The Goddess with the Golden Scales

One afternoon in the 1960s, the people of Magelang in Java, Indonesia, gathered on the edge of the main road which connects Magelang and Yogyakarta and sounded anything they could find which could make a loud noise. After some time, the wind blew from the south. This southern wind, according to the local legend, was a Lampor. A Lampor refers to trips to several regions in Java which are carried out by the soldiers of Nyi Roro Kidul, the mythical Queen of the Southern Seas, led by her commander Nyi Blorong. The reason people needed to make such a din was so that Nyi Blorong’s supernatural troops would not stop by the residents’ houses, thus bringing an outbreak of disease to the area.

Silhouette of person against sunset sky

Around the time of the Indonesian Independence Day in August 2001, a rumor spreading throughout East Java and at least as far west as Semarang, had it that Nyi Blorong had lost her selendang (scarf) and was angrily looking for it. Therefore, little plastic bags filled with variously colored liquids were strung up in front of houses and shops in Jember. These penangkal (charms) were hung to ward off the fury of Nyi Blorong and prevent her from entering and bringing misfortune into people’s houses. 

These are examples that the myth of Nyi Blorong still exists in the oral tradition in Indonesia. She is described as being able to change her appearance from a golden scaly snake into a beautiful woman wearing a green kebaya (a traditional light tunic) with a long golden cloth – the long golden cloth being the embodiment of her original figure which is the giant golden snake. Aside from being the commander of the supernatural world ruled by Nyi Roro Kidul, the Queen of the Southern Seas, she is also able to provide pesugihan (instant wealth) to those who call upon her.

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Watercolor Painting of Nyi Blorong, c. 1879

Stories of instant wealth provided by Nyi Blorong to certain believers indicate that the belief in Nyi Blorong’s luck has existed for a long time. However, the Javanese people generally regard rich people who allied themselves with Nyi Blorong negatively. Javanese poet Raden Ngabehi Ranggawarsito also criticized the practice. In his Serat Jayengbaya (Book of Jayengbaya), which he wrote around 1822-1830, Ranggawarsito referred to ‘Nyi Blorong’ to mock the Javanese people of that time when he wrote: “Yang sudah-sudah cepat kaya, sehingga seperti Nyi Blorong belaka. (“The people of the past got rich quickly like Nyi Blorong.”)

Until movies were made about her in Indonesia, Nyi Blorong was a much less well-known figure than Nyai Roro Kidul. Some say she is a minor goddess of fortune who lives in a swamp, while others say she lives in a palace in the Indian Ocean. She has also been said to be a jinn (genie) in the form of a beautiful woman who can change into a snake or has the tail of a snake with jewels as scales. There is also a link between Nyi Blorong and Nyi Tawun, the Javanese dhanyang desa (a village’s tutelary spirit) who also appears in the form of a snake. Nyi Tawun could also shapeshift from being a beautiful woman to a snake. She is said to have brought people wealth, after which they started calling her Nyi Blorong. This is a rather an exceptional link as the dhanyang usually acts as the moral guardian of the community, while obtaining wealth from Nyi Blorong is traditionally considered immoral and those who pursue this way of gaining wealth are said to lust after wealth.

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Pamphlet of the film Perkawinan Nyi Blorong (The Marriage of Nyi Blorong), 1983

As it is with oral traditions, there are many versions of the origin story of Nyi Blorong. Babad Prambanan, (the Chronicles of Prambanan), which was put in writing in 1927, claims that Nyi Blorong was the daughter of the Queen of the Southern Sea, Ratu Kidul or Nyi Loro Kidul. Another older version, copied in the Mangkunegara region in 1885, also tells about the founding of the Prambanan temple as well as the story of the legendary first king of Java, Aji Saka. The myth of Aji Saka is expressed in the Serat Kandaning Ringgit Purwa, a collection of wayang stories composed around the 16th century. Although she was only mentioned as a somewhat peripheral character, this still provides an early reference to Nyi Blorong. 

 As his karmic punishment for killing a helpless dragon that was imprisoned in a cave, the wife of King Aji Saka from Medhangkamulan, gave birth to a child in the form of a dragon named Naga Nginglung. Although he was initially ashamed of his son’s appearance, Aji Saka was finally willing to acknowledge Naga Nginglung as his son as long as Naga Nginglung could defeat his enemy, Dewatacengkar who had the ability to transform himself into a white crocodile.

Meanwhile, the Queen of the Southern Seas held a meeting to discuss the chaos caused by the act of Dewatacengkar. She then announced a contest that whoever can defeat the white crocodile will be married to her daughter, Rara Blorong who, although human, also had the scales of a snake. Naga Nginglung defeated Dewatacengkar and married Rara Blorong.

