SHAMAN, SAIVA AND SUFI
VII. THE MALAY SHAMAN'S SÉANCE
THE main tasks of the Siberian shaman are healing and divination. His familiar spirit or spirits, possessing him
their medium, descend at a séance to cure the sick, avert evil, foretell the future or answer enquiries. By
auto−suggestion the shaman falls or pretends to fall into a trance and is possessed by spirits who speak through
his mouth. All these are features of the Malay séance, which resembles very closely that of the Mongol shaman
even in details of ritual: the beating of a tambourine, wild singing, the rustle and voices of invisible spirits, the
expulsion or sucking out of the spirit of disease, the medium on return to consciousness oblivious of what has
passed, the offerings made to spirits.
Information about the ritual of the aboriginal shaman of Malaya is scanty but accords generally, so far as it
goes, with what might be expected. He performs mostly inside a round hut or circle of some kind. He wears on his
head a wreath of leaves with a tuft, and he carries a switch of leaves. Often his hut is darkened. Invocations are
chanted to the sound of bamboo stampers clashed on logs. One account states that the shaman strokes the evil
spirit out of a patient with his switch, and that he shouts and shrieks to drive it into a cage or network of loops to
be imprisoned by his magic. Perhaps this is a vague description of the frenzy of possession?
The Malay séance is used to cure sickness; to divine the whereabouts of lost or stolen property; to discover if a
princess shall bear a son or what the future holds for a Mecca−bound pilgrim! There is a record of a séance where
earth spirits were entreated to allow a sacred rhinoceros to be hunted. The object of the most famous séance in the
history of Perak remains obscure. Either it was to enquire from the spirits of the State if a plot against the British
Resident would succeed or to ask their leave and help to take his life.
Sir Frank Swettenham has described how a spirit−raising séance was conducted by a royal female shaman
during the illness of a ruler of Perak some thirty years ago. The magician, dressed like a man, sat with veiled head
before a taper, in her right hand a sheaf of grass cut square at top and bottom. This sheaf she took convulsively.
The taper flared, a signal that the spirit invoked was entering the candle. The magician, now supposed to be in a
trance, bowed to the taper "and to each male member of the reigning family present!" After many spirits had been
invoked, the sick raja was brought out and seated on a sixteen−sided stand (an improvement on the double
pentacle called Solomon's seat) to await, with shrouded head and a square bunch of grass in his hand, the advent
of the spirits of the State. Conducted back to bed, His Highness fell later into a swoon attributed to possession by
those spirits! At this royal séance the magician's daughter led an orchestra of "five or six girls holding native
drums, instruments with a skin stretched over one side only" and beaten with the fingers.
At a humbler séance held in Perak there was only one musician, the shaman's wife, a "wild−looking Moenad."
Her husband held a bunch of leaves in either hand. The musician beat a one−sided drum and screamed out
interminable chants. Her husband began to nod drowsily, sniffed at his leaves, waved them over his head, struck
them together, and became possessed of the shaman's usual familiar, a tiger−spirit, as shown by growls and
sniffing and crawling under a mat. Between the incantations he accepted a cigarette and talked to the patient's
family, using, however, an aboriginal Sakai dialect. Possessed again of the tiger−spirit he executed weird dances
and sprinkled the sufferer with rice−paste. Finally his tiger−spirit identified as the cause of the patient's illness a
dumb vampire ( Langsuyar), to be expelled neither by invocations nor the sprinkling of ricepaste.
Another magician accompanied by a male tambourine−player then took his place. He held convulsively a
single sheaf of grass and became possessed by four spirits in succession but to no purpose. Finally both magicians
waved all evil spirits away from the patient on to a miniature revolving model of a mosque, and set it, filled with
the flesh of a fowl and other delicacies, adrift upon the river.
