ketsat”. But again, outside this context they are referred to by their names, joja, bilo (gibbon), sibeutubu (deer) and so forth, as are all other animals and plants.


In terms of our orienting distinction, simagere are the beings of “life” (purimanua), and sanitu (ghosts, which I deal with in the next subsection) are the beings of “death”. But before we can fully comprehend sanitu we need to get some insight into a major force in the cosmos, bajou, since sanitu and bajou are so closely linked it is impossible to understand one without the other. Without bajou, sanitu would not possess the ability to cause sickness and death. Bajou is the distinctive property possessed by the ubiquitous sanitu. It is also the property which distinguishes the two main types of sanitu, sanitu proper (tubudsanitu) and saukkui (the ancestors), viz. the way it is used by each, and the effects it has on human beings (sirimanua), and their simagere. I have elected to subsume these within a set of binary oppositions, placing all the sanitu on one side in their capacity as wielders of bajou under a more general rubric “entities of death”, and on the positive side of the equation simagere and gaud (‘power’) as entities of “life”. This is a little awkward in relation to bajou since it is a complex property that does not allow itself to be so neatly encapsulated within such a dualism. Yet it serves to highlight the metaphysical chasm separating (the entities of) “death” from (those of) “life”.

For Kruyt, bajou was an important concept. We first come across it in his work in the context of measures taken to prevent an un-weaned baby from coming into contact with “badjoe” which he translates as “evil”. Kruyt relates that a mother of a newborn infant wears a “band” (nengnengan) usually made of coloured rattan just above her breasts, in order that they be pressed downwards. Taking issue with other (uncited) writers who interpret this as a means to simply obtain more milk for the child, Kruyt argues that it is a strategy to ensure that should the breasts come into contact with any bajou the milk flow would not be reduced, the consequence of an encounter with bajou. Kruyt was told that the nengnengan prevented contact with bajou through possessing a “protective power” (tegenhoudende [lit.”check, stop”] kracht). The “power” possessed by the band is furthermore bolstered through the application of various plants and trees possessing “life-power” (levenskrachtige). In conjunction with this, the nengnengan is able to prevent the “life-spirit” (levensgeest ie. simagere/ketsat) leaving the child (Kruyt 1923:48). The “life-spirit” ‘holds on to’ the nengnengan (Kruyt 1923:49).

A little further on we learn that following the birth of a child, a “time of poenen” (ceremonial event) is entered into. Between sunrise and sunset the child may not be taken out of the house. Whenever the parents return to the house, their head and shoulders are enveloped in “woodsmoke” in order to “combat” any bajou that may have become attached during the day’s activities. Bajou, hitherto undefined, is here described as “evil magic” (magisch kwaad) (Kruyt 1923:49) a usage he alternates with “magical influences” or “evil influences” (kwade badjoe) (eg. p.68). Similarly, if a house is burned, the whole village (dorp) undergoes a punen (ceremonial event) for several days in which the rimata of each uma, using oebaoe and salakoeai leaves, expels the “evil influences” (bajou) which had caused the fire. If left alone then other houses would be likely to be burned down (Kruyt 1923:80). Bajou is also perceived as the cause of sickness. Should someone fall ill then fire which contains “power” (kracht) is used to expel the bajou. The end of a length of wood wrapped in red rattan is burned, then the tip is stroked over the patient from head to toe (Kruyt 1923:82). Bajou also exudes from a corpse. In order to get rid of this, those taking the body to its final resting place fan it with a bunch of leaves. Accordingly this is called “masirusai”—the intransitive verb form of the root verb “rusa” meaning “wind” (as in ‘comes like the wind’) (Kruyt 1923:177-178).

Similar to Kruyt although paying less attention to it Loeb translates what he calls “badju” as a “bad influence” which could be engendered if blood were spilled in a village, for example. Along with this it also indicates some sort of “ghost contamination” (Loeb 1929b:217). Further on, in describing the various types of punen (ceremony) and the reasons they are held, he notes the existence of a “punen masiaro sikataik”: a “Carry off Evil” (sikataik) punen. Launching into his description, we learn that “the bad”, or “the bad influence” (badju), is removed through the agency of the “priest” (rimata) who blows on the leaves of the sot laggai flower in order that the “badju” be carried away with the leaves. Then there is a slight shift in the referent for “badju”, or perhaps an addition to it: “The priest takes some of the sacred leaves and summons the blood of the dead man, ‘‘Come you spirits of the bad blood. Be carried over to Siberut, do not remain in our village’’”. The implication for bajou here is that, rather than a ‘force’ of some kind as Kruyt portrayed it and as Loeb had described it up until this point, it is coextensive with “ghosts” themselves as opposed to the “contamination” they bring (bajou as property) (Loeb 1929b:232). Further on ghosts are portrayed as bringing sickness to a village. Thus the ghost of a deceased person must be kept away. Along with this, that person’s house must be “thoroughly disinfected”, his translation for the compound “pasibele badju” (lit. to ‘cause bajou to fall’). That is, “badju” as property, or “bad influence”, is the definition he returns to. “Badju” as a being (“spirit”) is no longer used (Loeb 1929b:242).

Writing about Siberut, Schefold portrays bajou as an “impersonal force”, a “kind of radiation” emanating from everything possessing a “soul” (simagere)—it is “neither good nor evil” (Schefold 1973:15). Coronese, to the contrary, is with the early ethnographers in his treatment of bajou as an “influence”, indicating that it manifests itself through its consequences rather than merely existing absolutely. Moreover, it can have either a positive or a negative effect on the object or person it comes into contact with. Indeed, there is “good” bajou, and “bad” bajou which have accordingly “good” or “bad” effects on the person or object with which they come into contact (Coronese 1986:42).

Bajou was described in various ways by my informants. But through their differing explanations it was clear that, rather than a neutral force, it was definitively associated with sanitu (ghosts) and death. Some associated it with “sickness” and, as articulated by Kruyt’s informants, with rusa or “wind”, referring to the difficulty of learning of its presence outside of its effects/manifestation—it comes and goes like the wind. Some put it this way: should a person fall ill one could say of him that he was “in the/a state of bajou” (mabajouia). One informant described bajou as a “smell”, or an “odour” that clings to people returning to the village after they have been out in the leleu for more than a month. It is, for him, an “air” or a “wind”, something inherently “bad” (sikataik) that has its origin in the leleu. One informant described bajou explicitly as a “property” of sanitu. All my informants associate bajou directly with sanitu (ghosts) to the extent that bajou is used as a synonym for sanitu, although they are actually separate entities that are very closely linked. This is evident in the clear distinction shaman (sikerei), as specialists in the manipulation of bajou and sanitu, make between the two even though in practice they tend to also use ‘bajou’ and ‘sanitu’ interchangeably.

Yet not just sanitu have bajou. Anything possessing a ketsat/simagere ipso facto possesses bajou which manifests itself in the people (sirimanua) with whom it comes into contact in the form of negative consequences for that person, most often illness or perhaps an accident. Indeed bajou is only ever evident through its (negative) consequences in the world. It is in the interests of the prevention of the effects upon oneself of an object’s bajou that one addresses its ketsat, lets it know what is happening. If the ketsat ‘understands’ then its bajou will not present a danger.

