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Writing and translating Timorese oral tradition*

Escrever e Traduzir a Tradição Oral Timorense
Écriture et traduction de la tradition orale timoraise
Vicente Paulino
p. 79-98


Este trabalho examina a tradição oral e a evolução do conceito de escrita na sociedade timorense, tendo em vista a compreensão da identidade histórica e cultural de Timor- -Leste. Uma vez que não é possível resolver todos os problemas relacionados com os temas mencionados, avaliamos e sintetizamos o que nós consideramos fundamental para a consolidação da história do povo de Timor Leste, em aspetos relacionados com a tradução de tradições orais e a origem da escrita.

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1Following a historical perspective, the term “text” binds “to a set of institu­tions: law, church, literature, education. The text is a moral subject and it is the written itself as part of the social contract. It demands observation and respect, but in return it endows the language with a rare trademark, which it did not possess: its irrevocability. As Mallarme wrote: ‘It happens alone: ‘done it is’, so as to say a definite ‘being there’ while the oral narrative always comes as a ‘been there’ (Barthes & Marty, 1987:55), and as, also, warns us J. Burrow (1982: 47):

2The normal thing to do with a written literary text, that is, was to perform it, by reading or chanting it aloud. Reading was a kind of performance. Even the solitary reader most often read aloud, or at least muttered, the words of this text – performing it to himself, as it were – and most reading was not solitary. The per­formance of a text was most often a social occasion. These occasions took many forms, depending upon the social setting and the nature of the text.

3The relationship between the written and the oral text can be summed up as: “the written works in relation to that, which is identical, the oral in relation to the other; the relationship with the identical, the repetition, the re-enunciation the reader does during the act of reading; the relationship with others, oral communication that originates from change, through the produced deviation by the presence of another one” (Barthes & Marty, 1987:49). That is, for example, in the Middle Ages the “written work” was read or narrated by an individual and, at the same time, heard by one or more individuals and recorded in memory, thus giving another version of the term called “aurality”. Aurality means that someone reads the text in the public sphere and others hear it:

Aurality, in particular, combined the two poles of ‘orality’ and ‘literacy’ in a unique way whose implications cannot properly be perceived if most of the critical energy is devoted to pulling aurality into line with a superimposed Great Divide. Aurality is distinguished from ‘orality’ – i.e., from a tradition based on the oral performance of bards or minstrel – by its dependence on a written text as the source of the public reading (Coleman, 1996: 27-28)

4Orality and writing are very restricted, they had been at the service of the Enlightenment arguments of the bourgeois public sphere to spread in more light and reason; since the invention of Guttenberg, the book comes as a “new secular and dreaded cure of souls” (cf. Ayala, 1984); herein, disclosure in writ­ing discourse of the Enlightenment arguments follows the same path. However, speech and writing are tools for communication in our current society and therefore, men have them much into account in their communication with other human beings.

5Taking into consideration these arguments on such assumptions, trying to understand origins, characteristics and evolution of the orality and writing phenomena in East Timor seems unreasonable, without resorting to the con­tribution to history narrated by rituals authorities and the texts of Portuguese literary authors, who among others contributed to restore Timorese oral cul­tures in written texts. This estimable contribution to the understanding of the central issues of Timorese oral cultures in written texts is an issue of pride and, at the same time, a challenge.

6Concerning the Timorese writing, its symbols, the distributions of signals like putting rocks, branches of plants or trees along the way are considered writing, as the Timorese wisely say ‘these symbols and these signs are our writing’.

1. Oral tradition in Timorese society

7“Culture is the memory of a people that never dies – A cultura é a memória de um povo que não morre”

8(Manifesto Maubere, Fernando Sylvan)

In a society without a writing system, where the use of the written form is unnecessary, oral language has been used as the instrument of communica­tion processes. Oral expressions have been used to identify the existence of an observed object immediately. In the society’s oral tradition – as in the case of Timorese society, or other African societies, or in the Asian region, or even of Latin America region – words are directly linked to events, meetings and things that take place. Societies without a written culture referred as “oral tradition corporations”, or what Malinowski described as “primitive”, their communi­cation system concern more the immediate action rather than transmitting a thought into writing.

