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Blood and Feathers - Masculine Identity in East Timorese Cockfighting.

Cockfighting boasts a long pedigree around the world, even in the United States, where the sport is illegal. Rules and etiquette vary from culture to culture and can be quite elaborate. Special vocabularies denoting the physical attributes of cocks, feather color, and fighting style have developed. Deciding which owner or bettor wins may be determined by a single fight or a series. The betting system can be straightforward or sophisticated, with odds laid and individual bettors pooling their resources and wagering as a group. But no matter where you travel, the only woman you will find at a match is the occasional tourist or anthropologist. Cockfighting is universally a masculine pastime, as it is in East Timor, half of an island sitting 350 miles north of Australia.

My wife and I started going to these spectacles more than thirty years ago but couldn't return to East Timor until 1999 because of political events that wracked the lives of its people. That summer we renewed our acquaintance with a family by the name of da Costa Soares, and I asked to go to a cockfight. Jorge Emanuel Soares, a scion of the house, kindly took charge of our excursion, and we went in his car to one of the regular sites for the sport. As we approached, raucous excitement told us a tournament was getting under way.

In East Timor, cockfights are held on any social occasion when men get together. They can be spontaneous events, where men encircle the swirling roosters as their turbulent strivings raise clouds of dust, their gaffs lashing out in unpredictable directions. They can also be more formal occasions, set aside on local calendars, sometimes part of weekly markets. Such contests usually take place inside a permanent circular fence.

Aside from its wealth of symbolism, which imparts a ritualistic quality to this sport, Timorese cockfighting is unencumbered by complexity. No odds are laid, and a single match decides a bet. In Dili several sites are set aside exclusively for cockfighting. It was to one of these that we went.

Symbol and surrogate

In East Timor, both sexes enjoy each other's company on all social occasions, except at cockfights. Here, Timorese women are noticeably absent (except as food vendors), which enables men to become more aware of their manhood. Cockfights mirror the old macho raids for enemies' heads. As head-hunting helped define manhood in the past (the practice ended during the Portuguese colonial occupation), so cockfighting defines manhood today. Where men traditionally competed one on one in the bloody competition for heads, avian surrogates now fight on their behalf. The cockpit has replaced the battlefield. As in head-hunting, the motifs of manhood, death, and life now figure as a subtext for the bloody dances of cockfighting.

Folktales confirm the identity of men with their roosters, which commonly acts as surrogates for their owners. One tells of a child- prince whose coffin is placed in a tree shortly after his death. Sisters from across the sea arrive in their sailboat and smell the rotting corpse. They haul down the coffin, restore the prince to life, and convey him to their land. When the prince reaches adulthood, he trains a fighting cock. Subsequently, he marries one of the sisters.

Some time later, he visits his homeland and discovers that a usurper has stolen his father's throne. The prince promptly identifies himself as legitimate king and promises to return inside a week with his bird to challenge those of every man in the kingdom. He does return, pits his rooster against all challengers, triumphing each time, until the only cock still alive is that of the usurper. The imposter is so confident he has the best fighter in the land, he bets his life on its victory. His cock is slain, whereupon the prince kills the usurper and becomes king.

Though absent in the flesh, women are very much implicated in the masculine sport of cockfighting. Ancestral ghosts are thought to be the creators of the next generation because they have the power to make sex between men and women fruitful. These elementals are addicted to blood that has been spilled in violence. It nurtures them in the netherworld they inhabit. Head-hunting and cockfighting, from a symbolic perspective, are ritualistic activities by which this sacred substance is transmitted to them for nourishment. In exchange, the ancestors bring babies to women.

For this reason, in ancient times only a married man was permitted to enter cockfighting competitions, and acquiring a rooster of his own was a rite of passage for a boy. Folktales typically affirm this transition in a young man's life by describing episodes in which he leaves home to embark upon a journey, accompanied by his bird. Having it as a companion sends the message that the young man has matured to the point where he can legitimately seek a wife. Owning a cock also signaled that he was mature enough to join head-hunting parties.

A fierce contest

In one folk story, brothers assume responsibility for their sister's virtue after their parents' death. When they leave for work in their garden each morning, the brothers install their sister in a tree house accessible only by a ladder, which they remove whenever they leave. Her lover, however, can transform himself into a cock and flies into the house whenever he wishes.

Because the handler's job requires great skill, so like the brothers caring for their caged charge, some owners prefer to let a more experienced man assume the job. As is common in many cockfighting cultures, Timorese birds have to manage with a sharp gaff attached to the left leg, left being considered the side of death. Using red cord, red being the color of death, the handler painstakingly attaches the gaff's flat handle against the cock's natural spur. The rest of the weapon consists of a three-inch-long, razor-sharp double blade.

The care a conscientious handler gives the gaff is matched only by his tactical support during the fray. Never taking his eyes off the bird's gaff, he is ever prepared to yank his fighter from the fray, call time- out, and readjust its angle. He worries that the gaff is set at a less- than-optimal angle or that the melee has caused it to shift.

It is essential that the handler knows his bird's favored modus operandi and attaches the blade at the most-suitable angle. Though the blur of plumped-up feathers suggested that the birds were flailing about hoping for a lucky strike, aficionados told me that most cocks follow favorite attacking modes. Some leap above an opponent, toes splayed out, their feet outstretched to strike downward. Others commence their onslaught in a crouching posture and then suddenly lash upward. Some curve the trajectory of their strike, which is delivered from either above or below.

