September 22, 2008

La Galigo, Odyssey, Buendia Family

Sawerigading in the Buginese epic purportedly by I La Galigo, and Odysseus in the Greek epic ascribed to Homer — they do not merely ride the waves blazing the world around. They both weave a universe, constructed on the scale of human understanding.

La Galigo old manuscript. Photo: Nurhayati Rahman

Comprised of around 3000, 000 verse lines in an archaic  esoteric Buginese language with various framed stories, La Galigo, or Sureq (manuscript) Galigo, is one of the biggest literary works in the world.  And certainly with the one-thousand-years-old Kyrgizstan epic, Manas, and with the 120 volumes Chinese novel, The Red Room Fantasy (Hung Lou Meng) ‘by’ Cao Xueqin and Gao E  written in Manchu Dynasty Era in Mid 18th century, Sureq Galigo is one of the longest classical manuscripts ever made by human.

If judged merely by the verses count, Sureq Galigo outnumbers the grandest India subcontinent epic commonly regarded as the longest in the world: Mahabharata. Yet length does not necessarily imply the prowess of a writing, except probably the stamina of its composer(s).

Epic poem differs from other long narrative verses for its spectacular horizon. Epic, to quote Ian Johnston, Research Associate at Malaspina University-College, British Columbia, Canada,  signifies a quality offered by poems in the form of expedition or celebration on something far bigger than its characters or special places described within. To the readers to whom it lives for and enlivens by, an epic presents a worldview, a sense of cultural completeness.

Ian Johnston is right upon reviewing Dante’s epic La Divina Commedia and comments that as we read through the work (epic poem’s verses), we experience the exploration of some big questions about individual and social purpose, about a system of belief, often about the past traditions and future possibilities — about the major things with which we define a culture.


Once upon a time, Sawerigading, the crown prince of Luwuq, visited his grandparent’s grave in Tompoq Tikkaq (Sunrise) Kingdom. There he was told of the biggest secret of his parents kingdom. In the forbidden area of the royal palace, lived an extremely beautiful girl who dressed up recklessly and spent all of her time bathing and talking to all kind of birds: a female heaven being temporarily inserted down into the Middle World.

Sawerigading tried every way conceivable  to get himself into the forbidden place. At the moment he set eyes on the girl, he felt his soul flew off him. He instantly fell in love to the girl that eventually turned out to be his own twin, We Tenriabeng, the most intelligent creature in the Buginese Cosmology. Sawerigading actually  had married to several wives. A grand gambler who fancied cock fighting, the young prince was a lady chaser willing to go through hell to get what he wanted. He once fell in love with a dead princess whose soul had been sent down to the Underworld. He called for his whole army then heavily launched an attack to the forbidden world of the dead and ransacked the place to take his lover’s soul back from gods’ hands.

Knowing he could not marry his own sister, Sawerigading took off from Luwuq. To ease his mind and tame his passions to his sister, this handsome and romantic prince intended to take pleasure from conquering the whole oceans of the world. As his fleet started to part the ocean, a message arrived from his longing parents. To the parents he again begged to marry a princess to whom he had shared a womb. The hopeless parents, they were even angrily spitted on the faces once, could only say that incest was a taboo, a condemned. The kingdom would shamble, rice turned to coarse grass and sago to mud. Batara Lattuq the King then sent for  a very old man, as ancient as the first human, to reveal the consequences of incest: world devastation, and starvation reigning all over the horizon. Perhaps due to his old age, or Sawerigading was much too generous in punching the ancient body, the old wise man fell fainted. As to put and end to a history that condemns incest, Sawerigading beheaded him.

Many more idiosyncratic madness, like having all Luwuq youngsters roasted mercilessly under the heat of the sun for days, hoping that they will also feel and share the pain Sawerigading bore, were still taking place before his twin sister arrived. We Tenriabeng, the young bissu[1] brighter even than gods, tried hard to face his brother who was more devilish than devil himself. Each and every cosmic explanation of incest taboo and the news from the North about a Chinese princess prettier than We Tenriabeng herself, could not break into his stone-hard skull that keep urging to marry her. Half in exasperation, We Tanriabeng who almost fall into her brother’s unreserved love, showed images of I We Cudaiq, the Chinese Princess, on her fingernails. She then asked him to lie down and  she blew into his head a kind of dream. This erotic dream — within which Sawerigading managed to have a fierce passions play under a piece of sarong with I We Cudaiq — seemed to work, although not altogether. We Tenriabeng then made a vow, if I We Cudaiq is not more beautiful than her, Sawerigading may turn back. The twin sister will accept her brother proposition, and “ … we tumble the sky, we reverse gods’ rules, we bury the moon, stepping over taboos, to be wed as siblings lovers”.

