Culture

What to know about pig liver divination in Iban culture

Patricia Hului

If you are not familiar with the term ‘haruspex’, it is a term to describe one who is trained to practice a form of divination called ‘haruspicy’.

In ancient Rome, haruspicy involved the inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals, especially the livers of sacrificed sheep and poultry, to divine omens and communicate with the gods.

The reading of omens specifically from the liver is also known by the Greek term hepatoscopy or hepatomancy.

However, the Greeks of ancient Romans were not the only one who practiced divination using animal livers.

The Iban people in Sarawak have also been known to practice liver divination, specifically from pigs.

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Pig liver divination in Iban culture

One of the earliest records of pig liver divination in Iban culture was recorded by Leo Nyuak in a paper called ‘Religious rites and customs of the Iban or Dyaks of Sarawak’ in 1906.

In the paper, Nyuak explained how the ceremony was performed more than 100 years ago.

“The pig is bound and placed on the open air platform that fronts the house. A portion of rice which has been offered to the spirits is given by the women to the animal to eat.

The women then wash it and rub its body over with aromatic herbs and comb its hair; it is then rubbed over with oil. Offerings to the spirits are then ranged near the pig and the owner of the sacrifice leads the chief or other important member of the village who is to perform the ceremony, to his place, having beforehand put on his wrist a brass ring, and in his hand a barbed spear, which are supposed to preserve him from any evil the awful rite might bring upon him.

White and yellow rice is then sprinkled over the pigs body with the following imprecation; ‘May the eyes of our enemies be blinded, and may they fall on easy prey into our hands.’

Whilst the offering and invocations are being made, the pig is killed, the liver and gall extracted and placed in a plate and covered with the red leaves of the Sabang plant.

If on examination the auspicium is not bad, but there is something wanting to it, a fowl is killed and it is sprinkled with the blood to make up for what is wanting. If the auspicium is bad, a second pig is killed, and that failing, also a third. If the third auspicium proves bad it is accepted as final.”

The interpretation of pig liver divination before headhunting trip

“If small excrescences or pimples are seen on the liver, these are called igi sabang and foretell that the heads of enemies will be obtained. If the folds of the liver have some resemblance to the barb of a spear, the owner of the sacrifice will become renowned for bravery.

Should any portion of the liver ulcerated, the sign is bad. If it exhibits blood spots, it foretells wounds on the war path.

A liver the appearance of which is not pronounced as good or bad, is a sign of cowardice, but as this words is honourable, this sign is called ‘far from the enemy’.

If the gall does not lie flat on the liver but that is somewhat turned up, this is a sign of deceit that the owner of the sacrifice falsely claims to have obtained heads of the enemy: but if his bravery is well known the above sign foretells that he will soon add to the number of his trophies.”

Pig liver divination performed on the sick

Apart from foretelling the outcome of headhunting trips, the Iban people performed pig liver divination on the sick to predict the outcome their health.

“When the auspicium is taken on behalf of the sick, the following are the signs.

If the veins of the liver are at right angles with the gall it is a bad sign.

If the lobes of the liver come very close to one another it is also a bad sign, for the spirit of disease who dwells in one of the lobes is then said to be very near its victim and will capture him.

If the liver is bright and healthy looking, it is a sign of returning health.

However, if the left lobe where the evil spirit is supposed to dwell, is higher than the right, this shows that the spirit is stronger than the sick man and the patient will die.”

As not many Iban people perform this ritual nowadays, reading omens using pig’s liver has now become a rare heritage or tradition of Iban culture.