9The word carries the memory of the testimony of human existence, the ontological power of speech that the name does exist, the transmission of values and prohibitions governing the societies. The Word given by God, the Word is Divine and is simultaneously sacred because it is through the myth of man’s origin that it is maintained, a copy recreation, as a privileged instrument that ensures the ab origine ad eternum (at the beginning to eternity).

10In oral cultures, words have great power over things, a power that is greatly related to magic. For example, in Timorese society, oral tradition still weighs heavily and every spoken word is associated with the ritualized world of things. We can infer then, the enormous value and functional importance of orality in all areas of everyday life in East Timor, both in the pre-colonial context, characterized by a strong traditional understanding, or even after the changes resulting from the colonial contacts and even post-colonial.

11For the Timorese world, oral tradition played a key role in the develop­ment of its literary language. The anthology of Timorese legends, myths and folk tales, was first collected and collated by Ezequiel Enes Pascoal (1967), Eduardo dos Santos (1967) and Correia de Campos (1967). In the ontology of these authors, we can find the importance of myths and symbols conveyed by oral tradition in the genesis of a collective imagination, particularly with regards to the origins of the different Timorese peoples. East Timor is unu­sually rich in oral traditions – legends, myths and stories – and it indicates a consciousness of an ancient community.

12It is not surprising that the oral tradition of East Timor, its legends, myths and folk tales have their realistic interpretation, more or less in accordance with what will be explained in some of them, thus leaving the cues for the interpretation of all the others so plentiful in the island. But for the readers convenience, some legends that have historical facts can be already mentioned, including “Os Irmãos Páran – The Brothers Páran”1, the “Mulher Cacatua – Women Cacatua” and the “As Sete Irmãs Cetáceas – Seven Cetacean Sisters” that those who may be interested can read in the East Timor Catholic newspa­per Seara (1972).

13Furthermore, some legends of the Bunak people: ‘Mau Sirak and Bui Sirak’ and ‘Mau Raun and Bui Raun’ (What follows is an excerpt from the oral tra­dition, narrated by Mátas Alípio da Conceição Marques – Tapo, and compiled by Nuno da Silva Gomes)2. The first story states like this:

“Nos tempos idos, quando o mar ainda era bravo, só havia seis pessoas. Bui Si­rak e Mau Sirak, Bui Guzu e Mau Guzu, Sesu Mau e Dudu Mau moravam juntos numa montanha chamada Bekali Anno­la. Eles viviam miseravelmente, porque ainda não havia luz, a terra era seca, só existia aquela montanha, e não havia água para beber. Por isso, Mau Sirak su­biu ao céu para pedir ajuda ao Hot Gol, e deu lhe três feixes de lanças (instrumen­to de guerra) para resistirem ao dono do mar. Mas eles não conseguiram derrotar o dono do mar e o mar continuava a ser bravo. Mau Sirak subiu outra vez ao céu e disse que o mar ainda continuava bravo, e Hot-Gol ofereceu-lhe mais sete feixes de lanças, levou-os para combater o dono do mar, e finalmente, o mar começou a acalmar e eles ganharam a batalha. Mas ainda viviam na miséria e na escuridão, porque ainda não existia o dia. Bui Guzu e Mau Guzu subiram ao céu e pediram ao Hot-Gol para lhes oferecer o clarão. E a partir daí, começaram a ter o dia e noite. Mesmo assim, eles continuaram a viver na miséria, porque só existia uma fonte de água, e ainda mais o céu e a terra esta­vam demasiado perto. Sesu Mau e Dudu Mau com a ajuda do Hot-Gol empurram o céu para cima, e cortaram o “Lete bul e Malas bul”, e desse modo o céu e a terra ficaram separados “

