Excerpts from ‘Pagan Tribes of Borneo’

Excerpts from The Pagan Tribes of Borneo by Hose, Charles, 1863-1929; McDougall, William, 1871-1938; Haddon, Alfred C. (Alfred Cort), 1855-1940


Raja White & Wise

“It is true that they are very unlike…the older philosophers, whose every action proceeded from a nice and logical calculation of the algebraic sum of pleasures and pains to be derived from alternative lines of conduct; but we ourselves are equally unlike that purely mythical personage. The Kayan or the Iban often acts impulsively in way which by no means conduce to further his best interests or deeper purposes; but so do we also. He often reaches conclusion by processes that cannot be logically justified; but so do we also. He often holds, and upon successive occasions acts upon, beliefs that are logically inconsistent with one another; but so do we also.” ~The White Raja of Sarawak

The Punan: First Contact

One of us (C.H.) had lived in the Baram district six years before succeeding in seeing a single Punan. The history of this first meeting with Punans may serve to illustrate their timidity, caution, and good feeling. On making a long hunting trip on the slopes of Mount Dulit, he took with him a Sebop who was familiar with Punans and their language. For some days no trace of them was seen; but one morning freshly made footprints were observed round about the camp. The following night a cleft stick was set up at some twenty paces from the camp with a large cake of tobacco in the cleft, and on the stick a mark was carved which would be understood by the Punans as implying that they were at liberty to take the tobacco. This is a method of opening communications and trade with them well known to the Klemantans. In the morning the tobacco had disappeared, and fresh foot prints showed that its disappearance was due to human agency. The following night this procedure was repeated, and in the course of the day Punan shouts were heard, coming from a distance of some hundreds of yards. The interpreter was sent out with instructions to parley and, if possible, to persuade the Punans to come into camp. Presently he returned with two shy but curious strangers, who squatted at some distance and were gradually encouraged to come into camp. After staying a few minutes and accepting presents of tobacco and cloth, they made off. On the following day they returned with eight male companions, bringing a monkey, a hornbill, and a rare bird, all killed with their poisoned darts; and they enquired how much rubber they should bring in return for the tobacco. They were told that no return was expected, but, understanding that animals of all sorts were being collected, they attached themselves to the party, lent their unmatched skill to adding to the collections, and brought in many rare specimens that now repose safely in the Natural History Museum of South Kensington.

Pregnancy & Superstition

The belief that [a] child will resemble in some degree the things which arrest the glance of his mother while she carries him is unquestioningly held and acted upon; hence the expectant woman seeks to avoid seeing all disagreeable and uncanny objects, more especially the Mais and the long-nosed monkey…she must not tie knots, she must not thrust her hand into any narrow hole to pull anything out. The taboos of the latter class are observed by the husband even more strictly, if possible, than by the wife.

The Giant fell & became a Compass

“Listen to my words. I am about to die. My brains are sago, my liver is tobacco. Where my head falls there the people will have much knowledge, where my feet lie will be the ignorant ones.” Then, his legs being cut through, he fell with a mighty crash, his head falling towards the sea, his feet pointing up river. (“This accounts for the fact that white men and Chinese know so many things, while the people of Borneo are ignorant” said our informant; but this was probably his own comment.) The Miris, of whom a thousand were killed by the fall of USAI, have beautiful hair, because his head fell in their district; but the other people have only such hair as grew on USAI’S limbs.

To ‘Run Amok’

The Dayak believe in a variety of demons whom cause madness in varying degrees. There are “amok” demons who cause tantrums, suicide, lunacy. They sometimes come from the swamp and are immortal characters whom throw themselves into mortal bodies.


A peculiar and infrequent variety of Sea Dayak MANANG (medicine man) are the MANANG BALI. They are men who adopt and continuously wear woman’s dress and behave in all the ways like women, except that they avoid as far as possible taking any part in the domestic labor. They claim to have been told in dreams to adopt this mode of life; they are employed for the same purpose as the more ordinary MANANGS and they practice similar methods.

Disobedience = Devolution

A Kayan woman left her daughter to harvest rice, warning her not to eat any while left alone. Of course her daughter goes ahead and eats the rice and immediately sprouts hair all over her body. The girl is transformed into a DOK (MACACUS NEMESTRINUS), banished to the forest, and is forbidden to eat anything except that which is planted by humans.

NOTE: The Bible story of Eve eating the forbidden apple presupposes that we are no longer in Eden – and can never return (thanks, Eve!). The Kayan story above posits the same, but threatens banishment to Eden if we are disobedient. The Kayan story teaches discipline (waiting and not eating rice before its cooked) while Genesis teaches people that they are inherently disobedient.

Sweet Nothings before Death

Before killing pigs, Kenyahs will offer their animals an explanation and assure that they will not be eaten – because they are friends.

Muslim Pigs

In keeping with their own beliefs, Kayans figure that Muslims must refrain from eating pork because their ancestors are reincarnated as pigs.

Headhunting – from Ancient Egypt?

