via the Temasek History Research Centre, December 2019: The first paper of their new working paper series focuses on the beliefs of the tiger in Borneo.
The Other Tiger: History, Beliefs, and Rituals in Borneo by Bernard Sellato
Borneo has so far remained marginal in studies on Southeast Asian peoples and tigers. While the tiger is not known to exist in Borneo today, it has a significant reality in historical traditions, oral literature, myths, beliefs, and rituals. This study combines various materials about Borneo, with a primary focus on its central regions, in order to, ultimately, try to shed light on ancient belief systems and the modalities of their evolution through time and cultural contact. It first surveys the local Felidae species, the names given to the tiger, and the presence of tiger body parts among villagers. Then, it reviews representations of the tiger in oral literature, its value as a symbol of martial manliness and, locally, its standing as a culture hero, and looks at religious beliefs, the tiger’s ambivalent nature, and its function as mediator between humans and spirits. Focusing on rituals, it then stresses its benevolence (initiation, redemption, purification), as well as its sinister facets (punishment for breach of taboos), both meant to warrant a ‘cool’ socio-cosmic balance. Next, it investigates the historical role of one chieftain named Tiger who, urging forest nomads to settle down and farm, was instrumental in the emergence of a new ethnocultural cluster’s identity, and it explores the modalities of the myth-generating conflation of historical elements with religious beliefs. Finally, it scrutinizes the tiger’s complex relationship with the moon and thunder, hinting at the pre-existence among former nomads of non-dualistic beliefs in a ‘tiger-moon-thunder’ set of deities and, touching briefly on the ‘thunder complex’ question, it stresses ambiguity and variability, reflecting the systemic cultural plasticity and singular cultural histories of these societies. Due to the study’s broad spectrum, a large reference list is appended.