The Kitchen in Asian Mythology

In Asian mythology, just before the Lunar New Year, the kitchen gods would go to Heaven to report to the Heavenly Emperor on his family’s activities during the year. In China, the family “send off” their kitchen god to heaven to make their report by burning the paper in which an image of the paper god was drawn that had hung over their stove for the entire year. The smoke rising to the heavens represents his journey to heaven, while fire crackers are lit to speed up the kitchen god’s travel. To ensure a good report before the Heavenly Emperor, honey would be rubbed on the lips of the paper god so that the kitchen god would have only sweet things to say to the Heavenly Emperor, or so that the sticky honey would prevent him from opening his mouth and tells the Heavenly Emperor any bad news.

Every Vietnamese household has a ceremony named Tet Tao Quan (“Kitchen Gods’ Day”). The women of the family would cook delicacies such as steamed sticky rice or plain porridge, altars would be cleaned and decorated with fresh flowers and fruits, and large bowl of water containing live golden carps is kept aside. The carps will be freed into a pond, lake or river after the worshiping ceremonies are finished. The three kitchen gods can only travel up to the heavens with the help of golden carps, as a carp is believed to be heaven’s animal and is a very good swimmer.

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Vietnamese painting of the Kitchen Gods

The most popular story of the Chinese kitchen god dates back to the 2nd Century BCE. The kitchen god was once a mortal on earth named Zhang Lang. Zhang Lang married a virtuous woman, but later left her to be with a younger woman. As a punishment for his adultery, the heavens afflicted Zhang Lang with ill-fortune – Zhang Lang became blind and, not long after, his young lover abandoned him. His misfortunes continued until he had to resort to begging to support himself.

One day, when he was begging for alms, Zhang Lang came upon a simple house of his former wife. As he was blind, he did not recognize the woman he betrayed. However, she recognized him, took pity on him and invited him in. She cooked a meal for Zhang Lang and tended to him kindly. As Zhang Lang told her his life’s story, he began to weep remembering his former wife and his treatment of her. Hearing this, Zhang Lang’s former wife gently told him to open his eyes and his vision was restored.

When he could finally make out the woman sitting in front of him, Zhang Lang recognized her as the wife he abandoned. However, it appeared that bad luck followed him to the end of his life, as Zhang Lang felt such shame that he threw himself into the kitchen hearth without realizing that it was lit. Despite the virtuous woman’s best efforts to save her former husband, she could only salvage one of his legs. To this day, a fire poker is sometimes referred to as Zhāng lǎng de tuǐ(“Zhang Lang’s Leg”).

The devoted wife then created a shrine to Zhang Lang above the fireplace. The Heavenly Emperor took pity on Zhang Lang. He gave Zhang Lang a new name Zao Jun (“Stove Master”) and made him the god of the Kitchen. When his faithful former wife died, the couple was finally reunited.

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From Chinese mythology, the Kitchen God, named Zao Jun (灶君; literally “stove master”) who rewards or punishes each household accordingly…. This pix is in the famous play “12 bà mụ” of Nguyễn Khắc Phục.

To establish a fresh beginning in the New Year, families in Asia are traditionally organized both within their family unit, in their home, and around their yard to clean. This custom of a thorough house cleaning and yard cleaning is another popular custom relating to the Kitchen Gods stemming from the philosophy that they embody. It is believed that in order for the deities to depart to heaven, the family home and “persons” must be cleansed. This ritual continued until after the ceremony where old decorations are taken down and new posters and decorations are put up for the following Spring Festival.

To further illustrate the relationship of the kitchen and family relationships, to this day traditional Independent Chinese families are classified accordingly to the stove they possess. In circumstances of a divided household, kitchens are shared but never the stove. In the case of a fathers death, the sons would divide their fathers household. The eldest son inherits the stove and the younger brothers transfer the coals from the old stove to their own new stoves to invite the kitchen gods to join their newly formed households. This process is called pun chu (“dividing the stove”) which also indicates the division of the “soul” of the family. As the stove is divided, each family members could then keep a part of their family’s “soul” in their new homes.

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The kitchen in the Shikumen Open House Museum, Shanghai, China

The Ancient Magic of Hygiene

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Cabinets d’aisances des fosses inodores.” (1830)

The proverb of cleanliness being “next to godliness” is popularly credited to John Wesley’s 1778 sermon. But it also came from writings in the Talmud. Washing oneself in clear water before paying homage to the gods and deities became part of the ceremonies in many ancient religions. In ancient Egypt, people washed their faces and hands before praying to the goddess Isis, and the priests bathed their bodies at least twice every night and twice during the day. Christian author Tertullian (c. 155 – 240 CE) tells us that water had inherent natural cleansing properties and, as an essence of holiness, water could remove all taints and open the way to the new state of existence.

In India, water had the power of giving life, strength and purity. The followers of Brahma bathed once or twice a day and rinsed their faces and hands several times a day. Hinduism imposed on its followers the duty of ritual bathing in the waters of the rivers which are still regarded as sacred. Muslims wash their hands, faces and feet before each of the five obligatory prayers in a day. Ablutions in the fountain are executed when they pray along the way, because, as Sahih Muslim says, “Cleanliness is half the Emaan (“faith”).” The Islamic culture led to the development of the ancient idea of public baths. However, the hammam (from the Arabic word “hamma” means “to warm”), known to us today as “Turkish Bath”, carries with itself more than just a bath. Practices of the hammam are an integral part of the Turkish and Arabic lifestyle. In the hammam, it is considered possible to clean the body as well as to relax and to recreate.

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Open air museum Petronell ( Lower Austria )

Very early toilets that used flowing water to remove the waste are found at Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland, which was occupied from about 3100 BCE until 2500 BCE. The people of the Harappan civilization in Pakistan and northwestern India had primitive water-cleaning toilets that used flowing water in each house that were linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. The flowing water removed the Human waste. Around the 18th century BCE, Minoan Crete improved the toilet by adding the capacity to flush. In 2012, archaeologists found what is believed to be Southeast Asia’s earliest latrine dating back to 1500 BCE during the excavation of a neolithic village in Rach Nui, southern Vietnam.

In the Japanese culture, the bath is dominant in most areas of life. It has also become a model indicator of family and social organization. The development of commercial bath houses occurred at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century CE. By the nineteenth century CE, there were 600 public baths in the capital of Japan alone. Public baths were the most popular meeting place as it was considered a way to meet new friends and for different social classes to interact with each other. Baths were also of vital importance for the Japanese gods. After escaping from the world of the dead, the god Izanagi took a bath in the river to wash away death from his body. It was also said that Izanagi initiated the tradition of washing one’s hand before entering a Shinto shrine.

