Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Religion & Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs
In 1980 53,689 Melanau were Sunni Muslim, 8,486 were Christian, 1,749 were tribal, 5,328 were listed as having no religion (but were probably all tribal), and 326 were listed as miscellaneous. For Muslims, Christians, and tribals alike, the world consists of this, the middle world, the upper world (the sky), and the world below. Traditionally the world was egg-shaped, seven layers or worlds above and seven below the middle world, the whole being balanced on the head of a buffalo standing on a snake, all surrounded by water. The breathing of the buffalo caused the ebb and flow of the tides. For some people the land of the dead was an underworld; others thought it elsewhere, but did not know where. Its topography was exact, but differed for Muslims, whose view was shared by Christians.

For Muslims, Christians, and tribals alike, the world, the sun, the moon, and the stars were created by Alla-taala, but how is not known. He is remote and little interested in human affairs. All "layers" of the world are inhabited by spirits (tou), who, together with humans, animals, and plants, share this middle world. Every being has its own proper place in the world, which is ordered by adat. Overstepping boundaries causes trouble, and most human illness is caused by trespassing on some spirit's living space. Spirits are of many kinds: earth, air, water, forest, etc. Sometimes they are referred to as ipu', who are less malevolent than tou, and may indeed be invited to reside in and protect dwellings. Supernaturals live on the moon and punish disorderly and disrespectful behavior by men, especially mockery of animals. A female guards the entrance to the land of the dead. People are reluctant to call such supernaturals "tou" or "ipu'," but no other term exists for such demigods. Muslims and some pagans call them melaikat.

Religious Practitioners
No pagan priests exist. Expert carvers of spirit images, or belum, diagnose what spirit (sometimes also called "belum" and not "tou") is likely to have caused an illness and, in a short ceremony, forces the spirit into its carved image so that it may be taken to its proper place and forbidden to harm the patient for at least three days. Spirit mediums, with the help of familiar spirits, also cure illness and practice divination. Every village, Muslim and tribal alike, holds an annual cleansing ceremony, kaul, to call uninvited spirits that have taken up residence in the village to a feast before they are sent home to their proper places.

Apart from the annual kaul, private ceremonies of increasing complexity and expense are held for the curing of illness by spirit mediums. Ceremonies for the safety of a child two months before its delivery initiate a series of taboos, culminating in the birth. There are also ceremonies at the wake of a dead person; they may continue for several months, until a secondary burial.

Among most Melanau groups, tattooing was never widely practiced. Strongly built longhouses, fortresses thirty feet above ground, were traditionally decorated with elaborate wood carving. Belum carved in sago pith were widely used and are a sophisticated form of sculpture. Ceremonies were accompanied by gong orchestras with distinctive chants and music; bards recited and sang epics, legends, and myths of considerable poetic merit at ceremonies or simply for entertainment.

Most illness was attributed to an attack by a spirit, but certain ailments, mostly minor, were attributed to a failure to keep a proper balance between hot and cold conditions in the body. Herbal medicines existed to restore the balance, most of which have been taken over by practitioners of Malay medicine.

Death and Afterlife
An individual's funeral is one of the most important events in the life cycle. At death the soul begins a boat journey, accompanied by attendant spirits—usually called "tou"—to the land of the dead. Chants, ceremonies, and games during the wake ensure the soul a safe journey. Once admitted, the soul is sent to one of seven pagan villages, appropriate to the manner of death, and lives a life similar to that of this middle world. Eventually a second death occurs, and many believe that the soul then becomes dew. Muslims and many Christians also believe that the soul sets out for the land of the dead by boat or, according to some, along a road that comes to a place where the path becomes a sword across a pot of blazing fire. An individual who has led a good life can walk along the flat edge of the sword; the sharp edge of the sword ensures that one who has led a bad life falls into the pot. Beyond the sword is the land of Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and the pagans.

*Source: http://www.everyculture.com/East-Southeast-Asia/Melanau.html

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