Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali by Jean Couteau

Myth, Magic and Mystery is a book of stories on the Bali’s origin myths, ancestor deities, spiritual obligations, ceremonies and rituals; healing arts; customary laws; love, marriage and family; death, the soul’s journey, reincarnation and the concept of heaven and hell. Grouped into four sections, each focusing on a particular aspect of Balinese life, culture and religion, a veteran Balinese scholar gives us access to arcane and captivating information explained in straightforward and non-academic language.

Known locally by his Balinese name Pak Kadek, Jean Couteau has lived on the island since 1972 and has earned a doctoral degree for his thesis on Bali’s art history and iconography in art. Able to write in English, Indonesian, Balinese, Kawi as well as his native French, Couteau is a regular contributor to news and media publications including NOW! Bali Magazine, the Sunday Indonesian edition of Kompas and the French newspaper La Gazette. He has authored three books on Bali: Lempad (2014), Time, Rites and Festivals in Bali (2013) and Bali Inspires (2011).

Most chapters deal with the most salient beliefs, principles and other essential dimensions of the Bali Hindu religion. Some passages read like reflections of a theologian or a sermon by a Balinese priest who is steeped in protocol, tradition and caste hierarchy. Take for example the case of the Barong’s missing ear in Nina’s Baos: How to Make a God Talk. Taksu: Connection to the Cosmos illustrates the concept of taksu, which has a broad range of meanings, all related to power, inspiration and personal charisma. This inner power can be observed in a priest who is possessed by spirits, a dancer in trance or even someone in deep meditation.Ngendag: The Awakening of the Dead explains the macabre step-by-step details of various Balinese cremation ceremonies in which the soul is separated from its physical vehicle, the body. Instead of avoiding the presence of death and anything related to death as is the case in the West, death is accepted as a matter of daily life. The Balinese involve themselves in every stage of the cadaver’s treatment with all immediate relatives expected to participate in the washing, massaging and perfuming of the body. The Chopped Hand of the Inveterate Believer illustrates the insurmountable power of the satio wacono oath that binds a Javanese to his word lest God condemns him to the worst tortures of hell. The Seven Muslim Saints of Bali gives us the locations of the graves of Bali’s seven Islamic saints, the Wali Pitu. The guardians of several of these tombs are Bali Hindu, a sign of prevailing tolerance among the saints’ followers.

Not all the stories involve religious subjects and mystic rites. Several take the reader deep into the heart of Balinese folklore. Others are essentially philosophical treatises, a bit too erudite and hairsplitting for the common reader, perhaps only of interest to scholars of the Bali Hinduism. But in most of the essays, Couteau’s extensive experience and deep knowledge of Bali helps us to understand what life is really like on the island. In a searing account of how customary law can result in enslavement, Damri, Victim of Beauty is a sad and terrifying tale of plegandang – marriage by kidnapping. Common 50 years ago, the practice is now outlawed but still occasionally takes place. Mind Your Tongue addresses head-on Balinese sexuality. The Balinese are blunt, outspoken and even vulgar when they talk about sexuality, often using “Garage Jargon” to filter the depiction of the sexual act through metaphors of motorcycle culture. Making love is “changing the oil;” not getting an erection is “the ampere meter doesn’t work.”

Sexual symbolism on Bali extends into the agrarian sphere in pseudo-magic-religious interpretations of the procreation of men and women. Pertiwi the Earth Goddess provides food while her complementary opposite Aksasa the Sky Father blesses the earth with the fertilizing element of rain. All over Bali ancient pre-Hindu megaliths in the shape of Phallus and split yoni stones symbolize the sexual union of humans have been integrated among the paraphernalia of Balinese temples and worshipped as part of ceremonies of local fertility cults. The Faithfulness Vagaries of Jero Ketut is a lighthearted story of an impotent Balinese man’s sexual reawakening. This is a prime example of how the author’s close friendships with Balinese and his familiarity with the language make him privy to insights that your average expat resident could never have.

The Peeping Toms of Bali humorously reveals the prevalence of sexual voyeurism on Bali, a social phenomenon that has been documented in ancient lontar texts and manuscripts dating as far back as the 11th C. Javanese poem Arjuna Wiwaha. Voyeurs peep down from the ceilings of hotel rooms, from the bushes on beaches, from inside public baths, from behind bamboo walls of houses and from the hilltops of the Bukit Peninsula using binoculars. Couteau advises his readers just to ignore them and laugh away the matter with a witty put down.

In The Kuta Bombing: A Balinese Perspective, even horrific crimes are erased by time and not carved into time. Why weren’t mosques set ablaze and Muslims lynched by wild mobs after the bombing? Couteau explains that the atrocity was perceived not as an attack by Islam but as an omen of cosmic disorder. Defilement of Bali was at its most poisonous in Kuta where people’s behavior brought shame to themselves and to all humanity. Instead of calls for revenge, which would have intensified the disorder, there were calls instead for palliative rites and offerings.

With its at times odd punctuation and misspellings, the book could have used more rigid editing. The uneven cadence of the sentences can also be distracting, forcing the re-reading of lines. But in spite of these grammatical idiosyncrasies – perhaps even because of them – Couteau’s writing style possesses a curious and unique eloquence. I liked most the anecdotes and encounters that he experienced first-hand, whether it be a consultation with a balian, facing illness the Balinese way or his precise instructions on how to concoct and apply a restorative boreh poultice.

The book’s 47 original illustrations are a delightful mixture of traditional religious paintings of mythological and cosmological themes; photos of daily life, ceremonies and processions; dances and other performing arts, line and tonal art; cartoons; mandalas and decorative chapter endings. The many Balinese words and phrases in brackets would have been more accessible had they been conveniently listed in one place in a glossary.

Myth, Magic and Mystery is not a book by an anthropologist but by an aficionado of Bali, an island that he loves too much not to criticize. These lively stories, essays and discourses could only have been incubated while hanging around warung and living amongst Balinese villagers, high priests, the nobility, artists and academics. So embedded is the ponytailed Couteau in the spiritual activities of village life that we are able to learn a great deal about the ceremonial intricacies of a funeral, the presentation of wayang performances, temple exorcisms, inappropriate behavior and abstruse priestly officiations. As a knowledgeable and subjective scholar of Balinese life and culture, Couteau’s book is funny, sarcastic, empathetic, peppered with philosophical and sociological reflections, yet not burdened with moralistic preaching. We should be thankful to have such an astute interpreter of the island’s culture on hand to lead us to some real understanding of what life is really like on Bali.


Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali by Jean Couteau, P.T. Phoenix Communications 2017, ISBN 978-602-97971-9-0, paperback, 120 pages.

For any publishers interested in having one of their books considered for review in Toko Buku, please contact:

Copyright © 2018

You can read all past articles of Toko Buku at