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Birth, Entity and Responsibility : The Spirit of the Sun in Sora Cosmology - article ; n°1 ; vol.20, pg 47-70

25 pages
L'Homme - Année 1980 - Volume 20 - Numéro 1 - Pages 47-70
24 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.
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Piers Vitebsky
Birth, Entity and Responsibility : The Spirit of the Sun in Sora
In: L'Homme, 1980, tome 20 n°1. pp. 47-70.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Vitebsky Piers. Birth, Entity and Responsibility : The Spirit of the Sun in Sora Cosmology. In: L'Homme, 1980, tome 20 n°1. pp.
doi : 10.3406/hom.1980.368026
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/hom_0439-4216_1980_num_20_1_368026ENTITY AND RESPONSIBILITY: BIRTH,
The Sora are a "tribal" people who live mostly on the borders of Ganjam and
Koraput Districts in the State of Orissa in India. The Sora language is classified
as Austro-Asiatic (Munda branch) and it seems that the original cultural links of
the people are with South-East Asia rather than with Hinduism. They number
some 200,000 in all, and their various groups form a continuum from the most
isolated who still live largely by shifting cultivation in hilly areas, to those in the
plains who are at various stages of assimilation to the surrounding non-tribal
Oriya and Telugu populations. Many of the plains Sora have lost the use of the
Sora language, and though I have not studied them, their religion seems very
close to that of the popular Hinduism around them. My fieldwork was carried
out in the most isolated, least "Hinduised" villages, those around Puttasing, in
Koraput District. The only substantial previous work on the religion of the
Sora was by Elwin (1955: for critiques see Dumont & Pocock 1959; Turner 1967),
who also visited this area. However, the approach adopted here differs consider
ably from his. I shall not embark on the vexed question of how far the shaman-
istic practices described here should be considered a part of Hinduism (see e.g.
Dumont & Pocock 1959). *
This paper arises out of an attempt to interpret a statement which is consist
ently made by the Sora and is supported by an elaborate body of ritual, and which
puzzled me for a long time in the field, namely that people who die by murder,
1. Fieldwork was carried out for eleven months during 1976-77 while a research student
in the Department of Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
I am grateful to the Social Science Research Council of Great Britain who financed a large
part of it, and also to my supervisors, Professor C. von Fiirer-Haimendorf and Mrs. Audrey
Hayley. I am also grateful to the Laboratoire d'Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative
at Nanterre, Paris, for an opportunity of reading an earlier draft of this paper at a seminar
in March 1978.
L'Homme, janv.-mars iq8o, XX (1) , pp. 47-70. PIERS VITEBSKY 48
suicide, or through falling out of trees, are "taken" by the Spirit of the Sun and
are said to reside after death in the Sun. Such people are called usungdaijen, or
"fall-climb" people. Another fact to be explained, one of behaviour rather than
explicit statement, is the tendency of the Sora to impute to those who die in this
way negative qualities of character. Often this judgement comes into play only
after the event; and in the cases known to me during my stay in the area, I was
able to observe that this happened even when other sources of information about
the deceased suggested that such moral slurs were not in fact justified.
The class of fall-climb is only one among several categories of deaths which
are linked in this way to Sun-Spirit. I hope to demonstrate from an analysis of
the internal logic of the symbolism of the Sun that all kinds of Sun-deaths are
radically distinguished from deaths linked to any of the many other possible
categories of spirit; and that this distinction is based on the imagery of the
process of birth, which is also said to take place in, and through the agency of,
the Sun. No other spirit is associated with birth in this way. At the end of the
paper I shall try to place the Sun alongside certain other spirits in order to illus
trate how the entire Sora pantheon serves as a system of metaphors for certain
kinds of experience. In this system, meaning is derived from contrasts and
oppositions between spirits.
