Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Prediction and Prophecy

Early European visitors to Tahiti found that the people were skilled at the art of weather forecasting:

"What took me most in two Indians whom I carried from Otahiti to Oriayatea was that every evening or night, they told me, or prognosticated, the weather we should experience on the following day, as to wind, calms, rainfall, sunshine, sea, and other points, about which they never turned out to be wrong: a foreknowledge worthy to be envied, for, in spite of all that our navigators and cosmographers have observed and written about the subject, they have not mastered this accomplishment (B.G. Corney, (ed. )(1913-19) The Quest and Occupation of Tahiti by Emissaries of Spain during the Years 1772-6 (3 vols.), London, 286-287).

J.C. Beaglehole wrote regarding Tahitian weather prediction:

"The people excell much in predicting the weather, a circumstance of great use to them in their short voyages from Island to Island. They have many various ways of doing this but one only that I know of which I never heard of being practised by Europeans, that is foretelling the quarter of the heavens from whence the wind shall blow by observing the Milky Way, which is generally bent in an arch either one way or the other: this arch they conceive as already acted upon by the wind, which is the cause of its curving, and say that if the same curve continues a whole night the wind predicted by it seldom fails to come some time in the next day; and in this as well as their other predictions we found them indeed not infallible but far more clever than Europeans." (J.C. Beaglehole, (1962) Endeavour Journal Vol. I, 1768-1771, Sydney, p. 368)

Similar accounts of accurate weather forecasting are found in other parts of Polynesia and Micronesia.

The ability to forecast weather no doubt relied on a deep understanding of lunar, solar and other cycles and the way they interacted. This understanding of interaction between polar forces in weather extended by analogy from weather prediction to all cosmic phenomenon.

In binary divination, like the knot system of Micronesia, one gets answers in a form that represents some interaction of two dual forces. To the trained mind, the logical result from this representation can be interpreted.

Another way of predicting the future involved contact with spirits -- gods and ancestors. In the great clan war, the ancestors and friendly spirits were important allies in battle. They had a way of seeing that earthly beings ordinarily do not. The medium could be a woman as with the baylan of the Philippines, or a man. Possession by spirits often resulted in frenzied activity on the part of the medium or oracle.

The spiritual batttle can not go on without consulting the ancestors since they, after all, were the ones who would have started the whole thing. They would know things long since lost through the ravages of time.

Some people in all cultures were also said to be blessed with the gift of foresight. The Nusantao were no different. Probably this can be seen best in the messianic culture of present-day Java.

One hears about prophecies of the Ratu Adil "the King of Righteousness" and the Satria Piningit "Hidden Warrior" in everyday discourse, in news editorials and even in popular comic books and television cartoons. The words of popular or even street soothsayers often make front-page headlines.

Ratu Adil comic book

Messianic cults are first recorded back in the time of King Joyoboyo in the 11th century. His predictions on the future Ratu Adil have been used as a measuring stick in judging Indonesian history and current events.

Sociologists and pyschologists have speculated on humanity's need for future messiahs. Some say that millennial prophecies are borne of desperate times, but there are instances of doomsday prophets in even the most prosperous of societies.

I would propose that among the Nusantao, at least, prophecies were a way of showing that there was really something to their claims of a war between the angels of Heaven. It was a way of showing that they were not mad. In some cases, prophecies were made that would be fulfilled only long after the prophet was gone. One has to believe that they believed in their own abilities to foretell the future.

Painting of Rigden Drakpo from Nicholas Roerich Museum

Paul Kekai Manansala