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Words, poetics, and the disclosure of meaning in Saribas Iban healing rituals (1).


My interest in this paper is with the use of words in rituals. In part, I am concerned with indigenous notions regarding language, that is to say, with what we might call the "ethnosemantics" that informs the understandings which ritual actors hold concerning the part words play in ritual and with the ways in which these understandings mediate, or help to shape, cultural and pragmatic constructions of ritual itself. In particular, I am concerned with Saribas Iban rituals of healing in which the outcome of a ritual performance is always, to some degree, problematic or uncertain. At its outset, the causes of affliction are unknown, or at least open to question, with the result that diagnosis and the therapeutic strategies adopted by the shaman are always an emergent part of the ritual process itself. Here, words, as I hope to show, play a preeminent role in shaping this process.

My purpose here is not to argue that ritual is only about words, or, even less, about metalinguistics--the words people use when talking about language. Language, however, is a significant component, not only of Iban healing rites, but of most ritual practice, which tends, by its nature, to be characterized, as Webb Keane (1997:48) has noted, by "highly marked and self-conscious uses of linguistic resources."

In this connection, as many observers have noted, the language employed in ritual is frequently viewed by those who employ it as a vehicle of sacred power (cf. Tambiah 1968). However, even where this is explicitly so, "[t]here is no reason to assume," as Robert Hefner (1985:212) has cautioned, "that the conditions sustaining faith in the efficacy of ritual language are necessarily the same in all societies." Indeed, these conditions vary decisively. Thus, Hefner, in his book Hindu Javanese (1985), describes one extreme case exemplified by the liturgical prayers of Javanese Tengger priests in which "ritual words are accorded power" even though "they are not in any propositional sense, directly accessible or intelligible" to Tengger audiences (1985:212). Power in this instance derives not from what ritual words "say," but from the institutionalized authority of the priest who speaks them; from the legitimacy of his position as the "primary intermediary between the living and their gods"; and from notions which the Tengger share concerning the pragmatics of prayer itself. Thus, "authority," Hefner argues, "is ... established outside of [and] prior to any single instance of ritual performance" and "is little influenced by the propositional value of ritual words." Ritual performances, he maintains, are organized in a way that minimizes the relevance of "discursive meaning." In fact, Tengger priests may perform prayers without anyone else seeing or hearing what they do. "The efficacy of ritual speech [thus] depends ... not on [an audience's] understanding of what is being said, but," as Hefner puts it, "on the prayers being performed by the right person in the right fashion under the right circumstances" (1985:213). This, in turn, is consistent with Tenggar popular understandings, which assert that prayers are addressed to the gods, not to human listeners. Hence, Hefner (1985:214) states, "the pragmatics of prayer ... are premised on a model of speech interaction ... that serve[s], in effect, to elevate the priest's speech above the demands of immediate accountability."

The use of language in Saribas Iban healing rituals is very different. Here, the pragmatics of ritual speech use places the accountability of a speaker to his audience at center stage. While ritual speech is also thought to be directed primarily to unseen powers, even to the extent that it is said by Saribas informants to give these powers an audible voice and direct agency in the visible world, its effectiveness depends more crucially upon the speaker's ability to engage the attentions and sensibilities of his human audience through his skillful use of language. Words in this instance matter greatly. In both cases, notions regarding the efficacy of ritual speech are related to the larger social context in which such speech functions. Among the Tengger, Hefner insists, the authority of the priest is "systematically institutionalized," with the result that, even before it is performed, "the effectiveness of ritual prayer [is] ... a foregone conclusion" (1985:214). (2) Hence, it is the unquestioned acceptance of priestly authority that helps sustain popular faith in the power of ritual speech. In Iban society, the situation is roughly reversed. The Iban are a comparatively egalitarian people (cf. Sather 1996) and the authority of the shaman, in contrast to that of the Tenggar priest, must be earned and continually demonstrated in practice through his command of a textual repertoire, his skillful use of language and his ability to mount a convincing performance. (3) Moreover, the efficacy of ritual speech is never merely a question of whether or not the words in question have "propositional meaning," but is equally a matter of aesthetics, verbal imagery, acoustics, and the capacity of language itself for dramatic enactment.

The Iban themselves foreground the significance of words in ritual. Thus, Saribas Iban informants describe these words as the leka main, meaning, literally, the 'seeds' or 'gist of a ritual.' At the outset of a healing session, the causes of a patient's affliction are open to question, with the spirits, human souls, plant images, and other generally invisible forces upon which affliction and conditions of health are thought to depend being intelligible, for the most part, only through a medium of verbal discourse. Dealing with such unseen forces, the shaman's task is to make intelligible an imperceptible world of causal interactions that is always, by its nature, hidden, and which, in any case, can only be partially fathomed at best, at least by non-shamans. But the realms of intelligibility that the shaman creates in his songs, and extends into the unseen, he also makes tangible through the enactment of his words, translated into action, and by the sensory, tangible, and poetic qualities of his songs themselves. The effectiveness of ritual depends upon the performer's ability to recreate an imaginal reality. (4) Being only indirectly "known," this reality must always, in Nancy Munn's (1973) terms, be "symbolically mediated," and language, for Saribas Iban shamans, represents the principal medium by which this mediation is effected. (5) For the Iban, this tension, or interplay, between intelligibility and tangibility is couched, as we shall see, in an ethnosemantic idiom, between paired contrasts of "deep" and "shallow," and of "hidden" and "transparent," which apply, at once, to both verbal discourse and to cultural meanings. Textual knowledge is central to the shaman's performance of healing rituals, but by enactment, this knowledge becomes both contextualized and embodied, while the shifting dimensions of discourse and meaning thereby brought into play draw attention to the ways in which varying relations of experience and knowing emerge as part of the ritual process itself.

The Iban Manang

The Iban are an upland, mainly riverine people of west-central Borneo who number today, in the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, just over 603,000 (Sather 2004:623). An additional 14,000 live in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, and roughly the same number in Brunei Darussalam. Despite growing urban migration, the majority of Iban continue to live in the countryside, chiefly, although in declining numbers, in longhouse communities, most of them located along major rivers and smaller tributaries, particularly those of the central Rejang, Batang Lupar, and Saribas river systems (Freeman 1970; Sather 1993a, 1996, 2004; Sutlive 1992). The data presented here come entirely from the lower Saribas and Saratok districts. (6)

Iban shamans are called manang and the principal rituals they perform are known as pelian (see Sather 2001a). In these rituals the manang is believed to dispatch his soul (semengat), aided by a spirit guide [or guides] (yang), out into the cosmos--into unseen dimensions of what the Iban describe as 'this world' (dunya tu'), or beyond it--into the unseen land of the dead (menua sebayan). Contrary to Eliadian notions of shamanic journeying, Iban shamans never send their soul directly to the upper world or 'sky' (langit). Instead, they dispatch spirit messengers who, acting as proxies, travel there on their behalf to summon the shamanic gods, who thereupon descend to this world to assist them in treating the sick. While journeying within the unseen cosmos, the shaman's soul, in the company of his spirit guide and other spirit shaman companions, is thought to perform a number of feats, most of them associated with healing, such as retrieving a lost or captured soul, defeating or slaying malevolent spirits, erecting cosmic barriers, tending the plant image of an ailing patient, or effecting a proper separation between the living and the dead (Sather 2001a: 10-13).