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Leaflet advertising Bromo paper toilet tissue manufactured by Diamond Mills Paper Company of 44 Murray Street, New York, probably about 1878 or early 1880s. The paper contained the “disinfectants and curatives” Bromo chloralum and carbolic acid “as to render its use not only a positive preventive of that most distressing and almost universal complaint, the Piles, but also a thorough deodorizer and disinfectant of the water closet.” 


The main Babylonian medical text, the Sakikku, a diagnostic handbook written by chief scholar Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, describes a demon called Sulak, who hides in places where its victims would be alone and vulnerable such as the toilet. He is a guardian who is held responsible for causing strokes and seizures if toilet users do not abide by its bathroom standards of modesty and silence. The Talmud also tells us about Shed Bet ha-Kise. Going to the privy alone and being respectful of Shed Bet ha-Kise by keeping quiet are key to avoiding his attack. Upon returning from a trip to the toilet, one must walk at least half a mile away before having sexual intercourse to prevent Shed Bet ha-Kise from ensuring the children resulted from the sexual act to be epileptic.

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Chinon (Indre-et-Loire). The fortress for latrines in the Clock Tower.

In the first century BCE, bathhouses and public latrines became a major feature of Roman infrastructure and nearly all city dwellers had access to private toilets in their residences. Throughout the Roman empire, spells meant to ward off demons were scrawled on lavatory walls. The Roman goddess of Fortune, Fortuna, seems to have had a special relationship with toilet users as people prayed to her for their safety on the toilet. The waste water from latrines, along with what came out of private homes, was collected into a giant sewerage system originally built by Etrucan engineers and improved by the Romans called Cloaca Maxima. The goddess who presided over the good functioning of the sewerage system is Cloacina – named from the Latin word cloaca (“sewer”). Cloacina was assisted by city officials, called Aediles, who were in charge of supervising and improving the sewerage system. Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines from Cures was said to have built a shrine to Coacina in his toilet and invoked her when the sewers became blocked.

In ancient Asia, the toilet god was considered to be beautiful. Therefore, the toilet in a household would be nicely decorated and kept as clean as possible. There was also a belief that the state of the toilet in the house would affect the physical appearance of unborn children. Pregnant women would ask the toilet god to give boys a good nose and to give the girls dimples. A dirty toilet would lead to ugly and unhappy children.

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Room with latrines in the interior of the castle of Mauléon-Licharre, (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France).

Ancient Ladies of War

The vision of heavily armed men has become so heavily associated with the art of war that at this point it has become a cliché. So much so that, despite the many evidence throughout history of many female fighters, strategists and leaders, the association between women and war are still mostly seen as somewhat of a novelty even to this day. Stories of ancient female warriors are relegated to legends and folklores with minimal historical accounts attached to their lives, which leads to doubts on whether these women actually existed. Some of them are so fantastical and unrealistic that one would be forgiven to be inclined to immediately dismiss them. The lives and exploits of notable warrior women in history such as Artemisia I of Caria, Boudicca, or Joan of Arc are mostly considered examples of exceptional personal valor instead of reflections of the societies in which they lived.

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Attic red figure pelike by the Polygnotos Painter, 440-430 BC. A battle between a Greek warrior and an Amazon. The signature of the Painter is above the head of the warrior. Found in Gela, Sicily.

Chronicles of the ancient wars in Japan, much like those of ancient Greece and Rome, present many different kinds of male warriors such as the tragic hero, the warrior-courtier, the traitor, the coward and many others. On the other hand, women’s roles in these tales are slight and set far from the battlefields. There is the tragic heroine, or the loyal wife, who kills herself at the death of her husband or lover, the grieving mother who grooms her son to avenge his father’s death, the merciful woman who encourages a warrior chieftain to empathize, against his better judgment, and dissuade him from slaughtering his enemy’s children who later grow up to kill him, and the seductress who diverts the warrior from his task with her feminine wiles – all intriguing roles, of course, but they are stereotypes which realistically would apply to only very few women.

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Nakano Takeko shrine in Japan

Then there are the “ordinary women” who are either slaughtered or taken by the warriors as spoils of war. The fates of these women were rarely, if ever, mentioned. The likelihood of these women being raped and murdered were considered such a matter of course that frequent references to them would only disturb the flow of the story. The rare female warriors were depicted as superheroines. The life of Empress Jingu of Japan (c. 169-269 CE), as with many ancient female warriors, was shrouded in mystery. Aided by a pair of divine jewels which allowed her to control the tides, Empress Jingu led a successful invasion to Korea without shedding a single drop of blood from the Korean or the Japanese. However, the belief that Korea was invaded during this time is widely rejected historically as the historical evidence of Japanese rule in Korea during this time are somewhat debatable. Her legend became more incredible as her son Ojin was born upon her return to Japan in 203 CE. Ojin remained in the Empress’ womb for three years as he was conceived before she went to battle and was born upon her return. Legend has it that Ojin was actually Hachiman, the god of war, and he remained in her womb for three years to give her the time she needed to conquer Korea.

The descriptions of Tomoe Gozen are also unbelievable. Not only was she described as a woman of great beauty, intellect and battle skills, Tomoe Gozen was also a perfect archer, brilliant horse rider, an expert of the sword and a very competent politician – in short, a perfect war machine with the face of an angel. Nevertheless, she proved herself in combat as, leading only 300 samurais, she fought more than 2000 warriors and survived.

Tomoe Gozen is noted as one of Japan’s rare woman warriors who engaged in offensive battles. However, again, this is not completely true as there was, in fact, a whole class of women who were engaged in offensive battles. The excavation of three battlefield head-mounds from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao in 1580 CE and DNA tests on 105 bodies revealed that 35 of the warriors were female. Two subsequent excavations elsewhere produced similar results. As none of these findings was a siege situation, this leads to the conclusion that women fought in offensive armies even though their involvement was seldom recorded.

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Replica of the armor worn by female samurai Tachibana Ginchiyo at Siege of Yanagawa in 1600

The ancient women of Japan were only one of the latest in a long history of society-sanctioned female warriors. Herodotus describes steppe nomads named the Sauromatae, descendants of the Scythians, whose women hunted and fought alongside the men on horseback. This description is confirmed by archeological evidences of female warriors in Scythian cultures. Excavations of 44 Sauromatian and Sarmatian kurgan burial mounds along the Khazakstan-Russia border in the 1990s discovered several skeletons of women buried with daggers and bronze tipped arrows.

