SHAMAN, SAIVA AND SUFI
III. THE MALAY MAGICIAN
ANTHROPOLOGY and history confirm the various stages in the development of the Malay magician.
First he was the Indonesian animist, requiring no initiation into his office and no help from a familiar spirit.
Hunting, fishing, planting, and healing the sick demanded merely different experts acquainted with the practice
and customs of the particular craft. In the ritual of the rice−field, for example, a midwife or other old woman took
the leading part, because her sex had a beneficent influence on the fertility of the crop, and her experience with
human infants qualified her to handle the rice−baby. Courtesy and persuasion and diplomatic language were the
weapons of the Malay magician of animism.
Next came the shaman. Comparative study has, revealed that shamanism was "the native religion of the
Ural−Altaic peoples from Behring Straits to the borders of Scandinavia," and "probably of the early
Mongol−Tartar peoples and others akin to them, for example, in China and Tibet." Its part in the religions of
Malaysian tribes reminds one that on linguistic grounds it has been surmised the Malay descended from the
continent of Asia and that anthropologists detect in him a Mongol strain. The shaman still retains his pride of
place among the aboriginal tribes of the Malay Peninsula, Negrito, Indo−Chinese and Proto−Malay. One word is
used by the Malay both for the magician expert in some particular line and for the shaman who controls spirits by
the help of a familiar. But a distinction between them is recognised. "Upon the exercise of the shaman's power
every Malay looks with considerable dread, and the least orthodox shakes his head when it is mentioned." Islam
looks far more askance at the shaman who calls down spirits at a séance than at the commoner medicine−man
who relies solely on charms and invocations covered with a veneer of orthodox phraseology. His brothers in
magic respect the shaman more highly. In Kelantan when a shaman is operating in any district "all other
medicine−men are disqualified for the time being."
Sometimes the Malay shaman wears cords round his wrists and across back and breast over each shoulder and
under the opposite arm. He can use cloth of royal yellow at a séance. Rarely he is a Raja. In Perak the State
shaman was commonly of the reigning house and bore the title of Sultan Muda. He was too exalted to inherit any
other office except the Sultanate, and according to one account could ascend no temporal throne. He was allotted
a State allowance from port dues and the tax on opium. The twenty−fifth holder of the office was a grandson on
the distaff side of Marhum Kahar, a famous ruler of Perak in the eighteenth century: on the spear side he was a
descendant of the Prophet! The wife of its holder bore the title of Raja Puan Muda. His deputy or heir−apparent
was styled Raja Kechil Muda. So, too, in parts of Timor two Rajas are recognised−a civil raja who governs the
people, and another raja who can declare tabus and must be consulted by his colleagues in all important matters.
At a curative (but not apparently at a State−cleansing) séance the spirit−raising shaman may be a woman.
During the last illness of Sultan Yusuf, a nineteenth century ruler of Perak, a séance was conducted by Raja Ngah,
a scion of the reigning house on the female side, "a middle−aged woman dressed as a man" for the occasion−a
device I have seen adopted by Malay midwives also. In Kelantan the shaman may be a Malay or a Siamese
Negritos and certain northern Sakai placed the bodies of dead shamans in shelters built among tree−branches.
The soul of a Negrito magician may enter tiger, elephant, or rhinoceros, and there abide until the animal dies,
when the soul at last goes to its own heaven. Some Kinta Sakai used formerly to leave the corpses of magicians
unburied in the houses where they died. The Jakun of Rompin put them "on platforms and their souls go up to the
sky, while those of ordinary mortals, whose bodies are buried, go to the underworld." Other Jakun believe that
great magicians are translated alive to heaven. Clearly it was the custom of the Peninsular aborigines not to bury a
magician. His soul might inhabit a large animal temporarily, but found its way in the end to some place in the air
that is full of the unseen spirits he controlled. Malays have long buried their magicians. "The majority of sacred
places in the Patani States are the reputed graves of great medicine−men." But in two of the States on the west
coast, at least, when a practiser of black magic is in the throes of death, it is believed that the spirit of life can
escape only if a hole is made in the roof of the house.
