Thursday, 17 October 2013

A Comparison of Two Comparative Ethnological Books

I've recently been reading Ancient Religions of the Austronesian World by Julian Baldick (in fact, I finished it a while ago, but I've been very busy since).  It's an attempt at an overview of religious beliefs traditionally found in Austronesian-speaking societies.  Nowadays, the religions with the greatest number of adherents among Austronesian speakers are Islam and Catholicism, so Baldick concerns himself solely with 'ancient' religions, i.e., those religious beliefs formerly found in Austronesian-speaking societies that may reflect shared heritage and common connections.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Baldick is now sadly deceased; this was his last book.

I'll start by saying that this is not the best book I've ever read.  I'm glad it exists - it's certainly a useful reference, and Baldick uses and summarises a couple of ethnographies that I haven't read - but it could have been a better book.  I suspect it would have been glossier and better reading had Baldick lived longer.  As it stands, it is a useful book, but not a sublime one.  Of course, it must have involved a great deal of effort and reading to have written it, and for that alone Baldick is to be commended.

It should also be pointed that this is one of the first forays into the topic in a long time, and is therefore a pioneer work.  I'm not sure why a similar book hasn't already been written, but given that fact, it's good that Baldick went to the effort.  I don't think, though, that Baldick was the right person for the task.  This isn't a personal criticism; at the moment, I wouldn't be the right person for the task either.  What you need is someone who has been working in this field for decades and has amassed countless notes and read countless ethnographic, archaeological, and linguistic works.  Baldick was a talented and knowledgeable amateur, at least in the field of comparative Austronesian ethnology.  That limits what his book could do, I think.

The first problem is with the structure of the text: Baldick opted for an order based on geography or linguistic sub-family, rather than one based on topic.  The order of the chapters is as follows: Introduction; Taiwan; Western Malayo-Polynesian speakers; Central Malayo-Polynesian speakers; Eastern Malayo-Polynesian speakers; Conclusions.  Inside each chapter we are given a brief introduction to an ethnographic text, often an antiquated one, with a summary of the contents as they relate to religion (and some other things).  This is not a good idea; it makes comparison difficult and isn't the best way to engage the reader.  You may also note that WMP, CMP, and EMP are not valid linguistic categories.

The second problem is that the scope is inappropriately defined.  'Religion' is a more or less artificial category imposed on a wide range of phenomena, and it is arguable whether the core features of Austronesian religion, as Baldick portrays it, including headhunting, can even be considered religious at their core.  Certainly they reveal connections to other social principles that the term 'religion' doesn't cover, and should be considered in that light (headhunting has strong connections to social structure and hunting in addition to religious belief, for instance).  Baldick wasn't an anthropologist, and his familiarity with key concepts in kinship-based social structure is not at all obvious; in order to make sense of religion (or anything at all) in eastern Indonesia, you really need to understand asymmetric marriage alliance, and I'm not convinced that Baldick did.

The third problem is that Baldick, as a non-anthropologist, does not seem to have been aware of several key texts, including Endicott's excellent An Analysis of Malay Magic, and used only a small number of ethnographies from each region.  Andrew McWilliam's books and articles on Timor are not mentioned at all, which is a startling oversight (it is notable that Baldick uses the term 'Atoni' to refer to the West Timorese ethnic group now more commonly known as the Meto).  Roxana Waterson's works on southeast Asian architecture (and its consequent connections with various aspects of religious belief) are not referred to, which is another remarkable absence for a book like this.  Paul Arndt on magic and religion in Flores and Solor - also missing.  Baldick also uses no material whatsoever from Maluku, defining 'eastern Indonesia' as little more than Timor, Solor, Flores, Sumba, and Sawu.  I don't think this was a good choice.

It's also clear that despite its potential utility in a book on Austronesian beliefs, material from Sumatera, Bali, Java, and the Malay Peninsula was avoided due to the veneer of Islam/Hinduism/Christianity present in these places.  Consulting Dutch articles on Javanese symbolism ought to disavow anyone of the notion that it is purely Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic.  The structure of the book makes these oversights all the more obvious.

So there's a lot missing and the structure doesn't work.  What could have been done to improve it?

I would adopt the approach taken by M. L. West in Indo-European Poetry and Myth.  West is a classicist whose approach to classics has been to examine Greco-Roman civilization in terms of its Near Eastern and Indo-European antecedents.  In IEPM, he conducted an enormous and erudite survey of all aspects of Indo-European poetry, religious belief, mythology, and much else, dividing his material up by subject.  Compare these chapter headings with Baldick's: Poet and Poesy; Gods and Goddesses; Storm and Stream; Nymphs and Gnomes; Cosmos and Canon; King and Hero; etc.  West doesn't refer only once to the Mahabharata or Pindar or Irish folktales - they are constantly referred to wherever they are relevant.

The idea is to show the complex heritage of Indo-European speakers, and this is best done, as West demonstrates, by comparing similar ideas side-by-side, with Indo-European roots, etymological hypotheses, and mythic tropes all employed where needed.  Not all of it works; it is clear that some of the comparisons don't quite work and may demonstrate nothing more than coincidence, as opposed to Indo-European heritage.  But that's the point; rather than relying on West to write a conclusion telling us what Indo-European speakers did and thought, we can consult his substantive arguments on each topic and make up our own minds.

I think that is a better spur to research - and makes for much more interesting reading - than dividing a book up by sub-grouping.  When you read IEPM, you're reading a series of arguments about prehistory based on literary and cultural evidence; when you read Baldick's book, you're reading a series of short, summarised accounts of ethnographic works in an unconnected stream, and then a set of conclusions that might not be justified by what preceded them.

West had a number of advantages: he has been working on the classics since the late-sixties, he can read several of the primary languages fluently, and he is surrounded by fellow classicists in Oxford.  Baldick, by contrast, was not surrounded by anthropologists and doesn't appear to have had any first language expertise in any Austronesian language.  This is not only a handicap when it comes to research.  It is also a handicap in presenting that research to others, and in uncovering connections in the data.  Few etymological arguments are presented, for example.  I think West provides us with some incredible and tantalising glimpses into the lives and works of proto-Indo-European speakers.  Baldick offers us little of that, and I don't feel that I got a much better feel for proto-Austronesian belief than I had before I started reading.

To summarise: Ancient Religions of the Austronesian World is worth reading, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be useful for students of Austronesian-speaking societies for some years to come.  It's a useful reference work, it's fairly short, and the data are interesting.  The bibliography is quite good, although, as I said, there are gaps.  The problems are primarily to do with Baldick's non-expert status and the structure of the book, which was not as well thought-through as it should have been.  If you're interested in the topic then you can't really afford to miss it.

I should say that it is a personal ambition to write the work on Austronesian societies and beliefs, and that I approach books like this critically because of that.  I think Baldick's book was a valiant effort; it just wasn't the book I wanted to read, and even less was it the one I want to write.


  1. If you like kinship studies, you should definitely check out the stuff by Frank Salter here:


  2. I like 'kinship studies', but more than that, I like understanding non-state social structure, and kin selection really isn't that predictive of it. I mean, it is a bit - quite a bit - and human societies would doubtless be very different without it, but it's not exactly high on my list of things to read about on the matter.

    I am even less interested in attempts to establish the genetic identity of ethnic groups. Good lord, what can of right-wing nuttery did I open on twitter?


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.