As many other female skeletons unearthed at the same site were buried only with more typically feminine goods like beads and earrings. Such women of nomadic steppe cultures appear to have been trained in warfare from childhood and would have been proficient in the Scythian practice of mounted archery. In times of war, these women would have ridden alongside the men into battle, shooting at their foes from horseback and occasionally being shot themselves. The wounds found on a few of the excavated female skeletons confirmed this.

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Sculpture of Amazon Female Warrior, Ouidah, Benin

Accounts of the nomadic Cimbri tribe on the European continent by their Roman adversaries provide insight into their martial culture. Plutarch’s record of the life of Roman general Caius Marius during the invasion of the Germanic Cimbri, Teuton, and Ambrone tribes in 103 CE sheds some light on the roles of the Germanic women in combat. Plutarch recorded that Cimbri women accompanied their husbands to the Battle of Vercellae, apparently well trained enough in combat to guard the Cimbri baggages and entrenchments as their men marched onto the field to meet Marius’ army. Upon witnessing the defeat of the Cimbri by the Romans, the women shocked the pursuing Romans by slaying both their fleeing husbands and themselves rather than enduring capture.

Going to Hell and Back, Turning Chaos to Opportunity

Joseph Campbell wrote, “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Within this concept, the underworld is notable as a place where a hero could descend and prove himself. For the ancient Greeks, the underworld represents a point of no return. However, there are some who managed to descend to the realm of the dead and returned to the land of the living. This journey to the underworld usually provide the hero or upper-world deity with a special object, a loved one, or a heightened knowledge. The ability to enter the realm of the dead while still alive, and to return from it, is considered proof of the hero’s prowess and mastery over himself and the world around him or, in the case of the goddess Persephone’s return from the underworld, the cyclical nature of time and existence.

This is not an exclusively Greek story. The journey to the underworld and the resulting transformation are such an important part of the ancient religions that it influences cultures, rituals and governments of many ancient societies. An ancient Bugis poem called La Galigo is the most coherent account of the introduction of kingship among the Bugis and Makassar people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The poem described the earth as being in chaos at the beginning of time. The gods and goddesses then decided to send Batara Guru (“noble lord counselor”) to transform this chaos into a place habitable for man.

We Nyilitimo, the daughter of the god of the underworld, agreed to serve as a wife to Batara Guru on earth. Therefore, as Batara Guru descended to earth from the heaven on a rainbow, We Nyilitimo rose from the underworld on a big wave, earning herself the title Tompo ri busa mpong (“She who rose from the foam of the waves”). The two deities met and began a civilization together. After a period of time, Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo left to return to their respective realms, leaving their children to live on earth. Without their divine parents, mankind began to turn on one another. Batara Guru and We Nyilitimo took pity on them and appointed one of their children to rule over the warring communities. In the Bugis-Makassar kingdoms this being was called the Tu manurung (“the one who descended”), a child of heaven and the underworld whose duty was to lead the people on earth. This legend became the ideal depiction of the origins of rulers that forms the basis of later court writing in Makassar which emphasize the divine ancestry of the royal families. In Bugis-Makassar society, a king was regarded as an essential mediator or link between mankind on earth and the gods in heaven and the underworld, as he was believed to possess the power to move freely between the realms until such time of his death where he would descend to the underworld to join his mother.

The 12th century Epic of King Gesar of Mongolia relates the heroic deeds of the culture hero Gesar, the lord of the legendary kingdom of Ling. His birth was said to be miraculous. One version of his birth is that, like the first king of Bugis-Makassar, he was born from the union between a father, who was simultaneously a sky god and holy mountain, and a mother who was a goddess of the watery underworld. Like the semi-mythical role of the Bugis-Makassar king, King Gesar defended his people against various human and superhuman aggressors. A version of his myth says that he descended to the underworld near the end of his life to rescue his mother from usurpers of the underworld and later, instead of dying a normal death he joined his mother in the underworld from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies.

The god Izanagi and his wife, the goddess Izanami, gave birth to the many islands of Japan as well as numerous deities of Shintoism. After Izanami died giving birth to the fire-god Kagu-tsuchi, Izanagi executed the fire god and went to see his wife in Yomi-no-kuni (the underworld) in the hopes of retrieving her. However, like Persephone in Greek mythology, Izanami had eaten the food cooked in the furnace of the underworld, rendering her unable to return. Although he had promised, prior to his descent, to never look upon his wife, Izanagi betrayed this promise only to behold her in her monstrous state. The couple’s relationship turned sour as, angry and ashamed, Izanami took her revenge on Izanagi by dispatching the lightning god Raijin and the hag Yomotsu-shikome to chase after him. In her fury at the escape of Izanagi, the goddess swore to kill a thousand of his people every day. Hearing this, Izanagi retorted that a thousand and five hundred people will be born every day.

The name Guanyin is the short version for Guanshiyin, which means “the one who hears the sound of the world”. In one version of her legend, when Guanyin was executed, a supernatural tiger took her to the realm of the dead. However, instead of being overwhelmed by the darkness like the other spirits of the dead, Guanyin completely surprised the hell guardian by playing music, making flowers bloom around her. Guanyin turned hell into heaven. In Sumerian, the word for ear and wisdom are the same. Therefore, when Inanna “turned her ear to the Great Below”, the implication of this little sentence is that she was seeking wisdom and understanding – this further implies that one descends to the underworld to seek knowledge. When she approached the outer gates of the underworld, she was entering the ordeal of initiation. Inanna shows through her own descent her self-sacrifice for a deep wisdom and atonement. Inanna descended, submitted and died. By descending to the underworld, she opened herself to losing control of her life, facing the very real possibility of never getting out of the underworld, and still kept going. Being acted upon is considered one of the essence of the experience of the human soul faced with the transpersonal. Allowing another to exert their influence upon her is not considered passivity, but an active willingness to receive. `

A main goal of such descents, then, is the letting go of illusions and the old patterns of mundane life. Ereshkigal’s realm is similar to the undiscriminating fires of Kali in the Indian mythology. It combines time and sufferings and killing human distinctions and ego before yielding a new life as well as an acknowledgment that life is cyclical.

The I Ching notes that the symbols for chaos and opportunity are the same. This also relates to the interpretation of a divine descent to the underworld. If the world, society and cherished collective beliefs are being threatened with chaos, I Ching interpret this as the world making its own descent into the underworld prior to its being reborn. If so, then humanity is facing a time of opportunity instead of merely chaos. The world would then shed its illusions before it is empowered.

8 Ancient Roman Love Hacks

The Roman author Ovid was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He wrote various works throughout his long career, but none so insightful for the everyday person as his Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”).

