Malay ghost myths

Malay ghost myths

There are many Malay ghost myths, remnants of old animist beliefs that have been shaped by later Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim influences in the modern states of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Some ghost concepts such as the female vampires Pontianak and Penanggal are shared throughout the region. Ghosts are a popular theme in modern Malaysian and Indonesian movies.



Traditional ghost beliefs are rooted in prehistoric animist beliefs. However, the area has long had extensive contact with other cultures, and these have affected the form of some of the legends.[1] Trade links with Indian kingdoms and with China were established several centuries BCE.[2] The Hindu Majapahit kingdom was founded in eastern Java in the late 13th century, and its influence stretched over much of Indonesia.[3] Islam had become the dominant religion in Java and Sumatra by the end of the 16th century. For the most part, Islam also overlaid and mixed with existing cultural and religious influences.[4] For example, the festival of Mandi Safar, in which the people bathe in the sea or river and perform ceremonies that purify and protect against misfortune, and which also serves to introduce marriageable young people, has Tamil Hindu origins, although after the introduction of Islam it was given new meaning as a festival to celebrate the recovery of Mohammed from an illness.[5] The festival has long been banned in Malaysia on the grounds that it contravenes the teaching of Islam, but continues to be celebrated in Malaysia and Indonesia.[6]

Traditional beliefs

In traditional religions, still held by some isolated groups, Semangat is the general word for "soul", which can leave the person's body temporarily in dreams and finally at death. When the soul leaves the body it assumes the form of a homunculus, and in this form can feed on the souls of others. At death, the soul either returns to the creator passes, directly or indirectly, into another person, animal or plant. The spirit or ghost, usually called the anitu, continues to linger and may be harmful to its survivors.[7]

An old Malay belief is that a person's ghost the haunts their grave for seven days before departing to the underworld. Ghosts may also return and take possession of a living person, causing madness.[8] Ghosts are generally are believed to be active only at night time, especially during a full moon.[9] Ghosts may torment the living, causing illness and misfortune. One way to evade such a ghost is for all the victims to formally change their name, so that when the ghost returns it will not recognize them. Another is to tempt the ghost with a meal. When the ghost turns into an animal such as a chicken so that it can eat, it may be killed and destroyed.[10]

Ghosts traditionally were blamed for some illnesses. To cure them, the shaman in a village would burn incense, recite incantations, and in some cases sacrifice a goat and wash its blood into the river to appease the ghost. The Ulik Mayang dance might be performed to heal the person by driving out the ghost.[citation needed]

Variety of ghosts

Hantu is the general term for ghost or evil spirit. There are many types of Hantu.

Female ghosts and vampires

Pontianak is a Malay vampire. She is said to be the ghost of a woman who died during pregnancy or childbirth, or the vengeful spirit of a woman murdered by her own lover. Normally she is seen at the roadside or under a tree, sometime accompanied by a baby. The vengeful Pontianak may appear young and beautiful to entice men to come near, when she will turn into an ugly old woman with sharp teeth who will attack the victim and try to drink their blood. She can be killed by an iron nail driven into her neck, but if the nail is ever removed she will come back to life. She is depicted as wearing a full white dress, which may be bloodstained, with very long hair, long fangs and long fingernails. When she is close, she gives off a strong smell like flowers. Hantu Langsuir is another name for this ghost, generally used for the woman who has died in childbirth, and who is less dangerous.[11]

The Indonesian Kuntilanak is similar to Pontianak, but more commonly takes the form of a bird and sucks the blood of virgins and young women. In the female form, when a man approaches her she suddenly turns and reveals that her back is hollow (more accurately called Sundel Bolong). The bird, which makes a "ke-ke-ke" sound as it flies, may be sent through black magic to make a woman sick, the characteristic symptom being vaginal bleeding.[12]

Penanggalan is another type of female vampire attracted to the blood of new born infants, who appears as the head of a woman from which her entrails trail, used to grasp her victim. There are several stories of her origins. One is that she was a woman who was sitting meditating in a large wooden vat used for making vinegar when she was so startled that her head jumped up from her body, pulling her entrails with it. Another has her as a normal woman during the day, whose head and entrails leave her body at night. If a baby is expected, branches from the thistle, jeruju placed around the doors or windows will protect the house, since her entrails will be caught by the thorns.[11] The Philippine Manananggal is a similar vampire who can separate her upper torso from her lower body in order to fly in the night with huge bat-like wings to prey on unsuspecting, pregnant women in their homes, using an elongated proboscis-like tongue.[13] A similar concept is also found with the Thai Krasue.[14]

Hantu Bajang is a spirit who takes the form of a fox or polecat and who eats fetuses and drinks the milk of lactating women. A variant is Hantu Kopek (Nipple ghost), who appears as an old woman with pendulous breasts. The striations of pregnancy are said to be the scars left by the attack of the bajang. Sharp metal objects such as scissors placed near the baby will help to protect it from the bajang.[15]

Ghosts as agents of Bomohs

A bomoh is a black magic practitioner who may create ghosts or bring them under his control to do his bidding.

