FOLK RELIGION, WITCHCRAFT, MYSTICISM, SUPERSTITIONS AND BLACK MAGIC IN INDONESIA

SUPERSTITIONS AND FOLK BELIEFS IN INDONESIA

Indonesians are very superstitious. Even though the majority of them are Muslim many believe in traditional cosmology and black magic and regularly consult fortunetellers. Even the head of the nation’s religion ministry admitted that he consulted fortunetellers. Dalang (shadow puppeteers) and some Islamic leaders are believed to possess magical powers. Presidents Suharto and Yudhoyono were famous their use of spiritual advisors and beliefs in the supernatural.

Kebatinan is a Javanese form of mysticism and clairvoyance. Only nominally Muslim, kebatinan is an amalgam of animist, Hindu-Buddhist, and Muslim, mostly Sufi, spiritual practices concerned with harmonizing the inner self with the outer material world. Spirits are believed to inhabit natural objects, human beings, artifacts, and grave sites of important wali (Muslim saints). Illness and other misfortunes are traced to such spirits, and if sacrifices or pilgrimages fail to placate angry deities, the advice of a dukun, or healer, is sought. While it connotes a turning away from the militant universalism of orthodox Islam, kebatinan moves toward a more internalized universalism. In this way, it seeks to eliminate distinctions between the universal and the local, the communal and the individual. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Until recently store numbers were more likely to be a personal choice of a lucky or favorite number rather than a number that fit into a logical system of location. On Sumatra, there are jungle taboos such as bathing naked, sharing food from the same pot or dangling one’s leg over the edge of the platform they sleep on. Many local people regard the tiger as an enforcer of proper behavior and believe that a person who is killed by a tiger is being punished for some crime or transgression or broken taboo.

One traveler posted on Travellersjourney.com: “ Pilgrimages to the graves of local religious leaders and natural landmarks – such as mountains – across Indonesia are another set of beliefs that go back to a pre-Islamic age. These pilgrimages can mix a modern belief in Islam and a reverance for religious figures with animalistic and pagan beliefs.An interesting example is the pilgrimage to Genung Kemukus, a local religious site in Java, which, it is estimated, was visited by 3.5 million people in 2005. Genung Kemukus is a fascinating place, because alongside prayer, pilgrims also come together to have sex with each other, which is supposed to bring luck as well as wealth. [Source:ravellersjourney.com]

Magic in Indonesia

Nicholas Herriman wrote in Inside Indonesia: “ Beliefs and practices that might be labelled ‘magical’ can be found throughout the archipelago – not least in the East Javanese district of Banyuwangi, sometimes referred to as the ‘Warehouse of Sorcery’. There, everybody is thought to be able to do a little magic. It could be as simple as securing good luck in a trip to the market by saying ‘In the name of Allah’. However, some people are thought to have acquired higher forms of knowledge and power. [Source: Nicholas Herriman, Inside Indonesia, April - June 2013, Herriman lectures in anthropology at La Trobe University */*]

Witchcraft is prohibited in Islam. However, the practice is widespread in Indonesia. 2012 survey by the Pew Forum showed that 69 percent of Indonesian Muslims believe witchcraft is real. “Many people in Indonesia, including its top leaders, turn to soothsayers to consult about their careers, fortunes and marriages,” Endy Bayuni, senior editor at The Jakarta Post. Told Washington Post.

Sara Schonhardt of CNN wrote: “Indonesians believe in both good and bad magic, as well as the presence of the paranormal. They say Yogyakarta has a particularly strong spiritual presence because it is home to the country’s only Sultan, who they see as a medium between god and the people. Those who work at royal institutions often received monthly salaries between US$1 and US$2 as a symbol of devotion and respect for the Sultanate. It is this energy that strengthens the city’s magic.“Many think the more energy people put into believing in black magic the stronger it becomes,” says Antonia Suryantari, a 27-year-old English teacher who grew up in Yogyakarta. She says younger generations don’t place their faith in magic the way their parents do, [Source: Sara Schonhardt, CNN, April 22, 2010]