“In the past times, the sea was still an­gry, there were only six people. Bui Sirak and Mau Sirak, Bui Guzu and Mau Guzu, Sesu Mau and Dudu Mau lived togeth­er in a mountain Bekali Annola. They lived miserably, because there was still light, the earth was dry, there was only one mountain, and there was no water to drink. So Mau Sirak ascended to heaven for help to Hot-Gol**, and gave him three bundles of spears (instrument of war) to resist the owner of the sea. But they failed to defeat the master of the sea and the sea was still angry. Mau Sirak rose again to heaven and said that the sea was still angry, and Hot-Gol offered him another seven bundles of spears, led them to fight the owner of the sea, and finally, the sea began to calm down and they won battle. But the life of the six people to continuo in misery and darkness, because there was not the day. Bui Guzu and Mau Guzu rose into the sky and asked the Hot-Gol to offer them the glare. And from there, began to take the day and night. Yet they continued to live in misery, because there was only one water source, and even heav­en and earth were too close. Sesu Mau and Dudu Mau with the help of Hot-Gol push up the sky, and cut the ‘Lete bul and Malas bul’, and thereby were separated heaven and earth”

14This legend is known as to relate to the origins of the world and man’s struggle against the evil lord who was ever-present in rough seas. The angry sea symbolizes Evil, because it had been inhabited by the lord of darkness. This oral culture involves a strong presence of religious and moral prohibitions, links the present to the past and builds up a social environment for the individ­ual and the community.

15Man exists, as it sees itself as the guarantor of the traditions that transmits and passes them from the father to son, forming a continuous chain of learn­ing. We can then see that in East Timor elderly people and children are the ones who have greater importance; the elderly state as bearers of wisdom heritage and children as the hope of the continuity of the group. Not having children is the possibility of anonymity, the death of the social group, the erasure of one own existence. This example, can be seen in the narratives of the legend of ‘Mau Sirak and Bui Sirak’, three couples find the Hot-Gol as it’s Supreme Being, or consider him as ‘Father’ and perform tasks from Hot-Gol.

16About the origin of the world it identifies three universes: the celestial universe (heaven – inhabited by Hot-Gol), the earthly universe (earth – inhab­ited by creatures of God Hot-Gol) and the spiritual universe (inhabited by evil spirits and good spirits). The evil spirit in this legend is the lord of the rough seas who tries to destroy the garden of Lord Bekali Annola entrusted to three couples. The Mountain Bekali Annola will continue to be – for the Bunak people of East Timor, including the people who live in the area of Bobonaro (Tapo, Leber, Holsa, Saburai, and other areas near Bunak-speaking lands) – the ‘paradise Eden’.

17In East Timor, there are several stories of interpretation on the creation where heaven and earth merge. “The earth and heaven are bound together” – as some mythological Timorese legends refer, for example the mythological leg­end ‘Bagnut’ 3 narrated by Manuel (ritual authority of Letefoho) – as is the case with the legend of ‘Mau Sirak and Bui Sirak’. It is known in almost all regions of the Timorese territory, of a time when man crossed to and from heaven to earth through the Lete and Malas4. And that it was because of evil caused by the ruler of the rough sea and misery which he brought upon the people of the Bekali Annola, that Hot-Gol helped Sesu Mau and Dudu Mau sever heaven and earth and since then earth and the skies have been apart forever.

The place Bekali Annola is, for us, “earth from heaven”, that is, the earth that came from heaven. In other words, it can be designated as the battlefield were evil spirits are fought. Considering this, it can be stated that there is a common belief to all the peoples of the world – Christians, Jewish, Islamic and other religious groups – that is, the application of that which might be referred to as a basic principle of the imaginative thinking of people, where an event is simulated leading up to its realization.

18The question of lete bul and malas bul, can not only be seen in the tradi­tion of the Bunak ethnic group but also in the history of other peoples, like the case of the peoples of the Ramelau High Lands who believe in the existence of a ‘creeper’ – Tetum called calêic – linking it to the ground. According to tradition these peoples tell that in long gone days; a woman who went up ‘there’ one day to fetch fire – a common habit for the people of earth – she took so long getting back that her husband became angry with her, so he cut the creeper before her return. Since then, earth and the heavens have been parted forever (Pascoal, 1967:66).