At the heart of every pelian is a sung narrative. The words of this narrative are known as its leka main or, more specifically, in the case of shamanic songs, its leka pelian. Literally, leka means 'seed' or 'gist of'; main, 'play,' 'action,' or 'doing' (Richards 1981:201-2; Sutlive 1994:132, 144). By itself, main, like the English word "play," has strongly dramaturgical connotations, relating to notions of performance, or even entertainment (see Barrett 1993; Sather 1993a, 2001a:134-35). (7) Taken together, leka main refers to ritual poetry (cf. Richards 1981:202). As a general language genre, leka main is used in a wide array of cultural contexts. Thus, most adult Iban make occasional use of leka main, employing it, for example, in family prayers, during public entertainment, or in songs and oratory. However, public mastery of leka main was traditionally the special domain of three major categories of ritual specialists: 1) shamans (manang), 2) priest-bards (lemambang), and 3) soul-guides (tukang sabak). Each specialist is the master of a different leka main tradition (Sather 2001a:5-13). Thus, the bards, who perform a largely priestly role, command the principal ceremonial liturgy of Iban traditional religion; while the soul-guides, who in contrast to the bards and shamans, are almost always women, sing the sabak or 'lamentation' by which the soul of the newly dead is conducted to its place in the otherworld. Singing the leka pelian is the exclusive province of the manang.


Words of Healing and the Staging of Pelian Performances

Every pelian has a narrative line described as its jalai, meaning literally, its 'journey' or 'pathway.' The particular nature of this journey gives each pelian its name and identifying purpose. Thus, for example, in the pelian munggu raran, the manang's spirit guide, under the direction of the shaman's soul, rescues a captured soul from an outdoor cooking rack, called the raran, where the demonic spirit-hunters (antu gerasi) are in the process of roasting it over a fire. Once rescued, the recovered soul is brought back to the safety of the longhouse, where it is later pressed into the patient's body by way of the anterior fontanelle (bubun aji). To take another example, in the pelian merau, the shaman's soul goes in search of a missing soul, which is thought to have been lost in water, using a canoe orperau. While singing this particular pelian, the shaman sits inside a mat, the sides and ends of which are drawn up and fastened in the shape of a canoe (see Photo 2). Experienced manang typically command a personal repertoire of between 30 to 60 pelian. (8)


Essentially, the jalai of each leka pelian relates the travels and encounters of the manang's soul, or, less often, those of his spirit messengers, or the shamanic gods, as they journey through the cosmos. These are never solitary journeys, but, rather, the shaman's soul, or its proxy, is always accompanied by a spirit guide [or guides], and usually by additional spirit shaman companions, and much of their traveling unfolds dialogically, through an exchange of greetings, conversations, questions about directions, or by having landmarks pointed out and their significance explained. For the Iban, then, the words of the leka pelian not only describe or recreate these travels, but they also quite literally bring them to life. Using spoken dialogue, the manang takes on the voice of the spirits, souls, gods, or animal persona--the various unseen interlocutors his soul encounters--thereby verbally enacting these unseen meetings and encounters, while at the same time, using verbal imagery, he depicts the visual landscape through which his soul and its companions travel (cf. Sather 2001b:156ff). Words, in this case, by being spoken or 'voiced' (benyawa), become, in effect, not simply words, but are materialized as 'voice' (nyawa), thereby becoming a source of active agency, capable of effecting material and spiritual transformations in the tangible world. By singing the words of the leka pelian, the shaman is thus able to summon the gods, causing them to descend to this world as 'visitors' (pengabang); to activate his spirit guide; and, most important of all, to dispatch and recall his own soul, which, as a conscious agent, is thought to command and orchestrate these various travels.

Pelian are always performed before an audience with careful attention given to props and staging. In the staging of a pelian session, a clear demarcation is maintained between the area in which the manang sings and enacts his leka pelian and the area in which he treats the patient's bodily symptoms and conducts his initial diagnosis. The leka pelian are always sung on the unpartitioned gallery (ruai) of the longhouse, representing the community's main communal space, while the sick person always remains inside the family apartment, the household's chief domestic space. Here, the patient is attended by the manang at the beginning of a session and again at the end of each individual pelian (cf. Sather 2001a: 141ff).

At the center of the gallery, the participants, under the manang's instruction, erect a special shrine called the pagar api or, literally, the 'fence of fire.' This is constructed of materials supplied by the patient's family. Symbolically, it is a complex structure (Sather 2001a:144-53; Barrett 1993:250-53). Its base consists of a jar containing a stone and a small amount of water. Among other things, this jar represents the pugu' ayu or 'rootstock' of the human plant image (ayu) and the water and stone, the longhouse 'boat-landing' or 'bathing place' (pendai'), a point of arrivals and departures and a primary source of ritual cooling. An upright spear is inserted into the mouth of the jar and to its shaft is fastened a freshly-cut sapling, a banana leaf, or a stalk of bamboo. The spear shaft represents the 'pathway' along which souls and spirits are thought to travel. The blade of the spear is secured to a transverse pole that is tied between the house pillars, with the tip of the blade marking the exact center of the longhouse gallery. When the men have finished constructing the pagar api, the women contribute their share to the shrine, a basket full of offerings called the dekuh. This is placed beside the base of the pagar api and the completed structure is then wrapped in a ritual ikat cloth. Once completed, the pagar api defines the center stage on which the manang performs his pelian, with his audience seated on the gallery floor around him.