The King of Ithaca

Big preparations were made for Sawerigading departure to the China land, a voyage morally and existentially equals to the Greek leader and Ithaca King Odysseus journey which took ten years before reaching home  back from the great devastating Trojan War. The Buginese fleet did not indeed meet Lotopagans the lotus-eaters, the beastly one-eyed giant Polifemus, Eolus the King of Wind, the beautiful sorcerer Sirse capable to turn men to hogs, nor Sirine whose chants could be very devastating. Imaginations of ghosts and sea monsters that had influenced western consciousness and left visible tracks on world maps until around one hundred years after Columbus discovered America, are not exactly the kind you will easily find in Buginese consciousness.

In Sureq Galigo, based on thousand years of maritime experiences and first ascribed around two centuries before the first European community’s presence in Nusantara archipelago, there were no such grotesque ghosts and scary monsters that usually sprang from a mixture of grandiose imaginations and archaic fear. On the vast tapestry of waves to China, Sawerigading’s fleet faced real human enemies, all conquered in seven large-scale oceanic battles. The first was encountered on the seventh day from his departure from Luwuq shore, a land he swore never to return to, taking his self-exile as redemption for shames he had brought into his parents kingdom.

Mancapaiq (Majapahit) armada, led by Bannyaq Paguling, fought fiercely in the beginning. His defeat was marked by the mutilation of his head. The next fierce attacks came from armadas led by La Tuppu Soloq, La Tuppu Gellang, La Togeng Tana and La Tenripulang. The sixth attack by La Tenrinyiwiq armada was so hard that Sawerigading had to ask the assistance of his twin sister in Heaven. Just as Remedios The beauty in One Hundred Years of Solitude, We Tanriabeng at that time had been elevated to the sky by way of thunder and lightning. In the last battle, fate brought Settia Bonga Lompeng Ri Jawa Olioqe, who had been engaged for three years to I We Cudaiq, the lady Sawerigading intended to marry. Settia Bonga and his escorts were defeated and sent home.

As morning broke over the China Empire, the China Empress saw another sun gliding in front of the uprising sun in the horizon. The other sun turned out to be I La Welenreng, Sawerigading’s main battleship trying to reach ashore. When Odysseus was stranded beggarly on his own land, he still had to face numerous trials and a winding maze of obstacles to be able to regain his throne and win back Penelope’s heart, his faithful dear Queen. So had Sawerigading who after many disputes and misunderstandings ended up with staging a demolition war in his last efforts to lead I We Cudaiq to a holy matrimony.

Even after the wedding, Sawerigading still had to trail his way through a labyrinth to win I We Cudaiq’s heart. In the center of the labyrinth, for full seven days the Chinese princess wore a pair of trousers sewn tightly on both ends, as with Ursula Iguaran’s method not to be raped by her stout and wilful husband Jose Arcadio Buendia. In another version, I we Cudaiq wrapped herself up like a giant butterfly cocoon with seven layers of Gods’ silk. Her heart opened up neither by physical prowess nor material gifts, but by nouns and verbs: fiction — vast arrays of prose and poems composed by Sawerigading’s mighty power of imagination, inspired by his wondrous journeys through numerous ocean of the entire known world.

Remarking on The Dialectics of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer that traces western modernity to its roots and upraise Odysseus as the protagonist, Jurgen Habermas wrote that Odyssey episodes were filled with tales of danger, treasons and self escapades, by which the ego — after learning many things to overcome danger — discovered its true self and achieved contentment through the ultimate unity of the inner and the outer cosmos. The same thing applies to Sawerigading episode in his journey from Luwuq to the very core of The Chinese Emperor Palace. What immediately surface from this plot are great struggles of subjectivity. In Odysseus’ case it is to free himself from the charms of mythical temptations, while in Sawerigading from the urges to conquer the wilderness of the ocean, enemies armadas and his own materialistic prowess: ‘the history’ of the character.

