Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Rice in Myth and Legend

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Rice in Myth and Legend

Article excerpt

rice in myth and legend

ALTHOUGH they have different histories, cultures and societies, all the countries of east and southeast Asia have rice as a common denominator. It is not simply that these peoples cultivate rice; they all have customs, rituals and myths concerning rice which serve as threads to bind them together. Rice culture is extremely important as the common inheritance of these regions.

Myths concerning the origin of rice take many forms. Some have points in common with myths related to other crops. One of these, which is widely current in such parts of the region as Indonesia and Malaysia, tells how crops originated from the corpse of a murdered god or human being. Myths of this kind often relate that other crops originated at the same time as rice. In Java, according to some versions, fruit bearing plants originated from the corpse of a young girl; dry land rice from the navel; coconut palms from the head and genitals; ripened fruit dangled from both hands, and fruit originated from the legs and ripened in the ground. Among the Manggarai people of Flores Island, it is said that rice and maize originated from the corpse of a murdered child. According to the Japanese classic Kojiki ("Record of ancient matters'), compiled in 712 AD, Susanoo slew the food goddess Ohogetsu-hime. Silkworms came from her head, rice seeds from both eyes, millet from both ears, red beans from her nose, wheat from her genitals, and soybeans from her buttocks.

Many mountain peoples of the southeast Asian mainland and islands sacrifice domestic animals such as water buffalo and pigs as an agricultural ritual. Some plaindwelling peoples of the region, such as the Lao of Laos, also sacrifice water buffalo. The motives underlying this practice are varied. It is believed that the flesh of the animal is presented to the gods in exchange for the gods' gift of an abundant rice harvest. It is also thought that magical power (mana) contained in animal blood promotes the growth of plants.

Given the view that death is a premise of life, animal sacrifice has points in common with myths that relate the origin of crops from corpses. In the southeast Asian islands, myth and sacrifice frequently accompany one another. Yet, on the mainland, despite the fact that animal sacrifice is widespread, myths which relate the origin of rice from corpses hardly appear at all.

Another important form of rice cultivation myth refers to the stealing of crop seeds. These myths are found not only in east and southeast Asia but are also widespread among the agricultural peoples of Africa and the Americas. Furthermore, these myths are not exclusively tied to rice cultivation but are also applied to the cultivation of sorghum in Africa and to maize in America. In Samoa, taro origin myths also take this form. In parts of east Asia, amongst the mountain people of Taiwan, for example, this stealing motif is found in myths concerning the origins of millet.

It is said that the ancestors of the Miao people of Sichuan, China, did not have the necessary seed to sow their fields. They set free a green bird which then flew up to the rice granary of the heaven god and returned with the heavenly rice seed and tare. A myth of the Minahassa region of Sulawesi (Indonesia) recounts how a man went up to heaven and returned to earth with unhulled rice concealed in a wound in his leg.

A conspicuous feature of the rice cultivation rituals of east and southeast Asia is the frequent appearance of the concept of a rice soul. The Lamet, slash-and-burn rice cultivators of Laos, constitute a representative example of ancient rice cultivation rituals which are accompanied by this idea. They perform rituals which include strict taboos at each point in the cultivation process, and their concept of the rice soul is similar to those of many of the peoples inhabiting the islands of southeast Asia.

The rice soul is especially important at harvest-time. …

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