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Birds and other animals metaphors in an Indonesian society

Gregory Forth

University of Alberta

Fig. 1. Fantail

Source: Donna McKinnon


More than other sorts of animals, birds offer many opportunities for metaphor making, and this can be attributed to the great variety they display in terms of shape, size, colour of plumage, vocalizations, flight patterns, and flocking habits—not to mention the different places they inhabit. During my ethnographic work among the Nage people, who live on Flores Island in eastern Indonesia, I recorded a total of 566 animal metaphors, among which there are 178 bird metaphors that employ over 40 locally named kinds of birds. Like Nage animal metaphors in general, I’ve found many of these metaphors imaginative, insightful, or intriguing—and some quite amusing as well. [1]


So why do birds figure so prominently in Nage animal metaphor? Actually bird metaphors are common in English and other European languages as well, where they also form a reasonably close second to mammal metaphors (of which I recorded 240) and outnumber metaphors employing other creatures (reptiles, fish, insects, and so on). For a large part the predominance of mammals can be attributed to the fact that, in addition to being more manifestly like humans (in terms of size, anatomy, reproductive practices, and so on), mammals comprise the largest number of domestic and pet animals—creatures that are closer to humans in space, and which people see and interact with more often in their daily lives. One indication of the importance of closeness in space in informing animals metaphors—and the exception that proves the rule—is the chicken, traditionally the sole Nage domestic bird (domestic ducks are probably a recent innovations). Chickens appear in 44 of their metaphors, thus surpassing the most metaphorical of Nage mammals (dogs at 35 and water buffalo at 33).


Like Nage metaphors dealing with other animals, and indeed like animal metaphors the world over, the largest number of bird metaphors refer to human beings, their physical appearance, behaviours (in general or in certain situations), character traits, and so on. What’s more why a particular kind of bird is selected—the motivation of the metaphor, in other words—usually becomes clear when we know how the bird in question looks like and how it behaves or sounds. And this is a knowledge the Nage people share to a remarkable degree, sometimes it seems to an extent greater than academic ornithologists. To cite just one instance, Nage describe an only child as an ‘Imperial pigeon’s egg’, because, they explain, the Imperial pigeon, the largest of the several pigeon species found on Flores Island, only ever lays a single egg in any given breeding season. And professional ornithologists agree.


Many bird metaphors refer to particular physical features of individual humans, for example, their head hair. So someone with frizzy hair that sticks out is said to have hair like a fantail’s tail. The fantail is a small bird that, as its English name suggests, is able to spread out its relatively long tail feathers like a fan—as shown in the line drawing below. In fact, the editors of my book on animal metaphors, interestingly enough, chose a miniature of the fantail picture to grace the first page of each chapter.

Fig. 1 Man with hair like a 'fantail's tail'

Source: Author


To cite several other examples, a man with a striking, animated face resembles a ‘male junglefowl’, a wild bird very similar and closely related to the domestic chicken, which has rather bright, penetrating eyes (as revealed in one photograph). A child with thin, spindly legs has legs like a bushlark or pipit. A tall, long-legged adult, by contrast, is a heron or egret. And someone who pulls a scarf or blanket—or nowadays a hoodie—over their head to keep warm at night, thus exposing only their face, is compared to a large owl. Human behaviours are also described with bird metaphors—sometimes two combined. For example, an ‘eagle peering at a chicken’, and preparing to swoop, is someone who stares at a person or situation, looking for an opportunity for gain. Drawing on the idea that the bird’s anus becomes infested with worms in the wet season but suddenly recovers in the dry season, the coucal, a large, scruffy ground-dwelling cuckoo is a malingerer—someone who always pleads illness when there is work to be done (the wet season is the busiest time for agricultural activities), but conveniently enough, quickly recovers once all the work is completed!