Odysseus mythical world and Sawerigading’s non-mythical are complex labyrinths to be traced before one discovers his true self, his subjectivity. This search may be triggered by different motives, even conflicting ones. As narrated in the fifth book, on Calypso Island, Odysseus longed for a homeland he loved more than eternity and heavenly life with a goddess. This was barely an absurdity to Sawerigading. For a goddess, not only he was willing to leave his land of birth: he did not even care if his homeland turned into a mess and its people were cursed to extinction.

So very important is the search for subjectivity hence Odysseus and Sawerigading tales were not concluded with contentment, let alone eternal mystical tranquility. After regaining Ithaca and Penelope, Odysseus was again restless with his burning passion for adventures. Almost twenty six centuries after Homer purportedly composed Iliad and Odyssey, Alfred Tennyson revived Odysseus burning adventuring passions for the sake of adventure itself in the long verses of Ulysses (1842).

Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in the old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal-temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


It did not take long for Sawerigading to eventually left China. Whereas I We Cudaiq rejected the child from her own womb, Sawerigading was back slicing the waves in a new stage of his life: to guard and support his successors to grow and finally to travel on their own in establishing each and everyone’s subjectivity.

In Sureq Galigo, subjectivity is an inseparable part of forming a grand family: a society. The persistence of incest taboo throughout the entire epic indicates it, among others. Incest taboo, as we know, is  a screening layer, directing and distributing the genetic current from one generation to the next. As pointed by Octavio Paz in his comments on Claude Levi-Strauss’ works, incest taboo performs intermediary and differentiation functions — to differentiate, to select, and to combine so as to make sexual relations to be a system of meaning or signification. A scheme, ‘by which and within which occurs transitions from bestial sexuality into human marital system’. As with language, incest taboo directs and establishes society. Behind the universal taboo lies unconscious practice of human mind and heart, which may not be  logically unfounded, yet enables: human to be human.

The incest theme relates Sureq Galigo with the grandest Latin American novel, referred by Pablo Neruda as the biggest revelation in Spanish after Don Quixote: One Hundred Years of Solitude. The epic on the Buginese first ancestors retold through at least seven generations, whereas Sawerigading at the fourth. Gabriel Garcia Marquez narrates the story of six generations of Buendia family, initiated from a village in Latin America, a spread of heavenly land without history where death had never visited before.  Jose Arcadio Buendia, the patriarch of the new heavenly settlement, called it Macondo, the city of mirrors or mirages, an innocent and idyllic community, with no sense of history or no particular political reason for being there. Macondo: a name that Jose Arcadio Buendia had never heard, that had no known meaning at all, but had a supernatural echo from his dream.

Solitude, as concluded by Ian Johnston, can be segmented into four major parts: social harmony and utopia purity, military heroism and the struggles for autonomy, economic welfare and spiritual decadence, the ultimate decadence and the grand devastation. Simple plot as it is: from Eden to Armageddon, this novel is full of miracles and unimaginable characters, so extraordinary as to alienate linearity and simplicity.

Sureq Galigo began with the fury of Patotoqe (The God of Fate), the ultimate deity in the highest heaven. Thousands of his fighting cocks were neglected. Turned out all of the keepers was away visiting the empty world. Upon returning they proposed the ultimate deity to fill the world with life. With that report, this epic verse initiates and expands a cognitive universe resembling a gigantic ship for the Buginese world to live through the ocean of time.

Patotoqe eldest son, La Togeq Langiq also known as Batara Guru, was sent to the middle world to be the first human. As he wandered and searched for love and soul mate, he created mountains, oceans, various birds, other animals and plants. He still had to face many trials to pass as a true world inhabitant. His would be bride, We Nyiliq Timoq, the eldest children of the God of the Underworld, arrived and came into being by the ripples of the East Ocean waves, an image with close resembling to Sandro Botticelli famous painting on the birth of Venus.

From the marriage preceded by a power battle between Batara Guru and We Nyiliq Timoq, from the copulation of the upper world and the underworld, Batara Lattuq — later to become Sawerigading’s father— was born.