The bajou possessed by people (sirimanua) can present a real danger. Thus there is the possibility that the bajou of a person who has come from a different pulaggajat, and therefore a different suku, defined and labelled as salalaggai, is potentially hazardous to their hosts, just as their hosts’ bajou may be detrimental to their guests. The bajou from one may “surprise” (ipakisei) the simagere of the other, causing it to flee, or simply, since simagere are rarely with the corporeal body of the particular human to whom they give life, the bajou enters the person causing them to become ill.

A person has nothing to fear from their own bajou or that of fellow suku members but, rather, from salalaggai in their capacity as sirimanua (Other). Thus, when salalaggai gather at the uma of a suku or uma faction in the context of a puliaijat, measures are taken to ensure the bajou of all humans and significant beings involved in the event, particularly the bakkat katsaila, do not do mutual harm to each other. At any other time however, should saraina (relatives) or siripok (acquaintances) be passing through, they may stop or be invited to stop and partake in a meal, no such measures are taken.

The relation between a sanitu and its bajou is analogous to that between a human being (sirimanua) and his/her simagere. Wherever bajou strikes a human being, the sanitu responsible is not far away; a human and his/her simagere should, ideally, not be too far away from each other. In each case the object is to keep the two as close together as possible—the bajou that stays with its sanitu is bajou that is not causing havoc amongst the living (sirimanua). The main difference between them is that a sanitu can, in theory, leave a bit of bajou here and there since this is not a unity in the same way the simagere is, but a ‘force’ or ‘substance’, although when shaman talk about sanitu and the illnesses they cause, they represent bajou as a unity through using bajou as a synonym for sanitu—a sanitu is enjoined to come and take away its bajou, the cause of the illness.

Whilst every object—every entity that can be named—is conceived to have bajou which would not seem to involve the presence of sanitu, sanitu are nevertheless deemed to be present. For example, the building of a new uma requires the cutting down of a great many trees for use in its construction. The bajou inhering in the planks cut from these trees is considered to pose a threat to the living following completion of the uma. So before the uma may be occupied, a series of puliaijat are held in order to expel this bajou from the uma. Put to me in a slightly different way, this was described as expelling sanitu, distancing them from the living people who were to occupy the uma. The sanitu here were the now dead ketsat of the trees constituting the uma’s substance. These had turned into sanitu. Similarly, when an area on the pulagajat (suku land) is cleared to make a garden (mone), the “sanitu”, formerly the living ketsat of the trees that have been cut down, or more exactly the “heat” of their “anger”, constituting the way in which bajou is manifested in the phenomenal world, must be “cooled down” in order that it not cause sickness in those working on the mone. In short bajou manifests itself as ill-health in the living. When the shaman work to restore a person to health it is not disembodied abstract bajou that is dealt with. Rather, its removal and distancing from the patient and the uma is carried out in communion with a particular sanitu that is defined as the source of the bajou(4).


Having had a general look at the bajou concept, we are now in a position to look at the flip side to bajou, its alter ego, the sanitu. To avoid the ill-effects of bajou one must avoid sanitu which is not an easy thing to do for non-shaman, who make up the majority of the population. The problem is that an ordinary person cannot see sanitu. For example, when a shaman (sikerei) is out walking in the leleu he/she is able to see a sanitu and take measures to avoid it whereas a non-sikerei cannot. The sanitu transfers some of its illness-causing bajou by either touching a person, or addressing him/her, communication of which the victim is unaware. The sanitu normally asks a question such as “What are you doing out at this time of night?” or if in the daytime “Where are you going?” Sanitu usually do not talk to humans so it ‘surprises’ us, or, rather, our simagere which is well aware of what is going on should it happen to be with us at the time. If the simagere is there then it flees at the contact with bajou which afflicts the victim in the form of illness of some sort, from perhaps a mild head-ache through to high, life-threatening fever. But whether or not the simagere is present, the bajou precipitates illness nontheless. Every meeting with a sanitu, however, does not bring about illness. It all depends on the sanitu. Should a sanitu say something to a person when it meets them on the track, this manifests itself in a dose of bajou leading to illness. Some informants felt that illness came about as a result of failing to answer the unperceived communication from the sanitu bringing on a state of mabajou. Others emphasized that whether or not one answered it depended on the sanitu—whether or not what it said to a victim was dreadful, hence simakataik nganga (“foul language”), words said in anger, full of heat and bajou. I was once called to treat a woman who had come down with what seemed to be an attack of malaria. She was experiencing chills and bouts of fever which started the day after she had returned from the leleu. This sickness was put down to contact with a sanitu, unbeknown to herself, while she was going about her business there. The attack was mild, clearing up the next day, so a ‘healing event’ (pabete) was not necessary in which, should a pabete have been held, steps would have been taken to find out which type of sanitu was responsible in order that its bajou be returned to it.

There are several different varieties of sanitu as well as a wide variety of synonyms for them including simamatei (“the dead ones”), simakataik nganga (“bad words/language”), rusad manua (“wind of the sky”), the ketsat of the deer (sibeutubu) or general “forest meat” (simatei ketsat). The major varieties are firstly the “ordinary sanitu/just sanitu” (tubud sanitu) without specific names, but also include the named silakokoina, tinigeilat, sipiktok, and silakikio. These are sanitu sikataik as opposed to sanitu simaeruk, sanitu simakolou (“decent, understanding sanitu”) the second major type of sanitu which we have otherwise encountered as the saukkui, the ancestors.

‘Ordinary’ sanitu (tubud sanitu) are thought to congregate around the rivers as well as inhabiting the leleu, which is where one is most likely to encounter one. These are the sanitu of people who have met untimely ends: they may have fallen out of a tree, or have been overcome suddenly by illness and died out in the leleu (ie. away from the uma), or even have been hit by a machete. These sanitu are, hence, from a whole variety of suku. Wherever anyone has died in that way, buluad(5),consisting of a collection of gaud (‘powerful’ plant) varieties, is placed near the spot in order that the vengeful sanitu of the victim of an accident there is rendered incapable of causing similar harm to anyone else, or particularly, any members of the suku passing that way in the future. In other circumstances a person dying would automatically become a saukkui (ancestor). But in this unfavourable context they become a sanitu (sikataik). Often when I was out walking with people in the leleu they would stop and tell me to concentrate on a certain sound in the trees. What to me sounded like the susurrus of cicadas to them announced the presence of a sanitu. A popular story frequently told to me concerned some western tourists who reported to their guide that, when they were bathing in the river, they had seen three dark figures over on the opposite bank. When the bathers called out to them the figures promptly ran off. These figures were, apparently, the sanitu belonging to some undergraduate university students from the mainland who had attempted to cross the river when it was in full flood. The students’ canoe capsized with the result that they all drowned. To prevent further sightings and to make sure that these sanitu would cause no harm to anyone required their fathers to come to the scene of the accident in order to place buluad there. This would lessen the danger to the living.

