Bali’s Well Fed Dark Spirits

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it too many times to count: The energy of Bali is different from anywhere else. If you’re tuned to her frequency, she will draw you back again and again until your power to resist is gone. The island is magic, and the people of Bali live equally in two worlds: the seen, and the unseen.

Rucina Balinger is a legend in Ubud. She came to Bali from the U.S. in 1974, and forty years later she’s still here. Marrying into the Ubud royal family, she became what she was required to become as the wife of a Cokorda. Needless to say, she’s a reliable fount of information. So when invited by email to hear her speak on Bali magic, I signed on. For two hours she talked and answered questions about the dark arts as practiced here with a slide show to emphasize her points.

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I came away with one sentence burning in my brain, Black magic only works if you believe it does. I’m a guest on this island where probably close to 100% of the locals believe in magic. Therefore, on Bali it works, and chances are fairly high that, whether I believe it or not, I’ll be affected by it in some way. So it behooves me to learn as much as I can. Forewarned is forearmed, right? There’s just one small problem with that: The more I learn, and the more I see, the more I believe. So I’ll fill you in on a little of what I’ve gathered, both from Rucina and from Ketut, my ‘go to’ for all things Balinese. I preface this with a profuse apology to the people of Bali for my very small knowledge of this subject. Mohon maafkan saya untuk pengetahuan saya kecil dari subjek ini.

The Balians, who are the healers, magicians, and soothsayers, must learn both the white and black arts so they can counteract the effect of one with the other. These powerful people are chosen by spirit and declining the invitation to become a Balian is not an option. Those who refuse, die. But there are also initiates who, in the course of study, become mentally deranged and are institutionalized, some temporarily, some permanently. And others wander about their villages sometimes babbling incoherently, sometimes more lucid than I. I’ve met one of those and it’s unnerving. This is not a coveted occupation.

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Any Balinese person will be quick to tell you that jealousy is a big problem here. In a family compound there may be as many as 15 to 20 people piled, quite literally, on top of one another. There’s a communal kitchen, a room for the grandparents, possibly another one for the parents, and another for everyone else. The sons live here with their wives and children and as things go, little grievances form across family ties. Pretty soon somebody is visiting the Balian to get a potion to wreak havoc with his neighbor. When the wronged party realizes he’s been zapped, it’s his turn to visit the Balian to get the remedy and perhaps a little something for the other guy. Illness may be the result of natural causes, or it may be black magic induced, but a visit to the local Balian will clarify the matter.

Both men and women can become Balians and in Rucina’s words, unmarried women are the best practitioners of black magic. Hair, or fingernail clippings make effective amulets for casting spells. For years Rucina collected her own hair every time she brushed it and buried it somewhere outside so no one could grab it and use it against her.

Food, too, can be tainted by a person wishing ill will. To be polite, you always accept food when it’s offered. But if you’re suspicious of the bringer of this gift, don’t eat it. According to Rucina, take the food to the bedroom after the person leaves and pass it under the bed three times. This will undo the magic. Then you can eat it. Ketut laughed when I told him that. “Maybe if very small magic,” he said. Perhaps the conjuring in his village isn’t so easy to unravel.

But they are in agreement when it comes to the times when people are most vulnerable. During the first three months before their feet are allowed to touch the ground, babies are extremely susceptible. At this tender age they’re considered divine and are in danger of being stolen and having their entrails eaten by Rangda, the embodiment of black magic, so she can access their power.

In the Bali pantheon of the paranormal, there are gods, goddesses, spirits, and witches. The Leyak witches take many forms, some beautiful, some terrifying some funny looking or unusual. These humans who transform themselves are evil and throw fireballs or lightning bolts and steal babies. Parents put a shallot on the soft spot of a baby’s head since that is another point of entry for black magic and the Leyaks don’t like shallots. One Leyak in the form of a particularly beautiful woman likes to climb on behind the driver of a motorbike. He thinks he’s scored a hot one until he sees that her lower torso isn’t there, and her upper parts don’t resemble anything human.

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Other times of vulnerability occur during the ceremonies marking rites of passage. At tooth filings and weddings, a person is distracted and makes an easy target for the black arts. Performers of traditional dances are especially susceptible. They pray before dancing but still often fall into trance during their performance. Even the masks worn by the dancers have powerful magic. Places, too, can invite mischief. Graveyards, crossroads, bridges, the edge of the village, are littered with offerings to maintain a peaceful balance and ensure that the spirits are content.

