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(cover picture) Hoskins, Janet and Laura Scheerer Whitney
1991 Horses of Life and Death. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 26 minutes
Reviewed 11 May 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Ethnology - Indonesia - Sumba Island
Horses - Indonesia - Sumba Island
Sumba Island (Indonesia) - Social life and customs
Sumba Island (Indonesia) - Religion - 20th century
Funeral rites and ceremonies - Indonesia - Sumba Island

ABSTRACT:    In an informative and emotional portrayal, the roles of men and women, of crops and sea creatures, and of the ever-central horse in Sumbanese life are presented and interconnected.

In Women of Value, Men of Renown Annette Weiner found “that certain important dimensions of the value of women have been overlooked” (1976: 12), particularly in the domain of mortuary rituals where women had critical functions distinct from but not inferior to those of men. This is one of several worthwhile points made in the film “Horses of Life and Death,” an older (1991) ethnographic movie that deserves a second look. The program focuses on the island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia (not too far from Weiner’s research site), where a breed of small horse that was brought to island centuries ago “has become an important part of ritual…and serves as a spirit companion in Sumbanese celebrations of life and death.” The film proceeds, significantly, in two movements: first, from a male perspective and second, from a female point of view.

In the first part, a young man opens the section by discussing the role of horses in his family and Sumbanese culture. The (male) priests explain their sacred charge to protect the harvest and to placate the sea spirits. The key spirit-beings seem to be the sea worms; the priests and other men sing to, and collect, sea worms. Anticipating the later point of gender, according to their myth the worms originally came from the body of a woman, which disintegrated into the multicolored creatures. The crops (rice and corn) also came from the body of a girl: a man cut his daughter’s throat, and rice and corn grew from her sacrificed body. The sea worms return each year to receive their own sacrifice, in this case chicken. (Brief scenes of the chicken sacrifice are included). Humans must make this offering in order to request a good harvest. The harvest also cannot begin until after horse-jousting festivities or Pasola, which places males and their horses in the position of the fertile ones, the life-givers of the society.

The young man reappears to talk about being a champion, about being “real men and bravest men.” The Pasola is an arena for male display and achievement; like a joust, the riders prowl each other and throw lances at their opponents, and several minutes of action are shown. And like so many male conflict rituals, it is surrounded by rules of proper competition—norms of attack are clear and strict, and no feuding may happen between combatants afterward. The point of all the ceremonial activity is to receive the sea worms.

In the second part, a female translator’s voice represents the attitudes of women. As with the men, the horse is believed to be the companion of a person’s spirit; together human and horse share the same fate and travel the same path through life and death. However, if production (both natural and social) is the province of men, then death is the province of women. Only women take on taboos and sing at funerals; men cannot mourn with songs like women do. (Compare this fact to “Funeral Chants of the Georgian Caucasus,” also reviewed on this site, where only men perform the mortuary songs.) When the body comes out of the house, the oldest son must ride the man’s horse and leads the funeral procession out of the village. The dead man must make a long journey, and it is his horse that takes him there. The horse is given to his mother’s village and can be killed or spared: in the case portrayed in the film, the animal is spared as a way to keep the man’s name alive. The local buffalo are not so lucky: several are sacrificed for the deceased (and the program shows a painful buffalo sacrifice, the beast held by multiple ropes while a man hacks at its neck). The dead man’s soul thus arrives in the next world with gold, cloth, and animals “in a procession of horses, buffalo, and finery.”

At funerals they—mostly the women, in particular the closely related women like mother, wife, and daughters—have to touch things that are dangerous and dirty, and only the mother can carry the pollution away. Interestingly, the deceased does not even know he is dead for 4 days; during this time, he stays near the family home and is still fed as if alive. However, on the fourth day he realizes he is dead and begins his posthumous existence. In the meantime, a diviner seeks to discover why the man died and which ancestor spirit is angry.

“Horses of Life and Death” is a delightful and ultimately quite moving presentation about the lives and beliefs of a little-known society. Human life, horse life, agriculture, and sea creatures all comprise an integrated social and ritual picture. Men and women each play a different but essential role in the maintenance of the practical and spiritual life of the community, and always the horse stands in the center: at the end of life, “We will all go back, led by the horse rope, to the creator.”

Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of religion, anthropology of sex/gender and Southeast Asian studies, as well as general audiences.


Weiner, Annette B. 1976. Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange. Austin: University of Texas Press.