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La Quête en épouse: une épopée palawan chantée par Mäsinu. The Quest for a Wife: A Palawan Epic Sung by Mäsinu, Nicole Revel (in French and English, with English translation by Patricia Railing and Nicole Revel)

Paris: UNESCO & L’Asiathèque, Langues & Mondes, 2000, xvi+428 p., 8 photos, and CD (45 mn)
Clifford Sather
p. 172-174
Référence(s) :

Nicole Revel (in French and English, with English translation by Patricia Railing and Nicole Revel), La Quête en épouse: une épopée palawan chantée par Mäsinu. The Quest for a Wife: A Palawan Epic Sung by Mäsinu, Paris: UNESCO & L’Asiathèque, Langues & Mondes, 2000, xvi+428 p., 8 photos, and CD (45 mn).

Texte intégral

1Between them, in their writings on the Palawan, Nicole Revel and her former husband, Charles Macdonald, have given us one of the richest, most illuminating corpuses of anthropological literature that exist for any single Philippine society. The present work is a welcome addition to this already impressive body of work.

2The Quest for a Wife records an epic Palawan song, both as a written text and commentary and in the form of a partial, 45-minute recording of the song itself (whose full performance lasts three hours) on a compact disk that accompanies the volume. The quality of the CD is superb, and by listening to it, the reader is able to follow the song’s narrative, while at the same time gaining some sense of the performance milieu and how the song sounds and is responded to by a Palawan audience. “It would be impossible to sing an epic alone,” Revel tells us (p. 351), “brief comments and exclamations… shared humour, joy and sadness, are indispensable to the singer as he chants,” and the CD gives us at least a hint of this verbal empathy between performer and audience that the written text alone cannot convey.

3In a brief foreword, the author locates the singing of epics (and their recording) in a phenomenal world mediated by the senses, in particular, by what she calls “aural sensitivity” (sensibilité auditive). “Like a bird, the ethnographer descends into a landscape and listens to the music of the world,” including the spoken language of a human community, “chats exchanged in daily life… play on words,” songs and poetry, and from what he hears, “he may be tempted to project the beauty of a song onto the space of a white page” (p. 339).

4And so it is here. In The Quest for a Wife, the author proceeds directly to the song text. This is presented first in Palawan and, on the facing page, in French and English translation. The book is divided into two parts and line annotations appear at the end of the first, textual half of the volume, again, in both French and English. These are especially useful in that much of the narrative unfolds through dialogue, including formulaic expressions of greeting, and ritualized exchanges of hospitality.

5The epic is about a young man named Mämiminbin and his search for a wife. Almost as soon as the song begins, Mämiminbin finds the woman of his desire. She is bathing in a river, and the hero, despite the advice of his pet pigeons not to abduct a woman, approaches her unseen, and, as she bathes, he winds her hair around the shaft of his spear. Startled and outraged to find herself caught in this way, she calls for her elder brother to rescue her. Hearing her screams, her brother, Labit, appears. The two men, however, feel an instant bond of sympathy, and Labit asks his sister to accept Mämiminbin’s proposal of marriage. The young woman refuses. Enraged, Mämiminbin accuses Labit of living in an incestuous state with his sister and challenges him to a battle. The two heroes fight for seven months, until Labit decides to break off the struggle and so flies to the home of Grandfather Thunder. Grandfather Thunder then intercedes, mediating the quarrel between Mämiminbin and Labit and, at the same time, healing Mämiminbin by cooling his rage and restoring him to reason. The two heroes then return to the earthly world, where Mämiminbin again proposes marriage to Labit’s sister and is once more refused.

6To forget his longing, Mämiminbin journeys to the middle of the sea. Here, he meets and is befriended by the Lady of Fishes. The two form a blood-pact, thereby becoming brother and sister. This act sets the stage for the conclusion of the epic, which ends with a socially ideal double-exchange marriage between sibling sets, with the brother of one brother-sister pair marrying the sister of the other. Meanwhile, back in this world, Labit’s sister experiences a change of heart when she discovers that Mämiminbin’s pet pigeons have the power to turn fruit seeds into rice and gold objects. She then commands her brother to go in search of Mämiminbin and to bring him back. This he does. The three then return to the earthly world, where the two friends exchange sisters in marriage, with Mämiminbin marrying Labit’s sister and Labit marrying the Lady of Fishes.

