Magic & Witchcraft: Part I by Bill Dalton

Bali’s very name conjures up an aura of magic. Beyond the island’s glitzy tourist resorts and growl of traffic-choked roads, the dark powers underlie much of Balinese culture. This secret Bali is hidden in villages deep in the countryside and down the labyrinth of back alleys in the island’s crowded towns and cities.

The Balinese are scared witless of ghosts, goblins and the like, which disguise themselves as black cats, naked women, crows or disembodied humans. The specter of spirits – buta, kala and leyak – permeate every corner of the island and occupy the thoughts and acts of its inhabitants. These beliefs have continued unabated, as firmly held today as they have been for a millennium. Near Pejeng, clay stupas impressed with tantric mantras, date from the 8th century.

A thousand years later the theme of magical Bali is seen in the success of Odyle Knight’s Bali Moon: A Spiritual Odyssey (1998) and Elizabeth Gilbert’s book and film Eat, Pray, Love

where magic, love and inner spiritual enlightenment are inseparable and involve quests for self-discovery. Featured in both books traditional shamans plunge both heroines into the dark realm of intrigue and magic.

Because it would be met with incomprehension and skepticism, magic and witchcraft are not subjects that Balinese wish to talk about with strangers, particularly foreigners. They keep such thoughts to themselves, reluctant to even to share them with fellow villagers who may be a practitioner of black magic, consequently opening themselves up to possible attack by witches (leyak).

Ever wonder why motorcyclists randomly honk when passing a temple, crossroads or bridge when there’s no one else around? They are simply paying their respects to resident spirits, sort of like saying “Excuse me please.” Large banyan trees or trees of unusual shape or even unusual rocks are accorded special care because of their spiritual power. If the fingers of both hands can touch while embracing a tree, it’s probably the dwelling place of a spirit.

The Bali Hindu religion is in fact only a veneer over complex, deeper-lying, indigenous superstitions. Equally as important as Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and Vishnu associated with the creation of life, is Shiva’s consort Durga, the Goddess of Death, and ruler of demons, ghosts and witches.

For hundreds of years, classic Balinese literature that has been meticulously inscribed in lontar books – the dried fan-like strips of leaves of a species of palm tree, shaped like rulers – record sacred texts and illustrations of demonic creatures. These masterpieces of illustrative art and calligraphy provide a view of the Balinese ancient belief in the underworld.

Sorcery and the existence of the paranormal infuse Balinese architecture, wood and stone carving, sculptural and pictorial art. Hilts of kris, the storied Balinese short dagger, are often shaped like a demon set with precious stones. Sacred wooden masks portray the features of a fiendish spirit, distorted to heighten the fearsomeness of its character. Whorls of beasts and other mythological characters impaling demon-witches are carved out of thick tree trunks.

Brutish, fanged, bulging-eyed underworld figures guard gates and shrines and glare out from walls of temples, drum towers, hotels, courthouses and pedestals of traffic signs. Repulsive, mesmerizing creatures and sharped toothed ogres, fierce lolling-tongued witches, dragon-headed spirits, tortured souls with trailing intestines, giant roosters with umbrellas and animal-headed babies populate Balinese paintings.


Bali’s Seen and Unseen Worlds

Balinese learn to walk with one foot in the physical reality and one foot in the non-physical. Believing firmly in the concept of Sekala and Niskala, the Seen and Unseen worlds, the Balinese always try to stay on the good side of all the forces, both the good, positive and constructive and the evil, negative and destructive. A balance must be maintained between these two powerful forces that co-exist simultaneously in a dynamic and delicate equilibrium.

The seen world is what you can smell, hear and touch, but in the unseen niskala world dwell such beings as the tonya or Orang Sungai (the River People), memedi (hairy red humanoids), tuyul (naughty child spirts),moro (mythical animals), leyak (humans who take the form of animals and practice black magic), lulut mas (seething piles of yellow worms) and forest spirits and ghosts that inhabit an invisible dimension. Even diminutive entities like fireflies are sometimes imbued with transformative magic.

People talk of aunts trapped by love-magic and countless illnesses inflicted upon families and acquaintances by black magic. When a child dies prematurely, little change is discerned in the outside tangible world but the unseen world of the spirits reveals itself, instilling fear in grieving families.

One hears of lingering, mysterious illnesses from unidentified poisons or of a husband who meets an untimely death at the hands of a jealous mistress. When a coconut falls unexpectedly from a nearby tree and almost hits a relative, it may not be considered a natural occurrence. These incidents are often attributed to malicious spirits, who have no other purpose than to cause misery and havoc among humans.  A Balinese can tell when a domestic animal is possessed – a cow that darts away, startled; a chicken that pecks in a peculiar manner; a dog that whines and reels about suddenly. Most Balinese are able to point to several people in the village who practice black magic, but would never name them for fear of incurring their wrath.