Sessions take place at night. The manang opens the session by leaving the gallery, where, until then, he has been entertained by his longhouse hosts, and enters his client's apartment. Here, he begins by attending to the sick person, waving him (besampu') with his medicine kit (lupung), asking after his symptoms, and then palpating and massaging his body with charms (begama'). Treatment during this initial phase is directed at the body (tubuh) and is meant to restore its integrity, either by extracting intruding objects from beneath the skin or by sealing its surface with 'patching medicines' (ubat penampal). The act of patching the body is said to close invisible 'wounds' (abi) made on its surface by the spears and knives of the spirits. The manang concludes by questioning the patient and his family regarding their dreams and omens, and, finally, he 'scans' (ninjau) with his crystal (batu karas) or 'seeing stone' (batu ilau), holding it before an open flame in order to determine the condition and whereabouts of the patient's soul. This scanning action is called ninjau semengat, literally, 'to scan' or 'view the soul from afar.' Its purpose is described as bepandang reti, literally, 'to disclose meaning.' Based on its determinations, and also what is disclosed by dreams and omens, the shaman sums up this initial stage of his diagnosis by announcing the particular set of pelian he intends to perform and the materials and stage preparations he will need in order to conduct them.

Singing the Leka Pelian

Having completed his diagnosis, the manang then leaves the apartment and re-enters the gallery. This movement, which is called the tama' ke ruai, marks an important transition. From this point onward, the manang makes use of his leka pelian and his treatment addresses, not the patient's body, but unseen elements of the self--primarily the plant image, or syu, and the semengat, or soul. Scanning and the manang's entry onto the gallery also signal a shift from diagnosis to therapy and from the body, as the focus of affliction, to the patient's soul and plant image. (9) Significantly, the patient does not accompany the manang onto the gallery, but remains behind throughout the remainder of the session, offstage, inside the family apartment. From this point onward, curing takes place primarily through a medium of words and their enactment played out before a listening audience on the longhouse gallery. (10)

Anthropological interpretations of shamanic curing often rest upon a view that shamanic practice "works" at a psychological level by restructuring a patient's cognitive understanding of the experience of affliction (see Crapanzano 1977, Levi-Strauss 1963). Here, it is important to note that such an interpretation, in a narrow sense at least, is both alien to Iban folk belief and is very largely precluded by the way in which pelian sessions are staged. Being offstage, inside the apartment, the patient is not expected to hear or to follow the words of the pelian, nor to witness the song's enactment on the gallery. In fact, very ill, and especially elderly, patients frequently sleep through a performance, and, under special circumstances, a session may be held for a patient who is not actually present in the longhouse at all. (11) This is possible, and makes sense from an Iban perspective, because the words of the leka pelian are not addressed to the sick person directly, that is, to the still embodied aspects of the self that remain inside the apartment. Rather, they are addressed to the patient's separable unseen aspects, namely to his soul and plant image. Thus, it is these unembodied, or, in the case of the soul, temporarily disembodied, components of the self that are the focus of the shaman's concern in the leka pelian that he sings for the remainder of the night on the longhouse gallery.

To the Saribas Iban, pelian "work" because words are not only symbolic, having discursive meaning, but they are also thought to be physically efficacious (bisa). Thus, the words of the leka pelian both depict and represent the unseen realities experienced by the shaman's soul, and also are thought to be transformative as well, capable of bringing about genuine spiritual and material transformations, the outcomes of which may be seen in the tangible world. In other words, the actions of the manang's soul, as related in the leka pelian, while ostensibly performed in invisible regions of the cosmos, are believed to bring about parallel effects in the visible, sensory world, manipulating and simultaneously transforming the conditions affecting this-worldly life and well-being. At the heart of Iban shamanism is thus a belief in the co-existence of two parallel yet interconnected realities--one seen, the other unseen. (12) Within the ritual context of the pelian--its "virtuality"--chanted words are used to connect these two realities, primarily by means of their power of representation, and through their capacity for dramatic enactment.

Thus, the poetic imagery of the chants depicts, and so "represents" to the shaman's audience, elements of the unseen realities that are acted upon by the manang's soul, his spirit guide and other invisible companions, while, at the conclusion of most pelian, the manang "faints" and, very briefly, just as he falls into a fainted or unconscious state (luput), he physically "enacts" the principal actions depicted in the preceding words of the chant. Thus, for example, when a manang performs the pelian munggu raran mentioned earlier, he does so seated beside a specially constructed model of the spirits' 'cooking rack' (raran) fashioned in this case of rice-pounding pestles (alu) and covered, like the pagar api, with a ritual ikat cloth (pua'). Concluding his singing, just as he falls unconscious, the manang knocks downs this rack, toppling over the pestles, while simultaneously he seizes the patient's soul in his hand. Thus, pelian performances comprise not just words, but rather they conjoin efficacious words with action. Action, however, is always prefigured and performed first in words. As the Iban say, the journey narrative related first in the leka pelian is then 'followed' or 'imitated' (nunda') by the manang, who 'mimics' or 'acts out' (bemain) its main narrative events in what can only be described as a highly condensed, abbreviated form of ritual drama lasting

no more than a matter of seconds. In this way, seen and unseen realities are momentarily brought into conjunction. What takes place at an unseen level is fleetingly manifested in physical form. Again, however, words are prior to, and prefigure, physical action. More than that, words empower, or lend authority to, the ritual drama that follows by making what is visibly imitated by the shaman efficacious at an unseen level, within the parallel reality of the souls, spirits, plant images, and gods. At the same time, the temporal priority of words works to envelop the manang's subsequent actions with an aura of seeming ineffability.

Although Iban shamans engage in soul journeys which they enact in a fainted state, it is worth noting that the idea of possession, or ecstatic trance, is absent from Saribas Iban shamanism. Indeed, the idea of possession itself is foreign and there is no notion that invading spirits may take over the physical body of a human being, whether that of the patient or of the shaman himself. (13) Instead, during a pelian performance, the shaman engages with the inhabitants of the unseen world--souls, spirits, and the dead--primarily through the discursive medium of words. Within these rituals, complete spontaneity, or an absence of conscious control, is neither sought, nor would it be appropriate, for the intended purpose of each pelian is very largely pre-defined by its "pathway" and is accomplished only if the journey this pathway defines is undertaken and completed correctly, without the shaman's soul straying, losing its way, or passing by landmarks out of sequence.

This brings us back to the question of accountability. Early observers of the Iban tended to describe the chants of the manang as being either incomprehensible or couched in an esoteric idiom inaccessible to all but the shamans themselves (see Graham 1987:27ff for an account of this literature, also Sather 2001a:3). In discussing the chants with Saribas informants, I soon found that, far from being incomprehensible, these oral texts were, in reality, highly structured verbal performances that are seen by both Iban shamans and laymen alike as being not only meaningful, but as constituting the primary source of efficacy attributed to the pelian. Not only are the chants intelligible, and closely followed by Iban audiences, but the words of the leka pelian are themselves thought to be a source of curative power, and despite the dramatic impact of the shaman's enactment, it is, significantly, the sung words that most often hold the greatest interest to Iban audiences.