At first glance, the three books of Ars Amatoria are a collection of short poems playing with the common tropes of love stories – the locked-out lover, the slave go-between, the symptoms of love-sickness, the rich rival, the poor poet, infidelity and occasionally successful erotic encounter. But, they also include advice to the reader on how to be a good lover. Here are some of them:

1. Manage Your Smell

“[address] the odor in your armpit so that it does not go rancid and your legs so they are not rough with hair.” he says.

He also says, “See to it that he is well-composed, and his toga without stain. That the tongue not be unbending, and that your teeth be without tartar, Nor let your foot swim about while walking in a loose shoe(s). Don’t let a hair-cut badly fashion your stiff hair; Let your hair and your beard be trimmed by a familiar hand. And that it doesn’t stick up too much, and that your nails are without dirt. And no hairs stand out in the cavities from the nostril. Nor let the breath of your sad mouth be badly scented, Nor [smelling] as a man or billy-goat annoy nostils.” (I. 514-522)

2. Know Your Limits and Work Your Assets

“With little gesture make, whenever she may speak the woman who will have fat fingers and dirty nails. And to the woman whose breath of her mouth is burdensome, never speak hungry and always keep some distance away from your lover’s mouth. If your teeth are blackened, large, or not in line from birth, you will carry the greatest error by laughing.” (III. 280-286)

3. Make Your Choice and Own it

Ovid tells us, “you must act the part of a lover” in order to really become one. But, first of all, “choose someone to whom you can say “you alone please me”’ – that is, choose someone to be the recipient of your loving discourse. With this opening, Ovid goes right in to the heart of the conflict between love as a conscious, rational choice and as an irrational, overwhelming emotion. In the art of love, emotion and logic need to be balanced.

4. Go Out and Find Love

In any case, this section advises the reader to not sit complacently waiting for love, and instead to make an effort to go out and find it. “This woman will not come having fallen to you through thin airs: You must look with your eyes for a suitable girl” (I. 43-44)

Ovid’s favorite local hotspots for singles mingling included the circus, the arena, and even the open-air public market. But the go-to place for a veritable “galaxy” of beauties was the theatre. There, a Roman could find “crowds of lovely women, gaily dressed,” in search of art and culture.

4. Beware of Alcohol and Bad Lighting

Ovid explicitly advises his audience to beware of the combination of alcohol and low lighting in finding a lover, describing them as ignis in igne fuit (“a fire within a fire”) adding that “Nighttime darkness and wine harm your decision making and standards” (I.247) If you really want to know what she [or he] is like, look at her by daylight, and when you’re sober.”

5. Be Friends

Another possibility of finding love is, of course, through friendship. “Let love appear disguised by the name of friendship. With this entrance, I have seen the surrendering words of fierce women. This which has been the cultivator, a lover was made”. (I. 720-722)

6. Pay Attention to the Red Flags

Ovid also recognizes that there are always undesirable men, and warns women to be cautious. “Avoid those men who swears by looks and culture, who keeps their hair carefully in place. The things they tell to you they’ve told a thousand girls: their love wanders and lingers in no one place”. (III. 433-442)

7. Do not Brag about Your “Conquests”

Those notches on the proverbial bedpost might be a pleasure to brag about, Ovid suggests, but they won’t help your or your paramour’s reputation. If you really must spill the juicy details to a friend, at least refrain from painting yourself as the gods’ gift to women or men: “Let us… speak sparingly of our real amours, and hide our secret pleasures beneath an impenetrable veil.”

8. Pick Up a Book

Seagoing hero Ulysses was eloquent and so fluent in ancient tongues and storytelling that he had two goddesses after him. A good brain and sense of refinement matters in love. Ovid says, “Youths of Rome, learn, I recommend you, the liberal arts; and not only that you may defend the trembling accused. Both the public, and the grave judge, and the silent Senate, as well as the fair, conquered by your eloquence, shall extend their hands.”

9 Ancient Ways to Everlasting Fame

Although not everybody wants to be famous, it is still a natural human desire to receive some recognition for one’s talents and contribution. For the more ambitious, those who aim for everlasting fame must deal with numerous challenges from jealousy of rivals to possible extinction of their own civilisation and language.

What ultimately claims everyone is simply the steady march of time. Most people who have risen to dizzying heights of fame seems to be largely forgotten. The steamy verses of the Greek poet Sappho titillated audiences for much of antiquity. They were so enchanting, one Athenian lawmaker said he felt that once he’d heard them he could die a contented man. The celebrity gladiator Spiculus was so admired by the emperor Nero that, when he sensed that his own murder was imminent, Nero requested that Spiculus would be the one to kill him instead. Sappho and Spiculus are now largely forgotten except by historians and people who actually have to study them. But, in their day, they were hot stuff. So how is it that some people are almost instantly forgotten when they have gone, while others cling on, embedding themselves so deeply into our culture that we’re still studying them, writing about them and even depicting them in films millennia after they’re gone?

“In the Days of Sappho” (1904)

1. Be Hungry for It

A fitting place to begin the search is Ancient Greece, where achieving everlasting glory was a national obsession. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles says that he was given the option between living a long but undistinguished life or a brief life that would give him a chance to achieve immortal glory. Achilles chose the second option – preferring to be a subject of song for all eternity. However, a more subdued Achilles later reappeared in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus sails to the underworld and converses with the shades. One of these shades is Achilles who, when greeted as “blessed in life, blessed in death”, responds bitterly that he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than be king of all the dead.

“The Wounded Achilles” by Filipo Albacini (1825)

Another hero, Ajax, is said to have been driven mad when he lost to Odysseus in a contest over who is the best fighter in the Greek army. Believing that he is avenging himself upon the judges of the contest, Ajax goes on to slaughter a herd of cattle. Once he returns to his senses, the humiliated hero commits suicide by falling on his spear.

Suicide of Ajax, 530 BC

2. Hire Your Own Publicist

Master of self-promotion Alexander the Great ruled the kingdom of Macedon from 336-323 BC, expanding it from mainland Greece and a scattering of Mediterranean islands to a global power that stretched all the way to northwest India. His advanced propaganda machine included a troop of historians who accompanied him on campaigns. These historians write the history of his campaign as it was happening. He also authorised only one sculptor to carve his portrait and carefully planned the details of any likenesses that appeared on coins.

Bust of Alexander the Great

Nicias (c. 470 BC – 413 BC), an Athenian Politician and General in the Peloponnesian War, engaged the services of a publicity manager named Hieron to help him cultivate the image of a hard-working and self-sacrificing public servant. It was Hieron who helped Nicias to act out this part by investing him with an air of solemnity and self-importance.

