Samples of ancestral myths: oral history

The following myths have been collected in the Atsabe subdistrict of Ermera district in 2002 by Molnar.

A.     Oral history; story of the first ancestors:

The earliest ancestors emerged from the earth. The very first ones were Loa Lae and Mau Lae. They emerged but continued to live deep within the earth, lime and earthen cave. The first ancestors were giants. When they emerged from the earth they emerged with tais buci [‘white flag’] that was so long that when the ancestor took it up to the Ramelau mountain it covered the mountain’s slope. Bu Leki was the wife of Loa Lae Mau Lae. They have the right over all of Timor; his and her descendants have rights to all of Timor. They had 2 children: Suri Mola and As Mola. Their founding house is called Acula Mundu. Their descendants spread to populate Ambon, Alor, Kisar and also Flores. These early ancestors were living on Ramelau Mountain. They were digging for salt. Then the flood came, the sea ran over the land right up to the Ramelau Mountain (tasi beno). So they had to build their homes on the top of Ramelau. When the sea receded there were no more trees left on the lower lands, everything was swept clean. Land was still very small at that time.  So the ancestors came down from the top of Ramelau and went to the earth cave of the first giant ancestors (they were still alive after many many generations). They looked down inside the giant hole/cave of the first ones. They asked for trees and vines to re-plant the earth. From below they were given the sacred basket (taka luli) filled with 20 tali hua (vines) and ai hua (fruit trees). 5 male and female pairs of ai mamar, ai ta buci, ai ora, ai ili goru, ai taha buci [all these are different local trees] and 5 male and female pairs of vines: tali si meta, ga tala, tali sogha, tali nena, tali oho gatal bote. Two ancestors, Mau Hui and Loko Hui made a menaka in Boboe. At that time the land was still very small so they threw fruits and vines (Sali tali hua) in different directions (scattered them) and in each direction the land expanded so the world grew bigger.

Four ancestors, Loe Mau, Dada Mau, Pi Kali Mau and Kali Mau went on a trip [Loe Mau and Dada Mau each founded a source house; Pi kali Mau and Kali Mau together founded one house]. They were heading to Liu Rai Tasi Balu, but only got as far as Lis Tete Bu Rema. It was very dark and they could not see the path. So they went to Loa Lae and Mau Lae to ask for a big male disc, cumara, and used this to light the path (pilo sala). On the way they went down to the river Luro and then went up to Le Boboe. With their spear, belaki, they made a hole in the earth after stabbing the earth. They looked inside and saw Bu Leki weaving. They threw down a very sweet orange. The ancestress was surprised as the orange fell on the tais. She called up to them: ‘speak Mambai’ [as an aside the teller explains, ‘the first language of Timor was Mambai’]. Then she said ‘mika ba kode’ [the orange is sweet]. Then the ancestors pulled up from that earth cave the sacred sword and spears and the sacred axe (belaki luli, suri luli, ta luli). Then the ancestors went to cut down some sacred trees (ai mamar, ai ta buci, ai ora, ai ili goru, and ai taha buci). There are no more sacred trees inside the earth, in the ancestral earth cave; they are all on top of the earth now. They cut down the trees to build houses but the sacred trees were so heavy they could not lift them. So they piled the trees on the sacred spears and then they could easily lift them to take back to the village. First they made rectangular houses with no roof. Then they remembered and made LOBOR, long houses with rooms for each family. But still they did not build a roof. When the big rains came they were always wet. They observed that their dog is always dry. So one day they tied the lime container with a piece of cloth to the dog’s neck and followed the chalk line. When it rained, the dog hid inside the lei (Imperata cylindrica) and was dry. So they collected lei (dut mau lei) and covered their houses. But with heavy rains they still got wet so they went to get a central post and two supporting posts and made a roof that they thatched with lei. Now that is how we make our uma lulik.

When they first wanted to make houses and the village, whenever they cut a tree or dug into the earth, the earth and trees screamed. So the ancestors went down (climbed down) into the earth cave of the first giant ancestors and asked what to do. The ancestors gave them taka ana with da’a no bo (small plated basket and betel/areca) and the LOI ANA. The four ancestors made a menaka from 4 stones and on top of the platform they placed their offering with the sacred beads (loi ana). After the offering the earth and the trees did not scream when wounded and it is still like that today.