Of the named sanitu, the silakokoina and the tinigeilat are the most dangerous, and therefore feared, due to their ability to cause debilitating illness. The silakokoina is reputed to live in the tree-tops from where it can pounce on victims below. The most dangerous, however, is the tinigeilat, the ghost of a person who has died in conflict with another person, especially as the result of wounds received from a machete. It is represented as having wild, staring, red eyes, appearing covered in blood. Madobag was moved to its present position in its early days in order to avoid problems with a tinigeilat, the sanitu of a man from nearby Ugai who had died from blows received from a machete wielded by a Madobag dweller on the original site.

The sipiktok are the ubiquitous inhabitants of every uma. These are the very essence of death since they originate from the bones and the hair on the body of a decomposing human corpse. Despite this origin and association they do not present the danger to humans that the other sanitu, the silakokoina and the tinigeilat, do. The sipiktok also count as a quasi saukkui since it comes, potentially, from the body of a dead ancestor, which would seem to account for the tolerance towards it living in the uma where it is only on certain occasions expelled. The rimata of one uma reported that sipiktok were indeed saukkui but the saukkui of other suku, of other people (sirimanua), not of relatives (saraina). Every uma is conceived to have its resident sipiktok most of the time. A person on his or her own in an uma, quickly attracts sipiktok to reside there, a characteristic they share with the silakikio. However in a choice between sipiktok as a sanitu and as saukkui, informants nearly always classified them as sanitu. Indeed, any illness that is cause for concern is treated in the uma. If sipiktok are allowed to remain they are sure to make the patient even more ill. Alongside this if the sipiktok are allowed to remain for a long period of time, then people in the uma are sure to become ill. Sipiktok are also defined as sanitu of the forest (leleu), since they can be found where there is rotting wood or lots of long grass.

The silakikio inhabit the tree tops along with the silakokoina and, as with the latter, are thought to jump on their victims from up above. But they also like to take residence in empty, abandoned houses. Should one wish to enter an unoccupied dwelling it is best to shake it gently or tap on it together with a quietly voiced ‘shhhhhh’ in order to drive away the silakikio that are certain to be inside. If children are seen to be playing in, or around, abandoned dwellings, even if these are near occupied houses, they are angrily admonished by parents or relatives to leave the area well alone lest they disturb a silakikio sanitu and suffer the consequences. A sanitu so disturbed becomes “angry” (magoluk baga) and directs that anger in the form of “bad language” (simakataik nganga) at the unwitting person disturbing it.


The ancestors, saukkui, also known as the teteu siburuk (“ancestors of the past”) or teteu simalose (“deceased ancestors”), or even, somewhat ingloriously, the teteu simamatei (“dead ancestors”), are usually classed together with the tinigeilat and the sipiktok as sanitu. However when probed at any length for the details of particular sanitu, the saukkui are singled out as apart from these other inherently malevolent beings. Similar to these beings, the saukkui possess bajou as potent as any, and, having the ability to cause sickness, are accordingly treated with the respect due to such powerful beings. Whilst I never came across an instance where illness was attributed to the saukkui, they always remained a potential source of sickness and were thus always taken into account. There is a constant tension between saukkui as relatives (saraina) and allies (alei) and the inescapable fact that they are sanitu. Yet, in a comparison with sanitu, informants extol the virtues of the saukkui in opposition to the former, stressing the latter’s good intentions and the kinship human beings share with them, whereas the sanitu are constructed as unequivocally dangerous beings.

Trance, striking people during the course of a puliaijat, is perceived to be caused by a gobok. Strictly speaking we may say of a person that they are, or have been, igobok, expressed by means of the verb form of the noun. That is it is not really an entity, a being as such but rather an event caused by something else, namely the bajou of the saukkui. Thus, people also refer to a gobok as friend/associate (alei), or relative (saraina), or simply as saukkui mai (“our ancestor”). However, in the carefully controlled context of the puliaijat where a trance experience is actively sought, a reflection of the high value placed on this experience, this bajou does not cause illness but merely brings on temporary disorientation (langok) and often a short period of unconsciousness. The gobok (ie. bajou) experience begins with the feet, where the bajou enters. This is accompanied by a cold feeling spreading up the legs, eventually exiting all of a sudden from the head after a few seconds, or even up to several minutes later. The afflicted person flies backwards, legs and arms stretched out in front of them. They are restrained only by onlookers until the bajou leaves the body, following which the person holds the top of her head, suffering a headache for her trouble. As ancestors the saukkui are “good” (maeruk) and having them around at this time is highly desirable. However this does not change the fact that they are indeed sanitu possessing bajou, meaning that they may not remain since this bajou can still precipitate illness. During a puliaijat, participants accordingly wear an abundance of ‘powerful’ manai (“decorations”) without which they may suffer adverse effects from saukkui bajou.

The saukkui are conceived to live in areas away from the uma. The nature of this area depends specifically upon the suku or uma faction concerned. The rimata of one of the Sakukuret factions represents his saukkui as living on their pulagajat (suku land) a little way up-river along the Siribabak river near Siberut’s southwest coast from where Salolosit and Samalaiming have land. The Salolosit rimata is more specific, representing his saukkui as residing in this same area on Salolosit land at mongan bokkolo, the mouth of the bokkolo creek. The Samalaiming rimata represents his saukkui as living in this area on Samalaiming land where they have their own uma and where they keep pigs and chickens, in short, existing in the style of their living relatives. The rimata of one Samwonwot uma faction conceived his saukkui to be living near the Matotonan dusun in the vicinity of a rocky outcrop on a hill there, below which runs a river they often frequent. One of the Sabagalet rimata reported his saukkui as residing on Sabagalet land in the leleu near some exposed boulders on the slope of a hill. Any land slippages in that area can be construed as a sign that a death or calamity of some kind has happened, or is about to happen, to a member of the suku. The rimata of one of the Sakalio factions, however, was not sure exactly where his saukkui live. He did not consider it very important. Like many other rimata he supposed that they could be found in the “abode of the simamatei—the graveyard (ratei)” where they have their uma. One of the Sakukuret rimata stated that the place for the saukkui was at the bakkat siririok uma support(uggala siririok uma) and that apart from this there was no special place for them as in the case of the Salolosit and Salolosit saukkui, for example. When there is a puliaijat, then they appear. The point is that it does not matter where they are outside of the puliaijat/pabete ritual context when their presence is requested. The important thing is that they are not around their living relatives until there is a good reason for them to be, such as when either ritual is being held. They are called, they come, partake of the food, then leave again, all as it should be.