3. Have the Right Career

Those not lucky enough to be born into power still have a decent chance of being remembered if they focus on changing the world through their ideas. Back in antiquity, philosophers weren’t particularly well known by the general public. But thousands of years later, their work still guides modern thinking and they are so widely known they can be considered to be household names. However, ancient philosophers had the added advantage of fewer competitors since most people of their time were illiterate. Finding fame gets harder to achieve without original ideas, but it is still possible to come up with revolutionary thought experiments.

Later, as Da Vinci, Galileo, Einstein and Isaac Newton inch towards a millennium of fame, it might be tempting to opt for a life in the laboratory. Unfortunately, nowadays even a Nobel prize probably won’t do the trick as science is now much more collaborative and you’ll more likely to be noted as just one name in a group of clever people.

In ancient Rome, Gladiators were mainly drawn from the ranks of convicted murderers and slaves. Most of them would only appear in the Colosseum once as they would be killed in the match. However, the best of them achieved great fame. Such was the attention that they received that others, including freeborn women, senators, even the Emperor Commodus (161 – 192 CE), offered their own services as gladiators. Unfortunately, sporting heroes impact a generation, but once they start to go out of living memory they decline.

4. Sleep with Someone Famous

Incidentally, gladiators were thought to be exceptionally potent, and women sleeping with them could achieve fame for themselves. The poet Juvenal scorned a woman named Eppia, the wife of a senator, who eloped to Egypt with a gladiator called Sergius – thus elevating and immortalizing her through his writing. “What was the attraction? The fellow was a physical wreck”’ Juvenal demands. “Ah, but he was a gladiator.” Eppia replied.

A certain degree of self-validation through sleeping with someone famous also emerged in Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, when Dionysus became angered after his aunt Agave claimed that his mother Semele had never slept with Zeus and slept with a mortal man instead – thus denying Dionysus’ divinity and the high profile he would have gotten by being the son of Zeus.

Zeus and Semele

5. Be Outrageous

The man who brought down ancient Rome’s political system was a wealthy nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. 93 BC – 52 BC). Well-known in Rome even before his foray into politics, Clodius had already shocked and amused the Roman public by his eccentricities and unpredictable ways.

Clodius entered politics to secure the acceptance and respect of the ruling class who quickly dismissed him as a buffoon. After the elite rebuffed him, Clodius positioned himself as the leader of the angry Roman working classes. This surprised Rome’s ruling classes who continued to despise Clodius. Rome was so divided during Clodius’ campaign for the praetorship that the elections had to be postponed twice due to fighting in the streets between his followers and the faction of his opponent, Annius Milo.

When Clodius happened to meet Milo along the Appian Way, a fight broke out between their guards and Clodius was gravely wounded until Milo ordered his men to finish him off with a consideration that a popular dead opponent was less harmful than an alive and angry one.

6. Look Pretty

Helen of Troy, with her “face that launched a thousand ships” is one example of being famous for one’s beauty as men came to see her all the way from distant lands. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is another example as she was forced to devise various strategies to delay marrying one of her 108 suitors while she spend twenty years waiting for the final return of her husband.

The fourth century BC Greek courtesan Phryne had clients visited her from all over the Greek world and showered her with gifts. After she became rich, Phryne offered to use her wealth to rebuild the walls around the city of Thebes which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great with a condition that the walls should bear an inscription recording, or rather promoting, her and her generosity.

Her efforts of self-promotion were not in vain as rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis provides many anecdotes praising her beauty and generosity. Praxiteles, a sculptor who became her lover, was also said to have used her as the model for the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos – the first nude statue of a woman from ancient Greece.

Aphrodite of Knidos

7. Be Really, Really Lucky

When Tutankhamun took his last, feverish breath in 1323 BC, he was just a boy king of 18. He’s not known to have achieved anything particularly remarkable – understandable, given his age. Then something extraordinary happened. His tomb was discovered in 1922. Its location and size had kept them safely hidden away, while all the tombs around it were being plundered by looters.

The memory of Tutankhamun has been ensured by the large number of physical artefacts he left behind. His mummy alone has been intensively studied as experts unravel the mystery of his short life and how he died. His fame increases with every headline and documentary. When we think of ancient Egypt, we think Tutankhamun. It doesn’t matter that it was all a fluke.

Bust of Tutankhamun

8. Leave Stuff Behind

Leaving any kind of physical legacy is extremely helpful. This could come in the form of the many, many descendants of the 13th-Century Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, whose prolific loins sired one in 200 men alive today, or the numerous monuments and coins on which Alexander the Great stamped his image. In China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang secured his lasting memory with the Great Wall of China and the vast Terracotta Warriors buried with him – not to mention that he founded an entire country.

China’s Terracotta Warriors

9. Be a Villain

Another route to enduring fame that should not be encouraged is to seek notoriety. From Jack the Ripper and Captain Blackbeard, to Hitler and Ivan the Terrible, many of the best-known characters in history are infamous. The most charismatic have been remembered, with a shudder, for generations. This has led some to pursue fame the nasty way. When Mark David Chapman was being charged for murder for shooting John Lennon, he said ‘in order to be the most famous person in the world, I have to kill the most famous person in the world.”

Painting on the Building of the TEmple of Artemis at Ephesus

Thousands of years ago, an arsonist called Herostratus set fire to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey in 348 BC. Herostratus later confessed under torture that his crime was driven by his wish to be a celebrity. Hearing this, the Ephesians decided to execute Herostratus and ban all mention of his name – dubbing him instead as “That Who Is Not Lawful To Mention”. However, the ancient historian Theopompus mentions the name of Herostratus in his his book Hellenics and the name appears again later in the works of Strabo. Unfortunately this banning tactic was a failure as Herostratus is remembered to this day. The term “Herostratic fame” refers to Herostratus and means “fame [sought] at any cost”.

What’s left of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Golden Age of Java

Mendut Temple

The Medang kingdom or the Mataram kingdom was a Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which flourished between the 8th and 11th centuries. It was based in Central Java, and then in East Java. The first account of the Medang Mataram Kingdom is in the Canggal inscription, dated 732, discovered in the Gunung Wukir Temple compound in the village of Canggal, southwest of the town of Magelang. This inscription, written in Sanskrit using the Pallava script, tells of the erection of a lingga (symbol of Shiva) on a hill in the Kunjarakunja district , located on a noble island called Yawadwipa (Java), blessed with abundance of rice and gold. The lingga was founded by order of Rakai Mataram Sang Ratu Sanjaya (King Sanjaya Lord of Mataram) the founder of the kingdom. At its peak, the kingdom had become a dominant empire—not only in Java, but also in Sumatra, Bali, southern Thailand, Indianized kingdoms of the Philippines, and the Khmer in Cambodia.

