Mythological tricksters in Indonesia and the Philippines 

The following is a transcript of a video presentation on Mythological Origins and Indonesia and the Philippines, 2015. Produced by Grant Voth, Julius Bailey, Kathryn McClymond, Robert André LaFleur. For purposes of clarity, I have paraphrased and modified some parts of the transcription.

In a geographical sense, Indonesia and the Philippines present us with issues that have more in common with other parts of Asia than the rest of Oceania. These archipelagos include large islands and differ so markedly from Micronesia, for example, as to present an almost completely different environment for the development of cultures and myths.

Add to that the fact that both territories are relatively close to the great East and South Asian landmasses, and the dynamic changes even further. There have been so many migrations from Asia over the centuries that the populations have changed in an almost continuous fashion, and in a manner that is almost unthinkable in Hawaii, or Micronesia.

This complicates the study of the mythology of these areas in all sorts of ways, and it is sometimes with a dose of despair that the serious student of Indonesian or Filipino mythology seeks original myths. It is as though a set of indigenous traditions has been alternately doused and sprinkled with bits of thought from China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma, not to mention India. One of the most widely circulated myths from Indonesia into the Philippines is the belief that mankind came to be from the center of an egg.

The story goes that a bird laid two eggs, one by the mouth of a river, and another at its source. From one was born, or hatched, a man, and from the other, a woman. Bathing at the mouth of the river one day, the man saw a hair that looked remarkably like his own. Startled, he determined that someone like him lived upstream. Craving human company, he made his way for many miles along the banks.

There, he found a woman, and the two united to create numerous progeny and to people the islands. Another version of the egg myth is found in Borneo, where a great serpent swimming in the primal sea forged and spread a great earthen landmass. After this, a deity came down and discovered seven mud-covered eggs. Picking out two of the eggs, he found a man and a woman inside, both immobile and without vivifying air in their bodies. Hurrying to the upper world, he brought back the breath that would give them life. It’s a little more circuitous, though. While he was gone, properly asking the heavenly authorities for immortal breath, a degenerate deity blew into their mouths, giving them a faulty kind of breath. By the time the special breath arrived, those egg-born beings were already alive. Now, however, they and subsequent generations would experience death. And here again, a beautiful possibility was marred by a degenerate being, as we have seen many times before.

A third egg story, also from Borneo, again mentions two eggs, and in them were found a human pairing. Sevens follow. Together, those two made seven sons and seven daughters, all without life. Up to the skies went the husband, imploring his wife to stay quiet in his absence and not to open the curtains, no matter what. Yet out she looked, and the winds came in, giving merely mortal life to all the children. From then on, human beings would die. The common features of these myths offer an interesting example of how mythology works in its variant forms. What we seem to have is not so much a set of different stories as overlapping sets of themes that can be configured in various ways and manipulated for dramatic effect by capable storytellers. The eggs are, in each tale, cause for both wonder and consternation, with implications for human life thereafter. These tales lead me to wonder about the relationship between common things, such as eggs, that can have an uncommon twist. When is an egg just an egg? And when is it the source of a literary life or death fate for all of humanity?

This is a fundamentally religious question that lies at the heart of many mythological traditions. Let’s explore it a little more deeply. About years ago, the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz published an essay that was based on years of field work in Indonesia. It addressed some of the biggest questions anyone has ever thought to ask. For its time, the title was quite provocative. “Religion as a Cultural System.” Instead of thinking about religion as a set of beliefs and practices over and above everyday social life, something focused on theology, churches, doctrine, and sermons, Clifford Geertz brought the discussion squarely down to religiosity in every nook and cranny of daily life. Religion, he seems to argue, is what we do, how we walk, talk, and interpret what we see and hear. Only a little of it takes place in churches, temples, and mosques. For Geertz, one superb little story sums it up. He describes a situation he confronted in his field work in Indonesia. 