One traveler posted on Travellersjourney.com: “A belief in magic crosses cultural and religious barriers. Magic and the paranormal sit easily alongside a belief in Muhammed, Christ and the Hindu Gods. As a tourist, the easiest way to learn about magic in Indonesia is at the local markets in large cities. In places like Beringharjo Market, Yogyakarta, street traders sell magical talismen, oils, spells and clothing imbued with magical properties. You can also see evidence of the crossover between pre-Islamic beliefs and current Islamic beliefs in the Quranic verses and scrolls that are sold as talisman and sit in liquid vials or have been applied to clothing. Another place that you might see magic performed is at public ceremonies. Dukuns – the name for witch doctors in Indonesian – are frequently paid to control the weather. In large cities throughout Indonesia, dukuns are hired to ensure there is no rain at large public ceremonies and weddings. Dukuns may also be hired to control volcanic activity. The Sultan of Yogyakarta for instance had a Spiritual Gatekeeper for Mount Merapi who died in the last major eruption in 2010. [Source:ravellersjourney.com]

Suharto and Superstition

The late Indonesian president Suharto considered himself a devout Muslim but was very superstitious. He regularly consulted traditional Javanese mystics, sorcerers and astrologers. He often consulted a dukan before making important decisions and reportedly believed that events were sometimes driven by forces manifested through a relationship between retail bar codes and the number 666. Suharto liked to visit a sacred cave on Java's Dieng plateau, the spiritual home of Semar, the infamous Javanese buffoon-god, and meditate there.

Suharto regularly consulted astrologers and made policy on their recommendations. Describing one of Suharto's dukun in action, Dorinda Elliot wrote in Time, "Working himself into a trance, Kusandi tenses, pating, growling, lunging with knuckles flexed. With spirits help, he says, he has 'become a tiger.'"

Suharto tried to develop his own mystical powers. When one of his spiritual advisors was asked by National Geographic how Suharto could be forced from power if he had mystical powers, the advisor said, “He didn’t listen to me.”

Some Indonesians believed that former president Abdurrahman Wahid (leader of Indonesia 1999-2001) had magical powers. A taxi driver told the New York Times, "Gus Dur has a sixth sense and can send you bad luck." An Indonesian journalist said people often drank from his unfinished glasses of water in hopes of being blessed. Wahid was particularly revered in East Java, where many people considered him a living saint, with some saying they had personally seen Wahid perform miracles and appear in dreams and visions.

President Yudhoyono Says He Believes in Witchcraft

In 2014, Vishal Arora wrote in the Washington Post, “Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may be the first Indonesian president to acknowledge publicly he believes in witchcraft. In a recently published memoir, he describes a “horror movie” style encounter with black magic at his residence. “Suddenly, my wife screamed,” writes Yudhoyono in the 900-page book, “Selalu Ada Pilihan” (There is Always a Choice). “There was this thick dark cloud hovering beneath the ceiling, trying to enter my bedroom. I then asked everybody to pray to seek Allah’s help. I closed the door to my room but left others wide open. The revolving clouds eventually headed out of my house.” [Source: Vishal Arora, Washington Post, January 21, 2014 ||||]

“Yudhoyono lives in his private residence, not at the 19th-century presidential palace in Jakarta, which is considered haunted, Bayuni said. Only two presidents, Sukarno from 1945-1965 and Abdurrahman Wahid from 1999-2001, made the palace their residence. In September 2010, Yudhoyono skipped a meeting of the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, partly because of “rumors of rampant witchcraft in the palace,” according to a WikiLeaks cable. ||||

“Yudhoyono believes in witchcraft, but perhaps only as a menace. His government last year proposed amendments to the 1918 Criminal Code, adding a clause that states using black magic to cause “someone’s illness, death, mental or physical suffering” is an offense with a punishment of up to five years in jail or 300 million rupiah ($25,000) in fines. ||||

Pencak Silat

Pencak silat is a metaphysical martial art in which combatants battle each other using an inner force that emanates for the solar plexus called tenaga dalam. Developed by the Menangkabau people of Sumatra, silat evolved as a training method based on the movements of animals like the tiger stance and the "jumping in a dragon style" and “jumping like a princess and staying near.” [Source: Franz Lidz, Sports Illustrated]

Pencak silat has a 1,000 years history. During the rule of Javanese Madjapahit kings of the 13th to 16th century, brutal weapons were incorporated in the martial art and during 350 years of Dutch rule silat was banned and practiced in secret.