The leka pelian can be described as largely memorized and orally transmitted texts. They are composed in a highly structured, poetic form, and taken together, constitute the necessary core of knowledge required of a practicing manang. By singing them and faithfully recreating in words their narrative journeys, shamans are thought to be capable of actively intervening in the lives of their clients. In the course of a curing session, a shaman usually sings a number of pelian, up to six or seven during a single night, ending typically, just before sunrise, with a recall of his own soul (mulai ka semengat).

Initially, a novice shaman, once he has received a dream call, and through this call, has gained a spirit guide or yang, normally apprentices himself to an older manang, from whom he begins to study the wording of the leka pelian. At first, he is expected to learn these texts accurately, more or less by memory, but once he has mastered a working repertoire, a shaman is expected to manipulate them to suit the particular circumstances of each performance. Thus, no two performances of a pelian are ever entirely identical. An experienced manang is expected to use his poetic skills to create or embellish the imagery, add descriptive detail, and to heighten the narrative drama and inject changes of tempo and novel elements into his dialogue. Although some manang are more skilled at this than others, poetic and performance skills are prominent features of all pelian sessions. Verbal artistry is highly valued in shamans, not only for the interest and pleasure it gives, but also, significantly, because it is thought to enhance the effectiveness of a pelian performance, and so the curative powers of the shaman himself as a performer (Sather 20001a: 191). In this sense, efficacy and aesthetics are inseparably linked.

While texts are not, by any means, unalterable, every pelian is, nevertheless, constructed around the relatively invariant jalai. This "journey" is not, as I have stressed, a spontaneous narrative, the momentary product of a single, passing performance, but rather it takes a structured form, patterned poetically by assonance, end and internal rhyme, and propelled, in terms of its content, along a well-defined itinerary by an ordered procession of places, encounters, and dialogic episodes. In the course of his performing career, each shaman characteristically traces and retraces these jalai again and again. While individual performances, as events, are profoundly "existential" in the sense that they can be said to exist only in their momentary practice, they are more, however, than a mere epiphenomenon of the experiences and emotions of the moment. As Don Handelman (1990:19) observes, writing of public events generally, the capacity for "doing," or for "making something happen," inherent in such events, depends upon the existence of a prior sense of "how the doing is to be done." "There is no performance," as John MacAloon (1984:9) notes in a similar vein, "without pre-formance," that is to say, without a form by means of which a performance is "done." For the manang, the basic jalai narratives are not only performed, but can be described, in MacAloon's sense, as "pre-formative," providing the shaman with a guiding design through which he is able to constitute, again and again, though, of course, with variation, innumerable living performances. To a significant degree, these narratives are thereby objectified, in the sense that they are named and the manang is consciously aware of them, and so is able to control their "fixity" across time and place, adapting them to the particular circumstances of each performance, while, at the same time, preserving their basic integrity. (14)

In episodes of dialogue, the manang assumes the voice of a multitude of different persona, even inserting his own voice at times. In doing so, he not only gives his narratives immediacy, but he also conveys a sense of the varied spatio-temporal contexts different persona occupy in the narrative, while, at the same time, he reinforces an image of his own role as that of a transformative intermediary, capable of dispatching and recalling his soul, and so of moving at will between seen and unseen realities. Since the pelian's words are prefigurative and imbued with power, the essential characteristics of each text, most importantly its jalai, must be reproduced in successive performances; or otherwise, this power, and the prefigurative force of the text as a basic blueprint for enactment is lost. In particular, since these words depict a journey, it is essential that the basic itinerary of this journey be reproduced in what the Iban describe as its correct 'sequential order' or ripih. While individual encounters may be deleted or added to a text, the basic sequence in which they occur must be preserved, or else the journey itself becomes 'disordered' (salah atur or nadai ripih), and so, the Iban say, 'ineffective' (nadai bisa).

Through the words of the leka pelian the shaman creates an intermediating reality between the seen and unseen, within which he is thought to be able to alter his own ontological status, and so to intercede on behalf of his clients, replacing a state of suffering and loss existing in the external world, with one in which 'meanings' (reti) can be sought, and in which, to borrow Greg Urban's terms, the otherwise "imperceptible" can be made "intelligible" (1996), at least provisionally, and so acted upon. From this, the dramaturgical connotations of the term main as 'entertainment' become obvious. (15) But, the pelian are serious entertainments that are meant to illuminate and transform, and to make the imperceptible not only intelligible, but also to render it sensate. Moreover, the words of the leka pelian not only create an intermediating reality, but they also animate the shaman himself. Words shape and express the purpose of the journeys his soul undertakes. And through words, the manang ultimately transforms himself, and so escapes the limitations of his human nature, transcending the boundaries that, for others, separate seen and unseen realities. Transformed by words into a skilled intermediary, the manang is thus able, in the pragmatic understanding of his clients, to intervene on their behalf in unseen worlds that are beyond their own everyday powers to penetrate and directly experience.

Poetics and Power

Within the chants, poetics and power are inseparably linked. Here I want to explore this connection through the use of several brief examples drawn from two pelian.

Let me begin with the opening stanza of a ritual called the pelian anchau bidai, 'The Rite to Spread a Working Mat.' For the late Manang Asun, one of my principal sources and the performer from whom I recorded this particular version of the pelian in the late 1970s, this was the first pelian he normally performed when he began a series of pelian aimed at recovering a lost soul. It can be described, therefore, as a "stage-setting" or "overture" rite. Seated beside the pagar api on the longhouse gallery, he first bit the blade of a bushknife, an act called 'biting the soul-strengthener' (ngetup kering semengat), then touched the blade to each shoulder, and began:
Awa ... Awa....
Deru'-deru' guntur mabu', Rumble, rumble, the crash of
 nearby thunder,
Munyi ke mabak gerugu', The sound of boulders tearing loose,
Batu galang menyadi. The shattering of solid stone.
Awa ... galang menyadi Awa.... of solid stone.

Tu' baru lama' lemai, The time has now come,
Udah alai kami Jelapi, Late in the evening, for us Jelapi,
Bali' Gendai, ngansau semengau Transformed Gendai, to search for the
Tepejuhjauh liar ke tisi. That has grown timid and bolted away
 far to the edge [of the world].

