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Timor - Aspects Of Early Ethnology And Mythology


The following impressions of the early ethnology and mythology of Timor were recorded during the period from 1878 to 1883 by Henry O. Forbes, in his book A Naturalist's Wanderings In The Eastern Archipelago, published in New York by Harper & Brothers, 1885.


All the natives of the islands we saw were handsome-featured fellows, lithe, tall, erect, and with splendidly formed bodies. They dyed their hair of a rich golden colour by a preparation made of cocoa-nut ash and lime, varying, however, in shade with the time, from a dirty grey through a red or russet colour, till the second day, when the approved tint appeared. Several modes of arranging their hair were in vogue. It was either carefully combed out, transfixed with a long fork-like comb, and confined within a single girdle of palm-leaf, or a black, red and white patchwork band, was allowed to hang loose to the shoulders; or it was done up in a fizzed mop, different, however, from the unravellable matted wisp seen on the Papuans of Macluer Inlet in New Guinea or among the Aru Islanders.

Their coiffure seems to depend on the kind of hair, straight or frizzled, that Nature has given them; when frizzled it is arranged in a mop, and when straight it is combed out and crimped with an instrument to hang down the back in a "cataract."

The arranging of their hair is one of their most enjoyed occupations, and the vanity with which they bind it within various coloured bands - narrow above broad - laid one on another, before a mirror formed of water collected in the bottom of a prau, or on the calm sea-face itself, is most amusing to see. The men are very fond of having their hair cut quite short, as it no doubt relieved them for a time by reducing the population in that region of their bodies.

Their houses, though little more than floor and roof, are very neat structures, elevated four or five feet above the ground, and entered by a stair through a trap-door cut in the floor which is shut down and slotted at night. In front of the door is a seat of honour - dodokan - with ornamented support and a high carved back, on the top of which is placed an image - Duadilah  - with, at its side, a platter whereon a mortal of food is offered every time they eat in its presence. Every time they drink, they dip their finger and thumb in the fluid, and flick a drop or two upward with a few muttered words of invocation.

Along the four sides spaces for sleeping on are raised some nine or twelve inches above the level of the floor of the house. The inmates sleep on small, neatly made bamboo mats, and rest their heads on a piece of squared bamboo with rounded edges exactly similar to the Chinese pillow.

In one gable is the foean or fire-place, and opposite to it on a trellis-work platform is placed the cranium of the father of the head of the house. Indian corn and other comestibles and various articles are stored on little platforms stretching between the rafters, and their scanty clothing and other articles are suspended from the roof by wooden contrivances often elaborately designed and elegantly carved.

After seeing how elaborately covered almost everything they used was with carvings, executed with undoubted taste and surprising skill, we began to ask ourselves, first, Can such artistically developed people be savages? - and, next, the more difficult question, What is a savage?

When a man dies, his children and relatives assembled to lament his departure, but I have never seen any outward expression or sign of mourning. A pig is killed, but I am in doubt whether it is given to the assembled people to eat or laid with the dead body, which is then placed in a portion of a prau fitted to the length of the individual or within strips of gaba-gaba, or stems of the sago palm pinned together.  


If it is a person of some consequence, such as an Orang Kaya, an ornate and decorated prau-shaped coffin is specially made. This is then enveloped in calico, and placed either on the top of a rock by the margin of the sea at a short distance from the village, or on a high pile-platform erected on the shore about low-tide mark. On the top of the coffin-lid are erected tall flags, and the figures of men playing gongs, shooting guns, and gesticulating wildly to frighten away evil influences from the sleeper. Sometimes the platform is erected on the shore above the high-watermark, and near it is stuck in the grounds a tall bamboo full of palm-wine and suspended over a bamboo rail are bunches of sweet potatoes for the use of the dead man's Nitu.  Two days after the burial, the family go to bathe and wash their hair; and after two days more they search for ten fishes and one tortoise wherewith to give a feast which is finished with siri and libations of palm-wine. When the body is quite decomposed, his son, or one of the family disinters the skull and deposit it on a little platform in his house in the gable opposite the fire-place, while to ward off evil from himself he carried about with him the atlas and axis bones of his neck in his luvu, or siri-holder. The bodies of those who die in war or by violent death are buried and not placed on rocks or on a platform, where only such as die naturally are deposited; and if his head has been captured a cocoa-nut is placed in the grave to represent the missing member, and to deceive and satisfy his spirit.   

The Tenimber islanders recognise some supreme existence whom they call Duadilah, of whom there is an image in their houses, over the principal seat, or dodokan, facing the entrance, with at its side a platter, or bilaan, on which a little food and drink is placed whenever they themselves eat. From their luvus, among the other heterogeneous odds and wends which it contains, they can generally produce one small image, sometimes more. Their little gods vary in form according to the occupation they are engaged in; but in what light they regard there I could not discover.

Singularly enough, one of these images (on the left hand) has a most wonderful resemblance to one brought by Mr. Wallace from New Guinea, and figured in his 'Malay Archipelago.' That they have a firm belief in a powerful, chiefly an avenging spirit I feel certain. One day a stranger to the village had his loin-cloth stolen. After several days had passed without his recovering it, we were surprised to see a boat urgently propelled across the bay, from which the owner of the stolen cloth impulsively sprang, bringing with him a small red flag on the end of a slender pole.


This he erected on the spot whence his cloth had disappeared, and after looking up with a steady and penetrating eye and repeating in a most tragic and excited manner a long imprecation against the chief of the village, he removed the pole, jumped into his boat, and, without accosting anyone, withdrew in the same urgent manner from the now doomed village.

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