You see, one day, a whole family came rushing out of its hut, calling for neighbors to come see the toadstool that had grown up overnight while they were sleeping. This would seem to be the most mundane of happenings in Indonesian village life. The dirt floors of huts often saw just such occurrences, and having a family calling for all to come and see a toadstool is a little bit like an American family summoning neighbors to look at the dandelions that had suddenly sprouted in their front yard. But for Geertz, this particular toadstool was different. It presented what he termed a “religious question,” for this toadstool had grown so large that no one had ever seen anything quite like it. Over the course of the morning, more and more people flocked to the hut to admire it. More than a few were left somewhat shaken by the experience, and one person summed it up well, with the sentiment that it was much larger than a toadstool has any business growing. It is not that the toadstool had any kind of appeal that we normally think of as religious. Rather, it shook people’s everyday understanding about how the world is supposed to work. An egg that produces a chicken or another kind of creature is something we come to expect as the normal operation of the world. 

Toadstools of a certain, rather small size work that way too. Geertz’s argument leads to a fascinating, if problematic, line of thought. From my perspective, it is about the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Things that don’t function or appear as they should can lead us to question the very assumptions we have about the world in which we live. The toadstool is not in itself significant. The fact that for many it shook, even if only a little, their certainty in the ways of the universe… that is very significant indeed. In my view, the toadstool and the eggs are, so to speak, a piece of a piece in this very way. Both partake of the ordinary in their basic structures, but both have extraordinary implications for the curious mind. And that is exactly the kind of material that is at work in mythology all over East Asia, the Pacific, and indeed, throughout the world. 

Lest we think that such a happening is only a product of life in huts in faraway villages, we should consider the way in which, as reportedly happened several years ago in Miami, a grilled cheese sandwich that resembled the Virgin Mary quickly became an item of social, economic, and even a little religious frenzy. It’s not every day that a grilled cheese sandwich sells for $3, but that is precisely what happened. If you scoff at toadstool awe, consider the stories every few months that appear. Just do an internet search of Virgin Mary sightings. Geertz sums the matter up well. Quoting Albert Einstein, he writes that most religious questions can be boiled down to the hope and even faith that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Seeking to make even a little bit of sense of the universe and divine intentions is what tale after tale in world mythology addresses. 

One of the distinctive traits of Indonesian mythology is a large number of tales describing animals and their origins. In Borneo, it was said that a series of armless and legless monsters fell from the sky and split into various pieces that became pigs, chickens, and dogs. Another story, also from Borneo, has it that the creatures of both the sky… the birds… and sea… Fish… came from twigs of a wonder tree. The world’s poisonous animals and reptiles, however, had a different origin in their story. 

The same fearsome deity who breathed both life and death into the earliest humans formed them from his body. In the Philippines, there’s a detailed story of animal origins that begins with a sky maiden who was cut in two. Alas, the myth does not tell us how this happened, but the context leads me to believe that parental discord was the cause. One portion of her stayed in the sky, and another fell down below so that her father, below, and mother, above, each held one-half. The father let his half decay, but the mother came down from the sky and took the decayed segments and scattered them about. From the head came the owl, from the ears, a tree fungus. A mollusc came from the nose, and the hair became worms and maggots. Indeed, the intestines came to be a large array of animals as well. 

Once humans and animals occupied the Earth, light remained a problem. In many stories from this region, the moon was generated from that same armless and legless monster who engendered the farm animals and dogs. A few other tales tell of the sky maiden becoming the moon. In other tales, the sun and moon were always just where they have been on any day of human existence. The larger concern in Indonesian mythology seems to have been the need to raise the sky. And indeed, that also appears in the myths of China and Hawaii. In the Indonesian stories, the heavens and the Earth were too closely jammed together, and it was difficult for beings to operate under such a low sky roof. Even spears would get knocked down in mid-flight after hitting the ceiling of the heavens. Invoking the gods, the people called upon one of them, who had up until then always remained seated, to stand up and lift the sky above, with arms and shoulders extended. 

A version from the Philippines has it that people often bumped their heads, making them so angry that they threw rocks at the sky. This so irritated the gods that they grudgingly pushed it up to its current position. That the sky should be such a persistent problem in mythology from all over our Asia Pacific territories is quite surprising, but there we have it. Pillars, snails, worms, and deities… all are depicted as pushing up a low heaven over an inhabited Earth. And after that bit of a push, life in the world starts to look a lot like we know it today. The reasons for this differ, but it is almost as though, on one level or another, many Asia Pacific peoples tended to think of the world as a kind of shell that needed to be pried open. One last push or pull, and the world was ready for action. And finally, we have fire, that distinction between nature and culture, raw and cooked. 