Every fifteen days Kajeng Kliwon rolls around, Bali’s own Friday the 13th, and that requires offerings only for the dark spirits. The segehan have boiled rice in five different colors signifying the five elements. These form a five-pointed star in the bottom of the coconut leaf basket. Then the usual flowers, cigarettes, and snacks are piled atop the rice.

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When I arrived in Bali it appeared to be the island of smiles. Everybody wore a happy face and I couldn’t believe that so many people could be so joyful all the time. Then Rucina burst my bubble. There are antidotes to black magic and one of them is, you guessed it, happiness! A smiling face rejects evil. Even at cremations people smile and joke. That end of life ceremony does not in any way resemble the Christian funeral where solemnity and tears mark the day.

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Symbolic objects like rings, bracelets, special spirit drawings, or the kris (Balinese sword), are powerful anit-evil talismans. Ketut has a ring that’s been blessed and imbued with protective powers. “I don’t like,” he said. “Maybe enough just pray and make offering.” But, oh! The offerings! Spirits love to eat, symbolically of course, and the Balinese go to unbelievable lengths to feed them. Ancestral spirits are protectors and advice givers so they must be kept well nourished. The spirits of all the gods and goddesses, the trees and animals, cars and computers and mechanical things, and the opposing dark spirits, all need to be honored to keep the balance between good and evil.

Widi WasaThe great god Sanghyang Widhi Wasa (the All-in-One God) is honored everywhere in Bali with offerings placed in open shrines. The Balinese are monotheistic, but there are hundreds of lesser deities, manifestations of this god-of-the-enormous-penis who is said to be genderless. The closed shrines are only for rivers, known to be thoroughfares for dark energies and those, too, must have their quota of gifts.

As I write this a curtain of overwhelm descends. The inadequacy of what I’ve said here is titanic. Even with the help of Rucina and Ketut, it doesn’t cover as much of the topic as a flea on the surface of a mastodon. So I’m going back to what I said at the beginning: The energy of Bali is different from anywhere else. The Balinese believe in magic. They believe that their ceremonies, rituals, offerings, and prayers strike a balance between good and evil, and so do I.

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Hafiz had it right

I was searching for words this morning. I am a writer, I told myself. There are words for this. Then I asked myself, What is the ‘this’ I am trying to describe? From somewhere subconscious I recalled a poem. I did not remember the author or even the words, but I thought perhaps Rumi, or Hafiz. It took only a few moments of communing with Google to find it. Ahhh. Hafiz. Here is the poem:

I Have Learned So Much

I

Have

Learned

So much from God

That I can no longer

Call

Myself

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,

a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself

With me

That I can no longer call myself

A man, a woman, an angel,

Or even a pure

Soul.

Love has

Befriended Hafiz so completely

It has turned to ash

And freed

Me

Of every concept and image

my mind has ever known.


From: ‘The Gift’
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Isn’t it beautiful that love is the friend that freed Hafiz from every concept and image his mind had ever known? As I sat with that thought it became clear that love is the only thing that will ever free us. To love others is to accept them in all the ways they are different freeing ourselves from judgement. To love the earth is to protect and care for her freeing ourselves from the consequences of her demise. To love oneself is the ultimate freedom for out of that love comes the capacity for all other love.

The past few days my journey has been inward. The name of this village is Ubud. It means medicine. The essence of Ubud is fundamentally healing to the body, the mind, and the spirit. I have asked myself, why is this so? Is it about the thousands of offerings made daily? The scent of incense ever-present in the air? The constant rituals and ceremonies performed specifically to maintain balance in the spiritual realm? Every day hundreds of tourists parade the streets of Ubud. Every day another rice paddy is drained to make way for a new resort or villa funded by money from the West. But inside the walled compounds of Balinese family homes, life goes on as it has for two thousand years. These people have a way of accepting the new, adjusting to accommodate change, but remaining virtually unchanged themselves. They do this with a self-possessed dignity that defies explanation.

I don’t know the answer to my question. All my life I have believed that everywhere was basically the same as everywhere else. I have traveled and visited amazing countries. I have seen works of art and architecture that left me breathless. I have met wonderful people who genuinely cared for me.  Yet nowhere else has a place whispered to my heart entreating me to stay, to learn, to just be.

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