19The term ‘there’ referred to in this narrative serves to refer the infinite space beyond human existence, that is, Lalehan (heaven). At some point – say the lia-na’in of the peoples of the Ramelau High Lands – the “creeper” (calêic) sits on top of one of its hills to Mount Lau-Daro of Atsabe, and that the root is still kept at the site, considered Lulik. According to the oral tradition, told by some kukun na’in (ritual authority), the inhabitants of much of the south coast believe the “creeper” to have risen from Ria-Tu, a place still marked with a slab. But those from Matebian and the villages that surround it say it is in Quelicai, where the root of the creeper is located. People from the eastern tip of the island, in turn, say the root of the creeper is located in the Muapitine in Lautem, from where man climbed from earth to heaven.

20However, these mythological and prehistoric narratives are not unique to the Timorese people, but are also common to certain prehistoric peoples of Polynesia – whom some archaeologists and anthropologists consider as prob­able Timorese ancestors (Almeida,1968 [1994]; Correia, 1944) – these people believe the most natural thing would be heaven and earth to be close to one another.

21The family is the primary community, is the mainstay of tradition and its there and, in more or less complicated kinship systems, which is based on the law, not the written rule of law but the right gerontocratic (see Weber, 1994)5, commanded by the Word, by usual and customary. And here, in a customary norm, orality is probably the element with the highest weight in the character­ization of Timorese culture. On the assumption, it will be consider the narra­tives of the legend of “Mau Raun and Bui Raun”:

22The narratives of the legend ‘Mau Raun and Bui Raun’ may be interpreted as follows: first, for the Timorese peoples, the divine village or the divine world assumes the notion of infinity and of a distant place, or the celestial world. This is true in the application of the rite of Aihun Ancia annually performed by lulik na’in of the Bunak ethnic group: Ama nita oa Eme no esen; bai bin dele sa’e dele debel; no’mil no tolo nón no tchula6 (Soares, 1998: 51).

23Yet we have another example in the application of rainfall annually car­ried out by lulik na’in of the people speakers of the tetum language, including the kingdom of Samoro (now Soibada) (in newspaper Seara, 1972, nº226: 3).

24Heaven, referred to during rainfall rituals, is a place far from earth, in the beyond, part of the dark celestial, while the divine village or the divine world of the legend ‘Mau Raun and Bui Raun’ is a space outside the world, is the celestial world. God inhabits this space as far from humans that their prayers are not heard directly by him but are mediated through the ‘sons of the stars and the moon’ (in the rainfall rituals). In the legend ‘Mau Raun and Bui Raun’, the prayers of the people are mediated by the Child of the Sun, and in the appli­cation of Aihun Ancia, humans pray directly to God.

In fact, heaven, or the divine village or the divine world inhabited by the cockatoo-woman is, surely, the heaven of the “illustrious sons of the stars and moon”, or “illustrious son of the sun”. Only the Timorese people know the winged can climb to heavens, and they also know that among the birds there are some that look like man, they can easily imitate human words. Of these winged beings, there is a cockatoo, that due to the whiteness of “her” legs, a symbol of spiritual purity, could be understood by the primitive hyperbolic interpretation, as coming from above, or the world beyond, just like one of the beings who inhabit this place in safety, where peace reigns, as well as happiness and wealth. The transformation from a denizen of heaven into a cockatoo, which then turns into a woman who comes into the world of single men to support them with the domestic chores, is in a figurative language, a pristine and virtuous woman that sometimes leaves her kingdom in search of earthly perfection.

25In the legend ‘Mau Raun and Bui Raun’, a sentence informs the reader of the origins of ‘táis’: “(...) upon leaving the guard searched her and found gold within its ‘táis’”. And so ‘Hot-Gol’ did not give Bui Raun, but only the ‘táis’ for their children and descendants”. This legend makes us believe that the origin of ‘táis’ is also associated with one or more mythological legends of Timorese people.

26The ‘táis’ is the Timorese cloth made with cotton woven in crude domestic handlooms by East Timorese women throughout Timor. The ‘táis’ is typically two to eight feet in length. Its colors and motifs have an artistic quality, where legends figures are depicted, for example, the figure of the crocodile, bird or the rooster.

27The ‘táis’ is appreciated by the Timorese and classified as a mark of their identity, because according to Paulo Castro Seixas (2008: 15): “is the ‘skin’ of the ancestors that is continuously woven to cover the living, to link them in alliance, and to act in their turn”.

