V. THE SOUL OF THINGS
THF, primitive Malay looked below the outer aspect of man and beast and plant and stone and found a veiled
power or inner life for which their exterior is the host or tabernacle. This animating spirit he called the vital
"spark" (semangat), probably because the dead are cold. For lack of an exact equivalent, it may be termed soul,
despite that word's other connotations. It is possessed by all things "in widest commonalty spread." There is no
aristocracy among souls, no "rank, condition or degree," distinguishing the soul of man from the soul of plant or
animal. But souls inhabiting things useful to men, like rice, arrest the Malay's attention only less than his own
soul. The soul is the personal property of its host. It is also an impersonal substance, whose deficiency in the sick
can be supplied by soul−substance derived, for example, from proper diet, rubbing with a bezoar stone, being
breathed upon by the medicine man or brushed with the lush grass of his aspergillum.
This substance, which enters the Malay child the moment the bamboo knife (or midwife's teeth) severs the
umbilical cord, permeates his whole body and its secretions like an electric fluid. In some parts of the globe it is
believed that there are separate souls for the head, the blood, the heart, the saliva, and even the foot−prints. A
survival of this idea may be traced in the Malay shaman's altar piled with morsels representing every part of the
beast sacrificed. According to one Malay account the soul lives in the belly. His head to a Malay is sacred: he
resents it being touched even in play. All parts of the body where soul−substance is present must be guarded from
the sorcery of enemies. A woman's blood can be employed to her hurt by a disappointed lover. Clippings from
hair or nails are hidden or destroyed for fear possession of them may give an enemy control over their owner's
soul and so over his life. Clippings from finger−nails can turn into fire−flies just as the soul of a whole man can
turn into a firefly. So strong is the soul−substance in the hair shorn at a girl's first tonsure that it is buried at the
foot of a barren tree to bring fruit as luxuriant as her tresses. The abundance of this substance in hair and teeth
makes it politic to sacrifice all save a lock of a Malay boy's hair and to file off part of a child's teeth at puberty:
formerly the stumps were blackened, it has been surmised, to conceal from the spirits the partial nature of the
sacrifice. In old days warriors especially, like Samson, wore their hair long and uncut. And after a death relatives
used to sacrifice some or all of their locks so that the dead might not revisit them. The history of Pasai tells of a
Malay princess born from a bamboo whose life was bound up with one golden hair that glittered among her raven
tresses: when her consort pulled it out, white blood gushed forth and she died.
The Malay's respect for saliva is shown by the deputing of a courtier to take charge of the royal cuspidore on
ceremonial occasions. The midwife spits on the baby she welcomes into the world. This is a gift of a portion of
one's self, a pledge of union and good−will, a diluted form of blood−covenant. Religious teachers of piety and
learning are invited by parents to spit upon a child's head or into his mouth to endow him with intelligence and
facility for learning to recite the Quran. The saliva of a living saint brings benefits to the credulous. For medicinal
purposes saliva is often reinforced by scarlet betel juice. At a sacrifice in Malacca to the earth spirit before the
planting out of the young rice a man walked round the field, spitting rice from his mouth, probably not a mere
offering of food but a bond of union between himself and the earth to which his rice−plants were to be entrusted.
After−birth is full of soul−substance, and dropping on the earth can generate evil spirits. In many charms the
magician threatens such spirits with knowledge of their origin:−
I know the origin whence ye sprang!
When the discharge before birth began,
A drop of blood fell to the earth,
Creating genies of the earth, goblins of the soil.
The soul may be attacked through objects that have come into contact with its owner. One way to abduct a
girl's soul is to "take sand or earth from her foot−print or from her garden path or the front of her door or from her
carriage wheels or her pony's hooves." Frying this soul−substance in oil, one recites a charm:−
I am burning the liver, the heart, the lusts and passions of my beloved,
So that she is broken and hot with love,
Madly in love with me and restless,
Burning as this sand burns.
