Indonesian possessed by monkey spirit won’t leave tree in downtown Jakarta

Yesterday, in Jakarta — it is widely believed — a 30 year-old security man named Rofika was possessed by the spirit of a monkey. He spent between 2 and a half and 3 hours some 60 to 70 feet up a tree, resisting various attempts at “capture,” before finally giving in.

Most of the online comments from Indonesians (excluding the jokes) are along the lines of :

  • whoa, that’s so crazy
  • poor guy, that’s a long time to hang in a tree
  • probably a lot of stress and not enough food

There is also some discussion of the nature of spirits (jin/roh), traditional beliefs about trees and tree spirits and exorcists. But these would be expected from an older, generation of Indonesians not likely to be online.

Yesterday, several spirit worker types,  typically referred to as orang pintar or smart people — worked side-by-side with fire fighters and others to get “Fika” — his nickname —  to come down.  Shaman (dukun) as well as orthodox religious leaders are almost always called in cases like these in Indonesia. In Java they chant and throw Muslim holy water; in Bali they chant and throw Hindu holy water.

Of course, people get possessed in Indonesia all the time, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. In Bali, where some of the research for Gregory Bateson’s influential Ecology of Mind (1972)was carried out, you can find young girls who routinely enter altered states. They do it on purpose and it’s beautiful, although sometimes one or more girls will go further into the trance than desired. At other times of day or night, as per the Balinese calendar, wilder and occasionally wooly spirit possession practices used to and may still occur.

What is interesting, is that no one has seriously suggested this was an April Fool’s prank or — really — anything besides spirit possession (kesurupan).

While there isn’t a lot of easy information about pathological spirit possession by animals, what I did turn up is Episode 2 : Night from The Miracle of Bali, one of the David Attenborough documentary series Tribal Eye (1975).Also, at the All About Jazz forum — of all places — a contributor from South-East Asia provides a review including the part where it  “takes six men to hold down this one man once he becomes [intentionally] possessed” by a pig spirit. Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler etc — says the random commenter — remind him of ecstatic, tranced-out performance in Bali.

I am particularly fascinated by these images because my mother comes from Indonesia (Balinese Hinduism was once common throughout the Indes until the Muslims forced the Hindu princes to flee around the 1500s; indigenous Hinduism is still very common among ordinary Indonesians). She told me stories very much like this, with Javanese Hindus becoming possessed by monkey-spirits, turning into pigs, putting curses on each other and suchlike. (My Dad, from Malaysia, has similar stories).

Over the past few years there have been frequent stories about students possessed at school (not on purpose).  In recent  middle and high school cases, the possession recurs (different students, same school, within a day or two). There was a case a month ago at a middle school in Gianyar, Bali.

Spirit possession in Indonesia

This school (and cigarette factory)  “mass possession” (kesurupan massal) gets a lot of coverage in the media because —   apparently in each case — the possession tends to be persistent and contagious. Administrators and managers are tasked with aiding the possessed, protecting the rest and deciding whether to shut down for the day. This gives TV crews plenty of time to work, so check YouTube.

Looking for commonalities in the mass possession cases, one sees young women (but not exclusively) working/studying under relatively crowded or stressful conditions. (In fact, at least two of the cases above happened at lunch time when the possessed would have been relaxing.)

Anyway, when this security guard finally came down the tree, he did it “just like” a monkey. And what freaked the crowds was how he began running around “doing acrobatics” in a crouched or slouched posture, ie, like an ape. While still in the tree he had taken one of the bananas offered by crisis handlers; but he gobbled it with the skin on.

The Jakarta Globe story is probably complete as any of the others (1) (2). However, it’s unlikely anyone really knows the guy very well because in this story his name is Rafika and he’s 28.  There’s also plenty of video of poor Fika, somewhere.  But you get the sense that, even had you been there at the foot of the tree, the whole thing would have been hard to grasp.



3 responses »

  1. Check out our film “Shadows and Illuminations” which is touches a little on spirit possessions and is part of a series of ethnographic films on severe mental illness in Indonesia, based on material drawn from 12 years of person-centered research by director and anthropologist Robert Lemelson. The film focuses on Nyoman Kereta, a rural Balinese man in his late sixties, who suffers from a psychotic-like illness. The film explores Kereta’s personal history of trauma, loss, and environmental illness, all of which may have contributed to his illness experience. It places his experience in the context of local community and cultural beliefs and practices, drawing on family members and local mental health practitioners’ observations and perspectives. It concludes with a consideration of how Kereta has adapted to his illness and hallucinations with the love and support of his family. Shadows and Illuminations explores how non-normative mental events and behavior, including auditory and visual hallucinations, can be understood or interpreted in multiple ways outside the confines of western psychiatric diagnostics.

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