A shaman by inheritance comes into possession of a familiar spirit, or perhaps he may inherit one from his
preceptor. In Patani it is said that if a shaman does not bequeath his (or her) art to a pupil before dying, then his clothes, drums, censer, and other magical appurtenances will generate a savage ghost. There, too, it is held that
hairy persons are especially qualified to become magicians. The Benua, a Proto−Malay tribe, believe that the soul
of a dead shaman (who has to be left unburied in the forest) will in the seventh day attack his heir in the form of a
tiger: if the heir betrays no fear and casts incense on a fire, he will fall into a trance and be visited by two beautiful
female spirits who become his familiars; if the heir fails to watch by the corpse and observe this ritual, the dead
man's soul enters a tiger for ever. According to the belief of the Jakun his familiar spirit comes to a shaman by
inheritance or in a dream. In all accounts the shaman must acquire as his familiar a spirit that has not found rest.
This he does in a trance, often during a vigil beside a grave.
Kelantan Malays prescribe a method of acquiring a shaman's powers that shows an accretion of Muslim belief
on a primitive idea, akin to the Proto−Malay superstition that round a grave a ditch must be dug wherein the soul
of the deceased may paddle his canoe. Sitting one at the head and one at the foot of the grave of a murdered man,
the would−be shaman and a companion burn incense and make believe to use paddles shaped from the midrib of a
royal yellow coconut palm, calling the while upon the murdered man to grant magical powers. The landscape will
come to look like a sea and an aged man will appear, to whom the request for magic must be repeated. Now one
of the evidences of Muslim saintship is the ecstatic vision or dream of the Prophet or of one of the greater saints
of Islam. Possibly the "aged man" was Luqman al−Hakim, the reputed fattier of Arabian magic. One day,
according to Kelantan belief, the Angel Gabriel was commanded to upset Luqman and his books at sea as a
punishment for his pride, and the finders of the few scattered pages of those books became medicine−men in their
several countries. A Selangor account corroborates the Kelantan belief that Luqman was the first magician: he
lived in the sky, was descended from Adam and Eve, was a son (or perhaps brother) of Siva, and so a link with
the Hindu element in the modern Malay medicine−man's shibboleth!
The Malay has always been apt to ascribe greater power to foreign magic, whether that of a naked illiterate
aborigine from the woods or that of a Hindu trader or an Arab missionary. In an eighteenth century history of
Perak it is recorded how among the medicine−men in attendance on the daughter of a famous Malay ruler there
were Sakai from the jungle. Magicians, like prophets, have more honour outside their own borders. It is no
wonder, therefore, that the Malay midwife learnt from the Hindu all the magic he could teach for the great
occasions of birth, adolescence, and marriage, or that the Malay shaman added gods of the Hindu pantheon to his
demonology and made invocations and offerings to Siva. Long before the introduction of Islamic mysticism,
Hinduism had encouraged the Malay magician to fortify his powers and command the wonder of the credulous by
ascetic practices. Malay romances, paraphrased from Indian originals, are full of stories of heroes who acquire
magic, especially for warfare, by retiring into a hermit's seclusion on a mountain−top. In Patani there is a "curious
belief, perhaps more Siamese than Malay, that no man can become a really great magician in any country in
which the peaks of the hills are rounded, and that therefore the State of Patalung, in which there are many conical
hills, produces the most powerful medicine−men in the Malay Peninsula."
When Islam came, the Malay magician sat at the feet of its pundits, studied their arts of divination, and
borrowed their cabalistic talismans. Before his old incantations he set the names of Allah and Muhammad, often
in impious contexts. He detected his latest avatar in the living saint of Islam, to whom folk resort "for advice in
legal disputes or as to the success or failure of an enterprise or as intercessor for the sick or to get a child or to
remove blight or plague or confound enemies." He will, therefore, seclude himself for certain days of the week or
for a period, the practice being given an Arabic name and having a religious colour. Sometimes he keeps celibate.