Before going on to the distinctive features of deaths connected with the Sun,
it is necessary to sketch in the Sora theory of death in general. The Sora say that
all deaths without exception are caused by a spirit. Of these there are numerous
categories, some of which will be discussed as we proceed. The language consist
ently used suggests that they have a very clear image of the quasi-physical
process involved. The dead person has "gone to" the spirit because he has been
"taken" or "eaten" by it. What the spirit consumes is in fact the person's
soul-substance, and it does this ostensibly out of a need to nourish itself. So the
relationships between person and spirit expressed by these terms are those
of spatial coexistence ("go to") and of absorption, expressed by the image of
consumption. The latter amounts eventually to a total loss of the victim's
identity. After his death, someone who succumbs in this way (which means of
course eventually everyone) both is an ancestor-spirit in the Underworld under
his own name and identity, and at the same time is part of, that is, has been
absorbed by, the spirit responsible for his death. Thus, to take an almost
absurdly literal example of absorption, a person who is eaten by a tiger "goes to"
or "becomes" Tiger-Spirit. In all cases the absorption becomes more and more
total over time, and within about three generations his individual identity as an
ancestor will have been forgotten. This idea of absorption of identity or of the
entire self should be borne in mind when I come later to discuss Sora ideas of the
creation of new identities through the process of birth. In principle, the choice
of the spirit which is believed to have taken a person is dictated not by heredity THE SPIRIT OF THE SUN 49
but by the circumstances of his own death. Thus the two halves of a person's
dual role as an ancestor-spirit and as some other kind of spirit, are essentially
This simultaneity of two different modes of existence after death presents a
curious paradox: they are clearly spatially incompatible, since most classes of
spirits reside in trees, streams, mountains, in fact almost anywhere except the
Underworld, where they must also reside in their capacity as ancestors. Thus
most people on dying, unless they are "taken" by an actual ancestor as such in
his role as a particular "Ancestor-Spirit", or by Earth-Spirit, must have a double
existence in two different places. The Sora express this not by a term of continu
ous simultaneity (I do not even know if this would be possible in the Sora
language), but by saying that the deceased "wanders" or "oscillates" (goro'te)
between the two states, and that his spirit may turn up during a shaman's trance
in either capacity, that is either under his own identity or under that of the spirit
which has taken him. I shall suggest at the end of the paper that the paradox
of oscillation and the double mode of existing after death is an integral part of the
Sora way of thinking about their dead through the metaphor of spirits.
Death, whether sudden or preceded by a disturbance of health which is judged
to be "illness" (asu), takes place within the context of signs which allow it to be
interpreted. We can best approach the link between any given death and a
particular spirit through the interpretation of illness, since each person experiences
death only once but illness many times over throughout his life. Every case of
the latter, except the most trivial, is the consequence of an attack by a spirit, but
not every case is fatal: it represents the early stages of being consumed by a spirit,
and most ritual activity consists of buying off the attacking spirit with an animal
substitute. A shaman who knows the technique of divination divines the
identity of the spirit, and a shaman who knows the ritual appropriate to that
spirit then offers it the animal's soul to feed on, in the form of its blood. If the
spirit accepts the substitute, the patient recovers; if not, he dies. In fact, the
procedure is considerably more complicated, since divination is itself a matter of
interpretation. A patient may fail to recover and second and third opinions will
contradict the initial diagnosis; or for malicious reasons of their own, spirits may
commonly conceal their identity and pretend to be other spirits, and so on. If
the patient dies, the true cause of his death will be revealed only in the final one
of a long series of post-mortem divinations.
What do the Sora achieve by a classification of spirits? One of the first
things which strikes a visitor is not only that they are constantly talking about
spirits, but that these spirits are ascribed innumerable names and properties, so
that their classification is clearly a matter of some importance. In Sora thought,
spirit is active. It effects change by disturbing health and bringing about death.
Thus it is known only from what it does, through the experience of its results. A
classification of spirits therefore serves as a classification in symbolic terms both
of a certain area of experience and of a certain area of causality. This does not
necessarily constitute a classification, or theory, of all experience or causality,
but it covers the vital area of the kind of well-being which if seriously upset,
ruins life and leads inevitably to death. Thus both intellectually and emotiona
lly, the classification of spirits functions as a powerful system of explanation in
one of the most crucial and frequently exercised areas of experience.
How then does the classification of spirits correspond to that of these
areas of experience and causality? Let us take experience first. In order for
a particular spirit to have existence at all in anyone's mind, it must manifest
itself in a way that will make its characteristics clear so that it can be recognised
and above all given a name. The potential number of spirits is legion, since any
sign, symptom or idea can be elevated into a spirit just by naming it as such.
But the more specific the spirit's name and attributes, the more limited its range
of application. In this, the system of spirits very closely reflects the nature of
experience itself: on a personal level it is sensitive, immediate and flexible, in that
anything which happens to you can be the work of a spirit newly created to
explain the occasion; while on the other hand, the necessity to integrate such a
spirit into the corpus of already recognised spirits means that spirits, like the
experiences they represent, become conventionalised. The signs through which
they are endowed with the symbolic properties which make up their identity lie
along many axes, in such a way that spirits come to be related to each other by a
combination of opposition, partial overlap and hierarchical inclusion, in which
various relations of similarity and differences can be perceived to suit the context.
