Ethnographic Review on Sama Dilaut's Epic Silungan Baltapa
J e w e l D . M e r c a d e r , M . A . A n t h r o p o l o g y | 1
Review on Nicole Revel’s Performance and Composition of Silungan Baltapa and Alain Martenot’s
Ethnographic Reading of the Epic
Silungan Baltapa is a sung narrative or a kata-kata of the Sama Dilaut. It is chanted by a wali jin
or a shaman medium, which tells about the epic story of a hero in quest for a wife who went through
struggle against nature, against outside forces in defense of his people, including a struggle over himself.
Its parallelisms with the story of the Mi’raj or the holy ascension of Prophet Muhammed into the Highest
Heavens where he saw Allah and achieved the ‘Knowledge of the Absolute’, reflects Sama Dilaut’s
adherence to Sufic or Mystic Islam. Moreover, in the epic, Sama’s reverence and loyalty to its Ancestral
traditions is also underscored. By further analysis, Alain Martenot’s synthesis table of his ethnographic
reading of the epic revealed three realms associated with the Sama Dilaut which could best discuss their
concept of the world – Nature, Supernature and Society. This synthesis was extracted within the context
of the Sitangkai Sama Dilaut in 1975 and its history during the 20
century. The proceeding discussion
will tackle on an introduction to Sama and accounts on their origin, followed by the synopsis of the
Silungan Baltapa, and lastly its ethnographic reading.
The Sama or Sinama People and Accounts on their Origin
The Sama or Sinama are the most widespread ethno-linguistic group in Peninsular Southeast
Asia from South Luzon to Northern Australia (Sather, 1997, 2). Europeans and outsiders call them sea
nomads/ sea gypsies or, Bajau which is a Malay term. However Tausug call them lutau/lluawan which
means ‘to spit out’. Their greatest concentration in the Philippines is between Zamboanga Peninsula and
Sitangkai Tawi-tawi. Other relatives of Sama such as the Orang Bajau are found in Eastern Sabah,
Moluccas, Sulawesi to Roti Island, Indonesia. They are divided into three groups: the Sama Dea (living on
land), the Sama Bihing (living on shoreline) and the Sama Dilaut (living on the sea in boats).
Sama Dilaut’s legend and Pallesen’s linguistic research agree that their reference point is in
Johore and then travelled in Zamboanga to Jolo and then to Tawi-tawi. Pallesen added that the proto-
Sama language was spoken in Southern Zamboanga-Basilan area about 1,200 years ago. Also, Sopher
thought that these sea nomads were once Veddid hunters and gatherers originating from the coasts of
Riau-Lingga archipelago. On the other hand, Beyer and Wolters hypothesize that the Sama people could
have also been the same sea nomads regarded with nautical skills whose allegiance was to Srivijaya who
were driven out to adopt a nomadic sea life after the fall and destruction of the great Indonesian empire.
Benjamin Han’s Mundaan Komkoman (Han, 1990) would place the reference point on northwest of
Philippines. Han shared that in the Chinese text Hai-Wai-Nan-Ching, as translated by Wang (1989;31),
the country of Sam-Ma is located to the east of Chhi-Sui (red river in Mandarin). The Sam-Ma fled to the
South Sea when their leader was killed by Emperor Yao (2357-2258 B.C.) where they established their
community. Chhih Sui must be either the Mekong or Red river of Vietnam today, and the Sam-Ma country
must be probably in the Philippines. The Sam-Ma is thus assumed to be the current known term and
group of people Sama
The epic took place in two spaces: the sea and the other islands, and then the Hereafter. The first
part of the story is about a journey through life, between earth, sky and sea of Silungan Baltapa, a sinless
man and a hero, in quest of a wife, who turns out to be Mussa’ Dalmata. The second part then tells of
Silungan’s spiritual voyage to the Hereafter in search for his beloved wife who died after giving birth to
their son Datu’ Mu’min. Another voyage reaching the Heaven was given grace by God to Silungan
Baltapa as he passes on the ordeal of ‘the Judgement Scale’, wherein he achieved the ‘absolute
knowledge’ and accomplished his mission to bring his wife back to life.
Ethnographic Reading of Silungan Baltapa
Image of the Past: Relation to Nature
During the American regime, large and heavy boats still cluster in flotillas (pagmundaq) which are
equipped with 2 big outriggers that partly serve as a platform or sometimes a real house. Burial places,
shelter from Monsoon winds, strategic refuge areas for sea-dwelling Sama-Dayaks are all found around
the islet of Sitangkai. All share the language and everyone aim to survive through the flotilla’s
cohesiveness. This uxorilocality is reinforced by endogamy, marriage between first-degree cousins and
To survive, Sama rely on an environment that must be intuited or captured (Martenot, 2005).
