Monday, November 15, 2021

Goodnight stories for headhunters (Folktales of Asian minorities 1. - Iban / Sea Dyak)

 As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

I know I have not finished the Chinese minorities series yet, but I have gotten my hands on some awesome books recently, so I am taking a detour.

The Girl Sudan Painted Like a Gold Ring

Folktales from the Sea Dyaks of Sarawak, Borneo
Theresa Fuller
Bare Bear Media, 2022.

The Iban (Sea Dyak/Dayak) people number about one million, and live on the island of Borneo in the area of Sarawak, along the seashore and rivers. They live in longhouses that house several families, and until recently they had a tradition of headhunting.
The author, storyteller Theresa Fuller, sent me an ARC copy of this book. I was happy about it, because I like folktales from Borneo and I have not read any from the Dyak tradition before. The book contains ten stories, many of them multiple chapters long; they are interspersed with shorter legends and trickster tales. Each comes with a short cultural introduction, and the re-told texts contain many fascinating details about Dyak everyday life. The author added two parts to two longer stories that came from her own imagination, describing parts of the narrative from the women's point of view. These (carefully noted) sections were more novel-like than the folktales, but very beautiful, and rich in detail. At the end of the book we also get a glossary, and a chapter on Dyak culture.


The title story was beautiful and fascinating. The protagonist, Siu, was one of those hunters who accidentally wander into the spirit realm and learn that animals are also human in their own world. He marries the daughter of the king of spirits, and promises never to hunt birds again. When he inevitably breaks his promise, she leaves him. He goes on a  journey, raising their son in the wilderness. After many exciting adventures, they find her again, and the (now grown) son has to prove that, as a half-spirit, he is worthy of being a member of her family. One of the challenges was a spinning top competition, which I especially liked.
Another person who wandered into the spirit realm was Pulang-Gana, who followed a porcupine, and fell in love with another spirit princess. When he returned home, and his brothers treated him badly, he became the god of the earth that everyone has to respect.
Headhunting played an important role in the tale of Danjai and the Were-tiger's Sister. Here the tiger killed a young woman, and her husband, Danjai, set out to take revenge. Entering the tiger's realm he met his sister, who was kind, and helped the hero behead her evil brother. They fell in love, she returned the dead wife's head, and the hero set out to find another head - as a wedding present.
I liked the apocalyptic tale where people tortured a dog, and in punishment a terrible storm turned them all into stone (except for one kind family). In another story, girls made fun of innocent animals, and met the same fate.


The trickster in residence was our favorite Mouse Deer, here known as Akal Pelandok (Ageless Mouse Deer). He was featured in multiple trickster tales, such as Pelandok and the Giant (where he outwitted a giant that stole fish from the animals), or Pelandok, Sambar and Pig (where the animals fell into a pit, and Pelandok used the others to get free). In the latter, the two outwitted animals tried to hunt him down, but Mouse Deer tricked them with classic tricks he also uses on Tiger in other stories. In a third tale, Pelandok and Kikura the Tortoise mutually played tricks on each other, and also on a monkey and a bear.

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