Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": THE PHASES OF SACRED LIFE


Life is not a smoothly continuous process, but is broken into stages. There is life and death, becoming and passing away, and in this alternation man is continually returned to the primeval period, and he is thereby the object of divine creative activity whereby he can enter a new stage of life as a new man, until he has reached the highest stage of the true and perfect man, until indeed he has ascended by stages not only to the point of being godlike but of becoming divine. All ceremonies of transition, such as at birth, initiation, marriage and death, correspond very closely with each other in that on every occasion they repeat the drama of primeval creation. Man passes into death and returns to the total godhead and the Tree of Life, and then the godhead re-enacts the creation and man issues again from the Tree of Life as a new creature. . . .

Marriage. The marriage ceremony, which with all its rites lasts a fairly long time, is conducted by the elders, and they tell the couple from time to time what they have to do. The bride has to clasp the Tree of Life with her right hand and raised index finger. Then the bridegroom likewise encloses the finger of his bride and the Tree of Life with his right hand and raised index finger. . . .

What does the wedding really signify? From what we have already said it is clear that it has a deeper meaning, and is somehow connected with the conception of God and creation. It is not a simply social occasion; it is not primarily a matter of pairing together, but one of the most important religious affairs. To be married means to enter a new stage of sacred life. It means that something old is irrevocably past and something new comes about, it is death and life, passing away and coming into being. It is the same kind of event as birth, initiation, and death. The young couple die. The death is undergone through a representative, viz. the head, taken either in a raid or from a sacrificial slave, in which the spear, the stem of the Tree of Life, is stuck. According to old information from Schwaner, it used to be the case that the young pair were taken to the river, where the blood of a sacrificed slave has been mixed, and plunged into it. Immersion in the river means to die, but the dying was undergone by proxy in the person of the slave. Today the coconut is used as surrogate. . . . The couple are thus returned to mythical primeval time. They return to the Tree of Life. This return is indicated by the clasping of the Tree by the bridal pair. To clasp it means to be in the Tree of Life, to form a unity with it. In the ritual acts the godhead re-enacts the new creation, and through it the young couple leave the Tree and re-enter life, beginning their new existence in a new world, a new status, a new life. The wedding is the re-enactment of the creation, and the re. enactment of the creation of the first human couple from the Tree of Life. The bridal pair are the first human couple, and in their marital union, with its functions, duties, and rights, they are also the total godhead. . . . The ritually contracted marriage is fundamentally monogamous, as was that of the first ancestral pair. But what is a marriage according to the divine commandments? With marriage come bodily union, sexual intercourse, and the procreation of children. When these requirements are not met, the marriage does not resemble the Tree of Life from which children come, it is a withered tree and no marriage. And a marriage which is no marriage can be broken (in conformity with the relevant laws), or a second wife can be taken in addition to the first without this being thought an offence against hadat,1 which it would be if the wife were rejected simply because she was old and the husband had fallen in love with a young girl, or if the man had more than two wives. In this respect, too, the conception of marriage is a very elevated one. The division of labour between man and woman, as well as reciprocal rights and duties, is regulated through the creation and the divine commandments, and these regulations are of a remarkably superior level. The Dayak woman is better protected by the law in many respects than is her European sister.

Birth. We shall refrain from describing here all religious observances and ceremonies which go before a birth, which surround it and succeed it. We shall ask ourselves only what birth means in relation to the conception of God. The period of pregnancy is a sacred time. The pali 2are multiplied. They apply not only to the mother-to-be, but also to the future father, and these regulations show us the unbreakable and organic religious unity of man and wife. They are the total godhead and the Tree of Life, in their combination and in the coming of the new life as a ripe fruit from the Tree of Life. Every breach of this unity, every transgression of the pali which enclose this unity like a stout fence, causes the destruction of the Tree of Life and the ruin of its fruit. The child comes from the Tree of Life. . . . This unity and totality does not exist only during pregnancy, but during the birth also, and it lasts until the fortieth day after the delivery.

Initiation. The two rites just described belong to the rites of initiation, which bring about the transition from one stage in the sacred life to another, but they by no means exhaust the list of such ceremonies. There is also the ritual bath of the infant, which takes place either in a river or in the house, a few days or weeks after its birth. The child is taken to the middle of the river -in a sacred boat shaped like the Watersnake, splendidly decorated with cloths and flags, and there, at the entrance to the Underworld, it is immersed. The meaning of the rite is clear. The total community returns in the godhead (the boat) to the Underworld and commits the child to the godhead, who bestows new life on the child so that it may go back to the world as a new human being. Although this is primarily the affair of Jata, 3 the deity of the Upperworld still has a part in this ritual bath. Before the rite is begun, the priest invokes both of the supreme deities and begs them to open the sources of the water of life and to let it flow in the river, so that the child may be immersed in the water of life springing from the Upperworld and the Underworld. The river-water is no use in itself and the whole rite would be vain if it were not consecrated by the consent, the presence, the water of life, and the deed, of the total godhead. The sacred bath means here (and wherever and whenever it is performed) a return to the godhead and a renewal of life in and through the godhead.
Other initiation rites are the first step of the child on the ground, the first touching of the fruit tree, and so on.

The real initiation ceremonies, which take place during and after the end of puberty, are important. Formerly the youths spent the nights during this period in the balai (meeting-house and guest house), not in their own houses. There they were under the supervision of one of the elders, who was responsible for instructing them in the rights and duties of the adult men which they were to become. In this period they were instructed in law, the secrets of headhunting and war, masculine tasks, war-dances and games. At this time, too, their teeth were filed (as were those of young girls also) and they circumcised themselves in secret. We do not know enough about what these two activities mean. ]'he animistic and dynamistic interpretation can hardly be maintained, Hand we ought probably to see them as partial self-sacrifice in connection with the entire renovation of man, for the two activities do not stand alone but form a whole together with all the others. A young man becomes a full member of the society by passing through the initiation rites, by taking part for the first time in human sacrifice and headhunting, and by the acquisition of costly possessions belonging to the pusaka (sacred jars, gongs, weapons). . . .