28In Timorese marriage, the ‘táis’ is a compulsory object of gift with which a bride’s family gives in return for the dowry that was given by the groom’s family. Because its ‘táis’ has an exchange value above the use-value, it values over time and has a high symbolic value, namely the use of ‘táis’ is a practice and artistry representation.

29The ‘táis’ is a domestic product of East Timor, currently in vogue con­cerning those who visit the territory for the first time. Typically, scholars or analysts of ethnographic art are interested in this particular Timorese garment and question the representations of the colors, the style of writing and even the figurative woven depictions.

2. “Kes”7: Timorese Writing and its evolution

30The written form is used to preserve local history, the history of the local con­text and as well it is an instrument of communication. We should consider that all known people, without distinction, have or had a written tradition, that is, they have historical footprints (symbolic), although in some cases, primitive people consider as writing the symbols drawn on the rocks, trees, palaces. So to say, they are lights that indicate the adventurous journey of human beings.

Man lives in a world of signs, because one live in a society and traditional societies cannot live if they had not developed their own codes, their own systems for the interpretation of hard data. The discipline of semiotics does not concern itself with the study of a particular type of common purpose but covers the rela­tionship between structure and interpretation of the text and aims to research, not only the linguistic element, but also every manifestation of language as a meaningful whole that represents the communication between people.

31The human culture is built upon symbolism; this means, a person cannot live if codes and information systems, through the natural data, are not devel­oped. Historically, symbolism has always followed the acts of people, the atti­tudes, language and science as their religion. That’s why the human being from the beginning used the object as a description of memory for storing informa­tion. Thus, ‘Kes’ seems designed by the symbols of artistic and technical matrix.

32We know that the index of symbolism is physically connected with the object, for example, the depiction of a crocodile is an object, or something that symbolizes something else. The sound of ‘nowa’ symbolizes the entrance of the dry temp, and ‘Aquitou’ symbolizes the end of that season and the arrival of the rainy one. So does the Uma-Lulik8 as a product of culture, despite having some complexities in terms of functions.

33For the Timorese people, orality or the spoken word is the most important instrument of communication discursive, although one must acknowledge that speaking, to them, has an undisputed chronological preeminence in the trans­mission of their messages. The truth is that both the spoken and the written in the context of East Timor are indispensable elements of speech. Indeed, by speaking one can say anything about the existence of things and writing helps to understand specifically the degree of relevance of the fundamental argu­ments of the speech. Such practices explain that the relationship between them is put on an ongoing socio-historical and typological shift, which is evident in the Timorese writing called ‘Kes’.

34Some lia-na’in (Keepers of the word) of the Bunak group say: ‘Kes’ is as a rule, i.e., a law that guides the activities of each family member. At the same time, it is a symbol of the presence of the ancestors. In the representation context, ‘Kes’ is a set of symbols that carries with them certain meanings that only elder people know how to interpret. On what concern rituals, ‘Kes’ has an important role in the context of the history of Timorese origin of man and his descendants; from there arises the most prestigious cultural and historical Timorese man’s characters.

‘Kes’ is all that is described by the symbols and it can be taken as a rep­resentation of things and is a sign or writing based upon cultural convention. Therefore, the criteria of ‘Kes’ code are its formality and conventionality. This is interesting at many levels, as in ‘Kes’, the key position of interpreting the code underlying formation discursive where the rules of each symbolism and / or sign represent a description of life. In this case, we consider ‘Kes’ as an ordering of objects (paintings, drawings, and among other instruments), which not only represent groups of signs, but also the power relations (Foucault, 1972: 48-49).

35In this sense, ‘power’ coexists with the social embodiment; power rela­tions are intertwined with other types of relations (production, kinship, family, sexuality) and can be seen in cave paintings that symbolize human presence in a given space. Thus, power relations are entangled and their interconnections delineate general conditions of domination by organizing it in a strategic way, more or less coherent and unitary.

36All figurative paintings and depictions in the caves, walls, doors and tiles are imaginary descriptions of the old Timorese man about its existence. And these are the first media of the Timorese and are updates of the past. The figurative writing on the walls, doors and in the caves, figures as a support of carried items encoded by their shape or the materials they are made with, due meanings that determine who interprets them. Thus, one can say the var­ious writing systems of East Timor are based on pictograms and ideograms, in semiotic marks of various kinds and even the Phoenician alphabet which, although similar to the writing true, had no representation of sounds of vowels but have its own meaning nonetheless.