In this way, experience is made consistent, since in its very expression new
experience is made comprehensible in terms of the old; while the classification of
spirits remains stable in its principles underneath the complexity of its surface
manifestations, and represents to the Sora mind a convincing of a
certain area of reality.
It is the idea of causality which links an experienced event to a spirit. Identi
fication, or in the context of illness we might say diagnosis, is done by shamans
who are specialists in the reading and interpretation of the signs which the
spirits give as clues. This process is so esoteric that it cannot be done in a normal
state of consciousness, but only in a trance, with the help of familiar spirits.
However, there are certain simple correspondences in the most general terms
between signs (or symptoms) and causing-spirit, which are universally known to
laymen and form the basis of the more subtle system practised by shamans. But
no layman would feel competent to make a diagnosis on the strength of this alone,
not only because the actual handling of the spirit diagnosed usually requires the
technique of trance, but also because even the initial divination itself can involve
so many variables, and there can be so many sources of error. THE SPIRIT OF THE SUN 5 1
The mental leap from experience to cause is made by means of symbols which
are justified because they are felt to be "appropriate" (tamte). This sense of
appropriateness links all stages of the proceedings from the omens or dreams
which sometimes warn that a spirit is preparing to attack, through the symptoms
displayed when the victim is under attack, to the time and place of curing-ritual,
the people who attend, the animal sacrificed, the tune, words, dance, and so on,
right through to the patient's own experience after death when he himself becomes
that spirit and partakes in all its attributes, including attacking those who are
still alive. Some typical examples of the kind of symbolic reasoning involved in
this sense of appropriateness are given below. Since my concern here is only with
the way in which certain kinds of experience are linked to certain spirits, I shall
show only that part of the symbolism in which this vital "causal" link is made,
that is the outward signs offered by the spirit for interpretation; I shall omit the
many ways in which the spirit's identification is consolidated by the shaman in
order to bind the spirit and keep his power over it by himself making appropriate
Four examples are chosen from a repertoire which is potentially infinite. I
shall start in each case with the sign which indicates that a relationship has been
set up between man and spirit, in other words, the symptoms of an illness, then the
name of the spirit which may be indicated; the attributes of the spirit relevant to
the case; and finally the symbolic reasoning by which these attributes can serve
to link the patient with the spirit. It must be emphasised that for any symptom,
the diagnosis given here is not the only possible one. These examples are all
widely known ones as general principles of reasoning; but we have seen that the
diagnosis in any actual case can be much more subtle.
1. The patient has a tubercular cough. One possible diagnosis will be
the spirit "Grandmother", under her aspect called U dengmarku'
("noose-peacock-cough"). She is a foreign spirit who sometimes comes
from the plains bringing epidemic diseases. She is the owner of the
peacock (or perhaps it should be said, she is the peacock), which is a
symbol of rajas, that is of the political power of the big towns, in which
the Sora have no part. The link with the patient is that his cough
resembles the voice of the peacock: usually beautiful, now it is hoarse
because the peacock's neck has been caught in the noose of a snare.
2. The patient has a skin rash. The spirit is the same Grandmother under
her aspect Ruga ("smallpox"). She is the owner of an important
species of pulse (dried pea) called rogo which, like the peacock, is
speckled (rige). Grandmother has flung a handful of the seeds of this
pulse at the victim's body, where they have become pustules. The
linguistic play between Ruga, rogo, and rige is only one of the many
possible means of expressing the mutual appropriateness of a spirit's
attributes. PIERS VITEBSKY 52
3. An adolescent girl has a splitting headache. This is due to Pangsalsum
("Bachelor-Spirit"), who contains the souls of young men who die
before marriage. He has placed a garland of flowers tightly around
her head as a preliminary to "taking" her.
4. Someone collapses and dies suddenly. The spirit responsible is Ra'tu
sum (etymology not certain), a class of homeless spirits who wander
perpetually along paths. The person has met one of these spirits which
ate up his soul on the spot.
I have given these examples in detail in order to show that, like others which
could have been given, they have one feature in common which is vital for the
next stage of our argument. As a comprehensive theory of the causality of illness
and mortality, they assume that there is no necessary connection between an
event which happens and the person to whom it happens. They constitute a
theory of essentially random events. Whichever spirit you have encountered,
this encounter need not necessarily have taken place. If you and the spirit had
not been in the same place at the same time, or if you had not come into contact
with a form of pollution derived from the power of that spirit, or had not provoked
it in one of the many possible ways, it would not have attacked you. So, as
one would expect, there exist maxims and taboos to help one avoid such
encounters: never travel alone on those paths which are notorious for their wanderi
Ra'tu' sum; do not bathe round about mid-morning when the spirits want the ng
streams to themselves; young girls must not wear flowers, for fear of making
themselves attractive to Bachelor-Spirit; and so on.