All the concepts we have been discussing up to this point belong to what has come to be defined as arat (adat) sabulungan, or agama sabulungan, the “sabulungan religion”. This is contrasted to the other arat the people of Madobag adhere to, arat Katolik (Catholicism), and arat Islam. The nature of sabulungan and the degree to which ‘Mentawaians’ adhere to its principles has come in for a variety of interpretations. According to Naim (1977) “Below the surface, the skin” it is plain that “the Mentawaians” are “on average still bound to the ‘sabulungan’ religion”. Their “practical lifestyle in which soil cultivation beyond cutting back the forest is unknown, shifting cultivation, and almost everything else makes them dependent on their natural environment”. It is not surprising, then, that this forms the basis for their “beliefs where nature, including the forest, the trees, the hills, rocks, water, sea, wind, clouds, rain and so on possess their own souls or spirit, or kina, just as humans and animals which live also possess kina.” All of these kina are “believed to be under the leadership of taikamanua who lives across the sea …” Whilst reproducing the Borger-Loeb fallacy, Naim sketches out the contours of the sabulungan world-view where the most important animistic principle is the considerate treatment of the kina in the interests of good health. Alongside the kina are the ketsat which inhabit the corporeal part of an animal, plant or human. Upon death the ketsat leaves the body and changes into a sanitu. The simagere is the spirit that goes wandering when a person sleeps. If the person falls ill then it is the shaman’s job to recall the patient’s simagere and reunite it with its body. All of these elements including the ‘punen (ceremonial; ritual) periods’ are all meaningful in terms of the “sabulungan belief [system] principle” which is ultimately oriented towards achieving an accommodation with the natural world. The author clearly defines “sabulungan” as a “religion”, specifically an “animistic religion”, in its own right to be viewed relative to the “new religions”, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam. This distinction is developed further into that between a “‘little tradition’” and a “‘great tradition’” (Naim 1977:36-37). Luth similarly contrasts the “kepercayaan asli “Sabulungan” with Christianity and Islam (Luth 1980: 47). Coronese describes “the Mentawaians belief [system]” as “”Arat sabulungan”” locating the origin of the root word bulu meaning “leaves” (Coronese 1986:36).

The designation “sabulungan” had been around for some time, having a variety of cognate meanings before it came to refer to a fully-fledged “religion”. This would appear to have been necessary as a device through which agents of Christianity and Islam, disseminating the major religious traditions across the islands, were able to encapsulate various beliefs and practices under the one rubric, thus constituting an entity, a ‘religion’, just as Christianity and Islam are religions, similar to the way the categories ‘Mentawai’ and ‘Mentawaian’ have functioned, and continue to function, on a sociological and administrative level. Sihombing reports that a “meeting of the 3 religions”, that is between adherents to Christianity, Islam and Sabulungan, was held in 1953-1954 “which among other things gave the freedom to the followers of the Sabulungan religion (the original religion)” to convert to either Islam or Christianity and leave their original religion, with the result that, with a little “force” applied here and there in the odd “kampung”, the official position is that by 1955 “in the whole of Mentawai Sabulungan had been eradicated, the indigenous people having taken up one or other of the religions, most following Christianity” (Sihombing 1979:99). The usage would appear to serve the function of bringing together a diverse range of phenomena under the one rubric in a part-whole relationship in order to facilitate short term control with a view to eradication in the long run.

Saboeloengan (sabulungan) according to Kruyt is the generic name for “good spirits” (cf. Maass 1898:545) that entice people to become shaman (sikerei), rather than a specific type of spirit. Included here are tree spirits, taikamanua (“sky spirits”), taikaleleu (“forest spirits”) formerly humans who became spirits, the Lakikiau for example, and water spirits, all provided they help the shaman (sikerei) implying that this ‘goodness’ is contingent (Kruyt 1923:152-153). All shaman (sikerei) have sabulungan as their “friends”. Wherever these spirits are found they speak to sikerei. At first a shaman does not know so very many but eventually gets to know dozens (Kruyt 1923:129) (Nooy-Palm 1968:197). The word itself, Kruyt suggests, is derived from bulu which means to “pay deference to”. Thus the buluat is the place where such deference occurs. The sa is derived from si and operates as does the honorific prefix, sang, in Javanese. The compound, then, refers to the object of this deference, in this case those spirits that help a sikerei (Kruyt 1923:159). When a human’s ketsat or simagere dies it becomes a sanitu. Most go to the “land of the souls” (sabeoe laggai), apart from a few who do not—these change into “good spirits”, that is sabulungan, helpers of sikerei (Kruyt 1923:182).

For Nooy-Palm, however, this “autochthonous religious system of the Pagai-islands and Sipora has become a thing of the past … When talking about this past, the people refer to it as waktu sabulungan [or] tetere’t sabulungan”, the era of sabulungan (Nooy-Palm 1968:224). Specifically the designation sabulungan refers to “spirits”, apart from ketsat and simagere, which are divided into four classes:

1. taikamanua, the spirits living in the air (the heavens); 2. taika-polak, spirits dwelling on earth, the soil; 3. taikabaga, the sabulungan living underground 4. the sabulungan who keep watch over the animals. (Nooy-Palm 1968:225)
These are in turn subdivided into various categories. Sabulungan helped Sikerei and kept the sanitu in check, these being defined as “spirits who bring evil, disaster and illness” most of them being the “souls of dead persons, mainly those who died a “bad” death” by drowning, execution, or a woman in childbirth (Nooy-Palm 1968:226).

Sabulungan, understood as a coherent system of religious beliefs and practices or, as Nooy-Palm puts it, an “autochthonous religious system” counterpoised to Christianity or Islam, is the way government officials in South Siberut refer to the “indigenous religion”. On an excursion in the Katurei district not far to the south of Muara Siberut, the locals described the suku to me in terms of whether or not these were “pure”, that is baptized (as Catholics) or based wholly on Sabulungan. My initial enquiries in these early days of the fieldwork concerned what items if any were inherited from the ancestors, and if so, in what way these were valuable. The items that I have come to call alei katsaila I referred to at that time as alat sabulungan (“items or implements of sabulungan”). Having established myself in the Madobag dusun I once again pursued enquires shaped by the concept of sabulungan. Answers came in extremes. One informant stressed that sabulungan was merely about healing people who had fallen ill, and nothing else. One said that for him it referred to everything to do with kerei, Sikerei that is. Another stated that sabulungan meant “everything”. When I asked him to be more specific he could only emphasize the first response saying that it meant “the whole world” to him. Other informants said it was an “agama” (“religion” in Indonesian) of “leaves”, “sabulungan” being derived from bulu meaning “leaves”, pointing out the importance of a wide variety of plants (gaud) for the “agama”, or the simagere/sanitu/saukkui etc. complex, so reproducing an often cited rationalization-cum-definition of the “agama” by both indigenous people and indigenous Minangkabau—sabulungan, the “religion of leaves”.

However, towards the end of my time in the field, it became clear that sabulungan meant sanitu generally, and saukkui in particular. Bulu and buluad indeed refer to “leaves” and also the bakkat katsaila which consists largely of bulu. But these are to be distinguished from the concept sa-bulungan with which they have only a superficial relationship. Similar to Kruyt’s formulation, sabulungan appears to derive from the intransitive verb “pasibulu”, an activity aimed exclusively at the saukkui involving the presentation of some gaud or food to them in certain contexts in a puliaijat or pabete (healing event). It may or may not involve bulu (gaud leaves) per se. In a puliaijat it most often does not. In their identity as general sanitu, sabulungan may appear as one of the named sanitu, silakokoina or tinigeilat for example, which are interrogated in order to find out which one is responsible when someone has fallen seriously ill. When the particular type of sanitu has been identified its bajou can then be returned to it.