The opening line, Deru'-deru' guntur mabu' ('Rumble, rumble, the crash of nearby thunder'), dramatically stills the conversation of the manang's audience on the gallery. Its onomatopoetic nature at once draws the listeners' attention to the sensory, acoustic quality of his voice, while the words themselves go on to create a compelling image of the power of sound, here portrayed as capable of tearing loose boulders and of shattering stone. This power is embodied, of course, in the manang's own voice, the dominant sound that the listeners experience as he begins to sing. (16)

Note, too, how the next lines, moving from the metaphoric opening stanza, situate us in the immediate here-and-now, locating us in the present ("the time has now come/late in the evening") and define the work at hand ("to search for the lost soul/grown timid"). At this point the stanzas are fairly short and are drawn out by pauses, repeated syllables, and considerable melodic ornamentation. But soon the tempo begins to build and the melodic contours of the shaman's voice flatten.

The words next evoke a series of visual and auditory actions,--striking a pestle into a mortar, hitting metal against metal, and so on--which, in most cases, the manang himself performs, so that his actions are integrated directly into the song he sings. What is seen and heard is also sung; what is perceptible is also made intelligible. The crucial link between words and action is thus affirmed, while words, by the same token, are given "an air of operational reality" (Tambiah 1968:198) by being conjoined to what the listener directly witnesses. At the same time, a subtle transformation begins. Striking metal and so on are meant to recall the errant soul, and in depicting these actions the vantage gradually moves beyond what the audience immediately sees and hears, as the sound begins to traverse the boundaries of immediate experience and to reverberate finally in the upper reaches of the sky and out into the furthest edges of the visible world. In this way, verbal imagery, rooted initially in the here-and-now, cuts free, moving the audience's perspective from the familiar and immediate to the increasingly unseen and remote.

The next example comes from the midpoint of the pelian nyembayan, a ritual in which the manang's soul, accompanied again by his yang and spirit shaman companions, journeys to the otherworld of the dead (menua sebayan) in order to bring back a straying soul which has prematurely journeyed there. As the shaman's soul goes in search of the missing soul, it encounters a series of birds, each of whom it interrogates. (17) None, however, has seen the missing soul. Instead, each bird answers the shaman's soul with a riddle. The audience is drawn at once into the decipherment of these riddles. The answer to each "explains" why that particular bird failed to see the passing soul. The correct ordering of the birds is also critical, for each marks a way station along an itinerary that moves us from the vicinity of the longhouse, through rice fields and forests, finally, to the borderlands that separate this world from Sebayan. In terms of time, the movement also transports us from daytime to dusk, signaling the inversion of time that marks the transition from this world to the counter-world of the dead, where night and day are reversed. Thus, in this instance, the next to last bird that the manang's soul meets is the Sebalangking Bird:
"Kati ku' nuan deh burung "What say you, Red-brown
 sebalangking biting? Sebalangking bird?
Bisi' nuan deh nemu Gemitan, Do you know anything of the
 Lost One,
Kaban kami Menani, adi' Linsing?" Kin to us Menani, younger
 brothers of Linsing?"
"Au'" ku' jaku' burung "Truly," says the red-brown
 sebalangking biting, sebalangking bird,

"Kami tu' nadai nemu utai "We know nothing of this
Laban kami rindang nyerumba' linda', For we pass our time in the dim
Nyang kuning benyawa beketaing Calling to the yellow-crimson
Ngemata kaputing jamban Titi Like a ringing [bell], we guard
 Rawan" the end of the Bridge of

Awa.... Titi Rawan. Awa.... the Bridge of Fear.

The solution to this riddle is familiar to most longhouse-dwelling Iban in the Saribas and relates to the special habits of the sebalangking bird which, in the evening, makes a bell-like call that is said to signal the coming of nightfall. When farmers working in their fields hear the sebalangking's call, they know that it is time to stop work and start for home. But twilight is also the time in which the souls of the newly dead cross into the otherworld. The Bridge of Fear (Titi Rawan) crosses a chasm, called Limban Deep (Limban Dalam), that is believed to divide this world from Sebayan (Sather 2003:190). Moving on, the shaman's soul next meets the Bubut Bird, the guardian of this bridge, and learns from her that a party of souls has recently crossed into the otherworld.
"Tu' baru kati nuan burung bubut? "What, now, say you, Bubut Bird?
Bisi' deh nuan nemu Gemitan, kaban Do you know of the Lost-One, our
 kami, kindred,
Tepejuh jauh anyut ke buntut jalai Who has bolted away, and so
 danjan?" drifted to the end of the path
 that leads to the Land of the

"Au' deh Lansu, kaban Likup, "Truly, Lansu, kindred of Likup,
Lebuh aku duduk ba pala' tangga' When I sat at the head of the
 lemai kemar', entry ladder yesterday evening,
Bisi' aku ninga nyawa. There I heard sounds, like the
 din of a large crowd,
Sida' iya bejaku' bekegut. The sound of many people

Kangau ka aku, enggai nyaut. I called out, but none would

Tangkap aku rapas jeput, Catching one of them, I snatched
 whomever it was for a moment,
Nama pengujung enda' telechut But, in the end, the tips of his
Ari julut bau nandan. Came loose from my hands.
Awa.... Awa....

Beguai betundi' enggau endu' data He was hurrying so that he might
 Lemaie, flirt with Maid Lemaie,
Nya' kumbai Kumang Sebayan." Also called Kumang of the

The bubut bird depicted here is thought by the Iban to call out to the souls of the dead in an attempt to persuade them not to cross over into the otherworld; hence, in the visible world, the call of the burung bubut (the common coucal, Centropus sinensis Stephens) is said to signify that someone has just died. Maid Lemaie is a spirit of Sebayan who welcomes the newly dead. (18) Following his yang, the manang's soul now crosses into the otherworld. In doing so, the longhouse of the dead emerges into visibility.
..., rumah panjai Sebayan danjan dulu' ...., then the longhouse of
 nadai, the dead,
Tampai Matai tambai ti' dipansik. Invisible before, can now be
.... seen by Matai, Who
 approaches it....

In the leka pelian, the manang's soul enters the house of the dead, and there, by a dramatic deception (or substitution), snatches away the patient's soul, which, with the help of its spirit guide, it then carries back to the living world. Alter the slow, elaborate search for the soul during the first half of the pelian, this return is swift and is typically accomplished by flight.

