The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia: W for Weretiger

W for Weretiger

This first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 03. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.

W for Weretiger

A common notion found throughout the peoples of Southeast Asia is that there are some individuals who have the ability to magically transform themselves into tigers.

The basis for this belief lies in the ambiguity of the tiger’s association with people: the two species occupy similar ecological niches, in which they neither have a relationship of direct competition or mutual cooperation. The tiger’s preferred habitat is an ecologically liminal or transitional zone: spaces near water and at the edges of forests. Similarly, the people of Southeast Asia had historically settled along water, while their agricultural activities created forest edges, the tiger’s preferred transitional zone. The agricultural produce of men attracted deer, pigs, and monkeys, which in turn attracted the tigers that hunted them, leading tigers to populate the liminal areas between villages and the forest.

People have a tendency to attribute human-like qualities to the animals they live in close proximity with. Thus, tigers are sometimes believed to live in villages, subject to rulers, and with their own social structures and rules. Occasionally these tigers transform into humans, a magical act that usually takes place in the crossing of a boundary such as passing through a tunnel or swimming across a river. These tiger-people were thought to be dangerous, and were feared, although they were not necessarily always considered evil.

To the peoples of Southeast Asia, tigers embodied the power of nature, which was essentially ambiguous. The forest was a space outside civilisation and beyond human control, but it was also the place where magical herbs for healing could be gathered. In this sense, tigers were guardians and emissaries from the forest, passing between nature and culture, a boundary also traversed by shamans, who are in turn also attributed with the power to transform into tigers. This relationship with the tiger is apparent in the healing rituals of some village shamans: their hands may appear to change into tiger claws, or their behaviors might take on aspects of a tiger. Sometimes, the presence of tigers can even be perceived to be beneficial to a human community, as they help to rid cultivated land of foragers. And since the protection of crops is a task usually assigned to the community’s ancestors, it is perhaps unsurprising that a partial merger should occur between tigers and ancestors: tigers are sometimes perceived as ancestor spirits, and as such, they might even be regarded as enforcers of ancestral rules, punishing offenders, but also guarding their descendants’ property.

This symbolic web between tigers, ancestors and shamans should be differentiated from that of magicians who magically transform into were-tigers for their own, usually nefarious purposes. The magician’s purpose for transforming into a tiger can range from a taste for raw flesh to murderous intent. These transformational processes sometimes require the magician to go some distance from the village, where he will shed civilisation by the removal of his clothes, followed by the recitation of a magical formula. This process can sometimes be facilitated by the use of a piece of tiger skin or a yellow and black striped piece of cloth. Sometimes, it is said that the transformation requires one to somersault—occasionally through one’s own urine, creating the sign of the spiral, which in turn evokes water, traditionally understood as a passage to the underworld.

The tiger is an inhabitant of the liminal zone between the civilised and the wild, and as such, the relationship between the human and the tiger is one of deep ambiguity. As manifestations of protective ancestral spirits they can be considered a force for good, but when a man takes the form of a tiger outside the community, such actions are considered to be beyond the pale. He is thought to have forsaken humanity, to be out of touch with ‘God’ or the creative power of the universe.


Image: The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia: W for Weretiger.
Image: The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia: W for Weretiger.
Image: The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia: W for Weretiger.
Image: The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia: W for Weretiger.


Closed in on the north by the impenetrable mountain complex of the eastern Himalayas, and gradually broken off into an archipelagic swarm of islands in the South that are finally rounded by the massive geological arcs of Sumatra and Java is a region of bewildering multitudes, a region that has never been interpolated by the force of a single language, polity, tradition, or religion.

The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia springs from a simple question: what constitutes the unity of this region? And it proceeds by engaging thinkers and artists working on, and in Southeast Asia to speculate on a series of motifs that cut across the boundaries of nation states and slip through the borders of academic disciplines. While their collective vibrations promise to deliver a song of the region, a Southeast Asia manifested not by reason, but resonance.

*   *   *

Text by Robert Wessing with images by Ho Tzu Nyen. W for Weretiger is the first entry in the Critical Dictionary for South East Asia, a research project developed out of Ho Tzu Nyen’s residency at AAA.

Robert Wessing is an anthropologist who obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, Urbana. His main interest lies within Southeast Asia, value systems and symbolic reality, and religion.

Ho Tzu Nyen makes films, videos and theatrical performances. His interests include history, philosophy and the relationship between sound and image.



HO Tzu Nyen, 何子彥


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