Redefining the Book | Arts & Culture

Beinecke Library

Made by the Batak people of North Sumatra between 1860 and 1920, this pustaha features descriptions of rituals, particularly the use of birds for divination. View full picture

In the 21st century, we, the richest nations, are quite used to books on paper. Even with the rise of digital reading platforms, many of us still have overflowing shelves. Leather-bound or paperback, a book you open will likely present you with neat rows of neat printed text on creamy white paper. Of course, this familiar and loving experience is not universal. Many different cultures have created books in all kinds of forms, from scroll to codex, and from a kaleidoscope of materials, from parchment to bamboo.

The image shown here, of a bark book from the Beinecke Library collection made by the Batak people of North Sumatra, challenges our notion of what a book is. This particular volume is a book of divination, also called a pustaha, which was designed for use by a data: a shaman and healer. Pustaha are often made of materials like the bark of a Aquilaria tree, a writing surface unique to the Batak people.

While pustaha deal with medicine or divination and are the dominant type of surviving book of Batak society pre- or early colonization, other objects preserve other traditions, lamentations of love and poems. These books entered the realm of Western scientific interest in the 18th and 19th centuries, motivated in part by their perceived exoticism and by the intervention of German missionaries and Dutch colonial interests in Indonesia.

A pustaha could be used as an informal (and very individual) way to record instructions on how to perform a particular rite. Such a document could support oral instruction for the start data and serve as a reference book for the well-practiced. The Yale book, like most pustaha, is folded like an accordion, a style of binding that has found popularity in manuscript cultures around the world. It is made up of a single, thin, long strip of bark.

Dated between 1860 and 1920, this example is written in Hata Poda, a language that has long been considered to be understood only by data himself. The writing was done using a sugar palm pen dipped in specially prepared black ink. Batak, as a linguistic group, is divided into six subcategories, representing the diversity that is found between the northern and southern ethnic groups of the Batak people. As a result, survive pustaha can testify to the linguistic differences between the Batak peoples.

Divinatory practices vary considerably from place to place: from throwing sticks to observing astronomical phenomena to reading tarot cards. Rituals in the Beinecke pustaha fall into the category of omen, in this case the use of birds for divination. Used by cultures around the world, the augur often requires dissection and examination of a bird’s innards for clues as to what is yet to come. As beings that exist between the heavens and the earth, birds were believed to impart instructions from the gods and predict future events. Their insides have become codes to be read by the data on behalf of its supporters.

In the upper right corner of the pustaha, we can see two illustrations of birds that look like chickens, complemented by casual combs. These charming illustrations are just two of 45 images of men and birds found throughout the manuscript.

About Norma Wade

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