Animist beliefs and bronze drums decoration

Animism is older than the hills but the word is relatively new, brought into use in 1870 by Sir Edward Tylor an Englishman who founded Anthropology as a University discipline. He defined animism as “a belief that all natural objects, including humans, have spirits or souls” and the word itself was adopted by all.When Darwin’s theory of evolution was under hot debate,Tylor saw all other religions as evolving from animism and “summed up all of Man’s interconnected behaviours, beliefs and perceptions into one word: Culture”.


Cultures in Southeast Asia, as everywhere, can take multiple forms to be specified in corresponding national chapters, but the permanent strength of so-called animism for people(s), had remained fundamental up to now. Asian countries’ cultures cannot be understood without reference to good or bad spirits nor without a concept of environment composed of animal or vegetal (if not mineral) having a kind of soul-with ways of transmigration for all. Basically, interchanges were the rule not only between the visible and invisible worlds but also between all creatures throughout the ages including ancestors first. In their tombs, at least for rich people, bronze drums or parts of them, often a frog or a handle, would be put near the bodies to help to maintain this kind of dialogue.


At least it was the situation in south-east Asia before the coming from western neighbours of what was called the “Indianisation” era bringing new beliefs called principally Hinduism and Buddhism, before Islam and Christianity-always opposed but never winner of animist remaining instincts.


Note: Animism and newcomers (Hinduism; Buddhism; Islam; Christianity) were often inclusive beliefs in eastern Asia, i.e. a person can be animist and Hindhuist at the same time. In fact monks or priests, exorcists who cite appropriate scriptures, would always leave place to a corpus of “spirit doctors”, mediums and/or shamans, said able to go further or at least differently.


3.1. Bronze drums decorations in relation with reality and/or local beliefs

Drums decorations certainly referred to people’s local environment but probably also to abstract concepts difficult to understand nowadays. We must look briefly at these basic schemas of decorations to subsequently avoid repetitions and be able to better understand their specificities country by country and/or by drum’s type. Bearing in mind that mystery remains the rule and that nobody can really say, in absence of any written references, what were the true thoughts of the first people(s) casting bronze drums and the true significance of their decorations.


Decoration of Tympanum or Tympan or Top, etc. (with different sizes of diameter)

Head of the bronze drum, tympan wore generally in their centre what was further called “star” (or sun, the more visible star) with a number of rays varying from 6 to 16 (Fig. 5). Around it, in circular bands, geometric patterns and/or living scenes could be alternately featured.

Geometric “a-plat” patterns, simple or complex abstracts, could include meanders and spirals on pure “geometric drums” or were accompaniment forscenes on either tympanum or mantles (Figs. 6 and 7).


The living scenes could be composed of bands including birds (herons, phoenixes, magpies or others) (and)/or frogs or snails or other animals or plants in-relief. And also houses of different types: bigger or smaller, on piles or not, and men, maybe warriors, dancers, or musicians, often wearing head-dress of hornbill feathers and shields. Not forgetting boats, either looking as ocean vessels with big prows either as basic river canoes (Fig. 8).

High reliefs added

Animals: frogs, elephants, snails, poultry… could be put in relief four times by quarter around the tympanum and sometimes in procession on each side down the cylinder. The number of these copulating or not animals can much vary according to the drums’ type.


3.2. Bronze Drums’usages, basically musical instruments

Different sounds are expected to be made by percussion on bronze drums, becoming “metallophone” and no more “membranophone” to compare with their predecessors in wood covered with skins. Each drum producing by chance a different tone a full octave could be covered; in total a good result if we compare with the majority of other early instruments and sufficient to emit any kind of signals if necessary, from croaks’ scream imitations for water quests to thundering noises in case of wars.


The express condition to get loud nice sounds was to take care of the best acoustic positions of drums, letting the mantle’s box of resonance adequately “opened”.