Jathilan Dance: Experiencing the Spirits

Author: Eva Rapoport, PhD candidate at Sunway University (Malaysia), photographer and researcher with a background in the history of Western philosophy, cultural studies, religious studies and most recently inclining towards ethnography and cultural anthropology. Eva has spent about 7 years in Southeast Asia working on photography projects documenting spirit possession practices and traditional performing arts and festivities. Find more about her photography projects on her online portfolio.

“See? For now, they are normal!” – says the pawang. He stands between the two dancers holding their hands up, like a referee with boxers. Then he forcefully drops their hands – the two men immediately fall to the ground and start yelling, crawling and rolling. Later, they begin to show some animal-like behavior: hissing, roaring and moving on all fours. The pawang asks me to guess what kind of animals they are possessed with, but I am not sure. So I have to take his word for it that these are monkeys. An old lady from the group’s entourage feeds them some bananas but when I am asked to do the same, one of the possessed dancers gets scared and rolls back. During this whole ordeal the pawang tells me that he thinks he can make anyone instantaneously possessed and asks if I would like to experience it myself. But I am reluctant. I am not that sure about his powers, but it is nighttime: how am I going to ride my motorbike back if I go through the same experience I have just witnessed? How am I even going to get myself cleaned up after rolling on the ground with a rather limited supply of hot water at the guest house where I am staying?

This is my fieldwork. The place is Java, the Special Region of Yogyakarta. Pawang is a kind of ritual specialist believed to be capable of controlling animals, spirits, and other invisible forces. But more commonly, or so it seems, pawangs apply their powers in controlling possession or inducing and then ending the state of trance during jathilan dance. This dance is the focus of my attention. And this research is my second shot at trying to have an academic career. I came a long way: from the field as abstract as the history of Western philosophy and the land as distant as Russia. Running away from minimal wages, long teaching hours, and impossibly high expectations about presenting and publishing, I found my new passion as far away from the notions of enlightened modernity or cynical postmodernity as possible.

Dancing with the spirits

The practice of dancing with the spirits most likely predates the Islamization of Java (15th-16th centuries) but has endured through all the changes and turmoil of the subsequent history. Local communities hold onto the dance since hosting traditional performances still plays an important role in communal and family celebrations – marriages, circumcisions and village purification ceremonies.

Jathilan can be seen as a metaphor for crossing all kinds of boundaries: between the mundane and the supernatural, between the socially acceptable and chaotic animal-like behavior, or artistic expression and archaic mystical practice. It can also include state, cultural and religious boundaries. The dance, better known by the name kuda kepang, is also practiced in the communities of Javanese descent in Singapore, Malaysia, and even South American Suriname (which used to be a Dutch colony alongside with the East Indies). Under the name reak, the dance was also adopted into Sundanese culture, despite the centuries-long animosity between the Sundanese and Javanese neighbors sharing the island of Java. Moreover, as the dances are held on various celebratory occasions, it is not uncommon to see jathilan performed at the Christian communities’ events, even religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter. It is also performed at the Lunar New Year and during the Chinese Ghost month.

Adult men, and sometimes women and children, wear bright intricate costumes and makeup (though, at times, just some mismatched pieces of traditionally dyed batik cloth), mount flat horse effigies and dance around. They are portraying, but also possibly mocking, noble Javanese warriors of the past. What starts in quite an orderly manner eventually descends into chaos when the dancers achieve a state of trance. This trance and also feats of physical invulnerability – like eating shattered glass or getting whipped without sustaining any visible damage – are the main attractions of the performance. While some pawangs might be open about explaining certain techniques for safely performing these tricks, it is generally believed that invulnerability is truly a sign of actual spirit possession.

But as much as I am fascinated by all the stories about spirits and spirit encounters, my research of jathilan is more about identity and belonging. Considering where I come from – I was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in post-Soviet Russia – both very atomized societies, I am completely amazed by the Javanese tendency to create communities out of anything: breeding pet fish, riding certain types of bicycles or motorcycles, performing traditional arts. Researching jathilan allows me to see how deeply traditional practices (like trance dances) can go hand-in-hand with active use of social media (for performance announcements and exchange of other types of information) and allow people to form family-like communities that offer mutual support and assistance beyond the immediate sphere of their performing activities. 