The personal soul may depart in sleep "what it sees the man dreams." A well−known Malay quatrain tells how
a girl pats her pillow and calls upon her lover's soul, which comes to her in dreams. Sudden awakening, fright or
sorcery may separate soul from body for ever. Then the house of life will fall into disrepair and, unless the
shaman or medicine−man can recall the wanderer, the body will die. The shaman's personal soul quits his body in
a trance to hold intercourse with spirits. The soul may leave the human frame and enter that of a tiger to prey upon
The Negrito of the Malay Peninsula conceives a man's soul to have human shape, to be red like blood, and no
bigger than a grain of maize. A Besisi legend finds it in a person's shadow. Both these conceptions of the soul in
its personal aspect recur in the beliefs of the Malay.
The soul is in the shadow of the physical body. One should not walk upon a person's shadow, the agriculturist
must not hack his own shadow and the magician, to establish and vaunt his invulnerable strength, will declare his
shadow to be "the shadow of one beloved by Allah and the Prophet and angels forty−and−four."
The personal soul is in one's name. The Malay is reluctant to utter his own name lest breathing it he may part
with a piece of his soul−substance: a third party must be asked to divulge the secret. A child receives a tentative
name before the umbilical cord is cut, but if the infant falls sick the name will be regarded as unlucky and
changed to mislead the spirits of disease. A name like 'Abdu'l−Qadir may offend the Muslim saint who founded
the great religious order. Some parents even call their children by such names as "Ugly" or "Fool" in order to
persuade demons that they are unattractive prey. It is desirable always to disguise one's real name. An adult Malay
is often known as "father (or mother) of so−and−so." A neighbour calls her friend's husband "your house." A
Perak man refers to his wife as "the person at home" or "my rice−bag," a Perak woman to her husband as "my
chopper." The Malay seldom mentions the names of close relations, alluding to them as "elder brother," "younger
sister," "grandad," "mother−in−law," and so on. Of the dead person he speaks as "that soul," using an Arabic
word. To his ruler he refers as "Lord" or "He−under−whose−feet−we−are": and the life name of a dead Sultan is
always dropped for a new Arabic title, "The Deceased on whom Allah have mercy", "Allah's Great Saint," "The
Friend of Allah," "The Deceased who was strong." The mention of Siva is rare in Malay charms, the god was
invoked as the "Supreme Teacher"; and the worldly Malay Muslim in ordinary talk speaks of Allah simply as
"Lord," both practices suggestive of a tabu of divine names. The Malay is afraid even to attract the spirits of
beasts. In the jungle the dreaded tiger is "grandfather." On a mine the elephant, whose heavy feet and roving trunk
can undo the work of puny men, must be called "the tall one," the blundering water−buffalo "the unlucky one,"the
poisonous snake "the live creeper." In Patani Bay fishermen call a crocodile the "gap−toothed thingummy−bob," a
goat or sheep "the baabaa," a buffalo "moo," a sea−snake "the weaver's sword," a tiger "stripes," a monkey "Mr.
Long Tall," a vulture "bald−head," a Buddhist monk "the yellow one," and sea−spirits "thingummies." Smallpox
in many places is termed "the complaint of the good folk." The mention of the real name may attract the
capricious attention of the lords of the sea, the spirit of a disease, a human ghost, a king, a mammal or a
mother−in−law: it may also frighten away such elusive things as ore in a mine or camphor in a tree. So on a
tin−mine the ore must be called "grass−seed " and the metal "white stone." Collectors of camphor use an elaborate
tabu vocabulary of aboriginal, rare and artificial words: the bamboo is called "the drooper," bananas "the fruit in
rows," bees "seeds on branches," blood "sap," a cat "the kitchen tiger," a fire−fly "a torch for the eyes," the nose
"the smeller," the jaws "the chewers," a bed "the cuddling place," and so on. Not only is the name of camphor
itself avoided, but no words are uttered which might lead the tree to suspect that Malays were in search of its
treasures. So human in anger and fear are trees and minerals and beasts.
For there is no difference between the soul of man and the soul of beasts and plants and objects. As the soul of
man can take the form of insect or bird, it is easy to figure him re−incarnated in animal form. The deer was a man
who died of abscess on the leg. The tiger wears the stripes he earned as a naughty school−boy. The elephants have
a city where they live in the shape of men. Limes can be used to abduct the soul of an elephant as well as the soul
of a girl. The solid−casqued hornbill was a malicious son−in−law, the argus pheasant once a woman. In using
dogs to hunt deer, the magician reminds them of that common kinship which in a Malay folk−tale makes the
house−dog a fitting bridegroom for his master's daughter, and he urges them by promise of relationship or
marriage with the quarry
Buck and he shall be thy brother
Doe and she shall be thy mistress.
