In Focus

Ancestor worship in Southeast Molucca

In Southeast Molucca (Maluku Tenggara), an aspect of ancestor worship was its use of human figurines, often carved in a character­istic squatting pose. Ancestors were sometimes also depicted in the form of animals. In this guise, they usually were understood to belong to a group of mythological creatures that inhabited the area before the first human beings. The creation of adat (as well as language) was mostly ascribed to these creatures, for they were its guardian spirits. On vari­ous islands, the founding ancestors were believed to have originated from these mythological creatures.

The deceased were called upon for help in all kinds of matters, yet two themes predominated: when fertility was relevant, the female ancestors were indispensable, as were the male ancestors in matters regarding prestige. These themes were based on the notion that whether a woman would conceive or not was partly determined by the female ancestors, whereas the male ancestors had to assist a man so that he could kill and acquire status. This dependence on, and alliance with, the ancestors was often expressed in botanical terms. The ancestors were regarded as the trunk of a tree, while the living descendants represented its top branches. The development of new shoots was dependent on the root system at the base of a tree, just as the fate of the clan or larger society was in the hands of the ancestors.

As the founders of family groups, the first ancestors were worshipped the most. To their descendants, they represented the ultimate sources of both fertility and the capacity to kill. The most imposing ancestor statues in Maluku Tenggara, therefore, were related to these first ancestors. On the islands whose soci­ety had a matrilineal character, a primary role was reserved for the founding mother. On islands where the male line took precedence, that role was reserved for the founding father.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Life and Death in Southeast Moluccan Art," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 275-281.