His successor, Panakaran (r. 760—780) was an enthusiastic developer who was credited for at least five major temple projects conducted and started during his reign. According to the Kalasan inscription dated 778, the Kalasan temple was erected by Panangkaran as a holy building for the goddess (boddhisattvadevi) Tara. The temple connected to this inscription is the Kalasan temple that housed the image of Tara, and the nearby Sari temple that was probably functioned as the monastery.

Ngamper Temple

Panangkaran was also responsible for the construction of Abhayagiri Vihara, connected to today’s site of Ratu Boko. This hilltop consists of a series of gates, ramparts, fortified walls, dry moats, walled enclosure, terraces and building bases. It displays attributes of an occupation or settlement site, although its precise functions is unknown. This led to a suggestion that this compound probably was served as the palace. Initially probably it was intended as a secluded hilltop Buddhist monastery, as mentioned in the Abhayagiri Vihara inscription. However, later it seems to be converted to become a fortified palace or a citadel, which evidence in the remnant of defensive structures.

The period between the reign of King Panangkaran and King Balitung (range 760—910), which lasted approximately 150 years, marked the apogee of Javanese classical civilisation. This period witnessed the blooming of Javanese art and architecture, with majestic temples and monuments erected and dominated by the skyline of Kedu and Kewu Plain. The most notable of these temples is Sewu, Borobudur and Prambanan temple.

Prambanan Complex

Other than examining bas-reliefs carved on the temple’s walls, the study of ancient Javanese society is also conducted through archaeological relics. The artefacts show the intricate artwork and technical mastery of the ancient Javanese goldsmith. The hoard was estimated to date from the reign of King Balitung. The treasure has been identified as belonging to a noble or a member of the royal family.

The earliest temple in the Southern Central Java Mataram region was the Hindu Shivaist Gunung Wukir temple, built by King Sanjaya. Almost 50 years later the oldest Buddhist temple was built in Prambanan region, the Buddhist Kalasan temple, by King Panangkaran. From this time, the kingdom saw exuberant temple construction projects, such as Sari, Manjusrigrha, Lumbung, Ngawen, Mendut, Pawon and Borobudur, the massive stone mandala completed in c. 825 CE.

Borobudur Temple

The monumental Hindu temple of Prambanan in the vicinity of Yogyakarta — initially built during the reign of King Pikatan (838—850), and expanded continuously through the reign of Lokapala (850—890) to Balitung (899–911) — is a fine example of ancient Medang Mataram art and architecture. The grand temple complex was dedicated to the Trimurti, the three highest gods in the Hindu pantheon (Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu). It was the largest Hindu temple ever built in Indonesia, evidence of the immense wealth and cultural achievement of the kingdom.

Other Hindu temples dated from Medang Mataram Kingdom era are: Sambisari, Gebang, Barong, Ijo, and Morangan. The Sewu temple dedicated for Manjusri according to Kelurak inscription was probably initially built by Panangkaran, but later expanded and completed during Rakai Pikatan’s rule. The Buddhist temple of Plaosan, Banyunibo and Sajiwan were built during the reign of King Pikatan.

Relief found all over the Borobudur temple. This particular relief is of Prince Savarthasiddha, the esoteric name of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama

From the 9th to mid 10th centuries, the Medang Kingdom witnessed the blossoming of art, culture and literature, mainly through the translation of Hindu-Buddhist sacred texts and the transmission and adaptation of Hindu-Buddhist ideas into Old Javanese text and visual bas-reliefs rendering. The bas-relief carved on each sides of Mendut temple stairs and also on the base of Sojiwan temple for example, narrating the popular Jataka Buddhist tales, the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha, in both human and animal form. The Borobudur bas-relief particularly, contains the most complete rendering of Buddhist sacred texts.

Passage in the Prambanan Temple

Inclusivity, Tolerance and the Golden Age of Islam

To this day, poems by Muhammad Jalal ad-Din Rumi have sold millions of copies. This makes him one of the most famous poets in the world. His poems were often compared to Shakespeare’s for their resonance. Rumi lived in the close of the Golden Age of Islam. His writings on tolerance give us further value in offering a glimpse of the beliefs and tradition in which Rumi experienced in his lifetime.

Traditionally, the Golden Age of Islam is dated from the seventh to the 13th century. It was during this period that artists, scholars, poets and traders in the Islamic world made their biggest contribution to a wide range of disciplines both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding innovations of their own.

Through trading, the Islamic empires significantly contributed to globalization when the knowledge, trade and economies from many formerly isolated regions and civilizations began integrating through their contacts with explorers and traders. As the empire’s trade networks extended from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indian Ocean and China Sea in the east, it helps to establish the Islamic empires as the world’s leading economic power. As a result, Islamic civilization is unique in that it grew and expanded based on its merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who generally expanded their societies from agricultural landholding nobility.

Tomb of a Sufi Chief

In the middle of all these exchanges, the first stage of a mystic movement known as Sufism appeared in the early Umayyad period (661–749 CE). Islamic mysticism is called tasawwuf which literally means “to dress in wool” in Arabic. However, since the early 19th century, the movement has been called “Sufism” in western languages. Sufism derives from a somewhat looser Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which is in turn derived from ṣuf, (“wool”). This may be a reference to the woolen garment of early Islamic ascetics.

One of the Sufi orders’ contribution to the rise and expansion of the Islamic civilization was their missionary activities. This extensive networking allowed the Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) to be established in Baghdad, where scholars from different cultures and faiths gathered and translated the world’s knowledge into Arabic. Knowledge was synthesized from works originating in all the ancient civilizations, and many classic works of antiquity were translated into Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin.

This inclusiveness extended to the labor force. Both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. Women were employed in medicines, scholarships, as well as a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations such as farming and construction work.

Islamic Spain Agricultural Scene

A number of distinct features of the modern library were introduced in the Islamic world, where libraries expanded the primary function of ancient libraries as center of collection of manuscripts. A library became a public and lending library, a center for the instruction of sciences and ideas, a place for meetings, discussions, and sometimes lodging for scholars or boarding school for pupils. The concept of the library catalogue was also introduced in medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.

Rumi showing his love for his disciples

These developments would have demanded a great degree of knowledge and flexibility from workers and scholars alike to be able to compete with their countrymen and the rest of the world. This gave birth to the large number of Muslim polymath scholars, who were known as Hakeems, each of whom contributed to a variety of different fields of learning comparable to the later European renaissance men such as Leonardo da Vinci. Due to the demands in this period, polymath scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge in different fields were more common than scholars who specialized in any single field of learning.