At first glance pencak silat looks like karate but the movements are quicker and more rounded. It is often done with a set pattern of movements to Indonesian music. Sometimes it is done with strange-looking weapons such as the kris, parang and tjabang. Practitioners often spare very hard.

Silat competitions attract competitors from over 45 countries, including Turkey, Spain, the Netherlands, Vietnam and the United States. Competition silat is a judo-like sport with no weapons. The matches are often short and furious. One champion said, "Physical strength means little. You win with speed, technique and concentration sharpened by the inner force."

Mystical Pencak Silat

One goal of silat is to development “tenaga dalam,” an inner power like Chinese ki that, if harnessed in right way, can help practitioners move objects with their mind, fly, walk on water and pass through material objects. Silat practitioners train having baseball bats slammed into their stomachs, slicing through steel rods with sheets of newspaper and being strangled with ropes while bricks are smashed on their head.

Watching a demonstration of the inner force, Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated wrote, Master Adie "wears a polo shirt, jeans and red felt cap called a kofiah, but no shoes. On cue, the disciples rush him. When they are just a few feet away, Adie claps his hands, and the attackers are abruptly flung backward with the exaggerated flourish of Keystone Kops. They writhe on the ground, clutching their bellies until Adie waves off the force field with his hand."

Masters of silat can reportedly hit bulleyes with arrows while blind-folded, swallow razor blades and chew glass without suffering any harm. One silat practitioner told Sports Illustrated, "One fellow even cut of his tongue, held it out for display and then stuck it back in his mouth with no ill effects."

Subud: Indonesian Meditation

Some Indonesian shaman go through a rigorous yogic training of breathing, fasting and energy-conservation techniques. Subud is a meditation method and spiritual movement based in Java and founded in the 1920s by Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo. The basis of Subud is a spiritual exercise commonly referred to as the latihan kejiwaan, which was said by Muhammad Subuh to represent guidance from "the Power of God" or "the Great Life Force". He claimed that Subud was not a new teaching or religion. He recommended that Subud members practise a religion but left them to make their own choice of religion. Some members are Muslim but others are Christians or belong to other religions. There are now Subud groups in about 83 countries, with a worldwide membership of about 10,000. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the group’s official website: Subud is an association of people who follow the spiritual practice known as the Latihan Kejiwaan, an exercise of surrender to the divine force within each one of us. The founder of Subud, Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo from Indonesia, was born in 1901 and died in 1987. Subud is open to people of all religious affiliation, as well as those with none. Members come from different cultures, nationalities and walks of life, and there is no particular Subud dogma that they are required to accept. The essence of Subud is the personal experience of the latihan. [Source:subud.com <<<]

“Latihan kejiwaan is the result of a renewed contact with the divine force of life. It is a natural process that arises within any person who asks for it, taking place at his or her own pace and according to his or her own nature. Sometimes, when we are still and quiet, or in an unusual heightened state of awareness, we can be suddenly aware of this deeper life going on. The process of the latihan reconnects us with something greater than ourselves and keeps this special awareness alive and active. <<<

“The latihan is a process, a receiving, and not a teaching. Nobody is expected to believe anything, only to recognize and trust what he or she experiences. People of different religions may find their faith deepened, and practice the latihan in harmony with each other and with those of no particular religious affinity. The essence of the latihan is to allow and follow the spontaneous inner movements from within. It involves no instructions or rituals. It is different for each person. Many people feel a sense of calm and a deepening of the natural connection with wisdom, one's higher self, the divine, or God, depending on one's preferred terminology. The latihan is a catalyst that leads to the development of one's character and which can guide one's everyday life. It can strengthen one's sense of intuition or the teacher within. Normally, this process of transformation is gradual and integrated with the practical requirements of one's life. <<<

