Sun, Aug 19, 2001 - Page 19 News List

Asia remains a repository of ancient spirits

Burrowing down through the layer cake of Southeast Asia's folk beliefs, Knappert discovers that while religions may supersede one another, the belief systems continue to live on

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

If this book has a single theme, it is that religion underlies all folklore and mythology in the region, but that the mix is complex, and layer underlies layer in many regions.

Indonesia most vividly illustrates the author's assertion that in Asia cultures simply refuse to lie down and die. In Islamic Java, for instance, an essentially Hindu mythology survives in nightly wayang puppet plays, and in court dances, all over the island. And though Indonesia as a whole is predominantly Muslim, that doesn't prevent its national airline being named after the Indian Hindu bird-god Garuda. In addition, there are large enclaves of Christian, Hindu and Animist communities scattered through the archipelago.

For the most part, this book attempts an impossible task, and its author knows it. He has himself made similar compilations covering smaller, but still vast, areas -- the Pacific, Indonesia, the Malay lands -- and even these must have seemed to only skim the surface. As it is, this compact collection contains origin legends from Cambodia, portions of epics from Flores, comic tales from the Philippines, Malay ballads, and much more. There's even a Vietnamese Song in Praise of Faithful Wives (faithful husbands don't rate a mention).

But it's the spread and flux of religions that remains so very astonishing -- both within and beyond Asia. A study of their language has, for instance, proved beyond doubt that the majority Merina people of Madagascar originated in distant central Indonesia. They probably sailed from there, stopping off at the southern tip of India and utilizing ocean currents, some 1,000 years ago. They still sacrifice cattle to their ancestors on a gigantic scale just as is done by the Toraja people on the island of Sulawesi.

Kappert doesn't neglect a topic that many younger scholars have been trained to focus on -- the degree to which folk tales such as these reinforce the position of the rich. He agrees they do, adding that rulers have frequently claimed descent from the gods and cited traditional tales as evidence, and that religious doctrines such as the Indian belief in karma result in the poor believing they are poor because of their bad behavior in a previous life.

This is probably a book to browse in rather than to read from cover to cover. The translations sometimes are hard-going, especially where they are of verse. But Jan Knappert is a true scholar of the undogmatic old school, and a congenial and wise guide through this fascinating and extraordinary terrain.

Publication Notes:

MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE IN SOUTH-EAST ASIA

By Jan Knappert

314 Pages

Oxford university press

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