Cultures & Traditions

Ancestors in Traditional Indonesian Cultures

In all traditional Indonesian cultures, ancestors were the preeminent spiritual authorities. They included the earliest settlers, and people memorized genealogies that led from primeval, mythical times to their immediate forebears. Since memories are limited and writing was generally unknown, intervening generations were often compressed into just a few names.

A person owed everything to his or her ancestors. One’s cultural environment was associated with their arrival in ancient times. Later generations were related to historical events that led up to one’s present-day situation. A person not only owed his or her ancestors for his or her very existence, but also hoped for their protection and help in everyday life. This had its more precarious side, however: it was the ancestors who continued to watch over the cultural order they established. Especially in egalitarian traditional societies, there were no authorities to keep order and punish social offenses; it was mainly the ancestors who had to step in and strike the offender with ill­ness and misfortune. Through what we term “art,” it was possible to draw the sacred world of the ancestors into one’s own existence.

In all Indonesian cultures, it was believed that the "shadow image," or soul, survived after death. For a time, it remained in the vicinity of the living, but then it withdrew into the realm of the ancestors, which was generally located in some uninhabited region. With offer­ings it was possible to lure the shadow image back into a carved figure of the deceased if one was in need of his or her help. Such figures were individualized with indications of the sex of the deceased and ornaments suggestive of his or her status. Ancestor figures from different regions demonstrate how regional styles evolved in different directions despite their fundamental similarities. Comparison of ancestor figures from eastern Indonesia with their counterparts in the far west confirms that the traditional art of the entire archipelago derived from a common tradition.

Adapted from

Reimar Schefold, " Art and Its Themes in Indonesian Tribal Traditions," 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), 17-27.