Cultures & Traditions

Heaven and earth in Southeast Moluccan Art

In pre-Christian times on almost all of the islands of Southeast Molucca, the cosmos was conceived of as a system of two entities, which were usually called “above” or “heaven” and “below” or “earth.” Although the cosmic divide was interpreted differently on different islands, “above” and “below” were generally thought of as persons. “Above” was a man, in the person of a heavenly deity; “below” was a woman, in the person of an earth goddess. Both parties were linked in a cos­mic marriage, on which everyday life was directly dependent. Ancestors were called upon together with these deities related to the structure of the universe, determining events on the islands.

Although no clear information about eastern Maluku Tenggara is available, it seems that throughout the region people communi­cated with their deities by means of symbols. Most villages had a ritual center, including a holy stake or pole statue and a sacred stone or shell. Only for the western islands (Babar to Kisar) has it been possible to get some idea of what these objects represented and which roles they played in society.

In nearly all the villages of the western islands, the earth goddess was wor­shipped in the shape of a round, flat stone or the shell of a giant clam. In many places, she was addressed by the name Rivnoha: “(the person) who carries the island (the earth).” Everywhere, earth­quakes were attributed to her. To stop these, she was invariably called upon with a lot of noise.

Next to the female stone or shell, one could find the symbol of the heavenly deity. In large parts of the Babar archipelago, this would be a wooden stake, which, in some villages, had weaponry (a bow or fishing spear) attached to it. More to the west, for instance on Luang and Leti, the male god was represented mostly as a male human figure sitting in a boat or a boat-shaped construction that usually had a beautifully worked “stern,” which was placed on top of a pole. In many villages, it would have attributes hang­ing from it, such as common egg cowrie shells, and wooden figurines in the shape of fish and weapons. From this we may deduce that the heavenly deity, just like the founding fathers, had the attributes of a feared headhunter. The names given to the deity (for example, “Great Spear”) also suggest this, as does the fact that the pole statues were called aitiehra. This term literally means “hard wood,” and hardness is considered to be an important symbol of strength on the islands.

The fact that the heavenly deity was depicted as a great hunter sitting in a boat can probably be traced back to a great fertility feast that, until the end of the 19th century, was celebrated primarily when a disaster such as a crop failure or fatal epidemic occurred. The aim of the ritual, usually known as porka, was simi­lar everywhere: people wanted to formally acknowledge the end of a bad period and to make a new start; they wanted creation to be renewed. During the porka feast, the holy marriage between heaven and earth was ritually reenacted. The stake or statue of the heavenly deity was renewed and stuck into the ground next to the stone or shell that represented the earth goddess. Through the union of the two cosmic halves during the porka ritual, creation came back on course once again.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Life and Death in Southeasst Moluccan Art," 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), 275-281.