Polong is a spirit ghost that can be used by a black magic practitioner to harm someone. It is said to have been created from the blood of a murdered person and this blood is put into a bottle for one to two weeks before the spirit is invoked with incantations and magic spells. The owner must feed the polong daily with blood from his finger.[16]

Pelesit is another ghost made by magic, in this case from the tongue of a stillborn child. It enters a house in the form of a cricket or house fly, and spreads misery and unhappiness in advance of the arrival of a polong. It also drinks blood from open cuts or wounds. Both the pelsit and the polong can be forced to reveal the name of their owner through magical questioning.[17]

Toyol or Tuyul is a small child spirit invoked by a bomoh from a dead human fetus using black magic. It is possible to buy a toyol from such a bomoh. The toyol may be used to steal things from other people, or to do mischief. A toyol is considered to be childlike in their thinking. Valuables can be protected by scattering beans on the floor, or leaving sweets or toys next to them, all of which will distract the toyol.[18] It is said that the owner of a Tuyul may become rich, but at the expense of the health, fortune and even the lives of members of their family.[19]

A Hantu Raya (great ghost) is the most dangerous of Malay ghosts. It has great strength and can change into any shape, may help its owner become rich and may cause harm or death to the owner's enemies. However, the ghost may also impersonate the owner, making love to his wife. The ghost is said to have a limited range, being unable to go far from its home.[20]

Other ghosts

There are many other types of traditional Malay ghost:

  • Ceplos is a type of childish youthful male ghost which main objective is to protect its owner, especially warding off other black magic practitioner or ghost owner.
  • Hantu Air (water phantom) also called Hantu laut (sea phantom) is a water spirit or ghost that lives in rivers, pools or the sea. It may be the ghost of someone who has died through drowning, or may be an independent spirit. Sometimes it appears as a floating log. The ghost or spirit may be dangerous, and may drown or eat people.[21]
  • Hantu Bungkus or Pocong is a ghost wrapped in a shroud that feeds on the blood of babies.[22]
  • Hantu Galah (pole ghost) is a very tall and thin ghost found among the trees and bamboos. To make it disappear, a person simply picks up a stick or twig and breaks it. It is normally female [23]
  • Hantu Pari-Pari - fairy ghosts.It is normally female.
  • Harimau akuan: a were-tiger, or a human in the form of a tiger.It is normally male[24]
  • Jembalang Tanah are earth demons, which may act dangerously.[25]
  • Jenglot is a doll-sized creature that is said to be found in the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia, described as a vampire in habit. Dead jenglots are sometimes sold or exhibited, but appear to be man-made. Most of them are females [26]
  • Orang Bunian (whistling people) are invisible forest spirits who may lead travelers astray, but may sometimes assist them. There are stories of human men marrying female Orang Bunion, but as a result also becoming invisible.It is normally female.[27]
  • Orang Minyak (Oily Man) is a rapist who believes in mystical properties of forced sex, the subject of several movies.

In the arts

Malay ghost films such as Pontianak and Revenge of Pontianak received tremendous response from the audience at that time. Concerned about their influence, the Malay government suppressed production and screening of such films. However, with a more educated and sophisticated public, and with access to foreign ghost movies, restrictions have been lifted. Ghost stories appear in magazines such as Mastika and Tok Ngah, and documentaries on the supernatural even appear on TV.[citation needed]

Sumpah Orang Minyak, a black and white horror movie made in 1958 is one of a number around that time based on the Orang Minyak concept of an oily rapist. It tells of a hunchback who through supernatural means becomes handsome, but then through violating his oath becomes invisible. He is offered help to achieve his worldly desires through a pact with Satan, on condition he rapes 21 girls within 7 days.[28] Jangan Pandang Belakang ("Don't Look Back") is a 2007 Malaysian horror film directed by Ahmad Idham, released on April 5, 2007 in 51 theaters across Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Philippines. It holds the record as the highest-grossing film in Malaysia, which was previously held by 1994 drama film Sembilu. It centers on a malicious spirit which the hero had unknowingly brought to his fiancé's home after picking up a small jar found washed up at the beach.[29]

