Thursday, 19 September 2013

'Bad Death'

One of the most pervasive features of Austronesian heritage is the category of 'bad death'.  This is a category that has been covered explicitly in dozens of academic publications, probably because its association with death and ritual has aroused the interest of ethnographers throughout Austronesia.


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A map of the distribution of Austronesian languages.  Many, if not most, of the people who lived in these areas in pre-modern times employed the category of 'bad death'.  h/t Christophe Cage.

The basic idea is this:  Some deaths are to be expected and so aren't, strictly speaking, 'bad'.  The corpse is treated for burial with appropriate rituals and a proper funeral.  Such 'good' deaths might include passing away from age or illness, or even death from supposed supernatural means (i.e., curse or witchcraft), as long as this was anticipated in some way.  If, though, the death is unexpected or particularly violent - say, drowning in a stormy sea, being decapitated while collecting water from a stream, or falling from a palm - then that death is 'bad'.  Exactly what this means depends on the society, and introduced religious beliefs, both Christian and Islamic, can have an impact, but generally it means that the corpse will be left aside without treatment or ritual for birds and animals to pick at.


Borassus flabellifer, the wine palm.  Fall from this and your death will be considered bad.  h/t Franz Xaver.

There are rituals to be performed in cases of bad death, of course, but they don't involve the corpse - or, if they do, they are different to rituals for expected or non-violent death.  One of the most important rituals is used to find out why the death occurred, which in many areas is thought to be due to the displeasure of the ancestors.  On Adonara, the whole community will gather in the meeting house (bale, a reflex of proto-Austronesian *balay) and those present will be asked to publicly reveal their sins - that is to say, those things that might have annoyed the ancestors sufficiently to cause them to take a life.

A coconut will be hacked at with a machete in a ceremony called lewak tapo ('splitting a husked coconut'), and if it splits neatly with one blow then the sin just spoken has been identified as the cause of the bad death.  If the blow glances off then the sin isn't the cause and another will have to be told to the community before it can be atoned for.  Murder, incest, rape, theft, the improper performance of ritual, breaking of taboo - any of these might be mentioned with explicit detail, an indication of the seriousness with which this ritual is taken.  The family of the victim is forbidden meat until this ceremony has been performed.  (Coconuts, by the way, are often used to represent the human head in eastern Indonesian ritual.)

One of the most discussed examples of bad death is the Malay category of mati di bunuh, which means 'die in murder/suicide/bad ways'.  According to the early-twentieth century British scientists Nelson Annandale and Herbert Robinson, the category also included deaths from cholera and smallpox in addition to the usual deaths from drowning, murder, falling from a palm tree, and so on.  Kirk Endicott, whose Analysis of Malay Magic (1970) is one of the classic works on the topic of Malay beliefs (of primarily non-Islamic origin) about the supernatural, connected mati di bunuh with the concept of badi, which is the manifestation of vital force (semangat) that can negatively affect people.  He says (p.66):
People who die such deaths are appealed to for magical powers, may become ghosts or, in some cases, birth demons, may have parts of their bodies converted into charms or familiar spirits, have their bodies disposed of in extraordinary ways, and in general are regarded with a great deal of fear and awe.  The key to this complex of ideas is the badi, a very important yet mysterious thing that remains with the body in cases of violent death.
Badi is, to simplify it a lot, the supernatural element of an animal's body that will harm you if you fail to atone for killing it.  It's a potentially malign spiritual force present in anything alive and several things that aren't, alongside other supernatural forces, including ruh and nyawa, which I'll discuss another time but which basically amount to 'soul' or 'vital force'.  Badi is always harmful, but it can be convinced to return to an origin place far from civilization if calmed through ritual.  It is explicitly associated with the body of the victim or animal.

Islamic rituals are sufficient to render safe the badi of slaughtered animals, but there are also rituals for animals that have been killed by hunting, including both jungle fowl and deer, both of whose badi are considered to be exceptionally strong, according to Endicott.  In cases of bad death in humans, however, nothing can be done to make the badi safe.  It is only possible to keep the body, and therefore the badi, away from society, and to try to use the badi for your own advantage as a talisman or charm against the supernatural forces others might use against you.  There doesn't appear to be a connection to the displeasure of the ancestors, which is rather unlike other cases of bad death and may represent a change in Malay belief in the context of the relatively multicultural, urban civilization of Malaysia since the medieval period (i.e., attenuation of kinship ties in some respects).


Red junglefowl - strong badi.  h/t J. J. Harrison.

Endicott's analysis is intensive and makes for quite interesting reading (although both his prehistory and the Malay orthography he uses are out of date).  It's essential reading for those interested in religion and beliefs about the supernatural in Indo-Malaysia.  Similar analyses could be conducted wherever the concept of bad death is found, though, and that includes a lot of widely-spread societies.

In West Timor, bad death is maet mone, meaning 'outside/male death' (maet is the metathesized Meto reflex of the proto-Austronesian *(m)aCay meaning 'to die', cf. Maori mate, Tagalog matay, etc).  This can be connected to other ideas, prevalent in Timor, about male occupations, the nature of masculinity, the outside, ghosts, the non-village world, and so on, demonstrating a completely different set of links to those found in the Malay world.

Despite these very different associations, however, the category of bad death stands out as very clearly of Austronesian heritage, something carried across the seas and down the millennia by generation after generation of people dying both fortunate and unfortunate deaths.

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