In many Indonesian myths, fire is fetched, so to speak, by dutiful animals who, although diligent, have a number of problems in burying the embers through the sea, the rain, and the deluge. One tale describes a terrible flood, after which only two people survived, a brother and a sister, who had climbed to a high mountain. Terribly cold, the man sent his dog and a somewhat domesticated deer to a distant island to fetch fire. Like [inaudible] in his canoe trip to the Taurus islands, they swam there, garnered the fire, and started back. But the continuing deluge put out the flames, exasperating the man. Again, the dog and the deer went to the island, and back they swam. The deer’s flame again was extinguished, but the dog arrived with his embers intact. Taking it from the loyal pooch… I like to imagine a nice pat on the head and a scratch behind the ears… the man built a fire that warmed the brother/sister pair. It is hard to tease out a moral here beyond the practical warmth of fire itself. I’ve always wondered whether this version of the myth speaks to a larger question of how human beings relate to domesticated and non-domesticated animals. 

Another fire story, this one from Sulawesi, formally the Celebes, tells that fire was available to the first humans, but they clumsily allowed it to be extinguished. Since they did not know the way to bring it back, they sent one of their peers to the sky. There, he would seek the flame. The deities above said that they would give it to him, but that he must cover his eyes. They did not mind giving humans fire, they noted, but still did not want humans to know how it was created. This particularly capable young man had eyes in his armpits, though. And as he watched the gods use flint, he came to understand how fire could be made, and eventually taught the people of the Earth. We see here a combination of resourcefulness and ability that goes beyond ordinary humanity, something I like to call mythological physics, or mythological biology. 

The man is spoken of as a mortal, but so many mythical mortals do things beyond what an ordinary mortal can do that we should not be especially surprised. Our examination of egg stories, animal origin myths, and fire tales gives us an opportunity to ponder just how mythology operates from place to place, and over time, and from telling to telling. The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss argued that the way Westerners have come to study literature is of little use in understanding the variance of mythological traditions. Reading James Joyce and understanding a myth cycle are such different interpretive processes that we need to prepare ourselves differently for each. For Joyce, there is one telling, no matter the complexity, and we ponder it for its secrets. The exceedingly complex multiple drafts of Ulysses do not amount to variant tellings in the manner of even the simplest myth. In mythology, the process has an entirely different shape. Any one telling, any one variant, can have numerous particulars, contingencies, and matters of happenstance. 

Yet, argues Levi-Strauss, if we look more deeply, we will see that there are key structural elements that, even though they can be adjusted somewhat and moved around in several ways, anchor the telling of the myth. Without the key structural elements, in short, the myth won’t work. The largely Western approach that has emphasized culling details and variant differences, searching for the Ur-text, the original, as it were, is an utterly meaningless pursuit that hinders our understanding without helping it in any significant fashion. While structural analysis of myth has its problems, we can, for our purposes, appreciate some of its basic points. Many of the myths we just discussed share a structure that includes at least some of the following… eggs, humans, breath, life, flawed breath, and death. If I asked an experienced storyteller to take five minutes, jot down these ideas, and tell a story from them, she would have little problem. Any five experienced storytellers, though, will have five very different stories, even if they all share the same cultural setting and agree on the basic structures of the story, even if they all mentioned eggs, breath, life, and death. 

This is how myth works. The variations can seem random at times, but whether considered individually or together, they remain a powerful way of thinking through complex elements of our shared lives. Indonesian myths also feature a variety of tricksters who have parallels in characters such as Polynesia’s Maui and Micronesia’s Olifat. Instead of a human-like demigod of good or ill, many Indonesian trickster tales center upon a mouse-deer, a tiny and delicate hooved animal known in Indonesia as a kantjil. Other stories feature different trickster figures, including an ape and a tortoise. 

Let’s begin with the kantjil and explore the ways that a mouse-deer can outwit creatures much more awesome than he. One kantjil tale from Java goes this way. One day, the kantjil was resting quietly when he sensed a tiger approaching with the wariness any mouse-deer must feel around potential tiger threats. Quickly, he grabbed a leaf and began to sway his new found fan over a pile of excrement lying nearby. When the tiger appeared, he asked what the kantjil was doing. “I am guarding the food of the king,” replied the mouse-deer. The tiger asked to partake of the royal food, but the kantjil said absolutely not. It would not do. The tiger persisted. At last, the little mouse-deer relented, asking the tiger only to wait to eat the food until he was gone so that he would not be punished by the king. Off he fled, and then shouted that the tiger could begin his repast now. 

