Sanghyang, Ghost Dance, and Riding a Horse

You may already know, but we are horse-girls in The Bad Witch’s family. I received a beautiful four-year-old Tovero as my graduation present. She’s all grown up now and quite a pretty “packer” – which my daughter enjoys far more than I get to. But that’s not the horse and rider combination I want to discuss.

If you don’t know much about Voodoo rituals, often a Loa (a Voudoun deity or divine archetype), possesses a devotee temporarily. This possession is sometimes referred to as a “dance in the head” of the devotee, but more often the expression is that the Loa “rides” the devotee’s head. The devotee is, therefore, regarded as the “horse.”

Just last week, my friend introduced me to Balinese “spiritchasers,” a beautiful traditional art of hand carved and painted vaguely-anthropomorphic creatures which hang from the ceiling and chase away the bogies. Not unlike a dreamcatcher, the spirits which are embodied by these artifacts are inclined to make their owners’ evenings more peaceful.

Said friend sent me a group of emails that led me to unravel some research of my own. I found some cool stuff. (Unlike my typical post, this one contains no argument. I’m just sharing something I found kinda groovy.)

Turns out Javanese and Balinese Hinduism are not exactly the same as other Hindu traditions. It seems the Balinese traditionalists are far more concerned with with the aesthetics of art and ritual than with dogma, “scripture,” and theology. There is also less emphasis on cycles of life, death, and rebirth; rather, Balinese Hindus are more interested in honoring “hyangs.” These are spirits of our direct relatives and spirits associated with place – local spirits and ancestral spirits.[1] They can be divine or can be the spirits of former living beings.

The people of Bali are typically known to value restrained behavior. However, one element of ceremonial custom is the ritualized loss of self-control. One specific example is the Sanghyang, a  sacred dance. (There are special versions for young boys and young girls.) Like the dance of the Loa and its horse, the hyang enters the body of an enthralled devotee.

This reminded me of more than just Voodoo, however. I also thought of the Ghost Dance.[2] In an attempt to bring back their (self-defined) Edenic pre-Columbian way of life, first the Paiute then the Sioux incorporated an ecstatic circle dance into their religio-political resistance.

This reminded me of the anathema of places like those involved in the Keigh-tugh-gua[3] curse.

Curses as political resistance.

In a different thread of thought, I remembered Chinese guishen. Among other things, I have a personal interest in the translation of global film to the American screen such as Låt den rätte komma in/Let the Right One In (2008) released in the U.S. as Let Me In (Matt Reeves). But for the most part, I am intrigued by the J-Horror genre.[4] A few years back I looked at some popular films as a reinvention of and interpretation of various Asian guisin stories. If you think about Ju-On/The Grudge, Ringu/The Ring, Honogurai mizu no soko kara/Dark Water, and Garasu no nô/Sleeping Bride the spirits are confined to a place as in a haunting by a particular hun soul – or spirit of a formerly living person.

I was first introduced to this concept by my daughter’s (then 10-year-old) Korean friend. It was her first “American” sleepover and she wanted to know

“Of Real Korean Ghosts and Ghost Stories”

what the traditions are. I suggested ghost stories and proceeded to tell one that somehow prompted the term “boogy-man.” This took a minute to translate. Once the concept sank in, the girl took her long straight hair out of the pony tail and covered her face with it, put her arms out like a zombie, and made a “gargle and clack” noise. “Yes! I know boogy-man! It’s a guisan!” she exclaimed as I shriveled back into the sofa recalling Samira as she crawled out of the TV set. Her idea of the boogy-man. She then explained that the most iconic version of this being was a girl in a white dress with her long hair strewn in her face. Bear in mind that this was just as these images started appearing in the US. I was hooked.

The intersection of Voodoo, Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American concepts of spirit chasing and confining is suddenly very fascinating to me in terms of exorcism.

I’ll let you know what I find out.

For now, Imma talk my kid into watching Arang with me (before I have to go prepare to teach the Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson).


[1] As these things happen, I just picked up Jason Miller’s Protection and Reversal Magick (Beyond 101) for a friend having a hard time. I like Inominandum as a general rule, but I always read books before I tell folks they contain good information. Under “Sources of Attack” Miller mentions “offended spirits” and “ambiance” from “places of power.” (He also mentions “broken vows” and “attacking practitioners” as sources of astral goo.) I like Miller’s frank discussion of “place spirits.”

[2] Maybe because I taught an overall oversimplification of Native American spirituality in a secular survey course today. Only so much we can do in a 5 week course.

[3] This translates roughly to “Cornstalk.”

[4] For instance, I find the work of Hideo Nakata terrifying. I prefer the original films to their American counterparts. Especially when I have The Bad Husband to giggle at me when I jump out of my skin. Janghwa, Hongryeon/‘Rose Flower, Red Lotus or A Tale of Two Sisters, released in the US as The Uninvited is soooooo creepy.

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4 comments on “Sanghyang, Ghost Dance, and Riding a Horse

  1. Aubs Tea says:

    Just a quick note: the Loa aren’t deities, but more like spirits.

  2. Yea, I know. We don’t really have a word for what they are. Oh, the blasted limits of English.
    I was trying to make a passable explanation for those with no experience with Voodoo at all; I assumed those with experience would know where I was coming from. Maybe I was too simplistic. To be clear(er): they are more than just spirits but not quite deities. Is that kinda sorta better?
    Thanks.

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