Culture

7 things Kayan women were forbidden to do when the men left for headhunting trips

Patricia Hului

In the olden days, Kayan men were renowned as notorious headhunters. Their reputation as fierce warriors spread so wide and wild that they were often mistaken as cannibals.

Whenever the men went for headhunting trips, the women were left in the longhouses fending for themselves.

These headhunting trips usually took months before they could return to their loved ones.

In the meantime, the Kayan women would take care of the household and their farms, making sure their families had enough to eat.

Back in those days, the Kayan people also had their own traditional beliefs and shamanism.

Besides commencing their usual chores, the Kayan women were forbidden to do certain things due to their beliefs.

7 things Kayan women were forbidden to do when the men left for headhunting trips:

Ethnologist Benedict Sandin published his paper The Traditional Folklore of the Kayan of Upper Rajang when he was a Senior Fellow in Universiti Sains Malaysia.

From his interviews with the elders of Kayan from Upper Rajang river, he recorded seven things wives, sisters, mothers and close female relatives were not allowed to do.

  1. Eat the meat of barking deer, as this animal was believed to produce bad luck.

2. Eat the dongan fish (a type of freshwater fish) as the stripes on its body also could mirror the marks the warriors would receive on their bodies made by the enemy on their warrior son or husband.

3. Eat the cabbage of palm of any kind, in order not to blind the warrior’s eyes while fighting against his foe.

4. Hold a needle, so that the legs of the warriors were prevented from being pricked by thorns and spikes made by the enemy.

5. Have sexual intercourse with another man, in order that the warrior or husband mat not fall down under the body of his foe. Besides this, it was believed that the warrior would act as if he was having sexual intercourse in front of his foe.

6. Eat mekai leaves (Albertisia papuana), to prevent the eyes of the warrior from being unclear when drawing out his sword from its scabbard and thus give a chance to the enemy to cut him.

7. Wake up late in the morning, so that the warrior husband will not be slow to fight while on the warpath.

Henry Ling Roth in The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo

Anthropologist Henry Ling Roth recorded similar dos and donts for women in his book The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo.

However, he did not point out which tribe that practiced them and generalized them as Dayak women.

Regardless of what happened during the headhunting trip, the women would continue their daily activities as usual. Roth noted, “As long the men are away their fires are lighted on the stones or small just as if they were at home.”

Apart from carrying on with their daily jobs, the women carried out a couple of tasks symbolically to protect their men from afar.

For example, the women spread mats and kept the fires up till late in the evening and lit them again before dawn.

This was to ensure men during the war expeditions would not get cold.

Roth added, “The roofing of the house is opened before dawn, so that the men may not lie too long and fall into the enemies’ hands.”

It is good to know that women had their own roles when it came to headhunting and warfare.