Semang - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. As the Semang have no religious authorities or written scriptures, beliefs vary from group to group and even person to person, but many elements of the belief systems are shared among Semang and between Semang and other Orang Asli. The earth is generally pictured as a disk of land resting on a huge snake ( naga' ) or turtle that floats in an underground sea. Above the atmosphere is the firmament, a cool, sandy land with flowers and fruits. The earth is connected to the firmament by one or more stone pillars, an image probably drawn from the limestone hills of the peninsula. The firmament, underworld, and stone pillars are populated by immortal superhuman beings who created the rain forest to supply human needs on earth.

All groups believe that numerous immortal superhuman beings live on the firmament and stone pillars and under the earth. Some superhumans once lived on earth as humans and return occasionally to visit or listen to the singing of the Semang; they may be met in dreams. Most superhumans are anonymous and grouped in broad categories, often associated with natural phenomena such as wind and fruit (e.g., the Cenoi of the western groups). Some have individual names and identities and may be termed "deities." The most prominent is the thunder god (Karey; Batèk Dè'; Gobar) who sends thunderstorms to topple trees on Semang who break prohibitions ( telañ or lawac ), for example, against mocking certain animals or mixing incompatible foods. In punishing humans, the thunder god may collaborate with a female deity of the underworld—called the "Grandmother" (Ya') and sometimes confounded with the earth-supporting snake (naga') — who produces a flood beneath the offender. The thunder god also punishes offenders with disease or a tiger attack. To avert his wrath the offender makes a blood offering by scraping a small amount of blood from the shin with a knife, mixing it with water, and throwing it to the thunder god and Grandmother. Most groups personify one or more other celestial beings (e.g., Kensiu; Tapn). After death Semang become immortal superhumans and can visit earth.

Religious Practitioners. Ritual specialists ( hala ) are thought to communicate with the superhumans through dreams or trance, or even to be superhumans themselves. The latter, called "big hala'" among the western groups, can take on the body of a tiger and protect the Semang by driving off ordinary tigers. "Small hala'" are ordinary mortals who know some curing techniques. The potential to be a big hala' is hereditary, descending bilaterally to both sexes, but a big hala' must learn songs, spells, medicines, and techniques. Big and small hala' receive such knowlege from superhumans through dreams or from other hala'. The best method is to wait at the grave of a "dead" shaman until he appears in tiger form, then return him to human form by blowing incense over him; the shaman will then teach the novice.

Ceremonies. The major rituals, including the blood offering, center on communication with the superhumans. Some western groups believe the Cenoi can possess shamans in trance, speak to the people through them, and convey songs or instructions for curing. The Batèk Dè' hold singing sessions to ask superhumans for fruit and, after the fruit season, to thank them. In cases of serious illness, singers may go in trance to meet the superhumans, who may teach them cures. Rites of passage are little developed except in connection with death.

Arts. Blowpipes, quivers, and bamboo combs are decorated with geometric and floral patterns. Both sexes wear flowers, leaves, and pigments, especially at singing sessions.

Medicine. Semang attribute most diseases to breaking prohibitions or to the intrusion of noxious substances from the environment, especially in food. Herbal medicines are drunk in infusions or massaged into the skin. Curing songs and spells are acquired from superhumans. Shamans may convey the healing power of the superhumans to the patient through magical quartz crystals ( cebu ), in the west, or cooling dew ( mun ), among the Batèk Dè'.

Death and Afterlife. Most groups believe that after death the shadow-soul goes to an island afterworld at the western horizon, but it may first linger at the grave as a dangerous ghost. Tigers are thought to come to devour the corpse. Thus death rituals combine protective measures, such as fleeing the site of the death and erecting symbolic barriers around the grave, with measures to hurry the shadow-soul on its way, such as burning incense. Most groups bury the corpse in a shallow grave. Some personal possessions are placed with the body or in a leaf shelter on top of the grave, and food and water are provided for the deceased. The Batèk Dè', who believe that the afterworld is above the firmament, place the corpse on a platform in a tree to assist the shadow-soul in reaching the sky and to protect the body from tigers. Most groups reserve tree burial, or burial with the head above ground, for great shamans.

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