Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Spirits Can Smell You

Illustration from Radcliffe-Brown's
The Andaman Islanders
Andaman islanders around 100 years ago lived in tropical forests and on the shore. They located their camps seasonally, according to what food was available: prey like turtles, wild pigs, and dugongs, and plants like yams and taro. In the forests, they believed, lived various spirits; some of these were what remained of dead people, and some were the controllers of natural phenomena like lightening, storms, earthquakes.

Between 1906 and 1908, anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown lived in the Andaman Islands which at the time belonged to British India. He reported his observations and interpretations of Andaman culture in the book The Andaman Islanders, published originally in 1922, and reissued several times since then. It's a fascinating classic study from what I believe to be the early days of anthropology, and I loved reading it. I was especially searching for information on aromas and odors and what they meant to the islanders -- a topic for which this book is noted. This blog post is based on my reading.

Forest spirits, like the islanders themselves, were extremely responsive to odors, and the islanders were very careful not to allow inappropriate odors to anger the spirits. In addition to being conscious of odors, the islanders were also highly aware of the colors of flowers and fish and of the changes in light and darkness at night and in the forest.

Radcliffe-Brown recorded many stories that illustrated the spirits' reactions to odors. One story concerned Pulaga, a spirit of wind, who caused violent storms that came from the sea. Pulaga hated the smell of burning wax from beehives where the islanders gathered honey. The smell or sight of burning wax could cause cyclones so violent that jungle trees could be uprooted for miles, destroying paths and hunting grounds. At times islanders also used techniques for burning wax to placate Pulaga and stop a storm. The season for gathering and burning wax was just before cyclone season, so Pulaga's behavior was somewhat predictable. (p. 153-157, 357)

Radcliffe-Brown writes of the ferocity of these storms:
"The wind is sometimes so violent as to tear every leaf from the trees in its path. While the storm lasts there is danger to the lives of the natives. An old man recounted to me how on the occasion of a violent cyclone he and the others of his village took refuge in the sea and on the open shore from the danger of falling trees, and remained there till the violence of the storm had abated. ... If a storm lasts for any length of time the natives, who are unable or afraid to go out hunting, have to do without food until it is over." (p. 352)
In early times, a spirit named Bilika had smelled the mouths of the islanders' ancestors to see if they had been eating his food. If he discovered the smell of his food he slit their throats. Another spirit named Nila could smell a human being who came near his tree and would come out and kill him with his knife. Smells were always associated with danger, magic, ancestors, and spirits. The smell of a certain red paint could cure disease, so a sick person would paint his upper lip in order to inhale the aroma. (pp. 200, 163, 268, 179)

Some spirits were especially sensitive to the smell of a particular green plant. A person who handled the plant or prepared it by scraping it while it was in contact with his thigh acquired its smell. This smell could cause him to get rheumatism. Also, a person who wanted to hunt sea turtles would avoid this plant as the turtles would be frightened by the smell. Other trees had helpful smells: one small tree's leaves could be used as a bed for a sick person; in inhaling the aromas of these leaves he would be cured. (p. 180-182, 268)

Spirits also reacted to cooking odors and body odors. Jungle spirits hated the smell of roasting pork, but didn't mind the smell of boiling pork. They could detect the odor of a person who had eaten either turtle or pork -- the smell was, in their view, a heated smell, and could be disguised or made unrecognizable by certain techniques of body painting with a special white clay that cooled off the person who had eaten the offensive food. (Radcliffe-Brown himself said he couldn't detect the difference in body odor of people who had eaten different meats.) (p. 161, 312)

The odor of the body was connected to the "virtue or energy of the person" and with manifestations of the food being eaten -- thus was a source of danger. Foods conveyed a variety of dangers to those who ate them; the most dangerous foods were dugong, a particular fish, certain snakes, and fats from several animals. Pork, turtle and turtle eggs and a few others were less dangerous. Vegetables were safest. (p. 312, 269)

The islanders were aware of many sensory variations in the seasons, which included hot seasons, a rainy season, and a season of cyclones. They named the seasons for the trees and plants that flower at that time. (p. 119)
"In the jungles of the Andamans it is possible to recognize a distinct succession of odours during a considerable part of the year as one after another the commoner trees and lianas come into flower. when, for example, the species of Sterculia called ... jeru comes into blossom it is almost impossible to get away from the smell of it except on the seashore when the wind is from the sea. Moreover these various flowers give their scent to the honey that is made from them, so that there is also a succession of differently flavoured kinds of honey. The Andamanese have therefore adopted an original method of marking the different periods of the year by means of the different odoriferous flowers that are in bloom at different times. Their calendar is a calendar of scents." (p. 311-312) 
Each season offered different foods, which contributed to the overall sensory perception of the seasons. When "important roots and some of the most prized fruits" were in season, during the cool season and the following hot time, the natives did not consider lizards, snakes and civet-cats to be in season; the pigs were breeding and thus also not eaten. Honey was abundant in the hot season. Jungle animals and fish were more plentiful in the rainy season when vegetables and honey were scarcer. Certain spirits were associated with these seasons, during which the winds blew predominantly from a particular direction. All these factors affected the way the islanders categorize and named their seasons. (p. 353)

Cultural variation in categories of aromas and perception of them are a topic of most writers who explore the topic of smells. Radcliffe-Brown gave a fascinating account of the aromatic and sensory world of the Andaman Islands and the people who lived there.


Jens Zorn said...

Thanks for this enlightening report!

Jeanie said...

This is a fascinating series, Mae. Lots of research going on and some wonderful observations. I'll look forward to more!