37We find the figurative written Timorese traditional arts, such as “pottery, basketry, wood working, weaving, and work of metal. These forms of art act as Timorese culture symbols, which at the same time highlight and hide, there­fore and due to the fact that they overcome the specific artistic process, the very object of revelation” (Seixas, 2008: 15). In the Timorese artistic pottery references are made to humans and animals, which usually decipher the origins of God, land, water, or man. As Castro Seixas argues: “The figure is a symbol of courage to confront the secret of life, the secret of the double look on life in the palm of the hand of God and in the palm of Man” (Seixas, 2008: 16). Writing in figurative pottery art is a way of representing what is finite and not finite, depending on your second finite function of the narratives of each ethnic group. From the media studies view point, figurative drawings (better known as figurative writing) in the Timorese art motifs are elements that guarantee the truly original writing of Timorese people.

38In most Timorese traditional artistic production, masculine and feminine principles can be found. These principles often connect with each other, a male can meet up with a woman’s breasts, and a human head intersects with the body of a mystical legendary animal.

39The Timorese people have their own forms of abstraction and representa­tion, including to abstract iconography and art to religious or ancestral. Typically, used geometric ornaments present a wide range as evidenced by the different artistic Timorese manifestations, knowing that there are characteris­tic of certain regions themes.

In the context of iconic symbolic representations there is something of the other that is transmitted to the human mind and also here is something within the human being that passes to the other. This means that there is an area of trade – the transfer, physical and symbolic, emotional and communica­tive – between the ‘self’ as a man and the “other” as the representation of the spiritual. That is, according to Habermas (1994: 144), what starts in the nature is the only state of things we can learn according to their nature: language and with the language structure is put to us emancipation. With the first prop­osition expressed clearly the intention of a common consensus and without restrictions. In self-reflection, knowledge, information comes to coincide with the interest in the majority. The emancipator interest concerns the consumma­tion of reflection as such. Undoubtedly, only an emancipated society, which had carried out the majority of its members, is that communication would unfold in the free of domination dialogue, the idea of true consensus.

40However, it is through figurative writing that mankind has always had a need to try to understand its origins, its end, the phenomena of nature, and the complex feelings that are inherent to the human soul. The figurative writing on the doors (see Figure 1 and 2) are worked with anthropomorphic, zoomor­phic, and geometric elements and these represent the cultural heritage of the Timorese people and one of the most sought after by scholars, especially those who appreciate the artwork.

41In the figurative writing in the doors, animals are usually mystic, clan leg­ends, and fertility cults, naturalistic and abstract geometry. Usually doors are used in the Timorese sacred houses to represent the memory of our ancestors, that is, the iconic elements that mark the power lines. All representations vary as a function of vertical or horizontal position, which demarcates the differ­ent approaches to the sacred space of the Uma-Lulik. The object of Timorese ethnographic culture has been looted or forged, and in the 1980 of the twenti­eth century, when the multiplication of these figurative doors was fueled by a growing demand for museums and collectors, mainly students of art, anthro­pology and ethnography.

42In the doors and panel of Timorese sacred houses, there are figurative writings of the geometric kind, mimicking the motif of snakes, crocodiles, a woman’s womb or a human head (see Figure 1, 2 and 3 – see Sousa, 2001a). In particular in what refers to house panels, it seems the similarity of this type of mimics writing to the motion of ocean waves. Realistically, all the decorated icons or writings on the doors or panels of sacred houses symbolize and / or secure a sacred iconography of the local lineage.

43The door of each ‘Uma-Lulik’ (sacred house) has, at least, one or more figurative writings, as it is the holy place and the contact between man, god and spirits indeed, and even their reproduction, in that it shows the body and the soul of those who live there, without any need to replacement. Through the sacred house, Timorese people get a new ability to communicate with the envi­ronment that surrounds them. And it seems that within this communication system the very figurative writing sets and reflects the past culture of Timorese

44ethnics, which are still alive. This practice is as a kind of translating from oral culture to written culture.

