Wooden figure of a tree god

Melanau, late 19th - early 20th century AD
From Sarawak, Malaysia

Diseases and spirits

This figure represents 'a forest or land spirit', and was collected in Borneo at the end of the nineteenth century along the Igan River. The north-west coast of Borneo and inland along the numerous rivers was, and is today, inhabited by the Melanau. The region is now governed by Malaysia. The wet tropical forest and swampy coastal areas are an abundant resource of raw materials and food which formed the basis of Melanau livelihood. This natural environment was also a source of danger and favoured a number of endemic diseases such as malaria.

In the Melanau world view, there are several different worlds such as sky, land and water. Land, for example, is inhabited by spirits, creatures (animals, birds etc.) and humans. Co-existence between the different beings is regulated by sets of rules and their transgression can lead to illness. The symptoms are interpreted to identify which spiritual being is responsible for the illness and an image is made of it with the relevant physical attributes. A ritual was performed to invite the spirit into the carving, and this was then brought to the patient. As powerful objects, the figures were treated carefully and discarded in the normal dwelling place of the spirit. For example, a forest spirit such as this might be left at the foot of a tree.

Today, most Melanau are Muslim and these rituals are now rare.

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More information

Bibliography

H.S. Morris, The Oya Melanau: traditional r (Sarawak Museum Journal Monograph no. 9, 1997)

Dimensions

Height: 40.000 cm

Museum number

Ethno 1905-648

EAS33025

Christy Collection

Location

Find in the collection online



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