Apart from the demand at the time for people to have a wide variety of knowledge and interests, an extensive range of Islamic writings on love, poetry, history and theology show the thought at the time as being open to a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Although society was controlled under Islamic values, a certain degree of religious freedom helped create multi-faith, cross-cultural networks by attracting those of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

Al-Wasiti Discussion

Another example of how inclusive the Islamic world at the time comes from the most well-known work of fiction from the era – The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The book was a compilation of many earlier folk tales from different cultures such as China and Africa translated or retold to Persian.

Arabian Nights was translated in the 18th century by Antoine Galland and since then became an influential work of literature in the west. Various characters from this epic, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba, have become cultural icons in western culture. A number of elements such as genies, magic lamps and magic carpets from ancient Arabian and Persian mythology retold in the epic are now common fixtures in modern fantasy.

Another literary genre benefitted from the development of the Golden Age of Islam is Science Fiction. Theologus Autodidactus (“Self-taught Theologian”), written by polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), is an early example of this. It uses various elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology and doomsday, all of which would not be out of place in the science fiction works today. However, rather than giving the supernatural or mythological explanations for these events which were common then, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time.

From the book “The Birth of Iskandar”

A number of musical instruments utilized in classical music today are believed to have been derived from Arabic musical instruments. Later, Ottoman military bands, known by the Persian-derived word Mehter, are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Some standard instruments employed by a Mehter are the bass drum, the kettledrum, the cymbals, oboes, flutes and triangles. These military bands inspired many marching bands and orchestras in the west, which then heavily inspired the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Rumi would have experienced this early in his childhood. His father, Baha al-Din, was a teacher of Islamic law, with Sufi inclinations, in Khorasan. By 1215, Baha al-Din chose to move his family to Konya, where Rumi stayed for the rest of his life. Baha al-Din became the principle teacher of one of Konya’s religious colleges. He died in 1231, and the then 24-years-old Rumi inherited his father’s teaching position. Rumi, at this time, was already well-versed in both Islamic law and Islamic mysticism. Following the inclusive nature of society and education at the time, the college where Rumi taught had over ten thousand students from every class of society, including grocers, weavers, tailors, and bookbinders. Also recognized as an Islamic Jurist, Rumi often involved himself in the lives of his community members, solving disputes and facilitating loans between nobles and students.

Bowl of Reflections, Early 13th Century

In 1244, Rumi met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, who introduced Rumi to the Rejoicing Sufism, which inspired Rumi’s subsequent works though its music and spiritual dances. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi’s life. They were close friends for about three years. In fact, their relationship was close enough to spark theories of homoeroticism by modern historians, which would have again fitted the level of tolerance and inclusiveness of the time. Over the course of that time, Shams was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples, including one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din, until Sham’s sudden disappearance in 1247. Rumi left the college to travel in search of his friend. He eventually made peace with his loss and returned home.

Rumi’s mourning for the loss of his friend led to the outpouring of more than 40,000 lyric verses, including odes, eulogies, quatrains, and other styles of poetry. The resulting collection, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (“The Works of Shams Tabriz”), is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.

Meeting of Rumi and Molla Shams Al-Din

Rumi died in Konya in 1273 CE and his remains were interred adjacent to his father’s. The Yesil Turbe (“Green Tomb”) was erected above their final resting place. Now known as the Mevlana museum, the site includes a mosque, dance hall, and dervish living quarters. Thousands of visitors of all faiths visit his tomb each month, a testament to not only Rumi and his relatable works, but also the inclusiveness of society at the time.

Mevlana Museum

The Priyayi Class and the Javanese Nobility Titles

Dancers at the court of the Susuhunan of Solo, Surakarta, between 1910 to 1930

The Nobility of Indonesia is comprised by the more than 350 royal families that ruled the Indonesian Princely Estates, plus the customarily recognised nobility of each particular Kingdom. Their members form an ancient nobility of blood whose noble titles are many times socially, traditionally and routinely recognized. However, although socially tolerated and the chiefs of these Royal houses sometimes still have representational and ceremonial roles, they no longer have legal privileges,

In 2007, the Indonesian Parliament passed a law formally recognizing some residual rights to around 300 Indonesian Royal Families. This law permits the descendants of the royal families and Indonesian Princely States to seek government help, particularly for the preservation or restoration of palaces and the financing of traditional and symbolic festivals.

Bedoyo dancers at the court of the Susuhunan of Solo, Surakarta, between 1910 to 1930

In the 17th century, the Mataram Sultanate, an Islamic polity in south central Java that reached its peak in the 17th century, developed a keraton (“court”) culture from which the Sultan emerged as the figure ruling over a relatively independent aristocracy. Named para yayi (“the king’s brothers”), nobles, officials, administrators, and chiefs were integrated in a patron-client relationship with the Sultan to preside over the peripheries of the kingdom. This noble status is also applicable to their descendants. The homeland of priyayi culture is attributed to Mataram’s center, namely the Javanese-speaking middle and eastern parts of Java.

The Priyayi are the only group of people who are identifiable by their surname. Having a surname is not a prevalent institution for the vast majority of Indonesians. Therefore, the possession of a surname in Java is often associated to nobility – especially in Java.

The great mbrella of the Soesoehoenan monarch of Solo, Surakarta, Java

Generally, the royal titles are:

Sultan

The first Javanese Royal to take the title of Sultan title is Prince Mangkubumi, who received it from the Executive Council of the Dutch East India Company, the territorial division of the Principality and Kingdom of Mataram during the treaty of Giyanti in 1755. He then takes the title of Sultan Hamengkubuwono (“the one who carries the world in his lap”) and establishes his Princely State in Yogyakarta, near the city of Surakarta. There were another four sultanates listed as sovereign estates in Java. In fact, the title of Sultan was also carried by the heads of the royal houses of Gowa, Luwuk and Tallo after their conversion to Islam.

The Surahunan Sushu in his golden carriage, Java 1900-1940

Sunan

The title Sunan (“the one whom homage is paid”) can be translated as Monarch. It is the title traditionally used by the ruling chiefs of Surakarta in the island of Java.

Pangeran (“Prince”)

Pangeran makes reference to either the male members of the royal families or the sovereigns of the two “minor” royal houses of Mangkunegaran in Surakarta and Palualaman in Yogyakarta.

Raden

The honorific Raden is related to the Malagasy noble titles of Randriana or Andriana, both of which are derived from the word “Rahadyan” (Ra-hadi-an), meaning “Lord” or “Master” in Old Javanese. When it is used alone, Raden implies that the holder is born with noble blood whether it is from royalty or from non-royal or feudal nobility. This is also the noble title normally used by the holder of a significant administrative position in the Dutch East Indies, followed by a word indicating his function. For example, Raden-Adipati for the political position of regent.