In an account of yet another séance in Selangor, where to cure an ailment the magician became possessed by
the tiger−spirit, it is said that the ceremony usually took place on three nights and that the same odd number of
persons should be present each time. For the reception of the spirit an artificial bouquet of flowers, doves and
centipedes, all made of palm−leaf, was prepared. After an invocation the magician bathed himself in incense,
suffered spasmodic convulsions, spoke a spirit language, became possessed, sat with shrouded head, lit tapers on
the edges of three jars of water, and rubbed the patient with a bezoar stone. Then donning a white coat and
head−cloth, he fumigated a dagger, dropped silver coins into the three jars, and gazed to see their position under the three tapers, declaring that it indicated the gravity of the patient's illness. Scattering handfuls of charmed rice
round the jars, he put into them improvised bouquets of areca−palm. blossom, and plunged his dagger into each
bouquet to dispel lurking spirits of evil. Another sheaf of palm−blossom he anointed with oil and used for
stroking the patient from head to heel. Next he was possessed by the tiger−spirit, scratched, growled and licked
the naked body of the patient. He drew blood from his own arm, with the point of his dagger and fenced with his
invisible spirit foe. Once more he stroked the patient with the sheaf of blossom and with his hands. Again he
stabbed the bouquets, stroked the patient, and after lying still for an interval recovered consciousness.
In Perak a séance is known as "possession by spirits": in Kelantan as "the play of the fairy princess." This
Kelantan ceremony is performed for three or sometimes seven nights in succession. It is repeated after a week or
so if the sick person's condition improves. Besides the shaman there are three musicians, one to strum on a
three−stringed viol, one to beat a brass bowl with pieces of bamboo, one a drummer. The shaman recites a long
invocation to the four archangels, the friends of the Prophet, the seven miracle−workers, and the father of all
genies, explaining that not he but Luqman al−Hakim is offering them a little rice and water and a quid of betel.
Next the musician with the viol chants a song with an orthodox introduction but ending with an invocation to the
spirits of the village, various nature−spirits, the Spectre Huntsman and Siva, begging them to recall any of their
followers plaguing the sick man. The shaman shrouds and fumigates himself and falls into a trance. The orchestra
plays frantically. A chant, disguised by the phrases of Muslim medico−religious lore, invites the spirit of the fairy
princess to enter the medium. The shaman nods and whirls his head violently; his eyes are closed and he is
possessed by spirit after spirit until he has chosen the one he desires to retain. Gazing at the flame of a candle he
reports the cause of the patient's illness. He sucks or pretends to suck the body of the sick man and starts another
chant full of pantheistic Muslim lore declaring that man's body is God's house and no place for spirits of evil. This
exorcism eventually transfers the spirit from the patient into the shaman, who has to dispel it thence with the help
of one of his familiars.
Should the patient recover, a final séance takes place at which there is a sacrificial offering. The patient is
bathed in charmed water from three jars and has three rings of thread drawn over him from head to heel. "At
Penpont, in Dumfriesshire, the emissary of a patient, when he reached the (holy) well, I had to draw water in a
vessel which was on no account to touch the ground, to turn himself round with the sun, to throw his offering to
the spirit over his left shoulder, and to carry the water without ever looking back to the sick person. All this was to
be done in absolute silence, and he was to salute no one by the way.'" In Pahang when a Malay woman fetches
water from the river for a sick person's séance, she must let it trickle into her vessel slowly without gurgling, she
must cover the mouth of the full vessel with leaves and she must not speak to any one while carrying it.
In Kelantan there are several milder forms of exorcism, practised by traffickers with special spirits, such as the
nature spirits of yellow sunsets and the echo spirits. In one, where, however, there is no music and recitations take
the place of chants, the shaman becomes possessed and waves over the sufferer a leather puppet figure of Smar
from the Javanese shadow−play! If recovery ensues, among the final sacrificial offerings a model of a wayside
resting−place is reserved with dainties for Siva.
The séance to "revive" (memuleh) the Perak regalia has never been described. The duties of the Sultan Muda
or State magician were to be chief of all magicians and to know their merits, to attend royalty in sickness, to pay
homage to the genies presiding over the destinies of Perak, and to give annually a feast to the spirits inhabiting the
regalia. At the séance preceding this feast the palace would be full of shrouded magicians, each invoking his or
her familiar. The Sultan Muda sat veiled, a bunch of grass in his hand, while the chief musician called upon the
genies in order of precedence to descend and bring their thousand attendant spirits. "Come down to the gate of
this world! Pass in procession to the posy, your place to alight. In your might lies the might of our Sultan. Come
around, pass into the posy, your place to alight, and enter your jewelled curtain." As each spirit entered the posy,
the chant ceased and the sound of the tambourines was stilled.