They look at the depths of the sea to have an idea when to move about on the reef, when to fish, paddle
or sail.Sellang would mean very deep sea and that one cannot make it to the bottom. Each portion of the
reef has a name and sea sounds and currents that reverberate through the paddle would let one know
define his exact location. They also refer to environment signs or seamarks (pandoga) sent by the
Ancestors interpreted in a descriptive system called papata, which are also handed down by the Tradition
J e w e l D . M e r c a d e r , M . A . A n t h r o p o l o g y | 2
of the Ancestors. Also, the highest form of knowledge sent by an Ancestor to a Wali jin through dreaming,
called an uppi will help them know the things to do and anticipate.
Islamisation and Sedentarisation: Changes it brought to customs of Sama (Traditional Shamanism,
residence of group and alliance through marriage)
The kalibungan, a mixed sea dwelling and coastal Sama introduced an Islamized form of
Shamanism to Sitangkai from Tawi-tawi. The ancient shamans duwata were quickly replaced by a wali jin
(often midwives), those spoke the language of the tutelary spirit (ancestors). These refer from mimetic
written language and drawings of the Koran called tumbuk. From duwata’s black garment, it turned to
yellow and green for women and greean and white for men. Then, a controlled spirit-possession patekka
replaced the cathartic trance or kaat of the duwata. Now, the jin’s power originates in the sacred places
tampat or tapu. Its power can oppose the saytan’s (evil spirits bringing illnesses and haunt unusual
spaces in the natural environment/supernatural dimension) evil crafts. The jin would have to protect the
Sama community from the saytan so they are not thought to be fleeing with boats, thus a degree of
sedentarization becomes effective.
Sedentarization was made possible by: 1) The Sultan of Sulu provided the Datu of Sibutu, the
island and islets surrounding Sitangkai and was asked his people to clear the islet forests and plant
coconut trees. 2) Chinese traders opened shops at the edge of Sitangkai and bartered with marine
products. 3) During American pressure, houses on stilts, a school and a first small mosque in Sitangkai
were built. Also a new type of boat called lepa wich has no outriggers were imported from Borneo.
Houses now replaced the flotillas. The family structure is still uxorilocal although marriage alliances now
take place within the kindred between 2
Three Shamanic Voyages, Three Progressive Approaches in Islam
The three shamanic voyages evident in the epic, tells about the ultimate goal of Muslim
mysticism, which is the encounter with the divine. The first voyage depicted the hero’s quest for a wife in
a seafaring milieu which conforms to the Sama’s relation with the natural environment. It also showed the
hero’s reliance on women when he was given protection by his mother and sister to accomplish his
mission. This, where women and forces of nature play vital role is found at the lower end of the table
(Martenot, 2005, p. 223)
The second voyage takes place during childbirth, referring to Sama’s relation to Tradition and to
Ancestors, which is found at the middle of the table. To live up to Ancestral Traditions, as requested by
wife, Silungan Baltapa borrowed the powers of the cockatoo bird to get fruit from the supernatural world.
On another hand, disrespect to Tradition may lead to death as in the case of the hero’s wife. In here too,
it is apparent that Sama have respect to certain animals, which is a phenomena of Island Southeast
The third voyage which is about the Mi’raj is not only seen on the upper level of the table but also
beyond the conceptual framework. Pertaining to Islam, the Revealed Religion, its ultimate goal is the
Knowledge of the Absolute through the encounter with God. This reference to Islam may have been
added to secure Islam’s approval (Martenot, 2005, p. 219) The Islam sacralizes the Tradition, which is the
central pole of the society.
Conformity to Islam showed a transfer from the middle level of the table to enable one to connect
with the oldest level. A transition from a condition of being palau (vagabonds) to a status of human being,
accepted and integrated to the community of Islam.
As discussed from above, Silungan Baltapa is not a pre-Islamic epic. When the Tausug along
with the coastal Sama introduced Islam to Sama Dilaut, the latter had to integrate and acknowledge the
new religion for conformity and relevance sake to community. Not to mention, this has also been triggered
and pursued by social and political oppression, trading and opportunity to have a better life. Changes
were made - from belief and relation to nature to respect and reliance to Ancestor’s words and teachings,
to ultimately subjecting oneself to adhere to core values of Islam. From being nomadic to becoming more
sedentary, Sama Dilaut changed its family structure from uxorilocal to virilocal. Consequently, its alliance
through marriage shifted from endogamy as in marriage with a first cousin to, endogamy marrying second
or third degree cousin, and lastly to a larger and more extensive alliance with the Sama and other Tausug
groups. Thus, the Sama society perpetuates itself in – Nature, Ancestral Tradition and religion of Islam.
Until now, they continue to struggle and survive the coercive forces of culture they now belong to. It may
seem that they just keep running from their problems, but having a different perspective, one can say that
they are one of the most adaptive group of people – for they have the ability to renew themselves through
a consummately worked out mimetic syncretism.