Headhunting may have also originated from the ritual sacrifice of slaves at the funerals of their masters, accounts of which seem almost Egyptian. At a certain point they thought that perhaps beheading is too violent a death for a slave, and might send the slaves to a different afterlife than their masters; from a certain point on the slaves were spared this fate. From a certain point on only the heads of enemies were to be taken, and slaves were shown mercy – being tied down to their masters tombs and left to die of exposure. Nowadays they may still use pigs and chickens.

Avoid the Right Bank

The left banks of rivers are said to belong to the tribes of Borneo; the right banks of rivers to settlers. Before someone dies, DAYONG (Dayak priests) warn them: “Avoid the right bank.”

The Soul: Both Fixed & Meandering

Kayans vaguely distinguish two souls – on the one hand the ghost-soul or shade, which in dreams wanders afar, on the other hand the vital principle. It would seem that so long as this vital spark remains in the body the ghost-soul may return to it; but that, when death is complete, this vital spark also departs, and then the ghost-soul will return no more.

“Ma’am your Body is Right This Way!” -Medicine Man

If he decides that the soul or BLUA of the patient has left his body, and has made some part of the journey towards the abode of departed souls, his task is to fall into a trance and to send his own soul to overtake that of his patient and to persuade it to return.

Newborn, Death, Death, Newborn…

Sea Dayaks sometimes go farther…They place the new-born child in a small boat and allow it to float down the river, and standing upon the bank call upon all the evil spirits to take the child at once, if they mean to take it, in order that the parents may be spared the greater bereavement of losing it some years later. If, after floating some distance down stream, the child is found unhurt, it is carried home, the parents feeling some confidence that it will be “spared” to grow up.

Roots Reach for the Sky

Some assert that they [Gods] dwell in the skies, but others regard them as dwelling below the surface of the earth. The former opinion is in harmony with the practice of erecting a tree before the house with its branches buried in the ground and the root upturned…forming a ladder or path of communication with the superior powers.

Symptoms of Death: Body Odor & Heavy Limbs

After burial, Sea Dayaks sometimes fix a tube of bamboo leading from just above the eyes of the corpse to the surface of the ground; they will address the dead man with their lips to the orifice of the tube, and will drop into it food and drink and silver coins.

The Rule Book of Tattoos for Dayak Women

A woman endeavors to have her tattoo finished before she becomes pregnant, as it is considered immodest to be tattooed after she has become a mother. If a woman has a severe illness after any portion of her body has been tattooed, the work is not continued for some little time; moreover, according to Nieuwenhuis (9, p. 453), a woman cannot be tattooed during seed time nor if a dead person is lying unburied in the house, since it is LALI (forbidden) to let blood at such times; bad dreams, such as a dream of floods, foretelling much blood-letting, will also interrupt the work. A tattooed woman may not eat the flesh of the monitor lizard or of the scaly manis and her husband also is included in the taboo until the pair have a male and a female child. If they have a daughter only they may not eat the flesh of the monitor until their child has been tattooed; if they have a son only they cannot eat the monitor until they become grandparents. Should a girl have brothers, but no sister, some of her tattoo lines must not be joined together, but if she has brothers and sisters, or sisters only, all the lines can be joined.

Beads-Cum-Tattoos: Stay your Meandering Soul!

In trade with China the Dayak first acquired beads; the LUKUT beads was said to keep the soul in the body, and was tied around the wrists of sick people. The LUKUT has since become a tattoo, again adorning the wrist, to keep the soul inside of the body.


Such parties of Sea Dayaks have been known to accept the hospitality of unsuspecting and inoffensive Klemantans, and to outrage every law of decency by taking the heads of old men, women, and children during the absence of their natural defenders.

Hooked on Tree Crystals: Camphor

Camphor is formed in the crevices of the sterns of old trees of the species DRYOBALANOPS AROMATICA, when the heart is decayed leaving a central hollow. The tree is cut down, the stem split up, and the crystalline scales of pure camphor are shaken out on mats. It is then made up in little bundles and wrapped in palm leaves…they [the camphor seekers] confine themselves to the use of a peculiar language which seems to be a conventional perversion of the Punan speech.

Women as Rice: Harvest Me

[…] the festival begins with the preparation of the seed grain for the following season. This is mixed with a small quantity of the seed grain of the foregoing seasons which has been carefully preserved for this purpose in a special basket. The basket contains grains of PADI from good harvests of many previous years. This is supposed to have been done from the earliest times of PADI planting, so that the basket contains some of the original stock of seed, or at least the virtue of it leavening the whole. This basket is never emptied, but a pinch of the old PADI is mixed in with the new, and then a handful of the mixture added to the old stock…preserving continuity generation after generation with the original seed PADI of mythical origin(74)…the woman calls on the soul of the PADI to cause the seed to be fruitful and grow vigorously, and to favor her own fertility. For the whole festival is a celebration or cult of the principle of fertility and vitality – that of the women no less than that of the PADI.[48]