Young girls approaching puberty were formerly shut up (bakowo), sometimes for two or three years, in a separately built room above or next to the room where the parents slept. This room (howo) is identical with the rahan mentioned in myths and represented on the priests' maps, and stands for the primeval waters. All the rites connected with this period show us that the young girl is led to the Underworld. She stays there for a certain time, and when this is up she assumes the form of a watersnake. The ceremonies for the ending of the howo-period are an occasion at which the whole community is represented; people gather from the surrounding villages and together ritually demolish the room, and then take the girl down to the river for a ritual bath. After this bath she comes back to earth from the Underworld, and as a new person begins her new life as a full member, socially and religiously, of the community. During the howo period the young girl used to be waited on by an old and respected female slave who instructed her in the rights, duties, and tasks of a woman. There are numerous bahowo myths in Dayak literature which tell us how after the destruction of the entire cosmos (usually through the fault of human beings), only a maiden remained alive, enclosed in a tall tree or in a rock. It was possible to communicate with her through a small hole, but she could not be seen. She was given the raw materials for skilled tasks such as weaving cloth or cane, and after a time beautifully executed objects were returned. During the bakowo-period the young girl may not be touched. This would cause not only her own death, viz. remaining for ever in the Underworld, but also the ruin of the entire cosmos, from which it could be saved only through the medium of human sacrifice. This event also is clearly told in the myths. Usually there is a young man burning with love for the imprisoned girl. He tries to free her from the tree or rock, and when this is unsuccessful he in despair cuts off the arm of his sweetheart. At this, the opening closes up and the girl disappears for ever. The kowo-period is sacred. The maiden lives with the godhead. She lives neither in this world nor in this present time, but in the primeval waters and in primeval time, and in her are accomplished the creative, beneficent activities of this time, which nothing may disturb or ruin, for any disturbance means an interference in the other world and will be punished by the angry, vengeful, divine judge with the destruction of the cosmos. As soon as the howo-period is concluded the girl is again governed by worldly laws. . . .

Death. The most important and the concluding stage in the life of man is death. It does not mean passing away and the extinction of life, but returning home to the divine world and being taken up again into the social and divine unity of mythical primeval time. Death is a passage to a new existence, the transition to a new and true life. It is thus an event of the same kind as birth, initiation, and marriage, and it is not only the most important of all these stages of life but receives the fullest and the most detailed ceremonial expression: all the other stages reach their culmination and final conclusion in this.
The deceased person is removed from secular time and the laws of this world, and is placed back in mythical antiquity. This is shown by the rites performed at death, and by the preparation of the -coffin. The coffin is made in the shape of a boat. But it is not only a boat, and it is not primarily intended for the journey of the dead person to the village of the dead, for his voyage on lake and river. This is not the explanation of the shape. The coffin is not only a boat but also the Hornbill or the Watersnake. The Hornbill coffin is for dead women, the Watersnake coffin for dead men. The sides of the coffin are decorated with a painted or carved liana which represents the Tree of Life and is named after it. The whole coffin is ornamented with coloured dots. They represent gold and jewels and are called after the Gold Mountain and jewel Mountain of mythical antiquity. The coffin is provided with totemic emblems: cloth for a woman, blowpipe and sword for a man.

What is the meaning of this coffin? It is boat, Tree of Life, godhead, and primeval mountain. We might say that it is a material representation of the Creation Myth. The two coffins are identical with the two boats in which the first human couple drifted on the waters of life. They bear, too, the names of those boats (viz. banama hintan and banama bulau). Furthermore, they are identical with the Tree of Life (the liana), for they originated from it and are thus the Tree itself. They are also the godhead, for the total godhead is really the Tree of Life. Finally, they are also identical with the two primeval mountains, for out of their contact originated the head-dress of Mahatala from which came the Tree of Life. The coffin is thus the cosmic/divine totality of primeval times, and this totality is closely related, logically and theologically, to the creation myth. The dead return to the total godhead and the salvation of primeval time, and they are taken up into both of these.

The coffins, and many important rituals as well, show us clearly that the dead fall into two categories, one associated with the Upperworld and the other with the Underworld. This dichotomy, however, cannot be simply a sexual matter, as we have seen, but is connected with the divine and social dichotomy. We cannot therefore speak

simply of a man's coffin and a woman's coffin, for both coffins must earlier have appertained to the two groups of which one was connected with the Upperworld and used the Hornbill coffin, while the other was connected with the Underworld and used the Watersnake coffin. . . .

In spite of this dichotomy, which also plays an important part in the action of conducting the dead during the mortuary ceremonies, it is the idea of unity that is far more stressed today. The deceased returns to the mythical primeval antiquity, to the divine totality, and to the primeval village Batu Nindan Tarong. In primeval time he finds himself again in the Tree of Life and in the godhead, and the godhead re-enacts a new creation in him. The deceased becomes again the first man floating in the boat, which itself is the godhead, on the primeval waters, until he is brought into the village of the dead, where he is united with his ancestors for ever. Man originated from the godhead. The godhead has guided him through the various stages of life until his death, until he returns to the godhead and is given new life and a new existence in the Upperworld from which he once departed and from which there will be no more separation.


1 Law, custom, right behaviour.

2 Taboo.

3 The deity of the Underworld or the primeval waters.

Hans Schirer, Ngaju Religion: The Conception of God among a South Borneo People, translation by Rodney Needham (The Hague, 1963), pp. 81-94

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