45In fact, this synthesis may sustain or strengthen the collective identity of the several “parallel societies” in East Timor; therefore, it rests upon the Timorese state and civil society the goal to create a “community system”, or a model that Paulo Castro Seixas (2006) calls far-sighted “bridge building”. Then, the new dimension of communication of cultural translation can lead the country development in various sectors of the state (including civil society) in order to build a ‘perpetual peace’ (Kant – Perpetual Peace) in the territory (of national scale) and worldwide (of international scale). Although we might realize that in a globalized world, the modernization of culture implies a strong cultural policy of systematic translation of tradition.

The presented figurative style of writing (Figure 1) is a metaphor symboliz­ing fertility which represents human life in the universe. In the large rectangular central panel, decorated with inlaid geometric spirals symbolizing the universe and at the top and bottom one can see a two-piece is carved with two breasts of a woman and a human head, respectively connected by a rope from sisal. The figure is purely feminine, the central rectangular panel can be interpreted as the woman’s womb, and the head is a metaphor for the human newborn. What seems more important from this perspective is the figurative role – for most Timorese – representing or indicating the true path of his ‘Bei Gua’ (the passageway of the ancestors). As such it is not classified as mere ornament or decoration, but first, a precise language, states Ruy Cinatti “The important thing to him [Timorese] and the general consensus is to have defined a communication system” (Cinatti, 1987: 66). And we know that, for example, “the houses of Timorese Lospalos have numerous similarities with its counterpart of the Bronze Age in Japan. Many earlier years refer to such a possible origin” (Cinatti, 1987: 164).

46The following Cinatti’s statements legitimize Osorio de Castro’s descrip­tion of the house: “The Governor, himself, showed me a depiction that he had taken showing a sketch of a singular ‘uma Lulic’ (sacred house) belonging to the kings of Laga, and told me that it reminded him of a rustic building in Japan hinterlands. Sitting above stilts, holding in the middle an open wooden platform, with a roof shaped as an irregular truncated pyramid, (...) Going up a ladder to a door with carved ornaments, of a half-toke on the shutters, of a snake in the other. The construction of the roof finishing is decorated with large univalve shells” (cited Cinatti, 1987: 164).

47In a biological or naturalistic order, the sort of figurative drawings on the doorstep (see Figure 1), begins with man presence in the physical world and with what (animal or vegetable), it seems, and indeterminate by their nature are illustrated information concerning any aspect of the human interaction with its environment, i.e., “the world to which he came creates, produces and pro­vides its own ‘Environment’. However, by this process of transformation of the world, tailoring it to their needs, the more Man respects the nature, he is part of, the more he will respect himself” (Paulino, 2009: 4). Thus, for Timorese people the binomial “tree-house”, establishes the relationship between man and his metaphysical world, and the binomial “man-house” establishes the symbolic world with the social order of its most static order and that in despite of differences between the houses – in the opinion of Cinatti – represent the conceptual dualism of Timorese religion (Cinatti, 1987: 164-165). Thus, “the house and, by extension, the resort, is thus an open book in which Timorese ‘read with the lines that sew’” (Cinatti, 1987: 165-167).

48In short, the house/knua is constituted by multiple borders. These borders are both horizontal (male/female) and vertical (the male represents heaven and the female symbolizes the earth). This concept varies according to the myths of origin in different ethno-linguistics groups constituting Timorese society. Nonetheless of note is the particularity that houses reserve specific symbolic places for animals and at the same time, the house/knua is the center of the cul­tural contacts and the breeding place for the family and for social relationships. It is the political and economic center. The “house or knua” constitutes itself as a sort of super-family imaginary and it is the background of the nation (Smith, 1997, p. 25). Thus the house can be classified into three imaginary dimensions: Community, Nation/State and World, which is rooted in the notion of home as defining and representing identity.


49In this work we have dedicated ourselves to addressing the source of the Timorese writing and the first written texts on Timor.

50We acknowledge that oral language is of paramount importance, both for societies of oral culture tradition and for societies of written cultures. The leg­ends, myths, folk tales and traditional songs of East Timor were first published in the 50s of the XX century, starting a new cycle of Timorese literature – the majority of which is written in Portuguese language.

