Reviews –

Reviews — Where are You/Spirits: Style and Theme in Berawan Prayer (Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry) by Peter Metcalf

Sather, Clifford

Where are You/Spirits: Style and Theme in Berawan Prayer: By Peter Metcalf (Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry) Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1989. Pp. xvi + 345.

This study of prayer in a Borneo society consists of an extended analysis of seven prayers, each by a different speaker, ‘chosen to represent different occasions illustrative of the life of the community, and different levels of skill in performance’ (x). Each prayer is introduced by a discussion of the ritual event that contains it, a presentation that nicely integrates prayer texts with the particular context of their production. An introduction and two chapters deal with general features of Berawan prayers and a conclusion briefly contrasts the seven prayers in terms of themes and metrical features. Taken together, the book offers a valuable ethnography of an important but little explored topic in the study of religion.

Metcalf defines prayer as ‘invocation and supplication’ addressed to a ‘supernatural agency requesting some kind of boon’ (p.10). Despite its importance, prayer has been largely ignored by anthropologists. The principal reason, Metcalf argues, is that prayer, being at once words and rite, falls awkwardly between the dominant dichotomies of theoretical discussion — ‘word’ vs ‘act’, ‘myth’ vs ‘rite’, ‘dogma’ vs ‘practice’ — that traditionally defined the terms by which anthropologist have approached religion (p.4).

For the Berawan of northern Sarawak, a small indigenous community of 1600 persons, no public ritual occurs without prayer. Although ‘only tiny fragments of the rites that house them’ (p.4), prayers nonetheless comprise, Metcalf argues, the ‘core ritual’ of Berawan religious life (p.259). The seven prayers examined here indicate something of their range. The first two are made during an annual longhouse festival (‘prayers of the house’) and are meant to secure the community’s wellbeing. The third, for a sick child, is more narrowly family-centered, while the remaining prayers are occasioned, respectively, by a funeral, the secondary mortuary ceremony for a deceased individual of high status, divination, and the festival of Bungan. Bungan is a revivalist cult, now on the wane, that began in the late 1940s when there were mass conversions to Christianity in central Borneo. The Bungan prayer is in some ways the most fascinating of the seven, showing how the parameters of prayer may be stretched to accommodate a new message. Prayer structure, in this case, is radically simplified consistent with Bungan’s rejection of ancestral authority, the prime tenet of the traditional religion that the cult sought to supplant (p.223).

For the Berawan, making prayer is not a specialized role. Although prayers are characteristically brief (except for the Bungan prayer, they average only 4 minutes 40 seconds), they have what Metcalf calls a ‘Janus-like quality’, being both reflexive and formulaic (p.4). They offer commentary on the ritual events that call them forth. At the same time, they are also the creation of specific social contexts. The coexistence of what Metcalf aptly calls these ‘two faces of prayer’, being, at once, ‘of and about ritual’, argues, he insists, for a mode of analysis that keeps these two aspects of prayer in view, seeing it as both an adjunct to ritual analysis and, at the same time, a genre (p.8).

The author’s treatment of prayer as a performance or speech genre is particularly insightful. He argues that making prayer is always, to some degree, ‘a political act’ (p.32). For the Berawan, prayers are reserved for public occasions and skill in composing them is indicative of general social competence (for men at least; Berawen women apparently do not say prayers). Because Berawan prayer is a highly creative genre, prayers are an appropriate means by which to register grievances, pursue ambitions and display competence. Here, by relating variations of style to what he calls ‘the politics of prayer’, the author opens new lines of analysis that have scarcely been touched on by the existing enthnographic accounts of prayer.