Before one contest has run its course, the gaffs will be on. While a man from each camp begins to collect the bets, the handlers parade the two cocks around the area adjacent to the pit, holding them aloft so all bettors may get a glimpse of their potential. When the preceding fight ends, the handlers will already be striding toward the pit, birds in hand, while final bets are taken from the spectators ranged around. The handlers squat down, charges in hand, facing each other under the referee's eye.

The contest begins as the handlers, birds raised in both hands at chest level, thrust the creatures at each other. If one or both lack mettle, the handlers incite them by encouraging the cocks to peck at each other's combs. If this does not work, the men will tug the long tail feathers and toss the birds together, a stratagem that usually causes them to lunge at each other and commence furiously capering across the arena's dusty floor. They flap their wings at each other, sometimes locked together, at other times impotently churning the air with their claws. They engage and then separate until one cock flees and is chased by the winner or they settle down to a fight. It seldom takes more than three minutes, not counting time-outs, before one bird sinks to the ground with blood staining its feathers.

Once the birds have started lashing away at each other, the handlers must respond without delay to any sudden turn in their fortunes. Should the contestants be "hung" together in a skein of feathers, the gaff of one impaling the other, the injured cock's handler wastes no time before plunging into the fray and deftly tugging at the tail feathers to extricate his charge. He then quickly retreats to give the bird a brief time-out. Intervention is hazardous because the gaffs gyrate randomly, and handlers must take great care as they grab hold of the feathery bodies.

Blood, power, and money

The man-bird identity finds dramatic expression in the violent shedding of blood, the substance most evocatively symbolic to the cockfight. Without blood, life is not possible, and its extrusion results in death. Like many cultures, East Timor puts these biological facts to figurative use in rituals by making blood symbolize both life and death. In head-hunting, decapitating an enemy transferred his life- giving power to the hero through his violently shed blood. Today, the blood a dead cock spills is regarded as equivalent. Its death transfers the lost life force to the owner of the victorious cock and his wife.

As the handler inspects his charge for wounds, any sign of glumness provokes gleeful howls from the rival's supporters. The others hold their peace. To revive an injured champion, a handler spruces up the comb, jowls, and fleshy flaps surrounding the ears and may even blow water into the bird's mouth. Each handler has his own favorite methods for effecting recovery. One man I noticed plucked out a tail feather and stuck it down the bird's throat. Another rubbed his charge's back and thighs, stretched its legs, and blew into its open beak. A third, suspecting perhaps a ruptured lung, sucked blood from the stricken creature's mouth. Blowing on the head is also held by some handlers to be efficacious.

By these ministrations an experienced handler will likely keep a cock mobile long enough to give it at least some hope of scoring a lucky hit during a protracted fight. The gaff of the crippled bird, after all, is just as sharp as that of its unmarked rival. One contestant I saw was so badly gaffed that all it could do was wobble about on unsteady limbs. The handler had pulled it from the contest, taken the bird's beak into his mouth, and blown water down the hapless creature's throat. Although the rival handler mocked his counterpart and his bird's supporters pranced about, shrieking in exultant anticipation of monetary gain, their optimism proved premature. The injured creature emerged from the time-out reinvigorated enough to change the flow of battle with a lucky lunge, the gaff instantly inflicting a fatal wound.

The payoff for successful owners amounts to more than money. Possessing a winning cock inflates masculine conceit because of the men's conspicuous identification with their pampered birds. They fondle, stroke, ruffle, and fluff up the sleek feathers as they reverently parade the cocks before contests and after a winning one. They even honor birds that have killed in the pit with the designation assuwa'in (warrior), a title that used to be conferred only on a successful headhunter. The losing bird is given to the winner owner for dinner.

The symbolic dimension that enriches the Timorese cockfight in no way limits the wagerers who flock to tournaments to make money. Here, the lucky can gain at the expense of the more gullible, while enjoying the raw excitement of uncertainty inherent in all games of luck. Unlike contenders in the boxing ring, bigger birds are not more likely to win. Even experience and preparation cannot ensure success. Accordingly, Timorese cockfighting culture has devised a cornucopia of auguries to aid successful betting.

Feather color and time of day, I was told, are the main guides to successful betting. A cock with white feathers is generally luckier than most other birds, especially in combat at midday with a black or yellow opponent. Red feathers come into their own at about 5:00 .ut half an hour later cede the field to birds with stippled feathers. A bird with freckled skin beneath its white feathers is virtually invincible. The owner of such a treasure will arrive at a tournament with his arms wrapped around his bird, ensuring that it does not reveal its freckles before the contest, as bettors have sharp eyes for such telltale marks. Acknowledging the significance of feather color, some owners dye them with various tinctures.

Despite these aids, experience teaches owners, handlers, and bettors alike that one can never predict a match's outcome. As one young aficionado, Jose Pereira, told me during my first trip to Timor, a cock's fate is really just a matter of luck. Still, the expectant faces of bettors and gleaming eyes of onlookers belie this sensible view. When, therefore, the bearer of their hopes lies in the dust in a welter of blood, the looks around the arena display only disbelief. Even before the referee has lifted the sad bundle of bedraggled feathers from the dirt, those with money left in their purses will be running to bet on the next pair of gladiators. And this time they expect to fare better.n

Additional Reading

Additional Reading:David Hicks, Tetum Ghosts and Kin, Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, Illinois, 1988.

David Hicks is an anthropologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. Maxine Hicks is a freelance photographer.
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Author:Hicks, David
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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