Hanging Out with One of Indonesia's Celebrity Sorcerers
We talked to self-proclaimed expert of the metaphysical Ki Narto after Indonesia's House of Representatives proposed a controversial set of laws to legislate the supernatural.
All photos by Iyas Lawrence
This article was originally published on VICE Indonesia
Indonesia's House of Representatives (DPR) proposed to outlaw dukun santet, or dark sorcerers, this past November with a highly controversial set of measures that critics call an outright bizarre attempt to legislate the supernatural.
Under the proposed law, which was included in an update of Indonesia's Criminal Code, it would be illegal for a person to claim they possess the ability to cast spells for evil, or vindictive purposes. The law criminalizes the intent, not the act itself. It's the third time the government has proposed a black magic law. Previous attempts to outlaw black magic died on the floor of the House as lawmakers argued over how, exactly, police would be able to prove the existence of santet (black magic).
"What we want to outlaw is the person who claims they can do santet," said Arsul Sani, a lawmaker with the DPR's commission on law and justice. "The person who declares they are a dukun santet—that's the one who gets convicted. That's it. If it's about the act of santet itself, well, that's very hard to prove."
It's hard, but not impossible. The belief in witchcraft is so widespread in Indonesia that some dukun are treated like mystical celebrities. Former presidents like Gen. Suharto, prominent politicians, top businessmen have all been rumored to seek the help of shamans and witch doctors—often rewarding the sorcerers with substantial payments for services rendered.
The Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the country's leading Islamic organization, tried to dampen beliefs in black magic by issuing a fatwa against witchcraft that declared the practice haram. But it's done little to change the minds of many Indonesian Muslims. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2012 found that 69 percent of Indonesian Muslims believed in witchcraft.
"Santet itself is the immaterial energy of inanimate objects like nails, screws, iron, anything really. The energy is then transferred into the target's body to cause harm."—Dewi Sundari
Sometimes, the belief in black magic can have deadly real world implications. In the late 90s, the country was gripped by a bloody and mysterious witch hunt that left more than 100 dead. In East Java, residents of the city of Banyuwangi barricaded their doors and organized patrols to defend themselves against the marauding black-masked "ninjas" who would appear at night and leave the dismembered or decapitated corpses of dukun santet in their wake.
Witch killings are rare in modern-day Indonesia but every year the odd sorcerer slaying still occurs. In March of this year, a 70-year-old woman was murdered, her body left dismembered by a mob of 30 people, in North Sulawesi's Sula Island. Locals believed that the woman had cast a santet spell on a man, causing him to fall ill. When traditional healers failed to cure the man, he asked to be taken to the woman's house, where he collapsed. The next day she was dead, hacked to pieces by machete.
This is why Indonesian politicians are taking the law seriously. Arsul, the lawmaker who helped draft the law, told me that even making a joke about santet would be enough to land a person behind bars.
"No you can't," Arsul said. "If someone jokes about it, they are taking a risk [of jail time]."
The proposed law has a deep history in Indonesia. Officials first broached the subject in the 90s, but it quickly led to a debate in the halls of the National Law Development Agency (BPHN), where critics argued that it was impossible to outlaw the black magic without first agreeing that black magic exists.
The issue re-emerged in 2013, but it was quickly the subject of a heated debate. Lawmakers agreed to float the issue in the press to gauge reaction. It took three years for the proposal to resurface once again.
The proposed law could mean less money for the country's white sorcerers: men and women who use white magic to counter santet spells. I found Dewi Sundari on a website advertising her skills as a white sorcerer. The website looked pretty legit to me. It had an official seal and images of Dewi next to lightning and fire. She promised, on the site, to reverse dark spells with a form of magic that straddled the line between sorcery and healing.
"Santet itself is the immaterial energy of inanimate objects like nails, screws, iron, anything really," Dewi told me over the phone. "The energy is then transferred into the target's body to cause harm. There is another version called teluh, which is the immaterial energy of living organisms like maggots, worms, and insects. A combination of the two is called tenung."
