A recent visit back to Kuching has reminded me of a topic I had been wanting to write about in the past. The special place of Chickens and Pigs in the Iban, and in fact wider Dayak culture in Borneo. While it is the Hornbill that occupies the most revered place in the Iban Mythology and stories it is the Chickens and Pigs that bear the heaviest brunt of the Iban belief system. Pigs and Chickens both take centre stage in many Iban ceremonies, be they of religious or just traditional character. Weddings, engagements, baptisms, harvest festivals, festivals for the sick, festivals for the spirits and pretty much any other any other events of notice. But being centre stage in all these ceremonies isn’t exactly a good deal for either animal. Both animals are a sort of coin for spiritual purposes. The blood of both animals is used in ceremonies in much the same way as holy water in Christian ones.
Pigs don’t make a personal appearance very often. This may be due to a variety of reasons, most important of them being cost. Pigs are expensive and are only sacrificed for important ceremonies. Probably the most characteristic of those being to welcome an important guest, or guests, to the long hose. The sacrifice of a pig in honour of an important guest is not a religious ceremony, it is more of a sign of respect. Unfortunately for many guests unused to this practice it is also a very big honour to kill the pig, so the guest is usually asked to do the killing (with a spear through the throat of the pig). This can be a daunting prospect or many people visiting the longhouse, luckily the Ibans are pretty understanding of this and will happily agree to supply someone experienced to do the sacrifice for the guests nowadays.
As for the chickens, though they are considered a smaller sacrifice, they are much more important for most celebrations. At weddings and various other occasions the people officiating the ceremony must hold a rooster while making speeches. Only a speck of the roosters blood is needed for the ceremony so usually only a small cut is made in the roosters comb. A feather is dipped in the blood and touched to the foreheads of people who are being blessed. Alternatively if a sacrifice for spirits is being made the feather is used to touch each of the prepared small bowls of the other traditional offerings. Unfortunately for the rooster it is still considered necessary to kill it later after the ceremony.
Roosters are also commonly kept outside of many longhouses in individual cages or tethered to stakes in the ground. They are fed special imported or hand mixed feed and praised highly. The role of most of these roosters is to engage in cock fighting, usually organised alongside key festivals in the year. Traditional cock fighting is legal in Malaysia, it is the only time it is legal, provided however that no betting is involved. This unfortunately doesn’t appeal much to anyone involved, so there are often bets of hundreds to thousands of ringgits riding on each fight. The fights are usually over very quickly due to very sharp metal spurs which are tied to the roosters feet. Those fights which I have seen have all ended within 30 seconds, in most cases with both roosters either dead or so heavily wounded they had to be “put down”. Though I have been told that round of fights was quite unlucky and normally more of the victorious roosters survive the fights.
This leaves only my most recent brush with traditional ceremonies to describe. Since my wife is Iban and we have been married for a few years now, I have seen many chickens and pigs sacrificed during various ceremonies. Among those ceremonies our own wedding and various other family events. Coming from a city and having no experience with farm animals, nor any particular wish to have an experience killing them, I have always managed to get my way out of killing either chickens or pigs. On a recent, short, trip back to Kuching, one of my friends had the misfortune to have his car stolen. Seeing as the Police were not interested in doing anything beyond noting this in their records the family decided that maybe they could consult a trusted family friend (who is a kind of shaman) who sometimes helped out with “spiritual” problems. Yes, I know cars are not really spirits, but spirits may know where the car is right…? The shaman proceeded with enquiries of the spirits, this took some time, best part of two days in fact, though to be fair a lot of normal chatting and even gossiping was involved as well. As I am not hugely interested in the supernatural I didnt follow much of the procedure and went out of the house for a while. On the second day I had to drop off my friend to the airport (as he now lacked a car to get back home). Upon my return to the house I was told by my wife that the shaman had prescribed a sacrifice of one black chicken as appropriate on this occasion. Since this was not a holiday there were not the usual throng of cousins, uncles around and since my friend had gone home I was the only person left in the house 😦 since the sacrifice of the chicken was a necessary part of the procedure of thanking the spirits for their help I would risk spoiling the whole effort if I didn’t help out. And so after managing to avoid having anything to do with any chicken or pig slaughter for years I was now accidentally roped into killing a chicken…to recover a stolen car. (thanks Charlie<—sarcasm)
Not to stretch the story out further, the chicken died. Oddly killing it myself was in some way actually less unpleasant than watching other people do it. I was in control and the chicken lost its head with one stroke of the blade, rather than having its throat slit as is the traditional way in this part of the world. It was a slightly bizarre experience for someone who grew up in a city, though I expect it sounds like a silly problem to people who grew up in the country. Another odd thing is that after dreading this kind of situation for years actually killing the chicken didn’d bother me that much, and in some way gave me a short termed confidence boost of sorts. Truly humans are a troubled species, and perhaps this last part goes some way to explain why people do stupid violent thing in the first place?
Ps: The chicken was eaten afterwards so I have no feelings of guilt from the experience.