Disgusted and furious at the result, the tiger pursued the kantjil. The story continues that the kantjil found a poisonous snake coiled up asleep. Sitting nearby, but not too near, he waited for the tiger to find him. “I warned you not to eat the food,” he said, “but quiet now. I am guarding the girdle of the king. It is filled with magical power.” The tiger, quickly forgetting his dung snack, was entranced. “Please let me try it on,” he begged. With a show of reluctance, the kantjil relented, asking only that he be allowed to flee so that the king would not punish him for letting the tiger wear the magic girdle. Off he ran, just as the tiger was struck by the snake. It took a harsh struggle for the tiger eventually to kill it, and boy, was he upset. Now filled with vengeful fantasies, the tiger renewed his pursuit of the kantjil. The tiger found him resting by a cluster of bamboo. Greeting the tiger, the kantjil said that he was protecting the king’s trumpet. Again, the tiger was overcome with curiosity. The kantjil persuaded the tiger that he should put his tongue between the bamboo shoots, and when the wind blew, beautiful music would be heard. Off ran the mouse-deer when the wind blew, and a big gush pinched the bamboo and cut off the tiger’s tongue. Finally, angry and tongueless, the tiger again found the trickster. This time, the kantjil stood beside a wasps’ nest. “I’m guarding the king’s drum. It gives off an exquisite tone when struck.” The tiger was again entranced and mumbled through his severed tongue that he should be allowed to try it. 

Again, with an air of reluctance, the kantjil ran off as the tiger was overcome by a swarm of stinging wasps. These four story elements were often told together, but there are variants all over Indonesia and the Philippines involving the kantjil and giants, as well as crocodiles and elephants. Clearly, the tiny kantjil’s quickwittedness is to be admired, much like that of, say, the American cartoon character, Tweety Bird, and his nemesis, the house cat Sylvester. Here, the trickster is no culture hero and has none of the menace of Micronesia’s Olifat. He’s just a clever survivor who entertains and perhaps serves as a role model of sorts. Mouse-deer tales are most prevalent in the southern and western areas of Indonesia, especially Java, Borneo, and Sumatra, but they are almost unknown in the more northern areas of the Indonesian archipelago, and hardly ever seen further afield in the Philippines. 

There, tricksters tend to come in a paunchy and less nimble guise, as either apes or tortoises. In one such tale, an ape is said to have befriended a heron, and they engaged in the common practice, at least among the humans who told these tales, of delousing one another. The heron went first and picked off every last bit of the ape’s lice. The ape returned the favor, at least after a fashion. Pick, pick, he proceeded. Ouch, ouch, shouted the heron. “You’re hurting me!” “No, I am only picking off the lice,” replied the ape. As it happened, the ape was plucking off all of the heron’s feathers. “I am done,” he said when he had finished. “Fly away.” But when the poor heron tried, he could only stumble, and the ape laughed. 

This is not the end, however. As it happened, the ape met another heron, and this one was determined to punish the ape for his awful deed, the awful deed he had done to the first plucked heron. The new heron said that it was off to find wonderful fresh berries in a place it knew across the sea. “Would you like to come too?” asked the heron. And into a canoe went the heron and ape. The heron steered while the ape rowed. You might already see where this is going. In this particular gotcha tale, the ape is reacting, and that is a devastating situation for a sophisticated trickster. But just like every card shark or mobster who ever enjoyed a run of good fortune, things have a way of turning bad in time. And so, out at sea, the heron pecked a hole in the bottom of the boat. It quickly filled with sea water as the heron flew away, leaving the ape to struggle in the choppy seas. The myth does not tell whether he lived or died, but the mythological tradition can assure us of one thing. He pops right up in the next set of trickster tales told around the campfire. So what can we make of tricksters in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region? Certainly, they serve to showcase the value of a nimble mind. 