Another origin story of Nyi Blorong described her as an exiled princess named Nyimas Dewi Anggatri. She was banished from her parents’ kingdom and retreated to the southern forest unaware that she had entered the magical gate of the kingdom ruled by Nyi Roro Kidul. Nyimas Dewi Anggatri was then held captive by Nyi Roro Kidul. In her captivity, she told the Queen of the Southern Oceans about what had caused her to flee to the forest. Nyi Roro Kidul then adopted her, renamed her Nyi Blorong and gave her dominion over snakes. After that, Nyi Blorong was appointed as the commander of the Southern Sea, answering only to Nyi Roro Kidul herself.

Woman Holding Brown Snake

Nyi Blorong’s strength and beauty reached their peak during the full moon. When the moon waned, Nyi Blorong changed into a snake. One of Nyi Blorong’s duties was also to lure humans to submit to the temptations of pesugihan.

 In the 19th century, Dutch researcher H.A van Hien divided the world of spirits in Java into 95 different categories. Specifically regarding Nyi Blorong, he wrote that all kinds of wealth would be given to the person who was brave enough to call Nyi Blorong for a period of seven years with the option of extending it for up to two more periods. However, a sacrifice still needed to be made and finally the caller became the victim and entered the magical palace of Nyi Roro Kidul as a slave. Legends about her expanded to say that she would provide one with riches in exchange for sexual relations with her supplicant every malam Jum’at Kliwon (sacred night before Friday Kliwon, which occurs once every month). After Nyi Blorong was satisfied, the scales on her body would turn into gold and jewels. This arrangement would continue for seven years after which the beneficiary must then fully surrender to Nyi Blorong and become part of her household forever. In addition, Nyi Blorong could sometimes also ask for more sacrifices to increase the number of her soldiers and enhance her own beauty.

Priestess of Mami Wata in Togo, West Africa in 2005

Pesugihan is a way to gain wealth instantly. In the process pesugihan is a form of cooperation agreement between humans and supernatural beings. However, this gift is never free and always requires sacrifices to the supernatural beings in exchange. The form of sacrifice depends on the demand of the supernatural beings and humans must be able to fulfill them. The requirements can range from an altar of worship, barter of wealth to even animals or human sacrifices. The wealth that the human receives will only last as long as the person fulfills his sacrificial obligation every year. If the receiver of the pesugihan dies, the wealth that he received from the pesugihan will also disappear and no one will inherit the gift.

Ancient Mesopotamians and Semites believed that snakes were immortal because they could infinitely shed their skin and appear in a fresh guise, time and again. Snake cults were already well established in Canaan during the Bronze Age, as archaeologists have uncovered serpent cult objects at several pre-Israelite cities in Canaan.

Sculpture of the African water deity Mami Wata. Nigeria (Igbo). 1950s. Wood, pigment.

The tradition of snake worship is also present in many ancient cultures where snakes were seen as entities of strength and renewal. Mami Wata, who is worshipped in West, Central and Southern Africa and the African diaspora, is a water spirit associated with fertility and healing. She is usually depicted as a woman with the lower body of a snake or a woman holding a large snake.

Upper Egypt was under the patronage of the goddess Wadjet. She was represented as a cobra with spread hood or as a cobra-headed woman. After Upper and Lower Egypt were united, Wadjet later became one of the protective emblems on the pharaoh’s crown. She was believed to spit fire at the enemies of Ra and the pharaoh.

A well-known story in the Cambodian mythology explains the emergence of the Khmer people from the union of an Indian brahmana (priest) and a Naga princess. (In Indian mythology Naga refers to a member of a semi-divine race, part human, part cobra in form, associated with water and sometimes with mystical initiation). An Indian brahmana named Kaundinya came to Cambodia which at the time was under the dominion of the Naga king. The Naga princess Soma fought against the priest but was defeated. Soma then readily agreed to marry the victorious Kaundinya. Together they ruled the land and the Khmer people are their descendants.

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Buddha preaches to Koundinya and his four colleagues

In Korean mythology, the wealth goddess Eobshin appears as an eared black snake. She has seven daughters who are all snakes and these goddesses are protectors of orchards, courts and the home.

Serpents also figured prominently in archaic Greek myths. The serpent Ophion ruled the world with Eurynome before they were cast down by the titans Cronos and Rhea. Herodotus also wrote of a great serpent which defended the citadel of Athens. Python was always represented in vase-paintings and by sculptors as a serpent. Apollo slew Python and adopted Delphi, her former home, as his own oracle.

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Medusa by Carvaggio c. 1595

Medusa and her sisters were portrayed as vicious female monsters with sharp fangs and hair consisting of venomous snakes. Their origins predate the written myths of Greece as the protectresses of the most ancient ritual secrets. Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, and a princess of the primitive land of Epirus, had a reputation of being a snake-handler, and it was in the form of a snake that Zeus was said to have fathered Alexander with her. Lucian writes that tame snakes were still to be found at Macedonian Pella by the second century AD.

Photo of Person Holding Snake

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