Next came another great flood (tasi beno) where the sea level rose and flooded the land. The ancestors went war with the lord of the sea. Lelo Rae (equated with, as another name for, Loa Lae Mau Lae) went to war with Kuku Ratu Tasi Ratu. Lelo Rae asked the 4 ancestors to return the sacred swords and spears, and they did that. Lelo Rae chased the lord of the sea with the belaki luli. Chased it as far as Ba Tata. Lelo Rae speared Kuku Ratu Tasi Ratu until his tongue hung out. In Boboe Leten, Uma Tali Meta stored the tongue as its sacred heirloom. The name of the spear is Bere Bada Mau Lai; another spear used is called Cima Mo Lako (now it is the heirloom of Uma Bere Heu). So at Ba Tata the lord of the sea was killed. The spear Liu Rai La Gora was thrown away forward and landed by the rivers/streams Gora Racu and Gora Ai. The lord of the sea started to revive so at these rivers the ancestors cut the lord of the sea into pieces with the sacred sword. He kept hacking with the sword at the lord of the sea but the pieces kept reviving. But his wife, Abo Hine (title for first ancestress) came to help and with one hack cut off the head; so the lord of the sea finally (permanently) died. While the rest of the body was washed out to the sea as finally the sea retreated, the head stayed behind. It was so heavy that it could not be lifted. The head stayed by the rivers and was going to revive if not disposed of and then the sea would return and there would be flood. So the ancestor called up from inside the earth Manu napa tasi and he came. The ancestors (Lelo Rae and the four) told him that the head of the lord of the sea could not be lifted and could Manu napa tasi help? What payment should they give? Manu napa tasi said no payment is required but in the morning he will come and take chickens, pigs, dogs and goats. So Manu napa tasi lifted the head and carried it to Adi, a place on Ramelau. The spears and swords used to kill the lord of the sea lost their edge; they are now dull.

Next the ancestors built a dam from mi kase and ai tasi wood as a boundary for the sea. But this was not strong enough to hold the sea. So they looked for aka diru, a vine, to reinforce the woods from which the dam was built. So now there are no more aka diru vines here, all are down on the coast. When the sea rumbles these vines also make noises like when the winds make the reeds creak.

Next the ancestors went to look for good land and found it in Loes (now in Bobonaro district). They made their houses in Loes. There were 8 straight paths in Loes that led to the houses. The founding house in Loes is Uma Acu La Mundu. Houses were made like large granaries (lako bote). Loes was a very wealthy region, everything was plenty: animals and wealth inside the house. The ancestors Laku Mau Mese Mau went to look for Krisi Mau Talo Mau of the house Acu La Mundu and asked him to look for the feet of the lord of the sea so that the sea could not rise again and the lord of the sea could not revive. They searched for 7 years; on the coast they finally found the feet and speared them with the sacred spears and twisted the spears in counter-clock-wise direction so that the feet ran back to the sea.

By the time they returned to Loes, they found that all the animals and cumara mia (sacred cumara) were divided among the people of Timor –Loro Sa’e, Alas Betanu, Tutuala, Kupang, Liquiça and Maubara. The four ancestors (Loe Mau, Dada Mau, Pi Kali Mau and Kali Mau) were disappointed that in Loes they did not wait for them and they divided everything already.

Ancestors were called Kole Bau and Mau Bau. Their sons were called Rai Sa and Kelo Hale, respectively. Kole Bau Mau Bau gave the 4 ancestors a huge boulder called usi luli to place on top of the menaka in order to repair it and strengthen it since the sea eroded it.

Next they made multi-colored nesu luli (sacred mortar). They also raised 8 wooden posts that they brought from Loes. These posts are for hanging the meat of sacrificial animals (ri pun, ‘source’ post). Mau Bau was the elder brother and Kole Bau was the younger brother. They brought a cu’u bote (large earthen ware water jugs with narrow neck; like the ones used in Marobo). The 2 ancestors took the water jug and the sacred mortar to get sea water. Kole Bau told Mau Bau to get inside the nesu luli then dipped it into the sea then Kole Bau got inside the cu’u bote and also dipped into the sea. These then were taken to the village. As they set inside the containers the people have already gathered around the 8 posts with meat hanging from them. At night the 4 ancestors called the dog and the dog accidentally knocked over the containers that broke to pieces and the sea water ran out. As the sea water was returning to the seas it washed some people away while others ran and escaped. 7 ancestors ran to Ai Ede (close to Ramelau and Lemia)—a place of origin of the ancestors of Atsabe Kemak. The first ancestor Loa Lae Mau Lae also died at Ramelau and is buried there. The children of this giant first ancestor are Me Tasu and Bole Asu.

Others who escaped the sea water are the ones who populated Timor Loro Sa’e. The path they followed is as follows: to Maubara, Liquiça, Curi Leu, Rae Pu, Tibar, Bila Verde, Be Ai Kua. In Bila Verde they found an egg and took it with them. The place where this egg hatched they named Manututu. The ancestors whose chicken that was, were called Me Tasu and Bole Tasu. They gave the name to the land of Manututu at La Lia, where the egg hatched. As they went on the place where the chick made a sweet sound they named Be Masi. The ancestors had many children and their descendants now populate the eastern part of East Timor.

