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The spiritual causes of sickness, according to Iban shamanism

Long time ago, the Iban believed that a variety of illnesses were caused by ‘antu’ or demonic spirits.

According to Iban ethnologist Benedict Sandin, one such sickness was known as ‘pansa utai’ or ‘pansa bulu babas’. It was thought to be caused by an attack of the invisible antu grasi, or demon huntsman.

“A wound made by these spirits is likely to be dangerous and a fully initiated manang (shaman) should be called upon to treat this type of spiritual injury,” Benedict wrote in his paper “Mythological Origins of Iban Shamanism”.

If it is not that dangerous, the manang may simply apply his ‘penampal abi’ or patching ointment on the afflicted part of the patient’s body.

What if it is serious? The manang is likely to perform a ‘bebunoh antu’ rite in order to slay the demons huntsman who has spiritually wounded his patient. If the manang is afraid to perform such a ‘pelian’ (healing ceremony) himself, then he may suggest to the patient’s family that they call a more senior, daring manang.

Stalling the attacks from antu grasi

According to Iban shamanism belief, in order to forestall attacks by the antu grasi, Iban manang and dukun warn those who experience bad dreams or encounter ill-omens that they must not work outside their longhouse for a day or more.

This was so that they would not tbe seen by the roaming demon huntsmen who invisibly hunt over the countryside. To these spirits, the souls (semangat) of those who ignore the warnings of dreams and omens appear as wild boars.

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Dayak Festival in a traditional Longhouse, 1846, Dutch Borneo. Credit: Public Domain

Spirits believed to cause miscarriage

If there were a case where a woman suffered from repeat miscarriages, the cause was often believed to be the sexual assault of incubus spirits.

These spirits are called tunang utai or tunang antu. They are thought to appear at times in the form of animals or fish or eels.

To prevent such assaults, women are warned to be careful while washing their clothes in the river.

If a woman’s clothes are lost, the incubus may trace them to their owner in order to have sexual intercourse with her spiritually.

Some of the animals believed to be able to court women are crocodiles, monitor lizards, deer, clouded leopards, short-tailed macaques, bear cats and cobras.

The only way to protect a woman is to employ an expert manang to kill the spirit through bebunoh antu.

Typically, a married woman is troubled by that kind of spirit dreams that she is sexually courted by a man who often appears to her in the form of her husband or a handsome young man.

Frequently, the spirit is seen early in the morning leaving the longhouse in the guise of an animal. With this, others know that a woman is being molested by a tunang spirit.

Antu Buyu

Another harmful spirit in Iban shamanism belief is the antu buyu. They represent the bad souls of old women who are thought to act like witches. These spirits disturbs and possibly even kill newborn babies.

Benedict stated, “The presence of such women is particularly associated with old, long-inhabited longhouse settlements. The antu buyu feed on rice bran (seku) left un-swept by the women after winnowing their rice along the main passage-way of the house.”

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Hence, bran should be carefully swept away and not left for the spirits to feed upon.

Occasionally, Iban bachelors as they walk quietly along the longhouse’ gallery to court girls at night, see the antu buyu walking below the eaves of the longhouse.

It is believed that these antu buyu are on their way to look for rice bran or to frighten or kill infants as they sleep.

They also appear to grown-up children in the form of an ugly black, hairy spirit. Moreover, children who see them could become nervous and ill.

To guard a child from such danger, a manang may be called upon to perform a protective pelian.

In the end of the pelian, the manang may hang a charm made from wasps on the door or window of the family’s room. This is to frighten away the antu buyu and other spirits.

Nonetheless, there are sicknesses that the manangs cannot cure. Usually, these are the afflictions caused by disobeying taboos such as causing a fire at a cemetery or forbidden islet of forest.

Mythological origins of Iban Shamanism was published in The Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983.

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 Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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