"Shamans in Siberut, Mentawai: Restoring Threatened Harmony" by Dr. Reimar Schefold


Incised and Relief Patterned Shaman’s Box with Suspension Strap and a Saddleback Cover with Rattan Binding | Salipa
© Reimar Schefold


Shamans in Siberut, Mentawai

Restoring Threatened Harmony


by Dr. Reimar Schefold


The local kin-groups (uma) on SiberutSiberut is the northernmost and largest (4,030 square kilometres) of the Mentawai archipelago located off the west coast of Sumatra. traditionally live in large longhouses, also called uma. In these communities of on average five to ten families, particular emphasis is placed on maintaining a harmonious balance. Central to this goal are the ideas about the soul. The Mentawaians believe that everything has a soul – man, animals, plants, and objects. The people and their souls have to be in good relationship with each other. If they disregard the necessary consideration of their souls in their behavior, there is a danger that the souls will panic and flee far away. They then seek protection from the ancestors, and their owners must die.


A new conception of a standing bird made by Amanpabubukerei | Sakuddei, 1974
© Reimar Schefold

Lack of consideration for the soul means neglecting all that the souls expect from the human being: a beautiful lifestyle in everyday life with ornaments, tranquillity and good food, and during the ritual periods additionally a festive conduct with dances and artistic performances. In the rituals, moreover, harmful influences, such as malignant spirits, are summoned and expelled from the uma. It is also necessary to keep taboos for the sake of the soul, that means to refrain from specific acts that, for magical reasons, are considered incompatible with certain planned activities and thus might cause harm to people, their souls and their possessions. The Mentawaians often use analogous thinking to explain these rules. It is, for instance, taboo to eat anything sour while engaged in activities surrounding hunting. Sour and sharp are seen as equivalents. By violating the taboo, one would likely injure oneself with “sharp” weapons. Garden work offers another example; a new-born’s father may not engage in any activity that could cause a plant to wither. If he did, he and especially his child would wither as well.


Each person is responsible for a good relationship with his soul. If something goes wrong, perhaps because one has not kept a taboo, the disorder often manifests itself in illness. In order to restore the disturbed relationship and make the soul "tame" (maom) again, a ritual healing is needed. In charge of its implementation are the shamans, the kerei.

In each uma, one or more of the men have the position of kerei. To become a shaman you have to undergo a lengthy and elaborate initiation ritual under the guidance of an experienced teacher (paumat). A special psychic disposition of the candidate is generally not required. During the initiation, the shaman learns the relevant songs and incantations and acquires knowledge in the world of magical medicinal plants.

There are many dozens of such magical plants. They are characterized by certain formal or other perceptible qualities that are associated with desirable elements in the healing process. These qualities reveal something about the nature of the plants in question and prove them to be suitable for conveying the concerns of the shamans to the instances that they want to act on. For example, a plant with a corkscrew-like stalk grows in the gardens. Accordingly, it is called "twisting" (pilok). In line with its shape and its name, the soul of this plant is willing to follow corresponding incantations of the shamans and to take care, for example, that harmful influences are 'twisted away'.

The special ability of shamans to communicate directly with souls and spirits is expressed in a gift that distinguishes them from all of their companions: they have 'seeing eyes' and can visibly perceive spirits and souls. The acquisition of this gift also belongs to the shaman’s initiation and is the magical consequence of a learning process strictly kept secret. Shamans can observe what threatens a stray soul and, with the help of mediating plants, take appropriate countermeasures. They try to figure out where in the surrounding area the soul of a sick person got lost. There they lure the soul with flowers and ornaments and convince it to come back home (see fig. [116]). In the uma then the actual healing ceremony is performed. The harmful influences are expelled, the patient is cleansed and he and his soul are strengthened again (see fig.[154]).


[116] | © Reimar Schefold

[154] | © Reimar Schefold


[147] | © Reimar Schefold

In addition to this healing function, the shamans also have a preventive role. During the great periodic rituals of the group, the uma is purified of all the dangerous forces that want to nest there. The shamans can see the evil spirits and chase them with glowing torches of protective magical plants (see fig. [147). Then, at the height of the festival, the shamans, ringing their small brass bells, call out the souls of the individual uma members and exhort them not to wander far and wide. In order to attract them, everything that pleases the souls is intensified: ornaments and flowers are spread out and the flesh of great sacrificial pigs is presented invitingly. Also artistic expressions are part of the calling: Specially for the souls and the also invited own ancestors birds are made of wood, painted and hung at the entrance (see fig. [156]. Inside, the whole night through dances are performed, which should also please the souls. At the end of the ritual, the uma is again prepared for everyday life.

[156] | © Reimar Schefold


[118] | © Reimar Schefold

The special position of the shaman is reflected in the specific equipment reserved for him. At a long ritual (pukereijat) at the end of a shaman’s initiation, attended by the entire group, he receives the ornaments that are particular to his position: a headband (sorot or luat) made of a rattan strip wrapped in fabric and decorated with glass beads, woven fibre rings for his upper arms (lekkau), a necklace (tudda) of imported ochre-coloured glass beads, a dance apron (sabo) of variously coloured pieces of fabric, and a red-dyed bark cloth loincloth (toggoro). Two other ornaments are of great importance in the ceremonies as well: a pendant (abak ngalou) with amulets attached to it and a hair ornament (jarajara) made of feathers and palm leaf veins, again with an amulet (see fig. [118]). How these amulets are obtained is the secret of the kerei. They claim to have wrested some of them away from the ancestors, who had appeared as guests at the close of the consecration. The shaman keep all of these paraphernalia in special small wooden cases (salipa; see fig. [248).

