Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2019

The Birth of I La Galigo (I La Galigo Lahir, 2005) by Muhammad Salim, Sapardi Djoko Damono and John H McGynn

This short book is my introduction to an ancient myth from Indonesia.  It’s this month’s selection for our Indonesian book-group, and this is the blurb:

I La Galigo, the vast Bugis epic myth, is one of the most voluminous works in world literature. Set in Luwuq, the cradle of Bugis culture, the cycle tells the story of the initial residence on earth of the gods and their descendants. “The Birth of La Galigo”, the poem found herein, represents a contemporary retelling of one of the epic’s most popular sections.

Wikipedia tells us this:

Sureq Galigo or La Galigo is an epic creation myth of the Bugis from South Sulawesi, written down in manuscript form between the 18th and 20th century in the Indonesian language Bugis, based on an earlier oral tradition. It has become known to a wider audience mostly through the theatrical adaptation I La Galigo by Robert Wilson. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove most links, viewed 13/4/19)

(What’s really nice about this Lontar Foundation edition is that it includes double page B&W stills from the theatrical performance to illustrate scenes from the story.  You can see some of these images here.)

Interesting, isn’t it, that we know the ancient myths of Greece and Rome, and increasingly we are encountering the ancient stories of our Indigenous people, but that we tend not to know the stories of our near neighbours?  It’s a pity because La Galigo is a great story. As the Introduction tells us, the original epic of about 300,000 words, is longer even than the Indian Mahabarata (200,000 words) and Homer’s Odyssey – but the episode that is best-known and loved is the story of the tempestuous relationship of Sawérigading and the princess I Wé Cudai, a union which produced the hero I La Galigo.

The tale begins with the creation of the world, which as in other classic myths, consists of the Sky, the Earth and the Underworld.  The creation of people to populate the earth comes about because the King of Destiny is challenged to recognise a fundamental truth: gods need people to worship them.

After a moment’s silence,
the King of Destiny conferred with his consort,
‘What do you think of this idea, Datu Palingé?
What if we settled our children there,
encouraged them to plant their roots on earth,
to give that barren place inhabitants?
Can we call ourselves gods at all
if there is no one in the land beneath the sky
to worship us as gods?’ (p.11)

(This lyric translation by John H McGlynn is published side-by-side, page-by-page with the Indonesian poem by Sapardi Djoko Damono, which is derived from the original Bugis version translated into Indonesian by Muhammad Salim.)

BEWARE: SPOILERS (but myths are meant to be well-known so it hardly matters)

So they send Batara Guru down to Mayapada to create and rule over the world and in accordance with the Creator’s decree, he marries his cousin Wé Nyilik Timo from the Underworld so that they can have descendants.  Three months later we know that that the predicted twins are on the way because she gets cravings of a rather unusual kind:

So many things she craved:
two-headed deer from Botillangi,
fleet-footed mousedeer from Senrijawa,
tanri flowers with roots growing in Heaven
and blooms draping into the Lower World,
twin coconuts from the sky’s edge,
rose apples from the spirit world,
ring-necked deer from Botillangi,
nutmeg from Ternate,
and deadly fish with dagger spurs from Heaven. (p.37)

Batara sends Ladunrusséreng, the king of all fowl and all the birds of the land to fetch these demands threatening to pound them into flour/should they be slowed by even the strongest wind. 

When the twins are born, the boy arrives equipped with a golden dagger and battledress, while his sister is attired as a priestess.  And in accordance with the Creator’s decree, they are immediately separated so that they don’t fall in love with each other.  But of course as in all myths of this type the inevitable happens, and Sawérigading falls for his sister Wé Tenriabeng as soon as he comes of age and sets eyes on her.  No way, he is told, in no uncertain terms and in fear of the threatened drought and famine should he break the rules, he agrees to go in search of the beautiful woman who resembles his sister instead.

There are, of course, travails to be undergone: a tree that can only be cut down with an axe from heaven, with timber that can only be assembled into a flotilla of ships in the Underworld.  Then there are seven enemies to be despatched, including the betrothed of the woman he seeks.  But alas for Sawérigading, after all that he endures, the princess I Wé Cudai doesn’t fancy him.  She overhears women gossiping about him:

“Our lady will suffer greatly
if forced to lie with a man not of this country,
to bed with a seaman with so much body hair
you could braid his back
or use it as tinder to start a fire. (p.89)

And she tells her father that she would prefer exile/ or better yet, death! rather than marry him.  Her father returns the wedding gifts, which (unsurprisingly) offends the would-be groom:

He looked as if he would explode,
felt as if shards of glass were in his eyes,
such was the feeling in his heart.
Like a wave striking the shore,
his response was immediate,
ordering his men to rip out the stakes
and tear down the wall now encircling the town.

They then set fire to the place
and very soon the town was in flames. (p.91)

I Wé Cudai’s relatives sue for peace and an unwanted marriage to him is the price of his mercy.  Still, she sets some firm conditions,  and only in a pitch dark room, on a bed surrounded by seven layers of mosquito netting, circled by seven walls, and guarded by seven royal court officials is Sawérigading able to have his heart’s desire…

Cravings signal her eventual pregnancy – and they are equally unusual!

So many things did she desire:
twin coconuts from a distant shore;
hearts of gnats from Uriliu at the bottom of the sea;
mosquito bellies and fish from the Lower World;
and tanri flowers that grow in the Kingdom in the Sky. (p.99)

(As before, and under the same duress, the birds go out to fetch all this.)

Sawérigading is delighted when the child is born, the very image of his handsome father.  Alas, I Wé Cudai doesn’t behave in a very motherly way when the child Galigo is born.

“Put him inside a broken cooking pot
and place him on a raft.
Set the raft adrift in the river
and let it be taken away downstream.
He must not be the heir to Luwuq’s throne;
he shall not stay in this palace.
His wailing is misery to my ears!” (p.105)

Just as well Sawérigading has a concubine handy to foster the child!

Robert Wilson’s production of I La Galigo has been performed around the world, including at the Melbourne International Festival in 2006. You can see a short video of the performance here.

Authors: Muhammad Salim, Sapardi Djoko Damono and John H McGlynn
Title: The Birth of I La Galigo (I La Galigo Lahir)
Publisher: The Lontar Foundation, 2013, 117 pages, first published in 2005
ISBN: 9786029144338
Source: Personal copy, purchased in Indonesia for our book group by Halina – terima kasih banyak, Halina!

Available from the Lontar Foundation.


  1. Great post. Myths are fascinating and I have tried to read and familiarize myself with the myths of as many cultures as I can. This is one that I am unfamiliar with.

    This sounds well worth reading. I would also love to see the theatrical production.


    • Hi Brian:) I wish I’d seen it when it was here in Melbourne, I didn’t even know it was on…


  2. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks a lot for sharing. I La Galigo is criminally underappreciated, not least of all by the Bugis people themselves. I’m of Bugis descent, but I don’t speak the language and I don’t know the culture beyond the ceremonies which have survived and been transformed by modernization. Your opening paragraph hits me right in the heart because I do know more about Norse and Greek mythology, but I know nothing about I La Galigo. And, even worse, neither does anyone else! And I live in Makassar!


    • Hello Andi, thanks for your comment.
      I suspect you are one of many people who don’t know much about their own history and culture: we Australians are notoriously bad at it. My generation learned British history at school, not Australian, and generations that came after me learned have a lot of catching up to do about our Black history. Fortunately we live in an era where we can learn these things even after we’ve left school, and there’s a sharing culture of knowledge readily available online if we want to take advantage of it. Salam hangat, Lisa


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