The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1

Author: Charles Hose

Ideas of Spiritual Existences and the Practices Arising From Them

The Kayans believe themselves to be surrounded by many intelligent powers capable of influencing their welfare for good or ill. Some of these are embodied in animals or plants, or are closely connected with other natural objects, such as mountains, rocks, rivers, caves; or manifest themselves in such processes as thunder, storm, and disease, the growth of the crops and disasters of various kinds. There can be no doubt that some of these powers are conceived anthropomorphically; for some of them are addressed by human titles, are represented by carvings in human form, and enjoy, in the opinion of the Kayans, most of the characteristically human attributes.

Others are conceived more vaguely, the bodily and mental characters of man are attributed to them less fully and definitely; and it is probably true to say that these powers, all of which, it would seem, must be admitted to be spiritual powers (if the word spiritual is used in a wide sense as denoting whatever power is fashioned in the likeness of human will and feeling and intelligence), range from the anthropomorphic being to the power which resides in the seed grain and manifests itself in its growth and multiplication, and which seems to be conceived merely as a vital principle, virtue, or energy inherent in the grain, rather than as an intelligent and separable soul.[88]

It has been said of some peoples of lowly culture that they have no conception of merely mechanical causation, and that every material object is regarded by them as animated in the same sense as among ourselves common opinion regards the higher animals as animated. On the difficult question whether such a statement is true of any people we will not presume to offer an opinion; but we do not think that it could be truthfully made about any of the peoples of Borneo. It would be absurd to deny all recognition or knowledge of mechanical causation to people who show so much ingenuity in the construction of houses, boats, weapons, and a great variety of mechanical devices, such as traps, and in other operations involving the intelligent application of mechanical principles. These operations show that, though they may be incapable of describing in abstract and general terms the principles involved, they nevertheless have a nice appreciation of them. If a trap fails to work owing to its faulty construction, the trapper treats it purely as a mechanical contrivance and proceeds to discover and rectify the faulty part. It is true that in this and numberless similar situations a man’s movements may be guided by his observation of omens; but if, after obtaining good omens, he has success in trapping, he does not attribute the successful operation of the trap to any, activity other than its purely mechanical movements; though it may be, and probably in some such cases is, true that the Kayan believes the omen bird to have somehow intervened to direct the animal towards the trap, or to prevent the animal being warned against it. The Kayan hangs upon the tomb the garments and weapons and other material possessions of the dead man;[89] and it would seem that he believes that some shadowy duplicate of each such object is thereby placed at the service of the ghost of the dead man. This, it might be argued, shows that he attributes to each such inert material object a soul, whose relation to the object is analogous to that of the human soul to the body. But such an inference, we think, would not be justified. As with the Homeric Greeks, the principle of intelligence and life is not to be altogether identified with the ghost, or shade, or shadowy duplicate of the human form that is conceived to travel to the Kayan Hades. The soul seems to be rather an inextended invisible principle; for, as the procedure of the soul-catcher[90] shows, it is regarded as capable of being contained within, or attached to, almost any small object, living or inert. It would seem, then, that after death the visible ghost or shade of a man incorporates and is animated by the soul; and that the visible shade of inert objects is, like themselves, inert and inanimate.

There is, then, no good reason to suppose that the Kayans attribute life, soul, or animation to inert material objects; and they do not explain the majority of physical events animistically.

The spiritual powers or spirits may, we think be conveniently regarded as of three principal classes: —

(1) There are the anthropomorphic spirits thought of as dwelling in remote and vaguely conceived regions and as very powerful to intervene in human life. Towards these the attitude of the Kayans is one of supplication and awe, gratitude and hope, an attitude which is properly called reverential and is the specifically religious attitude. These spirits must be admitted to be gods in a very full sense of the word, and the practices, doctrines, and emotions centred about these spirits must be regarded as constituting a system of religion.

(2) A second class consists of the spirits of living and deceased persons, and of other anthropomorphically conceived spirits which, as regards the nature and extent of their powers, are more nearly on a level with the human spirits than those of the first class. Such are those embodied in the omen animals and in the domestic pig, fowl, dog, in the crocodile, and possibly in the tiger-cat and a few other animals.

(3) The third class is more heterogeneous, and comprises all the spirits or impalpable intelligent powers that do not fall into one or other of the two preceding classes; such are the spirits very vaguely conceived as always at hand, some malevolent, some good; such also are the spirits which somehow are attached to the heads hung up in the houses. The dominant emotion in the presence of these is fear; and the attitude is that of avoidance and propitiation.


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Chicago: Charles Hose, "Chapter 13 Ideas of Spiritual Existences and the Practices Arising from Them," The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, ed. Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945 and trans. Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853- in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues)), Original Sources, accessed October 1, 2023,

MLA: Hose, Charles. "Chapter 13 Ideas of Spiritual Existences and the Practices Arising from Them." The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, edited by Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945, and translated by Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853-, in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1, Vol. Volume One, London, Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), Original Sources. 1 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: Hose, C, 'Chapter 13 Ideas of Spiritual Existences and the Practices Arising from Them' in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, ed. and trans. . cited in November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1, Smith, Elder & Co., London. Original Sources, retrieved 1 October 2023, from