They also serve as an explanation for the limited powers of the gods to prevent bad things from happening sometimes, or simply as a personification of the fickle nature of fate. But they are not impervious to the machinations of others, and they struggle, at least occasionally, with bad timing and bad luck. I like to think of tricksters in much the same way that we do of conmen in our own world. Humanity is almost perversely capable of submitting to crazy notions and tall tales, but even the most accomplished of con artists will run into either a string of bad luck, the law, or an equally perceptive companion, as did the ape with the second heron. Or perhaps the second heron should be considered a trickster himself, and a sharper one than the ape. Mythology… it is not just about the characters, mouse-deer or ape, or even the plot line. It is a way of thinking through the ways of the world, and tricksters share with a whole bevy of human forms a combination of fertile imagination and hubris that we can recognise in the world around us, but may not truly internalize until we hear it in the telling of a myth. 

While it is tempting to offer firm conclusions when interpreting these wonderful myths, you must always keep in mind how different our own outlooks of the world may be from those of ancient peoples from other lands, especially lands as remote as Indonesia and the Philippines. Perhaps no example illustrates that important point better than that of two anthropologists who went to study the practice of headhunting in the northern Philippines in the late 60s. There, the young couple… Graduate students at Harvard University… Began a two-year field study of a group of headhunters known as the Ilongot people. Michelle and Renato Rosaldo showed much of what is best in the study of anthropology, working closely with their Ilongot hosts to create not just rapport, but even some needed development, such as the small airline landing strip that they built. They understood in ways that earlier anthropologists and missionaries often did not that almost anything they did, including the landing strip, would alter the culture. They also noted that the enormous changes taking place in the Philippines and the rest of the world were doing that already. And unlike some early Western travelers to the region, they did not sensationalize headhunting or make the Ilongot people into caricatures. The Rosaldos listened, asked questions, and began speaking the language. They learned to place in a larger social and cultural context the by-then almost defunct traditions of head hunting that had fueled a dangerous and misunderstood society for centuries. They were not naive and wrote eloquently about their worries and concerns. 

Their observations seem to channel the reflexive anthropological approaches that had just come into use following the publication of the diary of one Bronislaw Malinowski. Let’s take a look at an excerpt from Michelle Rosaldo’s Knowledge and Passion that addresses the emotional roots of head hunting among the Ilongot. As you will see, cultural context can mean the difference between love and war, and it provides us with a cautionary tale about mythological traditions far from our own experiences. 

She writes, “One day, I returned from a long hike to learn that Ilongot children playing a tape of modern music in our house had discovered a lovely female voice that sang… my friends reported as if they understood the words… in passionate tones of death and love.” On the tape, the children heard the voice of a young woman whose cadences shook them to the core… Joan Baez singing a song about a soldier going off to war. At first, Michelle Rosaldo thought that there was something almost universal about the notes, the tremolo, and that it might be bound to love and loss all over the world. But then, she was confronted with the reactions of her Ilongot friends. She continues. “But although a sound may well evoke for many people certain themes, observations of this kind, again, seem to fall short. Baez’s song protested against war and invoked mourning, whereas for Ilongots, her quivering voice was like a fluttering bangle or a twisting heart. Its beauty for the Ilongot listeners lay precisely in its power to stir their hearts with angry thoughts, just as mourning for the Ilongots points not too passivity and calm but to wild violence.” Rosaldo was startled to find, even after several years living in a society of head hunters, that a song of peace in one cultural setting… Joan Baez’s painful Vietnam era ode… Could stir hearts in a very different society to anger and thoughts of headhunting. The key idea here is that we must often go below the surface level of our own interpretations to understand what is happening, whether in music or in myth. Although the example is dramatic, it reminds us that mythology is not just about story or moral. 

Mythology is a way of thinking. If we consider Joan Baez’s music, as I think we should, as akin to mythology, we should never assume that cultural themes simply translate easily from society to society. We are all enmeshed in our own cultural assumptions. For Michelle Rosaldo, Joan Baez sang of war protests. For the Ilongots, she sang of vitriol and head taking. Stunning as the difference between these two points of view is, I don’t think it means that we can never understand anything at all, as some pessimists might say. Rather, I think we can understand what is going on in widely varying mythical traditions, but we should always be aware that our own cultural assumptions have borders and that studying mythology always requires knowledge not only of how they think, but of how we think as well. Examine many variants on common mythological themes in this region accounts of humanity emerging from eggs, intricate tales of the origins of different animals, and stories of how humans acquired (or reacquired) fire. Compare Trickster tales of the clever, delicate mouse-deer with those of the mischievous ape. 


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