As indigenous commentary, Metcalf argues that prayer’s ‘great virtue’ is that it directly encodes, without the intercession of an anthropological interpreter, ‘ideas about ontology and cosmology,… about augury, sacrifice, the living and dead. . ‘(p.7) The author never quite succeed in making these connections, and those seeking an understanding of Berawan cosmology, for example, are likely to be disappointed. While this book does not claim to be an enthography of Berawan religion, it must be said that there is very little Berawan exogesis here, either regarding prayer or the beliefs that prayers are said to encode. One wonders why this is so. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact, mentioned by the author at the outset, that his interest in prayer developed only after he had left the field. Whatever the case, it is a pity, for without a connecting argument, the reader is left to wonder how prayers might be constitutive of religious belief itself, or how prayer events communicate, affirm, and possibly even challenge (as his examples suggest) the very ideas which Berawan hold about what prayer is and does.

This weakness aside, the author’s analysis of prayer as verbal genre is highly innovative. In Chapter 2, he sets the stage by drawing a valuable comparison between Berawan prayer and Rotinese ritual speech. On Roti, ritual speech is attributed to the ancestors and is canonically determined to a large degree so that a speaker’s skill has little bearing on his social standing. In contrast, Berawan speakers speak for themselves and prayer composition is ‘looser’, with tone groups rather than determinate semantic sets its chief constituents. Consequently, verbal skill reflects directly on a speaker’s social status.

Piat, the special language employed for prayer, has a number of distinctive features. These include phonological characteristics that set it apart from everyday Berawan and presumably from the language used in other ritual contexts. These features make prayer instantly recognisable.

Lines of prayer are segmented by tonal features into what the author calls ‘tone groups’, each characterized by flattened intonation (p.38). Metcalf introduces a simple but useful system of notation to represent the intonation features that distinguish tone groups. Another characteristic is parallelism. In contrast to Rotinese ritual language, parallelism, however, is less pervasive and ‘looser’, structured more by intra-line rhyme and alliteration than by linked, determinate sets of semantic dyads. In comparison with the sometimes complex dialogic structure of Iban prayers (which the author does not treat), Berawan prayer is relatively simple.

In selecting English glosses to translate lexical sets, Metcalf purposely chooses as literal and simple a gloss as possible (p.56). He also uses a single English gloss with subscripts to represent synonyms or near synonyms. While this highlights parallelism, it sacrifices rhyme and nuanced variation in sound and meaning and so produces singularly flat translations. James Fox’s practice, by comparison, of employing English synonyms appears to better capture the distinctive poetics of ritual speech (see To Speak in Pairs 1988).

Prayers are segmented at a higher level into themes. All begin, the author tells us, with invocation, usually followed by supplication, after which the order of themes becomes highly varied. Thus, he insists, ‘No two prayers employ the same combination. Each is unique’ (p.97). In his conclusion, the author presents a comparison, in table form, of his seven prayers according to frequency of themes and metrical devices. While succinctly displaying differences, the significance of these tables is diminished by the small sample involved, and more revealing of thematic patterns might have been tables that situate these prayers within a larger corpus of prayer texts.

Finally, one theme which appears, surprisingly, in all Berawan prayers is sacrifice. All seven prayers are accompanied by sacrifice, and the theme is prominent in four of the seven prayers the author examines (p.80). Despite a recently renewed interest in sacrifice, the topic remains mired in a Victorian laegacy of Old Testament studies. Significantly, the Berawan perceive sacrifice, like speech, as communication. The sacrificial animal (a chicken or pig) functions much like a message. Released by immolation as spirit, it travels to the gods. Indeed, one might go even further and see sacrifice as a kind of prayer made tangible, with the released spirit being homologous to words. As Metcalf notes, although the idea of sacrifice as communication is relatively simple, none of the classical theories of sacrifice addresses it directly. What the author does is draw a parallel between prayer, sacrifice, and Berawan death rituals. Thus he tells us that songs for the secondary treatment of the dead act as a kind of sacrifice. Just as a sacrificial animal, having been killed in order to release its spirit, delivers a message to ‘the creator’, so the dead are destroyed in this world ‘so that they can be reconstituted in the beyond’ (p.84), where, like the words of prayer, they become communicative agents.

Copyright University of Sydney, Oceania Publications Mar 1994

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