Bornean Religions

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BORNEAN RELIGIONS . From earliest times, the coasts of Borneo have been visited by travelers going between ancient centers of civilization in Asia. Since the sixteenth century Islam has slowly spread from coastal trading centers, such as Brunei in the north and Banjarmasin in the south. Immigrant Chinese have brought the practices of their homeland, and in the last century Christian missionaries have been increasingly successful in the interior, prompting syncretic revivalist cults. This article, however, is concerned with the indigenous religions of the great island. Many of these have passed out of existence or are imminently about to do so without being studied in depth. The existing data indicate wide variation in belief and practice. Nevertheless, there are features widely characteristic of Bornean religions, and it is these that are summarized here.

Ethnic Diversity

All the indigenous peoples of Borneo speak Austronesian languages, but they exhibit bewildering ethnic diversity. There is still no generally agreed upon taxonomy, and many of the most familiar ethnic terms are vague. In the south and west there are large, politically fragmented populations that nevertheless manifest considerable cultural uniformity. Examples of these are the Ngaju and Iban, both numbering some hundreds of thousands. To the north the terrain is mountainous and the rivers difficult to navigate. Here are found many small groups, each at most only a few thousand strong. The ethnic diversity is of immediate consequence for religions, because the religions are rooted in the local community and contribute to much of its identity.

The General Concept of Religion

Many of the cultures of interior Borneo lack the concept of a separate domain of religion. Instead, ritual observance is incorporated into a spectrum of prescribed behaviors that includes legal forms, marriage practices, etiquette, and much else. All of these are matters of collective representations shared by autonomous communities. Such communities often consist of a longhouse with a few hundred inhabitants and are separated from neighboring villages by tracts of jungle. There is no notion of conversion to another religion; if an individual moves to another communityfor instance, as the result of a marriagehe or she simply adheres to the ritual forms of that place. Significantly, members of a community often exaggerate their ritual peculiarity. An outside observer readily identifies items shared with neighboring groups, but the patterns of distribution are complex, reflecting migration and borrowing over many centuries.

The religions of interior Borneo are rich in both ritual and cosmology. In perhaps the best known account, Schärer (1963) describes the subtle notions of the godhead found among the Ngaju, replete with dualistic aspects of upper world and underworld, multilayered heavens, and complex animal and color symbolism. Other peoples have comparably extensive spirit worlds. Because of the archaeologically attested antiquity of contact with India, some authors have discerned elements of Hindu belief. Schärer (1963, p. 13) attributes one of the names of the Ngaju supreme deity to an epoch of Indian influence. In the north there are features of the religionfor instance, in number symbolismthat may indicate influence from China, but there is no overall similarity to Indian or Chinese religions.

The Prominence of Mortuary Ritual

One element of ancient Southeast Asian provenance is a central feature of many Bornean religions: that is, a focus on death and, in particular, on secondary treatment of the dead. This mortuary complex has been associated with Borneo at least since the publication of Robert Hertz's classic essay (1907). By no means did all interior peoples practice secondary disposal in recent times. The custom is found across much of the southern third of the island but has only a scattered distribution further north. Stöhr (1959) surveys the variety of death rites across the island. Where secondary treatment occurs, it is part of an extended ritual sequence, often the most elaborate of that religion (Metcalf, 1982). The occurrence of secondary treatment also draws attention to the importance of the dead in indigenous cosmologies. Other life-crisis rituals are generally celebrated on a smaller scale, one that does not involve the participation of entire communities.

Agricultural Rites

Major calendrical rituals are usually coordinated with the agricultural cycle. This is especially true among the Iban, who speak of the soul of the rice in anthropomorphic terms, and focus rites upon it at every stage of cultivation (Jensen, 1974, pp. 151195). In some areas, however, notably the northwestern subcoastal belt, reliance on hill rice is relatively recent. In these areas, where sago is produced, rice ritual is less prominent.

Head-Hunting Rites

Head-hunting is another practice commonly associated with Borneo. Formerly prevalent, it usually occurred in the context of warfare or as an adjunct to mortuary rites. Frequently heads were required in order to terminate the mourning period for community leaders. In contrast to other parts of Southeast Asia, heads were the focus of much ritual. Hose and McDougall describe the techniques of warfare and head-hunting found among the Kayan and Kenyah of central northern Borneo, and also the large festivals periodically held to honor the heads (Hose and McDougall, 1912, vol. 1, p. 159; vol. 2, pp. 2022, 41, 47).

