The Birth of I La Galigo: Intense pregnancy cravings, eggs of unknown provenance

The Birth of I La Galigo: A poem inspired by the Bugis legend of the same nameMohamad Salim, Sapardi Djoko Damono, and John H. McGlynn

  • Indonesia, #17
  • Borrowed from SF library (interlibrary loan)
  • Read August 2017
  • Rating: 3/5
  • Recommended for: lazy folklorists

The La Galigo, also known as the Sureq Galigo, is the epic creation story of the Bugis people of Sulawesi (who, incidentally, recognize five distinct genders, and about whom Wikipedia says “Despite the population numbering only around 6 million, the Buginese are a very powerful people and they have heavily influenced the politics in the present day states of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore,” which doesn’t really seem like the impartial statement of fact that Wikipedia is generally supposed to strive for, but whatever). At an estimated length of 6000 folio-size pages it is “the most voluminous literary work in the world“; it is about one and a half times as long as the Mahabharata. It was written in approximately the 14th century, although it is most likely based on an older oral epic. It is written in a language now spoken by only 100 people, and much of it remains untranslated. It is perhaps best known to Westerners from the avant-garde theater piece I La Galigo, created by director/playwright/theater artist Robert Wilson.


Skomer Island, Wales, 2010
Skomer Island, Wales, 2010

This book is neither of the aforementioned works. It’s a (relatively) short piece of poetry inspired by a small part of the La Galigo legend, telling the story of the hero Sawérigading, who falls in love with his own twin sister and must build a boat and sail to the kingdom of Cina so he can marry someone else (Wé Cudai, who is identical to his sister except, you know, not related to him). It’s brief, and somewhat interesting, although I could have used a great deal more context.

I like the depictions of pregnancy and labor, such as this one about Sawérigading’s mother:

Three months after Batara Guru’s return,

Wé Datu Senngeng’s monthly bleeding ceased,

and strange cravings took hold of her,

all sorts of culinary cravings:

two-headed deer from the Kingdom of the Sky,

fleet-footed mousedeer from Senrijawa,

tanri flowers whose roots are in heaven,

but whose blooms drape into the Lower World;

twin coconuts from the sky’s edge,

rose apples from the spirit world,

fearsome fish with dagger spurs from Tawang Langi,

ring-necked deer from the Kingdom of the Sky,

and nutmeg from Ternate.

Los Angeles, 2005

Similarly, Wé Cudai “developed irrepressible cravings” for

twin coconuts from the distant shore,

hearts of gnats from Uriliu, at the bottom of the sea,

mosquito bellies from Toddattoja, in the Lower World,

tanri flowers that grew in the Kingdom in the Sky,

and fish from the Lower World.

These are definitely more exotic than any cravings I’ve ever experienced, but it must be said that the first inkling I had of my current pregnancy came from a sudden insatiable desire for tuna salad, which I don’t normally eat for ecological reasons, so these passages kind of rang true for me. Both women have difficult labors that require divine intercession. Clearly pregnancy cravings (to which the husbands cater by sending out birds to collect the foods, “with the threat that they would be pounded into flour/ should they be slowed by the strongest wind”) and labor pains are set pieces of Bugis epic poetry, but I think it’s nice that there is some focus on such things, which tend to be largely ignored in Western traditions.

San Francisco, 2017

Also this passage struck me as odd. It describes the moment when Sawérigading fells the Wélenréng tree to build a boat that will take him to meet I Wé Cudai:

And in that instant, the tree was felled;

Luwuk itself seemed to have fallen,

as the entire earth shook;

the thick jungle was flattened,

by the trunk of the Wélenréng tree;

seven coastal towns in Marakabo,

were swept away by a flood of broken eggs.

I have no idea where the eggs came from. Were they in the tree? On the ground beneath it? This is the only mention they get.

Anyway, it was interesting, it was a perspective from a different region and different cultural background of Indonesia than anything else I’d read, and I definitely want to go see that theater piece if I ever get the opportunity because it sounds kind of insane and kind of amazing.

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