Research and discussion paper

Priests and gender in South Sulawesi, Indonesia

Sharyn Graham, University of Western Australia

Copyright Sharyn Graham to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

Sharyn Graham is a PhD candidate in the Departments of Asian Studies and Anthrpology at the University of Western Australia studying with Dr Greg Acciaioli and Dr Lyn Parker. At October 2002 she is on a 6-month Huygen’s scholarship to study at the KITLV in the Netherlands with Dr Roger Tol and Sirtjo Koolhof.

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Uploaded 3/10/02

The bissu are imagined to be hermaphroditic beings who embody female and male elements. For anyone interested in the study of sex and gender, the Bugis offer an exceptionally rich canvas for research.

For the past few years I have been conducting anthropological research into ideas and forms of gender in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. While initially I was concerned with men and women, upon arrival I realised that gender in South Sulawesi is much more complex.

Among the Bugis of South Sulawesi, possibly four genders are acknowledged plus a fifth para-gender identity. In addition to male-men (oroane) and female-women (makunrai) [categories similar to those in Australia], there are calalai (masculine females), calabai (feminine males), and bissu. In this article, I will focus on bissu, who act as priests.

The Bugis, the largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi, have an incredibly rich oral history, as well as an extensive history of written material. If you were to ask someone in South Sulawesi how they imagine their world came to be, you would probably be told a narrative in which bissu play a central role.

You ask how this world came to be? Well let me tell you. Up there in the heavens, the gods decided they would bring life to this lonely planet. They therefore sent down one of their most aspiring deities, Batara Guru. But Batara Guru was not good at organising things. To do all of this, two bissu were needed. So the gods sent down two bissu who flanked Batara Guru as he descended. And when they arrived, the bissu set about making everything blossom; they created language, culture, customs [adat] and all of the things that a world needs if it is going to blossom. That’s how the world began, you see [Haj Bacco’]

In addition to the rich oral tradition of the Bugis, origin narratives have been recorded on lontar palm leaves since around the sixteenth century. One such recorded narrative tells of Sarawigading and WeCudai, the marriage of whom resulted in the birth of the first human on earth.

Sarawigading desperately wanted to marry with WeCudai but she lived on an island in the middle of the lake. Sarawigading had no way of getting to the middle of the lake but he knew he must. Sarawigading decided he must make a boat and paddle out to WeCudai. But how to make a boat? If only he could cut this massive tree down. But try as he might he was not powerful enough to do so. Sarawigading burst into frustrated tears and cried long into the night. He would never be able to cut down this tree and make a boat and he would never reach WeCudai. But there was a bissu in the heavens above heard Sarawigading cry. The bissu descended and said, "Please don’t worry, I will cut down the tree and help you make the boat." And the bissu cut down the tree because s/he had the strength of both man and woman, and mortal and deity.

What these origin narratives serve to demonstrate is that the bissu have a primary position in the minds of the Bugis in their imaginations of the past. Recourse to such important roles allows the bissu to assert and maintain a revered position in contemporary Bugis society.

So who are bissu? Bissu are imagined to be intersexed beings who embody female and male elements. While it is enough that one’s body is imagined intersexed, while often being anatomically male, bissu consciously dress in ways that highlight male and female characteristics. A bissu may carry a man’s badi’ (knife) but wear flowers in hir hair like a woman. Not only, however, do bissu have to combine female and male attributes, they must also combine human elements with spirit elements. It is essential that bissu have good connections with the spirit world in order to make contact with the gods. To do this, bissu must be part spirit (dewata). In order for them to be possessed by spirits – so they can thus bestow blessings – bissu must also be part human (manusia). In essence, then, bissu are female/male, deity/mortal beings, who can be, and often are, possessed by spirits in order to give blessings.

The main role of the bissu, then, is to bestow blessings. And blessings can be for just about anything. A bissu blessing is performed before planting rice and before harvesting; bissu consecrate marriages; and - what may seem ironic, but actually is not - bissu give blessings to people before they on the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. And the reason that this is not ironic is because of the way in which the Bugis have managed to syncretise pre-Islamic beliefs with Islam, which forbids transgendered behavior. For instance, before Islam the Bugis honoured a god called PaTotoe. Some Bugis believe that Allah is actually PaTotoe but by a different name. Moreover, while bissu still call to deities to possess them, they always begin by seeking the blessing and advice of Allah. Bissu have altered some of their practices, though, such as walking on fire because it is believed to be contrary to Islam.

How do bissu bestow blessings? In order to bestow a blessing, a bissu must be possessed by an appropriate deity. Only bissu can become possessed because only bissu are the required mix of mortal and deity, feminine and masculine. To awaken the deities, bissu first perform and elaborate ritual involving chanting, music, and the offering of ritual foods. Once the deities have been awakened, they select from among themselves which one is best able to offer the requested blessing. This deity will then descend and possess the bissu. The bissu will awaken from trance and their entire demeanor is different; they become irritable and aggressive. This change in demeanor is not enough, however, to convince the people gathered around, and more importantly, the person who has requested the blessing, that the bissu has now been possessed. Proof of possession is sought. In response to this challenge, the bissu must then perform the ma’giri, or self-stabbing. To perform this, a bissu will take a sacred kris (knife) which has been passed down through many generations of bissu, and attempt to penetrate their skin with the kris. Bissu will even go to the extent of lying on the floor with the kris pressed into their throat. Other places where the kris is aimed are the palm and temple.

If the kris does not penetrate the skin, the bissu is said to be kebal (impenetrable), and thus has proved hir invulnerability – a sure sign that the bissu has been possessed by a powerful spirit. The bissu host, and the deity who has possessed hir, are then able to offer blessings. If, however, the kris does not penetrate, the bissu is said to be possessed by a weak, impotent spirit, or no spirit at all, and is therefore not allowed to bestow blessings.

How do you become a bissu? It is believed that you are born with the propensity to become a bissu. Most auspiciously, this is revealed in a baby whose genitalia is ambiguous. Ambiguous genitalia is not enough to ensure that you become a bissu, however. Moreove, ambiguous genitalia need not be visible; a normative male who becomes a bissu is believed to be female on the inside. By the age of about twelve, if a child demonstrates a close connection with the spirit world, they are groomed to become a bissu. In the past, such a child would be apprenticed to the royal court. Nowadays, a child will become the apprentice of an individual bissu. After many years of training, an apprentice bissu will undergo a number of tests in order to become a bissu. This includes, among many other tests, lying on a bamboo raft in the middle of a lake for three days and three nights without eating, drinking or moving. If the apprentice survives this and wakes from the trance fluent in the sacred bissu language Basa Bissu or Bahasa Dewata (language of the gods), they are then accepted as a bissu.

A study of the bissu and their role and position in Bugis society has the potential to make some substantial contributions to our understanding of how different societies organise and interpret gender. Not all societies assert that there are just two genders, woman and man, attached respectively to two biological sexes, female and male. Some societies, such as the Bugis, acknowledge possibly four gender categories, in addition to a fifth para-gender group – the bissu. It is from Bugis that we can learn much about acceptance and respect for a panoply of gender identities.