Encoded in the final stanzas of the shaman's song is a dramatic movement through social and ritual space. Having accomplished its task in the unseen cosmos, the manang's soul now returns to the pagar api, at the very heart of the communal social space of the longhouse. Back in the visible world, the manang, having completed his song, and after briefly enacting its narrative, then leaves the gallery and re-enters the bilik, signifying a further level of social and cosmological movement. Here, in most pelian, he re-inserts the momentarily visible soul of the patient, (19) pressing it back into the patient's head, together with a few grains of rice, where, upon entering the body, it becomes properly invisible again. Once again, a dramatic conjunction occurs of seen and unseen realities and of the major divisions of the Iban social world--the longhouse, the bilik family, and the person--and within the person, a reunion of body and soul. Here, again, words are decisive. The manang's actions, first sung in words and then translated into action, thus transcend the major categorical divisions of the Iban cosmos, bringing them back, at its conclusion, into proper realignment.

In concluding a pelian session, the manang sets about re-establishing the integrity of these cosmological and social divisions. He begins first by re-embodying the patient's soul, which he typically does several successive times in the course of the night. He then collects together the souls of his client's family, gathering them from undyed cotton thread hung from the pagar api, and re-inserts them into their bodies. After this, he erects a series of unseen barriers enclosing, progressively, first the bilik and then the larger community.

Song Poetics and Iban Ethnosemantics

In order to understand how the words of the leka pelian function in Iban shamanic rituals, it is important to begin by relating features of the pelian texts to Iban notions of language. The songs are structured primarily around two interrelated contrasts: between what the Iban call 'deep' (dalam) and 'shallow' (mabu') and between 'hidden' (karung) and 'clear' (terang) varieties of speech (jaku') (see also Barrett and Lucas 1993, Sather 2001a:167-70).

Jaku' mabu', literally, 'shallow speech,' refers to the supposedly transparent language of everyday conversation. In contrast, jaku' dalam, or 'deep language,' is employed in special speech registers, in registers of respect, for example; in oratory, and, above all, in ritual. (20) Deep language conveys multiple and often layered meanings and requires an interpretative effort to comprehend. However, while the leka pelian employ jaku' dalam, they are not, it is important to note, composed entirely of 'deep language.' On the contrary, there is, in the development of each pelian narrative, a constant shifting across language depth, from shallow to deep and back again. At times, lines of leka pelian may be so deep that even the manang claim not to be able to understand them fully. Rare, such times occur mainly during spirit dialogues or, most especially, in the names and poetic descriptions of unseen landscapes, gods, or other supernatural agents. At other times the language is shallow, particularly at points of dramatic action or of rapid movement in time or space, as, for example, during the flight of the shaman's soul or when the spirit guide snatches back a patient's soul from unwary spirit captors and inserts it into the shaman's hand so that he can return with it to the longhouse. Above all, language tends to be transparent in situations of revelation when hidden meanings are disclosed, or when the imperceptible is made intelligible. The manang is therefore able, by manipulating language, to signal movement between seen and unseen realities, and also transitions from narrative action to poetic representation.

The second contrast is related to the first in the sense that deep language is said to hide meaning. But the two contrasts also cross-cut in the sense that, through interpretation, what is hidden may also be made clear. Jaku' karung means to speak with hidden meaning. The term karung refers, literally, to a 'cage' or 'cover' (Richards 1981:140). The term also signifies a 'host' or 'habitation,' such as envelops, for example, a spirit, when the latter disguises itself in the outward form of an animal, reptile, or bird (Sather 1978). Similarly, a pregnant woman is said to be the karung of the developing fetus she carries inside her body. The poetics of pelian composition characteristically involves the gradual revelation of meaning. First, the cover or habitation is mentioned. Only later is the agent or object revealed. Thus, for example, in the opening lines of the first pelian we discussed, a poetic image is presented, i.e. thunder and shattering stones, whose meaning the audience must interpret. This is followed by a series of transparent lines that describe the time of night, the condition of the manang, the illness, and the situation at hand that the manang must deal with. The first lines or stanzas of the leka pelian typically allude to deep meanings, the second lines or linked stanzas typically reveal and describe, alluding oftentimes to what is simultaneously made visible or audible by the manang's actions or by the physical staging, such as the "cooking rack" made of pestles or the mat "canoe" in which the shaman sits while singing the pelian merau.

By shifting between hidden and transparent language, and by playing upon these contrasts, the audience is encouraged to join the manang in a collaborative process of exploration and revelation, of bringing to light and making clear the unseen causes of the patient's affliction. The audience is thus engaged in the process, with the result that a well-performed pelian works much like a bird augury or the reading of a pig's liver. It involves a collective scrutiny of signs and a working out of interpretations. In the process, understandings are transformed, as the likely hidden sources of illness are revealed, and so made known, at least as plausible hypotheses upon which to act. (21) For the Iban, the terms "shallow" and "deep" refer to both words and meanings. Depth refers to the degree of difficulty of interpretation; the deeper the meaning (reti), the harder it is to interpret. The audience is drawn in by the use of shallow language, by references to the immediately visible and audible, to the outwardly manifest actions of the manang, and to descriptions of the longhouse and even of the audience itself contained in the leka pelian. But they are also attracted by the poetic imagery of the songs, the allusions in deep language to invisible realities, to the Bridge of Fear, for example; the crowd of souls crossing it in the gloom; the travel of the shaman's soul by boat as it searches for a missing soul, or to its dialogue with the birds who answer it in riddles. For the Iban, "shallow"/"deep" and "clear"/"hidden" thus describe not only dimensions of language, but also dimensions of human experience and understanding.

Through the leka pelian, by means of its powers of representation, words make the imperceptible reality of the souls, gods, and spirits intelligible, while, at the same time, what is made intelligible is also made tangible, through the sensual qualities and enactment of these words, and so becomes, for the gallery audience, an object of direct experience. The musicality, rhyme, and other aesthetic features of the songs bring the sensory, perceptible qualities of discourse to the audience's awareness, thereby playing on the "ability of the listener to focus alternatively on the meanings and the sounds" (Urban 1996:182). The sound dimensions of discourse are heightened and so distract an audience from its tendency toward what Urban calls "referential consciousness," opening it instead to "experiences other than those permitted by the overt meaning of words" (1996:185), hence, in this context, to the possibilities of "deep" or "hidden" interpretations. At the same time, sound foregrounds "nonreferential signs, embodied experience, [and] immediate encounter with the world," and so exercises a magnetic pull, drawing the audience directly into its unfolding narrative. Physical sound also points up the contrast between the seen and the unseen: between the here-and-now realm of the senses and the reality beyond contained in meanings and imagery. Through sound, as Urban (1996:86) notes, "meaning diffuses into the world, illuminating the surroundings, allowing us to peer into an otherwise inscrutable darkness."