Incised and Relief Patterned Shaman’s Box with Suspension Strap and a Saddleback Cover with Rattan Binding | Salipa
© Reimar Schefold


[80] | © Reimar Schefold

The shaman's wife (who is now called kerei as well) will also wear a special ornament during rituals - the teteku crown (see fig. [80]). In addition, she will wear a characteristically striped skirt (sinaibak) made of different strips of fabric sewn together. She does not participate actively in the healing ceremonies, but like her husband must observe certain taboos on these occasions. She also complements him in the conducting of incantations in some of the ceremonies that take place at the large communal rituals. In rare instances, a state of trance - a phenomenon that is the hallmark of all shamans - may also be reached by a woman. Women who have this ability can sometimes exercise healing functions as well.

People achieve the state of trance through specific dances and the sounds of rhythmic drumming. It is considered as proof of a shaman’s supernatural connections. A particular sign and proof of such connections is the ability of some shamans to dance in fire. The ancestors see to it that no harm comes to him.

A desire for personal recognition is one of the main motivations for becoming a shaman. A shaman often receives regional attention and is invited to perform in rituals of neighbouring groups. Shamans are allowed to break away from the norm and emerge as individuals in an otherwise characteristically egalitarian Mentawaian social structure. In some valleys, over a quarter of the adult men have this status, although maintaining it has attendant difficulties. They must abide by onerous taboos, and traveling to perform healing ceremonies in neighbouring uma inevitably constitutes an economic disruption. There is no substantial personal gain. The compensation for a shaman’s services comes in the form of larger portions of the sacrificial meat of slaughtered animals, which upon his return to his uma, a shaman must as always share with all others present. In everyday life, the shaman takes on the ordinary tasks of every adult man.


During the twentieth century, most Mentawaians converted to Christianity. As a result, the traditional situation described here has only been preserved to some extent in the interior of Siberut. Nevertheless, the influence of the old ideas, just with regard to the kerei, can still be felt everywhere. This also applies to the appearance of the shamans: While otherwise largely modern clothing prevails, they appear in their old festive outfit, for example, in healing ceremonies, to which they are still regularly drawn. This gives them renown even among young Mentawaians. The kerei are proud of their position and are currently tolerated by the government. Whether this will ensure the continued existence of their role for the future will depend on how far it will be cherished by the young generation as part of their Mentawaian identity.


Memory Board Representing Deceased Family Members | Kirekat
© Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Sacred Carving with Monkey Skull | Jaraik
© Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Human Figure | Tularat Sirimanua
© Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Incised and Painted Decorative Wooden Board | Inv #: IIC2653
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Hornbill Figure with Human Shaped Head | Inv #: IIC2678
© Museum der Kulturen Basel | Switzerland

Warrior’s Shield (Front) | Koraibi
© Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Warrior’s Shield (Back) | Koraibi
© Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Memorial Wall Panel with Wooden Figure of a Slain Headhunting Victim | Simoinang Tulangan Sirimanua
© Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Mentawai Shaman in Ritual Costume | Mentawai Regency | Inv #: TM-10006667 | © Tropenmuseum

Portrait of a Shaman | Siberut Island, Mentawai | 1900-1940 | Inv #: TM-60063000 | © Tropenmuseum

Shaman with Patient | Siberut Island | Mentawai Regency | Inv #: TM-10006666 | © Tropenmuseum

Two Mentawai Shamans in Ritual Costume | Mentawai Regency | Before 1930 | Dr. Paul Wirz | Inv #: TM-10005476 | © Tropenmuseum


Dr. Reimar Schefold


Dr. Reimar Schefold is Professor Emeritus Cultural Anthropology and Sociology of Indonesia at Leiden University. He has a long-standing interest in material culture, art, and vernacular architecture, particularly that of Southeast Asia, which has been the subject of many of his scholarly publications and Museum exhibitions. He has conducted several extensive periods of fieldwork in Indonesia, notably among the Sakuddei of Siberut, Mentawai Islands, where he spent two years from 1967 to 1969 and several shorter stays later; the Batak of Sumatra, and the Sa’dan Toraja of Sulawesi.

He is, with Steven G. Alpert,  editor and one of the authors of Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven etcetera: Yale University Press. 2013) and, with Han F. Vermeulen, of Treasure Hunting? Collectors and Collections of Indonesian Artefacts (Leiden: Research School CNWS/National Museum of Ethnology. 2002). His most recent publication is Toys for the Souls: Life and Art on the Mentawai Islands (Belgium : Primedia sprl. 2017) where in the Bibliography more of his writings on Mentawai can be found.

Eyes of the Ancestors The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art Reimar Schefold Steven G. Alpert
Treasure Hunting? Collectors and Collections of Indonesian Artefacts Reimar Schefold Han F. Vermeulen
Toys for the Souls Life and Art on the Mentawai Islands Reimar Schefold


Author | Dr. Reimar Schefold
Date of Publication | May 29, 2019
Publication Website | www.artoftheancestors.com