On Knowing and Not-Knowing Spirits in Indonesian Borneo

“You never know when it comes to spirits,” the renowned Luangan shaman (belian) Kakah Ramat once told me. “You don’t know whether it is Bongai, Bansi or Tentuwaja who is guilty of causing an illness.” “That’s why you need to bring offerings to all of them,” he continued. While it may be particularly difficult to know spirits – spirits are invisible and notoriously unpredictable and can be both benevolent and malevolent – a sense of not-knowing and indeterminacy characterizes Luangan social relations more generally, as I discussed in a recent talk entitled “The Unknown in Relations: Sorcery and Healing in Indonesian Borneo” as part of the CAS-E lecture series. In the talk, I suggested that the condition of unknowing entails an orientation of continuous relational attunement and forms the impetus for an interpersonal orientation of open-ended mutual responsibility that permeates social relations with humans and spirits alike, and bestows an “unbounded” and “unfinished” character to Luangan rituals.

In my research area near the border of the Indonesian provinces of East and Central Kalimantan, belian healing rituals follow upon belian healing rituals in a process of continuous negotiation of relations (in some villages, rituals are being performed on average every other night, often several at the same time). In Luangan experiences, good relationships with humans as well as other-than-humans is a prerequisite for well-being and, as I proposed in my analysis, the only remedy against the opacity and unpredictability that others always present. The efficacy of belian rituals, I argue, depends on a conditional ontology of unknowing that makes active affirmation – through ritual actions and representations – of the contingency of worldly conditions and the conditional nature of relations a precondition for acting upon and potentially transforming them. Thus, unknowingness and opacity shape the pursuit of ritual efficacy, leading to ritual abundance, representational diversity, and a relational orientation.

Luangan shaman; bare upper body; white stripes painted on the arm; orange-red cloth with flowers wrapped around the head holding a white bowl holding a lit stick, maybe wood or incense; jade-like green bracelets on both arms; skirt or loose pants in black with geometric pattern held by broad belt; holds plants and seems to be chanting; eyes closed
A Luangan shaman trying to ‘see’ (pereau) the spirit guilty of causing an illness.

In this blog post, I will focus on some of the specific ways in which Luangan shamans grapple with the implications of opacity and indeterminacy, inspired by some of the questions I received after my talk. As suggested by Kakah Ramat, the state of unknowing spurs a continuous extension of ritual sociality, whereby shamans reach out to a large number of spirits during rituals, so as to potentially reach the ones thought to have stolen a patient’s soul, but also to include them in relational landscapes more generally. Through a variety of ritual paraphernalia, including images of specific spirits, made from rice paste or carved out of wood, and numerous spirit houses, made of materials or in shapes associated with specific spirits or their presumed habitats, they practice an inclusive relatedness that allows for the balancing between being specific enough while not excluding spirits whose “names may not yet be known.” The condition of unknowing also encourages a diversification of ritual genres that cater to the different preferences of the spirit multitude, single rituals sometimes incorporating multiple genres, performed by the same or different shamans. This involves using different languages and specific food to spirits of different origins, those of different regions of the island’s interior being addressed in distinct local dialects and presented with pigs, while “downstream” Muslim spirits are addressed in Malay and receive goat offerings.

Even when attempting to identify spirits, or the outcome of negotiations with them, through various divination techniques – such as when shamans try to “see” the spirit responsible for an illness by dancing with a lit candle on their heads, or when they “read” the liver of a sacrificed animal for signs of the success of a ritual – they essentially enact a sort of “unknowing knowing” by exploring clues to impaired relationships, rather than seeking conclusive answers or relational closure. Signs obtained through divination are thus essentially signs of the status of relations and express the orientation of an ongoing relational attunement that informs the ritual enterprise as a whole. Often such divinatory practices are repeated several times during a ritual, with the signs obtained suggesting various possible answers, and essentially, indications of whether further actions are required.

Wooden floor covered with cloth, blankets, thin mattresses; in the right part of the picture, two people of female appearance lying beneath each other on the floor lower body covered with blanket; a shaman crouches at the head of the one person and seems to talk to the person; the shaman places a plant on the person's stomach; on the left side of the picture another person holds a house made of plants for the spirit; a wooden doll lies on the floor; in the background many people watching; colorful cloth
Offerings presented to the spirits.

Perhaps the clearest example of how indeterminacy and opacity affect healing is pejiak pejiau. Pejiak pejiau is a standard activity in virtually all rituals, epitomizing their ramifying and provisional mode of operation. The activity is performed repeatedly in a variety of ways and media: in the long chants of shamans describing all proceedings, and in various concrete ritual actions and symbolic representations. Meaning “to overturn,” pejiak pejiau refers to a two-stage process of “undoing and redoing” in which a dramatized transformation of a bad state into a good one is mimetically evoked during rituals by explicitly doing something in the wrong way first and then redoing it the right way. Thus, for example, when Kakah Ramat presents offerings to the spirits in his chants, turning them into ritually effective objects of exchange, these are first offered in the wrong way, turning them around seven times “towards the setting sun and the waning moon,” a condition associated with death and adversity. A transformation is then concretely executed as the shaman turns them over eight times, and presents them “towards the breaking day, the new moon,” invoking continued life and prosperity. Similarly, shamans first summon incompetent spirit familiars by throwing flawed grains of rice into the air and burning charred incense wood, then summoning potent spirit guides while scattering unblemished rice seeds and burning intact incense wood. This pattern is repeated during a ritual in various contexts: in making ritual offerings, in summoning spirit helpers, and in healing patients.

Pejiak pejiau is a precaution aimed at reducing uncertainty, reflecting concern with the risk of failure and relational reversibility, but also a way of giving form to and acting upon the unknown through performative action. This raises the question of what sort of efficacy belian healing rituals in general present. As is evident from my field material, ritual outcomes are not necessarily immediate or achieved through single performances. In fact, Luangans seldom judge ritual performances by success or failure in the first place. Rather than forming self-contained entities, offering answers or resolution by themselves, rituals form waypoints in a process of continuous negotiation of relations with ultimately unknowable others. In effect, they render the relationship between reality and ritual representations open-ended and impressionable, redefining opacity and indeterminacy as possibilities.


Isabell Herrmans is a Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies, Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. She works on a research project concerning the dynamics of religions at the margins of modern Indonesia and has a long-term interest in Luangan shamanic practices.


CAS-E blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by CAS-E on January 25, 2023.”

The views and opinions expressed in blog posts and comments made in response to the blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of CAS-E, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated.


Image credits: © Isabell Herrmans.

Share this post:

Our latest Blog Posts