The most common example is that of the powerful but sensitive semangat associated with the rice plant. There are many versions of the legend accounting for the origins of domesticated plants, but most describe a beautiful woman who is given the choice of death or sexual submission to her step – father, her twin brother or a gruesome ogre. She chooses death, and out of her buriet remains grow rice, palm trees, fruits and edible tubers. In some areas, she is known ad Dewi Sri and is described variously as the wife of Wishnu or the daughter of Batara Guru – the protectress embodiment of the sacred rice spirit. In Bali, special temples are dedicated to Dewi Sri and her image – the triangular cili delicately cut from the palm fronds or formed of coloured rice – dough, adorns most temples and offerings on festive occasions.
Throughout the cultivation cycle, ritual precautions are taken to ensure that the rice soul is carefully shepherded into the field, tenderly nurtured and assiduously protected. If harmed or even startled, she might leave and the crop would fail, producing famine. When the grains is being harvested, special care is take to tret the grain – laden plants with respect. Short, curved blades are often used, concealed in the palm of the hand so that the rice spirit cannot “see” that she is about to be violated. Soothing incantations or apologies are often muttered as the rice is cut – traditionally, music was played, dances performed and poetry was recited in some communities while the harvest was in progress. Grains that are to become next year’s seed sre often wrapped in swaddling and treated as are sometimes “married” and hung up in the granary until the next planting cycle begins.
Other economically important palnts are also said to posses a soul. In the Moluccas (Maluku), a clove tree in bloom is treated a pregnant woman. In Sumatera, collectors of camphor speak a secret language among themselves so that the tress will not conceal their valuable crystals. The hunters of aromatic resins and beehives must similarly take elaborate ritual precautions to appease the trees in which these products are found. And many leaves are used in Indonesia in mystical healing seances and medicinal concoctions, because of the reputed strength of their vital principles.
All ancient and curious objects, mountains and bodies of water are likewise thought to be imbued with a special semangat or soul. Some rock crystals, for instance, are regarded as “windows” into the spirit world, and neolithic polished stone adzes are spoken of in some areas as “thunder teeth.” Bezoar stones, mineral deposits found in animals and in the nodes of certain bamboos, are used for magic and healing, while more generally, any object that is designated a pusaka or sacred heirloom is credited with harbouring a vital spiritual essence that requires special veneration and care. Antique keris daggers, lances, spear heads, cannon, gems, jewellery, sculptures and masks can all become pusaka, and many contain a soul of their own or that of a previous owner. Such object are often in the custody of a king, priest, a chief or an elder, who forms a link between the living and the powerful ancestral spirit.
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