The Indonesian 2010 soft porn horror movie Hantu Puncak Datang Bulan (The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak) caused considerable controversy at time of release. Telling of the experiences of a group of young adults in a haunted house, it has much semi-nude sexuality, and has been condemned by conservative Muslim leaders.[30]

See also


  1. ^ James Noel McHugh (1959). Hantu hantu: an account of ghost belief in modern Malaya. Eastern Universities Press. 
  2. ^ Taylor, Jean Gelman. Indonesia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 15–18. ISBN 0-300-10518-5. 
  3. ^ Peter Lewis (1982). "The next great empire". Futures 14 (1): 47–61. doi:10.1016/0016-3287(82)90071-4. 
  4. ^ Ricklefs, M.C (1993). A History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1300, second edition. MacMillan. pp. 12–14. ISBN 0-333-57689-6. 
  5. ^ S. Singaravelu. "The Malay-Tamil Cultural Contacts with Special Reference to the Festival of Mani Safar". Asian Folklore Studies Vol. 45, 1986 p67-78. Retrieved 2010-04}-09. 
  6. ^ "1,300 in Mandi Safar ritual". April 07, 2005. Retrieved 2010-04}-09. 
  7. ^ James Hastings (2003). Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 15, Part 15. Kessinger Publishing. p. 345ff. ISBN 0766136914. 
  8. ^ Richard Winstedt (1982). The Malay magician: being shaman, saiva and sufi. Taylor & Francis. p. 93ff. ISBN 0195825292. 
  9. ^ "Malaysia Urban Legends – Types of Malay Ghosts". Spooky Corner. Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  10. ^ Wendy Hutton (1997). East Malaysia and Brunei. Tuttle Publishing. p. 139ff. ISBN 9625931805. 
  11. ^ a b "What is Pontianak from the mythical point of view?". Singapore Paranormal Investigators. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  12. ^ Unni Wikan (1990). Managing turbulent hearts: a Balinese formula for living. University of Chicago Press. p. 298. ISBN 0226896781. 
  13. ^ Paraiso, Salvador; Jose Juan Paraiso (2003). The Balete Book: A Collection of Demons, Monsters and Dwarfs from the Philippine Lower Mythology. Philippines: Giraffe Books. ISBN 971-8832-79-3. 
  14. ^ "Vampires". BBC h2g2. 13 March 2000. Retrieved 2010-04-11. 
  15. ^ Carol Laderman (1987). Wives and Midwives: Childbirth and Nutrition in Rural Malaysia. University of California Press. p. 128ff. ISBN 0520060369. 
  16. ^ "II. GODS, SPIRITS AND GHOSTS (a) PRIMITIVE GODS". Sacred Texts. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  17. ^ Bob Curran (2005). Vampires: a field guide to the creatures that stalk the night. Career Press. p. 134. ISBN 1564148076. 
  18. ^ Michael Smithies (1982). A Javanese boyhood: an ethnographic biography. Federal Publications. pp. 19–21. ISBN 9971404214. 
  19. ^ Jan van der Putten, Mary Kilcline Cody (2009). Lost Times and Untold Tales from the Malay World. NUS Press. p. 40. ISBN 9971694549. 
  20. ^ Carol Laderman (1993). Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine, and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance. University of California Press. p. 65ff. ISBN 0520082583=. 
  21. ^ R. P. Suyono (2008). Ajaran rahasia orang Jawa. PT LKiS Pelangi Aksara. p. 205. ISBN 9792552480. 
  22. ^ John M. Echols (2003). Kamus Indonesia-Inggris. Gramedia Pustaka Utama. p. 204. ISBN 9794037567. 
  23. ^ IRSHAD MOBARAK (April 22, 2006.). "The Staunch Disbelievers.". Jungle Wallah. 
  24. ^ J. Kathirithamby-Wells (2005). Nature and nation: forests and development in Peninsular Malaysia. University of Hawaii Press. p. 9. ISBN 0824828631. 
  25. ^ Geoffrey Benjamin (2002). Tribal communities in the Malay world: historical, cultural and social perspectives. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 372. ISBN 9812301666. 
  26. ^ "Jenglot:- Strange creatures". OkieDoks. Retrieved 2010-04-11. 
  27. ^ "The Invisible People". UFO Digest. December 11, 2006. Retrieved 2010-04-11. 
  28. ^ "Sumpah Orang Minyak". Filim Malaysia. Retrieved 2010-04-08. 
  29. ^ "Jangan Pandang Belakang made history". Retrieved 2010-04-08. 
  30. ^ "Hantu Puncak Datang Bulan". Indonesia Matters. February 4, 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-11. 

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