Arat Sabulungan

Arat Sabulungan is the official name of the Mentawai believe, although the Mentawai themselves do not use this name. Arat Sabulungan translates as “Believe in the Leaves”, referring to the many different kinds of leaves that play such an important role in the Mentawai’s spiritual lives.
The Mentawai believe that everything that exists has a soul (simagere): not only people, but also the animals, plants, rocks, objects and even temporary phenomena like the rainbow or clouds. Souls are created together with their visible body, but at least the souls of people will live forever. The souls roam around freely in their own realm, but there is a continuous link between a soul and its earthly body and body and soul influence each other both ways.

What the human souls experience during the night will be seen in their dreams. But also the mind and feelings during daytime are related to the experiences of the souls. When roaming around in their realm, souls are exposed to each other and they are able to influence each other. For example, during the ceremonial preparations of a hunt the Mentawai try to attract the souls of game to their uma, by offering to the souls of previously caught animals, of which the skulls hang in the uma. These skulls are cleaned and nicely decorated, in order to make them attractive enough for their souls to live in. By offering to these souls they are invited to convince the souls of their living family and friends to come to the uma as well. If the souls of game feel attracted they will allow the hunters to catch them, so their souls will be reunited with the souls of family and friends.
The decorated skulls of game on display in the uma: wild boar, deer and different primates
The interactions between body and soul might also lead to dangerous situations. When a soul roams around in its realm and meets with something evil it will also have a harmful effect on the body of the soul. The way this works has to do with what the Mentawai call bajou. The bajou is a power, a kind of radiation that is released by everything that has a soul. It varies in intensity, depending on the nature of its owner. The bajou itself is neither good nor bad and normally not a threat. However, when different bajou with different intensities meet each other too sudden, a negative or even catastrophic effect on the soul might be the result. For instance, supernatural creatures from the world beyond have a very strong bajou and are potentially dangerous.

For the Mentawai life is therefore about maintaining a harmonious balance and good relationships with the souls. If a soul is disregarded or ignored it may feel distressed or flee away. A tool or activity may fail. Or its human body will get sick. This is what the Mentawai fear most… As once a human soul has been welcomed by the souls of their ancestors, decorated itself in their presence and eaten together with them, then the time has come to die.

Care for your Soul

To stay in close touch with one’s soul, a Mentawai has to live a beautiful life that makes his soul happy, strong and resistant. It will assure that the soul will stay in his neighbourhood and not roam away to the dangerous unknown. Good food, flowers, jewelry and other decorations and an overall good physical appearance is what the souls like. The human soul also likes a relaxed lifestyle, and this is why one of the most often used expressions on Siberut is “moile, moile”, “slowly, slowly”. It is a very bad manner to ask a Mentawai to hurry; souls do not like their bodies to rush around or act recklessly. They also do not like to force somebody to do something.
Aman Sasali dressing up before a ceremony
To further strengthen the bond with their souls the Mentawai will regularly dance, make music and sing to the souls during ritual ceremonies.

The human souls also expect their human body to follow codes of behaviour and a diverse range of taboos, to maintain harmony amongst the bodily world and the world beyond.
An important taboo for instance, is used during all preparations for a hunt: it is strictly taboo to eat anything sour. Sour and sharp are related to each other: you might injure yourself with the sharp arrows or knifes. Another example is the prohibition to be deloused when you have a pig with young. The comparison is obvious: the piglets might get lost like the lice, picked from one’s hair and thrown away. Another example is the taboo for men to make a dugout canoe while their wife is pregnant. The hollowing out of a tree trunk is not compatible with the pregnancy of his wife and might lead to a premature abortion and the canoe will not be a success.


Mentawai shamans often bless objects, souls or even activities. For a blessing words alone are not enough. To be able to communicate to the souls, the shamans have to use a bridge between them and the world beyond, where the souls live. The shamans use a diverse collection of specific plants as well as pigs and chicken as mediators, called gaut, to cross this bridge. According to the Mentawai, the plants’ and animals’ souls are able to ‘send’ the blessing to the realm of the souls. Different plants and animals have different functions.

The Mentawai use hundreds of plant mediators, which often can be used in many different ways. They distinguish between “bad” mediators, able to counter evil, and “good” mediators, able to attract the desirable. Often a relation exists between the shape of the plant and its function as bridge to the souls.
Aman Sasali preparing an elaborate mediator to communicate with the ancestral souls
Pigs and chickens are usually “good” mediators, for instance to attract the souls of wild game, before a hunt. What distinguishes pigs and chickens from the plants is that a possible success of their negotiation can be seen directly in the intestines of the sacrificed animal. After a blessing, the animal is killed and cleaned. On the membrane between the intestines of a chicken the shaman can ‘read’ a message from the world of the beyond: whether the animal managed to send the blessing message or not. For a pig the hart is used to read this message. If the result is not favorable the entire procedure is repeated, hoping that the next sacrificed animal is a better mediator…
Aman Manja reading the intestines of a sacrificed chicken


The magic plants which the shamans use for a single negotiation or blessing can also be used for a long-term influence on the world of the beyond. For this purpose the magic plants are turned into a fetish during a special ceremony, as a small bunch or package, wrapped in a piece of cloth and tightened together with some rattan.

These fetishes are carefully kept, because they keep their power as a mediator. For instance, for a newborn child and its parents a fetish of different mediator plants is made to protect the child during the first few months of life.

As everything else that exists, a fetish has its own soul and at the end of a rituals sacrifices are made to the new fetish as well.

The most important fetish for the Mentawai is the bakkat katsaila, the main fetish of each uma. When the building a new uma has finished a new bakkat katsaila has to be made. It is then blessed and, as a new object, has now its own soul. The bakkat katsaila‘s soul becomes the main protector of the uma: it keeps away ‘evil’ and attracts ‘good’ at the same time.
The bakkat katsaila is hanging from the main pole of the uma, inside the back room, on the left side of the door when facing the uma’s entrance. It is a large collection of different mediator-plants, placed in a large traditional basket. At every ceremony sacrifices are made to the bakkat katsaila and more mediator plants added, to manage a good relationship its soul and strengthen it.

Care for the Environment

Because all that exists is alive through its soul, connected and communicating with each other, the Mentawai believe that therefore everything is and has to be in balance with each other; one harmonious environment. However, people are forced to interfere in this harmony, because every worldly activity effectively changes the spiritual balance of the environment. This interference is potentially dangerous: if the balance is disturbed the person concerned might become the victim.
Aman Manja reconciling with a chicken that is going to be sacrificed
The way the Mentawai deal with this dilemma is through continuous reconciliations. With each worldly activity the Mentawai have to consider its possible influence and impact in the world of the souls. This impact might be dangerous, but also very useful; through blessings the Shamans try to manipulate the outcome of activities in the world beyond, by continuously reconciling the souls of the people, objects and activities involved.
Reconciliation with a pig, before it is sacrificed
Without such reconciliation an offended soul might take revenge. Often the way to reconcile is directly related to the activity, for instance when a pig or chicken has to be sacrificed. The Mentawai will explain to the pig or chicken why he has to be killed. They will remind the pig or chicken about the care and good life they have received, and will cool down the pig or chicken’s possible anger with blessings.
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