The Sunnan walks at the arm of the Resident during an Islamic procession between 1921 and 1926

Further Distinctions

In Java, a further class distinction existed between priyagung (“upper priyayi”), a group well connected to the aristocratic elite in Surakarta and Yogyakarta, and priyayi cilik (“lower priyayi”). 

The priyayi class used elaborate title system. Some of the commonly used titles among Javanese nobility were:

  • Raden Mas: used by male nobility
  • Raden Ayu: used by married female nobility
  • Raden Ajeng: used by unmarried female nobility
  • Tumenggung: additional title used by nobility who held a Regency office
  • Raden: a title used by male nobility lower than Raden Mas
  • Raden Nganten: a title used by married females lower than Raden Ajeng and/or Raden Ayu
  • Raden Roro: a title used by unmarried females lower than Raden Ajeng and/or Raden Ayu
  • Mas: a title for male petty nobility
The Sultan of Yogyakarta says goodbye to Pakoe Buwono X, the Susuhunan of Solo, after visiting the Kraton of Surakarta, accompanied by the Crown Prince and Prince Pakoe Alam between 1910 to 1930

The order of precedence for male nobility title is: a simple Mas is the lowest, followed by simple Raden, and then the higher titles are compound titles of Raden Mas, Raden Panji, Raden Tumenggung, Raden Ngabehi and Raden Aria. These title were hereditary to some extent as a son will inherit a title one level lower than his parent, unless his parents already occupied the lowest rank.

There are two cultural oppositions in priyayi worldview that characterizes the priyayi as a social status. They are alus (“refined”) against kasar (“unrefined”), and batin (“inner human experience”) against lahir (“outer human behavior”). Therefore, as a feudalistic subculture in Javanese society distinct from the peasantry, the priyayi culture emphasizes the alus over the kasar, and the batin over the lahir.

All photos used in this blog are from Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures

How to be a Leader, an Ancient Javanese Philosophy

Serat Rama is a composition of the old Javanese song composed at around 870 AD. In the poem, Rama explained the concept of leadership to Wibisana, the new king of Alengka. After watching his extended family die on the battlefield, Wibisana was unwittingly put in the unexpected and unwanted position of being the next king of Alengka. Seeing this, Rama gave him a crash-course on leadership called Astabrata, a teaching about obligation of a great king.

Serat Rama is a composition of the old Javanese song Ramayana Kakawin, composed at around 870 AD. In the poem Rama, the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, explained the concept of leadership to Wibisana, the new king of Alengka. After watching his extended family die on the battlefield, Wibisana was unwittingly put in the unexpected and unwanted position of being the next king of Alengka. Seeing this Rama, who battled and killed Wibisana’s elder brother Rahwana, gave him a crash-course on leadership called Astabrata,  a teaching about obligation of a great king.

Ramayana Ballet, Indonesia – Rama, 1961

Astabrata (“Eight Behaviours”) is a philosophic guide to ideal leadership. It refers to eight natural elements: earth, sea, sky, stars, sun, moon, wind and fire. Each of these element reflects the characteristics of an ideal leader. It also covers four categories relating to the relationship of the leader with his work, the relationship of the leader with others in his work, the relationship of the leader with others in all aspects of his daily life, and the relationship of the leader with himself. Rama’s advice refers to the eight gods who represents the elements.

Ramayana Ballet – Rama battling against Rahwana, 1961

The eight behaviours of a leader, according to ancient Javanese philosophy are:

  1. Mahambeg Mring Warih (emulating the nature of water). An ideal leader has the nature of running water. They have the ability to adjust well to others and the surrounding environment. They also pay attention to the potential, needs and interests of his followers. They also have the ability to accept opinions from subordinates and think carefully about all opinions that exist. In other words, an ideal leader should be a master communicator to make sure that all opinions, communications and implementations continuously flow.
  2. Mahambeg Mring Kismo (emulating the nature of the earth). The role of the Earth is that of a mother who cares, nurtures and protects.  An ideal leader is able protect his subordinates. He would also nurture the weak to make them stronger. They direct their power and resources to the greater good of the company and lead the company to abundance.
Ramayana Ballet – Rama and Maricha, 1961
  1. Mahambeg Mring Suryo (emulating the nature of the sun). A leader who masters the nature of the sun provides positive energy, inspiration and enthusiasm to his people. An ideal leader encourages problem solving. This includes the ability to provide instructions and solutions to problems faced by their subordinates. 
  2. Mahambeg Mring Condro (emulating the nature of the moon). Leaders cares for the dignity of his people. In Javanese terms, this behavior is called nguwongke, which basically means treating people like human beings. In their daily behavior the leader also serves as a guide and provide both concrete and ideological directives to his subordinates. This concept is also closely related to the ability of leaders to understand and practice and uphold the values ​​of morality.
Ramayana Ballet – Rahwana Defeated, 1961
  1. Mahambeg Mring Samirono (emulating the nature of the wind). The leader who masters the nature of the wind is he who is always measured in his speech. They act and speak prudently equipped with data and facts.
  2. Mahambeg Mring Wukir (emulating the nature of mountains). A leader should be firm and steady. Apart from being physically and mentally strong, the leader does not give up easily in defending justice or supporting their subordinates.
  3. Mahambeg Mring Samodra (emulating the nature of the ocean). A leader should have a great heart. They accommodate the aspirations of others with patience, compassion and understanding.
  4. Mahambeg Mring Dahono (emulating the nature of fire). A leader should master the nature of fire. He must be nimble and thorough in solving problems, showing consistency in their tasks and principles. They are also objective, firm and impartial enforcing rules.
Ramayana Ballet – Subali Arguing with Rama, 1961

Contextually, cultural aspects play an important role in determining the expectations of the community toward their ideal figure. The person or group who will lead the generation of the nation is expected to take on the role of king with all the ideal competencies as depicted in the Astabrata. Therefore, people in positions of power and responsibility at any level are expected to provide exemplary behaviour for all students or the people who work under them.

The most prominent of this leadership philosophy is that leaders are not equal to the people they lead. In the ancient Javanese philosophy, the leader takes the position of being the center of decision making and the center of problem solving. Leaders also take on the role of encouraging, sustaining and motivating subordinates and personally becoming role models in everyday life. The ideal behavior of the leader is likened to the manifestation of divinity that exists in humans. Learning from the wisdom of the universe, a true leader must be able to not only align himself, but also align himself with his subjects and even align himself with the cosmic universe.

Ramayana Ballet – Rama and Sinta Reunited 1961