Ritual books known as pustaha were the notes written by Batak shamans learning the sacred mystical arts of their people. Typically written on tree bark with plant resin, these small books contained the notes a priest needed to perform the complex rituals associated with their station.
Among many Indonesian cultures, shamans—known as datu—were second only to chieftains, wielding just as much sway over the tribe of any given area. Learning from traditional teachers while adding the influence of their own observations, pustaha detail everything from magical formulas and legends to divinations and laws. Some of these books even contain the recipe for a malevolent curry that the Batak people would feed their enemies.
Datu were one of the few classes of people in Sumatra who were able to travel. While tribal warfare would prohibit most people from venturing far from their home village, datu were mostly left alone due to the ferocity of their magic. Young shamans would travel to seek wisdom and mysticism from all over, using pustaha to record their learning.
The core mythology of the Batak is that their god’s first creation was a magical chicken with an iron beak and braceleted claws. This chicken laid three eggs that eventually created deities that birthed humans. Because so many pustaha exist, the Batak’s religion is largely scattered and fluid. Since the arrival of Christian and Islamic missionaries, much of Batak culture has been lost.
Though these books do serve as a written record of Batak tradition, many remain untranslated. The Sumatrans didn’t have a complex writing system that was standardized across the island. The datu largely developed their own unique writing system using a combination of shorthand and Sanskrit-styled script that historians believe they borrowed from a neighboring Hindu nation. The writing system was only used by the priests to record rituals and other sacred knowledge. For this reason, some pustaha have proven untranslatable because they use a form of shorthand that was likely only ever known by individual priests.
Ethnographers and explorers in the early 1900s had access to living datu to explain much of the contents of these works, but were even noted by their contemporaries to find the texts difficult to translate and—in their words—”monotonous” in content.
Pustaha acted as the sacred texts of the datu, though each had their own hand-written collection. Some could be large tomes with a few pages, others were small and easily transported like the one shown here.
By writing their ritual on a piece of flexible wood, they were able to fold them up and use fish or animal bones as covers. Steeped in a tradition that revered divination, datu followed the careful instructions of pustaha in ceremonies that predicted good fortune.
While it may seem to be just a superstition to some, many of these rituals were used to make calendar measurements. Sometimes a good luck ritual could actually be a way for determining if the weather and season were suitable for planting. Other rituals were more simply a checklist for diagnosis and treatment of disease.
Though the pustaha in the Ripley collection is untranslated, it does depict two central figures in the Batak religion: the rooster and the scorpion. Roosters were used in many datu divination rituals. Sometimes they would be cut open and omens were read from their intestines. Another ritual involved mortally wounding a chicken, then placing it under a basket until it did not move. The bird’s death state in relation to the compass rose would determine the omen. The passage of seasons was dictated by a giant snake-like dragon in the sky, and the new year was heralded by the scorpion. The presence of these three figures in our text means it is likely instructions for some form of divination.