Those ancestors that were washed out to sea became the ancestors of other people, but they are all descendant from Timor. Two ancestors whose names are not known were washed away by the sea as far as Angola. Their father was from Loes. One day when this ancestor was sitting in the morning his tais slipped down so his butt was showing. His children saw this and were laughing at him. So the father said to them ‘one day when you have children their skin will be black and their hair will be crinkly’. So that is why the Angolan Timorese are black with crinkly hair.

Other ancestors that were washed out by the sea landed on West Timor, Alor, Flores, Kisar and Ambon. These people are descendants of Flores. The Portuguese first went to Ambon, then Alor and then Flores before coming here. The Dutch were already in Maubara. The Portuguese once in Alor talked to the Dutch. The Dutch had rights over Timor. But the Portuguese negotiated to get Timor and the Dutch can have Alor. If the Portuguese did not do this then the whole of Timor would have belonged to the Indonesians since they (Dutch) used to have their seat in Maubara.

The Portuguese first sent a survey mission to check Timor before coming. Part of this team were Soki, Ar Biru, Balenti and Domingus. They came and colonized Timor. But nobody else has rights to Timor. The first ancestor from below the earth emerged with the sign of his and his descendant’s right to Timorese land; with the white flag – tais buci and also the lei. Only Timorese have uko (authority) over Timor. When the first ancestor was dying he divided the languages as well. His language was MAMBAI, the first language of Timor, he divided, Kemak, Makassai, Tetun, Galoli, Bunaq, all languages of Timor Island, even those of West Timor.


B. Myth that syncretizes local stories with Christian themes (teller with some schooling)

        God gave the people TO THE EARTH. They knew God when he came to visit. The first end of the world in disaster that wiped out all people occurred after the age of Hava and Adam. This first phase from creation to the end lasted 4000 years. After the flood that wiped out most people, the land was repopulated. This repopulation phase lasted for 3000 years. But this stage of history also ends with a flood that wipes out most people. Over the next 2000 years the land is again repopulated.  Then there is another flood and this is Noah’s flood. And few Timorese people survived because the seas rose to the top of the mountains and very little dry land remained. During this last flood the people looked to the sky and saw a bright shining sun and thought that this was God who came for a visit, like he promised when he gave the people to the earth. So they decided to go to the top of the mountain and talk to God, but they were afraid. There were 4 people. Then the sun was shadowed (blocked out) and it seemed one person has disappeared. But what really happened while the sun was shadowed is that he went ahead and when he got to the top he saw a ladder extending from the sky. So with one foot he stepped on the ladder and as he tried to place the other foot on the rung his foot was cut off…the ladder was sharp, so as he tried to climb both feet were cut off. And both his hands were cut off and as he fell his nose got cut off as well. So he fell to the ground. The other three finally made it to the top. The dismembered man told them that the ladder is sharp like swords. They all thought that the fellow got punished since he first did not ask for permission to enter the sky. So the three asked for God’s forgiveness and permission to enter. God’s voice instructed them to get protection for their head, hands and feet and then they climbed up to talk to God. They wanted to ask God how to make the sea retreat. They went up and came down but forgot what they talked to God about. This went on a few times: go up, descend, forget, go up, descend and forget. Finally God gave them sacred spears and swords. These are now guarded in uma luliks in three places: Belehetu, Belelelo and Atsabe. The first two guard the stars and the sun and Atsabe guards the earth. The three places are in Boboe Craic, Aileu (uma Ho Hulu), and Atudame (uma Hatulau). When they got the weapons, they also received instructions on how to use these to make the sea recede. First, they received instructions on how to make iron weapons, how to make them and beat them on mallet. They were also given a sacred staff and trumpet and told how to get the sea to recede. They were also ordered to always take care of the lame and sick. All diseases are the consequence of that first man not asking for permission first when stepping on the ladder and wanting to enter God’s domain. The flood and the rise of the sea into the mountains were caused by a HUGE WHALE. It jumped up so high that when it landed, it drove all the water to rise up. The sea rose to Mota Bendera (name of Atsabe waterfall). The spears and swords were for killing the whale. They were for cutting its head off to show God as proof. When they did this, the sea started to recede. One (of the three men) was afraid and followed the people out to the beach as they followed the receding sea. The others (2 of the three) stayed and went home. There the people told them to return and first show the head of the whale to God. So they went back up to the top to show the head and asked God whether the head should stay on Earth or God wants to take it up to into his realm. God told them it can stay on earth and to burry it in a cave (acu gua) or on top of the branches of a banyan tree (nunu). The peak where the encounter with God occurred is that of Lame Lau (Ramelau) mountain. And the peak now is the place of the ancestors: Tata Mai Lau.


C. The Earth and the Sky:

Cuha, is the vine that connected the Earth and Sky in the past. Earth and sky were connected by a huge thick vine (cuha) and that way the people of the two realms could visit and God could talk directly to the people. Lelo hine and lelo mane’s voice was close in those days. The earth and the sky were linked on top of the Dar Lau Mountain.