A sibling of Batara Lattuq from different mother namely We Oddang Riuq passed away seven days after birth, thrusting a deep pain into the hart of her parents that after several days turned into an unbearable longing. Similar to Goenawan Mohamad’s imagery on a dying infant who asked for a poem to be blown into his lung, from We Oddang Riuq’s grave grew  yellowing plants in five nuances of color spreading to the entire hills and valleys. Her body had transformed into rice, which will feed human for thousands of years to come.

Since Batara Lattuq generation,  incest discourse started surfacing vividly. This patriarch of Luwuq took a role similar to Ursula Iguaran, the matriarch of Macondo who spent over a hundred years of her life to ensure incest does not occur throughout Buendia family.

Incest indeed would never leads to the end of the world, that was the understanding of Buendia ancestors, but to the birth of pig-tailed children. But Buendia men as daring as Sawerigading, never cared if incest will bear iguanas, armadillos or pig-tailed children, as long as they can  talk. From this special breed of parents, born among others one dedicated child so obedient that later aggressively lead 32 battles without even  winning a single victory, yet made his name be identified with bloody revolt and mythic warrior. A soldier of Colonel Aureliano Buendia asserted the objective of the long struggles to freedom: “we’re fighting this war against the priests so that a person can marry his own mother.”

The Similarities

The indifference to incest impacts and the insistence to prevent it from happening are only superficial similarity between Sureq Galigo and Solitude. The more in-depth similarity is the intertwining of the linear historical-chronological time with the non-linear time of life, as a smooth tapestry of the perpetual cyclical time and the imaginary time where the past, the present, and the future altogether present. In Physics, it is encountered in the struggles between the thermodinamic-entrophic time which finally ends up at  singularity or total destruction, and the evolutionary-negenthropic time that allows the formation of life and intelligent structures with ever-increasing level of complexity. (In the word of Carlos Fuentes in his introduction “Garcia Marquez: The Second Reading“: the chronological history runs simultaneously as a mythic historicity.)

The basic structure of Sureq Galigo is grand marriages that gave birth to golden twin, where the daughter will eventually be elevated to the sky becoming the vertical axes of heaven and earth. Whereas the son, destined to travel horizontally to every site under the stars to spread a new greater universe, wedded in grand marriage that later gave birth to another golden twin. Sawerigading story then was repeated by his son, I La Galigo To Botoq. Overall, although played only a small part, I La Galigo’s actions and boldness were far more colorful and frightening.

Solitude is deeply colored by recurrent appearances of love, solitude, affair and death, over and over. The similar characters and destinies replicated in the next generations, with the similar names as their ancestors. As told by the matriarch herself that while the Aurelianos were withdrawn but with lucid minds, the Jose Arcadios were impulsive and enterprising, but marked with a tragic sign. History had the ability to actually redirect those basic fate, but not afar. It pushed Colonel Aurelino Buendia to be a powerful anarchist soldier who command the whole army and frightened the goverment, but unable to prevent him from returning to pathological solitude late in his life. The anarchy, climaxed when he brought a platoon of escorts and a piece of chalk wherever he went, to draw a line between him and the rest of humanity, including even Ursula Iguaran, strongly underlines his loneliness.

That basic destiny reappeared in Aureliano Babilonia Buendia. Born from a father who could not keep his mouth shut and always surrounded by yellow butterflies, Aureliano Babilonia was the most knowledgeable person in Macondo. When he read, it was only to confirm what he already knew, not to learn anything new. Everything is understood, said the ‘cannibalistic’ sober who knew nothing of the contemporary world outside his door, yet possessed every amazing information of the Middle Age, of everything  and anything but himself: his very own history. Later it was love that conquered his unlimited possession of knowledge. And loneliness exploded his hilarity until he runs through the house and used his genital, as magnificent as his brain, to balance beer bottles.

