Monday, 14 September 2009

Malay demons and witches

From ‘The Asiatic journal and monthly register for British and foreign India, China, and Australia', Volume 10 (1820, Parbury, Allen, and Co., London)

In the eighth number of the Indo-Chinese Gleaner is a communication from a correspondent, who, after premising that the belief in witchcraft, evil spirits, charms, &c. prevails to an almost incredible extent among the Malays, and that their imaginary evil spirits, which, are numerous, have all of them names either arbitrary or descriptive of their qualities, goes on to give an account of a species of these evil spirits vulgarly called Polong, a word, however, which the writer had not met with in any of their books nor seen in any dictionary of their language. From this account it seems that the history of the Polong is very little known. They (the Malays) say that it is conveyed down from parents to children. According to their own laws, it is death to keep one, therefore we cannot expect to know any thing more about it than from its influence. It is, as it seems, invisible, and is kept in a small earthen bottle with a neck, and a hole sufficient to admit a finger. He feeds upon human blood. The keeper cuts the tip of his fore-finger about once or twice a week, either Friday or Monday night, till blood comes out, and he then puts it into the vessel, when the Polong sucks his fill. If the keeper neglects to feed him regularly, he comes out of his hole, and sucks the whole body to such a degree that the skin becomes all over black and blue.

The Polong is very seldom kept by males, most generally by females. The woman, however ugly naturally, yet through keeping the Polong possesses surprising charms in her countenance to every beholder. If the person who keeps the Polong has a grudge against any one, or if asked for, or hired by another, he is let loose upon the man whom they wish to injure.

The marks of possession are many. As soon as the Polong enters the man, he first falls down screaming, unconscious to himself and to every thing about him ; sometimes he becomes speechless and like a dead man; sometimes there is no appearance of ailment, but his conversation is incoherent ; sometimes he falls to beating all about him. Sometimes, as soon as he enters into any one, the person possessed dies. The Polong always adheres exactly to his orders, and inflicts that punishment which is commanded him. Sometimes, though but seldom, it proves infectious, viz. in the following way, when the possessed falls down in a fit, and another asks him, saying, " What! What is the matter ! What, have you got a Polong?" The person asking is affected, falls down insensible, and remains in the same state with the other till the Polong is expelled. A person seriously assured the writer that he had seen men and women, to the number of 20, thus affected at the same time.


The people are so well acquainted with the power of this Polong, that as soon as they see any one suffering they send immediately for the physician, an adept in the occult sciences, who, with an air of importance and learning, administers some medicine, or more frequently makes use of a charm. He draws a fantastical figure, which, as he pretends, is that of the demon, and a print of which is given in the Gleaner, upon the inside of a white basin, pours water upon it, and gives the sufferer to drink. Then he takes hold of the end of the thumb (for fear the Polong should make his escape, that being the door by which he enters the body), and interrogates the man in the following manner: " Why do you torment him?" Then the Polong, speaking through the man, replies, "My father (for so he calls his keeper) has a grudge against him," &c. " Who is your father ? What has he told you to do?" " To eat heart and entrails," (general term for torment).

Sometimes this evil spirit braves all means and refuses to speak. Sometimes he tells lies and confesses another name. When this soothsayer has prevailed against the evil spirit, and has heard his confession, he then tries to detect him (though a spirit, yet he has dimensions and shape) : he feels the body all over, for he lurks between skin and flesh. Sometimes he finds him in an arm, sometimes behind the ear, to the touch as large as the above.

Now for his expulsion. The soothsayer first exacts an oath of him that he has spoken nothing but truth, and also that he will never come again. Sometimes the physician has such power that he sends him back to torment his own keeper.

In the ninth number of the same miscellany is an account, by the same writer, of another imaginary being, called by the Malays the Penanggalan, a derivative from a Malay word signifying to "pull out," and which means " that which is pulled out." From this account it appears that the Penanggalan is not properly, either witch or evil spirit. It is described as a human head, neck, and intestines adjusted to, and, as it were, inhabiting the trunk and limbs of a human body, but endowed with the power of extricating itself from this body (which is always that of a woman), and of returning to it again at its own pleasure. It delights, when unobserved, to make excursions through the air from the body it usually resides in, for the purpose of preying upon all manner of garbage, which, it seems, is its favourite food; and of avenging itself upon those who may have given it offence by sucking their blood.

The person (whatever one may call her) who is made up of these separable parts—of Penanggalan, that is—and the body it usually inhabits, believes, it appears, in Satan, and, as might be presumed, practices witchcraft. She, moreover, lives in filthiness, going astray. Some further particulars of this curious composite being, together with a Malay story illustrative of its habits, are given by the writer.

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