Some informants make a clear distinction between arat sabulungan, arat katolik, and arat isilam (Islam)(6). Arat katolik gains its identity from having the Injil (Bible) as its focus. At a sermon the pastor reads (pasibasa) from the Bible whereas in arat sabulungan it is the act of pasibulu to the saukkui, an act of paroman between the living and the dead, as well as the involvement of the other beings we have considered above which are brought into the activity metonymically, that defines this as an arat clearly distinct from the former. But outside this highly discursive elicited response people do not deal with the world in terms of sabulungan or arat sabulungan. The closest they come is making a distinction between arat teteu siburuk (“the arat of the ancestors”) and arat sibau (“new arat”), that is, Christianity. What has become current in the discourse exogenous to Madobag that defines their (Mentawaian) ‘religion’—sabulungan—is not used by them to describe a meaningful part of their world, except of course if they are prompted to by an inquisitive anthropologist. If one talks about sabulungan then one gets a response of one kind or another that includes sabulungan. The contrast that most readily emerges is one between kunen kerei (“sikerei business”) and kunen pastor (“pastor business”) or pastoran which refers to the Catholic missionary complex down on the coast at Muara Siberut. Kunen kerei includes all of the characteristics that are attributed to aratsabulungan whereas kunen pastor includes all of the beliefs and practices belonging to the arat sibau. This distinction between the two is legitimized by the respective ancestral figures constructed as the origins of both streams: Pagetasabbau for kunen kerei; Taikamanua (“God”) for kunen pastor.

Pagetasabbau is the being to whom shaman trace their knowledge and skills. Taikamanua, an indigenous formerly polytheitic concept, has come to be exclusively reserved for the Christian concept of a monotheistic god. Pagetasabbau is the ultimate patron and legitimizing figure for all practices involving sanitu, saukkui, bajou, gaud and so on, which encompasses the puliaijat and the pabete (healing event) ritual events. Taikamanua is the legitimizing figure for the Church, the pastoran complex, and the pastor himself. In theory and practice both streams are mutually exclusive. The Church and its practices are focused, in regional terms, on the Balai Desa, or the school where children learn about their ‘agama’ within the standard curriculum. Whilst a puliaijat or pabete does not have anything to do with Christian doctrine or practice, on a mytho-ideological level there is some exploration of the relationship between the two. Some versions of the origin narratives concerning these figures construct Pagetasabbau as, perhaps, not supreme but definitely autonomous. Others explore the problematics of their relationship, postulating ultimate origins with Taikamanua and subsequent autonomy for Pagetasabbau. Basically, Pagetasabbau watches over sikerei in their dealings with gaud and sanitu, a favour not enjoyed by the non-shaman, who leave the complex techniques associated with correctly using gaud alone (an exception here is the rimata of an uma), lest they attract the wrath and bajou of all the entities they would come into contact with through ignorance and, therefore, misuse. This is another angle to the conception of shaman as having a sabulungan for a helper. Indeed they do, the ultimate sabulungan, Pagetasabbau.


So far much has been said about gaud without going into it in any detail. Yet it is arguably the most important concept with which we must come to terms. If simagere and sanitu can be said to face each other across the gulf separating life and death, gaud and bajou can be said to do so in the same way. Gaud would appear to be another pan-Mentawai island concept which has come in for a variety of interpretations. It is seen to operate in diverse ways on the Pagai-islands, Sipora, and Siberut. In Madobag I argue that it is the critical preserver of “life” (purimanua) at the expense of death.

Kruyt (1923:20-21) describes what he glosses as gaoet (gaud) in a variety of related ways as “herbs having the power to heal” in one context, and as “packages containing powerful means of defence” in another. It basically refers to all kinds of “herbs” and objects possessing the “power” (kracht) to direct and turn away “evil” (kwaad) (Kruyt 1923:54). Elsewhere in his text Kruyt refers to gaud as “magical medicine” (68), “flowers and foliage having the power to heal” (129), and “medicinal herbs” (133). For example the leaves of plants and vines of various kinds are used as “medicine” (gaoet) on fishing nets so that when they are used, many fish will be caught, an example of gaoet djarik (fishing net gaud). Kruyt presents an interpretation of gaud based on the theme of “power” which accords with my own interpretive proclivities. However Schefold has presented an equally plausible and commonsense interpretation that I have also found persuasive.

Schefold defines what he calls gaut as “special mediators” employed during a puliaijat to “influence” certain phenomena, “particularly certain sacred plants whose souls are called upon to lend their support in influencing the souls of the relevant phenomena to grant the wishes uttered in … invocations” (Schefold 1980:89). The category also includes “particular pieces of sacrificial food”. Mediators are classified as “bad” (sikatai) or “good” (simaeru) (Schefold 1982:79). They are required to bridge the gulf between the visible world and the invisible world of the spirits towards which efforts are directed (Schefold 1991:127). This happens in the following way. A house (uma), for example, directs, by means of its soul, anger at anyone behaving inappropriately, and it is through its soul that the house must be appeased if it has made someone ill from that anger. The remedy is, then, to firstly dispel the bajou that has caused the illness and also “cool down” the house and the patient. This is done through the mediation of the aileleppet plant, a species of “gaut”, employed along with various other mediators. Its “soul” contacts the house’s soul and “invites it to allow its wrath to cool off” (Schefold 1982:129). This is all based on the underlying idea of human beings having to get along with natural or supernatural beings as “equal partners”. “Coexistence is achieved through incessant communication and reciprocation” (Schefold 1982:128).

In light of my data revealing the importance of reciprocity between partners, paroman, the thesis that constructs gaud as based in ideals of reciprocity is very apt in my own field-site. It is also appealing in light of the ‘black box’ type of interpretation that constructs gaud as “power”: we don’t know quite how it works but it does. Schefold’s explanation shows how it does work, for the Sakuddei anyway. Yet none of my informants ever represented gaud in these terms. It was presented much as bajou was presented, as a definite “force” or “energy”. The way that it was spoken about, and conceived of, with regard to its deployment in specific situations was as if it was a similar type of substance/entity to bajou, which is represented as an efficacious force in-the-world. Informants would often say of a plant species that it “had gaud” (anai gaud nia), representing gaud as a property possessed by these species which lends itself to a translation of gaud as ‘power’. To translate gaud in this way is to convey that these species, and any gaud-containing object for that matter, perform as an effective agency-in-the-world, an agency brought into being through the agency of the person using them. It is an intentional form of energy, its intentionality deriving from human agency. This interpretation helps to make sense of the widely varying ways gaud is effective in the world.

Gaud types, almost exclusively species of plants, are divided into two divisions corresponding to their most general function and which also dictate the order in which they are applied in either a pabete (healing event), or a ‘preventative’ event, a puliaijat. The gaud contained in one sort of plant or object is the same ‘strength’ as in another, only the function is different. Since sanitu and their bajou are the cause of illness, casting over “life” (purimanua) the shadow of death, these are categorized in a broad division of things sikataik (“bad”, “undesirable”, “rotten”, “putrid”). On the other hand simagere, together with the pabete and the puliaijat in their pursuit of “life”, are classified as simaeruk (“favourable”, “benign”, “good (fortune)”, “fragrant”, “strong”). Thus, on the most general level, the object is to free a person, family (lalep), uma faction, or suku, from the influence of the sikataik beings, through an application of gaud sikataik. Success in this endeavour is consolidated through applying gaud simaeruk, making sure that immediate return of the sikataik is impossible. Whilst there is a large number of varieties in each category, there are some half-dozen or so that carry the primary burden, especially in a puliaijat. In contrast, in the pabete a much wider range tend to be drawn upon. Each category is characterized by a great redundancy in effects achieved by each variety, since several carry out broadly similar functions. Each performs its function in terms of whether it is sikataik or simaeruk. But there are many particular methods of achieving these general objectives.