Jathilan also shows how the capacity for becoming possessed allows a person who is willing to experience it to become the center of attention and enjoy a kind of ‘15 minutes of fame’. All on completely democratic and egalitarian grounds: no special skills, remarkable mastery or charisma are required. Everyone, or almost everyone, is believed to be able to go into a possession trance. The pawang controls the spirits who do the rest of the work while also enjoying themselves in the process. One of the explanations for the original meaning of the dance suggests to see it as an offering to the spirits, serving as a form of entertainment for both humans and spirits, a joyful occasion on which all of them can get together, and an opportunity for the spirits to experience the pleasures of the material world, things like dancing to the music and eating all kinds of edible and non-edible things. 

Spirits as a special effect

One can draw a number of parallels between jathilan and action or superhero movies. Displays of unusual entranced behavior and feats that the dancers perform function as some kind of special effects, making every performance different, exciting, and always unpredictable. Trance also builds up tension without having to tell any kind of story – the opening choreography serves as an exposition, while the audience anticipates the spectacle soon to take a more dramatic turn. And it unfolds exactly like that when the onset of the trance phase flips everything from order into chaos. Then there is always a final battle when the pawang has to expel all the spirits and bring the dancers back to their normal waking consciousness. Unlike cinema screenings, however, traditional village performances are open for anyone and absolutely free to watch.

Apart from the superpowers of eating glass or husking big green coconuts with bare teeth (in the case of the dancers) or controlling the spirits (for the pawangs), the practice of jathilan provides the performers with double (even if not secret) identities. Someone who could be a parking attendant or laundry employee on weekdays can be performing spectacular things involving mysterious invisible forces on weekends. Thus, Javanese spirits (or at least belief in them) that resist being driven away by Islamization, modernization or digitalization, democratize the art form they are involved in and empower the people who practice it.

Nevertheless, when being asked by my interlocutors in the field about my own worldview, I am bold enough to respond frankly. I do not believe in spirits. But I do believe in human experiences. And the experience of watching jathilan is something quite intense and unforgettable. To be honest with myself, researching it is also my own strategy of belonging – belonging to another peculiar and semi-imaginary world of academia. Running away from it and my unwritten dissertation about the history of philosophy and the end of history was what led me to Java – a part of the world I then knew nothing about – in the first place.

My interest in jathilan began as a photography project, where I was trying to see if still images could be a fitting medium for capturing the altered states of consciousness and if these states explicitly show on performers’ faces. When I decided later to try to get back into academia, I realized that this time I had a perfect topic – something about which I was passionate enough that it should help me through all the obstacles. Yet, it is still an ongoing struggle with bureaucracy, ethics committees and now, also closed borders. But if the world gets through this pandemic, maybe I will have another chance to find out if I also have this capacity for becoming possessed. 

Further reading

Christensen, P. (2013). Modernity and Spirit Possession in Java. Horse Dance and its Contested Magic. Dorisea Working Paper, 2, 2-13.

Keen, P. (2016, Oct 04). Ebeg: Music for Trance Dance in Banyumas, Central Java. Aural Archipelago.

Monteanni, L. (2019, June 21). Investigating the Javanese Ritual of Kasenian Réak. The Attic.

Rapoport, E. (2020). Spirit Possession, Javanese Magic and Islam: Current State of Affairs. In Between the Worlds: Magic, Miracles, and Mysticism. Vol. 2 (pp. 86-104). IEFSEM – BAS & Paradigma.

Lemelson, R. (Director). (2011). Jathilan: Trance and Possession in Java. (Film) Elemental Productions.

[All photos in this blog courtesy of the author.]

One thought on “Jathilan Dance: Experiencing the Spirits

  1. Trance states are probably phenomenal actions induced by single or group forms of self hypnosis and the pawangs are simply the conduit for the ritualistic superstition just like what happens in some Christian services involving the so called anointed Pastor leading the congregation into altered states by striking the tranced participants in the region of the solar plexus or the front of the skull. Temporarily weird behaviours occur. Same things – different cultures and beliefs.

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