Dewi told me that she comes across sicknesses that are caused by santet all the time. The malicious magic is often used as a weapon in business or family disputes. Others use it to get revenge on someone who wronged them in the past, she said. It's a dangerous practice but that doesn't mean Indonesia needs to outlaw black magic.
"We don't really want this law creating false accusations," Dewi said. "What if the person is just bragging, but they can't really do it [santet]? Clearly there are other issues that are more important for the government to deal with. I don't think this will have much effect. I think it won't be an effective law."
Dewi makes some of her money by reversing santet hexes but she said the law won't have much impact on her business as a whole. She charges on a sliding scale, with her poorest clients receiving her care at little-to-no cost.
But there's another side of Indonesia's sorcerer scene where magic is big business. Famous dukun like Agung Yulianto, who goes by the name Ki Joko Bodo, routinely brags that he is paid billions of rupiah for his services. There is a whole class of celebrity sorcerers in Indonesia—men with names like Ki Gendeng Pamungkas, Ki Kusomo, and Ki Narto, a self-proclaimed expert of the metaphysical.
I met Ki Narto in the waiting room of a small television station where he hosts a show on the supernatural. He was dressed in a black vest and a white and red striped button-down shirt with red framed glasses. Ki Narto is a modern dukun, a man who believes that mystical powers are actually a form of energy that comes from a different dimension. Only those with the right training and experience can access this energy but the barrier to entry isn't insanely high. He likens it to playing guitar or cooking—anyone with a strong will and some innate talent can become a successful dukun.
"People are commonly trapped in a scientific mindset, but there are things outside our senses," Ki Narto said. "It's what you might call it the sixth sense."
Ki Narto sipped a glass of water infused with flower petals—a common drink among dukun. "Indonesia is full of fake dukun, people who use tricks to convince others that they possess mystical powers," he said. He's made a career of debunking "magical acts" on Indonesian television. He's also wary of anyone who advertises their powers online: "If you were a real dukun who could perform santet, you surely wouldn't need to use advertisements to promote yourself," he said.
Of course he also claimed to possess special skills himself. Ki Narto showed me a photo on his phone of a keris—a traditional Indonesian dagger—standing upright. It was one of his daggers, an antique imbued with metaphysical power. "I can do this," he told me.
I asked to see it in person. Ki Narto took a kris, a long antique-looking dagger with a smooth wooden handle, and tried to get it to stand upright. "I hope it will work," he said. "Come on! Stand!"
The dagger immediately toppled over. Ki Narto moved around the room, trying the trick on the table, on the floor, and then finally on coffee table in the center of the room.
"I think this will work," he said. "Yeah, it seems to work."
He removed his hands. The dagger stood upright. But it was leaning slightly on a wooden sheath, which was jammed against a stack of single-serving water cups. Ki Narto held his hands at a distance and struck a magical pose. It was unclear whether he was trying to show me that magic was real, or that this was how people use tricks to deceive others into thinking it's real.
I asked if he ever used dark magic. No, he said, at least not on purpose. He explained that years ago he was struggling to deal with a friend of his who was incredibly rude. The man would doubt Ki Narto's abilities and talk ill of his institution. One day, Ki Narto wished that the man would just die. He just visualized his death and then went on with his day.
"He was a really rude man—not only to me, but to everyone," Ki Narto said. "So I asked my friend, 'what kind of vehicle does he drive?' He told me the man rode a bike. 'All right,' I said, 'He will die in a collision!' I went home and visualized him getting into a bike accident. 'Bam! You die!'"
Years later, Ki Narto received a call. The man was dead.
"A friend called me up, 'hey he's dead. He got in an accident,'" Ki Narto recalled.
He hung up the phone and smiled.
Thank God. He's finally dead. he recalled thinking. "I counted, one, two, three, four. It took four years for him to die. So I did not hex him. But I must tell you. My words can be used as a blessing or a curse. I mostly use it as a blessing, but at any time my mouth can also become a curse."
To a certain extent, this was all real to Ki Narto. But then how did he feel about the proposed law? I mentioned that it would criminalize even jokes about santet. Does it go too far?
"You know how you're not supposed to joke about a bomb in an airport?" Ki Narto said. "The same goes with santet."