In Focus

Priest's staff (tunggal panaluan)

The magic staff of a priest–magician (datu) is a ritual object of the Batak. At least two types of staffs are known: the tongkat malehat and the tunggal panaluan. The latter, tunggal panaluan are carved staffs with numerous figures.

According to pre–Christian ideas, a magic staff protected the house of its owner from fire, warned against enemies, and served as a magic weapon in combat. A datu could make rain, drive away storms, visit illness or death on enemies, or cure illness, all with a magic staff. Moreover, the staff safeguarded the fertility of fields, people, and animals.

The mythological background behind the magic staff, held in common by all Batak subgroups, concerns the incest between a pair of twins. As is the case with many ethnic groups, among the Batak incest was considered to be a serious offense against the overarch­ing importance of exogamy. The myths of the Toba record that after committing incest the boy and the girl tried to pick fruit from a tree but, as punishment, became intertwined with it and could no longer disentangle themselves. Their parents made efforts to res­cue them, engaging five datu, one after another, to try to release the children through sacrificial offerings and ceremonies. However, none of these datu were strong enough to undo the spell. Ever since, a carved staff depicting this mythical event has been regarded as the most effective and singularly powerful instrument of the datu. The staffs were considered so dangerous to normal people that the datu had to keep them outside the village.

Great differences exist in the iconography of the staffs, but basic features are also found in common. The staffs vary in length between fifty and one hundred inches and in thickness between one and three inches. Even the number of persons and animals carved into the wood var­ies significantly. However, the order of the seated and standing figures, one on top of the other and almost always unclothed, is the same in all staffs. The two topmost figures are always of differ­ent gender.

The datu consecrated the staffs with magical ingredients (pupuk). They inserted a magic mash into the cavities of the chest, belly, and liver areas of the figures and closed the holes with resin, lead, or a wooden peg. Thus, the staff was regarded as being “in- souled” or animated. During ceremonies, the datu danced with the staff and rubbed it with betel juice, finely chewed rice, and the blood of sacri­ficed animals. Through these practices, a magic staff would receive an unmistakable and often remarkable patina over the course of long years of use.

The staff at the Dallas Museum of Art, carved of a reddish–brown wood, displays the residue of a crusty patina in the cavities above and below the haft. The surface itself has been brightly polished through the constant rubbing of food and beverage sacrifices by the datu, or also by later owners, so that the wood emits a brilliant reddish gleam. Such a surface shows the intensive and long–standing use that distin­guishes a very old magic staff.

Seven human figures can be recognized above the haft, and two more beneath it. Of these, six of the figures above stand on or sit astride scaly, serpentine riding mounts. The uppermost fig­ure depicts the mythical hero Si Adji Donda Hatahutan, who rides the underworld dragon naga padoha, here appearing in the form of a scaled snake. Each of the other smaller serpentine mounts car­ries one of the other five figures. In the religious belief system of the Toba Batak, the autochthonous underworld dragon and the snake goddess (naga), taken from Hinduism, are combined to form a mythical creature, called a singa by the Toba today.

The head of the topmost figure is decorated with a large feather headdress, which is attached to a peg with a white, red, and black cord called bonang manalu that is concealed by the feather head­dress. The figure shows a particularly fine attention to facial and bodily detail. Lead inlay has been preserved as a pupil in the left eye. The figure wears metal bracelets on his upper arms. Below the rider, we see his sister Si Tapi Na Uasan, who, like the four other figures, stands on a singa. The figures below the twin couple rep­resent the unsuccessful datu called on for help by the parents in the mythological story. As in many other magic staffs—but not, by any means, in all of them—the fourth figure carries a chicken in its hands as a sacrificial offering. The figure above the haft sits cross-legged. Two smaller standing figures can be recognized below the haft, between whom three dogs and a snake are rep­resented. All the figures above the haft, and the lowest figure as well, have round lead inlays over the pupuk holes in their chests. Even the snake below the haft formerly had an insertion hole in its head.

When the staff is viewed from the side, smaller animals can be discerned in a fluid array on the back of each of the standing fig­ures, including what may be dogs, pigs, or water buffalo.

Adapted from

Achim Sibeth, "Priest's staff (tunggal panaluan)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 75.