It was on Aurelino Babilonia that incest eventually occurred. The incident resembled him to the legendary personage who tragically committed incest with his mother, the savior of Thebes blessed with a sharp concise mind to be able to solve Sphinx’s paradox: Oedipus. And when a pig-tailed child was born, exactly as predicated by Melquiades, all of the ants in the whole world dragged the baby away from the decaying paradise. A storm full of voices from the past, sighs of disenchantment that preceded the most tenacious nostalgia, destroyed Macondo, eradicating completely the city of mirrors (or mirages) from human memory. Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

At a glance, Solitude is indeed an affirmation to fatalism. In strange ways the characters, one after another, if not disappeared then died after undergoing mental devastation. It is thus Marquez’s sharp humour and genius in story-telling that actually enlivens  Macondo in readers’ imaginations. The history of Macondo is as hard and as dark as a lump of rock. But the amazing characters and their behaviors transformed the rock as if it is undertaken by colorful moss: life; a planet earth within the vastness of the galaxy.

Macondo is indeed a metaphor for Latin America 500 years of history: one discovered when Antonio Pigafetta noted with awe a heavenly continent that was beyond even the wildest European fantasy, which was not occupied by gods, yet later to witness the bloody attacks from the conqueror and hundreds years of colonialism, which turned it into hell. Then splinters of the prolonged Civil War came about along with invasion of capitalism and modern European lifestyle. A history terribly marred with exploitation and invasion is a history that must destroy itself to eventually, as a phoenix, rising from its ashes of ruins.

Sureq Galigo, on the other hand, is a metaphor for thousands years of formation, that is, of life and a society trying to get away from a big northern continent and probably the one in the east, to manage living at the tip of the ocean waves, learning to anchor roots on the islands before the dawn of a realization that the boundless ocean with its merciless storms was actually the right place for a self actualization. Lands were only stopovers for beginners and the elderly to allow the mightiness of the ocean storms exercising their rights in the regular cycles of seasons. The history that was started thousands years ago, submerged for another hundreds of years to burst when the maritime kingdoms were strong enough to support it, still showed their vivacity when Antonio Pigafetta boarded Magellan’s Victoria, commanded by Sebastian de Elcano entered Nusantara to bring home to Europe the most fascinating goods in the world.

Among major ethno linguistic groups in the world, the big family of Nusantara occupies the world’s biggest geographical territory before the modern era. Also known as Malay-Polynesian and Austronesian among western researchers, it covered around 60% of the earth circumference, spanning from Madagascar to Rapa-Nui (Easter Island), the most remote island in the world full of megalithic menhirs. It is said that the first ancestor of Rapa-Nui was called Hotu Matu’a, the Godparent. In Buginese, the same meaning is signified by the word To Matoa. From north to south, Nusantara family covers Taiwan, Hawaii (from ‘Hava-iki’, or ‘Minor Java’) Islands all the way to New Zealand. Outside of these core territories, others were often visited, including most part of Indonesian Ocean to East African shores, and Pacific Ocean to South America. Until now, as noted by the Dutch anthropologist Wijn Sargent, communication is still possible between Bajo sailors in Indonesia with Bajo sailors who reached Argentina.

The maritime voyages by the main protagonists in Sureq Galigo do not indeed extend far to the east, to Columbia or Chile for instance. Their geographical frontier covered South East Asia only. Several names in the epic full of protagonists sounded like they were taken during maritime adventures far to the west: the Indian subcontinent and Arabian Peninsula. In the time when Sureq Galigo was first ascribed, the 14th century, Nusantara was surrounded by the Ming Dynasty recently resurrecting from ruins of Yuan dynasty in the north, the Mogul Sultanate living in the middle of remnants of Gupta dynasty and Hindu Buddha teachings in Indian subcontinent, and the Usmani Empire rising from the ruins of Abbasiah caliphate around Arabia. These major continent-based cultures were The Others for the maritime-based Nusantara.

Along with the agriculture-based Majapahit in the south, these continent dynasties were enemies as well as sources of inspiration for the Bugineses. Like a giant sponge, the Bugines absorbed all they could get from outside, defining the existence of those entities in marriages or ocean warfare, or gambling which was no other than a metaphor for a test of intelligence and guts. Buginese ships traveling almost one third of earth’s circumference, did not only bring home merchandise or pirated goods, but also carried home ideas, images, metaphors, all used and discerned to develop a symbolic universe.

