Dusun - Religion and Expressive Culture



The Dusun traditionally are animists, believing there is a direct and continuing relationship between the events of daily life and a complex world of good and evil supernatural beings and unseen forces. Dusun also believe that proper ritual and ceremonial acts can be interposed between humans and supernatural beings and forces in an attempt to modify, or even to control, events that cause humans to fall ill, be uncertain, lose their luck, feel pain, or become fearful.

Religious Beliefs. Dusun conceptions of the universe include a variety of malevolent supernatural beings and forces believed to be responsible for the personal crises of human life, including accidents, illness, and death. These harmful beings include entities and forces that have existed since the time of the creation of the world, as well as the souls of the dead doomed by the creator being to an eternity of wandering and cannibalism because of evil deeds performed while alive. A group of beneficial spirit beings and forces is also believed to be important in keeping order in the universe and in daily human life. The most important of these supernatural beings and forces in everyday life is the "spirit of the rice," a female entity who serves as the guardian of the rice crop and rice storehouse and in whose name specific rituals are performed at times of rice planting and harvest. In addition, Dusun traditionally believe in the existence of a specific class of named supernaturals whose attributes and powers are known and used by ritual specialists as they seek to divine and control events leading to life crises. A creator force, personified into a being called "Asundu," who has a legendary history and is possessed of awesome powers, is said to have shaped the universe and to direct the destiny of all its inhabitants. A specific power of the creator, believed to be derived from the inexhaustible store of the power of this being, is said to provide for the curative and restorative powers of female and male ritual specialists. Objects, geographic locations, and persons are said to be imbued with considerable amounts of this power and must be treated with respect or avoided if possible. A special designation ( apagun ) and carved symbols are used by Dusun to "wall off such locations or objects from inadvertent human contact. Today, large numbers of Dusun have become Christians and so reject many animistic beliefs and practices. Some have also become Muslims.

Religious Practitioners. Some male and female individuals in each Dusun community are specially knowledgeable in the many ritual and ceremonial acts used to mediate between humans and the supernatural world. These rituals and ceremonies involve spirit possession, use of symbolic objects, recitation of lengthy sacred verses, and often center upon specific individuals, places, or crops afflicted with a disease or ill fortune. The effectiveness of a ritual or ceremony is said to depend upon precisely following correct procedures and the accurate recitations of verses. Female ritual specialists tend to concentrate on curing and divination regarding individual illness and bad fortune. Male ritual specialists tend to concern themselves with alleviation or prevention of a worldwide scope. The verses recited by female and male ritual specialists are often expressed in an archaic form of the Dusun language not known or widely used in a community; they are learned through long apprenticeship to senior ritual specialists.

Ceremonies. Public performances of ritual acts, many concerned with the annual swidden and irrigated rice agricultural cycle, are a regular feature. Ceremonies marking individual life-cycle stages or transitions (for example, birth, marriage, and death) are also important.

Arts. Art and house architecture are imbued with forms and designs common to other native Bornean peoples. Many of these art forms are believed by Dusun to express a "spiritual" (id dasom ginavo ) intent or quality, and are said to exhibit their deep understanding, or ginavo, and respect for Dusun tradition, or koubasan. Traditional musical instruments include a bamboo mouth harp, a bamboo-and-gourd wind instrument, and gongs of various sizes obtained in the past from Chinese traders. Dusun men have traditionally practiced tattooing of their necks, forearms, and shoulders with intricate designs of deep spiritual meaning.

Medicine. Personal illness is believed by Dusun to derive from bad fortune, various actions taken by harmful supernatural beings and forces, and the malign intentions of human adversaries. A wide range of medicinal remedies, derived from various plant and animal products and made into different lotions and poultices, is used to help alleviate and cure illness. Special importance is attached to a variety of a swamp-plant root that is believed to have magical and curative powers and is used by female specialists when seeking to divine and cure personal illness.

Death and Afterlife. The Dusun believe that following death the spirit of an individual proceeds to the supernatural world. There the spirits of the dead are said to rest near the creator being in a world similar to the human world but lacking disease, bad fortune, failed crops, and combat, where all things are new and never in need of replenishment. Some spirits of the dead are believed not to reach the place of the dead since they are captured en route by harmful spirits or eaten by cannibal spirits. A period of formal mourning, which includes a number of ritual and ceremonial actions, is intended to ease the transition of the dead to their new life in the afterworld.


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