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5 interesting legends from Central Borneo recorded by Carl Sofus Lumholtz

Carl Sofus Lumholtz (1851-1922) was a Norwegian explorer and ethnographer. His best known works were publications on indigenous cultures of Australia and Mexico.

In 1913, Lumholtz made his way to Dutch Borneo, which is the current day Kalimantan. He spent roughly four years exploring the jungle and mingling with the Kayans, Kenyahs, Saputans, Bukits, Punans and many other Dayak tribes.

He died in New York while seeking treatment for tuberculosis in 1922. Lumholtz’s death was untimely as he was planning to write more about Borneo.

The only published record about Lumholtz’s journey in Borneo was a book called Through Central Borneo.

In the books, he wrote about the Borneo climate and ecosystem as well his adventure passing through Banjaramasin, Kayan and Mahakam rivers.

Published originally in Dutch on the year he died, the book also featured at least 23 legends particularly of the Dayak people.

Here at KajoMag, we narrowed down it to five interesting legends from Kalimantan recorded by Lumholtz:

1.The legend of patin fish

This legend came from Katingan regency, Indonesia.

There was a Dayak who went out fishing and caught a patin fish.

He left the fish in his prahu (boat) and asked his wife to fetch it. His wife was shocked to see that the fish had turned into a baby girl.

The couple decided to raise the girl as their own. Years later, the girl grew up and married. However, she first warned her husband that as long as they were married he was never to eat patin.

One day, the husband saw another man catching patin. He had a sudden craving for the fish and the man gave him some to take home.

The husband then took the fish and cooked it. When he was about to eat it, his wife walked in on him (talk about the perfect timing).

Sadly, the wife asked “Why did you eat the patin? You must not love me.” It seems that guilt trips don’t work on the husband as he insisted on having the fish and even fed it to the children.

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Then the wife dropped the bomb on the husband telling that she was, in fact, a patin fish, telling him of her real origins. Because the husband ate the patin fish, she then turned back into one and left him.

To add some swagger to her exit (or maybe it was self-preservation), she also cursed her family on her way out, telling them that they will get sick if they ever eat a patin again.

2.The legend of burung punai
A view of Kapuas river, Kalimantan in Indonesia.

If somebody tells you not to eat something, the best thing to do is to listen and take heed.

The legend of burung punai or green pigeon (Treron spp.) comes from the Kahayan tribe of Kapuas river.

Long time ago, there was a man who tried to catch a green pigeon using a stick with glue on its end.

After several miserable attempts, he finally caught one. Suddenly, the bird turned into a woman. The man took the woman home and made her his wife. She agreed to marrying him, but made him promise not to eat a green pigeon ever again.

The couple had many children together. One day, he visited his friend’s house. There, they served green pigeon meat. The husband took some but when he returned home somehow the wife found out.

Like the legend of the patin fish, the wife turned back into a bird. Since then, her descendants kept the promise and never ate the bird.


3.The Dysfunctional Ghost Couple

Here is a ghost story of the Saputan tribe. There was a woman named Inu Songbakim and her husband Monjang Dahonghavon.

One day the man went out to cut some wood but accidentally hurt himself with an axe. Sadly, the man died. His parents took his body and restored his life.

How did they do that? Apparently, the man and his parents are ghosts or Lumholtz called them “antohs”.

Monjang Dahonghavon who was just risen from the dead, blamed Inu Songbakim for his demise for some unknown reason. He took a parang and tried to kill his wife but she was strong and able to fight him off.

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In the midst of the fight, her parents were killed instead. Enraged, the wife killed his parents out of vengeance.

Monjang Dahonghavon left Inu Songbakim to look for another wife. But none were as strong or as good looking as his wife.

He returned to Inu Songbakim trying to mend their marriage. The wife also wanted to work things out but she put up a condition first. Monjang Dahonghavon first must restore her dead parents to life.

He answered, “I will do that if you first restore my parents to life.” Obviously they were both “antohs”.

The dead parents rose from the dead and they all lived happily ever after.

4. The disturbing love of an orangutan
A female orangutan enjoying her banana while hanging from a tree at Semenggoh Nature Reserve.

Lumholtz recorded this particular legend when he stayed at the the upper Kahayan river at Central Kalimantan.

There was a grieving man who just lost his wife and children.

He was devastated over his family’s deaths that he went far into the forest. Feeling exhausted, he took a nap underneath a tree. A female orangutan saw him and carried him up on her nest far up on a tree.

Imagine his surprise when he woke up to find out he was high up on a tree unable to come down.

So he decided to stay on that tree. Everyday the orangutan brought fruits and occasionally rice stolen from people’s homes for him.

After a few days, the orangutan tried to make her moves on him but the man declined. The animal was angry that it bit him on his shoulder. Unwillingly, the man surrendered.

He stayed on the tree for quite some time afraid for his life. In due time, a male child was born who was a human but covered with long hair.

One day while the orangutan was away looking for food, the man saw a ship at the coast putting out a boat for hauling water from the river nearby.

The man put his clothes together into a rope and began making a descent from the tree. The rope was not long enough but he still managed to jump into the river. Then he swam his way to the boat which took him to the ship.

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When the orangutan did not find the man at their nest, she was furious. She saw the ship from a distance and tried to swim toward it but failed. The orangutan returned to her nest, took their son and tore him in half.

5.The otter that demands compensation

Here is another legend from the Saputan tribe.

There was a beautiful lady named Ohing Blibiching. Many men tried to court her but her eyes were set on Anyang Mokathimman because he was strong, skilful in catching animals and brave in headhunting.

Eventually they got married and lived together. One day, Anyang told Ohing he wanted to go away and hunt for heads. As a dutiful wife, she gave her consent, telling him to take as many men as possible.

With him out hunting, she continued to do her housework, doing laundry and catching fish for dinner. While she was husking paddy, a common hill myna bird (burung tiong) saw her and was enraptured by Ohing’s beauty.

The bird flew from tree to tree trying to catch a glimpse of Ohing. While it was jumping from branch to branch, a dead one broke and fell down. The fallen dead branch wounded a baby otter.

The mother otter was furious, she demanded an compensation from the bird. The bird told her, if she want any compensation, ask it from the woman.

The woman said she didn’t ask for the bird to look at her and told them they would settle the case tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, again the otter wanted some damages from the bird. Yet again, the bird insisted the the woman should pay.

While they were arguing, Anyang came home bringing with him prisoners and heads. Ohing complained to her husband about the two animals.

Anyang then settled it by giving the bird some fruits to eat and the otter some fish. They were both satisfied.

Then the couple proceeded to join the rest of villagers celebrating the success of a headhunting trip.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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