Being an island filled with mysticism, Bali is no stranger to ghost stories and eerie folklore. In fact, it’s practically part of the culture on the island! Both positive and negative forces must exist on the island simultaneously for balance to exist, this the philosophy of Rwa Bhineda. Both forces must be appeased.
Stories of demons are common, be it the demon-witch Rangda, who appears in many Balinese dance and theatre; or Jero Gede Mecaling, the ancient spreader of disease in animist beliefs. Then you have your leyak, practitioners of black magic.
Tied into this deep mysticism are of course the folk tales told to children; the myths believed by communities for generations. Here we share three ghost-related stories from our ‘Myth in Bali’ column, to celebrate Halloween:-
The Flying White Sheet
Picture a levitating sheet of white linen, gliding on the wind across the horizon, as though a spell has been cast upon it.
Some have witnessed this eerie sight themselves, taking place in quieter corners of Bali, on far-flung beaches, remote and secluded. Others have only heard the stories, told by grandmothers in a heedful attempt to keep children indoors on the eve of a full moon.
The belief is that the ‘flying white sheet’ is powered by black magic, or white magic if practised with good intent. It is ‘owned’ or ‘commanded’ by an enchanter who has mastered the power of Balinese magic called a leak (pronounced le-yak).
A leak is a form of Balinese magic or witchcraft, often depicted as a mythical creature that has the ability to change its appearance, typically an animal, a flaming ghost, or in this case, an immaculate white figure resembling a floating sheet. Depending on who makes the orders, leak can heal or harm.
Legend has it, those who practice this form of sorcery can summon these white figures to guard temples, beaches, and other holy places to help shoo bad people away, be it intruders or trespassers. However, they can also be used to hunt someone down, if one were to offend a place or person.
A Balinese would warn you, if you see a white sheet flying in your direction, make absolutely sure you make no physical contact with it, or risk being transported into another realm… never to return again.
Atma Kesasar: Dangers of a Lost Soul
Did you know, it’s possible for one to ‘lose their soul’ in Bali. From unfinished death rites to falling unconscious, souls can lose their connection and wander among us.
Souls, or ‘atma’, reside in Tanah Ane Wayah, the world above the mountain, the abode of the gods. When a baby is born, the soul of an ancestor comes down into the child. Through a series of ceremonies called the manusa yadna, which includes the otonan ‘birthday’and mepandes teeth filing, the soul transitions harmoniously into the body.
In death, the soul must be sent back to its place of dwelling with equally important rites; many ceremonies and an official ngaben cremation must take place. Only then can the atma be released from this earthly realm and rejoin the abode of the gods.
So, what happens when this doesn’t take place? Well, we have what is called an atma kesasar, or lost soul. These lost souls are dangerous; they are the ones who cause misfortune, calamities, sickness and more here on the earthly realm.
Lost souls aren’t only created through failed death rites, minor accidents can also create these. When a Balinese Hindu trips, falls off their bike, has a great shock, they risk their soul being ‘spilled’. This is usually determined if the person has lost consciousness or acts strange after the incident. One Balinese visualised this as an open bottle of beer being tipped over and picked up again; the beer has poured out of the bottle. When someone has ‘lost’ their soul, they become distressed, traumatised and perpetually confused. Life is simply not the same without a soul; as a beer bottle is nothing without its contents, too!
Knock-Knock : Who’s There?
On the island, if a ‘knock knock’ comes to you late at night, mid-slumber, it might just be a visitor from another realm…
You may have heard of the old superstition that says hearing three knocks in the dead of night, with seemingly no cause, means death is at your doorstep. You might have grown out of such an old wives’ tale, but to the Balinese this isn’t purely nonsense.
Like most of us, the Balinese know that unexpected knocks at the door shouldn’t be really entertained, but here on the island of the gods those knocks bear a slightly more endearing story, one that doesn’t suggest an invitation from the Grim Reaper.
According to a Balinese myth, when you hear knockings from an unknown source, be it at the door or at your bedroom window, you are blessed with a rather untimely visitation from your ancestors.
You may get awakened in the middle of the night by incessant knockings or unexplainable footsteps, whilst several cases have heard whispers from familiar voices summoning their name.
The Balinese have immense respect for their ancestors— visible everyday in their prayers and ceremonies, or the biggest holiday Galungan which celebrates the homecoming of ancestral spirits to Earth and Kuningan,which marks the time they return back to heaven. But come these eerie ‘visiting hours’, the ancestors are treated like nothing more but wind in the night. Their advice? Just go back to sleep. The belief is that if you open the door for them, you’re actually accepting an invitation to enter their world.
Another, less heartfelt, version of the superstition is hearing knockings at ungodly hours reveals your family’s association with black magic. And if you open the door, a leak (read as leyak) will ‘lick’ you, causing a deathly sickness or even death itself.