The boundaries of deep and shallow shift as they are manipulated by the shaman in the course of performing his pelian. Deep speech may at times include common words, which may have a shallow meaning in one context, but a deep meaning in another. (22) When the Iban speak in a register of respect, they use deep words, for example, when talking about or addressing rice, or when speaking while hunting, fishing, or firing their rice farms. (23) Interpretation of deep speech is arduous, but not because meanings are maintained as esoteric knowledge, or as the exclusive prerogative of a priesthood, as in the Tengger case. Iban society is notably competitive and non-ascriptive (Sather 1996) and everyone, including non-specialists, is equally entitled to attempt an interpretation. The role of the manang is to promote, not monopolize, interpretations, and to surprise and challenge his audience and, through the discursive medium of his words, and by their acoustic and physical enactment, to enlist their engagement with this intermediating reality in a common search for meaning. This search is never final, but goes on from one performance to another, and beyond, extending into the everyday life of its participants. Not just anthropologists, but local discourse, too, interprets meaning, and in the end, it is this process of sense-making, of bepandang reti, 'disclosing meaning,' most notably through the use of words, that, for the Iban, comprises the very core of the ritual process. (24)


Words, quite simply, through their circulation in ritual, are powerful. The transformations and imagery embodied in the poetic language of the leka pelian clearly empower the pelian as treatment. They "transform," for example, the ritual cloth that the manang drapes over his shoulders as he sings into 'wings' (sayap) and they turn his act of swinging in a barkcloth swing into cosmic flight. Most centrally, words transform his fainted dramatization into an efficacious act in the unseen world. By being sung, the leka pelian, a symbolic medium, becomes, in the intermediating reality its words help to create, not merely a source of imitation and action, but also of creative agency, transforming the very context that calls it into existence.

Poetic language is powerful at other levels as well. Through its descriptive power, it moves the listener from the familiar and immediate to the invisible and remote and back again. Poetic descriptions of the unseen reflect the power of words to represent and invoke. They also attest to the shaman's ability to see the invisible, to transform himself, and to speak in the voice of a multitude of unseen beings. The dramatic peaks in the chants occur at points when the manang seemingly makes the invisible seen. Thus, for example, after the long series of interrogations, at last the final bird the shaman's soul meets, the Burung Bubut, reveals that the soul he is seeking has crossed into the otherworld. As the manang's own soul enters Sebayan, what was previously invisible emerges into visibility, and, as we approach the dramatic climax of the narrative, the place where the soul has hidden itself is at last revealed, making possible its recovery and return to its visible container, the offstage physical body of the patient.

Encoded in the words of the leka pelian are also depictions of the more enduring contours of the Iban social and cosmological worlds. While stressing here the emergent, open-ended nature of pelian performances, counterposed against the endlessly varied role that the manang must play as a curer and ritual intercessor, there are also more enduring messages contained in the words of the leka pelian, conveying what Rappaport (1992:250) has called a "canonical" or "liturgical order," relating, not "indexically" to the immediate conditions of the patient and other participants in a pelian session, but "symbolically" to more enduring aspects of nature, society, and the cosmos. To perform this order is, in effect, to conform to it, and for at least the duration of a performance, "to bring this order to life" and "to become," in Rappaport's words, "part of it" (1992:253).

Finally, it is important to keep in view the sociological aspects of ritual language use. The pelian are always performed before an audience and take place within a context of heightened sociality in which the patient's family, longhouse members, and outside visitors have all assembled out of their collective concern for the afflicted person, or for those threatened by or suffering misfortune, or the grief of death. This assembled audience joins with the manang in a joint quest for meanings, for disclosing the unseen, and so for bringing to bear the therapeutic power of words in order, if possible, to return the patient to a state of health, to overcome misfortune, dispel danger, or to alleviate a family's sense of loss. At the same time, through his skillful use of language, the manang also seeks to affirm his own power, and to gain audience endorsement of his effectiveness as a healer. Accountability works both ways, and through his skillful use of words, staging, and drama--the coupling of language skills with performance aesthetics--the shaman gains authority and public acknowledgement of his own effectiveness. In both regards, words, quite literally, comprise the "gist" of ritual.


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Clifford Sather

Social and Cultural Anthropology

University of Helsinki


(1) I first gave a much briefer version of this paper at the 1994 BRC conference in Pontianak. An expanded form, making a somewhat different argument, was presented at a symposium on "Rethinking Indonesian Rituals" in Osaka, Japan, in 1997. An abbreviated version of the present paper was given at a Department of Social Anthropology seminar at the University of Oslo in May 2004. I thank the participants on all these occasions for their many useful comments. The remaining shortcomings are mine alone.

(2) Although, perhaps, never entirely so. Over time, Hefner concedes, some attempt is made, at least by Tengger priests, "to render accountable what is said," so that prayers, over long periods of time, appear to undergo self-conscious revision, with the result that a "demand for propositional accountability" has, as Hefner puts it, "left its mark" on them (1985:214).

(3) Indeed, as I have discussed elsewhere (1993b, 2001a:21-23), considerable ambiguity surrounds the status of shamans in Iban society and their authority, particularly as individual practitioners, is far from unquestioned.

(4) Imaginal in the sense of humanly constructed and distinct from what Bruce Kapferer calls "quotidian realities," i.e. "the chaotic actualities of the paramount world of everyday life" (Kapferer in press, see also 1997). As I will stress presently, words and the internal dynamics of Iban shamanic rituals act to create what I have called an "intermediating reality" which, in Iban cultural logic, can be thought of as situated between interconnected "seen" and "unseen" worlds. In characterizing this reality, I find particularly illuminating Kapferer's concept of "virtuality." Thus, in Kapferer's terms, ritual, as a virtual reality, is neither a representational ideal nor a modeling of external realities, but is, rather, as Kapferer puts it, a thoroughgoing reality in itself that draws external realities, including human participants, into its dynamic field in order to change and transform them (Kapferer 2000:29, 1997).

(5) This is not to deny the importance of material objects, stage settings and other media, only that these things gain their symbolic significance, or, in Kapferer's terms, their virtuality, largely through the shaman's use of ritual speech.

(6) The research on which this essay is based was carried out in Sarawak, intermittently, between 1977 and 2004, under the auspices initially of the Universiti Sains Malaysia and later the Tun Jugah Foundation, and, during 1993-1994, with additional support of a Fulbright Research Fellowship. I wish to thank each of these institutions, and especially Datuk Amar Leonard Linggi Jugah, the Director of the Tun Jugah Foundation, for making this work possible. I also thank the Sarawak State and Malaysian Federal Governments for granting me permission to carry it out. Fieldwork was done in the lower Saribas and Krian Districts of the Sri Aman Division, and, in particular, I am indebted to Manangs Jabing anak Incham, Asun anak Janta, Bangga anak Anggat, and Digat anak Kotak for their good humor and patience in working with me through many hours of pelian recording, questions, commentary, and explanation. Today, all, sadly, have passed away. Although shamanism remains a living practice among the Saribas Iban, very few younger men are taking up the calling and today, like other features of indigenous religion, it is declining rapidly in the face of large-scale Christian conversion.