Essential to the effective deployment of gaud against sanitu is the particular ritualized phrase directed at each gaud type utilized. This has the effect of, firstly, mobilizing it for its intended purpose, and secondly for simply informing it, lest it misunderstand the purpose and the mission it must fulfil, thereby striking down its user with its bajou. The particular characteristic of the set phrases directed at gaud is their functioning, which resembles the English past tense. Like many East Asian languages, tense in the local variant of the Mentawai language is not indicated. Rather an action is depicted as imminent, occurring at a particular time, or completed. Completed action is indicated by adding the prefix “a” and usually also the suffix “ad” or “an” to the verb. This casts a ritual phrase in a curious light, giving it the function not of a request or even an imperative, but declaring a desirable outcome a fait accompli. Thus it is not “Banish illness!” for instance. Instead “Illness has been banished”. There are several examples of this in the following overview of gaud types and functions although I do not dwell on it in detail since we go deeply into the substance of these addresses in looking at the conjunction of the forces of gaud and the ancestral objects in the puliaijat in the next chapter. In what follows I deal with each variety in terms of the general function it is defined as serving.

Gaud Sikataik

Comparing the multitudinous varieties of gaudsikataik and gaud simaeruk there appears to be a lot less redundancy in the functions carried out by the varieties of gaudsikataik. The most commonly applied gaud sikataik are taipotsala, sikulu, ubek, sianguiakek, osa, engeu, teiteiloinak, kalipegi, tepa, ngungut tolu, sikkak, and sari. Taipotsala plays on the word sala meaning “wrong”. It is defined as having the property of ‘making a sanitu wrong’, causing it to err in its purpose of precipitating illness and/or trouble for the living. Anyone wearing this or, more usually, employing it in a ritual context would gain a measure of protection against a sanitu. An associated variety, but one used far less than taipotsala and other varieties, is pangesele.This plays on the root sele (from the adjective masele) also meaning “wrong”. The expression announces that “illness” has been set off on the wrong track. Human beings may stand their ground with impunity whilst a sanitu goes off in the “wrong” direction.

Sikulu is one of the most commonly applied and, therefore, so taken-for-granted that informants did not offer very enlightening perspectives upon it apart from pointing out that with it one could ‘sikulu this’ and ‘sikulu that’, sanitu that is. However it was clear that the small sharp thorns it carried were implicated in its effectiveness against sanitu and bajou. This logic is brought into relief against the variety sianguiakek which is considered an “associate” (alei) of sikulu in that it paradoxically achieves the same objective by an opposite method. It was explained to me in terms of a deployment against other people with a “very severe” attitude towards the user, people who would help themselves to whatever they pleased for example in that person’s house. Like sand against the sharpened blade of a machete, sianguiakek blunts the efforts of such people and of course the sanitu who would seek to make trouble for them. These incursions were “blunted”, amanguiad, derived from the adjective mangui (“blunt”). The bajou or “bad language” (simakataik nganga) of a sanitu, then, is ‘blunted’, made ineffective against the user of sianguiakek.

Osa is another very commonly employed variety of gaud sikataik. The user has the objective to amaosaadbajou, from a specified person in a pabete for example, who is rendered maosa (“healed”) or free from the bajou afflicting them. Engeu has a similar effect although it operates through “frightening” or “discouraging” sanitu from approaching humans, or if they do, it acts to send them away again. It connotes a feeling of distaste associated with walking barefoot through mud or slime, where one experiences the automatic reaction of wanting to retract one’s feet. This is postulated to be experienced by the sanitu coming into contact with the gaud. Teiteiloinak and its associated variety pukateitei both employ the concept teitei meaning “back” or “behind”. Teiteiloinak ensures that a sanitu is either always a long way behind us and/or has its back to us. Being unable to “see” (iogouakek) us, we are protected from the effects of that (malevolent) gaze, which manifests itself in illness or an accident. Its use is accompanied by the phrase “sickness has been put to the back (of us)/aipateiteiad kai oringen”. In a similar fashion with pukateitei a person might be engaged in a task whilst behind them, out of sight, also engaged in a task with their backs towards this person might be some others, sanitu for example. The person and the sanitu have their backs to each other, neither party being aware of the other. The important element here of course is that the sanitu is ignorant of the human being’s presence, and is therefore not able to cause trouble. It cannot see or approach its potential victim.

The next several varieties all achieve their purpose in various ways. Kalipegi is derived from the commonly used expression kalipogi or kalipo meaning to “forget”. Thus, under the influence of kalipegi, potentially harmful sanitu “forget” living humans and thereby cause no harm. Dubbak is one of several types that rely on the notion of separation of humans from sanitu, with the implication that a contact has been or is about to be made. Dubbak itself simply means to “free (oneself) from”. If a person has come into contact with a sanitu and its bajou, it is iterubbak (“separated”) from them by means of dubbak. My informant described this effect as similar to casting off a torn, unbecoming shirt, or wiping away animal droppings that cling to one’s skin. Ubek is as commonly applied as dubbak and means to directly “separate”. The concept is cognate with rubei which we encountered in relation to sirubeiteteu in chapter six. A little bit more intense is bakbak, hence “the ghost has been separated from our bodies/aibakbak sipuailiggo ka tubu mai”. Bakbak draws its power from its association with stripping bark away from a tree-trunk. Kalulubbak, similarly, relies on the power of stripping bark in this manner with an added nuance emphasizing the ease with which, in this case, the separation is done. Hence “ailulubak sipuailiggo ka tubu mai”. Where before one may have had great difficulty in ridding oneself of a sanitu and its bajou, the inclusion of kalulubbak helps ensure that difficulties are smoothed over. One other often used related variety is bekkala, virtually identical in function to bakbak.

Another group of related gaud sikataik is based upon the metaphor to ‘chip away’ bit by bit until an objective is reached. Tatabaga is presented as operating on a sanitu’s handiwork in the same way as a large gathering of people slowly but surely devour food at a feast. Tatabaga, little by little, in the fullness of time gets rid of the bajou. Similarly tataiktaik, where we cut away at something, take little pieces of it (pataiktaik), bajou that is, from someone suffering illness. Sikkak relies on the power of association gained from the image of pushing something away little by little until it is well enough away, or flicking at it bit by bit until its gone. A variation on this is situapei where, as banana leaves grow older eventually falling away from the stem (iapei), so too does bajou from an afflicted person or persons.

Tepa is the first of two related types linked by virtue of the brute force they are conceived to bring to the battle with sanitu. Tepa means to “hit” or “slap”. Thus we simply itepa (hit) the sanitu that would venture close to us. Interestingly, this was explained in terms of a person or people making use of this gaud to “strengthen” their “own bajou” in the face of the impending bajou belonging to a sanitu, as well as a counter to the force possessed by bajou itself. Similar to tepa is lippat. If a fire flares up we can lippat it. So too with bajou. We strike it and quickly rid ourselves of it.