Bugis was on the peaks of its growth at the time, had not seen any way down. This zestful newly bloomed culture praised highly the adventures to spread wide as Diasporas sprouting on newly founded shores. It was not too old to force itself to consider death, to contemplate on and exploring its every corner. Death indeed surfaced in Sureq Galigo, only to be denied later, or to fertilize new being: We Oddang Riuq’s death, brutal warfare acted as in a majestic celebration to perish the inhabitants of the heaven, sacrifice rituals of the bissus for the advent of future generations of the ruler of the world. All of those dead bissus and warriors, even the enemies’, would be made to live again. Even those already turned into ghosts could be visited, at times were asked to join battles, as if they only migrated to the other side of the horizon with still afresh smell of raw soil of shores.

In short, Sureq Galigo is a celebration of life. A celebration of a young world with its vast spread of ocean that never tell a lie, that always faithfully opens opportunities to sip on the eternity of silence’s last moment before storm; infinite horizon often stared with misty eyes.

Octavio Paz have tried to show how myths communicate, civilizations talk to each other, without the consciousness of the people who invented and developed them. The firm definition of syntactic mythological classifications from America, later to be interlaced with other systems from Indo-European nations, Oceania, African and Mongolian in Asia, were used to base his way to the conclusion of inter-myths communications. A firm syntactic and mythological analysis of Sureq Galigo, then to relate it to Odyssey and Solitude, is beyond this article. Enough to say that those three works showed a Universality. And it is not merely logical universality, ‘logic’ as in broader meaning than a mere critical logic: logic that work with plurality of metaphors, a kind of universal work system of human spirit, expressing exactly the same thing.

Marquez has his own term for that universality: the persistent advantage of life over death. In his Nobel inauguration speech, by quoting Faulkner who denied the end of Human, Marquez spoke of that universality, and of the creation of a new and grandeur utopia of Life, where even a races condemned to hundred years of solitude has the second chance on the face of earth.

Logic and life universality makes the extremely long Sureq Galigo tantamount to the first episodes of Solitude, the king of Ithaca journey an excerpt from the mid sections of Sureq Galigo, whereas the Macondo destruction and Marquez’  Nobel Lecture is similar to Sawerigading’s and Odysseus’ calling for new adventures. In the recent readings on Mathematics of Complexity, such a structure within another structure is known as the subject of study of fractal geometry, with the best example of Set Mandelbrot; a super fractal representing some of the characteristics of the universe and life. As for Sureq Galigo, so much driven by the wind of the society growth and development that it went in circles weaving a long and detailed tapestry, as if when someday the Bugis world ceased to exist from the face of the earth, it can be recreated solely by the epic poem itself.

Sureq Galigo, was really of central concern to all members of Bugis society. As Sirtjo Koolhof wrote in Bijdragen Journal, Sureq Galigo provided the society with the necessary knowledge to function adequately and was the binding factor among its members. The ancestors depicted in it provided the exemplary behavior and way of thinking to be mirrored by their descendants. But the reverse was also true: the fluidity of the tradition made it possible for the ancestors to mirror their descendants. Every important change circumstances could be integrated in the encyclopedia, thus assuring the Bugis that the way they lived was in accordance with the way of the ancestors. A system of ‘continuous revision’ which the Encyclopedia Britannica only began to apply after its fourteenth edition in 1929.

Woman Power

R.A. Kern have tried to summarize this epic poem, resulting in a  form of a catalogue raisonne of 1027 pages. Christian Pelras noted that Kern’s summary consisted of 1356 pages, condensed from 113 manuscripts around 31500 pages in all. The grand work initially introduced to the west by T.S. Raffles in The History of Java (1817) was never narrated fully from the beginning to its end: only certain parts were read and sung during specific ceremonies. There were efforts to transcribe this Sureq from Bugis psyche and memory into manuscripts written on prepared leaves of the lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer L.), with lontar alphabets, since six centuries ago, resulting in fragments of episodes, each according to its own version, compiled in hundreds compilations scattered throughout various libraries in Indonesia and overseas. The most complete compilation was done by a noble lady Colliq Puji, Arung Pancana Toa from Tanete Kingdom upon the request from B.F. Matthew in the mid of the nineteenth century. Consisted of 12 volumes, this manuscript is estimated to cover only one third of the original story.

