Negrito Religions: Negritos of the Malay Peninsula

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The Negritos of the Malay Peninsula, who are generally called the Semang in the literature, numbered about two thousand in 1974. They live in small groups scattered about the foothills in the northern half of the peninsula (4°N6°30'N; 100°E103°E). They speak a number of related languages in the Mon-Khmer language family. Until about 1950 most of the Semang were nomadic hunter-gatherers. The staple of their diet was wild yams, and their main source of meat was arboreal animalsmonkeys, gibbons, squirrels, and birds, which they hunted with blowpipes and poisoned darts. They also carried on some trade with neighboring Malay farmers, exchanging such forest produce as rattan and resins for iron tools, salt, cloth, and cultivated foods. They lived in camps of five to fifteen related nuclear families, moving every week or two when the local resources were exhausted. Each family was politically independent, the only leadership in a group being the informal influence of a particularly wise or persuasive person. Since 1950 well over half the Semang have settled down, often under the direction of government agencies, and adopted shifting agriculture. Yet even in these changed conditions, they have clung to their traditional religion, which has served as an important symbol of their ethnic identity.

In the cosmology of the Semang, the land forms a disk that is surrounded and underlaid by sea. It rests on the back of a giant snake, called Naga', which by shifting position can cause eruptions of water from underground. The firmament is a solid dome or series of layers, on top of which live the benevolent superhuman beings, called chinoi in the west and hala' in the east, who bring the seasonal fruit blossoms to earth. After death the shadow-souls of the Semang are believed to join these beings, on top of the firmament or on an island in the western sea. A stone pillar rises at the center of the world and reaches the firmament. Near its top is a cave, the home of the thunder god. The thunder god, whom most Semang groups call Karei, is generally regarded as malesometimes a single being and sometimes a pair of brothers. The Semang believe that Karei causes thunderstorms to punish persons who have broken prohibitions against disruptive or disrespectful behavior. Karei is aided by a female earth deity, sometimes pictured as a pair of sisters, who is occasionally identified with the earth-supporting snake.

The rituals of the Semang are few and simple. The best-known rite is the blood sacrificethrowing blood from the leg to the thunder god and earth deitywhich is used to avert thunderstorms. Most groups also have singing and dancing sessions in which they thank the superhuman beings for the fruit and request their general support. These sessions may culminate in trancing and journeys of the shadow-soul to the haunts of the superhumans. Among the western Semang, a shaman may perform a séance in a special hut called a panoh, in which he calls down the chinoi. Semang rituals are intended to promote the fecundity of nature and to avert the dangers of their forest world.


We are fortunate to have several reliable and detailed sources of information on the religions of the Semang. The most extensive is Paul Schebesta's Die Negrito Asiens: Religion und Mythologie (Vienna, 1957), which has been partially translated into English by Frieda Schütze for the Human Relations Area Files (New Haven, 1962). This work, volume 13 of "Studia Instituti Anthropos," focuses especially on the Jahai and other groups of the north-central and northwestern parts of the Malay Peninsula. Schebesta gives a fascinating popular account of his fieldwork and findings in Among the Forest Dwarfs of Malaya, translated by Arthur Chambers (London, 1928). Ivor H. N. Evan's The Negritos of Malaya (Cambridge, 1937) also contains a great deal of material on Semang religion. It is based on numerous visits to Semang groups in all parts of the peninsula between 1913 and 1932. For a detailed account of the religion of a Semang group from the east-coast state of Kelantan, see my book Batek Negrito Religion: The Worldview and Rituals of a Hunting and Gathering People of Peninsular Malaysia (Oxford, 1979).

New Sources

Endicott, Kirk. "The Batek of Malaysia." In Endangered Peoples of Southeast and East Asia, edited by Leslie E. Sponsel, pp. 101121. Westport, Conn., 2000.

Kirk Endicott (1987)

Revised Bibliography