Ritual Specialists

Even in societies with little technological and political specialization, ritual specialists are important. But there is great variation in the particular combinations of roles played by priest, shaman, and augur. Women often play a major part. Among the Dusun of northern Borneo, for example, priestesses officiate at all major rituals (Evans, 1953, p. 42). Often in association with death rites there are psychopomps to conduct the deceased to the land of the dead. In all of this, ritual languages are prominent. Often the major function of priests and priestesses is to recite long chants that deal with mythical events. These chants are complexly structured in terms of parallel phraseology; even prayers uttered by laymen in small family rituals display formal structure (Evans, 1953, pp. 4256). Ritual is often accompanied by the sacrifice of chickens, pigs, or buffalo.

Shamanism is found everywhere and typically involves the recovery of errant souls through séances. Concomitantly, theories of illness usually focus on soul loss, in which all manner of nonhuman, malign agencies are implicated. Yet there is often a complementary theory of illness that results from the infraction of primordial taboo. Although not entirely absent, there is remarkably little concern with witchcraft.

Ritual and Social Differentiation

Some societies of interior Borneo are hierarchically stratified, while others are egalitarian. But even in the latter, major public rituals are closely bound up with the forms of leadership and social control. There is a dearth of rites of prestation, in which wealth passes between similar collectivities. This may in part be a result of social organization that is predominantly cognatic, that is, lacking groups defined by fixed rules of descent. In large-scale festivals, however, leaders coordinate the efforts of entire communities in order to feed guests and erect monuments.


Evans, Ivor H. N. The Religion of the Tempasuk Dusuns of North Borneo. Cambridge, U.K., 1953. Describes in list format the beliefs and ceremonies of a subgroup of the extensive but culturally varied Dusun people of Sabah. The major emphasis is on folklore and mythology.

Hertz, Robert. "A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death" (1907). In Death and the Right Hand, two of Hertz's essays translated from the French by Rodney Needham and Claudia Needham. New York, 1960. A brilliant essay by a prominent student of Émile Durkheim concerning the significance of mortuary rites, particularly secondary treatment of the dead. Hertz utilized published sources, and much of his data came from the Ngaju of southern Borneo.

Hose, Charles, and William McDougall. The Pagan Tribes of Borneo. 2 vols. London, 1912. Despite the title, these volumes mostly concern the people of central northern Borneo, particularly the Kayan. Based on Hose's years of experience as a government officer. Contains much useful information; most of that on religion is in volume 2.

Jensen, Erik. The Iban and Their Religion. Oxford, 1974. A readable ethnographic account based on Jensen's seven years among the Iban as an Anglican missionary and community development officer. Emphasizes world view, cosmology, and longhouse festivals.

Metcalf, Peter. A Borneo Journey into Death: Berawan Eschatology from Its Rituals. Philadelphia, 1982. Describes in detail the elaborate mortuary ritual sequence, involving secondary treatment of the dead, in a small ethnic group of central northern Borneo. Shows how these rites reflect Berawan concepts of the soul in life and death.

Schärer, Hans. Ngaju Religion: The Conception of God among a South Borneo People (1946). Translated from the German by Rodney Needham. The Hague, 1963. Schärer was a missionary with the Baseler Mission in southern Borneo for seven years and later studied under J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong at Leiden. His account of Ngaju cosmology is impressive, but he unfortunately gives little idea of the social or ritual context.

Stöhr, Waldemar. Das Totenritual der Dajak. Ethnologica, n.s. vol. 1. Cologne, 1959. A compendium of sources on death practices from the entire island. Contains no analysis but is useful as a guide to bibliography.

New Sources

Appell, Laura W.R., and George N. Appell. "To Do Battle with the Spirits: Bulusu' Spirit Mediums." In The Seen and the Unseen: Shamanism, Mediumship and Possession in Borneo, edited by Robert L. Winzeler Williamsburg, Va., 1993.

Guerreiro, Antonio J. "Contexte et Metaphore: A Propos du Mythe Kayan de l'Introduction de la Nuit (Borneo)." Anthropos 84, no. 46 (1989): 487505.

Kershaw, Eva Maria. A Study of Brunei Dusun Religion: Ethnic Priesthood on a Frontier of Islam. Phillips, Maine, 2000.

Rousseau, Jerome. Kayan Religion: Ritual Life and Religious Reform in Central Borneo. Leiden, 1998.

Schneider, William M. and Mary-Jo Schneider. "Selako Male Initiation." Ethnology 30 (1991): 279291.

Peter Metcalf (1987)

Revised Bibliography