The fact that the most intelligent creature in the Galigo cosmos and the scriber of the text itself were women, and that other than the royal family members only women held keys to this great manuscript, led me once to imagine that the main authority behind this seemingly very masculine toned epic was not male. I imagined it similar with Jorge Luis Borges imagined Don Quixote’s Pierre Menard. Even if the women did not play central part in La Galigo creation as Jesus in Christianity, they probably partaken a position similar to Peter, the second most important personage who institutionalized Christ’s inspirations. This was not impossible, considering the high position women earned in Bugis-Macassar universe, centuries before  the patriarchal monotheism first landed on its shores.

Epic verse, said to be the highest achievement to be aspired by a poet, does live to symbolize the consciousness of an era, to summarize the  values held by the people and provide something all-encompassing about its culture. Decorated by heroic actions and characters appraised by the era it enlivened, epic is a form of poetry that very carefully instill history in itself, and then to go beyond history through mythical imagination which surely  theological in dimension. And mere glimpses of women similar to Hypathia from The Library and Alexandria Museum who woked behind the heroic Sureq Galigo composition and transmission already showed an amazing picture of how one form of an ‘archaic feminism’ has very amazingly performed cognitive engineering beyond merely creating a world within which each and every physical dimension is instilled with moral and spiritual order.

There is a possibility that the ultimate version of Sureq Galigo, one that is  imagined ever coherent, as with the first text of ‘pre-Babel-Tower’, solid before  being splintered in time, will never be formed until the end of the world. Kern synopsis does show that it, quoting Sirtjo Koolhof, is a core of basic narrative  condensed from a set of relatively consistent episodes. The details of the story and all the possibilities emerging between the openings and closing of the Sureq Galigo however are really  almost unlimited. This state of no limits creates an empty ocean awaiting grand scale adventures, with which the manuscript  would be misread, creatively betrayed, enriched as wide and as deep as human psyche and untamed imagination can drive.***

Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka


  1. Fachruddin, A. E. 1983. Ritumpanna Wélenrénngé: Telaah Filologis Sebuah Episode Sastra Bugis Klasik Galigo. Ph.D. thesis. Jakarta: University of Indonesia.
  2. Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. 1970. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated from Spanish into English by Gregory Rabassa. England: Penguin Books. Introduction by Carlos Fuentes.
  3. Homer. 1997. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagels; Introduction by Bernard Knox. USA: Penguin Books.
  4. Johnston, Ian at
  5. Kern, R.A. 1989. I La Galigo: Cerita Bugis Kuno. KITLV-LIPI Translation Series. Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press.
  6. Koolhof, Sirtjo. 1999a. Diversity in Unity: The Language of Tradition in the La Galigo. Paper for the Simposium Internasional Pernaskahan Nusantara “Tradisi Tulis Nusantara Menjelang Milenium III”. Jakarta, 12 – 13 October 1999.
  7. Koolhof, Sirtjo. 1999b. The La Galigo: A Bugis Encyclopedia and its Growth. Bijdragen. Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania. Nederland: KITLV
  8. Pelras, Christian. 1996. The Bugis. Oxford / Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blacwell. [The Peoples of South-East Asia and The Pacific].
  9. Rahman, Nurhayati. 1998. Sompeqna Sawerigading Lao ri Tana Cina. (Episode Pelayaran Sawerigading ke Tanah Cina). Ph.D. thesis. Jakarta: University of Indonesia. [Sawerigading’s Odyssey to China Land].
  10. Salim, Muhammad, et al. (eds). 1995. I La Galigo Menurut Naskah NBG 188 Yang Disusun oleh Arung Pancana Toa. Introduction by Sirtjo Koolhof. Volume 1. Jakarta: Djambatan.


For comments on an earlier draft, I am grateful to Sirtjo Koolhof from The University of Leiden and KITLV Press, the Netherlands.

A shorter version without footnotes and reference was published in Indonesian Language in KOMPAS — Millennium Edition, January 1, 2000, under the title La Galigo, Odisei, Trah Buendia. Republished as a chapter in JB Kristanto (ed.). 2000. I000 Tahun Nusantara (1000 Years of The Archipelago). Jakarta: KOMPAS.

[1] Bissu is spiritual figure, possesor of sacred knowledge. Bissu is derived from Sanskrit word refers to Budhist priest.

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