Dogs, like rice, are close friends of man and have personal names and souls.
To make it bear fruit the durian tree is beaten like a naughty child. "There are plants to which a particularly
strong soul−substance is attributed, on account of their tough vital power. Among all Indonesians, Dracoena
terminalis stands foremost. It is the sacred plant, which is used by magicians in all their proceedings, and whose
strong soul−substance they try to transfer to man." Moreover, plants, like men, have this substance in every part
of them. Take the tree, where wild bees nest. Its root is called the Seated Raja, its stem the Trailing Raja, its
branch the Pendent Raja, its leaf the Soaring Raja−in Malay the word Raja denotes either sex. Similar names are
given to the parts of the lime tree, and the spirits of the parts of the eagle−wood tree are called expressly
princesses. The aesthetic side of such nomenclature is a side issue to the Malay. To the coconut palm he ascribes
definitely seven souls, named after princesses whose "neck" the tapper seizes, whose blossom−like "hair" he rolls
up, for whose juice he holds an ivory "bath," where the princesses may "clap their hands and chase one another."
Like rajas and spirits, the camphor tree is addressed with a special tabu vocabulary. Formerly there were seven
experts required to take camphor, as there are seven midwives required to bring a raja into the world.
The camphor princess lives in the tree, which is her house. Once she was wooed in her human form by a man.
When he broke her command and recited to his ruler the magical chants his bride had taught him, she became a
cicada and flew up into a coconut palm. So the soul−substance of a camphor tree may appear in either shape, as
the soul of rice may appear as a grasshopper or be treated as a human baby. The soul of the rattan is in its tiny
mimic, the stick−insect. The soul−substance of eagle−wood, the coconut palm and of man is conceived as a bird.
Therefore, souls are summoned by the burring call of the housewife to her chicken, and rice is sprinkled over a
man to retain his soul in his body. Stress was laid rather on the soul's power of flight than on any definition of this
symbol until the Malay philologist studying the Muslim cosmogony discovered the soul in the
Nur−i−Muhammad (the Radiance of Muhammad) and identified the bird in his bosom as the Prophet's parrot
The flutter of the heart, the vital spark in the firefly, the stridulous telegraphy of the cicada in a tree, the
rustling flight of a bird from its branches, an uncanny likeness and the anthropomorphic learnings of men explain
the origin of these conceptions. Possibly association of colour has led to the soul of tin−ore being detected in the
buffalo and the soul of gold in the barking deer, an animal often described in Malay romance as golden and
stamped on the obverse of the tiny gold dinar minted in Kelantan. A Besisi legend speaks of a bright snake with
seven souls in the form of iridescent rainbows. The ascription of seven souls to men and trees, when the
soul−substance has so many hosts and so many shapes, is a moderate estimate based on the worldwide regard for
the number seven.
In Negri Sembilan the soul of a house is said to appear as a cricket. The Patani fishermen think that even a boat
has an individual soul (maya), generally invisible, to keep it from dissolution. It is lucky to hear the chirping
sound of this soul. It is luckier still to see the soul. That of a dug−out manifests itself as a fire−fly, that of a large
boat as a snake, that of a ship as a person either male or female according to the qualities of the vessel. If ill
fortune at sea reveals that the soul of his boat is weak, the fisherman engages a magician to feed it with offerings
laid on each rib. There is no soul until all planks have been fitted and the hull can be properly called a boat. It is
dangerous to keep a perfect neolithic celt (which the Malay takes to be a meteorite), as it has life and will attract
lightning to disappear in the flash, but chipped or damaged the stone is dead and harmless.
Hard objects have strong soul−substance, of which magic makes good use. The sick are rubbed with
bezoar−stones. A candle−nut, a stone and an iron nail are employed both at the birth of a child and at the taking of
the rice baby. The drinking of water in which iron has been put strengthens an oath, for the soul of the metal will
destroy a perjurer. Applied to the wound, the blades of some daggers can extract the venom from a snake−bite,
and the mere invocation of magnetic steel will help to join parted lovers.