The name 'Subud' is a contraction of three Sanskrit words: Susila, Budhi and Dharma. Susila Budhi Dharma (Subud) represent the possibility to surrender to the divine power within, allowing it to effect inner change that will lead to the qualities of a true human being. The latihan is available free of charge, although the association relies on contributions. Generally, there is a waiting period of up to three months before joining. This period provides the opportunity to meet people experienced in the latihan and to become informed about the process.

Subud was founded by an Indonesian, Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo. He is usually referred to by Subud members as 'Bapak' which is an Indonesian word for a respected older man. The latihan came to him as a revelation, suddenly and unexpectedly. The Subud organization was established in the East in 1947 and in the West since 1957 and is working for positive benefit in the world. The ultimate vision is to affect an open-minded, caring world-wide culture.

Dukun: Traditional Healers

Dukun are traditional Javanese mystical healers. They are common in rural Indonesia. There are different kinds of dukun, each with different specialties such as agriculture ceremonies, healing rituals or fertility rites. A dukun santet is a practitioner of black magic.

Nicholas Herriman wrote in Inside Indonesia: Dukun are “men and women who can provide supernatural assistance in everything from curing a sore neck to finding a love mate or ensuring business fortune. They usually do this for a small fee, but some can become quite wealthy and even famous. Muslim scholars, who are exclusively male, called kyai, can usually provide similar services, although they make more of a point of insisting it all comes down to God’s will. [Source: Nicholas Herriman, Inside Indonesia, April - June 2013, Herriman lectures in anthropology at La Trobe University */*]

Dukun call on spirits and use the Koran and the power of Allah to do what they do. They claim they can cure everything from impotence to cancer and charge $25 to $150 depending on the severity of the illness. They also predict the future, give marital advice, perform exorcisms, send small magical knives called krises to bring good luck and insert gold under people's skin to make them look more attractive. [Source: Time, January 1999]

Dukun are consulted on health matters, to find lost property and to ward off evil spirits. Some are herbalists, midwives and masseuses who specialize in healing using magic and spells. Their training involves fasting, prayers and training in silat. On the island of Siberut, healers are initiated a torchlight ceremony with ritual dancing and songs. Many Indonesians visit both Western-style medical doctors and dukuns if they have a problem Ronny Nitibaskara, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia told the New York Times, “People fear them and respect them. Their mistakes are excused and their word is accepted even though it is wrong and it is nonsense.”

Miracles Performed by Traditional Healers

Indonesians have all heard stories about miracles performed by dukun. People say they have seen them turn peanuts into stones and head about instances in which they flew. The dukun sell patients magic pills and tell them to memorize verses to make them immune to bullets.

One dukun told the New York Times, “They say that I can fly, do you believe me? A helicopter flies like me. It’s not that I can’t disappear, but if I do I might not come back.” He then went on to say that the fact he could disappear might explain why he often got away without paying bus fares.

Training by miracle-performing dukun involves walking on fire, fasting at the bottom of wells and studying ancient secrets. Time magazine described one dukun who slept on his grandmother's grave for 1,000 days to enhance his supernatural powers and used incense, broken glass, flowers, nails and razor blades to perform cures. Some dukun write passages from the Koran and tell women to insert them in their bras for protection from black magic.