Motives for misfortunes caused by attacking leyak may be envy, revenge for some real or imagined insult or a desire for rice land or an inheritance. Babies and sick, weak, crippled or injured people are particularly vulnerable. They enter people’s bodies, making them ill, insane or imbecilic. Like vampires, these spirits relish sucking blood from sleeping victims and have been known to abduct children for a tasty snack.

Since spirits dominate everything the Balinese do, the Balinese carry out a great number of daily activities and precautions that protect themselves against unseen forces and to prevent themselves from being haunted and stalked by lurking beings which they consider very real.

Fruits, flowers and incense are constantly offered to appease angry deities. If put in our society, a Balinese would show all the classic symptoms of paranoia and neurotic disorders, but on Bali these traits are ritualized and institutionalized.


Tuyul, Buta, Kala, Leyak

The personification of negative forces on earth are buta and kala. When dogs begin to whine on moonless nights, the Balinese know these malevolent spirts are about. When these bloodthirsty creatures are not appeased with offerings, they can run rampant through villages, causing drought, famine and epidemics. When a person unexpectedly becomes rich, it’s believed that ghostly creatures called tuyul which have the appearance of tiny bald-headed babies, will serve their master by stealing money from other people’s houses. Their services are offered free of charge if the recipient allows his wife to breastfeed the creepy tuyul(though sometimes they instead suck her blood).

Particularly dangerous and unpredictable are leyak, humans who practice black magic. The Balinese believe a witch must endure 1,000 years as an earthworm and 200,000 years as a poisonous mushroom before rebirth as a human. True demons, like Rangda and Barong, are predictable and belong to the natural order of the cosmos, but not so the dreaded leyak. These apparitions can fly through the air, poison food, enter the body of a victim, cause ambiguous bleeding and even crop failures.

Leyak are able to shift into many forms. Depending on their knowledge and skill at mastering black magic, they can turn into a fireball, a pig with human eyes or a monkey with golden teeth and an abnormally long tail. These evil beings may also manifest themselves in the form of a great rat, a baldheaded giant, a bird as large as a horse, a ball of fire, a rider-less motorcycle.

According to old Balinese folklore, leyak have long fire-dripping tongues framed by large fangs that hang out far from their mouths. During the pitch black hours after midnight, graveyards are favorite dwelling places of leyak. They which also haunt such desolate places as dark back roads, deep forests, ravines, seashores and crossroads.

In daylight they look like ordinary humans, but at night their heads rip loose from their bodies and start flying around with their entrails dangling from their heads in search of a newborn child or pregnant woman to suck the blood of unborn babies. Leyak can enter an injured accident victim through blood spilled on the road after an accident.


Magic in Film

The words Bali and magic are synonymous in early films about Bali. After organized tours started in the 1920s, the preoccupation of associating Bali with magic dominated the West’s perception of the island. The earliest moving pictures made by Dutch, German and American film makers emphasized the weird, supernatural, hidden forces, the most exotic and visually extreme aspects of Balinese culture. The clichés of entranced self-stabbing dancers, blood sacrifices like cockfighting, horrible screaming witches and sexual and magical powers became just as entrenched as the superficial image of Bali as a tropical paradise.

In 1926, a film by a Dutch film maker about sacred trance dances, entitled simply Sang Hyang, pictured angelic little girls swaying under the spell of spirits in an incense-filled courtyard surrounded by seated men with arms akimbo. The first fiction film set on Bali opened in 1927 in an Italian-owned movie theater in Denpasar to thunderous reception by Balinese audiences. Called Calon Arang, the film was about the terrifying Queen of the Witches Rangda who threatens to bring disease and destruction to the kingdom.

Goona Goona (also called The Kris), directed by Andre Roosevelt, was named after the Javanese and Malay word for love spells and potions. First released in America in 1930, this film further popularized the theme of sex appeal and magic in the world’s perception of the island, the modern equivalent of the 19th century romantic ideal of a primitive utopia with its innocent and dusky bare-breasted maidens.

In 1933, Island of the Demons (Insel der Damonen) was produced by Baron von Plessen, a German aristocrat who documented “primitive” societies. This classic film of Rangda disrupting the love life of two peasants further popularized the dark side of Bali lurking under the harmony – black magic and evil forces ready to run amok – a portrayal of witchcraft and exorcisms that stood out in contrast to the typical Hollywood film stereotypes.

Today magic persists as a theme in the marketing of Bali. There are Hindu secret societies, online Bali magic shops (Toko Alat Sulap Bali), a line of jewelry called “Bali Magic,” “Bali Magic Yoga” classes and retreats, “Magic I-Ching Coins” (kepeng) and “Magic Mushrooms” are still surreptitiously sold in Kuta. The sheer glut of goods emphasizing this theme is overwhelming.


Note: Part II will cover antidotes to black magic and witchcraft: death and demon temples; exorcisms and trance dances; priests and shaman (pedanda, pemangku, balian); herbal medicines.


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