It follows that an attack by a spirit can in theory be halted at any stage of its
progress: it is not inevitable that one should die. Thus, if you find on waking in
the morning that your clothes have been nibbled by rats or termites, this is a
sign that Tiger-Spirit has earmarked you to be eaten by a tiger in the near future.
However, if you go in time to a shaman for the right preventive ritual, you
forestall the event altogether. In the case of most other spirits, who kill more
slowly through the intermediate stage of illness, it is likewise never too late to
recover until you actually die. The image used is that of an animal predator
savaging its prey, but which can be persuaded to put it down and let go. It is
in the nature of such a theory that nothing is necessarily implied about the
victim beyond the contingent — that he just happened to encounter such-and-
such a spirit and happened to recover, or die, as the case may be. One is troubled
in a normal lifetime by so many types of spirit that no special relationship can be
implied with any particular one until the moment of death, at which point only
does a special relationship begin, as we have seen, between person and absorbing
So much for the general principles of the connections between deaths and the
spirits held responsible for them. However, in the case of deaths caused by the
spirit of the Sun, a radically different kind of connection is involved. The classes
of people whose deaths are considered to be due to Sun-Spirit (Uyungsum) and
who therefore go after death to the Sun (uyungen amang) include not only fall-
climb — those who die by suicide (always hanging), murder or falling from a
height — but also the deaf, the dumb, and the blind; lepers and epileptics; cripples;
idiots; aborted foetuses; and blacksmiths.2
I intend to show that these classes of people, at first sight startlingly disparate,
are in fact linked to the Sun by the logic of a common symbolism, and furthermore
that this symbolism serves to distinguish Sun-deaths from deaths by any other
spirit. Apart from the fall-climb deaths from which we began, the discussion
will concentrate on Sora theories of embryology, since it is in birth that the idea
of death through the Sun is rooted.
Sora explanations of fall-climb deaths do little to lessen their obscurity. It
is said that those who hang themselves or fall out of trees go to the Sun because
of the height involved, and because trees and ropes are "paths" towards the Sun;
while murders are done with iron weapons and iron belongs to the Sun. In all
these cases it is said in addition that the soul "loses its way" to the Underworld
where the dead properly belong. From the explicit Sora account of fall-climb
deaths alone, it is difficult to see why, even if the soul does lose its way to the
Underworld, it should rise to the Sun. But an examination of the entire range
of deaths which are linked to the Sun suggests that they differ from those linked
to all other spirits on one significant score: they are not random encounters with a
spirit. Rather, they reflect some property inherent in the person who dies. In
other words, to die through the agency of the Sun is not a contingent event, but a
necessary one. It says something about the kind of person one was while alive.
In the case of certain kinds of people like cripples, these inherent properties are
plainly visible and it is known throughout their lives that they will go after death
2. As with the other main superordinate categories of Sora spirits, for example Earth-
Spirit (Labosum) , to which we shall return at the end of the paper, the asp sets or properties
of Sun-Spirit each correspond to separate named spirits, the names for which may or may not
include the word « Sun » (uyung). Etymologically they may be derived either from the
symptoms they cause, or from one of several other kinds of symbolic properties. There is no
room here for a dicsussion of the complexities of this, except to say that they are sometimes
credited with sexes and mutual kinship relations, which are elaborated in myth and may
change according to context. Main aspects of Sun-Spirit (Uyungsum) include Moon-
Spirit (Anggai'sum), Sun-Woman (Uyungboi), Dumb-Sun (Mo' mo' yung), Imbecile-Sun
( Kikayung ) , Bone-Moulding-Sun (Gadejangyung) , Epilepsy-Spirit (Kanisum) , and Leprosy-
Spirit (Madusum) . PIERS VITEBSKY 54
to the Sun. In the case of fall-climb people, however, where the form of a person's
death cannot be known until it has actually taken place, this would have to
reflect some inherent property of the person which cannot be perceived during
his lifetime. I shall try to show what this property is.
Such inherent properties of the person would be better called "innate", since
birth itself is thought to take place by means of the very specific imagery of
forging by the Sun, who is seen as a blacksmith. So the origins of those innate
qualities which link a person after death to the Sun, should be sought in the
circumstances of his birth, through an examination of the imagery of the Sun.
