Metamorphosis and identity: Chewong animistic ontology

Authored by: Signe Howell

The Handbook of Contemporary Animism

Print publication date:  October  2013
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9781844657117
eBook ISBN: 9781315728964
Adobe ISBN: 9781317544500


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I begin by telling an abbreviated version 1 of a Chewong myth about frog people. Chewong is a small group of hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators who, at the time of my first fieldwork in the late 1970s, lived deep inside the Malaysian tropical rainforest. At the time, they had minimal contact with the outside world and their way of life and understanding of how the world works was a textbook example of animism (I return to this concept below). According to Chewong cosmology, frogs – as well as many other non-human beings and objects in their forest environment – have consciousness (ruwai) which makes them persons and subjects. When they are in “their own land”, which is also in the jungle but invisible to the hot human eye (see below), they abandon their frog “cloaks” and appear to each other in human shape and behave in a recognizable human rational manner. There is, nevertheless, a unique frog quality which renders them people and frogs at the same time.

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