7Having worked not far from Palawan Island, along the Malaysian edge of the Sulu Archipelago, among Sama-speaking Bajau Laut (or Sama Dilaut), I was struck in reading the text by its many similarities to the epic songs sung by Bajau Laut spirit mediums. Like Palawan singers, Bajau Laut mediums also lie down while they sing, and the epics they relate are also characteristically structured around a quest for a wife, often taken from the upper world. In her commentary, Revel connects epic singing with ritual healing among the Palawan. For Bajau Laut mediums, this connection is even more direct and explicit. Not only do the songs relate “the ways of the ancestors,” but singing them is said to attract an audience of unseen ancestors, whose presence during the performance works to cure those who are ill or in need of comfort.

8In the second half of The Quest for a Wife, the author analyzes the plot of the Mämiminbin epic, discusses the use of voice, singing technique, and language by epic singers, and describes the relationship of the Mämiminbin epic to other Palawan song genres. She also relates the circumstances that surrounded her first hearing of the Mämiminbin epic and those that led to its eventual recording and the present translation. Through an extended interview, she traces the social, personal, and artistic development of the singer, Mäsinu Intaräy, who is also a village headman and curer, and comments on the ways in which these latter roles are reflected in the content of his song. Mäsinu is clearly an accomplished singer, and after listening to the CD, we are not surprised to learn from the book’s flyleaf that, several years before the final recording of the present epic, he received a National Living Treasure Award from the Philippine Government.

9In this second half of the book, Revel offers a broadly structural and sociological analysis of the epic. She sees it primarily as a story about etiquette (p. 237). The song figuratively describes, she argues, “a journey from unseemly to seemly conduct” and in singing it, the singer not only entertains his audience, but “gives his listeners a lesson in good behaviour” (p. 415). While insightful, particularly in making sense of the often elaborately mannered dialogue exchanged between the song’s principal characters, which Revel rightly characterizes as a veritable “avalanche of good manner and courteous formulas” (p. 237), one cannot help but wonder whether this is not an “overly socialized” interpretation. The central characters of the song are not, after all, the socially exemplary Labit or the impeccably mannered Lady of Fishes, but, rather, Mämiminbin and Labit’s sister, both of whom the singer describes as literally “smoking” with passion and fury. By contrast, one is struck by the way in which his affability and good manners render Labit almost totally passive throughout the narrative. Rather, one might argue, Mämiminbin’s impetuous act of winding the young woman’s hair on his spear shaft, and hers of refusing to leave her brother’s house for that of a husband, both highlight the dramatic tension, central to the story, between the twin perils of abduction on the one hand, and incest on the other—the one of taking without giving and the other of refusing to give—with their opposite, the societal ideal of this notably egalitarian society, that of two men engaged in an equal exchange, each, without resort to bridewealth, giving to the other a sister in return for a wife. That one can arrive at such alternative readings of the Mämiminbin narrative should not be taken as a criticism of The Quest for a Wife. On the contrary, it is high praise, a commentary on the richness of this work, the anthropological insight and industry that Revel has applied to recording and documenting this epic tale, and the creative genius of the Palawan themselves in giving us such an absorbing story.

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Référence papier

Clifford Sather, « La Quête en épouse: une épopée palawan chantée par Mäsinu. The Quest for a Wife: A Palawan Epic Sung by Mäsinu, Nicole Revel (in French and English, with English translation by Patricia Railing and Nicole Revel) », Moussons, 6 | 2002, 172-174.

Référence électronique

Clifford Sather, « La Quête en épouse: une épopée palawan chantée par Mäsinu. The Quest for a Wife: A Palawan Epic Sung by Mäsinu, Nicole Revel (in French and English, with English translation by Patricia Railing and Nicole Revel) », Moussons [En ligne], 6 | 2002, mis en ligne le 19 décembre 2013, consulté le 23 janvier 2018. URL :

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Clifford Sather

University of Helsinki

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Les contenus de la revue Moussons sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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