(7) Trangganu Malays use the same term and similarly describe shamanic rituals as main (or, more specifically, mainputeri or mainpeteri) (Laderman 1991a, 1991b). In this light, Laderman (1991 a: 14) describes main peteri as "drama whose elements are played out before the onlookers' eyes with a force of reality and truth that rivals the spell of other entertainments." This description, at least for older audiences, aptly fits Iban pelian as well.

(8) For an account of these repertoires, see Sather (2001 a: 136-140).

(9) The plant image, in this connection, while its condition of mortality and healthful vigor is thought to mirror that of the individual, is said to exist separately from the body. While many Iban believe that a person possesses multiple souls, some of them also existing outside the body, only one soul is of significant concern to shamans. This is generally called the 'body soul' (semengat tubuh). While it normally resides inside the body (tubuh), as its name implies, it is precisely at times when it is suspected of being absent that its owner becomes the object of ritual attention. Hence, in the leka pelian, the patient's soul is depicted as being temporarily disembodied, and so, in the reversed unseen world, of being temporarily visible to its inhabitants, including malevolent spirits, and part of the shaman's task is to recover it and restore it to a state of spiritual invisibility inside the body. For a detailed account of these components of the self and their relationship to notions of health, mortality, and well-being see Sather (2001a:48-65).

(10) The Iban term for "audience," peninga', means, literally, 'listener,' from the verbal root ninga', 'to hear.'

(11) This may happen, for example, if a patient falls ill while working or traveling outside the longhouse, a not uncommon experience today, with many young men working in timber camps or on urban construction sites. Such illness may be seen as due to the traveler's soul having become lost or disoriented in its new surroundings. The sick person's family at home may invite a manang to the longhouse to perform a curing session on the sick person's behalf. Here, the shaman's soul typically travels over long distances to catch the patient's soul, which is then placed for temporary safekeeping inside the head of another family member. It remains there until it can be returned, at some later date, to the traveler's body. In such performances, an article of clothing, or today often a photograph, may be used as a stand-in for the absent patient (Sather 2001 a:53).

(12) For a more extended discussion, see Sather (1993 and 2001a:82ff).

(13) The Saribas Iban are not the only Southeast Asian people for whom notions of spirit possession are absent (see also, for example, Thomas Gibson 1986:126ff).

(14) This is not to say, of course, that new journeys, novel landscapes, or other innovations are not introduced from time to time. They are, but they only become part of an ongoing repertoire when they are accepted by Iban audiences. In this, again, clearly, accountability is crucial.

(15) Victor Turner, in his preface to Kapferer's study of Sri Lankan exorcism (1991), points out the intermediating, or "liminal," nature of entertainment. Thus, he notes that "To entertain is, etymologically, 'to hold between', that is, to place in a 'liminal' condition, on the threshold between mundane spaces and times" (1991:xxv). The idea of entertainment, or main, runs throughout virtually all of Saribas Iban ritual life.

(16) Again, the salience of sound, as mentioned earlier, is inherent in the Iban term for 'audience,' peninga', deriving, as it does, from the root ninga', 'to hear.'

(17) In the performed version cited here the shaman's soul encountered a sequence of 13 birds (Sather 2001a:278-291).

(18) The name also plays on the word lemai, meaning 'evening.'

(19) Characteristically, at this point, the soul takes the form of a tiny mustard seed (leka ensabi), which the manang displays to his audience in the palm of his hand after he has regained consciousness (see Photo 3).

(20) It should be noted that this varying "depth" occurs within spoken Iban (jaku' Iban). Differences represent, in other words, poles of variation, or different speech registers, within the Iban language itself. This situation contrasts with other ritual speech genres in Borneo that reportedly rely more on shifts between vernacular, borrowed, and, in some cases, archaic lexicons, often employing, for example, vernacular and borrowed words, alternately, in parallel lines, to signify differing temporal, spatial, or ethnic sources of sacred knowledge and/or of textual authority (see, for example, Metcalf 1989, Tsing 1993). This is rarely done in Iban ritual speech (leka main), which employs, instead, an extremely extensive "deep language" lexicon.

(21) For reasons discussed at the outset of this paper, interpretations are never entirely conclusive. Thus, for example, if soul loss is indicated by his initial diagnosis, the shaman, in the course of a night-long session, will typically recover the patient's soul in more than one way, restoring it to the body often three or four times before the session ends. In addition, he typically performs other pelian as well, for example, to weed or clear around the patient's plant image, or to barricade the soul against possible spirit assailants. Also, as we have noted, in concluding a session, he additionally gathers together the souls of other members of the patient's family and, for safety's sake, reinserts them into their bodies.

(22) Notions of deep and shallow extend beyond speech. They also apply, for example, to the objects used in ritual, including at times utilitarian objects of everyday use. For example, in the agricultural rite of initial clearing (manggul), ordinary bushknives and clearing hooks are used, which, when placed within an explicitly framed ritual context, take on a "deep," and for the Iban, highly interpretable meaning (see Sather 1992:125-27).

(23) In these latter situations, a special 'hidden language' called jaku' lalai is used so that animals and spirits cannot understand what is said, and so endanger the lives, or jeopardize the success of those taking part in these undertakings. For example, in the upper Paku region of the Saribas District, when hunting parties are in the forest, the common word makai, 'to eat,' is replaced by matah ka lengan, meaning, literally, 'to break an arm'; pagila, 'tomorrow,' by bali' batang, 'turn over a log,' and so on (Sather 2001a:168fn).

(24) This process has also a more general bearing on anthropological theories of ritual. As Kapferer (2000:8) has noted, contemporary theories, particularly postmodern or deconstructionist approaches to ritual have tended to shift attention away from generalizing arguments that concentrate on deep structures or central organizing principles towards the performance surface of rituals, "their open-endedness, dialogical ambiguities, and their diversity of interpretative possibility." While these latter qualities are clearly at work in Iban shamanic rites, an examination of the pelian demonstrates, at the same time, the limitations of this debate, and like the Sinhalese exorcistic rites that concern Kapferer, it highlights, instead, "the complementarity rather than negating aspects of depth versus surface discourse." In the same way, this examination leads us to an understanding of ritual practice as inherently a dynamic of both surface and depth.
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Author:Sather, Clifford
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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