Nage employ many other birds to illustrate human characters. Some metaphors refer to human habits in general, others to particular traits of human individuals. Comparable to the English proverb ‘birds of a feather flock together, Nage songs and proverbs describe ‘quail and junglefowl down in the lowlands’ as ‘living in friendship side by side’, and in a complementary passage, ‘ground-dove and spotted dove up in the hills’ as ‘always traveling together’. Other bird metaphors are more culturally specific. For example, ‘channel-billed cuckoo and common koel’, two large cuckoos, refer to people who help others but don’t benefit from their generosity. The two birds begin calling around October, just before the start of the rainy season and thus inform cultivators when it is time to have their fields ready for planting. But neither species feeds on the resulting harvest. Conversely, it is crows and cockatoos that feed on ripening crops, more particularly by gorging themselves on new maize (corn). Yet unlike the two cuckoos, these bird makes no contribution—through their harsh calls or otherwise—to the agricultural cycle. Hence ‘cockatoos and crows’ refers to people who lend no assistance yet enjoy the benefits of other people’s labour.


At the same time, contrasting to the usefulness of the bird’s migratory vocalizations the Channel-billed cuckoo also has a negative side. The cuckoo’s cry may tell people when it’s time to start serious work in their fields—which is fair enough--but by the same token the bird, itself known metaphorically as the ‘great foreman’, also figures as a metaphor for people who give orders but do not themselves participate in the work!


Other birds employed as metaphors are consistently negative. For example, the scrubfowl (specifically the orange-footed scrubfowl) is the vehicle for a bad mother, more specifically a woman who bears children she does not raise and leaves to the care of others [2]. So what’s this all about? Anyone familiar with scrubfowls will know that the bird is an incubator, which is to say, neither the hen or the cock sit on the eggs till they hatch. Rather, the scrubfowl (a largely ground-dwelling bird much like a chicken) builds a huge mound of fallen leaves and earth, in which the female lays her eggs—and then simply leaves them to be incubated by the heat generated by the mound. Interestingly enough, there is also the belief that, from the scrubfowl’s eggs, not only baby birds will be hatched, but also creatures of other kinds, including snakes and lizards—surely another trait of a bad mother!


But Nage bird metaphors don’t refer only to people, at least not living ones. In fact several birds figuratively refer to the soul of a dead person. Thus ‘high-flying kite (referring to the Brahminy kite, a large hawk) sits atop the nest’ designates the soul of a dead person shortly after burial, when the soul remains close to the body in the grave and moreover ‘hovers’ above the body, much like many kinds of hawks and falcons. In fact, birds of prey are quite prominent in Nage spiritual cosmology. Like other birds, and drawing on quite specific features, they can further serve as metaphors for abstract qualities of various things. Thus ‘a single kestrel’ (a small falcon) denotes someone or something barely visible in the distance’, by reference to a kestrel flying rapidly away from an observer, becoming smaller and smaller, until it appears as just a dot in the sky.


But do Nage really believe scrubfowls are bad mothers, or that deceased human souls really take the form of kites? The short answer is no. While studying their animal symbolism I found it necessary to distinguish between figurative expressions—which is how Nage regard their metaphors—and what I can only call ‘beliefs’ about animals. Take the phrase ‘chickens of God’, a reference to humans as mortal beings. As Nage explain this, just as chicken-owners decide when they want to slaughter a chicken, so it is God who decides when every individual will die. Nage do not believe that people, in some mystical way, really are chickens. However, they do believe that certain mountain spirits own spirit water buffalo just as Nage own earthly water buffalo, and that when the spirits slaughter one of their spirit buffalo, a person down below will die. With one arguable exception, no buffalo metaphor reflects this or any other spiritual idea, just as the majority of bird metaphors don’t allude to any of the numerous Nage spiritual beliefs concerning birds.



[1] The outcome of the work was my most recent book A dog pissing at the edge of a path, published with McGill-Queens University Press in 2019. At the end of November last year (2020). I was pleased to learn that the book, had won The Bookseller’s annual Diagram Prize for the oddest title.


[2] Forth, G. 2020. Bad Mothers and Strange Offspring: Images of Scrubfowl and Sea Turtles in Eastern Indonesia. Ethnobiology Letters 11(2):52-57.

DOI 10.14237/ebl.11.2.2020.1624

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