Meanwhile some humble musician would be crying on the tiger−spirit:−"Warrior! Son of a warrior! Matchless
in might! Come, my lord! Come, my life! Descend into this posy, your alighting place, and pass into your
jewelled curtain. Come by the blessing of 'Ali, the spirit who hangs at the door of the sky." And as the tiger−spirit
came, the village magician who had invoked him would turn about seven times and leap and growl, as his familiar
asked why he had been summoned. The magician would answer:−"You have been invited because our lord has
got ready a hall and is inviting the Sultan of the Impalpable Air and all his followers to a feast upon the morrow and he hopes that no harm may befall them on the way." Speaking through the magician, the spirit answers:−"It is
well. I and my subjects can be present. The bad I will not bring." So spirit after spirit was raised and invited until
the Sultan Muda gave the signal to retire.
The next morning the Sultan Muda, the Raja Kechil Muda and their tambourine players went with rice−paste
and turmeric and censers to superintend the building of a nine−storeyed hall, surmounted by a model of a fabulous
bird, Jatayu (offspring of Vishnu's Garuda) that lives on dew. It was adorned with palm−streamers from which
hung woven boxes of rice, cakes, sugar−cane and bananas: on the topmost tier was the severed head of a pink
buffalo, surrounded by water−vessels. An altar on sixteen posts was erected with offerings for spirits not
connected with the destinies of the State. Two bamboo conches served to hold food for hungry spirits of the dead
(karamat). At dusk the Sultan Muda mounted and waved from the nine−storeyed hall. The others waved beside
the altar and the conches. Then the Raja Kechil Muda fell into a trance and with shouts ascended to the mat
prepared for him. Twelve musicians beat tambourines and chanted invocations to the genies to leave the pools and
plains of spirit−land and enter the jewelled curtains and posies prepared for them. After a rest and refreshment the
magicians renewed their invocations. The tambourines and drums of their assistants were answered by the thud of
all the royal drums and the blare of the royal trumpets. On the right of the presiding magicians sat virgin
princesses holding sacrificial offerings on their laps, on the left young unmarried princes supporting the regalia.
Then the two chief magicians did obeisance to the regalia, offered delicacies to "the thousand gcnies" and poured
upon the royal drums and into the royal trumpets drink, which vanished miraculously as though imbibed. Finally,
towards dawn the Sultan Muda and his magicians fetched the ruler of the State, and bathing His Highness bathed
in his sacred person the genies that presided over the destinies of his kingdom.
In Kelantan also when a feast was prepared to propitiate the spirits of a district or to banish evil spirits from the
countryside a séance formed part of the ritual.
Exactly how the spirits visit the medium is not expressly stated. They enter the flame of candles and cause
them to flicker. At the installation of a Sultan of Perak the guardian genies of the State may inhabit the State
sword and make it press upon the ruler's shoulder. In the regalia ritual they are invited to descend on posies
(jinjang malai), perhaps flowers stuck behind the ear of the magician, as the yellow chempaka blossom is still
stuck behind the ear of a ruler at his installation. The convulsive shaking of the shaman's grass switch may
indicate that they enter there. Sweet jasmine attracts them. A Perak chief, who knew how to make from the shroud
and coffin of a murdered man powder rendering spirits visible, enabled a friend at a séance to see two women
with streaming hair descend through the roof and alight on the flower−vase, the artificial garden prepared for their
All the evidence points to the make−believe of the Malay shaman's trance. One magician possessed by a spirit
remembers court etiquette sufficiently to bow to members of the royal family, and falls down before a dish−cover
the sight of which was anathema to the spirit possessing her. Another toothless shaman asked why the betel−nut
has not been pounded, as the genie possessing him is stricken with years. One possessed by a female spirit
impersonates a woman in his gait, and by arranging his dress to suit the part is said to cause amusement to the
spectators. Another showed an anxious husband a hollow bamboo stopped up at either end. "Therein he declared,
recovered by his magic, was hair and a fingernail of my wife, which some enemy had stolen. On no account was
the bamboo to be opened. But I was unbelieving, risked the harm which old folks prophesied and broke the seals.
Now my wife's hair was fine as silk and this was as coarse as the hair of a horse's tail; my wife's finger−nail was
curved like the young moon and delicate as pearl, and this nail was thick as the nail on a man's thumb. It is a pity
the white man has not made a law to clap such rogues in gaol, but they shall be shut in Allah's gaol hereafter,
which is much worse."
There are parallels to the indication by a familiar of this cause of a disease, but the two related to me were both
examples of a shaman's roguery. As a rule the object of a séance for the sick is to expel or coax an evil spirit out
of the sufferer's body, sometimes into the shaman's own but usually on to a receptacle containing food.