The final redundant image envisages sanitu that have embarked upon a course of mischief-making, to not quite achieve their goal. The chief variety utilized to bring this about, taipaalik, means exactly that. This particular variety of gaud sikataik is presented in terms of a growing mushroom, bajou, developing to the point where it is almost fully mature. However someone comes along and treads on it—the sanitu and its bajou are sent away. The other type is taituratta. Taituratta describes the circumstance where a person might have someone or something in sight, a sanitu in respect of a human, just a little further ahead but is unable to reach them. A case of so near yet so far.

These are merely a few examples of the major and most frequently used varieties of gaud sikataik in order to illustrate the way in which imputed characteristics of certain plant varieties are viewed as able to be tapped as a source of ‘power’ to achieve definite outcomes in the world.

Gaud Simaeruk

In contrast to gaud sikataik, gaudsimaeruk exhibits a far greater redundancy in the various functions the many varieties within this category perform, whilst being nonetheless based on similar ‘power’ of association. Any operation directly against sanitu and their bajou in a pabete or a puliaijat involving gaudsikataik never occurs alone but in dyadic units with gaudsimaeruk. This is based on the idea that, having been successful in expelling bajou or distancing bajou/sanitu from a person or group, this is then consolidated with an application of simaeruk, likened to ‘stopping up the holes’ that are figuratively conceived to have been caused by the bajou, in order that bajou may not enter again. Like gaudsikataik, there is a core of gaudsimaeruk varieties most frequently relied upon, which may be used alongside other cognate varieties having similar functions, in order to enhance the overall effect. Each of the core varieties, as with gaudsikataik, performs a function different from each of the other core varieties, ensuring that the range of possibilities is covered. These are respectively ailelepet, momunen, duruk, palugerejat, soga, polak, nakka, simakainauk, taibeleki, and simuinek. As with gaud sikataik we consider the varieties in terms of their general categorical functions.

Aileleppet performs the most fundamental function of gaud simaeruk by “cooling down” the “heat/anger” that is bajou. There are two words meaning “cool, cold” in the local language, maileppet and mainut. The latter refers to the subjective experience of feeling cold. The former, from which aileleppet is derived, refers to “cold” and “coolness” as an objective property belonging, potentially, to objects and people. The aileleppet plant has been defined as the essential embodiment of this property and therefore as a powerful antidote to the heat of bajou: Performing a similar function, but less frequently applied, is talinga sikaoinan (“crocodile ear”), a species of water lily. It draws its “life” from the depths of the cool water it grows in to the extent that it cannot be separated from this environment without it losing its life. It is the essence of ‘coolness’ and is thus addressed in an identical manner to aileleppet.

Momunen, referred to as katowomunen in addresses, is derived from the adjective maomun, used as a synonym for maeruk (favourable, benign) in certain contexts. It is also means “strong” in “life”, strength coming from lots of laughter, talk, and movement, all of which are “life”-affirming activities. My informant commented to me, “Tak maron ita, tak maomun ngangata. Tak maeruk patuat, tak maomun nia/If we are weak (unwell), our words are not strong (have no penetration). If our hearts/thoughts are unwell, we are not strong”. Momunen has many cognate varieties which are often used alongside it, particularly in the course of a puliaijat. One is Patagorak, consisting of the compounds pata (“high”) and gorak (from magorak:”happy), each implying and reinforcing the other. According to my informant, “We are strong, we talk, we eat, we are joyful. Because of this we are “high” (tall). Surak is conspicuous by its striking green, red and yellow stripes—the colour of “life”. The word is most often used in the compound masurak bagata which is often translated as “thank you”, although it actually is used by someone to express an inner state which reaches out to encompass all those involved in a particular encounter rather than to express something extended from one person/group to another: masurak (“colourful” ie. joyful) baga (“inside”) ta (“us, ours”-includes addressee). According to my informant, “Oto urimanua, masurak bagata, masurak bagata autuituiad sipuailiggo/If we live we are joyful, we are joyful that the ghosts have been sent away. If there is a ghost near us [that is, we are suffering the effects of bajou] then we are not joyful.” Soga means to “call, summon”. It is used alongside the others where its ‘power’ is utilized to “summon” “life” (purimanua), specifically in the form of the simagere. Related to all these in function is kiniu (tumeric) a tuber producing a vivid, yellow dye used by shaman and others in a puliaijat, mainly to cover their faces and torso as the mood takes them. Its use in cooking as a spice furnishes a sense of enhanced palatability, which, along with the other characteristics, associates kiniu with good food and beauty of body decoration. It also connotes another definitive characteristic of “life”: malatsat (“clarity, purity”). “Imakiniu patuatta, imalatsat patuatta/If our hearts|thoughts are beautiful (colourful, sapid [ie.”nice tasting”]), then our hearts will be clear and pure”(7).

Duruk is the adjective meaning “all” and therefore the name given to a type of gaud gaining its power through referring to the collectivity, as exemplified in the phrase delivered when exhorting it to do its work: “Duruk, kailek maruruk/ Duruk, here we gather together”. Palugerejat, tangentially related to duruk, is quite versatile. Besides its ritual applications, it is often ingested as a pleasant, and powerful, tea preparation. Palugerejat is often referred to in ritual addresses as sigereibagana, the “gay one”. This is its strength, its power to foster and enhance ‘happiness’ which connotes ‘movement’, ‘noise’, and ‘laughter’. These are signs and enhancers of “life” since they are the products of large numbers of people coming together in a puliaijat, or a pabete, in the uma for example, characteristics assured to repel the attack of a sanitu. Taibeliki and taimalauklauk are employed to ensure that the number of people that are made the targets of these varieties do not “become less” because of sanitu initiated sickness. In the words of my informant, “Tak moi ibeleki ita oringen, tak ilauklauk ita/Our numbers may not be reduced through sickness, we remain”. Closely related to these is simuinek, drawing power from an image of “wholeness”, “fullness” and “roundness”: “Ta tumuinek purimanuaijat/We are whole in life”. This is applied, as with taibeleki and taimalauklauk, in order that the whole, that is the suku or uma faction, not be reduced through the loss of any one of them. Also related, and often used alongside these other varieties, is tadde, derived from the verb iade, to “count”. This is aimed at bringing about an increase in numbers, or, at the very least, ensuring that one by one each suku member is “added up” until the total of all suku members is achieved, or, better still, in the form of new members through birth or marriage.

Sijar draws on the power coming from the association of many people, similar to palugerejat and duruk. This variety of gaud is mobilized through the phrase, “Gaud mai tatogaku sijar, kailek ujar dere tatogaku/Our gaud, gaud of my children, sijar, loud are our feet”. “If we are by ourselves, our feet make no sound. However when our children are around, when we are all together, when we are many, then there is much noise and commotion.” There is no death here; there can be nothing “deathly” in such an overt manifestation of life. One person by him- or herself, alone, makes no sound, and thus epitomizes death. A common practice is for shaman to wear small bells (tairosi) on their ankles or around their waists. These are defined as containing gaud through the ringing, tinkling sound they make when worn by someone walking along. It actually sounds like several people. The point is that death is silent. A corpse cannot walk and make tinkling sound through wearing tairosi which is why sanitu are conceived as silent, shadowy beings. But a being of “life” (purimanua), a si-rimanua, makes noise in living, in short exhibits “life”. In exhibiting “life” a person, therefore, also contributes to its reproduction and ensures its continuity.