Dukun Crab Remover

Some dukun are faith healers who reportedly remove animals and objects that cause ailments from the bodies of their patients. Seth Mydans of the New York Times met one who removed crabs, frogs, bats, cockroaches, screws, hinges, sea shells, chicken bones, twigs, nails and other objects. He performs much of his healing at his home, where he keeps pet birds and monkeys. The treatments usually involves and evening diagnosis and prayer and morning surgery.[Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, August 27, 2001 <>]

Describing the treatment by one dukun on a male patient who complained of pain in his head and a burning sensation in his nose, Seth Medans wrote in the New York Times, “In his all-black outfit and black gaucho hat, his stethoscope around his his neck and his medical tools—a dagger and two Philips screwdrivers—he seemed an unlikely medicine man....With a casual flourish...he pulled his hand from under his patent’s gut and held up the crab, wet, whitish, wriggling slightly, about three inches long...‘It didn’t hurt when it went in, so it doesn’t hurt when it comes out,’...explaining why there is no exit wound.” <>

Describing another treatment, Medans wrote, “He poked at the back of another patient. ‘There’s something in there, feel it?’ he said and some the people who tried said they could. Mr. Sukari buried his hand beneath the man’s rib cage and came out with a handful of rubble: three pebbles, a small crystal and a rusty nail. With the flip of a hand he tossed them on to the ground.” <> Diagnosis by a Dukun Crab Remover

For a diagnosis, Mydans wrote: “He pokes with his fingers, slaps with the side of his dagger, scribbles on the skin with a ball point pen. He listens with his stethoscope and prods with his screwdrivers. One lights up with a small red light when he pushes button. The other makes a beeping sound...’Not much nutrition in the blood,’ he said....’Dirty blood, difficult to get blood pressure.’” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, August 27, 2001 <>]

The key diagnosis came when the patient lay on his back and an egg was placed on his stomach. ‘Instead do using an X-ray,’ he the dukun said. ‘I use a chicken egg to find out what’s going on inside.’” He then explained that X-rays can’t pick up the objects he finds because they are “invisible to modern science.” <>

One happy patient of the crab-removing dukun told the New York Times, “I used to be crazy. I stopped people in the marketplace and threatened them with machetes. I’ve been coming here for a year now and I feel better as long as I don’t eat meat.” <>

Dr. Dynamo Jack

Of all people the Blair brothers met on their adventures in Indonesia "perhaps the most remarkable was 'Dr. Dynamo Jack,' an ethnic Chinese...[who] sent a powerful electric current...from within his own body. He claimed to have derived these powers from a Taoist master, a forest hermit...he had studied with for seven years." [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York ==]

"'I use acupuncture needles some of the time,' he told me, 'but usually just my hands, from a slight distance. Look I'll show you.' He stood up, undid his pants, lowered the top of his trousers and underpants, placed the flat of my hand on his bare stomach a few inches below his navel, and ordered me try to keep it there. I found myself having to lean against him with all my strength, and still my hand was being pushed away from his stomach by what felt like a dry but irresistibly strong jet of water. ==

“Then he exhaled, and my hand shot back to his stomach again, nearly sending him off his feet. 'That’s one of the two chakas I use to generate the energy, he said...'This is another.' I touched his outstretched hand. He inhaled and released such a powerful jolt through my arm that I howled and snatched it away." After shoving a bamboo chopstick through an inch of wood he told Blair, "It's very simple. Just a matter of practice. Like an electric eel we all have this Ying-Yang polarity." ==

Dr. Dynomo Jack's most amazing feat is his ability to create fire only using his hand. "'Very difficult to work with these energies when so far from the ground,' he told us. 'Hard to earth.' He then crushed our newspaper into a ball, held it in his left hand, pointed at it with his right, and ignited it into a blossom of flame. there was a sudden strong smell of ozone in the room, and I remember the scramble to get all the burning, floating pieces into the metal wastebasket before they singed the carpet." ==

Black Magic and Witchcraft in Indonesia

A dukun santet is a practitioner of black magic. In East Java people often hire a dukun santet to cast spells or bring harm to their enemies for fees ranging from a few cigarette to $500. A common practice, local people told Time, is for a sorcerer to conjure up an egg-sized green ball which flies through the air into the home of an enemy and kills them or makes them sick in accordance with detailed instructions written by the dukun santet . By one count more than 100 people a year are killed by mobs who accused them of being witches.

