Around 85% of the Florinese people are Roman Catholic. The Muslim people, who make up a minority of the population, mostly settled in coastal areas where they built fishing communities. Up to the present, Christianity and Islam have gone hand in hand with notions and practices of traditional belief systems.
As in many parts of Eastern Indonesia, traditional belief systems in Flores are often based upon a concept of complementary opposites, e.g. man/woman, inside/outside, sky/earth, mountain/sea, old/young, that are conceived to be interacting pairs in a circle of life. In the past – and to some extent in the present – people were deeply concerned about keeping this circle closed and ensuring the continuity of life through ritual activities.
In line with this concept, many Florinese societies share the notion of a double-gendered divinity: integrating male and female features, this divine creature keeps the wheel of life turning – as long as people on Earth do not forget the adequate rituals and ceremonial offerings.
Besides this divine being, the spirits of dead ancestors are also a major driving force in the circle of life. As they are still believed to interact with living people, they also have to be appeased with frequent offerings. Furthermore, there are numerous spirits – ranging from friendly and protective to evil-minded ones – who are said to interfere with the lives of the living. The village’s dukun, a traditional healer, has the special ritual knowledge needed to communicate with the spirits. However, not only the dukun deals with supernatural issues – concepts and practices of magic in general are still present in the daily life of many Florinese people.
Ritual and ceremonial life
Ritual activities are part of a more general set of customary practices, which are often referred to as ‘adat’ in Indonesia. There is no consistent definition for adat. Local people generally use the term to refer to the way of life of their ancestors.
The concept of adat also includes moral, legal, social, and material issues. Adat is manifested in manifold ways, e.g. in a traditional way of producing items like woven cloth or palm sugar; in songs, ritual language, traditional jurisdiction; in matrimonial processes; as well as in moral standards. As adat is strongly linked to local ancestral history and way of life, the expressions and practices of adat also differ locally, therewith contributing to the cultural wealth and uniqueness of Flores.
Even though incompatible at first sight, the Florinese adat has not been entirely displaced by Catholicism or Islam, nor by the nation state, but has been integrated into these establishments. However, the persistence of adat depends on the respective sphere of life.
Some of the long-standing ritual procedures are still retained to keep the ancestral spirits well disposed, especially at transitional stages of a person’s life, e.g. birth, marriage, death, education, house construction, as well as important events in the agricultural cycle such as planting, harvesting, or developing a new piece of land. Other issues frequently accompanied by rituals are dreams, health matters, and travelling.
Rituals may require offerings in the form of animal sacrifice: chickens for smaller, private rituals; pigs, cows, and buffaloes for major events, e.g. marriages or funerals. The ancestral spirits have to be addressed with a special ritual language, which is only known by the ketua adat, the male village elders who are well versed in local adat matters.
Collective rituals and ceremonies are often held in a village’s adat (ceremonial) house, the village center, at special places in the forest or the communal fields, as well as at sacred watering places. Besides the big collective ceremonies, rituals in the private realm are held frequently in order to ensure that the ancestors take care of the family’s well being.