Very commonly applied are those varieties that “open” out to “life”, sibukak, bekeo, and to a lesser extent, bailak. Sibukak is straightforward. The word is derived from bukak meaning “open”. The compound means “that which opens up”. “Ta bukak patuatta, ta paale ka sirimanua, ta bukak patuatta ukerajo, ta bukak patuatta murimanua/We open our thoughts/hearts, we associate with people, we open our thoughts/hearts to work, we open our thoughts/hearts to living”, was my informant’s comment on this. Bekeo participates in this openness to “life” and living. Hedges bordering houses (sapou) in the dusun are often created from cultivated and carefully pruned bekeo bushes. At night the distinctive red flowers are closed up. Come daylight, they open out to the light. When utilized as gaud, the accompanying phrase is “Sibukak, italek mabukak tubu, italek mabuka mata purimanua/Sibukak, (as you do) we also open our bodies, we open our eyes to life”. The central image here is the opening out to the sunlight which is considered synonymous with “life”. When people go out of the dusun to their gardens they often wear bekeo flowers as a form of “decoration” (manai) and not as gaud per se, although its importance for them ultimately rests on its identity and function as gaud.

Other important varieties are kelakelak and kelakbaga, both drawing on images of “hardness”, “resilience” and “resistance” in the face of advances from sanitu. Kelakelak is effective in making people’s “words” more forceful if they are confronted with “bad language” directed at them by a sanitu, which manifests itself in a state of sickness (mabajou). The logic is that if our words are “strong, compelling” then we are protected from a sanitu’s attack, or according to my informant, “Bulek imakelak ngangata, imakelak patuatta, ka tubud sipuailiggo/Our words are hard, our hearts-thoughts are hard towards the shadowy ones”(8). Kelakbaga also depends on the idea of “hardness” and “resilience”, not of “words” however, but of one’s “insides”. It is also defined in terms of the resilience of one’s own bajou faced with a sanitu’s bajou: “Imakelak bata purimanua, imakelak patuat bajouta, ituitui sipuailiggo/Our insides are resilient in life, hard is the bajou of our hearts|thoughts. Thus the shadowy one returns from whence it came.” “If our thoughts are not hard, and we are soft, then the thieves will come to us, steal from us, take our tobacco, our money. When our thoughts become hard, they do not come, they fear us”, my informant added. We can understand this latter statement in two ways. Firstly, we can take this literally to refer to actual people in other suku who would seek to steal from us, or even do us harm. Secondly, sanitu can be included within this category, sanitu who would seek to steal people’s simagere, their very life essence away from them, leaving in its place a good dose of bajou. Kelakbaga can be deployed against these possibilities.

These, then, are the major varieties of gaud and the rationale behind their individual efficacy. There are still some uses of gaud, however, which are directed towards ends other than the banishment of the entities of death and the enhancement of “life”. These involve enticing and capturing a person’s simagere to whom one wants to do harm. This gaud is known as gaudsikataik, so named due to the ill purpose to which it is put, not because it functions to drive away sikataik beings, the major function of gaudsikataik as we have understood it in this chapter. Gaud can also be applied in hunting, which is, once again, aimed at summoning the simagere of the animal to be hunted. Such was the course of action taken by my next door neighbour. He could not catch a particular fruit-bat which kept visiting his baited snare each night despite numerous attempts, including sitting up all night with an air-rifle in the hope of picking it off. The problem was, he related, the animal’s simagere “knew” about the snare he had set. Thus he applied soga (to call) and duruk (to gather together), in order to compel the simagere to come so the animal could be caught. A similar rationale is behind the sometimes practiced gaud sinanalep (“woman” gaud), where a man or youth attempts to cause a girl with whom he wishes to liaise or marry to adopt a favourable attitude towards him. There is also, conversely, gaudsimateu (“man” gaud), practiced by a woman in order to influence a man with whom she wishes to liaise or marry. However, this is, according to my informants, male and female, a rare occurrence. It is defined as underhand in contrast to gaudsinanalep with which nobody has any problems.

In this article I have looked closely at the major categories of powerful beings and entities that animate the spaces of the cosmos, the broad context within which the entities of life, the simagere, contend with the beings of death, the sanitu. In an ideal world, each member of a suku would be perpetually unified with his/her life-essence, his/her simagere. However, the cosmos is frequented by the dead of the Other, other suku that is, sanitu, that perpetually roam the landscape, in particular the unsocialized space of the leleu, or dwell in uninhabited dwellings, far too frequently effecting a transfer of the essence of death, bajou, to unsuspecting individuals, effectively separating them from their life essences.

This is the reason for the existence of the puliaijat, in which the ancestral heirlooms , primarily the bakkat katsaila, are mobilized to (re)establish an unambiguous separation between humans and their simagere on one side, with ghosts and their bajou on the other, in the interests of creating a space free from, or at least resistant to, the entities of death through confining them to their own space in the anti-social space of the leleu. The means and techniques through which this is accomplished is the subject of the next and final article where I examine how, through the puliaijat as a strategy of prevention, and in the pabete as a strategy of cure, the uma is utilised as a means to create a space of life within the cosmos.

A tangential issue that requires mention at this point is that this is the closest I come to a discussion of issues that would be probably categorised or defined by others as “medicine”(although some mention is made at the end of article 8). Towards the end of this article the reader is presented with a detailed discussion of varieties of plant (gaud) which could, from one perspective, also be classified as “medicinal”. However this would be to fundamentally misinterpret the use of these plants. Their use is almost exclusively metaphorical in which certain plants have come to be (culturally) invested with particular properties. The healing properties of aileleppet for example come from its ability to reduce “heat” in an afflicted person. The root word itself is used in daily parlance in the form of maileppet meaning “cold, cool”. The chemical efficacy, therefore, of the various applications is unproven, and is, anyway, not what they are about.

Proceed to Article 8


(1) Kruyt does not give any reference here.

(2) No reference given. Borger was a missionary stationed in Sikakap on North Pagai.

(3) I do not want to suggest that this is a pan-‘Mentawaian’ category since the ethnographic data allow, at the most, merely some speculation that this may be a relevant dichotomy in the Pagai situation.

(4) A logging company working to the south of the desa was considered to be engaging in dangerous practices by not taking any measures to “cool down” the trees felled and taken out of the forest.

(5) Also another name for the bakkat katsaila.

(6) Another example of substantivization or the “double hermeneutic”—exogenous conceptions of indigenous society are incorporated into indigenous population’s representations of their own practices.

(7) This is not to be understood in a moral, theological sense but purely metaphorically. Malatsat evokes images of “clear” and “pure” running water, the very essence of “life”.

(8) Such an exegesis does not sit well with my interpretation of gaud as power in this particular instance since there is a clear explanation of how the gaud carries out its task here. Instead, we could extend Schefold’s explanation of the functioning of aileleppet, where there is conciliation carried out on behalf of the patient and the offended house’s ketsat, and posit a similar explanation for the functioning of this particular variety. It is conceivable that the “forceful language” giving this gaud its power is too much for a sanitu in a confrontation between it and the kelakelak ketsat. However, this may be taking too many liberties with the actual exeges

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