Cultures & Traditions


Traditionally, aside from the rajas or kings, the most important persons in Batak society (of northern Sumatra) were the datu or priest-magicians. Persons of powerful personae and spiritual insight would seek to undergo rigorous training to become a datu. Datu were the interpreters of the spiritual realm, literate and conversant with ancient Batak texts. They were also the possessors of medicinal knowledge as well as being master of magic. It was the aim of the superior man in traditional Batak society to want to master these arts.

A number of emblematic objects were part of a datu's regalia. There included his books pertaining to magic, medicinal containers, a large buffalo horn with a carved wooden stopper that contained medicines and magical paraphernalia, and several varieties of carved wooden staffs.

The most important cult objects of the Batak were richly carved magic staffs (tunggal panaluan or tongkat malehat) and medicine containers (naga morsarang). The datu produced these objects for his own personal use. If a datu carved objects for other customers, such as figures to counteract illness (porsili) or protective figures (pagar and pohung ), then he alone was the one who guaranteed the effectiveness of the figures through his incantations, ritual actions, sacrifices, and offerings of prescribed food and beverages. Moreover, it was at his sole discretion to determine when certain aids, such as amulets, magically effective figures, or remedies intended to cure a sick person, were to be administered. In this way, the datu themselves were able to control the demand for their services. They earned a large portion of their income through per­forming the ritual aspects of their profession. Their training took a long time and was expensive; the collecting of medicinal herbs and magically effective ingredients and the production and application of various aids and cult objects were time-consuming.

Among the Batak, all ancestor figures, ritual objects, and representations of primeval mythological creatures were fashioned exclusively by the datu. The importance of these objects came not so much from their artistry as from their magical-religious potency. For example, there was relatively little devia­tion in the design of medicine containers (naga morsarang). They were always made from a water buffalo horn fitted with a wooden stopper that was generally figural in form. And although there are clearly two different types of ritual staffs and variations in the number of figures and animals depicted on them, the basic structural concept changed very little within a given ethnic group.

The external appearance of figures created by the datu had no influence on their function or value. The worth of a sculpture was measured by its proven effectiveness against anything negative, including adverse interactions with ancestors, malevolent spirits, or personal enemies. If a sculpture had accomplished its task, it was left to rot, rather than being cared for as an heirloom with an ongo­ing purpose. For the majority of the Batak, the aesthetic quality of a ritual sculpture was less important than its magic-religious efficacy.

The art of woodcarving was profoundly changed as a result of growing Christianization, integration into the Dutch colonial empire, and the increasing number of travelers to this region. Not only did much of the indigenous paraphernalia in the possession of the datu became superfluous, since this material was not compatible with Christian beliefs, but the introduction of the colonial monetary economy also destroyed the traditional exchange structures. The datu increasingly lost influence as custodians of the beliefs, history, and traditions of their society. The spread of Christianity destroyed the foundations of the old Batak religion, making the further production of cult objects superfluous. For the datu, this process meant the loss of their once highly regarded position in society.

Adapted from

  • Achim Sibeth, "The Art of the Batak of Sumatra," 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), 61-65.

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