Here we are faced with what may best be called a symbolic physiology or rather,
given the imagery, a symbolic technology, since the formation of the embryo is
seen as an exact parallel to the casting and moulding of a piece of metal. Through
this symbolism, the blacksmith's craft becomes a total metaphor — if not the
literal truth — for the process of birth. Babies are made from molten metal.
The attempt to explain why certain symbols are used instead of others is
likely always to remain inconclusive. But it may be asked, what is the power of
the idea of metalworking whereby it is credited with the control of the crucial
process of birth? The answers seem to lie in two areas: firstly in the inherent
symbolic potential of molten metal itself; and secondly in political and economic
relations between the Sora and neighbouring ethnic groups. It is difficult to
know what status to accord the latter as evidence, since such things are perhaps
more liable to variation over time and space than are the ideas with which they
are linked. However, at the time and place I observed them, the two seemed to
tally in a significant way.
To take the latter first: the working of iron (and brass, silver and gold, to all
of which the same symbolism applies) is unknown to the Sora, who depend for
all metal goods on Hindu castes from the plains. The Sora attitude to these
people is ambivalent: they know that they are considered to have very low
status in the Hindu world from which they come; yet at the same time they
possess the secret of a great technological mystery which is based on the mastery
of fire. Thus they are greatly feared by the Sora as sorcerers, since sorcery
destroys its victim through the imagery of heat, and I was told that a member
of the smith caste had only to think of an enemy at the moment of casting his
metal and the man would die. This is part of an ambivalence in the Sora attitude
to all outsiders: a conceptual barrier is set up in their thinking between Sora and
non-Sora, and power, both political and mystical, is believed to be concentrated
on the other side, out of the Sora' s hands. It is for this reason, for example, that
the shaman's power to control all spirits is derived from his own familiar spirits,
who are themselves former Sora shamans who have become Hindu outsiders after
death, and acquired the skills of literacy and the knowledge of foreign, official
languages. THE SPIRIT OF THE SUN 55
On the other hand, the non-Soras who hold such power are at the same time
in a certain sense deficient, since they do not speak the Sora language: as in many
parts of the world, it is said of such people by the Sora that they are dumb
(mo' mo') . When the aspect of the Sun called Dumb-Sun is summoned during a
trance, he is given salt and chillies, which are "appropriate" because the Sora
obtain them only from the markets in the plains, while the shaman sings about
the exotic castes who frequent the market, and the crops of the plains (auber
gines) which Dumb-Sun cultivates in his garden. In this context it is interesting
to note that there were until the recent past in this area certain hereditary families
among the Sora themselves who are supposed to have carried on the craft of metal
working, and were called luaren (a non-Sora, pan-Indian etymology). It is
difficult now to find traces of them or to assess the role they played within their
own people. But it is universally agreed that they had slurred, defective speech,
"as though in the torpor of sun-stroke", that they were stupid, and that they too
went after death to the Sun. Thus the foreign connotations of metalworking lie
both in the area of defective speech and, by a commonly made extension to include
idiots and cripples, defectiveness of limbs or understanding; and in the technol
ogical mystery, which is readily suited to the expression of other kinds of mystery.
Now, the inherent symbolic potential of the idea of molten metal itself: any
symbolic account of the process of birth must start from the universal fact that
a new entity is separated out, both in the physical sense of a new body, and in the
sense of a new identity. For the Sora, this is achieved by concentrating on the
process of separation itself as taking place under the conditions of molten metal.
Heat thus becomes the precondition for plasticity, or the moulding of something
amorphous into something which has form. Now by this reasoning, though heat
gives form, it is clear that form cannot be maintained under conditions of heat.
Heat is merely Process, or Becoming; while State, or Being, depends on the reten
tion of acquired form after the heat has ceased. It is for this reason that a newly-
born baby fresh from the Sun's forge must be protected and its form confirmed by
cooling rites which include the use of metal objects and the application of cool
medicines to the umbilical stump of the baby and the vagina of the mother. If
this is not done correctly, the baby's very existence as a separate entity is
In the light of this it seems that what I earlier called the innate qualities which
predispose some people to die by the Sun are derived from the image of giving
form to something which is molten; and furthermore, since everybody who dies
by whatever spirit was similarly made by the Sun, it seems that those who die
by the Sun do so through some idea of deficiency or mal-formation. I think this
explains why the qualities of dumbness and stupidity should be consistently
ascribed to blacksmiths, in a sense which is clearly symbolic, since blacksmiths
are sufficiently sound in mind and body to exercise a complex and mysterious