The Honey Tree Song
Poems and Chants of Sarawak Dayaks

By Carol Rubenstein

The Honey Tree Song is a unique and gratifying work, bridging anthropology, literature and folklore.”

Barbara Myerhoff, Anthropologist, University of California, Los Angeles

“By learning what the materials actually meant to the peoples producing them, Rubenstein has brought to a western audience some sense of the inner visions of the peoples of Sarawak.… Her success has been enormous and her work has in fact become a major bridge in comprehension between the two cultures.”

David L. Szanton, Social Science Research Council, New York City

The Dayaks of Sarawak in Borneo, formerly headhunters, have long fascinated anthropologists and other travelers to the region. In recent years, however, mounting social, political, and economic pressures from the outside world have threatened their society and traditions. In 1971 Rubenstein began a three-year project of collecting and translating Dayak oral literature in order to preserve the insights, knowledge, and vision of these remote peoples. The Honey Tree Strong is the result of that project and of two additional years in the area, presenting the ceremonial chants and lyric poems associated with various crucial phases of Dayak life.

Rubenstein presents the oral literature of the seven major Dayak groups: Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Kelabit, Kayan, Kenyah, and Penan. The collection is organized by central events, along with their related rites, in the Dayak life cycle, and each chapter carries an introduction treating the circumstances, ceremonies, and significance of these events. Chapters include “Childbirth and Cradle Songs,” “Chants of Initiation,” “Courtship and Marriage,” “Hunting and Gathering,” “Farming and Sacrifice,” “Building and Journeying,” “Disaster, Sickness, and Healing,” “Festivals, Greetings, and Farewells,” and “The Ending and Thereafter.”

This is the first extensive, systematic collection of the songs and chants of these remote peoples, an achievement contributing greatly to our understanding of their oral literature and its ritual base. Aside from their value for linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists, however, these poems are inherently appealing. Love, death, survival, and the needs of body and spirit are never far from the consciousness of the Dayak, and their oral lyrics are spirited, vivid expressions of human insight and passion.


Carol Rubenstein is an American poet with a background of studies in anthropology and mythology. A graduate of Bennington College and Johns Hopkins University, she has received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and the Eben Demarest, and has been the recipient of awards from PEN and the Columbia University Translation Center. Most recently, she is a recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Related Subjects

Southeast Asian Studies · Asian Studies · Asian Literature

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978-0-8214-0413-3
Out-of-print