51We have seen that there are two dimensions in orality: the “primary oral­ity” and the “secondary orality”. The first refers to the culture of an untouched by writing society – as Timorese prehistoric society – or any knowledge of writing or of the press, or even the people totally unfamiliar with the writing. The second one refers to the contemporary culture full of high technology, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television and other elec­tronic devices. These new instruments of oral and writing work depend on the culture and the press.

52In the current technological world, there is a culture of primary orality, in the narrow sense, in which all cultures get to know different people’s writings and experience its effects through technological globalization. That is what one sees when crossing from the oral culture to a written culture. Now news­papers, magazines and books are indispensable means for human development, especially to inform, educate and entertain.

53This paper also discussed the artistic motifs symbolizing a kind of figura­tive writing such as the use of a lizard or crocodile, which is a dominant element in Timorese mythology and culture. This kind of figurative writing through the use of art motifs is common to other cultures of the Asian region and the South Pacific. In Papua, Australia, Melanesia and the Philippines the crocodile is also considered a theme and an icon – which is suggestive of a collective mythology of the peoples of those parts of the world. By ensuring that pieces like these are protected and displayed by the State Department and the National Museum of Culture in East Timor, it is a support which not only shows, but promotes, the culture of East Timor, seeking to understand the connection it has with the cultures of the neighbors’ states.

For countries recovering from prolonged periods of conflict and violence, the preservation of cultural property, as the pieces in this collection, provides a basis for identification, which helps to rebuild shattered communities, restor­ing identities and connect the past of peoples with their present and future. This has a particular relevance for the population of an emerging economy. In post-conflict, cultural identity is a driving force for development, not only with regard to economic growth, but also as essential for individuals to live a life of intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual satisfaction. For a country like East Timor, in which even today the divisions remain evident, preserving and celebrating these objects may be the mortar of inclusion and respect which are central to the creation of the framework of the new nation.


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- Submitted: 17-02-2016

- Accepted: 03-06-2016

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* The research was supported by Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian from 2009 to 2012. This text is a product of the project “As ciências da classificação antropológica em Timor Português”, funded by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) of Portugal, coordinated by Ricardo Roque, ICS-UL 2009-2013. Thanks to Emanuel Braz and Isabel Graça for reviewing the English text.

1 This legend was published in Seara – Boletim Eclesiástico da Diocese de Díli, in the year 7-N.º 225 on the 1972. But this document of their number is not in the collection of the “Lisbon Geographical Society.

2 These original narratives legends are described in Tetum language. The original legend title: “Mau Sirak and Bui Sirak” is presented in Tetum language: “Lalehan ho Rai – Heaven and Earth” (see Gomes, 2008: 46-47).

** In the literal translation: the “o Filho do Sol e considera-o como o seu ente supremo – The Son of Sun” and considers it as Supreme Being”.

3 This legend has been collected and published by father Ezequiel Enes Pascoal in his book A alma de Timor vista na sua fantasia (1967).

4 Lete is a bridge, Malas is stairs. The typically terms Lete and Malas are presented here as a metaphor for an object that enables the man to go to heaven and come down from heaven to earth. The lete and malas have the same meaning; this is a “creeper”.

5 According to Weber perspective, gerontocratic is a traditionalism power system, without any kind of political administration. It is based on the belief that older people know more about the sacred tradition.

6 “The Father is in heaven and the mother is in paradise; appears and falls with seeds of life on the world, put in my hand and my heart”.

7 “Kes” is an expression of the Bunak ethnic group, which means “writing”.

8 ‘Uma-lulik’ – sacred house.

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Para citar este artigo

Referência do documento impresso

Vicente Paulino, « Writing and translating Timorese oral tradition* », Configurações, 17 | 2016, 79-98.

Referência eletrónica

Vicente Paulino, « Writing and translating Timorese oral tradition* », Configurações [Online], 17 | 2016, posto online no dia 30 Junho 2016, consultado o 28 Junho 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/configuracoes.3284

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Vicente Paulino

Professor at Social Sciences Faculty, National University Timor Lorosa’e

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Direitos de autor


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