Witchcraft is prohibited in Islam. However, the practice is widespread in Indonesia. 2012 survey by the Pew Forum showed that 69 percent of Indonesian Muslims believe witchcraft is real. “Many people in Indonesia, including its top leaders, turn to soothsayers to consult about their careers, fortunes and marriages,” Endy Bayuni, senior editor at The Jakarta Post. Told Washington Post.

One traveler posted on ravellersjourney.com: “In Indonesia black magic is known as Ilmu Hitam and practitioners of the dark arts can be found on almost every island of this vast archipelago. The aims can often be the same as “white magic,” but the spells and rituals are very different. An exteme example is the kidnapping and beheading of babies who are born on certain days in the Javanese calender to bring wealth and luck to families whose houses the babies are buried in front of. Indonesian black magic can also be used against people. The Indonesian Intelligence Agency (BIN) famously contemplated using black magic to assassinate the Human Rights activist Munir Saib Thalin, before deciding on the more practical course of poisoning him. The practice of casting spells against a person is called Rapuh in East Java. Samples of personal items, such as clothing, hair and fingernails are often required for such spells to be successful.[Source:ravellersjourney.com]

Nicholas Herriman wrote in Inside Indonesia: “Sorcery and witchcraft are part of everyday life for millions of Indonesians. Personal ‘misfortunes’ (illness, loss of livestock, death of family member) are often attributed to perpetrators of black magic. Often the witch or sorcerer is believed to be someone close by. It could be a neighbour, family member or friend. Sorcerers are most commonly believed to be men. Neighbours, families, and friends sometimes suspect that the sorcerer’s motive is envy, jealousy, greed, and so on. Having lived in an East Javanese village for a year, I found that some of these traits could be found in everyone, and certainly the alleged sorcerers I knew did not stand out in this regard. I could only discern that disagreements and arguments often occurred amongst neighbours and relatives. If such altercations were frequently followed by misfortunes of other parties, an accusation of sorcery might result. [Source: Nicholas Herriman, Inside Indonesia, April - June 2013, Herriman lectures in anthropology at La Trobe University */*]

“Local residents target ‘witches’ and ‘sorcerers’ with various forms of retribution, including ostracism, destruction of property, violence and even murder. Periodic outbreaks of sorcerer killings have occurred in many regions of Indonesia, including East Java in the mid-1960s and early 1980s, and North Sumatra in 1987-88. More outbreaks occurred following President Suharto’s downfall. In 1998, local residents killed around 100 ‘sorcerers’ in Banyuwangi and up to 150 more were killed in West Java in 1999. Subsequently, nine ‘sorcerers’ were killed by the residents of Malang, also in East Java, between 1999 and 2000. The killings may have subsided since the turbulent years of the early post-Suharto period, but they have by no means stopped altogether. In 2012, a man in East Java and an elderly couple were killed in Aceh under suspicion of practising black magic. Such reports are not uncommon. */*

“In Banyuwangi, local residents continue to perceive certain ‘misfortunes’ to be a consequence of sorcery, and demand laws that address such practices. This is nowhere clearer than in the reflections of a local man called Abdul, who had killed a ‘sorcerer’ named Dillah in the period following Suharto’s downfall. ‘At the time I did it to Dillah,’ he told me. ‘It was like there were no rules from the rulers.’ Then Abdul gestured in the direction of the house of a neighbouring alleged sorcerer and said ‘he is my number two’, implying he was ready to move onto his next target. The ultimate fate of Abdul’s neighbour, and many other alleged sorcerers and witches in Indonesia, may well reside in the fortunes of the revised penal code.

Yogyakarta Black Magic Market

Yogyakarta’s oldest market still trades in spiritual goods -- swords, stones and other talismans meant to bring wealth, health and most of all, protection. Sara Schonhardt of CNN wrote: “Down a narrow alleyway where strings of sun pierce the gaps between the overhang sit small, dusty trinkets, stones and oils. The haphazard collection, spread throughout various stalls, ranges from antique-looking Hindu symbols to pieces of green and red cloth emblazoned with Javanese Arabic. These charms are believed to protect their owners from deep-seated superstitions that many in Indonesia harbor. At Yogyakarta’s Beringharjo market, these talismans fill old wooden toolboxes or pushcarts that once plied the streets of the city at the heart of Javanese culture. [Source: Sara Schonhardt, CNN, April 22, 2010]

