Vilifying the Ancient Goddess

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Een Balinese danser met een masker van Rangda de heksweduwe TMnr 10004670.jpg
A Balinese dancer wearing the mask of Rangda (1929) – Tropenmuseum

Rangda is electrifying, dangerous and otherworldly. She embodies power. She has protruding eyes, pendulous large breasts and a large red tongue hanging down her body. Her mouth is full of big teeth and curving fangs, her fingernails are extended to long pointed claws and her unkempt mop of gray hair hangs down her back. Legends of Rangda include her fondness for eating children as well as causing disease and pestilence.

For well over half a millennium, the island of Bali has cultivated their own unique form of Hinduism, comprising a complex tapestry of animistic beliefs, Buddhism, as well as other traditions and belief systems. Bali’s tumultuous political history is known from written records of dynasties dating back to, at least, the ninth century CE – its past closely intertwined with that of its larger neighbor Java as, over the centuries, the two islands have frequently been united under the same kingdom. From the fifth century on, traders, priests, and adventurers sailing from India and China brought to Bali and Java a variety of Hindu and Buddhist ideas and practices which were adapted and assimilated into the Balinese culture. These many aspects of the Balinese identity is very apparent in the figure of Rangda, the “Queen of Leyak”, who embodies a culmination of the island’s history and many influences.

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Barong in the middle of two Rangdas

It is useful, at this stage, to understand a little of the Balinese cosmology. The Barong dance is a part of the ritual drama which focuses on the ongoing battle between good and evil – with Barong representing the good and Rangda representing Evil. Although not obviously gendered, Barong is understood as male and depicted as dragon-lion with an ornate feathery tail. Rangda, on the other hand, is always female. The Barong protects villages from plague and malicious magic, whereas Rangda is the one inflicting those plagues and difficulties.

However, much like the goddess Durga is seen as a benevolent mother goddess in the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, Rangda is also considered a protective force in certain parts of Bali. The colors associated with Rangda — white, black and red — are identical with those associated with Durga.

Bali’s evil spirits inhabits the lower areas of the island – the sea is considered the lowest area, which explains the people’s fear towards sea goddesses such as Nyi Loro Kidul and Rangda herself. Therefore, Rangda belongs to the dark, graveyards and the sea. Bali’s good spirits inhabit the heights, on or close to the sacred Gunung Agung (“Great Mountain”). The traditional belief of the Balinese is that they live in the world between, in which they maintain the balance between good and evil by daily offerings and frequent rituals.

In researching Rangda, it is also useful to know more about the Leyaks as, not only is Rangda considered to be their queen, the Leyaks seem to be mostly female and share very similar characteristics to feared female spirits in the South East Asian region. In the folklore of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, there is a particular female supernatural creature that is culturally related. This creature is called “Leyak” in Bali, “Manananggal” in the Philippines and “Hantu penanggalan” in Malaysia. The words Manananggal and Penanggalan literally may mean “to detach” or “to remove” since the two languages belong to the Austronesian language family. This similarity can also be observed in “Krasue” (Thailand) and “Phi-kasu” (Laos).

Krasue (Thai) or Ab (Khmer) by Xavier Romero-Frias

The Manananggal of the Philippine folklore, is portrayed as a woman who separates its body into the upper and lower torso at night time. In the upper torso, bat-liked wings appear which enables her to fly in search for its victim while the lower limb remains on the ground. The Manananggal perches on the roof house of her prey, which are usually pregnant women, and uses her elongated tongue to suck the heart of an unborn child. Malaysia’s Penanggalan, who practices black magic, also flies at night and detaches its head and other internal organs from the rest of the body before victimizing pregnant women and young children using its fangs. It perches on the roofs of houses where women are in labor, screeching when the child is born. Those whose blood the Penanggalan feeds upon would contract a wasting disease that is almost inescapably fatal. However, their Thai equivalent did not become  a Krasue due to black magic – the Krasue is under a curse that makes her always hungry. She goes out hunting in the night to to satisfy its gluttony, seeking blood to drink or raw flesh to devour.

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Durga, riding on her lion, attacking Mahisasur

Durga is a much older goddess, as the 6th century CE inscriptions in early Siddhamatrika script, such as at the Nagarjuni hill cave during the Maukhari era, already mention the legend of her victory over Mahishasura, the buffalo demon.

Durga, in her various forms, appears as an independent deity in the Epics period of ancient India as both Yudhisthira and Arjuna of the Mahabharata invoke hymns to her. Various Puranas from the early to late 1st millennium CE, such as the Markandeya Purana and the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, dedicate chapters of mythologies, albeit inconsistent, associated with Durga. Archeological discoveries suggest that iconographic features of Durga became common throughout India by about the 4th century CE.

Among her other functions, Durga is a warrior goddess – revered by warriors as she blessed their new weapons. She is typically depicted as riding a lion or a tiger. Durga traditionally holds the weapons of various male gods of Hindu mythology in her many hands. These weapons are considered symbolic by Shakta Hindus, representing self-discipline, selfless service to others, self-examination, prayer and meditation. Durga is also often shown in the middle of her war with Mahishasura, where she victoriously kills the buffalo demon. Although her icons show her in war-like action, her face is calm and serene. In Hindu arts, this tranquil attribute of Durga’s face is traditionally derived from the belief that she is protective and violent not because of her hatred or egotism, but because she acts out of necessity – for her love of justice and liberty. Durga also represents the beginning of soul’s journey to creative freedom. She is viewed as the “Self” within and the divine mother of all creation.

Assyrian demon Pazuzu, 1st millenium BC.

In a story which presents a pattern eerily similar to that of Rangda and the Barong, Ancient Mesopotamia had the dog-faced male demon Pazuzu who was the only one who could control the fierce female demon Lamashtu. Lamashtu was the divine daughter of the supreme sky god Anu. However, she held a rank below that of most deities. Like the Balinese, the Ancient Mesopotamians believed that demons lived in graveyards and the sea. They were responsible for diseases and other afflictions. The main task of Lamashtu, in particular, was to attack babies.

As depicted in Mesopotamian iconography, Lamashtu was an ashen monster with her hairy body covered in blood. She dangled snakes from her long clawed fingers and fingernails, her feet had the talons of a predatory bird, and she had a lion or eagle head and the teeth of a dog. On her naked, drooping breasts, a black dog and a pig suckled. She sailed the river of the Underworld in her own boat. Independent and dangerous, Lamashtu was disrespectful to her father, leading him to throw her out of heaven. She proceeded to cause fevers and chills, killing men and women with diseases and plague. Lamashtu’s particular malevolence was the causing of miscarriages and the killing of newborns.

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Amulet with a Lamashtu demon ca. 7th–6th century BC.

These female demons have much in common. They are all physically hideous, anti-mothers in one way or another, and they are all childless or give birth in abnormal ways. They are dangerous and threaten humans with both diseases and death. They all lived in exile or, at least, they are distanced from the cultures that produced them. Their similarities reflect male dominated societies’ disapproval of females who did not fit in the approved figures of biddable wives and daughters. Although they are  independent of men and autonomous to a large extent, these female spirits are all brought under control by males in the end.

Stylish ethnic lady leaning on broken window and looking at camera