Or he may fast to impress the common herd and enable himself to see visions. A magician of this type is generally
a disciple of a crude form of Sufism derived from India. A Selangor account, strongly affected by Neo−Platonic
ideas, makes Allah (as Absolute Being beyond all relations) the first of magicians. "When haze was still in the
womb of darkness and darkness in the womb of haze, before earth bore the name of earth or sky the name of sky,
before Allah was called Allah or Muhammad was called Muhammad, before the creation of the Divine Throne
and its footstool and the firmament, the Creator of the worlds was manifested by Himself and He was the first
magician. He made the magician's universe, a world of the breadth of a tray, a sky of the breadth of an umbrella....
The magician before time existed was Allah and He revealed Himself by the light of moon and sun and so showed
Himself to be verily a magician." The first sentence of this quotation is a Malay paraphrase of the Prophet's simile
for God before the creation: "the dark mist above which is a void and below which is a void." As Skeat has
suggested, the conception of a miniature universe, Plato's "fixed archetypes," would remind the Malay of the relation of the tiny Indonesian soul to the physical body. It reminds also of Ibn 'Arabi's saying that all the universe
contains lies potential in God like the tree in the seed. Indeed, one Malay account of the origin of the magician
relates how at the Muslim word of creation (kun) "the seed was created and from the seed the root, from the root
the stem, and from the stem the leaves," and then in the same sentence relates how the word of creation brought
into being a miniature earth and sky. So time has changed the Malay brother of the Siberian shaman into a humble
relative of the Sufi mystic.
Are there traces of the magician in the Malay king? Among some, at least, of the Proto−Malay tribes of the
Peninsula the commoner chief or Batin is judge, priest, and magician.
Between the old−world commoner chiefs of the matriarchal tribes of Negri Sembilan and the Raja ruler there
are several ties. Like the magician (and the European district officer!) both can influence the weather: a wet
season will be ascribed to a cold constitution! Both are chosen from several branches of one family, theoretically
from each branch in rotation, actually from the branch that happens to possess the candidate most suitable in years
and character. Both, therefore, like the Malay magician hold "offices hereditary or at least confined to the
members of one family."
Like the Brahmin the Malay magician and the Malay ruler have a tabu language. A king does not "walk" but
"has himself carried"; he does not "bathe" but is "sprinkled like a flower"; he does not "live" but "resides"; he
does not "feed" but "takes a repast"; he does not "die" but "is borne away." Of the dozen or more words
constituting this vocabulary half are Malay, half Sanskrit. Shaman and ruler both have felt the influence of
Like the magician, the ruler has wonder−working insignia of office. The tambourine and other appurtenances
of the shaman will generate an evil spirit if not bequeathed to a successor. To tread on a Malay State drum may
cause death: even a Chinaman has been known to swell up and die after removing a hornet's nest from this terrific
instrument. The regalia of a Malay ruler were miraculous talismans that controlled the luck of the State. Quite
recently in Malacca a pretender to the chieftainship of Naning got hold of the insignia of office, refused to
surrender them, and declared that possession of them gave him a good title.
In the old annual ceremony of expelling malignant spirits from a Malay State, the ruler took a leading part.
And in the ritual of the now obsolete Perak court magician there are two noteworthy details. At the séance held
during his last illness Sultan Yusuf was placed shrouded on the wizard's mat with the wizard's grass−switch in his
hand to await, as at an ordinary séance the shaman alone awaits, the advent of the spirits invoked. Again, after the
annual séance to "revive" the Perak regalia, the State magician bathed the Sultan and in his person the genies of
the State, who would seem therefore to be regarded as His Highness' familiar spirits. According to an old account
the State shaman of Perak was eligible for the Sultanate, and the Raja Muda, or heir to the throne, could become
Modern man has forgotten that in appropriating buffaloes with peculiar horns, albino children, turtles' eggs and
other freaks of nature, the Malay ruler started not as a grasping tyrant but as a magician, competent above all his
people to face the dangers of the unusual and untried. For under paganism, Hinduism and Islam magician and raja
dead and alive have been credited with supernatural powers. It is claimed for a modern Malay magician that he
can remain under water for an hour! It was claimed for a bye−gone ruler of Perak that every Friday he could
translate himself to Mecca and once brought back three green figs as evidence of his journey. The graves of kings
and the graves of magicians have been alike the object of worship.