My history teacher’s voice was hushed when she spoke. I was then a young, primary six kid, huddling with other students on a concrete floor. Those stories of pontianaks and toyols made goosebumps prickle my skin but I couldn’t stop listening. Later on, the teacher moved on to heroic feats of Hang Tuah and his friends, and legends that made me gasp.
I grew up with these stories–even if I knew they were just legends– and it helped me make sense of my surroundings and the fabric that binds my nation together.
Lands of Southeast Asia are teeming with myths and folklore. It’s everywhere, embroidered deeply into each society’s cultural practices–in stories, customs, festivals, superstitions, art, everyday life. While characters and stories may differ, they all present common fears, themes and beliefs. Here are 4 tales from our neighbouring countries that will fascinate you. Who knows, you might even start to believe.
(Pontianaks and toyols: Supernatural manifestations in Indonesian/Malaysian mythology.)
The legend of Princess Kinnaree Manorah has been told through generations since the Ayutthaya period. In a mythical kingdom of Mount Grairat lived seven Kinnaree daughters of King Prathum and Queen Jantakinnaree. Manorah is the youngest of the seven. The girls are said to possess half-woman-half-swan bodies, and could fly or shed their wings as they pleased.
On auspicious days of Panarasi (full moon), the seven Kinnaree loved to visit the beautiful lake found in the middle of the magical Himmapan forest. Not too far away from the lake lived an old hermit.
One day, a young man by the name of Prahnbun was strolling through the Himmapan forest and caught a glimpse of the seven Kinnaree princesses playing by the lake. Amongst the seven, Princess Manorah’s beauty dazzled him the most. He decided to catch her for Prince Suton.
Prahnbun went to seek the old hermit for his advice. The hermit said that catching a Kinnaree would require a magical rope which only the great dragon that was living deep in the forest could provide.
After persuading the great dragon to give up his magical rope, Prahnbun went to the lake’s edge where the princesses were playing and threw the magic rope around Manorah’s neck. Her sisters flew away in a hurry, frightened for their own safety. Prahnbun then gently secured Manorah’s wings to stop her from escaping and lead her through the forest to Udon Panjah where Prince Suton lived.
On the way back, Prahnbun and his captured beautiful Manorah came across Prince Suton riding through the forest. The Prince, stunned by Manorah’s beauty, could hardly believe his luck when Prahnbun told him that he’d captured Manorah specially for him. That delighted the Prince greatly and he rewarded Prahnbun handsomely for his bravery. Prince Suton and Manorah fell in love, got married and lived happily ever after.
In Balinese mythology and healing traditions, leyaks play a prominent role. They are said to be beings in the form of a flying head with entrails still attached, usually found around graveyards. Leyaks also have an unusually long tongue and large fangs, mainly using them to suck a newborn child’s or a pregnant mother’s blood. How frightening!
Rangda, the demon queen of Leyaks, is said to have eternally waged war against the male embodiment of positive forces, the playful Barong. Rangda’s story is also linked to the legend of Calon Arang, the legendary widow witch who damaged corps and brought diseases in ancient Java in late 10th century. She had a daughter named Ratna Manggali, who though beautiful, was not able to get married because people feared her mother. This angered Calon Arang and she proceeded to kidnap a young girl. She sacrificed the girl at the temple of Death, to the goddess Durga, and soon after, a flood engulfed the village, killing many.
King Airlangga, upon hearing about the matter, asked for Empu Bharada for advice. Emphu Bharada then sent his disciple, Empu Bahula, to be married to Ratna. They threw a huge wedding feast that lasted for seven days and nights. This brought peace to the kingdom after that.
Another interpretation claims that Rangda was actually queen Mahendradatta, the mother of King Airlangga and wife to King Udayana. Because she was allegedly practising witchcraft and black magic, she was condemned and exiled by her husband. Out of hurt and humiliation, she sought revenge upon her ex-husband’s court and his kingdom. She summoned all the evil spirits from the jungle to bring death and destruction everywhere.
The story of Lac Long Quan explains how the Vietnamese came to be. According to folklore, dragon blood flowed through Lac Long Quan’s veins. He was the Dragon Lord and second Hùng king of the Hồng Bàng Dynasty of ancient Vietnam. He would slay sea monsters and keep his land safe. He was married to an immortal mountain fairy called Au Co, whose legendary beauty was known, far and wide. After marriage, she produced a large sac of eggs, which grew and grew until, on the seventh day, it burst and 100 children were born. Each of them bore one of the 100 Vietnamese family surnames.
Lac Long Quan wanted to move them to live by the water but Au Co craved to return to her ancestral mountain home. So Lac Long Quan took 50 children and moved seawards and taught them how to fish and how to wear tattoos that would scare away sea monsters.
Au Co took the remaining half to the highlands where they raised animals, grew fruit and stayed in homes built on stilts. It was said that the couple lived apart forever but together, they ensured peace and freedom reigned over their family. Their entire family, on both land and sea, are said to be the Vietnamese people of today.
Ever wondered how the neighborhoods of Redhill and Tanjong Pagar got their names?
Legends has it that then, Singapore was a mere sleepy fishing village. At one point, the coast was constantly attacked by fierce swordfish. Fishermen were afraid to go to the seas and sought help from the Sultan. However, the Sultan himself was at a loss. Nothing seemed to work. Soon, the villagers would starve.
One day, a little boy who lived on a hill proposed a solution to the Sultan. Build a barricade of banana tree trunks along the affected coast, he suggested. The next time the swordfish attacked, their sword-like mouths would get caught between the trunks. The boy became a hero after that but the Sultan was jealous of his newfound fame. He sent his army to kill the boy. As the poor boy died, his blood soaked the whole hill red, thus lending Redhill its origins.
Where the barricade of banana tree trunks were set up became Tanjong Pagar, of “the cape of stakes”.
Have you heard of any of these myths and legends? Sounds unbelievable, but what if they were true..?