“Many of the charms, or penangal balak, are protective, meant to block spells or absorb bad spirits. They include Arabic prayers penned on cloth worn beneath one’s clothing, special stones or colorful glass rocks, and ginger roots hailed as antidotes to toxins. Yanto Sugiyanto, who has sold charms in Beringharjo market for 30 years, says he has seen little change in the popularity of his goods. People of all ages buy the talismans as collector’s items, he says, while turning a piece of small, yellow bamboo in his hand. Yanto’s small station hugs the wall of a building across the alley from two women who sell an Islamic-influenced collection of talismans. Scrolls with scriptures from the Qur’an float in liquid-filled vials on a shelf above distinctive Indonesian swords, or kris, thought to possess magical powers.

A box containing bamboo oil warns buyers that it’s a reproduction, as are most of the antique-looking items. The oil, which sells for around US$0.50, is popular because it is cheap and is meant to serve a plethora of purposes -- from collecting debts to improving trade and farming. Other oils -- such as sandalwood, citronella and jasmine -- cure ailments and imbue users with intelligence or beauty. Nur, the owner of this shop, says these beliefs do not challenge Islam if the charms are used to improve one’s health or livelihood. Also available: susuk, brass or gold charm needles, that are inserted under the skin to treat pain or protect against injury or incident. Legend has it that susuk was the reason former dictator Suharto amassed such considerable political power and longevity, but a shaman must insert the needles in the body.

Nur says she gets the brass slivers from a factory, and that none of the charms have been activated. That requires a visit to a wise man who has studied the art of black magic, but it doesn’t seem to dissuade buyers, who still flock to this market to assuage their fears of evil forces. A nail sits among kris, traditional Javanese daggers thought to possess magical powers. Homeowners often hammer nails with Qua’ranic verses in to walls to prevent wicked spirits from entering.

Black Magic and Ninja Violence in Indonesian in the 1990s

In 1998, 300 people were killed in central and eastern Java by vigilantes, some of them masked and dressed in black like ninjas, and armed with sickles, machetes, swords and metal bars. Most of the victims were accused of being sorcerers or practitioners of black magic. But some were also believed to be targets of retribution by former communists or their families for violence in the 1960s. Some of the ninja murders were carefully planned, and carried by black-clad men who first cut the electricity to the victims home and then pulled up in a truck to make the attack.

Many of victims were killed around the East Javan town of Banyuwangi. Some victims had been cut into pieces and had their body parts hung from tree branches. Others had big "X"s slashed on their back. East Java has a long history violence and belief in sorcery. The area around Banyuwangi was also one of the first places where people lashed out against the Chinese in anti-Chinese violence around the time Suharto was ousted. It also is said to have one of the highest concentrations of dukun santet in Indonesia. One victim was a worker at a fish processing plant who was accused of dealing in black magic. To fend off such accusations he went as far as having an elaborate ceremony performed at a mosque to swear he had never engaged in sorcerery. All was for naught. A member of vigilante group that murdered him told Time, "His head was split open with an axe. He had been stabbed with a sickle— twice in the back and once in the side. His intestines were hanging out."

The ninja violence is believed to have been triggered by frustration over Indonesia's economic troubles around the time of Suharto’s resignation. Some of the ninja vigilantes are believed to have been Suharto loyalists attempting to stir up trouble, especially against members of the New Awakening (NU) political party. A Western diplomat told Newsweek, "Some of the killings, especially those of the NU religious leaders, seems to be deliberately planned and masterminded by elements of the national political and military elite. It is not unlike a military-style psychological-warfare operation aimed at sowing confusion and terror among the enemy."

Gory Violence Against “Ninjas”

Other victims of violence at that were people believed to be ninjas. Some said these ninjas practiced black magic and were able to conjure up disguises out of thin air and turn into cats and leap into trees to avoid capture. Others were victims of acts of retribution against the ninja-vigilante assassins. And others still were mentally retarded people or people accused of being strange.

