Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/December 1899/Malay Folklore
THE Malay is an Oriental, and, of course, possesses a goodly number of superstitions and old wives' fables, but he does not hug them to his soul like some of the other peoples of the East—the Chinaman, for instance, who lives only by favor of gods, ghosts, goblins, and devils. The Malay lives in spite of spirits, good or bad, and tries to be a model Mohammedan at the same time. With bold assurance and positiveness, he puts his trust in Allah; but, after all, this does not keep him from cherishing, on the sly, a knowledge of a few uncanny, hair-raising beliefs any more than to be a devout churchman with us removes one from the occult influences of stolen dishcloths, overturned saltcellars, and the phases of the moon.
The Malay man's aberglaube—his superstition—is undoubtedly of ancient origin. For five hundred years or more he has said his prayers five times a day in response to the muezzin's cry of Allah ho akbar, and his religion has penetrated the very life of his race and spread to the most distant confines of the archipelago, but it has never been able to remove entirely the heritage of that past when he was governed by Sanskrit gods or by deities of his own. Whatever he may have believed then and since changed, these fragments and relics of goblindom and superstition go back to that time, and so link on to all the weird love that prevailed in the ancient world. Another evidence of the primitiveness of Malay folklore may be seen in the fact that the inhabitants of the jungles and padangs and the aboriginal dwellers of mountains and dense forests cherish much more heathen notions and greater elaborations of everyday superstitions than the more enlightened and modernized Malays of towns and campongs. In the East, as in the West, the man who lives close to Nature "holds communion with her visible forms," and likewise finds out, or thinks he does, a good deal about her invisible shapes.
The Malay has on his list of uncanny things the names of several spirits. Disease is everywhere a great dread of men, and often looked upon as an infliction of the supernatural powers. There are several spirits of sickness recognized among the Malays, but they reserve their greatest horror for the influences of the Hantu Katumbohan, or spirit of smallpox. But other spirits abound; there are some that inhabit the sources of streams, and many that dwell in forests. Mines, too, have their patron goblins, which are propitiated by the miners. The sea-going Malay, also, whose vision has been clarified by bitter salt spray, knows and frequently sees the spirits that inhabit certain parts of the ocean.
The Hantu Pemburo", or phantom hunter, is a spirit the Malays take special account of; in general, he seems to resemble the wilde Jäger of German folklore. Long ago, so the story has it, there lived a certain man and his wife in Katapang, in Sumatra. One day the wife fell sick, and, thinking the flesh of a mouse-deer might strengthen her, she asked her husband to kill one for her. He went forth on the hunt, but was unsuccessful and soon returned. His wife now became very angry, and told him to try again—in fact, not to return till he could come home with the coveted game. The man swore a mighty oath, called his dogs, took his weapons, and set out into the forest. He wandered and wandered, and always in vain. The days ran into months, the months became years, and still no mouse-deer. At last, despairing of finding the animal on earth, he ordered his dogs to bay the stars, and they sprang away through the sky, and he followed. As he walked with upturned gaze, a leaf felll into his mouth and took root there.
At home things were not going well. His son, born after his departure, when he became a lad, was often taunted by the other children of the campong, and twitted of the fact that his father was a wandering ghost. After hearing the truth from his mother, the boy went out into the forest to meet the huntsman. Far from the haunts of men, in the depths of the forest, they met and conversed. The boy told of his wrongs, and the father vowed to avenge them, and ever since that time, say the Malays, he has afflicted mankind. At night he courses through the wood and sky with a noisy, yelping pack, and woe to the man who sees him! On the peninsula the people mutter this charm to ward off his evil influence:
"I know thy history,
O man of Katapang!
Therefore return thou
To thy jungle of Mohang,
And do not bring sickness upon me."
The Malay is a firm, believer in the efficacy of charms. He wears amulets, places written words of magic in houses, and sports a tiger's claw as a preventive of disease. If he is specially primitive and backwoodsy, when he enters a forest he says: "Go to the right, all my enemies and assailants! May you not look upon me; let me walk alone!" To allay a storm he says: "The elephants collect, they wallow across the sea; go to the right, go to the left, I break the tempest." When about to begin an elephant hunt, according to Thompson, he uses this charm: "The elephant trumpets, he wallows across the lake. The pot boils, the pan boils across the point. Go to the left, go to the right, spirit of grandfather (the elephant); I loose the fingers upon the bowstring."
The Malay believes in witches and witchcraft. There is the bottle imp, the Polong, which feeds on its owner's blood till the time comes for it to take possession of an enemy. Then there is a horrid thing, the Penangalan, which possesses women. Frequently it leaves its rightful abode to fly away at night to feed on blood, taking the form of the head and intestines of the person it inhabited, in which shape it wanders around.
Such beliefs may perhaps have their origin in metempsychosis, which in other ways has some foothold among the common people. For instance, elephants and tigers are believed sometimes to be human souls in disguise, and so the Malay addresses them as "grandfather" to allay their wrath and avoid direct reference to them. Crocodiles also are often regarded as sacred, and special charms are used in fishing for them. One such, given by Maxwell, is as follows: "O Dangsari, lotus flower, receive what I send thee. If thou receivest it not, may thy eyes be torn out!"
The domestic animals also figure in Malay folklore. Dogs are unlucky and regarded with suspicion, for they would like to lick their master's bones. Cats, on the other hand, are lucky, and show a fondness for their owners.
Owls are regarded as birds of ill omen, and their hooting forebodes death.
Days are lucky and unlucky. Monday, Wednesday, and day are fortunate birthdays, and a dream on a Thursday night will come true. To dream of a dog or a flood is unlucky. To stumble when starting on a journey is a bad sign, and before setting out on a pilgrimage to Mecca certain formulas are muttered and signs followed.
The Malay hates to tear down a house, and so the old one is left standing when a new one is built. The ladder of a house must be built just so, or disaster comes to the owner or builder; and to knock one's head on the lintel is regarded as unfavorable. One rises quickly from a meal; otherwise, if he is single, he may be regarded with disfavor by his prospective father-in-law.
As one travels over the archipelago he finds that superstitions vary, and what may be regarded by the Malays of the peninsula as particularly ominous may have no meaning at all with the Malays of the south or east. The Dyaks of Borneo are probably the most uncivilized of all the Malay tribes, for Mohammedanism has taken but little hold upon them, and their natural paganism remains as yet unshaken. Of their folklore we know but little. It awaits the conquest of the West, like the island itself.