One day a man sent his wife to the top of Dar Lau to get fire, while he looked after the children. When the woman got to the top of the mountain she heard beautiful music coming from the sky realm. The people in the sky were playing (pinging on) the lu’u (brass spiral armbands). The woman was so mesmerized by the music that she went up on the vine to the sky realm. It was already late at night and she still did not return. The children were crying already as they were hungry. The husband was getting angrier and angrier and was very jealous. In anger he started to sharpen the sacred heirloom sword. He was going to kill her. He sharpened and sharpened and tested it on his hand so that it was sharp enough. He then went up to the top of Dar Lau and in anger severed the vine connecting earth and sky. The sky flew up and up. That is why God’s voice is too far for us to hear and no longer does Lelo hine lelo mane talk to us directly. Lelo hine and lelo mane used to tell us what to do and how to do it if we had problems, like when we were sick. The sacred suri is still present. A chunk from the edge of the blade is missing. It broke off when the huge vine was chopped. The sacred sword that cut the vine is called siaka daka tai. It belongs to the luli objects of Uma Mali Ubu in Lemia Leten village.


D. Founding ancestor of the Atsabe king: myth describes him as the conqueror of the other people in Atsabe

        Koko Lio first lived in Ainaro, Hatubuilico. Next he went travelling and his journey took him across Ramelau. He decided to settle in Genu Mera in Lemia where he left behind is authority in the form of the first Acu Boso and Aitos. [acu boso is the stone platform called menaka by all other groups of Atsabe, including Lemia Leten]. These not only served as a sign that he once settled there but that he had the authority over the place and he was the ruler. He possessed a sacred tablet, the size of a cassette, which he could order to make a loud sound that would gather all the people together. When the people came to see what the noise was, he announced to them that he is the king and he has authority over the place. Next he travelled to Soru Aci in Laclo.  The king there bowed down to Koko Lia and submitted to his authority and that domain was also integrated into the growing domain of Koko Lia. The various chiefs submitted to Koko Lia and allowed to be integrated into his kingdom, because he possessed three luli (sacred) objects: the tablet, a rattan staff that could change into a snake and a special weapon—a gun from which lightning emitted. He could also travel with superhuman speed and glowed like the sun. After Soru Aci, Koko Lia went to Ai Lea (now town of Atsabe in the center of the subdistrict); then he continued to travel back up to the Dar Lau Mountain and also brought the king of Lemia into submission. The king was Lei mia. When Lei mia and Koko Lia were descending from the Dar Lau mountain Lei mia spat betel spittle upwards and it landed close by at Kumbia (river in territory of present Lemia Leten people).[1] When Koko Lia spat, his betel spittle landed very far, at Abu Rema. There is a spring there called Lias Tete which originated from his spittle. The king of that region, the king of Lias Tete also submitted to the authority of Koko Lia at the Atsabe Lau Mountain. King of Lias Tete was Loko Ubu. So the entire domain of Atsabe kingdom was built by Koko Lia as all the local kings submitted to his authority and sacred power. Koko Lia’s domain extended over a wide territory with borders to Atabae, Bobonaro, Hatubuilico and Aileu at Orna Mau Siga. One of his wives came from Atabae and Koko Lia gave his uma mane (wife-giving house) the right to govern Atabae. The domain of Atsabe remained the same until the time of Dom Siprianu (king of Atsabe) prior to the Japanese invasion. Dom Siprianu then extended the territory of the Atsabe kingdom into Suai. Koko Lia sent his younger brother to acquire and govern the territory of West Timor. His brother was called Nai Loko and he was to govern the Wehali kingdom.  But the people there did not accept him and rebelled against his rule. He returned to report this to his brother, Koko Lia in Atsabe. So next, Koko Lia sent his YOUNGEST brother, Nai Saur who became king of Wehali. Koko Lia possessed sacred power so strong that all his wives were killed by it. Only the wife he took from Uma Kai Si Ubu in Obulo survived because before he took her as wife he transferred his sacred power into a ko (gong). This gong is now a sacred heirloom protected by the uma luli. Koko Lia’s staff and tabled, the other sacred objects were taken by Mortago, a Portuguese stationed in Hatolia to the Museum in Lisbon. The gong will sound by itself as a warning and omen that a member of the house will die.



Traditional Weaver in Atsabe preparing the multi-colored threads for weaving

Weekly Market Day in Atsabe


During market day one always finds a cock-fight game going—the next contenders are preparing to fight


Women in their traditional attire play drums and dance


Playing the drums and gongs



[1] In the myths of all other people of Atsabe this story is told as a first ancestor story with the origin place in Lemia and on Dar Lau. Koko Lia’s story is told much later in the accounts of oral history and his conquering of the Atsabe people is emphasized.

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