Describing an attack on a railway worker in the Malang district of Java with a history of depression, Ron Moreau wrote in Newsweek, "Zaenel Arifin was confronted by nervous villagers in the grip of rumors that ninjas were in the neighborhood, prepared to kill. They crowded around Zaenal and began chanting 'ninja, ninja" when he could not produce identification."

Witness told Newsweek, "the vigilantes bound his hands and feet, and began hacking his body with curved knives and machetes used to cut sugar cane in Malang. One man chopped off Zanal's head, held in aloft and drank blood dripping from the neck to protect himself from the evil ninja spirit. 'The ninja is dead,' the crowd cried in victory. They paraded about with his head impaled on a knife, and dragged his body behind a motorcycle. for dozens of miles.”

Legislation Against Sorcery in Indonesia

Under a bill proposed in March 2013, anyone found guilty of using witchcraft to bring about "someone's illness, death, mental or physical suffering" could be punished with up to five years in jail or more than $30,000 in fines. Backers of the bill say it would prevent fraud by self-advertised shamans. The draft law is part of a major overhaul to Indonesia's Criminal Code, last updated in 1958. Many Indonesians questioned why representatives tasked with modernising the law chose to focus on a problem associated with medieval times. [Source: stream.aljazeera.com, April 1, 2013]

Nicholas Herriman wrote in Inside Indonesia: “From a ‘rationalist’ perspective, those accused of being witches and sorcerers constitute a vulnerable population, in need of state protection. And, to some extent, they get it. After all, those who kill sorcerers or witches are sometimes charged with murder. But this appears problematic to many Indonesians. Fearing witches and sorcerers, they wish to be legally protected from supernatural attacks. To address this problem, law-makers have introduced a draft penal code that will outlaw the practice of black magic. However, this is not as easy as it might sound. People in Banyuwangi say sorcery is mostly imperceptible – but courts tend to demand tangible evidence of criminal activity. So how are law-makers going about making sorcery illegal? [Source: Nicholas Herriman, Inside Indonesia, April - June 2013 */*]

“The provisions highlight some fascinating contradictions. The banning of false superstitions seems to fit perfectly well with a modernist-rationalist agenda. Yet what the parliamentarians are trying to get at is not just false superstitions, but also supernatural acts that cause harm. To the extent this is true, the provisions outlawing magic seem paradoxical: an attempt to modernise the legal system is resulting in laws against magic. Moreover, if passed, the anti-witchcraft legislation may initially bolster confidence in institutions such as parliament, the police and the courts. So, apparently ‘illiberal’ legislation (because it encourages persecution) might strengthen the very institutions which are associated with ‘liberal’ ideas of governance. Indeed, in the villages of Banyuwangi prosecuting witches or sorcerers could be seen as a democratic measure, protecting the majority, who believe they have been, or might be, affected by black magic. */*

“On the other hand, however, the provisions could create more violence. Granted, violence often results under current conditions and, in the short term, anti-witchcraft legislation could reduce violence. However, in the long term, the experience of other countries that have outlawed black magic, such as Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu, suggests that such provisions are ineffective or counterproductive. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, a law failed to stop outbreaks of killings and led to the persecution of women: the law is being now considered for repeal. Similar problems may beset Indonesia if the provisions outlawing magic come into force. */*

In the meantime, the debate stirred up by the provisions has apparently caused some consternation among parliamentarians. One of the Commission III members told journalists they should ‘make no mistake, sorcery is part of black magic. In the days of the prophets it was already around in other nations. It requires regulation.’ In an effort to better understand this phenomenon, members of Commission III announced they will be visiting Russia, England, France, and Holland in April 2013 to enquire further into these matters. One commentator on the Kompas webpage announcing this ‘study trip’ was not impressed. ‘Hehe,’ she wrote, ‘if they want to study sorcery why go to Europe? It should be to African countries where there is Voodoo… Who knows? Maybe they’ll all become victims.’

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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